Mystery Road (Australian crime drama, BBC iPlayer)

If you’re based in the UK and fancy watching some top-notch international crime drama over the weekend, then I have a recommendation for you. Mystery Road is a fantastic Australian six-parter that’s currently available on BBC i-Player (though be warned that the first two episodes will only be around until Monday).

Mystery Road is set in a tiny, arid dot of a town called Patterson in north-western Australia. The opening episode shows two workers from the sprawling Ballantyne Station discovering an abandoned truck in the middle of the outback. Its driver, their co-worker Marley Thompson, has disappeared without trace.

Local Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) calls in detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) to help her solve the case, but soon wishes she hadn’t, as she finds some of his working methods and lack of communication difficult to deal with. They form an uneasy alliance, and as the investigation unfolds, we see not only how Marley’s disappearance impacts on his family and the wider community, but how past events and long-held secrets have a bearing on what’s taking place.

An uneasy alliance: Emma James and Jay Swan

I have a real soft spot for Australian crime drama – The Code and Deep Water are particular favourites. But both of those had a quite edgy, urban, high-tech feel, whereas Mystery Road takes us right out of the city and channels the American Western (the classic maverick investigator with his stetson and gun riding out into wild country).

What Mystery Road also gives us is a proper, nuanced depiction of an Aboriginal community. There are at least eight prominent characters with Aboriginal backgrounds – including lead investigator Jay Swan, and this gives the series a markedly different viewpoint to other Australian crime dramas I’ve seen. We’re shown how Marley’s disappearance impacts on his brother Cedric and mother Kerry (Deborah Mailman), and on his friend Shivorne Shields (Tasia Zalar), but also how Swan’s status as a policeman makes life both easier and harder for him when trying to glean information from the tight-knit community.

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Deborah Mailman as Kerry Thompson

The other thing I LOVE about this series is its stunning cinematography, which has a stylish earth-from-the-air feel. The red, brown and ochre tones of the desolate desert landscape, and the sheer scale of the land are beautifully communicated to the viewer. Hats off to director Rachel Perkins, cinematographer Mark Wareham and art director Loretta Cosgrove.

One of the fabulous overhead shots from the series.

I haven’t yet watched the whole of Mystery Road, but am finding its measured pace, nuanced characterisation and depiction of small-town life extremely satisfying. In addition, the great acting by a number of Australian luminaries and wonderful visuals make this the perfect weekend treat.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s Tale

Yes, I know it’s a dystopian TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state and their terrible effects.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain – security, status, power – and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as the historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead now sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…

El Guardián Invisible (film), Mindhunter (TV) and three Must Reads for 2018

Happy 2018, everyone! After a little hiatus, I’ve started getting back into some crime TV and film. I watched two gems over the festive break, each of which (oddly) featured serial killers and FBI inspectors, but were very different to one another in mood and tone.

The first was El Guardián Invisible, the 2017 Spanish film adaptation of Dolores Redondo’s novel of the same name, published as The Invisible Guardian here in 2015 (translated by Isabelle Kaufeler, HarperCollins). I loved the book and thought this was an excellent adaptation – faithful to the original while adding a stunning extra dimension through the visuals of Navarre’s atmospheric landscapes and weather. The rain seems to be torrential in pretty much every scene, which must have been fun for the actors… I particularly liked Marta Etura’s portrayal of lead investigator Amaia Salazar, an outstanding FBI-trained investigator, who returns to her home town to track a serial killer, and has to face up to her toxic relationship with her mother. It’s a hard-hitting, but satisfying watch.

