Chasing Shadows: Off-Radar Pt 1

“Run long and hard enough, and perhaps while you’re running you might actually come up with a plan. But nothing mattered if you were already dead.”

Kate Griffin

So Chasing Shadows is another one of the relentless stream of Murder Mysteries which are currently capturing the public imagination or at least their viewing figures, which amounts to the same thing, at least in the minds of programme commissioners. It features River Song and that guy from The Widower (OK, Alex Kingston and Reece Shearsmith – but isn’t it much more fun to refer to them this way?) as, respectively, a kind and empathetic social worker and a socially awkward, results-driven police officer working together for Missing Persons. Off-Radar is the second half of the four-episode series (the first two episodes made a discrete story, Only Connect, of which I only managed to see the last half of episode two), in which a successful lawyer disappears and suspicion falls upon institutionalised serial killer Leonard Vance. The main question driving this episode is where did he hide the body? which is a nice change from the usual hey, who killed this guy? apart from the fact that it lacks all narrative suspense. Because, let’s face it, we’re not terribly interested, when we watch these things, in the random ravings of a killer. No, we want to know who dun it, preferably after a plot so twisted it puts the Minotaur’s labyrinth to shame.

Nor are we terribly interested in the Socially Awkward Person Who Learns To Open Up plotline (although Shearsmith painting model aeroplanes with his neighbour’s daughter was quite sweet) because we’ve all seen it done better elsewhere. Sherlock is the most obvious analogue – remember when Sherlock rescued John from the bonfire in The Empty Hearse and the nation shed a collective tear?but the presence of Paul Ritter as Leonard Vance also conjures up somewhat unfortunate associations with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; unfortunate, that is, because it points up just how superficial Chasing Shadows’ character development and story arc for Shearsmith actually is. Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if there was a semi-adequate mystery plot to distract us. But there isn’t.

River Song makes an OK-ish social worker, and her attempts to “manage” Shearsmith’s character are occasionally amusing. And the plot looks set to make an interesting twist in the last fifteen minutes. But, really, the best thing I can say about Chasing Shadows is that watching it is better than watching Classic Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on Challenge. Which is not exactly setting the bar very high.

Murder, She Wrote: The Big Kill

Just beyond the far horizon
Lies a waiting world unknown;
Like the dawn, its beauty beckons
With a wonder all its own.”
 

The Lord of the Rings

Wow, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here. I’m actually reviewing an episode of Murder, She Wrote, a Murder Mystery show so vacuous that even Angela Lansbury looks bored, and she plays the starring role. It’s entirely possible to cook an entire meal with this on in the other room and still manage to grasp the plot, because almost nothing actually happens in the 45 minutes between the murder and the Big Reveal. I know this because I have done it, several times.

And yet here I am. Writing about it.

Sigh. Such is life. Such is telly.

The Big Kill (episode 17 of season 9, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge) is pretty standard Murder, She Wrote territory. A businessman is embroiled in murky and suspicious business dealings, in this case involving illegal arms shipments. The fisherman carrying those shipments is murdered by a blow to the head, which Jessica Fletcher, Lady Spinster Detective Extraordinaire, thinks is “an odd way to kill someone”. Well, maybe in Cabot Cove, where murders are meticulously planned affairs of ingenuity and finesse which nevertheless take about half an hour to solve, whacking someone on the head is a rare and inexplicable occurence. But in the real world? They’re ten a penny, Jessica. Honestly. Get with the times.

So, anyway, Old-Fashioned Miss Fletcher does her thing, which is essentially three minutes of Sherlock-type observation (until the scriptwriters run out of ideas, in other words) followed by forty-two minutes of questionable leaps of logic, until she arrives at the answer by a route inaccessible to mere mortals. The murderer shows a remarkable willingness to cooperate as s/he (avoiding spoiler territory here) and Jessica narrate the Story of the Murder together, the police come and take the murderer away, and Cabot Cove is safe for another week.

You get the idea. It was a “meh” episode. It was a thing you watch when there is nothing else on, including reruns of The Big Bang Theory. It wasn’t bad (particularly); it wasn’t offensive (particularly); it was just….vacant. Vacant and formulaic, and very, very nineties.

How did this get 9 seasons, exactly?

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

“Not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Yes, Constant Reader, it’s “let’s-review-a-crappy-show-which-I-barely-remember” day! Because we all have fun with those.

No title again (I know I’ve seen it somewhere, but I really can’t be bothered to search through the whole series listings again), so a brief Plot Synopsis will have to do. As far as I remember, a homeless man goes on a spending spree at a casino and, against all the odds, wins a huge pile of money. He’s then found ‘orribly murdered on the streets of Las Vegas, and suspicion falls, naturally, upon the rather gangster-ish casino owner. But what does that seedy pawn shop around the corner have to do with the case?

