Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lines from three songs

Lines from three songs that I think would make dynamite titles for mystery novels (or even mainstream):

Too Dead For Dreaming
(From "Mr. Tambouring Man," by Bob Dylan)

Bleeding Into Fear
(From "Daylight Fading," by Counting Crows)

Everything Dies, Baby
(From "Atlantic City," by Bruce Springsteen)

Addendum:  It came to me, as I was trying to fall asleep, that there's another title lurking in this song:
Meet Me Tonight In Atlantic City.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"The Force Awakens" Was that a good idea?

Having seen “The Force Awakens” today, in a theater with maybe 25-30 people in attendance, and having just spent three days re-watching the first 3 (in order of production) Star Wars movies, I thought I should report my reactions.

First, the trailers, all for action/adventure movies coming in the first half of 2016, were cringe-worthy.  Several were second or third helpings of “franchise” movies, but none gave me any reason even to consider seeing one of them.  I remember none of the titles, and am glad thereof.

But for the main event. I was more impressed with the movie than I had expected to be.  Much of the initial commentary suggested that if hewed very closely to the story line of “A New Hope,” and it did.  I’m not sure that was a good thing however.  What was impressive is how seamlessly the new characters fit into the existing world—and. How impressive the acting of the newcomers is.

I want to start with three of the supporting cast.  John Boyega, as Finn was brilliant, moving from frightened and confused to a growing confidence in his worth and abilities.  I hope we will see him again as the series develops.  And Lupita Nyong’o, as Maz Kanata, the (apparent) owner of the bar (in the scene that, I regret to say, mimicked the cantina scene in “A New Hope” way too closely), exuded a huge amount of charm and charisma.  And her character’s ability to see into people’s souls through their eyes was well-played, if somewhat less than convincing to me.  I’d love to see her again, and with a larger part in the action.  Oscar Isaac, as Poe Dameron (whose droid, BB-8, is at the center of much of the story), did a very convincing job as a pilot in the opening scenes (and later as well).

Adam Driver, on the other hand, as Kylo Ren, did (in my opinion, only an adequate job in, admittedly, a difficult role as the replacement-menace for Darth Vader.  And the part of Supreme Leader Snoke (a bad name, to begin with) was mostly menace done unconvincingly, and probably wasted Andy Serkis.

And Max von Sydow was, I’m afraid, both wasted and prematurely killed in his role as Lor San Tekka.  I saw him and immediately hoped he would be with us for the long haul.

Of the returning characters, Leia (Carrie Fischer) had too little to do, and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) did his thing as well as can be expected.  Han Solo (Harrison Ford), frankly looked tired and sometimes uninterested (the scenes between Han and Leia did not exactly sing), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was more of an off-screen maguffin than an on-screen force.

The most important new character, Rey, a scavenger on the planet Jakku, is brilliant, actually, and brilliantly played by Daisy Ridley.  She doesn’t have much of a resume, yet.  But she imbues Rey with strength, resourcefulness, tenacity, and charm.  And her growing awareness that she has something else is handled beautifully. 

The plot is fairly straightforward.  Luke has withdrawn (following what he sees as a failure on his part) to an unknown location.  The New Order (which seems to be simply the remnants of the Empire—down to the body armor and ineffective firepower of the stormtroopers) (led by Snoke) want to capture Luke.  The Resistance (led by Leia) (apparently the new Republic had a malfunction) also wants to find Luke.  Poe Dameron received a map showing Luke’s location from Lor San Tekka, plants the map on BB-8, and is captured by the New Order and tortured by Kylo Ren.  The New Order then sets out to find the droid, find the map, capture Skywalker, and kill him, thus ending the power of the Jedi.

The droid is rescued by Rey, a scavenger on the planet Jakku, from another scavenger.  She is then drawn into the search for Skywalker, first through a chance encounter with Finn, which results in her stealing a space ship…the Millennium Falcon.

What ensues is a series of chases, captures and escapes, and a final battle in which the Resistance (this is not, really, a spoiler) gains the upper hand on the New Order.

It actually plays better than it reads.  There’s enough suspense to keep us involved, and enough emotional resonance to move us occasionally to tears.  If you loved “A Hew Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “The Return of the Jedi,” I think you will love this as well.  I was quite impressed.

