9/26/22

When All is Said a Brilliant Debut

 

WHEN ALL IS SAID (2019)

By Anne Griffin

Thomas Dunne Books, 323 pages.

★★★★ ½ 

 

 

 

I went through several rings of Dante’s Inferno to get my mitts on the Irish novel When All is Said. I tried to download it when it first came out, but it came in a format unrecognized by my Kindle. I tried again last year and a different Epub format was rejected. I ended up getting a hard copy via interlibrary loan. It was worth it; Anne Griffin penned a very impressive debut book.

 

Its structure is deceptively simple: five toasts in one day inside a hotel pub partly owned by 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan. Maurice is world-weary. His beloved wife Sadie is two years in a grave alongside their stillborn daughter Molly, his journalist son Kevin decamped to America after the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger, he has more money than he knows what to do with, and he’s a grumpy old guy whom people admire but don’t like. Think an Irish version of Fredrik Backman’s Ove without Ove’s humor or redeeming neighbors.

 

Over the course of an afternoon and evening Maurice raises a bottle of stout or a glass of whiskey to his dead brother Tony, Molly, his wife’s mentally challenged sister Noreen, Kevin, and Sadie. Maurice invites descriptors such as hard man, stubborn, vengeful, and misanthropic. He hasn’t been lovable since he was a child following his brother Tony around like a gangly puppy, but one by one the lights that guided Maurice have gone out.

 

Griffin’s novel is a mix of remembrances, regrets, tragedies, and secrets. We meet Maurice as a child living a hand-to-mouth existence on an Irish freehold too small to sustain a family. Hence, most of the family supplements their income by working for the Dollards, the largest landowners in the village. As was often the case of upwardly mobile Irish, the Dollards put on airs and affectations more akin to English gentry than their Irish counterparts. The Dollards, especially son Thomas, are demanding, cruel, and think it their right to discipline their social inferiors. Maurice sports a lifelong scar from one of Thomas’ fits of pique. Thus, he thinks nothing of picking up a gold coin that falls from a window as Thomas’ father Hugh berates him. That coin, a rare Edward VIII sovereign, will remain hidden for decades and plays a big role in the novel.

 

As the years go by, Maurice quits school—he is dyslexic, but few recognized such things in the 1930s—becomes a farmer, and develops surprising aptitude for making shrewd land deals. Soon, the Hannigan coffers fill as those of the Dollards empty. When grandson Jason offers to sell a desirable piece of land, Maurice lowballs him because he knows the Dollards have no choice. Even his charity has strings attached. When Hugh Dollard’s granddaughter Emily decides to risk all by opening a hotel in the village, Maurice is her silent 49 percent co-owner. (You can read about his ulterior motives.)

 

Can Maurice recover some of his humanity as he sits at his customary seat in the corner of the bar and revisits his past? Don’t bet for or against it. When All is Said is poignant, sad, and moving. Griffin takes us inside the mind of a man discovering a lot of things about himself after it’s too late. He absolutely adored Sadie, but was often too busy with acquisition and filled with spite to tell her so. Now there’s no way to give her what she really wanted, affection not things. In essence, the man who wanted to break others broke himself.

 

When All is Said isn’t fast-paced or action-driven, but is there a greater burden or villain than guilt? Griffin wraps this tragic self-revelation in layer upon layer of remorse and lost opportunity. She excels at deep development of departed and non-present characters that, in their own way, are more alive than Maurice. You may find yourself biting your nails from the tension of stillness, another deft maneuver on Griffin’s part. To invoke an Irish expression, this is a fine novel to be sure, to be sure.

 

Rob Weir   

9/23/22

Ignore the Critics: The Catcher Was a Spy is Good

 

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY (2018)

Directed by Ben Lewin

IFB Films, 98 minutes, R (milder language and even milder sexuality)

★★★★

 

 

 

 

The Catcher Was a Spy made less than a million dollars. I was in good company by missing it in the cinema. I also skipped it because the reviews were pretty bad. News scoop: The reviewers are full of crap.

