Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Yellow Sea; Korean tourist board cries, quits en masse

If I worked for the South Korean Tourist Board, assuming that there is such a thing, I'd spend most of my time plotting to burn down the South Korean Film Board, and pretty much everyone else involved in the Korean film industry. Except, since I'd be Korean, I'd be plotting to butcher the ever-loving hell out of them with hatchets and gigantic meat bones, because … well, hell if I know.

Pretty much everything I know about modern Korea I know from watching Korean movies, which means that most of what I know is probably wrong, but that's me and pretty much the rest of the potential tourist market thinking that Korea is a great place to go if you're falling behind on your getting-beaten-to-death quotas. If this is actually a plan, then god help us all, because the Koreans are super good at doing stuff so messed up that you're going to be so busy muttering "Awww hell no…" in disbelief that they'll have you down to stumps before you even have time to get past the new - sixth - "what the hell did I just see?" stage of grieving.

The Yellow Sea is a stumper. It doesn't work, but it's hard to call it a bad movie. On the one hand, most of the time it's almost dull; things build up slowly. When it's not being dull, it's frenetic beyond belief. I don't think there was a single likeable character in the movie, but the performances are somehow compelling all the same; these are terrible people, but it's hard to take your eyes off them. So, horrible people doing horrible things sporadically. Hmm. In relentlessly grim environments; South Korea just looks horrible. But the violence is presumably balletic and elegant, I hear you say. Nope, the violence is pretty horrible, actually, thanks for asking. In The Yellow Sea, someone getting hatcheted to bits looks pretty much as horrible as I imagine it would if you had to watch it for real.

And finally, good luck making sense of what the hell's going on. There are built in problems in watching K-movies. It's hard to tell who the star is unless you watch a lot more of them than I do, and it's not that easy to tell Koreans apart without practice; people look a lot more alike than we realise they do, and a completely different complexion and face shape distracts the eye; the whole damn thing is different and you snag on that massive difference across the screen instead of the subtle differences among all the unfamiliar faces. Not knowing who the star is can be surprisingly subversive of the narrative; you don't know quite who you should be watching, nor who's supposed to be the real bad guy and who's the sort of bad guy who you should root for because he's only doing bad things for good reasons. I've said before that this actually makes the movies more interesting; stripped of the Hollywood assumptions and shorthand, you're looking at what's really happening and thinking about that. Finally, Korean narrative conventions are not always easy to follow. K-movies are perfectly ready to kill major characters who would get a miraculous break in Hollywood, and there seem to be certain cultural assumptions in Korea which make it possible to skip from one scene to another without any apparent logic. But, I imagine them saying, obviously he did this next. Well, yeah. Sure. Throw another dog on the grill while I think about that; not every country runs on the same voltage you're using.

The Yellow Sea was directed by Hong-jin Na, the brains behind the genuinely awesome The Chaser, a film which left me exhausted and drained and converted to the idea that Korean cinema was doing things no-one else had even thought of. Seriously, check it out. It's heavy going, but the last twenty minutes will leave you completely out of breath and you'll never look at a Hollywood serial killer movie the same way again. The Chaser felt utterly grounded in everyday life; nothing about it felt contrived or artificial. I figured that Hong-jin Na could only be getting better as he got more money and more experience, so i expected that The Yellow Sea would be even better. I was … not correct. The film was a huge hit in Korea, but….

Let's go back to The Closer for a second. Stripped to the essentials, it's a two hander; one hand is a serial killer who's picking off hookers in a disorganised way, the other hand is the ex-cop pimp who starts to suspect that something's not right when his girls stop returning his calls. There's a lot of other stuff, including a wrenching performance by the actress playing the latest victim of the serial killer. Fundamentally, The Yellow Sea is also a two hander; one hand is the deadbeat taxi driver who gets conned into going to Seoul to carry out a contract killing and the other hand is the gang boss who manipulates him into doing it. It's the same pair of actors in both movies, and they are good actors. The taxi driver role is particularly thankless, because not only is he kind of a dumb mess, he's almost mute through much of the movie, simply because his isolation in the leadup to the murder and afterwards leaves him with no-one to talk to; we have to develop our sense of what he's thinking through watching him, not through hearing him explain what he's feeling. The gang boss is played much more broadly (the same actor played the pimp in The Chaser and it was a much more subtle performance), with a mixture of superficial charm and the kind of stupid cunning which has to turn into violence because it's too dumb for logic to hold up in the long run.

There's an immense amount of subtext in The Yellow Sea which non-Koreans have almost no hope of grasping. Our two main characters are ethnic Koreans from China, part of a huge minority within China whose best option is to work illegally in Korea - illegally in all senses, since they're illegal immigrants and they wind up in the underworld almost as soon as they arrive. Looking at Korea's underclass through the eyes of this community has to be quite a tricky thing in local terms given Korea's historical baggage with China, Japan and the other bit of Korea; what is Korea, and what are Koreans are questions which can only be asked in very limited ways even now. But to an outsider, it's hard to know what meaning to draw from the things we're shown; all you can do is accept that a lot of it is going over your head.

The plot seems to be driven by a classic K-movie revenge double bind in which everyone is unintentionally settling someone else's score against someone else again while simultaneously sabotaging their own dreams and survival prospects. These plots, which are always driven by weird third act reveals, are usually a complete bitch to follow, but even by those standards The Yellow Sea is hard to figure out; too much is skipped over or elided or flat-out not explained. It's not like there wasn't time to get some sense into it; the first half is very slow as the taxi driver's options in China narrow to the point where he has to go to Korea to kill a guy, and then goes to Korea, slowly, and then scouts the kill, slowly, while trying to figure out where his wife might have got to. Then the killing goes down and he goes on the run, and everything kicks up a gear in terms of action and down about nine gears in terms of making any sense.

Once we get into action mode, the tone of the movie goes all over the place. Our taxi driver is now being hunted by Korean criminals, the gang leader who sent him, and the Korean police. Of those three, the Korean police are the least threat. If The Yellow Sea is depicting the Korean police accurately, they are as numerous as they are useless. Literally hundreds of them can't even catch the wrong guy, and their detectives are lugubrious sad sacks who are so many steps behind their quarries, they're in danger of being caught from behind on the second lap. Korean criminals, on the other hand, make up for their general lack of subtlety with their general lack of subtlety. Need to know where someone has got to? Grab people at random, wrap them in plastic and beat them with sticks until someone tells you something. Need to get anything else done? Try hatchets. The whole hatchety aspect of things is pretty hard to watch; the police work would be funny if you could be sure it was being played for laughs. 

It's … kind of a mess, really. I realised over time that The Chaser had worked because it had a comparatively simple plot, so you weren't trying to figure out what the hell anyone was playing at, just whether they would manage to get away with what they were trying to do (murder a bunch of people without  getting caught, not get murdered, find a hooker before she winds up murdered). That's enough to be getting on with, without having to keep track of tricksy motives.

