Category Archives: mystery

‘Mr. Holmes’ a bittersweet look at the legend

mr holmes

If I actually get around to writing all of this, the blog will seem very Sherlock-centric for a while. I’m reading a Sherlock Holmes book now – the second in a row – and I’m mightily tempted to watch some early “Sherlock” episodes on Netflix.

And then there’s “Mr. Holmes.”

I didn’t know quite what to expect from the Bill Condon film, starring Ian McKellen as an older, retired Sherlock Holmes, and I haven’t read “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” the 2005 book by Mitch Cullin. I had an impression the story was about a mystery deep in the retirement years of the world’s greatest consulting detective.

Holmes’ retirement years have been fertile ground for writers, most notably Laurie R. King, whose “Beekeeper’s Apprentice” books featuring Holmes and Mary Russell, his younger love interest and deducting equal, have thoroughly explored this world in a dozen books.

(I can’t help but wonder if writers like King aren’t ticked off when they treat an idea with such care and originality and see others’ treatments get turned into movies.)

“Mr. Holmes” unfolds in 1947, when 93-year-old Holmes – long after the death of everyone important in his life, including his brother Mycroft and companion John Watson – is living in his house in Sussex and keeping bees. His only companions are his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes, in failing health, struggles to remember the case, decades earlier, that prompted him to quit detecting. WIth some prompting from Roger, he remembers the bittersweet circumstances. The realization affects him in a couple of ways, including his dealings not only with his surrogate daughter and grandson but with a Japanese businessman who seeks answers that only Holmes can provide.

If you’re expecting a version of Holmes that’s like the aging astronauts of “Space Cowboys,” that’s not what Condon’s movie is about. It’s a low-key affair, more bitter than sweet, about a legendary figure fighting with the loss of his greatest tool: his mind.

But it’s also about how Holmes, notoriously aloof and superior, comes to realize – too late, tragically so in one instance – that the need for companionship is felt by everyone. Even him. The bitter realization, played out in one of the film’s flashbacks, stems from a moment that seems out of the blue but is ultimately understandable.

McKellen is wonderful, of course. We’ve seen so many decades of good work from him that we shouldn’t be surprised that he can play at least three different versions of Holmes here – at his deductive peak, at his most confused and vulnerable and at his saddest as he realizes what might have been and attempts to solve the mystery of his life.

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‘The Drop’ a return to form for Dennis Lehane

the drop dennis lehane

It’s pretty easy for me to say that Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite writers.

I didn’t really know Lehane until a decade or more ago when I saw the paperback version of his 1994 crime novel, “A Drink Before the War,” on the shelf in a bookstore. A gritty private eye story set in Boston, the book was the first of six books that Lehane wrote about Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.

Let me wax on about Patrick and Angie for a second if you will.

How to describe Kenzie and Gennaro, partners in a Boston private investigations operation? They’re lifelong friends, very seldom lovers and equals in the tough guy department. Through a series of five incredible books, Lehane leads Patrick and Angie through not only nifty crime stories to rival Robert B. Parker’s Spencer at his best but also through gut-wrenching personal trauma.

That’s because Patrick and Angie are more than lifelong friends and partners. They’re also survivors. During the course of five books, Lehane pits Kenzie and Gennaro Investigations against the worst of the worst: Blackmailers, serial killers and child molesters and exploiters. If you saw the movie of the fourth book in the series, “Gone, Baby, Gone,” you got a taste of the harsh yet rewarding story, characters and atmosphere of the book.

I often tell people – always tell them, really – that they should read Lehane’s Patrick and Angie books if they’re in the mood for dark crime drama. And I tell them that the books are dark. Dark, I tells ya.

And I add that the books MUST be read in order: “A Drink Before the War,” then “Darkness, Take My Hand,” then “Sacred,” then “Gone, Baby, Gone,” then “Prayers for Rain.”

The books are certainly my favorite crime novel series of all time and they very well might be the best such series ever.

You might have noticed that I said Lehane wrote six books about Patrick and Angie but I mentioned “five incredible books.” That’s because “Moonlight Mile,” Lehane’s 2010 return to the characters after 11 years, was so disappointing. I wanted Patrick and Angie to come back for so many years … and then read “Moonlight Mile” and understood why Lehane had stopped writing the characters before – I’m guessing – being encouraged to come back by demand from fans like me and a big check from his publisher.

dennis lehane

Lehane has certainly written some other terrific thrillers, including “Shutter island” and the very nearly without peer “Mystic River.” If you know those two books – unrelated to the Patrick and Angie books – only from their movie adaptations, do yourself a favor and read the books.