 

The movie follows Moe Berg, an ex-major league player who spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the forerunner of the CIA—during World War Two. Some of the film is Hollywoodized, but reviewers called it bland, unconvincing, and lacking in action. Guess not enough things blew up! The title is an obvious play on words, but the tale itself is true.

 

Berg (1902-72) was a journeyman catcher for five teams between 1923-36, the last of which was the Red Sox, for whom he also coached during 1940-41. He was a journeyman for a reason; his career batting average was a paltry .243 (yeah, I know, that would make him a superstar today!) with little power. Teammates called him “professor” because he graduated from Columbia Law, spoke seven foreign languages fluently, several more passably, and starred on the radio show Information, Please. Berg kept his own company and his private life was carefully guarded.  

 

Berg was also Jewish. Contrary to myth, Major League Baseball (MLB) did not discourage Jewish players and there were more than Berg and Hank Greenburg. They did, however, suffer from the widespread anti-Semitism prevalent in American society. When the war started, Berg felt it his duty as a Jew to stop Germany, even though he was a thoroughly secular agnostic. At 40, he was fined to desk jobs until he was tapped by the OSS for a dangerous mission.

 

The film picks up Berg (Paul Rudd) at the end of his baseball career and provides telescoped background (some of it speculative) before he caught the attention of OSS head Brigadier General “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff Bridges), who placed him under the command of Robert Furman (Guy Pearce), who was also working on the Manhattan Project. Berg and contacts that included physicists Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti), Paul Sherrer (Tom Wilkinson), and Edoardo Amaldi (Giancarlo Giannini) were tasked with luring Werner Heisenberg to Zurich to ascertain whether the Germans were close to developing an atomic weapon or was secretly stalling the program.

 

If necessary, Berg was authorized to assassinate Heisenberg. If that name rings bells, he was a Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist who also developed the uncertainty principle. Don’t ask me to explain it; I’d have a better shot of decoding quacking ducks than quantum physics. Suffice it to say there was a critical need to derail Germany’s development of a fission weapon.

 

Oddly, numerous critics ignored what was really improbable in the film and seemed to think the true stuff was made up. There is a scene in which Berg plays ball with American GIs who have just taken an Italian town from the Nazis. One soldier recognizes Berg, who proceeds to hit a moonshot over the ruins of a multi-storey building. That’s unlikely. Who, in the pre- television age, would recognize a marginal player? How does a guy who hit six homers in 13 years tattoo a tape-measure blast?

 

Rudd’s performance was labeled passive and laconic. Umm… he was a spy, a profession known for keeping things close to the vest. Nor did critics jump on made-up inferences that Berg was gay or bisexual, yet lambasted him as unconvincing. What did they want, a teary bathhouse confessional in the arms of his male lover? Not that I care one way or the other, but there is no evidence that Berg was gay. In the film we watch him bend Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) over a piano for sweaty sex. I suppose it’s feasible the tasty Miller would tempt someone of any persuasion, but Huni’s brother said she was the love of the bachelor Berg’s life. Rumors he was homosexual say more about mid-century-not-so-modern gender roles than Berg’s actual preferences.  

 

For the most part, the acting is solid in The Catcher Was a Spy. Giamatti perhaps chews too much scenery, but that’s what he does. Mark Strong is superb as the icy-veined Heisenberg, and I personally found Rudd’s performance letter-perfect in capturing the enigmatic Berg. This film will never be considered a classic, but it’s a good film to watch as the MLB season winds down.*

 

Rob Weir

 

  * I caught it on Kanopy.  

