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.

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How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl

Coky Giedroyc (2020)

There will never be a shortage of coming of age movies as long as people keep coming of age. Every generation gets its own set of them, and some are better than others. For every Ferris Bueller or The Graduate there are a dozen also-rans. But essentially, all such stories fall into the archetypal pattern called the “initiation story” (or “Bildungsroman”), in which the protagonist  with whom we identify has a significant experience that forces him or her to change, to mature, to become a different person—essentially to grow and mature into a more complex human being with a broader and less naïve view of the world. How to Build a Girl, a new film by director Coky Giedroyc (known chiefly for directing TV shows like Harlots and Penny Dreadful) based on the semi-autobiographical 2014 novel by Caitlin Moran (who also wrote the screenplay) is one of those better ones.

The film, now available through streaming on Amazon Prime and other sources, follows the up-and-down adventures of sixteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein of Book Smart and Lady Bird), a creative and imaginative girl living in the decidedly un-inspiring Wolverhampton, a city in England’s West Midlands 17 miles west of Birmingham. It’s a town known for its quirky local accent, a working class accent that Los Angeles-raised Feldstein does a reasonable imitation of throughout the film. She lives in a flat with her parents and four brothers, two of whom are twin infants that seem to have come as an unpleasant shock to her 38-year-old mother Angie (Sarah Solemani from Bridget Jones’ Baby and TV’s Him & Her), who seems to stagger through the film in a post-partem depression trance. Her father Pat (Paddy Considine from The Death of Stalin and TV’s Peaky Blinders) is a middle-aged wannabe rock star who illegally breeds border collies as he tries to find a way in to the music industry while the family seems to struggle in their tiny flat.

Dreaming of better things (“I want to burn! I want to explode! I want to have sexual intercourse with someone who has a car!”), Johanna has to share a room with her brother Kris (Laurie Kynaston of TV’s Cradle to Grave and The Trouble with Maggie Cole), who has his own creative streak—he self-publishes a music fanzine—but the two have a partition separating their individual sections of the room. The wall of Johanna’s side is covered with pictures of her idols, from Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to Julie Andrews and Elizabeth Taylor to Sylvia Plath and the Bronte sisters, and when she is having one of her frequent personal traumas, the pictures speak to her, with sometimes questionable insights. Johanna is an overachiever at school, particularly in her English class, where she writes thirty-page papers to the chagrin of her long-suffering teacher. She gets her big chance to read one of her poems on TV in a Midlands teen-poet competition in Birmingham, but is too nervous to get through her “my pet collie is my best friend” poem and winds up talking about herself and her pet as Shaggy and Scoobie-Do. The upshot of her big TV appearance is that the popular kids, to whom up to now she’s been invisible, greet her with Scoobie references.

It’s brother Kris who gets her out of her rut. He draws to her attention an ad from a London magazine called Disc & Music EchoD&ME), asking for potential reviewers to send in samples of their writing, and Johanna submits a rave review of the soundtrack to the musical Annie. (This is the point at which we realize the movie is not set in contemporary Britain, not only because she listens to the music on a cassette tape, but also because she writes the review on a manual typewriter, without a computer in sight.). Much to our surprise, Johanna actually gets an interview. But it’s only because the smug, self-important (all male) snobs who run the magazine want to settle a bet as to whether the person who wrote the Annie review is actually real. But with a show of gumption we haven’t seen in Johanna before, she convinces the hipsters to give her a chance, and gets a freelance gig covering a local band. It all seems pretty far-fetched, but it actually did apparently happen much this way in Caitlin Moran’s career—this is the “semi-autobiographical” stuff.

Johanna decides she needs to become someone completely different in order to be the rock critic she intends to be, and, looking in her closet, finds that she has “Nothing to wear for who I need to be.” So she dyes her hair a bright orange-red, dons a new top hat and fishnet stockings, and gives herself a new name—“Dolly Wilde.” And she immerses herself in the Midlands music scene, joyously embracing rock ‘n’ roll. When she has begun to establish herself as a stringer for D&ME, she convinces the powers that be to let her write a feature: Her first interview is with an unusually sensitive and generous singer-songwriter named John Kite (Alfie Allen, best known as Theon Greyjoy in TV’s Game of Thrones). But when her interview comes in as an adolescent fangirl piece, the pretentious D&ME snobs write her off.

But before abandoning her burgeoning career just yet, “Dolly” gets a bit of advice from one of the D&ME wankers: There are only about twenty popular music acts at any one time that can have any real impact, and the magazine’s job, he says, is to thin the herd by driving out mediocrity. “Everyone my whole life has lied to me,” she says at that point. “A nice girl gets nowhere,” and Johanna decides she must change again, to become the acid-penned, impossible-to-please music critic bitch that the magazine wants her to be. She embarks on a career that brings her fame and fortune while she trashes artists like Joni Mitchell and Eddie Vedder to the applause of her peers, while alienating herself from her parents, her siblings, her teachers, and anybody else who gets in her way (or who actually cares anything about her).

As you can probably guess, things don’t continue this way, and Dolly/Johanna comes to another fork in the road, which she takes, but I won’t reveal the ending to you with any spoilers. Though I do want to note that Emma Thompson makes an appearance toward the end of the movie in a cameo role as an influential editor. Ultimately, the film does follow the typical initiation-story arc, from endearingly naïve Johanna through a series of experiences that make her older and wiser Johanna.

