The Fall of Man


The Bridge, Episodes 5-8

***May Contain Spoilers***

Oh Martin, no! How disappointing. All it takes is for a bird to lop off their wig and touch your hand and you’re anybody’s, it seems. Even slightly creepy Charlotte.  And after knocking up your wife with twins as well. Tut, tut.

So it was Martin’s turn to have a bit of a frolic this week, perhaps out of jealousy that his son was staying with Saga. Though they didn’t have sex, as she clarified to the entire murder squad, just to avoid any awkwardness. Personally, I could’ve done without Martin’s marital difficulties but I’m enjoying the way Saga’s character is developing. Her little white lie to Anja in the hospital was especially touching. We also got to find out a little more about her background, with a tragic bit of backstory made all the more poignant by her matter of fact rendition of it. It will be interesting to see how her relationships develop with both Martin and Anton in the final episodes.

The plot moved on very rapidly in these episodes but there was a subsequent loss of the tension that the writers have managed to create so well in the first few episodes. To be honest, I felt these episodes were just a bit flabby with too many characters and scenarios introduced, then just thrown away without proper development.  In part, this might be down to watching all four in a big, hungover lump but we’re a boxset generation and that’s how many, even most, people watch things.  Both the schizophrenic and the immigrant killings seemed a bit wasted and would’ve been better served with a couple of episodes each of a proper build up.  12 or 15 episodes might have worked better but we’ll see how things come together in the end.

The moments of real tension we did see just served to highlight what was missing elsewhere: Anja, wandering in the car park; Stefan in the flat with a corpse while Martin hammers at the door. Fair play to Stefan though – ironing always makes me feel like that, too.  The idea of the children being held to ransom until members of the pubic set fire to various companies was interesting and fresh, but again, rushed through and squandered.

I was totally confused as the ending of episode 8 was drawing nigh as I had it in my head that there were only eight episodes in the series.  The cop suspect turned out to be just a common or garden variety sexual predator and was shot in a ferry queue and now we’re onto the headless horseman of Copenhagen as our chief suspect, discounting the fact that he’s dead, of course. I’m pleased we have another two episodes to see how  things pan out with that one.

The climax comes next week and I’m looking forward to seeing how many loose ends will be tied up. Will Martin sort things out or will Mette be seduced by the sleazy software rep? Will August learn that people on the internet mat not be who the claim? Will Saga learn how to be a real boy? Can’t wait.


Bodies Interrupted

I have fallen into a hole of hen night organisation and I can’t get out. I should have my grappling hook in order at the start of next week with a bumper crop of TV and book reviews. See you on top.

Tuesdays are the new Sundays

The Bridge, Episodes 3 and 4

***May contain spoilers***

Well, for this week anyway. My apologies for the lateness of this post; the internet has not been co-operating and as a TV-less intellectual, I am reliant on the wonderful i-player for my scandi-crime fix. My subtitles were a bit glitchy and out of synch, making the whole experience a bit more dadesque than I believe was intended.

Nevertheless, this week’s double bill was worth waiting for I’m glad, actually, that BBC4 is showing this programme in two-episode chunks like this, not least because I found episode three a little slow going, in contrast to the pace and drama of the opening two. I think this was down to a couple of things. For one, it is clear now that this show is pretty complex, with a huge number of characters and plot strands. As with many of the Scandinavian crime shows we’re seen across here, this not just a linear whodunnit but something a fair bit more interesting and rich. It takes some getting used to and I don’t know if the writers can successfully bring it all together in the end, but for now I’m happy to watch the tapestry unwrap. Episode three was putting in place the groundwork for future storylines, bringing in Anja, the troubled teen with dreadful parents, and introducing the theme of police corruption (ruptured eyes – yuck!). This meant we didn’t get to spend much time with Martin and Saga which was a little disappointing but made up for, in part, by a few flashes of Saga-tastic dialogue.

The Anja storyline engrossed me from the start but I was a little indifferent to Bjorn. That all seemed a little too familiar. The Morse Code was a genius touch, though, reinvigorating the victim-slowly-dying-as-we-watch-online trope. Learning Morse Code for when I’m kidnapped is now firmly on my to-do list. It wasn’t clear at all how Anja was going to fit in,though, and tension was definitely ratcheted up as we watched her go into a strange man(in all senses)’s apartment and be locked in. As seems to be typical for this show, our expectations keep being confounded. Although, Anja’s new friend is definitely not the full shilling, as we’d say in Scotland, she seems better off with him than with her terrifying mum.

