Monday, 28 April 2014

Mockingjay

The final book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy was, upon its release, one that divided its audience.  Needless to say, there were the legions of fans desperate to discover the fate of the series' heroine, Katniss Everdeen.  But the mixed reception of Mockingjay highlighted both the finale's departure from the formula of its two predecessors and its dissimilarity to the glut of recent teen fiction final flourishes.


Mockingjay sees its reluctant lead rescued from the gladiatorial arena she destroyed at the end of Catching Fire, her second foray into the Hunger Games playpen, and transposed to the revolutionary militia hiding out in the secretive District 13, where playing upon her persona as the 'Mockingjay', she joins and leads the rebels against the despotic Coriolanus Snow and his forces in the Capitol.  In tone, it is closer to the Carnegie-winning Patrick Ness Chaos Walking series in which teen protagonists led insurgents in a quest for justice, rather than the twee, sparkly vampire romances of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight.  Indeed, it owes much to that other denizen of teen serialisation, Harry Potter, in that it diverts from an initially successful, but increasingly wearying formula to place its leads in a situation of adversity where they are to make mature choices between doing the right thing and making the easy decision, experiencing sacrifice, glory and discouragement as they discover the consequences of actions and inaction.

It is a staple of teen fiction and one Collins has crafted superbly in Mockingjay.  She takes Katniss through a wealth of emotions without succumbing to mawkish fairytale, departing nearly completely from the three-act structure of its predecessors.  Indeed, the only off-kilter note within the pacing of the finale is when Collins attempts to pull in the perils of the Hunger Games arena during the rebel assault on the Capitol.

In essence, it is a satisfying end to the trilogy, and one that doesn't besmirch the ingenuity and tautness of the first two outings of Katniss Everdeen.

Friday, 18 April 2014

My Friend Maigret

It is hard not to enjoy the simple meandering of Georges Simenon's Maigret novellas, to not get caught up in a lazy vin in a Parisian cafe as the titular detective considers the multiple suspects in his latest case.  My Friend Maigret is no exception to this pattern, the 35th outing of the Inspector, yet adds a pinch of additional ingredients to liven up the proceedings.

With the Inspector called away to a Mediterranean island, the focus of My Friend Maigret shifts away from the smoke-filled labyrinth of Paris to an altogether sunnier, wine-filled paradise setting with boats and luxuries, as Maigret investigates a murder amongst a small community of coastal folk, and finds himself amidst some familiar faces from his past.

As always though, the murder plot and the whodunnit are secondary to the methods of Maigret's investigation.  Indeed, a purported alternative title for the mystery was Methods of Maigret, which highlights that these themes are central to the story which pairs the Inspector with Pyke, a Scotland Yard policeman studying the great Maigret's methods.  Every musing that Maigret internalises, every ponderous interaction, interview and deduction is doubly dissected as the Frenchman considers how his investigation is being perceived by his English shadow.

It is a fiendishly clever plot device that not only allows the reader to see Maigret doubt his own investigative abilities when they are scrutinised, both externally by Pyke, and internally by himself, but also provides an insight into the deeply introspective nature of the detective profession.  The cogs that grind while analysing evidence and interviews are always turning for Maigret, but such an intellectual investigation cannot be conveyed to onlookers.  How can a fellow detective like Pyke ever learn from a method that is largely based on supposition, fortune and instinct?

It is an interesting question that both Pyke and Maigret seem to mutually accept as unanswerable as My Friend Maigret draws to its satisfyingly neat conclusion.  Maigret considers the human spirit that fuels the motives leading to the implosion of the small island community and inevitably solves the murder and unmasks the culprit.  Pyke, meanwhile, observes the Frenchman's methods, initially skeptically, but grows to become as suitably impressed as the reader is with Maigret's instinctive dissection of proceedings.

The novella is a geographic jolt in proceedings for the ponderous, pipe-smoking policeman, but no less satisfying in its execution and conclusion because of this.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Kate Atkinson - Life After Life



"It seemed to her that in the search for arguments against marriage the existence of Maurice presented the very best one of all."