The second was the Netflix Original series Mindhunter, which I resisted for a while due to its tough subject matter. But I kept hearing good things, and a recommendation from Brian, a regular reader of this blog, eventually led me to give it a go. And I’m glad I did, because it turns out to be a fascinating portrait of how the FBI developed a methodical approach to understanding and identifying serial killers in the 1970s. Based on the book by FBI agent John E. Douglas, the series shows two FBI agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench (Jonathan Groff/Holt McCallney), becoming increasingly aware of the rise of the serial killer in modern American society, and attempting to gain insights into the phenomenon by interviewing serial killers and helping police forces with their investigations. They are joined by Boston psychology professor Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who helps them work more systematically in building up their database and deepens their knowledge of how serial killers are formed and how they think. It’s all fascinating stuff, and I’m definitely going to stick with it, although it’s a very difficult watch in places (no gratuitous violence, but the details of the crimes are given verbally and sometimes shown in the photos used in the investigations). I tend to watch one episode at a time and then switch to something lighter!

I always get a bit of fresh reading energy around the New Year. Having read and enjoyed some Japanese crime fiction just before Christmas, I’m keen to read a little more widely – either by choosing novels set in unusual places or in different historical eras or both. Here are three Must Reads currently on my list:

  • Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird (Serpent’s Tail 2017), exploring race relations in East Texas
  • Joe Thomas’ Paradise City (Arcadia 2017), set in Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • Nicolas Verdan’s The Greek Wall (trans. by W. Donald Wilson, Bitter Lemon Press 2018), set on the border of Turkey and Greece

Which crime novels are on your Must Read list for 2018?

 

Let’s party like it’s 1929… German TV crime series Babylon Berlin airs Sunday 5 November

After a long, tantalising wait, the 16-part TV adaptation of Volker Kutscher’s crime novel Babylon Berlin is finally here. Directed by renowned director Tom Tykwer, this lavish £33 million German TV series – the most expensive ever made – airs in the UK this Sunday 5. November on Sky Atlantic.

Time to paaaartay!

I’ve been lucky enough to see a preview of the first episode, and thoroughly recommend taking a look. This is ambitious, thrilling, grown-up TV, which brilliantly recreates the politically turbulent Berlin of 1929, and brings the decadence of Weimar society vividly (and I do mean vividly) to life.

Volker Bruch (Generation War) is a good choice for troubled police inspector Gereon Rath, recently arrived in the capital from Cologne, but for me the stand-out character is Charlotte (Lotte) Ritter, played by actress Liv Lisa Fries – the working-class girl fighting her way out of poverty by temping as a police stenographer, whose respectable exterior belies a very complex life. The first meeting between the two is a classic ‘unromantic-yet-oddly-romantic’ encounter involving some dropped photographs, which also made me laugh.

Lotte Ritter

And then there’s Berlin. The creators have managed to bring an extinct dinosaur back to life – the impressive ‘Rote Burg’ or ‘Red Castle’ – aka the Berlin Police Headquarters near Alexanderplatz (there’s a shopping centre there now), and the depictions of the Vice and Homicide departments’ activities there are gritty and uncompromising. The aerial shots of the Berlin Mitte district and Alex are breathtaking, and I loved the stylish cinematographic touches, such the angled shot of a pair of ladies’ stockings floating from a window to Lotte in a courtyard below.

A shot of the Alexanderplatz from the series

If you’d like to read more about the series, then this Guardian article by Kate Connolly gives a good overview: ‘Babylon Berlin: lavish German crime drama tipped to be a global hit’.

If you’d like to get your hands on the original novels by Volker Kutscher, then head over to Sandstone Press, which has published the first two in English, translated by Niall Sellar: Babylon Berlin and The Silent Death.

And last but not least, here’s the trailer to whet your appetite.

Babylon Berlin, in German with English subtitles, airs on Sky Atlantic on Sunday 5 November. It should also be coming to Netflix at some point as well!

Thomson’s Ghost Girl (UK), Carrère’s The Adversary (France), The Handmaid’s Tale (Canada/US)

My TBR pile is well and truly out of control at the moment, so I’m going to have a reading blitz over the summer to reduce it as much as I can. My approach will be threefold: ruthlessly cull the books that don’t appeal to me (life is too short), read exactly the books I want to from the pile that is left, and write up a variety of short reviews for the blog. And, as is the case this week, I might add in the odd TV series or other random delight from time to time.

