Sunday 30 December 2012

Jack Reacher

I went on a post Christmas cinema binge and saw three films.

The Hobbit (High Frame Rate version, simultaneously magnificent and laughable), The Life of Pi (anything with wildlife in it, especially big cats, get my vote every time), and Jack Reacher.

Now, I was aware of Reacher as a character in a series of books by Lee Child (great name, and actually the pen name for British thriller writer Jim Grant).

The Jack Reacher (another unusual name) novels are intriguing in that  some are told in the first person and some in the third person.

They came to my attention — they could hardly have failed to come to my attention — when Child got a ten million dollar advance (you had me at ten) for the latest tranche of the series.

I asked my friend Ben Aaronovitch about this. Whether the books by this guy could possibly be worth such a sum.

Before becoming himself a bestselling writer, Ben had worked in a book shop. He said that, judging by the way the Lee Child books flew off the shelves, the publishers had got a good deal.

There are currently 18 Jack Reacher novels. The book the Tom Cruise film is based on is One Shot, the ninth in the series. Interesting that this was chosen to launch the film franchise.

I had worried that Jack Reacher wasn’t the best title for a movie  (like the recent, lukewarm Alex Cross). But it's growing on me.

In any case, the film is a cracking thriller which I enjoyed immensely. It pushed all the right buttons, had a superb cast, excellent music (by Joe Kraemer, a new name to me), with photography by the celebrated Caleb Deschanel.

The film was written for the screen and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.

McQuarrie worked on the classic Steve Bochco-David Milch cop show NYPD Blue and jumped to fame with his first produced film script The Usual Suspects, for which he won a slew of awards, including the Oscar. Since then I’ve particularly enjoyed his script for the under-rated Valkyrie.

And now he has hit the jackpot with Jack Reacher where his work is outstanding, both as a writer and director.

Like last year’s excellent Liam Neeson vehicle Unknown, McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher proved to be a superior, involving and gripping thriller which was intelligent and kept me guessing.

And it has left me deeply interested in the Lee Child books.

I’ll report back about Jack Reacher in prose.

Of those three films I saw in my post Yuletide binge, The Hobbit, Life of Pi and Jack Reacher, I was startled to discover that I liked Jack Reacher best — and by quite a long way.

(Images: Mostly pretty obvious sources this time. The Jack Reacher US film poster is from IMDB. The photo of Lee Child/Jim Grant at Boucher Con is from Wikipedia. The best cover image of the novel One Shot is the original US hardcover edition, a lovely piece of design. The picture is from a bookstore called Powell's. The image of The Usual Suspect’s iconic and much imitated poster is from Johnny Chadda's site. Valkyrie is again from Wikipedia.)

Saturday 22 December 2012

Discovering Philip MacDonald, Part 3

The thriller and mystery writer Philip MacDonald continues to fascinate. He is by no means perfect. There is the wearying tendency to spell dialogue (particularly of the lower orders) phonetically.

And there is a certain perfunctory aspect to the romantic interest in X v Rex — but, actually, that isn’t quite doing justice to how vivid and engaging Jane Frensham actually is. (Daughter of police commissioner Sir Hector Frensham, of course.)

The brightly coloured vividness of Philip MacDonald’s writing reminds me of Cornell Woolrich at his best. Luckily, though, he has none of Woolrich’s clumsiness.

MacDonald’s prose is always detached, elegant, amused. And it can pour on the suspense and thrills with devastating skill.

You also never know who he is going to bump off. MacDonald will introduce a character who is vivid, memorable and beautifully three dimensional — fully alive in the reader’s mind.
And then he’s dead a page later.

So you never know if you’re meeting someone who is joining the narrative for the long haul, or who is imminently for the chop.

And if it’s the latter case, MacDonald’s technique is a much superior variation on the weary cliché of the guy who has just got married or is about to have a kid or is nearing the end of a dangerous tour of duty — an inferior writer’s cheap attempt to awaken our sympathy before perfunctorily dispatching a character.

By contrast, Philip MacDonald brings them so vividly to life we are sorry to see them go.