As episode 4 progressed, we got to see a bit more of Martin and Saga. One of the things I like about European crime drama is how unchoreographed and inexpert-looking the action sequences are. The confrontation with the balaclavaed baddy in Episode 4 was typically bumbly and shambling, with both our protagonists taking a beating. Martin definitely took the brunt of it, though, with that kick (ruptured testicles – yuck!). Saga’s confusion about the guilt she felt over Martin’s injury was oddly touching.

Increasingly, it seems to me that Stefan is being set up as a red herring, with all the links between him and the case. He always seems to be around, his sister was one of the poisoning victims and he works at the shelter where Bjorn met his abductor. Surely all this is too obvious, though? I’m going to be really annoyed if he turns out to be the killer. Plus, does anyone else think he’s kind of attractive? It must be that moustache.

The biggest revelation of this episode was the presence of No One and his relationship with Anja’s deranged flatmate. Is this the Truth Terrorist? How many disciples does he have? I’m not so keen on serial killers who network so this was a bit disappointing if I’m honest. It smacks of producer-logic to me: if one serial killer is scary, then a whole heap of them must be terrifying. Plus, it seems so unlikely. How would a serial killer even go about getting disciples, advertise on Craig’s List? Our disciple’s plans for the morrow don’t bode well, especially if he keeps swishing that sword around. On a serious note, I hope the BBC4 programmers are treading carefully with what’s ahead as a maniac on a violent killing spree is not an appropriate thing to show in the midst of the Breivik trial.

Forecasts then, at this midpoint? I think Saga will continue to develop her nascent human qualities under Martin’s tutelage. I also think that Martin will find he has some connection to the killer as why else wouldn’t he shoot him? Thinking about the set-up of the police corruption idea, this may well be the killer’s next target, the next ‘problem’ he wants to expose. I have no idea who the killer is at all, which is either a really good or a really bad thing. What do you think is going to happen in the next instalment?

An Interview with Subtle Melodrama

This evening, I’m lucky enough to be welcoming to the blog Bethany from Subtle Melodrama, one of the darlings of the Scottish literary blog scene, Subtle Melodrama reviews the very best of literary fiction from around the world but with a particular focus on Scottish writing. If you haven’t visited her blog before, go now. We’ll wait.

Ready? Although we conducted this interview virtually, I like to imagine us chatting over rounds of Aviators in a small shanty bar downtown.  Rain pours down and the gutters are filled with colours from reflected neon. After sharing some truly scurrilous gossip about a writer we both know, Bethany waves a hand, indicating I should start my questions.

Me: How did you get started on your blog? What were your aims when you started?

B: The blog idea came about because I needed a place to rant and rave about the books that I read. Not too many of my friends read much, and I needed some way of chatting about the stories I loved, the characters I hated, etc. So the blog was born. I didn’t have any real aims, just maybe a hope that someone somewhere would read my reviews.

Me: How has the Subtle Melodrama blog changed since its inception? What have been some of the highlights of compiling your blog? 

B: It’s gotten so big! I never thought so many people would read it, or make comments. I have around 700 subscribers in all, and nearly 100,000 page views. It’s been running for two years now, and I’m just impressed it’s still alive. The biggest perk of doing a review blog is being given review copies by publishers. I frequently get sent books from Harper Perennial and Simon & Schuster, and I’ve reviewed several books for We Love This Book. It’s meant I’ve read a lot of books I might ordinarily never even have looked at, so expanding my literary horizons has been a real bonus too.

Me: What lies in Subtle Melodrama’s future?

B: To keep on going! Subtle Melodrama Book Reviews has moved from being just a blogspot to having its own .com domain. In the summer months (June- August) I’ll be running the Scottish Summer Reading Challenge, the idea being that readers explore Scottish literature. During that time, I’ll have Scottish writers talking about their favourite Scottish reads, and I hope that my little website will be able to promote all this Scottishness.

Me: What impact do you think Subtle Melodrama and book review blogs in general have on the book-buying public? Does genre make a difference to this?

B: The most flattering thing is to have someone tell you that they went out and actually bought a book based on your review. It’s happened to me several times, and mostly the reader has enjoyed the book. So blogs definitely have a little slice of influence. As far as genre is concerned, I think the job is much easier if you have a genre related blog, especially a young adult one. YA is all about hype, and blogs are essentially just hype, and teenage excitement can generate a lot of sales. YA blogs tend to have countdowns to the launch of the most recent book in a trilogy, they include trailers for new releases, and there are always giveaways. I’d like to think there’s a little bit of excitement at Subtle Melodrama too, but literary fiction readers don’t usually squeal quite so easily.

