Dilettante's Diary

June 20/11

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
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A Toast to 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
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Toronto Art Expo 2011
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The Artist Project 2010
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Notables of '09
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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Myriad Mysteries 2009
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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Toronto Art Expo '09
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The Jesus Sayings
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Stand-outs of 2008
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Summer Mysteries '07
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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Notables of 2006
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Tree of Life (Movie); Started Early, Took My Dog (Mystery); Transcendence Revisited: Anne Barkley and Serafino Catallo (Art); The Free World (Novel); Worth Dying For (Thriller); Nine Dragons (Mystery)

The Tree of Life (Movie) written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan, Laramie Eppler

This movie poses a problem about plot details. Remember our promise not to reveal any more than necessary? Trouble is, only one thing of any consequence happens in this movie. Everything flows from that. You can’t discuss the movie without knowing what that one thing is. But, since it happens at the very start of the movie, our conscience is ok with revealing it here: a married couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) have lost one of their three sons. This appears to be in the 1960s, when the son is a young adult.

For the next half hour we get one hell of an outpouring of grief. Not that mom and dad actually appear on screen much. The anguish they’re going through is represented by natural upheavals: meteorites crashing into earth, floods, waterfalls, fires, explosions, roiling clouds. Looks like a National Geographic documentary. Apparently, it’s all about how cruel life is and how relentless nature’s forces. To give an idea of how far back all the trouble goes, we get scenes of dinosaurs roaming the earth and preying on each other. Some reddish, pulsating stuff on screen looks like the conjunction of sperm and egg. Isn’t that a tiny heartbeat we’re hearing?

No dialogue through any of this: just whispered voice-overs of a soulful nature. Seems this family was church-going and God-fearing. They’re wondering how the Almighty can have done this to them. The biblical figure of Job looms large. But wait a minute -- didn't Job have a lot more to cry about than these people do? I know it’s a terrible thing to lose a child or a sibling but it begins to feel, after a while, like this married couple should get a grip on. They make the bereaved parents played by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole look like sensible, well-adjusted people even with all their moping (reviewed on Dilettante’s Diary page Jan 17/11).

Maybe I shouldn’t have tried The Tree of Life. But the fact that a movie has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes shouldn’t necessarily count as a stroke against it. Still, all those laudatory blurbs plastered over the ads for the movie should have made me wary. Not to mention the previews that screamed of melodrama and pretension. But this looked like one of these huge movie events that everybody was going to be talking about. Maybe it would be endurable.

And it is, once you abandon all hope for a conventional movie with anything as banal as a plot or a straightforward narrative. After all the cataclysmic natural disasters, we flash back to see how this oh-so-American family develops in its early years. Guess what? They have babies. They water their lawn. Weed their garden. Do Hallowe’en. Swim at the local pool. They live in the kind of wholesome small town (Texas, I think) where gentlemen tip their hats to ladies on the street. Moms working around the house always wear lovely dresses and heels.

In the midst of all this suffocating normalcy, the dad person gradually becomes interesting. Brad Pitt’s some sort of military guy, seems to have something to do with planes. But he’s also a dab hand at the piano and the organ. An inventor too; he holds lots of patents. You might say, though, that he errs on the strict side. His boys must call him "Father" not "Dad". When a kid slams the screen door, he’s forced to open and close it quietly fifty times. When the father asks if the son loves him, the answer "Yes" won’t do. The kid must answer: "Yes, sir!" Give credit to Brad Bitt, he makes this guy intriguingly complex, not just an ogre. We get a study of what could be a fairly common type of fathering of a certain era. Yes, the guy has a temper and he’s domineering (not just over the sons but also over the lovely Ms. Chastain) but he kisses and hugs his kids. And I don’t suppose it’s the actor’s fault that the character’s less kindly side kept me hoping that that’s not the way Mr. Pitt relates to all those kids he and Angelina Jolie have adopted.

Credit also should go to Hunter McCracken who plays the oldest of the three boys, the one who’s most conflicted about the old man. This young actor has an uncanny way of conveying a prepubescent boy’s struggle between bitterness and love, trust and suspicion. You can see the kid toying with his own malevolent impulses (stealing a neighbour lady’s lingerie, for instance). The boy’s relationship with one of his brothers (Tye Sheridan, I think) also makes for some good watching. Can’t think when I’ve seen a movie that showed such subtle nuances of feelings – both the good and the bad ones – between brothers.