Hmm. Any other reservations about X vs Rex by ‘Martin Porlock’? Perhaps a too pronounced tendency for madmen to let loose eerie bubbling laughs…

But maybe MacDonald was letting his hair down a little here, writing as he was under a pseudonym.

And anyway these are minor quibbles stacked up against the writer’s virtues. I love the concision of his prose:

A visitor came and went.

And I revel in the uninhibited demotic colour which makes his stuff seem so surprising modern. Like the reference to the killer 'strutting his stuff’ and the enquiry by the police about a suspect, 'had Revel any particular piece of skirt?'

I’m looking forward keenly to reading Rynox next and will report back in due course.

And I’m excited to have just obtained a copy of Warrant for X with a great Robert McGinnis cover. 

This 1938 novel is not, as some parts of the internet may inform you, an alternative title for 1933's  X versus Rex. It was published under MacDonald's own name and was filmed in the 1950s, well after he'd relocated to Hollywood, as 23 Paces to Baker Street, which is quite a highly regarded thriller.  

I must investigate that.

I’ll tell you more about Philip MacDonald as soon as I've read some more.

(The image of Warrant for X is from the copy I bought on eBay, as is X v Rex. The brilliant Mystery at Friar's Pardon cover is from an intriguing site called Pretty Sinister Books. So many fascinating blogs out there... The Italian poster for 23 Paces from Baker Street (in this case, 23 Paces From Crime) is located at the Movie Poster Shop.)

Sunday 16 December 2012

‘Jane explained’: the literary genius of Philip MacDonald

My personal Philip MacDonald literary festival continues. This writer is proving so terrific I just bought another one of his novels: The Rynox Mystery. I will read  it and report back.
I just finished reading Patrol (see earlier posts) and I’m seriously impressed. 

Patrol kept surprising me, right up until the end. I couldn’t guess what was going to happen, and there were at least two sequences of enormous suspense. Interspersed with violent action, brutal surprises and — for my taste — just a little too much colourful characterisation.

A riveting read.

Any downsides? Well, I suppose you could argue it was borderline racist now and then. But those soldiers, in those days, would have held exactly those attitudes.

Plus wouldn’t you be a little ticked off by a wily invisible foe who was slaughtering your comrades, one by one? Unacceptable language might creep forth now and then.

A worse sin was MacDonald’s insistence on spelling dialect voices phonetically.
Plus… the annoying habit… of using… too many… ellipses… which are those three little dots…

But as far as I can see, none of these imperfections mar X v Rex written some five years later. Which I’m currently reading. And which is a cracker. 

In fact I’m on page 99 and I’ve just come across a great piece of writing. It’s two words.

 Jane explained.

And with those two words, Philip MacDonald (writing here under the pen name Martin Porlock) has saved acres and acres of exposition.

It’s a tiny genuine flash of pure writing genius.

A true craftsman at work.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Philip MacDonald

Last week I posted about Patrol (aka The Lost Patrol) by Philip MacDonald. Well I’m happy to report that the book is absolutely not proving a disappointment. It’s terse, violent, engrossing and brilliantly written.

The only reason I haven’t finished it yet is that it’s my public transport book. I keep it in the pocket of my coat, to read on buses and trains.

I’ve done a bit of research on MacDonald and found that he wrote under a number of pseudonyms. One of his most notable novels was the seminal account of a serial killer — many decades before that term was coined — X versus Rex, penned as by Martin Porlock (a Kubla Khan reference, I suspect) about a mysterious murderer who targets policemen.

Well, I had to get hold of that, and thanks to eBay I now have. My copy is illustrated here, with the great generic Collins Crime Club cover. Somebody should make a tee shirt out of it.

This second MacDonald book is also proving engrossing and readable — and it seems to have been as influential in its own way as Patrol, reprinted numerous times under various titles and filmed at least twice. Philip MacDonald is turning out to be a real find.

My only complaint about his writing so far is that he insists on spelling out accents phonetically in dialogue. So, for instance, instead of saying “with all due respect”, his Cockney soldier says “wiv all joo respeck”.

This is a really tedious habit. It has flatly prevented me from reading, for example, Clarence Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy stories and all of John Creasey’s Westerns (for some reason, cowboy stories seem particularly prone to this aberration).

