Sunday 30 June 2019

Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie

"I really didn't see that coming," could well be my motto when reading Agatha Christie.

And, boy, does it ever apply to this novel, which throws some tremendous surprises at the reader in its final pages.

This is a superior Hercule Poirot mystery with a genuinely terrific set up. It is the 28th Poirot novel, first published in 1948 ,and the shadow of World War 2 falls emphatically across the story.

The book begins with an air raid and bombs falling on the house of a millionaire, Gordon Cloade. Cloade is killed, as are all the servants. Cloade's beautiful young bride and her brother survive.

In the first few pages Hercule Poirot, taking shelter at a gentleman's club from another air raid, hears this tale. 

And what's more, he hears how the beautiful young bride has deprived Gordon Cloade's family of all the money they thought was guaranteed to them —  through Gordon's characteristic generosity.

And what's even more, he hears the rumour that the bride's first husband, reportedly dead of a fever in the African bush, may actually be alive.

In which case Cloade's fortune will go to his family after all...

Two years later the pot really begins to boil and Poirot re-enters the story at the behest of the Cloade family.

This fascinating story is studded with equally fascinating characters. I particularly liked Frances, the wife of lawyer Jeremy Cloade. She's utterly unscrupulous, and completely unashamed about it.

When Frances and Jeremy are discussing what would happen if Rosaleen, that inconvenient young bride, was to suddenly die, "something seemed to pass through the room — a cold air — the shadow of a thought..."

But the whole Cloade clan has a motive for murder and Rosaleen is so obviously a target that considerable suspense soon starts to ratchet up. 

Luckily she's under the protection of her brother, a former commando, as unscrupulous as Frances and another great character.

Generally Christie doesn't do much in the way of reflecting the period her books are set in, but this one conveys a vivid picture of England just after the war, with its rationing, bureaucracy and high taxes. 

Indeed it is the most period-conscious of the Poirot's I've read so far except for Hallowe'en Party, where everybody was complaining about allowing dangerous lunatics to run around loose instead of locking them up in asylums.

She also has some rather more profound things to say about what "war did to you. It was not the physical danger... the crisp ping of a rifle bullet as you drove over a desert track. No, it was the spiritual danger of learning how much easier life was if you ceased to think..."

Once this intricate and explosive situation has been fully delineated, along with the characters — and once the killing begins — Poirot decisively enters the story.

He's particularly good value this time around, quoting Sherlock Holmes ("I have my methods"), making an "unsuccessful attempt to look modest" and outlining his approach to investigation.

"Talking to people. That is what I do. Just talk to people."

Finally, having employed his technique, Poirot is ready to reveal all. He goes to the denouement. "Into an atmosphere quivering with danger... Once more, Poirot dominated the situation."  

And what a superb revelation it is.  I never saw it coming.  
(Image credits: The Tom Adams cover for the main image is from Pinterest. The other covers (isn't the Italian Mondadori version fab?) are from  Good Reads, including the Swedish version which has taken "taken at the flood" rather too literally. Except for the Brazilian Colecção Vampiro edition — I'm very fond of this series — which is from Sebo do Messias.)

Sunday 23 June 2019

Yellowstone (Series 1) by Taylor Sheridan and John Linson

Regular readers of this blog may be aware of my high regard for Taylor Sheridan. In my opinion he is the finest screenwriter working in America today. 

Here's a list of the films he's written: Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River and Sicario 2. Every one of them gets my highest recommendation, as you'll see if you check out the links.

Recently Taylor Sheridan has branched out into directing — doing an outstanding job on his own script for Wind River. 

And now he is masterminding a television series, carrying out the mammoth task of both writing and directing all the episodes of Series 1 of Yellowstone.

The show is co-created by John Linson, and Linson wrote the first drafts of the first two episodes, which were then rewritten by Sheridan.

John is the son of Art Linson, a distinguished movie producer who has written two excellent and bitingly funny books about working in Hollywood.

I mention the Linsons because Taylor Sheridan used to work for them as an actor on their series Sons of Anarchy. And they fired him when he asked for a raise — which goes to show that, admirably, no grudges were held, or Yellowstone couldn't have happened.

Yellowstone is the name of the vast ranch in Montana owned by John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner. (The show is actually shot in magnificent locations in Utah.)

At first Dutton seems to be a noble, upright man. A multi-millionaire modern cowboy who is standing staunchly against the corrupt forces of the 21st Century...

Which are personified by Danny Huston as Dan Jenkins, a weaselly property developer. 

We applaud Dutton when he outwits Jenkins and prevents him building a vast housing development on the virgin land adjoining Dutton's ranch.

But it becomes evident that John Dutton is far from untarnished. This is emphatically brought home when he sends his enforcer, Rip (Cole Hauser) to murder someone who is making life difficult for him.

Indeed, it turns out John Dutton is pretty much Don Corleone on horseback, and Yellowstone is The Godfather on the Range.

