Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Big Fix by Vikas Singh, 2013

Review & Interview

“There’s twenty lakhs in there,” said the conduit. “As a gesture of goodwill, I’m going to let you keep it. There will be more later, if you do what I tell you. Fail me, and I’ll send another bag to your family, this time with your head in it.”

No other sport captures the imagination of an entire nation as cricket does in India. Football enjoys that distinction on a global scale. More than half of the 1.60-odd billion cricket fans worldwide are in the subcontinent and the bulk of these are in India, where cricket is a religion and cricketers are worshipped like gods. Curiously, while cricket has been the subject of academic and biographical books, it has never had a formal run in fiction, until Vikas Singh decided to score one. He may have set a precedent.

The Big Fix by the Delhi-based journalist is a fast-paced thriller that plays out both on and off the field, inside and outside the stadium. There is cricket, the game itself, played with familiar passion and intensity, a betting syndicate run by the mafia, unscrupulous businessmen, tainted players, a high-profile murder, and a police investigation.

The story is narrated in first person by its two principal characters, Shaurya Chauhan, the skipper of Capital Cavaliers, and Mitakshara, a dauntless crime reporter, in the backdrop of an explosive cricket championship called T20 and spot- and match-fixing scandals that threaten to derail the Cavaliers’ chances of winning the trophy.

In a Twenty20, the official term, each side with 11 players bowls a maximum of 20 overs of six balls each. The team that scores the highest wins the match although even scores can lead to a tiebreaker. The high scoring and electrifying nature of the game has endeared it to millions of cricket fans. T20 teams consist of players from around the world. It is the fastest and most advanced form of the game as opposed to the equally fast scoring 50-over ODI (one-day international) and the traditional five-day Test match that purists insist is the only way to play the game. The Indian Premier League is the official T20 championship in India. Held annually, the nearly dozen teams are sponsored by corporate houses and film stars with the tacit support of political bigwigs on one hand and punters and bookies on the other. The game is a money-spinner.

A T20 cricket match is a batsman’s dream and a bowler’s nightmare. A batsman doesn't just hit the ball, he bludgeons it, like in baseball or Quidditch. Shaurya, a top-order batsman, is struggling with his form and is easy target for opposition bowlers which puts his captaincy under a cloud. An in-form teammate is waiting to step into his shoes and lead the Capital Cavaliers. The explosive batsman almost gets his wish as Howard Jensen, the popular South African coach of the team, tells Shaurya to step down and let his teammate captain the remaining matches.

The next day Jensen is found unconscious in his hotel room with an injury to his head and the last person he met was Shaurya. The finger of suspicion points at the captain of the Cavaliers and the Delhi Police Crime Branch comes sniffing like a bloodhound. Matters get worse for Shaurya when his comatose coach eventually dies.

Who killed Howard Jensen and why? Was it Shaurya Chauhan? Was it one or more of the players with links to bookies and the mafia? Or was it someone influential with a sinister plan of his or her own?

Final word
The Big Fix is a finely crafted whodunit that keeps you guessing about the identity of the suspect and his or her motive until the end. In the midst of it all Vikas Singh entertains you with a ball-by-ball account of some exciting cricket, which is central to the mystery, even as Shaurya regains more than just his form with the bat. He also finds Mitakshara, the beautiful reporter with a hidden agenda of her own.

I know next to nothing about baseball but if a baseball fan had written this novel, I’d have enjoyed it, just as someone unfamiliar with cricket will find The Big Fix a racy story with a little humour.

The author
Vikas Singh, Resident Editor of The Times of India, Delhi, loves cricket and reading. The “self-confessed word addict” is already working on his second novel, “a Woody Allenesque romance” as he told this blog in an engaging interview (see below). He has also co-authored a brief history of knowledge titled The Know of Things. Vikas lives in Delhi with his wife and daughter.

The author spoke to the 3Cs in an email interaction organised by his publisher, Westland Ltd, Chennai, which sent me a review copy of The Big Fix. A Kindle edition of the book is available at Amazon for readers abroad. I have split the interview into three parts: the book, the characters, and the author. Over to Vikas Singh...

‘Hardly any fiction is written about a game
packed with drama and thrills as cricket’


Prashant C. Trikannad: How do you relate to cricket? Did you play the game or are you a fan like millions of Indians?
Vikas Singh: Like most Indians, I passionately love cricket. I've played the game a lot for fun, though not at any serious competitive level. However, luckily for me, my job (I’m Resident Editor of The Times of India, Delhi) allows me to interact a fair bit with cricketers and support staff. I've also had the opportunity to cover some of the most memorable moments of Indian cricket, including India’s victory in the World Cup, Sachin Tendulkar’s double century in an ODI and, most recently, his very emotional 200th Test and retirement (India-born Tendulkar is a cricket legend and the highest run-getter in the history of the game).

