Night Film, Marisha Pessl, 2013

Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

For the book with 600 pages challenge, I chose the mystery, Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. The book benefits from the ingenious use of images alongside text.  Pages of visual materials like fake newspaper and magazine articles, emails, documents and webpages are scattered throughout. It’s like a picture book for adults. It’s enhanced with interactive elements and Easter eggs found on a website that the reader can still access as of the writing of this review.  

Pessl establishes a world that straddles reality and fiction in a fantastic feat of world-bridging.

The author creates a mythic and brilliant director, Stanislav Cordova, whose films are revered by loyal followers and reviled by detractors. Parts Kubrick, Von Trier and Lynch, his work is potent and dangerous and causes viewers to question everything they think they know. His films are difficult to find and eschew mainstream topics. His fans, who call themselves Cordovites, hold red-band screenings, rave-like gatherings in abandoned buildings and tunnels to secretly view his movies, dubbed “night films” some of which are banned because of the disturbing imagery.  

Cordova and his family, as mysterious and reclusive as he is, remain a source of curiosity veiled in myths and urban legends even decades after his public appearance.

While the Cordova family is the subject, the book’s main character is Scott McGrath, a relentless journalist fallen from grace, having chased the shadow of Cordova to his own peril.  Years before, after receiving bad intel, he falsely accused the director on national tv of heinous acts against children. It costs McGrath his reputation, job and marriage. While clawing his way back to decent society, he has a strange encounter with Ashley, Cordova’s twenty-four-year-old daughter in Central Park. She appears like a wraith in red and quickly vanishes. A week later she’s found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. McGrath convinces himself that Ashley’s appearance was an attempt to reach out to him.

McGrath forms a rag tag team with nineteen-year-old Nora, a quirky Florida transplant with a tragic past and Hopper, a man who shares history with Ashley, though he is reluctant to spill the details. Together, they reconstruct a timeline of Ashley’s last few weeks, interviewing anyone who may have had contact with her that can help solve the riddle of her death.

Though interesting, the book isn’t without its flaws. There’s lots of unnecessary info dumping through dialogue, which is just this side of unforgiveable given the copious amounts of supplemental materials included in the book itself and available online.

The main problem is with the enigmatic Cordova family, especially Ashley. She’s yet another ineffable creature, dreamlike, ethereal and unknowable. Her gray eyes (because she couldn’t just have blue) bore into people’s very souls leaving them changed. All the people who’ve looked at her basically give the same gist: piercing eyes, otherworldly stare, she’s haunted, she’s haunting. The reader knows nothing about Ashley because characters can’t explain her. She’s too enigmatic to comprehend or care about.

Sometimes the dialogue and descriptions can be a little cringe-inducing. Characters who shouldn’t have more than a few sentences of dialogue are given pages of backstory and dense monologues and then evaporate. As Pessl allows minor and side characters the time to unfold, they start sounding the same. They fall into a similar poetic cadence, heavy on metaphor and symbolism. The following three lines are said by three different characters, all different ages from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“She looked so familiar…Like a tune you suddenly recall from childhood and yet you can’t remember the lyrics or really anything beyond a handful of mysterious notes.”

“I’d long given up my actress dreams, dreams of fame, which I understood was nothing more than consigning oneself to a cheap carnival where one lives forever in a cage, applauded and ridiculed by equal measure.”

“To know her then not…is like serving a life sentence. You see everything at a distance, through thick glass and telephones and visiting hours.”

At 600+ pages, Night Film is a commitment, for sure, but I think most readers will know early on if this is a book they want to see through to the end.

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, Agatha Christie, 1963

It all began, you see, with Heather Badcock being the kind of person she was.
Agatha Christie

Spoilers—

“Haven’t we been over this a great many time?” said Jason Rudd.
“Yes, but we shall have to go over it once more,” said Miss Marple.

And that, dear readers, sums up the book. Thanks for stopping by!