None of this takes place in any sort of coherent, forward-moving narrative. Mostly, we get brief, inchoate scenes, many of them ending in sudden blackouts. The occasional surrealistic touch shows things like the mom lying in a glass coffin, la Snow White. At one point, the dad loses his job and the family sadly vacates their rambling home. But later they’re living in an even more spacious place and the dad’s old upright piano has been replaced by a baby grand. No hint of how that came about. In fact, we don’t even find out which son dies – or how. If there were any clues, I missed them.

But I’m guessing it was the second son because Sean Penn, the one who appears in the 21st century scenes looking back at the childhood stuff, seems to be the bitter, cynical one. He has hardly anything to say (an easy learn, this role, in terms of lines!). We just see him wandering through the glitzy high rise corporate world looking tormented and regretful – when he’s not stumbling through sci-fi desert landscapes meeting characters from his past. The final scene shows him in his business suit with hoards of people wading in tide flats on the ocean. I think the scene is supposed to say that life is tenuous, that we lose people and that we don’t want to but that it’s ok if we can accept it. For me, though, the scene was mostly about what a gas it must have been getting all those people out there on those tide flats for the filming.

It’s all very beautifully photographed. Some gorgeous choral music, along with generous dollops of symphony from Mahler, Brahams, Bach, Mozart et al, helped me to stay put for the movie's nearly two and a half hours. But I kept wanting it to end sooner.

CC: Picturesque, moody, profound and tiresome.


Started Early, Took My Dog (Mystery) by Kate Atkinson, 2010

Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories  suggested that maybe she was developing something new and pleasing in the mystery genre: not just the standard whodunnit but something more like a literary novel and yet still a mystery.  (See review on Dilettante’s Diary page titled Fall Reading 2010.) Does this latest book fulfill that promise?

Short Answer: No. Some of the literary, novelistic aspects of it make for good reading but they don’t blend well with the mystery content. The end product is unwieldy and unsatisfying, either as novel or mystery.

Long Answer (for those who expect more from Dilettante’s Diary): That title sounds the first warning note. Isn’t it a bit inept? Or is it an echo of some saying that’s well known in Britain but less so here? In any case, it doesn’t have much to do with the story. As far as I can tell, the "started early" has no relevance at all. Yes, one major character does have a dog in tow, a dog that has more or less arrived in the character’s life accidentally. But the dog’s presence doesn’t have much impact on things. Meanwhile, another major character happens to be looking after a small child who has arrived in that character’s life more or less accidentally. The parallelism between the kid-minder and the dog-minder is too darn coy.

Still, the book does present some good characters. Jackson Brodie from Case Histories, the retired cop turned PI, appears again. This time, he’s been asked to try to find the birth parents of a woman whose adopted parents took her to New Zealand to live. Brodie’s an interesting character, even if he seems somewhat less charismatic this time around. And Ms. Atkinson dawdles far too long on his background – some twenty pages. That’s ok in a novel but inexcusable in a mystery. Furthermore, it’s not easy to keep track of the various women from his past that he keeps referring to.

Another good character is Tracy Waterhouse, also a retired cop. A brawny, self-sufficient woman, she’s now head of security at a Leeds shopping mall. Her rugged, no-nonsense style, leavened with self-deprecating humour, has the feel of a very genuine contemporary woman. The review of her childhood is especially convincing. What connects Tracy to Jackson Brodie’s investigation is some skulduggery that went down when she was a young cop.

And that’s one of the major problems with the novel as a mystery. We have five or six different male colleagues of Tracy’s to keep track of. There are drunken parties, disappointed wives, threats and bewildering midnight errands. One of the cops carries far too much personal tragedy on his shoulders. Ms. Atkinson appears to be trying to do the "Barbara Vine" kind of novel that Ruth Rendell does so well: some dark deed from the past, the nature of which we may or may not know, has ominous ramifications on the present. In this case, though, the machinations from decades previously don’t come through clearly enough to engage our attention.

No question that it’s in the more literary vein that Ms. Atkinson does her best writing. Take this striking aperu: "In synopsis, Jackson’s life always sounded more dramatic than the mild ennui of living it every day." One of the minor characters, an elderly actress, is losing her memory and we sympathize keenly with her struggle to keep working. And yet, her connection to the mystery is  peripheral. In the end, she’s brought on stage to effect a small piece of business that, by way of pure coincidence, causes the undoing of one of the villains. You get the feeling that the old lady’s function as avenger gives Ms. Atkinson great satisfaction. Most mystery readers, however, prefer characters to have a more integral connection to the proceedings.

