Wednesday, 17 September 2014

When In Sicily....

Sicily is, understandably, associated in many people's minds with the Mafia, and the short story I was researching on my recent visit there does have a ("sort of") Mafia connection. Yet I have to admit that I've never read The Godfather, and have only seen the first of the famous films based on Mario Puzo's books, and that was so long ago I've forgotten most of it. However, I'm tempted to give The Godfather book and film a go now. During my trip, I visited the incredible Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the third biggest theatre in Europe, where the final scenes of the third of the movies were filmed.

Nearby is the cathedral where the priest Pino Puglisi, who was killed by the gangsters and later beatified, is movingly remembered. This is a reminder that, for all the jokes cracked about mafiosi, they are shockingly violent people who have to be taken seriously and tackled with the full force of the law. Not that this seems to happen often enough, from what I was told.

Since my return, I've been recommending friends who haven't visited Sicily to give it a go. There are many archaeological treasures, and we visited many of them, including the tomb of Archimedes and a Roman villa with the best mosaics I've ever seen outside Ravenna. A boat trip around Ortiega was swiftly followed by a call at the church which is home to Caravaggio's masterpiece The Burial of St Lucy. And then there was perhaps the greatest highlight of all - a trip up Mount Etna, by coach, then cable car, then jeep, then on foot. An amazing experience, which reinforced my fascination with volcanoes. One day I mean to write a story with a literally volcanic setting.

The Montalbano novel I read on Sicily was The Scent of the Night, first published just over a decade ago. It's a light tale - the author admits it himself - about the disappearance of a swindler. I figured out what was going on at a fairly early stage, but the gentle humour and strong sense of place kept me reading  I can easily understand why Montalbano is so popular, although my own preference is for less whimsical mysteries than this one. It was, however, a perfectly pleasant complement to a memorable week on a truly beautiful island..


Monday, 15 September 2014

The Island of Montalbano and the Mafia

I'm just back from a week in one of my favourite countries, Italy. Rome, Bologna, Florence and above all Venice rank very high in my list of top city destinations, but this time I was returning to Sicily, an island I've visited briefly as a cruise stop in the past. Having liked it so much, I wanted to sample more of its delights, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. The airport at Catania seemed hopelessly disorganised, but the character and charm of Sicily make the whole place irresistibly appealing. And it is full of history; the trip began with a visit to the stunning Valley of the Temples.

Whilst there's a lot to be said for exploring places on your own, I went as part of a group, and this proved to be very enjoyable. I certainly wouldn't have fancied doing battle with some of the hair-raising mountainous lanes, and at one point our bus almost collided with a (presumably British) driver who was cruising along on the wrong side of the road.. This was just below the wonderful town of Taormina, which boasts not only an ancient amphitheatre, but wonderful gardens with quite magical follies. Higher still is the village of Castelmora, with a ruined castle and fascinating church.

As all crime fans know, Sicily is renowned as the base of the Mafia, and more recently it has benefited from association with the Inspector Montalbano mysteries written by Andrea Camilleri and successfully adapted for television. There are now "Inspector Montalbano tours", just as there are "Inspector Morse tours" in Oxford, although this particular crime-related diversion didn't form part of the package. Another time, perhaps.

For a writer, visiting somewhere like Sicily is inspiring not only in general terms, but also in some more specific ways. I tried to learn quite a bit about the island, as I'm working on a story set there, and I also met a number of people whose stories I found engrossing. It was an action -packed week, but I managed to read three novels - one of them a Montalbano. The other two are future entries in the Forgotten Books series. One was very good, the other, sad to say, rather turgid. But my trip to Sicily was anything but turgid. How about this for a view from the hotel room's balcony, where I did most of that reading?


Friday, 12 September 2014

Forgotten Book - The Shortest Way to Hades

It's clear from reaction to my recent comments on this blog about the late Sarah Caudwell that, despite the short and far from prolific nature of her career, she retains many admirers. I'm certainly among them. Sarah died more than fourteen years ago, but she definitely should not be forgotten. So I'm following up last week's post about her debut novel with some thoughts on the follow-up, The Shortest Way to Hades. This was first published in 1985, although Sarah published only one more novel in the last fifteen years of her life. Perhaps a case of writer's block? A great deal of intensity went into writing her complicated and witty novels, and although the effect is very smooth, this was - as usual - the product of much hard work.

This novel is again narrated by Professor Hilary Tamar (male or female? we are never told) in Sarah's witty, wordy and intelligent way, and again features a likeable group of young barristers from Lincoln's Inn. Sarah also makes good use of letters as a means of conveying plot information, and offers a gorgeous continental background, in this case Corfu,as a counterpoint to the London legal world where much of the story takes place. She even introduces a cricket match into the story - shades of Dorothy L. Sayers and Murder Must Advertise.

