A Murder of Quality [1964] and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [1974]

I wasn’t really aware of John le Carré until the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [2011] came out. I enjoyed the film quite a lot, even though on reflection, not much actually happens. I picked up the novel in the UK and read it pretty voraciously, then looked around at some of his other works, especially The Spy who Came in From the Cold [1963], and eventually watching the Alec Guinness version of Tinker [1979], which I liked rather less than the film for a number of reasons.

One review in particular of the film stuck in my imagination – fired it even – which was from Mark Kermode, who argued that it wasn’t a film about spies. Instead, he saw it as a film about a group of men negotiating who could be trusted, about navigating their personal relationships, about exploring their personalities. At the time I thought cripes! That’s just what spies are about! His non-genre review was as absurd to me as if I said “well, it’s not a whodunit, because it’s about this detective who goes around interviewing people connected with a murder, reviewing the physical evidence and figuring out who the murderer was”. The Le Carré version of spies is the deepest into the Wilderness of Mirrors, the world where everything may well be a lie, and you can’t even trust yourself. His novels are dominated by that theme, so much so that in their definitive study of the genre Cawelti and Rosenberg argue that his work is a “corrective to Fleming’s extravagant fantasies” [157], and previous masters of the humanist tradition of espionage, notably Graham Greene, acknowledged le Carré as the master of the genre.

A Murder of Quality is Le Carré’s second novel, and it shows his spymaster, George Smiley, solving an almost pure classical Fair Play detective story, albeit one much simpler than anything Christie would have bothered with. I found it fascinating, and want to point out a couple of interesting but spoilerific features below the cut.


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The Once and Future James Bond

James Bond was an important character to me when I was young. My first memory of Bond is watching Thunderball at my Grandparents’ farm, I was around 7 or 8. I watched it within a few days of watching Chuck Norris in Delta Force, which had been the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I picked up all of Ian Fleming’s novels in well-used 1960s Pan editions at second-hand bookstores and church book fairs; I had the complete set by the time we moved back to Wellington in ’95, the year the best James Bond film came out, GoldenEye. A few years later my flat devoted one sleep-deprived weekend to watching, in order, all the films up to Tomorrow Never Dies. There is no cooler phrase in English than “Bond, James Bond”. There is no more deeply-entrenched idea of English masculinity. Bond is the Ur-Hero of the English twentieth century. Continue reading

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The Thousand Dollar Tan Line [2014]

Veronica Mars should need only the scantest introduction. A complex show that navigated between teen drama and more-than-averagely-tough hard-boiled detection, usually managing to juggle two separate episodic mysteries as well as a season-long arc. Aside from anything else, Veronica Mars is a masterclass on the importance of narrative structure, at least in the first season. It only survived three seasons, only to be brought back from the dead by a kickstarter-funded movie. The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is thus the third incarnation, and I believe it was intended to be the first in a series of novel tie-ins. It’s a lot for a debut novel to live up to, especially since Veronica Mars has grown up and now exists in the same story space as many other fine detectives (VI Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone being the two most famous), whereas teen Mars really only had Nancy Drew as a point of comparison. Veronica Mars outshone her by offering up a series of far more affecting and deep personal stories, by having far more complex and original plots, by including a blistering critique of the semi-invisible class system in the US, and by maintaining the usual noir concepts of societal corruption and individual weakness. Damn, but that show was good.

As a piece of literature, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is written in a pleasant and easily-digestible way – it’s middle-of-the-road clear prose; just as the style of the TV show was fairly lightweight and straightforward. I think there may be a gendered angle on that fairly bland narrative approach – male detective fiction often tries to mimic Hammett’s terse and muscular style, conveying the hard edges of the world through hard prose. This can take a number of forms, from Chandler’s bitter similes to Ellroy’s extreme truncation to “Reacher said nothing”. While it’s no bad thing for a work to be an easy read, just as the show was an easy watch, it does make the novel less memorable, less distinctive, and less impressive than I hoped it would be. We’re not going to remember this book because of its construction.

Noir often works by showing a tough situation and bad events only to reveal that they’re ultimately motivated by even worse things in the past – and Veronica Mars foregrounded this duality right from the first scenes of the show, balancing Veronica’s own traumatic past against the tough situations she encounters in the present. Perhaps there’s nothing quite so dark as the child murderer in Hammett’s The Dain Curse, or the bleak secrets underpinning the murders in Ellroy’s White Jazz, but the show was never afraid of pulling back that curtain for a glimpse of the horror which makes the world of Noir unbearable to those who aren’t hard-boiled. The biggest “flaw” in The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is that there isn’t anything like that complex doubling. The crimes that occur are fairly much just what they appear to be, and they’re lily-white by the standards of other hard-boiled detectives: it’s a plot that would have been palatable to the Detection Club.

