Rachel Joyce, an immersive English novelist (author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I enjoyed in book and filmic form) does seem drawn to the same genus of character, the very ordinary citizen impelled by inchoate motivations to attempt hopeless adventures, and one is tempted to suggest she might become trapped by this fondness for a particular storyline. But Miss Benson’s Beetle works because it is a variation on that pattern. Margery Benson, a plump, dejected teacher in England in 1950, impulsively quits and “follows her dream,” stoked since childhood, to travel to Indonesia to be the first to find an exotic beetle. Her companion turns out to be a contrasting, pink-suited young woman of impulsive, expedient character, and the two of them, as they embark on an adventure neither is remotely equipped for, forge a most unlikely partnership. The author writes wonderfully evocative scenes, the storyline is full of twists and turns, and their remote island comes to life in these pages. One ancillary character feels clunky and, as with Harold Fry, mawkishness is not far below the surface, but overall, Miss Benson’s Beetle is a rambunctious girl’s own romp that is a fun, surprisingly affecting read.
I have Holly Ringland’s novel The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart in my Audible audiobook library, gifted by Amazon as part of a membership, but I never began to listen. Now I don’t need to, in a sense, because a seven-episode series, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, pulses with foreboding and drama. Set in rural Australia, the tale begins with nine-year-old Alice scarred by a terrible fire consuming her parents and ending up on her grandmother’s flower farm (the film is scattered with flower arrangements and their hidden meanings), which doubles as a women’s refuge from domestic violence. The first episode, depicting the initial horrors, is brilliant, and indeed the first half of the series, based around the young Alice, is the better portion. Sparkling acting—Alyla Browne and Alycia Debnam-Carey as the young and adult Alice, Sigourney Weaver as the secretive Grandma, the hypnotic Charlie Vickers as the abusive father, and a number of supporting actors—form the core of the show’s emotional wallop, aided by Hania Rani’s wonderful film score. As I implied, the second half, witnessing Alice unpacking the secrets surrounding her life, sags a little, but the final payoff, in the final episode, is superb. Recommended.
Fans of “noir” will, I hazard a guess, have varying interpretations on what this specialized genre (as distinct from a general label indicating “hardboiled” or “tough”) strictly comprises but no one would doubt that David Fincher’s new, focussed film, The Killer, starring a perfectly cast Michael Fassbender, is as noir as it gets. Intimately fixated in the gaze and mind of a longtime professional assassin, full of voiceovers of his rules of life and conduct, from the opening scene when our killer is waiting for his mark to arrive in a Paris apartment, we are aware all normal constraints of morality are out the window. The assassin’s philosophy is plainly practical and void of humanity, and, as is customary for this genre, the fascination lies in observing such a sociopath operating, in using such a sociopath as a lens to explore notions of good and evil. The film’s plot conceit is simple and classical: after a botched job, killers come from our killer and our killer embarks on a patient, unstoppable vendetta. Fincher is superb with long action scenes, fascinating in their vulgar expression of killing modes, and Fassbender plays the part to perfection. The notion of a disintegrating personality, also de rigeur for noir, is played with, but without any real sense of plotting purposefulness, and the end of the film can feel inconclusive, but like all noir fans, I watched The Killer for the uneasy, troubling vibe (coupled with thriller-level antics) and found it to be riveting.
Who could fail to admire The Luminaries, the complex blockbuster that launched Eleanor Catton onto the world literary stage (and accorded her a Booker)? Yet it was a novel that sometimes failed to ignite in the reader’s mind (that was certainly the case for me), and something of the same echoes in Birnam Wood, her new, far more supple thriller about ecological activism and billionaire shenanigans. Set in an unspecified remote part of New Zealand, the novel follows three members of Birnam Wood, a fascinating guerilla gardening group that spies an opportunity in a wealthy man’s country land suddenly isolated by a landslide; the gentry owner of the land and his wife; and the most interesting character of all, an uber-competent, super-smart, manipulative billionaire (think Peter Thiel or Ray Dalio) with enigmatic plans of his own for the land. The “thriller” aspect of the novel is surprisingly humdrum but halfway through Birnam Wood, I was powerfully reminded of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfires of the Vanities, a wonderful portrayal of a time and place populated by deep characters and overlaid by a servicable plot. Birnam Wood is likewise a novelistic excursion into our troubled times, and a worthy read indeed.
What a rollicking delight, rocking with madcap humor while also suffused with classic Coen-Brothers-style dread, is Deadloch! Beset with a headline label of “feminist noir comedy,” and roaring with sharp wit, we embark on eight jam-packed, tightly choreographed (in the best tradition of twisty, twisty murder mysteries) episodes. A visually stunning Tasmanian town is plunged into terror when male bodies are found with identical gruesome MOs, and the task of righting wrongs falls to steady-as-she-goes local policewoman Dulcie Collins (brilliantly played by Kate Box) and a crass, swearing, visiting hoon cop, Eddie Redcliffe from Darwin (portrayed completely over the top by Madeleine Sami in a way that also endears). A huge cast of eccentric characters swirls around Dulcie and Eddie as they seek a killer. The early slapstick tone darkens toward the end, without ever relinquishing a guffaw or a chuckle, and the crime plot is flawlessly executed, guaranteed to fool every watcher. Written by TV comedians Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan, Deadloch is a oncer, a mix of genre magic and feminist truth-talking and genius humor. A winner.
