Three suburban moms find themselves in financial emergencies for reasons that could be ripped from today's headlines: philandering husbands, divorce, inadequate health insurance, and full-time jobs that don't pay enough to live on. When the pressure gets too great, they team up to bend some rules rather than wind up homeless.
Middle-class folks do not one day decide to be career criminals. Under duress the trio chisels a little here and swipes a little there. When they get away with it they are exhilarated and so are we. When they start to build on their successes, it starts to get scary. This is essentially the first season.
In the second season, it "gets real," as the saying goes. Once they have started to move serious money, serious people show up, both criminals and law enforcement agencies. Season Two could be entitled, "It's all fun and games until . . ."
The third season is available for streaming and the fourth season is underway. I'm looking forward to following this exploration of the open border between middle-class economics and organized crime.
The acting is uniformly excellent. That goes for the leading women and for the men who play their husbands, lovers, bosses, and partners in crime.
I've reviewed several docu-dramas on the Dark Stories Blog including The Social Dilemma (2020), American Animals (2018), Three Identical Strangers (2018). Each offers that delivers that blend of suspense and revulsion at the moral blindness of the characters that is typical of film noir and related genres.
In each of these films, knowing the events actually happened only intensifies the effect. These films are not just "based on a true story," nor are they "inspired by actual events." Everything in the film is fact. Netflix's new, excellent Operation Varsity Blues takes this one step further: the dialogue spoken by actors to dramatize these events is taken verbatim from FBI wiretaps.
Even if you followed news reports of "the College Admissions Scandal" as it unfolded in 2019, this film is worth watching. Especially if you are a student of confidence games (The Big Con by David W. Maurer, The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith), this portrait of Rick Singer (played by Matthew Modine) is compelling and enlightening.
He told wealthy people he could guarantee their children admission to schools like Stanford and University of Southern California for a price. He made no secret of how he would do it: bribery and manipulation of scores on entrance exams. Some of them asked if there was any way this could "come back to bite me." All of them paid, and he delivered. Until he got caught. Then, as they say in the old gangster films, "he sang like a canary."
The little blue house with white trim tells a story. The builders paid for fancy window trim and an ornate cornice, so it was probably built after the Silver Rush of 1859, which brought San Francisco even more wealth than the Gold Rush of 1849. All that wealth allowed people to build more impressive homes and custom wood-working shops opened to supply the need.
But the original owners did not pay for bay windows. Maybe that's because so much of the front is glass. Bay windows might have looked like they were crowding each other. Plus it's a small house, as you can see from that side wall. It's only a little deeper than it is wide. And the cornice is a false front. It makes the house look bigger than it really is.
The new white house next door is taller, wider and deeper than its little neighbor from the days of the Wild West. It's possible two little old houses like the blue on were torn down to make room for it. It really is as big as it looks.
In Before the Fall, Scott Burroughs survives the crash of a small airplane in the waters off Martha's Vineyard and saves another passenger. Noah Hawley creates a thrilling account of his survival and all he faces afterward: investigations by government agencies, pursuit by reporters, and interference from friends and family members. Scott turns out to be that rare person who can beat bureaucrats, bullies, and demagogues at their own games. I was in suspense right through the last page.
Hawley tells this story in 223 pages, but there are 390 pages in the book. The other 167 pages are devoted to chapters on the seven people who died in the plane crash. I skipped them all the first time through and thoroughly enjoyed the story.
When I was done, I went back and read the other chapters. They tell a bit about each of the people who died, who they were, what they did, how they came to be on that flight. They are character sketches. Each chapter confirmed the impression I had of a person in the first chapter when they all board the plane together. None of this changed my view of the main plot, Scott's triumph over those in power.
By itself's Scott's story is about the same length of those wonderful suspense novels from the era of paperback originals. The addition of the character sketches is one more example of how to make a book as long as publishers want them to be these days.
False Tongues by Kate Charles is not the kind of novel I usually read, but I enjoyed it. And it's helping me understand the kind of book I want to write.
Callie, the principal character, is a curate in the Church of England. Her boyfriend, Marco, is a police officer who supports families who are victims of crimes. Marco is assigned to a family whose teenage son has been murdered. DI Neville Stewart is assigned to find the murderer.
So Callie is not directly involved in solving the crime. Neither are her vicar and his wife, her friends from theological college who gather for a reunion, nor the principal of the college, who falls in love with a visiting priest during the reunion, but we spend a lot of time with all of them.
It's fair to say the structure of this novel is similar to that of the film, Love Actually (2003): lots of people, lots of stories, surprising connections among them. I enjoyed both that film and this book
If someone removed all the scenes and characters who do not contribute to solving the mystery, the book would probably be less than 200 pages instead of 339. I suspect the author spun out the loosely connected subplots in order to make the book as long as publishers want books to be these days.
