Monday, November 28, 2016

Trilogies of Terror!

If you're an aspiring novelist who wants to work in the mystery, SF or fantasy field, you'd better roll your up sleeves and get busy because no one's going to take you seriously unless you've got at least a trio of linked novels to your credit. Part of my job at the library consists of selecting books to send to shut-ins, and it's always a nuisance wrangling a trilogy for delivery because volume ones are inevitably checked out for months. Volume threes are always readily available, and that says something about the literary staying power of most writers; writing a gripping volume one is relatively easy, but keeping the quality up for two more outings? Not so easy. So here's the bad and the good of the trilogy business:

Paul Cornell has a CV thick with Doctor Who novelizations, comic books, and scripts for various Brit TV series. His Shadow Police series (London Falling, The Severed Streets, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?) follows a group of London cops who police the supernatural underworld. So far, so high concept. The first novel, London Falling, was about a murderous witch and was solidly written and quite entertaining. The Severed Streets was dreadful. For one thing, having an actual writer, Neil Gaiman, appear as a secondary character in the novel must violate some kind of literary fourth wall protocol. It's also just silly. In addition to that faux pas, the novel had a murky, sluggish plot, and, worst of all, things got too serious. I can stomach an over-the-top fantasy/SF concept if the author gives me a wink every now and then to let me know he or she's aware of the silliness on offer, but a writer who can't crack a smile at their own bizarre creation? No thanks. Throughout volume two, all the main cop characters are living in various kinds of existential hell, and that made reading it a joyless slog. You must be wondering at this point why I bothered to read the next one. Foolishly, I was intrigued by the concept (someone kills the ghost of Sherlock Holmes) and hoped that an editor might have warned Cornell that his weapons-grade gravitas was misplaced. No such luck. The most recent novel is more of the same gloomy, turgid writing. It should also be pointed out that Cornell is poaching on a genre established by Ben Aaronovitch in his Rivers of London series which features--wait for it--a group of London coppers who police the supernatural. What are the odds? And why was Aaronovitch kind enough to put a blurb on Cornell's book? That's taking English politeness too far. So that's it, Cornell, you're now undead to me.

And then we have Robin Stevens. Her threesome of cozy murder mysteries for young readers are set in the 1930s and feature a pair of teenage sleuths, Mabel Wong and Daisy Wells, who go to a posh all-girls school in England. At first glance this sounds like something a committee made up of the BBC, the National Trust, and Country Life magazine might have cobbled together. Normally I'd run far, far away from something like this, but I'd come across a mention of the series in the Guardian that praised the quality of the writing. It also helped that I was working my way through Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels at the time and I needed some reading material to, as it were, detoxify with. Good choice on my part; although, oddly enough, like Ferrante's novels, Stevens' novels also feature a spiky female friendship. Her mysteries (Murder Most Unladylike, Arsenic for Tea, First Class Murder) distinguish themselves by being as well-written as anything in the cozy field, adult or otherwise. Stevens does not write down to her intended audience; in fact, it feels like she wants to challenge her readers. The characters and plots are far more complex than you'd expect to find in books aimed at early teen readers, there's a nice vein of humor running through all the books, and the mystery elements are really strong. The locked room mystery in First Class Murder is an excellent introduction to this sub-genre for young readers and compares well with adult examples. Stevens is writing more in this series, but I'd really like to see her take a crack at a full-on adult mystery.

I've started a great many trilogies but not finished most of them. The lesson here is that writers, even very good ones, have trouble spinning out a high-concept premise over more than one book. The fault lies with publishers, who are always trying to find ways to hook readers into committing to a series of books (and purchases). It's hard to blame them for trying to maximize profits, but it's counter-productive when you kill a reader's interest in an author by pushing him or her into producing crappy work. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Film Review: Free State of Jones (2016)

The most interesting part of this film is its subject matter, not the filmmaking itself. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a medical orderly in the Confederate Army who deserts after learning that a new law allows the sons of the richest slaveholders to be excused military service. Knight returns to his home in Jones County, Mississippi, where he's hunted by the local Confederate militia. After they burn down his home, Knight hides out in a swamp with some runaway slaves. This becomes the nucleus of a guerilla group that eventually numbers in the hundreds and battles the local Confederate forces. Knight and his men end up controlling a significant swath of Mississippi and declare the "free state of Jones", a land dedicated to the principle of egalitarianism for all men, no matter what their colour. The war ends and the Reconstruction period is followed by brutal suppression of black political activism by the KKK and plantation owners. Knight takes a black woman as his wife after the war, and a sub-plot set in the 1950s shows one of his male descendants, who is one-eighth black, fighting Jim Crow laws for the right to marry his white fiance.

The earnest, plodding, clunkiness of this biopic feels, at times, like a throwback to film styles and tropes from the '50s and '60s. 12 Years a Slave and Glory are set in the same era, but they told their stories with subtlety and cinematic flair without diminishing the messages they wanted to get across. Jones has no time for artistry. Dramatic and romantic elements are handled like assignments for a required university course, and the action sequences are staged like pageants. One battle set in a graveyard actually borders on the farcical.

By this point you might think I didn't like this film. Wrong. What sets it apart from a Glory or 12 Years a Slave is that it's eager and willing to tackle issues that don't normally get an airing in American films, specifically the subject of class warfare. At several points in the film it's explicitly stated that the Civil War was primarily about plantation owners, the plutocracy of the South, defending their capital interests with the lives of poor whites. Most films about this period in history might have ended with the conclusion of the war. Jones continues its study of class politics with the Reconstruction period, which, as far as I know, has never been dealt with in any film. The film makes it clear that the efforts of the KKK and their capitalist supporters were directed at denying blacks political power because that kind of power meant a tidal shift in the relationship between capital and labour. All those notions about white Southern notions of "honour" and ''tradition" and fear of black violence were just hogwash. Whites were only interested in instituting a system of legal peonage to replace slavery. In this way Jones emerges as a superior film to Glory and 12 Years a Slave because the latter two films are dealing in honorable platitudes: racism are slavery were bad. This film brings something new to the discussion by showing how racism is so often a screen behind which politicians and capitalists practice their black arts.

Free State of Jones is a flawed film from a purely cinematic point of view, but as an examination of an often poorly understood part of American history it really has no equal. And lest you think that this subject matter isn't worth re-examining in this day and age, check out the interview below with legendary film director William Friedkin. From the 6:23 mark onwards Friedkin defends the birth of the KKK. It's jaw-dropping stuff, and this from someone who's from the allegedly liberal bastion of Hollywood.