BLACK AND BLUE by IAN RANKIN (1997, Orion, 498pp) ****½
Blurb: In the 1960s, the infamous Bible John terrorised Scotland when he murdered three women, taking three souvenirs. Thirty years later, a copycat is at work, dubbed Johnny Bible. DI John Rebus’s unconventional methods have got him in trouble before – now he’s taken away from the inquiry and sent to investigate the killing of an off-duty oilman. But when his case clashes head-on with the Johnny Bible killings, he finds himself in the glare of a fearful media, whilst under the scrutiny of an internal enquiry. Just one mistake is likely to mean losing his job – and quite possibly his life.
Ian Rankin had written seven Rebus novels before Black and Blue and had become an established name in the crime-writing field, but was seen as more of a B-list writer. This book exploded him into the A-list, where he has stayed ever since. In his introduction to this 2016 edition, Rankin recalls the personal turmoil he was going through at the time of writing. Living in France with a son diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome, the writer and his wife struggled with the bureaucracy of the French medical system. The family would eventually return to Scotland. The impression this left on Rankin fired his need to voice his concerns on a broader template. Also, around the time of writing the book, press interest in the historic Bible John killings had been heightened by new DNA evidence. Rankin had undertaken extensive research into the case and decided to incorporate a real life killer into his fictional story of a copy cat. Other elements incorporated into the story are police and corporate corruption, environmentalists protesting about pollution caused by the oil companies and a drug smuggling involving gangsters from Glasgow and Aberdeen. It was to become Rankin’s most complex and multi-layered book.
Rankin explores his protagonist in deep detail – his loyalty, his alcohol dependency, his inner-angst. What emerges is a very three-dimensional portrayal of a flawed man whose sole motivation in life is to see justice done. Saddled with a former colleague, whilst he is being investigated for malpractice in an old case, Rebus is as acerbic and dogged as ever. A loner tethered to a leash, which brings his anxieties to the surface. The book has a broad scope taking Rebus from Edinburgh to Glasgow, Aberdeen, the Shetlands and a North Sea oil rig. The separate plot strands are nicely interwoven revealing some surprising links along the way. Rankin’s research helps bring the locales and the police investigation to life in an enthralling way.
Black and Blue is a novel that shows a writer fully maturing and it would set the bar for the remainder of the series.
The Rebus Series:
- Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
- Hide and Seek (1991) ***
- Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
- Strip Jack (1992)
- The Black Book (1993) ***
- Mortal Causes (1994) ***
- Let it Bleed (1996)
- Black and Blue (1997) ****½
- The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
- Dead Souls (1999)
- Set in Darkness (2000) ****
- The Falls (2001)
- Resurrection Men (2002) ****
- A Question of Blood (2003) ****
- Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
- The Naming of the Dead (2006) ****½
- Exit Music (2007) ****
- Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ∗∗∗½
- Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
- Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
- Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
- In a House of Lies (2018)
Dark Passage (1947; USA; B&W; 106m) ***½ d. Delmer Daves; w. Delmer Daves; ph. Sid Hickox; m. Franz Waxman. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, Agnes Moorehead, Tom D’Andrea, Clifton Young, Douglas Kennedy, Rory Mallinson, Houseley Stevenson. A man convicted of murdering his wife escapes from prison and works with a woman to try and prove his innocence. An overly contrived, if admittedly engrossing and entertaining, plot relying on too much coincidence is all but overcome by the strong cast and technical accomplishments. Using the camera as the protagonist’s point-of-view for over half its running time, the gimmick seems a little forced. Bogart doesn’t physically appear until over an hour into the story, but Bacall holds the screen well and their star chemistry is still apparent. Hickox’s photography using the San Francisco locations and dark streets is moodily effective. Daves directs his own screenplay adaptation with a sure hand and uses hand-held cameras to good effect. Moorehead stands out in the supporting cast as a schemer. Based on the novel by David Goodis. [PG]
THE FALLEN by ACE ATKINS (2017, Corsair, 358pp) ****
Blurb: Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson had to admit he admired the bank robbers. A new bank was hit almost every week, and the robbers rushed in and out with such skill and precision it reminded him of raids he’d led back in Afghanistan and Iraq when he was an army ranger. In fact, it reminded him so much of the techniques in the Ranger Handbook that he couldn’t help wondering if the outlaws were former Rangers themselves. And that was definitely going to be a problem. If he stood any chance of catching them, he was going to need the help of old allies, new enemies, and a lot of luck. The enemies he had plenty of. It was the allies and the luck that were going to be in woefully short supply.