Almost three years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Why did books get longer?". I had just read Michael Connelly's Two Kinds of Truth, a big book divided into Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Since each part tells a separate story, the book is really two novellas and a short story, put into one book and called "a novel."
I have read that books of 80,000 words (240 pages) sell best on Amazon, and that a book must be 100,000 words (330 pages) in order to be commercial. Some authors make a mystery longer by making the plot more complicated to solve; some do it by including more description of scenery; some bundle more stories together.
Promising Young Woman has been described as a rape revenge thriller. But is the hero, Cassie (Carey Milligan), seeking revenge? Or is she seeking justice?
To begin with she is not out to settle a score for harm done to her. Rather, she is settling the score for harm done to someone else. In this, the film resembles Unforgiven, the great western in which William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a bounty hunter, sets out to get justice for someone overlooked by the justice system.
Also, she is not out to demand an eye for an eye from the men who raped her friend. She does no violence, despite the near constant threats she creates. She is not out to punish the men who pick her up in bars, the medical school dean who dismissed her friend's accusation, or any of the others she hoodwinks. Instead, she wants to force them to recognize and admit what they did.
This is a film about a woman seeking justice, not revenge. This is a significant variation on the revenge thriller. And it is thrilling.
QUASI-SPOILER: Much made of having to explain the ending, but it is completely consistent with the film. In one way Cassie loses. She becomes a victim of the clueless guys who treat women as objects. In another way, she succeeds by guaranteeing their cruelty will become known and they will have to face the consequences.
These two Victorians were almost certainly built at the same time in the 1880s. Originally they probably looked similar.
The blue house on the left still has its over-sized cornice and other fancy trim. The three-color paint job emphasizes all the details. There are four colors if you count the black front door.
The red house on the right no longer has its cornice, though the wall that extends above the roofline is still there. I'm told architects refer to this as a false front.
Along with the cornice, the fancy trim around the windows is gone. A close-up look reveals that the front of the house has been covered with asbestos shingles.
This tells us a couple of things. At some point in its history, the owners decided to remove the fancy woodwork rather than pay for a paint job. They may also have been convinced that asbestos would fire-proof the house.
Left in place, those shingles will probably last as long as the house does. Removing them would be extremely expensive, given the precautions now required to avoid the health-hazards of working with asbestos.
The red house will probably never be restored to its original glory.
As Barnard says in A Talent to Deceive, Agatha Christie's characters are one-dimensional, her settings are undistinguished, and her prose and dialogue are nothing special. By comparison, her fellow mystery writers of the 1920s and 1930s, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey are much better novelists,
And yet, Christie has far more readers than any of them. In fact, by all accounts, Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of fiction of all time. Only The Bible and Shakespeare have sold more copies than she has.
Barnard gives two ideas about why Christie continues to be so popular. First, she does one thing better than anyone: manipulate the reader into guessing wrong about who committed the murder. Barnard's analysis of how she does so is worth studying.
Second, he suggests, her mysteries should not be read as modern fiction but rather as an older kind of story, the tale. He mentions "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
One might also think of fairy tales in which character types---an old man, a wicked woman, a young lover, a trickster---play out the action in a simple setting---a forest, a castle, a village. The tale is told in simple, conversational language.
In the tale, there is no attempt at realism or literary sophistication. The plot is everything.
I don't know if anyone has come up with a better explanation for Christie's phenomenal success since Barnard published this book in 1980, but his ideas have me reading Christie again.
Murphy vows to find out who killed a teenager who was one of the good guys in her tough urban neighborhood. She has to contend with gang members and crooked cops.
And she is blind.
Murphy lost her sight at the age of fourteen due to retinitis pigmentosa. She is now in her twenties. Her disability has not made her a better person. She drinks too much, and smokes, and likes casual sex. When was the last time you saw character with a disability who is not a saint? And who is willing to kick some ass for a just cause.
The title, In the Dark refers to Murphy's blindness, but this is a dark story because of the characters around her. Some of the friendly ones turn out to be wolves. Some of the scary ones turn out to be honest. But there are a few reliable if quirky people around her.
The revelations throughout Season One keep this series lively. The acting is strong throughout the cast.
Season Two is also on Netflix. A third season will be produced this year, and a fourth season has been ordered.
Howdunit makes good on its promise of offering "A Masterclass in Crime Writing," so long as you define "masterclass" as "a class taught by masters." All the notes and essays in this book are written by highly accomplished writers of crime fiction. The title is a riff on the slang for murder mysteries as "whodunits." The emphasis here is on how to write one.
Naturally some are just what I'm looking for while others are remotely interesting. I'm working my way through the book, marking essays that speak to the challenges I'm facing at the moment in my writing and finding quite a few that do.
