The Steel Kiss, by Jeffery Deaver / ****

thesteelkissusa-220x332There was a time when Jeffery Deaver’s books were day one reads for me – instant purchases, to be devoured and enjoyed. My enthusiasm for his books has waxed and waned over the years, though, as Deaver has turned more and more formulaic, and for every great read he writes (The Kill RoomThe October List), he turns out a few generic, forgettable, or even bad ones (Trouble in MindRoadside Crosses).

And so, when I first started to read The Steel Kiss, I got annoyed with what I felt like were Deaver’s usual tropes – the obvious misleads and feints, the half truths – and quit. But I’m glad I went back to The Steel Kiss, because what I got as I read was an engaging, really fun read, and a firmer grip on what Deaver has become over the years: basically, he’s become CSI or NCIS, the very shows I always felt like his books inspired, complete with the rhythms and patterns that come along with such entertainment.

Now, with that being said, there’s no denying the fun that can come out of a Deaver book. The Steel Kiss is simple but effective, following Rhyme as he helps out with a civil case inspired by the horrific death of a man in a malfunctioning escalator. Meanwhile, Sachs is trying to track down an anti-consumerist killer who’s killing people using the devices that make their lives easier. Will these two cases come together? Of course they will. And does it all somehow connect a bit to Pulaski’s extracurricular activities with local drug dealers? More or less.

And yet, even while I recognized all the formulas at play, and many of Deaver’s usual tools and tricks, I enjoyed The Steel Kiss pretty well. Deaver’s made an effort to mix things up a little here and there in the series, and while this doesn’t result in the really fantastic read of The Kill Room, it’s still a lot of fun, delivering some good thrills, at least one genuinely big surprise (even if I rolled my eyes at the explanation afterward), and an engaging antagonist who kept me involved.

I don’t think Deaver is the favorite author for me that he was once, but I think I’ve realized along the way that it’s not that he’s gotten worse, either. It’s just that Deaver has a formula that works, by and large, and he’s pretty happy working in that formula. And while I prefer my books a little more adventurous, a little more original, there’s no denying the pleasure that comes from watching Deaver construct his puzzles and unravel the clues, nor the fun of watching him tie all of his various plot threads together in more elegant ways than you assumed – or the fun of being fooled by him, even when you think you have him figured out. Are these day one purchases for me anymore? No, not really…but will I buy them as the equivalent of beach reads? More than likely.

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The Burnt Fox, by Neil Grimmett / ** ½

the-burnt-fox-grimmett-642x1024I’ve ended up reading a few of Neil Grimmett’s books in relatively close proximity to each other – I was sent three of them for review – and there are times when I wonder if my feelings about the books wouldn’t have changed if I read them farther apart. But as I’ve read the books, I’ve started to notice Grimmett’s motifs: shrill spouses, unhappy marriages, men being held back by women who just don’t appreciate them…you get the idea. And it all starts feeling like someone who was working through some serious issues at times. And it all comes dangerously, uncomfortably close to turning misogynistic at the best of times – and The Burnt Fox is not the best of times.

Even if I could set aside the motifs that have started to crop up in Grimmett’s work, The Burnt Fox is far from his best work. It’s the story of a couple in an unhappy marriage (naturally) who take a job working on an estate. Rather than having their marriage revitalized by the change in life and location, though, the couple finds themselves turning on each other, drawn sexually towards the other staff members, and uncomfortably making their peace with being inferiors to their estate masters.

I might well feel differently about The Burnt Fox if I were British, and could draw more on my own feelings about the class system. Maybe I’d be able to empathize more with the characters, or understand their feelings about the people around them. But I’m not, and the result feels like it doesn’t make much sense, or have much interesting to say. Grimmett’s characters seem to keep their motivations bottled up, and while there are frequent references to some “dark presence” that’s truly shaping their lives, it never seems to go anywhere, and ultimately feels more like a baffling side track than anything else.

Grimmett is still a solid writer on just about every level you could ask for, bringing out great descriptions, a pervasive mood, (some) strong characters (I really do feel like his women characters are…difficult…to put it mildly), and good pacing. And there are moments where I’d find myself drawn along by The Burnt Fox…only to be disappointed when it all went in about as flat and uninteresting a direction as you could want. Maybe this is a case of my own issues; maybe it’s just that this isn’t a great book, even though Grimmett shows his usual talent and skill. Whatever the case, for every moment that worked, there were a lot more that just left me a bit bored, and ultimately the whole book felt like an exercise in mood and description that hinted at things but never succeeded at any of them.