9/21/22

September Music: Nourallah, Wiscons, Wiley and More

 

You have to be a Texan like Salim Nourallah to make a record about a windblown West Texan locale, but Nourallah is the proverbial real deal. See You in Marfa is a 5-song EP inspired by Marfa, a smalltown best known for its spooky atmospheric lights that the predisposed have linked to aliens or paranormal phenomena. The carrot-topped, sweet-voiced Nourallah turns the title song into a love song to both place and an unnamed other. He has an uncanny ability to mix voice and instrumentation in perfect balance and to blend his optimism with just enough edge. “Not Back to Sad” sounds as if it is a cheerful outtake from The Beatles White Album. So does “Hold on to the Night”with its sensible advice to hold on to the night before you give it away. You might expect contentment songs from a guy whose album label is called Happiness, but “Hate the Waiting” has some barbs hiding behind its gentle harmonic wrapper: Hate what you’ve become....  Nourallah doesn’t require a lot of pyrotechnics to impress. Great songwriting–usually in conjunction with his British pal Marty Willson-Piper–does the trick. ★★★★

 

 

 

A lot of people experience midlife crises in their 40s but instead of wallowing, Indiana-based musician Brett Wiscons threw himself into the song that became a project: Late Bloomer. He’s a Midwestern guy specializing in “heartland rock,” a melange of country, rock, and folk as one might expect from one whose musical heroes include Jackson Browne, The Eagles, and Hootie and the Blowfish. Wiscons has a voice that gets labeled “whiskey-soaked” and likes to go big in an arena rock way, though he prefers an acoustic guitar and relies on his friend/co-writer/ producer Thom Daughtery to lay down blistering electric noise. Wiscons gets political on “When You Can’t Breathe,” which is drenched in ominous ambience appropriate for a song based on the murder of George Floyd. “Vertical City,” inspired by the emptiness of New York during the pandemic, invokes heavy country rock. Wiscons also accentuates the positive, as he does on the title track–a semi-autobiographical offering whose central character see analogies between himself and late blooming nature. He teams with Anne Balbo–a stronger harmony voice than a lead–on “Don’t Be the One Who Got Away,” which has a pop vibe, and celebrates parenthood on “Let’s Do It Again.” This is a solid record, though in Wiscons (and especially Balbo) often pour on more vocal power than is needed. Such moments run the risk of overkill and would be more effective with healthy doses of contrast. ★★★

 


 

 

Virginia’s Jon Tyler Wiley draws comparisons to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen but he’s swampier and has a grittier voice than either of them. His newest album The Longing is a character-driven, genre-defying collection of tales and situations in modern America. When he sings “Wolves” atop its rock-and-stomp instrumentation, we know he intends to warn us about something other than four-legged critters. Who? Figure it out! It's easier to see Jimmy as a victim of American masculinity in “St. Mary’s River.” This one earns Springsteen analogies in its crank-the-volume storytelling, but “Whiskey” is an atmospheric folky confessional. It tells of trying (and failing) to drown sorrows and crumbling relationship in glasses of fermented fire. Wiley follows with the kick-butt “Just Another Heartbreak Song” in case you didn’t get it in the previous offering. Wiley goes full country balladeer on the waltzy “LaredoTexas Oil Well Blues,” and turns up the funk on “Cake.” The album’s first single was the gritty bring-the-noise “Wannabe,” but I think the song that will first grab most listeners is “He Knew Me,” a litany of personal musical heroes–Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty–that he never met, yet spoke to him in ways erstwhile role models never could. ★★★ ½ 

 


 

MP3 can be an unforgiving format. It compresses vocals, which is good news for bad singers like me, but can make chanteuses sound like mush. Alas, this is on display on Other Way Home, the debut album of Toronto’s Meredith Lazowski. One listen to “Prairie” or the minimalist bluesy title track will send you searching for a lyrics sheet. She’s been a visual artist and designer and I’d be the last person to dissuade anyone from following their bliss, but I just don’t think Lazowski has a strong enough or clear enough voice to sustain a musical career without making major adjustments in approach and repertoire.

