Review: The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019)

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Opens Friday 6 March in the US

Don’t be put off by the title; it’s not an exposé of the current occupant of the White House, but an adaptation of the 1971 Charles Willeford novel of the same name. I went to a special screening thanks to the Woodstock Film Festival folks with my pal Peg Aloi AKA The Media Witch. There was a Q&A with producer William Horberg after.

The film stars the very tall pair, Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki, in the primary roles (I never noticed during the BBC Dracula how long Bang’s torso is) with Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland in small pivotal roles. Scott Smith, who wrote A Simple Plan, scripted the film from the novel. He reduced the overwhelming misogyny of the book somewhat (‘Really?’ Peg asked). Horberg mentioned how his pal Neil LaBute was interested in filming the novel at one point. I shudder to think.

Art, grifting, theft and criticism: the book is a lot more deliberate about the last. Smith’s script takes the central themes and turns them into plot decisions. It’s more efficient and dramatic. I’m immersed in stories of art forgery at present for a project (yeah, there’s some Ripley in it, too) so this story has been swirling around in my head. Smith focuses on how the stories we shape in turn shape who we are, but the devil is in the details.

Bang and Debicki are excellent as Figueras (the Puerto Rican identity that’s a linchpin of the novel is dropped) and Hollis. Immediately drawn to each other but infinitely wary, too; he, because he has no authenticity—she, because she has too much. As an art critic on the make, he’s easily exploited by Jagger’s smarmy art dealer Cassidy to get an exclusive: one for each of them. Per Horberg, Jagger asked for rewrites of his part. Possibly just a power move, but the character is much more clever than in the books. It’s not giving away too much to say that he send Figueras to interview reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Sutherland) and to steal a painting from the man who’s only ever had one work displayed.

Berenice exists in the novel as an excuse for Figueras to ramble about his opinions on art and criticism at length (something I have an interest in though most noir fans may skip over the pages on Becket, Dada and Surrealism quickly) and as a plot point. It’s to Smith’s credit that she’s more than that in the film. It’s to Debicki’s credit that she makes her a believable character. The sweetness of her scenes with Sutherland is delightful (Horberg’s account of how he got him for the role spells out the importance of who-you-know-Hollywood). Smith has the elder artist spouting Yeats and Shakespeare not pretentiously, but as naturally as someone with a huge store of words hoarded over the years.

But I’m not sure why they changed the frankly even cheerfully sexual character into one who’s guiltily ‘whoring around Europe’ [cue eyeroll]. Ah, modern American puritanism. She’s ‘punishing’ herself by hanging around Figueras. He’s much more desperate and on the edge. In the novel he’s grafting as well as grifting. In the film, you get the feeling he’s scraping bottom more, thus easier to manipulate as Cassidy is more than willing to do. The transfer to Italy pays off in beauty (Visconti’s villa and grounds stand in for the collector’s summer home) what it loses in the seedy specificity of Willeford’s Florida. But in what world is this a ‘romance’ spiky or not? Only the Hollywood Reporter. Beautiful cinematography (David Ungaro) and music (Craig Armstrong) help build the neo-noir ambiance.

 

Spoilerish:

 

The guilty revelation at the final unveiling works well dramatically. In the novel the resigned self-sacrifice comes because Figueras realises he’s peaked. His confession to the crime is specifically to claim a false motivation. It’s a cover-up of the other crime that’s much more important to him and his legacy as a critic. He feels triumph.

 

DEFFO SPOILERS!

 

 

 

 

 

The breakdown of the murder into two parts makes it that much more horrible. In the book Berenice is barely more than a cypher, so her only purpose on the road trip is being knocked off. In the film the first attempt is a heat-of-the-moment thing; Figueras seems shocked by his own violence and when he talks her back up the stairs to the flat, you almost believe that he regrets it. But the anger is deep; his own fears of failure. When she taunts him with the buzzing fly sound, his move is violent, sudden and final. But he is consumed by guilt and when the fellow critic points him to the ‘Mark of Cain’ the painter left—or rather, the fingerprint Berenice left on the canvas—he’s obviously stricken. There’s no triumph. Not for Figueras anyway; Berenice’s posthumous triumph hangs from the humble refrigerator door of her mother’s house.

Review: Gumshoe Blues

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GUMSHOE BLUES
Paul D. Brazill
Punk Noir Magazine

Blurb:

Following the breakdown of his marriage, in a booze addled flash of inspiration, Peter Ord decides to become a private investigator. However, is Seatown ready for him? More to the point is he ready for the Seatown’s cast of ne’er do wells, gangsters and lunatics? Peter must tackle many challenging cases, including one involving a legless crooner. When he comes under the radar of local crime lord, has he bitten off more than he can chew? With sidekicks like hack Bryn Laden failure is not an option it’s compulsory.