You have written the cricketing aspect of The Big Fix like a professional cricketer right down to the last ball and the last run. How well do you know the game?
Over the years, I've had the opportunity to spend some time talking about the technical and mental side of cricket with players like Sir Viv Richards, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, and Yuvraj Singh, and I also get to interact regularly with sports journalists. Plus, there have been tons of autobiographies and other books by cricketers, all of which I’ve devoured. All those insights came in very handy while writing The Big Fix.

Author and journalist Vikas Singh 

What prompted you to ground your debut novel on cricket?
I had always found it strange that hardly any fiction is written about a game that is so inherently packed with drama and thrills as cricket. There have been many outstanding non-fiction works, but good novels based on cricket have been few and far between. The honourable exceptions include Chinaman and The Zoya Factor, but even they didn’t really provide the cricketer’s perspective. As a reader, you don’t get to inhabit the players’ minds during those tense last-ball finishes. Why do some players thrive under pressure, while others crack? To me, that’s one of the most fascinating mysteries of cricket.

Simultaneously, there have been lots of real-life controversies. There was Bob Woolmer’s dramatic death in the 2007 World Cup, and the conviction of three Pakistani cricketers for spot-fixing in 2010. Last year, India TV did a sting operation which seemed to show some little-known players openly discussing fixing. And, of course, this year there were allegations concerning S. Sreesanth and other players from Rajasthan Royals. I thought if I could combine the on-field action with an off-field whodunit, it would make for an interesting book. So that’s what I set out to do. How far I succeeded is for readers to judge.

Did you meet with current or former cricketers, senior police and cricket board officials, and sports journalists to research for your book?
Yes, though for obvious reasons, they prefer to stay off the record. The one police officer I've mentioned in the acknowledgements is Satyendra Garg, who’s now IG, Law & Order, in Arunachal Pradesh, but was in Delhi while I was writing the book. He spent a lot of time explaining investigation procedures and techniques to me, though we didn’t specifically discuss the fixing case since he wasn't involved in those investigations. Incidentally, I’m part of a panel discussion on December 7 at the Times Literary Carnival with Neeraj Kumar, the former Commissioner of Delhi who actually led the investigations. It’s a session that I’m really looking forward to.

How much of the events in the story are based on real betting incidents in the cricketing world?
I’d say about 50 per cent is based on stuff that actually happened, or was rumoured to have taken place, while the remaining 50 per cent is pure imagination. It’s up to readers to figure out which is which!

The novel is told in the present tense and Shaurya Chauhan and Mitakshara, the two main protagonists, narrate their individual stories in the first person. Do you think readers would be comfortable with this approach?
I certainly hope so. The way I visualised the book, there would be two parallel storylines–one, the cricketing action, and two, the investigations and finally, they would converge at the climax. I was keen on Shaurya’s perspective because I wanted to make sure that the cricket part of the story didn’t get relegated to the periphery. But there was no way Shaurya could have known about all the stuff going on in the investigations, so you needed another point of view. It could, of course, have been the chief investigator’s perspective but having Mitakshara allowed me to bring in a romantic angle.

Have any cricketers read The Big Fix? If yes, what did they think of it?
Former India player Deep Dasgupta tweeted that he loved the book. Another former India player, Aakash Chopra, tweeted that if you’re into cricket, The Big Fix is a must-read. I really like reading Aakash’s columns, and I think he explains the technical nuances of the game better than anybody else, so I was quite thrilled that he enjoyed the book. Leading cricket websites like cricbuzz and cricketcountry have praised the book, as has Wisden India. And yes, some players who are currently playing have told me that they enjoyed reading the book, but are reluctant to say so publicly since some rather powerful individuals are being probed right now.

Do you think your novel will be of interest to readers in the non-cricketing nations?
Well, the South Asian diaspora is present in virtually every part of the world, so I’m sure the book will find readers even in countries which aren't usually associated with cricket. Of course, even if everybody who likes cricket reads the book, that’s a fairly large audience by itself!


I cannot help this question: is the character of Howard Jensen based on the English-born cricketer and international coach Bob Woolmer who died in 2007 under mysterious circumstances in a hotel room in Jamaica?
Well, the circumstances in which Bob Woolmer died certainly acted as a catalyst for my imagination. Of course, it was finally concluded officially that he died of natural causes, but conspiracy theorists remain unconvinced. Bob’s death was a terrible tragedy for his family and the world of cricket, and I have absolutely no desire to trivialise it. But it did act as a starting point for the book, though I have to say that the personality of Howard Jensen, and the final explanation in the book for his death, bears no resemblance whatsoever to Bob Woolmer and his life.

Can you put a real name or face on Shaurya Chauhan or is he an imaginary character who resembles one or more Indian cricketers?
About 50 per cent of Shaurya’s characteristics are a mixture of some of my favourite cricketers. The balance 50 per cent comes from my imagination. I can name the players but I think it would be a lot more fun for readers if they figured it out for themselves. It’s not particularly hard, really.

