Saturday, January 18, 2020

No Country For Old Men, the book

Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is an excellent crime novel and a fine book.

If there is a sense of surprise in that statement, it is because I did not care for the 2007 movie based on it. I avoided the book until recently. I should have known better. McCarthy is a hell of a good writer, if one with a very bleak take on life.

No Country For Old Men, published in 2005, is well crafted, involving, and often stunning.

In it, McCarthy sets up three parallel stories that take place in 1980.

Llewellyn Moss, a 36-year-old Vietnam vet living in West Texas, comes upon the scene of a massacre. Out in the desert, two rival drug gangs shot the hell out of each other. They left a lot of dead bodies and a satchel containing $2.4 million in cash. Moss takes the money  and runs off, thinking no one will ever know. But readers know something and he does not. There is a hired killer after him.

A mysterious and lethal weirdo named Chigurh is sent to retrieve the money and in no time is on Moss’ trail. He lives by his own code and no one, but no one, gets in his way or stops him.

No matter where Moss runs or how clever he thinks he is, he has Chigurh after him.

The third story is about Ed Tom Bell, a county sheriff in his late 50s, who starts following the bloody trail of Chigurh. While Bell is experienced and cautious, readers will stress themselves out worrying about him, too.

Cormac McCarthy writes some of the most dead-on, authentic dialogue. But, if I have any bone to pick with the book, it is that I wish he had placed quotation marks around the characters’ lines.

If people skipped this novel because they saw the movie, I would urge them to go get a copy and read it.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Friday, January 10, 2020

Peter Cushing in noir bank robbery film Cash on Demand

Andre Morell and Peter Cushing
Back in December, Eddie Muller, on his TCM program Noir Alley, presented a terrific, if little known film, called “Cash on Demand.”

It is a combination bank-heist story and reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Peter Cushing plays a stiff-necked manager of a neighborhood bank branch who is blackmailed into helping a suave thief rob his own bank. Andre Morell plays the thief.

This little, 89-minute film has a small cast and most of the action takes place in the cramped spaces of the bank.

It is well worth seeing – if it can be found.

Watch Eddie Muller’s introduction to the movie here.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

O. Henry and Season’s Reading

O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
This was supposed to be my Christmas post, but things got hectic and it never made it to this page.

But since what follows are also winter stories, it is still the season to read them.

In December, I located my old, 972-page Collected Stores of O. Henry. I blew off the dust and cracked it open to “The Cop and the Anthem.”

The story is beautifully structured. It is a lesson in economic writing. And has a perfect surprise ending. It slams down hard and fast on Soapy, a homeless man whose hope is just about restored when reality bites him. When I first read it in grade school, I laughed at the irony. Last month I did not laugh.

Most of the stories I read had the classic O. Henry twist ending, but none of them seemed as light as I remembered. They all seemed dark.

In “Compliments of the Season,” Fuzzy, a down-and-out drunk earns a reward from a wealthy family. When he is invited to have a drink he attempts to give a traditional toast revealing he was raised to be a gentleman but somehow fell to the gutter. The twist at the end could not lighten this tale.

Some of the stories were dark and weird, like “A Chaparral Christmas” from 1903. In it, a Western killer’s present to a woman is not murdering her husband.

Even one of his most famous stories, “The Gift of the Magi,” seemed too bitter. Maybe it was just me.

William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), who signed his work, O. Henry, wrote more than 600 short stories. They were originally published in magazines of his era, and quite a few first appeared in the New York World newspaper’s Sunday magazine. Today, most of his stories can be found on the Web.

Of the stories I read this season, my favorite was “The Last Leaf.” In Greenwich Village in the early 1900s, a young woman in danger of dying of pneumonia is given hope. It is one of the author’s most gentle surprise endings.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Richard Jewell is a movie to see, but...

The new film directed by Clint Eastwood, “Richard Jewell,” is a story he wanted to tell for years, he said.

Jewell was the security guard who spotted a suspicious bag at an outdoor concert during the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta. He rallied police and when the bomb squad examined the backpack they founded it contained explosives.

Before Jewell and others could clear the area, the bomb went off killing one, injuring more than 100. A second person died of a heart attack. Had Jewell not seen the unattended backpack, the bomb could have killed many more.

Hauser directed by Eastwood
Richard Jewell was a national hero for a brief time until tips to the media made him the suspect in the bombing. His life was turned inside out for months until he was cleared.

Paul Walter Hauser gives what may be the best performance of the year as Jewell. Also excellent were Sam Rockwell as his lawyer, Kathy Bates as his mother, Jon Hamm as an FBI investigator and Olivia Wilde as a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who broke the suspicion story.

But the Atlanta paper objects to the way it and its reporter are portrayed and its lawyers sent a letter of complaint to Warner Bros. asking the studio to put a disclaimer on the movie. (Read more about it here.)

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean

British scientists working with the military in a lab more secure than Fort Knox, develop germs for biological warfare. One of these strains is far more deadly than all the others. Dubbed “the Satan Bug,” it is capable of spreading rapidly. It cannot be stopped once released. It has no antidote. It could wipe out every living thing on earth. And it has been stolen.

