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Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Way of All Flesh by Naomi Alderman

Audible subscribers, at least in the UK, get ‘free’ access to selected podcasts and serials. I didn’t know this until I was clearing out my spam folder, and came across some links. There are a few interesting things that we get for free and so far I’ve listened to three. This review is of a six-part drama: The Way of All Flesh (2017) by Naomi Alderman.

The story: Zombies have taken over and won the war against humans. The world is ending.  Nine human strangers seek refuge in a country house. Before long, one of them is murdered…  It soon becomes clear that one of the surviving eight is a murderer… but which one?

The Way of All Flesh is set in the Zombies, Run! universe (Google was my friend here). It turns out that Zombies, Run! (2012) is an iPhone and Android game developed by Naomi Alderman and Six to Start, which combines storytelling with running and other healthy stuff that’s not hugely on my radar. Wikipedia calls it ‘an immersive running game’, wherein players listen to the story — partly written by Margaret Atwood! — and their own music. I might give it a go, but I can’t imagine fleeing zombies to the strains of Ethel Merman and the Spice Girls.

The zombie craze was at its peak in 2012, and it’s still going today in a kind of appropriate dead-but-not-dead way. Two of my Netflix binges are iZombie, an absolutely ridiculous comic-book-inspired programme that’s just stumbled into its fourth series, and Santa Clarita Diet, which is one of the greatest shows ever made. iZombie has maintained its relevance in Series 4 by more or less ditching its police-procedural format (it began as a show about a zombie pathologist who solves the murders of the people whose brains she eats) and turning the whole thing into a not-so-subtle allegory on the topic of multiculturalism: it presents a world where humans and zombies appear to co-exist but persecution and propaganda surge behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Santa Clarita Diet, as the title suggests, satirises white-picket-fence aspirations and the American Dream.

The Way of All Flesh also has a kind of relevance-bid, in that it’s set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war on zombies (or ‘zoms', in the parlance). Most crime fiction has a genre-referential moment, and in The Way of All Flesh it comes at the mid-way point, when the survivors reflect on Golden Age detective novels. The likes of Christie and Sayers, they agree, were popular in the aftermath of the First World War and the run-up to the Second, because they gave readers a sense of conclusion; of explaining death and disorder. In that scene, Alderman argues for her own story’s relevance in an increasingly unstable political climate.

The idea of a murder mystery set during the apocalypse has always appealed to me. I’ve always wanted to read one. I even attempted to write something vaguely along those lines as my Masters dissertation; a novella set on board the Titanic, in which the crime is explained while the ship is sinking and the passengers have to choose between staying to hear the truth and trying to escape without ever finding out (it divided the examiners). The issue here, though, is not a question of resolution — of whether the truth matters at the very end — but one of motive: why would anyone commit murder when everyone’s days are numbered?

The characters are all humorous archetypes — a journalist, a doctor, an academic, a TV celebrity — and there’s some enjoyable interaction. The egos clash nicely and, of course, hidden connections quickly emerge. However, I felt that the mystery story — which is, frankly weak — had very little to do with the zombie apocalypse. In fact, the question of why you’d kill someone during the end of the world, is quickly resolved: a strong desire for vengeance, and that is that. Vengeance could be a motive for murder in any time and any place. The setting seemed incidental. As the story progressed, I got the feeling that Alderman was not bringing her A-game. She is an absolutely brilliant author, incapable of writing anything bad. However, I got the impression that she wrote The Way of All Flesh quickly. Very quickly. It’s well-written, but I expected something … else. It’s three days since I stopped listening, and I’ve already forgotten all the character’s names. I’ve even forgotten which character died and which character killed them. And the acting is just dire. There is nothing to recommend the acting.

I don’t feel disappointed because this download was free. Based on the author and the idea, I am sure I would have paid for it (I mean, come on! Zombies! Murder mystery! Naomi Alderman!) and, had I done so, I would have been majorly irked. Each episode is 20 minutes long, so if you do choose to give it a go, it’s only 2 hours out of your life.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Six Cases of Murder by Henry Slesar


You can imagine Young Jamie -- when he was still Disappointing James -- basking in delight at the existence of a murder mystery board game. As I'm sure I don't need to tell you, the long-lasting board game is basically Happy Families with murder, and it's been around for decades. In fact, it was originally pitched as Agatha Christie -- the Game, and my very first blog post (on my personal website) was on the game's subversive potentials.

