crime

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

I was a true Agatha Christie obsessive in my teens, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every single novel and short story she’s ever written, in Russian translation. Even now that I can see the flaws in her writing more clearly, her knack for plotting and the ability to construct an elegant puzzle of a mystery – and doing it fifty times over – is pretty phenomenal. When I’m in between books and don’t feel like digging into something brand new, I’ll often reach for an Agatha Christie detective novel for a quick and easy detour. It’s hard to pin down exactly what, among all the other crime fiction I’ve read, makes them so uniquely re-readable despite knowing the identity of the murderer. It’s part nostalgia, part the very simplicity of Christie’s writing, uncluttered and efficient and not without its own charm and wry humour. Hers is a cosy, old-fashioned world that is just nice to visit from time to time.

The ABC Murders was an exception in that I’ve only ever read it once more than twenty years ago, and subsequently forgot all about the story, thus giving me a rare chance to read a Christie novel as if for the first time. It’s one of the later Hercule Poirot mysteries, in which Poirot is retired and Captain Hastings, his old loyal friend, is losing his hair, which leads to some amusing exchanges between the two friends.

The plot kicks off with an anonymous letter addressed to Poirot, which states that a murder will take place on a certain day in the town of Andover, and challenges Poirot to do something about it. At first no one around Poirot is convinced that the letter is something more than a sick joke, until, surprise, a murder does happen, with a couple of macabre details: the victim’s name also begins with letter A, and the ABC Railway Guide is left by the body as a calling card. When a second taunting letter arrives, it looks like a crazed serial killer is working his way through the alphabet. It also appears that the novel is handing the reader the murderer on a silver platter, with the narration switching from the usual Hastings first-person perspective to a third person view in the chapters about a certain Mr Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who might as well have been named Mr Red Herring.

Unfortunately for me, I figured out the culprit long before the end, because of a Jo Nesbo crime thriller involving a serial killer I read a while ago which had exactly the same (undeniably clever) twist. Even disregarding that, I didn’t think that The ABC Murders was a top-shelf Christie, and it’s not surprising that it hadn’t left much of a trace in my memory. Granted, it’s unusual in her oeuvre in that it deals with a serial killer, but, without spoiling things too much, I didn’t think that it delivered on that novelty, while also missing the strengths of her usual “small circle of suspects” setup. The supporting cast of characters isn’t one of Christie’s most memorable, and the experiment with the point of view feels largely pointless. A detective novel needs misdirection and red herrings like bread needs flour, but a red herring that lasts an entire novel while also being so bleeding obvious is just annoying. But I also wouldn’t call the book a failure, as it’s still fairly engaging and fast-paced, and the dynamic between Poirot and Hastings is endearing as always. Fact: I still can’t bear to re-read Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, where the duo is parted forever.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

This movie is just as entertaining and smartass as its title suggests. Penned and directed by Shane Black, who did The Nice Guys, another highly entertaining buddy/neo-noir comedy from last year, it similarly dances on the right side of knowing and snarky, and features another odd couple and much riffing on the noir detective tropes. It’s also a sign of being on the other side of 35 that this movie turned out to be twice as old as I thought it was. I could swear it was maybe six years old, but nope it was released in 2005.

The movie’s narrator, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), is a small-time crook turned accidental actor, after he happens to literally run into an audition while being chased by the police. This leads him to the bad, mad world of Hollywood, where he’s told to team up with the tough-guy private detective Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer), also known as Gay Perry, who is supposed to help him prepare for his screen test. Harry also runs into his childhood sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), in town to, gasp shock, chase the movie star dream. One night, as Harry follows Perry on an assignment, they land in a middle of a lurid Chandler-esque murder mystery – a dead body of a young woman which later turns up in Harry’s own apartment. In another plot thread, Harmony begs Harry to help investigate the mystery of her sister’s apparent suicide, after mistaking him for a real deal detective.

