The first episode of the return of “Killing Eve” was, I felt, flat (see my review). And the second episode simmers for a while, and then … (at last!) Eve’s got another assassin to pursue, injured Villanelle finds sanctuary with a man whose fate we dread, and the lurid express accelerates and, over the first half of the season, never looks back. Sandra Oh is magnificent as combusting Eve and Jodie Comer out-Villanelles her earlier performances, magnetic as petulant, psychotic, and unpredictable as we want her to be. Dread and delight mix as we plunge onwards.
After Life” is, I have decided after storming though to the end, laughing and crying at the same time, Ricky Gervais at his best. Both his writing and acting struck me as flawless. At the end of the first half of the series, I wondered if the enjoyable start could sustain what seemed like a hokey plot, but from Episode 4, the series takes off. All the tropes – grieving Tony’s hapless colleagues, the gormless citizens queuing up to hit the headlines, the mushy friends trying to help – clarify, sharpen, and deepen. If I chuckled during the first three episodes, towards the end I found myself roaring with laughter. And what of the overt sentimentality and the inevitable ending? Gervais handles them masterfully – the pathos and triumph resolve as moving rather than gooey. All the supporting actors are impressive, but kudos especially to Tom Basden as Tony’s brother-in-law (and boss) and Tony Way as slouchy colleague Lenny. Feel-good series rarely work for me but this is a wonderful exception.
“Attenborough’s World of Eggs” first aired over a year ago but it hasn’t hit Australian shores till now, and being a birder, it was a must-see. And that sentiment was not an error, for it’s a stunning one-hour show, full of amazing clips of birds, their eggs, and all the stages from conception to life, plotted in a tight, clever way. Attenborough is at his Attenborough best and if the syrupy music still annoys, it rarely gets in the way. Sublime.
Even within what you might think is a circumscribed sub-genre, that of police procedural mysteries, different narrative styles present themselves. We all know the rebel hunters of killers, such as Bosch and Rebus, those flawed fireballs, but there’s another style in which the hero is very ordinary and the pleasure of the read is in the sifting of clues and detailed investigation. DI Nathaniel Caslin, the York-based center of J M Dalgliesh’s now-six-book strong series, is a stolid, equable man fascinated by his job and unstoppable in turning over every stone. No histrionics, just patient labour. Yet the latest book, “The Sixth Precept,” is anything but slow. Caslin and his team (a most believable set of characters) soon find themselves in a hideous spiral of serial killings, and the killer’s calling cards – chopping off a finger and leaving a lotus leaf – are just the beginning of the bizarreness of the crimes, all thoroughly mystifying. Told in a calm, clear style that works a treat, Dalgliesh never misses a beat as he doles out a tricky plot that left me entranced. A single night’s read for sure.
“Black Earth Rising” is a rare thriller, one set in the world of courts of justice after genocide, in this case the horrific Rwandan one in 1994. Episode 1 was a humdinger and I raced through the first half of the series, thoroughly enjoying the weaving plot, the spot-on acting performances (Michaela Coel rises even further in my estimation in the lead role of Kate Ashby), and the slick direction from Hugo Blick. A stunning plot twist at the start of Episode 2 upends the entire story, then lawyer Michael Ennis (with John Goodman warming to the role) using Kate to help with a case. I sensed a slightly confused hiatus about mid-point but that won’t stop me rushing on to the final four episodes. Recommended.
Having accorded the first episode of this new season of “Cardinal” an exemplary rating, does the remainder of the first half of the season measure up? I’m happy to report that it does. In fact these three episodes form a seamless whole of growing dread. The initial murders mystify even more but John Cardinal and Lise Delorme take a few steps forward, and then the killers introduce themselves to us, and they’re as frightening as all the villains of the series have been. And in the meantime Cardinal pursues his hidden project concerning his dead wife. It’s a heady, unremittingly bleak brew that pushes the viewer to continue, if only to relieve the tension.
Bradford Cox, the frontman of Atlantan band Deerhunter, is a wilful contrarian and each album needs to be addressed afresh. His output is certainly interesting and can be inspired. “Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?” is another mishmash of so many different styles, there’s never a sense of cohesion. Opener “Death in Midsummer” is an incredibly catchy but odd mix of chinky guitar, harpsichord and Cox’s increasingly impassioned paean to blue collar workers. “No One’s Sleeping” intersperses Cox singing in a British accent about “the great beyond” and rambunctious guitars; it’s lovely. A couple of other tracks, with varying sounds, are fine, but then we get the daffy instrumentals, the vocoder vocals, and the instrumentals, none with heft or logic. A mixed bag, this one, but worth a look-see.
Australia has a recent tradition of generating “feral” novels starring those society tends to overlook (think Tim Winton’s recent “The Shepherd’s Hut,” Tony Birch’s “Ghost River,” and “Sophie Laguna’s “The Eye of the Sheep“). “Boy Swallows Universe” fits neatly into this stream and also into a strand of extravagant yarning. Set in early 80s Brisbane, Trent Dalton plunges us into the world of twelve-year-old Eli. Brother Gus is mute and possibly clairvoyant, stepfather Lyle is a drug dealer, and babysitter Slim is a famous escapee. His family is as dysfunctional as can be: druggy mum and alcoholic dad. Eli’s enemies are legion. The author writes up a storm, a wonderful lyric mixture of Eli’s adventures, if adventure is the proper word for events humorous or harrowing. It’s a highly immersive coming-of-age tale, and although at first I was underwhelmed by the hyperactive bravura of it all, by the end, by the time Trent Dalton puts all the pieces together for his rousing finale, I was mightily impressed. A bright debut by a promising author.
As with the second series, the third series of “Cardinal” kicks off with a simmer rather than boil, but my deep immersion in the first two seasons allows me to luxuriate in the ominous set-up sequencing. Based on the wonderful Giles Blunt thriller series set in the small northern Canadian town of Algonquin Bay, “Cardinal” terrifies yet offers redemption through the dogged, sometimes inspired, pursuit of killers by detectives John Cardinal (masterfully portrayed by Billy Campbell) and Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse’s understated acting grows in stature with each episode). Season 3 begins grimly, with the terrible suicide scene from the closer of Season 2, with a laundromat suicide threat, with seemingly unrelated ATM muggings. A young woman on a tryst witnesses a horrendous murder. Great music, wonderful filming, and a ratcheting plot all build up to what promises to be another stellar season.
A psychological scientist, Julie Shaw has tackled one of those issues or themes that fascinate me most, namely the nature of evil in our human world. “Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side” is an unusual offering in the this field, one that attracts interest from neuroscience (and this is what Shaw wants to explore, among other things) and moral philosophy and true crime. Her book is like nothing else I’ve read on the subject. Because what she is about is “destroying the fundamental conceptualisations of good and evil as black and white, replacing them with nuance and scientific insight.” All of us, she reckons on the basis of her work, can become any manner of evil. She wades into the worlds of murderers, paedophiles, sadists, psychopaths, and genocidaires, but “but this book is not really about them. It is about you. I want you to understand your own thoughts and proclivities more than I want to pick apart specific examples of other people’s transgressions.” Shaw is a fluent, persuasive writer, and the book is fascinating from start to end. Yet I remained unconvinced that she has demonstrated relativism (“Let us not confuse our fear of death with justification for dehumanising people who have inflicted it”) but also abhorrence of evil, both of which she regularly espouses. All in all, “Making Evil” is recommended for anyone driven, like me, to seek clarity on the nature of evil and how society should tackle it.