Maltese Falcon, The (1941; USA; B&W; 100m) ***** d. John Huston; w. John Huston; ph. Arthur Edeson; m. Adolph Deutsch. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Walter Huston, Elisha Cook Jr., Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Gladys George, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan, James Burke, Murray Alper, John Hamilton, Emory Parnell. A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette. Classic hard-boiled private-eye movie is a wonderful vehicle for Bogart as the cynical Sam Spade. The complex and twisting plot is expertly handled by Huston and brilliantly edited by Richards. It crams so much plot progression into its first ten minutes and never lets up its pace. The supporting cast – notably Lorre and Greenstreet – is wonderful. This would become the template for many film-noir movies to follow. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett previously filmed in 1931 and 1936 (as SATAN MET A LADY). Also available in a computer colourised version. [PG]
A QUESTION OF BLOOD by IAN RANKIN (2003, Orion, 440pp) ****
Blurb: Two seventeen-year-olds are killed by an ex-Army loner who has gone off the rails. The mystery takes Rebus into the heart of a shattered community. Ex-Army himself, Rebus becomes fascinated by the killer, and finds he is not alone. Army investigators are on the scene, and won’t be shaken off. The killer had friends and enemies to spare and left behind a legacy of secrets and lies. Rebus has more than his share of personal problems, too. He’s fresh out of hospital, but won’t say how it happened. Could there be a connection with a house-fire and the unfortunate death of a petty criminal who had been harassing Rebus’s colleague Siobhan Clarke?
This was the fourteenth book in Ian Rankin’s perpetually popular Inspector Rebus series. The subject matter resonates strongly in light of recent instances of campus shootings in the US. Rankin uses the plot to tackle a number of themes including some of his favourites – single-minded politicians, government cover-ups, changes in modern society, families. He also explores the trust in the relationship between Rebus and his DS Siobhan Clarke by having Rebus suspected of killing a low-life who had been stalking Clarke. The main plot is presented as a “why-dunnit” as Rebus is called in by a colleague due to his military background to help with the investigation of a multiple shooting at a public school. The various plot strands and themes unfold and ultimately begin to intermingle and connect. Rankin’s skill as a writer ensures these progressions feel natural connections rather than contrivances. Only in the finale does the plot seem forced.
By now, Rankin is totally at home with his characters and Rebus remains a fascinating creation – a loner, yes, but one who’s affection for Clarke is seen as a surrogate for the daughter he no longer sees. Whilst there would be just three more books in the series’ initial run which ended in 2007, that Rankin returned to the character five years later and restarted the series is testament to the affection he holds for Rebus.
The Rebus series rated:
- 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)
- 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
Kojak: Fatal Flaw (TV) (1989; USA; Technicolor; 94m) **½ d. Richard Compton; w. Albert Ruben; ph. Geoffrey Erb; m. Cameron Allan. Cast: Telly Savalas, Andre Braugher, Angie Dickinson, Steven Weber, George Morfogen, Charles Cioffi, Richard Jenkins, Paul Guilfoyle, Kario Salem, David Ciminello, Sally Jessy Raphael, Don King. Popular book writer is murdered. Kojak finds out that shortly before his death he was working on a book about the mafia, so the mob is automatically his number one suspect. Dickinson adds glamour to this okay mystery. Savalas seems more engaged with the material and the whole thing is competently directed by Compton. [PG]
Price of Justice, The (TV) (1987; USA; Technicolor; 95m) **½ d. Alan Metzger; w. Albert Ruben; ph. Victor J. Kemper; m. Patrick Williams. Cast: Telly Savalas, Kate Nelligan, Pat Hingle, Jack Thompson, Brian Murray, John Bedford Lloyd, Jeffrey DeMunn, Tony DiBenedetto, Ron Frazier, Stephen Joyce. When the bodies of two young boys are discovered in a Harlem river, their mother is the obvious suspect, particularly with her scandalous past. But Kojak believes that she is innocent. This did she/didn’t she mystery never really catches fire and is little more than a routine addition to the Kojak series. Savalas, here lacking his support cast from the series, gives a subdued performance but Nelligan conveys effectively the confused emotional state of the mother. Hingle and Thompson are good in support, but the script is unconvincing. Based on the novel “The Investigation” by Dorothy Uhnak. 