Lesley Thomson, Ghost Girl (Head of Zeus, 2014)

Opening line: ‘In the pale light the girl might be a ghost risen from one of the graves’.

I really liked the first in Thomson’s series, The Detective’s Daughter. It took me a little while to get into this second novel: slightly more signposting was needed at the beginning to help readers navigate the two timelines. However, I remained captivated by the character of Stella Darnell, the police detective’s daughter who picks up his unsolved cases after his death. Stella runs a cleaning agency and is more like her father than she would care to admit – her drive to restore order makes her a very tenacious and thorough investigator. In this case, a set of photos in her father’s cellar showing deserted London streets puts Stella on the trail of a murderer. Her investigative partner Jack Harmon is equally intriguing – a night-time tube driver whose life, in contrast to Stella’s, is governed by signs and intuition rather than rationality. Both are social misfits, but together they make a great team. Another strength of both books is Thomson’s depiction of the inner life of children and how they try to make sense of traumatic situations.

Emmanuel Carrère, The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, translated from French by Linda Coverdale (Vintage, 7 July 2017 [2000]).

Opening line: ‘On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son’.

Emmanuel Carrère is a well-known writer, who here dissects a highly disturbing true crime: Jean-Claude Romand’s murder of his wife, two children and elderly parents in 1993. The book is both an archaeological excavation of the events leading up to the murders and the multiple deceptions Romand wove over twenty years. While to his family and the outward world he appeared to be a respectable, well-to-do doctor working for the World Health Organisation, in reality he was nothing of the sort. Carrère effectively explores how Romand deceived and betrayed his family, and the ways in which his lies corroded his own identity, creating a terrifying void. Hard-hitting and thoughtful, but avoiding sensationalism, Carrère makes no excuses for the murderer’s mythomania and his attempts to escape the consequences of his crimes. A fascinating, but utterly chilling read.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/Channel 4), adapted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage, 1996 [1985])

American viewers are ahead of us here in the UK, where the highly anticipated TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale began to air last Sunday. The novel, of course, is not crime fiction, but ‘speculative’ fiction that portrays a theocratic America of the near future, and famously draws on a range of repressive historical examples (from seventeenth-century Puritan America to twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania). But the themes of crime and criminality are at the very heart of the novel: how totalitarian/ultra-religious states criminalise any form of dissent, and how in particular they police women’s behaviour, driving them out of the public sphere and back into a private space where their identity, sexuality and bodies are heavily controlled. In the process, of course, the state itself becomes criminal, because it is denying its citizens the most basic of rights. The novel has long been on my ‘most influential books of all time’ list, and the TV opener did a brilliant job of bringing its dystopian vision to life. Elisabeth Moss is outstanding as the narrator and central protagonist, Offred.

Here’s a wonderful recent essay on the novel by Margaret Atwood for the New York Times: ‘Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ means in the Age of Trump’.

The Missing (series 2), Stephen King’s 11.22.63, and the virtues of voting wisely

I’ve been catching up with lots of TV lately – Australian political thriller The Code (very good) and the new series of The Missing (BBC1), which also has me completely gripped.

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Series 1 of The Missing involved the disappearance of a young boy, Oliver Hughes, on a family holiday in France. The new series cleverly flips that ‘missing child’ scenario by opening with the unexpected reappearance of Alice Webster, a young woman abducted as a schoolgirl over a decade before. The main connection to series 1 is Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), the retired French police detective who investigated Oliver’s case, and who is now drawn to Alice by her possible link to a second abducted girl, Sophie Giroux. Aside from him, there’s a new set of characters featuring wonderful British actors such as Keeley Hawes, David Morrissey and Roger Allam. Hawes stands out for me in particular as Alice’s mother Gemma.