Review:

There is always reason to rejoice when a new Brazill book hits the streets. The northern setting of Gumshoe Blues offers a laconic pace which suits the humour and makes the stark failures of the impromptu gumshoe Peter Ord a little (dare I say it?) poignant. As Vic & Bob can tell you, Northern doesn’t always travel well down to the sunny climes. Their loss, because there’s much amusement here along with the noir-flavoured escapades. The adventures of this PI ‘feel like they rolled out of a Tom Waits song’ — crime with the feel of a shaggy dog story, complete with running jokes.

Ord’s adventures seem to ramble, but most of the colourful characters (like Tuc, the guy who tattooed his own neck looking in the mirror) and seemingly disparate threads  effortlessly web together in the end. Brazill makes it look easy. After all, the only sin is making it look like work — or playing bad music.

The world of Seatown feels so real that you’ll be sure you’ve walked those streets and heard those songs. Chances are you ran into Ord in some dark pub. He was the one in the corner in the suit beginning to fray, nursing a bad hangover and wondering how he got there. Buy him a drink. He needs it.

FFB: Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

51iefe949hl._sx317_bo1204203200_Catching up on my neglected Highsmith novels: so focused on the Ripliad lately, it’s good to remember to step aside for her other work. In her introduction Denise Mina talks about this novel being her gateway to the creepy world of Pat, completely by accident. What an introduction! This book is pure dread. It’s crime by content, but as in many of her books, the crime is hardly the main plot element. Edith’s crumbling dissolution as life keeps disappointing her is utterly terrifying as well as perfectly drawn.

It would never get published today because ‘head hopping’ is considered an insurmountable crime. Highsmith hops adroitly from Edith’s increasingly buzzing head to that of her wretched offspring, the supremely creepy Cliffie — incel supreme! — without losing the reader at all or making it too jarring. The jumping off points are well chosen. Highsmith is so good at building unsettling creepiness — Cry of the Owl and This Sweet Sickness also do that superbly. But I think the choice of this invisible middle-aged woman adds a poignant sorrow that breaks you in a way those two novels don’t.

There’s a moment when Edith stands in the little stream in her aunt’s back garden, looking up at the house where she had often been happy. She recalls a line from a Goethe lieder (this is Highsmith, you know), ‘Kennst du das Land?’ and it captures perfectly the distance between the sometime happy child and the woman completely lost in fantasy. Edith remembers the line about the roof and the pillars, but the line that really resonates is, ‘What have they done to you, poor child?’

Highsmith shows you the obvious things, like Cliffie as a child trying to kill the family cat, or her husband’s very dull, very middle-class affair — but in throwaway lines, she also lets you know the cold family life Edith had even as a child. It’s striking that as she veers into insanity the woman not only moves from left-wing political activism to bizarre right-wing diatribes (that often match the author’s opinions) but she also becomes more creative, both in writing her alternative diary-life and her self-taught sculpture. So Pat.

Check out the FFBs at Patti’s blog. Or maybe Todd’s.

Another Fine Review for LOVE IS A GRIFT

love-is-a-griftA fine new review of LOVE IS A GRIFT over at stalwart reviewer Col’s Criminal Library. He found entertaining the mix of:

Sex, drugs, drink, music, crime, robberies, guns, bikers, kidnap, witches, family feuds, take-downs, consequences, trailers and diners, fake friends, dead boyfriends and a swimming lesson, real friends and a false alarm, nasty neighbours, a werewolf PI in the background, a good deed and an oven clean, and lots more.

Col has been a great supporter of the crime community for some time. Check out his massive collection of reviews at the blog and be sure to leave him an encouraging word. He’s been kind enough to review Satan’s SororityExtricate and Smallbany, so I am eternally grateful.

Also check it out: Fahrenheit Press and F13 in the news!

Review: Worst Laid Plans/Bang Bang You’re Dead

Kicking off the Tête-bêche series from Fahrenheit Press (AKA 69Crime), it’s Aidan Thorn’s Worst Laid Plans and Nick Quantrill’s Bang Bang You’re Dead. While I am published by Fahrenheit, I paid for this book out of my own pocket, because I knew it would be a worthwhile read.

Thorn’s book has a fun premise:

Vinnie Travers, lead singer with The Down & Outs literally doesn’t know what’s hit him when his path crosses with four young lads on a night out in a borrowed Mercedes.

Andy Dickson, home alone while his parents are on holiday, is left trying to figure out how a simple night out with some mates ended with a dead body flung hastily into the backseat of his dad’s car.

But it’s not until the next morning that the fun really begins…

This fast-paced novella has a new twist around every corner. I was laughing out loud with the unexpected changes and the always brutal, black humour. It will keep you  guessing as things go from bad to worse and oh the clever plans that just go wrong. A hoot. I’ve got a soft spot for a heist gone wrong and this one just gets wronger.

Flip it over and you’ve got Quantrill’s gritty realism as a change of pace.

Fresh out of prison, Sam is back home and determined to turn his life around. Be the man his family needs him to be. But it’s not so easy going straight when you’re friends with Jonno. 

Drawn into a drugs deal involving petty local gangs, things quickly take a turn for the worse when he discovers the notorious Nolan brothers are involved. 