For instance, I am benefiting from Andrew Taylor's essay, "How to Change Your Murderer." The title refers to some writers who say the started off thinking they knew who murdered whom, and ended up changing their mind by the end of the first draft. Taylor uses this as an example of how unplanned a plot can be.
The Detection Club was founded in 1930 with G. K. Chesterton as its first president, and has counted such all-time greats as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers in its membership as well as many contemporary writers. Since it's a British club, all the essayists are British, though they have good things to say about the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, and Patricia Highsmith.
The Difference is a Charles Willeford crime novel wearing a cowboy hat instead of a fedora, riding on a horse instead of in a Plymouth, and set in the Sonoran desert rather than San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Johnny Shaw, the first-person narrator, is as unscrupulous as the hero of Willeford's The Woman Chaser or, for that matter Thompson's The Killer Inside Me or Williams's The Hot Spot. Shaw has a noble quest---to regain control of the land left to him by his father---but, as he pursues it, he takes whatever he needs and kills whoever is in his way.
It was normal for "paperback writers" of the 1950s and 1960s to write more than one genre: crime, western, sci-fi, or romance. In this book, Willeford seems to know horsemanship and the Sonoran desert as well as he knows the used-car business and Los Angeles in The Woman Chaser. I'm not sure this will make me a fan of westerns, but I enjoyed this one.
This book shows how the thriller (using that term loosely) became more popular than "mainstream fiction" and "literary fiction" and, in the hands of some writers became as sophisticated.
Anderson's short list of "modern masters" includes Thomas Harris, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and a few others, but he discusses many writers in several categories. I've added some new names to my to-be-read list. I also enjoyed his discussions of writers I've read such as Lawrence Sanders. It's nice to be reminded what is good about those books.
Throughout the book I found answers to questions I have long pondered. For instance, he says Sue Grafton's first book is about 200 pages, but a book from later in her Kinsey Milhone series runs to 337 pages. Anderson says this is not because the plot has more twists and turns, but rather because Grafton includes more description.
For me this was similar to another book about books I like, Books to Die For. The Triumph of the Thriller was published in 2007, so it ends before the rise of ebooks and print-on-demand, which uprooted many of the assumptions of book publishing.
Charles Willeford is mentioned along with Jim Thompson and Charles Williams as among the best writers of paperback originals, a publishing phenomenon that started in 1950.
The Woman Chaser was published in 1960, the sixth of his eighteen novels. Its hero is devoid of empathy. He interacts with others only to entertain or enrich himself. This recalls the heroes of Williams' The Hot Spot and Thompson's The Killer inside Me.
The Woman Chaser is the story of a used-car salesman who moves from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and takes a break from making money to write and direct a film. On this level, he is a spoof of every guy who has "a great idea for a movie" and thinks that's all he needs.
Along the way the salesman has an Oedipal relationship with his mother and uncaring sexual encounters with two other women. These characters are barely tethered to the plot. They are included so the author can check off requirements of the genre.
Willeford has a lot of fun experimenting with form. Instead of chapter breaks, he uses movie scene headings such as "Dissolve To:" The flow of action seems at times as arbitrary as the hero's brainstorming.
The Woman Chaser may not be a lesson in how to construct a narrative, but it successfully brings a sociopathic narrator to life.
San Francisco is famous for fog. Tony Bennett sang about it: "the morning fog may chill the air, I don't care." Lots of black-and-white suspense films, mostly film noir, have used it to great effect.
I took this photo in Tiburon, not far from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. If it weren't for Angel Island and fog we'd be looking at the city of San Francisco across the bay. This small town has turned its waterside into a walkable park. I was mighty impressed by the way someone used that natural rock as the base for a fishing pedestal at the end of that pier.
Decades ago, when I was reading Popular Photography magazine, I saw an article which said not to wait for sunny days to take pictures; some of your best opportunities are in "bad" weather.
Blood Simple was a revelation for me when I saw it in a theater. It was scary and funny at the same time.
Ray is having an affair with his boss's wife (Abby). The boss (Marty) hires a private detective (Visser), to get proof of the affair. Ray and Abby prepare to run away together. Marty hires Visser to kill them.
Ray, a nice guy, winds up acting like a cold-blooded fiend. Marty, the vengeful husband, loses everything. Visser, a paid killer, ends up looking like a clown. Abby, a dependent woman, becomes the toughest of all.
Since everyone is keeping secrets, they sometimes work at cross-purposes. And accidents happen. Sometimes the surprises are scary, sometimes funny.
The filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Cohn, were certainly not the first to combine suspense and humor. Hitchcock always looked for humor in his stories and sometimes abandoned an idea if there was no humor in it. But the Cohn brothers made the scary parts scarier and the funny parts funnier.