There were mutterings from some viewers after episode 1 about the difficulties of keeping track of three timelines (2003 when Alice was abducted, 2014 when she returns home, and the present day), but it’s very much worth persevering as those temporal layers create a wonderfully rich story. And while the drama feels very British in tone, its international settings and characters give it added depth: the Webster family live on a fictional military base in Eckhausen in Germany; we see British military police working together with German police and (with some reluctance) the French detective; the latter’s investigations even take him to Iraq for a while. And every single episode has had a twist that will make you drop your knitting – especially episode 4! I’m looking forward to the rest immensely.

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I’m a little late to this party – Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel epic 22.11.63, which sees English teacher Jake Epping step back into a 1958 America, five years before President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The big question at the heart of the narrative – ‘would you change history if you had the chance?’ – is explored in an inventive and nuanced fashion.

Like some of King’s other novels, such as Dolores Claiborne (a favourite of mine), 22.11.63 draws on elements of the crime and thriller genres. Alongside the infamous murder of Kennedy, there’s a second murder case that takes up a significant part of the narrative. Both of these place Jake in the role of a detective tracking suspects, and in the role of a potential murderer, as he *could* stop the perpetrators from committing their crimes by killing them. But taking such action would obviously raise serious ethical questions, leaving Jake with some tough choices to make…

King does a brilliant job of depicting Jake’s incredible journey back to ‘the Land of Ago’, and recreates the America of the late 1950s and early 1960s in meticulous, loving detail. The mechanics of time travel are given interesting new twists, and the ending is extremely satisfying. Two minor reservations include the sheer length of the novel (I listened to the 30-HOUR audiobook version) and the odd bit of excessive sentimentality (but that could just be me). Hats off to audiobook narrator Craig Wasson, who does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life, and I must admit that I’m now curious to see the 2016 TV adaptation with James Franco.

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011).

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Time to liberate this little chap!

All this talk of American presidents reminds me that there’s a certain US election next week. We’ll be watching the results with baited breath on this side of the pond, and hope that our American friends can learn from the Brexit Omnishambles here in the UK.

The EU Referendum taught us that:

  • not voting is not an option. VOTE!
  • protest votes are a luxury you can’t afford. VOTE WISELY!
  • talking to swing voters can make a difference. EVERY VOTE COUNTS!
  • and that there’s NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY (polls are fickle, so pretend your candidate’s 12 points down).

Good luck! And for anyone still undecided, I’ll just leave this here: The New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton. You might also want to check out this utterly inspiring and hopeful website: I’ve waited 96 years. It’s simply wonderful.

Bad case of Weltschmerz? Try Indian elephants, Icelandic chills and Series 2 of The Code

Tearing your hair out over Brexit? Anxious about the US election results? Worried about the bees and climate change? If so, you may be suffering from a German malady called Weltschmerz – a sense of frustration, pain and despair at the state of the world (Welt = world; Schmerz = pain, ache, sorrow).

When Weltschmerz strikes crime fans, certain reading difficulties may arise. You may not feel in quite the right mood to tackle a social crime novel revealing further grim realities about the world, or noir crime devoid of the faintest glimmer of happiness or hope. You may instead find yourself drawn to crime that provides a refreshing antidote or escape, also known as Respite Crime.

Option 1. Comedy crime involving baby elephants

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Vaseem Khan, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. A Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation (Mulholland Books/Hodder, 2015)

Any crime novel that’s been called ‘utterly charming’ (The Guardian) or ‘endearing’ (The Sunday Times), would normally make me run for the hills. The same goes for crime series that use excessive whimsy (‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, I’m looking at you). While The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra strays into such territory occasionally, there’s enough grit about modern-day Indian life in Mumbai to give this novel plenty of interest and depth.

The opening shows Inspector Ashwin Chopra, who’s about to retire from the police, discovering that he’s inherited an Indian elephant from his uncle Bansi. A cute, baby elephant. When Chopra investigates one last case – the suspicious death of a young man found on some waste ground – policeman and elephant form an unlikely investigative team. It’s a well-written, entertaining and satisfying read, and a funny, life-affirming antidote to Weltschmerz.

Did I mention the baby elephant? He’s really cute.

