Category Archives: series

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?

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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.


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.

 


Beginnings (2)

Review: Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

I stumbled across Will Thomas’ Some Danger Involved whilst searching for information on the lives of Jewish people in Victorian London – quite random I know but it turns out researching possible future novel projects is a lot more appealing than getting on with redrafting the current one. Anyway, allowing myself to be distracted from my distraction, I picked up this novel and emerged blinking some two hours later, having devoured the whole thing.

Some Danger Involved is the first novel in Thomas’ mystery series featuring the Scottish detective Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn.  We meet Llewelyn, our first person narrator, on the day he is hired by Barker. No sooner is he starting to get a handle on his mysterious employer than the pair are drawn into an investigation of a particularly gruesome murder in London’s Jewish community.

This is a steam-punk vision of Victorian London, full of exotics and absinthe, monocles and corsets, and overlaid with just a Patina of grime. It’s rather light on the real bone grinding filth and poverty that made up much of life in Victorian London but that’s fine and in keeping with the tone of the piece.  Oddly, despite the horrifying nature of the crime at the centre on this novel, it’s a relatively jovial read and we feel instinctively that good will prevails. If you want darker meat, can I suggest Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night or the even more salty The Fiend in Human by John MacLachlan Gray

Llewelyn is a satisfyingly stolid everyman, full of awe and indignation. He is an excellent contrast to the peculiar and mysterious Barker about whom we only discover fragments as the narrative unfolds. There is enough edge to both characters, however, to promise conflict and crises in future instalments.

The plot, too, works well with religious prejudice and sexual jealousy underpinning a satisfyingly traditional whodunit.

In his afterword, the author makes mild complaint about the ‘cosiness’ of historical mysteries especially those by women. Well, I’m not sure if Thomas fancies himself as some sort of Victorian Brett Easton Ellis or perhaps I’m just jaded but this seemed a fairly lightweight confection and I intend no insult by this. It’s a fun read that sets the narrative up nicely for further instalments. I look forward to them.


Heere be…

Review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

In the past, I’ve felt a slight reluctance to admitting to liking Terry Pratchett.  Something about the combination of fantasy and comedy always seemed so naff and so likely to attract the oddest of aficionados. I read once on the Guardian CiF section (such a warm and open hearted place!) that Pratchett novels are often found at the homes of serial killers.  But there comes a point in a reader’s life where you have to stop having the mindset of an angry and bitter 16 year old who only really likes 19th century Russian literature and open up to books that might be, y’know, fun. Either that, or become a literary critic.

Guards! Guards! is the first in the Pratchett’s rich and extraordinary Discworld series to feature centrally the City Watch Characters, Ank-Morpork’s beleaguered police force.  The other books are (in order): Men at Arms; Feet of Clay; Jingo; The Fifth Elephant; Night Watch; Thud!; and Snuff. It’s important to note that you certainly don’t need to read the other novels in the Discworld series to enjoy the City Watch books but it’s a more satisfying experience to read these ones in published order.

Captained by drunken and disillusioned Samuel Vimes, the Night Watch has been reduced to a token presence by the machinations of the Patrician and the City Guilds.  Vimes’ quiet despair is shattered by the arrival of two newcomers to the city: Carrot, a 6”4 dwarf, determined to become a successful and productive Watchman and, well, a dragon.

Like many of Pratchett’s books, reducing the plot to mere synopsis would do very little to encourage you to read the novel itself. Suffice it to say that the dragon is summoned to act as a WMD for a Freemason-esque sect intent on returning the city to a monarchy and that their plan succeeds beyond their wildest nightmares. The joy here is not so much in the story, though that most certainly satisfies as a ‘whodunnit’, but in the exuberant characterisation and the gleeful wit. A self-avowed mystery fan, Pratchett takes great delight in playing with the clichés and conventions of the crime genre, amongst many other things. Parody and allusion zing past at a startling rate and there is a definite need for a second, slower reading to pick up on all Pratchett is doing here. He is an astonishingly clever writer, yet rare perhaps for that breed, an incredibly human one at the same time.  Never do his insights into the human condition take the easy turn into misanthropy and there is always laughter here, even if it is laughter in the dark.

I prefer to listen to the Discworld novels and I can’t recommend highly enough Nigel Planer’s reading. A good narrator can do a lot with even mediocre material (the reverse is unfortunately also true) but here we have a perfect symbiosis. The cognoscenti will also be aware that Stephen Briggs is the usual narrator for Pratchett’s City Watch novels and whilst he does perhaps have the edge overall, Planer is wonderful here.

