The Cellist

The Cellist

Daniel Silva (2021)

It’s no exaggeration to say that what John le Carré was to novels of Cold War politics, Daniel Silva is to this generation’s political thrillers. For decades, Silva has been producing suspenseful spy-stories dealing with situations involving Muslim extremist attacks on Israel, Nazi crimes concealed by Swiss banks, extremist plots within the Catholic Church, and more recently attacks by the ruling Russian kleptocracy against democratic institutions of the West.

That latter subject is the theme of Silva’s 21st and latest book, the Gabriel Allon spy thriller The Cellist, currently number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. Like most of Silva’s books, this one has its finger directly on the pulse of international events, and his familiarity with facts most of us are only vaguely aware of is, as usual, impressive—fed, no doubt by the expertise of Silva’s wife Jamie Gangel, veteran reporter for CNN.

But I should stress at the outset that this novel is unlike any of Silva’s previous ones in how thinly veiled its fiction is. Earlier installments in the series have talked about “the Prime Minister” or “the President” or “the Pope” or even “the Russian president” in relatively abstract ways: these characters bore some resemblance to politicians currently in those positions, but it was always fairly obvious that in these novels they were being used as fictional characters in stories that reflected some plausible version of global politics. But there is absolutely no question that “the Russian president” in The Cellist is Vladimir Putin and that the actions being depicted in the book may be fictional in their details but are, by Silva and by any reputable Western political analysts, believed to be absolutely accurate in general practice. And more to the point, there is no question that “the President” in this novel is Donald Trump—not a fictional version of him.

Silva has revealed in an interview with his publisher HarperCollins that he had virtually completed work on his new novel by January 6, 2021, when he witnessed with horror the unprecedented attack on democracy staged by the outgoing president’s most ardent supporters. “Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of his supporters rampaging through the halls of Congress,” he is quoted as saying, “breaking windows, stealing documents and computers, defacing art, searching for lawmakers to kidnap or kill.” As a result, Silva scrapped his novel’s planned ending, and several hundred pages of text, and rewrote the novel over the next six weeks, still getting it into his publisher’s hands in time for his July publication date. But by then he had rewritten the ending to include the insurrection in the American capital, and adding a new plot against the incoming president on inauguration day that must be thwarted by Silva’s protagonist, Gabriel Allon, chief of Israeli intelligence.

To be sure, the novel includes the usual disclaimer that the characters in the story are fictional, and that any similarity between them and real people, living or dead, is purely coincidental. But the disclaimer here seems somewhat disingenuous, since it is followed immediately by an afterword in Silva’s own voice in which he makes no bones about his belief that the former president of the United States acted, either ignorantly or deliberately, as an agent of the Russian state, and that that nation’s current czar, having used his unassailable position to make himself the richest man in the world, is behind the misinformation campaigns waged by various troll farms aimed at disrupting American democratic institutions by stoking the fires of American politics so destructively stirred up by Trump’s presence. It should come as no surprise that Silva’s novel has come in for a number of negative reviews from readers who would like to deny what happened on January 6, and have declared on Amazon or on Goodreads that they will never read Silva’s novels again. He seems fairly certain, however, to survive this criticism with little damage to his audience, particularly on the international level.

The Russian president, then, is as much in Silva’s sites in this novel as he is in Gabriel Allon’s. The novel begins with the murder in London of the Russian dissident Viktor Orlov, who had saved Allon’s life in a previous novel. The wealthy newspaper publisher is found dead in his apartment from a toxic nerve gas by former CIA agent, now art dealer, Sarah Bancroft (who first appeared in Silva’s The Messenger), who has found an unknown masterpiece by Artemisia Gentileschi she wants to sell him. There is no mystery as to who is behind the murder, since Orlov was prominent on “the Russian president’s” death list. Gabriel Allon, now in his sixties and head of Israeli intelligence, takes a personal interest in the murder of the man who saved his life, and begins looking into the matter, with the sometimes grudging assistance of British and American intelligence. He is also aided by a mysterious woman who works for the fictional RhineBank of Zurich, where she is a compliance officer whose recommendations are habitually ignored by what is generally regarded as the “dirtiest bank in the world.” Here she works in what is known as the “Russian laundromat,” whose task it is to launder illegal funds coming from Russia.

This woman is Isabel Brenner, who is a classically trained musician—the Cellist of the title—who obtained a degree in finance when she despaired of making her name in music. But she turns out to be more than willing to help Allon ensnare Arkady Akimo, Russian financier, music lover and close friend of the Russian president, through whom Allon hopes to strike at the Russian leader by taking from him his greatest weapon—money. “A nuclear bomb can only be dropped once,” Silva writes, “but money can be wielded every day with no fallout and no threat of mutually assured destruction.” It’s money that funds the trolls ad bots that spew Russian propaganda into the West, and without it those radical social media sources would be crippled.

Is The Cellist Silva’s best novel? No. And it has nothing to do with his political stance, which is nothing more than common sense. The novel has the same kind of breathless international setting and intrigue, the same sophisticated appreciation of art and music, the same suspenseful climax as Allon’s previous adventures. But to be completely honest, financial crimes are just more cerebral and not nearly as exciting as the more visceral crimes we get into in some of the previous novels. Add to that the fact that almost every recent Allon novel has involved some fairly innocent sweet young woman who gets used as bait for some extremely dangerous international criminal and whose life hangs in the balance as a result of Allon’s overconfidence in being able to save her at the crucial moment. For me, that’s getting a little old. 

But The Cellist is definitely worth a read, especially if you’re ready for a novel that not only chronicles life in a pandemic-threatened world, but one that deals directly with the violence of the January 6 insurrection. And of course, if you’re a devoted fan of Gabriel Allon, this latest is a must. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Black Widow

Black Widow

Cate Shortland (2021)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Disney+ (where it will cost you $29.99[!])

Length: 2 hours 13 minutes

Names You  Might Know: Scarlett Johansson. Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz

Language: English

Rating: PG13 (for violence, some language)

He Said: Black Widow is finally here, some 14 months after its original planned release. And the COVID-delayed 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made a splash in the new normal of the pandemically challenged movie-watching universe, garnering $263 million worldwide and $60 million on Disney+ in its first weekend. But unless you’re one of those 13-year-old boys who’s seen the other 23 MCU films a dozen times each, you may be a bit confused at where we find our protagonist Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson) as the story begins.

Just FYI for those who need it—which is anybody except those aforementioned 13-year old boys—this film takes place chronologically immediately after 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, when Black Widow, having been on the side of Iron Man against those Avengers loyal to Captain America, allowed Captain America to escape capture and so became a fugitive herself; and immediately before 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, where she is reunited with the Avengers in their battle against Ultron. And, of course, the film precedes 2019’s AvengersEndgame, in which Natasha Romanoff dies.

A planned film featuring Black Widow has apparently been in the works since 2004, and she first appeared in a minor role in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Her appearance in several other MCU films in small roles has always seemed a strange waste of a star of Scarlett Johansson’s magnitude, but this film finally made it into the MCU chute in 2019, with a script by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarök) from a story by Jac Schaeffer (The Hustle) and Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), and directed by Cate Shortland (known mainly for directing TV series, like SMILF). Neither Johansson nor Shortland was interested in making a simple “origin” film, which may explain the in medias res feeling of the film’s early stages.

But the film in fact opens with a brief “origin story”: a suburban Ohio home with a mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) who explains fireflies to her two young daughters, and a father Alexei (David Harbour, currently also to be seen in Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move), who comes home from work one day and announces to the family that they’ll be going on an “adventure.” They jump in the car, pursued by the police, drive to the airport where Melina takes off in a small jet with Alexei hanging on the wing firing at police vehicles. Next, we see them landing in Cuba, and speaking Russian to a General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Before you know it, the two girls are rendered unconscious by hypodermic needles to the neck and are whisked away to a place that turns out to be a training school for assassins.