As an undergraduate, I became semi-famous for my Cluedo parties. Anywhere from 6 to 36 people would roll up, dressed in the various Cluedo colours. We'd drink appropriately coloured drinks, play however many simultaneous games, and watch the film Clue (which, to my mind, is a sub-par version of Murder by Death, but, hey, you can't be choosy when people are finally letting you geek out). It all ended when I moved to Exeter and tried to host one such party. At Chester, my friends were mostly churchy people, who were contractually obliged to enjoy each other's company. At Exeter, my friends were mostly members of the LGBTQ+, who were contractually obliged to sleep with and hate each other. Not the right crowd.

So, as I was writing an MA project on Cluedo (a novella called Anyone's Game... there'll be a revamped version on Amazon later this year), I took a private retreat in the world of the game. I discovered, on YouTube, an old ITV series of the same name. Go and lose several hours ploughing through it, and you'll thank me. The premise is similar to Simon Brett's Radio 4 show, Foul Play, except here we have the same six suspects in various different set-ups. Each episode, a new story was played out, in which a stranger to Tudor Manor is murdered, and the two panellists have to question the suspects to discover whodunit, how, and where. I particularly remember June Whitfield playing Mrs White as a drunk, and Joanna Lumley playing Mrs Peacock as... Joanna Lumley.

Last week, whilst charity shopping with a budget of exactly £1, I came across a big old bin of board games for 10p each. Among these games were several mystery jigsaws. You might know the sort of thing -- a little booklet gives you a mystery, and you piece together a jigsaw which contains a visual clue before reading the solution. There was, in the 1990s, a whole set of Agatha Christie games which were frankly terrible. Oddly, the best one I've ever played was a Murder, She Wrote jigsaw, which was lying around in a holiday barn in Wales. However, two of the jigsaws in the charity shop bore the Cluedo  brand: these were a completely new thing for me, and I was delighted to find them. So, for 20p, I snapped them up and set to work.

In some games, the solution comes in a sealed envelopes, more often it's in mirror writing at the back of the book. However, the Cluedo jigsaws have a unique 'special Cluedo magnifying glass' (effectively, a lump of plastic with a red filter), which turns white things red -- the solution is printed on a mottled red and white surface so that when you run the magnifying glass over it, all becomes clear (see image). Neat.

Opening the box, I was surprised to see that the story was by Henry Slesar, a well-known American genre-writer, whose Enter Murderers (1960) will be reviewed on this blog later in the year. The game is clearly supposed to tie in with the TVseries (either the ITV version or the American one) because the characters all have the same Christian names as on the screen -- Jonathan Green, Vivienne Scarlett -- and photographs of actors are used. The timeframe also adds up: this game was released in 1993.

The mystery is okay, but not great: so, Dr Black owns Tudor Close and invites these six guests, all of whom he loves and all of whom want him dead. Miss Scarlett wants to inherit the property and turn it into a beauty spa; Colonel Mustard wants to inherit it and turn it into an old boys' club, and so on. There are some entertaining bits of dialogue in the brief story, particularly between Mrs Peacock and Miss Scarlett, and Mrs White and... everyone. During the first night of the weekend, Dr Black is murdered, but by whom? Perhaps the six suspects' suitcases hold the answer (... geddit, 'Six Cases of Murder'? Sigh!).

The jigsaw is hard to do. It took me four days -- and I'm currently experiencing a bout of depression, so expected to hurtle through it in two or less -- and there are each of the suitcases has a similar pattern, making the challenge rather wonderful. As for the mystery itself, I think it's silly -- but perhaps that's because I didn't solve it! I spotted the killer (the only character who is described in the booklet in any specific detail; i.e. the only character who has interests beyond those implied by their character description) but not the 'how'. The evidence is there in the picture, but I think that unless you have it explained to you, it's impossible to see that way. In fact, the incriminating item actually looks like part of a suitcase.

All in all, the experience was great fun, but I felt very slightly cheated at the end. Before sampling the other Cluedo jigsaw, I'm going to have a go at one of the marvellously early-90s standalone jigsaws sourced from the same bin (Death by Diet, if I recall correctly. Enjoy picturing the bouffanted models in the photos).