The seventh book in Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series is a strong character driven entry. Its interesting to note that many TV series these days take on season long stories with arcs across their seasons. This was to give the TV series the feel of a novel and explore in depth character as well as plot and sub-plot. Well, we seem to have come full circle as Atkins’ series deftly transfers the concept of cross-season story arcs into his novel series, so with this book we are left on something of a cliffhanger, which leads us to look forward to the next instalment.
Atkins has grown in confidence with the series and this book, whilst it may be light on central plot, is driven by the many sub-plots that lie beneath. This allows him to invest time into his characters, with greater exploration of Colson’s reformed sister Caddy and the new owner of the lap-dancing bar, Fannie Hathcock, in particular. There is also a new love interest for Quinn in the form of Maggie Wilcox, who happens to have a direct link into the central plot as well. The book is also a turning point in the career of Quinn’s deputy, Liilie Virgil.
Atkins writes with great assurance and the dialogue is sparky and humorous; reminiscent of one of his heroes – Elmore Leonard. This then, is another excellent entry in a series that just gets better and better.
The Quinn Colson series:
The Ranger (2011) ***
The Lost Ones (2012) ***
The Broken Place (2013) ***
The Forsaken (2014) ***½
The Redeemers (2015) ****
The Innocents (2016) ***½
The Fallen (2017) ****
The Sinners (2018)
Killer Joe (2011; USA; Colour; 102m) ***½ d. William Friedkin; w. Tracy Letts; ph. Caleb Deschanel; m. Tyler Bates. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple, Charley Vance, Gregory Bachaud, Marc Macaulay. When a debt puts a young man’s life in danger, he turns to putting a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect the insurance. Brilliantly acted and darkly comic crime thriller suffers from the occasional misstep – notably in its overly sensational climax. The plot is simple, but cleverly executed and the dialogue is naturalistic. McConaughey is the standout as the detective/hitman with psychotic tendencies beneath a cool and charming facade. Church is also very good as the dim-witted husband of opportunistic Gershon. A tough watch for some, again notably in the final act, this demonstrates Friedkin hasn’t lost his appetite to challenge his audience. Letts adapted her own play. 
Miller’s Crossing (1990; USA; DuArt; 115m) *** d. Joel Coen; w. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; ph. Barry Sonnenfeld; m. Carter Burwell. Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Mike Starr, Richard Woods, Al Mancini, Sam Raimi, Frances McDormand. In the 1920s, an Irish gangster and his trusted lieutenant and counsellor find their domination of the town threatened by an ambitious Italian underboss. The Coen Brothers mix traditional gangster movie tropes with very black comedy to produce a lively but ultimately frustrating tale of false loyalties. It starts out well, establishing the key character of Byrne as he plays off Finney against Polito, but the story descends into an increasingly implausible sequence of double-crosses. Good period detail and handsome photography, along with frequently sharp dialogue, are the highlights. Based on the novels “Red Harvest” and “Glass Key” by Dashiell Hammett, which previously were filmed as or inspired ROADHOUSE NIGHTS (1930), YOJIMBO (1961) and FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). 
Big Steal, The (1949; USA; B&W; 71m) *** d. Don Siegel; w. Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes), Gerald Drayson Adams; ph. Harry J. Wild; m. Leigh Harline. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patric Knowles, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, John Qualen, Pascual García Peña. An army lieutenant accused of robbery pursues the real thief on a frantic chase through Mexico aided by the thief’s fiancee. Simple plot is essentially an elongated chase punctuated by fight scenes and gun battles. It is tightly directed in his to be trademark efficient manner by Siegel. Mitchum and Greer are the main sell here and they display strong chemistry trading witty dialogue. There is a lightness of touch to proceedings that tells its audience not to take things too seriously. The movie was filmed in Los Angeles and on location in Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico. Based on the story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser. [PG]
Call Northside 777 (1948; USA; B&W; 112m) ***½ d. Henry Hathaway; w. Jerome Cady, Jay Dratler, Leonard Hoffman, Quentin Reynolds; ph. Joseph MacDonald; m. Alfred Newman. Cast: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Helen Walker, E.G. Marshall, Kasia Orzazewski, Betty Garde, Moroni Olsen, John McIntire, Paul Harvey, Joanne De Bergh, Howard Smith, Michael Chapin, Samuel S. Hinds, George Pembroke. Chicago reporter P.J. McNeal re-opens a ten-year-old murder case. Documentary-style telling is a little stiff at times and the story is certainly slow to start but it gains significant momentum in its final act. Stewart is as dependable as ever as the hard-nosed reporter and Garde stands out in an interesting supporting cast. The photography is evocative in the film noir style of the day, with contrasting light and shadow making this a technically effective, if dramatically uneven, piece of film-making. First credited film role of McIntire. Based on articles by James P. McGuire. [U]
Fargo (1996; USA/UK; DuArt; 98m) ****½ d. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; w. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; ph. Roger Deakins; m. Carter Burwell. Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, Steve Reevis, Kristin Rudrud, John Carroll Lynch, Tony Denman, Gary Houston, Warren Keith, Larry Brandenburg, Bruce Bohne. Jerry Lundegaard’s inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen’s bungling and the persistent police work of the quite pregnant Marge Gunderson. A darkly comic and violent thriller set against a cold and snowy backdrop with winning performances from a strong cast. McDormand and Buscemi are standouts who make the most of the Coen Bothers’ Oscar winning screenplay. Followed by a 60m pilot for a TV series, which didn’t sell, but a series was eventually taken up in 2014. 
