The Leftovers (Season 3) / *****

the-leftovers-season-3-posterI’ve been a fan of The Leftovers since the beginning – yes, even that infamous first season, which I think is phenomenal television and gets an unfairly bad rap. (That’s not to say it’s not a bleak and draining experience, but I think people complain far too much about it.) Then came the second season, which managed to be even better – keeping all the themes and ideas of the first season, but turning into something more darkly funny and slightly more accessible, all while never compromising in the least.

And now, the show has ended with its best season yet, which went even further than the second, delivering some of the wildest, strangest, most ambitious hours of television I’ve seen in years, all while never leaving behind its basic themes: an exploration of grief, faith, doubt, and purpose in a hostile – or even worse, indifferent – universe. That’s heady, astonishing fare even for prestige television, but The Leftovers never flinches from its mission, exploring how faith can both give us purpose and blind us to reality, how suffering and pain are an essential part of the human experience but no less devastating for their necessity, how death leaves us walking wounded.

In lesser hands, The Leftovers would be overwhelmingly crushing (see that first season, which came close). But in the hands of Damon Lindelof, it’s one of the most remarkable, inventive, surreal, and powerful shows I’ve ever seen. What other show could take a throwaway joke about a beloved 80’s sitcom from season one, then twist it until it became a powerful scene about finding yourself rejected by the world and even the universe as a whole? What other show could take a character’s struggle with faith and have it culminate with an episode involving God, a sex cruise, and a lion? What other show could kick things off with a series of increasingly ludicrous bio-scanners (and one of the all-time funniest sound effects on a tv series), but end by forcing us to carry through an infamous and horrific nuclear deterrent? And honestly, I’m only scratching the surface of a season that delved into Australian Aboriginal culture, apocalyptic fears, damaged relationships, suicidal tendencies, but also a slow-motion trampoline sequence set to the Wu-Tang Clan, pratfalls, and a surprising number of penis jokes. The Leftovers has always been its own unique show, but never more than this season, when it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television – and I’m watching Twin Peaks right now. It’s unpredictable but always consistent, surreal but always comprehensible, surprising but logical – in other words, it was a constant joy to tune in, simply because I never knew what to expect, but it was always going to be great.

In other words, as The Leftovers hit its final season, its confidence grew, and the show was willing to go for broke, making its characters’ struggles literal, tangible, and even operatic in their stakes. These are big questions – questions about God, about why we suffer, why people die, how we can find happiness, what happens to us after we die, and the importance (or lack thereof) of faith. And rather than giving glib, simplistic takes or easy answers, Lindelof embraces the complexity and difficulty of these issues, exploring them and refusing to ever give us – or the characters – easy answers. The Leftovers has always been a show about uncertainty, a feat it managed to the end, somehow finding the absolute perfect way to handle the question of “What exactly happened in the Departure?” in a way that perfectly matches the show’s themes.

It doesn’t hurt that the show is anchored by such great performances. Christopher Eccleston’s religious figure Matt is all the more compelling and rich this year, as his faith leads him in some bizarre – and maybe delusional – places. Scott Glenn finally gets some showcases after far too long, carrying an episode on his back largely with his weathered, questioning face. Justin Theroux is as great as ever, mixing despair, anger, doubt, and public confidence in a way that’s instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled with the moodiness that comes with depression. And best of all, there’s Carrie Coon’s wounded, bristly Nora Durst, perhaps the single person most affected by the Departure, whose pain can’t be covered up, no matter how tough her exterior can be. There’s any number of other great actors here, including a few I don’t want to spoil (but will be welcome appearances for fans), but the show’s main cast truly does remarkable work, investing us in these wounded, hurt people and following them as they grapple with issues that every single one of us grapple with as well.

Look, I know that so much of what I’m saying makes The Leftovers sound like work, or like seriously heavy fare. And make no mistake – the questions, the struggles, the themes of this series are huge ones, universal ones that are going to hit home for many of us, and evoke painful personal moments. But in the end, the reason The Leftovers works is that, for all of its questions, for all of its doubts, for all of its fears, it finds optimism and a reason to keep on, even in the midst of it all. Whether that be faith or family, relationships or purpose, The Leftovers ends up being far more reaffirming than you might expect for a show that’s so much about death, grief, and loss. And that optimism and hope is something very much worth remembering, maybe now more than ever.