Still, Korea looks just awful. I know people are critical of America for being awash with guns, but if The Yellow Sea is anything to go by, if guns are outlawed, outlaws will pull out knives, hatchets and the goddam haunch bones of large animals and wale each other to a pulp with them instead. If we can't give them guns, at the least we ought to give them these.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bitter Seeds: Ian Tregillis

There will be, it is only fair to warn you, a number of digressions in this post.

So, our theme for the evening is Bitter Seeds, the first book in a trilogy called The Milkweed Triptych, by a man named Ian Tregillis. It's all about British wizards fighting psychic Nazi super soldiers in a slightly different (because, you know, wizards and super soldiers) version of World War II. Trust me, at some point I'll get back to that; think of this as the cold open to some superior US TV show where a whole bunch of stuff happens that doesn't appear to have anything to do with the plot until it's brilliantly revealed to be relevant.

Firstly; trilogies. As the prophet Jerry would say, "What IS it with trilogies?" They're everywhere, and the only thing keeping down their numbers is the way that they metastasise and turn into novel cycles, thus not being trilogies any more. I used to blame Tolkien, which was unfair; yes, The Lord of the Rings came out in three volumes, but it was written as a single book, and the only reason it came out in three volumes was that his publishers had to manage costs. So it's not like Tolkien was even setting out to write a trilogy. More to the point, in the early 19th century, when the novel was finding its feet as an art form, it was the norm to publish in three or more volumes novels which are now always seen as single books. 

All that handwaving done, the horrible reality is that SF and Fantasy are actively festooned with trilogies, and other genres either live with one-offs or have longer running series. The whole notion of not being able to get the job done quickly has become a signature trope of the Fantasy biz in particular, and I'd rather like a halt called to it. It seems to me that writers think they're being paid by the pound. And to be unkind, a lot of writers working in fantasy are doing themselves no favours at all by allowing their prose to yarn on and on; the more words they use, the easier it is to see how few they actually know.

Nonetheless, I'm giving Tregillis a pass on this one, because he's actually got a plan. I still think that anyone who can figure out the whole plot in advance could figure out a way to get it all into one book, but having read the first book, nobody can accuse Tregillis of padding out the narrative with overly detailed accounts of stuff that ain't to the purpose, nor yet sending us off on a Cook's tour of his imaginary world so that we don't miss a single detail, no matter how inessential. (This latter thing is half the reason that Fantasy novels are such doorstops; the writers seem to draw their maps and then feel the need to show their work and hie us all over creation - literally - so that we'll see how fecund their imagination is. NOT. NECESSARY. STAHP.) It looks to me as thought three books is about what he's going to need to get this over the line, and he's not dawdling. And because one of his main characters is an oracle, from the get go he's had to know pretty much where this is all going, so I can be cautiously optimistic that this is going to be paced properly and will wrap cleanly instead of being rushed into closure.

Next up; I'd innocently started out thinking that anyone called Ian Tregillis must have been sitting in a drafty room in the Home Counties somewhere swilling tea and hoping that the old JK Rowling write-a-best-seller-on-the-dole magic still worked. Turns out he was sitting in the warmth of New Mexico, making it all up from what he could read in libraries and the like about WWII Europe. Sadly, I kind of guessed this might be the case pretty early on, because Agatha Christie name or not, Tregillis does not really have an English sensibility to his writing. He's not bad, but he's not a native speaker, as we'd say of colleagues hammering the stress on just the wrong word in the sentence back in my peace mongering days. Still, pretty good impersonation, and I think you'd need to be pretty soaked in Englishness to pick up the bum notes.

Thirdly, Tregillis doesn't mess about much. Incidents are inked in tersely, business gets done briskly and we get on to the next thing. Sometimes it almost seems cursory. On three different occasions, one of the main characters, Marsh, gets away from a sticky situation in about four lines. We've got what we needed from the incident and the tricky transition back to Blighty and the next plot development is practically done as a scene wipe. It's bold, is what it is. I hope it catches on. Equally, Tregillis isn't pulling his punches about how compromised his characters become. It's always a bit of a stretch to put people up against the Nazis and make them look dodgy, but by the end of Bitter Seeds the British high command are starting to look pretty bad to the reader and even worse to themselves in the mirror. 

Although Tregillis isn't (couldn't be on his first day out) a patch on the one and only Tim Powers, he's the first guy I've read in a while who reminded me of his sensibility. In Powers' world magic is a messy, squirmy thing which carries a heavy price and routinely swipes bystanders for no rhyme or reason. Powers writes a world which is blatantly unfair, and draws the reader so deeply into it that even the most preposterous things start to matter. The Stress of Her Regard is one of the few novels whose ending has made me tear up. It's a hard book to read because the clobbering never really lets up, and the best you can say of the ending is that it's bittersweet. Even getting into the same box as Powers is not bad work at all for a young 'un.

So, what about Bitter Seeds? I wasn't sure as I was reading it. It's rough in places, and the briskness doesn't always carry off as well as it ought to. There aren't many well rounded characters in it, and they're a little bit stock - I'm sure the right word is archetype, but if this was a movie, you'd need some good actors to bring them fully to life. But - and this is, in the end, the only thing that counts - I've been mulling the book over in my mind and wondering what comes next. That's perhaps a good sign, though I remember thinking the same thing about The Hunger Games and look where that took me. The two main British characters, Marsh and Beauclerk, are developing in interesting ways. Mostly they're getting clobbered to bits and not shaking off the clobbering, but it feels organic and believable. Dealing with demons has a price, and they're paying it. Over on the Nazi-super soldier side of things, the Nazis aren't coming out of it any better than they deserve to, but the super soldiers are curiously sympathetic considering - or perhaps because - they're the product of systematic child abuse. It's a bad war for everyone, and Tregillis leaves the pieces set up on the table for a big shift of gear in the next book. Yeah, I think I'm in for the duration.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Richard Morgan; A Land Fit for Heroes, parts 1 and 2, I guess

When Richard Morgan exploded onto the scene back in I'm-too-lazy-to-look-it-up, but we'll say for the sake of argument whenever I came back from my all-expenses-paid sun-and-suicide-bombs holiday, he was almost as big a breath of fresh air as he thought he was. Altered Carbon seemed like a genuine kick in the head for hard science fiction, injecting a worthwhile chunk of noir sensibility into the genre and throwing out some genuinely thought provoking notions about the way we'd be living tomorrow. The follow-up, Broken Angels, kicked it up a gear. Morgan had turned into one of those writers you look forward to hearing more from, in much the way that KJ Parker still is for me. Market Forces, a near future dystopian novel about a world where capitalists sorted out their competition issues by straight up killing each other, was so not-great that I gave my copy away to a colleague who - I'm not reading anything into this apart from, you know, it's all the book's fault - I haven't heard from since. Ah well, I thought, at least I got two books, and in less time than it takes George Martin to write half of one. Then Morgan went back to the world of Altered Carbon again with Woken Furies, which he swears - wisely - will be his last Takeshi Kovacs book. I forgave him for Market Forces, though I felt he was pushing his luck with Woken Furies and only just got away with it. His next book, Black Man, was actually pretty darned good despite being another near future commentary on the way that things might be if we don't cop on. It worked, I think, in part because it was going back to that fusion of noir and SF which had worked well at the outset. 