Image from Flickr: Gregola S
Creative Commons
https://flic.kr/p/BB9Nr

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Of Endings (And Beginnings)

The most talked about TV event of the year was undoubtedly the final episode in the tale of Walter White, as Breaking Bad followed The Sopranos and the West Wing into TV history, forever to be trotted out in Best-Of lists at the end of years, decades and beyond.

How to end a TV show, or indeed a series, is a challenge for any producer.  Breaking Bad managed to deliver one of the satisfying endings of recent years, avoiding the disappointment of shows such as Lost, or the clunky ludicrousness of Dexter (whose final season also closed this Autumn).  Three endings of shows broadcast in the UK this Winter have highlighted the problems facing writers when the need to draw a show or an episode to a close arises.

Borgen (Series 3)
Homeland (Series 3)
Doctor Who - The Time of the Doctor (Christmas Special)

Borgen (Series 3)

So farewell, then, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, charismatic female Prime Minister of Denmark, constantly making the difficult decisions while appeasing multiple political factions under a coalition government.  Borgen made interesting the seemingly dull subject a political drama about the decision-making process, the role of the spin-doctor, and the fickle loyalties of the media.  Splicing episodes in Nyborg's private life with the machinations of the Danish government, the show struck a balance between the outward preachy moralising of politicians and personal turmoils as the Prime Minister proved unable to sustain a healthy marriage and lead a fractious government at the same time.  It was a note that set it apart from its glossier American counterpart - The West Wing - in that it frequently showed the failure of government as Nyborg strove to keep all factions of her coalition pleased while making sacrifices and negotiations for the greater good of the country, but ultimately failing to provide the same nuanced acuteness to matters within her own family as it ultimately fell apart.  Similarly, the mawkishness which marks many an American broadcast was reassuringly absent as the bleak greys of Denmark's streets and buildings set the tone for the national mood.

Significant about Borgen, though, was the cast assembled for the show.  Søren Malling, as TV producer Torben Friis, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as journalist Katrine Fønsmark and Pilou Asbæk as Nyborg's spin doctor Kasper Juul.  Most notable is inevitably Sidse Babbet Knudsen as the central Prime Minister, and Borgen was always her storyline, despite the shifting of roles between Kasper and Katrine as series 2 and 3 developed.

Nyborg began her journey as an election night victor, poised to take control of a fractious government while trying to liberalise and modernise Danish policies. With both successes and failures behind her, she lost the next election before making a second assault on the titular castle. Series three saw her come full circle as she embarked on a new relationship that looked set to suffer as her new makeshift party gathered momentum in the lead-up to a general election.  As always, Nyborg held the cards that would decide the future of Danish policies.  She could either lead - somewhat with a degree of megalomania as a minority party gaining only a handful of seats but enough to dent the majority of the main party - or she could stabilise the government by siding with the victors.  As always Nyborg made the moral decision, choosing the coalition under the majority party rather than dissent under her own leadership.

Borgen ended with a mix of satisfaction, inevitability and nostalgia - as though everything had ended up in its correct place, although not always via the easiest path to get there.

Homeland (Series 3)

If ever there was a show that divided audiences so perfectly it was Homeland.  A crashing beginning of the Damian Lewis / Claire Danes drama took a brilliant concept and strung out an increasingly tense is-he-isn't-he terrorist plot before culminating in a near-miss assassination attempt.  Bewilderingly it made it back for a second series, but failed to sustain the hype as the novelty grew increasingly thin.  Series 3, then,  set about the attempt to redress this loss of faith in its story arc.

However, it started in confusing fashion, Brody (Lewis) was all-but-absent for the first two episodes which also saw Carrie (Danes) committed to a mental institution for her insistent ravings about Brody and his loyalties.  Eventually Brody emerged in South America, a crack addict and desperate.  But the tedium of the episode made many viewers wish he had stayed hidden.