Also, there is a Dying Message, just like in Sherlock. These always seem to crop up too often in Murder Mysteries; how many real murder victims do you think leave the name of their killer written in blood or whatever?

Not many, I’ll bet. They probably have more pressing things to think about than whether their murderer will go to prison. Like staying alive, for example.

Anyway. It was in this particular episode that I realised that no-one watches CSI for the characters, plot, or even just for the joy of working out the puzzle. No, CSI is popular because of the editing.

I’m serious. Those segments with all the people doing futuristic-looking experiments that can tell you the hair colour of the person who last saw the murder victim, or what make of car the killer drives, or the shape of the murder weapon? And the funky modern music in the background? There’s no mistaking that those segments are, for want of a better word, cool. They’re dynamic. They make you want to become a forensic investigator on the spot so that you can go and do the cool experiments. And they drive you on through this mindless, obvious TV programme that would otherwise go in the same godforsaken box as Murder, She Wrote or Heartbeat. The technology’s the thing that makes CSI watchable. Because, of course, we all want to believe that it is possible to tell the hair colour of a murderer. We want to know that the police know more about everything than anyone else, when probably the real truth is that they’re as clueless as everyone else. But CSI makes them look strong, and, apparently, we’re willing to sit through an hour of bad television for that comforting prospect.

The good news is that Sherlock does more or less the same thing (mind palace, anyone? or the trainers in The Great Game?) but with more intelligence and characters who we actually care about. So can I recommend that all the people who watch CSI immediately switch to Sherlock. Because you know you’re in trouble when you’re watching a TV show solely for the sake of the editing.

Phoenix Rising

“There will always be another adventure waiting.”

Ryk E. Spoor

I won Phoenix Rising last summer in a Book Smugglers giveaway and have only just got around to reading it, which should give you some idea of how my TBR pile works. (I’m getting there, though!) It’s not the kind of book I’d usually pick up in a bookshop: for a start, look at that cover. Also, high fantasy tends to put me off, because high fantasy writers tend to think they can do exactly what Tolkien did with a commensurate amount of success. (They can’t.)

The point is, the deck was already quite stacked against Phoenix Rising when I started reading it. I was very sure I would hate it as much as I hated Raymond E. Feist’s Magician (i.e., a lot). But…well, my opinion changed a little as I read it.

Phoenix Rising is a story of a world at war. Zarathan, world of magic, populated by every kind of fantasy race from the Artan elves to intelligent Toads, is attacked in every single population centre by mysterious dark forces led, it seems, from behind, by a dark god. Against this background of magical turmoil, Kyri Vantage of Evanwyl takes up the armour of a Justiciar, guardian of Justice and Vengeance; Prince Tobimar Silverun goes on a quest to discover his family’s lost homeland; and Poplock Duckweed of Pondsparkle generally gets in the bad guys’ way. Their various journeys intersect and interact and, in the best tradition of fantasy quests, become something greater, something that may help to defeat the evil forces spreading through Zarathan.

As I said, I was quite sure I would hate Phoenix Rising before I even opened it, and this was an opinion reinforced by the first few pages, which featured many of my least favourite fantasy novel features: the phonetic dialect that’s always horrifically hard to read, the stilted, infodumpy dialogue, the cringeworthy characterisation, the mass of confusing names and conflicting scenes, the feeling of lost-ness (“what the heck is going on here?!”).

But about the halfway mark it all starts to coalesce, to settle down and to get a lot more…well, fun. I’m not saying it’s great literature; it isn’t. But the world is a properly fantastical one, all magical races, mystical runes, haunted jungles. There’s actually something one of the characters says that, in my view, perfectly describes all magical jungles, ever:

“But your people…lived in the jungle. So did the Artan, right?”

“Special people, special places, but it’s never safe or civilized. People like us – adventurers – go in, but it’s always a mystery.”

And, sure, there’s nothing really new in this world – the whole thing reminded me a little of those choose-your-own-adventure fantasy books I used to get out of the public library (I lost spectacularly every time) – but it’s quite satisfying to live in for a while. Even the battle scenes, so often the bane of any fantasy novel (*cough*Helm’s Deep*cough*) were well managed and exciting. Also, I was impressed by Kyri’s role, which was, unusually for high fantasy, completely un-misogynistic: there was a point at which she might have been rescued by Tobimar, in a damsel-in-distress type scenario, but Spoor managed to avoid this particular trap with panache.