That was it with the SF though. Full of swashbuckling arrogance and actual announcements about how he was going to shake the house up because Big Daddy was in the house now, Morgan turned to fantasy. Which is not to say that fantasy couldn't do with a man with a flamethrower to come and do a bit of housecleaning, but announcing that you'd nominated yourself for that role struck me as a bit over the top. I should probably stipulate that I try to make a point of not knowing what the hell writers are saying outside of what's in the actual books, because nothing I ever hear makes me like the books or the writers better and a lot of it makes me think of going round to their houses with a stick full of nails and getting my money back. So for Morgan's breastbeating to hit my purposely-turned-off radar, he had to be making quite a bit more noise than I consider truly sophisticated in a modern human. Hmmm, I pondered, this had better be the second coming of whoever it was came the first time.

And predictably enough, it ain't.

As I read more and more and more of modern fantasy I winnow away at my platonic ideal novel that I'm never going to get around to writing. It won't have a map, because screw maps. It won't have a quest across the map it don't got. It won't have a hero plucked from obscurity and going on the hero's journey, because when you can buy a computer programme to write that plot for you, it's long past time every human in the business got well clear of that turkey. And, I decided this morning, it will all be over magically quickly. The something blahblah flaming other thing of whatever, it will be called, with the subtitle "a trilogy in one part".With any luck I can start a trend. I suspect that if I'd actually read Morgan's mission statement, it would have seemed eerily familiar, because as I read through The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands, there are even a couple of moments where the viewpoint characters are telling each other than real life is not like stories, and near the end of The Cold Commands Ringil Eskiath (another thing, everyone will be called Bill and Fred in my book) pretty much calls out the whole hero's journey story telling schtick as nonsense. I was waiting for him to namecheck Contour, the computer program that will write THAT book for you, but he held back. So - and I'm sure this was already clear - I'm completely on Morgan's side with this notion of getting away from the same old tired narrative structures of fantasy and into something more grounded. I just don't think he's pulled off what he was trying to do, and that's disappointing.

As always, the writing's pretty good. Morgan isn't a hugely subtle stylist, but you're not muttering "Oh, you didn't just write that." every few minutes and things drive along solidly without, in Orwell's words, "anything outright barbarous". Outside of his three viewpoint characters, the characterisation is somewhat sketchy, although it has to be said that very few of the secondary characters get to live long enough for character description, let alone development. The background is good. I'm pretty sure that it's not a new idea to have people from another world/universe/dimension fill in for elves and dwarves and all the other things Tolkien decreed we'd have to put up with, but Morgan paints it in artfully, giving the savvy reader just enough hints from the characters' own thoughts that we can fill in the blanks. It's a good way to justify your magic and your different races. There is, in short, a lot of good thinking going on here.

Sadly, it doesn't feel yet as though it's coming together. Morgan has now finished the first two books of a projected trilogy, and he's spent most of them marking time. In each book, the main characters wallow about, unable to get past the weaknesses that a recently ended war has created in them, and as each book draws to a close, they cop themselves on a bit and have a brief spasm of activity to nobble the latest manifestation of a looming threat from the wicked aliens (or whatever) who used to rule the world and want it back. When I read The Steel Remains about three years ago, I felt as though Morgan was putting his pieces on the board and would spend the next book moving them into position for something bigger. I had to re-read that book before I could read The Cold Commands last week, because I couldn't remember what had happened in it, and even brought up to speed by that, I felt as though once again, we were just putting the pieces on the board. An awful lot of the second book revolves around trying to put together an expedition to a hidden island which may be full of wonderful secrets. By the time the book has ended, they haven't even picked out a boat, let alone set out on the expedition. I did like it that at one point Ringil waxes lyrical on the ridiculousness of thinking that even creatures of myth would spend hundreds of years standing guard on an invisible island on the off chance that they might prevent some vague trouble. But I'd have liked it even better if he'd been delivering the rant for the second or third time (the repetition would have made it funnier) ON the island itself while seagulls crapped on his head and visibly nothing else was going on.

All of this puts Morgan in a box for the third book. I have a niggling suspicion that what he wants to do is trigger a third minor crisis which will once again get sorted out briskly and chaotically, so as to to end up making the point that you don't always have to trigger the apocalypse to keep heroes busy and productive. And if that's where he's going, that's clever, and the three books will hang together well. But if he's building up to a crescendo, it's going to feel very rushed and sudden when it hits, and I don't think it's going to work out very well. One reason why I worry that it might be going that way is that for all the rubbishing of heroes' journeys, Ringil Eskiath has been going through a twisted version of one, getting more and more imbued with magic. It wouldn't be a huge stretch to reframe Ringil, Archeth and Egar as Harry, Hermione and Ron, and I don't like the way that could go.

A final word on the gender politics of the whole exercise, which has been the topic of some angst among traditionalists. Fantasy's always been rather straight, and give or take a certain laxity about wenching, somewhat victorian in its outlook for the main characters (the villains, equally victorianly, can be as kinky as they like, cause they're wronguns, and everything about them is wrong, guvnor). Morgan seems to have decided to make a point of messing with that, and two of his three main characters are gay. In very homophobic societies. Well, it certainly frames them as outsiders, and the emotional problems are actually handled well enough that I think Morgan gets away with it. You could argue that they're not very representative of their cultures or demographics, but hey, half the fun of fictional characters is to choose people who don't fit in and see whether they make the holes bigger or themselves smaller. That said, the thing I don't agree with is the decision to break with the general convention that no matter who people like to get busy with, we cut away to a roaring fire or a row of asterisks when the busy breaks out. There are well-rehearsed arguments either way on this, and I'm not digging deeply into them, because it suffices to say that you've got to be very damn good indeed to write a good sex scene and make it something that tells us something we didn't already know about the characters, and Morgan is not that good. Hardly anyone is. 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Premium Rush; keeps you on the edge of the saddle

I don't know if Premium Rush is going to work as well for everyone else as it did for me, because not everyone is crazy enough to ride a pushbike in city traffic. When I started doing it again 10 years back, fresh back from a exhilarating stay in a part of the world where everyone kept asking me why I wasn't worried about the carbombs, it took about three weeks before I decided that for this, life insurance was appropriate. Last Christmas I celebrated something like three years without an accident, though I marked it the way you always do, by having an accident. You don't notice the run of luck or mark its length until it ends. Concussion is no fun. Being too dumb to wear a helmet; well, luckily, I didn't wind up too dumb to cut my own food, leave it at that.