What we have here is an expansion on a brief revelation Natasha had made in Age of Ultron, regarding the program that had turned her into the skilled fighter she became—a program called the “Red Room” that brainwashed her and subjected her to numerous mortifications as a child, including a forced hysterectomy. This is the world we transition into, 21 years after the opening sequence. Natasha, having escaped to the West and now an Avenger, believes she has killed Dreykov and so shut down the Red Room some years before when, as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., she bombed his office in Budapest. But her younger sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh of Little Women), once the Red Room’s greatest child assassin, contacts her and convinces her that Dreykov is still alive and the Red Room is still churning out brainwashed female assassins. The bulk of the movie involves the hunting down and destroying of that fortress.

The movie is full of action scenes and climactic CGI engendered scenes of mass destruction typical of MCU movies. But this film is truly not so much about these as it is about family relationships—about the bond between the two long estranged sisters and with their feigned parents Melena and Alexei. What makes a family? The film asks. A question that ultimately also applies to Natasha’s relationship with her fellow Avengers—her other estranged family. Wouldn’t you say that’s the point of the movie, Jones?

She Said: I think saying it’s the “point of the movie” goes a bit too far, as there were so many fight scenes—including the mandatory structural destruction scene toward the end—that I was able to plan my wardrobe for the first month of UCA classes during them alone. I’m pretty sure the point of any of these comic book super-hero movies is always the violence, destruction and action.

But I will give you that this question the movie is circling was its most engaging and valuable theme, and it made it mean more to me than some of these summer movies do. I liked the relationship scenes among the family members, particularly between Pugh and Johansson, the sisters. Pugh is particularly wry and appealing. 

I wasn’t wrong when I said I didn’t want to see it, and at $29.99 to rent it for the two of us, the price was a bit steep to me. It could have been worse. 

One way it could have been better would have been to get actual Russian actors to play some of the Russian roles. And with all their accents, I’m pretty sure they were mispronouncing their daughter Yelena’s name, but what do I know? I’m just a cranky old lady, trying to decide what dress to wear on the fourth day of Introduction to Poetry during all the crashes and punches and leaps and bounds of two body-armor clad Hollywood superstars. 

He Said: Well, you’re right about Pugh —I think that she virtually stole the movie, even though Johansson was remarkably good. It’s certain that the film is setting up Yelena for a sequel. Johansson, of course, can’t be in a sequel since her character is actually dead, but there is a post-credits scene showing Yelena at Natasha’s grave that is a forerunner of things to come.

It’s too bad that you were so distracted during the action scenes, because you also seem to have missed the strong feminist undercurrent in the movie that focused on not just the sisters but on sisterhood—Yelena and Natasha striving to save the women Dreykov has kidnapped and brainwashed into human killing machines whose wills are completely subjugated to his own, and whom he considers nothing more than cogs in his dream of world domination. He even says at one point that he has built his power on the one resource the world has plenty of—girls. One of the most touching twists the plot takes is Natasha’s fervent efforts to save Dreykov’s brainwashed daughter, who is determined to kill her.

As for the action scenes, the final destructive scene of course fits the hackneyed MCU pattern, though it is undercut by Natasha’s concern with saving rather than destroying lives. The earlier fight scenes are really more reminiscent of a Jason Bourne movie, especially with the theme of the secret government training program for brainwashed assassins. And the villain seeking world domination, along with the backstory of Russian spies—looks a lot like a Bond movie. I’m going to go ahead and give this movie three Soderberghs and half a Hitchcock. So there, Jones!

She Said: Well, yes, this movie does illustrate how patriarchy and capitalism shore each other up, so you’ve talked me into a higher rating than I may originally have given it. I just can’t go full Soderbergh though: two Michael Bays and half a Soderbergh for sisterhood.

This Week’s We Watched It and So Should You

He Said: The Kominsky Method, season three

Hot Take: This acclaimed show returned for a third and final season on May 28, with Michael Douglas returning as aging drama coach Sandy Kominsky but unfortunately without his brilliant co-star Alan Arkin as his agent Norman Newlander. Arkin had never planned to be part of the series for more than two years, and so had to be written out of season three. To play off of, though, Douglas does have Paul Reiser as his daughter’s much-older boyfriend, and Kathleen Turner as his ex-wife who shows up to be near her daughter and help plan the wedding. This is a show that made its mark by depicting old people in Los Angeles, and finding humor in the uncomfortable and sometimes demeaning or undignified or, this season, tragic situations that come with age. But there are also triumphs. You’ll still like the Arkin-less final season, and don’t worry: Norman’s memory looms over all six episodes here.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood (2000)

Margaret Atwood is one of the best-known current novelists in the English language, due in no small part to the popularity of the TV series based on her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which also fueled her 2019 sequel to that novel, The Testaments that won the coveted Booker Prize. If you’re a little more familiar with Atwood’s fiction, you might have read her post-apocalyptic science fiction trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013), said to be currently in development for a TV series by Paramount Television and Anonymous Content.

What you may not know if you are a casual reader of Atwood’s books is that her most acclaimed literary production is actually her 2000 Booker-prize winning novel The Blind Assassin, which was also named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English language novels since 1923. My advice to you is to read this complex, multi-layered novel and discover for yourself why it deserves this high praise.

There’s a good chance that, like me, you will be confused making your way through the first several chapters of the book. There is, in the first place, a dual timeline in the narration, which alternates between the “now” of the narrator (the octogenarian Iris Chase Griffen, speaking in the present, i.e. 1999-2000) and the time she wants to tell us about, chiefly the 1930s and 1940s, but including earlier and later decades as they prove pertinent to her family’s history. There are, in the second place, several chapters labeled “The Blind Assassin,” which purport to be passages from an acclaimed novel identified as the work of Iris’s sister Laura, posthumously published by Iris herself, in 1947. These chapters detail the clandestine meetings of a woman and her secret lover, a man who is constantly moving from one low-rent room to another, apparently one step ahead of authorities who are searching for him. The man, as it happens, is a writer of pulp science fiction stories, and at each meeting with his secretive mistress, he narrates another episode in a tale he calls, you guessed it, The Blind Assassin.

In the third place, the opening chapters are also sprinkled here and there with stand-alone news stories clipped from various newspapers. Several of these are obituaries for some of the novel’s chief characters: There is an article from The Toronto Star dated 26 May1945, detailing the death of Miss Laura Chase, 25, who drove off a bridge in Toronto on May 18. Another article, from the Globe and Mail of 4 June 1947, announces the death of industrialist and conservative politician Richard E. Griffen, found aboard his sailboat at his summer home, called “Avilion.” A third obituary in The Toronto Star of 25 August 1975 announces the death in a of 38-year old Aimee Griffen—identified as the daughter of the late industrialist Richard Griffen and niece of the noted author Laura Chase. Miss Griffen, the article informs us, died of a broken neck after falling down stairs. She also had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Finally, there is a notice for 19 February 1998 of the death at 92 of the well-known philanthropist Winifred Griffin identified as the sister of the late industrialist Richard Griffen and sister-in-law of the famous author Laura Chase. She is survived, the article tell us, by her great-niece Sabrina Griffen, “currently traveling in India.”