Me: What advice would you give to someone who wants to set up their own book review blog?

B: Just do it! Why not? But developing and networking does take time. Not only do I have to read the books, I have to write the review, I have to spread word of the review, and I have to somehow convince people that my words are worth reading. The offers from publishers, writers, and magazines to do reviews didn’t come from nowhere – some I had to chase, others wouldn’t have approached if they didn’t think anyone was listening/reading. So make sure you have the time to really invest in something proper, and enjoy it!

Me: Can you give us some recommendations of other review blogs you enjoy?

B: Journalist Ali George’s 12 Books in 12 Months is an insightful read, with fun musings and author interviews.

Schietree is a brilliant blog. Helen McClory is a writer living in Edinburgh, and her blog is probably one of the most exciting; I read it on a very frequent basis. She posts about the books she’s read, about her own writerly adventures, and is a fantastic photographer too. Never a dull moment there.

Robert Burdock has one of the busiest blogs out there. If there’s something exciting going on in the world of books, then it’s there on Rob Around Books. I have no idea how the man keeps up with it all, but it’s hugely useful and a great place to pick up some recommendations.
Me: Who are the authors you have most enjoyed blogging about?

B: The living ones! There’s nothing so brilliant as having an author thank me for a review. Robert Shearman, Alan Bissett, Doug Johnstone, have all been in touch after finding a review and expressed thanks. I might only be a teeny tiny part of the web but, as I said before, blogs get people chatting and, more importantly, buying and reading books. And though Thomas Hardy can’t ever thank me, I have a brilliant time using my internet space to declare his greatness.

A low black car purrs up and Bethany gets into it. A final wave and she is gone.  I get the attention of the barkeep and settle our bill before heading out into the night.

See, it’s not all pyjamas and coffee. Many thanks to Bethany from Subtle Melodrama for sharing her wit and wisdom .

Interesting Times Lie Ahead

The Bridge, Episodes 1 and 2

***Warning: may contain spoilers***

The Bridge, BBC 4’s latest Scandinavian crime offering, doesn’t hang about.  Seconds in and the plug has been pulled on the Oresund Bridge, plunging it into darkness. When the lights come back on, there is a woman’s body slap bang in the middle of the Swedish – Danish border.  As both countries’ police forces arrive, the expected jurisdictional conflict begins with some bickering over an ambulance.

This incident smoothly introduces our protagonists: Saga Noren and Martin Rohde.  Martin is affable, laid back, more immediately likable. Saga is, well, as someone from her own squad described her, a bit ‘odd.’ She makes Sarah Lund seem like a person with a sensible work-life balance. Abrasive, offensive, insensitive, it’s hard to imagine her working well with anyone, let alone the chilled-out Rohde.  And work together they must. As the body is removed from the scene, it is gorily revealed to be parts of two different women:  a Swedish politician and a Danish prostitute.

There are definitely more questions than answer in the mid-section, with snippets of other storylines being explored. There’s Veronika and her magnificently moustachioed, mysterious benefactor. She is given the chance to escape from her violent, ne’er-do-well husband but only if she moves into a house in the middle of nowhere and gives up all contact with her previous life. We also follow the woman from the ambulance as she attempts to bargain, bully and beg a new heart for her perilously-ill husband. What is their significance in the overall story?

The steady pacing and the gradual build of tension means the climax is proper edge of seat stuff, with a thoroughly unlikable reporter getting trapped in his car with a ticking bomb. Sounds familiar enough, you might think. But there enough twists here to keep things fresh, from the bomb squad walking away when things get too risky to Saga’s emotionless conversation with the victim, trying to find out what he knows before he dies.

In the final seconds, we hear the distorted voice of the killer himself on a CD found in the booby-trapped car. He promises that the corpses are just the start of his mission to point out the ills of society.

The second instalment develops this theme of social inequality, something that is never far away from the surface of this genre. The killer broadens his campaign, contacting the media and providing the unblown-up journalist from episode one with reams of statistics on crime.

Our investigators follow separate lines of enquiry in their own counties with Saga focusing on the forensics and Martin finding out more about the background of Monique, the Danish victim. The snippets of their domestic lives nicely subvert gender expectations, with Martin distraught over Monique’s journal whilst Saga takes the covers from her one night stand.

