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.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Silver Street by E. Richard Johnson

The 1968 crime novel, Silver Street, is a simple story but it has a gritty reality and the smell of the city streets.

Tony Lonto grew up a tough kid from the slums of an unnamed American city. He went into the Army, fought in Korea, returned to the city, joined the police force, and found himself assigned to a beat in the very neighborhood he worked to get away from.

A dozen years later, he is now a detective. But when anything happens in his old neighborhood, known as “the Strip,” Lonto is sent in because he knows who’s who and what’s what down there.

This book begins with the murder of a pimp, described by Johnson in gruesome detail. Lonto is sent to the Strip to investigate, and even though he is a guy from the neighborhood, no one will talk to him because he is a cop.

Making Lonto’s life more difficult is the newly appointed, lazy but politically connected, detective assigned to work with him.

The investigation is just getting underway when a second pimp is killed.

The killer is known from the beginning of the story. He is a young solider who acquired a taste for killing in Vietnam, and feels justified in murdering pimps.

Further complicating Lonto’s life is his girlfriend, Anna, a woman with a secret who seems to be stringing him along while he has dreams of marrying her and settling into an orderly suburban life.

Silver Street won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Photo of Johnson found at Listverse credited to Babelio
There is not much information out there about Emil Richard Johnson (1937-1997). He served in the Army in the 1950s, held a variety of jobs, got involved in crime, killed someone during a robbery and was sentenced to a long stretch in the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater. He wrote Silver Street and several other novels while serving his time. A short biography of him can be read here.

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

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

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dunkirk, the 1958 movie

Two years ago, critics fell all over themselves praising director Christopher Nolan's film about one of the 20th century’s great stories of heroism – the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

But current audiences might not know that there is an earlier movie of this story.

The 1958 film, “Dunkirk,” is not one of the great war films, but it is a darn good one, and far more clear in its story telling than the 2017 version.

Three well-know English actors of the 1950s starred in three parallel stories which come together in the rescue operation.

John Mills plays a British sergeant leading a squad separated from the retreating army. He and his men fight their way through the countryside and back to the coast of France only to wind up on the beach at the town of Dunkirk with thousands of other soldiers and not enough ships to carry them away.

Richard Attenborough (who played the leader of the escape plan in 1964’s "The Great Escape") here is the meek owner of a company making military belt buckles. He also owns a small motor boat. When the boat is requisitioned by the Navy in an attempt to get everything that floats over to pick up the soldiers, he reluctantly and under a bit of peer-pressure agrees to pilot his own craft.

Bernard Lee (who was 007’s boss in the early James Bond films), plays a journalist frustrated by the lack of information coming from the military but suspecting the British troops were in trouble in France. He too owns a small power boat and willingly volunteers to sail it with the Navy.

The film is at its best when showing the size of the operation, the number of men on the beach, and the struggles of the Navy and the civilians to reach and help them.

In May 1940, British, French, and Belgian troops were pushed back to the shore of northern France by the advancing German army. The British Navy with the help of privately owned boats launched a rescue operation. Pleasure crafts, fishing boats, ferries and yachts accompanied Navy vessels from England to Dunkirk, picked up as many soldiers as they could, returned them to England, and then went back to rescue more. The operation continued from May 26 to June 4.

The 1958 version of “Dunkirk” was directed by Leslie Norman and produced by Michael Balcon,who was the head of England’s Ealing studio. Ealing is best known for its light comedies often starring Alec Guinness, but it also turned out war films, including 1953’s “The Cruel Sea,” which is one of the best pictures about World War II.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Darkest Hour by William P. McGivern

William P. McGivern’s 1955 crime novel, The Darkest Hour, is a version of “On The Waterfront,” but with a lot more action and a lot less angst.

The book fits squarely into the noir category as an urban crime novel set mostly at night on the cold, dark streets along New York City’s waterfront, with a damaged and angry main character.

Steve Retnick used to be a good guy and a good cop who was promoted to detective at a young age. But gangsters framed him for the killing of a dock worker and Retnick spent five years in Sing Sing prison.

When the book opens, Retnick is out of the can and back in the city, using his street-smarts and detective skills to find the real killer and administer a little of his own justice on the men who set him up.

Retnick inflicts some physical punishment on thugs who deserve it, but he also puts innocent people in harm’s way. He knows what he wants and he also knows he is doing wrong. He has been warned off by his former police supervisor, but he presses on. This kind of destructive obsession is real noir territory.

A man who can give him the proof he needs to nail the hitman and his boss, is killed just as Retnick returns to the old neighborhood. The boss is a local gangster who is muscling his way into a dock-workers’ union.

McGivern’s story, despite an authenticity in the location, the people and the way things work on the waterfront, has a few weak spots, mostly in the subplot concerning Steve Retnick’s bitterness toward his wife, who did him dirt while he was in the joint.

Overall, The Darkest Hour (also called Waterfront Cop), is another good yarn from an author who was on a hot streak in the 1950s. Some of the other books McGivern published in that decade were: Shield for Murder (1951); Blondes Die Young (1952); The Crooked Frame (1952); Margin for Terror (1953); The Big Heat (1953); Rogue Cop (1954); Night Extra (1957); Odds Against Tomorrow (1957); and Savage Streets (1959).

William P. McGivern worked as a newspaper reporter and also wrote many short stories for the pulps. He served in the Army during World War II. After the war he turned to novel writing. In the 1960s and 1970s, he wrote for the movies and television, while continuing to turn out books. He died in 1982 at age 63.

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

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