Saturday 16 May 2020

Book Review: The Chain (2019) by Adrian McKinty

The best thrillers are exercises in diamond cutting. The artistry is in calculating and removing the excess, the superfluous and the extraneous to create something multi-faceted and flawless. The digressions, circumlocutions, and flourishes of the literary novel are chiseled away to create a story that's built to move forward relentlessly, one exactingly calculated, and unexpected, plot point at a time. It's perhaps the oldest, purest form of storytelling; our hero(ine) is suddenly faced with a perilous threat or task and must put everything aside, all their worldly concerns, in order to set the world (personal or otherwise) to rights. By these standards, The Chain is a diamond of the first water.

The "chain" of the title refers to a seriously evil, but clever, kidnapping scheme. It works like this: a child is kidnapped and held for ransom. The twist is that the child's parents must then kidnap another child before their own child is released. Once the next child's parents have paid up and grabbed another kid, the previous victim is released. The masterminds of this scheme don't involve themselves in the kidnappings in any physical way. They started the chain going years previously and now collect the ransoms (untraceable Bitcoin payments) and supervise, as it were, the kidnappings via cyber-snooping. The Chain has worked flawlessly until it catches up Rachel Klein's daughter, Kylie. 

Rachel is divorced and a recent cancer survivor. She enlists the help of Pete, her ex-brother-in-law and a former marine, and the two do as they're told and kidnap another child. Kylie is eventually released, but the anonymous operators of the Chain haven't finished with Rachel. And Rachel hasn't finished with them. She and Pete begin investigating the Chain, but to say more would be to venture into spoiler country. Suffice to say that the bad guys are closer to her than she could have imagined.

The Chain succeeds marvelously in its thriller mandate; it makes the reader stay up too late, mutter "Oh, fuck!" at various points, skip important household chores, and even forget to brood angrily over whatever Trump's said that day. Quite an accomplishment. All thrillers are supposed to do this, but McKinty has added a couple of elements that take his novel up a notch. The first is forcing us to root for Rachel as she commits a completely awful crime. Yes, we know that she has to do it, but it adds a level of moral horror to the story that's not often found in stories such as this.Thrillers like The Day of the Jackal sometimes ask us to root for bad guys, but do so more in the spirit of an intellectual exercise: are they clever enough to get away with this? Rachel''s "crime" is simply brutal, because there's no getting around the savagery of terrorizing a young child and her parents. 

The other intriguing element in The Chain is a motif that's appeared before in McKinty novels. Rachel has had more than a brush with cancer, and as the novel opens she is barely recovered from her latest round of treatments. And there's no guarantee her disease won't come back. This makes Rachel a wounded heroine, one marked by a near-death experience. McKinty's Michael Forsythe trilogy featured a hero who had lost a foot, and almost his life, in a brutal Mexican prison camp. In The Lighthouse trilogy (YA novels) the young hero has lost an arm, and nearly his life, to cancer. In religion and mythology wounds mark out beings with extra or special powers. The Fisher King from Arthurian legend carries a wound in his leg, as does Bran from Celtic mythology, and Christ is sometimes referred to as the "wounded healer.". Wounds mark out great warriors, those who are fearless when faced with Death and thus able to undertake dangerous tasks. On the pop culture side, films are full of wounded protagonists, from kung fu films with blind or one-armed swordsmen, to westerns in which the heroes are beaten or disgraced before redeeming themselves. And what would crime fiction do without its legion of detectives who bear the psychic scars of losing a spouse/child/partner in some terrible way? Rachel's illness has taken her close enough to the darkness that its terror is diminished, which gives her the bravery and determination to fight back against the Chain.

So, if you feel Covid and Trump aren't providing enough tension in your life, pick up the The Chain. Unlike the former it has a satisfying conclusion, and unlike the latter it does its job efficiently, smartly and with flair.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Fractured Europe by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe series of novels, comprising Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight, Europe in Winter and Europe at Dawn, have jumped back into the news because they're set in a post-pandemic world that's been ravaged by a flu originating in China. Their sudden topicality isn't what makes them unique and excellent, but if you're hellbent on reading pandemic-themed literature, grab these rather than that thing Boris Johnson's dad is peddling.

