Sunday, October 31, 2010

November books and movies

November hardcover releases include new books by Dennis Lehane, a non-series book by Henning Mankell set in the late 19th century, Patricia Cornwell's 18th Kay Scarpetta novel, and more by popular authors such as Stephen King, Brad Thor and Walter Mosley. New mystery paperbacks include books by J.B. Stanley and Joseph Wambaugh.

November movies with a mystery/thriller/suspense bent include the Valerie Plame storyFair Game starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn; Red Hill; Unstoppable, the runaway train thriller starring Denzel Washington and The Next Three Days, directed by Paul Haggis and starring Russell Crowe.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

I'm still here!

I've been on a three-week road trip and thought I'd read and post from the road. I didn't do either. I didn't even watch the end of Rubicon or any of Masterpiece Mystery. So I got nothing. I saw The Town, which I liked. I did read some; started Rick Pearlstein's Before the Storm, about the Goldwater campaign and 1964 election. I highly recommend it.

I'll get back on track this week. In the meantime, take the new poll to the right. Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 11, 2010

From book to screen

Masterpiece Mystery's version of Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled, which aired last night on PBS, was quite different than the book. The basic structure was there, and the essential mystery was the same, but many of the details were different. Understandably, the screenwriters streamlined the plot some, but also added some plot devices that don't exist in the book, which I think better explained the criminal activity at the center of the plot. Anyway, it was not one of my favorite Wallander books or one my favorite Masterpiece Mystery adaptations. 

I am liking The Fifth Woman much more. I am nearly halfway through the book now and it's dense and only going to get denser, I imagine. It's the next and last film in the Masterpiece Mystery's Wallander II series  and it will be interesting to see how the screenwriters condense it. There's a little less Wallander angst and a lot more complex crime story. The Man Who Smiled is essentially a simple mystery that plays second fiddle to the drama of Wallander's personal struggles. In The Fifth Woman, there is the usual commentary on society and a personal tragedy for Wallander, but the mystery is front and center. The episode airs next Sunday on PBS.

After I finish The Fifth Woman, I'm going for something a bit lighter. Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story perhaps. I need the break.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Showing my age

I finished Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled just in time to watch it this Sunday on Masterpiece Mystery. It should make for a good screen adaptation: a few murders, a landmine and car explosion, a castle at the center of the mystery. The aging Wallander goes a little gung-ho at the end. Never thought of him as an action hero, but should be fun to watch Kenneth Branagh, who does a great job, struggle through. Rupert Graves plays the castle owner. Saw him most recently as an aging bad boy artist in an episode of Masterpiece Mystery's Inspector Lewis series so a little jarring to see him again so soon in another role. In the last one, though, he was a mess and in this one he should have commanding control of a vast and nefarious business empire.

Minor quibble with the book: Wallander has a lapse in ethical judgment, I think, employing a non-cop in a possibly dangerous subterfuge. Not that Wallander can't have his flaws, he has plenty. Just didn't seem true to character to have him put an innocent bystander in jeopardy.

Speaking of aging: I wrote that I like Blue Bloods, CBS' new Friday night cop show. Apparently, it has the oldest audience in TV-dom. Not sure how significant that is since the audience for all TV is getting older and older.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mystery convention, etc.

The annual Bouchercon world mystery convention is next weekend in San Francisco. The four-and-a-half day event includes loads of panels on such subjects as science fiction and mystery, political mysteries, and many on writing mysteries, featuring tons of authors, including the event's guests of honor Lee Child, Denise Mina, Laurie R. King, Eddie Muller and Maddy Van Hertbruggen. The site says registration is closed, but if you're already in the San Francisco area you can show up and purchase a $75 day pass. Visit the site to get all the info and see an incredible list of events and authors.

In my post on new TV shows, I forgot to mention AMC's Rubicon. The slow-moving show requires lots of patience, but that patience is beginning to pay off. Sunday's episode was chock full of action -- Will escapes getting killed after Spangler puts out a hit on him; Kale cleans up the debris from it; Katherine discovers a letter left by her dead husband; Will tells Katherine what he thinks the conspiracy is all about; and the API team, led by the ambitious Grant, who is cozying up to Spangler, cracks a major clue in their al-Qaeda case. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you're late to the game and will have to watch or read up on previous episodes at the AMC site. But beware: the plot moves at near-glacial speed for the first, uh, 10 episodes, but is picking up steam at the end.