A friend of this actress, as created by Ms. Atkinson, brings to light one of the book’s major faults from a literary point of view. The friend, a more successful and prominent actress, is a bitch and a fiend in every way: stealing the other woman’s boyfriend, lying in ways that ruin the other woman’s life, etc. All this is meant to emphasize, by contrast, the sweet nature of the actress who’s the more prominent figure. But you have to wonder why a good writer would portray any of her characters in such extreme ways. One of the cops, for instance, is so racist that it’s unbelievable. And why does one of the women in Jackson’s life, a certain Julia, keep popping up in his brain with carping comments? It’s hard to see why any man would let himself listen to the barrage of negativity.

This heavy hand with some characters produces the book's most annoying feature. It’s a failing endemic to much British fiction. Let’s call it the class-consciousness thing. Like many British authors, Ms. Atkinson cannot refer to people presumed to be of a lower class without a volley of demeaning description. A prostitute’s house needs most be the most disgusting hovel. The camera she uses is necessarily "cheap". Her pyjamas are dirty. I’m not saying that no prostitute could live that way. The trouble is that these kinds of descriptions become so predictable that, instead of feeling that you’re getting an insight into life, you respond more along the lines of: oh dear, here we go again!

Further examples of trite stereotyping: a young security guard is, necessarily, "spotty". When a detective comes to call at a house, the neighbours inevitably start twitching curtains. The vegetables available in a hippie commune are "misshapen". A clerk in a convenience store chews on her hair. A concierge wears too much makeup and a suit that’s too tight. Tourists at an abbey are all fat, puffing and panting. A Goth couple have piercings "everywhere". A guy who offers Jackson a ride looks "slightly moth-eaten". Characters’ mothers are invariably cold and self-centred.

You begin to wonder why an author who is apparently capable of much better keeps falling back on these clichs. Or does this writer generally find the rest of humanity so despicable? Either way, she doesn’t make for very good company.


Transcendence Revisted: Anne Barkley and Serafino Catallo (Art); Leonardo Galleries, 133 Avenue Road, Toronto; until June 25th. www.leonardogalleries.com

In some recent shows, Anne Barkley’s work has stood out among the offerings of many other artists. (See page titled "The Artist Project 2011".) I was glad, then, to have a chance to see more of her paintings in this gallery show. Previously, it seemed to me that most of her pleasing asbstract works were composed mainly of rectangles of warm, earthy colours. In this show, several of the canvases, although still fairly abstract, depict something closer to landscapes or seascapes. The eery, evocative quality of them makes for very satisfying viewing.

To cite three of my fave’s: "Twice Upon A Dream", in cool, greyish and silvery colours, features some vertical lines that suggest a wharf against a blurry horizon with touches of gold; "Cherie 16" includes a cluster of dark shapes that look vaguely like an industrial setting (grain elevators, maybe?) but what makes the picture – for me – is a glowing rectangle in the lower right where daylight – or some sort of epiphany – seems to be breaking through; in "The Long Road Home" something that looks like a bridge rises up from a dark mass of murk and gloom.

Some of Ms. Barkley’s other paintings depict human shapes in a vague, inconclusive way, against starkly geometrical backgrounds. What I love about all the work is that it elicits strong emotional responses without insisting on any very explicit meaning. You’re left to yourself to decide what it means to you. www.annebarkley.ca

Also in a suggestive rather than a definitive mode, the paintings of Serafino Catallo feature nebulous swirls of colours that could, perhaps, be inspired by J.M.W.Turner. Although much less structured than Ms. Barkley’s paintings and more chromatically turbulent, Mr. Catallo’s works also leave nearly everything to the viewer’s imagination.


The Free World (Novel) by David Bezmozgis, 2011

The name David Bezmozgis keeps jumping out at you in every mention of brilliant new Canadian writers. The New Yorker, for instance, touted him in its latest list of up-and-coming writers under forty. His novel The Free World comes emblazoned with laudatory blurbs, from important sources, for his collection of short fiction Natasha And Other Stories. It seems, then, that anybody who cares about Canadian fiction should stop dithering about how to pronounce Mr. Bezmozgis’s name and get on with reading him.