Atwood uses these news clippings to provide us with exposition that our narrator Iris never provides. Since we learn eventually that Iris is writing her narrative specifically with her estranged granddaughter Sabrina in mind, she never identifies her main characters and their relationships. She doesn’t have to do so with Sabrina. The clippings inform us that Iris married the business owner Richard Griffen, that she published her sister’s novel The Blind Assassin after Laura’s suicide in 1945, that she was estranged from her daughter Aimee as well as from Aimee’s daughter Sabrina, and that Sabrina deems to have been closer to her aunt Winifred Griffen.

We don’t really get started on Iris’s narration until the third section of the book, after more than 30 pages of newspaper clippings and passages from Laura’s novel. By this time, we probably have several questions, not the least of which is why Laura drove off that bridge. But we also wonder why Iris’s husband Griffen died—and so soon after the publication of Laura’s iteration of The Blind Assassin. We also have to wonder why Iris was estranged from her daughter and granddaughter, and why they seem to have been closer to Richard’s sister Winifred? But just as pressing as these questions is the mystery of what Laura’s book has to do with the main narrative.

Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin contains within it the novel attributed to Laura Chase, which is entitled The Blind Assassin, which contains within it a narrative composed by one of its characters entitled “The Blind Assassin.” We have a novel telling the story of a novelist who is telling the story of a character who is telling a story. It’s the kind of self-reflexive structure beloved by post-modernists, but more than that the book presents us with a mystery whose clues lie in a fiction within a fiction.

Iris and her younger sister Laura are the children of a wealthy factory owner in the fictional town of Port Ticonderoga in Ontario. Iris is born in 1916 while her father is in the trenches of France, and he comes back scarred by the war. Laura is born when he returns, but the girls’ mother dies giving birth to a stillborn child, but not before charging Iris to take care of her younger sister. As the girls grow into their teens, the family is held together by Reenie, the Chase’s faithful housekeeper, who becomes a mother figure for the two girls. Their father is a progressive business owner who tries hard to keep his factories afloat during the Great Depression in order to save jobs for his employees, and at a company picnic in the mid-1930s, his girls meet a union organizer named Alex Thomas, an ex-divinity student and a fledgling writer, and they are both attracted to him. When their father’s workers go on strike and one of his factories is burned, authorities blame Alex for the fire (he was an “outside agitator, so it must have been him). The girls actually hide Adam in the cellar and attic of their home Avilion to save him from capture.

Soon after, the girls’ father, reeling from the Depression, the strike and the fire and hoping to save his company and his good name, sells his business to his chief rival—Richard E. Griffen—to whom he also promises the hand of his daughter Iris, though Griffen is twice her age.

Much of the novel details Iris’s life as the trophy bride of a man who emotionally abuses her and her sister after their father’s untimely death, and whose sister Winifred, heavily invested in the patriarchy—abets his every move. We begin to see some connections between Iris and Laura’s lives and the story of the Blind Assassin: In that story within a story, on the planet Zycron, in the opulent city of Sakiel-Norn, the city’s governors regularly sacrifice a young virgin to the gods, but first they cut out her tongue to keep her from begging for her life. There is also a guild of assassins, all of whom are blind. In the story, one of the blind assassins rescues one of the silent sacrifices and escapes from the city. We are left to wonder: are the man and woman who met secretly Alex and Laura? Is Iris the silenced sacrifice? Or is Laura? And who is the blind assassin? 

If you have formed some conclusions about these questions as you read the novel, be prepared to completely alter your ideas as you approach the book’s conclusion and Iris reveals family secrets that she has saved up for the end. If you like Atwood, if you like family sagas with deep secrets, or if you just like books that make you sit up and take notice of the author’s language (a newborn has “that squashed face, as if she’d hit a wall at high speed”; Winifred says that “Laura had finally snapped. Snapped, she said, as if Laura was a bean”), then you can’t go wrong with this novel. Four Shakespeares.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

No Sudden Move

No Sudden Move
Steven Soderbergh (2021)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: HBO Max

Length: 1 hour 55 minutes

Names You  Might Know: Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Matt Damon, Brendon Feraser, Jon Hamm, Ray Liotta

Language: English

Rating: R (for violence, language, some sexual references)

He Said: It is the mid-1950s. Three criminals invade a family’s suburban home and hold the family hostage at gunpoint while they await the delivery of an important package. There is some tension among the criminals, and the one in charge seems bent on not letting the family get out of this situation alive.

That’s the premise of William Wyler’s classic noir film The Desperate Hours, with Humphrey Bogart and Frederic March. It also turns out to be the premise of Steven Soderbergh’s neo-noir film No Sudden Move, starring Soderbergh veterans Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro and, in a small but crucial role, Matt Damon.

The first thing I noticed as the film opened was the cars, and that will probably be the case with most viewers. Soderbergh rustled up a lot of vintage early ’50’s cars for this film, all of them in pristine condition, and my first reaction was, “Ah, a film set in the early ’50’s,” shortly before “Detroit 1954” flashed up on the screen. Wyler’s film appeared in 1955, and was based on a 1954 novel of the same name by Joseph Hayes. The Bogart film came out toward the end of the classic noir period, so when the home invasion occurs, alluding to that time and place, it sets up our expectations for our own noir story.

But Wyler’s film was set in suburban Indianapolis, and Soderbergh’s is set in Detroit, and the initial foregrounding of the automobiles also lets us know something else: Detroit’s most important industry will play a huge part in this film. I want to try to limit the number of spoilers in this review, which is a little difficult because there are a lot of twists and turns that happen here. But let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the plot:

The story opens with a small-time crook named Curt Goynes (Cheadle) being recruited by another gangster, a go-between named Jones (played by an almost unrecognizable Brendan Fraser), who will pay him $5,000 simply to “babysit” with two other guys at a house for three hours—“nobody gets hurt.” One of those other guys is another small-town crook named Ronald Russo (Del Toro)—who we learn is being paid $7,500. The third member of the group is Jones’s own guy, Charley (Kieran Culkin of Succession). Charley is supposed to take Matt Wertz, the father of the family (David Harbour of Black Widow) to his office to steal something important (never mind what) from his boss’s safe while his family is held hostage.

Things begin to go south when it becomes clear to Curt that Charley has very different instructions from his own “nobody gets hurt” promise, and that not only the family but Rosso and himself as well are being set up. Curt makes a sudden decision that sets himself and Russo on a course to “go rogue” and collect this important document from the safe for themselves and find our who and what is behind this tangled web.  

In the convoluted events that follow, we are forced, with Curt and Russo, to try to figure out how much they can trust each other, just what this valuable item is, who wants it, what will they pay, and who exactly wants them dead, and why? Things eventually involve local crime bosses played by Ray Liotta and Bill Duke, and a federal agent played by Jon Hamm, who is able to finagle some information out of Matt’s son Matthew (Noah Jupe of A Quiet Place).

I’m impressed by the old-fashioned tone and mood of this film, hearkening back to the noir days, and by the working out of the complex plot of Ed Solomon’s screenplay. Soderbergh’s all-star cast is also memorable, wouldn’t you say, Jones?

She Said: I LOVE the cast. I’m all in on anything Don Cheadle and Jon Hamm are in. Honestly, Ruud, I didn’t notice the cars per se, but rather got the message loud and clear that this was in A TIME GONE BY from their placement in the shots. But they aren’t just time signifiers, as the viewer soon finds. I found the tone rather stylized, and yet still very accessible and engaging. This movie was a great way to spend a Saturday evening. 

I did find the many, many, many wrinkles of this movie a bit demanding, though definitely worthwhile. If you’re watching this while doing other things, prepare to be lost. The beauty of this film is how it folds in and in and in on itself, while become more and more significant and societally relevant. Didn’t you think, Ruud?