In the book Shaurya Chauhan comes across as a perfect specimen of a human being. Is his flawless character meant to send a message to a game tainted by match fixing scandals as well as to its many practitioners?
I don’t think he’s flawless. He’s stubborn and argumentative, and often loses his cool, much to his regret. As a captain, he tends to be authoritarian and takes some rather risky decisions, like plucking a teenager literally out of nowhere and throwing him straight into a big match. But yes, he’s clean and untainted by fixing. When I was writing the book, I met many people who told me they had lost interest in cricket because of the numerous fixing scandals. In a sense, the book reflected my angst as a cricket lover, particularly because I know that there are still some players who’re fiercely devoted to the game and will never stoop to unethical practices. I wanted Shaurya to symbolically represent these players.

Incidentally, I was very tempted to throw in one line at the end, where Shaurya looks at a bookie kingpin seated in the audience and winks at him. That would have given the book a real O’Henry-kind of twist in the tail. But it would also have been a betrayal of the character of Shaurya Chauhan and everything he stands for. So finally, I went with the present ending.

Mitakshara, the second major character in your novel, has the scoop of a lifetime but her feelings for Shaurya prevent her from writing her story and although she is around until nearly the end, I thought her role ended abruptly. Can you talk about her characterisation?
Well, you will get to see a lot more of Mitakshara in my next book, in which she really comes into her own. Obviously, I’m biased, but I do think that she’s one of the feistiest female characters you’ll encounter. She’s smart, sassy, loyal, and affectionate. And she has a strong sense of fair play, which is why she doesn’t break the scoop to begin with, because she doesn’t want Shaurya to be condemned even before he’s had a chance to prove his innocence.


Vikas, how long did you take to write The Big Fix? Can you briefly take me through your writing process? For instance, how many words did you write everyday?
From the time I wrote the first line of The Big Fix to the time I wrote the last line, it took me exactly 43 days. I guess the story must have been bubbling away at the back of my mind for a while, because once I actually sat down to write it, it just flowed. I have a slightly weird work day, in the sense that I go into office in the afternoon and stay till well past midnight, so I had kept the mornings to write. I gave myself a target of writing about 500 words every day. But on most days, I found myself doing about 1,500 words. For me, the hard part was not the writing but forcing myself to stop!

I assume your next book is a suspense thriller called Another Time, Another Place. Would you like to tell me more about it?
My working title for the book was Love And Other Terrors, though I think we’ll finally publish it as Another Time, Another Place. It’s a Woody Allenesque romance that suddenly transforms into a thriller, with a terror plot thrown in. Yogi Mehta, who gets a one-line reference in The Big Fix (on Page 207), is one of the major characters. And, of course, so is Mitakshara. It’s not exactly a sequel to The Big Fix, because there’s no cricket involved, but it takes Mitakshara’s story forward and some other characters from The Big Fix also pop in and out of the book.

What kind of books do you read, in what genres, and who are some of your favourite writers?
It’s a long, eclectic list and includes John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro (I was delighted she won the Nobel this year, though I was hoping that Murakami would get it), Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Conn Iggulden, Rick Riordan, George RR Martin (please God, don’t let him die before he completes the Game of Thrones series), JRR Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, P.G. Wodehouse, Larry Gonick, Neil Gaiman, and Lee Child (Jack Reacher is one of my favourite literary characters, though having Tom Cruise play him is a mistake IMHO. I’d like to see Cruise and Hugh Jackman switch roles, with Cruise playing Wolverine and Jackman Reacher. That would be a much closer match to the original physical descriptions of the characters).

According to your profile, your house in Delhi has more books than furniture. What is your private library like?
It tends to change quite a bit, because every few months, when it becomes hard to find seating space for guests, I give away lots of books to friends, colleagues, libraries, and NGOs. I try to make sure that I match the books to the tastes of the people who are getting them–I want the books I give away to find loving homes. Though, some old favourites stay with me–mostly books written by the authors mentioned above.

Finally, what do you think of current Indian writing in English?
There’s obviously a very strong literary tradition of Indian writing in English. Among the authors who’re currently active, I have a lot of admiration for Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Amitav Ghosh. But I'm also delighted to see the emergence of a new generation of very interesting, commercially successful Indian popular writers. Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi top the list, of course. But people like Piyush Jha, Madhulika Liddle, Anuja Chauhan, and Ravi Subramanian are pretty readable too.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

10 animated films with the best voices (ever)

I enjoy reading and compiling trivia. They’re a source of amusement. Especially so if they consist of lists of this, that, and the other, which being subjective are open to scrutiny, criticism, and ridicule. Trivia are little titbits that you often find in small boxes and units as part of a larger story in a newspaper or magazine.

My earliest introduction to published trivia was The Book of Lists series compiled by the family troika of bestselling author Irving Wallace, his son, historian David Wallechinsky, and his daughter, writer Amy Wallace. Their people’s almanac covered such unusual and absurd topics as “Breeds of dogs which bite people the most, and the least” and “Famous people who died during sexual intercourse.” I don’t know if the almanac is still around.

