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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Silent Scream. Lynda La Plante. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd (2009)

This is an efficient and colourless police procedural. Amanda Delany, a rising British film star, is murdered in her home. Robbery does not appear to be the motive, the murder was personal. Detective Inspector Anna Travis is part of the team investigating the death, she is also trying to get ready for a promotion interview process. The investigation reveals that Amanda Delany had lead a high speed life, crashing in and out of the lives of others with damaging results. The list of possible suspects in her murder is extensive and the process of identifying who did commit the murder is skilfully developed. The reveals are very well staged, the plot is tightly wound and the climax logical and very satisfactory.
The problem for this book is that the cast are colourless, they do not have any spark of life to them. There is not character in the book who leaps of the page into the reader's imagination, except possibly the victim. As those who knew her reveal what they know a picture emerges of a tremendously unlikeable person, whose talent and desire for destruction vied for expression. The picture that emerges is the closest to a three dimensional character in the book, the rest of the cast, while more than simple plot puppets, are just not memorable in any way.
The cast do enough to ensure that the reader's interest is engaged enough to follow the story through to the resolution, this is a tribute more to the excellent construction of the story than anything else. This is a pleasant, forgettable read.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Halfhead. Stuart B. Macbride. HarperVoyager (2009)

A very savage science fiction thriller, gripping and imaginative. Sometime in the future serious criminals are lobotomised and mutilated and set to menial and public tasks as a punishment and a warning. One of them recovers her memory and sense of self and starts to climb back to life, which is a problem as she is a terrifyingly efficient serial killer. At the same time Assistant Section Director William Hunter, working with a branch of the police service call the Network, finds himself drawn into a murder at Shermam House, the site of a huge and murderous riots years previously. Slowly the paths of both the revived half head and ASD Hunter start to overlap and the threads of the past become woven into the present. The story is superbly structured, the reveals are cunningly paced, the action is brutal and the climax nasty and explosive.
Stuart B. Macbride has neatly solved how to blend two genres, serial killer thriller and science fiction dystopia without a loss to either. The context for the action is carefully set up and it feels solid and real. Glasgow feels like a member of the cast, the sprawling city comes to life, the details of the technology and the weapons are nicely placed, understated and accepted. Explanations arise from the activities of the cast which gives the context great force. Stuart B. Macbride has a very strong grasp on how large organisations work, the way that the staff within them react to each other and to staff from other organisations. This gives his cast a very effective workplace and allows for a large cast to respond and react to each other with real vigour and tension. Dr. Westfield is a very frightening villain, passionate about her murderous mission and enjoying her work, she provides a real threat throughout the story. The echos of the Hannibal Lector novels are slightly intrusive, they do not overshadow the story, this is very much a work in its own right. Excellent, gory , gripping.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures. Mike Ashley (Editor) Robinson (2009)

A collection of 26 stories that range across the full length of Sherlock Holmes' career. They are neatly organised and the way that they fold into the chronology of the Sherlock Holmes cannon is clearly laid out. The editor has done a very nice job of introducing the stories and placing them in context, all told it is a excellent volume of very entertaining stories.
The stories frequently take as their starting point some of the cases referred to by Dr. Watson but never written up or published for a variety of reasons. Each of them is carefully written so as to respect the full range of details in the original stories, there are no science fiction elements and very few entries by historical figures, the few exceptions are nicely woven into the stories and do add a nice flavour to the mix.
The stories avoid being too reverential in tone or content, within the fairly strict bounds the writers have set for themselves the stories are striking and original, the writers penetrate beneath the surface details to capture the moving spirit of the originals. The required details and flourishes are all present and correct, the deductive reasoning that baffles Dr Watson to be rendered mundane with an explanation, Mycroft Holmes and international diplomacy and intrigue. Most importantly there is the true figure of Holmes, alive only with the chase and the need for a challenge. These stories pass a critical test in how they deal with Dr. Watson, he his handled with care and respect, he is the true friend and confident of Sherlock Holmes, the human heartbeat of the adventures. Great stories and great fun.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Roseanna. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo. Gollancz Crime (1965)