The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey / ****

the_girl_with_all_the_giftsYou could be forgiven for passing on The Girl with All the Gifts – after all, don’t we have enough zombie fiction out there already? Hasn’t pretty much every version of this story been told, to rapidly decreasing returns? And yet, I’ve been hearing nothing but positive reactions to The Girl with All the Gifts in both its film and novel forms for a while now, giving me the sense that this was something new and fresh, a zombie story that breathed fresh life into the genre. And by and large, those reactions were correct, at least for the novel; while Girl has some flaws and shortcomings, it’s gripping and imaginative, and so much fun – and so different – that it’s not hard to overlook them in favor of the great book you’re getting.

Exactly how much to reveal about the plot of Girl seems to be up for debate – indeed, many would argue that even revealing that it’s a zombie novel is a spoiler, despite it being revealed within the first few chapters of the book. But in the interest of playing cards close to the chest (even though I’ll say I knew the basic premise of the book going in, and it ruined nothing for me), I’ll simply say that Girl opens in a school setting, with a series of students going through their lessons. But it doesn’t take long to realize how much is off about these lessons – not just the lessons, but the sealed off military base in which they’re occurring, or the cells to which the children are carted – yes, carted – when the lessons finish. Yes, something is odd about this, but it certainly seems like a safer place than beyond the fences. Of course, that’s before classmates start vanishing one day.

That’s probably enough to get you started, but don’t worry – if you think you know where this is going (and again, I did before I even read it), Carey’s smart enough to never be too precious about his reveals, or to draw things out for too long. Instead, Girl constantly evolves and changes in front of you, doling out its reveals and reversals at a great pace, and letting the dynamics constantly change, keeping the reader on their toes without fail. Whatever the status quo is at any point in the book, don’t get too comfortable; Carey’s plotting is going to keep it changing and shifting, and keep the book compelling.

And yet, the book never feels episodic; thematically, it’s rich fare, with questions being raised about the nature of the zombie virus, and the distinction between us and the. That’s a classic zombie trope, but Girl echoes Richard Matheson’s essential I Am Legend in the way it approaches those issues, diving into the zombie virus with a love of scientific explanation that pleased me to no end, and giving me a biological reasoning behind zombies that was so obvious it stunned me no one had used it before that I could remember. But not content with using Matheson’s ideas about science-based horror, Carey also blurs the lines between zombies and humans, raising questions about our actions, morality, and where the line between monster and hero really comes – and delivering a knockout ending that took the book from “good” to “pretty dang great” in its perfection.

Look, for all of that, Girl undeniably has some faults, most notably in some of the supporting cast that work fine, but never great (I’m thinking especially here of the book’s chief antagonist, who needed just a little more tuning to keep her from being cartoonishly evil; as it is, you can see what Carey was going for, but it doesn’t quite work), and the action sequences are passable, not much more. But for all of that, it’s a blast to read, and more than that, it’s a reminder that even the most tired of genres can still be brought back to life with enough imagination and a fresh take.


More Brief Book Reviews

Ah, May. That craziest time of year for teachers, where every spare second is taken up with grading, graduation prep, more grading, saying goodbye to seniors, making final exams, a bit more grading, and keeping all of the students under control. In other words, it’s not exactly my best time for reading and watching stuff. But I’ve still managed to catch up on a few things, even if one was for work and one was with the kiddos…

21412284The one book I read for me was Nick Cutter’s The Deep, a horror novel that finds its setting in a confined, claustrophobic underwater sea lab set up near the bottom of the ocean’s depths. That’s a great place to put a horror novel, and Cutter makes the most of it, never letting the characters – or the reader – forget the isolation, the darkness outside, or the sheer wrongness of existing in a place so hostile to human life. It’s the plot that’s a bit messier here, and it ultimately makes the book feel a bit cluttered and messy, even if the scares and horror work like gangbusters. The Deep opens as a post-apocalyptic tale, with a disease called “The ‘Gets” wiping out much of humanity, and one possible cure found in the aforementioned lab. But once the book moves into the waters, things get complicated, diving into twisted family backstories and a more constant, omnipresent horror that feels like Pennywise from It snuck into an apocalyptic novel. It all ends up feeling a bit all over the place for a while, as if Cutter had about three different novels going and decided to jam them all together, and the book’s odd pacing (which sort of shoots off in spurts once the book gets to the lab) keeps things a bit confusing and rushed at times. For all of that, though, Cutter maintains his gift for horror and psychological screw-turning, from a journal following a mind through madness to a cavalcade of nightmarish images that defy description and reason. And while The Deep sometimes feels like too much plot for its length – and occasionally feels unexpectedly rushed – it’s still a pretty solid piece of horror, if not as strong as either of the other Cutter books that I’ve read. Rating: *** ½

