detective

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 clich√©s 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.

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.

Brick

brick_pic2I think I would have enjoyed this movie much more if the DVD I watched had subtitles. It’s a strange and rather original hybrid of a highschool film and the hardboiled detective noir in the style of Dashiell Hammett, and so everyone speaks in this highly stylized slang I just couldn’t tune into. Language is a funny thing: these days it’s much more natural for me to express myself in English rather than Russian, yet I never ever have to strain to understand Russian speech, whereas I’m still struggling with English-speaking movies at times. As a result, I think I missed out on maybe 60% of the dialogue and had to hop on wikipedia to find out the details of the plot that sailed right over my head.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a highschool loner who finds his ex-girlfriend dead soon after receiving a frantic phone call from her. He’s still not over her, so he decides not to involve the cops and solve her murder himself, tracing her movements to the highschool drug ring and cliques he’s always avoided, meeting vampish girls, thuggish boys and an eccentric crime lord. This is all played as a completely straight homage to the classic film noir, without a hint of wink or parody (though it comes close in the scene where the drug lord’s mum serves his son and Brendan cookies and cereal). Because the film is so stylized and in a sense artificial, it’s hard to really care about any of the characters, though Gordon-Levitt’s puppy-eyed vulnerability is quite endearing. The movie was still fun to watch despite my issues with the dialogue and lack of emotional involvement, and as a debut feature, it’s an astonishing display of Johnson’s already-confident visual flair and directorial skills. I really look forward to what he does with his gig directing the next Star Wars movie, if nothing else it’s going to look striking and stylish for sure.

The Bat by Jo Nesbo

the-bat-jo-nesboI wanted to take a short break from the Neapolitan Novels and read something less dense, so I read the first entry in the Norwegian crime series about Harry Hole, the hardboiled anti-heroic Oslo detective whose inner demons don’t stop him from having genius insights and solving cases by the end of the book. I first got introduced to the series while house-and-cat-sitting for a lady with an apparent huge interest in crime fiction, and eventually got through five or six Harry Hole books, mostly in non-chronological order which was confusing at times.

The series’ setting and the Scandinavian names, places and atmospherics were always part of the appeal for me, so I was rather deflated to find out that of all places, Nesbo decided to kick off his series in Sydney, Australia. Naturally living in Australia I’m immediately biased but uhhh… really? Did I really want to read about Sydney and sit through a checklist of obvious Australian references? And good lord they’re laid on thick: let’s see, Tasmanian devil, Mel Gibson, Don Bradman, Australia Day, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, crocs and sharks and poisonous jellyfish… why didn’t he throw in Neighbours and vegemite while he was at it? Some Australian characters Harry meets start off with the ocker Hiya mate!! and then proceed to talk like pretty much everyone else in any Harry Hole novel. About the only Australian-isms I enjoyed were the traditional Aboriginal legends which I didn’t know much about.

The story is about Harry travelling to Sydney in order to investigate the murder of a young Norwegian girl. He gets partnered with a local detective who is of Aboriginal descent, and realises that the crime could have been the work of a serial killer with a fixation on blondes. He also meets Birgitta, a young and beautiful Swedish woman who works at the same bar as the murdered girl and could turn out to be more than a holiday romance. Harry’s battle with alcohol, a big feature of the series, is already fully formed here and I got to learn more of his backstory explaining why he is such a messed-up soul.

In retrospect, the series definitely got stronger as they progressed, but as the debut The Bat is not bad. The plot doesn’t seem anything special at first, but becomes a real rollercoaster with some shocking twists and scenes that have a touch of theatrical. The identity of the killer was a surprise I didn’t see coming at all, though the final sequence was a bit over-the-top and I could see the way it was going to end from miles away (let’s just call it Chekhov’s shark). Nesbo’s writing style is straightforward and functional, but just like in the rest of his books, you get the occasional offbeat or macabre touches and neat psychological observations.

Monkey’s Mask

monkeysmaskA strange little movie based on a poem novel by an Australian author Dorothy Porter – a fact I had no idea about before watching it, but you can guess its literary roots from the kind of dialogue that probably sounds fine on the page but comes off as mighty pretentious and unnatural onscreen. The movie stars Susie Porter as Jill Fitzpatrick, a private detective who is hired to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murder of a young female student and a budding poet who, surprise surprise, turns out to have led a double life her parents had no idea about. Jill’s investigation leads her to the girl’s uni lecturer Diana (Kelly McGillis), who she is immediately attracted to. The two women embark on an affair that Diana’s younger husband (Marton Csokas) strangely doesn’t seem to mind, while Jill starts to receive spooky phone calls meant to scare her away from any further sleuthing.

The best thing the movie’s got going for it is Susie Porter, who is an appealing and engaging lead, with an open expressive face that’s both earthy and delicate. She has a believable chemistry with McGillis, who is also fine as the sophisticated, seductive Diana. The film itself however is an uneasy hodge-podge of a rather trite and trashy crime story and the low-budget arty pretensions – I almost thought that going for broke and fully embracing its pulpy side would have made for a much better movie. The supporting characters are barely sketched and poor Marton Csokas is saddled with some shockingly bad dialogue, and while most of the nudity and sex in the movie feels like a part of the story I’m not sure we needed to see his little Marton near the end of the film. Deborah Mailman pops up as Jill’s best friend, and I didn’t realise that the murdered girl was played by the very young Abbie Cornish, who even then had something alluring about her.