A gripping, low key Swedish police procedural. A woman's body is dredged from a Swedish canal, she had been murdered. The lack of an identity hampers the investigation, eventually she is identified and the investigation has a crucial starting point. The police team, lead by First Detective Inspector Martin Beck, slowly and steadily pursue the murderer. The final phase of the investigation involves the police taking severe risks to capture the suspect and the conclusion is tense and fierce.
The action in the story, other than the climax, is steady and thoughtful. The investigation is driven by routine and extensive search efforts to establish and confirm information. The stubborn determination of Martin Beck and his team to find the killer drives the story. Martin Beck has a decaying relationship with his wife and a distant one with his children, the focus of his life is his work. He is a rather melancholy figure, he is forceful enough to be memorable as well. The rest of the cast are equally individual, they respond to the pressure of the case with professional fortitude yet they retain an angry hunger to catch the killer.
The story is gripping in the steady accumulation of detail about the Roseanna, the victim, and the way that luck, care, expertise all overlap in a very natural way to provide the breaks that drive the case forward. A really well constructed mystery, a credible investigation, tremendous sense of place and atmosphere and a great cast make this a great read. A top flight crime story.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Borderline. Volume 1. Carlos Trillo (Writer), Eduardo Risso (Art). Dynamite Entertainment (2006)

A brilliant series of increasingly connected stories set in a severely dystopian future. The location is a city dominated by two opposing groups the Council and the Commune, the rich are happy and the poor , the sub-dregs, are valued only for their organs. Both power groups have armed forces to enforce their will and Lisa, know as Crash, works as a captive agent for the Council, Emil, known as Blue, works as a ten year agent for the Commune. Lisa and Emil were lovers before Emil betrayed Lisa in a horrific fashion and now they on opposing sides of an ongoing struggle for power and the control of the narcotics market in the city. The episodes steadily build up the background of Lisa and Emil and the context in which they find themselves, the stories progressively develop in emotional and dramatic weight and power.
The luminous black and white art by Eduardo Risso dominates the early episodes of the book. Where black and white frequently means "uncoloured", this art glories in the extreme contrast between black and white, there are no tones in the art. The line drawings are stunningly expressive, they capture the details of the context and the emotions of the cast with clarity and grace. It manages to be both flamboyant and to effortlessly serve the story at the same time. In the opening episodes when the introductions to the cast and context are being completed the at rightly carries the weight, as the chapters progress the writing become more significant and the art embodies it and enhances it flawlessly.
Carlos Trillo takes a well worn path in science fiction and steadily moves past the usual cliches to delivers stories that capture the lives of the cast and the terrible and emotions that drive them. Lisa and Emil, as well as the surrounding cast emerge from the context they are placed in as damaged, fragile creatures who draw on the reader's sympathy and concern naturally and deeply. Their actions are credible and forceful, they are all struggling to accept the burden of past actions and to cope with desperate circumstances. This is not a pessimistic book, the future is bleak and barren, that is simply a given, the focus is on how the cast manage within this context and how the retain or loose their humanity.
It is also a gloriously action driven science fiction adventure with a mission to enthrall and entertain and it does so with lashings of style and energy. This is a brilliant comic.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Wrong Man. Alfred Hitchcock. Warner Brothers(1956)

A low key and gripping thriller based on a true story of mistaken identity. Manny Balestrero, a musican at the Stork Club in New York, is mistakenly identified as a man who has committed a number of armed robberies. He finds himself enmeshed in the criminal justice system and trying to prove his innocence is very difficult. Manny and his family come under tremendous pressure as he faces the very real possibility of being convicted for a crimes he did not commit. The film is deliberately low key, the story is very straightforward and deeply involving.
Alfred Hitchcock chose a documentary style for the picture and it works very well. The ordinary life of Manny Balestrero is established before events overtake it. Hitchcock creates an extraordinary sense of dislocation as Manny is drawn into the criminal justice process and feels himself helpless in the face of it and unable to understand how he could be in the situation. Henry Fonda gives a powerful performance as Manny, he is subtle and restrained, at the mercy of forces he cannot understand and trying to make sense of his situation. He is superb as an ordinary man who rages quietly against his powerlessness. Vera Miles as Manny's wife Rose is astonishing, the savage impact the situation has on her is developed with great skill. Rose's breakdown comes without melodrama, it has a fierce intensity and profound despair that ring true.
Alfred Hitchcock saw that the terrible aspect to the situation was that everyone involved was acting in the best of faith, the witnesses who identified Manny were sure it was him, the police had a very credible case, Manny's alibis for the relevant times were frail. The absence of malice and the strong probability that Manny would be convicted give the film tremendous dramatic force, which Hitchcock frames with trademark visual skill and panache. This is a great film, a superb cast giving powerful performances under the masterful direction of a true cinematic genius.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Willow Pattern. Robert Van Gulik. The University of Chicago Press (1965)