Moran’s screenplay does at times push the limits of credulity with its sudden outrageous reversals of Johanna’s character, though since it is after all about “building a girl” it seems meant to reflect adolescents’ “trying on” different personae in their quest for selfhood. Besides, in a film where wall pictures come to life and talk to characters, we’re not really in the world of everyday reality, are we? And the script does crackle throughout with quick and sometimes outrageous wit. This movie is hilarious, and director Coky Giedroyc displays a real feel for the emotional upheavals of teenaged existence. Beanie Feldstein, who has already turned in impressive performances in her previous films, is watchable and believable as 16-year old Johanna (even though she is a decade older than the girl she is playing). It probably is about time Feldstein graduated from playing the uncool, unpopular bookish high school girl who proves to be superior to those bullies who keep her down. At least, before she hits 30.

I do hope this film finds an audience in these streaming days of film viewing. Set in the early ’90s—about the time its star was actually born—does it have the appeal to current teenagers that a more contemporary setting might encourage (as in something like the current Banana Split, where the main character has a similar character arc)?  I have a feeling that How to Build a Girl has a universal enough theme, and a funny enough script, that it will find that audience. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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Shakespeare for Squirrels

Shakespeare for Squirrels

Christopher Moore (2020)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

If you are a casual Christopher Moore fan, you probably know him best as the author of Lamb, the boldly comic but oddly reverent Gospel according to Biff,  Jesus’s childhood friend. Or perhaps you are a new initiate to the Moore absurdist comic canon, and found him first in his recent parody of the hard-boiled detective genre, Noir, which debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list in 2018. After 17 successful novels, Moore has enough eager readers to make expectations of such debuts typical.

The other novel that you might know of, even if you’re not a Moore aficionado, is Fool, his wildly irreverent 2009 parody of Shakespeare’s King Lear, told from the point of view of the most famous fool in all of Elizabethan drama. Moore’s fool, whose full name is Pocket of Dog Snogging upon Ouze, reappears in a darkly comic 2014 sequel, The Serpent of Venice, which parodies Shakespeare again in a mashup of Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and The Merchant of Venice. And now, just when we need another hardy laugh in the face of dark absurdity, Pocket is back in a third Shakespearean sendup, this time of the Bard’s most performed play, A MidsummerNight’s Dream.

In an extravagant comedy even more manic than Shakespeare’s own, and with a body count higher than Lear and Hamlet combined, Moore’s new novel, Shakespeare for Squirrels, begins with a situation more reminiscent of Twelfth Night than MND: Pocket, having spent the time between the Shakespearean-imagined Venice and Athens on a pirate ship, has been cast adrift, along with his brawny but decidedly un-brainy apprentice Drool, and his clever but unreliable pet monkey Jeff, and just as the trio are about to perish from hunger and thirst and exposure, they wash ashore at Athens. Not the classical Athens of the historical Theseus (if there ever was one), but the imagined never-neverland of Shakespeare’s comedy.

It’s not long before local guards, employed by Duke Theseus, stop these illegal aliens because they have no papers, and arrest Drool while Jeff runs off into the trees, not to be seen again until near the end of the book, except for occasionally snatching people’s hats in order to perform lewd acts upon them. Pocket needs to find a way to free Drool. In the meantime he meets the fairy Cobweb, one of the minions of the fairy queen Titania. Cobweb more or less adopts Pocket and becomes his guide, adviser, and sometime lover as he weaves his crooked way across Athens. He also meets Robin Goodfellow, a.k.a. the Puck, who is himself the fool or jester to the court of Oberon—in Moore’s version, the king of the goblins rather than the fairies. Puck is a truly magical being, whom it turns out everybody just finds annoying. Things get more complicated for Pocket when he discovers the Puck has been murdered, pierced through by the dart of a crossbow that could have been fired by one of Theseus’s guards or, he realizes, by one of Oberon’s goblins. At this point some of Moore’s previous novel, Noir, bleeds through, and Pocket becomes the hard-boiled detective trying to solve the case of “Who killed Robin Goodfellow?”

Along the way Pocket comes across a group of “rude mechanicals” in the forest, including Peter Quince and Snug the Joiner and all the rest, rehearsing their version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” to be presented to the court of Theseus on the occasion of his wedding to the captured Amazon queen Hyppolita (who, by the way, has no desire to be married to the guy who “won” her by beating her people on a battlefield). Pocket, with his own long experience as a performer, gives the group a number of acting pointers, so that they begin to see him as their dramatic coach and guru. Pocket also runs into the young lady Helena, who complains of her treatment at the hands of Demetrius, who with the encouragement of Theseus’s counselor Egeus has left her for Egeus’s daughter Hermia, who wants to marry Lysander instead. So those crazy kids form a complicated background to the plot.

That plot thickens when Pocket is arrested by the guards and brought to Hyppolita, who (acting behind Theseus’s back) demands that he find out who killed Puck or risk the execution of the imprisoned Drool. And then of course Pocket is arrested again and brought to Theseus, who (acting behind Hyppolita’s back) demands that he find out who killed Puck or risk the execution of the imprisoned Drool.

I don’t want to give away the ending with any spoilers, but I do want to add that Bottom, in his transformed ass-headed state, plays a large role in the story, and that the little Indian boy over whom Titania and Oberon are fighting turns out to have a pretty interesting history himself. In addition, Moore brings in, to hilarious effect, the bizarre Prologue character from Shakespeare’s Henry I, part 2, introduced with the stage direction “Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues.” One more thing, and I hate to reveal this but the title doesn’t make sense without it: You know all those fairies that attend on their queen Titania all through the night? Turns out that the reason nobody sees them during the day is that they turn into squirrels in daylight hours. Hence the title of the book. It does come as something of a shock to Pocket to realize that his relationship with Cobweb has involved a good deal of squirrel shagging. But what the heck. Titania’s been sleeping with an ass.