Which brings me to “The Drop,” which is the return to Boston’s mean streets that “Moonlight Mile” just couldn’t be.

“The Drop” – written by Lehane from his own screenplay for a movie that ultimately starred Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini – is the story of Bob, a kind-hearted but lonely Boston bartender working for his distant cousin at his cousin’s bar … which is secretly owned by Chechen mobsters.

After decades of a lonely existence, Bob begins to come out of his shell when he meets Nadia and, with her help, rescues a dog that had been dumped in a trash can. But there’s more to Nadia and the dog than Bob understands at first. Just like there’s more to the the low-life types who circle on the edges of his world, including a menacing stranger who insists that Bob has taken his dog.

“The Drop” isn’t a long book and doesn’t have a complex plot. although there are some twists and turns. It’s a straightforward tale of a likable joe who wants to improve his life – if he doesn’t get killed first.

Best of all, “The Drop” is a great return to the Lehane’s Boston, a world of hustlers and thugs and forces that can come at anyone sideways and change their lives for the better or the worse.

‘Maplecroft’ brings the creeping horror

maplecroft cherie priest

Regular readers of this blog know I’m a fan of writer Cherie Priest, who became queen of steampunk fiction with her “Clockwork Century” series – kicked off by “Boneshaker” – about an 1800s America where the Civil War drags on for decades and a plague of zombies threatens the very existence of the country. Any series that combines spunky Seattle adventurers, Texas rogues and Abraham Lincoln is ambitious as can be.

I also really enjoyed Priest’s stories about Raylene Pendle, an “urban fantasy” heroine. I’m kind of disappointed there’s only been two books so far.

As fond of the “Clockwork Century” stories as I am, I think her latest, “Maplecroft,” is Priest’s strongest work yet.

For those of us who know little about the real-life Lizzie Borden – beyond the “40 whacks” childhood rhyme – Priest gives us a Victorian-era heroine who’ll remind you a bit of Buffy Summers. Borden is strong yet vulnerable and wields a mean axe in her battle with shambling, skittering death.

It seems that Borden killed her father and his wife for a good reason: They were possessed by the spirit of a sea creature not unlike Cthulhu, HP Lovecraft’s immortal demon-god.

In Borden’s little New England town, the sea is calling to people – and not in a romantic way. Infected by ancient stones and specimens of unidentifiable sea creatures, people are slowing turning into monsters with shark-like teeth and soggy, water-soaked bodies.

No one knows this, of course, but Borden and her sister, Emma, who live in the family’s mansion, two years after Borden has been acquitted of killing her father and his wife. The Borden sisters – and eventually a small and uneasy group of allies – fight off this watery invasion in what’s promised as the first in a series of novels.

There’s some fun action, a lot of nameless, faceless horror and some terrific characters in “Maplecroft,” which is totally not surprising to anyone who’s read Priest’s work. She has a knack for creating characters who, even when their fears and insecurities are laid bare, retain a lot of mystery.

“Maplecroft” is a horror/adventure novel for people who think they know the genre and think nothing new can be done. By going back to the beginnings of the horror genre, Priest brings her readers something that feels new and fresh and full of dread.

Chelsea Cain returns with ‘One Kick’

one kick chelsea cain

Starting a new series can be a tricky thing for an author. Will readers follow you to another series, especially one that’s very different from the old familiar one?

Chelsea Cain needn’t worry. Since 2007, she’s been writing a series of twisty and twisted thrillers about Portland cop Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell, the serial killer who seduced and nearly killed Archie. Cain’s books are grim and fun at the same time, throwing great characters like young newspaper reporter Susan Ward into the horrific dance between Sheridan and Lowell to lighten the tone occasionally.

Cain is trying something very different with “One Kick,” a new books that kicks off a new series following Kit “Kick” Lannigan, a 21-year-old with a horrifying past. As a child, she was kidnapped by a stranger who held her in captivity for five years, molesting her and making her the star of many child pornography movies that live on a decade after she was rescued from Mel, her captor.

As a 21-year-old, Kick is training her body and gathering weapons for … something. She doesn’t know quite what, but she goes into high alert every time a child turns up missing.

