Saturday, 8 February 2014

Bosch: the series is here... happily it's great

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm a big fan of Michael Connelly's books. Whether he's writing relative new kid on the block Mickey Haller, or his original creation Hieronymus Bosch (understandably he goes by Harry), I'm never disappointed with a new Connelly novel.

So it was with a sense of anticipation mixed with trepidation that I approached Bosch, the newly-unveiled pilot for a Harry Bosch TV series produced by Amazon under their new television-production arm. Would they get it right? Just as importantly, would it generate enough interest to go to full series?

To be honest, I wasn't overly worried going in, since the pedigree is reassuringly top notch: the showrunner is The Wire's Eric Overmyer, Titus Welliver has been great in everything else (and certainly looks the part in the title role) and most importantly, Connelly himself has been deeply involved in the whole production, from casting to co-writing the opening episode.

An oft-reported clause in Connelly's deal guarantees that the show will be shot in Los Angeles, not Toronto or Prague or somewhere else standing in for Los Angeles. This pays off immediately in the cold open as Harry chases a suspect by car and on foot through various unmistakeably-LA locations. The sequence, taken from early Bosch novel The Concrete Blonde, sets up the main subplot of the pilot: Harry facing a civil suit for fatally shooting said suspect. Having read the book, I know the answer to whether or not the shooting was justified, but interestingly, the pilot is slightly vague on the details of what happened. This gives Bosch's character a little ambiguity for the episode, which does a great job establishing his outsider credentials without falling into any of the usual clichés. Okay, showing him smoking right beside a No Smoking sign is a little clichéd, but it's funny.

The rest of the story is taken from City of Bones. Neither subplot is in any way resolved during the episode, and it looks like they're going for season-long narrative arcs rather than done-in-one procedurals. I think they've made a sensible choice. Cherrypicking elements from a couple of books to focus on for a season seems like a smarter option than attempting to adapt a book per episode, or making up brand new stories that happen to star Harry Bosch. Going on the evidence of this episode, the series doesn't aim for a slavish adaptation of the books, but it does import plenty of characters, story points and atmosphere from the source, so that it captures the spirit of the novels. In this, it reminded me a little of Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson's loose adaptation of James Ellroy's LA Confidential: breaking down the source material for parts and reassembling it in a new, but equally compelling, configuration.

The series looks great, making use of some well-chosen LA locations (including an actual in-service police squadroom), and managing to capture the contemporary/classic noir feel of Connelly's writing. Welliver is excellent as Bosch, managing the fine balancing act of convincing as a loner without being an asshole to everyone around him. The supporting cast is also strong, with a few familiar faces. I was pleased to see Hershel from The Walking Dead seems to have survived his decapitation, as the character was reassuringly identical. Most pleasingly of all, they managed to squeeze in a couple of moments of Harry sitting on the deck of his home, drinking beer and listening to jazz, brooding as he gazes out at his city.

I was looking forward to watching this going in, but Bosch managed to exceed my expectations. My regard for the source material no doubt contributed to my enjoyment of the pilot, but I suspect I'd be just as keen to watch more if I'd never read any of the books. I enjoyed this just as much as a fan of high-end procedurals like The Wire, of the languorous character studies of Mad Men, and of classic film noir and the city of Los Angeles itself.

You can watch the Bosch pilot for free until the end of February by clicking on the links below, and you can help make sure Amazon orders a full series by reviewing and rating it afterwards.

Friday, 24 January 2014

What I read last year

With everything else on, I didn't get the chance to blog about everything I read last year. With a deadline on a new book and a day job, something had to give and I'm afraid it was blog entries!

However, I did manage to keep up with my reading, and thanks to Goodreads' handy My Year in Books collation page, I know that I read 33 books last year, including a fair chunk of the original Bond books.

Not all of the books I read were thrillers, but I thought it would be fun to catch up by giving them each a micro-review, picking up where I left off  after my last review back in May.

  • Raylan by Elmore Leonard  |  Predictably great crime novel from the master, which is actually more of a short story collection connected by its titular hero. Little did I know as I was reading it that it would be the final Elmore Leonard book to be published in his lifetime.