Everybody remembers with affection the hysterical ending of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, wherein the rude mechanicals’ play-within-the-play caps off the restorative comic catharsis through which all true lovers are united. But Moore’s version, though absurdly comic in a black-humor sense, functions more like a tragedy, and the players’ performance at the end resembles more closely Shakespeare’s other play-within-the-play, the one in Hamlet, staged by the melancholy Dane himself to “catch the conscience of the king.” Here, Pocket rewrites the play as a version of the events he’s just lived through, hoping to get to the bottom of things, and ultimately directs the play with not only the original tradesmen but fairies, goblins, and Jeff. Both he, and we, wonder how it’s going to turn out:

“I confess, a wall of worry rises for even the most confident fool when he realizes his plot for saving the day lies with three squirrels, a troupe of earnest nitwits, a donkey-headed weaver, a silver-thirsty goblin, a notoriously unreliable narrator, and a hat-shagging monkey. And the narrator and goblins hadn’t even arrived yet!”

Pocket’s play has a more lethal denouement than Hamlet’s did, and demonstrates that Moore has a broader knowledge of Elizabethan drama than just Shakespeare. The motif of the “play within the play” utilized in Hamlet has its origin in the first popular revenge tragedy in Elizabethan theater, Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, in which the avenger, Hieronimo, stages a court masque in which guilty members of the court are killed during the performance of the play. The device became an expected motif in English revenge tragedies, and is repeated with similar deadly results in plays like Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women.That’s the kind of play we’ve got here.

Shakespeare for Squirrels is a wild ride, but one that fans of Moore will definitely want to take. Fans of Shakespeare will probably find it a loving if cheeky salute to the bard’s most popular play. And if you’re a fan of absurdist fiction like  Slaughterhouse-Five,The Sot-Weed Factor, or Catch-22, you might find a kindred sensibility here as well. Three Shakespeares and half a Tennyson for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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The Half of It

The Half of It

Alice Wu (2020)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

In Plato’s famous dialogue The Symposium, in which a number of guests at a dinner party are asked to discourse upon the nature of love, the character of Aristophanes (the famous comic playwright) relates an old fantastic myth that human beings were originally created as doubled beings, formed back to back, with two heads, four arms, and four legs. Because these proto-humans were very powerful, cartwheeling all over the place, they seemed to present a threat to the gods, and so Zeus decided to split all of them in half. Now some of these double-beings were made up of two males, some of two females, and some of a man and a woman. Thus it is the longing for our lost other half that explains human beings’ searching for love, for that one other person that completes them. It also explains, in anticipation of Alice Wu’s new Netflix movie, why some people look for heterosexual partners, and others for partners of the same sex.

Writer/director Wu, whose only previous film was Saving Face fifteen years ago, opens her new movie with an animated sequence retelling Aristophanes’ myth. It is a suitable introduction to a romantic comedy, especially one involving a same-sex crush at a small town American high school. And it explains right away, in case there was a danger you might miss it, the film’s title: “The half of it” alludes, a viewer is quick to infer, to that other half that true love will direct you to—the missing half of yourself. But as the film progresses, it becomes more and more clear that if that’s where you think this movie is going to take you, well, you just don’t know the half of it.

Wu’s story is set in a fictional small town in the Pacific Northwest called Squahamish, an apparently virtually all-white American town where everybody seems to belong to the same Catholic parish. The screenplay focuses on a seventeen-year-old Chinese-American high school senior named Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis from TV’s Nancy Drew). She lives with her father (Collin Chou of the Matrix movies), who emigrated from China to the U.S. with her mother and toddler Ellie. But her mother has died, and her father, with an engineering Ph.D. from China, has not been able to find suitable work in the United States, handicapped by poor English skills and an inability to move forward after his wife’s death. Ellie is the smartest kid in her class and hence, as we might expect, a kind of pariah. Her intelligence, her poverty and her ethnicity all serve to exclude her from the popular crowd, and her introverted nature doesn’t help. Few of her classmates even know her name (“Hey,” somebody shouts at a party near the end of the film, “the Chinese girl came!”). To make some extra money, though, Ellie writes essays for her more affluent classmates—a fact that her beaten-down English teacher Mrs. Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker of TV’s Girls) is well aware of but ignores because she doesn’t want to have to grade those other students’ awful prose.

It’s that side business that involves Elle with Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer of TV’s The Man in the High Castle), second-string tight end on Squahamish High School’s football team, which hasn’t scored a touchdown in fifteen years. Paul wants Ellie’s help, not to write an essay for him, but to write a love letter to a girl he is infatuated with, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire of TV’s Lab Rats: Elite Force). Ellie knows Aster: she plays piano at the church in which Aster’s father serves as deacon, and since Ellie doesn’t belong to the church, Aster refers to her jokingly as a “heathen.” But there is a hint that the introverted Ellie may feel more than a passing interest in Aster herself, so for this and other reasons Ellie is reluctant to take on the letter-writing task. But she needs $50 to pay her father’s electric bill, and so she swallows her reservations and agrees to write the letter. But just one. Like that’s gonna happen.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because Edmond Rostand used it in a little thing he called Cyrano de Bergerac back in 1897. This is not, of course, the first feature film to borrow from Cyrano. Devoted RomCom fans may remember in just the past two years the rather forgettable Sierra Burgess Is a Loser or the clever French film Cyrano, My Love. Two decades ago we were given Whatever It Takes, which was another flop. Perhaps the most successful film in this vein was the 1987 Steve Martin vehicle Roxanne, which gave us the unforgettable line “Earn more sessions by sleeving!” But The Half of It is far and away the most memorable modern adaptation of the Cyrano theme.

