Sunday, January 24, 2010

Heart of the Hunter by Deon Meyer

I read this on a Kindle and it is a contribution to the 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Thobela Mpayipheli,a quiet, honest, and dependable "great black man, tall and broad" working as gopher for a BMW motorcycle dealership in Cape town, South Africa. He is devoted to the woman and her son with whom he lives. He also has a past, one he is not ashamed of, but one he has left behind. The daughter of an old comrade comes to him with the story that her father is being held prisoner in Lusaka, Zambia and will be killed if a computer hard drive isn't delivered to his captors. Thobela's sense of honor says that he has to pay a debt but in doing so he risks the secure world he has created. Intelligence agents for the South African government try to intercept him and he is forced on a thousand mile race north pursued by an elite military reaction force anxious to prove itself in action.

Heart of the Hunter is a fast paced and exciting conspiracy chase thriller that put me in a "just one more chapter" state of mind so that I was up until 3am finishing it.

Besides the thrills of a hunt, the book has much more working for it. Thobela appears to be a simple man at first but by the end the reader has looked deep into his soul and seen a complex and conflicted man looking for peace. The author anchors the roots of the plot in the time of The Struggle, the fight against apartheid. When you consider that apartheid ended less than 20 years ago it isn't unlikely that actions that took place then have consequences now.

Heart of the Hunter will entertain but it will also give you a glimpse of what has formed modern day South Africa.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Godfather of Kathmandu by John Burdett

I read this in the Kindle edition and it is part of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. Please visit that site to see the books set around the world that others are reading.

John Burdett's Bangkok series has given me great pleasure from its beginning with Bangkok 8. The author has lived in Bangkok and infuses his books with such a sense of place that the city is one of the characters. A seamy character to be sure but I come away from the reading with the sounds, smells, general ambience, a firm part of my memory of the book.

The stories are complex. Burdett is excellent at providing a bit of plot here, another bit there, seemingly unrelated or unconnected or a false lead, that finally come together in a conclusion that is a marvel when you see how the parts fit together.

Tying the plot and the location together are interesting and well developed characters. Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a detective with the Royal Thai Police, is the series' lead character. He is half Thai and half American which Burdett uses to contrast Eastern and Western cultures. His character is supported by his mother, a former prostitute who is part owner of the Old Man's Club which caters to oversexed, mature westerners; his boss, the corrupt Colonel Vikorn; his assistant Lek, a pre-op transsexual, a katoey; and a host of bar girls who figure into the stories.

Sonchai's character is complex and conflicted. On one side, his boss and the other detectives believe he has a mystical ability to understand westerners, the farang, because he is half American. On the other, Sonchai finds his job an impediment to his Thai side, following the Buddha, damaging his karma, finding enlightenment. I like the way that Burdett works Buddhist principles into the story as part of the culture. What we might call superstition figures prominently.

Everything that I have enjoyed in the previous three books is magnified here and I would say that Godfather of Kathmandu is the strongest books so far particularly in its development of Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

As with previous books in the series, Sonchai is telling the story to readers he refers to as farang. By identifying his audience as westerners, Sonchai can assume ignorance on their part allowing him to describe the intricacies of Thai culture.

As the novel begins, Sonchai has been dispatched by his boss Colonel Vikorn to a murder scene with a "hyper-rich, hyper-famous Hollywood farang as the victim. The ambitious and promotion hungry Detective Sukum is ready to write it off as a farang john murdered by a prostitute. Looking around the dive rented by the Fat Farang for his liaisons with prostitutes makes some sweet Sherlockian deductions proving murder that astound Sukum who knows he is out of his league.

Other things are happening to Sonchai at the same time. His relationship with his boss takes a strange turn after Vikorn watches a movie series and Sonchai suffers a personal tragedy. A trip to Kathmandu on behalf of Vikorn puts him in contact with a practitioner of apocalyptic Buddhism which tests his capability to manage his sanity. Sonchai's spiritual conflicts are a large part of the story but do not derail the plot in any way.

You are going to have to trust me that Burdett pulls all this together in what for me is a very satisfying ending. It is just too complex to coherently summarize. Godfather of Kathmandu could have served as the last book in the Bangkok series but Burdett says there will be one more Sonchai Jitpleecheep novel before he moves on to something different.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Southland, the pilot

The principal cast of SOUTHLAND

Beginning with the Extended, Commercial-Free Premiere Tuesday, Jan. 12, Only on TNT at 10/9c.