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Don’t Breathe / **** ½

dont-breathe-2016-posterThere’s not a huge amount about the trailers or premise of Don’t Breathe that really drew me in, if we’re being honest. The idea sounded fine – a trio of young thieves break into the house of a blind man, only to find themselves the prey instead of the predators – but one that I’ve seen variations on before, and plenty of times. And the trailers looked okay, sure, but again, it felt like scenes from a film that I’d seen before.

But there were two big factors that drove me out to the movie theater. The first was realizing that Don’t Breathe was helmed by Fede Alvarez, the director of the Evil Dead remake (which I ended up really, really loving). And the second was the surprising praise that the film received upon release, including a rave by former Dissolve critic Scott Tobias, whose taste in horror I tend to trust pretty unreservedly. And so, on a day where I finished work early, I made my way out to a theater, hoping for a good crowd, but ending up in a theater by myself.

But, man, am I glad I went, because what I got was an incredibly intense experience – a film that uses its single environment magnificently, cranked up the tension, and just never let go.

Mind you, I also learned why it’s hard to make previews for Don’t Breathe, because the film is hiding some of its cards from the audience. Which makes sense – for a film like this to work, you need more to hang your plot on than “thieves evade a blind man,” especially when you’re working as bloody and intense as Alvarez likes to work. And so, the film keeps changing into something new as it unfolds, and keeps the audience uncomfortably askew at all times. But really, the plot is almost besides the point here; it’s perfectly fine, and more than a bit surprising, but it’s really not what makes the film work.

No, as Tobias points out in his review, Don’t Breathe works thanks in no small part to its incredible craft. Alvarez hits the ground running (you’re into the house within ten minutes of the movie starting, tops, and never leave until the end), but takes enough time to make sure we have our bearings in this place. We know how the rooms connect; we know where there are gaps; we know our blind spots (so to speak); and more than any of that, we almost always know where everyone is in the house – and when we don’t, the film uses our lack of knowledge as a way to increase the tension. None of that seems like it should be important, but it is; any film fan knows the difference between a rushed setup and one that really takes its time, and the payoff is more than worth the time, as Alvarez uses our knowledge to turn the film into an intricate chess match (one that has to owe a debt to David Fincher’s underrated Panic Room, which I feel like the final credits nod to subtly).

He’s matched, though, by some great performances, but Stephen Lang is the knockout here. Bringing a fierce physicality to the role, Lang is unnerving and unsettling – a vicious, primal presence that stalks the house, constantly keeps his face unreadable, and brings out a depth when you least expect it. Without him, the film wouldn’t be half as good as it is; with him, Alvarez has a perfect antagonist, one that becomes a very real and very serious threat, blind or not.

It’s been a good year for this kind of horror; between this and Green Room, we’ve had a double whammy of claustrophobic, intense thrillers that push into horror territory, taking a simple premise and ratcheting up the tension and unease through superb craft and great performances. Don’t Breathe doesn’t quite hold up to Green Room – the plot is more convoluted, and its epilogue can’t hold a candle to Green Room‘s perfect final line – but it’s still an intense, pulse-pounding thriller, and a reminder of the importance in craft in thrillers and horror.

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All the President’s Men / *****

all-the-presidents-menIt’s been several years since I last saw All the President’s Men, the gripping dramatization of the investigation into the Watergate burglary – an investigation that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. But in the years since I saw it, the world has continued to change, and often in ways that make the film all the more fascinating. The collapse of the journalism industry, the evolution (and de-evolution) of presidential candidates, the changes in society – all of these and more contribute to the fascinating “time capsule” nature of All the President’s Men that only increase its appeal and greatness.

Even without that appeal, though, All the President’s Men is an undeniable masterpiece, full stop. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful film, one that follows every single step of this investigation, and follows its heroes as they knock on doors, write ledes, make phone calls, meet with editors, chase down sources, and just plain work. It’s a film about process, one that treats its audience like adults and expects them to keep up. There are no explosions, no contrived drama – just interviews, conversations, discussions, and an unblinking look at these men as they do their work. And it works – the film’s strength comes in its belief that its audience cares about this process, cares about the threads being followed, and is invested in the drama.