If you know Cyrano you know that what’s most likely to happen here is that Aster is bound to be won over by Ellie’s words and mistakenly fall for Paul no matter how obviously he is not the person writing the letters. The original Cyrano only reveals that he is Roxanne’s letter-writing soul mate as he is dying. Here, Aster’s letters back to Ellie reveal that she is not the beautiful airhead one might expect, but a serious literary-minded artist who sparks Ellie’s interest on an intellectual level. For that matter, Paul is not the simple dumb jock that he at first promises to be, but an inventive food entrepreneur who comes up with a brilliant “sausage taco” that, apparently, you have to taste to appreciate, and who also comes to see Ellie as a true friend worth protecting and defending and even, perhaps, loving.

Lemire, Diermer and especially Lewis play their roles with an authenticity worthy of the complex characters they portray. Far from being a typical high school RomCom with characters falling into clichéd categories (jocks, nerds, stoners, mean girls, etc.), Wu’s script explores real issues of identity, including race, class, gender and sexuality, and religion as well. This last is an area that I thought a weakness in the film: The church to which Aster and Paul belong is given a Catholic façade, but its theology seems far more in line with evangelical Protestantism than anything Pope Francis would approve. And a climactic scene that takes place during a church service seems to stretch the willing suspension of disbelief way out of shape. Still, Aster’s (and Paul’s) faith is contrasted with Ellie’ atheism in a way that does not privilege one or the other, but presents both as viable options for the high school-aged explorer of her own identity.

Focusing as it does upon the power of language, this is a surprisingly literary movie, referencing not only Plato and Cyrano but Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and German filmmaker Wim Wenders, whom Aster catches Ellie plagiarizing in her first love letter. We also see clips from classic films like Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, and His Girl Friday, which Ellie’s father watches to improve his English skills—though this excuse doesn’t work when we see him watching Chaplain’s silent classic City Lights. The film is a feast for audiences who respect the emotive and intellectual power of words and images.

If you do read Plato’s Symposium, you’ll find that Socrates, who has the last word, is not a fan of Aristophanes’ myth of the divided self looking for wholeness. Love, according to Socrates (and, we may infer, Plato), may take many forms, both physical (as in Aristophanes’ depiction of love) and intellectual or spiritual (hence the phrase, Platonic love). In The Half of It, we are presented with Paul’s physical attraction to Aster, Ellie’s friendship for Paul, Paul’s friendship as well as romantic feelings for Ellie, Ellie’s intellectual as well as physical attraction to Aster, Aster’s intellectual attraction to Ellie and their friendship, Ellie’s close familial love of her father, and all other permutations you can think of. In other words, the film takes you beyond the simple mythic opening to Plato’s more complex exploration. There is no simple solution to the question “what is love?”

The Half of It won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, and premiered on Netflix on May 1. It’s definitely worth your screen time. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one. I’d give it four if it weren’t for that screwy scene in the church.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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Machines Like Me

Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan (2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Ian McEwan’s most recent novel is a departure from his usually realistic, historically-based narratives. Of course, his last novel, Nutshell (2016), was also a departure, being as it was a new twist on the Hamlet story told from the perspective of a fetus. But in Machines Like Me, McEwan enters the realm of alternative history, a genre more commonly associated with science fiction writers, like Philip K. Dick in his 1962 novel The Man in the High Tower (in which it is imagined that the Axis powers won World War II), but which more recently has been used in more mainstream novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada (in which North America was partially settled by Tsarist Russia), Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (in which the Protestant Reformation never took place), Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America (in which pro-fascist Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 U.S. election), or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (in which there is no State of Israel, but many Jews live in an area of Alaska set aside for them by the U.S government).

In this novel, McEwan puts his own spin on the genre with a novel set in a London of 1982, the London of Margaret Thatcher, in which the British navy sets off to fight a war in the Falkland Islands which, in the first jarring clue that the novel is alternative history, turns into a devastating defeat for Britain, crushed by Argentina, which annexes the islands and changes their name to Las Malvinas. The defeat drives Mrs. Thatcher from office, resulting in the rise of a populist Labour candidate and a movement to separate from the European Union—nearly forty years in advance of Brexit.

But these events play a relatively minor role in the novel’s alternative history. For McEwan’s chief question in the book is, what would have happened if the brilliant computer scientist Alan Turing hadn’t committed suicide in 1954?

Turing, best known to the general public as Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, was, as that film makes clear, instrumental in developing a prototypical computer during World War II that could discover the settings of the Germans’ Enigma machine, thereby cracking intercepted coded Nazi messages that made it possible for the allies to win the war. The acknowledged father of theoretical computer science, a mathematical genius who was a pioneer in the development of artificial intelligence, Turing ultimately developed what has become known as the “Turing test”: for a machine to be deemed “intelligent,” that is, capable of actual “thought,” Turing suggested, it would have to be impossible for a human interrogator to tell the difference between the machine and another human through conversation.

Just how far the development of computer science and artificial intelligence might have come, or what direction it might have taken, if Turing had lived, is impossible to determine. But he did not live. In 1952, Turing was convicted of what the British law called “gross indecency” because of his sexual orientation, and he was given the choice of going to prison or submitting to a year of what was called “chemical castration.” He was given the drug diethylstilbestrol, which rendered him impotent and caused breast tissue to form. A year later he died by his own hand through cyanide poisoning. He was 41.