To those of you familiar with these novels, well, you already know but to those of you yet to sample Pratchett’s work, I envy you a little for the pleasures that lie ahead. Don’t be afraid. Yes, they’re funny, and yes, they’re fantasy but that doesn’t mean you have to start watching Babylon 5. Time to have a little fun.


Beginnings (1)

Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King

I started Laurie R King’s novel The Beekeeper’s Apprentice with more than a little apprehension. You see, Sherlock Holmes was my first detective love. My dad read me the stories and I would walk around my village with a tablespoon as a meerschaum searching for baddies. So I can be a bit protective of the canon. Much as I adore Martin Freeman and Stephan Moffat, Sherlock was a slightly uncomfortable experience. In its own right, it was enjoyable but as Holmes… it just hadn’t got the nuances quite right.

Plus The Beekeeper’s Apprentice seemed a bit high-concept for me. After too many American crime shows where, say,  the hero’s a FBI agent with a counting dog , I had decided that the fewer words needed to sum up a premise, the less I wanted to have anything to do with it. So ‘Sherlock Holmes is brought out of retirement by a feisty young American (and she’s a girl!)’ was not especially appealing.

But despite my resistance and the ever-so slightly clunky framing device at the start, I found myself drawn in.  It’s an immensely enjoyable novel, with all the simple satisfactions of a well-wrought, traditional mystery.

Mary, as a narrator, grates on some but I found her exuberance and arrogance entirely fitting for someone of her age, blessed with her gifts of intellect and aptitude. Passivity or self –effacement would have called Holmes’ previous companion too quickly into mind and it is clear from the start that Mary Russell is to be a foil for Sherlock, not a mere sidekick. Anything less abrasive would’ve made the whole confection rather too sickly for my tastes.

The characterisation of Holmes himself is well done too. He’s more richly characterised that in the Conan Doyle Stories, in the sense that he is more emotionally accessible to us as readers. This, however, is not a betrayal of the canon but the logical extension of having a narrator who can more clearly see the workings of his mind.

As is to be expected of an origins-type story, the first third of the novel is taken up with the burgeoning friendship between Holmes and Russell, and her induction into the ways of detection. Soon enough, however, (and it will be soon as the pacing is impeccable!) we are thrown into a full-throttle mystery plot that see our protagonists dodging bombs and tearing round Europe in their quest to hunt down a satisfyingly nefarious nemesis.  For all King’s novels are categorised as ‘cosy’ mysteries, there is a real sense of peril here, something that is too often missing from the work of authors who pride themselves on their edginess.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is conventional and perhaps even a little old-fashioned. But it is a well-crafted novel by a writer who knows and loves her source material. Unlike so many other Holmesian homages, it fits well with the original works, never seeking to undermine or mock. In its own right, it’s a cracking read and a lot of fun. On finishing it, I immediately looked up Laurie King’s website to see which book was next; what more do you want from a series opener?


Serial Killers

It may seem, in coming months, that I have an obsession with the first books in mystery series. And indeed, that may well be true. What’s not to love? There’s little more satisfying than a well-rounded origins story, with characters’ lives and histories trickling in like a morphine drip. There’s no commitment either: if things aren’t working out after a chapter or two, you can quietly close the covers without any weird misplaced guilt towards a well-loved character. The sense of hope, too, is enchanting, especially for an established series, where 5 or 6 or more novels beckon: a continent of fictional possibility.

I see no problem with the fact that I view crime novel series in two completely contradictory ways. I feel that decline and staleness are inevitable. In early books in a series, creative risk-taking is precluded until character and context are safely established. In later books, the author can grow so desperate for something fresh that insanity can set in and both reality and continuity are often discarded.   However, the crime narrative, in its modern form, has always tended towards the series or serial form, so this is nothing new; it’s no pernicious publishing scam to suck you in. And the most interesting writers can take characters and allow them to evolve (or more likely with crime protagonists, devolve) over the span of their series, a narrative scale outwith the purview of many novelists. The possibilities this can offer are very exciting.

As is so often the case it depends entirely on the writer. For every Patricia Cornwell, there’s a Lindsay Davis or a Henning Mankell. I know the kind of writer I’d rather be. Yes, I too am trying to write a crime novel and my hope is that my protagonist and I will share several adventures before we jump the shark. So I’m studying the field. Any recommendations of quality series or even just quality series openers are heartily welcomed – please comment below.