Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Combination Plate 7

Tom Robb Smith
Child 44, a novel
Mystery: police procedural
Setting: Soviet Union, under Stalin

I guess the novel is best described, as far as a type of mystery anyway, as a police procedural, since Leo Demidov, an officer with the MGB, the State Security Agency, is the investigator. He has two problems. The first is to identify and apprehend the individual who has been killing children over a period of at least a decade or two. The second is to get the MGB to admit to the presence of a serial killer. The problem is that the ideology of Stalin's regime defines the society as the perfect society in which serial killers can not exist. Only the societies of the decadent West could produce such monstrosities. To insist that a serial killer could develop under the present system, communism, is to cast doubt on the entire system--a criticism of the system and, worse, a criticism of Stalin himself. This is treason, and there can be only one penalty for treason--swift and sure execution.

At the beginning, Leo Demidov is a true believer: anything and everything can be done to bring into existence the future Edenic state promised by Marxist-Leninist ideology, including the need to install terror into society. He has performed acts that he would rather not have done, but it was in the name of the future good of society. His disillusionment begins with the loss of his idealistic and unrealistic views of society and his relationship with his wife.

The major problem that I found, and no doubt many others will argue this is actually a strength and not a weakness, concerns the emphasis of various topics or themes in the work. Smith's main emphasis is on getting across to the reader what it was like to live in Russia under Stalin. Second in importance is what it is like to be an MGB officer. Least important, or so it seems to me anyway, is the mystery itself .
Perhaps Smith should have written a novel about life under Stalin and forgotten about the mystery element.

I borrowed this book for a discussion group from the local library, and it seems as though someone at the library agrees with me since the novel is listed as fiction, and not as a mystery.

However, I must also say that this is a remarkable first novel. Smith is able to convey the claustrophobic oppression that all suffered under Stalin, including the MGB officers themselves. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?-- or "Who will watch the watchers?" The answer is --other watchers, who are also being watched.

I have heard a second book in the series is out or almost out, and I plan on taking a look at it. Perhaps he will devote more time to actual police procedures in this one. If so, it should be a very interesting read.


Jo Nesbo
Redbreast, a novel
Mystery : police procedural
Setting: present day Norway

Harry Hole is a detective with the Oslo Police Department, much to their dismay at times. Some of his colleagues and superiors regard him at best as a loose cannon. Nesbo has now written seven novels detailing the exploits of Harry Hole. From what I can gather, Redbreast is the fourth novel in the series, but the first to be translated into English. The fifth book in the series, Nemesis, has just recently been translated.

In Redbreast, Harry Hole's case has its roots in the past, WWII to be precise. The case involves in some way those Norwegians who fought with the Germans against the Russians; some no doubt saw Russia as a greater threat to Norway than the Germans, while others had absorbed the Nazi ideology and saw themselves as Aryans.

My major problem with the novel is that I'm not certain if the novel is primarily about Norwegians who fought on the Russian Front with the German army or about the solution to several crimes that take place today in Norway, at least an half century later. The problem is actually similar to the one I discussed in the comments about Smith's book. The novel spent too much time in the past on the front lines and in a recuperation hospital
and too little time ihn the present solving the crimes. I realize that the novel's argument is that the roots of the present day crimes lie back in the past, but even Freud recognized that the issues have to be resolved in the present as it is impossible to go back and resolve them when they happened.

Again, like Tom Rob Smith, I find Nesbo to be an excellent writer and one that I will look into again, hoping he spends more time in the present in his other works. I have heard that the next book to be translated, Nemesis, is much more tightly written and has fewer excursions into the past. That sounds promising.

In both novels, Child 44 and Redbreast, we see talented writers with considerable skills creating police procedurals with interesting characters, on both sides of the law. I'd like to see more emphasis on them and less on the past.


Northanger Abby: the film version, 2007
Director: Jon Jones
Screenplay: Andrew Davies
Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland

Perhaps I should begin by saying that dramatization lasted around 90 minutes. A director can't do much more than present the skeleton of the plot in only an hour and a half. At the end, I thought about renaming the film to Northanger Abbey Lite. The basic structure is there: she travels to Bath, meets some people, is invited to stay with some of them (the Tilneys of Northanger Abbey), has some adventures there, mostly embarrassing for her, and gets sent home, rudely and inconsiderately. But, all is not lost...and they live "happily ever after," although if one reads Austen's last paragraph closely, one might have some doubts.

I have read Northanger Abbey several times and have felt it is an incomplete novel (see post Combination Plate 6 on July 4). Actually, it seems to me to be two separate novellas: the first being a comedy of manners in Bath, while the second is a satire on Gothic novels and those who spend too much time reading them. (I wonder what Madame Bovary would have been like if she had read too many Gothics instead of too many romances, or Don Quixote, if he had read too many Gothics instead of fantastic tales of knight errantry.)

Some one must have felt the same way for, during the first half of the novel, we see interspersed with the scenes in Bath some of her imaginative flights of fancy, all obviously influenced by thse Gothic novels. These do not appear in the novel. Somebody, Davies the screenwriter or perhaps Jones the director, felt that something needed to be done to prepare the viewer for the satiric Gothic elements in the last half of the film. And whoever made the decision got it right.

The casting wasn't bad, except for the choice of William Beck for John Thorpe. In the novel, John Thorpe is a mostly harmless, self-centered, pompous fool, one who "rattles about" according to his best friend, James Morland, Catherine's brother. Instead Beck comes across as a nasty-looking villain, one belonging more rightly in a Gothic tale than in a comedy of manners.

What is missing? Well, the skeleton is there, but most of the flesh is gone.

Overall: a pleasant 90 minutes or so.