At the heart of this engrossing, cut-throat saga is Dutton's tangled, indeed tormented, relationship with his children:

His son Jamie (Wes Bentley) who has been groomed as a legal and political fixer to protect his father's empire, but who is set to fall out with him in a spectacular fashion...

His hard drinking, hard nosed daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly), who has a lot of hilarious dialogue, and a truly tragic backstory.

And, most of all, his youngest son Kayce (Luke Grimes) who is a violent ex Navy SEAL who has forsaken his father and all his wealth to marry a Native American woman, Monica (Kelsey Asbille, who was also excellent in Wind River) and live on the reservation with her.

The reservation and the Native American population is an important presence in the show, spearheaded by Thomas Rainwater (played by Gil Birmingham, a regular collaborator of Sheridan's, who was terrific in both Hell or High Water and Wind River).

Rainwater embodies the watchful bitterness of the original Americans, who were slaughtered and had their land stolen out from under them by the likes of John Dutton.

And he is carefully plotting his revenge against Dutton. And with his political connections, and the wealth of a casino behind him, Rainwater may well prevail in this fascinating reworking of the classic Hollywood tale of cowboys versus Indians.

These description just scratch the surface of Yellowstone, which is dense with fascinating characters and situations and which crackles with intense drama, sudden violence, and dark humour.

It's currently my favourite TV series. Do check it out if you get the chance.

(Image credits: The main poster — chaps and Winchester, "original scripted series" — is from Pinterest. The bulk of the posters are from The Movie DB. The photo of Costner, Hauser and Taylor Sheirdan is from the BTS Look at Yellowstone on Youtube. The superb black and white photo of Nicole Sheridan and Taylor Sheridan is by Christian Anwander and is from a first rate feature on Sheridan at Esquire. The image of Costner looking from the right of the frame in profile is from The Daily Caller where they provide the welcome news that the second series is confirmed.)

Sunday 16 June 2019

Cari Mora by Thomas Harris

Thomas Harris is my favourite living crime novelist... maybe my favourite living novelist. He writes slowly, sometimes a paragraph a day, sometimes nothing. 

So perhaps it isn't surprising, though it is frustrating, that it's taken 13 years for his new novel to arrive.

It was however, worth the wait. I've read some snotty reviews of Cari Mora, motivated by the fact there is nothing of Hannibal Lecter in this book. But I actually think it's all the better for that.

In fact I think this might be Harris's masterpiece. It's a short book — probably more like a novella in length. But it is beautifully, perfectly wrought.

The novel focuses on the woman named in the title. And Cari Mora is a magnificent character. Clearly Thomas Harris wants to write about people we can care about — love, even.
Towards the end of his spate of Hannibal Lecter novels, Harris started trying to humanise Lecter and justify him. Culminating in Hannibal Rising and some questionable results. 

But here he is starting with a clean slate, and a wonderful new character and we can care about Cari without restraint. As a result, this book is — despite the terrible things it depicts — more positive and life affirming than his previous ones. 

Once more we have the monster and maiden dichotomy, with a gruesome psychopathic killer pitted against a strong, compassionate heroine. The heroine in this case of course is Cari, a refugee with considerable experience of violence.
And the monster is Hans-Peter Schneider. Hans-Peter is a human trafficker — unlike Hannibal, a commercially motivated monster. And Cari is in his sights because she might expedite access to a fortune in gold.

For all its horrors, this is a sunnier tale than any of the Hannibal Lecter stories, both figuratively and literally — we're back in the Florida Harrison has so lovingly evoked before in portions of Red Dragon — but here it's the location for the entire book. 

And it's such a beautifully written book. Consider this description of the aftermath of an attack on a village by Marxist guerrillas:

"They had blown some walls off the schoolhouse and the wind was blowing through the strings of a burning piano, sighing, sighing and whining through the strings in the gusts that blew sheet music across the road."

I also adored the fact that Cari is an animal lover (as is Harris; see him here at a bird sanctuary and above, hugging a possum called Bruce) and animal life is a constant, splendidly evoked presence in the book. 

Like the cockatoo standing on Cari's wrist "eyeing her earrings" and who has a repertoire of salty phrases garnered from its "checkered life."

And did I mention that Harris is funny? But his humour sits in constant proximity to menace and potential mayhem: "The bedrooms were a piggish mess... The one made-up bed had some lewd comic books and the five parts of a field-stripped AK-47 scattered on it."

Of course Harris knows how many parts there are to an AK-47, and exactly how to assemble one, as he will show us on the next page. His research is exemplary.

Thomas Harris is the master of the super-charged policier. His sardonic tone, the brilliance of his prose, his supreme command of suspense and his gift for violent action were all, I believe, honed by his reading the works of John D. MacDonald.

(There is an echo of MacDonald's The Drowner in a terrifying moment in Cari Mora.)

Thomas Harris is John D. MacDonald's true successor in these regards and also in his concerns for animals and the environment, and his loving depiction of Florida.