The setting for the novels is Europe in the near-ish future after it's been split into its linguistically and/or culturally constituent parts. Nationalists have created dozens of new, smaller countries, and there are even city-states (founded by municipalists?). The EU and the idea of free movement are long gone, and there are new borders everywhere. Each border has its own special restrictions, which has led to the creation of a shadowy organization called the Coureurs des Bois. They sneak people and packages across borders for a hefty fee, and the main character in the Europe series, Rudi, is one of their top operators.

This not-so-basic premise would be enough for most novel sequences, but Hutchinson adds a gobsmacking SF element that brings in the idea of pocket universes to go alongside pocket countries. And I forgot to mention a continent-spanning train track that functions as a separate country. There's a lot to to digest here, some of it very high-concept,  and in less capable hands these ideas could have come across as ludicrous or cartoonish, but Hutchinson manages it deftly thanks to his skill at world building. His fractured Europe is built from the bureaucratic floor up. This novel sequence is largely told through the eyes and actions of functionaries, civil servants, ordinary workers, and small-time crooks. This collective prole's-eye view allows us to see this strange world as a new normal for people much like ourselves. For them, the peculiar realities of their world(s) are just so many day-to-day challenges that have to be endured or overcome with a bit of determination and energy. Most high-concept SF takes the god's-eye view of people at the heart of managing or defeating a crisis, which can turn these characters into quasi superheroes and thereby less relatable. When a fictional world is filled with people we easily recognize--confused, ordinary, humane, struggling to cope--that world becomes believable no matter how unlikely its features.

The novels capably blend intrigue, mystery, suspense, and, in an overall sense, they have the flavour of the best spy fiction (think Deighton and Ambler) audaciously combined with SF elements. In theory, this mixture shouldn't work, but it's all deftly handled, and, unfortunately, it's all seeming less unlikely by the day.

Monday 4 May 2020

Film Review: Dog Day (1984)

Until Covid came along and forced us all indoors to begin mainlining streaming services to while away the tedious days and weeks, I hadn't heard of this Lee Marvin film, and I consider myself a hardcore Marvin fan. This was his third-last film, it was never released in North America, and the scanty number of reviews I found online are mostly scathing. Time for a reappraisal.

Marvin plays Jimmy Cobb, a notoriously violent American bank robber who, for reasons that are never explained, is in France to pull off an armoured car heist. The police are tipped off about the robbery which results in a bloody shootout and leaves Cobb on the run across the flat wheat fields of the Beauce region. He stumbles across an isolated farmhouse one step ahead of an army of cops and hides in a barn. From his hiding place he observes the extended family that runs the farm, and quickly realizes that as bad as he is, he isn't a patch on these people. Yes, poor Jimmy has run into one of the traditional boogeymen of French culture: peasants. This crew run the gamut from insane to half-witted to full-on evil; even the young boy is completely around the bend. Over the next 24 hours Cobb will have to evade the police and family. He isn't successful at either task and the bodies begin to pile up.

The reason this relentlessly OTT and WTF? film is so forgotten and/or scorned is probably due to its essential character being so relentlessly French. If you're familiar with French thriller writers like Jean-Patrick Manchette, Pascal Garnier, Sebastian Japrisot, Frederic Dard, and even Georges Simenon, you'll be aware that les Francais have a taste for crime novels that are dark, perverse, twisty, and often enthusiastically nihilistic. Dog Day has all this in spades. As well, it features a horror of peasants that goes all the way back to Balzac and Zola. In fact, Zola's La Terre, is almost a template for much of the script.

Is Dog Day good? The cinematography is excellent, the constantly unfolding horrors ensure that the your interest won't flag, and the French actors give it their all, with special mention going to David Bennent, who played a strange little boy in The Tin Drum, and here plays an even stranger small boy with a taste for whiskey and prostitutes. And there's a deeply-buried vein of black humour running through the film that bursts out in a demented coda that announces that what's proceeded was half-dark joke and partly a surreal take on the place of American gangster films in popular culture. So, yes, Dog Day is very good, but it's definitely a case of love it or hate it.