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Monday, 28 May 2018

The Bridge series 4 (SVT/DR)

The fourth series of The Bridge is finally airing on BBC 2, so I figured this would be a good time to review it. The other day, flicking through an old issue of my grandfather's Daily Telegraph, I noticed that even the Telegraph -- just a few years after the rest of the world -- has noticed that Scandi noir is
not an eternal phenomenon.  The journalist in question hints that maybe, just maybe, Nordic Noir is on the way out...

Of course, Scandi crime in the UK is so past its peak that Jo Nesbo is writing about Scotland and Kurt Wallander bowed out on Swedish and UK TV in 2013 and 2016 respectively. But many of us wanted, desperately, for the saga of Saga Noren to tie itself neatly together.  The final series took a while to surface, and it's very aware of its own nature as a conclusion, slightly after the fact. Dead characters resurface, backstories are interwoven with the case at hand in a way more obvious than ever before, and minor recurring characters are finally given their own narrative arcs.

When Bron/Broen began in 2011, at its heart was the clash of two geographically and philosophically linked countries, made manifest in the strained relationship of the two co-investigators, the autistic genius Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) from Sweden and the overly emotional Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) from Denmark. Bodnia left at the end of Series 2, and his annoyingly formulaic replacement, a drug-addicted cop with anger issues stemming from bereavement, Henrik Sabroe (Thure Lindhardt) ensured that Series 3 focussed more on a clash of personalities. Series 4 makes no pretence: the star of the show is Saga Noren. Nearly all the action takes place in Denmark, but this closing act is 100% her own.

You might remember that, at the end of Series 3, Saga was arrested for murdering her mother. She says, we know, and nobody else believes, that her mother committed suicide and made it look like Saga had killed her. At the beginning of Series 4, two years later, Saga is about to get out of prison, following a retrial at which her innocence was more or less proven. Of course, because this is The Bridge, something goes wrong at the last minute, and Saga ends up seeing a counsellor -- something that starts out amusing and ends up extraordinarily touching.

She also develops her relationship with Henrik and, in a heartbreaking scene, suggests that she might be in love with him. I want to add a note here: this is not like Sherlock or Dexter, both of which suggest that sociopathy can be 'cured' by the love of a good member of the opposite sex and the pursuit of nuclear bliss. It's much more sensitive, and much more grounded. And much, much more brutal. While Saga tries to help Henrik track down his missing-presumed dead daughters (just as he's grown to accept that they are not coming back), she also tries to learn the rules of social behaviour and cohabitation. It all culminates and in an absolutely perfect final scene, which contains precisely two words of ideally-crafted dialogue.

Meanwhile, there is a case. A serial-killer case which strikes close to home. Detectives in Denmark and Sweden are trying to find a link between disparate, apparently motiveless killings: an electrocution, a hanging, a poisoning, and so on. While the link is probably clearer to us than it is to them, it takes Saga Noren to communicate it. And, as usual, the variety of victims and locales provides a perfect excuse for a range of recognisable Danish and Swedish TV faces. Once the link emerges, so does another kind of link: to the Danish police force itself.

A big theme in this series is the construction of identity within familial and local community contexts. One subplot has a woman and her son fleeing an abusive husband, and running right into a cultish community and into the arms of an even more manipulative man. Another has two blue-eyed parents with a brown-eyed son. Everyone has noticed except, apparently, the father, and, of course, it's Saga Noren who actually voices the problem, as an aside in the middle of a routine enquiry. The big subplot is, of course, Henrik's on-off search for his long-lost daughters. For the first time, the cinematography emphasises just how long the bridge between the two countries actually is.

Taken as a whole, the series is cathartic. Every character -- whether they've been in the show from Day One or just for this series -- is given a conclusion, whether that's closure or rebirth. I think the pacing is bizarre. For example, the solution to the crimes under investigation is three-fold. Element one is revealed, thrilling chase included, at the beginning of episode 7 (of 8); element two comes out half way through episode 8; and the final element is crammed into the last five minutes. Meanwhile, we have languorous scenes involving Saga rifling through the paraphernalia of her childhood and learning how to let it go.

This is frustrating in the moment, but when this show does tension, it ladles it on so heavily that you lose yourself in the moment and forget any dissatisfaction. As I mentioned above, the series ends on such a perfect note that it's impossible not to give it one big, convoluted, utterly ridiculous thumbs-up.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers

Oxfam in Norwich has a nice selection of old Penguins, and my eye always goes directly to the green ones. You probably don’t need me to tell you that green = crime and mystery. One day, the array was not overly appealing – most of the books were Erle Stanley Gardners. Nothing against that, but I’ve got so many of those, most of which will probably remain unread, that I don’t need to acquire any more. By far the most interesting title on display was The Department of Dead Ends (1949) by Roy Vickers. Flicking through, I saw that it contained short stories, which are always nice to have, so I bought it.