6867Meanwhile, work has found me re-reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement, only to find it solidifying even further as a true masterpiece, and among the finest books I’ve ever read. I’ve written about Atonement before (about a year ago, when I first taught it); suffice to say that it’s a story set against the backdrop of World War II, telling the story of a young girl who makes an awful mistake early in life, and her efforts to atone for that mistake. Re-reading Atonement, it’s even more clear how intricately structured this book is – how well it hides its secrets in plain sight, how its themes are established in even the most seemingly pointless scenes, and how every sentence, every word, is deployed to maximum effect. And none of that even gets into the way McEwan lets his narrative deploy emotional punches when the reader is least prepared, whether it’s watching as Briony makes her awful mistake or sitting by the side of a French soldier who’s dying far from home (in a passage that left me choked up when reading it out loud in class, and had several students confessing that they cried reading it). I’m in awe of Atonement – not just the prose, not just the powerful story, but the sheer craft and technique that went into it, weaving dozens of themes and ideas and stories together in a way that seems effortless, but holds together with each successive revelation and shock. A masterpiece, plain and simple. Rating: *****

9780439139601_p0_v1_s1200x630Finally, the kids and I recently finished up our bedtime reading through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the book that’s always been held up as the major transition of the series from light, fun kids fare to something more ambitious and “older”. That observation holds up, not only in terms of the plot, but also in terms of Rowling’s writing, which really feels as though it’s on another level from what we’ve seen once the book hits its big payoff. Goblet of Fire is a long book, and while there’s an argument that it’s got some unnecessary detours along the way, it’s hard not to enjoy all of the sidebars and wonderful journeys into Rowling’s imagination and world. What other series could dedicate so much time to the question of whether magical serving races are in fact being used as slavery, and lets that debate play out? (Indeed, one could easily argue that the book’s details are better than the main story, which really makes no sense whatsoever; there’s a lot I love about this book, but the story is pretty absurd, and deeply hurts the book along the way a few times.) But really, it’s the last section that everyone remembers, and rightfully so, as Rowling’s writing becomes sharper, her control of mood becomes better than we’ve ever seen it, and the characters’ ideals – and the themes of the series – become richer and more compelling. Indeed, maybe the biggest surprise to me was how much harder I took the big death of this book; while I initially dismissed it on my first read as “well, it’s a way to raise the stakes,” Rowling does so much more with it than I remembered, turning the last part of the book into a shocking moment that drives home to the characters the stakes of their fight. In short, I had a blast with it, even more than I remembered; it’s a fun book, sure, but reading it – and, undoubtedly, experiencing it through my daughter’s reactions – has given me a fresh love for Rowling’s novels. Rating: ****

Amazon: The Deep | Atonement | Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood / *****

51nwvn-wm6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Dystopias are all the rage these days, and even setting aside some grim feelings about our current age, it’s not hard to understand why. Dystopias make for rich world building, sure, but more than that, they allow writers to play with heady concepts – the power of language (1984), genetic engineering (Brave New World), unfiltered modern communication (Chaos Walking), media circuses (The Hunger Games), and so forth. What’s rarer, though, is finding a dystopian novel with a sly, dark sense of humor about itself, laughing all the way through the apocalypse and beyond. And yet, that’s what you get with Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic tale that gradually starts revealing its roots in a dystopian society of sorts, filled with designer medications, profit-seeking corporations, medical research, and genetic engineering. You know, fiction.