I'm still slogging through Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled. It's a little slow-going too, but my mind may be wandering for reasons other than the book. I'll talk about it more when I'm done.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

FYI: DVD sale

Barnes & Noble is having a 40-50% off sale on mystery DVDs online.

Foyle's War, the Masterpiece Mystery series that I mentioned in an earlier post, is there. 

So is Notorious, one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. 

I don't usually buy DVDs but I may have to splurge for George Gently, starring Martin Shaw. I've never even heard of it and it looks perfect for me, and probably not something I'll find at my local library. Ah, stupid me: I'll check Netflix first. Sorry, B&N.  Anyone else seen it who can give it a yea or a nay?

Scandinavian writers

Fellow blogger and Balloon Juice reader Linkmeister told me about Detectives Beyond Borders, an exemplary blog on non-American mysteries, which features a lengthy blog roll that includes Scandinavian Crime Fiction. (Linkmeister also solved my ‘small footer’ problem for which I am forever grateful.)

It never occurred to me to create a blog on such a specific subject, but if I did it might have been Scandinavian crime fiction. Good thing I didn’t because I am a near neophyte, having read only four (well, five) authors:  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larrson. 

I have a definite order of preference among those, starting with the Martin Beck series by Sjöwall and Wahlöö. It’s hard to explain why these books are great. The writing is spare and plain -- adjectives are hard to find -- and no detail is too mundane for these authors, who often recount scenes like a court reporter.

Yet I’ve never read anything as suspenseful as the stake-out of the suspect in the series' first book, Roseanna. The police are investigating a crime in which catching the killer is like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack. They have zeroed in on someone, but he has done nothing yet to justify their suspicions so they employ a woman detective to entice him into making a move. In the meantime, they watch him day and night while he follows an ordinary, boring routine. The capture was a bit predictable, probably because the scene has been done to death since the book was written in the 1960s, but it’s the mind-numbingly dull stakeout scene that I love. For the cops, it sounds like it must be like watching paint dry, but for the reader it is ultimate suspense. 

The books are not whodunits in the typical sense; you’re not presented with a cast of likely suspects. The crimes are central to the books, but the criminals make only cameo appearances, usually with little to no dialogue, and only when they are in the sights of the police or at the end when they are apprehended.  (I should say I know this to be true only of the first three books in the series.) 

All that is because the books are about the police. The reader stands side-by-side with the police, not the victims or the victims’ families or the suspects or the criminals.  And, as others have pointed out, the books are about Swedish society. 

As I’ve already written, I like Henning Mankell very much. He follows in the same unsentimental, realistic style of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Kurt Wallander is as essential to Mankell’s books as Martin Beck is to the Sjöwall and Wahlöö series. But Mankell adds more convoluted plots, some usual suspects and commentary on the world. Wallader is gloomy and emotional while Beck tends to be more inured. 

I shouldn’t really comment on Nesbø. I’ve only read Nemesis and I don’t remember it, but I have a vague recollection of feeling like the plot went off in too many directions. But that may be unfair. 

As for Larsson, I’ve only read the first of his insanely popular trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I put that book down after about 200 pages, picked it up a month later and finished it in a day or two of near-constant reading. It was compelling reading, but, gotta say, I didn’t love it like apparently most of the rest world did. A thorough, page-turning plot, but I find the characters a bit cartoonish, especially Lisbeth Salander. The big crime at the center of the book feels almost incidental to the plot and I find some stuff involving Salander gratuitous. I do find the corporate intrigue interesting. Maybe in one of the later books that becomes a focus. 

I like to find people who confirm my feelings, not to dump on Larsson but just so I know I’m not alone. I know there have been some mediocre to bad reviews of the books, and now the World Socialists organization has weighed in.  The critique is much more academic than mine, but echoes some of my problems with the book. (He also takes the Martin Beck series to task which I will not sign on with.) 

I found the link at the above mentioned Scandinavian Crime Fiction, where I hope to continue to find more Scandinavian authors like Leif G. W. Persson, Camilla Lackberg, Ake Edwardson and others to add to my to-read list. 

Do you like to read authors from a specific part of the world? 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Great Web site

If you're like me and try to read a mystery series in order, then bookmark Stop, You're Killing Me! The site lists hundreds of series in order, indexed both by author and character. It also categorizes books by lead character's job so if you're really interested in, say, dancers who do detection, you can find books about that unusual scenario. It also lists major award winners and has what looks like a comprehensive listing of upcoming books. I put a link to it on my blog list to the right if you misplace it. 