The story concerns a legal issue that is right up the street of Chancery barristers like Sarah and her charactes -a tax avoidance scheme designed to assist the beneficiaries of a multi-million pound family trust. A cousin called Deirdre demands a large amount of money for her consent (I didn't think this was quite as unreasonable as some of the characters seemed to do, I must say) and makes herself deeply unpopular. Then Deirdre suffers a fatal accident while the family is watching the Boat Race. But was it an accident?

Well, we can guess the answer to that question, but solving the detail of the mystery is quite a challenge. The clues are supplied, but are concealed with great skill and no little cunning. Once more, Hilary's mastery of the more arcane aspects of legal scholarship supplies the vital leads to what is really going on. When I re-read this book recently, I found it just as much of a joy to read as I did back in the 80s. If you are a Golden Age fan, I am pretty confident you will enjoy this book.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Derailed - film review

Derailed, a 2005 thriller, is a film I've watched a couple of times now. It's one of those movies that did not seem to go down well with the critics, but which has been relatively popular with audiences. Perhaps I watched it in tolerant mood, but overall I think it is much better than many reviews suggest - fast-moving, and with plenty of twists, several of them pretty good.

The set-up is, admittedly, not desperately original. A businessman (Clive Owen), married with a disabled daughter, is finding home life and work trying, and when he meets an attractive businesswoman (Jennifer Aniston, showing that there is more to her acting range than Friends), the result is predictable. They finish up in a seedy hotel - but an armed man breaks in, and what happens after that is life-changing.

Owen soon finds himself in a downward spiral of deceit and despair, and becomes a blackmail victim. The obvious (if unattractive) solution is to involve the police, all the more so when a man he is with is brutally murdered by the bad guy (cleverly played by Vincent Cassel, who was almost as unpleasant in Black Swan). But no, he has to do it his way, and this makes for tense watching, even though disbelief needs to be suspended somewhat. When the story seems to have come to an end, there is a coda set in a prison which I didn't see coming.

The film is based on a novel by James Siegel - one of many crime writers who has also had a successful career in advertising. Owen, an actor I really like, and Aniston are both very good, and Melissa George, who has a rather limited role as Owen's gorgeous but grumpy wife, is also appealing. Add Cassell to the mix, and you have a cast that makes the most of the script, and the resulte is very watchable.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Tourist - movie review

Any film set mainly in Venice has an in-built appeal to audiences, and The Tourist, released four years ago, boasts excellent scenes set in that loveliest of cities, as well as a terrific cast. This is headed by Angelina Jolie as Elise Ward, and Johnny Depp as Frank Tupelo, and also includes Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, and Rufus Sewell. Add to that a screenplay whose writers include Julian  Fellowes and Christopher McQuarrie, and you have a sure-fire hit on your hands. Or do you?

When I watch a relatively recent film, I like to do so without knowing too much about it, so I can approach it without preconceptions. After I'd seen  The Tourist, I was intrigued to find that there has been extensive debate as to whether it's a comedy, a romance or a thriller, as I too struggled to work out what kind of a film I was watching. To some extent, it doesn't matter, as long as you enjoy the film, and I did enjoy The Tourist. But I did feel that some unevenness of approach meant it wasn't quite as successful as it might have been. It was as if the film-makers couldn't make up their minds what they were creating.

The set-up is that Jolie is being watched in Paris - we gather, by British cops - because she has connections to a villain called Alexander Pierce. She receives a message from Pierce telling her to take a train to Venice, and pretend that a stranger bearing a resemblance to Pierce is the man himself. This she does, leading to an encounter with an American maths teacher played by Depp. From there, the complications increase.

There were some fun moments along the way, and some nice twists as well, although I found it hard to suspend disbelief. Berkoff plays a nasty gangster in an enjoyably over the top way, but some of the tension depends on the stupidity of one of the cops (Paul Bettany) and I found this hard to swallow. The Tourist has received very mixed reviews, but as long as one expects from it nothing more than pleasing light entertainment, I don't think it disappoints. Not a classic, but not a bad way to spend a relaxing hundred minutes.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Crimes of Passion - BBC Four - TV review

BBC Four's new sub-titled Scandinavian crime series, Crimes of Passion, started last week, and the second episode, King Lily of the Valley, was screened tonight. I missed the first episode, but heard positive thingss about it from a friend who is a keen Christie fan - and in fact, the stories are based on books by Maria Lang, who was often described as "Sweden's Agatha Christie". Coincidentally, I bought a Maria Lang book a few months ago from another friend who recommended her work, though I have yet to read it. So I decided to give the show a go.