This is my first and only Agatha Christie novel. I found it to be a poor execution of an exploitative idea. That’s a shame because Gene Tierney and her tragic situation deserved better.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1943, decades before a Rubella (German measles) vaccine was available, a self-centered infected fan defied doctor’s orders and visited the pregnant actress, Gene Tierney, during a USO event at the Hollywood Canteen. The disease is mild for those who get it, but it’s known to pose a serious threat to unborn babies. Years later, Tierney and the fan met up again. The fan boasted how’d she’d broken quarantine to visit Tierney at the Hollywood Canteen years earlier. Allegedly, the woman even jokingly asked Tierney if she’d contracted German measles from the meeting. She had. Sadly, Tierney’s daughter was born deaf and mentally disabled as a result of exposure to the virus.

Christie lifted this real-life tragedy, plopped it into her book and built a mystery around it. Tierney becomes Marina Gregg, a fragile unstable actress haunted by dark secrets as she stages a comeback. The diseased fan is now Heather Badcock, a pushy clueless yokel. Much like the true story, Marina and Heather meet up years after an initial encounter. Heather boasts how she was driven by ‘devotion’ to her favorite actress, leaving her sickbed to get Marina’s autograph.

This is where fact and fiction diverge. While nothing happened to the real-life Typhoid Mary, Heather Badcock meets a quick demise after taking a sip from a poisoned cocktail. I’m not going to go into too much detail because it’s a mystery novel but suffice it to say there’s clues and red herrings galore. Beloved old biddy Jane Marple and her nephew Inspector Craddock run parallel investigations giving the reader a double dose of the same information.

The biggest problems I have:

Nobody just gets to the point. Characters proclaim they have a point to make, then digress with some unnecessary context. Of course, some other character has to interject their own uselessness. It can be paragraphs before the point is made. But, boy, when they finally get to it, prepare for some…

Ad nauseum point making. I lost count of how many times I was informed that Heather Badcock wasn’t the actual target of the poisoning. We’re also told by several characters about Marina Gregg’s mental state and Heather Badcock’s irksome personality. And don’t get me started on how many characters try to describe Gregg’s “Lady of Shallot” look.

Limited suspect list. Outside of the character who actually committed the crime, no one else really had motive or opportunity. Neither Heather or Marina’s death would necessarily benefit anyone, not in a clear simple way. Marple and Craddock eliminate suspects almost as quickly as they name them.

Racism! They straight up refer to an Italian character as a wop! Several times!!!

All this and she made a quick buck off Tierney’s troubles (uncredited no less).

Had this not been inspired by a true story, the plot would be fascinating, but Christie takes far too much enjoyment in the real-life details for me to feel comfortable reveling in the mystery. Given the efforts Tierney went through to hide her daughter’s condition, I can’t believe she was happy about it either. This ends up feeling like a sleazy ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law & Order.

Into The Water, Paula Hawkins, 2017

IntoTheWater

Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women. Paula Hawkins

Spoiler Alerts

Author Paula Hawkins won her second GoodReads Choice Award in 2017 (2018 Reading Challenge) with her second novel, Into The Water.

Hawkins won readers over with her debut, The Girl on the Train, a twisting confounding mystery told by three women, one who was prone to alcohol induced blackouts.

She’s traded an unreliable narrator for a whopping ten narrators, all with secrets to hide, sometimes holding onto the secrets of others. All are tied in some way to two people, Katie, a popular fifteen-year-old student and Nel, an eccentric and distrusted forty-year-old writer. Both have met their ends in the Drowning Pool, a body of water with a morbid history. Those in mourning are left wondering why and possibly who.

One death, a definite suicide, leaves the question of why. And though she chose to end her life, is it possible there were other forces at work?

The second death, that’s the mystery. While suicide is possible, murder isn’t out of the question since there are a number of characters with plausible motives: the secret lover, the jilted wife, the heartbroken mother, the traumatized daughter etc. By the last fifty pages, you have it narrowed down to three. By the last ten, you’re sure you know. By the last paragraph, you realize you’re wrong. Or rather, you were right when you suspected it earlier, but then changed your mind.