Also: the link to a short interview with Scottish cozy writer M C Beaton was in my inbox this morning. In it, she lists her five favorite books, including one by Josephine Tey, which I should put on my classics-to-be-read list.

I find a lot of mystery-related Web sites are outdated and defunct. Have any good and thriving sites I can add to my blog list?

TV shows

Did anyone watch Masterpiece Mystery's Wallander, Series II: Faceless Killers last night? I loved it.

A few years ago, when I had recently read Faceless Killers, a former boss asked me for a mystery recommendation for his wife. I suggested Henning Mankell, having just discovered him and assuming others didn't know about him. His wife replied that she could depress herself easily enough without reading Mankell to do it. 

Mankelll's corner of Sweden can be unrelentingly bleak. And that's just one reason why I love the series. Another is his troubled, despairing protagonist, Kurt Wallander, done wonderful justice by Kenneth Branagh in the TV series. Wallander is a great surrogate for the reader: he's frightened and appalled by, and often despondent about, the crimes he investigates and what he needs to do to capture the criminals, just as any normal person -- i.e. the average reader -- would be. But he reluctantly perseveres. Branagh captures that quandary. He often has a look on his face saying "Why? Why am I here? Why am I doing this?," and not in a comical, ain't-life-a-kick-in-the-pants kind of way, but in an existential-howl kind of way. 

He also has a troubled relationship with his father, who in early books is on the road to complete senility. (I am currently reading the fourth book in the series, The Man Who Smiled, in which his father is doing much better, at least so far.) They often fight and the son usually puts off going to see the father as long as he can. But the younger Wallander is dutiful and the relationship between the two is neither hopeless or hopeful.

Wallander is no cardboard cutout of the brave, confident cop, but he is heroic.

It's been awhile since I read the book so I am not sure, but I thought Faceless Killers ended differently than the TV episode. Maybe other readers of the book can correct or confirm that. Anyway, they are clearly setting up the viewer for the next episode, The Man Who Smiled, which is, as I said, the fourth in the series. (Faceless Killers is the first.) I won't be giving anything away to say that Wallander is going to be found wallowing in deep despair in the next episode. Don't know how much the TV show will dwell on it, but in the book early scenes about Wallander read more like a description of a criminal than a novel's good-guy cop. 

If you missed last night's show, you can watch it online at PBS

A few quick observations about the new TV season. I've watched a few new shows, including CBS' Hawaii Five-O. The plots are serviceable, but I'm finding the Steve McGarrett character, the one who gets to say "Book' em, Danno," irritating. (I am old enough to have watched the original, but never did, and I'm willing to bet that McGarrett, originally played by Jack Lord, was just as annoying then.) He's a scold and constantly on the back of his partner, Danny 'Danno' Williams. One scene in which he harps on the fact that Danno wears a tie was a complete waste of three minutes of air time. And I confess to always wondering if each scene is choreographed to disguise Scott Caan's short stature. Not fair to Caan, whom I like, but I can't help it. 

I've also never watched any of the vast Law & Order empire, but last week caught the new one based in Los Angeles because I like the stars, Skeet Ulrich, Alfred Molina and Terrence Howard. Howard wasn't on last week (that I saw) so I'm wondering if he and Molina, who both look like prosecutors in the commercials, trade episodes. Last week's episode involved robberies of the homes of actors and actresses and focused on one grown child star and her uber-stage mother. I have always found TV portrayals of movie stars cheesy and unconvincing. As the show is based in LA this may be an ongoing problem for me. 

Finally, I watched Blue Bloods. I liked it. It was the second episode but the first one I watched and it was easy to catch on. The characters are differentiated without being total stereotypes. I found both the crime, a murder brought on by a gang tormenting subway passengers, and the family dynamic believable. 

So: anyone know if the TV version of Faceless Killers was true to the book or sort of a mashup of several Wallander-based books?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

'Murphy's Law,' etc.

I finished Rhys Bowen's Murphy's Law. I liked it. The resolution made sense and just when you thought it was going to be resolved a little too neatly, a final twist was the better denouement. I could do without the budding romance between the main character and main cop, but it's not a deal breaker, as Liz Lemon would say. 