A very enjoyable murder mystery set in China during the Tang Dynasty. With an outbreak of plague driving the Imperial court from the capital city, Judge Dee has been appointed Emergency Governor of the city for the duration of the epidemic. A prominent merchant is found dead, he is one of three families who had ruled the city during an outbreak of civil war a century ago. These families, now much reduced, are still perceived as being part of an "old world", representative of past times. The very violent death of the last member of another of the there families leads to an investigation which raises questions about the earlier death. The resolution of both these cases involves the last member of the the third family. The mystery is expertly constructed, the period details are integral to the story and the cast are lively and appealing. The reveals are nicely staged, the conclusion is thoughtful and convincing.
Robert Van Gulik manages to create a very nice balance between the need to construct an interesting and credible mystery and animating it as a story with a credible cast. The motives emerge very strongly from actions and personalities of the cast so that there is a strong and true emotional context in the story. The crimes arise very naturally and the investigation is equally natural and effective. Judge Dee is a clever and observant man and it is his understanding of human nature that leads him to the heart of the problems. The rest of the cast are strongly drawn, the context of the city in the grip of a heatwave and a plague is very convincingly portrayed. The fifteen illustrations done in Chinese style by the author add strongly to the charm of the book. This is a very well written and entertaining crime story with a very appealing setting.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

B.P.R.D. Volume 1. Hollow Earth & Other Stories. Dark Horse Comics (2003)

This book pushes the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and the supporting cast from the Hellboy books into the limelight as Hellboy leaves the Bureau to pursue his own destiny. The lead story, Hollow Earth from the creative team of, Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden & Tom Sniegoski (Writers), Ryan Sook (Pencils & Inks), Curtis Arnold (Inks), Dave Stewart (Colours), and Clem Robins (Letters) sets the stage.
Elizabeth Sherman, who is seeking to manage her firestarting abilities goes to a monastery in the Urals. Abe Sapien, a fishman is growing restive at the Bureau in the absence of Hellboy and Elizabeth and is making plans to depart himself. A new agent Johann Kraus, an ectoplasmic spirit in a containment suit, joins the Bureau. There is significant tension and potential disruption lurking in the Bureau when Abe gets a distress call from Elizabeth Sherman. Abe Sapien, Johnan and Roger the Homunculus go to the monastery to rescue Elizabeth. The find her body, her spirit has been captured and the trail leads down into the hollow Earth. The rescue is brilliantly staged, the reason Elizabeth has been hijacked is suitably ambitious, the action is fast and ultimately a new equilibrium is established.
The remaining stories are much shorter, varied and very well done and include a superb Lobster Johnson adventure that is infused with the true spirit of pulp fiction and a sharp Abe Sapien episode.
This book reveals the strength in depth that underlies the overall Hellyboy franchise, the stories are structurally sound, dramatically strong, the art is fantastic and the invention glorious. Launching a spin off creates some clear problems, the need is to build on the strengths of the original material, establish a new continuity and provide some genuine creative impetus for the enterprise other than simply extending the franchise. Hollow Earth is a model for the process, the cast are given a reason to be striking out on their own, they are also given a dramatically credible reason for becoming an independent team out from the shadow of Hellboy. This is a book with tremendous ambition, it aspires to be a really good adventure book and it achieves it with an engaging and strongly defined cast and a gripping context. Wonderful.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Blazing Combat. Fantagraphics Books. (2009)

