Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Recent Nordic Mysteries in Print and Television, Part I: Iceland

 This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because crime involves crossing a dark line that potentially can result in the loss of one's humanity

A scene from the Icelandic television series Trapped, currently streaming on Netflix.

Arnaldur Indridason is one of the most acclaimed Icelandic writers of police procedurals for his novels about Detective Erlendur, a brooding, lonely officer who is tormented by ghosts from his past: the disappearance of his younger brother, a failed marriage and two children whose lives have been scarred by drugs. Fittingly, he investigates a number of cold cases and one his best, The Draining Lake (2009), begins with a discovery of a corpse that has a bullet in his head in a lake where the water level dropped in the wake of an earthquake. Erlendur’s investigation takes him back to the time of the Cold War when bright, left-wing students would be sent from Iceland to study in the “heavenly state” of Communist East Germany. Indridason has recently decided to put the Erlendur series in a deep freeze while he pursues another project.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dark Mirrors: Get Out and Race in America

This essay originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because the racial transgressions that occur in both the film under review and in American society are consistent with the Gothic's examination of the darker side in both the past and the present.

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017).

“The truth is, they don’t surround us. We surround them. This is our country."
– Glenn Beck, Fox News Channel, March 13, 2009.
Jordan Peele’s gripping film, Get Out, which explores on a micro-level contemporary race relations through the prism of comedy horror, has received considerable attention from critics, including this site’s Justin Cummings and Kevin Courrier. Among other films, they have rightly pointed out its cultural markers from The Invasion of the Body SnatchersGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner to The Stepford Wives. In both versions of the latter, wives are reprogrammed into robotic doppelgangers while Get Out can be viewed as a sinister version of Dinner. But Sydney Poitier’s other 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, also comes to mind. His role as the urbane cop who encounters southern redneck racists finds its mirror image fifty years later in Get Out, in the photographer Chris’ unease with the seemingly polite, cringe-inducing patronization of white liberals, a veneer that covers their malevolent and dangerous presence. I would add two fictional progenitors to Get Out: H. G. Wells’ early science fiction novella, The Island of Doctor Moreau, about a physician who experiments on animals to turn them into human-like hybrids, and Stephen King’s End of Watch that posits the idea that the consciousness of a comatose psychopath can be transferred to the minds of others who become the agents of his nefarious plans.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Changing the Narrative in Canadian History: Three Recent Canadian Studies

The following review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced here because the Canadian treatment of Indigenous people, a prominent theme of this piece, has until recently characterized by the authorities crossing a line into darkness.

The Scream by Kent Monkman. (2017, Acrylic on Canvas)

If you are a Canadian, you will undoubtedly know that Aboriginals have not joined in the joyful acknowledgement of Canada’s sesquicentennial. Several native men and women have articulated that this occasion that celebrates Confederation, itself a product of a colonial mentality, is shameful because the framers regarded Aboriginals with contempt. One commentator argued that the Canadian historical narrative had to change. On the evidence of two of the books under review – Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests (University of Toronto Press, 2017) by Peter H. Russell and The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country (Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016) by Charlotte Gray – the narrative about the relationship between the British and later Canadian governments and the Aboriginal peoples is changing. Russell (full disclosure: I personally know this distinguished political scientist) fully understands Aboriginal disenchantment with the 1867 Constitution Act – it offered them nothing – and based on the evidence in The Promise I suspect that Gray would also appreciate their refusal to participate in this event. Although Tim Cook’s Vimy: The Battle and the Legend (Allen Lane, 2017) does not address the Aboriginal issue, he does challenge a dominant narrative about Canadian identity that has emerged since the celebration of the country’s centennial in 1967.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Novels about the Third Reich, Part II: Jessica Shattuck’s Women in the Castle

This review, originally appeared in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site since a central theme of this novel is to what extent can people across that line of darkness and still retain their humanity.