Option 2. Scare yourself witless with terrifying Icelandic crime

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Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Why Did You Lie?, trans by Victoria Cribb (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016 [2013]; a 2017 Petrona Award submission).

Or you could go completely the other way and immerse yourself in a chilling world where hapless individuals are being killed off one by one for telling lies. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Why Did You Lie? skilfully interweaves three narratives: that of a young policewoman whose journalist husband has recently committed suicide, a work group stranded on the Þrídrangar lighthouse as hostile Icelandic weather closes in, and a family who return after a house-swap to find their American guests are missing. The author has an impressively fertile imagination and expertly ratchets up the suspense. It’s perhaps not one to read too late at night, but is brilliant at keeping Weltschmerz at bay. You’ll simply be too terrified to think about anything else.

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The Þrídrangar lighthouse

Option 3. Lose yourself in some top-quality crime drama set on the other side of the world

By happy coincidence, the second series of outstanding Australian political thriller The Code starts on BBC4 this Saturday 22 October at 9.00pm. Series 1 aired back in 2014 – you can read my post on it here.

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Opening episode: After the events of series 1, journalist Ned Banks and his computer hacker brother Jesse face the prospect of being extradited to the US to face criminal charges. Fortunately for them, Australian National Security has an explosive case it can’t crack, and Jesse may be the man to do it. The brothers also encounter black-market king Jan Roth, and risk being drawn into his shady world. 

If those options fail, treat yourself to this lovely clip of Mike, aka the ‘Hamster of Serenity’. Here he is eating a carrot. If you turn the volume up you can hear him munching.

TV crime drama (Deep Water & McMafia) and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel

Two TV crime dramas in the pipeline have recently caught my eye.

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Noah Taylor in Deep Water (photo Sean O’Reilly/SBS)

Deep Water (BBC Four)

From the BBC press release: ‘A gripping four-part crime drama set in contemporary Australia, the series is inspired by the unsolved gay-hate crime epidemic that swept through Sydney in the 80s and 90s, known as the Bondi Beach Murders.

The drama unfolds after detectives Tori Lustigman and Nick Manning are assigned a brutal murder case. They uncover evidence that suggests the killing is connected to a spate of unexplained deaths, ‘suicides’ and disappearances throughout the 80s and 90s. Is this the result of shoddy police work, indifference, or something far more sinister?’

The series stars Noah Taylor as detective Nick Manning; Yael Stone as detective Tori Lustigman; William McInnes as Inspector Peel; Daniel Spielman as Rhys; and Danielle Cormack as Brenda. It’s a Blackfella Films production for SBS Broadcasting Australia, Screen Australia & Screen New South Wales. Transmission date to be confirmed, but probably in the autumn.

There’s a bit more info in this Guardian article by Steph Harmon.

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McMafia (BBC One)

From the BBC press release: ‘Inspired by Misha Glenny’s bestselling book McMafia – a hard-hitting look at global crime – Hossein Amini and James Watkins have created a thrilling international crime drama that centres on one family in London.

James Norton (War & Peace, Happy Valley) will play the lead, Alex Godman, the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a mafia past. 

McMafia charts Alex’s journey through a terrifying labyrinth of international criminals, money launderers, corrupt politicians and ruthless intelligence agencies. He finds himself embroiled in an underworld that stretches from London to Moscow, Dubai to Mumbai, Africa to the Americas; a battleground where Mexican cocaine cartels compete with Pakistani drug lords, Balkan smugglers and the Russian Mafia itself. What starts out as a story of survival and revenge becomes an epic tale of a man’s struggle against the lures of corruption in the modern world and in himself.

This fast-paced thriller is epic and intimate, glamorous and gritty, global in scale and forensic in detail. It delves into how, with the rise of globalization, the corporate has become criminal and the criminal corporate and how, driven by the global demand for cheap products, everyone is complicit in some way.

The writing team includes David Farr (The Night Manager, Spooks, Troy – Fall Of A City), Peter Harness (Doctor Who, Wallander, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and Laurence Coriat (Wonderland, Me Without You).’ Cuba Pictures. Transmission date tbc.