Finally, after the disappearance of a young boy named Adam, Kick is approached by Bishop, a frustratingly smug and enigmatic man, apparently independently wealthy, who recruits her to help him find Adam and other missing children.

With the life of Kick’s brother threatened by a predator from their childhood – and Kick’s life and sanity in the balance – Kick goes to work, an emotionally frayed but lethal avenging angel, striking out to save children from the same fate that befell her.

Cain’s readers will find some familiar elements in “One Kick,” including an annoying mother and some unhealthy relationships. And there are some queasy moments of visceral gore.

But “One Kick” and Kick Lannigan are very different animals from Archie or Gretchen or Susan. As personal as Gretchen’s assault was to Archie, there’s nothing as horrible, as cruel, as the toll that child exploitation takes on its victims. It’s to Cain’s credit that her story adequately conveys this weight at the same time it turns the characters and situations into fodder for a gripping crime novel.

‘Longmire’ canceled; book series hits new peak

longmire any other name

I’ve got good news and bad news.

Despite its status as A&E’s top-rated drama series, “Longmire” has been canceled by the cable channel.

We heard a variety of explanations given when the news broke a few days ago. A&E didn’t value the older-than-the-most-coveted-demographic age of the audience. A&E didn’t own the series and thus made less money from it.

TV is a totally screwed up industry.

So with the finish of the third season still fresh and the possibility that the series might continue on another channel or even online, we’ll mourn “Longmire” and hope for more adventures of the crusty Wyoming sheriff and his posse.

Longmire Season 2

“Longmire” the TV series had a great cast and average-to-above-average stories that settled into author Craig Johnson’s characters and settings more as the series progressed.

But the series never topped Johnson’s stories. And I don’t think I’ve ready any 10th book in a series that felt as assured as “Any Other Name,” Johnson’s latest Longmire novel.

Sure, Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are dependably, consistently fun. And maybe Johnson just hit a high point with “Any Other Name.” But the book series feels like it’s gotten a second wind, so compelling and accomplished does “Any Other Name” feel.

Johnson can’t go too far wrong when he focuses on Walt Longmire, of course. Select members of his supporting cast bring a lot to the stories, and he includes three of them here: Walt’s longtime best friend, Henry Standing Bear; Vic Moretti, Walt’s chief deputy and sometime paramour, and Lucian Connally, Walt’s predecessor as sheriff.

Lucian asks Walt’s help in finding out why his old friend, a cop in another county, killed himself. Before long, they determine that the cop’s death was caught up in a scheme involving missing women and human trafficking.

Johnson’s writing is so heartfelt but so wry, so funny but so hard-nosed, that it didn’t seem likely that he could top his previous books.

But I really think he did with “Any Other Name.” The story has the quirky charm of all of the author’s previous modern-day westerns with a clear and concise mystery.

And it feels like Johnson had a hell of a time writing “Any Other Name.” I just hope he had as good a time writing it as I had reading it.

Mädchen Amick back on ‘Longmire’

madchen amick deena longmire

She’s back!

Actress Madchen Amick, best known for her role as Shelly Johnson in the 1990 TV classic “Twin Peaks,” is something of the mascot for this blog. After her 2012 turn as one of Don Draper’s old flings in a nightmarish episode of “Mad Men,” I wrote about the return of the lovely actress who, now 43, still looks amazing.

And some of the entries I wrote about Amick are among my most popular. So here’s another!

Amick is a busy actress right now, starring in the series “Witches of East End” and on one of my favorite series, “Longmire.”

Amick plays Deena, the girlfriend of Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), longtime friend of Sheriff Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor).

Earlier this season, Henry discovered that Deena had apparently stolen $40,000 from the safe at his bar, the Red Pony.

In this week’s episode, “The Reports of My Death,” Henry tracked Deena down and confronted her about the theft. The scene was a powerful one and while Amick was good, LDP was terrific in the intense and borderline-out-of-control scene.

Here’s hoping Amick’s reappearance this past week means she’ll be back on the series soon … and, with any luck, not as another murder for Longmire and Henry to investigate.

parker stevenson

By the way, “Longmire” brought back another TV favorite: Parker Stevenson, well-remembered for playing Frank Hardy on “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” 1977-79, appeared in the episode.