He Said: Yes, the rather disturbing twist that Matt Damon’s character brings in toward the end, which means absolutely nothing to our petty crooks Cheadle and Del Toro, turns out to be a criminal act by the power mongers of American capitalism, happily supported by a government represented by federal agent Hamm, so much greater than anything the Cheadles and Del Toros of the world that the comparison is ludicrous. And, it turns out, it’s actually true. And only by the way, no consequences for the real crooks. There’s a terrible irony at the end of the film when crime boss Bill Duke asks Cheadle’s character why Curt trusted him, and Curt answered it was because he was trustworthy. You know who isn’t in this movie? The people who actually control our world.

It might not be quite Bogart and March, but Cheadle and Del Toro are both great and underrated actors. I think, inevitably, I’ll give this film three Soderberghs.

She Said: I agree that this movie warrants three Soderberghs, He does have movies I’d give four Hitchcocks to, but this one is a solid three Soderbergh effort. 

This Week’s We Watched It and You Should Too:
He Said: The Last Kingdom
Hot Take: I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell’s novels, having read his entire series of Richard Sharpe novels as well as his full Last Kingdom (or Saxon Chronicles) series, which he just brought to an end last November with its thirteenth and final installment, War Lord. Last November. Having finished reading those books, I was compelled to try the TV series, originally a joint production from the BBC and Netflix, and then only from Netflix for the past two seasons. 

Although the TV series contain important characters who do not appear in the novels, and also leaves out some important figures and events from the books, it does generally follow the complex plotlines of the novels, devoting an eight or ten episode season to dramatizing two novels per season for the first four seasons of the series. If you are interested in the history of Anglo-Saxon England during the reign of Alfred the Great and his immediate successors, you should give this series a look. It has the tone and feel of Game of Thrones, and dramatizes the gritty and violent Middle Ages through the fortunes of the protagonist Uhtred of Bebanburgh (Alexander Dreymon), a fictional Saxon raised by Danes who becomes Alfred’s reluctant ally. 

The first four seasons of the series are available on Netflix with your regular subscription. The fifth and promised final season finished filming in June. No official release date has been announced, but it is likely to premier on Netflix late this year, perhaps November.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society

James Bobin (2021)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Weekly on Disney +

Length: 51 minutes per episode

Names You Might Know: Tony Hale, Kristen Schaal, Ryan Hurst

Language: English

He Said: We’ve known this project was in the works for some time and have been eager to see what the end result was going to look like when the initial volume of our favorite local YA author Trenton Lee Stewart’s popular MysteriousBenedict Society series hit the small screen as an eight-part series on Disney+. After watching the first two episodes of the series, which premiered last week, I think we can agree that those young folks who are fans of Stewart’s books will find this adaptation faithful and true to its source, and that viewers unfamiliar with the books might well be inspired to begin reading the novels themselves.

Like the books, the TV series seems aimed at tweens and teen in the fourth- to eighth-grade range, though younger viewers will probably like it as well, and older viewers will probably get a kick out of the quirky characters and settings that have what some critics have called a Wes Anderson-like atmosphere. The kind of kookie wardrobe choices and 1960s-like technology that form the milieu of the series are part of the fantasy aspect of the story, but much of it may strike us as all too real given the events of the past several years. 

The story is set in a world in which people live in fear because of “The Emergency,” a situation that is fed by daily updates of terrible news from news sources trying to stir up people’s fears. 

And this is exacerbated by subliminal messages secretly transmitted to underscore media broadcasts nationwide. Stewart conceived this plot, which seems prescient now, in 2007. Director James Bobin (known for the Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted) has chosen to underplay any resemblance to current events.

The plot gets under way in the first episode as we follow the story’s chief protagonist, Reynie Muldoon (Mystic Insho), an orphan whose teacher shows him an ad in a local paper inviting students to take an exam in order to compete for a scholarship to a prestigious school. Reynie, who has read every book in his institution’s library and has a highly analytical mind, passes the first test and moves on to others, along with a few others, including George Washington, nicknamed “Sticky” because everything he sees and learns “sticks” in his mind (Seth Carr); and Kate Wetherall (Emmy DeOliveira), who likes to call herself “Kate the Great,” and who carries numerous tools in a bucket and improvises solutions to problems, Batman-like, from the items she carries. There is also Constance Contraire (Marta Kessler), the youngest of the four, who apparently cut the Gordian knot of the tests and simply connived her way past the competition. Anyway, it’s Constance who essentially steals the show in these first two episodes with her snarky personality and contrary attitude. Hence her name.

Turns out the kids aren’t really being chosen to attend this prestigious school after all. Instead, they’ve been recruited by the mysterious Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale of Arrested Development and Veep), an eccentric narcoleptic scientist who has discovered the nature and source of the subliminal messages and needs a team of four children to help him shut down the source and save the planet. That’s why he needed four such exceptional children. The four have in common not only the fact that they are all orphans or somehow separated from their families, and not only that they are all exceptional intellectually, but also, as Mr. Benedict says, their love of truth and, most importantly, their characteristic empathy—the most important moral quality for this world.

Turns out the broadcasts are coming from a boarding school on Nomansan Island not far off shore near Mr. Benedict’s estate, which is why he needs the four children rather than his eccentric adult helpers (Kristen Schaal of Gravity Falls, MaameYaa Boafu of Thru 25, and Ryan Hurst of The Walking Dead): The four children can be enrolled at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.) and while there undercover can find the broadcasting tower and figure out how to shut it down. In episode two they begin their schooling at this institute, a place where you can go anywhere as long as you don’t step off the path.

The story is certainly meaty enough to reel in the fans. But a series like this is only going to be as good as the child actors who make up the team. What did you think of them, Jones?

She Said: I think the casting is amazing, Ruud. I’m not a big reader of YA fiction, even though my mother is a retired young-adult librarian, because so much of it is post-apocalyptic, dystopian miasma, but this was right up my alley, as it reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. The appeal of the book to me was the children’s individual strengths and weaknesses and how both could be either in Stewart’s hands. And in the screen adaptation, the children were absolutely just as I imagined them! I do adore that little dickens Constance, of course, but Reynie has my heart, and I was worried about the ultimate choice of actor to play him. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, so I’ve been deeply scarred by the cloying, twee child actors of sitcoms and movies of the era. Thank the Little Mermaid that Disney is over that business! 

I’m really into this adaptation and feel so happy that our friend’s book has made a lovely leap to the screen from the page. 

He Said: Yes, I thought the kids were appropriate, and they of course will be the ones the kids in the audience will be identifying with. The fact that there are four of them will give those viewers a choice of whom to relate to most closely. For me, I was feeling for the adults. Ryan Hurst, the “muscle” of Mr. Benedict’s helpers, is given a sympathetic backstory that helps us relate to him while it would be tempting—and typical—for the audience to overlook him as just a necessary cog. Mr. Benedict himself, Tony Hale, is just bumbling enough for us to fear for the children’s safety if he’s who they have to rely on, and his narcolepsy that occurs when he experiences strong emotion—particularly laughter—is amusing but viewers will expect that this can cause some difficulties later on, when stakes get higher.

This is charming family entertainment, a cut above the usual cable fare in that genre. Applying my wife’s guiding question, “Is it good for what it’s good for?” I’m going to go ahead and give this series four Hitchcocks. Over to you, Jones.

She Said: Same here, Ruud! Hitchcocks all around for this!

She Rewatched It And You Should Too: Mad Men. 
I’ve watched this series, start to finish, about four or five times, and every time I get more out of it than the last. This is literary TV, so engaging and compelling, and meaningful from the surface to the depths. You can watch it free with ads via Amazon Prime. Do it.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote (1966)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

It’s now more than fifty-five years since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood created a sensation seldom equaled in the history of American letters. The book made six million dollars in the mid- 1960s—the equivalent of, say, $48 million today. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success. But although the book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, it lost out to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, much to Capote’s chagrin. Still, the novel made Capote such a celebrity that he never finished another book for the 19-year social whirl that made up the remainder of his life.