Finally – on a quite geeky note – I’m pretty sure some old friends rock up in disguise here. Firstly, there’s a mysterious figure called the Wanderer who’s described by one of the characters as a “trickster of a thousand faces”. It occurs to me that this is eerily similar to Christopher Paolini’s enigmatic description of the Doctor (yes, that Doctor) in Brisingr:

The trickster, the riddler, he of the many faces who finds life in death…

And there’s a Sherlock fan among the cast of world-hopping Earthlings (yep, there’s some of them here too):

…he’s on the side of the angels, I think.

Not, of course, that these things had any bearing on how much I enjoyed Phoenix Rising. (They totally did.)

Jonathan Creek: The Sinner and the Sandman

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

Albert Einstein

Jonathan Creek, master supernatural detective, is back! Hurrah, right?

No, actually. Not hurrah.

Because where The Letters of Septimus Noone was all kinds of awesome, The Sinner and the Sandman falls down flat. For a start, the mystery – how did a failed psychic predict the numbers of a big lottery win fifty years before it happened? – is not very mysterious at all; it seems to me that fifty years is a lot of lottery numbers, and simple probability tells us that the right set of numbers is going to come up some time. Any intelligent detective should be able to spot that easily.

Also, Jonathan would insist on wandering around doing Random Mysterious Soliloquizing – “Oh, it all makes sense now…yes…I just have to check one thing first” – without telling us what he is banging on about, which is bad enough when he’s in company, but when he does it to himself it’s just an extremely clunky way of ratcheting up the tension by treating the audience as if they are stupid. It’s also very annoying.

Add to that the fact that Jonathan and his wife have absolutely no chemistry, a supposedly intelligent man goes out into a dark stormy night to hunt down a mysterious creature with glowing eyes (Sherlock, anyone?) and the denouement is rushed and unsatisfying, and you find that The Sinner and the Sandman is a clunky, not-very-inspired disappointment from Jonathan Creek.

Maybe next week’s will be better.

Top Ten Favourite Covers

In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

T.S. Eliot

  1. Collected Poems 1909-1962 – T.S. Eliot. I love all of the Faber & Faber poetry covers, but the Eliot one is my favourite: it looks just like a brown paper parcel with its simple design.
  2. The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde. A terrible book, but its cover, a mock-up of a worn seventies paperback with a car bursting through it, is really cool.
  3. A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle. Again, the vaguely vintage-y feel of this Penguin edition is very appealing.
  4. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. My hardback copy of this fascinating novel really captures that feeling of entrapment, of inward-spiraling circles, that makes the book so damn scary.
  5. By Light Alone – Adam Roberts. I’m not sure why I like this cover so much, but I do. It’s steampunk-y and colourful and abstract and altogether awesome.
  6. The Long War – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Airships! Apocalyptic colouring! Mysterious figures walking through a desert fog! Explodey cloud thingies! I don’t think I need to say any more.
  7. Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman. There’s something really promising about the shiny gold rat and the wonky typeface that says “AWESOME URBAN FANTASY”. The fact that this is a lie does not change my admiration for the cover.
  8. The Somnambulist – Essie Fox. I really like the elaborate symmetry of this cover, which is perfect for the Gothic weirdness of its contents.
  9. How Not to Write a Novel – Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. This just makes me laugh. I think it’s the scribbly typeface, with the editorial annotations. And the kitten. Kittens are always a bonus.
  10. The Waste Lands – Stephen King. The older editions, the colourful ones with the Tower taking central stage with an appropriate landscape in the background, are my favourites: they invite you into the book, promising mystery and magic. I was extremely annoyed when they stopped selling the older editions while I was halfway through the series (a thing which happens far too often to me).

(The theme for this post was suggested by The Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Sherlock: His Last Vow

“All money is imaginary.”

Catherynne M. Valente

I’m going to start this review with a disclaimer: I have, via the genius of BBC iPlayer Download (why have I not used this before?), literally just watched the third episode in the third series of Sherlock. As in, it finished about three minutes ago.

Therefore, it is highly likely this post will be a little incoherent.

So in His Last Vow the BBC goes all relevant with a thinly disguised version of Rupert Murdoch, Augustus Magnussen, who is Evil because he Knows Everything and Owns All The Newspapers. Sherlock is hired to…well, it’s not really clear exactly what his client expects him to do about Magnussen; apparently she just wants him to get some incriminating documents back, which seems like an odd job for a private detective.

And then, this being the last episode in a series of Sherlock, everything kicks off. In a big way. And it’s AWESOME.

Because AMAZING MIND PALACE THING. And TOTALLY UNEXPECTED SUB-PLOT ASSASSIN THING. And MYCROFT BEING ALL BROTHERLY. And SHERLOCK IS JUST BADASS, ALL RIGHT?