I am now reading The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell in anticipation of the Masterpiece Mystery version being shown next Sunday on PBS. I am excited the TV series featuring Kurt Wallander, Mankell's detective played in the TV series by Kenneth Branagh, starts tonight with the first Wallander book, Faceless Killers. I highly recommend it, probably my favorite of the excellent PBS show. (Another favorite is Foyle's War. If you've never seen it, get it on DVD. I am praying there are more; the final one ended with Foyle retiring and heading to America to find someone, leaving the door wide open for more episodes.) After Wallander, there is a modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes. Believe it or not, I've never read any of the Arthur Conan Doyle classic.

While I was at the library I picked up Nevada Barr's Track of the Cat, the first in her Anna Pigeon series of mysteries set in the southwest and already considered a classic, on the library sale table. I also checked out The Laughing Policeman. I'd rather own it but the local bookstores are out. It is considered the best of the 10-book series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

And am happy to see a new book by John Le Carre coming out Oct. 12. A new book by Martin Cruz Smith is already on bookshelves.

Talk of Foyle's War reminds me: can anyone recommend a mystery set during WWI or WWII?


I always wanted to own a bookstore and I figured in the time of the mega-store, a specialized shop might work. 'Histories & Mysteries' was my first idea, but, try as I might, I don't read much history. I read mysteries. Always. No matter what else I may be reading, or trying to read, there is always a mystery on my nightstand.

Thus 'Cops & Cozies,' named for the two broadest categories of mysteries -- police procedurals and the so-called cozy. I don't think the bookstore is ever going to happen so I am doing what I hope is the next best thing -- creating a place for me and other readers to talk about mysteries.

So I'll start. I am just about finished with Murphy's Law, the first in a series of mysteries set in turn-of-the-century New York City and featuring Molly Murphy, a young Irish emigrant. I discovered the author -- Rhys Bowen -- on a recent trip to the library, on the to-be-shelved cart. She's also written a 'cozy' series set in Wales and featuring a detective named Evan Evans.

I am enjoying it. It requires some suspension of disbelief -- Molly traipses from one end of Manhattan to the other without running out of steam or luck -- but it doesn't shy away from the gritty details of the time. People live in filthy tenements and most men only want to take brutal advantage of Molly. She's incredibly self-sufficient and brave but believable and not without fault. I love the historical details, including talk of Tammany Hall, but have no idea if the book is accurate.

Without giving away anything, the books starts with Molly's unexpected trip from Ireland to New York, where a passenger from her boat is murdered on Ellis Island. She's tangentially involved and decides she must help the police -- led by the attractive Daniel Sullivan -- solve the crime or else she may end up in the infamous Tombs herself.

I have about 40 pages left so can't say whether the resolution makes sense but so far so good -- everything about the murder and the chase makes perfect sense and little time is wasted on superfluous scenes or information.

I just finished A Corpse in the Koryo, another new author I discovered recently. (I can't remember how, I think through the New York Times' Marilyn Stasio, who reviews mystery/crime novels regularly in the Sunday Book Review.) The book is the first of four books in a series featuring Inspector O, a hamstrung detective in North Korea. The author is James Church, a pseudonym for a former American intelligence officer who worked in Asia and, according to jacket reviews, understands North Korea like an insider.

I was fascinated at the idea of a book set in North Korea, a country I know next to nothing about. The book is well-written and evocative. With few words, the author creates a world in which everyone is watching and being watched. No one can be trusted and the basics of life are in short supply. Inspector O, for example, is constantly is search of a cup of tea. Not a good cup of tea, but any cup of tea.
The book is cinematic. Despite being set in North Korea, I kept seeing Humphrey Bogart talking to Sydney Greenstreet or Claude Rains in conversations where the words had little to do with what was really being said.

But it took until the exact mid-point in the book for the plot to kick in. Before that, Inspector O goes from city to city, sent by cryptic bosses on seemingly meaningless missions that lead nowhere for both the Inspector and the reader. Once the plot takes off, the book is a quick and mostly compelling read. (I did skim a few parts, which is not a good sign and not something I like to do.) Still, I recommend Inspector O and will read the next one after a break and few other reads in between.

Next up could be any of the following: The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell because the great Masterpiece Mystery series starring Kenneth Branagh is showing it in mid-October; The Laughing Policeman, the fourth in the classic Martin Beck series set in Stockholm, the first three of which I read recently and absolutely loved; or The Friends of Eddie Coyle because I saw the movie starring Robert Mitchum a few months ago and because I'm on a mission to read classic mysteries.

So: what are your reading? What do you recommend? Leave a comment.