book: All Systems Red (2017) by Martha Wells

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An enjoyable tale told by the SecUnit (security cyborg, designed for lethal force) assigned to a prospecting expedition investigating an unexplored planet. The team discover lethal animals that weren’t included in the advance reports and then other anomalies, which they put down to the cheapness — sorry, “fiscal prudence” — of the company licensing the expedition. But, when the (supposedly) only other expedition on the planet is annihilated, our friends, and their SecUnit, realize they have human foes to battle against.

That’s the superficial plot, but the real story is about what I’d very tentatively call the emotional evolution of the SecUnit. It calls itself Murderbot because of its ability for violence and because, on a previous assignment, someone fiddled with its controls and Continue reading

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book: Final Theory (2008) by Mark Alpert

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On the face of it, this has all the elements of what should have been a thriller tailor-made for me. Unfortunately, the plotting and the telling are a bit Dan Brown so that I came away from the novel sighing about missed opportunities.

History records that Einstein spent the last decades of his life in a fruitless search for the Grand Universal Theory (GUT) or Theory of Everything. The immediate incentive was to find a unity between General Relativity and Quantum Theory, both of which work exceptionally well at describing the universe on, respectively, the macro and the micro scales, but which are mutually incompatible. The aim beyond that was to explain the forces of the universe — gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces — in terms of a single, coherent theory. That theory would in effect explain the universe in its entirety — hence the grandiosity of its two most frequently used nicknames.

The premise of this novel is that Einstein’s search was not in fact fruitless. However, having derived the GUT, he realized that the knowledge it enshrined was dangerous: just in the same way that E = mc2 led to the atomic bomb, people could easily work out from the GUT how to create weapons (using wormholes and sterile neutrinos) that were capable of literally destroying the world.

So Einstein kept the GUT a secret. He did, however, give chunks of it to Continue reading

The Face of Fear (1971 TVM)

US / 74 minutes / color / QM, CBS Dir: George McCowan Pr: Adrian Samish, Arthur Fellows Scr: Edward Hume Story: Sally (1967) by E.V. Cunningham Cine: Ben Colman Cast: Ricardo Montalban, Jack Warden, Elizabeth Ashley, Dane Clark, Roy Poole, Charles Dierkop, Burr DeBenning, Regis Cordic, Fred Sadoff, Brooke Mills, Dallas Mitchell, Shirley O’Hara, Joel Lawrence, John Yates.

Elizabeth Ashley as Sally.

Based on a novel by Howard Fast (under his E.V. Cunningham pseudonym), this is a riff on a theme that I traced in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir back to a German movie called Der MANN, DER SEINEN MÖRDER SUCHT (1931; vt The Man who Searched for his Own Murder; vt Jim, der Mann mit der Narbe; vt Jim, the Man with the Scar). The premise is that someone, rather than commit suicide, hires a hitman to do away with them—usually for insurance reasons—and then discovers a reason why life is worth living after all. But then the hitman proves impossible to find. Somewhere, out there, he lurks, ready to strike at any moment . . .

Other movies I found that used the premise were Continue reading

book: Broadway Virgin (1931) by Lois Bull

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We were recently moving a piece of furniture that hadn’t been moved in a very long time and discovered inside it a stash of extremely old books. Quite why we’d put the books there was a mystery. Even more of a mystery was why we’d kept some of the books at all: yes, a copy of Marguerite Steen’s The Sun is My Undoing is always worth having around the house, but a battered currency converter from the 1920s?

In the end I salvaged four of the books: the Steen, for the next time I’m in the mood for rereading a 1200-page novel; an old Taylor Caldwell, which neither of us actually fancied reading but which was in good enough condition for the library sale; a book called Treadmill by Lola Jean Simpson that looks like it could be fun; and this one, which, while the copy was literally falling to bits and a child had scribbled in pencil on some early pages (bet the parents had a fit when they realized a book called Broadway Virgin had fallen into their little angel’s hands!), looked like it was worth one last read.

And, oh boy, was it worth that one last read!

Here’s the blurb, verbatim from the half-title page:

YES, there are virgins on Broadway, virgin in body and virgin in mind. Broadway demanded much of Nina and she gave much, but her virginity she kept to give to the man she loved. When the night club where she worked became involved in gang warfare she was marked for death. To save her Stephen whisked her away to Paris where she became a star. Under a new name she returns to Broadway as a headliner; but the gangs who made New York’s after theatre life a grim nightmare recognize her. They try to put her on the spot — but when the smoke clears away, Nina is her lover’s virgin bride while the gang clank their handcuffs . . .

A red blooded story that goes behind the sensational headlines and shows New York’s nightland as it really is with its gangsters, its queer people, its gigolos, and its gay girls, among whom there are always some who keep their purity.

That’s accurate enough, although a bit misleading. Most of the novel happens before Continue reading

Die Vierte Macht (2012)

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Germany / 117 minutes / color with bw flashbacks / UFA Cinema, Seven Pictures, UPI Dir: Dennis Gansel Pr: Nina Maag, Thomas Peter Friedl, Nico Hofmann Scr: Dennis Gansel, Florian Schumacher Cine: Daniel Gottschalk Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Kasia Smutniak, Max Riemelt, Mark Ivanir, Yevgenij Sitochin, Rade Serbedzija, Dragoş Bucur, Joan Pascu, Michael Bornhütter, Ivan Vrgoc, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Stipe Erceg, Reiner Schöne, Merab Ninidze, Reinhard Friedrich, Wanja Mues, Peter Franke, Daniel Freiman.

