book: The Need (2019) by Helen Phillips


Whenever terms like “dazzlingly original” appear in the cover quotes for a mainstream novel — in this instance the quote’s from Emily St John Mandel — my first assumption is that the novelist has incorporated some stock premise from science fiction or fantasy, regarded as “dazzlingly original” because the quoter is unfamiliar with those literary fields.

On occasion, as with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow or (I gather, because I’ve yet to read it) Mandel’s own Station Eleven, this can be a productive exercise, because the writer does indeed go off and do something new and strange with the premise. Other examples? George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, even Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius. There are plenty more. Harder to remember, for obvious reasons, are examples like P.D. James’s The Children of Men, where the novelist essentially reinvents the sciencefictional wheel. (That didn’t stop the mainstream critics praising James’s “originality,” natch; Amis, to his great credit, lambasted those who tried to do the same for Time’s Arrow, insisting to them that he’d nicked the premise from a lesser-known Philip K. Dick novel, Counter Clock World.)

Helen Phillips’s The Need falls, I’m delighted to say, into the category of Time’s Arrow and Sirius. It could certainly be categorized as science fiction, but its primary concerns are its own.

Molly and her fellow-paleobotanists are puzzled to find in their latest dig not just plant fossils that are hard to fit into the evolutionary tree but also Continue reading


book: The Courilof Affair (1933; trans 2008 Sandra Smith) by Irène Némirovsky


An absorbing political novel by the author whose Fire in the Blood I so much enjoyed a couple of months ago.

The tale is told in extended flashback toward the end of his life by Léon M (aka Marcel Legrand), who was part of the struggle against Tsarist tyranny in the years before the Russian Revolution and who became a senior officer in the secret police under the Soviets. In specific, he tells us how in 1903 he was instructed to assassinate the Tsar’s Minister of Education, Courilof, in retaliation for the latter’s brutal crackdowns on students protesting in favor of greater freedom.

Under the name Legrand, M infiltrates himself into Courilof’s household as his new, Swiss personal physician and gives the “Killer Whale” palliative care for his developing liver cancer. Despite himself, “Legrand” becomes Continue reading

The Crime of Helen Stanley (1934)

US / 60 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: D. Ross Lederman Scr: Harold Shumate Story: Charles R. Condon Cine: Al Seigler (i.e., Allen G. Siegler) Cast: Ralph Bellamy, Shirley Grey, Gail Patrick, Kane Richmond, Bradley Page, Vincent Sherman, Clifford Jones (i.e., Phillip Trent), Arthur Rankin, Lucien Prival, Ward Bond, Helen Eby-Rock, Stephen Chase, Edward Keane.

While most audiences’ default attitude toward the offerings of Poverty Row studios like Monogram and PRC is one of mockery, however often we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised by the actuality, it’s worth recalling that some of the contemporaneous B-feature output from the major studios wasn’t so very much better.

Ralph Bellamy as Trent; might this be his last case?

An instance in point is The Crime of Helen Stanley, where it’s visible on-screen that the production had a far bigger budget to play with than might a Monogram or PRC equivalent yet the churned-out nature of the resulting movie is practically palpable. There’s no sense at any point that anyone involved in this production had any love for or pride in what they were doing, with the possible exception of Phillip Trent as studio gofer Larry King—and, ironically, Trent chose to appear here under a pseudonym, Clifford Jones.

Gail Patrick as Helen

Plenty of people have good reason to loathe Hollywood star Helen Stanley (Patrick), so when she’s gunned down on set Continue reading

book: Lisey’s Story (2006) by Stephen King

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A few days ago I read a Guardian interview with King in which he said that his favorites of his own books were Misery, The Stand and Lisey’s Story. While I’d read and appreciated Misery and The Stand (although not the oh gawd even flippin’ LONGER Director’s Cut version), I’d always assumed Lisey’s Story was one of those minor ones I could read or not read without it having much effect on my assessment of King’s work.

I then realized that Lisey’s Story was one of the handful of unread King books on my shelves — I picked it up at some point on the grounds it must be one of his lesser-known outings, more fool me. A day or two later I tripped over a reference claiming that it wasn’t just one of his Fave Three but actually his Fave of All Time.

Yup. That was enough to convince me.