I have (of course) a couple of issues, and some of this may give away things that are best left anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie to discover for themselves.

The New Order is as tactically (and strategically) as inept as the Empire ever was.  Once again, the stormtroopers have no idea how to fight a battle.  As the Empire did, the New Order places its strategic emphasis on a doomsday machine (despite the first two having proved to be abject failures).  Once again (apparently Machiavelli’s writings never made it to his part of the galaxy, or he had no indigenous counterpart) the New Order seems bent on ruling through terror and destruction, rather than through co-opting local leaders and creating a stable world.  The Resistance leadership provides us with no strategic concept at all, except to oppose the new Order (the new Republic having apparently works out so well).  The movie works well as an adventure story, with heroes and villains and beautiful princesses and magic weapons, but fails the geopolitical part badly.

And I have to say a word about the new world-destroying doomsday weapon.  The first two were spaceships.  This one is a planet-based weapon capable pf projecting its power apparently anywhere in the galaxy.  It works by sucking all the energy out of the star at the center of a solar system and projecting all that energy onto the target.  The problem is, unless someone has managed to alter this one of the laws of physics, that you could get only one shot per solar system.  Once you suck all the energy out of the star, you have a dead star left (and, probably, insufficient mass to keep the planets from escaping their orbits).  Obviously, however, the New Order seems to have circumvented that problem, thus also managing not to have to move and rebuild after every use.  Oh, well.  Only people like me will care, I suppose.

Monday, December 28, 2015

"The Return of the Jedi," and comcluding remarks

Well, tonight was “Return of the Jedi,” and tomorrow I’ll go see “The Force Awakens.” 

So, how well does “Return of the Jedi” hold up?  Not very well at all.  The movie runs a little over 2 hours.  But basically the first 40 minutes is devoted to getting Han back from the evil clutches of Jabba the Hutt.  Frankly, that could have been handled in 5-10 minutes, or skipped altogether, if they’d wanted to.  For the rest of the movie, well…

The Imperial forces are no better trained or led than before (example:  an Ewok steals a speeder, and three of the four guards rush off after him).  (And, by the way, what’s with the stormtrooper body armor that seems to do nothing but impede their actions and slow them down?    I sure doesn’t deflect or otherwise protect from blaster shots.)  The Emperor displays overconfidence bordering on arrogance, including violations of many of the rules for evil overlords [see #s 1, 5, 6, 10, 21, 22, 23, 25—especially #25, 27, 29, 32, 36, 40, 47, 52 (with a slight modification), 56, 62, 63, 70, 86, 87 (this one would have gotten Darth Vader killed long before the end), 96, and some I may have overlooked; there are also other lists].  I mean, really, how many times to Han and Chewie get captured without getting shot? 

Now I realize that the heroes have to win in the end, but this makes it all way too easy for them.

Let me close by saying that in all this, I am mostly ignoring the technology (faster-than-light travel, high-energy, hand-held weapons that apparently never need reloading, light sabers, and the Emperor’s fingers), which is mostly extraneous to the plot.  And overall, these three movies are a remarkable achievement. 

We’ll see how “The Force Awakens" goes.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

On re-viewing Star Wars: A New Hope"

I decided to re-watch the original first three Star Wars movies before we go see “The Force Awakens,” and last night was what I continue to think of as “Star Wars,” but is actually “A New Hope.”  I remembered the movie remarkably well, given that I haven’t seen it since 1977, and it also holds up remarkably well.  There are a few things, though…

(If you haven’t seen “A New Hope,” or are planning to re-watch it, there be spoilers blow.)

First of all, the Imperial forces are lousy shots…and lousy tacticians.  Dozens of them firing at Han, Chewy, Luke and Leia, and no hits.  (Apparently, aiming blasters is hard.)  Good tactics would call for simultaneous firing to blanket the field.  This is strange, because earlier Obi-Wan told Luke to notice how precise the blast points of the blasters were on the ruins of the ‘droid sellers’ camp, 

Second, our fearless foursome dives into a trash chute.  Didn’t the bad guys notice?  Tell anyone?