British actor Jeremy Irons lent his deep
voice to the evil Scar in The Lion King.
This week, for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom, I decided to introduce an occasional post on trivia in films, starting with some of my favourite animated movies with the best voices (ever). I've selected these from the films I have seen and remember the most off the top of my head. I've left out several pre-1960 classic animated movies like Bambi, Cinderalla, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and Pinocchio as well as many others made in the 1970s & 1980s for the reason that while I have seen most of these animated films, I don’t remember the voice overs.

But ten is a good number, and here they are in order of release and some of the finest voice overs in the business.

01. The Jungle Book, 1967
Best voice: George Sanders as Shere Khan, the Tiger.

02. Beauty and the Beast, 1991
Best voice: Robby Benson as the spellbound Beast.

03. The Lion King, 1994
Best voice: Jeremy Irons as Scar, Simba’s evil uncle.

04. 101 Dalmatians, 1996
Best voice: Glenn Close as dog-hater Cruella De Vil.

05. Shrek, 2001
Best voice: Eddie Murphy as Donkey, Shrek’s friend.

06. Ice Age, 2002
Best voice: Ray Romano as Manfred, the mammoth.

07. The Polar Express, 2004
Best voice: Tom Hanks as the young boy, conductor, and Santa Claus among other roles.

08. Madagascar, 2005
Best voice: Sacha Baron Cohen as Julien, the lemur and a self-proclaimed king.

09. Ratatouille, 2007
Best voice: Peter O’Toole as the intimidating food critic Anton Ego.

10. Rango, 2011
Best voice: Johnny Depp as Rango, the chameleon who becomes sheriff in Wild West.

If I were to pick any one that I like the most, I'd have no hesitation in choosing Beauty and the Beast followed by The Jungle Book, The Lion King, Ice Age, and Ratatouille as my top five. It's one of the most beautiful films I've seen. It's a story of love, courage, betrayal, compassion, and sacrifice, revolving around the unlikely pair of Beauty (Paige O'Hara as Belle) and the Beast (Robby Benson). One of the things I liked about this film is Belle’s hunger for books, her thirst for knowledge, even if it means reading the same books again from her village library. And then she meets Beast and steps inside his spectacular library. I reviewed this film last year. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Gentleman from Mississippi by Thomas A. Wise, 1910

For Friday’s Forgottern Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“Senator Langdon is picked out by dishonest men in Washington to be used as their tool in the Senate. But the ‘tool’ proves to be sharp at both ends and cuts the men who mean to cheat the people.”

 A Gentleman from Mississippi, a post-Civil War novel by writer-actor Thomas A. Wise, is based on a successful play of the same title produced by Joseph Rhode Grismer and William A. Brady in 1908-09. Grismer and Brady were stage actors and were closely associated with theatre. The play was acted out 407 times at the Bijou Theatre in Tennessee. There is, however, some confusion over the authorship of the book which, aside from Wise, is credited to two other gentlemen named Frederick R. Toombs and Harrison Garfield Rhodes. My edition of the ebook had only Wise’s name.

Colonel William H. Langdon, a wealthy plantation owner from Mississippi, is elected to the United States Senate through the influence of James Stevens, his close friend and senior Senator from the state, Martin Sanders, head of the seven counties, Senator Peabody of Pennsylvania, and Charles Norton, a junior Congressman from Mississippi. They have conspired to send ‘Big Bill’ Langdon to the Upper House of the Congress because of a misplaced conviction that he will serve their vested interests.

While Langdon is ecstatic on his election to the Senate and dreams of serving his countrymen with honesty and sincerity, he is no puppet. He refuses to fall prey to the political intrigues and machinations in Washington, spearheaded by corrupt and unscrupulous politicians and lobbyists like Peabody, the powerful Boss of the Senate.

The story revolves around the siting of a new hundred-million dollar naval base in the South. Peabody and his cronies nominate Langdon on the powerful Committee on Naval Affairs in the hope that he will vote as they dictate, in favour of Altacoola instead of Gulf City. They have bought acres of land in Altacoola and stand to make a killing on their investment. But Langdon is no pushover. The proud and feisty Southern planter takes the ‘crooks’ head-on with help from an unlikely quarter, Bud Haines, an intrepid New York journalist whose cynicism of Washington politics and its politicians is overturned by this simple and sincere man from Mississippi. Together, Langdon and his faithful ally turn the tables on Peabody and company.

There are some interesting elements in this story. For instance, Langdon is crestfallen when he finds out that his son, Randolph, and daughter, Carolina, have conspired against him by investing his money in Altacoola. His daughter is engaged to the scheming Charles Norton who has convinced the two impressionable youngsters to cast their lot with him and work towards getting the Colonel and Haines separated. Another daughter, Hope Georgia, realises Haines is a good man and falls in love with him. Langdon is distraught over his children’s behaviour and shows them the error of their ways with an impassioned talk on the importance of righteousness above all things.