It wasn't until the fourth episode, after Carrie's release from the hospital and the revelation of the long game, that Homeland Series 3 suddenly got good again.  And seeing through one of CIA boss Saul's infamous "plays" became the focus of the series.  Unfortunately it failed to hit too many consistently high notes, and infuriated by touching the ceiling of dramatic tension one moment, before crashing down into overly-sentimental twaddle the next.  The final episode needed a significant kick to bring the show back on track.

It was delivered (in bittersweet fashion) with the arrest and sentencing to death in Iran of the would-be terrorist Brody, while Carrie, unable to prevent this unforeseen outcome of Saul's deadly game, watched helplessly as the former marine was publicly executed by the Iranian government.

This in itself would have been a fitting end to any series, but Homeland pushed it a little further.  Ignoring some boring tosh about a pregnancy, promotions and resignations, Series 3 ended with the CIA presenting the list of the servicemen and women lost in the line of duty that year, each awarded with a star on the memorial at their HQ.  Nicholas Brody was an obvious omission - a stain on the Agency's reputation and a marine who shouldn't be remembered.  The final moments of the show saw Carrie drawing another star on the commemorative wall, an attempt not to forget Nicholas Brody.

The fade to black as the credits roll would have made a perfect ending to an imperfect series as it marked the death of Brody, the crux of all three series of the show.  However, news that Homeland has been renewed by its network for a fourth series dampens the impact.  If any of the makers of Homeland are interested in natural endings and not ratings and sensationalist TV, they will decide not make a fourth series, but let this show (which could have happily parted after its initial 12-episode run) linger fondly in the memory, rather than tarnishing its reputation irreparably.

Doctor Who - The Time of the Doctor (Christmas Special)

Coming so soon after the 50th anniversary edition, this latest episode of Doctor Who had a lot to live up to.  It was unfortunate that it marked the end of Matt Smith's incumbency as the titular hero and the passing of the sonic screwdriver to Peter Capaldi.  Consequently there was all sorts of mythology to tie up, companions, prophecies, deaths, planets, enemies .... coupled with the need to pull in some sort of Christmas theme, the episode felt rushed and often difficult to follow.

What everyone was waiting for though, wasn't the story, but the regeneration, which was masterfully reset at 0 allowing multiple new doctors to take on the role should Capaldi choose to vacate the position any time soon.  Interestingly, though, Capaldi was teased throughout the show, but only enjoyed a mere 90 seconds of screen time.  In stark contrast to Smith (and not just because of his age) Capaldi has gravitas, a sinister side to his disposition and less comedic physicality.  It was unfortunate that the writers decided to break out of the intense gaze that Capaldi gave his open-mouthed companion and give him a ridiculous couple of lines to say.  Anyone hoping that Capaldi was going to be a dark doctor, and the show would be rescued from the childish comedy of the Tennant and Smith era would have been deeply disappointed.  Ending the show with the stare would have given the next series a wholly unknown quantity.  As it is, there's a worrying niggle that it will just be more of the same.

Images from Google Images

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Quotation: The Painted Veil - Somerset Maugham

A bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, he told her, to which she retorted that a proverb was the last refuge of the mentally destitute.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Spiral 4: State of Terror

Subtitling itself "State of Terror" the fourth iteration of French detective series Spiral, or Engrenages in its native tongue, pointed to its dominant plot thematics right from the opening scenes. The bloodied and dying body of a basement terrorist, accidentally injured by a makeshift bomb of his own manufacturing, is dumped in the streets of Paris by his zealous, nervy co-conspirators.

The Clement/Karlsson partnership
It is the case that the blunderful team of Paris police headed up by the purposeful Laure Berthaud tackle this season, and takes them through a new wave of seedy Parisian underclasses as they chase the origin of the terror threat. They stumble across a misguided student, Sophie Mazarat, hardened by her anarchistic boyfriend, Thomas Riffault, into believing in a cause to champion the immigrant populations of the capital. Mazarat, and the subsequent fruitless chase of the elusive Riffault, drag Berthaud and her mismatched team of Tintin and Gilou through the worlds of the Turkish kingpins controlling the streets, and their social opposites, the squat-dwelling refugees and illegal immigrants living on the fringes of criminality. As the series approaches its explosive conclusion the paranoia of the terrorists is mirrored by a territorial spat between crime squads that threatens to implode the close-knit detective team.