In strict plot terms, Oryx and Crake is simple – it tells the story of Snowman, a human living in some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth. Mind you, this isn’t a radioactive blight, or some ashen McCarthy hellscape. No, the Earth of Oryx and Crake simply qualifies as post-apocalyptic by virtue of the fact that we rapidly realize that Snowman might be the last human being alive. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the last humanoid – not with that tribe of creatures so like us, but so different, living nearby. And as we watch Snowman’s awkward interactions with a set of creatures that don’t quite understand him, he thinks back to the world that was – and how he and his friend Crake, along with a woman named Oryx, just might have ended it all.

This dual-threaded story structure lets Atwood play around in a number of ways, exploring not only a landscape changed thanks to the tampering of man with genetics, but also with our own modern world, showing how our own habits could end up being our doom. In Atwood’s hands, Oryx and Crake becomes a Brave New World for the modern age, where it’s not ourselves we need to genetically engineer – it’s the world around us, from animals to diseases, and most especially, to our medications.

In the wrong hands, Oryx and Crake could turn didactic and preachy, a jeremiad against modern conveniences and our desire to be happy above all else. But Atwood lets the subtext carry its own weight, instead investing us in Snowman, his awkward place in a tiered society that doesn’t have much need of him, and his friendship with the brilliant, strange Crake. Without giving too much away, Atwood’s story becomes far more human and emotionally driven than you might expect from its epic world-building, and its depiction of the way the world ends is almost bitterly funny.

That, of course, goes for much of the book, whose absurd brand names, bad drug side effects, internet sites, and school settings all feel dead-on, pushed just one step beyond our current reality and into deadpan parody. There’s a dark winking to help the trenchant points go down, finding the absurdity in so much of our modern world and trying to help us laugh at it along with Atwood.

For all of that, I’m not sure Oryx and Crake quite sticks the landing; even knowing that there are two more books to follow doesn’t make the slightly open-ended ending here less frustrating or less arbitrary feeling, as though Atwood just picked a bit of a random point at which to end the book. It’s not a dealbreaker – not in a book whose characters are this rich, whose world is this intriguing, whose commentary is so well handled – but it is the one sour note in Oryx and Crake, a book that otherwise I absolutely loved, beginning to end, and the one that confirmed for me what I thought after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale years back: that I really need to make reading more Atwood a priority.


The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

17059277-_sy540_Justin Cronin’s Passage series has always been fascinating for its refusal to easily be pigeonholed into any one genre. On one level, it’s an apocalyptic horror epic, one in which a tribe of vampiric creatures has wiped out most of the population of the Earth. On another level, it’s a survival story, one in which people are working to rebuild civilization in the face of unimaginable disaster. And on yet another level, it’s a rich character drama, one in which people’s choices and character arcs drive the action every bit as much as the threats around them.

That refusal to stick to any one genre is both the best and the most frustrating thing about The City of Mirrors, the final entry in the trilogy. At times uplifting, at times heartbreaking, at times terrifying, The City of Mirrors takes all of Cronin’s habits to extremes. This is a book that features the most terrifying and nightmarish sequence of any of the novels to date; it’s also one which dedicates a huge percentage to the backstory of its major villain – a backstory which is mainly about a young student navigating his complicated relationship with his friends and struggling with his attraction to one of them.

That means that City of Mirrors can often be frustrating, even while it’s constantly engaging. Cronin’s prose remains solid, and his willingness to focus on character depth has always been one of the pleasures of the series. Every character, no matter how major or minor, gets respect and a fully realized backstory; it’s a choice that’s paid off again and again in this series. The choice to go to this level of depth is a somewhat strange one, and one that undeniably hurts the pacing of this book. And yet, once you finish the book, you start to realize that Cronin has more on his mind than simply wrapping up his apocalyptic epic.

Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cronin had ended the series already. (Spoilers for The Twelve follow.) After all, by the end of the previous book, The Twelve, the titular Twelve – the original infected – had been destroyed, and peace seemed to be inevitable. Yes, Amy’s fate was up in the air, as was Alicia’s, but the story seemed to be at a sort of ending point. (Spoilers end.) Indeed, it’s a feeling shared by many characters in the novel, who feel that the story is at an end, and that humanity is finally entering a world of peace and rebuilding.