Anyhow, watching people do scary things on bikes; that gets my attention. Since most people who don't ride bikes tend to hate cyclists - especially bike couriers - the rest of the audience may well have been rooting for Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to fall under a bus. What I'm saying is, this may not grab everyone the same way it grabbed me. But, if you're prepared to root for the guy you usually swear at, Premium Rush is about as much fun as you can have at a movie, and more fun than anything I've seen in a cinema all year. 

It's not exactly cerebral; a lot of the action scenes happen just so that people - mostly Wilee - can do cool things on bikes, and in dumber hands this would have been a pretty mediocre movie with a load of bike stunts. But in a development which almost makes me optimistic about Hollywood, someone finally seems to have got the memo about how small stakes and ordinary people can work better than big stakes, if you just take the time to write some decent characters and hire good actors to play them. The writer and director keep everything small and simple, and very easy for the audience to relate to. And so, when Wilee throws himself into traffic, it makes sense and it's scary as a ton of explosions, because in the real world getting something wrong by three inches in traffic is serious business. Most halfway sane people don't even like riding sedately in the bike lane, so most halfway sane people can look at what Wilee is doing and form a pretty good picture of how terrified they'd be. That gets your attention in a way that zombies and vampires are never going to. I spent a lot of the movie alternately shrinking back in my seat and laughing out loud as Wilee headed into something risky and somehow came out the other side. Winningly, Gordon-Levitt let out a little chuckle of his own after most of the real hairy stuff, which was a clever touch.

I ought to make a moment for Gordon-Levitt here because the guy is on fire at the moment. The popular theory is that he's picking all the good roles, but I think the truth is that he's making the good roles. Wilee could have been nothing very much with a different actor (his principal rival in the biking game is adequate, no more, and it's all too easy to imagine Wilee being not much better in other hands). Gordon-Levitt brings him to life without doing anything very obvious or easy to understand. Years ago, Pauline Kael described the difference between De Niro and James Caan as being "With de Niro, you think "Something's eating him." and with Caan you think "He's eating something. Pizza?", and I think Kael would have seen that same de Niro quality to Gordon-Levitt; he's good at being a smart guy trying to do a smart thing (though I saw him at the weekend in The Lookout playing a guy who used to be smart and then took a massive blow to the head, and he's just as good at being someone who can remember being smart but isn't really smart any more).

The plot is so old Hitchcock would have been blowing dust off it; hero has McGuffin, must bring it from A to B while villains of various kinds frustrate him. This is a great plot done right, and it's perfectly adequate in Premium Rush; Wilee is having a bad day, his girlfriend is dumping him, and he gets one last messenger job to drop a package in Chinatown. Meanwhile Michael Shannon's Detective Monday is having a much worse day, and needs to get hold of the same package if he's to salvage anything from it. Since Shannon is broadly playing an idiot with impulse control issues, what ensues is less a battle of wits and more a collision between a sharp, isolated and incredibly flimsy David and a dumb Goliath. Shannon is making a bit of a habit of playing law enforcement officers with control issues, but Detective Monday is nothing like as layered and compelling as Nelson van Alden in Boardwalk Empire. Though Wilee is explicitly compared to the Road Runner, Monday gives the impression that the Coyote called in sick and they had to send Elmer Fudd. 

It's huge fun. Wilee is bedevilled not just by Monday, but by rival messengers stealing his jobs, the girlfriend he can't understand and one lone NYPD bike patrolman who keeps having to peel himself off car doors and landscape as Wilee narrowly eludes arrest for all the accidents he's causing while he tries to stay one step ahead of Monday. At first it isn't obvious that Monday even is a cop, and wonderfully the movie resists any temptation to make him just part of some hideous conspiracy of crooked cops; Monday's just a lone clod who's got in over his head. As Einstein said, everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. 

I can even forgive the film a tricksy time scheme which keeps jumping into flashback, because, for the most part, the plot's so simple that the best way to keep it usefully murky is to keep jumping back to other bits rather than tell everything in the order it happened. And the computer graphic gimmicks of working out routes and the safest way through traffic snarls is done just enough to be cool, but not so much that it wears out its welcome. In fact, it's used cleverly enough that the last time it comes up, it actually manages to deliver a clever little shock to something which - thanks to the fact that the move actually begins with it - we knew was coming. 

Above all and everything else, it's just a nice little movie which picks one thing to do and then does it very well. I could do with a lot more of that kind of thinking.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Stakeland: something of a let down

I'd been quite disappointed that I didn't get a chance to see Stakeland in the cinema - short run, limited release, exile in the wastes of the Hidden City where the only things which ever open are adaptations of comic books and video games - there were, as they say on the intarwebs, reasons. So I picked up on DVD, as you do in this age where anything you haven't seen can be snapped up for a fiver on Amazon and put in the big stack of things which seemed like a good idea at the time. A movie now costs about as much as a couple of beers, and it's probably not reasonable to expect more from it than that.

I imagine that if the people who had made Winter's Bone set out to make a vampire movie, it would have been a lot like Stakeland, except, presumably, I wouldn't have spent part of the time I was watching it shopping on the internet. It's not a bad movie, but it's not as good as it needed to be to hold my attention, so it was going on there in the background, the characters taciturnly engaging with the lack of obvious plot until I realised that I'd just put more of my attention into replacing a scratched up screen protector for one of my cameras than I had into what was happening on the TV in front of me. Hmmm, I thought absently, this is not gripping stuff.

The ideas are interesting, although, as ever, it's the logistics of vamp-world which bother me. In Stakeland's vision of the vampire world, vamps are not overburdened with sense or taste, and are best seen as zombies with sunshine issues and less of a tendency to shamble. They'd be comically easy to kill if it weren't for the fact that they're ridiculously hard to kill, needing a solid hit to the heart or the spine to take them off the count. When I say solid, I mean you need one guy with a stake and ideally another with a hammer to make sure the stake stays in. So they make up for their transcendent dumbness with a certain resilience. Still, they're vampires. I don't know how much mileage a vamp gets from a tank of O negative, but considering that they kill one person per fill and tend to create competition for the next fill in doing so, I can never figure out how vampires wouldn't starve to death unless they were very savvy about holding down the numbers of actual vampires (for a more entertaining meditation on this exact problem, check out Daybreakers). Anyhow, since pretty much everyone in Stakeland is a redneck, there isn't a whole lot of meditation on the economics of the situation, but there's plainly been one heck of a lot of vampire predation in the months before we check into their world. The USA has collapsed, and seems to have suffered something on the order of a 90% dieback. 

