The seventh of the Norfolk ensemble police procedural series starring Detective Inspector Tom Janssen, “Kill Them Cold” is polished and devious. J M Dalgliesh fashions his smartly paced mysteries with plain, subtle prose, and something of Norfolk’s coastal melancholy percolates the pages. Janssen himself is a smart, commanding, yet uncomplicated hero, and his associates and team make up a diverse crew. In this outing, skeletal remains of a young woman are unearthed near an archaeological dig site., and speedy investigative teamwork results in a suspect shortlist that baffles Janssen. The last third of the novel accelerates in tension and the twisty outcome culminates in a dramatic shock. Very much in the mold of the classic English mystery, Kill Them Cold entertains with a burnished glow.
Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti has stylishly penned a most intriguing book, “Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now.” Ialenti address two specific audiences: readers interested in “ancestor thinking” or “deep time,” that is, adopting a future-oriented perspective on the world and on life; and readers interested in nuclear power, specifically the radioactive waste aspect of it. An anthropologist, he embedded himself in the life and work of an army of specialists working to bury Finland’s spent nuclear fuel far below the ground, keeping the world safe from the radioactive poisons for thousands of years or longer. The patient Finnish approach is twenty five years old and completion is not planned until the next century. Deep Time Reckoning delves, analyses, and muses, with Ialenti concerned about how the Finns are tackling this monumental task and why the Finnish population wholeheartedly backs it (imagine anything similar in America!); but also how the rest of world can learn from Finland, especially in order to tackle the climate emergency. The author’s passionate, cogent voice, and his wide-ranging essaying, might also lift Deep Time Reckoning out of its specialist concerns and find it a deserved wider audience.
Season 4 of “The Crown” covers the eighties, the Maggie Thatcher years, and after the slight dip of Season 3, represents a roaring return to form. Once again I find myself initially nonplussed: why am I, an anti-monarchist especially alienated from anything to do with Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, so taken with a ten-episode show in which they loom so often? The answer, as the answer has been for the three earlier seasons, is twofold: the plotting wizardry of Peter Morgan and the consummate acting. Sure, The Crown is consistently more than those two attributes. The staging and pacing are immaculate, the royal milieu is glorified sumptuously, the cinematography (many gloomy royal abode scenes, many English countryside panoramas, many riveting clos-up scenes) is first-rate, and the dialogue crackles. But the primary reason I find myself glued to the screen each and every episode, is Morgan’s nuanced intertwining of real and imagined events, intelligent and deep. If you then throw in Gillian Anderson’s unforgettable performance as Thatcher, Olivia Coleman’s brilliance as Her Royal Highness, and Emma Corrin’s amazing inhabitation of Diana (not forgetting many other stellar performances), my devotion to this series is understandable. Do not omit all four seasons of The Crown from your cultural roster, and in particular, bask in this fourth season.
A six-part series, “The Undoing” wields serious acting firepower, with the two key roles being that of a doctor involved in a brutal murder case (Hugh Grant does a superb, subtle job) and his psychologist wife (played by Nicole Kidman, who occupies most of the screen time and is occasionally unconvincing). Notable supporting role performances are delivered by Ismael Cruz Cordova and Donald Sutherland. The plot lurches between suspect reveals and does a fine job of generating suspense, ensuring that once you begin watching, you won’t dare stop, but ends up rather clunky. Direction is steady but sometimes painfully slow, and the New York scenery pales a little with repetition. The courtroom scenes are a highlight. In the end, The Undoing is a slightly off-kilter thriller that nonetheless makes for compelling viewing.
The seventh in the engrossing, razor-sharp spy thriller series by Mick Herron, alternately labelled as the Jackson Lamb series or the Slough House series, is innocuously titled “Slough House.” If the previous two signaled a dip in helter-skelter pacing, Slough House more than makes up for them. Until around Book Four, Herron did his best to keep each book as a standalone in its own right, but by now the interlaced lives of the huge ensemble cast render that impossible, so when this juggernaut kicks off with two pages of mayhem, followed by byzantine twists involving spy assassins and MI5 skullduggery, it takes all one’s concentration to keep up. By a third of the way through, the grandeur of the story’s conceit has a grip and I read Slough House in a blur of gasps, chuckles, and admirative shakes of the head. The author’s acerbic wit is ascendant, and the two core characters of repellent but magnificent Jackson Lamb, and doughty, quick-witted River Cartwright dominate. Buckle up, dear reader of Books 1 to 6, for a brilliant ride, and if you are new to Mick Herron, do yourself the favor of a lifetime and devour all seven volumes in a sprint.