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (CNW Group/Penguin Random House Canada Limited)

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life – John le Carré (Penguin)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge John le Carré fan (see my post ‘In praise of John le Carré‘), so I’m delighted that his autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life is now out with Penguin. Stacks of fabulous content has been released to promote the book, including an extract, readings from le Carré’s works by actors such as Rachel Weisz, and fantastic TV interview snippets. My favourite insight from the author so far: conflict makes for a good story (thus ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is not a promising start, whereas ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is).

le Carré will be reading extracts from The Pigeon Tunnel on BBC Radio 4 from Monday 12 September in the ‘Book of the Week’ slot.

Deutschland 83 series review: my take as a Germanist and fan

For the past seven weeks, Channel 4/Walter Presents viewers have been gripped by the German Cold War spy drama Deutschland 83, created by Anna and Jörg Winger, a talented German/American husband and wife team. Following tonight’s feature-length finale, here are my thoughts on the show as a Germanist who teaches/writes on German history and as a fan. The post contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the series, DON’T read on…watch the series instead!

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I watched the first episode of Deutschland 83 with slight trepidation. As a Germanist trying to persuade Brits of the merits of German culture, I wanted it to be good and to overturn some of the persistent UK tabloid stereotypes about Germans (earnest, humourless, Nazi). It was and it did. We were introduced to a host of intriguing characters and saw 24-year-old East German border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) bundled off to West Germany as secret agent Kolibri. Posing as Moritz Stamm, an aide to General Wolfgang Edel, he begins to gather classified military secrets in Bonn and to pass them back to the GDR, as Cold War tensions between East and West rise.

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Getting into the swing of this spying thing

One big question the first episode raised was that of historical veracity. A friend of mine, an academic expert on East Germany, described the depiction of Martin’s recruitment by the Stasi (the East German secret police) as ‘baloney’. I totally understood this reaction, as I’ve had similar responses to dramas set in Nazi Germany (e.g. one where a Jewish-German protagonist calls out a cheery ‘Shalom!’ to his friends on a busy Nazi-era street). But allowances should be made: writers of historical dramas need to communicate complex information to viewers very quickly, which sometimes means taking what I think of as ‘symbolic shortcuts’. In this case, the use of the spy thriller genre also demanded exciting action and a brisk narrative pace: we obviously couldn’t spend six episodes with Martin while he was being methodically trained in spycraft, so some suspension of disbelief was required.

On the other hand, the first episode managed to convey some fundamental truths: the Stasi‘s ruthless use of people’s personal circumstances to secure cooperation; the politicised nature of everyday East German life; the ideological hypocrisy of Western coffee and perfume making their way East via a border guard or a highly placed Stasi official; the very real military tensions of the time. And it was stylish. Beautifully shot, with a classy 80s soundtrack, its nuanced direction was serious or light as the action required. By the end of the episode I was hooked: how was young Martin/Moritz going to negotiate the tricky double identity that is the basis of a spy’s existence?

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Here are just some of the things I loved about Deutschland 83:

  • The episode titles originate from NATO military exercises. Quantum Jump, Brave Guy, Atlantic Lion, Northern Wedding, Cold Fire, Brandy Station, Bold Guard and Able Archer all took place in 1983. The latter is of particular significance throughout the series.
  • Tremendous historical and cultural breadth. The series successfully shows viewers the global scale of the Cold War in 1983 (from President Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ speech to the Russian downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007); the profound legacy of the student/68 movement (from Alex’s interest in the Green Party and Yvonne’s life in a Rajneesh commune to Tischbier’s faux political activism at the University of Bonn); and the devastating rise of AIDS.
  • The ‘coming-of-age’ theme. We see a number of characters having to grow up very quickly in the course of the series, such as Martin, Alex, Yvonne and Annett. The moral challenges they face in the process are effectively drawn, particularly in Martin’s case.
  • Politically subversive libraries. Martin’s mother Ingrid may be the sister of a Stasi apparatchik and gratefully receive bottles of Chanel/privileged medical attention, but she also has a stash of illicit literature such as George Orwell’s 1984 in a secret room in her basement. She’s in cahoots with Thomas, helping him to distribute banned books from the boot of her car (a subversive mobile library!). The scenes in which Martin’s girlfriend Annett discovers Ingrid’s library and then denounces Thomas to the Stasi made me incredibly thankful to live in a society that values free speech.
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What have we here…?

