Monday, November 9, 2009

Combination Plate 10

This will be a slightly different opening for this Combination Plate: I am beginning with a negative review.

Deathtrap, a film, 1982
Michael Caine
Christopher Reeves
Dyan Cannon

The premise is intriguing. Michael Caine is despondent for his last four plays have bombed. Suicide is becoming a viable option. Then, hope arrives in a brown envelope. It's a marvelous unpublished play written by an aspiring playwright who had taken Caine's workshop the previous year. Caine invites him up to his isolated house and plans to do away with him.

Caine is excellent in his role as the desperate dramatist who turns from potential suicide to murder before our eyes as he carefully makes his plans (his plays are murder mysteries, what else?) Christopher Reeve is convincing as the young, eager, naive, and innocent author who is grateful for Caine's offer to work with him on preparing it for presentation.

What is so wrong with this play that I could only watch less than 30 minutes of it? Dyan Cannon is what's wrong. She comes across as a shrieking, twitching, arm-waving, scenery-chewing neurotic. Every time she appeared I shrank back in my chair; I turned the volume down so I wouldn't hear her, but then I couldn't hear Caine or Reeve either. If they had been planning on murdering her, that would have been understandable, enjoyable to be precise, and I would then have been able to put up with her histrionics, knowing there would be justice done. Unfortunately, nobody asked my opinion, so the victim remained Reeve's character.

Overall Rating: I found it unwatchable. This is one time that I'm hoping for a remake.


The Bridge on the River Kwai, film, 1957
Director: David Lean
Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle

Prisoners of the Japanese Army, US and British soldiers are forced to build a bridge over the River Kwai, as the title suggests. Holden comes across very well in his portrayal of Shears, a conniving American GI who had escaped from the work camp and is forced tol reluctantly lead them back to the work camp. Alec Guinness, as always, does a superb job as the British officer who becomes confused between his duties as a officer and his desire to leave something behind him that wasn't just more evidence of death and destruction. Jack Hawkins is equally convincing in his role as the "typical" British officer who takes everything in stride and suggests while they could do the difficult today, they won't be able to accomplish the impossible until tomorrow.

Side note: a commenter on regarding this movie insists that they got it all wrong. The film is based on a real incident during WWII, and the British officer who was in charge of the British troops who worked on the bridge over the Kwai did everything he could to sabotage the

Overall Rating: considered only as a film depicting fictional events, this is a good one. I recommend it.


Karin Fossum
When the Devil Holds the Candle
Mystery: Police procedural
Setting: Norway
Fourth in the Series detailing the cases of Inspector Konrad Sejer

I have read three of the first four books in this series which now numbers eight volumes and with luck will continue on for awhile. The one of the first four that I haven't read is the first one, Eve's Eye, which is a literal translation from the Norwegian and may not be the title if the book is ever translated into English. And, that's why I haven't read it yet; I can't read Norwegian.

When the Devil Holds the Candle continues the themes that Fossum developed in the two earlier works that I have read. She focuses on the psychology of the individuals involved, especially the criminals, and spends less time on action-oriented activities. The work opens on several characters, two young males, and an older female. It's confusing at times, so careful reading is required.

The two young men, Andreas and Zipp, are poised on the edge of the divide between relatively harmless thievery and more serious crimes. We follow along as the two decide on a bit of purse-snatching from a young woman who is pushing a baby carriage. They decide this would be relatively safe for the mother certainly wouldn't leave the baby behind and chase after her purse. Unfortunately they guess wrong, and a minor criminal offense turns tragic, for neither the mother nor the two purse snatchers planned for what did happen. This is a theme that has run through at least all three of her novels that I've read.

The older woman seems a bit peculiar. Her husband left her one day without saying a word. He just disappeared, and no trace of him has ever been found. Since the police could not find any evidence of foul play, they decided that he simply left and that's not a crime.

A second theme is the interaction of various characters in the novels. I won't go into all the details but because of this incident and another that happened between Andreas and Zipp, they decide to do something a bit unusual, so that they will be able to look back on this "triumph" rather than on the very depressing events that have happened so far.

It too goes wrong, very wrong. Andreas and Zipp follow an older woman home, and Andreas decides to go after her in her own home--something new for them--a home invasion. Andreas goes in. Zipp waits and waits and waits. Andreas never comes out. Zipp leaves, for he has a job and he needs to get some sleep.

The police, led by Inspector Sejer, now have two unrelated cases going. One involves the purse- snatching, and the second arises when Andreas' mother reports him missing. The police do investigate Andreas' disappearance because they have met with him before, and he has become a "person of interest."

Fossum's universe seems almost to be a contingent one, especially where her characters are concerned. Causality doesn't seem to play a role here: her characters all have their plans and have worked out a course of action. When they put their plans into action, they keep bumping unexpectedly into other people and what happens is something nobody, and this also includes the reader, can foresee.

The downside, a minor one at that, is that Inspector Sejer really doesn't get an excessive amount of attention. I find him an interesting character and would like to see more of him. Well, I guess the only way to do that now is to read the next novel, which I will do shortly. It's title is The Indian Bride (aka Calling Out For You).

