Sunday 25 December 2016

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

My Aunt Barbara, whom I revered, was a crime fiction afficionado. Oddly enough, though, she didn't like Agatha Christie. And I sort of inherited her prejudice in an unconsidered way. For many years I dismissed the Queen of Crime.

But then I read a short story in an anthology and was rather impressed. And I saw her play Murder on the Nile and admired the plotting. Slowly I came around to the notion that I should give Christie a chance.

Card on the Table is the first full length novel by her which I've read. This was partly because it was on a list of her superior works given to me by my friend and Agatha Christie expert David Parsons. And partly because I found a copy with lovely elegant cover art by Milton Glaser.

What's more, this copy was a Dell map back, which means you have a nice floor plan of the mayhem in the story.

The plot concerns Mr Shaitana, a sinister rich mischief maker. As his name suggests, "He deliberately attempted a Mephistophelian effect" in his clothes and appearance — satanic black moustache and pointy narrow beard, etc.

He's also two-dimensional and tedious. But Shaitana has an intriguing invitation for our hero, the detective Poirot. Come to a dinner party where some of the guests will be murderers who have escaped detection.

So Poirot turns up at what turns out to be a bridge party. There are two games, four guests each at a table (check out the map). One table consists of Poirot and other investigators, the other of the presumed murderers.

Their host doesn't play. He just sits happily in a chair by the fireside. And this is when Christie springs her first surprise — and it occurs so early in the book that this is not really a spoiler...

Naturally, the reader is expecting a murder to happen at some point as the story develops. But it takes place almost instantly — and Shaitana is the victim.

This is just wonderful, not only because it is completely unexpected — Shaitana is set up so it looks like he'll be in the story for the long haul — but also because Christie very cleverly disposes of a rather cardboard character before he has a chance to become a liability.

The other brilliant thing about the plot is that it effectively gives you five murder investigations for the price of one — since each of those four guests is supposed to have already gotten away with at least one unlawful killing.

The story unfolds neatly and briskly, although there are things that will take the modern reader aback, for example one of the characters holds forth, in all seriousness against “All this hysterical fuss about road deaths.” 

Also, Poirot talks to himself, which is a device I've always found clumsy and unconvincing. Plus he does far too much twinkling for my liking. On the other hand, Christie's dialogue is often surprisingly good, and there's more wit on offer than I expected. Along with with a refreshing self mockery.

For instance, during a discussion of murder mystery stories someone remarks “It’s always the least likely person who did it.” And one of our investigators is a lady crime novelist, whose detective hero is a “long lanky" Finn.

Here Agatha Christie is so clearly sending up her own portly Belgian sleuth that one is willing to forgive her a lot.

Cards on the Table is far from perfect, and all the stuff about bridge hands might as well have been written in ancient cuneiform on a clay tablet as far as I'm concerned, but it displays some flashes of genius which show why Christie is held in such high regard.

And it was certainly good enough to have me looking forward to the next one of her books that I read.

(Image credits: the front and back cover of Milton Glaser's Dell map back are scanned from my personal copy, bought this autumn in Winnipeg. The nice white Fontana version with the Tom Adams cover art is also from my collection, since it's a better copy than the one I found online at  Good Reads, which is where all the other covers come from.)

Sunday 18 December 2016

The Goodbye Look by Ross MacDonald

Lew Archer is a private eye, the creation of Ross MacDonald. And the New York Times called his adventures "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." 

That's quite a claim when you consider the competition includes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And I'm not sure I entirely buy it.

But Ross MacDonald is an excellent writer, and The Goodbye Look is one of his best books. MacDonald's real name is Kenneth Millar. When he was looking for a pseudonym he actually chose "John MacDonald"...

There was a major problem with this pen name. There really was a John MacDonald, already writing crime fiction. As it happens, he's one of my favourite writers, and actually has the edge on Kenneth Millar.

Anyhow, once this fiasco was discovered, after the publication of Lew Archer's first adventure, both authors had to take evasive action, like ships avoiding a collision. 

Millar became John Ross MacDonald and the real MacDonald started using his middle initial and transformed to John D. MacDonald, whom he remained, while Millar finally settled on Ross MacDonald.  

What's in a name? Well, for a writer establishing his reputation, just about everything.

But The Goodbye Look comes from the other end of Millar's career. It is the 15th Lew Archer novel, published in 1969.  And it's a classic first person private eye novel with the character at the centre of the case (one Nick Chalmers) almost entirely absent from the narrative. This is quintessential detective novel technique — think of The Thin Man.

It's just beautifully written, with memorable descriptions of the physical — "the safe was about the diameter of a sixteen-inch gun and just as empty" and the psychological —  "I could feel the pressure of her cool insistence, like water against a dam".

