book: Fireside Gothic (2016) by Andrew Taylor

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Three novellas that have in common that they’re ghost stories but, more important for this reader, that they’re superb pieces of storytelling. There’s a sense of M.R. James about them (indeed, I spotted a “visual quote” from James at one point, albeit involving a cat rather than a dog, and there could easily be others I missed), but the style is reminiscent, too, of other, non-Gothic UK writers like Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. If you’re in search of formulaic ghost stories, complete with yer frissons of horror an’ stuff, you may find this collection disappointing; only one of the three tales has a sequence designed to frighten, and it’s not because of a ghost that it’s terrifying. As I say, it’s the storytelling itself that’s front and center here.

Set in the years leading up to World War I, “Broken Voices” sees two young adolescents stuck over the Christmas break at their Cathedral school. One of them, a chorister whose voice is breaking, is desperate to salvage his good name by rediscovering a long-lost piece of bell music written by a composer who fell to his death in the cathedral before the piece could be performed. There’s a sequence Continue reading

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book: Lady Living Alone (1945) by Peter Curtis (pseudonym of Norah Lofts)

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I’d forgotten until reminded recently that, relatively early in her career, Norah Lofts wrote four novels that could be loosely described as suspensers under the pseudonym Peter Curtis; in fact, one of them, You’re Best Alone (1943), is mentioned in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir as the basis for the Elizabeth Sellars vehicle GUILT IS MY SHADOW (1950).

Lady Living Alone sees midlist novelist Penelope Shadow suddenly strike lucky in her mid-thirties with her latest novel. She decides to use her newfound riches to buy a house of her own in the country; to run it she hires a young man called Terry Munce. At first she doesn’t mind too much as he takes over her life more and more; what she doesn’t realize is that, beneath his charm, he’s entirely mercenary — a fluent liar, an embezzler, a thief, a cheat, an adulterer and potentially worse.

But Miss Shadow has all her life been something of an eccentric little goose, relying on her prettiness to make sure others accept the responsibility for saving her from the worst consequences of her muddleheadedness. She is therefore not at all blameless when things go south: she has Continue reading

The Uninvited Ghost (2010)

US, Canada / 18 minutes / color / Echo North Dir, Scr: Heather Schmidt, Birgit U.E. Doll Pr: Heather Schmidt Cine: Gabriele Kislat Cast: Bob Bancroft, Clare Salstrom, Emory Murchison.

A completely charming short that almost certainly doesn’t belong here but that I liked so much I persuaded myself had earned its place as a little FREEEEEE bonus extra. So sue me.

Reclusive Vladimir MacGregor (Bancroft), terrified of leaving the house and it seems also terrified of the music he used to love during his high-profile career as a concert pianist, discovers his home has been invaded by a beautiful young woman—or, more accurately, a beautiful young female ghost, Wanda Westfield (Salstrom). Aghast at the intrusion—she’s even there with the towel when he steps naked from his shower, oh lawks!—he goes to the length of ordering a spray can of ghost repellent online.

Clare Salstrom as Wanda.

It doesn’t work. Nothing does until Continue reading

The Book of Henry (2017)

US / 105 minutes / color / Sidney Kimmel, Double Nickel, Focus Dir: Colin Trevorrow Pr: Sidney Kimmel, Carla Hacken, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman Scr: Gregg Hurwitz Cine: John Schwartzman, Jack Donnelly Cast: Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Maddie Ziegler, Dean Norris, Bobby Moynihan, Tonya Pinkins, Geraldine Hughes, Maxwell Simkins, Jackson Nicoll, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Philip Smreck.

I came across a disparaging reference to this movie a while ago in article whose author mentioned it alongside Collateral Beauty (2016 dir David Frankel) in a list of examples of movies in which he felt promising premises had led to stinkers. By chance, Pam and I had watched Collateral Beauty a couple of nights before and had far more enjoyed it than otherwise. Naturally, therefore, I was keen to check out The Book of Henry, a resolution that hardened when I discovered the screenplay was by Gregg Hurwitz—one of the most intelligent of our current crop of thriller writers—and that, while critics had by and large savaged the movie, audiences had by and large very much liked it.

And, guess what, I’m on the side of the audiences.

Naomi Watts as Susan.

Wannabe children’s writer/illustrator Susan Carpenter (Watts) is raising her two kids, 11-year-old Henry (Lieberher) and his kid brother Peter (Tremblay), as a single mom. Even though her job is as a waitress in a diner, Continue reading

book: Who Else but She? (1934; vt Black Widow) by S. Fowler Wright

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Originally published in 1934 as Who Else but She?, this is I think the first S. Fowler Wright book that I’ve read, although a vague memory nags that I may have read one of his adventure novels forty or fifty years ago. I do remember that, when I was a callow youth (as I still am, although time has passed), grown-ups around me recommended Wright as a “jolly good read.” They were the same people as recommended Edgar Wallace to me. They were really quite a lot older than I was.

Chief Inspector Pinkey of the Yard is called to a rural town to investigate a murder there. The local rozzers reckon Sir Daniel Denton was knocked off by his wife, Lady Adelaide, and all the evidence seems to point that way. However, the county’s Chief Constable knows Lady Adelaide socially and requires the Yard’s intervention before a formal charge is laid. Pinkey arrives, investigates and, after Lady Adelaide’s brother-in-law Gerard seemingly commits suicide, is left with little option other than to join the rest of the herd in assuming that it was Gerard wot dunnit.