  • The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly  |  One of the early Harry Bosch novels, but the character and style is already fully formed. Interesting reading Harry before his history and supporting cast expanded, and fascinating to note the cultural and technological shift between the early nineties and now - remember VHS?

  • Absolute Power by David Baldacci  |  A really great example of the kind of thriller that sells a bazillion copies because it's unputdownable. Extremely polished for a debut novel: memorable characters, a plot that keeps you turning the pages, and most of all, an absolutely fantastic hook: what if you witnessed the president committing a murder?

What I learned from these books:

Elmore Leonard once again reminded me that great dialogue is the best way to build characters (if only anyone else could do it as well). Connelly's fully-formed Bosch demonstrates the staying power of a good character. Baldacci's primary hook is enough to get anyone started reading, but it's important to give your reader no choice but to stick around.

Up next: Fleming, Black and Kernick...

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Diamonds Are Forever

Ian Fleming

With its two fighting claws held forward like a wrestler's arms the big pandenus scorpion emerged with a dry rustle from the finger sized hole under the rock.


This one is a bit of a departure for Fleming. Reading online reviews, I came into it with the impression that it's one of the lesser of the classic novels, but I came away pleasantly surprised.

I remember seeing an edition of this one in Borders about ten years ago that sported a quote on the cover from Raymond Chandler. I just made a half-hearted attempt to track it down using Google and failed miserably but to paraphrase, it was something like "Fleming writes about America more convincingly than any other Brit."

After finally getting around to reading it, the Chandler quote on the cover of that decade-old edition makes sense. Not just because Fleming devotes large swathes of the book to effectively bringing to life various aspects of 50s America, from Las Vegas to horse racing to cars to the mafia; but because at times this book feels very much like Bond dropped into a Philip Marlowe adventure. This isn't all that surprising, as the two men were contemporaries and friends, as evidenced by their amusingly stilted 1958 co-interview of each other.

Initially, this is most obvious in the American location and the choice of adversary. Rather than facing off against an erudite European supervillain like Le Chiffre or Blofeld, Bond finds himself up against a group of colourful American gangsters with names like Shady Tree. As others have pointed out, this is one of the few Bond novels where the villain isn't working for SMERSH or SPECTRE. The love interest, Tiffany Case, is an excellent femme fatale whose snappy dialogue and hard-to-get attitude adds to the hard-boiled atmosphere. But the Chandler influence is most keenly felt in Bond's musings toward the end of the book, reminiscent of the more philosophical of Philip Marlowe's reflections:

As he walked slowly across the cabin to the bathroom, Bond met the blank eyes of the body on the floor. And the eyes of the man whose blood group had been F spoke to him and said, "Mister, nothing is forever. Only death is permanent. Nothing is forever except what you did to me."

When I read that sequence, I suddenly realised how Chandleresque the title is, if you can disassociate it from decades of being attached to the worst Connery film. Diamonds are Forever goes quite nicely along with Farewell my Lovely as an offbeat title for a thriller.

The pace of the book is sedate by modern standards, with Fleming devoting pages to atmosphere and background information about the places Bond goes that, while interesting, have no relevance to the story. These sequences clearly put some modern readers off, and it's hard to imagine a thriller writer getting them past his editor today, but I have to confess I liked them. Reading the book was like reading an engaging travelogue that occasionally takes a break for a gunfight or car chase. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, I certainly don't mean it that way.

The plot itself is reasonably forgettable, but I still got a lot out of this book. Careful readers will have noticed by now that I couldn't care less about plot if you give me atmosphere, strong characters and smart dialogue, and I'm in good company, because Chandler himself felt the same way.

The scene-setting and obsessive attention to detail come as standard, of course, but I found the characterisation in this Bond a notch above the others I've read so far. Case emerges as my favourite literary Bond-girl so far (the fact she's not killed off actually qualifies as a twist at this point), and for the first time, you begin to get a handle on the character of Bond himself.

What I learned:
  • Even seemingly perfect heroes can benefit from some emotional depth
  • A good writer can make you want to keep reading, even for pages of descriptions of horse races and mudbaths

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Free promotion for Stephen King fans

My Kindle sales have gradually declined over the past few months, although I seem to have racked up some sales on other platforms through Smashwords since pulling my books out of the overly-restrictive KDP exclusive program.