 


 

Ale Giannini performs under the stage name of El Italiano. He’s an Argentine nouveau tango composer and comes by it naturally; his grandfather was a respected Buenos Aires tunesmith as well. El Italiano is cut from different cloth in that his Cross A La Mandibula reflects today’s mashable culture. Though you can discern the roots, his music is as much dubstep as tango, and his vocals tread the boundaries between drama and melodrama. “El Campeón Jacinto Chiclana” could be something from a Baz Luhrmann production. “La Primavera” is Italian for springtime, but sounds North African with accordion backing. “Toro” certainly captures the sanguinary thrill of a bullfight, though there’s nothing particularly Spanish or Argentinian about the melody.  Giannini isn’t my cup of mate, but he might be yours.

 

Rob Weir




 


9/19/22

New Post-Apocalypse Novel from Emily St. John Mandel

 

 

SEA OF TRANQUILITY (2022)

By Emily St. John Mandel

Knopf, 226 pages.

★★★★

 


 

 

Readers of Emily St. John Mandel know that she has an affinity for considering a post- apocalyptic world. Sea of Tranquility is such a book, one with a bit time travel thrown in to heighten our interest.

 

Her tale is told in eight parts and takes place in various years during the 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries. A book from 20th century novelist Olive Llewellyn contains this quote: "No star burns forever." Many of her future readers assume it’s original to her last novel Marienbad. Nope; it’s from Shakespeare. This is one of several sly jokes Mandel sneaks into her text. Last Year in Marienbad was an avant-garde 1961 film directed by Alan Resnais and involves a situation that might or might not have occurred. The film considers whether a man and a woman have or have not conducted an affair; in Mandel’s novel different sorts of uncertainties prevail.

 

Is something amiss with the timeline? People in various places and time periods hear a whooshing sound, strains of a melody played on a violin, and report flashing lights punctuated by darkness and the sensation of viewing a quick video clip. The troubled star, though, is Earth and most people in the future live in various off-world colonies, first on the Moon then further out in the solar system. There are still humans on Earth, but it was ravaged by a 21st century pandemic. Mandel never names the plague, but given that parallels are drawn to the 1918 Spanish flu, I think we know Mendel's target. Add a subplot about Ponzi-like financial malfeasance and you can probably reconstruct Ms. Mandel's worldview. The book’s title is another small joke. You might remember that, in 1969, the Sea of Tranquility was the location on the Moon where Neil Armstrong became the first human to tread upon its surface.

 

Is there really something wrong with the timeline? Well, the best way to find out is to send Time Institute volunteers into the past and future to investigate and report back on the anomaly. This comes with built-in danger, namely the butterfly effect, a scenario that postulates that even a small change in an environment can have chaotic, even disastrous, repercussions. Or maybe not. In a chapter titled "Last Book Tour on Earth," for instance, Llewellyn has traveled from Moon Colony Two to Earth to talk about her new novel, Marienbad. Unbeknownst to her, she will die three days later. What would happen if she didn't? Would it really matter?

 

At the heart of Sea of Tranquility is Gaspery Jacque-Roberts, a perpetual n’er do well. He worries his sister Zoey, a serious Time Institute researcher. Will Gaspery find himself as a time traveler? Yes, but probably not in ways you would imagine.

 

Mandel’s novel takes us off-world, but also to Ohio, Oklahoma City, and Vancouver Island. As Olive posed it in Marienbad, "What if it always is the end of the world?" More ominously, what if the world has ended and those who perceive themselves as living beings are trapped in a simulation of some sort?

 

That last idea is hardly unique to Mandel. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. readers might recall that he placed the character of Dwayne Hoover in such a scenario in Breakfast of Champions. Hoover concludes he is the only sentient being on the planet with free will and that he is merely an experiment on the port of the Creator to see how he will respond to various stimuli.

 

Hoover was crazy. Is that what’s going on in Sea of Tranquility? Far be from me to reveal the answer. If you like good sci-fi, excellent writing, high fantasy value, and can tolerate some slippage upon well-traveled futuristic turf, this is the book for you.

 

Rob Weir

9/16/22

HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH I: LOS GOLONDRINAS


 

I held back some photos from a trip to New Mexico in April because the period between September 15 and October 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month. 