In McEwan’s alternate history, Turing chose prison rather than sterilization, and went on to continue the advances in computer science and artificial intelligence he was making. He appears in the novel himself, as a kind of chorus figure. As a result of his continued work, the world achieves an information revolution decades before it reached that stage in actual history. There are electric cars that drive themselves. There is a surprisingly advanced version of the Internet that allows day trading online. And, most important for this novel, there are artificial human beings, androids, who can be ordered, delivered to your house, and programmed with personality traits that you choose for them.

At this stage, admittedly, they are only prototypes. There are twenty-five of them: thirteen males or “Adams,” and twelve females or “Eves.” The novel’s protagonist, Charlie Friend, is a thirty-two-year-old man-child who ironically seems to have no “friends” of his own. He’s a one-time computer whiz who studied physics and anthropology in school but seems never to have held down a steady job, but rather invested in a number of failed get-rich-quick schemes and seems to have barely escaped prison for tax fraud. Now he spends his days in his two-room flat in south London, playing the stock market on his home computer with just enough success to scrape by. But when the new artificial humans come on the market, computer nerd Charlie spends his whole inheritance from his mother, £86,000, on a brand new Adam. He had really wanted an Eve, but they’d all been snapped up already.

But Charlie doesn’t just love robots; he’s also enamored of his upstairs neighbor Miranda. Ten years his junior, she is a graduate student of history, and is the daughter of a famous but reclusive writer. Part of his courting of Miranda consists of Charlie’s allowing her to choose half of Adam’s traits that can be programed into him. In a way, Adam becomes a kind of surrogate child for the two of them as they form a pseudo-family. This becomes complicated when the now totally functional Adam, conversant with computerized data from all over the 1980s Internet, warns Charlie that Miranda is not completely truthful and is hiding a dark secret; more complicated when, after an argument with Charlie, Miranda takes the anatomically correct Adam to bed and the artificial man develops “feelings” for his mistress; and even more complicated still when Miranda, no longer content with her artificial offspring with Charlie, becomes intent on adopting an abused young “real” boy named Mark.

I don’t want to go further since I don’t want to spoil any of the later plot developments for you. And indeed, some reviewers have seen the plot as less unified than they would like. Some have also criticized the world McEwan creates here as not fundamentally different enough from our own to be acceptable as alternate history. Frankly, it seems to me these complaints fall into the trap of criticizing the book for not being the book those critics would have written if they had written the book. Thematically, the novel seems to me perfectly unified. It is, first of all, a representation of a being who passes “Turing’s test” brilliantly: there is a tour de force demonstration of that in a scene when Charlie and Adam visit Miranda’s father, and after their conversation he concludes that Charlie is the robot.

But beyond that the book also explores to a great extent the differences between human and artificial intelligence. One disturbing aspect of the story is that a rash of suicides begins among the artificial humans, as if for some reason they can no longer face a world governed by human beings. Adam, for good or ill, makes his decisions based on assembling all the facts and coming to the most logical conclusions from them. Truth is to him of foremost importance. When it comes to Miranda’s “dark secret,” which involves a moral decision she made which she believes to be justified and ethical even though it involves lying, Adam cannot see it.  And far from being a servant, he ultimately takes matters into his own hands, first by overriding his off switch (an act McEwan refers to, in an allusion to Paradise Lost, as his “first disobedience”), and later by making independent moral decisions without consulting his “masters.”

These questions of moral relativity are set against a backdrop of a world full of fairly arbitrary differences from our own—a world where Jimmy Carter was elected to a second term and Ronald Reagan never became president, where the Beatles were reunited in 1982, and in which it turns out JFK was not assassinated after all—but one in which human nature has not changed at all, and everyday life, despite the technological advances, is much the same as it is in our world. Brexit, after all, still occurs. It’s the contrast between that indelible human nature and the artificial intelligence of an Adam that this book is about. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

2019-08-24-09.50.51

Kopp Sisters on the March

Kopp Sisters on the March

Amy Stewart (2019)

Amy Stewart’s “Kopp sisters” novels are feminist literature in the classic sense. That is, they explore, define, and analyze the historic situation of women in the early years of the last century; by demonstrating the unequal and often appalling gap in the political, economic and social rights and status of men vs. women at that time; they indirectly advocate for the permanent elimination of those inequalities; and by presenting as protagonists women who, ahead of their time but not anachronistically so, applaud the heroism and sacrifice of such women, presenting them as figures to admire and to emulate.

Stewart was already a successful non-fiction author of books on gardening, like her 2013 New York Times bestseller The Drunken Botanist, before embarking on her series of novels about three sisters living on a New Jersey farm more than a hundred years ago. The spark was a collection of newspaper articles she came across while researching her botanical books concerning one of the first female deputy sheriffs in American history, Constance Amelie Kopp. If you go to Ms. Stewart’s author website, you can read short descriptions of the historical Constance and her sisters, as well as other characters from the books. Constance herself, according to the website, was born in 1878 and so was 35 years old in Stewart’s first novel, Girl Waits with Gun. She is 39 in the current (fifth) novel in the series, Kopp Sisters on the March. Constance was, according to newspaper descriptions, six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds, though as the Kopp sisters books will teach you, you really can’t believe much of what you read about women in the papers, at least in 1913. A clear image of Constance’s character is revealed, however, in a statement she once gave a reporter, quoted on Stewart’s website: After indicating that she had no interest whatsoever in marriage, she went on to say “Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

Stewart fictionalizes Constance’s adventures, but does base them on facts as revealed in what sources are available. Constance has two sisters: Norma, five years her junior, is a curmudgeon who runs the no-nonsense household of the farm without a lot of sympathy for any weaknesses the others show; and Fleurette, the much younger and much spoiled teenager who, it is revealed in the first novel, is actually Constance’s daughter born when she herself was 19 and raised as a daughter by Constance and Norma’s mother.