Thank heavens Harris is still with us, and still writing. May he write many more novels. And perhaps even speed up a little...

(Image credits: The book covers — there are only two so far — are from Good Reads. The cover of The Drowner by John D. MacDonald is also from Good Reads. The photo of Thomas Harris in a blue blazer is by Robin Hill and is from Penguin. The other photos of Thomas Harris are by Rose Marie Cromwell and come from an excellent interview with Harris by Alexandra Alter in the New York Times. The AK-47 diagram is from Mouse Guns. The much more lovely white cockatoo is from Pinterest.)

Sunday 9 June 2019

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express is the tenth Hercules Poirot novel, published in 1934. 

I was familiar with it long before I read it, through the two movie adaptations. 

In many ways it's the archetypical Agatha Christie novel, with its challenging mystery and brilliant resolution.

Finally reading it was satisfyingly like arriving at a long-awaited rendezvous. 

The story begins beautifully and concisely and evocatively: "It was five o'clock on a winter's morning in Syria." 

And it makes for rather odd reading now, with exotic place names such as Mosul so horribly familiar to us because of the current conflict in Syria.

But we are in the 1930s here and the romance of travel is very much to the fore.  "A whistle blew, there was a long, melancholy cry from the engine... The Orient Express had started its three-days' journey across Europe."

It seems obvious now, but a train — what's more, a stranded train stuck in a snow drift — is a truly inspired location for a murder investigation...

Because, of course, that's what happens. As with Death in the Clouds, a diverse and intriguing collection of characters have been brought together by their travel plans.

There is an aristocratic old Russian lady, the aptly named Princess Dragomiroff, with a "yellow, toad-like face."

And Mary Debenham, a pretty young English woman who displays an "almost feverish anxiety" when it looks like she might miss the train. 

Plus a chap called Foscarelli who moves with a "swift, cat-like tread" and who might be one of those "nasty murdering Italians..."

And of course, there is Hercules Poirot.

Whereas in Death in the Clouds a poison dart dispatched a passenger in broad daylight, this time there is a murder in the middle of the night. A stabbing.

And Poirot is enlisted to find the culprit.

This novel is the polar opposite of Sad Cypress — a Poirot tale where the victim was almost unbearably undeserving of her fate. 

Here the guy was a gangster who really got what was coming to him.

I won't say too much about the plot, except that the train getting stuck in the snow interferes crucially with the killer's plans.

As usual, there is considerable fun at our hero's expense — he is thought to look like "a women's dress maker" — as the other characters initially underestimate him.

But soon Poirot is cracking the puzzle in his own unique way: "to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think."

And his formidable intellect begins to make itself evident. "Poirot's eyes... were bright and sharp like a bird's." 

Following his own advice, "Hercules Poirot sat very still. One might have thought he was asleep."

And then the solution comes to him. "His eyes opened. They were green, like a cat's." 

And what a solution it is.

A true classic. 

(Image credits: As usual, the main image with its gorgeous Tom Adams cover painting is a scan of my own copy. All the other covers save one are from the ever-useful Good Reads, including the beautiful art nouveau Richard Amsel painting for the American movie edition, with its train/dagger. The exception is the Norwegian edition with the cool, retro cut-away diagram illustration, which is from Bergen Bibliotek.)

Sunday 2 June 2019

"Is That Cat Still Up That Tree?" — The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn

When I first set about learning my craft as a writer, the playwrights I most admired were Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. I was aware of Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn (who occupied similar positions on either side of the Atlantic) — funny, accessible and hugely popular. 

But compared to the austere brilliance of Pinter or the pyrotechnic dazzle of Stoppard I consider Simon and Ayckbourn too broad, clownish, lowbrow. I didn't think there was much going on in their work... Their stuff was just too damned simple

I didn't realise how much craft was involved in achieving that appearance of simplicity. As with the smoothly swimming swan, there is a hell of a lot of activity going on unseen beneath the surface.

These days I tend to prefer Simon and Ayckbourn to Pinter and Stoppard. And The Norman Conquests may well be Alan Ayckbourn's masterpiece. 

It is a series of three linked plays which can be (and have been) performed in any order. They deal with one weekend in the life of the philandering librarian Norman (His conquests are the women who succumb to his dubious charms.)

He has planned to take his wife's sister Annie away for a dirty weekend, but fate has other ideas...

I've never seen these plays performed. Just read them and heard an excellent radio version. And it really doesn't matter which one of the three you start with, or which one follows it, although each sequence has its own particular pleasure and shift of emphasis.

Ayckbourne is a truly great writer with unforgettably brilliant observations of character. When discussing the dull and lugubrious local GP, Annie says "I'm really very fond of Tom but he really is terribly heavy going. Like running up hill in roller skates."

(Image credits. For such an important sequence of plays, it's almost impossible to find good images online. The Penguin edition, with the John Ireland cartoon cover, is my own scan of my own copy and it is, in all modesty, the only decently sharp version to be found anywhere on the internet The others are from Good Reads.)