  • Ursula Edel and the fish (episode 5). One of the many darkly humorous moments from the series.
  • The soundtrack is a delight, featuring 80s hits from East and West Germany, and the English-speaking world. There’s a full Spotify playlist here. My favourites include the German version of Peter Schilling’s theme tune ‘Major Tom (völlig losgelöst)’, Nena’s ’99 Luftballons’ and David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’.
  • Last but not least…Lenora Rauch. Martin’s ruthless Stasi aunt, who forces her nephew into the life of a spy, is beautifully played by Maria Schrader (whom you may remember from the film Aimée & Jaguar). Her ideological conviction is tempered by a world-weary, I’ve-seen-it-all-before vibe: the collapse of an operation just elicits a sigh and an extra-long drag on her cigarette. Oh, and she’s also a total 80s style icon, complete with perm, killer silk shirts and red lippy/nails.
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Things are about to go pear-shaped…again

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Cutting edge technology: the floppy disk

There may have been times where things threatened to get a bit silly, such as Episode 2’s entertaining but implausible attack on Martin/Moritz by the ninja-assassin-waitress. But the series always managed to pull itself back from the brink of parody and delivered some truly powerful moments.

  • Linda Seiler’s death halfway through the series in episode 4 was a game-changer. When Martin fails to shake the NATO secretary’s loyalty to the West, she is run over and killed by Tischbier in a truly traumatic scene. This event shows us that Martin’s spying assignment is grown-up and deadly. Even though he resisted letting Linda drown in the lake earlier in the episode, he must still bear some responsibility for her death, which was necessary to protect his cover. It’s a le-Carré-style moral low in which innocent individuals are shown becoming pawns in much larger political games. To add insult to injury, brave Linda is left in an unmarked grave in the forest (a German fairytale gone badly wrong) and it’s suggested that she defected to the East.
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Alas, poor Linda!

  • Linda’s apparent betrayal has consequences. It leads her boss, moderate NATO analyst Henrik Mayer to commit suicide, which allows hawks in the East and West to escalate military tensions. A special mention in this respect must go to Stasi official Walter Schweppenstette, whose ideological adherence is particularly dangerous. Told by a Russian superior that a decoded report must fit Moscow’s view of a predatory US, he dutifully edits and distorts its findings. In a chilling scene at the end of episode 6, the Russian is shown receiving the doctored report and accepting its contents as genuine, thereby turning fiction into fact, and taking the two sides perilously close to nuclear war.
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Was it something I said?

  • Tonight’s finale… took the world to the brink of nuclear destruction and back again. A number of characters had their morality tested, none more so than Martin, whose decisive action made key figures such as General Edel and Lenora begin to doubt Schweppenstette’s wilful insistence that NATO forces were about to launch an attack. One sobering aspect of this storyline was its emphasis on how the actions of just a few individuals have the power to trigger catastrophic destruction or perhaps…in a thriller at least, to stop it, allowing nuclear rockets to reverse back into their firing systems before our eyes. Phew.
  • Alex and Martin are revealed to have been ‘twins’ all along, both the sons of powerful fathers on the opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. The knowledge of that fact will definitely enrich a second viewing of the series.
  • Never has a border crossing – from WEST to EAST – been more thrilling. Didn’t the little fairy godmother in the car do well?
  • Comic highlight: Schweppenstette’s inept dad-dancing to Udo Lindenberg.
  • The series left a number of questions deliberately open. What of Martin and Annett’s future? If Martin passed his moral test, Annett failed hers spectacularly. Where will Lenora’s big adventure take her? And what of the Edels? Both father and son cut quite tragic figures at the end. Thomas is saved by Ingrid’s actions, but what awaits him in the West? To be continued….?