The net result of this is a fairly conventional tale, fairly conventionally told, about a protagonist who has shed most of her distinctive features. It’s a light, fun, and easy read whose greatest asset is seeing the continuing lives of characters that we care about. That’s a fairly slight reason for something like this to exist: it was well worth the $ and time I spent on it, but I really hoped for more.

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Best and Worst films of 2017

It’s been a quiet year for me this year for a combination of reasons: uptick in social things and ultimate, watching a huge number of films for school, and perhaps being a bit pickier when forking over my $10 (Reading) – $17.50 (Lighthouse Cuba). I’ve only seen 48 new releases this year, which is a smidgeon below par. While 2017 has felt like a better than average year for film, no film has earned a 10/10 from me on IMDb this year, and no repeat cinematic viewings. There also hasn’t been anything quite as awful as Victor Frankenstein, or a Pigeon Sat on a Tree Branch. Rounding up 2015 and 2016 I felt the need to champion truly amazing films that had been overlooked in all awards discussions and critical round-ups, but this year I think my top half-dozen films have almost all also been well received generally. I base my list on what I saw as new, not a strict 2017 release date, which means 11 films from my haul are technically 2016 releases.

First, the stinkers:

Live by Night

How you make a film about prohibition-era gangsters running rum through Cuba into a boring and turgid mess would have remained a mystery without this utterly nonsensical piece of garbage. Well done for answering a question literally nobody had.

Rough Night

Traditionally, a comedy should have at least a single laugh in it. I’ve got no basic problem with the plot – which was asinine – or making “inappropriate” jokes – I laughed until my face hurt when watching Bad Santa [2003] – but I need some kind of comic timing, some kind of rhythm of expectations being subverted. Taking that cast and making a movie that laugh-free takes a truly special talent.

The best films of year in ascending order of global box office:

Colossal [Nacho Vigalondo, US$4,470,506]

I’ll need to revisit this in a few years and see whether I’m right, but this feels like the perfect film to capture the base problems of the patriarchy and its psychology, and seems like the perfect film for this moment in time. This film lifts the best parts of genre concepts to tell a story about real-feeling people and their struggles. the juxtaposition between the fantastic appearance of the Kaiju and the superbly real characters is a hugely difficult balancing act that the film absolutely pulls off.

The Florida Project [Sean Baker, US$5,978,874]

About 20 minutes into this film I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it at all; there hadn’t been anything I could recognise as a plot, instead presenting as a series of vignettes about the desperate plight of a child and her unemployed mother living in a motel on the outskirts of Disneyland. But as the film unfurled, I recognised that there was a powerful and compelling story – it just wasn’t happening to the protagonist, but to her mother. This allows the film to show its story of human drama while avoiding the usual pitfall of this genre of systematic sadism toward its characters. The characters have our sympathy, but never our pity. In short, neither telling, nor showing, this film artfully suggests.

The Villainess [Byung-gil Jung, US$8,818,918]

This is a film which defies precise genre categorisation: a melange of high-octane action with stunning choreography and stunts, an underworld spy movie with every twist you’d expect, a psychological thriller about trust and relationships, and a romance. A list of films to which it owes a debt would be pointless, because it doesn’t borrow widely, it steals outright and perfects everything it grabs.  This is the apogee of genre film making, confident, self-assured, controlled, and precise. It’s also notable, at least to Western eyes, for placing powerful women front-and-centre within a genre context.

Get Out [Jordan Peele, US$253,750,109]

By now I probably don’t have to explain to anyone what this film is about or what makes it one of the best musicals or comedies of 2017. I can’t remember another film which has so consistently appeared on year round-ups; still, if it picks up any of the Oscars it merits, I’ll be surprised.

La La Land [Damien Chazelle, US$431,690,689]

This was the first film I saw in 2017. I have retained a powerful sense memory of the film opening into a full razzling-dazzling musical set piece that I think would stand alongside anything in the history of musicals. I felt a wave of simple rapturous joy which never receded throughout the film, which somehow managed to at the last minute deconstruct the genre’s troped-t0-death happy ending into something that I found genuinely touching and moving. I’ve had plenty of people explain to me what they didn’t like about it over the course of 2017, but nothing anyone has said has trumped the pure joy I felt.

And finally a special mention, for Blade Runner 2049. It wasn’t a film that worked for me, but I think it’s been by far the film I’ve discussed the most. I think this is a film whose reputation and importance will slowly grow over time, as the staggering level of talent applied to make it becomes more evident on subsequent viewings.

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Murder on the Orient Express [1934]

Spoilers, obviously. But you’ve had 83 years to read it…

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi [2017]

Given the sensitivity around films of this scale, everything is behind the screen.