The one actor I recognised was the lead detective, Christer, who is played by the charismatic Ola Rapace, who has appeared in both Wallander and Skyfall. The jaunty music which accompanies the credits and the brightly lit camera work make it clear from the outset that this is not yet another sub-Wallander show. Instead of Nordic Noir, we have Scandi Sun. I've read a few rather sniffy reviews of the first episode, but it may be that these reflect the general tastes of the reviewers rather than a truly objective assessment of the merits of Crimes of Passion, at least if episode two is anything to go by.

The story began with that classic situation - all the guests arrive at church for a wedding, but the bride is nowhere to be seen. The luckless bridegroom has to announce that he's been dumped - but where is the bride? The answer turns out to be that her corpse is lying near a local lake - but she was killed after the wedding was due to take place, rather than before. So what has been going on? And why does her best friend say that she last saw the bride-to-be entering a florist's shop, when the florist denies that the woman ever came into the shop?

It's a whodunit in the traditional style, and so it won't appeal to people who don't care for traditional whodunits. The next question is whether it is good enough to provide good entertainment for viewers like me, who do like whodunits. And on the evidence of this episode, I'd say the answer is yes. I enjoyed it, and the fact that it wasn't as gloomy as the steretypical modern Scandinavian TV crime drama is supposed to be struck me as no bad thing. I am a Wallander (and Sjowall and Wahloo) fan, but there's room for Crimes of Passion on the screen too. I must get round to reading that Maria Lang novel....

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey

For many years, I used to look forward to the latest novel by those gifted friends and contemporaries Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard, and Peter Lovesey, always confident that entertainment and interest were guaranteed. They were authors I admired long before I was fortunate enough to get to know them personally. Sadly, Reg and Bob are no longer with us, but Peter's powers are absolutely undimmed, and so it was with much pleasure that I received a copy of his latest book about Peter Diamond, The Stone Wife.

I read it with great pleasure, too, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, Peter Lovesey is such a smoothly accomplished craftsman that anything he writes is enjoyable. In this respect, he reminds me of another highly skilled writer, the late Michael Gilbert. He also resembles Gilbert in terms of his versatility as a writer and his determination to keep trying something different - even though he writes more series novels than Gilbert did. And this brings me to the second point about Peter Lovesey -he is not content to repeat a formula, and is well aware of the constraints and drawbacks (as well as the various advantages) of using series characters. If you study the Diamond series, you will, I think, be struck by how he has managed to ring the changes and keep his writing fresh.

This is certainly the case with The Stone Wife, which in some respects is rather different from earlier books in the series. The story opens with a raid on an auction, which ends with the fatal shooting of a man who was bidding for the eponymous stone wife - a sculpture with Chaucerian connections. When Diamond investigates, we are treated to a lot of information about Chaucer, and although this is fascinating stuff, some readers may feel there is a little too much of it. But Peter Lovesey is a smart writer, and in fact he smuggles some vital plot information into these passages. I must say that he managed to misdirect me completely, even though I was paying attention.

Two different gangsters play a part in the story, and there's a sub-plot which involves DS Ingeborg Smith going undercover and getting herself kidnapped. This thriller-style material is unusual in a Lovesey novel, and it's a good illustration of his willingness to keep trying something different. Would the police really act in this way? I simply don't know, but this is a writer who is one of the best at making sure his readers suspend their disbelief. One or two aspects of the story are not fully resolved (the fate of the gangster's wife springs to mind) and I wonder if these will be picked up in a future novel, about Diamond, or perhaps focusing on Ingeborg, who is an appealing character. At the end, someone I'd never suspected proves to be the culprit.. When I re-read earlier parts of the book, I realised how carefully Lovesey had set up the finale - and yet, for all the detective novels I've read over the years, I never anticipated what was coming.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Forgotten Book - Thus Was Adonis Murdered

If Sarah Caudwell's Thus Was Adonis Murdered, first published in 1981, really is a Forgotten Book - and to be honest, I am not sure it is - then it definitely should not be. This was one of the most striking debut novels of classic detection to have appeared in the past half-century, with dashes of Christie and Wodehouse, but most of all a distinctive flavour all of Sarah's own.

I borrowed a library hardback edition shortly after the book was first published, and (a terrible confession - the only mitigation is my then youth) I found the mannered style of the opening pages bemusing. I didn't get very far with it, but a year or so later, I tried again, and was I glad I persevered! It's a remarkable book, witty and ingenious with an elaborate plot. Re-reading it again very recently, I found that not only had I forgotten the mystery, but I was also bamboozled all over again by Sarah's craftiness.