Fans of Cold War history should examine “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World,” a sure-footed, elegantly written account of what might seem an obscure byway in the annals of those times. Journalist Lesley Blume relates how John Hersey came to write Hiroshima, his bracing, superbly written account of the experiences of six Japanese citizens in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. Blume relates how the New Yorker magazine heads plotted with Hersey (already, at the young age of 30, well-known, with a Pulitzer under his belt) to embed himself into the post-war occupation in Japan, travel to blitzed Hiroshima, fool his U.S. military minders, carry out interviews, and then, back in New York, write a full-issue article in secret. The resultant release on August 31, 1946, revealed both the Armageddon-like impact of that one bomb and its radioactive aftermath, and the American government’s successful (until then) media clamp. Without wasting a word, the author recreates the tension of the days and the article’s provenance. She must have read everything ever written about Hersey and the bomb, and the endnotes and bibliography are a role model of historical exactitude. Fallout would be rather specialist were it not for the ongoing, vital legacy of Hiroshima itself. Never out of print since 1946, John Hersey’s monument has been bought by three million people. It is available this very minute for US$7 and I recommend you read it first, weep, then sink into Fallout. And never forget.
Following her brilliant, angular Outline trilogy, Rachel Cusk returns with a novel at first glance less cerebral. “Second Place: A Novel” even has a plot, a straightforward one at that, but in place of a nonlinear narrative, Cusk delves deep with prose, imagery, and inner turmoils. On an idyllic, unnamed coastline, a smart but seemingly downtrodden woman in her forties, lives with her second husband (the first one was a domineering disaster) in seclusion. But deep down, her unhappiness prompts her to invite a megastar painter, renowned for his capriciousness, to sojourn at their “second place,” a nearby cottage. When he arrives with a woman, and our hero’s daughter moves in with her lover, the stage is set for conflict and existential angst, all filtered through the notion that great art, or a great artist, can clarify the soul’s longings. The plot is, in the end, slight, but scene after scene is rendered lively and emotional by the author’s unerring, fulsome yet precise style. If you’re a Rachel Cusk fan, as I am, Second Place is a must-read. For others, it might seem unambitious, but I would counsel you to persevere. A minor-key treat.
As someone who has come very late to the wonderful work of mystery writer Ann Cleeves, I’m enjoying a rather unsystematic part-catch-up: I’ve watched all the Shetland TV series (here’s my review of Season 5), without reading a book yet; have read the first book in her new Matthew Venn series (check out the review here); and have commenced Season 9 (yes, Season 9!) of the TV series of Vera. As well, I’ve lapped up the ninth offering of Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope in book form, “The Darkest Evening,” and I can report that it is an exuberant, atmospheric police procedural that makes for a captivating read. Those of you who are Vera fans will find my unfamiliarity amusing, but I’m delighted by her eccentric, bull-in-a-china-shop brilliance. In this outing, a snowbound storm stopover at a posh Northumberland mansion, one she knows from childhood, plummets her into a labyrinthine murder investigation. Cleeves plots marvelously, with just the right number of McGuffins, her supporting cast of police is splendid, and the suspects all come to life on the page. The English countryside is evocatively presented. How could I have missed out on Vera all those years?
A short film clocking in at sixteen minutes, “Brolga” could be overlooked in the way that most short stories flit by. May I suggest you pay heed to this minor gem from Australia auteur Adrian Powers. Resurrecting an ancient indigenous origin story about a graceful dancer morphing into a graceful brolga, but placing the story into a dystopian world of ferals fleeing killers, Brolga offers a perfectly structured story within a sumptuous, brooding, post-civilization world lit up by Tim Tregoning’s cinematography and Matt Ruduck’s score. The leads are played memorably by James Saunders and Tarnie Coupland. Brolga may well be brief but it resonates and I, for one, cannot wait for the next creation of Adrian Powers.
“Rebecca” is the latest screen evocation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name. I must have read that classic in my early teens and I can still recall the terrifying mood of the Manderley estate and the vituperative housekeeper Mrs Danvers. Set in the 1920s, Rebecca is the tale of an initially anonymous young woman who is swept off her feet by Manderley’s young scion, Maxim de Winter. When Maxim takes her back to Manderley as the new Mrs. de Winter, she discovers he and the entire community seem to be mourning beautiful, formidable Rebecca, the previous wife, drowned recently. A Gothic drama, almost a thriller, Rebecca makes for enjoyable viewing simply because Daphne du Maurier’s plot is exemplary, full of twists and turns and drama. The bleak English countryside and the sumptuous estate are filmed wonderfully, and some of the supporting actors turn in impressive performances, but both key roles are rather miscast. Armie Hammer is serviceable but wooden as Maxim and Lily James’s portrayal of our heroine is never subtle enough. Overall, Rebecca makes for an enjoyable hour and a half of screen time but does not hold a candle to the novel.