My encounter with The Free World reminds me that a writer often makes a big splash initially by telling a story that hasn’t been told before, at least not in the mainstream. I, at any rate, knew virtually nothing about the events described here. It’s the late 1970s and Jewish migrs from Soviet Latvia are on their way to lives in other parts of the world. For some months, they’re stranded in Rome while trying to get visas for the countries they’ve chosen as their destinations. It appears that some Jewish refugee organizations are providing them with housing and sustenance for a limited time. Our main focus is on the Krasnansky family: two elderly parents, their two sons, the sons’ wives, and two little sons of one of the younger couples. The family’s initial plan to emigrate to Chicago has fallen through and they’ve now decided on Canada. One problem holding them up is that the health of the elderly father isn’t very good. That doesn’t make for a very welcome migr, as far as Canada’s immigration officials are concerned.

We learn a lot about the plight of migrs in such a situation. It’s a bleak existence – the waiting and wondering. Lots of suspicion, paranoia, alienation, disorientation and prejudice swirling around. The married sons get involved in various schemes to make money during the waiting period. Everybody’s conniving for some way to advance their own cause. Through all this, the writing is admirably spare and clean. The characters come through strongly. One of the most interesting conflicts is between the elderly father, a staunch atheist, and his daughter-in-law who, along with her mother-in-law, leans towards a more fervent expression of Judaism as a religion. A fascinating relationship develops between one of the young couples and the friendly fellow who shares his apartment with them.

But I found the book, for the most part, somewhat lacking in charm. In the first hundred pages, especially, there isn’t much to make you feel connected with these people, other than the buoyant good humour of one of the sons. (And, speaking of humour, Mr. Bezmozgis doesn’t utterly lack it, but his humour is so dry that it can slip by without your noticing.) Mr. Bezmozgis’s writing is at its best when he’s telling about a past love affair or a remembered escapade of some kind. At these points, the writing really sings. (I suspect it was some such material that was excerpted by The New Yorker.) Much of the time, though, there’s a plodding, prosaic quality to the narrative:

They had gathered at the office that morning to present themselves before a caseworker. The Joint would not furnish them with their stipend if they didn’t file papers for a destination. Rosa continued to agitate for Israel, even though two days before, Begin had officially rejected Sadat’s latest peace proposal. While in Beirut, the Syrians were shelling the Christians, and Israel was massing troops on its northern border....

Another example of "telling" that strikes a dull, matter-of-fact note:

In the immediate vicinity there were a few small houses with crumbling stucco exteriors, spaced widely apart. The last of the houses on the street looked to be uninhabited. The second to last was the one that had been converted or commandeered to serve as the body shop. Three Fiats were parked bumper to bumper to bumper just shy of the house, their body panels sanded down and blotched with primer.

What I found missing is what I’ll call "soul writing". That’s to say, a lot of interesting events are related but you don’t often get a strong sense of being inside someone’s mind, sharing that character’s feelings. A striking example of that kind of writing made me realize I’d been longing for more of it.

But what did it matter in the end? he thought as he danced with Emma, surrounded by their dwindling cohort, who danced the steps from memory and nursed the infirmities of old age. They were all obsolete, a traveling museum exhibit of a lost kind: Stalin’s Jews, unlikely survivors of repeat appointments with death. And if he allowed himself to feel any kinship with these people, what was the good of it? It was a kinship with the past. And a kinship with the past was no kinship for a revolutionary. A revolutionary allied himself only with the future. But as it sickened him to even think about the future, his revolutionary days were over.

All of this is to say that I found The Free World interesting and admirable. But it’s not a book that made me love it. And yet, apparently, lots of people do. For me, that raises the question of specificity and universality in literature. There’s a belief among the literati – not being intellectuals here, we can’t claim to state the principle exactly but we think this is the gist of it – that a piece of writing can be very specific in its context, yet universal in its message. For instance, you can be writing about some hidden life in the back-of-beyond and yet, if your thoughts are deep enough, the material can have meaning for all of humanity. Think of Emily Dickinson, in her circumscribed world, scribbling poems that became immortal. Or Bruce Frederick Cummings, in his Journal of a Disappointed Man, writing about his curtailed life in a way that produced a classic.

That principle came in for some questioning hereabouts, given my response to The Free World. It seemed to me that some of the book was too specific in some respects. The details about the migrs plight, the problems they had to contend with, didn’t always translate into something relevant for me. In one long speech, for instance, one of the migrs stranded in Rome answers a question as to whether, given a choice, he would like to return to the USSR or to Israel, both being places where he has lived. Considerable detail is given to the matter. I can see that the question was important to that character, and maybe of interest to many readers, but what application might it have for the rest of us?