Finally, the big thing.  The gang has rescued Leia and are ready to board the Millennium Falcon, but for the guards.  Off to the side, through a large entryway, Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi appear, flailing at each other with their light sabers.  The guards desert their posts to watch.  (These guys are really dumb, you know?)  Obi-Wan observes the good guys heading for the Falcon, and smiles.  He has a plan.  His plan is to stop fighting (which he does) and allow Darth Vader to kill him (which Vader does).  Luke screams, “NOOOOOOOOOO,” and begins blasting away.  The troopers return fire, and Vader paces toward the falcon.  No one calls for back-up, or notifies anyone that the ship is about to take off.  So far, regulation Imperial stupidity.

But consider this.  What is Obi-Wan’s plan?  Doesn’t it have to be to enrage Luke, to make him thirst for vengeance?  And isn’t that the first step toward the Dark Side?  So what’s he  up to here? 

For a very different take on the entire saga, there's always this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ed McBain, Learning to Kill: Stories

Ed McBain, Learning to Kill: Stories
Harcourt: An Otto Penzler Book.  2006
ISBN 978-0-15-101222-0

McBain died in 2005, and this collection of 25 stories was published in 2006.  It traces his development as a writer, from very early in his career up to the point at which be broke through.  The years of publication, and the number of stories from each year, are:
1952: 1

1953: 9
1954: 6
1955: 5
1956: 2
1957: 2

The first three 87th Precinct books (Cop Hater, The Mugger, and The Pusher) were published in 1956, and he never really looked back.*

The stories in  Learning to Kill range from adequate to very good; he was obviously learning how to write, and what he was good at.  The best of them, in my opinion, are the five "cop" stories--"Small Homicide,"  "Still Life," "Accident Report" (all 1953), "Chinese Puzzle"  (1954), and  "The Big Day" (1955).  They all hold up very well as procedurals, and the breakthrough in the 87th Precinct books is the development of a group of characters who stand out as individuals (in these 5 stories, there's not a lot of characterization).  But he shows very clearly what also stands out in the 87 Precinct books, that most police work is not dramatic, that it's a matter of routine.

The range of work here, though, is pretty impressive, from PI stories (mostly not very good) to some character studies, to at least one "caper" story (with a decidedly non-caperish ending).  I found his attitude toward the PI work interesting.  As he writes:
When you start writing parodies of private eye stories, it's time to stop writing them...I had written the last of the Matt Cordell stories and was ready to give up on the subgenre.  Not only was I finding it increasingly more difficult to justify a private citizen investigating murders, but Cordell presented the added problem of an investigator who wasn't even license!
Fortunately for us (as readers), a lot of writers continued to work around that problem.

I would have to say that this collection is interesting and useful mostly as a window into McBain's development as a writer,  For that reason, I think arranging the stories in the order in which he wrote them, rather than classified by "type," would make for a more interesting, and useful, sequence for the reader.  Still, if you like McBain's work, you will like seeing where it started and how it developed.  While the book seems to be out-of-print, it is widely available from used book sellers.

*A complete list of his novels can be found here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Chris Ewan, The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin

Chris Ewan, The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin
Minotaur Books, 2013

With apologies--there are a number of spoilers in this review.

Charlie Howard, thief extraordinaire and mystery writer, has been in Berlin, breaking into apartments of publishing house editors who are out-of-town at a convention.  And trying to finish his current manuscript.  (In that respect, he has the assistance--or, perhaps, motivation because of the presence--of his editor, Victoria.)  His Paris contact, Pierre, calls him with word that the brother of a mutual friend wishes to talk with him about a burglary-for-hire, in Berlin.  He agrees to meet the man, who is a security officer at the British Embassy in Berlin, Freddy Farmer.  An important "package" has been stolen from the Embassy, Farmer has 4 suspects, and he wants Howard to go to their residences in a specifies order, and search for the package.  Which he will not describe.  Howard agrees, and they settle on a fee (a specified minimum per place searched, plus a bonus for finding the "package"). 

While in the first apartment, Howard looks out the window and sees a murder being committed in an apartment across the street.  And he does not find the package.  He does, however, call the Berlin police, who find no body, and no sign of a murder.  Oops.