However, despite the plots, sub-plots, side-plots and tangents, the true heart of Spiral is its characters and their story-arcs throughout the series, and indeed through the show since its inception. And while the plot for series four focused on a state of terror, a more fitting subtitle for the main players in the series would have been "State of Cowardice", this being the theme most prevalent throughout the show.

Cowardice was most overt in the journey of the detective Tintin over the 12 episode run. His injury in the line of duty caused a cliched dependence on painkillers, an addiction he was unable to share with anyone until his partner Gilou badgered it out of him. However, his near-miss also led to a form of post-traumatic stress as he first hid to avoid suspects on an arrest, before wavering, unable to shoot his targets during a raid on a squat. The psychologies of trauma temporarily causing his inertia. Likewise, the other members of the core police team suffered their own moments of gutless decisions. For Gilou, his apparent nerve in dealing with his blackmailers masks a deeper sense of fear. Confrontation failed to work, so he reverted to underhand techniques in an attempt to correct the situation for his own preservation motives.

Berthaud is more blatant in her cowardly deceptions. As old flame Samy returns to her life, she refuses to make decisions about her personal life, sleeping with Samy (in the back of his car) before returning home to her increasingly suspicious boyfriend, Vincent. Her emotional torments remind of those in Danish heroine Sara Lund from the popular The Killing. Berthaud is decisive, confrontational and direct when it comes to the workplace, but outside of that environment she frequently falters, avoiding decisions or making poor ones inevitably leading to deception and mistrust.

Sophie Mazarat - dedicated follower of terrorism
The theme of cowardice also seeps through into the terrorist cell as Sophie's dedication to the cause is seen through to its destructive conclusion while Riffault backs out of the plan at the final hour, leaving the city altogether more respectably than he had been when he first appeared. Unable to go through with his despicable plan he shuffles off to leave others to face the consequence of his machinations.

Outside of the police investigation, and meshed together with their plots are the prosecutors, lawyers and judges who see the suspects through the investigations, from questioning to release or prosecution, trials and appeals.

Judge Roban, the Arsene Wenger lookalike and moral backbone of the Spiral universe, finds himself under fire this series. Alleging a campaign of bribery and incompetence against a fellow judge, Roban find himself in the dock as his own integrity and impartiality are called into question. The episode rocks the usually self-righteous and steely Roban, still reeling from the suicide of his unsuitable intern during an earlier series. The judge first finds his interpretations of what is the right course of action challenged, before his whole trust in justice is undermined by a run-in with the Freemasons; the suggestion being that their influence saw him through his own time in the dock and reinstated him in his former high position on the bench. It is an uncomfortable compromise for the rigid judge who becomes unable to confide his predicament to his trusting secretary. With series 5 filming later this year, Roban's procrastinations could take centre stage as he learns to live with the consequences of his actions and inaction.

Lastly, but by no means least, the legal double team of Pierre Clèment and Josèphine Karlsson experience extreme character arcs of their own. After three series of flirting around each other, "State of Terror" begins with the mismatched pair as partners, both in business terms as they share honours in their legal practice, and also romantically. Opposites of each other Clèment has graduated from the school of Roban, always in pursuit of the correct, honourable course. Karlsson, on the other hand, has more dubious motivations, never fully explained, but frequently self-serving and often influenced by money and power.

Series four takes the pair through a series of mutual discoveries as they appear to learn from each other. Clèment's brush with the undesirable and uncontrollable bully Jorkal, sees him flirt with a bravado more typical of Karlsson. A client picked for his clout and financial incentives who is far removed from the usual charitable cases Clèment takes on, Jorkal's obvious insincerity and outright criminality jeopardises the reputation of the naively righteous lawyer. It is a situation that spirals beyond Clèment's control, ill-equipped as he is for the consequences of dealing with such organised criminals.