Author Jessica Shattuck. (Photo: Grace Kwon)


Two pivotal scenes, spanning over sixty years, remain in the mind long after reading Jessica Shattuck’s character-driven, historically-informed (with excellent sources acknowledged at the back), and emotionally moving Women in the Castle (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2017). The first occurs in the prologue set in 1938 Germany, on the cusp of Kristallnacht, in a Bavarian castle during the von Lingenfels’ annual family party. Although some of the guests sport Nazi insignias, a number of others are assembled in the study of the host, Albrecht, plotting active resistance to Hitler’s zealotry – fearing that if things go wrong, their families will suffer. His wife, Marianne, interrupts and fully cognizant of Hitler’s madness and thuggery, challenges them to take action. When her charismatic childhood friend, Connie Fledermann, appoints her the “commander of wives and children,” she accepts.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Novels about the Third Reich, Part One: Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue

This review, originally published in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because Kerr's novels on the Third Reich reinforce the themes I discussed in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, (Encompass Editions, 2013.)
Novelist Philip Kerr. (Photo: Alberto Estevez)

A new release of a Philip Kerr novel is always a welcome addition to an oeuvre of more than thirty books, including his highly-received Bernie Gunther novels. From the 1989 publication of March Violets to Prussian Blue (Marian Wood Books/Bantam, 2017), Kerr has now churned out twelve novels about the acerbic-tongued German detective who has led a checkered life from the trenches of World War One, then as a homicide Berlin cop working for Kripo (the criminal division of the German police), as a private detective, a reluctant member of the SS during World War II, a Soviet POW, to being a fugitive living under aliases in places such as Argentina and France. Throughout, Kerr’s historical research is impeccable enabling him to convey vividly the atmospherics of the times and delineate adroitly the historical actors. Because his focus is on character and hard-boiled Chandlerian dialogue – the cynical wise-cracking Gunther rarely abstains from verbal jousts with often powerful personalities – Kerr astutely avoids providing unnecessary expository information unless it is revealed through the characters and is vital to our understanding of the period.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Spirit of David McCullough in The American Spirit

This review, originally appearing in Critics at Large  is reproduced here since it reveals how certain historical actors refused to cross that line of darkness in large part because they were well read and a keen historical awareness unlike the current President.

David McCullough, author of The American Spirit. (Photo by William B. McCullough)

“We must all read history…”  – John Adams, in a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail. 
“Make the love of learning central to your life.” – David McCullough in The American Spirit.
Most people may know David McCullough for his rich baritone voice as the narrator of Ken Burns’ landmark PBS series, The Civil War or as the host for twelve years of The American Experience. He is also well known for his Pulitzer prize-winning Presidential biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams – the latter adapted into an engrossing HBO series. He has written prize-winning studies on the young Teddy Roosevelt and the building of the Panama Canal. He was the subject of a wonderful portrait as a historian, raconteur and family man in the 2008 documentary Painting with Words, which is included on the John Adams DVD. In 2006, he was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can earn. Most recently, he has turned his attention to collecting his finest speeches over almost thirty years delivered at university commencements, historical societies, both Houses of Congress and the White House. The result is the lovelyThe American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (Simon & Schuster, 2017) which says as much about himself as the subjects of his mini-essays.

In his first (1989) and last address (2016), McCullough celebrates two members of Congress who he feels have not been given sufficient recognition – John Quincy Adams and Margaret Chase Smith. Quincy Adams – the son of the second President – who, after serving in several posts as Ambassador, became Secretary of State and then a one-term President (and overshadowed by his successor, Andrew Jackson). He was the only former President to be elected to the House of Representatives where he served with distinction for eighteen years, earning widespread support among his colleagues for his untiring energy, incorruptibility and his eloquence. A reader might wonder whether McCullough’s focus on Quincy Adams underscores his perception that there are few avatars of his principled spirit currently sitting in Congress primarily because they are more interested in serving their own Party than the people who elected them.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Dead City in Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

“He sobs, shakes and chokes, he hears himself making unearthly sounds, dying animal sounds, and his attempts to control and muffle them only intensify the attack. He has to give in. As if a lifetime’s quota of grief, loneliness and regret has been concentrated into one cataclysm, he weeps until his eyes swell shut and he lies still and emptied on the floor.” This review  that originally appeared in Critics at Large reappears on this site because the destabilizing consequences of war, both for a community and the individual who has directly experienced it, is a theme both of the book under review and the two volumes of That Line of Darkness.

Author Steven Heighton.

“Any war goes on destroying lives for a lifetime.”  Steven Heighton, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep
In the early 1970s the beach resort of Varosha was the jewel of Cyprus’ east coast, a destination for the global jet set until the Turkish invasion of 1974. The Turkish authorities never allowed the shop owners and local population to return after they fled. Fenced off and decaying, the city turned into a ghost town. Varosha is the major setting for the Canadian novelist and award-winning poet, Steven Heighton’s fourth novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep (Hamish Hamilton, 2017). Its alluring locale that combines “dead hotels” in a “topiary city made of vines, wild grape and bougainvillea” is one of the most memorable features of the novel.