The first four novels of the series focused on Constance’s career as a deputy sheriff under the progressive and humane Sheriff Heath in Bergen County, N.J. They concern the obstacles she faces in the male-dominated politics of the 1910s, and her struggle for recognition as an officer capable of doing the same job as the other (male) deputies, as well as acting as matron for the women prisoners in the county jail. These novels introduce us to eye-opening social injustices of the time, which allowed parents to have daughters arrested as “incorrigible” if they left home to get jobs and live by themselves, or allowed husbands to have wives committed as mentally incompetent without a judge ever having to examine the woman herself. But by the end of the fourth novel, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, Constance has been downsized when the newly elected sheriff decides there is no reason to employ a woman deputy when a man can obviously do the job better. The voters (all men, remember, at the time) agree.

Kopp Sisters on the March begins six months after Constance’s dismissal from the Benton County Sheriff’s office, in the spring of 1917. With Europe in the throes of brutal war, Americans are preparing for what they anticipate will be their own inevitable participation, and Norma has coerced Constance and Fleurette to join her in enrolling at a six-week National Service camp for women, based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, whose avowed goals were to train women for the tasks that will be required of them to support the war effort—both on the home front and, in some cases, with the army in France. Constance is simply hoping to get out of the funk she’s been in since losing her deputy job, while Norma is hoping to pique the army’s interest in using the homing pigeons she breeds and trains for carrying messages on the battlefield. Fleurette is mainly just along for the ride, though she does hope to get vaudeville star May Ward to come to the camp to entertain the women, and hopes to take the stage as one of Miss Ward’s backup singers.

Constance suffers a major letdown when she discovers that “preparing women for war service” means, to the men in Washington, teaching them to roll bandages and make beds in a military style. U.S. military leaders had made it clear to the public that the intent of these camps was decidedly not to “produc[e] a modern Amazonian corps.” So the women are given wooden toy guns to march with, but camp officials have no intention of teaching women to shoot real weapons , or to do anything that would actually benefit any of the women who might end up in France and find themselves in a war zone. Constance does find classes in signal corps codes intriguing, through which she is introduced to the story of the new U.S. Bureau of Investigation, designed to ferret out and combat German spies. But other than that, the camp is something of a bust. That is, until an accident to the camp’s matron winds up putting Constance herself in charge of the camp, and allows her to train a small group of the women, those fully intent on joining the war effort in France, in shooting and in martial arts. Secretly, of course.

A further wrinkle in the story comes from one of the Kopp sisters’ tent mates, Beulah Binford. Based on a real-life Richmond woman who had been caught up in a scandalous murder story in which a man she had been in involved with had killed his wife. Beulah, in real life as in the novel, had been made notorious by newspapers all over the country, which had printed her picture and presented her as a notoriously scarlet woman, though she was never implicated, never called to testify in the trial, and never asked by any journalist to give her own side of the story. Much of the novel proceeds in flashbacks from Beulah’s life, and she has come to this camp under an assumed name in the hope of getting a second chance, going to France and starting a new life. How her story ends, and how it becomes entwined with that of the Kopp sisters, I won’t reveal since I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but just so you know, the bang-up conclusion of the novel does offer a lot of satisfaction.

This novel boasts much of the same historical feminist insight as the previous four, helping us experience what the lives of real women in 1917 must have been like. You may find, if you have read the previous four books, that his one may contain less humor than those, and that it may reduce focus on the Kopp sisters (especially Norma and Fleurette) at the expense of its concentration on Beulah. It may also be a bit less focused than previous books—it has a kind of transitional feel, as Constance is moving from her career as “lady deputy” to what I can only assume will be a career with the Bureau of Investigation, the goal on which she has set her sights by the end of the novel. We’ll have to wait until January 2021 to see how that works out, in the sixth installment of the series, Dear Miss Kopp. But you should definitely give this book a read. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

old-timers

Old-Timers

Old-Timers (Staříci)

Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník (2019)

Foreign language films have never been hugely successful in the United States. For every Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there are a hundred less popular films that make a tiny ripple at some small festival or get a few screenings in some art house in New York but go unrecognized through the rest of the country. After all, Americans don’t want to read a film. They see no need to learn any foreign language when all they need to do is shout louder in English. But I digress. Perhaps that attitude is beginning to change. The recent Netflix success of Roma and, more spectacularly, of Parasite may signal a new more widespread appreciation of foreign-language films, especially when delivered in convenient, streaming form.

And so it may be that the current housebound status of most Americans, while cutting deep into the profits of blockbuster Hollywood films aimed at huge summer audiences, may be a boon to smaller films taking advantage of this new kind of film marketing. And so it may not be a disaster that Little Rock’s Czech That Film Festival, in its ninth year in 2020, has decided to screen its films online because of the Covid-19 pandemic. These films are available, one each week for the next several weeks here. The first film of the festival, which was available from April 27 through May 3, was the film Staříci, that is, “Old-Timers” in English. This film won the Czech Film Critics’ Award for best film of 2019, and also came away with the award for Best Actor for its star, the well-known and highly acclaimed Czech actor Jiří Schmitzer. Schmitzer also won the Best Actor award at the 27th Czech Lion Awards (his fourth such award), and his co-star Ladislav Mrkvička won the Czech Lion for Best Supporting Actor. The directing team of Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník, who were previously known for directing well-received documentaries like A Town Called Hermitage (2007) and Coal in the Soul (2010), also won the Czech Film Critics’ Award for Best Director. For Dušek and Provazník, who also wrote the screenplay, this was their first narrative feature film.