Contrastingly, Karlsson's primary case, the defending of an illegal immigrant desperately trying to keep his employment to avoid being deported, is a more-typical Clèment defendant. It appears that her time with Pierre has taught her a modicum of integrity severely lacking in her character previously. As more is revealed of her background and motivations, she is given a sense of heart that manifests itself primarily as an altruistic act as she warns the illegal squat ahead of a police raid. Her act, born out of defiance of authority can be traced back to her family, and relationship with her father. The excruciating family function she drags Clèment along to eventually reveals her inherent vulnerability and neediness and this desire to be wanted is what informs her decision to tip off Riffault's cohorts at the squat.

Paris's finest: Gilou, Tintin, Berthaud and Samy
What is unfortunate, then, is that this altruistic act ultimately causes her to lose the one source of acceptance that she most needs - that of Clèment. As the anti-terror unit recruit her to spy on Riffault for them, threatening to reveal her criminal indiscretion to her partner, she is left with no choice but to comply with their wishes. The subsequent revelation jeopardises her professional and personal relationship with Clèment, and she attempts suicide as she reaches the limits of her desperation.

Her subsequent course of action, the decision to pursue a more professional strategy to salvage the case of her immigrant client, eventually proves successful for her, affording her a rare opportunity to smile as she relishes the community's acceptance. That this also leads to a reconciliation for Karlsson and Clèment allows the two of them a chance of a happy ending.

For the rest of the cast, Sophie's bombing of the police HQ, killing Samy and throwing Berthaud into hysterics, the ending was far from happy. Series 5 has a lot of mending that it needs to commission before they can start to pick up the pieces of their broken department.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Daughter of Time - Josephine Tey / Richard III: The King in the Car Park

The NPG Portrait analysed by Grant
"Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority".  Such are the words attributed to Sir Francis Bacon that lend themselves to the title of Josephine Tey's swansong detective Alan Grant mystery The Daughter of Time.  Bacon's phrase alludes to the nature of accounts, of what information gets reported, digested and ultimately sustained over the course of history, and how time can turn those received beliefs upon themselves and question whether truths may actually be falsities.

This is the central hook of Tey's mystery.  Her detective is prostrate in hospital, bored with the banality of his surroundings and itching to find something to occupy his mind.  An actress friend of his suggests that in the absence of any real-life criminals he can chase down, he turns his detective mind instead to an historical mystery, Mary Queen of Scots, for example, or the royal pretender Perkin Warbeck.  The detective, noted for his ability to analyse faces with accuracy of their guilt or innocence, their physiognomy, is presented with a series of portraits, and it is amongst these that the National Portrait Gallery's painting of King Richard III catches his eye.  Here is a man famed for the atrocities accompanying his rise to power and his reign and immortalised as a grotesque by Shakespeare.  Yet his portrait causes Grant to ponder the question: is this man more likely to be in the dock, or on the bench?  A criminal, or an adjudicator?  Grant's decision to discover the answer to this question forces him to approach the dilemma as a detective, utilising a friend to scour the British Library for contemporary sources to discover whether Richard could have been responsible for the most infamous crime attributed to him, the murder of the two Princes in the Tower.

Tey's novel is currently enjoying a renaissance following the recent Leicester University declaration that the skeleton unearthed from a car park in the city is that of the last Plantagenet King.  The documentary accompanying the discovery, Channel 4's Richard III: The King in the Car Park, told the story of the dig for Richard's remains from the point of view of the Ricardians who support the claims that Richard was innocent of much of the wrongdoing reported of him, and the archaeologists tasked with excavating the site where he was calculated to have been interred.

The documentary, narrated on- and off-screen by Horrible Histories actor Simon Farnaby, hit many emotional notes, suggesting that although he was afflicted by a degree of the deformity of legend, the manner of his death and burial reveals a deeply respected individual, his bones found in front of where the alter would have stood in the priory foundations.  However, as a factual account of the excavations, it fell short in addressing any mysteries surrounding the 15th century king's reputation.

