The Darkest Game: Weak Title, Smart Book



By Joseph Schneider

Sourcebooks/Poison Pen Press, 354 pages





We are told not to judge a book by its cover. Still, were I involved with Joseph Schneider’s Tully Jarsdel mystery, I’d change the title. It’s certainly plenty dark, but so many books with “dark” and “darkness” in the title are paint-by-the-numbers offerings.


There’s little that’s formulaic about The Darkest Game. How many detectives do you know who speak Farsi (and is working on his fifth non-English tongue), dropped out of a history Ph.D. program, has two fathers, and can recognize valuable sculptures at a glance? We find Tully teamed with Oscar Morales in what is certainly the odd couple of detectives. Oscar is Tully’s hardboiled opposite, a heavyset Latino family man whose idea of culture is television. He’s also at ease with cop banter, protocol, grab-and-go cuisine, and mugs of beer. Tully was raised by two professors–his biological father is ill with lung cancer–who have never made peace with his decision to become a homicide detective but schooled him in proper grammar, academic research, wine, film, and upper-middle class values. They only thing they haven’t taught him is the circumstances under which his “Baba,” Professor Darius Jahangir, left Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979.  


Tully and Oscar investigate the murder of Dean Burken, a museum conservator also in charge of deaccessioning for the prestigious Huntington Library and Museum in Greater Los Angeles. A lot of Burken’s colleagues disliked him, but that doesn’t make them killers. As Jarsdel applies logic and Morales more conventional police legwork, a prime suspect emerges, no thanks to the Huntington staff which seems far more interested in the institution’s reputation than solving Burken’s murder. One small problem: The suspect also becomes a corpse. On Santa Catalina Island, no less, some 22 miles offshore.


Jarsdel and Morales are sent to Catalina to investigate if there is a link between the two murders. They initially treat it as an expense-account vacation because it’s a proverbial longshot that there’s any connection between Burken’s brutal murder and the suspect’s death. Still, some things are weird in Avalon, the town that contains 3,700 of the island’s population of less than 4,100. The local sheriff, Captain Ken Oria, is cloyingly welcoming and he and his assistant Ledbetter, who plays the bad cop role, are intent on blaming everything that goes wrong locally on a weird bunch called the Natty Boys, a mashup of Pirates of the Caribbean, survivalists, libertarians, and a rough-stuff motorcycle gang. Plus, there’s Pruitt, the island’s resident developer/club owner/restaurant proprietor, who strikes Tully as a pompous jerk.  


This may sound like a variant of a standard mystery cast but if anything, Schneider’s plot suffers from being overly complex. Before the two central deaths are resolved and a third occurs, The Darkest Game delves into things such as the whereabouts of a 19th century diary, the disposition of art works, a perplexing map, a real estate plan, detours into California history, half-truths and lies, a Ruger .38, a musket ball, and a show down.


Schneider overlays the action with the sometimes-tense interactions between Jarsdel and Morales, plus Tully’s quest to unravel his Baba’s life in Iran. The latter could have been saved for another book and somehow woven into a plot. Though it adds depth to Tully’s character, it isn’t germane to an ideas-packed narrative and slows a novel that’s already leisurely paced. Some readers might also think that Schneider drops in too many red herring suspects. It’s not a bad idea to jot down some notes to help keep characters straight, but I’d rather read a book open to charges of being too complicated than one that’s as obvious as a hobo at a black-tie dinner. I did work out the murderer, but Schneider led me places I did not expect to visit.


Thanks to #NetGalley and #PoisonedPenPress for an advance copy of this book.


Rob Weir


Going in Style: For a Tired-Brain Night




Directed by Zach Braff

Warner Brothers, 96 minutes, PG-13 (language, drug use)





We were riding out our Netflix subscription–Hint: Dust off your DVD player as you can request any disc you want through your local interlibrary loan system–because we were fed up with its paltry streaming of movies, TV shows, and documentaries we didn’t want to watch. Before we joined the 200,000 + who recently dumped Netflix we picked out a few movies we had vague interest in seeing, including Going in Style.  


It is loaded with elements I generally dislike; it oozes sentimentality, the comedy is as broad as the Mississippi during flood season, and it’s a remake of a pedestrian 1979 film that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg. You can add to this that it’s a pastiche of other genres such as buddy films, capers, and corporate revenge fantasies. For all of that, it has a goofy charm that places it in that ambiguous category of “not too bad.”


