Don Winslow blasts out stories violent, troubling, and real as houses. This incendiary saga, “City on Fire,” is part of a trilogy modeled on Homer’s The Iliad, and tells of an Irish crime clan on Rhode Island during the mid 1980s. When Danny Ryan, a loyal gang foot soldier, finds himself thrust into a spiraling war against the Rhode Island Morettis, an escalating, unpredictable battlefield between the Italians and the Irish, he hesitates at first, then feels his way toward into leading. Reluctant minion turned strategist and havoc-reaper … the influence of The Godfather and The Sopranos is writ large. But City on Fire is no paper mache copy, The author is a direct, strongly voiced stylist who does not waste a sentence and can conjure up worlds in a paragraph. The cast of grappling combatants and insiders is large, and Winslow’s dominion of them is so intertwined that subtle characterization is not the order of the day; even hero Danny remains elusive to the reader, revealed only slowly through transformative actions. Similarly, the author captures Providence and Rhode Island in a forensic, spartan fashion, as if imagining a film. But this reader never noticed any shortfall in character depth or location lyricism, because Winslow is a master plotter. Impossible to foretell, so sweet afterward, the plot surges and twists, surges and twists, exploding its violent canvas. City on Fire is a pleasurable tonic of raw human thrills, drawn from ancient tropes, and it shall surely figure on many highlight lists. One sitting, reader, one sitting.
A sparkling genre procedural with a difference, “The Raven Song” is the eleventh in the fast-deployed Detective Inspector Tom Janssen series, set this time in Hunstanton, one of the places in Norfolk that I have actually visited. When a troubled single woman is found dead, her disabled young daughter missing, Janssen’s ensemble homicide team, by now well familiar to the series reader, races to solve and rescue. Suspects multiply, the plot twists, the reader’s pulse clocks high … this is a familiar pleasure to use crimmie readers and author Jason Dalgliesh has penned another winner. Get with the flow, folks, snatch up The Raven’s Song!
Brilliant veteran mystery author Ann Cleeves has been well served on the screen, with both her Vera and Shetland series spawning multiple sparkling viewing seasons (my accolades for the most recent Shetland seasons can be found here and here). And her most recent fictional creation, DI Matthew Venn in Devon, is splendid on the page (again, I praise the first two books in the series here and here). “The Long Call” faithfully reproduces the first Venn book over four episodes and some of the typical, admirable aspects of an Ann Cleeves mystery are on display here, namely the sumptuous visual imagery and the baffling mystery. But disappointment soon sets in. The main characters, with the exception of nuanced Jonathan, Venn’s husband (portrayed well by Declan Bennett) are strangely cast and woodenly acted. The intricate plot is forever leaking out the sides and rushing through revelations, so that tension is non-existent and the classic crime fiction “reveals” come across as lame. The ending is a limp mess. Read the book version of The Long Call and skip the cinematic series.
A filmmaker with a strong vision, Robert Eggers creates movies that saturate the senses. “The Northman” is an epic tale of Viking revenge. Reveling in purported realism, no stone is left unturned in portraying the sixth century warrior communities in the Orkneys, Russia, and Iceland as animalistically savage, complete with grotesque deaths, men howling as dogs, heads lopped, women and children butchered, crows cawing, human sacrifices, and battles featuring insane men in furs or naked. If that description strikes you as mocking, it is not meant to. Eggers’s absolute attention to visual and sonic detail (wonderful dramatic music, roaring, spirits booming) compels attention, and I watched the two hours plus in a blur of squirming immersion. The plotline is all myth and angst, revolving around Amleth (it sounds like Hamlet although the storylines only slightly match) spending a young life of barbarity after seeing his father killed by his uncle and then plotting much-fated, horrid revenge. Alexander Skarsgård is superb as the beast-man-hero, Nicole Kidman serviceable as his mother, and Any Taylor-Joy luminescent at the resolving goddess-like love. All in all, I lurched out of the cinema expecting to rate The Northman highly but alas, a moment’s introspection curdled my judgment. For all its qualities and its keening desire to transcend the cartoonish tale, the film founders on patchy plotting, over-lurid scenes that teeter on the edge of parody (one scene had me expecting The Village People to emerge in song), and a gooey ending that swept away the thematic darkness. Intriguing and a must-see in many respects, in the end the result is as clumsy as a bullock.
Harlan Coben is a legend among thriller writers, penning 31 books by now, starting with his wonderful Myron Bolitar series and lately triumphing with one-offs that have spawned five successful Netflix series. He is a polished writer in the school of “less is more,” with an entertaining turn in sardonic dialogue, and his plotting is nonpareil. All those strengths are on full display in “The Match“. It is the second book to feature Wilde, “the boy from the woods,” an accomplished ex-soldier who prefers to reside in the wilderness. In this outing, Wilde follows up leads toward his unknown parents, at the same time as an altruistic hacker group targeting vicious trolls attracts a serial killer. The Match is a rocket of a read, and in time-honored fashion, the author provides plot twist upon plot twist until a denouement that wraps up all the loose ends. So, yes, a fun read, but this reader parsed the final para and looked back on the careening plot and wondered, “what was the point?” Marrying DNA, social media trolling, hacking, and a cast revolving around unknowable Wilde … all these plot elements served to mystify but never cohered with any overarching logic. The characters disappeared into a warm bath of baffling turns of logic. Reader, I was disappointed, but I turned the pages.