It’s just as well that I didn’t watch the movie at the cinema, because it moves fast and I lost the track of the labyrinthine plot on a few occasions, even though it all comes together and makes sense in the end. Also, Robert Downey Jr. might possess preternatural onscreen charisma, but clear diction is not his strongest suit. Somebody, get him a Professor Higgins! Even with the benefit of the subtitles, the plot developments, snappy dialogue, one-liners and visual gags rush at the viewer at a breakneck speed with barely time to digest it all, which, on the plus side, I suspect makes the film all the more rewatchable.

And, despite a few huh wait what moments, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a total blast and pleasure to watch, funny, cleverly written and with fabulous, enthusiastic performances from all three leads. It has cheeky meta fun commenting on noir clichés and playing around with the narration, with Harry frequently addressing the audience, “rewinding” the scenes to run through a forgotten detail, lamenting his own poor storytelling skills, admitting a cheap cop-out to the story, and testily reminding that he’s the only narrator we have. The movie is also peppered with zany, wrong-but-hilarious moments you’re unlikely to ever see in your average blockbuster, like Harry’s variation on the Russian roulette that goes spectacularly wrong. It’s a shame that neither this nor The Nice Guys did well at the box-office.

The Private Patient by P.D. James

I quite enjoyed the previous P.D. James murder mystery I’ve crossed paths with, but I didn’t have as much success with this last entry featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Though seeing that it’s the 14th novel in the series, it’s not enough for me to cool down on them altogether. After all, a series this long-running is bound to produce some duds.

The scene of the crime is the fictional grand country estate called Cheverell Manor, situated a few hours out of London, in Dorset. Once the property of a distinguished family, it has been converted to a private clinic belonging to George Chandler-Powell, renowned plastic surgeon. The victim is one his patients, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn who visits the clinic to remove a disfiguring facial scar. She comes to the manor twice, once on a preliminary visit to get acquainted with the place, and again later for her big day, which ends with her death. In between, the novel implies, she just can’t help her journalistic instincts and digs up some dirt on one of the manor employees. Or maybe it’s a red herring and the murder was about something else entirely. It’s up to Adam Dalgliesh and his team to find out.

This is a classic murder-in-isolated-setting setup, and it was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, but only just. The most disappointing aspect of the whodunnit itself is that it’s resolved not so much through the efforts of investigation, but with the culprit handing themselves in via a bizarrely melodramatic turn of events. The most disappointing feature of the novel is the dreadful amount of padding which grinds the pace to a screeching halt. I am not necessarily against the descriptive passages, and I appreciate the attempts to flesh out the characters and treat them all with empathy, no matter how minor. But good lord do I really need to know the exact configuration of a character’s living room, with a full list of furniture and where everything is placed? Then there are detailed descriptions of people’s appearances, meals and car trips from Dorset to London which could be edited out with no loss to the story whatsoever. The book also detours into the personal life of Dalgliesh, which I’d probably be more interested in if I had more attachment to his character. To be fair, it would perhaps be wiser to read some more of the earlier books before diving into the last one.

Along the way, there are some insightful thoughts on class and the changing British society, a few well-written characters and atmospheric settings (spiced up with a ghoulish story of a burnt witch). So it wasn’t a total waste of time, but there was no reason for this book to be almost 400 pages long and it could have done with some ruthless snipping.

Zodiac

zodiacGood thing about terrible movies is that they make you appreciate well-made movies so much more. After sitting through the cinematic travesty of Catwoman, it was a pleasure to watch a film made by a director who knows exactly what they’re doing. I’m a huge fan of David Fincher and Zodiac was one of the two films of his I still haven’t seen; while I don’t love every single of his movies I always find them worth watching. He’s a marvellous stylist with an obsessive attention to detail, every shot in his films drips with confidence, he knows exactly where to point the camera in order to achieve this or that effect and make even a simple conversation scene feel thrilling, and I find his rather dark view of the world quite compelling. Zodiac is probably not going to be one of my favourite Fincher movies, simply because I naturally prefer character-based stories over the procedural ones, but I can still appreciate its excellence.