I hadn't got around to uploading Shining in the Dark - Stephen King: Page to Screen, my non-fiction book on four classic Stephen King books and movies, to Smashwords. I guess in part this was because it doesn't feel like one of my 'proper' books. It was the first thing I experimented with in e-publishing though, and still sells a copy or so a month. I guess you could do worse if you're a college student looking for ideas on a dissertation. That's exactly how Shining in the Dark began life of course - as the final piece of coursework en route to my glorious 2:1 Bachelor of Arts from Stirling University. I'm told the tutors still hold that up as an example of how you can write a passing dissertation about anything.

Anyway, I decided that since I wasn't doing anything else with it, I might as well sign this one back up with KDP Select again and see if running a free promotion might give my other book sales a shot in the arm. Maybe Amazon has sorted its ranking algorithm so that giveaways actually help sales, like they used to. I'm not holding my breath.

The book is a nice quick read at around 100 pages, and looks at the novels Carrie, The Shining, Christine and The Shawshank Redemption, and the respective movie adaptations by De Palma, Kubrick, Carpenter and Darabont. If you're a fan of King or any of those movies, what do you have to lose?

You can get the book free for Kindle all day on Wednesday 1st May from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Day of the Jackal

Frederick Forsyth

It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad


The Day of the Jackal has something in common with a couple of the other books I’ve read this year. Just like Casino Royale and The Bourne Identity, it belongs to a surprisingly large sub-genre of thrillers written by men who wanted a career change, decided to sit down and write a bestselling thriller, and then did exactly that. More recently, Lee Child’s Killing Floor is in the same group. I’m not sure there’s any other genre where there’s so many examples of first-time novelists consciously attempting to construct a commercial hit, and managing to pull it off. Perhaps it’s because thrillers and crime novels are perennial bestsellers, and therefore attract the more business-minded authors. Maybe there are similar examples in romance and chick-lit.

But all of that is just background to Frederick Forsyth’s debut thriller. The important thing, and the other thing is shares with the first outings of Bond and Bourne and Reacher, is that it’s awesome.

I’ve always been a sucker for ‘process’ scenes in thrillers. Not procedural, exactly, but process: i.e. the details and minutiae of how elite professionals go about their business. I love reading about all of the various obscure signs and tells James Bond looks out for to confirm how Goldfinger cheats at Canasta. I like to know exactly how Reacher manages to function with only an ATM card and a toothbrush, and what logistical issues he has to overcome to do so. I get really into the parts of Joseph Finder books where he talks about the various technological sleights of hand his hero uses to steal a password. I love all of that stuff just as much as I love the car chases and gunfights. Perhaps more than I love the car chases and gunfights. Maybe that’s just me, although judging by the success of books like these, I doubt it.

Anyway, The Day of the Jackal is a novel that’s pretty much entirely composed of stuff like this, so obviously I loved it.

The book is split into three parts: Anatomy of a Plot, Anatomy of a Manhunt and Anatomy of a Kill, and each part does exactly what it tells you it’s going to do. Opening with a nailbiting account of a true-life assassination attempt that fully exploits Forsyth’s background in journalism, part one takes you through every detail of a plot to kill French president Charles de Gaulle, from the dissidents coming up with a last-ditch plan, to the recruitment of a master assassin – The Jackal – and his meticulous preparations from then on.

Part two shifts focus to the attempts by the French authorities, and one dogged French cop in particular, to track the killer down and foil his plan. Again, it’s all about the process: chasing down leads, finding traces of the killer, second-guessing his plan. The final part, inevitably, is where the two halves of the book converge.

It’s the best-constructed thriller I can remember reading. It’s testament to how well-written and well-designed (odd to be describing a book as designed, but that's exactly what it is) the book is that you’re on the edge of the seat at all times, even though the reader starts the book with the knowledge that the Jackal will not succeed, because Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated in 1963. In some ways, it resembles James Ellroy’s American Tabloid: the outcome of the assassination attempt is never in doubt, but you keep reading for the characters and the twists and the intricate details of dangerous professions and lost worlds.

What I learned: how people do things can be every bit as engaging as what they do.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Cinnamon Skin

John D. MacDonald

There are no hundred-percent heroes.