Final word
A Gentleman from Mississippi is the delightful story of a kind and genial old man who puts his moral principles—right against wrong, honesty against corruption—above power and pelf and any gains through ill-gotten means. Colonel William H. Langdon is a proud and an honourable man who still believes that politics is a career for gentlemen, a necessity for the service of his state or his country, in spite of his initial brush with unprincipled men like Peabody. In some ways Thomas A. Wise has painted the planter as a naïve and an innocent man but by no means foolish. As Langdon says, “No doubt, it won't be all plain sailing in Washington for an old-fashioned man like me, but I believe in the American people and the men they send to Congress.” He aims to be one of those men.

Colonel Langdon is an excellent byproduct of the South, honest, hardworking, and conscientious, an aspect that the author repeatedly weaves into his narrative. Langdon, the current patriarch of a long line of wealthy Langdons, is proud of being a Southerner and now that the war is over, he wants to enter public life for the benefit of the South, his own state of Mississippi, and the country as a whole.  

Thomas A. Wise has written a powerful character-driven novel that is as relevant to politicians and the people who elect them into office today as it was over a hundred years ago.

The author
Interestingly, Thomas A. Wise was an English-born American stage actor who starred in some half-a-dozen films including A Gentleman from Mississippi, 1914, in which he played the role of William H. Langdon. He had a successful stage career, including on Broadway, spanning over forty years.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bud Spencer and Terence Hill

A look at the largely forgotten comedy pair of Italian actors and filmmakers for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Bud Spencer and Terence Hill
If anyone took over the legacy of slapstick comedy from the innocent pair of Laurel and Hardy, it was the boisterous duo of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill—Italian actors Carlo Pedersoli and Mario Girotti.

Although their films were different, their characters were similar in many ways. Bud Spencer was to Terence Hill what Oliver Hardy was to Stan Laurel—dominating yet protective. The two big men considered their thinnish equivalents a pain in the neck. While Laurel and Hill didn’t mind playing second fiddle to their heavyweight partners, they often pulled a trick or two on their unsuspecting pals, especially Hill, who often had to think for himself and the brawny Spencer and come out with ingenious ways to involve the big man in some caper or the other, prank or crime. Spencer talked with his fists. Together, they played various roles including cops, cowboys, and missionaries, thumping their way in and out of situations with hilarious results.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
I grew up watching the nearly hundred Laurel and Hardy films and some twenty Bud Spencer-Terence Hill movies neither of which have aged since they were made. I still watch them and they hold up well.

Having spent so much time together it is no surprise that both “couples” were the best of friends. Bud Spencer, 84, and Terence Hill, 74, still are, as were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in their time.

Asterix and Obelix
The Laurel-Hardy and Spencer-Hill double act reminds me of the most famous comedy duo in comic-books, Asterix and Obelix, the two pigtailed Gaulish warriors whose village has been holding out against Julius Caesar's empire. Asterix and Obelix have simple goals in life: bash up Romans and hunt wild boar though they often set out on "dangerous" adventures (dangerous for the Romans, that is).  Asterix was created by the Franco-Belgian pair of René Goscinny who wrote the comics and Albert Uderzo who illustrated them.

My idea of spending a few holidays would be to sit with all their films and comics—good, clean, wholesome comedies.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Captain Phillips and Thor: The Dark World, 2013

Last week, I saw these two new films over two evenings. They were both worth going to the theatre. While there is no comparison between the real-life story of a merchant navy captain kidnapped by Somali pirates and that of the hammer-wielding Norse god who must protect the universe from annihilation, I preferred Captain Phillips over Thor: The Dark World.

Captain Phillips is not exactly a suspense film but it had me on the edge of my seat from the time Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) of the Maersk Alabama spots, through a pair of binoculars, a small group of armed men pursuing the mighty US freighter in their tiny boats. He has just read an email warning him of pirates in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Somalia and along the Horn of Africa, and so he knows who they are and what they are capable of. 

Over the next gruelling one hour director Paul Greengrass (United 93) yanks you out of your seat and puts you first on the bridge of the Alabama and then inside the cramped lifeboat, in the midst of the weed-chewing skeletal pirates and their hostage, Captain Phillips. There is no escape for captain courageous or you.

The real Captain Phillips and
the book he wrote.
I’d like to think of the film—based on the real Captain Richard Phillips who captained Maersk Alabama in 2009 and was actually taken hostage—as an action-adventure documentary that chronicles the harrowing experience of the captain and his rescue by navy seals. Incidentally, the Alabama was the first US cargo ship to be held hostage by Somali pirates in America’s 200-year old history.

Take Tom Hanks out of the film and you could actually be watching a plain documentary. Towards the end of the film the bearded Hanks, somewhat, reprises the role of Chuck Noland, the screaming and mentally-wrecked survivor in Cast Away (2000), admirably, as he realises the full import of his rescue and gives in to his bottled-up emotions. Until then, the captain is a picture of grace under pressure. 

Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), as two of the four Somali pirates, are superb if scary as hell. They could give local gangsters a run for their casino money.

Captain Phillips is a different kind of film: just one top-billed actor, a whole lot of minor actors, and a stripped-down script. The enactment of Somali piracy is true to life. It's the most engrossing film I've seen so far in 2013.