The sub-plots, too, continue to thicken with Ambulance Man demonstrating that his new heart is pretty hard before it conks out. Mr Moustache also features, searching for his poor, feral sister whose scarred wrists correspond with his own.  Just as he finds her, she collapses, seemingly drunk.

As the other half of one of the bridge bodies turns up, we discover the next part of the killer’s plan. Homeless people are arriving at the hospitals, poisoned. The victims are already starting to pile up and the murderer’s message plants the blame solely on us and our indifference.

It’s beautifully shot and hugely entertaining, with an engaging cast and plot.  It’s funnier than previous Scandinavian crime offerings but no less dark. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

Introducing … The Bridge on Sundays

The Bridge, starts Saturday 21st April on BBC4


I’m starting to get excited about the upcoming BBC 4 series The Bridge. The initial premise looks pretty intriguing: a woman’s body is found on Oresund Bridge, on the border of Denmark and Sweden. What seems at first to be a single, albeit gruesome, murder turns out to be more complex as the corpse is revealed to be the remains of two women, a Swedish politician and a Danish prostitute.  

The location of the murder means that the Danish and Swedish police are obliged to share jurisdiction. Undoubtedly, much conflict and friction will ensue as the international investigators are forced to work together to solve the case. I look forward particularly to getting a glimpse of how these two very different nations view one another. My outsider’s perspective is that the Danish view the Swedes as staid, conservative, and even dull whereas the Swedes perceive the Danes as being too easily influenced by the countries around it, for good or ill.

 Unless the initial episode turns out to be a disappointment, my plan is to blog along with the series, posting reviews of each double episode usually on the Sunday after they are first shown.  Feel free to pull up a chair, have a glass of wine and join me. Don’t forget your knitting – but make it something simple so you can keep up with the subtitles. 


The Sea Withdrew

Review: Started Early, Took my Dog by Kate Atkinson

In common with every reviewer who writes about Kate Atkinson’s novels, I have a legal obligation to start this post by noting that she wrote literary fiction before she started writing crime fiction, and that her crime fiction isn’t really crime fiction because it uses the crime fiction genre  conventions in such clever, literary ways. What isn’t noted quite as often is the fact that her ostensibly literary fiction was riddled with mystery and acts of obfuscation and detection. What is Behind the Scenes of a Museum if it is not a whodunit?

Like all novels in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, Started Early, Took my Dog hangs on a central, surprising event. Like cracks spreading out across a pane of glass, the implications and effects of this incident fracture and distort the lives of the characters we meet. At first, the effect is almost impressionistic, the pace sedate. We have fragments of different points of view: an actress trying to hold on as dementia frays her mind; a security chief despairing behind her impassive façade; a middle-aged man lost in the turns of his life; flashbacks to other lives, other, seemingly random, events.  It is 60 pages in before we are even introduced our nominal sleuth, Brodie.

Jackson Brodie is an interesting protagonist who differs from so many other series protagonists in his ability to shift and change. We have the pleasure here of watching a man progress though the storms and calms of his life. I think middle age is one of the most difficult passages in a character’s life to evoke but with these novels, Atkinson manages it with sensitivity and startling verisimilitude.  Yet Brodie is more a man to whom things happen, and as such, he is often at the periphery of events in these novels, with other characters taking centre stage.  These stories are told through the eyes of many characters and always with compassion and a devastating understanding of what makes humans do the things they do, no matter how terrible.

In this extraordinary, terrible empathy, the novelist Atkinson is most like is Charles Dickens. And she is like him in other ways, too. She shares Dickens’ understanding that it is connections and intersections, coincidences really, that make up the narrative of our lives. It takes a brave writer, especially in this genre, to reflect this in her work. Humour, too, is another similarity. Atkinson’s work is unexpectedly very funny, from the broadest of slapstick to the bleakest of ironies.

One of her cleverest ironies in Started Early is the way plot is used in the novel – it manages to be both so tightly wrought that at the moment it all come together the reader suffers a delightful kind of literary whiplash and yet, this  seems almost incidental to what the novel is about. The comeuppance faced by the villains of this piece is almost an afterthought, a dénouement that oddly manages to both baffle and satisfy the narrative desires of the reader. But there is so much more here. This is a meditation on aging, of how time changes one, and like all Atkinson’s work, the inescapability of one’s past.

Reading Kate Atkinson’s work is always a bittersweet pleasure, quite apart from the ache at the heart of her novels.  Reading her work always leaves me midway between inspiration and despair. This is the kind of writer I want to be when I grow up.