But The City of Mirrors reminds us that there’s one major threat still surviving, and focuses on that threat: the originator of the plague, a creature only known as Zero. And in Cronin’s hands, this final battle is as much ideological as it is physical. Is there any reason for hope? Does humanity deserve to survive? What, exactly, does survival mean, and at what cost should we attempt to survive? And what part does hope play in all of this? Cronin takes on the questions that underlie so many apocalyptic horror tales – from The Stand to The Fireman to The Walking Dead – and makes them part of the text, thus justifying the time spent on Zero’s backstory. Yes, it’s long, and it sort of wrecks the pacing…but it ends up being central to the philosophical battle at the heart of the novel.

That conflict extends all the way to the ending of the book, which finds Cronin looking at the far larger picture as to what it all means. It’s something he’s been hinting at all through the series, and yet that final section of The City of Mirrors is nonetheless quietly moving, giving us a true epilogue to the story, and an ending that nicely brings his themes together. The endings of apocalyptic tales are always complicated – just look at the three very different endings (or lack thereof) of the titles I mentioned above – and it’s rare to find one that moves so strongly toward optimism. And yet, it works here, giving an ending that both wraps up the story and feels emotionally satisfying. The City of Mirrors is an ambitious book, and one that’s far more “literary” and less conventional than its predecessors. And yet, nonetheless, it sticks the landing for the trilogy, satisfying the reader on a variety of levels while still providing the thrills and excitement we’ve come to demand from the series. It may be a little lumpy at points, but I’ll forgive that for the level of satisfaction that I got from the book as a whole.


The Fireman, by Joe Hill / *****

the-firemanIt would be so, so easy (and so unfair) to dismiss Joe Hill as operating in the shadow of his father, Stephen King. In many ways, Hill has felt like he’s been more and more consciously following in his father’s footsteps as of late, with aspects of NOS4A2 echoing the horrific mystical powers of It, and now with The Fireman calling back to elements of The Stand and The Mist. And I’m sure that in some corners of the internet, you’ll find people complaining about that very thing.

And those people couldn’t be more wrong if they tried, because to say that Hill is just copying his father is to ignore the boundless imagination on display, the willingness to push boundaries, to constantly let his stories evolve and change in front of your eyes. Because, sure, The Fireman is a piece of horror about the end of the world and the communities that spring up as a way of staying alive and maintaining hope. But that’s about where the similarities end, and where Hill’s astonishing creativity comes into play.

The Fireman is about a horrific plague spreading across the country, one that causes people to burst into flames spontaneously, and only seems to be spreading unabated. Exactly what causes this, as well as the more…unusual…effects will become clear over the course of the book; indeed, part of what makes the book great is the way Hill constantly lets our understanding of the illness evolve over the course of the book, all while never letting us forget about the nightmarish death that awaits those infected. But as the novel opens, the disease is just getting started; before long, the country is falling apart, people are in a panic, and the infected are hiding in an effort to stay alive.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot of the novel; one of the great joys of the book is the way that Hill is constantly reinventing it, changing it from one type of a story to another. It’s a horror story, and then a survival tale, and then it’s a community tale, and then a Shirley Jackson-esque tale of paranoia (and I love the nods to Jackson throughout the book, including a great reference to The Haunting of Hill House), and then…well, you’ll see. Whatever the case, The Fireman isn’t what you expect it to be, and every time you get settled into one kind of story, Hill’s going to toss you a curveball and put you somewhere else.

That willingness to blow up the story and change directions makes The Fireman incredibly engaging, absolutely riveting, and astonishingly intense. There’s a constant sense of danger running throughout the book, an awareness that Hill doesn’t seem to play by the rules, and we could lose anything at any point. It gives every scene, every showdown, an added menace and unease, and keeps the reader guessing as to what’s next. It also makes his villains truly dangerous and horrifying; it’s worth noting here that The Fireman contains one of the characters I’ve hated more than any character in recent memory, and whose death I couldn’t have rooted for more.

And yet, even those villains are given complex stories, detailed personalities, and come to life wholly. Hill makes every character come to life, no matter how minor, and creates a vivid world out of these personalities, letting the story be driven by his characters, not the machinations of the author. Whether it’s a sneering talk-radio host, a benevolent father figure, a religious zealot, or our protagonist’s husband, Hill gives every character depth, shading, nuance, and shades of gray, to where even that detestable villain is almost pathetic with psychological damage.