CAREER OF EVIL by ROBERT GALBRAITH (2017, Sphere, 584pp) ****
Blurb: When a mysterious package is delivered to Robin Ellacott, she is horrified to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg. Her boss, private detective Cormoran Strike, is less surprised but no less alarmed. There are four people from his past who he thinks could be responsible – and Strike knows that any one of them is capable of sustained and unspeakable brutality. With the police focusing on the one suspect Strike is increasingly sure is not the perpetrator, he and Robin take matters into their own hands, and delve into the dark and twisted worlds of the other three men. But as more horrendous acts occur, time is running out for the two of them…
In her acknowledgements, J.K. Rowling (here again writing under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith) stated that she “can’t ever remember enjoying writing a novel more”. That is saying a lot given her success with the Harry Potter fantasy series. Her statement is evident in her writing of Career of Evil, the third book in her Cormoran Strike series of detective novels, which is fluid and showing a writer at the top of her game. Rowling is very much at home with her lead characters of Strike and his female partner Robin Ellacott. The plot here follows a serial killer with a grudge against Strike, who goes about dismembering his victims. It is a grisly tale, which is inter-cut with the growing professional relationship between Strike and Robin. However, this relationship is put to the test as the killer targets Robin, who’s determination to stay with the case strains her relationship with both fiancee, Matthew and with Strike himself.
Where this book, like the previous ones and many of todays’ crime novels, would benefit is from tighter editing. The need by publishers to bloat volumes beyond 500 pages in order to fill up the book shelves means the day of the tight, efficient crime thriller told in half the page count seems to be over. It’s as if publishers are vying for some literary recognition through sheer quantity of the product. Whilst Rowling has more to say about her characters than others in the genre – giving them credible back stories and ongoing domestic lives – there is a seeming desire to fill the required page count. That said this is still a very enjoyable read and one that leaves you wanting more from this likeable detective duo.
Strike: The Silkworm (TV) (2017; UK; Colour; 2x60m) ***½ pr. Jackie Larkin; d. Kieron Hawkes; w. Tom Edge; ph. Gary Shaw; m. Adrian Johnston. Cast: Tom Burke, Holliday Grainger, Kerr Logan, Monica Dolan, Sarah Gordy, Dominic Mafham, Peter Sullivan, Tim McInnerny, Lia Williams, Sargon Yelda, Caitlin Innes Edwards, Ian Attard, Joey Batey, Natasha O’Keeffe, Jeremy Swift. Strike is approached by Leonora Quine with a plea to locate her husband, the notorious writer Owen Quine, who has disappeared without a trace. The plot, dealing with literature used as a sadistic weapon for revenge was never going to be easy to adapt for TV and whilst the first book stretched to a 3-hour adaptation, here Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling) second Cormoran Strike novel is condensed into 2 hours. Whilst this creates some necessary tightening of the plot, it does make for demanding viewing in trying to keep up with its intricacies. Those who do so will be rewarded with a strong variation on the traditional whodunit. Burke and Grainger again excel in their lead roles and the support acting all round is strong. The series will return in 2018 with an adaptation of the third novel in the series, “Career of Evil”. 
Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling (TV) (2017; UK; Colour; 3x60m) ***½ pr. Jackie Larkin; d. Michael Keillor; w. Ben Richards; ph. Hubert Taczanowski; m. Adrian Johnston. Cast: Tom Burke, Holliday Grainger, Martin Shaw, Kerr Logan, Killian Scott, Kadiff Kirwan, Elarica Johnson, Bronson Webb, Leo Bill, Tezlym Senior-Sakutu, Tara Fitzgerald, Natasha O’Keeffe. Private investigator Cormoran Strike is hired to find out if a supermodel’s suicide in London may have been a murder. Faithful adaptation of the novel by Robert Galbraith (pseudonym for J. K. Rowling, who also exec produced). Stylishly shot on location in the city of London. The mystery elements are traditional, but the lead characters of the one-legged war hero turned PI and his new female assistant are interesting and they are compellingly portrayed by Burke and Grainger. Followed by STRIKE: THE SILKWORM (2017). 