I also liked Thor: The Dark World, directed by Alan Taylor (The Sopranos, and Terminator, 2015) on three main counts: the special effects-induced Asgard, the abode of the Norse gods and the illuminated journey through intergalactic space; Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the animated and adoptive brother who envies and hates Thor, and is set to make a comeback in the third installment; and Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the Spock-like leader of the Dark Elves race who wants to repossess Aether, the ultimate space weapon that will enable him to destroy the universe.

Oh, and Stellan Skarsgård runs naked around Stonehenge with cops in hot pursuit. What was that all about? And before I forget, Chris Helmsworth as the hammer-wielding Thor and Natalie Portman as the Aether-possessed Jane Foster put in a fine performance.

I’d have understood Thor better if an astrophysicist were sitting next to me and explaining all about the forces of gravity that make Thor look like a bouncing ball.

The film that I’m looking forward to seeing is Last Vegas (2013), a comedy about four sixty-plus childhood friends—Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline, and Morgan Freeman—who go to Las Vegas on a fun-trip. While Kline is a very good actor, I’d have preferred Jack Nicholson. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Perjury by Stan Latreille, 1998

Patti Abbot hosts Friday’s Forgotten Books at her blog Pattinase.

“Poised to join the ranks of Scott Turow and Richard North Patterson, trial judge Stan Latreille has firmly established himself as a master of courtroom suspense. Perjury is his stunning debut, a bold thriller about lies, sex, and the conflict between law and justice…”

My copy of the book.
It has been a while since I purchased any books from the secondhand bookstalls I frequent. I have promised myself that I won’t buy any more new or old novels, at least not until I read a quarter of the 200-odd physical books in my possession. There’s only so much paper you can have around the house. However, I occasionally buy ebooks from Amazon, my comfort levels with an e-reader having gone up considerably.

Sometimes I break my promise, as I did a couple of days ago when I’d no hesitation in picking up Perjury, a 375-page legal thriller by Stan Latreille. The cover and a new author were the motivating factors. Library Journal described it as “a striking debut…in the tradition of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.”

For over two decades Stan Latreille, 76, was a trial judge in Michigan presiding over murder and rape trials, complex civil cases, and family litigation. Prior to a career in law, he was a newspaper reporter and editor for ten years. The retired Livingston Circuit Court judge is working on his second novel, tentatively titled Absolution, and blogs at The Livingston Post. Latreille also offers his services as a visiting judge and a case mediator and arbitrator.

While I have not read Perjury yet, the synopsis on the back cover has prompted me to move it way up my list of books to read in the immediate future. It promises a sensitive and delicate story, for it says…

“Jack Brenner, a burned-out public defender from Chicago, has left lying clients and political maneuvering behind to take on the more lucrative, predictable routine of civil law in a small Michigan town. But when he is asked to defend a woman accused of perjury for falsely claiming that her husband abused their young daughter, Jack is swept back into the labyrinth of the criminal justice system—and into a dangerous attraction for his seductive client whose case he cannot win and must not lose…”

I also liked the opening lines which read: “Davey Alden turned out to be one of those wild flowers that miraculously spring up from the cracks in the concrete. In this case the concrete was the Laffler Country Jail, on the outskirts of Kirtley, Michigan.”

Frankly, I don’t recall the last time I read a legal thriller; perhaps, it was a novel or two by John Grisham and Erle Stanley Gardner a few years ago. I did a search of writers of legal thrillers on the internet and I wasn’t surprised when I failed to recognise most of the dozen-odd names. The ones I’d read, apart from Grisham and Gardner, included Scott Turow and John Mortimer. The ones whose names were merely familiar to me were Michael Connelly, Steve Martini, Brad Meltzer, and Richard North Patterson.

Legal thrillers, if plotted and written well, are exciting to read.

Note: You can see Stan Latreille's photograph at MLive.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Reading Habits #4: Author, Writer, Novel, Book

Read what you can, when you can, wherever you can.

Are you reading a novel or a book and is it written by an author or a writer? As questions go, this is an unintelligent one, I admit. Do not answer if you think I’m insulting yours. Still, I’m curious. I spent my formative years thinking novels were written by authors and books were penned by writers. One was fiction, the other non-fiction. I read them that way. 

The line between novels and books and authors and writers—assuming there really was one—got blurred around the turn of the century when novels came to be increasingly referred to as books written by people who could be either authors or writers. Over the years the internet, and specifically blogs, has more or less obliterated the line that, I suspect, only I could see. Now I often refer to a work of fiction as a book. It sounds more cerebral. Inversely, non-fiction can never be a novel. It will always remain a book.

Looking back, I used to think that anything that told a fictitious story was a novel. All paperbacks, be it pulp or popular fiction, fell in that category. Everything else was a book, such as a book on history or economics, a book of stamps or coins, a record book or a book of account, the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible, a dictionary or an encyclopaedia, a rule book, a book of recipes, and so on and so forth.