 

Late to the party: ‘True Detective’ an odd, teasing thriller

true-detective title tree

I don’t do a lot of binge-watching of TV anymore. A few years ago, every summer was a festival of re-watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on the VHS tapes I had made during the previous season. A few other shows were thrown in, but we watched “Buffy” religiously in those days.

In the meantime, life got busier – a child will do that, even in the summer – and binge-watching was mostly limited to trying to catch up on the three episodes of “Fargo” that we missed before the season finale.

Recently, my son has discovered the joys of “Parks and Recreation,” watching the most recent season through On Demand and then watching the first season on DVD. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the series and I might write about that sometime.

More recently, my wife and I decided to try to catch up on a couple of series that we missed. We’ve now purchased, but have not unwrapped, the first season of “Breaking Bad” on DVD. It was a show, like “The Shield,” that I just didn’t make time for as it unfolded each week but I didn’t want to jump into mid-stream. We tried that with “24” and ended up determinedly watching live what was universally acclaimed as the worst season.

So in the past few days we’ve binge-watched “True Detective,” which is a series that we couldn’t see because we don’t have HBO and probably couldn’t have kept up with what with devoting our live-watching time last winter to “The Walking Dead,” “Justified” and a few network series.

So that’s a roundabout way of recounting how I’m just now seeing “True Detective.”

I heard so much about the series when it was airing but managed to avoid hearing how it ended, so that was a bonus for catching up later. Also it’s just eight episodes!

After having seen it, I can say I understand what all the buzz was about. In a couple of ways.

“True Detective,” while very satisfying to watch over the space of a couple of days, no doubt really lent itself to live-watching each week. In this age of Twitter, viewers could revel in each week’s twists and turns. Not to mention the HBO-standard nudity. The plot worked on an episodic basis but flowed pretty well – even with a few time shifts – one episode after another.

And the show’s teasing flirtation with the supernatural – and many references to scarred giants, monsters, demons and dark rituals – fueled speculation that what was starting out as a straight police procedural was turning into something else.

That wasn’t really the case, at least not in that sense. But “True Detective” definitely transcended the typical procedural’s limitations.

true-detective-harrelson-mcconaughey-610x348

if you don’t already know, the series switches back and forth between 2012 and 1995, as two investigators (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) interview two former Louisiana state police detectives, Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson).

Cohle, intellectual, anti-social and prone to alienating others, and Hart, publicly amiable but a womanizer with an explosive temper, “catch” a life-changing case when they’re assigned to investigate the body of a young woman found in a remote field. The woman, with antlers attached to her head, her body twisted into a submissive, praying posture and decorated with symbols, is plainly the victim of a ritualistic killer.

As the investigation unfolds, Cohle becomes more and more convinced that the woman was the victim of a serial killer. But where are the other bodies?

As the two probe the case, they become increasingly self-destructive. Cohle deep-sixes his career with his attitude toward higher-ups, including powerful and untouchable figures he thinks might be linked to the killer, and Hart threatens to drink and screw his way out of his marriage (Michelle Monaghan in a role that has more bite and substance than some critics of the series would have us think).

The series’ eight episodes are compelling and engrossing, never more so than the climactic hour and, halfway through the show’s run, an amazing single-take tracking shot as Cohle eludes both bikers and gang members in a botched drug raid on a housing project.

Cohle and Hart are characters who at times seem irredeemable but as metaphysical-speaking Cohle notes at least keep the really bad guys from society’s door.

“True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto (aided by director Cary Joji Fukunaga) kept their story short and to the point and left me wanting more. A second season is planned, although Pizzolatto says ti will focus on other characters and another setting.

With any luck, I’ll catch up with it too.

Random observations:

I really thought the ending would be much more dire for our heroes, namely that one of the two would die. I didn’t expect such optimism.

The setting for the climactic encounter with the killer reminded me uncomfortably of the “Home” episode of “The X-Files.” The feeling of queasiness and dread was palpable.

The hairstyles of the leads, reflecting the passage of nearly two decades, were pretty good.

Does every HBO show have at least one nude/sex scene per episode? Somehow I don’t remember Tony Soprano getting laid as much as Woody Harrelson.

It’s starting to realize that one of Harrelson’s nubile conquests was Alexandra Daddario, the female lead from the “Percy Jackson” movies. The actress, 28, has matured. Ahem.

So was there really a point to all the references to “The Yellow King” and old pulp fiction stories?