Before reading, I made an effort not to check the blurb or the author bio – so as to come to the text without any baggage. This effort was slightly confounded, in the best possible way, by a surprise introduction from Ellery Queen.

Queen does a good job selling the volume as the next great thing (in 1955, when the Penguin edition was published) in detective fiction. Describing each story as its own ‘miraculously English’ twist on the ‘”inverted” detective story’, Queen insists that, after The Department of Dead Ends, the genre will never be the same again. The book and the author are so little-known that Queen’s prophesy clearly did not come to pass; however, the stories are extremely enjoyable.

As you might have guessed by now, each tale inverts the narrative of a typical crime story (and this is pre-Columbo, remember). So, we start with the identity of the murderer, witness the crime, and then view the gathering of evidence. There had already been a few stories like this of course – notably by R. Austin Freeman, Francis Iles, and Q. Patrick. After reading the first story, ‘The Rubber Trumpet’, I thought there was something interesting about it, setting it apart from the others. Put simply, it didn’t feel like fiction. That is to say, it was sensational and implausible enough, but there was something almost calculated in the telling. I realised that it was the focus on small details; the shape of a button or the exact and inelegant number of rubber trumpets bought from a certain shop on a certain day. It felt more like a well-written example of tasteless true-crime journalism.

This feeling grew and grew as I read through ‘The Lady Who Laughed’ and ‘The Man Who Murdered in Public’. The stories, even the oddly stiff-yet-imaginative dialogue evoked the kinds of fictionalised narratives you’d get in big books from the 1940s onwards: Sensational True Tales of Women Who Kill!!!While this may have been a new type of storytelling under the ‘crime fiction’ banner, as journalism it’s the kind of narrative that’s dominated from the Newgate Calendar to New York Timeop eds. About half-way through my reading, I checked Vickers’ bio and, sure enough, he’d started out as a journalist.

So Queen was right in a way: these stories do feel remarkably novel in the context of detective fiction. In another context, they fit an extremely old form, with just one twist – conscious fictionality. But that’s the nature of innovation. It comes one twist at a time.

Friday, 11 May 2018

No Man's Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

When I purchased No Man's Nightingale (2013) from a 3-for-£5 bin, I had no idea it was the final Inspector Wexford novel. I found myself in Great Yarmouth with a dead phone, three hours early for a rehearsal, so went out looking for something to read.  I have always avoided Inspector Wexford, partly by accident -- it just so happens that all the Rendells I've read have been standalones -- and very slightly by design. The character just sounds so boring to me; a happily-married middle-aged everyman policeman. The idea makes me think of Inspector Barnaby (the screen version), and although I've always hugely respected Rendell's ambitions as a writer, she never quite shed middle-class security, so I always figured that the Reg Wexford novels would highlight her weaknesses rather than her strengths.

Perhaps the final Wexford novel was not the best place to start. It features the man in retirement 'but still involved' in police work. I quite like that Rendell doesn't even try to get round the obstacle she's set herself; she just has Wexford roll up to crime scenes and everyone's fine with it. The police officers even come up with a job title for him: 'Crime Solutions Adviser (unpaid)', which is quite a nice bit of satire.

The crime in question is extraordinarily little-England. This is 2013, but the locals in Wexford's area are not comfortable with the idea of a 'lady vicar'. Rev. Sarah Hussein, who is a convert from Hinduism, upsets so many people by the very fact of her existence that Wexford is hardly surprised when she is found strangled in the vicarage. The police soon uncover a simmering pot of red herrings in the form of racial tensions, misogyny, and, perhaps inevitably, children with complicated parentage. Between investigating the case, Wexford dips in and out of Gibbons' Decline and Fall and reflects on how little has changed in the history of collapsing civilisations. It isn't just the occasional shoe-horned references to The Voice and 'the internet' that show Rendell's aspirations to remain up-to-date; there's also a shrewd alertness to political tensions in microcosm.

Despite the attempts to join the twenty-first century, Rendell is only in her element when she's describing universal and timeless human weakness -- when she's being Patricia Highsmith with a doily -- and that is not what she's doing here. Characters speak archaically ('sex and bodily functions and biology sort of stuff' says one worldly type. It reminded me of PD James's young people in the early 2000s promising to 'summon' one another 'on the telephone'). The internet may exist, nebulous and hardly used (Wexford doesn't understand Google, so that's that taken care of), but smartphones might never have been invented.

What endures is Rendell's canniness in nailing a character in just a few lines. There are some spectacular descriptions ('She was uncompromisingly fat and apparently happy to be so') and some acute ones ('She was a good worker, reliable, punctual and reasonably honest').

As always, the case ceases to matter so much as the character-observation and the grotesqueries of thought after a certain point. The book is not long, but I could have done with it being about 50 pages shorter. Some people say Rendell lost her touch at some point in the 1990s, but her touch stayed until the very end -- my response to No Man's Nightingale is pretty much the same as my response to her very final novel, Dark Corners. Obvious brilliance, with vaseline on the lens.