Zodiac is based on the real-life, unsolved “Zodiac” murders by a serial killer in 1960s California, who taunted the media and the police with letters and coded messages as he went through with his bloody work. The movie opens with one of the murders and has a few more brutal sequences later on, including a tense, stomach-turning almost-murder that was especially uncomfortable to watch. If this was a fictional thriller in the vein of Fincher’s own Seven, there’d probably be some unified pattern to the killings, like the astrological signs of the victims, but in real life the murders were completely random and the killer would lie down for months or years before striking again. The film spans 30 years, the fact Fincher accentuates by constantly giving us the dates and time of the events in the bottom half of the screen, and in the end the persistence and digging of the pursuers led to a convincing case against a man who was most likely guilty.

The said pursuers include a couple of journalists played by Robert Downey Jr and Jake Gyllenhaal; Downey Jr is Paul Avery, a crime reporter and a flamboyant chain-smoking alcoholic while Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, a nerdy cartoonist whose obsessive interest in the Zodiac case ends up utterly consuming him at the expense of his wife and kids. On the police front, there are investigating officers David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). The cast does a rock-solid job, but as often the case with this type of story, it’s more about the mechanics of investigation rather than characters and their dynamics. The film does an admirable job of not getting lost in the labyrinth of facts, and telling this sprawling story in a clear-cut manner (it also helped a lot to have the subtitles on because this is not the sort of movie where you want to miss out on an important exchange of dialogue). It feels authentic in the way it sticks to the methodical gathering of facts and evidence, and following the proper steps and procedures, without any dramatic shoot-outs or a character who knows the truth but must fight the bad system to get it heard. It’s to Fincher and writer James Vanderbilt’s credit that they make this talky, detailed, long film feel so thrilling to watch.

GoodFellas

goodfellasAnother stylish Martin Scorsese classic about a bunch of horrible people you can’t help but be fascinated by. It’s based on a true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish-Sicilian born in Brooklyn who started working for the Mob as a kid in 1950s and stayed on until involvement in drug trade got him into trouble with his employers. As a teenager, Hill is utterly besotted with the tough guys of his neighbourhood, envying their swagger, confidence and freedom from the usual paycheck-to-paycheck existence, and he wants nothing more than be a gangster himself. At first he runs small errands for Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), a local don with a deceptively slow, bulky frame; then he rises through the ranks, meeting among others Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro, quite restrained here), a man who gets a kick out of stealing, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who seems like a faintly comical character until he explodes with psychotic rage.

I thought the film bore a few similarities to The Wolf of Wall Street, with the first-person narration, the dynamism, the masterful use of popular music to underline the movie’s dramatic points, and most notably the complete lack of regret or moralising on the part of the main character over his life choices. The movie really gets across the seductive allure of the Mafia life, at least until things go pear-shaped, the characters start to drop dead one by one and the dark side of the lifestyle really comes through. There’s a secondary narrator in the shape of Karen (Lorraine Bracco) – a Jewish girl who becomes Hill’s wife. At first she’s shocked by the violence that’s a part of her husband’s profession, but then she becomes so absorbed into her new insular social circle that everything becomes normal – the guns, the drugs, the sudden deaths – and the Mafia morals become her own. There’s a great sequence at the start of their courtship where Hill, in one long shot, takes Karen on a night out, past the normal queues, past the kitchens, into a nightclub where everyone important acknowledges him and the headwaiter pulls out a table in front of the stage, just for them.

Spanning almost 30 years and running at two and a half hours, there’s no particular plot as such, though certain strands and actions turn out to have (violent) payoffs in the end. It’s hard to really sympathise with any of the characters and as a viewer I felt rather detached, but you’re pulled into their world nonetheless with the great performances from the cast and Scorsese’s powerful filmmaking. Speaking of violence, this film is a proof that I haven’t yet been totally desensitised – there’s something about the violence in Scorsese films that feels particularly shocking, visceral and brutal. The movie also had some of the most gloriously tasteless nouveau riche home interiors I’ve seen onscreen – even taking into account the time period. No matter how many 70s movies I’ve seen, I haven’t yet been desensitised to the truly awful wallpaper patterns.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-trainThis was one of those mystery/thrillers where you go, hmm I think I can see where the story is going, but there are still plenty of pages left, so hopefully there’s some totally unexpected juicy twist in store… oh wait there isn’t. So then the remainder of the book is just waiting for the main character to connect all the dots and for the story to roll out, which is rather tedious. I don’t usually play Sherlock and try too hard to solve the crime or predict the plot of the books and movies – in most cases I prefer to sit back and go along with the story, and I rather like being surprised. Here though the red flags are so obvious I couldn’t help but guess the culprit long before the heroine does.