The Ricardians, fronted by the evangelical Philippa Langley, were painted as deluded in their quest to restore Richard's reputation, while Leicester University was shown as error-strewn, their chief archaeologist hammering through the skull of the king in a botched inital excavation.  Likewise, the documentary didn't go far enough to ascertain the reasons behind the possibility that the king was interred in the location, choosing to suggest that a moment of paranormal whimsy from the apparently obsessive Langley was enough to force the University to part with hundreds of thousands of pounds in the quest for his bones.  Little was actually investigated in the documentary, exception the nature of determination, and the odd phrase such as, "is this the face of a killer?" were the only attempts to suggest that the story of Richard III may not be that which Shakespeare chose to tell us and has passed over into public consciousness.

Tey's The Daughter of Time goes much further than the documentary had license to go.  Fictionalising the quest for the truth of Richard III's reign it takes the legend of the Princes in the Tower, the disappearance of the successors to the throne of Edward IV, the boy king Edward V and his younger brother Richard Duke of York, immortalised forever through Shakespeare's hand and John Milais 1878 painting, and analyses the evidence for and against Richard III as the perpetrator of their kidnapping and probable murder.

A b/w version of Milais' Princes
Approaching the case from a police point of view, Grant considers extant manuscripts that report aspects of Richard's life alongside the more familiar testimonies of Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare to ascertain whether he, as a police investigator, would convict Richard III of the crime based on the facts in front of him.  He looks as existing documents and portrayals written by contemporaries of Richard III alongside those penned by his successors, and modern literature and academic dissertations into the life of the king.  His conclusions inevitably raise questions of Richard's participation in the disappearance of the young heir, and even go so far as to suggest that his successor, the "usurper" Henry Tudor, later Henry VII who invaded from France and eventually eliminated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth was the true instigator of the disappearance of the juvenile Princes.

Truth, in Tey's novel, is besmirched by the propaganda of the Tudors, re-imagining Richard as a violent homicidal monster to perpetrate their own loose claim to the throne of England.  The authority of Bacon's "authors" being the defining factor in the narrative of Richard III's history.  However, her novel is a considerably one-sided affair.  It dismisses almost too easily contradictory evidence, such as one monk's writings of the myth of Richard's hand in the kidnapping of Edward IV's sons.  But it does present an interesting study into the methods of historical determination, linking them in to criminal investigations to suggest an outcome.

The premise of approaching history or a historical conceit from a judicial standpoint is a novel one.  Can you convict a suspect of a crime based on the evidence, testimony and circumstance presented?  Are certain testimonies dubious because they were written long after the event, commissioned by parties involved in the investigation or coloured by the unreliability of political bias?  Tey presents Richard III in a different light than that of received lore, fictionalising the truism that history is written by the victors.  While her methods suggest that she is a precursor of the Ricardian society as it exists today, perhaps accepting the versions that agree with her interpretations all too easily while dismissing those that contradict with equal ease.

Afflicted with Richard III's spinal deformity
The Daughter of Time is, however, one of the gems of the detective genre, effortlessly blending a historical narrative into a modern interpretation of detective fiction.  Whether you agree kith her conclusions or not, it is hard not to admire the research the author went through to ascertain Richard III's history and his sucessors' contribution to received "wisdom" about the last Plantagenet king.

History, it would seem, is the property of the victors, but Tey's novel, and Langley's quest for the true King Richard III go some way to suggesting that there is much to the tale of the "Hunchback King"* that warrants considered and unbiased investigation.

*Channel 4's documentary revealed that Richard III's spine was considerably deformed, the king suffering from an s-curve of the bone formation believed to be scoliosis.  While they didn't delve too far into this condition, it is known that one of the most famous sufferers of the spinal condition is Usian St. Leo Bolt, the World's Fastest Man, double Olympic Champion at both 100m and 200m.  The condition that afflicted Richard III may not be as disfiguring and as debilitating as popular culture may suggest.

Bolt image: Nick Webb via Wikipedia
The Princes in the Tower, by Sir John Everett Milais, currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikipedia (Public Domain)
Richard III, artist unknown, currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikipedia (Public Domain)

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