“Once There Were Wolves” follows hot on the heels of Charlotte McConaghy’s lyrical, propulsive Migrations (my review here) and has a similar mix of dramatic plot, conservation backdrop, and natural world depiction. The hero is Inti Flynn, part of a team of visionaries reintroducing over a dozen wolves into remote Scottish wilderness. Battling opposing locals, venturing into love, and protecting her battered twin sister, Inti’s overweening focus is the wolves and the precarity of their fate. The author is a beautiful stylist and I sank into the wonderfully portrayed scenes of wolves in the wild, bumping into the ravenous world of humans. The feverish plot is less successful, IMHO, perhaps too wild in pace and extent, but that storyline meshes well into the thematic one. The central character of Inti is brilliantly portrayed. Snap up Once There Were Wolves, I’m sure it will figure in the awards season.
Over two ninety-minute episodes, the documentary “Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story,” portrays exactly what its sub-title portends, the triumph of an odd but talented showman to reach the heights of British society (aka a knighthood) over nearly five decades, followed by sickening revelations, hundreds of them, of sexual abuse at his hands. That the rout of the Jimmy Savile legend did not take place until after his death is a blot on British society. Director Rowan Deacon is not showy but patiently choreographs archival footage with the testimony of Savile’s work-based acquaintances and dogged reporters. An intriguing subplot, as it were, seems to be that the monster revealed himself in public footage time and again, while cleverly deflecting real revelation. One can only watch so many true crime documentaries depicting humanity’s capacity for evil but Jimmy Savile, grindingly dispiriting as it is, is probably essential viewing.
“The Books of Jacob,” a 2014 novel recently and superbly translated by Jennifer Croft, is not for the faint-hearted. Over its thousand-plus pages teeming with hundreds of names and places, set in 18th-century Poland, Austria, and Turkey, in boggy towns and lush cities, Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk adopts a presidential omniscient stance but feels free to use letters, snippets, a ghost, different tenses, and so on and so on. Sometimes it seems like every page is just too dense to carry on, but after early slowness, I warmed to the sheer flood of detail and poetic descriptions. The Jacob of the title is Jacob Frank (although he ends up using many names), a charismatic prophet who seems to want to unite the region’s disparate religions—Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic—into a pantheistic mishmash of portent and vagueness. And Jacob Frank is no Christ wannabe, he’s a handsome, gnarly, trickster character echoing all those cult leaders we have come to know over history. Like many of them, he uses charisma and sex and human nature to dominate his flocks, which in some years grow into mobs. Over the decades of his surprisingly long life, the prophet morphs and relocates, ducks and weaves, always using up his disciples. After my initial bafflement, I learned to relax into the compendious, earthy yet intellectual detail, and by the end, I was quite moved by a sense of having participated in something approaching holiness (even as Frank’s grubby behavior obviously disqualified such an emotion). The Books of Jacob is a welcome avalanche of a book, definitely worth the reading effort.
Set in Berlin just as the Wall was coming down in 1989, “The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlin” has a classic plotline made for those in the John le Carré tradition, a plotline tightly unwound in a gripping manner. When the piano tuner husband of an American translator vanishes, she discovers he was an East German agent runner. What’s more, by dint of good luck, she ends up being the key to tracking down his handler, a super spy, and what began as a tragedy quickly morphs into a claustrophobic cat-and-mouse thriller. Paul Vidich is a stylist with skills a cut above the regular modern spy thriller aspirant, and the plot, characterization, and end-of-Cold-War atmospherics are superb. The Matchmaker is the author’s fifth spy thriller outing and I’ll be reaching into his back catalogue, so impressed was I by this intelligent yet gripping novel.
Adrian McKinty has always been revered by crime fiction aficionados for bringing touches of literary styling, and great intelligence, to superior genre plots. Then he became famous for the brilliant thriller, The Chain (my review), and now, with “The Island,” he seems set for thriller stardom. Drawing on his time in Melbourne, McKinty brings a slab of Deliverance to the Victorian coastline, imagining a tiny island dominated by a redneck family. When a family of four impulsively ferries across, tragedy strikes and suddenly meek Rachel faces down existential crisis after crisis, as she strives to keep them all alive against the odds. As I said, McKinty is an inspired plotter, twisting events into skeins at once logical and unexpected. The pace is breakneck, the writing is pitch-perfect, and the climax is fraught. The Island is a humdinger thriller, snap it up.