The kernel of the story was planted in 2008, when Dušek saw a story about two elderly former Czech political prisoners, interned under the communist government of the 1950s, who had sought in 2000 to assassinate the former communist prosecutor who had sent them to prison. Their revenge had been thwarted when one of the octogenarians had succumbed to old age during the quest. Dušek was fascinated by the story and approached Provazník about making a documentary about the incident, but Provazník thought it would work much better as a feature film, and so Old-Timers was conceived.

It’s amusing to take a look at the Czech That Film festival’s online Q and A session with the directors here. Apparently Dušek and Provazník thought that one thing that would make directing a feature film easier than a documentary was that they didn’t have to work with “real” people, and could simply tell the actors what they wanted them to do and they would do it. Veteran actors Schmitzer and Mrkvička disabused the directors of that notion fairly quickly, apparently, and at least to hear the directors tell it, the actors spent a lot of time on the set so angry at their directors that they were afraid the actors would come after them with their guns rather than the former communist prosecutor. In the end, though, that anger seems to have been channeled into their performances, and made them even more convincing.

The film begins as the elderly Colonel Vlastimil (“Vlasta”) Reiner (played by Schmitzer, who was only 69 at the time of filming but looks at least 15 years older in the film) returns to the Czech Republic from the United States, where he has been living for some years. In his luggage he has brought a shotgun from America, which airport officials seize and will not allow him to bring into the country, despite his irascible complaints. Vlasta is picked up at the airport by his old friend Antonín (“Tonda,” played by Mrkvička, who looks every bit of his 84 years).  We soon learn that this is not just a meeting of a couple of old friends getting together for one last bash. Vlasta and Tonda are World War II veterans who were imprisoned by the Czech communist regime in the 1950s; the old communist prosecutor who had sentenced them to brutal confinement, and had finally come to trial for his crimes against his fellow countrymen during that period, had been released by the court rather than sentenced for his offenses. This last injustice they cannot bear, and the two old men, both in declining health themselves (Vlasta is in a wheelchair and Tonda is hard of hearing and seems befuddled at times) set out to exact their own kind of justice on the old villain. Tonda is less gung-ho than his friend, and needs some convincing to track down this man who oppressed his own fellow citizens, but Vlasta convinces him. “I went through the Gulag,” Vlasta says at one point, “but the worst butcher was here.”

And so begins a highly unconventional road movie, with two superannuated buddies on a quest to exact revenge for something the rest of their society seems to want to ignore—it all happened so long ago, why does it matter anymore? It’s not exactly Hope and Crosby, but there is a good deal of dark comedy in this road trip: Tonda, prevented by his son and grandson from taking his ancient camper van out on the road, ends up stealing the van at night by hotwiring it. He also refuses to go on the trip without his pair of faithful dogs, Max and Beti, who end up causing some problems later. The funniest scene in the film occurs when the two vigilantes, in need of weapons since Vlasta’s gun has been confiscated, visit the farmstead of a former communist collaborator where Vlasta had hidden a stash of weapons in a crumbling wall more than 50 years earlier. The old collaborator’s family, taking Vlasta to be an old friend of their aged relative, invite him to lunch, at which the petulant Vlasta pulls no punches in telling them what an awful person that old man was. Meanwhile Tonda is smashing through a colorful new façade the family has placed over the old crumbling wall, and has retrieved the guns.

Since I want to recommend that you see the film yourself, I don’t want to spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that there are other obstacles that need to be overcome (including—one small spoiler—the wheelchair-bound octogenarian Vlasta disarming a policeman one quarter his age). This is a quirky film that I suspect most viewers will enjoy. Schmitzer and Mrkvička make a crusty but watchable pair of “grumpy old men” and the story of the film is fascinating in itself. The image of Tonda smashing through the colorful new façade to reveal the crumbling decay within is as striking a metaphor as could be imagined for a modern Czech society trying to ignore a past it would rather not be reminded of.

Some viewers might wish for a little more backstory about the two men’s relationship and their imprisonment, but at a brisk 90 minutes the film has been stripped of much of that exposition. Directors Dušek and Provazník have said they wanted to make the film more universal than simply being about long-smoldering resentments against the old regime. In a sense the story is a universal statement of the burning passions that may still lie in the hearts of elders whom we may tend to underestimate. Nobody in the film, or in the film’s audience, thinks that old van is going to start. But it does.

Three Tennysons for this one. It’s no longer available on the Czech That Film Festival site; I hope you can find it elsewhere. This week, the film being screened on the site is Karel, Me and You, which the website describes as a “dramedy” that “portrays relationship ups and downs of thirty-somethings living in Prague.”

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

3fc57bce-7846-4469-8b13-beadd1bcb6a8

The Club Dumas

The Club Dumas

Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1993)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

A rare book dealer—of all things—is presented with a job involving the authentication of a manuscript version of a chapter from The Three Musketeers in Alexander Dumas’ own hand, but the search leads him into a more dangerous mystery involving three copies of a proscribed book called De Umbrarum Regni Novem Portis (i.e. “Of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows”): books that purportedly contain a secret code that can be used to summon the Devil himself. The adventure, which leads the book dealer to exotic venues like Madrid, Paris, Sintra, and Toledo, reads for all the world like a Dan Brown novel, except for one thing: it’s actually very well written.