Much grumbling has been done about the number of viewpoints. I understand confusion early in the book since Hawkins disseminates useful information sparsely and slowly. Not only that, some characters give first person accounts, while other characters are written about in the third person. Moving forward, each first-person character has a distinct voice and all characters have a unique connection to the victims. Some characters disappear for quite a while, then reappear with no re-introduction which could be confounding, but again, the relationship to the victims serves as a reorientation of sorts.

For further help, each short chapter starts with the name of the character narrating. Not only that, the name appears in the header of the odd numbers pages, so on the rare occasion a chapter goes more than three pages you can see who’s interpretation of events you’re reading by looking at the top of the page.

Overall, the mystery twists and turns the way a good mystery should, though it loses some of its realism about three-quarters of the way through. American readers unfamiliar with the inner workings of England’s criminal justice system (like me) can shrug and say that’s just how they do things over there, I guess. For all I know, maybe they do.

Rose Gold, Walter Mosley, 2014

rose_gold-220x332

“That was the name of my quarry–Rosemary Goldsmith, Rose Gold.” Walter Mosley

Spoiler Alerts

 Disclaimer, Rose Gold is the thirteenth book in the Easy Rawlins Mysteries series, which in hindsight wasn’t a good place to start.  Easy’s relationships with many characters began in earlier books and some of his past experiences from those books affect him in this one. I have no doubt that starting at the end has cost me some understanding and confusion and I’m mindful of that.

I’m fairly new to the Mystery genre, this week’s challenge (2018 Reading Challenge). I’ve started mysteries where the detective/coroner/journalist tries to solve the case while ruthless entities pursue them. I felt obligated to search for clues as if I were required to turn in my hypothesis at the end of the book. It never occurred to me sit back and let the story unfold as with other genres. Enter Easy Rawlins.

Mosley takes us to 1967 Los Angeles. Vietnam rages, police corruption looms, the Civil Rights Movement spotlights racial inequity. But Easy’s just trying to start a new life for himself and his adopted daughter, Feather. Special Assistant Frisk arrives to disrupt his peace. Frisk needs help on a case involving Rosemary Goldsmith, the missing daughter of Foster Goldsmith, a powerful armaments dealer (and political contributor).

Like a lot of young people tired of the corruption and cruelty of the old guard, Rosemary sympathizes with the revolutionary counter culture, moving up the ranks in certain circles.

The real mystery: Is she the perfect hostage commanding a hefty ransom or the brilliant architect of an extortion scheme?

They need Easy, a black man, because Rosemary’s supposed kidnapper is a young black boxer named Bob Mantle who’s reinvented himself as Uhuru Nolice, the leader of the militant group Scorched Earth. The plan is to find Rosemary through Nolice and find Nolice through Easy. And so the adventure begins.

As he tries to sort out the mystery he meets a slew of interesting characters ranging from helpful to dangerous. He always keeps his cool and gets himself in and out of dangerous situations with street smarts and charm.

The fun comes from Mosley’s writing style. While his descriptions are poetic they paint a clear picture of the character:

“Sixty or more, that face had seen a hundred thousand punches coming and avoided maybe two.”

“Somewhere in his thirties, the man had dark eyes that seemed to contain centuries.”

“She lived in a realm where true knowledge passed between those that were a part of history, not subjects to it.”

Descriptive enough to put you in the scene but not burdened with unnecessary detail, I never felt like I was being overloaded with too much information about characters and locations. The number of characters did prove a tad daunting. However, Mosley infuses each with unique qualities that set them apart from each other. Most of the characters only stay long enough to serve their purpose then disappear, so I didn’t have to keep them in my mental inventory.

Rose Gold could be considered historical fiction given Mosely’s skill at weaving the social and political upheaval of the time throughout the story. While some could argue that Los Angeles is a character in this book, I would say that this particular era is a presence that touches every character action and reaction. While some stories have a timeless quality, Rose Gold could only unfold in 1967 Los Angeles.