What Capote did in In Cold Blood is spawn two major new genres: One of these is the genre of “true crime,” which has become wildly popular in the twenty-first century, not only in books but in television series, in podcasts, in media of all kinds. The other is what Capote called “the non-fiction novel,” as he labeled In Cold Blood. The genre, which depicts actual historical persons and events presented having imagined conversations and using the narrative techniques of fiction, had its moment in the late 1960s and ’70s with books like Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song, and Alex Haley’s Roots. 

Capote’s book explores the brutal and apparently motiveless killing of the Clutter family—father, mother, teenaged daughter and son—in the small rural town of Holcomb in western Kansas: Two ex-convicts walked into their unlocked farmhouse in the early-morning hours of November 15, 1959, expecting to find a safe with a good deal of cash. There was no safe, and the two thieves, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, walked away with between forty and fifty dollars, a pair of binoculars, and a transistor radio—and left four corpses, all shot in the face at point-blank range by shotgun blasts because, well, they didn’t want to leave any witnesses.

Capote traveled to Kansas after reading about the murders in a newspaper, accompanied by his childhood friend Harper Lee—whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird would win the Pulitzer Prize during the process of their investigating the murders. It was Lee who helped Capote earn the trust of the Clutters’ friends and neighbors, and later the police investigating the case and ultimately even the murderers themselves. Capote spent six years researching the case, interviewing everyone involved and compiling some 8,000 pages of notes—even being present, at Smith’s request, at the perpetrators’ hanging—before publishing the complete book, first as a four-part serial in The New Yorker in 1965, then in book form in 1966. Then he spent a good deal of time promoting the book, foolishly making the unfortunate claim that “every word” of his novel was true.

Any reader thinking about that claim had to know before making significant headway into the book that such a claim was absurd. Capote dramatizes virtually every plot point of the story with detailed, often lengthy conversations between the killers in their haphazard road trip to Mexico and back subsequent to the murder, between members of the Clutter family and their friends, between law enforcement personnel and others. That’s unavoidable in a novelization of historical events. But Capote went further still, adding scenes that never happened at all but that helped establish the book’s mood or theme: Most notable of these is the concluding scene in which the lead investigator on the case, Alvin Dewey, is depicted visiting the Clutters’ graves, where he meets and has a conversation with Susan Kidwell, Nancy Clutter’s best friend—a scene Dewey says never happened. Similarly, Josephine Meier, the wife of the Finney county Undersheriff Wendle Meier who was charged with overseeing Smith’s incarceration, is depicted as forming a close and sympathetic relationship with the prisoner, yet Mrs. Meier denied that any such relationship existed, and said she seldom spoke with Smith and spent very little time with him.

But it seems to me that if these inaccuracies ruin the book for you, you’re grabbing at the wrong end of the stick. Sure, I suppose the majority of that mass of readers who bought the book on its initial publication did so because they were anticipating reading all the facts behind this famous brutal murder. But the book lives on because it is highly readable, remarkably engrossing. And that’s not because it’s a list of facts. It’s because it reads like a novel.

Capote uses a literary style. He is able to build suspense even though we already know who committed the murders, that they were tracked down by law enforcement, found guilty in a court of law, and executed. We know all of this and yet are carried along by the narrative specifically because of those dramatized scenes and imagined conversations. The real-life Josephine Meier never had those sympathetic moments with Perry Smith, but Josephine Meier the character in Capote’s novel does have them. Alvin Dewey never had that conversation with Susan Kidwell in the graveyard on the authentic Kansas plain, but the conversation between the character Dewey and the character Susan is important for the final effect of the novel. In Cold Blood is a work of literary art. There is no more need to believe in its unadulterated veracity than there is to believe in the absolute historical truth of a film that claims to be “based on a true story.” The book does what that film does: It takes a historical situation and explores it for its thematic significance in a work of art.

Capote first deals with the easy part of the story—he introduces us to each member of the Clutter family: Herb, the wealthy farmer who is active in his church, respected by his community, and kind to the men who work for him. Bonnie, the delicate wife. Nancy, the popular and talented teenaged daughter, and Kenyon, the equally popular and athletic teenaged son. We meet some of their neighbors and friends, including Nancy’s boyfriend, an initial suspect until he passes a lie detector test. But mostly we are struck by the terrible waste and incomprehensibility of their fate. Capote quotes one neighbor as saying “That family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them—well, it’s like being told there is no God.”

You might say that the rest of the book is Capote’s attempt to respond to that statement. Why and how could such a thing happen to a family like this? He moves us to the point of view of Alvin Dewey, the chief investigator, who has never seen a crime like this, and vows to hunt down the killers, though he has little success until another convict, who had once been employed by Herb Clutter, admits to having discussed Clutter’s wealth with his cell mate—Richard Hickock. We move to Hickock and Smith’s life on the run, and are struck by their cavalier attitude about the murders—they seem to have no remorse at all and hardly think about it. They are mainly worried that they might get picked up for passing bad checks. Then comes the capture, the trial, the conviction, and ultimately the execution by hanging of the two murderers.

Along the way, Capote goes into some detail about the backgrounds and life events that created these two criminal minds and explores their psychology. He examines the trial itself and questions about its fairness, as well as court’s reliance on the anachronistic M’Naughten Rules (formulated in the 1840s) that make it virtually impossible to be found not guilty by reason of insanity—Kansas being one of only a few states still relying on these rules. And Capote’s details, especially regarding Perry Smith, with whom he seems to have formed a sympathetic bond, call into question the justice of capital punishment even in a case like this—a stance Capote had reached by the time he finished this book. 

This is a book that will color your views of these kinds of issues for all time once you have read it. It’s a book whose characters will haunt you. It’s impossible to ignore Perry Smith’s statement, or completely understand his mental state, regarding his first victim, Herb Clutter:

“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Atonement

Atonement

Ian McEwan (2001)

If you have read much of acclaimed contemporary novelist Ian McEwan’s work, you are well aware that Atonement, which did not win the Booker Prize, is a much better novel than his Amsterdam, which did win it. (Shortlisted in 2001, Atonement lost out to Peter Carey’s impressive True History of the Kelly Gang.) A wider ranging and thematically more challenging book, Atonement is the novel that McEwan seems destined to be remembered for, at least at this point in his career.

Anyone coming to the novel at this point in time is likely to have seen the 2007 Joe Wright film, nominated for seven Oscars, and so you may already be familiar with the outline of the plot, including its concluding twist. But I’ll try not to include many serious spoilers here—if that’s even possible with a book like this.

“Atonement” is of course a theological term, and refers to action taken to correct or repair the damage done by a previous wrongdoing, or injury one may have done to another. In Judaism, the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, is the “Day of Atonement,” prior to which one seeks forgiveness for wrongs done against God as well as those done to other people. Some Christians also engage in individual penance to help atone for sins, while in general Christianity teaches that the suffering and death of Jesus was performed as an atonement for the sins, the wrongs, done by the entire human race. In reading a book entitled “Atonement,” then, we can be pretty sure what we’re going to read about is somebody seriously wronging another, and ultimately attempting to repair the damage done by that wrong.