GET CARTER (formerly JACK’S RETURN HOME) by TED LEWIS (1970, Allison & Busby, 286pp) ****½
Blurb: Doncaster, and Jack Carter is home for a funeral – his brother Frank’s. Frank’s car was found at the bottom of a cliff, with Frank inside. He was not only dead drunk but dead as well. What could have made sensible Frank down a bottle of whisky and get behind the wheel? For Jack, his death doesn’t add up. So he decides to talk to a few people, do some sniffing around. He does, but is soon told to stop. By Gerald and Les, his bosses from the smoke. Not to mention the men who run things in Doncaster, who aren’t happy with Jack’s little holiday at home. They want him back in London, and fast. Now Frank was a mild man and did as he was told, but Jack’s not a bit like that …
Get Carter became a seminal British gangster film on its release in 1971. Few were aware of its source novel, Jack’s Return Home, written by Ted Lewis. The book was one of many violent pulp thrillers written in the sixties and seventies that capitalised on the increasing promiscuity of the time. Jack Carter is a fixer for a London mob returning to his northern hometown to bury his brother. The nature of his brother’s death – supposedly a car accident due to heavy drinking – does not sit with Carter, who knows his brother to be a decent man. His determination to find out the real reason for the death of Frank Carter drives Jack’s violent actions through the book. As he closes the net he seeks retribution on all involved. The book on the surface seems like a standard revenge thriller plot, but there is much to admire in the intricacies of Lewis’ writing and his gradual unravelling of the mystery. Written in the first person, it is testamant to Michael Caine’s portayal that it is his voice you hear. Whilst the movie changed some elements of Lewis’ novel – notably resetting the story in Newcastle and the nature of the climax – it retains the core plot progression and atmosphere. Lewis would write two prequels – Jack Carter’s Law and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pidgeon – but he would never better this prime example of British pulp.
THE GOODBYE LOOK by ROSS MACDONALD (1969, Penguin, 282pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: Lew Archer, world-weary private investigator, is hired by Larry and Irene Chalmers when they suspect that their troubled son Nick is involved in their own burglary. But when a fellow investigator – one who’s been working with Nick – turns up dead, Archer soon realizes this isn’t simply about some stolen loot. To help their son, Archer must uncover the truth about a kidnap years ago, and discover why the handgun from a decades-old killing apparently turns up at every new and terrible murder.
Ross MacDonald is one of three writers considered to be the pinnacle fo the private eye genre – the other two being Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammet. His Lew Archer novels and stories build on Chandler’s cynical view of Los Angeles and the flawed characters who inhabit it. This is the fifteenth of eighteen novels MacDonald wrote featuring the character and is typical of the later entries in the series. Archer becomes embroiled in a case revolving around a small group of families – all of whom are disfunctional. The mystery plot is cleverly unravelled as the book progresses at a good pace. With its convoluted plot, flawed characters and lone detective hero it feels as if it lives in the 40s or 50s, despite being set in a contemporary 1969. However, MacDonald was by then a master of his craft and his skill overcomes the slighly anachronistic feel. Highly recommended for scholars of the genre and fans in general.
Lew Archer novels:
- The Moving Target (1949)
- The Drowning Pool (1950)
- The Way Some People Die (1951)
- The Ivory Grin (1952) ****
- Find a Victim (1954)
- The Barbarous Coast (1956)
- The Doomsters (1958)
- The Galton Case (1959) *****
- The Wycherly Woman (1961)
- The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
- The Chill (1964)
- The Far Side of the Dollar (1965)
- Black Money (1966) ****
- The Instant Enemy (1968)
- The Goodbye Look (1969) ****
- The Underground Man (1971)
- Sleeping Beauty (1973)
- The Blue Hammer (1976) ****
THE DRY by JANE HARPER (2016, Abacus, 404pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: Who really killed the Hadler family? In the small town of Kiewarra, it hasn’t rained for two years. Swept up in the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, the town crackles with seething malice and unvoiced grudges. Tensions in the community are at breaking point when three members of the Hadler family are suddenly brutally murdered. Everyone thinks Luke Hadler, who committed suicide after slaughtering his wife and six-year-old son, is guilty, but is he just an easy scapegoat? Policeman Aaron Falk returns to the town of his youth for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. As questions mount and suspicion spreads through the town, Falk is forced to confront the community that rejected him twenty years earlier. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret, one which Luke’s death threatens to unearth. And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, secrets from his past and why he left home bubble to the surface as he questions the truth of his friend’s crime.
Jane Harper’s debut novel is a confident mystery thriller with an evocative closed community setting. The book links together two mysteries – one in the present, the other from twenty years earlier. Harper’s detective hero, Aaron Falk, is linked to the mystery from the past via his friend, Luke Hadler, who along with his family are the victims of the mystery of the present. Both are seeming suicides and may be linked. The book unravels these mysteries through clever use of flashback passages, frequently interspersed with the present day case. Chapters and scenes are edited so as to keep the reader turning the pages. The characters are vividly drawn and the reader is left guessing right up until the reveal. A strong debut for a proposed series.