The action switches between London's Lincoln Inn and Venice, wonderfully atmospheric and contrasting settings, brilliiantly and playfully evoked. The glamorous but scatty barrister Julia Larwood goes off on an art lover's holiday, and finds herself an attractive young man whose only failing is that he works for the Inland Revenue. However, her success in seducing him is tempered when the news is broken to her that her lover has been murdered, and that she is the prime suspect. Professor Hilary Tamar, aided and abetted by Julia's colleagues, does some clever sleuthing to come up with the solution to the mystery. It really is so well done.

Sarah Caudwell is one of those writers who belonged in spirit to the Golden Age. Other examples include V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, and Peter and Antony Shaffer (who wrote three lovely classic mysteries in the Fifties before finding fame in the theatre). I define the Golden Age of detective fiction as the period between the two wars, but a number of later writers have adopted the Golden Age style successfully. And Sarah Caudwell was one of the very best. The prose style won't appeal to everyone, and as I say, I didn't "get it" straight away. But once you embrace Sarah's curious world, you find yourself rewarded with rich and civilised entertainment. And having reread her recently, I'll be saying more about her soon.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Red Rock West - film review

I first watched Red Rock West not too long after its release in 1992,and was impressed. On a second viewing, twenty years later, the film stands up very well. It's a snappy neo-noir thriller, atmospherically filmed in Arizona, and with moments of dark comedy leavening the violence. The real surprise is that the movie did not do especially well at first, but its reputation has steadily increased, and with good reason.

Nicholas Cage is very good as Michael, a war veteran who is drifting around in his car, looking for work without much success. He's soon established as a genuinely decent guy, who does not readily give in to temptation. However, when he arrives in Red Rock, he makes his way to Wayne's Bar, and is mistaken by Wayne for Lyle, a hitman from Dallas whom he has hired to murder his wife.

Wayne is a superficially charming but in fact deeply odious character, very well played by J. T. Walsh, whose early death only six years after this film was made was a great loss.Michael reveals the plan to Wayne's wife, and does his best to escape from Red Rock, but Fate lends a hand. When he acts as a sort of Good Samaritan, he finishes up falling foul of the local cops. Then the Sheriff of Red Rock arrives -and this turns out to be Wayne.

The plot complications come thick and fast as Lyle finally arrives in town. He's played by the splendidly menacing Dennis Hopper, one of a number of very strong performances. Best of all is Cage, who shows what a good actor he is at his best. Red Rock West is a thoroughly enjoyable film, well worth a second viewing.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Shakespeare and Company, and Paris

A well-read friend who knows my love of second-hand bookshops urged me some time ago to visit Shakespeare and Company, on Paris's Left Bank. During a short trip to the French capital, I found the shop, and discovered for myself that her praise for the place was well merited. It's hugely idiosyncratic, with places to sit and read from the substantial stock of books, not all of which are second-hand. Bags of atmosphere, and only a stone's throw from Notre Dame. It's immediately joined my list of favourite bookshops. and I'm really grateful for that recommendation.

This was my first visit to Paris for about thirty years; the occasion was a trip with my webmaster before he starts working life as a barrister. Since he'll be working in Lincoln's Inn, I felt it was about time to introduce
him to the work of Sarah Caudwell, and we each read a book of hers. Sadly, there are only four of those very funny, very clever stories - Sarah was far from prolific. There's an article about her on my website, but suffice to say that she was one of the more memorable writers I've met. I'll be featuring her work on this blog before long.

We tackled the obligatory sites, as well as some less well-known places. I climbed up to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower rather less quickly than I did all those years ago, and enjoyed my first cruise on the Seine. Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur were magnificent, of course, and so were a number of smaller churches, as well as several city parks and the Arc de Triomphe. Having explored the Louvre in the past, I very much enjoyed my first visit to the Musee d'Orsay, with (among much else) a fantastic collection of Impressionist paintings.

The French have a long tradition of detective fiction, though I've read French crime novels only sporadically. Years ago, I tried Maurice Leblanc, creator of Arsene Lupin, and was slightly underwhelmed, but I did like Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room.. I enjoy Catherine Arley and one or two other suspense writers of the post-war period, but my favourite French crime writers are that gifted pair of magicians, Boileau and Narcejac. I still can't understand why so few of their books have been translated into English. As for one of today's superstars, Pierre Lemaitre, I thought Alex was very good, though I wasn't sure that some of the graphically described violence was absolutely necessary.

And, of course, what about Maigret? It's a very long time since I read any Simenon, but this trip has reminded me about a few Maigret stories in my library which I haven't got round to reading. Maybe it's time to give them a go.