One of the best things about Deutschland 83 is that it’s made Germany and the German language cool. I’ve been made inordinately happy by tweets such as these: @jazzywoop ‘#Deutschland83 writing, directing, production, casting, acting, location, music and design is magic. Elevated further by being in German’; @Yasmin_Gooner ‘German is the sexiest language in the whole world. #Deutschland83’; @julzenthe1st ‘German students & graduates are giving each other high fives all over Britain’. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Winger, thanks Walter!

Further reading: 

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Trapped: New Icelandic crime drama airs Saturday 13 February on BBC4

BBC4’s weekend crime slot moves from Montalbano’s sunny Sicily to a chilly northern Iceland on Saturday 13 February. Trapped, the channel’s first Icelandic crime drama, begins with two back-to-back episodes at 9.00pm (there are 10 episodes in total). This RVK Studios series will give many British viewers their first taste of the Icelandic language (subtitles also at the ready, of course).

Trapped

Trapped seems to be set in the east-coast port of Seyðisfjörður (although some of it was filmed in the northern port of Siglufjörður, which features in Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ crime series). The opening episodes show three events happening almost simultaneously: a ferry with three hundred passengers arriving from Denmark, the discovery of a corpse in the water, and the onset of a violent snowstorm. The storm prevents the ferry from leaving and blocks roads in and out of town, trapping the passengers and townsfolk with the killer. Step forward Police Inspector Andri, who is tasked with investigating this high pressure case…

Here’s a trailer, which looks quite brooding and scary (may need to hide behind the sofa for bits of this one):

The BBC’s Sue Deeks had this to say about Trapped following its acquisition for BBC4: “A truly gripping storyline, stunning Icelandic setting and renowned feature film director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) was a combination impossible to resist. Trapped will be our first Icelandic drama series and I am certain that BBC Four viewers are in for an absolute treat.”

Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, True Detective) in the lead role and is joined by Bjarne Henriksen (Borgen, The Killing), Ingvar E Sigurðsson (Everest, K19 The Widowmaker), Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir (Virgin Mountain, White Night Wedding), Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir (The Sea) and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (Borgias, Fortitude). The series is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley, and is produced by Baltasar Kormákur and Magnus Vidar Sigurdsson.

UPDATE – SPOILER FREE REVIEW OF EPISODES 1 AND 2

Well, that was a brilliant start. This is a high quality crime drama that has the potential to develop into a really great series. The first episode set up the different strands of the narrative very nicely: a mysterious fire, the ferry’s arrival, the discovery of the body and the complex personal life of police chief Andri. The actors are great, the writing is crisp with occasional wry humour, and the cinematography is excellent, making the most of the dramatic Icelandic landscape and weather. Wrap up warm when watching, because it’s almost impossible not to feel chilly with that blizzard swirling around.

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Andri and his police team

It was lovely to hear Icelandic, mingled in with some English and Danish (the captain of the Danish ferry will be immediately recognizable to fans of The Killing I and Borgen). I liked Andri and his down-to-earth female police colleague Hinrike very much, and was amused to see the Reykjavik police investigators depicted as arrogant city slickers (there’s some friction here that will hopefully be explored in later episodes).

Update: Just watched episodes 7 and 8, which were both excellent. The plot continues to thicken, and the quality of the screenwriting and acting remains extremely high. Andri and Hinrike make a brilliant team. Can’t wait for the finale next week.

One last tidbit: the Icelandic title of the series is Ófærð, which means ‘impassable’ – the word on the sign signalling road closure due to bad weather. Looking forward to more immensely.

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In other TV news, Sunday 14 February brings us the feature-length finale of Deutschland 83. This East/West German spy thriller has been an absolute gem, and has elicited an incredibly enthusiastic response from British viewers. I’ll blog my thoughts on the series as a Germanist and fan once the roller-coaster ride is complete!

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