Chronicles of Riddick, a film
sequel to Pitch Black

Chronicles of Riddick
takes place some five years after the events depicted in Pitch Black (see post Combination Plate 6, on July 4). Again Riddick is being hounded by mercs ( bounty hunters). He is surprised to find that there is now an excessively high price on his head, but he must be brought back alive. He is also surprised to discover who put the high price on him.

Civilization is being threatened by a horde of religious fanatics whose tactics are simple: convert or die. While their death rates are exceedingly high, they always find plenty of replacements after conquering the planet. Riddick's task is to stop them. I hope there's a third, because the ending really seems to be a new beginning.

As usual, the special effects are great. Vin Diesel is the star of the show, playing a role that seems designed with him in mind. He has plenty of opportunities to glower at his enemies, and few can manage to glower as well as he can. However, Riddick does seem to mellow a bit in this film. A third film should tell us whether this was only a momentary loss of focus or whether he is in the process of becoming a soft-hearted, sentimental marshmellow. Riddick a marshmellow? Can't happen. Well, let's wait for the third, if there is one.

I'm not counting the animated version which is also out. I will see it some time in the future.

Overall rating: lots of high tech stuff and interesting settings. Good clean fun.


Pat Murphy
The Falling Woman, an SF/F novel

In the cover blurb, Samuel R. Delany, critic and author, describes this novel as "A lovely and literate exploration of the dark moment when myth and science meet..." Generally blurbs found on the covers, front and back, usually provide strong support for the theory that there really are many universes in existence and that blurb writers seldom live in the same one the book exists in. This is an exception.

The science is archeology and the myth is Mayan. Elizabeth Butler is leading an archeological expedition working on a Mayan site on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. She has been separated for decades from her husband who has just recently died. Diane, her daughter, whom she hasn't seen in many years, has come to spend some time with her at the dig. She's not sure why she came--perhaps to reestablish some sort of relationship with her mother, now that her father has died.

The story is told by both Elizabeth and Diane in alternating chapters. Interspersed are several unnumbered sections of three to four pages each which are supposed to be notes from a book Elizabeth is writing. Actually it's a clever way of getting some information about the Mayans and archeology across to the reader without seriously disrupting the narrative flow. Those who wish to read the sections can do so; those who aren't interested can skip the sections and continue on with the narrative.

Elizabeth has a reputation for being a lucky expedition leader. Her digs frequently come up with discoveries that shouldn't have been found because there was no evidence to suggest anything of importance being buried there. And this dig is no different. She told them to dig where no one could see anything that even suggested something was underground there.

Actually Elizabeth cheats. She sees things that other people don't see; she sees people that others can't see. It's as if she can see into the past and get glimpses of the people who lived at this site. At times she can see the place as it was centuries ago, if not thousands of years ago. But, something is different at this site: she not only can see them, but at least one of them, a Mayan priestess, can see her. And, they can communicate to some extent.

A series of accidents occur, injuring one young worker. The local inhabitants insist that the place is haunted and demand a curandera be called in. The curandera performs the necessary ceremonies. But, before she leaves, she warns Elizabeth that both she and Diane must leave. If not, at least Diane must be sent away or there will be a tragedy.

It's a quiet novel--that's the best way I can describe it. There are no monsters here, but there is a slowly growing sense of danger which affects everybody on the dig to some extent. All will be glad when this one is over.

Overall Rating: good novel, meant to be read in a quiet place and in long segments.


  1. I had the good fortune to read and review both of Smith's books--Child 44 and The Secret Speech--and found the second superior to the very good first novel. So, like me, you might also enjoy The Secret Speech if you enjoyed Smith's debut novel.

  2. Perhaps it is due to my aversion to film versions of novels, but I've never warmed up to Austen films. As for Northanger Abbey, I enjoyed the novel so much--in spite of its quirky flaws--that I cannot imagine being persuaded to watch a 90-minute skeleton. Thanks for the heads up about the film. Now I am comfortable with savoring the novel.

  3. R. T.,

    Thanks for the title of Smith's second book. I had heard it was either out or coming out soon, but I didn't get the title. I will definitely put that on my list as I did enjoy the first one, in spite of my quibbles.

    I don't know why, but I always try to view a film version of novels, including those of Austen. And, more often than not, I am disappointed. I have found several dramatizations of her novels to be enjoyable, but offered a choice, I don't even think twice about choosing to read the novel instead of viewing a film version. That holds true in most cases. Seldom do I find a film version that is superior to the novel.

    One of the few examples is Robert Parker's "Jesse Stone" series which is being turned into made-for-TV movies. I watched the first one and thought Tom Selleck did a superb job. Naturally I thought that since the film was so good, the novel had to be really great. I read the novel and was disappointed. Parker's Jesse Stone was flat and lifeless, or at least that's the way it struck me. Selleck added so much. I will watch all of the dramatizations as they come out, but I stopped with reading the first novel in the series. That doesn't happen too often.

  4. The dark angst in Selleck's performance (and the screenwriting) surpasses Parker's writing, which I have never enjoyed.

  5. Has anyone read the Arkady Renko books by Martin Cruz Smith? ( "Gorky Park" was the first in the series.) If so, how do they compare to "Child 44" and/ or "The Secret Speech"? Are they completely different types of books?

  6. R. T.,

    I read another of Parker's novels--a Spenser one, I think. I wasn't impressed sufficiently to read another. The TV show was OK, but it wasn't something to stay home for.

    I was surprised therefore by the film because it seemed to show a much more interesting and fully developed character than I had come to expect from Parker. I only watched the film because a friend recommended it.

    As you pointed out, it wasn't Parker--it was Selleck and the screenwriter.

  7. Cheryl,

    No, I haven't read _Gorky Park_ yet, nor have I seen the movie. However, both are on my lists for the future.