I'm a dedicated fan of police dramas and was happy when I learned that TNT had picked up Southland. This is a return to the multiple story line/ensemble cast/detectives and uniforms/intertwined stories format that I first came to love with Hill Street Blues. The series has a solid creative foundation with a strong cast, good stories, and Ann Biderman as the series creator and script writer for some of the episodes, including the pilot. Biderman won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for an episode of NYPD Blue and wrote the scripts for the films Copycat and Primal Fear.

I was hooked with the opening credits and the hook set with the first scene. As I watched, I realized that coming to TNT was the best thing that could have happened to Southland. Here it can be edgier, grittier. They don't have to insult us by masking obvious words and expressions with annoying bleeps. Well, there is one bleep but it is justified. The show has more freedom to deliver a greater degree of realism than we expect outside of premium channels. Filming on location in LA contributes to the realism and I didn't have difficulty believing that the characters were police.

If this pilot is any indication, the focus is going to be on two characters, rookie patrolman Ben Sherman, played by Ben McKenzie, and black female detective Lydia Adams played by Regina King. McKenzie is excellent as in his role as an officer fresh out of the academy who is working to keep himself tightly controlled. He conveys a lot of emotion with small facial expressions. King's Detective Adams is efficient, effective at her job, and has empathy for victims and survivors.

The other actors are equally solid. Sherman's Training Officer, John Cooper (Micheal Cudlitz) does a good balance as the tough supervisor who cares about the job. He also has some of the best lines in the show. C. Thomas Howell doesn't have much screen time but he plays the obnoxious Officer Billy Dewey wonderfully. Arija Bareikis plays Dewey's long suffering but loyal partner Chickie Brown, who wants to be the first female member of SWAT.

The actors playing the civilians are equally good. In particular, look for Carla Jeffery as Janila, a young black girl who witnessed a shooting. She really pulled the scenes in which she appeared together.

I don't want to give away too much of the stories but here is my look at the first four minutes. No spoilers. At the bottom are links to clips from the show.

Before the opening credits we are told that
Only 9,800 police officers patrol the city of Los Angeles. An area of 500 square miles and 4 million people...
The police are up against formidable odds. There are more of them that there are of us.

The opening credits grab your attention with a haunting pulsing flute and strings beat, maybe a little hypnotic in regularity, that gradually builds. You are looking down the barrel of the revolver of a police officer in an old style uniform in a sepia toned photograph. Other vintage photos follow. The police we are about to see are following in the footsteps of the previous generation of police serving Los Angeles.

The pilot opens on the aftermath of a shooting - it is 1:45 AM and a police officer is being loaded into an ambulance, a body lies on the ground, an agitated crowd mills around held back by police. The only thing you hear is a bluesy harmonica wail, no ambient sounds from the scene. A young police officer emerges, in shock, and approaches the body. Squatting by the body, the background noise kicks in and we are in the action.

A voice-over tells us that the young officer is Ben Sherman who is just finishing phase on of his probationary training and the evening hasn't gone well.

After this riveting opening we go back 18 hours and see Sherman and his training officer, John Cooper, leaving on patrol. Cooper maintains a steady stream of "this is the real world" talk
If you do what they teach you in the academy you will die.

Sherman is tightly controlling his nervousness. Three story lines now emerge:

  • Sherman's first patrol which ends in the action we saw at the beginning.

  • The shooting of a young black boy handled by Dets. Sammy Bryant and Nate Moretta, Southeast Div.

  • The disappearance of a young girl handled by Dets. Lydia Adams and Russell Clarke, Alvarado Station

The action switches between the three stories, introducing the characters,giving us a glimpse of the personal lives of the main characters, and setting us up for future story lines.

This review is based on an advance screener copy sent to me by Warner Bros..

Clips from the pilot
Introducing the detectives from the gang unit in Southeast Division (Windows media format)
Introducing the detectives from the gang unit in Southeast Division (Quick Time)

Introducing Dets. Adams and Clarke (Windows media)
Introducing Dets. Adams and Clarke (Quick Time)

Officer John Cooper and Ben Sherman (Windows media)
Officer John Cooper and Ben Sherman (Quick Time)

The obnoxious Officer Billy Dewey (Windows media)
The obnoxious Officer Billy Dewey (Quick Time)

Great interaction between detectives and the parent of witnesses to a gang shooting, Janila is in purple in the background (Windows media)
Great interaction between detectives and the parent of witnesses to a gang shooting, Janila is in purple in the background (Quick Time)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Ballade of Detection by Carolyn Wells

I'm working on a nerdy librarian project -- yes it is Holmsian and I'll post the results later -- and ran into this poem by Carolyn Wells in the May 1902 issue of The Bookman: a Magazine of Literature and Life. She touches upon the Literature vs genre fiction argument and I rather like the way she writes about detective fiction - and the nod to Holmes in the last stanza.