More than anything else, though, there’s Harper, our heroine. An elementary school nurse turned expectant mother, Harper is a rich female character, something that Hill seems to do a better job with than most. In a genre where women either become cannon fodder or the “Final Girl,” Hill brings his heroines to vivid, fully realized life, letting them be people as capable of agency as any other, and letting their gender inform the story while rarely making it pure text. Indeed, Hill avoids easy dichotomies; for every MRA-type villain, he tosses in a genuinely good man; for every religious zealot, there’s a reminder of what church and religion should be.

It all makes for satisfying fiction, not only as a reader who appreciates depth and complexity, but one who loves horror and thrills. Because trust me – when things start going bad, Hill more than delivers, with an extended showdown ending up as one of the most intense and riveting showpieces in recent memory, one that rivals the famed “Halloween Night” section of his father’s 11/22/63. How good is it? I needed a break after reading it just to catch my breath and calm down. Seriously.

The short version is, The Fireman is incredible. It’s absolutely riveting, constantly imaginative, filled with rich characters, written beautifully, and surprisingly emotionally complex, all while still being a solid piece of apocalyptic fiction with elements of horror in it. In short, it’s the best thing Joe Hill has written yet – and when your works include NOS4A2Locke and Key, and 20th Century Ghosts, that’s no small feat. Miss this one at your own peril, people.




The Twelve, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

13281368The Passage, Justin Cronin’s first novel in a trilogy, introduced us to a horrific post-apocalyptic world, one created when a military experiment went horribly awry, unleashing a vampiric plague that decimated the human race. Over the course of that book, Cronin gave us a window into the civilizations that had built back up nearly 100 years later, and watched as they began to fight back against the wave of nightmarish creatures that controlled their lives. It was thrilling, imaginative stuff, and a book that hinted at much larger ambitions than you might have expected. (I recently re-read it; you can read my review here if you like.)

Now comes The Twelve, which follows in its predecessor’s footsteps by giving us a far more sprawling timeframe than we might expect. The Twelve doesn’t just continue the story of The Passage; it also flashes back to the early days of the plague, giving us a sense of what happened after the initial outbreak we saw in The Passage, as well as helping us to understand the seeds that have been planted that are bearing fruit nearly a century later. That’s ambitious stuff, and indeed, much of  The Twelve seems like an effort to create something even stranger and more ambitious than its predecessor, as our heroes find themselves in a remarkably bizarre post-apocalyptic community, we start to learn more about the Twelve (the original hosts for the virus), and our characters develop in unexpected ways – most notably Amy, whose eternally young body is beginning to show signs of change that are troubling indeed.

Yes, it’s a fair point to notice that The Twelve feels like it’s borrowing from all kinds of books, most notably The Stand in its theatrical, showy climax. And yet, none of that really detracts from the fact that it all works – it’s exciting, scary, involving, and incredibly rich, and a lot of that is thanks to how much time Cronin spends with his characters. Even characters who have little more than glorified cameos get depth and nuance, whether they be villain or hero, and that investment makes just about every death count to us, even when they’ve only just arrived in the book. More than that, though, it elevates the stakes beyond the usual “life or death” stakes of so much post-apocalyptic fiction; there are genuine emotional stakes as well, as characters realize that there’s more to life than just living – there’s love, ideals, and hope that all matter just as much, if not more.

More than any of that, though, The Twelve also brings out some truly fascinating new characters, most notably Lila, a doctor whose involvement with the virals and nearly simultaneous mental breakdown combine to make her one of the most dangerous and tragic characters of the series. Often completely unable to distinguish her carefully constructed fantasies from reality, Lila could easily be played as a nightmarish villain, one whose deranged worldview and astonishing powers makes her a potent threat. But in Cronin’s hands, Lila becomes something more human and sympathetic, while never detracting from the danger and power she represents. In many ways, that’s The Twelve in a nutshell. What could be a simple tale of epic good versus epic evil instead becomes something more nuanced, emotional, rich, and ultimately satisfying. And if it’s a little derivative in parts, that’s more than made up for by the skill with which it’s all put together, and the characters with which Cronin populates his book.