In this novel, the wrongdoer is a thirteen-year old budding author by the name of Briony Tallis. Briony lives on her parents’ estate in Surrey. When the novel opens in 1935, her sister Cecilia has just returned home from Cambridge. Her mother, suffering from migraines, and her father, a largely absent civil servant, are shadowy presences in her life, while the son of the family’s cleaning lady, Robbie Turner—who has also just returned from Cambridge, though with a First in English literature in contrast to Cecilia’s Third—is a more significant figure. Robbie, having caught the eye and interest of the Paterfamilias, was put through school via the noblesse oblige of the old man, and now is hoping to continue into medical school. There’s a sexual tension between Robbie and Cecilia that you can cut with a knife, but there’s a bit of a problem since the younger sister Briony has an adolescent crush on Robbie that he has tried to discourage.

On this particular day, the sisters are expecting from London their older brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall (whose company has just invented a candy-coated chocolate that they hope will be a part of every British soldier’s kit bag). Also expected are their young cousins Pierrot, Jackson, and Lola Quincey, whose parents have separated and who’ve been sent to the estate to get them out of the line of parental fire. Lola is a year older than Briony and the two boys are younger twins, and Briony wants their help in performing for the rest of the house a verse play she has just written called The Trials of Arabella. If this all sounds a bit like Mansfield Park, it’s no accident. McEwan has put Austen in our heads with his lengthy epigraph from Northanger Abbey, beginning with the suggestive “Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained….”

As the opening section of the book continues at its leisurely pace, we’re reminded not only of Austen but of Virginia Woolf and perhaps Waugh and ultimately Forster as well. One of the things the book is about is perspective: At one point we see through the eyes of the soon-to-be lovers Robbie and Cecilia as they quarrel over the breaking of an expensive family vase whose handle has fallen into a fountain; Cecilia in a pique strips down to the undergarments to wade into the fountain to retrieve it. At another point we are seeing the same event through gaze of young Briony, who sees but does not understand this adult world to which she longs to be initiated but remains outside of looking in. She interprets the scene as the humiliation of her sister by a sexually dominant Robbie. Robbie writes an apology to Cecilia and gives it to Briony to deliver, but unfortunately he has made the Freudian slip of sending an obscene draft he had written as a lark rather than his intended apology—a draft Briony reads. When later she also surprises Robbie and Cecilia in flagrante delicto in the library, she is convinced that Robbie is a sick sex maniac.

All this would merely be amusing, and we’d read it as a step in Briony’s maturing and her sexual education, if it weren’t for what happens later: When the entire household is off searching the grounds for the twins, who have taken off for home, Briony runs across her cousin Lola in the dark, being sexually assaulted. Lola claims not to have known who assaulted her, but Briony is convinced the culprit is Robbie. It is her Northanger Abbey moment. Despite Cecilia’s protestations to the contrary, the entire family unites behind Briony’s claim, which she maintains against all interrogations. It was Robbie. She saw him with her own eyes. And here’s where the book is also about class. As far as the family is concerned, who else could it have been? Robbie’s the son of a housekeeper. He’s not “one of us.” The police take Robbie away, and on Briony’s testimony alone (and the supporting evidence of his own foolish note), he is sent to prison.

Part two of the novel jolts us out of the glittering summer of the British countryside and into the fog of war. It is five years later and Robbie, paroled from prison in order to fight, like the other working-class blokes, is in the war that will make Paul Marshall yet richer. Gone are Austen and Woolf: We are in a gritty, hyper-realistic retreat to Dunkirk that’s more Hemingway or Stephan Crane (or Frodo and Sam dragging themselves through Mordor) than it is Kipling. Robbie is wounded, but heaves himself mile after mile to the burning Dunkirk, wanting only to get back to Cecilia, who has deserted her family and is in touch with him. Helping two out-of-their-depth corporals along with his own grit and determination, Robbie at last reaches the beach and finds there an army that “wandered about the sands without purpose, like citizens of an Italian town in the hour of the passeggio.”

And then part three: Here a grown-up Briony, tormented by her earlier perfidy and its consequences, has decided as a kind of expiation for her sins to put off Cambridge and train as a nurse in a London hospital, helping with the glut of wounded coming back from France. She is able to discover where he sister (also serving as a nurse) is living, and visit her, receiving a cold shoulder from Cecilia and from Robbie, who is here on a short leave from France. Briony says she will go to the authorities and withdraw her statement that sent Robbie to prison. She is not forgiven, but promises to do all they ask in atonement.  

But wait. There is a part four, that takes place six decades later. Here an octogenarian Briony, now a well-known novelist, discusses her latest book—which, it is implied, we have just read. And here we discover that the novel is also about fiction itself. How much of what we have just read is true, and how much of it is the invention of the (fictional) author? And how much of that invention is in fact a gesture of atonement? You’ll need to read the book to find out. And to find out how much you yourself are willing to forgive Briony. Or McEwan.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

A Quiet Place II

A Quiet Place II

John Krasinski
2020/2021

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Exclusive to theaters

Length: 97 minutes 

Names You Might Know: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou, John Krasinski

Language: English

She Said: I’ve been waiting for this film since it almost came out in 2020. When the pandemic shut down theaters, I was waiting for A Quiet Place II to hit a streaming service near me, expecting to pay $20-plus in rental fees to hunker down and see it. But its distributor, Paramount Pictures, kept the film back. It’s what motivated us to finally venture out to a movie theater for the first time since last February to see this film in person.

And it was worth our vaccinated trip. If you haven’t seen A Quiet Place, this prequel/sequel can stand on its own, but gives you the opening situation of the scenario the first film depicts (although not much information about how or why) as well as what happened after the first installment ends. Evelyn (Blunt, of The Devil Wears Prada fame) takes her family to find others in the apocalyptic world in which the slimiest of lizardy alien creatures descend on and kill humans if they make any noise louder than the press of bare feet on pebbled pathways. She and her children know there are other people out there, and with her home destroyed, widowed and with two teens and a new baby, she seeks the safety of community. 

As with all quests, the Abbott family finds obstacles and new quests along its journey, friends and foes. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that it’s been awhile since I screamed aloud in a movie theater from sheer shock and fear (maybe not since Aliens in 1986, when my high school friend Kim jerked so hard away from what she saw on screen that her glasses flew four rows back in the movie theater). I’m not much of a horror movie aficionado, but this one seemed to be working.

What’d you think, Ruud?

He Said: Funny you should mention Aliens, since I’m pretty sure that’s the effect Krasinski was going for—that jump-out-of-your-seat reaction to the sudden blitzkrieg assaults of thee aliens who look, to be honest, an awful lot like those creatures from the Alien series.

I agree that the first sequence, the “Day 1” prequel, in which the ballgame is “called on account of alien invasion,” is probably worth getting out of the house and going to a big screen at long last. The fast-paced action sequence is a thing of beauty and of terror. When the scene shifted to “Day 471” or so, I started to get the feeling of déjà vu all over again. We did know that other people had survived the alien onslaught, since Lee (Krasinski) exchanged signals with some of them in the first movie. In the sequel, we get to see how some of these people have survived. We meet again Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight) as the Abbott family’s neighbor Emmett, who we met in the bleachers in the opening sequence, and who may be the chief purpose for having that sequence at all. Emmett doesn’t want to help them and wants them to go away—and in speaking of others who may have survived so far, he says coldly, “They aren’t worth saving.” Later, in fact, we meet some of those types. It’s a whole lot like The Walking Dead, where some of the other survivors in the Post-Apocalyptic world are worse than the monsters themselves.

Mostly I felt like the plot devices in this sequel all had the chief purpose of putting characters in situations where they had a good chance of meeting the alien monsters and had to 1) Be vewwy vewwy quiet; 2) Use some kind of electronic device with really loud feedback to paralyze the monster; and 3) Blow the monster’s head apart with a shotgun/rifle/pistol blast. This happened in the first film, and it happens a lot here. I will admit that Krasinski makes clever use of these motifs late in the movie when he has three parallel scenes in each of which one of the characters is trying to avoid the monsters, and he cuts back and forth between different scenes in a way that heightens the suspense exponentially.