Millar tells a fascinating story with vividly evoked characters — and they have memorable names: Truttewell, Lackland. My only worry was that I might not be able to keep track of them all. But at just the point where I began to feel this, the author gave a useful summary of the case so far, skillfully offering it at exactly the right moment. A true pro at work.

He also has splendid awareness of nature and wildlife, something which he has in common with John D. MacDonald.

The Goodbye Look is expertly told, addictively readable, terrifically engrossing and you find yourself racing through the pages.

It throws in a surprising love affair involving the hero, and it also features a Chandleresque dodgy doctor. And, although the Lew Archer novels became less action oriented as the year's passed, there is some sudden, explosive violence.

Archer is shot — accidentally, by a trigger happy cop. After a visit to the hospital he reflects that "the wound in my shoulder was beating like an auxiliary heart."

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 11 December 2016

Allied by Steven Knight

Sometimes I feel the urgent need to communicate something to the readers of this blog — sort of a public service message, if you will. This is one such occasion.

Because if you listen to the critics, Allied is supposed to be a terrible movie... this is kind of becoming the accepted wisdom. People who haven't seen it just assume that the badmouthing is true and shrug and write the film off.

This grotesquely unfair. Because Allied is a terrific movie. I urge you to ignore the critics and go see it and make up your own mind. 

There was no chance I'd miss Allied because I'm a huge admirer of its writer, the Brit Steven Knight. I first realised what a talent he was when I saw Eastern Promises. Since then he's perhaps made the most impact with his TV show Peaky Blinders. But for my money his masterpiece is Locke, one of my favourite movies of all time.

Anyway, Knight is a tremendous writer and Allied is a splendid spy thriller — and love story — set in World War 2. It tells the twisted tale of French operative Marianne, played by the radiant Marion Cotillard and the Canadian agent Max, played by Brad Pitt. And Pitt has never been better.

I've heard some snooty comments from critics about the use of CGI in the film, but I think director Robert Zemeckis has done an impressive job of recreating London in the Blitz. And it's obvious that Knight has painstakingly researched the period.

My only real quibble — and I'm a fiend about getting period detail right — is whether Max and Marianne would have had an upstairs extension for their telephone back in wartime London.

This is a powerful, exciting, gripping and ultimately moving piece of cinema. And Marion Cotillard looks just wonderful brandishing a Sten gun!

Give it a chance.

(Image credits: only three posters available at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 4 December 2016

The Accountant by Bill Dubuque

Alert! This is a really good movie. I was intrigued by the trailer, but when I saw it the quality of the film really took me by surprise. 

It's an action thriller with the cheeky premise that the hero is an accountant. What's more, he's autistic — a savant with numbers, which has led to him being involved in money laundering by major crime combines. Just to stay alive, he's had to acquire serious survival skills and strategies.

Ben Affleck plays our hero, under a welter of pseudonyms based on famous mathematicians. Currently he's Christian Wolff. Hunting him down for the feds are J.K Simmons as a senior Treasury investigator and Cynthia Addai-Robinson as his analyst and aide, a former gang banger.

Our sympathies are with Affleck immediately, as in his role as strip-mall accountant — a cover for his true operations — he saves a middle aged farming couple from economic oblivion by showing them how to exploit tax loopholes ("The company truck").

The Accountant is full of gratifying, exciting action as our hero battles the bad guys. And it's such a strong, vivid, original set-up that I thought it must be based on a comic or video game or something. But no, it's a complete original, created by Bill Dubuque who is the sole credited screenwriter.

Dubuque was previously involved in the The Judge, another film I fondly remember which was surprisingly well written. Here he has come up with a thriller which is also fascinating and engrossing, cleverly structured and populated with quirky, original and intriguing characters. It really is an exceptional piece of work.

It's splendidly directed by Gavin O'Connor (Jane Got a Gun) and among a uniformly strong cast Ben Affleck is outstanding. He does a great job of depicting this character who is lost inside his head and has great trouble relating to ordinary people. 

Bill Dubuque has given his hero a repertoire of rote strategems for navigating everyday life, like remembering to say "Have a nice day". And Affleck has added his own clever small touches. I particularly like the way he gives the farm couple a casual little wave after they witness him committing an act of devastating violence.

The film's one flaw is that I thought I saw a major plot twist coming a mile off. And indeed I did. But Dubuque had another one up his sleeve, and I left the cinema gratifyingly surprised and elated.

(Image credits: Thin pickings at Imp Awards. Supplemented by the one with the lunchbox, which is from Fat Movie Guy. A very disappointing array. The idea of sticking a piece of paper across the star's face must have seemed like a clever gimmick, but I imagine it knocked tens of millions off the movie's revenue. And the jigsaw puzzle one, which only makes sense once you've seen the film, is absolutely dullsville.)