Mind you, that’s not to say that All the President’s Men is flat or unstylish. Watching it on the big screen, it’s hard not to notice the film’s use of shadows and darkness throughout, following our heroes as they plunge into the shadows of a conspiracy and try to drag it into the cleansing light of the newsroom. (It’s also no surprise for fans of 70’s film to realize that the cinematography is helmed by Gordon Willis, the “Prince of Darkness,” whose work on shadows and darkness helped to make films like The Godfather famous.) It’s a simple visual trick, but am incredibly effective one, especially when the shadows are as rich and black as they are here. (Those famous parking garage scenes are jaw-dropping on the big screen, as the faces lurk just out of sight.) But there’s so many other wonderful touches to behold – look at that long, unbroken take as Redford interviews a key witness over two different phone calls, for instance. And, of course, there’s that rich, naturalistic 70’s style that every actor embodies (and which I love).

And, of course, there’s the intelligence of the film, which is undeniable. How great it is to have a film like this that moves at a breakneck pace, tosses out a slew of names without taking a break, navigates the complicated hierarchies of politics, and doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand, instead expecting them to keep up. Yes, the film was covering very recent history at the time (insanely recent history, if we’re being honest; this had to be a still raw wound as they filmed it, and little better when it was released), but even by that standard, All the President’s Men is a film made for a thoughtful audience, and one that can keep up – and that makes the film all the better.

But I want to go back to that sense of time and place that the film evokes, because almost more than anything else, I found myself swept up in that this time. It was a time when journalism mattered and earned respect, rather than the dying system we’re watching collapse now – and more than that, it was a time when journalism had a voice and a willingness to call out horrors, instead of being driven by ratings and sensationalism to the degree we are now. There’s also that joy in seeing a time before we truly began to turn our backs on the political process and view it all as the corrupted and broken system we often perceive today. And more than that, it’s a window into a pinnacle of American film, maybe the best decade the medium ever had – a time when political, smart, adult films like this weren’t just being made – they were popular, acclaimed, and successful. And when they’re this good, it’s not hard to understand why.

IMDb

Ayahuasca, by Jonathan Huls / ****

5760316_origIt occurred to me as I read Ayahuasca, the latest book from Jonathan Huls, that there’s no genre besides horror that can consistently get away with having truly unlikable, despicable characters. Oh, literary fiction may have its flawed antiheroes, but even there, we want our heroes to succeed – at least a little bit. (Even Breaking Bad worked because, no matter how dark Walter White got, we still found ourselves hoping he would come out of it all.) There are undeniably some dark comedies out there (see the works of Jody Hill, for example), and satires full of hilariously distorted figures…but again, we often want these people to succeed in some way or another. But rarely can I come up with another genre where we want our nominal protagonists to fail – indeed, even to die, and sometimes die horribly.

That’s undeniably the case with Ayahuasca, which follows a pair of frat-boy “ugly Americans” making their way through Peru with an apparent plan to get laid, find the drugs in local rituals and do them, and generally party everywhere without concern for anyone else. And that’s more than enough to hate them even before we start to realize exactly how broken and awful these boys really are – and just how dark Huls plans on going. Indeed, even before we realize how far our protagonists really plan to go, Ayahuasca has a whiff of Hostel about it, with a pair of selfish, arrogant Americans traipsing through a foreign country before coming to realize that they’re not as popular as they thought.

But Huls has a darker story in mind, one that pushing Ayahuasca into truly disturbing territory, as the two boys reveal themselves to be not just selfish, but deeply sociopathic, and even deluded about their own nature at times. And it’s to Huls’ credit that this largely works; he never flinches, never backs down from the horror of his character, and leads us step by step through their darkness until there’s no turning back. And even worse, he gives us heroes – and then undercuts them in front of us, in different ways, making them either compromised or helpless in the face of what’s happening.

The result, then, is a pretty pitch-black novel, a brutal and bleak horror/thriller that can be hard to take. It’s easy to feel, for instance, that there’s no hope to be found in this book, and that what little moments of promise we have are dashed or corrupted in front of us. More than that, this is a nasty, pulpy book – there’s little message here, little moral to be found. This is a tale meant to disgust, to horrify, to push you away.