This collection publishes all the four issues of Blazing Combat, an anthology of war stories published in 1965 & 1966 which was effectively forced into cancellation by comic distributors as it was considered to be unpatriotic and un-American in the context of the early stages of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. The stories were written by Archie Goodwin and featured art by Wally Wood, John Severin, Alext Toth, Reed Crandall and others. The tone of the stories is unheroic rather than anti war, they frequently examine the experiences of the foot soldiers and in a crucial case the perspective of a non-combatant Vietnamese farmer caught up in the conflict. It was this story, "Landscape", that was the focus of the groups who closed the comic down.
The stories are all short, usually about six pages in length and for anyone familiar with the weekly war comic anthologies that were distributed in the UK and Ireland in the 1960s & 1970s they will seem rather familiar. They have the same tone and inclination as the stories from the late 1960s and early 1970s when the heroic and overtly patriotic elements were replaced by stories that focused on the experiences of the regular soldiers of every army at the sharp end of conflict. The stories in the collection are very well written, they have to struggle against a common structure which imposes a dramatic, frequently a twist, ending on the episode. To Archie Goodwin's considerable credit this format is much less restrictive or repetitive than it could have been, his talent for creating a situation in a short space and presenting memorable action and characters is very impressive.
The art is simply fantastic, the artists were very experienced comic artists who were working at the height of their skills. The great diversity of styles allied to the different locations and periods used gives a necessary variety to the stories, in particular in a collection like this. For me the most striking art is by Reed Crandall, beautiful figure work with wonderful detail in the backgrounds that are never cluttered. The combined talents of the writer and the artists mean that this is not a historical curiosity, it is a superb collection of comics, fresh and relevant.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Blood Money. Chris Collett. Piatkus Books (2007)

A lean and very sharp crime story. A baby is taken from a creche and Detective Inspector Tom Mariner finds himself leading a high profile investigation instead of heading out on leave. The act appears random at first, it becomes clear that there had to have been a considerable degree of planning. Animal Rights activists are identified as probable suspects, then the baby is returned. The case appears to have come to a happy ending when there is a murder and the true scope of the crime slowly comes into view. The reveals are very nicely paced, the cast are credible and the strands of the plot are steadily and very effectively wrought together to a very satisfactory conclusion.
Chris Collett writes with tremendous economy, there are multiple strands within the story, they are introduced and maintained with great precision and excellent timing. The cast lively and engaging, the extended lives of some of the characters is very nicely handled without diminishing the focus or impetus of the plot. DI Tom Mariner is a thoughtful and very capable character, competent and credible and lacking the cliched problems of a lot of police officers in crime fiction. His private life is nicely handled and gives him depth as a character.
The plot construction is first class, the strands are all bound up in a way that is both logical and very credible. The human cost of crime and the enforced degradation of human trafficking and prostitution is made clear with fierce and understandable passion that help ignite the story. Gripping and thoughtful.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cul de Sac. This Exit. Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel Publishing (2008)

This is a collection of the brilliant newspaper comic strip. The Otterloop family live in Cul de Sac, the star of the strip is four year old Alice who attends the Blisshaven Academy pre-school, her very neurotic older brother Peter goes to school, her father has a job and her mother does not work. The children are the focus of the strip, Alice and the other children in the pre-school class, Peter and a possibly imaginary classmate called Ernesto. The strips tend not to follow any particular continuity, they may follow on directly for a week if there is a seasonal theme such as Halloween or Christmas. They are sharp, artful and very, very funny.
Richard Thompson takes a standard newspaper comic strip set-up and brings it to sparkling life avoiding all the cute kid cliches that drown so many other strips. The art is rough looking, very sketchy and it looks unfinished. This gives the strip a personality right away, the art is distinctive and the figure work has a natural dynamism that is frequently smoothed out of strips. The real joy of the strip lies in the writing, it is crisp, fresh and rings true for the entire cast. The cast are not generic children and adults who exist to purvey jokes that more or less relate to some obvious situation that is described by the art. They are a collection of strongly individual characters who interact with each other and their circumstances with relish and energy. The humour arises directly from the fact that they are so much themselves, there is never a sense of a set-up and pay off at work, there is a tremendous life in the strips.
One of the very best things that Richard Thompson has done is to completely avoid the "children say the funniest things" approach, the children are true to themselves and what they want. They demand to be taken seriously and are funny because of that. This is a great collection of a superbly crafted and truly funny and truthful strip, a treasure.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Kentish Lad. Frank Muir. Corgi Books (1997)