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Addison [1884]

Joseph Addison is not a household name – but three hundred years ago, he was a fairly influential man of letters kicking around the Restoration. He wrote a few poems, a few plays, held a few political offices, but what he is remembered for by those who do remember him is his collaborations with Richard Steele on The Tatler and The Spectator; which are probably not household names either. They were magazines, effectively, something like The New Yorker, Atlantic, or Rolling Stone of today, containing more commentary than raw unprocessed news information. I picked up a kind of Greatest Hits when I was studying the Restoration while Reading English as an undergraduate. They weren’t on, or anywhere near, the syllabus, but I’ve never had too much trouble convincing myself to buy and read a book on the off-chance it might be useful to me later. And so these last ten years I’ve been carrying around in my head an impression of a man of letters, waiting for some concrete use, the way I periodically think I should liven some of my writing with inserts from Pope’s Essay on Criticism. I have been starting to feel lately, particularly when reading the likes of Matt Taibbi, that time may be coming.

The Restoration has always been one of my favourite periods of English literature because it was a time when writing was the battleground in which matters of politics and morality were fought; a battle that’s not too hard to discern in our current media, in which reportage often has the whiff of a political press release. John Dryden, my favourite Restoration poet, wasn’t merely a Poet Laureate, he was a powerful foot-soldier in a political war. Addison was a partisan in that fighting, but half a generation later, Samuel Johnson wants to cast him not in that light, but as one who rose above the fray. In his Life of Addison, Johnson portrays a man who brought a sharp mind to the problems of the day, and intervened as an arbiter of taste, the perfect neoclassical mind, which is I think how many people subsequently view Johnson himself. But aside from this big-picture impression of a mind in an era, I have to admit to not really knowing that much detail. While on holiday in Oamaru, I stumbled across a biography of Addison and it was not too hard to convince myself to spent the $3. The edition I bought was the 1909 “Pocket Edition” of the 1884 “English Men of Letters” volume on Addison. A millennial reading a Victorian about a Neo-classicist seemed like the perfect level of distance to get a proper perspective on everything.

Courthope’s writing is clear, sprightly, and precise: it’s a genuine pleasure to read. I buzz-sawed through the 170 pages of 6-pt font in just a few hours. It’s obvious though, that the immediate details of Restoration political history were expected to be at the Victorian Gentleman’s fingertips, as Courthope is perfectly happy to allude to people and events without any context. He’s offering context and analysis, not raw biographical information. It’s plain that he expects the reader to be passingly familiar with Addison, Pope, Samuel Johnson, and the modes and mores of the period generally. What’s striking about his critical passages, compared to a modern prevaricating postmodernist, is that he’s absolutely prepared to make clear-cut judgments of literary value: this is good, this is okay, this is bad. These judgments are made with complete assurance that they aren’t going to be questioned or subject to modification. I expect they’re largely on the money too, inasmuch as we should be judging at all.

Addison, like many politically-aware people of this day grappled with the issue of party politics, and the conclusion he came to was this:

There cannot, a greater judgment befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree, not only with regard to those advantages which they give to the common enemy, but to those private evils which they produce in the heart of every particular person. This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and to their understandings; it sinks the virtue of a nation, and only so, but destroys even common sense. Spectator #507

This is nothing more or less than an answer to the value of an arts education. You think you’re reading a series of satires on the common condition of 18th century man [sic] while in fact there’s a fairly complete political education bundled along for free. I think this is one of my other favourite aspects of the Restoration: there were surely genius specialists, but those engaging in writing pursuits tackled many fronts. Courthope’s argument is that while Addison was a Whig, he was motivated not by party loyalty but by sensing that they were the lesser of two evils:

But he would have repudiated as vigorously as Burke the … stupid and ferocious spirit, generated by party, which would deny to opponents even the appearance of virtue and intelligence. Addison, 169

Reading a life of Addison at this spectacularly dysfunctional moment in democracy is a panacea: as broken as world democracy is right now, it surely can’t be worse than during the Restoration, and men like Addison found a way to reconnect vehemently held opposing views in art and in politics. This balancing act seems to be what’s necessary today. We’ve become so partisan and dogmatic that the very basis of agreed facts is in pretty shabby shape. A book like this isn’t going to change the world, but it’s a window into the life of someone who played their part in that endeavour.

Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele. Addison and Steele: Selections from the Tatler and the Spectator. Edited by Robert J. Alllen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Courthope, William John. Addison. London: Macmillan, 1909.
Johnson, Samuel. Johnson. Prose and Poetry. Edited by Mona Wilson. Rupert Hart-Davis: London, 1966.
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