I could quite happily write the rest of the post in capital letters, because His Last Vow is actually the best thing I’ve seen on television since…since The Reichenbach Fall, in fact. There are shootings and domestics and snappy comebacks and mysteries to solve, labyrinthine buildings, nasty villains, twists and turns and interesting stuff about London and MORIARTY. (Though, to be honest, that last twist was, possibly, a step too far. But then, we couldn’t have had Sherlock flying off to Russia or wherever, could we?)

I think His Last Vow could well be Sherlock’s best adventure yet. It’s just annoying that there aren’t any more…

…for the moment, at least.

Sherlock: The Sign of Three

“The only price in the world that matters is the one that hurts to pay.”

Catherynne M. Valente

Hurrah! Sherlock has friends now. Friends are cool.

In The Sign of Three, the second episode of the third series of Sherlock (and if I need to explain what Sherlock is, you should probably just leave now), Sherlock is called upon to give the best man’s speech at John and Mary’s wedding.

All together now: Awwwww…

Anyway, it turns out to be just about the longest best man’s speech ever, as it rather cleverly tells another story, the story of the Bloody Guardsman, in which a Buckingham Palace guard is attacked by an invisible man.

It’s an awesome episode, one in which Sherlock gets to be clever and human (well, a bit). Sherlock’s mind as a court of law? Brilliant. That speech about friendship and humanity? Just awww. (Again.) Drunk Sherlock? Hilarious…

…for about five seconds, after which it’s just boring. And faintly embarrassing, for some reason. And, anyway, who has clients at that time of night?

But I can forgive five minutes of Sherlock-not-being-Sherlock for eighty-five minutes of Sherlockian awesomeness. As always, the episode is fast-paced, cleverly shot, well-written (I seem to remember the ITV version of The Sign of Four, on which novel this episode is based, being simply interminable) and impossible to stop watching. I can’t wait for episode three.

Hopefully iPlayer will not continuously inform me that it does not have enough bandwidth. Because that’s kind of annoying, in the middle of a detective-y bit.

Sherlock: The Empty Hearse

“I believe in Sherlock Holmes.”

Sherlock

Hurrah! Everyone’s favourite emotionally illiterate genius detective is back in London to uncover a potential terrorist attack involving the Fifth of November, an underground train and the Houses of Parliament.

Because we haven’t seen that plot anywhere before. Especially not in a dystopian film about a terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman.

But there was so much to squee about in this episode, though, to be honest, the terrorism plot took second place to Character Development: to John’s anger at Sherlock and his relationship with Mary; to Sherlock’s awesome back-and-forths with Mycroft; to Molly Hooper; and, of course, to Anderson’s guilt and relentless conspiracy-theorising that curiously resembles the conspiracy-theorising of people on YouTube right now.

Oh, and did I mention Derren Brown?

ACTUAL DERREN BROWN ON ACTUAL SHERLOCK.

Does it get any better?

Well, in fact, it does, because it turns out SHERLOCK LISTENS TO LES MISERABLES.

Now all we need is a contingent of hobbits.

The Empty Hearse wasn’t, admittedly, the best episode of Sherlock ever (The Great Game or possibly The Reichenbach Fall still hold the top spots): the whole thing was a little incohesive and Sherlock came across as a little preachy at some points. But it’s still one of the best pieces of television I’ve seen recently (I would say “this year” but since it’s only the 2nd January that’s not much of a compliment) and I did not want it to end. Ever. Mainly I just like that he’s back. Solving crimes, annoying people and generally being badass.

Excuse me, I’m off to laugh at all the YouTube conspiracy theorists who got  it wrong.

The Fall: Ep. 1

“No-one knows what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Life would be intolerable if we did.”

The Fall

It seems like ages since I’ve done a Murder Mystery review. And now I remember why. It’s because most murder mysteries are hackneyed, depressing or just generally annoying. (The honourable exceptions are Lewis and New Tricks. Oh, and Sherlock, of course, although I’m not convinced anyone actually watches Sherlock solely for the mystery.)

Take this one, for example. The Fall is a New Drama from the BBC, set in Belfast, which follows DSI Stella Gibson as she is drafted in from the Metropolitan Police to review a murder that remains unsolved after 28 days. Already this is starting to sound very much like the plot of Broadchurch (which I never did manage to finish; does anyone know what happened in the end?): High-Flying Detective is drafted in to help out the Incompetent Locals. In this case, it seems, the High-Flying Detective does not even need to wear a seatbelt.

The Fall is very much akin to Broadchurch in other ways, in fact. In the first place, the whole series is going to follow the same case, which, given that we know who the murderer is by the half-hour mark of this first episode, seems like a bad idea. And it’s shot in that “realistic” manner that inexplicably cuts scary scenes in with sequences involving other characters doing utterly uninteresting actions like sleeping or eating burgers. Why? I don’t know, and I don’t think I care, either. I’m not going to be watching any more of The Fall.