 

 Americans are often history amnesiacs. They look at a map of the United States and think that the lines delineating the states have always been where we see them now. At best, they carry vague memories of having once studied “something or other” about how the U.S. acquired the land from “sea to shining sea.”


 

19th c, House of Manuel Baca y Delgado

 

 

Borders have legal status but are by nature as fictional as those dotted territorial map lines. Only human beings are expected to honor them. There is a living history museum about 20 miles south of Santa Fe called El Rancho de las Golondrinas. Golondrinas means “sparrow” and, if you think about it, birds are among the creatures that couldn’t care less about borders.

 

18th c Tower and Fort
 


A small history lesson: The place we call New Mexico was once part of indigenous North America. This changed in 1598, when Spanish conquistadores led by Don Juan de Oñate came to the region. That same year, Don Pedro de Peralta founded Santa Fe. Pueblo peoples rebelled against erstwhile Spanish masters in 1680, but a new conqueror, Don Diego de Vargas, returned the area to Spanish rule in the 1690s. And so it remained until 1821, when the Mexican Revolution succeeded in establishing Mexico as independent from the crumbling Spanish Empire. The northern part of the new Mexican state had been dubbed Nuevo México by the Spanish and so it remained, though it was a large territory that contained lands that are now part of Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.

 

  Nuevo México was seized by the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846-48), along with lots of other land that became all or part of most of California, Nevada, Utah, and (eventually) Texas. What did that mean for Mexicans? Everything and next to nothing. Like the swallows, borders were treated as the fictions they are throughout the 19th century and into the 1930s. Los Golondrinas was part of an arid valley culture that stretched south from Santa Fe to Mexico City.

 

When we use the term Hispanic, technically it means those who come from places where Spanish became the dominant language. In North America, a Hispanic person can be one whose family roots are in the Iberian peninsula or one whose birth ancestry was Mexican or Indian. As often as not, Hispanics are mestizo (Spanish + Indian), pardo (Spanish + Indian and/or African), mulato (Spanish + African), zambo (Indian + African), or some other combination.

 

To cut to the chase, Hispanic is more of a cultural designation than a precise anthropological or biological designation. Los Golondrinas, which first opened in 1972, shows the evolution of hybridized cultural traditions in a place that was once one end of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, a major trail for the silver trade. It represents the 18th century through the dawn of the 20th

 

Irrigation ditch
 

 

Among its virtues is that it (mostly) keeps romanticism at bay. It’s hard to hide the reality that life in such a dry land was difficult and marginal. There is a small ditch that one could easily stride across that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Why? Because it carries a trickle of water to parched lands. Signs along the property remind visitors to keep an eye open for rattlesnakes. (Luckily, they weren’t active in the spring!) 

 

Adobe ovens




 

Placita

 

The building material of choice was adobe, chosen because mudbrick is easily made and because it insulates well against both cold and searing heat. Wood was used sparingly, was generally unfinished, and proved a better way to fence in animals that tolerated the harsh climate (burros, goats, sheep). 

 

Catholic Church

Late 19th c wooden structure

 

Golondrinas Cultural diffusion is also in evidence at Los Golondrinas. That fancy term simply means that over time culture is as much of a mutt as the human gene pool. The Spanish brought Catholicism, Natives dug water ditches and harvested indigenous crops, Black and Mexican vaqueros were the prototype for cowboys, and Euro-Americans squeezed commerce out of the land. If you’re looking for any sort of pure Hispanic culture, that’s a bit like looking for Big Foot–more legend than reality. 

 

Early 19th c talpa mill

 
 
Tin shop

 

 

If, on the other hand, you want to see how people lived, adapted, and innovated, Rancho de Las Golondrinas is a place where present-day people step back into the past. It has the added virtue of being just far enough away from Santa Fe that it’s seldom crowded. If you're anywhere near by it will entertain and enlighten.

 

 



 

Rob Weir

9/14/22

Better the Blood a Cut Above Murder Novel

 

 

BETTER THE BLOOD (2022)

By Michael Te Arawa Bennett

Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pages

★★★★★

 

 

The cover figure is a koru.