I really ought to read King more often. The reasons are manifold. First, whenever I read one of his books I enjoy it — sometimes more, sometimes less, but I can’t recall a stinker. Second, despite what the sneering critics might have said of him a few decades ago, he’s now established as a figure of some significance in 20th/21st-century US literature. Third, even though he’s writing for a “bestseller” readership, his books very often have a narrative subtlety and style — and indeed intellectual heft — that some of the litcrit crowd’s darlings might envy. In fact, I’d recommend that any would-be writer read themselves a bucketful of King to learn exactly what can be done while still keeping the connection with the average Joe Public reader.

(Decades age I was chatting with A Very Famous Author and mentioned that I thought, despite the critics, Stephen King was pretty damn’ good and enjoyed reading his books. She leaned forward. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said, “but so do I.” Nowadays I imagine that she, like me, would not be so shy.)

Lisey is the widow of Scott Landon, a bestselling author who died of some obscure disease a couple of years ago. She’s still in grief for him, still loves him — even though it’s obvious to us as readers that he was a pain in the ass, from his monumental ego to his frequent recourse to infantile language and mannerisms. On the other hand, if you’d had the childhood he had, chances are you’d be even worse.

Lisey’s coping not just with her widowhood but with the fact that all the academic types are howling to get their mitts on whatever Scott left behind, from signed books to research folders to (oh, drool) unpublished manuscripts. She and only she knows that much of Scott’s inspiration came not just from his hellish childhood but from his (and his big brother’s) ability to seek solace in a reified otherworld called Boo’ya Moon — a place that’s in part Paradise, in part Hell, where there’s a pool of healing that’s also somewhere that writers and others can go to find inspiration in the form of language or ideas. There are hideous dangers there too, some of them all the more hideous because they seem almost welcoming.

The language that Scott has brought back with him (and that King frequently reproduces) can become irritating: “the bad-gunky” for (to approximate) “inner evil,” for example. (Did I mention that Scott’s a pain in the ass?) A lot less irritating is King’s use of repeated catchphrases — like “as the saying is” — to create the sense that this is not so much a printed tale to be read as an oral tale to be heard, and passed down.

The narrative has at least three timelines, something that, even before you add complexities, is bound to require some considerable skill on the part of the writer. I was astonished by how well King managed to keep this narrative sophistication under control. Never at any point was I lost as to where or when I was; never did any of the essential spatial/temporal discontinuities interrupt the flow of the tale. (Again, I’d recommend any would-be writer to read this book to learn what can be done with supposedly straightforward narrative.) No wonder King is proud of his achievement in this novel. I cannot offhand recall another popular novel that attains this level of sheer storytelling skill; I can recall oodles of critically acclaimed, even Booker-winning items that don’t.

So much for my admiration for Lisey’s Story. How much did I actually enjoy it? The answer to the latter question is a little more complicated.

It’s slightly and inanely colored by the fact that, although early on the text told me that Lisey’s name was to be pronounced “leecee,” I kept reading it as if to rhyme with “Size A.” Eventually I just gave up and let my brain pronounce the name how it wanted to, but for the first few score pages this aural disagreement gave me a bit of a reading hiccup. Another silly extraneous factor is that my dislike of Scott definitely had an adverse effect on my enjoyment. Plus, I’m not really a horror fan, and there are some (very effective) passages of gruesome horror here.

Where the book really soared, though, was in its imaginative passages. The atmosphere around the pool where all writers go for linguistic or conceptual inspiration (and anyone can go for healing) is brilliantly imagined, as is the fear in the Fairy Forest in Boo’ya Moon when the Laughers are shrieking to the moonlit sky. (I call the pool the common stockpot, which is a lot less romantic.) The switchings from one timeline to another were quite masterful: jealous, jealous. The disparate relationships between Lisey and her three sisters were really quite wonderfully handled . . .

And yet I’d not personally put Lisey’s Story at the top of my list of King novels. I’m not sure why this is so. Maybe it’s because my own faves among King’s novels are pretty idiosyncratic, being mainly books that, so far as I’m concerned, go ignored or under-regarded by his devotees and it seems by King himself: Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game, his wonderful M.R. Jamesian ghost story Bag of Bones . . .

As I say, I have a few unread Stephen King books on my shelves (a couple with Peter Straub, another much-admired author) and I really oughter get round to reading them. Perhaps I should turn this into a little reading project. On the other hand, unlike Lisey’s Story, they do tend to be so effing long . . .