The cascade of Michael Connelly offerings—books and series—featuring either perennial Harry Bosch or newer Mickey Haller or Renee Ballard, can be hard to keep up with. What astounds me is how consistently excellent, within its chosen crime fiction genre, all the output is. Bosch: Legacy spins off from Bosch the driven homicide detective, now driven private investigator, and increasingly focuses on Maddie, Bosch’s daughter, a fresh cop in the LAPD. Madison Lintz flawlessly captures the young woman through initial travails, and into her early career, as she inevitably morphs into her father’s implacable, violence-soaked character. In Season 2, Maddie is kidnapped in a terrifying first scene and we spend a few episodes as Bosch endeavors to rescue her before it is too late. Blowback from Season 1, featuring two newish and engaging characters—super-lawyer Honey Chandler and hip hacker Mo Bassi—threatens Bosch, and a defence case plunges them all into the web spun by rogue cops (with Max Martini in particular playing a terrific part). Midway through this season, I wondered (as I often do) if the Bosch lineage is coming to a useful end, but then the final episodes steamed ahead, and I was left shaking my head in enjoyable amazement. Another fine series.
English novelist Will Dean, now living in Sweden, revels in off-the-wall plots, and The Last Passenger will, I am certain, amaze you. When a blancmange British woman wakes after her first night on a luxury 1,000-passenger transatlantic cruise ship with her unexpected new boyfriend, she finds herself alone, steaming ahead on an unpiloted ship. Whether you can tolerate such a wild beginning will influence your enjoyment, but the author’s clever craft, mixing in-the-moment veracity with plot gyration after gyration, should speedily conquer you. The Last Passenger rockets along at warp speed, and a final out-there twist adds to a captivating one-sitting read.
Famed for his social realism, Ken Loach waxes uncharacteristically sentimental (with tons of unsentimental, profane scenes of racism as balance) in The Old Oak, a tale of the solid, kind owner of a traditional, creaky old pub in an ex-mining village in Britain, helping out a busload of Syrian refugees. The story seems simple but Loach deftly portrays hidden aspects of the participants in the drama in a way that maintains tension until the end. The music score by George Fenton is a marvel, oblique and dramatic. The key to the film is the acting, and the lead role by George Fenton is blindingly realistic. He is wonderfully supported by Ebla Mari as the key Syrian with the most English, and the large supporting cast never miss a step. The Old Oak is a searing portrait of betrayed Britons reacting to decades of neglect by lashing out with virulent racism, the only path out being the realization of common humanity. Not nearly as bleak as many a Loach feature, it is nonetheless savage and the positive emotional tone is unfurled with marvelous cinematic brevity and clarity. Highly recommended.
South African writer/naturalist/conservationist Adam Welz has, with The End of Eden: Wild Nature in the Age of Climate Breakdown, done what many of us would dearly love to, namely traverse the globe seeking to imprint on our own psyches, but also on humanity’s conscience, the many, many ways in which our climate crisis is driving nature and wildlife toward extinction. Eschewing outrage, employing a measured tone and gentle specifics, the author delves into pockets of nature around the globe in which shifting seasons amidst vanishing wilderness are sending animals, birds, and plants into a spiral of doom. The Puerto Rican iguaca parrot, the incredible Red Knot, mooses in New England, hornbills in the Kalahari Desert, dolphins off the coast of Texas … the remorseless litany is laid out with a calmness that is in itself irredeemably tragic. A final chapter offers us the author’s more general view of the climate crisis and how it might be tackled, but by then his work is already done. We are bringing upon the Earth the sixth great extinction and Adam Welz is indeed documenting The End of Eden.
We feared he would never return, DI Sean Duffy, a rare Catholic cop among Protestants in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, a canny policeman with a passion for justice and a love of culture and an ever-ready quip. After the sixth book in the series, 2017’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly (the book titles all come from Tom Waits lyrics), the author went mainstream with back-to-back standalone thrillers that put Duffy in the shade. But a memorable character like Sean is hard to keep down, and The Detective Up Late is a scintillating return to our bookshelves. As the 1980s, fraught indeed for Duffy, move into 1990, our hero is partly moving to Scotland but what keeps him pushing in Ireland is the disappearance of a fifteen-year-old traveler girl. No one is interested, bar Duffy of course, and the book patiently builds up steam as he methodically and brilliantly dissects her final days in pursuit of a killer. The author is a superb, rhythmic stylist, the plot steamrolls on, and the window into Ireland is beguiling. The Detective Up Late is a cracker of a crime novel, sure to win awards.