On the other hand, you can get a very specific issue in The Free World where the reflection on it does truly have wide-spread implications. For instance, the elderly father of the Krasnansky family is reflecting on the fact that he was fortunate when the Soviets took over Latvia in the 1940s, because he had already become a card-carrying Communist. His cousin, Yankl, who had become a Zionist, was markedly less lucky. But his cousin had said, at the time, that it was just a case of betting on the wrong horse. Now, many years later, the old man in The Free World is thinking:

That night it had seemed that Yankl’s horse had lost. Nearly forty years later, this was no longer so. Now it seemed instead that Yankl had prematurely conceded the race. But the race had continued. The horses went around and around the track indefinitely, switching places. The race was never lost or won. All that happened was that, in the interim, men died. The trick was to die at the right moment, consoled by the perception of victory.

To me that’s an example of a precise set of circumstances that give rise to a thought with meaning for all readers. Without more of that kind of thing, a book runs the risk of appealing mainly to readers who have social, political or historical ties to the book’s specific context. I’m thinking, for example, of how my father eagerly devoured any book on Ireland’s "Troubles". Anything that speaks directly to political issues that you and/or your people have lived through is bound to appeal to you in a way that it might not to another reader. Nothing excites people more than seeing their own lives reflected in a movie or a novel. As one of the women in this book says, regarding Fiddler on the Roof, which she has watched in rapture eight times: "In Russia, God forbid they should ever have a Jewish character in a film. But in America they made a whole movie about us."


Worth Dying For (Mystery/Thriller) by Lee Child, 2010

You may remember the full-page ads for this one when it appeared last year. They worried me. When an author’s work gets that kind of publicity, you wonder how it can possibly live up to the expectations. So much hype is usually a sign that the authentic genius that fuelled the earlier work has been diluted and what you’re going to get now is a bloated, ersatz version of the real thing.

So I’m happy to report – with some astonishment – that this Jack Reacher adventure hits the same high mark as the best of the earlier ones. Or it comes close enough, let’s say, to be thoroughly satisfying.

This time, Reacher finds himself stranded in a small town where his ride has let him off. (The tale follows close on the heels of the previous Reacher, 61 Hours.) In a forsaken bar, he overhears a doctor refusing to take a house call from a battered woman because he’s too drunk to drive. As we might expect, our Reacher steps up and demands the doctor’s keys. Reacher’s going to drive the doctor to the woman’s house. Thus, Reacher gets involved in the problems of the woman, the main one being that her husband belongs to a clan that has a stranglehold on the surrounding community. Given the family’s transportation monopoly, no farmer gets his or her produce trucked unless he or she plays along with the family’s very demanding agenda.

That family’s dominance is one aspect of the book that made it slightly less convincing for me than other Reacher novels. Sinister though these guys are, there’s a slightly over-the-top feel to their machinations. Is it plausible that the men – three brothers and the son of one of them – could keep an entire community of adults in such a tight grip? What makes the situation even more problematic is that the community members have a telephone tree whereby they constantly communicate with one another about the bad guys’ latest moves. If said baddies had such complete control, wouldn’t they shut down any such phone tree?

But the more bothersome element of the story has to do with the trucking family's sideline. Clearly, they’re importing some pricey contraband (we don’t find out until late in the book what it is). There’s been a problem in their supply chain, so they use the fact that Reacher’s snooping around as an excuse for the delays in delivery. This causes the higher-ups in the chain to send their henchmen to town to apply pressure and to see if the Reacher excuse is valid. That sounds reasonable enough plot-wise but it’s hard to separate the identities of these various goons. We have Italians, Iranians and Saudis mixing things up. What’s worse is that their involvement feels rather tangential to Reacher.

Never mind. The allure of his persona is strong enough to carry us through the  passages where he doesn’t appear. All the best Jack Reacher traits are here. Most notably, his knack for processing information more quickly than other people can. For instance, when two guys are coming at him with blunt weapons, he figures out pretty much exactly what’s going to happen. And then, there’s his psychological savvy, as when he tells us how he elicits information from a complete stranger by faking a personal connection: "An old, old process, exploited by fortune-tellers everywhere. Steer a guy through an endless series of yes-no, right-wrong questions, and in no time at all a convincing illusion of intimacy built itself up. A simple psychological trick, sharpened by listening carefully to answers, feeling the way, and playing the odds."