 

The opening chapter of Better the Blood might sound familiar. The year is 1863, and six white men pose for a photograph with the dark-skinned man they’ve just lynched hanging in the background. But this is New Zealand, not the American South.

 

In Máori, the phrase n tea hi ka tahuna he ahi an loosely translates “in the fire a fire is lit,” an expression that, in context, means violence begets more violence. Better the Blood is a gripping murder mystery that also highlights profound differences in how New Zealand and the U.S. respond to violence. Without giving too much away, there is a world of difference between the American public’s “an eye for an eye” measure of justice* and the Máori standard of utu, a restoration of balance.

 

From 1863 we fast forward to 2023, when Detective Senior Sgt. Hana Westerman is outraged when Patrick Jonathan Thompson walks away with a warning and a chance of expunging his record despite his conviction for raping a Máori woman. The judge, no doubt in a side deal with Thompson’s expensive counsel, incredulously declares he doesn’t wish to ruin Thompson’s law school plans! Hana knows full well that were the attacker Máori and the victim Pákeha (white), the rapist would be in prison. As a furher insult, Thompson taunts Westerman in the car park, threatens to rape her daughter, smashes his own face into a pillar, and blames her for breaking his nose. No witnesses and it’s his word against hers, she is also Máori, and is suspended.

 

To say Hana has a lot on her plate doesn’t begin to get it. A tip leads her to an abandoned building where she and Stan, a younger detective, find a bound junkie hanging from a ceiling beam. Oddly, he was dead from an 11 centimeter (about four inches) wound before he was hanged. Shortly thereafter a developer leaps to his death from a tall Auckland building­–or so the first report goes until Hana notices his puncture wound and discovers a spiral in blood. If this weren’t enough, her adolescent daughter Addison has just moved in. Hana is divorced, though Jaye Westeman is also her boss. The two remain friendly, but Addison is tired of hearing Jaye’s Pákeha partner pontificate about social justice in ways she finds patronizing–not to mention that’s Addison’s turf when she performs as a rapper.

 

Several more bodies appear before Hana recognizes the link between the body count and the1863 photograph. For North American readers, a bit of history is in order. In the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, many Máori iwi (tribes) ceded land to the British Crown in exchange for protection from other erstwhile European imperialists What ensued is analogous to treaties with North American Indians. What does “cede” mean and how extensive did Máori** believe it to be? It remains a contentious issue; the Waitangi Tribunal settles disputes, but Máori now own less than six percent of New Zealand’s land. 

 

Someone has decided that the tribunal and utu are at odds. Hana, Jaye, and Stan soon identify the serial killer as Poata Raki. Once exposed, he begins to text Hana, who bears some major identity guilt. Eighteen years earlier, when she was a rookie cop, Hana took part in dragging Máori protestors off government land atop Auckland’s Mount Suffolk, which a local iwi regards as sacred. Its members and other Máori–including Addison when a YouTube video of the protest surfaces–regard Hana as kápapa (traitor). Hana fears they may be right, but does Poata’s concept of utu justify murder?

 

This dilemma, the identity of the victims, and Poata’s moral code lead some to admire him, even when thinking he is misguided. Better the Blood adopts the desperation, escalation, and beat-the-clock devices common in crime novels, but Bennett skillfully constructs back stories that add richness and depth to the major characters. If you ascribe to eye-for-an-eye justice you might applaud Poata’s assertion, “The time of the lamb is over…. It is time to return to the old ways. Of utu. To avenge that which has never been avenged.” Among Máori, the word whenua means both land and placenta. What is the best way to replenish (“better”) Máori? You will be surprised.

 

Bennett is a New Zealand director and writer. His English-sounding name notwithstanding, he is also Máori. His surname, Addison’s, and Hana’s—as well as a non-binary lesser character subtly infuse the novel with another knotty issue: identity in the multicultural present. In short, Bennett’s novel is a cut in complexity above standard mystery fare.