Overall Rating: very highly recommended


Leo Tolstoy
Resurrection, a novel

Prince Nekhlyudov is young, wealthy, handsome, and popular. He is quite satisfied with his status. One day, he is called for jury duty. One of the accused is a young woman, a prostitute, who is charged with the murder of a customer and the theft of thousands of rubles. Also charged are two others who have insisted that the young woman, Katerina Maslova, was the instigator of the crime. It becomes clear to the jury that Maslova at most might be involved with the theft, but there was no evidence that she planned the murder. Unfortunately, the judge does not clearly instruct the jury as to the proper way to find her guilty of the lesser crime and not guilty of the murder. She, therefore, is found guilty of murder and sentenced to exile in Siberia.

Prince Nekhlyudov is stunned to recognize Maslova as a former servant on his aunt's estate. Years ago, on a visit to his aunt, he had seduced Katerina and then left for the military. She became pregnant and was forced to leave. He now blames himself for her situation and works to get the verdict overturned. While all recognize the injustice of her verdict, no one with authority is willing to rectify the situation. The Prince then elects to follow her into exile, much as Sonya had decided to follow Raskolnikov into exile in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

The novel does not compare favorably with Tolstoy's great works: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilych. While the reader does get a tour of the aristocracy and the judicial system, it is formulaic and designed to point out the corruption and degeneration of the aristocracy, the government and judicial system.

Nekhlyudov visits Katerina Maslova in prison. He also meets some of the other prisoners, all of whom have been mistreated and most of whom are unjustly imprisoned. He agrees to help some of them. He then makes the rounds of various government and judicial officials and is shocked by their behavior and their attitude, for many of the officials are corrupt, many more seeming uncaring, and only a few willing to help. That he is a prince helps considerably, for it's clear that some one with a lower status would be ignored.

He then returns to the prison and meets some more prisoners who also ask his aid. He agrees and now must visit some new government and judicial offices and finds a repeat of his earlier visit. This pattern continues through most of the novel.

Tolstoy hasn't lost his skill in putting words to paper, and the translation by Rosemary Edmonds is excellent. The problem, for me anyway, is that Tolstoy has a point to make in the novel and constructs the novel to demonstrate that point. This makes for a weak novel for it forces the author to create situations to exemplify the point and not because those situations arise naturally from the interaction among the various characters and settings.

Overall Rating: a good word painting of the Russian government and judicial system under the Czars, but not one of Tolstoy's best.


G. M. Malliet
Death of a Cozy Writer
Mystery, Police procedural
Setting: Cambridgeshire, England
First in the series featuring the cases of Detective Chief Inspector St. Just

Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk is worth millions. He made it writing a series of mysteries featuring the exploits of Miss Rampling, probably well over 90 by now, who lives in the small village of Saint Edmund-Under-Stowe. This village exhibits a murder rate that should have wiped out the entire population many years ago. Sir Adrian is a nasty person, and his four children are awaiting his so-far unfortunately delayed demise. Every month or so, Sir Adrian contacts his solicitor and makes a new will. At present, his children don't know for sure what share of his millions they might inherit or even if they will inherit anything at all.

At the beginning of the novel, the four possible heirs receive a thick envelop from him in the mail. It is a wedding invitation; he is getting married to someone they have only heard of but have never met. If she is anything like his past girlfriends, she is probably young enough to be his granddaughter. But, this is a first, for never before has there ever been a hint that he might remarry. Now, there are five who may or may not be mentioned in the will. In addition, she's probably young enough to have children. Like nothing else, this invitation guarantees their presence for the weekend of the wedding. Now, all will be together, once again.

The novel, of course, is a tribute to the great mysteries of the Golden Age, the 1920s and 1930s. His character, Miss Rampling, can't help but remind readers familiar with that era of Agatha Christie's own Miss Marple. And, I'll bet there are hundreds of novels featuring a wealthy old man or woman, hated by their heirs who sit like vultures, awaiting that last breath.

Malliet has something else going for her also. She is an excellent writer who imbues her story with humor, mostly of the sly variety. Following is a quote from her novel in which she describes Sarah, one of Sir Adrian's four children:

"Everything in the place reflected darkly back on Sarah's personality: the carelessly chosen second-hand furniture included two overstuffed chairs covered in faded roses that clashed with the faded wallpaper that might once have been green but was now an indecipherable muddish gray. While bookshelves lining the walls might have offset the gloom with brightly covered novels, instead the dozens of worn books on the shelves blended into the mud like rocks, their covers, mostly black or gray, announcing obscure religious tracts of long-dead martyrs and other assorted lunatics."

Sarah is also a writer. She has been quite successful with her first effort, a cookbook titled What Jesus Ate. Flushed with success, she is now working on her second cookbook--Cooking with the Magdalene.

G. M. Malliet has a second novel out which also features DCI St. Just: Death and a Lit Chick. Her third novel, Death at the Alma Mater, is due in January 2010.

Overall Rating: her novels are a welcome change from the recent obsessive dwelling on serial killers and their twisted childhoods in which they suffered from various forms of child abuse which caused them to become the monsters they are. Her novels are fun to read.

Highly recommended.


  1. Thanks for the eclectic combination plate. Fossum and Tolstoy at the same buffet. Wonderful!

  2. R. T.,

    Glad you enjoyed the mix.