And like a Dan Brown novel, this book, by Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte (author of the popular Captain Alatriste series, and other gems) was also made into a movie. Released in 1999, the film was directed by none other than Roman Polansky, who focused mainly on the occult aspects of the novel (a subject he’d been interested in ever since Rosemary’s Baby in the late ’60s). Polansky’s script eliminated the Dumas plot altogether, and so the film was entitled The Nine Gates. Despite a cast that included Johnny Depp, Lena Olin and Frank Langella, the movie was something of a critical and box office failure, particularly in North America. One reason may be the ending of the movie: The first two-thirds of the film follow the book’s plot fairly closely, while the last third departs considerably from the novel’s surprising and intellectually satisfying ending. Still, a few people liked the movie, and read the book afterwards, and as a result were actually disappointed with the end of the novel. Some of these readers have posted reviews of the book based on this experience. I recommend you ignore those reviews.

Pérez-Reverte is a popular, respected but controversial Spanish novelist, a member of the Royal Spanish Academy who has often refused to have his novels translated into any language other than French and who has twice been accused of plagiarism. Eventually, obviously, many of his novels (in particular the Alatriste series) were translated into English, The Club Dumas by Sonia Soto in 1997, when it was promptly nominated for an Anthony Award and a Macavity Award, both for best mystery novel of the year, a World Fantasy Award for best fantasy novel, and an International Dublin Literary Award for best novel.

These accolades are not surprising, since in The Club Dumas Pérez-Reverte has created the kind of post-modern self-reflexive and highly allusive tour de force that book-lovers love to read. Not only is The Three Musketeers a plot device, but Dumas’ novel also provides a blueprint for the plot and characters of the book. Other Dumas works, especially The Count of Monte Cristo, are also important to the novel. Sherlock Holmes, particularly Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and “A Scandal in Bohemia,” seems to have inspired the detective genre played on in the novel, which also seems to channel Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon and other “hard-boiled” detective writers. Pérez-Reverte’s Spanish roots cannot resist allusions to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but he includes Dante and Milton as well. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Victor Hugo are also part of the wide-ranging tastes of the novel’s characters and narrator, and Melville’s Moby-Dick gets its own group of avid admirers in the book.

Add to these the novel’s detailed discussions of the manner in which Dumas created his huge literary output, including the work of his little-known collaborator Auguste Maquet, who apparently created a good portion of Dumas’ plots, which the master fleshed out—not unlike an apprentice in an artist’s workshop; and details on how a modern forger might fake an antique printed book, including ways to age paper by washing it in tea; and you have a novel that tingles a  book lover’s toes on every page. A significant part of this readerly satisfaction comes in the ending (the part Polansky couldn’t find a way to cinematize): It is no secret that in a good detective novel, the reader vicariously takes on the role of the detective, interpreting every clue and fitting it in to a pattern that, like the detective, the reader builds in his/her mind. An ending that deconstructs that reading process, that explodes the pattern so carefully wrought by both sleuth and reader, revealing how it is the reader who imagines connections where in fact they may not exist at all, is an ending that is likely to enchant, rather than frustrate, the true lover of reading. And that is what happens here.

The story follows a middle-aged book dealer named Lucas Corso, a man described as a “mercenary of the book world,” who is contacted by a book collector and translator named Boris Balkan. Balkan hires Corso to authenticate a manuscript copy of a chapter from Dumas’ Three Musketeers. In Madrid, Corso attempts to contact the manuscript’s previous owner, but he has killed himself, and his beautiful widow, Liana Taillefer, says the manuscript is a fake but wants to take it back from him anyway. When Corso won’t surrender the manuscript, she becomes his enemy, creating a situation that compels Corso to think of her as “Milady de Winter” from Dumas’ novel. The lady’s associate, a dark man with a scar who keeps following Corso and seems to leave a series of bodies in his wake, Corso thinks of as Milady’s evil accomplice “Rochefort” from Dumas’ story.

From Madrid, Corso is called to Toledo by another wealthy collector named Varo Borja, who has come into the possession of a legendary occult volume, Of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows, a book reputedly based on an ancient text composed by Lucifer himself, containing secret instructions for calling up the Devil. The book’s Venetian publisher, Aristide Torchia, had been tortured and finally burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1667, claiming that there was one copy of the text still extant, but hidden away. Trouble is, there are two other copies of the book known to be in existence, so two of the copies must be forgeries. Corso must determine which of the three copies is genuine, and bring it back to Borja, no matter what the cost.

He takes Borja’s copy and travels to Lisbon to confer with eccentric collector Victor Fargas, who owns one of the copies. En route he meets a beautiful young blonde who may actually be a demon (at least that is what she implies) but says she is there to protect him (from what?). She becomes his companion, calling herself “Irene Adler”—the name of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” When Corso compares his copy of The Nine Doors to Fargas’s, he notices only a few small but suggestive differences in the nine woodcut illustrations in the text. Fargas refuses to sell his copy to Corso, and before Corso can contrive a plan to steal the book, he is attacked by “Rochefort,” whom “Irene” helps him to fight off. But he discovers soon after that Fargas has been killed and his copy of the book burned.

In Paris, Corso seeks out Baroness Ungern, head of a charitable organization with a huge collection of occult texts. When he examines her copy of The Nine Doors, he finds again that there are differences in the woodcuts, and comes to realize that the illustrations contain a key to the entire mystery. But “Irene” calls to warn him that “Rochefort” is once again waiting for him outside the Baroness’s building. Though he escapes “Rochefort’s” malice again through “Irene’s” aid, he learns shortly afterward that the Baroness, too, has been killed, and her library burned.

I won’t spoil the ending, but you’ll be kept on your toes throughout the reading, trying to figure out what Dumas has to do with The Nine Doors, and why all these characters seem to have literary antecedents. Was Dumas’ talent, as we are led to contemplate at one point, the result of a Faustian pact with the Devil? If you are a book nerd, a lover of mysteries and puzzles and hard-boiled detective stories, this is the book for you. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.

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.