Friday, 2 March 2018

Game Night (Warner Bros)

The trailer for Game Night popped up while I was rabbit-holing through YouTube and it was one of those ads that I couldn’t skip. So, like an obedient puppy, I watched it and thought, ‘That sounds interesting, I wonder when it’s out’. Google told me it would be out on Friday 2 March – the date I’m writing this post.

The last two weeks have been tough for me, both mentally and physically, and the sub-tolerable weather hasn’t helped. Nothing’s happened, I’m just susceptible to depression and had the flu – but, yeah, I felt like something to cheer me up and Alan was getting a bit blue from a weird and unstructured half-day of teaching in the snow. So, we lumbered onto a bus and made our way to the nearest cinema.

I wasn’t expecting much from Game Night, although Googling had revealed that it’s got unusually good reviews for a light escapist comedy. Even the filmmakers seem surprised by how well it’s doing. There were only six people in the cinema, including us, but that was probably because we arrived bang in the middle of a snow blizzard. Over in the States, Game Night grossed $17,000,000 in its opening weekend. That’s more than I make in a month! (Actually, it’s more than I’d make in far too many thousands of months… weep.)

One critic has described Game Night as ‘a comic spin on David Fincher’s The Game’ and I can see that. Personally, I found The Game (1997) interesting but not great – a blatant if unconscious rip-off of an Agatha Christie Parker Pyne story where an elaborately choreographed adventure goes turns into a real criminal escapade which then turns out to have been part of the elaborate choreography all along. Game Night plays whimsically with the fact that we never quite know whether we’re watching a murder mystery game or a ‘real’ crime caper playing out.

Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman star as a hugely competitive couple, Annie and Max, who host regular game nights for an array of comic stock-figure friends. When Max’s annoyingly successful brother, Brook, decides to host a game night of his own, the couple knows that he’s going to outdo them. And, sure enough, Brook announces that he has enlisted top-notch actors to play out an interactive murder mystery. These actors, he tells them, are so great that they never break character. The next thing anyone knows, armed thugs break in, fight Brook, and kidnap him as the hapless guests laugh and applaud.

While Annie, Max, and the others set about trying to find clues, three actors in masks turn up and scratch their heads at what appears to be a real-life crime scene. So, is the kidnapping real or part of a game?

I don’t want to go into the plot in great detail because part of the fun comes from watching it unfold. That said, the real fun lies in the slapstick comedy and throwaway lines. Game Night feels like a cheap comedy done expensively and every second is wonderfully rewarding. It’s so rare to find light entertainment that doesn’t feature anything problematic, but I’m delighted to say there’s no misogyny, racism, transphobia, homophobia, or antisemitism in this film. There are just some very funny scenes. My favourite part involves Max trying the clean blood off a white dog and making it worse. Another memorable routine concerns Annie trying to perform an ad-hock operation, sterilising a knife and the wound with white wine.

Mark Perez has penned a light and consistently funny script, with excellent lines – ‘You’re a double threat,’ says Billy Magnusson’s ditzy playboy to his date, an out-of-his-league Sharon Hogan. ‘You’ve got brains and you’re British’ – and old school physical comedy – at one point, almost the entire cast chases each other around a country house, passing a FabergĂ© Egg like a baton. Perez is served well by slick direction from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein and entertaining cameos from recognisable figures like Michael C. Hall. Jesse Plemons, who recently starred in an amazing episode of Black Mirror, plays the tragicomically needy policeman next door who can’t get over his divorce and who exacts an elaborate revenge when he isn’t invited to play.

If this summary makes the whole thing sound piecemeal and incoherent, that’s because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And this is part of the charm. Although Game Night has an easy-to-follow plot, it isn’t something to analyse or overthink. It is something to sit back and enjoy, to laugh through without splitting your sides. On the journey home, I saw a tweet along the lines of, ‘Game Night is a great reflection of a world in which fake news and real news are becoming interchangeable,’ and I just thought, ‘Ugh. No. It’s funny.’ For context, I more or less think it’s impossible to read too much into a text, and am a staunch defender of the analysis of popular culture. But not Game Night. It’s just entertainment, and it’s bloody well-played.