Yet, there were grey areas, like Shakespeare, the Classics, and humour. The Twelve Works of the famous bard was a book, a volume actually. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is more a book than a novel. And P.G. Wodehouse wrote humourous stories and books. Although works of fiction, they are best referred to as books.

My thinking, thus, may have been the result of the disdain with which novels were looked upon, outside of the family. “Oh, you’re reading a novel. Which one?” And when you showed the cover, “You’re reading a Chase, I see. Have you read Nehru’s Discovery of India? You’ll learn much from this brilliantly written book.” You'd think I was reading erotica.

The dilemma hasn't resolved fully when I think of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien and Harry Potter by Rowling. Novel or book, author or writer? I think I’ll just sit quietly and read.

Noted author James Reasoner has written an interesting post on his Favourite Reading Spots over at his blog Rough Edges.

For previous Reading Habits, look under ‘Labels’

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Name Is Archer by Ross Macdonald, 1955

The spotlight is on Ross Macdonald for this Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

I SAT in my brand-new office with the odor of paint in my nostrils and waited for something to happen.
— Opening line of ‘Find the Woman’ in which Ross Macdonald first introduced Lew Archer

If something doesn’t happen then Lew Archer, the private detective from Southern California, makes something happen, as he does in two out of the three stories I’ve read so far in this collection of seven original stories by Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar).

In both the stories, Gone Girl and The Bearded Lady, Archer happens to be around when a crime is about to take place or has already taken place. When he is not hired to solve the case, he hangs around to investigate the crime. Although money is thrust into Archer’s hands, you get the impression that it’s not important in his scheme of things and he'll, matter-of-factly, pocket a fifty-dollar advance.

In Gone Girl, for instance, Archer is outside his room in a motel when he sees a girl with blood on her hands. Before long, he is employed by the girl, the only daughter of the motel owner, to investigate the death of a man. Did she kill him? Archer finds more than he’d bargained for. 

In the second story, Archer is visiting a close friend, a talented but down-on-his-luck artist, who vanishes without a trace, as does an expensive painting from the museum he frequented, putting a family’s reputation under a cloud. Archer to the rescue again.

You don’t know what Lew Archer’s motivation is but he has enough to want to stick his neck out.

In Find the Woman, the first story in this collection, the private detective, as Archer likes to call himself, is actually waiting for something to happen when Millicent Dreen, a publicity director for a production house, walks into his office and hires him to look for Una, her beautiful twenty-two year old daughter who has been missing from their beach house. Dreen, who is no less easy on the eyes, suspects that her daughter, a famous actor, drowned because she wasn’t a strong swimmer. Archer accepts the case and pockets the hundred-dollar advance.

It’s not long before Lew Archer gets to the bottom of the case, literally. Una was married to Jack Rossiter, a handsome and athletic naval officer whose long stretch away from home gave her reason to have sexual affairs with other men and her mother the perfect ruse to engineer her own daughter’s death by drowning. To say why she does it or how she does it would be giving too much away.

Ross Macdonald first introduced Lew Archer in Find the Woman, a short story that was published in the June 1946 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The fictional private eye made his debut in a regular novel with The Moving Target in 1949. This was made into a film called Harper in 1966. It had Paul Newman as Lew Harper instead of Lew Archer. I haven't read the book or seen the film. In fact, The Moving Target is one of four secondhand Lew Archer novels I have. Not to have read even a single book yet is a criminal waste.

What did I like most about the three stories I read in The Name Is Archer? Apart from the writing, which is equivalent to a punch right in the solar plexus, and the not so flattering look at women and the depths to which they can sink, the celebrated author pulls a neat trick on the reader: a detective is hired by people guilty of a crime to investigate a crime that really isn't a crime, at least not in the strict sense. The catch-22 scenario in the stories reminded me of No Comebacks, 1982, a collection of ten stories in which Frederick Forsyth uses a similar ploy, the twist at the end of each tale leaving the reader a tad disappointed though not without acknowledging the writer’s brilliant deception.

While Ross Macdonald has admitted to being influenced by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose works I’m not all that familiar with, his style of writing, if not in its intensity, is reminiscent of that other pillar of hardboiled fiction, Mickey Spillane, and his detective Mike Hammer. Clearly, Macdonald acknowledged his debt to Chandler when he told The Village Voice in 1975: “Chandler was and remains a hard man to follow.”

P.S.: After reading Patti's reviews as well as some other reviews of Ross Macdonald's works at her blog, Pattinase, I wish to mention that The Name Is Archer has been included in The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer edited by his biographer Tom Nolan. It contains stories from The Name Is Archer, Lew Archer: Private Investigator, and the three stories in Strangers in Town among other material.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Three Young Ranchmen by Captain Ralph Bonehill, 1901

Allen stared at the letters on the rock as if he had not spelled out the words aright. But there was no mistake. They really read “Barnaby Winthrop's Mine.

Three Young Ranchmen or Daring Adventures in the Great West reads like a ‘young adult’ packaged inside a ‘western.’ Some readers may see it the other way around. Either way this is a very entertaining story: it has action, adventure, and suspense.