Stakeland has a structure a bit like the infinitely more enjoyable Zombieland, a film which I can't believe I didn't blog about, except that at the time I saw it, I tended to blog only about things which were just terrible. You've got a grizzled old vampire hunter, and a kid who's effectively his apprentice, and a couple of women they pick up along the way, and a generalised quest to get to somewhere a lot less infested with the undead, punctuated with lots of encounters WITH the undead. One big difference is that Stakeland, wisely or unwisely, is not playing things for laughs. Another is that although the vampires themselves seem to have less intellectual firepower than the zombies in 28 Days Later, they do have allies. Not smart allies, as such, but at least purposeful ones. The Brotherhood are shaven headed southern fundamentalist loons who have taken a shine to vampiric infestation, figuring that it must be the will of the lord that the unrighteous die horribly. So while the vampires are barely smart enough to come in out of the sun, the Brotherhood are up to all kinds of tricks, including dropping vamps from helicopters into surviving townships. (I wasn't quite clear on how a completely discombobulated USA staffed by fundamentalist leotards would be UP to the challenge of maintaining and flying helicopters, but I gave them a pass for panache; also to the director for realising that helicopters are expensive, but helicopter noises are cheap, so he got the idea across by just having vampires jump into the crowd while playing back whoppa-whoppa noises; I admire parsimony).

Anyhow, since this is all about the bleak, nothing goes well for anyone much, and both the women who get picked up along the way get schwacked, as does pretty much everyone else we meet. One of the women is a nun, played, to my astonishment, by Kelly McGillis. I had to wait for the credits to figure that out, and sit there slightly open mouthed working my way through her other credits and figuring that the doughnut budget for Top Gun was probably way more than she made from this movie. I wonder where it all went wrong for her. 

The young apprentice gets out in one piece, more or less, and his mentor wanders off into the wilderness for reasons not fully clear but doubtless depressing if you thought them through. I'd always thought it would be nice if someone made a horror movie/end of the world movie which tried to take the issues a little bit seriously, but it turns out that it's pretty hard to watch something like that, and all those people who try to make a joke of it or amp up the drama are probably going about it in a more sensible way. We're watching things like this to take our minds off more realistic and pressing problems, after all. No point in being such a debbie downer about the end of the world.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Dredd; Come to hate the 3D, stay to hate the slow motion

Apparently, there was a huge fan fuss over whether Karl Urban would ever take off his face concealing helmet in the new adaptation of 2000 AD's Judge Dredd. I gather that in the comic - which is the ownlie trew scripture in fan world - he takes off his helmet even less often than Darth Vader. When Sylvester Stallone made his Judge Dredd movie, he took off the helmet, and somehow this ruined the movie for everyone. More than having Stallone in it or Rob Schneider, which once more reminds me that it's never the big things which tip people over the edge, but the little unconsidered details which no-one thought would matter at the time.

Having now sat through all $45 million of Dredd; 3D, I can not only set your minds at rest on the helmet issue, but also share with you the moment in which I realised why Karl Urban kept the helmet on. He must, at some point, have realised that if he kept his face covered, he might just get away with being in this movie. Lena Headey, taking time out from being the most hated woman on TV (HBO subdivision) probably figured that a big scar, plenty of tattoos and some really neglected looking teeth might just stop anyone from spotting Queen Cersei slumming it down Mega City One way, in which case; really? You really thought that there are people out there who'd queue up for a comic book adaptation and haven't already seen you in not only Game of Thrones but Sarah Connor Chronicles? You'd have needed the helmet in floor length, honey.

Karl had the right idea, phoning in the most monotone performance since Robocop (one of eight or nine different influences the film wears on its dowdy sleeve). Everyone else seems to have thought that acting might save them, but as is so often the case, even with a pre-written property and enough money to run a hospital for a year, writers seem to have been less of a priority than murky dazzle. And if they haven't written you the lines or sent out for fully rounded characters, no amount of acting is going to save you.

They did have the time to get in some really dumb ideas. Take the new designer drug which provides the driver for the plot. It makes you feel like things have slowed down by a factor of one hundred. Apparently, this is an enormous big deal in communities where unemployment has to get over 90% before it's even worth mentioning. I'd have thought time was moving plenty slow enough for most of the potential customers. I can think of a couple of situations where it would be huge fun to slow things down and take your time, but we never see any of the drug users deploying the hit at those moments. What the drug does do is provide endless excuses to go into slow motion with lots of psychedelia, which really adds to the headaches which come free with your 3D glasses, thank you SO much. Someone got a slow motion camera for Christmas and wanted an excuse to play with it, I fancy. 

Anyhow, there's your drug, and it's the next big thing. And it's dominated by Lena Headey's Ma Ma, possibly the least together criminal kingpin ever to walk the earth. I've never seen anyone get so little personal satisfaction out of being a criminal mastermind. Admittedly, I don't expect criminals to be chirpy when the Old Bill comes knocking, but if I was the richest gang boss in a tower block full of drug addicts, I like to think that I'd live in a nicer apartment than any of my customers and have a wardrobe that looked like I hadn't just been mugged and left for dead. Ma Ma's actually got Avon Barksdale on her crew; hard to believe he couldn't have given her a couple of tips about how the king has to represent. But Ma Ma is one those weird people who only exist in movies; a person who's evil for the sake of being evil, with no apparent plan beyond ruining everyone's day.

So, having drawn down the majesty of the law on her head by ordering three guys skinned and chucked off a balcony for trespassing on her drug dealing territory, her ruining-the-day-plans need to go up a notch so that she can deal with two pesky Judges. In a move which even the relentlessly deadpan Dredd says out loud is a weird over reaction, this goes straight to locking down a two hundred storey housing complex and invoking a nuclear war alert so that she can kill them without interference from the outside world. Since she's apparently doing this to cover up a drug factory in the same complex, which will be swarming with cops as soon as they notice the, you know, nuclear war alert, it looks like Ma Ma is getting most of her ideas by asking What Would Joffrey Do? and then amping it up to eleven and a bit.

So now we have Judge Dredd and Judge Anderson running for their lives through said complex, being chased by guys with guns, local knowledge and all the tactical nous of cheese mould. They drop in platoons, until Ma Ma finally tires of "doing it clean" and amps things up by hosing down an entire floor of the building with gatling guns, shredding just about everyone on the floor except the two people she's trying to hit. All the way through this, Dredd, who's the smartest toughest judge ever to have lived, apparently, keeps fretting about his ammunition supply without ever once grabbing any of the dozens of guns being dropped by the mooks falling dead all around him. Even his rookie sidekick, who's too dumb/psychic to bother with a helmet, eventually realises that other people's guns will work just fine, but not Dredd.