Unfortunately for Howard, the Russians, the French, the Americans, and the Germans are all after the "package" as well.  The Russians, in particular, are willing to use threats of violence, and actual violence, to gain his cooperation.  The Americans offer more money--and then they kidnap Victoria.

At the apartment of the second suspect (an embassy employee, Jane, who is not at home, and turns out to be missing), Howard finds 4 pages of what appears to be a coded message--but Freddy tells him that's not the "package."  Attempt #3 third (one of the embassy cleaning people) is also fruitless, but he finally turns up the "package"--a bird cage, complete with talking parrot--in the home of the fourth, a high-ranking embassy official.

I like the characters, and the story moves right along.  But there are at least two major--and I mean major--difficulties with the plot.  First, Howard witnesses a murder, and one of the suspects is missing.  He does not think to ask for a description, and only much later demands to see the personnel dossiers of the suspects.  (And when he sees them, he keeps to himself the knowledge that Jane is the woman he saw being murdered.  Obviously, he's not telling the embassy folks, whom he doesn't exactly trust.  In any event, I thought it was fairly obvious, and had been expecting that Jane was the victim for quite some time.)  Second, the bird (Burt) keeps asking if Howard wants to hear him count.  Now, when I hear something about a series of numbers, and I know a code is somehow involved, I leap to the conclusion that there might, just might, somehow be a connection.  But not Charlie.  Until, actually, Victoria figures it out in the climactic scene.

A somewhat minor plot difficulty is that the code turns out to be ridiculously easy to solve (it's apparently a letter-substitution cipher of a remarkably simple sort, even given that it dates from World War II or immediately after)--it's decoded by a German who lives under an abandoned amusement park.  In about 15 minutes.  Go figure.

I enjoyed the characters and the setting well enough to read more in the series, but I rather hope the rest of the plots are somewhat tighter.  ✩✩✩1/2

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Julian Symons, Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations

Julian Symons, Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations
Illustrations by Tom Adams

Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1981
Available from used book sellers

Symons tells/makes up lives for 7 major figures of detective fiction: Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, Jules Maigtry, Hercule Poirot, and Philip Marlowe.  Presumable someone thoought this was a good idea.  It was not.  It's impossible to try to construct a biography of a fictional character who (essentially) does not age, and none of these characters ages noticeably in the course of the books/stories.  The best (least disappointing?) chapters result from Symons writing a pastiche instead of trying to do the biography thing--the Holmes and Maigret chapters.  I'm glad I only paid $4 for it; anything much more than that would have been excessive.  I might add that the illustrations are mostly easily ignored, and mostly not worth doing anything but ignoring.

E.J. Copperman, Ghost in the Wind

E.J. Copperman, Ghost in the Wind
Berkley  (2015)

ISBN-10: 0425269272
also available as an ebook

We're back at the Haunted Guesthouse, and the ghost of a dead English rocker (Vance McTiernan) shows up.  His daughter (Vanessa) died about 4 months earlier; he's convinced she was murdered.  And he's heard (through the ghostvine) that help is available.  The resident ghost-sleuth (Paul Harrison) is reluctant to take the job, but Aloison Kirby, who owns the place, and who was in her youth enamored of McTiernan's music, tackles it on her own.

Vanessa had been a member of a local rock band, which she had recently left, and, according to her half-brother, had recently signed a contract for the release of a CD of her songs with a prominent indie label.  She died of an allergic reaction to soy sauce, which was almost certainly either murder or suicide.

As she proceeds with her investigation, Alison keeps encountering a (ghost) woman pulling a wagon, who is looking for Lester...and Alsion takes that on as well.
Alison''s relationship with the local police detective (McElone) is gaining depth, and the regulars (Alison's daughter Melissa, her mother, her (ghost) father, her boyfriend Josh...) are on the scene and contribute to the story in various ways.

I will say there is one scene in the book that I thought was superfluous, although I understand why it's there.

Copperman does a very nice job tyong together the various plot strands, and the conclusion is both surprising and satisfying--including the resolution of Alison's allergy issues.  Worth your time and your money.