A political thriller that’s more noirish than many a neonoir as it picks apart the pretensions of the “new” Russia to reveal the dark, ruthless, evil underbelly. Although this is a German production, most of the dialogue is in (heavily accented) English, with some bits in subtitled Russian.

Much of the movie was filmed in Moscow. Apparently the producers, in order to achieve this, had to supply the authorities with a faked-up screenplay that was less critical of the brutality and corruption of the Russian state apparatus. Even so, for some reason, rather than identify the relevant heads of state as Boris Yeltsin and (especially) Vladimir Putin, the movie chooses to give Russia two fictional presidents during the era in question.

Moritz Bleibtrau as Paul.

It’s 2011, and one-time investigative journalist Paul Jensen (Bleibtreu), disgraced after being discovered to have “improved” an interview, arrives in Moscow from Berlin to take up a post as Continue reading

book: The Shadow Collector’s Apprentice (2012) by Amy Gordon

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I came across this book in a catalogue when I was looking for B.A. Shapiro’s The Collector’s Apprentice. The blurb reminded me of F.E. Higgins’s The Black Book of Secrets, a novel that I adored a few years back. What larks, I thought: I’ll give this a try.

Well, this isn’t another The Black Book of Secrets — it lacks the sustained weirdness — but it’s interesting enough in its own right.

Young Cully Pennyacre, just turned 12, whose mother died years ago and whose dad has recently gone AWOL, gets a part-time vacation job in an antiques store, and soon discovers the owner is at the heart of a racket stealing people’s shadows for use as Continue reading

book: Blueprint for Murder (1948) by Roger Bax

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A crime novel that really falls into three parts yet by whose end I felt as if everything had been pulled together very satisfactorily. One carp: This is billed as an “Inspector James Mystery” yet there’s actually very little detection involved in the tale. Essentially, James (who’s here no more than a relatively minor support character) gets nowhere in his police-procedural-style investigation. It’s something else entirely that reveals to him and the world the guilt of the bad guy.

The first part of the book is an inverted mystery: We know exactly who killed wealthy paint manufacturer Charles Hollison, and why: his nephew Arthur Cross, for his share of the inheritance. We also know that Cross is a badhat and heartless psycho killer whose time spent Continue reading

book: The Blue Movie Murders (1972) by Edward Hoch, writing as Ellery Queen

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Toward the end of the Ellery Queen franchise there appeared three novels featuring Mike McCall, special investigator for the governor of an (I think) unnamed state. This was the third of them (as I realized from internal clues and then a check of copyright dates; for some reason I’d thought it was the first), and was written by Edward Hoch; its predecessors were by Gil Brewer and Richard Deming. I first read this book decades ago in a Gollancz yellowjacket edition, and, ignorant of its true authorship, was mightily puzzled by how unlike an Ellery Queen novel it was. Ah, the innocence of youth.

A Hollywood producer heads for Rockview, one of the towns in the state, to try to track down a director who, a score or more years ago, created a pornographic movie that’s come to be regarded as an artistic masterpiece. Hardly has the producer got there than he’s murdered. McCall is sent by his boss, the governor, to investigate the murder and also the semi-secret blue-movie trade that’s being conducted out of one of the region’s major employers, the Mann photographic company. This company has recently become the target of a campaign mounted by a feminist group led by writer Cynthia Rhodes.

Once there, McCall discovers he’s not the only out-of-towner investigating. There’s also Continue reading

book: Island of the Sequined Love Nun (1997) by Christopher Moore

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At his best — as in novels like Fluke, Lamb and Noir — Christopher Moore is close to being our finest living humorous writer. Even his lesser novels, of which this is one, offer good entertainment.

Underqualified pilot Tucker Case loses his job flying for the boss of a cosmetics corporation when he’s about a mile low in altitude for an initiation into the mile-high club. His piloting mentor points him in the direction of a new job in the remotest corner of Micronesia flying medical supplies for a missionary doctor there. The pay’s astronomical and they’re willing to employ him, so Tuck knows there has to be something rotten going on, but he puts that out of his mind because doing so is the easiest option.

Especially when the scenery includes Continue reading

Fright (1956)

US / 78 minutes / bw / Planet Filmplays, Exploitation Productions, Budd Rogers Releasing Corporation Dir & Pr: W. Lee Wilder Scr: Myles Wilder Cine: J. Burgi Contner Cast: Nancy Malone, Eric Fleming, Dean L. Almquist, Frank Marth, Humphrey Davis, Elizabeth Watts, Walter Klavun, Amelia Conley, Tom Reynolds, Robert Gardett, Norman McKaye, Ned Glass, Don Douglas.

It would be easy enough, if in a snarky mood, to dismiss this borderline noir movie as irredeemably bad, and yet I came away from it ruefully admiring it as being perhaps rather good. A minor reason for liking it is the performance of Nancy Malone as a conflicted individual (although she delivers a quite dreadful, mercifully short piece of hamming toward the end), but more important is a screenplay that—seemingly despite itself—casts an intelligent light on its theme.

Nancy Malone as Ann.

Philandering New York psychiatrist James “Jim” Hamilton (Fleming) makes a sudden name for himself by using the power of hypnotic suggestion, via a bullhorn, to talk escaped serial killer George Morley (Marth) down from the bridge off which he’s threatening to throw himself.

One of the hapless witnesses to this—hapless because stuck in the traffic jam the drama creates—is traveling English dilettante Ann Summers (Malone). She finds herself responding to the commands Continue reading