The story is told by multiple narrators, but our main hero and the titular girl on the train is Rachel, a young woman who well and truly hit the rock bottom after her husband dumped her for another woman. She’s unemployed with a raging drinking problem, and in order to fool her kind-hearted friend-slash-landlord she takes the same commuter train to London as if she still had her job. Every day, the train takes Rachel near her old house, now occupied by her ex-husband, his wife and their baby, and another house not too far away, with a young attractive couple Rachel becomes obsessed with – she even gives them imaginary names. They seem to have a perfect life together and she fantasises about their perfect amazing relationship that’s a complete opposite to her own failed marriage, until one day she sees something that totally shatters that image.

As a thriller, The Girl on the Train is for the most part a well-crafted, compulsive reading – I read it in a flash and even took it with me to work so I could finish it during lunch break. An unreliable narrator who suffers from blackouts is a fun device and the book puts it to good, suspenseful use. The problem is, there’s really not much else to the book apart from its central mystery – this is strictly a shallow, read-once-and-forget kind of novel. The writing is merely serviceable and the setting generic, without any sense of mood or atmosphere. Besides Rachel, the other two narrators are Anna, the woman Rachel’s husband left her for, and Megan, the half of the “perfect couple” who disappears in mysterious circumstances. While I never had a problem with unlikable protagonists, if you write unsympathetic characters you need to make them compelling in some way, but none of the characters here come off as distinct or interesting and their voices are pretty much interchangeable. I’m curious to see how the film adaptation with Emily Blunt turns out – this could be a rare case where a movie actually improves on the book.

Animal Kingdom

animal-kingdom-posterAn impressive Australian psychological crime drama set in Melbourne. It’s always a tad strange to see your own city onscreen and hear all the familiar street and suburb names, and it feels rather unsettling when a film dives into your city’s dark underbelly. The mood here is set early on, as the movie opens with what looks like an ordinary family scene, with a teenage boy watching Deal or No Deal and his mother slumped on the couch next to him apparently asleep. Except that she’s actually overdosed on heroin, and a couple of efficient paramedics take her away in the next scene.

She dies, and her son Joshua, an awkward, mumbling, taciturn 17-year-old, goes to live with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), or Smurf as her sons call her for whatever reason, who seems like a warm, loving, apple-pie-baking grandma straight out of a fairytale. She’s also a devoted mother to her three sons, all of whom are career criminals. The eldest son, nicknamed Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is a charismatic psychopath who deals in armed robbery and is in hiding from the police who’d like nothing more than to shoot him on the spot. Then there’s Craig, a drug dealer with an explosive temper, and Darren, the youngest son who’s a bit of dim lightbulb and just follows his brothers. Soon, young J gets pulled into their world, and finds himself involved into the deadly war between his uncles and the police.

Skilfully lit and edited, with an ominous soundtrack and a deliberately slow pace that’s punctuated with bursts of violence, Animal Kingdom is a dark dark movie. Its oppressive atmosphere of evil is only relieved by the appearance of a homicide detective (played by Guy Pierce with his usual chameleonic flair), who seems a genuinely decent man and tries to get J to testify against his uncles and pull himself out of the criminal world. J is sympathetic mostly because of his youth – not to knock the actor’s performance but this is a kind of movie where a fairly blank, passive protagonist is surrounded by much more colourful, interesting and dynamic side characters. Mendelsohn and Weaver are standouts in particular – this movie put her on the Hollywood map and at first I couldn’t see why because Smurf is mostly in the background for the first half or so. But when the movie zooms in closer, Weaver’s character’s sheer malevolence and ruthlessness take your breath away; it’s no wonder she got noticed.