Incident at a Corner (1960 TVM)

US / 49 minutes / color / Shamley, Alfred Hitchcock Productions, NBC Dir: Alfred Hitchcock Pr: Joan Harrison Scr: Charlotte Armstrong Story: Incident at a Corner (1957) by Charlotte Armstrong Cine: John L. Russell Cast: Vera Miles, George Peppard, Paul Hartman, Bob Sweeney, Leora Dana, Warren Berlinger, Philip Ober, Jerry Paris, Alice Backes, Charity Grace, Leslie Barrett, Alexander Lockwood, Jack Albertson, Eve McVeagh, Tyler McVey, Joe Flynn, Barbara Beaird, Mary Alan Hokanson, Wendell Holmes, Hollis Irving, Florence MacMichael.

Based on a Charlotte Armstrong novella, this minor piece of Hitchcockiana was aired as #27 (of 33 episodes) in the NBC TV series Startime (1959–60), one of the first TV shows to air in color. About half the episodes were variety presentations, the other half narrative pieces, usually dramas like this one. Hitchcock got involved because Lew Wasserman, then head of MCA, which had struck a package deal to supply star actors for the series, was also Hitch’s agent. It’s worth noting that Hitch wisely brought with him Joan Harrison as part of the enterprise.

We’re first shown three different versions of an altercation at a street corner next to a school. Mary Tawley (Dana), obnoxious wife of important local stuffed shirt Malcolm Tawley (Ober), owner of the Security First Bank, remonstrates with the elderly crossing guard whose STOP sign she drove past, James “Jim” Medwick (Hartman).

Vera Miles as Jane and George Peppard as Pat

In the third view we discover the scene was observed by two newcomers to the neighborhood, Harry (Albertson) and Georgia Crane (McVeagh). Georgia recognizes Jim and is terrified he’ll tell the neighborhood about her wild youth as Georgia Clooney (sic!) when they both lived in Continue reading

reblog: Don Siegel’s The Killers

***A tremendous account by J.D. Lafrance of Don Siegel’s classic hardboiled movie.

Wonders in the Dark

By J.D. Lafrance

The first feature-length adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers” was directed by Robert Siodmak in 1946 and featured a young Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner as the two leads. It was a simple tale of a man who had hit rock bottom so badly that he allowed two hitmen to kill him. The doomed man was the focus of Siodmark’s film while, on the surface, it may seem that Don Siegel’s 1964 film version is all about doomed race car driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes). He is given quite a bit of The Killers’ screen time through flashbacks by the people that knew and loved him. However, Siegel drops in subtle visual clues throughout to suggest that the film is actually about the two professional killers with an emphasis on the elder more experienced one played by Lee Marvin. It is interesting to note…

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Laura (1962 TVM)

West Germany / 110 minutes / bw / Bayerischer Rundfunks, Riva Studios Dir & Scr: Franz Josef Wild Pr: Werner Preuss Story: Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary Cine: Günter Kropf Cast: Hildegard Knef, Adolf Wohlbrück (i.e., Anton Walbrook), Hellmut Lange, John van Dreelen, Hillie Wildenhain, Wolf Schmidtholstein, Nora Minor, K.G. Gensichen, Thomas Alder.

A while ago I wrote here about another adaptation of Caspary’s novel, A Portrait of Murder (TVM 1955) dir John Brahm, with Dana Wynter, George Sanders and Robert Stack, and, glancing at that entry just now, I couldn’t help but feel that its opening paragraph, minus a few words, is exactly apposite here:

. . . this is not so much a remake of Otto Preminger’s classic LAURA (1944), which featured Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson and Dorothy Adams, as a re-adaptation of Caspary’s novel for the screen. There’s a visible (and visual) awareness of Preminger’s version, but really this is its own entity. Much of the Continue reading

book: The Paris Secret (2018) by Lily Graham


A novel that has quite a lot wrong with it yet that I nonetheless found infectiously charming, in the same way that I can be rendered damp-eyed by a Hallmark Channel movie even at the same time as recognizing it as absolute schmaltz. Of course, anything that’s set in a little Paris bookshop is likely to appeal to me . . . with the notable exception of, oddly enough, Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, which I disliked quite a lot.

But back to The Paris Secret.

Short introductory and closing chapters are set on a train to Paris in the here and now, but the novel is primarily set in Paris much earlier, its two related plot-lines being dated 1962-3 and 1940-42, with the latter strand having as backdrop Continue reading

book: Distress Signals (2017) by Catherine Ryan Howard

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A few months ago I read and raved about Catherine Ryan Howard’s second novel, The Liar’s Girl (2018), and promptly resolved to read her first. As is my wont, I left a period of grace between the two books (and will do so likewise between this one and her just-published third outing, Rewind). To cut a long story short, Distress Signals is excellent, and a major reason why my eyes are currently burning from lack of sleep.