 

Rob Weir

 

* Many Americans believe an eye for an eye is Biblical. Nope! It’s from Hammurabi’s Code.

 

** Máori is both singular and plural.

 

 

 

 

9/12/22

Thursday Murder Club Book Two

 

The Man Who Died Twice: Thursday Murder Club Mystery Book Two (2021)

By Richard Osman.

Viking, 351 pages.

★★★ ½

 


 

 

The old gang–in both senses of the word–is back: Joyce, Elizabeth, Ron, Ibrahim, Bogdan…. So too are their law enforcement allies, PC Donna DeFrietas and DCI Chris Hudson. Book Two of the Thursday Murder Club series is not as much fun as the first book, in part because learning more about the characters removes some of the intrigue that made the first book so special. In particular, we find out a lot more about Elizabeth Best and why she is often able to gain favors and access to things we would not imagine a person residing in a retirement home to acquire. We also meet her first husband Douglas Middlemas, an exasperating rogue who has also been in the spy business.

The new caper involves stolen diamonds from the home of Martin Lomax, a middleman in organized crime dirty dealings. About £20 million worth of jewels have been removed when Martin’s home is burgled, and Douglas is probably the one who stole them. In a parallel story, gentle Ibrahim is badly beaten by a group of muggers on BMX bicycles. The assault has all the earmarks of local punk Ryan Baird. The Thursday Murder Club first mobilizes to find out who put poor Ibrahim in the hospital. Elizabeth, though, can't help but think that somehow the hot diamonds and the attack on Ibrahim are linked.

Maybe, maybe not; Elizabeth is not infallible. This time around our elderly sleuths are engaged in some seriously dangerous business. Martin has Mafia connections and it’s their diamonds that are missing. If they don't show up Martin will end up a corpse, as will anyone else who gets in the way. Quite a few bodies appear in this book, but will all of them stay dead? Elizabeth and Douglas recall a past case about the man who died twice, hence the novel’s title.

There are new subplots, including the fact that Chris is having a hot affair with Donna's mother, Patrice. This is rather refreshing because Donna and Patrice are Afro-British, and Chris is White. We also meet a clueless MI5 agent named Poppy who’d rather be a poet.  But rest assured, Joyce is still keeping a quirky diary that’s a mix of British deadpan and cavalier commentary on violence. When one murder victim is shot in the noggin at close range, Joyce muses upon the experience of blowing someone’s head off: “It probably doesn't suit everyone. It wouldn't suit me... Perhaps it would suit me? You don’t know until you try, do you? I never thought I would like dark chocolate, for example.”

Book Two is darker than the first novel. A lot of things come into play, including knitted friendship bracelets, delicious revenge against Ibrahim’s attacker, Elizabeth’s inquiries into obtaining £10,000 worth of cocaine, a woman named Connie Johnson who makes Martin seem like a pussycat, a bus station locker, a suspicious parent, and a deadly game that sends Elizabeth seeking answers to cryptic clues left by Douglas. Bogdan has more to do in this novel and Ron's character is softened. Who would expect gruff old Ron to be a doting grandfather? His grandson Kendrick even manages to get in on the act.

Many readers may find that the mystery in The Man Who Died Twice is more sophisticated, others that the book is too sanguinary and not as much fun. In my estimation, Osman interjects enough humanity to temper matters. There is, for instance, an interesting take on Elizabeth's husband Stephen, who is in the grasp of dementia. Yet there are times in which he is lucid, plays chess, and helps the Thursday Murder Club make sense of the rising body count. Osman also knows when to press the comic relief button, like jokes about the receding hairline of an MI5 agent and Donna’s unsuccessful efforts to ignore the details of her mother's relationship with Chris.

Given that Book Three is due out this fall, you may rest assured that the Murder Club will remain intact. Speaking for myself, I hope that the new book will return to the good-natured tone of Book One and save the swashbuckling for James Bond.

 

Rob Weir