A very engaging autobiography. Frank Muir worked as a writer, presenter and television executive for decades after the Second World War, starting in radio and moving to television as it was becoming a mass medium. While he had a show business career this is not a show business autobiography, it is is story of a life gratefully lived. At a very young age Frank Muir discover that making people laugh was something he enjoyed, the incidental opportunities provided by his time in the RAF, writing for RAF radio while stationed in Iceland gave him a training and a yearning to make it a career. Post war opportunities arose slowly, luck lead to a long term writing partnership with Denis Norden, which in turn led to a career in television as a writer, presenter and executive. He was also a writer of a very successful series of children's books and other books.
The most significant problem with autobiography is perspective, identifying what would be of interest to a stranger about your life without being a bore is tricky at best, it is always fatal to be too removed and allow others dominate or be to present and loose sight of what is actually interesting about your experiences. Frank Muir manages the task with understated and charming skill, he has a clear and confident voice matched with a nicely self-deprecating wit. His strong enjoyment of and interest in other people means that the famous people he has met come across as people rather than an exercise in name dropping. He writes without malice and with clear opinions and his writing about his family is a model of how to balance relevant exposure with discretion. This is a warm, funny and sharply written book, thoroughly companionable.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Graveslinger. Shannon Eric Denton & Jeff Mariotte (Writers), John Cboins & Nima Sorat (Art), Chris Wood & Carlos Badilla (Colours). IDW. (2009)

An enjoyable Western/Zombie story that mixes up both elements effectively. Frank Timmons is on the trail of a group of zombies that rose from their graves in Gila Flats Prison when and the zombies stumble into a range war. They pick opposing sides in the conflict and story manages to combine classic elements from both genres without loss to either. The action is fast and furious, the zombies are suitably vicious, the climax is sharp and satisfying.
The greatest problem with this book is the jarring change in art style between the two halves of the book. The first two chapters are done by John Cboins, it is a bit harsh, the lines are angular and the colouring is concentrated on the figures with the backgrounds being essentially sketched in. It is a very striking style and gives a very distinctive flavour to the story. The final two chapters with art by Nima Sorat is an abrupt change as is the colouring scheme. The art is much closer to the mainstream of comic art, the figures are much smoother and the backgrounds have more detail. The colour scheme is much brighter and more varied, the more fluid art is better suited to the action in these chapters.
The writing clearly unifies the story, there is a clear appreciation of the structure and requirements for a classic Western story, the context of the range war where a large rancher is trying to drive out his smaller neighbours is a clever one to drop zombies into, they do not disrupt the story, they add nicely to it. It does gives an opportunity for the writers to add variety to the action and they use it to the full. The cast are vigorous, Frank Timmons is a deeply flawed hero, Alice Saylor, defending her home against the living and the dead is a great character, spirited and determined. Strong writing and strong art, well worth reading.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Babes in the Wood. Ruth Rendell. Hutchinson (2002)

A sharp, very bleak and very well constructed murder mystery. Two teenage children and their minder are missing, the parents returned to an empty house and the children's mother is convinced that they have been drowned in the floods that are afflicting the area. All three are strong swimmers and the house is above the floods. The children and their minder remain missing and a search for their bodies in the flood waters is undertaken and does not locate them. The investigation reveals much more than the fate of the children and their minder, it explores, without mercy, the terrible things people do in the name of love. The reveals are well paced, the numerous cast are horribly plausible and the conclusion is suitably savage.
This story has a cold tone to it, none of the cast are particularly sympathetic, Chief Inspector Wexford is competent, effective policeman and a less than competent father. The parents of the missing children are just on the interesting side of appalling and repulsive, the rest of the cast tend to be either self-obsessed, weak or both. It is a considerable tribute to Ruth Rendell's skill as a writer that the book is not unreadable, the cast are vigorous and the story constructed with such skill that the reader is pulled along to see how it will be resolved.
One of the extraordinary aspects to the book is the complete absence of humour, the tone throughout is considered and grave, well matched to the actions,emotions and motives involved in the story. This does not make the story glum or heavy going, humour is simply not required due to the quality of the writing, the necessary shades and contrasts are fully developed in the story. This is steely, first rate writing about crime and humans, grim and fascinating.