Cork native Adam Dunne is a wannabe screenwriter whose time seems finally to have come. He’s settling down to do the hurried rewrites on his first big sale during the absence of long-term girlfriend Sarah on a work trip to a conference in Barcelona. The only trouble is that, as he soon discovers, there is no conference in Barcelona, and her employers think she’s at home with a stomach bug. As Sarah drops completely off the radar, failing to answer texts or voicemail from Adam or anyone else, her best friend breaks the news to him that Sarah went off on a secret romantic adventure with another guy.

Panic sets in when Sarah fails to return. All that arrives is her passport, through the mail, with a simply message inside it: “I’M SORRY — S.”

Adam’s desperate quest to try to find out what’s happened to Sarah — to find out if she’s even still alive — introduces him to the murky world of crime aboard cruise ships, where the major operators can and do keep crimes up to and including murder out of the public eye for fear of alienating potential future customers. He allies himself with Peter, a man whose wife a year ago went missing in circumstances strikingly similar to those of Sarah’s disappearance, and together the two men travel as undercover detectives on a cruise aboard the Celebrate, the flagship of the Blue Wave line. Over and over again Adam will have the scales dashed from his eyes as a series of dreadful crimes is uncovered . . .

Howard cannily doles out the various revelations of her plot with what seemed to me near-perfect timing, so that they came as surprises but not as in any way cheats: the clues were there for me to deduce, had I been astute enough, each twist just before its disclosure — and in a couple of instances I did indeed come deliciously, tantalizingly close to getting there first. In addition, there’s a separate subplot that seems to be leading us in a completely different direction, toward an “obvious” killer; I fell into the trap of believing this just had to be a red herring . . . which it isn’t, not entirely.

As with The Liar’s Girl, I was amazed by the sheer quality of Howard’s writing. There’s a magnificent fluency to it that both transcends genre and is especially well fitted to the service of suspense fiction. The novel had me reading sickeningly late into the night — I had a bad attack of the “just one more chapter” malady — and it did this two nights running, so in a way it was as much with relief as with reluctance that I got to the (very satisfying) conclusion.

Distress Signals offers a twistier, more baffling mystery than The Liar’s Girl — I was reminded of the work Harlan Coben did in his pomp (with novels like Tell No One) — but it didn’t have quite the same fascination for me as Howard’s sophomore effort, I think possibly because The Liar’s Girl sticks closer to home, so to speak, weaving its mystery and uncertainty from more commonplace threads. But, really, neither novel is better or worse than the other: they’re both outstandingly good.

The Trespasser (1947)

US / 70 minutes / bw / Republic Dir: George Blair Assoc Pr: William J. O’Sullivan Scr: Jerry Gruskin, Dorrell McGowan, Stuart E. McGowan Story: Jerry Sackheim, Erwin Gelsey Cine: John Alton Cast: Dale Evans, Warren Douglas, Janet Martin, Douglas Fowley, Adele Mara, Gregory Gay (i.e., Gregory Gaye), Grant Withers, William Bakewell, Vince Barnett, Francis Pierlot, Joy Barlowe (i.e., Joy Barlow), Fred Graham, Dale Van Sickel, Betty Alexander, Joseph Crehan, Bobbie Dorree.

A movie that starts off as if it’s going to be yet another of those countless, nigh-indistinguishable Hollywood comedy-crime B-features, albeit better played and produced than most, but, around the halfway mark, morphs into something distinctly grimmer and more noirish, with cinematography to match—indeed, the (well choreographed) punchup of the finale is marred by the fact that the shadows are so deep you can’t see who’s getting the upper hand (fist?) in the proceedings.

Warren Douglas as Danny and Janet Martin as Stevie

Despite the order of the credits, Janet Martin is the main star of the show, with Warren Douglas and Douglas Fowley as her supports. Dale Evans has a supporting role and sings a nice song (“It’s Not the First Love” by Eddie Maxwell and Nathan Scott), but was clearly regarded as being a much bigger name than the others. Plus c’est la même chose.

Dale Evans as Linda

Stephanie “Stevie” Carson (Martin) is the daughter of the late, lamented but legendary Evening Gazette investigative reporter Frank Carson, and so, fresh out of journalism school, turns up at the Gazette offices hoping for Continue reading