But here’s the thing: it undeniably works on that level. I criticized Huls’ previous book, The nth Day, for not knowing what it wanted to be, and for being all over the map, totally. You can’t make that accusation of Ayahuasca, which is lean, nasty, and tight all the way through. And while its brutality and bleakness can be a bit bracing, it’s a deeply effective use of those attributes, and one that worked for me in its own way. It’s just not exactly a fun time read – but if you like your horror nasty and bleak, you’ll find a lot to like here.

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The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth / *****

51ceg9jotjlThe more modern noir I read, the more I often think that much of the best work in the genre revolves around a grip on its environment. James Ellroy and L.A.; Dennis Lehane and Boston; John Connolly and Maine; Raymond Chandler and California…the list goes on and on, but in almost every case, it’s hard to picture the stories working half as well without their world to draw off of, to be its own character in the complex story. And in the best noir, the environment is the story in no small part – for instance, look at how Ellroy draws off of the underside of L.A. to drive his sordid tales.

But rarely have I seen that idea used as effectively and powerfully as it is in The Devil’s Detective, a book whose setting is original, unforgettable, and inextricably linked to its characters, its plot, and its mood. Because its setting is Hell, and in that blasted, hopeless landscape, author Simon Kurt Unsworth crafts a piece of noir unlike just about anything else I’ve read.

Because, here’s the thing about Hell: how do you make a mystery set in Hell? How do you tell a story about a murder in a place where torment is constant, where torture is everywhere, where nightmares live and breathe and the entire point of existence is to live in regret and pain? And more than that, when an environment is shaped around a lack of hope, how can any crime ever be solved – because wouldn’t that offer hope and justice in a place defined by their absence?

Rather than dodge those questions, Unsworth bakes them into the DNA of his book, following Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men – a sinner himself – who finds himself doing something he’s never done before: actually investigating a crime. To be sure, this is an unusual crime – not only was a human murdered, but his soul was reaped from his body – but Fool’s investment in the crime, and his dedication to understanding it, feels like a slow, seismic shift in Hell. And his interest – his insistence that this soul matters, that even Hell must have rules – indeed changes everything around him, and throughout Hell. And that change becomes as much a part of the story as the investigation itself.

But, oh, that investigation. This is a labyrinthine case, make no mistake about it, and one that feels heavily indebted to Chandler and Hammett along the way; like those authors, Unsworth follows his detective through a slew of encounters with citizens from all over Hell, through seedy environments and upper class “suburbs” (of Hell), through high-level politics and through abused citizens. But Unsworth makes it all his own, giving us a Hell unlike any other that I’ve read – a Hell that has left behind the torture and nightmares of Dante and resembles nothing so much as a hopeless, bleak industrial society, an inner-city where brutality and violence are just part of the day-to-day life. And as Unsworth dives into the life of Hell and its occupants, his world continues to flesh out, and we start to see just how much his characters – and these crimes – are a function of this world, and not a recent addition. And once that link becomes clear, the story becomes richer, because it’s about more than just one crime – it’s about our hero, and about life in Hell, and about this bizarre, dark world that Unsworth has crafted for us.

Make no mistake, though: this is a dark world. Much of what makes Unsworth’s novel work is that he allows Hell to be every bit as nightmarish and disturbing as it should be. The demons are horrific, and their relationship with humans is brutal and upsetting. The violence is shocking and constant; the atmosphere bleak; the world unforgiving. And the cost is high, and that matters here, because as soon as you care about the world and have hope, it can be taken from you. And that’s the nature of Hell.

And yet, even with all of that, The Devil’s Detective never becomes nihilistic. Instead, it gives us a rich, compelling hero in Fool, who becomes a crusader for lost causes, a lone light in the darkness, and a hope in a world without it. That’s heady material, and makes Fool’s quest all the more engaging, and his development as a character all the more rewarding, as he finds himself becoming noticed by Hell…and then respected by Hell. It turns a noir detective something richer and more profound, and its constant evolution as a book only makes it work all the more.