Other than Philip MacDonald, the only other really good writer I know who indulged in this solecism is George MacDonald Fraser, creator of Flashman. But, as with Philip MacDonald, I can endure it in Fraser’s writing.

I suspect this is not so much because they do it better, but just because their writing is of such a high calibre in every other respect that I am willing to forgive them this one lapse.

Don’t try it at home, though. I recently took part in a panel called ‘How NOT to Write’. And one of our major pieces of advice was never to spell out your characters’ accents phonetically in dialogue.
(Picture information. Other than using the eBay image for the copy of X v Rex which I recently bought, I have also borrowed images from two brilliant crime writing websites: Tipping My Fedora and Mystery File and the equally excellent more general pop fiction site Existential Ennui. They are all well worth a visit. Thanks, gents.)

Sunday 2 December 2012

The Lost Patrol

I’ve discovered a rather amazing book by Philip MacDonald.

And it’s all thanks to an insightful and informative article by Kim Newman in the film magazine Sight & Sound. 

In the July 2012 issue on page 28, in a piece on Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Kim discusses the basic scenario of Alien, Aliens, Predator and literally hundreds of other films — “western, war, action, adventure, jungle, horror and science fiction” and suggests that we should call them ‘lost patrol’ films.

Because “The plot about a unit separated from a home base  — picked off one by one by a mostly unseen enemy and riven by tensions within the group that make one or more of the men as much a danger as the external opponent — goes back to Philip MacDonald’s 1927 novel Patrol set in Mesopotamia (yes, modern day Iraq) during World War I and drawn from the author’s personal experiences.”

Well, as soon as I read that, I had to get hold of a copy of the Lost Patrol. Which was easier said than done. Because, for such an influential classic, the book is startlingly scarce and difficult to find. It hasn’t been reprinted for decades.

After months of searching I finally came up with a decent copy on eBay at a reasonable price. It’s a nice little pocket sized hardcover, a rather sleazy cheap reprint of the day — a movie tie-in, in fact — complete with ads at the front and back (self improvement correspondence courses and snake-oil horoscope astrology).

I’ve only started reading it, but I’m already gripped and impressed. Here’s a quote from the very first page:

“I don’t exactly know,” said the Sergeant half aloud, “what to do with him.”
The head which rested on his knee shifted a little and a froth of blood bubbled suddenly at the corners of the mouth…
The Corporal who stood beside him knelt, peering at the face on the Sergeant’s knee. “That’s that!” he said…
“Yes. Pity. Decent boy in some ways. No soldier.” He gently eased down the body until it lay flat upon the sand.

What a great opening!

 It gets better. We learn that the dead soldier, rather cruelly nicknamed ‘Muriel’ was in fact their commanding officer. And the incompetence of this inexperienced young toff has left the patrol stuck in a desperate and dangerous situation.

There are several important things to note about MacDonald’s writing, which are very obvious even on this brief acquaintance.

It’s amazingly modern. There is no mucking about. No lengthy scene setting or enumeration of character. We are straight into the story, by way of dialogue, in a terse clear prose which is hardboiled and stripped down in the manner of Hemingway and Hammett — yet written at a time when those writers were themselves just getting started.

And it’s intensely cinematic. Effectively the story starts with a close up of the dying officer.

It’s hardly surprising that the book was filmed twice, shortly after it was published and has been constantly remade, officially and unofficially, ever since.

Nor is it surprising that Philip MacDonald ended up in Hollywood. Indeed, I was already familiar with his writing from The List of Adrian Messenger, a taut and cynical little thriller which was turned into a film by John Huston.

It’s always dangerous to make judgements on a book before you finished reading it so I’ll update this post if The Lost Patrol takes a nose dive and turns out to be a major disappointment.

But I rather suspect it won’t.

Thanks for the tip, Kim.

(Picture credits:  the Penguin cover is from an excellent Penguin blog Travellin' Penguin. The Literary Press  cover shot is from Amazon, courtesy of  M. Welfare. The Karloff pic is from the Land of Cerpts and Honey blog. The group shot pic is from the John Ford blog  The Skeins.  The movie poster is from Share TV.)