A Ballade of Detection

Savants there be who joy to read
Of lofty themes in words that glow;
Others prefer the poet's screed
Where liquid numbers softly flow.
Others in Balzac interest show,
Or by Dumas are much impressed;
Some seek grim novels full of woe--
I like Detective Stories best.

To my mind nothing can exceed
The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe;
Of Anna Katherine Green I've need,
Du Boisgobey, Gaboriau;
I've Conan Doyle's work all a-row,
And Ottolengui and the rest;
How other books seem tame and slow!
I like detective Stories best.

The dim, elusive clues mislead,
Hiding the mystery below;
To fearful pitch my mind is keyed,
Opinion shuttles to and fro!
Successive shocks I undergo
Ere the solution may be guessed;
Arguments and discussions grow--
I like Detective Stories best.

Sherlock, thy subtle powers I know,
Spirit of search, incarnate guest,
To thee the laurel wreath I throw--
I like Detective Stories best.

--Carolyn Wells.

Authors referenced:

Anna Katherine Green, 1846-1935. One of the first writers of detective fiction.

Fortune du Boisgobey, 1821-1891. French writer of police stories.

Emile Gaboriau, 1832-1873.His police stories of Monsieur Lecoq were very popular before being eclipsed by Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

Rodrigues Ottolengui, 1861-1937 and here at the Golden Age Detection web site. A dentist from Charleston South Carolina who also wrote crime stories. The Saturday Review of Literature called Ottolengui "the dental counterpart... of England's physician crime solver, Dr Conan Doyle." Ellery Queen described him as "one of the most neglected authors in the entire history of the detective story."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Favorite Books Read in 2009

Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise is compiling her annual Your Best Crime Fiction Reads. Check it out; I'm positive your TBR list will grow.

I didn't do a very good job of keeping track of what I read in 2009 but I wanted to participate in Kerrie's compilation so the books below represent those that immediately sprang to mind. They are not in any order.

1a) The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson
b) The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

2a) Mixed Blood - Roger Smith
b) Wake Up Dead (OK, it isn't part of a series but I have to include it)

3) Fifty Grand - Adrian McKinty

4) The Rule Book - Rob Kitchin

5) Bury Me Deep - Megan Abbott

6) Bad Traffic - Simon Lewis

7) Damn Near Dead: an Anthology of Geezer Noir - Duane Swierczynski, editor

8) A Vengeful Longing - Roger Morris

9) 9 Dragons - Michael Connelly

10) Pain Killers - Jerry Stahl

Television Police Drama and the Return of Southland

Southland premiers on TNT, Tuesday, January 12 at 10:00PM.

Pictured right are Ben McKenzie as rookie Officer Ben Sherman (foreground) and Michael Cudlitz as Officer John Cooper.

I've always enjoyed police dramas on television. In the early days it was Dragnet and Adam 12.

In 1981 my fondness turned to love -- Hill Street Blues premiered. It had uniforms and detectives, male, female, black and white police, and a large, and talented cast. It blended personal and professional aspects of the character's lives. Dennis Franz of NYPD Blues fame had two roles on Hill Street Blues. The pilot episode won an Edgar for Best Teleplay and it remains watchable today.

Following Hill Street Blues there wasn't much that interested me until NYPD Blue (1993-2005) followed by Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999, The Shield (2002-2008), and The Wire (2002-2008), The Closer (2008-). These shows are in my top ten favorite television dramas and enjoyable in their own right but they didn't give me what Hill Street Blues did, an ensemble cast that featured uniforms and detectives.

Then Southland premiered on NBC. It might have been a little derivative (the two main uniforms reminded of Malloy and Reed in Adam 12) but I instantly liked the characters and the story lines that started developing. It was set in the LA of The Closer and The Shield and had a rawness that appealed to me. And then NBC dropped it after seven episodes.

I was elated when I heard that TNT picked it up and would continue the series. TNT also gives us The Closer (crossover opportunity?) so they now have a lock on my loyalty. Wikipedia says that TNT will de-emphasize the ensemble cast and concentrate of the veteran uniform officer Ben Sherman and black detective Lydia Adams. I have mixed feelings about this but the Sherman and Adams characters were two of the strongest on the NBC run so I am optimistic. Also, he synopsis of the TNT pilot looks like it won't disappoint me.

If you have access to TNT and enjoy police dramas, please watch so TNT will be encouraged and keep it going.
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