Eventually the writers realise that Dredd is going to need some more bullets, so they send in four crooked Judges to chase him down; this elite mob is so visibly doomed that the moment I saw them, the first thing that came into my head was "reloads." Sure enough, Dredd picks them off one at a time, but it isn't until he's finally seen off the last one that he starts looting ammo.It's becoming all too easy to see why crime is rampant in Mega City One if this is what the best of the best gets up to.

And all delays and diversions finally out of the way, Dredd and Anderson do finally get around to killing Ma Ma, with yet more slow motion, and the movie is more or less blessedly over.

Mostly, it's a murky mess which steals bits from all kinds of other movies, not all of them even any better than it is. There's RoboCop DNA in there, and bits of Mad Max, and the whole running through a big building deal owes at least something to The Raid, and of course it's echoing all the hundreds of movies which have been made in which a rookie cop gets tested with a cynical veteran. And its miserabilist vision of the future owes a lot to the look of films like District 9. And I could go on, but I won't.

There was one thing which I thought was dumb, but proved not to be completely dumb. As we get into the final heat, Avon Barksdale gets the drop unexpectedly on Judge Anderson and takes her hostage with her own gun. Ah, fergadsake, I thought. A) she's psychic, how the hell did she not see that coming and B) the gun is hardwired to work only with her hand on it, so she's not being held hostage at all. Dredd can plug Avon at his leisure. Instead, Dredd has to let her get dragged off to become a maiden in need of rescue. Later, when Anderson is finally down for the chop from her own gun, what had seemed dumb was suddenly not so dumb. Avon pulls the trigger, isn't recognised and the gun self-destructs blowing half his arm off. Now, that could have been quite awkward when the gun was jammed in under Anderson's shapely jaw, so Dredd holding his fire suddenly made a lot more sense. Still think she should have seen it coming.

In all honestly, the trailer and elementary common sense meant I knew going in that Dredd wouldn't be up to much, but I was disappointed that it wasn't even hilariously bad enough to make a properly funny blog post out of.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Thomas Perry: The Informant

With the exception of the strong run of good fortune in the late 90s from the Jane Whitefield books, Thomas Perry has never really had the success he deserves. His first published book is one of his best; The Butcher's Boy is clever and contains all the tricks which will continue to work through his whole writing career. The viewpoint is split between the eponymous assassin and the Justice Department employee who gradually figures out that he has to be the explanation for all the weird things she's being asked to analyse. The book ends without them ever meeting, and is that rare thing, a book which resolves everything without resolving the conflict between the main characters.

Perry came back to the Butcher's Boy ten years later with Sleeping Dogs. In the first book, the Butcher's Boy triggered off a mob war so that he could get away cleanly from the aftermath of a contract killing; in the second, the grievances from that war finally caught up with him in his genteel retirement, and he was forced to repeat his tactics. It's a clever twist on the first book, with the analyst and the assassin both much more aware of each other's existence, and yet it still closes out with the analyst still not realising who the assassin in or how close he's been to killing her. Both characters have changed and developed in the ten years that have gone by, and it's a very satisfying sequel, even if our assassin's fiancĂ©e may be one of the earliest manifestations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (in fairness, she's the logical development of a a kind of female character that Perry was fond of at the time, probably because of a fondness for Nora Charles…) 

I wasn't terribly surprised to see that Perry had written another Whitefield book, but a new one about the Butcher's Boy was not something I'd ever expected, or even dared to hope for. (I'm still sort of hoping for a return of Chinese Gordon from Metzger's Dog, but I've stopped holding my breath).

The Informant is quite a good book, and does justice to the work that's gone before. There's an unavoidable chronological cheat in it, in that Perry places the third book ten years after the second while leaving it pretty much in the world of 2012 rather than 2002, where it should be. It's hard to blame him; what's plausible as character development and vitality for the characters after twenty years would be ridiculous after thirty. 

No matter what else Perry does in a book, there's always some fun to be had from his brisk little descriptions of how his anti-heroes and heroes overcome the obstacles between them and their short term objectives. The Butcher's Boy kills people, and The Informant is dotted, just like its predecessors, with efficient multiple murders, both carefully planned and extempore. What makes The Informant a good Perry book (rather than a merely OK one) is how well the main characters find their way to their long term objectives. For the first time in their long slow relationship, the main characters meet as equals, each knowing who the other is, and for the first time, the analyst is in real peril. Perry paces this very well, and it's a testament to the way that he's built Elizabeth Waring, the analyst, over time, that the prospect of her being fired feels as real and troubling as it ought to. Detective fiction is full of maverick cops forever being emptily threatened with ruin by their supervisors; from the outset, the professional risks Waring takes ring true rather than sounding Hollywood. 

No book is ever perfect, and I feel like The Informant wraps things up a little too quickly - not too cleverly, but just too quickly. Matters resolve in a way which makes sense and is entirely satisfactory and logical, but it feels rushed to see clever stratagems explained after the fact in a few lines of dialogue. All the more so when we're reading Perry, the master of explaining a stratagem over several pages of action, showing us just enough at each step that we can appreciate the cleverness of the next one. But there you are; I'd rather be complaining that something is over too soon than bemoaning the fact that it overstayed its welcome. 

Thomas Perry: Poison Flower

While I wasn't looking, Thomas Perry has been beavering away since Strip and brought out new sequels to his Jane Whitefield and Butcher's Boy books. Poison Flower is the Whitefield sequel, bringing the total count for the series to seven, and it's a bit of a head scratcher.

Perry didn't start out as a guy writing a series of books about a popular character; his early work was a series of stand alone novels about people on the edges of criminality dealing with one-off problems. I think that Vanishing Act, the first of the Jane Whitefield books, was probably written as yet another stand alone, but turned into a series when his publisher gave him a stern push. "Look," I imagine the conversation going, "people like reading the same book all over again, give them another sequel." And Perry hammered them out on an almost annual basis for a few years, running head long into the law of diminishing returns. One of Perry's stylistic tics is that even his most far-fetched characters (like Chinese Gordon in Metzger's Dog) live in a world where you can't push your luck too far. Sooner or later, the system will catch you and chew you up, and most of his narratives are about a protagonist trying to stay just far enough ahead of the system that it will lose interest and let the protagonist fade back into the scenery. 

Jane Whitefield is all about that; she's dedicated to getting people out of trouble and then out of sight. Perry's problem, which drives the first book and only gets worse with time, is that they more she hides other people, the more visible she gets and the more valuable she becomes as a target to exactly the kind of people she's working against. Vanishing Act was driven by that paradox, as Jane gets conned into hiding a guy who's only using his participation in the hiding process to figure out so that he can find someone else that Jane hid earlier. As a standalone book, that makes for a clever involving narrative; as the books multiply, Perry had to dance harder and harder to get away from the question hanging over the character; how does she go on getting away with this? The more people she helps, the more potential enemies she has, and the more people know how to find her and might give away her own identity.