The story revolves around three brothers, Allen, Chetwood and Paul Winthrop, who live on a ranch in the mountainous region of Idaho, close to the Salmon River. Their father who owned the Big Bear ranch died while his three sons were still young. However, before his death he willed it to his sons equally and appointed his brother, Barnaby, as their guardian. Uncle and nephews are warm and generous towards each other.

The brothers are tall, sturdy, brave, and handsome as well as honest and hardworking. They share a close bond that would make any parent proud. They also share duties on the ranch where life is tough and trouble intrudes in the form of horse thieves belonging to an old Sol Davids gang and Captain Hank Grady, a mean and unscrupulous man of forty who wants to posses the Winthrop homestead at any cost. He knows the value of the ranch and its proximity to a secret mine.

Allen and his horse plunge
into the stream below.
While the three young ranchmen manage the sprawling ranch and the rolling land around it, their Uncle Barnaby, an old prospector, is away in the hills looking for gold and silver. In his absence, Chet and Paul look up to their big brother for guidance. Until one day, the old man vanishes without a trace. He was last seen in San Francisco where he’d been making plans to start a company to develop the gold and silver mine he’d secretly discovered—the richest claim in all of Idaho—worth over a million dollars.

As Chet and Paul guard their ranch home from Captain Grady and the old gang, Allen sets off to look for their uncle, with Ike Watson, an old friend and a reliable hunter with a peculiar dialect, and Noel Urner, a broker and speculator from New York. Noel turns up in Idaho after he fails to meet Barnaby at the appointed time at Golden Nugget House, a meeting place for old-time miners and prospectors, in San Francisco. Their search eventually leads them to Captain Grady whose role in the kidnapping of Barnaby, in the hope that he can grab the ranch and the secret mine, is exposed in the end.

The three young ranchmen talk it over.

Final word
Allen, more than his two brothers, has a bigger adventure in Three Young Ranchmen but not without some tense moments, as he goes after the horse thieves, rides his own right through a sabotaged bridge and into the waters beneath, discovers his uncle’s mine in a cave inside a mountain, finds his way across treacherous underground, stumbles into a snake’s nest and is nearly poisoned to death, and encounters a grizzly bear that turns on him. 

There is almost a childlike innocence about the boys and the way they go about defending their home and looking for their uncle, and eventually hoping to get back to their fun loving and peaceful existence. This is also evident in their precise conversation. For instance, in the opening pages of the first chapter, Chet and Paul are awaiting Allen's return from somewhere, when Chet tells his brother, "I don't care so much about the dullness—I like to hunt and fish and round up the cattle just as well as any one—but what I'm complaining of is the uncertainty of the way things are going to turn. For all we know, we may be cast adrift, as the saying goes, any day."

To which Paul replies, "That is true, although I imagine our title to the ranch is O. K. If those title papers hadn't been burned up when one end of the house took fire I wouldn't worry a bit."

If I compared this absorbing western to young adult, it is because Allen, Chet and Paul and their boyish nature and zest for adventure reminded me of brothers Frank and Joe Hardy, amateur detectives, and their best friend Chet Morton from the Hardy Boys. Only the setting is different. The book, available at Gutenberg and elsewhere, will appeal to readers of both genres.

About the author
By a coincidence, Captain Ralph Bonehill, I discovered later, is none other than Edward L. Stratemeyer, the prolific American writer and creator of The Rover Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew series, among several others. As Bonehill, he is also the author of A Sailor Boy with Dewey, For the Liberty of Texas, and The Young Bandmaster.

Friday, November 01, 2013

The Outlaw by Howard Hughes, 1943

Click on the image to enlarge and read.

Hollywood veteran and aviator Howard Hughes directed only two films, Hell's Angels (1930) and The Outlaw (1943), and produced over two dozen films. I don't recall seeing any. This week I was going through the ebook version of Dime Mystery Magazine, September 1946, when I came across this vintage advert or plug about The Outlaw which, I assume, is his most famous film. 

Apparently, the western film was banned by US censors soon after its world premier in San Francisco in June 1944. Rather than cut some of the objectionable scenes which, I think, had to do with the scantily-clad Jane Russell, the filmmaker pulled out the film from theatres across the world. I don't know whether this was true. The taglines of the American and Australian posters—"The picture that couldn't be stopped! (left) and "Not suitable for children" (below)—indicates that it was, though I suspect the whole thing was a plug for the success of the film.

The Outlaw is about the complex relationship between seductress Rio McDonald (Jane Russell) and the three men she plays against each other—Jack Buetel (Billy the Kid), Doc Holliday (Walter Huston), and Sheriff Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), who shot the Kid in real life—in the backdrop of a battle with the Indians.

The film is described as "a story of the untamed West. Frontier days when the reckless fire of guns and passions blazed an era of death, destruction and lawlessness. Days when the fiery desert sun beat down avenginly on the many who dared defy justice and outrage decency." It seems like a good film to watch.

For previous vintage ads, see under Labels.