Also, it seemed to me that the deaf teenaged Abbott daughter Regan (why name her after one of King Lear’s patricidal daughters?), played with impressive verve by Millicent Simmonds, makes an incredibly foolish decision to go off by herself to find an island of survivors somewhere “beyond the sea,” a possibility suggested to her by a radio broadcast that keeps repeating the Bobby Darrin song. It seems we are supposed to be admiring her initiative and gosh-darn pluck, but basically she gets a lot of people killed, so what was the point—except to create those situations where we might jump from fright?

You got any defense of these things, Jones?

She Said: This movie can’t be good at what it’s good for, Ruud, if it doesn’t suck you in and freak you out! And that to me is the value of the film, aside from a chance to enjoy my current favorite married couple of movie makers, Krasinski and Blunt. I loved this film as a suspense movie, largely because I care so much about the family at its center. The writing provides the fear and trembling, and the performances motivate me to care what happens to these people in a genre of film I generally dislike. 

Three Soderberghs and half a Hitchcock for this one.

He Said: It is definitely good at making you jump, and I do like some of the thoughtful touches, like the way all background music or noises cease and the film is completely silent when we are seeing (and hearing) things from the deaf girl’s perspective. I can’t completely get over those plot holes or the sense of “this again” that some of the film gives me. At the risk of sleeping I the guest room tonight, I’m going to go with two Michael Bays and half a Soderbergh

This Week’s We Watched It and You Should Too:
He Said: Mare of Easttown
Hot Take: If you missed this series, what the heck have you been doing for the past couple of months? The final episode aired on HBO Sunday night, so you can now start at the beginning and binge the whole series (which is my personal preference anyway). There are a lot of cop/crime drama clichés in the series’ conception, but Kate Winslet is brilliant as an ex-high school sports hero now working as a detective in this working-class suburb of Philly (you can imagine Sly Stallone popping up just around the corner) where young girls are going missing o turning up dead. Mare knows everybody in town, and they all seem to be intertwined in one another’s lives. There are lots of twists and turns and red herrings that keep you guessing until he very end of the very last episode Definitely worth a watch—it’s a series that’s good for what it’s good for, as my awesome wife likes to say.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Damages (season one)

Damages (season one)

Todd and Glenn Kessler with Daniel Zellman (2007)

Facts for You:

Where to Watch: Originally on FX, now streaming on Hulu

Length: Thirteen 1-hour episodes in the first season

Names You Might Know: Glenn Close, Rose Byrne, Ted Danson, Željko Ivanek

Language: English

He Said: If you were disappointed last month to see Glenn Close fail once again to receive an Oscar in her eighth nomination (for Hillbilly Elegy), you might think about watching her in her most acclaimed role, in the TV series Damages, for which she received four Emmy nominations as Best Actress and won two of them. One of those wins was for the first season of the show, which aired on FX in 2007.

You may want to binge this classic show particularly if you missed it when it first aired, back when it was more unusual for newer cable networks—other than HBO and Showtime—to gain a niche among the viewing public. I freely admit that I, for one, essentially ignored this show’s existence at the time, despite its six Emmy nominations that year. I was busy watching The Sopranos, thanks, and didn’t have time for these fringe network shows.

Speaking of which, one of the creators of Damages, Todd Kessler, was a writer and producer on the second and third seasons of The Sopranos, so the Sopranos-like quality that underscores every episode of this first season of damages has its source in that show. This season is memorable for being one of the first TV legal crime drams to spend an entire season dealing with a single case. It is remarkable, as well, for telling its story in a dual timeline: We see our main protagonist Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne of Bridesmaids) arrested for the murder of her fiancé, then cut to a time several months earlier when Ellen is hired at her first legal job. The season continues moving back and forth in time to develop both timelines until they ultimately connect in the final episode.

The outline of the first season is this: Ellen is recruited for the law firm Hewes & Associates by Patty Hewes (Close), who is known to be a no-holds-barred litigator. She has hired Ellen to help with a huge case—a class-action lawsuit brought against billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) by his 5,000 former employees who lost all of their pensions when his company went belly-up the day after he sold all his own stock. Patty, representing the plaintiffs, is trying to get Katie Connor (Anastasia Griffith of TV’s Trauma) and O’Connor’s one-time lover Gregory Malina (Peter Facinelli of TV’s Nurse Jackie) to testify to what they know about Frobisher’s contact with a shadowy fellow conspirator in Florida. Katie happen to be the sister of Ellen’s fiancé David Connor (Noah Bean of TV’s Nikita), and Ellen’s relationships with both siblings become strained through her job. Meanwhile Frobisher’s attorney Ray Fiske (Željko Ivanek of TV’s Madame Secretary) keeps trying to settle the case out of court, but finds Patty unwilling to settle—it is as if she has a vendetta against Frobisher for some reason we aren’t made privy to. At the same time,  Fiske has a very suspicious relationship going on with potential witness Malina. Summed up this way it sounds like a fairly generic legal thriller. But the dual narrative shakes up the storytelling a bit, and to tell you the truth, both sides in this litigation are so abominable—and are so perfectly willing to kill somebody if it advances their agenda, that this show takes things, as they say, to a whole new level.

The performances on all levels in this season are top notch, which probably explains why the show won the Emmy for “casting.” Danson and Ivanek were both nominated for Emmys for “Best Supporting Actor,” with Ivanek walking off with the prize. And of course Close won both the Emmy and the golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama Series for this first season. So Jones, all this being said, what did you think of this season? Was there anything you didn’t think was well-done?

She Said: I think this is a top-notch legal/crimey drama show, for sure, and from the era before streaming, too. I got interested in it when I heard Todd Kessler on a recent episode of the Talking Sopranos podcast, and he spoke of wanting to write a project that dealt with toxic personalities in leadership after working with David Chase (and getting fired) on The Sopranos. (Burn!) I’m an amateur psychologist when it comes to narcissists, so I put it on the streaming list, and from the get-go, I was all in. I wouldn’t have wanted to watch this as appointment television, honestly, because I think bingeing it serves its somewhat soapy, hyperbolic drama very well. 

That’s because it’s not as good as The Sopranos (there are a few—very few—series that are). It feels a little over the top at times in a way the mob show felt like we were getting a real peek inside a closed community. At one point I commented that it was insane how much had happened, since we were only on the second episode. 

But the cast is stellar, with some of my favorite people. Aside from Close we have Philip Bosco (Working Girl), Tate Donovan (ArgoManchester by the Sea) and Byrne, upon whom I have a real “girl crush.” I’m definitely ready to binge Season 2… after we finish bingeing Mare of Eastttown, season 9,000 of Inspector Lewis and season 5 of Shetland. Did you find the drama as realistic as shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men and early Breaking Bad?

He Said: You’re right, some of it does seem over the top, almost paranoid, almost melodrama. There are lots of twists and turns but it seems the only way the two adversaries—Frobisher and Hewes (and by extension the writers)—have of resolving an issue is to bump somebody off. I also was a little annoyed at the use of one character throughout the season who turns out to be essentially a red herring, and particularly annoyed by another issue that the last episodes seemed to imply was the source of Patty’s vendetta against Frobisher but that in the end never actually made the connection. Maybe that’s for season two, but it’s hard to see why it would be as relevant there.

All in all, though, it’s a well-acted, well-directed and well-filmed TV series, and I too look forward to season 2. I’m gonna go with three Soderberghs and half a Hitchcock on this.