The last time I read a Travis McGee book was about a decade ago, so picking up Cinnamon Skin was like catching up on an old friend from college. The main reason for the gap between reading the last one (Freefall in Crimson, if memory serves) was nothing to do with the quality of the product and everything to do with availability. I can't remember the last time I saw a Travis McGee paperback in a bookshop, library or even a charity shop.

I don't know if these books are out of print worldwide, or just in the UK, but either way it's a mystery: firstly because it's a great example of a mainstream thriller series, secondly because MacDonald has influenced a lot of today's bestsellers, notably one Lee Child.

Reading this book in 2013 it becomes clear that Travis McGee is the missing link between Philip Marlowe and Jack Reacher: a tough, world-weary detective who operates outside the system and is given to bouts of philosophising between fist fights.

With some honourable exceptions, I've always preferred my thriller protagonists to be PIs and amateurs rather than cops: there's something about the lone individual operating outside of the system that's somehow fundamental to the form. I've read and enjoyed straight-up procedurals too, but for me you lose something when the hero has too much official help and too many resources. The cops I do like tend to be the mavericks like Harry Bosch and John Rebus: men who are often at odds with their superiors and who tend to solve the case despite their respective law enforcement organisations rather than because of them.

McGee is positioned even more outside of the system than most: he's not even a licenced private detective, rather a 'salvage expert' who takes on hopeless causes, taking fifty percent of the value of the item recovered in lieu of expenses. He's light on roots and possessions, living on a boat moored in Fort Lauderdale - not quite the zen minimalism of Jack Reacher's existence, but absolutely along the same lines. It's a great setup for a protagonist as it doesn't tie him down to one job or one city or one type of case.

Cinnamon Skin is different from the earlier books in that the case is personal. When McGee's best friend Meyer's niece is killed in a boat explosion, the evidence suggests her new husband is responsible, and the pair embark on a quest to track this killer down. The plot is fairly linear and straightforward, leading to a satisfying showdown, but as always, plot is almost incidental. It takes a back seat to MacDonald's rich characterisation and scene-setting, with plenty of the aforementioned philosophising from Travis McGee as narrator. One passage in particular is prescient as McGee muses in the early 80s about a brave new world faciliated by computers, where people can read books and by products without leaving the comfort of their own bedroom.

What I learned: you have more freedom with a lone wolf protagonist; unique characters are more important than a unique plot

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Bourne Identity

Robert Ludlum

The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.


After reading a couple of James Bond books, I thought it was time to read the debut of another well-travelled superspy who shares the shame initials. Jason Bourne is familiar to most as the hero of the three excellent movies loosely based on Robert Ludlum's trilogy of books.

'Loosely' is the operative word: the Matt Damon movies lift the opening of Identity and then basically do their own damn thing from there on out, and are no poorer for it. To be fair, it would have been kind of difficult to do a straight adaptation in the 21st Century, since Carlos the Jackal, the book's éminence grise, has been languishing in a French jail since 1994. In any case, I've always believed the best movie adaptations are not often the most faithful adaptations (as in the case of LA Confidential, or The Shining). I'm perfectly happy if a book and movie are their own distinct things.

In sharp contrast to the movies directed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass (sorry to keep harking back to them, but they do cast a long shadow), Ludlum's Bourne Identity feels comfortably old-fashioned. It reads a like the prototypical airport blockbuster, featuring dastardly bad guys, a chase across a continent, and a mysterious but supremely capable man-of-action as its protagonist. The prose is often purple (the opening line quoted above is understated compared to some of the later passages), but enjoyably so, and Ludlum keeps the pace up so effectively that the book feels shorter than it actually is.

Ludlum is gloriously unconcerned with literary pretensions, and instead concentrates on what the reader of this type of book really wants: knowledgeably-described locations, international intrigue and detailed descriptions of assorted weaponry. Most of all, he gives us a very cool hero who can shoot or asskick his way out of any given situation, and with a past so mysterious it's a mystery even to him. Strip everything else away, and those are exactly the same elements the films retain, updated to reflect 21st Century geopolitics.

What I learned: see above - well-drawn locations and a well-drawn character go a long way.