That is the situation in The Satan Bug, a 1962 thriller by Alistair MacLean, who wrote it under the pseudonym Ian Stuart.

To recover the Satan Bug before it can be used, the military calls on Cavell, a private detective in London with a shabby little office and a big attitude. He also has a mysterious past. Cavell, who had a spotty record when he was in the military, was once head of security for the bio lab, but was fired.

Why anyone would trust him is one of the mysteries – along with who stole the Satan Bug  – in this not too mysterious mystery.

MacLean creates suspense and is top notch when it comes to action, but not nearly as good at devising a mystery. Readers will be ahead of him as the clues are not too hard to figure out. The mystery is almost secondary to the thrills he sets up as Cavell tracks down the lethal little bottle and the people who took it.

Alistair MacLean (1922-1987) is said to have published this book under a pen name to prove he could write a best seller without relying on his reputation as the man who wrote The Guns of Navarone.

In 1965, Hollywood turned this page turner into a dull movie. Relocated from the English countryside to the California desert, it starred George Maharis and Anne Francis. Despite a good cast, director John Sturges seems to have filmed a listless rehearsal instead of a taught thriller.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Good Liar is a movie to see

The new Helen Mirren-Ian McKellen flim, “The Good Liar” has the feel of an old movie.

Not because the two leads are septuagenarians, but because it has the careful craftsmanship I associate with films or another era.

Roy (McKellen) is an aged con artist taking in Betty (Mirren) a widow with a sizeable bank account.

Roy is all charm and he disarms Betty – or does he? And if she is on to him, she better watch out because Roy is ruthless, as he displays when confronted by one of his earlier victims.

There were moments when I thought I had this movie figured out only to have it take an unexpected turn.

The story is a good one, but the reason to see “The Good Liar” is the acting. Mirren and McKellen are two old pros at the top of their game. Watching them play cat-and-mouse is a pleasure.

Also in the cast is Jim Carter (who was Carson the butler in Downton Abbey).

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Defending Jacob by William Landay

William Landay’s 2012 novel, Defending Jacob, was on the reading list of my wife’s book club. The tastes of the club almost never coincide with mine. But this one was different.

Defending Jacob is the story of a suburban family torn apart when the 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate.

First-person narrator, Andy Barber, is the dad and central character in the story. He is the prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the stabbing death of a local eighth-grade boy, Ben Rifkin.

Andy knows the dead boy and the Rifkin family. His son Jacob is the same age as Ben and they went to the same school.

Clues and even motivations start coming in and they point to Jacob. In one of the many twists of this book, Ben was a bully and his frequent target was Jacob.

Andy refuses to see any connection. His words are 100 percent in Jacob’s corner. His thoughts betray his suspicions.

Defending Jacob is a novel that snuck up on me. I was caught up in the father’s anguish. Could Jacob have actually killed the other boy?

There is a bit of weird science woven into the tale concerning bad genes which can be passed down. But overall, this is a solid suspense story.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Accused is a series to watch

In the 1990s, British writer Jimmy McGovern created the character Fitz Fitzgerald for television. Played by Robbie Coltrane, Fitz was a psychologist with loads of personal problems who worked with the police solving crimes. The show was Cracker, one of our favorites of that decade.

Looking for more shows by Jimmy McGovern, this month I came across Accused, an anthology series from 2010-2012.

Each of its 10 one-hour episodes is a different story with a different cast.

All were written or co-written by McGovern. All feature average folks in trouble, violence, danger. All involve crime and punishment.

Sometimes characters are done in by the system. Other times they are victims of their own corruption, obsession, criminality or stupidity. On rare occasion a character is exonerated.

Last night, we reached the half-way point in the series and every episode has been top-notch TV.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick

For Halloween, I read a novel whose story people may remember from a 1947 movie of the same title starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.

The book was The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick, which was the pen name of writer Josephine Leslie.

Frankly, I was expecting a lot more from it. There is nothing scary or even chilling about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It is a genteel novel from 1945 written in a style better suited to the previous century.

Lucy Muir, a young widow with two small children, needs to find a less expensive place to live. She buys an English seaside house called Gull Cottage. The price is right because the place is said to be haunted by the original owner, Daniel Gregg, a ship’s captain who died in the house.

Instead of haunting Mrs. Muir, he is attracted to her, and she to him. He serves as her guide through life, helping her get rid of bossy relatives and unsuitable suitors.

The story is told in three parts: the young Lucy Muir, the middle-age Lucy, and the old Lucy who passes away and finally joins Captain Gregg on the other side, which is not a spoiler. Anyone could see that resolution coming from the earliest pages.

Gene Tierney & Rex Harrison
The author handles several things well: the appearances and disappearances of the captain, the visit by an overbearing woman, and the subtle death of Lucy Muir.

Although time is vague and the story is a fantasy, it was odd that in a book covering about 40 years of the main character’s life, from the early to the mid-20th century, no mention is made of any outside events, like World War I and World War II, which would have had an impact on Lucy Muir. But, I suppose I am being too literal and not playing the author’s game.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is short, easy to read, and not my kind of book.