With simmering rivalries coming to the fore, Sam has to decide between new and old loyalties. And with old sores over his brother’s death being picked at, it’s not so simple. Especially when you have a gun in your pocket.

Things start off bad and then get worse. He’s got an eye for the downward spiral of a town run by thugs, where every choice lands you in ever hotter water. Just when you think you can’t trust anyone, help may come from an unexpected source.

Check out all the Fahrenistas and get yourself some hot sauce while it lasts.

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Limited edition!

 

Catch Up on Reviews: Harris, Simenon, Libby, Spark

Cari Mora by Thomas HarrisCARI MORA
Thomas Harris

I was really excited about a new book from Harris. His best work is hypnotic and even books of his that others have disparaged, I have greatly enjoyed (though I would have loved to see an editor push him through one more reqrite of the climactic scene of Hannibal Rising). Much of this novel is fascinating and exciting. I could have done without the constant reminders of how attractice the main character is, but her background as a child soldier was gripping and tragic. The primary antagonist, Hans-Peter Schneider, was singular and repulsive in a particularly interesting way and there were all the elements of international crime to keep the plates spinning and the tension taut. As many have mentioned, however, it all feels a bit thinly sketched. I would have loved to see a lot more of this world. The inclusion of a chapter of Red Dragon at the end just made me want to re-read that immediately. The book is gorgeous but since Penguin is doubling down on publishing and promoting fascists and anti-Semites, I don’t plan to throw money their way any time soon.

Georges Simenon - Maigret and the Good People of MontparnasseMAIGRET AND THE GOOD PEOPLE OF MONTPARNASSE
Georges Simenon

Penguin book, too, but as I found it on the shelf at the pub, I didn’t hand any money to them. A particularly good shelf that day, where I had to choose between a few good choices. I am slowly acquainting myself with the Simenon catalogue, though I think there’s something essentially Gallic missing from my sensibilities. I can appreciate Simenon without really liking him. Maybe — after listening to Andy Lawrence talk about them — I need to try some of the romans dur instead. I did enjoy the first part of the biography of the writer, but had to return it to the library when I changed countries again. Shall have to get back to that. I enjoyed this; Simenon’s style is without artifice. I always learn from reading him.

LIBBY
Milt Machlin

I have been obsessing on Libby Holman for a while now. The tragic torch singer inspired the theme song for LOVE IS A GRIFT and the film that we used in the music video. Holman was a huge star on stage, lived life to the fullest, but everything started to go wrong when she married the spoiled heir to a tobacco fortune. He shot himself but local prejudice and anti-Semitism led to Libby being charged with murder (despite her husband having a long history of suicidal tendencies and raging alcoholism). They finally give up on the trial, but from that day things seem to go south. She never quite gets her career back on track and people around her seem to die at an alarming rate — including her bizarre and needy later relationship, Montgomery Clift — and her own sad end. But she left her estate to Connecticut where its natural beauty can be shared by all. Kind of a trashy bio, but a quick read.

SYMPOSIUM
Muriel Spark

I can end on a high note: my god, Spark is a wonder. Is there anyone who can skewer quite so deftly as she? Who can whip together murder, Scots border ballads, eccentric relatives and snarky suburbanites with apparent effortlessness? Margaret worries she has the evil eye, Uncle Magnus has a purple tie, the painter would quite like to paint and not have dinner parties, the mother of the groom wants to give them a Monet even though she rather hates the bride and what’s really up with the servant and his very expensive watch. This is the kind of book where all the unexpected pieces fit together so neatly that when you finish it, it is tempting to re-read it immediately to relish the pleasure of it all. Clever, but not in the way that people usually mean that. Delightful is a better word. Savagely so. Laugh out loud funny, too.

Funny Little Frog @PunkNoirMag

After something of a dry spell I have a new short story out at Punk Noir Magazine, the DIY collective of writers and artists who just can’t (won’t) fit the mainstream. I suppose in the midst of promoting LOVE IS A GRIFT it’s absurd to say ‘dry spell’ but it was weird to realise that I hadn’t published a new short story since last year.

It’s been a weird year, but I think I’m back in the land of the living — though the landscape has changed.

‘Funny Little Frog’ of course was inspired in part by Belle & Sebastian’s song of the same title, which is a heartbreaking little tale of its own. I’m grateful to Mr B for poking me to actually listen to it. Forever on the brain jukebox now:

For a very short story, I managed to fit in another song reference:

But wait, there’s more (as the old advertisements say)! I fit a third reference in there because why write when you can steal?

Yeah, you might better know Elvis or Sir Tom but this is the first version I knew. Every note of this LP is seared on my memory. And I have duly added these songs to the list of Inspirations: Songs that Spawned Stories.

See, they’re not all Fall songs…

Congratulations!

2019-04-23 09.15.38Winner of the big prize package is S. Naomi Scott. Check out her book reviews! Her fab review of LOVE IS A GRIFT can be found here:

This is modern, fast-paced, hard-hitting neo-noir doing exactly what it’s supposed to do and doing it remarkably well.

Thanks! Every review helps. Sometimes it wins a prize.