Hello. I’m Jay Ruud and I’m glad you’re here.

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Reviews

I go to a lot of movies. I also read a lot of books. So I figure, why not talk about them here? Which I do. A lot.

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.

Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.

 

Tennysons

This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.

 

2 Jacqueline Susanns

If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.

 

1 Robert Southey

Skip it.
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.