Olen Steinhauer creates spy thriller magic. His Milo Weaver trilogy finished, he has a new thriller out, The Middleman. But at the same time he’s created two kinetic seasons of Berlin Station, which I loved, and now here’s Season 3. Can it maintain the pace and characterisation verve of the first two outings? I can happily report that it most certainly can. In fact, Episode 1 rushes into the new backdrop, Russian incursions into its tiny neighbor Estonia, with such rapidity that I’m tempted to recommend you ground yourself first with at least Season 2. The familiar characters – spy Daniel Miller (ably portrayed by Richard Armitage, a better actor in motion than in repose), profane spy boss Kirsch (a standout performance as ever by Leland Orser), and spy boss Valerie Edwards (terrifically acted by Michelle Forbes) – are shoved straight into action, along with many regular or new bit players, so you need to pay heed. But the scriptwriting and direction are so assured that I think you can come to this tale with no prior experience. Tallinn in Estonia is a wonderful locale for mysterious nefarious activities (I’m biased, my parents came from there), action shocks abound, and the episode’s climax leaves one gasping for more. Once more a winner.
Upside Down Flowers by Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness [8/10]
How on earth did this brilliant singer-songwriter slide past me for so long? Andrew McMahon is an inspired word painter and melody creator and “Upside Down Flowers“ is his third solo after two successful band stints. He looks like full-on American white bread but make no mistake, there’s magic in every one of these eleven tracks. The musical style refers back to classic 70s and 80s high-blown rock, arranged beautifully enough to fit into that old sub-genre of “baroque pop-rock,” but none of it feels careworn, and perhaps that’s due to the way McMahon anchors most songs with his lovely piano figures. Butch Walker’s production (he’s also one of those multi instrumentalists) is sonically intelligent. Vocally McMahon can echo Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, or Billy Joel, but once again, there’s something aching and true about his voice that transcends those cheap “sounds-like” comparisons. Is “Upside Down Flowers“ an ode to lost times? It certainly said that to me, with its songs of family moves, tree houses, Vegas gambles, short-fling heartbreak, and new starts. Amongst the many highlights are “Ohio” with its road trip images and ornately worded chorus; the sweet-but-not-saccharine “Penelope,” and the cryptic, developing, lovely “Everything Must Go.” And if you love rock, I defy you to grace your ears with “Teenage Rockstars” without your heart swelling with half a century’s musical hopes and joys.
Bodyguard (from Jed Mercurio) Episodes 4-6 [7/10]
I rated the TV series “Bodyguard’s“ opening episode as only 5/10 but gave 8/10 to the next two episodes, so I had high hopes for the final three chapters. It seems the scriptwriters were determined to not only pile the pressures on bodyguard Budd (Richard Madden maintains his solid centrepiece acting), but to veer the plot in almost unbelievable directions. Me, I rode with the flow and relished the many complete surprises. The bit players rise to prominence over these three episodes; particularly notable is Pippa Heywood as the questioning cop. A finale bomb-related scene ratchets up the tension to screaming point. I rarely binge watch but I slammed the final two episodes. The closing plot wrap-up lets the clever overall script down and the closing scene annoyed me with its vacuity, but overall “Bodyguard” is a quintessential gritty British thriller that should achieve success.
Fade to Silence by David Bradwell [7/10]
The fourth in the series starring journalist Danny Churchill and fashion photographer Anna Burgin, “Fade to Silence” is an engaging, immersive adventure involving Balkan thugs, British corporations, crooked cops, and a complex murder. Danny and Anna are wonderful, engaging leads and the interplay between them is nuanced and absorbing. The plot is Byzantine, the locales strike true, and Bradwell has a sure sense of pace and plot. For all that dire situations abound, this “thriller” is not gritty, indeed it has the feel of a semi-cosy, if that’s a correct term, but I didn’t need blood and guts and terror to thoroughly enjoy the tale.
Naked Truth by Rick Pullen [5/10]
The second in a series featuring Washington reporter Beck Rikki, “Naked Truth” has a plot more twisty than any I’ve read this year, which should have been a boon. The story revolves around a dead U.S. chief justice and seems to involve every major politician and lawyer in the country, and the sequences of doublecrossing rivals some of those old Ludlum thrillers. The various settings are pithily described, the dialogue froths with wit and energy, and the unwinding of the plot is pleasingly relentless. But our hero Beck, while dogged and smart in the way that crime solvers need to be, rarely came alive to me, and Pullen’s machinations with different points of view merely moved from one cardboard character to another. I liked the intricacies of American reportage and, until towards the end, enjoyed trying (unsuccessfully) to second guess the plot surprises, but the one-sitting reading left me cold.
Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are by Robert Plomin [8/10]
Robert Plomin, a prolific and longstanding behavioral geneticist (itself a relatively new profession) has, with “Blueprint,” announced an Eden-facing (in his eyes, that is) grand theorem, namely that nature (aka our genes) trumps nurture (aka our environment). “I hope,” he writes, “this no longer sounds like just another pop-psychology claim without evidence to back it up.” He takes the reader steadily and stylishly through his work on twin studies, which purportedly dramatize the unexpectedly high influence of genetics – on so many matters of interest, from depression to braininess, from introspection to insomnia, from addiction to marriage stability. Then he and his peers tried and failed to find links between particular genes and psychological traits and outcomes. Now, they aggregate tens of thousands of “SNPs,” genetic morsels each contributing (he claims) a miniscule amount, into a grand “polygenic score.” One’s polygenic score causes (not just correlates with) a raft of psychological features. I enjoyed the book: Plomin writes clearly, with stylish gusto but also with precision, in a tightly organized fashion. I also recommend “Blueprint” as a layperson’s intro to this burgeoning field. Read it because you must. However, as a confused but numerate layperson, I caution you on his societally explosive conclusions. Two possible blind spots occur to me. Firstly, Plomin admits his results depend on the “environment” of a given time and place. Might it not be true that in a “better” environment, the influence of the gene becomes muted? Perhaps his results reflect our cruel, unsupporting world. Secondly, a “trust me” indecipherable “score,” without explanatory roots, has to be suspicious. What hidden complexities will be revealed with further time and enquiry, and will they rubbish his claims? Look, I’m dubious and suspect he is swept up by his own amazement, but I heartily recommend the scintillating read.
Bodyguard (from Jed Mercurio) Episodes 2-3 [8/10]
I rated the TV series Bodyguard’s opening episode as only 5/10. Plenty of mood but just mood. Well, by the middle of the six-episode series, the plot explodes, with twist after twist, so I recommend you plough on after the opener. Richard Madden sheds some of the stodginess of his initial portrayal of bodyguard Budd, and Keeley Hawes is terrrific as frosty Home Secretary Montague. The scriptwriters get more and more daring with each fresh episode, and the closing scenes of Episode 3 are stunning. The motives of the police and the security services grow to be gratifyingly murky, and all the supporting characters are well nuanced and credible. Will the second half continue to grip? The signs are auspicious.
Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane [7/10]
A historian enlists the aid of Helen Oddfellow, a London tour guide, the lure being a lost Marlowe masterpiece, and rapidly the two are in jeopardy, murderous jeopardy. If this sounds like Dan Brown territory, Unlawful Things is not like that at all, entirely to its credit. Debut thriller writer Anna Sayburn Lane plots like a dream, weaving together high-action drama and a fascinating historical puzzle. Helen is a splendid character, as is Nick, the journalist who teams up with her, and the supporting characters are complex and real. The settings in London and the countryside are beautifully evoked. The climax and postmortem are both timed to perfection. A great example of a thriller with intellectual panache.
McQueen directed by Ian Bonhote & Peter Etedgui [8/10]
Never been to a fashion show and never will, so a documentary on the life of designer Lee Alexander McQueen hardly beckoned. Luckily I embrace risk, for from the first frame, the co-directors (and Etedgui wrote the script) of “McQueen” gripped me. With no fancy back and forth, just a chronological telling, they employ an artful mix of interview, fashion show footage, and family-style footage to chart McQueen’s rise from Brit youth to Gucci-owned superstar, and then to his untimely demise at age 40 (that’s not a spoiler, this is a doco, right?). Quite what converts a boring documentary into compelling drama is never clear to me, but I commend this magic to you. The ancient theme of the fraught flip side of genetic creativity is handled without express messaging. The visuals are, of course, vivid. Even Michael Nyman’s music, which I’ve gotten sick of in movies, suits the moody ambience. All in all, McQueen is an expertly paced, absorbing documentary paean to an exhausting talent.
Net Loss (Quarterly Essay 72) by Sebastian Smee [8/10]
The visual arts elude this reviewer, so I’m normally unlikely to read Sebastian Smee, prominent Washington Post art critic, but his topic “Net loss: The inner life in the digital age” (the cornerstone piece in Quarterly Essay 72) is right up my alley. What an inspired impulse to read this nuanced, undogmatic, sharp look at the modern world of Facebook, Twitter and their kin! Smee tentatively labels himself a materialist like me but, as I do, he uses the language of spirituality and creativity as he proceeds to explore “the inner life with its own history of metamorphosis – rich, complex and often mysterious, even to ourselves.” His method isn’t didactic or technically philosophical. Instead he meanders through and around the short stories of Anton Chekhov, the films of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, a portrait by Paul Cezanne, a Rachel Cusk novel, Gillian Wearing’s paintings, and so on. How is social media altering the slippery “inner life,” he asks, and chips away at familiar charges of social media’s adverse impacts. Never more than hesitant, his explorations intoxicated me. In the end, he sees our modern response to mortality and aloneness is “to disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible,” facilitated and urged on by the internet. Are we “excavating too much…?” Can “we find ways to pay attention again to our solitude…?” I cannot recommend too highly this exhilarating, wise reflection.