His expertise in dealing with violence comes, of course, from his background in the military police. I love his quips, as when he leaves two thugs stone cold on the pavement of a parking lot. A woman who was watching his battle with them comments on how angry Reacher was. "I wasn’t angry," he tells her. "I was barely interested. If I had been angry we’d be cleaning up with a fire hose." Reacher’s weaknesses are acknowledged, too. While he may be very smart and very strong, he’s not light on his feet. He’s at a disadvantage when forced to run. Still, his fight with a truck that’s trying to corner him makes for a bravura scene. (Guess who wins.) Over and above his duties as an action hero, Reacher even does a bit of sleuthing in the case of a little girl who disappeared from the community years ago.

Provided you can live with the vigilante-style justice that Reacher dishes out, what makes him so captivating is that, yes, he’s too good to be true, but author Lee Child explains Reacher’s character well enough that you want to believe he might just be for real. His attitude to pain for instance. When he needs to re-set his own broken nose, he talks himself through the pain, using techniques he developed as a kid. Which is not to say that Reacher’s all tough and stoical. Given the right circumstances, he can draw on his sensitive side. Here, he’s trying to persuade a bereaved mother not to make a bad decision, so he calls on the dead child’s persona to bolster his case.

Pretend she grew up. Imagine what she would have become. She wouldn’t have been a lawyer or a scientist. She loved flowers. She loved colors and forms. She would have been a painter or a poet. An artist. A smart, creative person. In love with life, and full of common sense, and full of concern for you, and full of wisdom. She’d look at you and she’d shake her head and smile and she’d say, come on, Mom, do what the man says.

What a guy! But what about author Child’s way with other characters? A couple of women raised some doubts. Both the battered woman encountered at the outset and the doctor’s wife turn out to be pale, unmemorable characters, so much so that you can barely tell them apart except for their names and their situations. But Mr. Child proves by way of another person – a widow, the mother of the missing child – that he can create a powerful, impressive female character when he wants to.

And when it comes to writerly skill, we can’t close without mentioning those breathless riffs Mr. Child can toss off – like this one at the climax of the novel, where Reacher in a truck runs down one of the worst villains (whom I’ll call X, so as not to spoil the suspense): "It caught X flat on his back, everywhere from his knees to his shoulders, like a two-ton bludgeon, and Reacher felt the impact and X’s head whipped away out of view, instantaneously, like it had been sucked down by amazing gravity, and the truck bucked once, like there was something passing under the rear left wheel, and then the going got as smooth as the dirt would let it."


Nine Dragons (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2009

I don’t know whether the bland feel of this book had something to do with my reading it just after Lee Child’s excellent Worth Dying For (see review above). At any rate, it was hard to believe at times that, in Nine Dragons, we were reading the work of the man who created such taut a thriller as The Lincoln Lawyer (reviewed on Dilettante's Diary page dated Nov 11/09). Or that we were dealing here with the Harry Bosch who was the sterling hero of such earlier works as Blood Work and Echo Park. (The latter was reviewed on the Dilettante’s Diary page dated Aug 23/09.) Here Bosch seems a pale shadow of his former self.

In this outing, he’s investigating the murder of an elderly Chinese man who was shot through the chest in his small, not-very-profitable liquor store in an impoverished district of LA. It quickly develops that this appears to be a reprisal killing by an Asian extortion gang. Most of the investigation plays out as a routine police procedural. Mind you, some interesting stuff emerges about those routines. Did you know that it’s so ruinously expensive to run a wire tap that police departments seldom do so? But most of the rigmarole described doesn’t sound much different from what you’d get in the average tv crime show, if you watch them (which I don’t). In typical tv style (I gather), the supposed conflicts between Bosch and various colleagues come across as clumsy attempts to beef up the drama.

When the case suddenly takes a turn that impacts on Bosch in a more personal way, the setting moves to Hong Kong. Now we get large dollops of what amount to not much more than travelogue. However, an action-packed climax to this section works well. Back in the LA, you might think the story is over. But no, the final section of the book turns out to be intriguing, with some big surprises. At last, we’re getting Michael Connelly’s writing at its best. Take this, about a woman who has just come through a trauma: "She soon spoke again, her mind like a balloon caught in the wind, touching down here and there on unpredictable currents." So maybe it’s not unreasonable to hope that author Connelly will come back at the top of his game next time.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com