In short? I loved this book, plain and simple. I loved its complicated, incredible world, and the astonishing array of characters. (I haven’t even touched on Unsworth’s most fascinating character, The Man of Plants and Flowers, who defies all characterization.) I loved its complex story, which uses the framework of a noir tale as a starting point and turns it into something wholly else. And I loved Fool, whose noble quest in the face of horrors becomes as gripping and important as solving the murder that starts it all. I loved the world, the story, the ideas, and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what else Unsworth has in him to come.

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It, by Stephen King / *****

paavpdqsbtggtmn4smxsAt times, I think it’s easy to take Stephen King and his talent for granted. Here is an astonishingly talented author, a man who writes some of the best horror ever written, and cranks them out consistently and constantly. And at times, it’s easy to take his contributions for granted. “Sure, he’s scary,” I’d say, and I’d point to some of his short stories, or to The Shining, or some of the classics. But you sometimes forget just how astonishing his talent is, how gripping his narratives can be, just how incredible his books can be.

And then you re-read It, and you leave it in awe, having forgotten just what a staggering feat it is – not just as a work of horror (and it certainly is that – maybe one of the scariest books of all time), but as a work of storytelling, and of authorial craft.

It’s not just that It is scary – but, oh, man, is it ever terrifying. It’s hard to think of another book that’s so primal in its terrors, so effective in its atmosphere. Much of that, of course, has to go with the idea that It is a creature that plays off of our imagination and our fears, but most of it has to go to King’s execution, which turns even simple scenes into something profoundly unsettling. Look at the book’s opening, which uses nothing more than a clown looking up through a sewer grate to create one of the most chilling openings ever written.

But what makes those scenes work is King’s ability to put himself in the mind of his protagonists – and more accurately, his ability to put himself in the mind of children. King has always written children better than most other authors, simply by virtue of seemingly actually remembering what it’s like to be that age, and he’s never done it better than he did in It, creating a cadre of rich characters who have their own lives, their own personalities, and more than that, their own fears. And by sliding back and forth between them, and diving deeply into their lives, It makes the fears all the more effective and resonant, turning them into something more primal and totemic than a simple cheap scare. And more importantly, it makes these characters matter to us – not just in terms of being heroes, but in terms of surviving, and staying healthy, and staying sane in the face of unimaginable terror.

It also features one of King’s most successfully epic scopes, something he enjoys – see Under the DomeThe Stand, and so many more. But rarely has he pulled of something like It, which doesn’t just tell the story of children facing an ancient evil. And it doesn’t just also tell the story of those children returning to face it again as adults. No, as if those two storylines aren’t enough, King turns his book into the story of Derry, the town whose symbiotic relationship with this evil becomes part of the story, and results in the nightmarish interludes that provide some of the book’s most disturbing scenes.

But let’s go back to those two plotlines, because the way King handles them is much of the book’s greatness. A lesser author would handle the book chronologically, giving us the 1958 story, completing it, and then giving us the adult version. Instead, King interweaves the two, sliding back and forth between them, letting the stories comment on each other and influence each other, and most incredibly, letting them hit their climaxes simultaneously, and cutting between the two. It’s an incredible act of authorial control, and gives the book a richness and structure that I’m not sure King has ever matched – and whose impact on the book’s tension can’t be understated.

And even with all of this, I haven’t even gotten into half of what I want to say. How King’s creation of Pennywise is one of his all-time great villains, and completely misunderstood by every attempt to film him, all of which misunderstand the disconnect King brings between innocence and evil. How King’s love of the “evil human surrogate” trope has rarely, if ever, been better than it is in Henry Bowers, a violent sociopath shaped by his environment and his own damaged mind. How King’s epilogue sticks the landing beautifully, doing something that King sometimes struggles with – ending on an emotional note that stands true. How the surreal and somewhat psychedelic finale worked for me in a way it didn’t when I was a kid. And even how that scene – and everyone who’s read it knows the one I mean: the one massive misstep of the book – can’t ruin the book’s greatness. (It helps that the idea behind the scene isn’t bad; it’s clear what King was trying to do with the scene. But man, is it a bad idea. Really, really bad. But it is shorter than I remember, which is something.)

All I can say is this: in a career of staggering, amazing horror, It has to rank among Stephen King’s greatest accomplishments: with an epic scope that stays grounded in its characters, a truly nightmarish and horrific evil, a world where every detail sings, an incredible display of pacing and structure, and a gripping plot that drives you along in both emotional and psychological ways, it’s a masterpiece, full stop.  

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