Happy Valley – Series 2 (TV) (2016; UK; Colour; 6 x 60m) ***** pr. Juliet Charlesworth; d. Sally Wainwright, Neasa Hardiman; w. Sally Wainwright; ph. Ivan Strasburg; m. Ben Foster. Cast: Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran, Charlie Murphy, James Norton, Con O’Neill, Katherine Kelly, George Costigan, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Doyle, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Matthew Lewis, Amelia Bullmore, Angela Pleasence. Sarah Lancashire returns in the acclaimed BBC thriller written by Sally Wainwright. No-nonsense police sergeant Catherine Cawood is back heading up her team of dedicated police officers in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire. While on duty, she makes a gruesome discovery – a body. The victim’s injuries bear a striking similarity to a string of other murders over the previous few months, suggesting a serial killer is on the loose. But the case becomes even more shocking when it emerges that Catherine knows the victim – something that could have serious repercussions for both herself and her family. Wainwright manages to match the extraordinary success of the first series with an equally absorbing follow-up that puts Lancashire’s police sergeant through the emotional wringer. This exceptional piece of TV works as a psychological thriller, a mystery and a gritty drama, but feels natural because of the humour that is deftly mixed with the darkness. Wainwright’s characters are well drawn and real – enhanced by superb performances from a very strong cast. The location work adds to the authenticity and the visuals are underpinned by a resonant score from Foster. 
Happy Valley (TV) (2014; UK; Colour; 6 x 60m) ***** pr. Karen Lewis; d. Euros Lyn, Sally Wainwright, Tim Fywell; w. Sally Wainwright; ph. Ivan Strasburg; m. Ben Foster. Cast: Sarah Lancashire, Steve Pemberton, Siobhan Finneran, George Costigan, Joe Armstrong, James Norton, Adam Long, Charlie Murphy, Karl Davies, Jill Baker, Rhys Connah. Catherine Cawood (Lancashire) is a strong-willed police sergeant in West Yorkshire, still coming to terms with the suicide of her teenage daughter, Becky, eight years earlier. Cawood is now divorced from her husband and living with her sister, Clare (Finneran), a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict, who is helping her bring up Becky’s young son, Ryan (Connah), the product of rape. Neither Catherine’s ex-husband nor their adult son, Daniel, want anything to do with Ryan. Catherine hears that Tommy Lee Royce (Norton), the man responsible for the brutal rape that impregnated Becky and drove her to suicide shortly after Ryan was born, is out of prison after serving eight years for drug charges. Catherine soon becomes obsessed with finding Royce, unaware that he is involved in the kidnapping of Ann Gallagher (Murphy), a plot instigated by Kevin Weatherill (Pemberton) and orchestrated by Ashley Cowgill (Armstrong). Things quickly take a dark turn as the abductors scramble to keep the kidnapping secret, although Catherine is onto them. This is crime TV writing of the highest order, enhanced by a dynamite cast – including Lancashire as the world-on-her shoulders police officer and Norton as the dangerously psychotic ex-con. Well-paced and stylishly directed throughout – despite the use of three directors. Wainwright sealed her reputation as one of the best writers on TV with this series, which deftly mixes in elements of domestic drama along with a dry wit to complement a riveting crime thriller plot. A must see TV experience.