She Said: I’m just going to stick with three Soderberghs without the Hitchcock half.

We Watched It And You Should Too 

She Said: Operation:Varsity Blues on Netflix

Hot Take: This well dramatized documentary of the college admissions scandal uses actors, like Matthew Modine, to play out the dialog captured in the wire taps used to bring charges against some big names in Hollywood and beyond. Modine plays the “master mind” behind the bribery and fraud in rich people’s desires to secure spots at some of America’s most selective colleges and universities for their pampered kiddos. If the scandal enraged you when it broke, be prepared for more rage, as well as other attendant emotions as the story is fleshed out on screen.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.

Under the Net

Under the Net

Iris Murdoch (1954)

I’m definitely late to the party as an admirer of Iris Murdoch. I’d heard the name but her novels were always a bit off the radar for me and for what I was reading and studying at the time. But in my late-life mania to read important things that I’d missed out on when I was younger, I noted that the first of Murdoch’s 26 novels, Under the Net, was listed in Modern Library’s 1998 list of the greatest English-language Novels of the 20th Century, as well as Time magazine’s 2005 list of the best novels published in English since 1923; furthermore, in 2008 the London Times ranked Murdoch as no. 12 on its list of the “Fifty Greatest British Writers since 1945.” I broke down and bought a copy of Under the Net and gave it a read.

It is no surprise that Murdoch, who took a postgraduate degree in philosophy at Cambridge and later taught philosophy at Oxford, fills the novel with philosophical allusions, but not in a way that makes it difficult or tedious reading. What is surprising is how funny the novel is. I wasn’t quite ready for that.

It’s a picaresque novel in which the protagonist and narrator, the struggling young writer and consummate sponge Jake Donaghue and his faithful sidekick Finn, bounce from scene to scene in a series of almost manic adventures. These begin when Jake’s sometime-girlfriend Madge kicks him and Finn out of the flat they’ve been living in rent-free with her for eighteen months. She’s decided to move on and wants her new boyfriend, the rich bookie Sammy Starfield, to move in. Jake parks his suitcase and his manuscripts with his friend Mrs. Tinckham in her corner shop, though he realizes he’s left his most recent manuscript—a translation of the latest novel from the French hack writer Jean-Pierre Breteuil (whom he’s been making a career out of translating) and tries to figure out who he can hit on to give him free lodgings. He and Finn decide to try their friend Dave Gellman, whom, we are told, is a philosopher—“not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money.” 

Dave is in the middle of a political discussion with a well-known socialist politician named Lefty Todd, and can’t really help them out. But he tells Jake he ought to look up Anna Quentin, a singer he was once in love with (and probably still is). Jake has had no contact with Anna for years, but after some effort finds her running an enterprise called the “Riverside Miming Theatre.” She seems happy to see him again, but she can’t help him, and she tells him he ought to find her sister Sadie, who has become a famous film star and is actually looking for someone to house-sit for her.

Jake finds Sadie at her hairdresser, where she is happy to let him stay in her apartment and to help her ward off the unwelcome advances of her boss, the former fireworks manufacturer and now movie studio owner Hugo Belfounder. That name sends Jake’s mind whirling back in time: He had met Hugo years earlier, when both men were voluntary patients in a medical experiment with a group of scientists trying to cure the common cold. The two had become fast friends, and had spent day after day in philosophical discussions which so fascinated Jake that he had turned those conversations into his first novel The Silencer, whose theme is the impossibility of expressing real truth in language: “The whole language,” according to Hugo, “is a machine for making falsehoods.”  

Trouble is, Jake never did tell Hugo that his philosophy, or at least Jake’s understanding of it, was the subject of his book. Too ashamed to admit this to Hugo afterward, Jake had unceremoniously cut his friend out of his life, and never contacted Hugo again. The book, it turned out, was a resounding flop, but still—how can he face up to Hugo now? And when, secured in Sadie’s apartment, he takes a phone call from Hugo and reveals his identity to him, his former friend hangs up on him. 

Yet soon enough Jake overhears a conversation between Sadie and super-bookie Sammy, in which he discovers that Madge had apparently given Sammy the manuscript of his translation of Breteuil’s recent potboiler, and the two are planning to double-cross Hugo and cut Jake out of the picture as well by proposing the treatment as a film project to a visiting Hollywood bigwig. Jake is furious about being cheated this way, and also plans to reveal the plot to Hugo.

At this point things get even more frenzied, and a string of events including a midnight swim in the Thames, the kidnapping of an Alsatian (German Shepherd) Rin-Tin-Tin-like film star, a riot on a film set, Jake’s taking an actual job as a hospital orderly, a side trip to Paris on Bastille Day and the shock of discovering who just won the prestigious Prix Goncourt unfolds. I won’t give any big spoilers here, but suffice it to say the plot is wildly entertaining.

But behind that plot lurks the philosopher Murdoch. An important question, implied by the title, is what exactly this net is that the title suggests we are going under. Several critics have pointed out that the title actually alludes to a passage in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (6, 341), in which he uses the image of a net as a metaphor for a theory or web of discourse that may describe the universe, but also stands between us and the specifics of that universe. Murdoch alludes to the image in one of the passages from Jake’s book, The Silencer: “All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular here. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net.” 

And much of the book is about Jake’s theorizing. The book moves from one crazy incident to another, linked by Jake’s theorizing about what is going on. And his theories are inevitably mistaken—the words by which he attempts to analyze his experience, and those theories, are what Hugo said language was: a machine for making falsehoods. Jake thinks Anna loves him. He thinks Hugo is angry with him. He thinks Finn will never leave him. He thinks Hugo loves Anna. He’s wrong about pretty much all of it.

And yet Jake is a writer, or wants to be. How do you use language effectively if it’s a net of misleading or just plain false assertions that cannot fail to corrupt truth? Jake is tempted by his film contacts to write for the movies. He’s tempted by socialist Lefty Todd to write for the political left. In the first he would be using language to create dream landscapes. In the second he would be using it to twist truth to a political agenda. In both cases, there is no getting under the net. Anna starts a Mime theater, where without language perhaps one can more truthfully communicate. Is this possible in a novel? What if the novel is like a mime—all action without interpretation, or with interpretation that only reveals its own falsehood, and therefore the demonstration of language’s corruption of truth? Then what you have is…this novel.

Four Shakespeares for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE

ToTheGreatDeep_Front-4-1

To the Great Deep, the sixth and final novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing,  at http://encirclepub.com/product/to-the-great-deep/

You can also order from Amazon (a Kindle edition is available) at https://www.amazon.com/Jay-Ruud/e/B001JS9L1Q?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1594229242&sr=8-1

Here’s what the book is about:
When Sir Agravain leads a dozen knights to arrest Lancelot in the queen’s chamber, he kills them all in his own defense-all except the villainous Mordred, who pushes the king to make war on the escaped Lancelot, and to burn the queen for treason. On the morning of the queen’s execution, Lancelot leads an army of his supporters to scatter King Arthur’s knights and rescue Guinevere from the flames, leaving several of Arthur’s knights dead in their wake, including Sir Gawain’s favorite brother Gareth. Gawain, chief of what is left of the Round Table knights, insists that the king besiege Lancelot and Guinevere at the castle of Joyous Gard, goading Lancelot to come and fight him in single combat.
However, Merlin, examining the bodies on the battlefield, realizes that Gareth and three other knights were killed not by Lancelot’s mounted army but by someone on the ground who attacked them from behind during the melee. Once again it is up to Merlin and Gildas to find the real killer of Sir Gareth before Arthur’s reign is brought down completely by the warring knights, and by the machinations of Mordred, who has been left behind to rule in the king’s stead.