End of story, case closed.

Um, not quite.

The first three-quarters or so of Wright’s novel follows the standard pattern of Continue reading

book: Behind Her Eyes (2017) by Sarah Pinborough

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Sometimes it’s hard to understand the minds of fiction publishers. These past few years, every novel that could be deemed even vaguely thrillerish, from The Wind in the Willowsto The Kama Sutra, has seemed to bear the promise “The Next Gone Girl!!!” or “The Next Girl on the Train!!!” and yet, when along comes a novel that really could warrant the claim of “The Next Gone Girl!!!” or “The Next Girl on the Train!!!”, there’s no such appellation. I checked the front and back covers and flaps in growing incredulity, but nada.

Behind Her Eyes is not so much a psychological thriller as a parapsychological thriller, although we’re well on toward the end before the distinction becomes apparent. One of its two primary first-person narrators (there are some flashback sections in third-person) is unreliable, although Continue reading

Women from Headquarters (1950)

US / 47/60 minutes / bw / Republic Dir: George Blair Assoc Pr: Stephen Auer Scr: Gene Lewis Cine: John MacBurnie Cast: Virginia Huston, Robert Rockwell, Barbra Fuller, Norman Budd, Frances Charles, K. Elmo Lowe, Otto Waldis, Grandon Rhodes, Jack Kruschen, Bert Conway, Marlo Dwyer, Sid Marion, John DeSimone, Gil Herman, Leonard Penn.

A cross between an efficient little B-feature police procedural and a promotional/recruitment video (so to speak) for the LAPD and its supposedly woman-friendly policies.

Virginia Huston as Joyce.

Joyce Harper (Huston) has served her country overseas in uniform, but now she’s back and she just can’t hold down a steady job: “I came back to a world I didn’t fit into.” She rooms with Ruby Cain (Fuller), whom she’s looked after for the past decade or so, since Ruby was orphaned at age 12. Like any big sister, she’s aghast at the man the kid’s taken up with:

Joyce: “Wake up, Ruby. You’re just the glamorous little girl he likes to pet, spoil and fool around with. He gets a kick out of his shady pals sizing you up.”

Quite right too: the man in question, Max Taylor (Budd), is a drug pusher, working for nightclub boss Joe Calla (Waldis). And, when Joyce is recruited by Sergeant Ann Rogers (Charles) to join the LAPD, Continue reading

book: Black Widow (1952; vt Fatal Woman) by Patrick Quentin

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I first read many years ago, perhaps more than once, this classic novel of paranoia, gaslighting and what John Clute, when he and I were doing The Encyclopedia of Fantasytogether, christened godgaming — the process whereby a usually malicious person or group persuades another or others that a fictitious reality is what’s actually going on. (The godgaming type-novel is John Fowles’s The Magus.) More recently, in 2014, I watched Nunnally Johnson’s screen adaptation of it, Black Widow (1954), with the splendid Van Heflin as Peter, Ginger Rogers as Lottie, Gene Tierney impeccably cast as Iris and Peggy Ann Garner as Nanny Ordway.

Broadway producer Peter Duluth’s actress wife Iris is out of town for a while visiting her ailing mother. Peter is induced to go to a party held by their overweening upstairs neighbors, belle dame actress Lottie Marin and her subjugated husband Brian. There he meets Nanny Ordway, a young wannabe writer who Continue reading

book: Hope Never Dies (2018) by Andrew Shaffer

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It’s a year or two since Barack Obama and Joe Biden left the White House, and Joe is pissed off that the man he thought was his BFF hasn’t so much as texted him, preferring instead to go gadding around the globe with celebrities.

It takes a suspicious death to bring them back together again. An Amtrak conductor whom Joe has known for many years is found dead on the line with a baggy of heroin and a map to Joe’s house in his pockets. Barack brings Joe the news before the news media can get hold of it, and the two of them set out to solve what they’re sure is a murder . . .

The investigation’s recounted in the first person by Joe, complete with frequent grumbles about his knees and his prostate and the fact that he’s falling apart while Barack just seems to get fitter and trimmer, albeit grayer, with the passing years. He’s an Continue reading

Prisoners (2013)

US / 153 minutes / color / Alcon, 8:38, Madhouse, Entertainment, Georgia Film Music & Digital Entertainment Office, Warner Bros. Dir: Denis Villeneuve Pr: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner Scr: Aaron Guzikowski Cine: Roger A. Deakins Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoë Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla-Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Victoria Staley.

A very long, very carefully paced movie, beautifully photographed (his work here brought Deakins one of his several Academy Award nominations), intelligently scripted and with an excellent ensemble performance including a firecracker turn from Gyllenhaal, Prisoners was Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language movie; it was followed promptly by his second, Enemy (2013), which also starred Gyllenhaal and which I’ve talked about elsewhere on this site.

Keller Dover (Jackman), his wife Grace (Bello) and their kids go for Thanksgiving dinner to the home of their neighbors and best friends, Franklin (Howard) and Nancy Birch (Davis) and their kids. During the afternoon, the two families’ youngest kids, Anna Dover (Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Simmons), disobey orders and wander out unsupervised. Within hours a search for them is on.

Hugh Jackman as Keller.

In charge of the case is Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), a relative newcomer to the area with a celebrated 100% clearup rate. Almost immediately there’s a suspect in custody: Continue reading