Because Perry is a consummate craftsman, he managed to hold these problems at bay for five novels before retiring the character, apparently for good. In 2009, he brought her back. The narrative tension in Runner came mostly from Jane's own personal misgivings; she'd promised her (too-good-to-be-true, really) husband that she'd never do this again, and yet, here she was saddling up the old horse, and riding out. I didn't feel that Runner hung together very well, so I approached Poison Flower with some misgivings. As it turns out, it's better than Runner but it still can't get away from the problem which has been hanging over the series ever since it became a series. Jane's an appealing, involving character with that streak of principled amorality that characterises most of Perry's protagonists, and you're rooting for her the whole way through, but the sheer implausibility of her continuing career looms over everything she does. 

Still Poison Flower runs along more quickly and efficiently than Runner did, so that most of the time I was caught up in what comes next rather than grumbling that it didn't make sense. The villain of the piece is not one of Perry's better bad guys. Perry often lets us spend quite a bit of time with the bad guys in his books, seeing things from their point of view, and he's particularly good at villains who are just trying to get the job done. Martel, the bad here, is just a bit too cartoonish and unrealised, and as we get to know him a little better, it's hard to resist the feeling that he's been made irredeemably wicked just so that when Jane inevitably has to off him, we're not going to lose any of our affection for her. Why, the man's a bounder, we're going to have to think. Killing's too good for him. I really don't like it when a writer goes there. A writer needs to have faith in his characters, and in the reader's investment with them. If the preparation has been done right, a protagonist's decision to kill someone is going to make sense in terms of what they've already experienced; there's no need to over-egg the pudding.

That's my main critique; if this book had to exist, that's the thing I'd ask it do differently. Make Martel a more nuanced scoundrel so that Jane's decisions about him carry a real moral weight. If you create a villain who almost anyone would kill on sight, it doesn't mean anything that your protagonist has done it. Jane is a strong recurring character because she has limits, and for it to be interesting to meet her again, we have to have some sense of those limits coming under pressure.

Still, it's a more impressive piece of work than I feared it would be, and in the early stages, when Jane is under a lot of pressure, it's genuinely the book equivalent of watching the TV through your fingers. Perry starts off so strong, it was never going to be easy to finish on the same note; a problem which - as I've tried to make clear - dogs all seven books.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Chris F Holm: Dead Harvest

It's only when I saw the titles of his next two books that I realised that the title Dead Harvest is supposed to be a gag of sorts, punning on Dashiel Hammet's Red Harvest. If I'd made that leap, I'd probably have figured out the overarching plot of Holm's book a little quicker than I did.

During its all too brief run, I was a huge fan of the odd comedy Dead Like Me, which revolved around the day to day work of guys who had to take the souls of people who were about to die as part of the - unnecessarily complicated - process of running the afterlife. It worked because it had a wonderfully sardonic tone and it felt like a workplace comedy in a preposterous workplace. It helped that Mandy Patinkin was the boss, because Mandy Patinkin seems magically to make everything better than it ought to be, but the real secret weapon was incredibly sharp writing. Like so many odd and would-be brainy things on TV, it didn't last long, but it was fun while it did, and at least it didn't linger on getting worse and worse the way most long running shows seem to.

Holm has taken a pretty similar idea, and then brought it off somewhere much more miserable. His narrator is a Collector of souls, who goes around snagging the souls of the damned for onward transmission to hell. This seems theologically a bit suspect to me, but odds are that Holm and I were raised with different theologies, and anyhow, who'd want to ruin a sweet premise like that with consideration of the whole question of final judgement and the possibility of deathbed redemption? In Holm's cosmogony, good and evil have got a whole cold war thing going on, with rules and stuff. I've noticed that since the real Cold War petered out, people have been missing it terribly and have been borrowing its curious dynamic for all kinds of other black and white conflicts, such as good and evil, werewolves and vampires and the relationship between political parties. If you can't afford to risk the war, you find ways to justify avoiding it, but you never go to the crazy length of admitting that there's no real reason to have a war, because if you did that, the general public might draw all kinds of unwelcome conclusions about your own value to the community.

And that's all very well and good; there's something very relateable about guys just trying to get through the working day and collect a pay cheque. Terry Pratchett and Neill Gaiman collaborated on one of the best ever explorations of that notion, Good Omens, and it works in part because its angel and demon are so believably just trying to get by.

In short, Holm is treading a well worn path. How well does he do it? Good and bad. I started Dead Harvest about a month ago and left it to one side while I read all kinds of other things. Then I came back to it to wrap it all up. Now, it's a good sign that I bothered to come back, and another good sign that I was able to get back into it after a month and still remembered how it all fitted together and where it was supposed to be going. Holm had done a fair job sketching in his world and cast and the rules they live by. I could stop a third of the way through and come back to it without misgivings or the need to page back and see what the heck I'd forgotten. 

Sadly, the back half lets him down a bit, probably because he amped the stakes up a bit too high. The narrator has to save one girl to prevent the end of the world. This just feels a bit too hysterical. You should generally try to work your way up to something like that; start out by saving a city or something. Starting out by preventing all out war between heaven and hell; what's left for the second book. More than that, it shows a certain lack of confidence in the strength of your characters; as I've said before, get the characters right and ending THEIR world is stakes enough for the reader. In part, I think it has to be the whole end of everything so as to keep the narrator's actions seeming proportional and relatively moral. Consider Jack Bauer, who spent eight hard working days torturing and killing everyone he met in order to stave off ever more baroque disasters. Sure, he was doing wicked things, but just look at how much more wicked his adversaries were. If Jack had been cutting people's heads off because he needed to make an overtime budget balance, it would have been so much harder to root for him. Something similar may have been driving Holm to forget that his character would work so much better if he stayed resolutely low-rent. 

Holm also has the misfortune to be working - on purpose - in a hell of a tough room. His next two books have titles which pastiche the sacred Raymond Chandler, and if you want to step up to that plate, you'd better be bringing one hell of a prose style. Holm doesn't seem to have that yet. Very few people do, of course, but he's going to need to work a lot harder in the coming books. 

Finally, there's the nature of evil. Once you wander over into the whole notion of the battle between good and evil, you're in a world of trouble with motivation. Yee-haw is not a foreign policy and bwahaha is not an operational principle. Evil is a hard thing to put on the page, because at some level we all know that most evil is the unwelcome side effect of something that makes perfect sense to a guy who's just looking after his own interests. Just as few kids want to be undertakers or dentists when they're growing up, few of us get out of bed in the morning primed to do something wicked for the sheer hell of it. So when you populate half the page with cackling demons, there's a problem. Either they're loons, which is easy, if boring, or they have sensible motivations, in which case, there has to be some pay off for them in ripping stuff up and making people miserable. And Holm never really succeeds in explaining what that pay-off might be. He chucks a hell of a lot of stuff at the page to distract the reader, but as things glide slowly to a "to be continued" the problem bubbles right back up again. Everything is serial novels these days, and I keep reading the first one and not coming back for more; this could be yet another in that sequence.

Weirdly, it's presented with exactly the layout and formatting of the old Pelican non-fiction imprint of Penguin books, and I still don't know why that design decision was taken.

The Affair: Lee Child

If you only ever read one Jack Reacher book, this is probably the one to read. It's the origin story, kicking in belatedly as the 17th book in the sequence. Seventeen books, I thought to myself, rather numbly. It was a little disconcerting to realise that I'd read all of them, in much the same way, I suppose, as I've sometimes looked down at a bag of peanuts and realised that I'd eaten the whole bag without noticing. 

The Jack Reacher books have been a big success for Lee Child, to the extent that there's even going to be a movie with Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Cruise's casting has caused much hilarity on the intarwebs, since Reacher is six foot five and Tom Cruise is … not. Cruise is five foot eight, which was an average kind of height for a human when I was a teenager, but is apparently comically short for a Hollywood star these days, much as the five foot eleven and a half inch George W Bush was remorselessly depicted as some kind of pygmy in the media despite being well above the average height of most of the world. Adorably, Child has said that in the books, Reacher's height and bulk are a way of showing his forceful unstoppability, and that Cruise will show the same characteristics in his own way. That's just genius, in its own warped way.

Because The Affair is an origin story, it has to go all the way back to just before the very first Reacher book, published in 1997 or 1998. And Child is very concerned to keep reminding us that it's 1997, and Reacher is 36 years old, and that the world was very different then to how it is now. That leads to a weird tone in the book, which isn't present in any of the others. I've mentioned before that Child switches between first and third person from one book to the other. Reportedly he does this because while first person narrative is easier for him, sometimes it doesn't let him maintain suspense the way he wants to. Regardless of whether he's working in first or third, there's always an immediacy to the prose; they read as though Reacher or the narrator is jotting down the book practically as it happens. In contrast, The Affair is suffused with nostalgia; Reacher is clearly casting his mind back from the present day to a bygone time in which there was no war on terror and an off duty soldier could get drunk for a nickel, or whatever weird money they used in those far distant epochs. 

It all had a weird and presumably unintended effect. Like most action heroes, there's something timeless about Reacher; he shows up, he flexes the problem to death with sheer manliness and then wordlessly heads off on his way to the next disaster. With recent books, there's been more of a sense of continuity and consequence to the dramas; one has bled into the next, and the recent Worth Dying For had Reacher still plagued by the muscle aches from the pounding he'd taken a few (narrative) days before in the agreeably preposterous 61 Hours, and the just published A Wanted Man seems to begin with him on the run from the consequences of Worth Dying For and still all clogged up from a broken nose. I read Worth Dying For sometime last year, and while I can recall the rough outline of the plot, I can't for the life of me remember the detail of how it ended or how the broken nose happened. But through it all, consequences be damned, Reacher is this big man mountain of unstoppability. Which gave me pause for thought when the opening line of the origin story reminds the reader that in 1997 Reacher was 36 years old. Hang on, I thought; so was I. And these days, I damn sure can't beat anyone up unstoppably. Moving furniture around is more trouble than it's worth. So the very first thing Child had managed to do was make me doubt the plausibility of everything he's written and published in the last six years. I'm sure that wasn't the plan. But, with the best will in the world, Reacher's current age in the books is not far south of fifty. The pace of the action since 61 Hours  has been pretty tight; if you take it that only a few weeks have passed in Reachers world in the intervening time since 2009, when 61 Hours is implicitly set, the man is still 48 or 49 years old, and even for a superhuman man mountain, he seems way fitter and more able for rough stuff than I felt in 2009. For a lot less wear and tear, I feel a lot more arthritic.

Eh, it's a book, it's nonsense, it doesn't have to make sense. But there's something about The Affair's rather grounded tone that left me running through things looking for them to make sense.

As I've commented before, all the Reacher books are essentially the same book; drifter drifts into messy situation, makes it worse, then makes it all better, handing out beatdowns and gundowns until it's time to move on. This is the origin story, Reacher's last case as a military policeman, and yet for all the emphasis that Child places on how the world was different then, the story is curiously the same. Through contrivance, Reacher has to impersonate a drifter, and as he awkwardly goes about it, we see him experiment with all the little things which will define his character in the other books which have already appeared in the real world and which are yet to appear in his own. [Commenters, should ye be out there and itching, I'm eliding the pre-origin The Enemy for the sake of simplicity, not from ignorance]. So, for the first time, he throws a shirt away and buys a new one rather than bother with washing it, and he finds out about how you can get money from Western Union, and so on.

As to the story; Reacher has uncovered corruption and malfeasance at the heart of US government so many times, it's a marvel that either Reacher or the US government is still moving around. Nothing that happens is unexpected, but perhaps that's as it should be in an origin story for someone with so many books behind him. There's a modicum of misdirection, and then it becomes clear that the bad guy is, as always, The Man. But there's something curious to Reacher's response to all the provocation that comes his way, because he straight up cold bloodedly murders three people in the course of the action. Now, that's perfectly reasonable as the way an older, embittered man who's seen a lot of corruption might react to the irredeemability of human nature, but it's jarring as the response of the proto-Reacher. If the early Reacher will just shoot a guy in the head casually, the later one ought to be even tougher, but he's not.

But, eh, it's a book, it's nonsense, it doesn't have to make sense. I'm way over thinking this, and I know that I am. Jack Reacher books are every bit as disposable as Jack Reacher's toothbrushes and spare shirts. It's just that in this one, Child managed to hit a tone which somehow made the book feel a little less ephemeral and silly than they usually do, and I started picking it apart. It's still curiously weightless; just as with all the others, I read it in a matter of hours, racing from one chapter to the next, not because I was on tenterhooks or even particularly involved with the narrative, but because there's something about Child's prose that makes you rush through it to the next thing, and then put the book in the pile for the charity store because you know you're not reading it again. 

In the end, it was something I bought expecting to mock, and which left me instead rather earnestly picking apart its logic. So it's a step above most of the books, and as I said, if you only read one, it should probably be this one. Though you may find you wind up reading all of them, without afterwards being quite able to figure out why, or remember what happened in any great detail. To use a pun which I thought of at the outset and have been trying to resist, it's not quite an Affair to remember.