It works because its principals–Alan Arkin, ­Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman–are terrific together in ways that make you think they must have had a ball working on such a trifling project. They are so good that they elevate the movie to levels it has no right ascending. Willie (Freeman) moved in with Albert (Arkin) since his divorce many years earlier and Joe (Caine) is about to lose his home to oily banker Chuck Lofton (Josh Pais) who condescendingly explains why he misled Joe about his adjustable-rate mortgage. Our three senior citizens are former factory workers who gather regularly for breakfast and banter reminiscent of that from the 1982 Barry Levinson classic Diner. They’ve got a lot to discuss. Joe is at his bank making a withdrawal when it’s robbed and he sees the tattoo of one of the crooks. He shares that information with FBI agent Hamer (Matt Dillon), but the robbers make a clean getaway.


Then a different type of robbery occurs. The factory from which the three old friends retired has been sold to a foreign firm. It promptly takes over the company’s pension fund and cuts off the workers without a dime. Like that could happen. Oh, wait! When Joe learns that the bankruptcy protection plan has been structured by his own bank, he thinks someone should rob the bloody thing a second time. Why not the three of them? Well, for starters they are old. Secondly, they haven’t the foggiest idea of how to pull off a heist. Enter Joe’s ex-son-in-law Murphy (Peter Serafinowicz) who knows a guy, Jesús (John Ortiz), who will school them for a cut if they are successful and disavow ever knowing them if they are caught. Hey, why not? What’s a lot of jail time for geezers if they fail?


The lads assemble alibis–one of which involves a senile acquaintance played by Christopher Lloyd­–get their gear together, and seek to outwit Agent Hamer. You won’t need much more than an 8th grade education to follow any of the plot, nor a degree in philosophy to debate the film’s magical thinking ethics. You might need a handy barf bag for some of the subplots such as teaching Murphy to be a good father, Albert’s solid to Willie, or a burgeoning romance between Albert and man-hunting grocery clerk Annie (Ann-Margaret). In other words, Going in Style is a feel-good movie that bears as much resemblance to reality as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


The best way to enjoy Going in Style is to watch it on a tired-brain night and just go with it. You could ask questions such as why Murphy bears the same surname as Joe if he’s an ex-son-in-law but if you do, your brain isn’t tired enough. Just call it an escapist film, laugh when it’s funny, roll your eyes when it’s insipid, and put it back in the box when it’s over in an hour and a half. It made me smile, but it didn’t make me rethink canceling my Netflix subscription.


Rob Weir 


The Devil May Dance: The Rat Pack in a Murder Mystery




By Jake Tapper

Little, Brown and Company, 315 pages.





Jake Tapper is a CNN journalist. I’ve never seen him, nor have I read his other books, but he has hardboiled detective fiction down pat. For those uncertain what that means, the genre is gritty, sordid, sprinkled with innuendo and actual sex, and has snappy dialogue heavy on sarcasm and argot. Tapper’s drink is an old fashioned, an approach more akin to that of a Robert Ludlum or a Michael Connelly than many of today’s nuanced crime writers.


The Devil May Dance is also an imagined historical novel involving real people from the 1950s and 1960s, though his central characters Charlie and Margaret Marder are inventions. Charlie, a World War II vet, is a first-term Congressman from Manhattan who gets a rude initiation into the ways in which politics, crime, and celebrity overlap. The novel is set in Hollywood and New York. In what I learned is the sequel to Tapper’s The Hellfire Club, Charlie and Margaret are recruited, or should I say blackmailed, by Attorney General Robert Kennedy into investigating Frank Sinatra. It’s not really a choice; Charlie’s bad-company-keeping father is in jail and his only ticket out is Congressman Marder’s cooperation. So, it’s off to Los Angeles to be a “consultant” for a new Sinatra film, The Manchurian Candidate. Charlie and Margaret are charged with ingratiating themselves to Sinatra with the goal of spying on him and other Rat Pack members such as Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford, the latter of whom is married to Patricia Kennedy.


The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is hailed as classic and Tapper mines its plot to make parallels to its web of deception. The movie (and the Richard Condon novel upon which it is based) is a quintessential Cold war story of a Korean War vet captured by communists, brainwashed, and used as a spy and potential assassin. Is Bobby Kennedy’s assignment really a matter of national security? Tapper keeps us guessing in a fast-paced tale of murder, double dealing, and sleaze. It’s often hard to detect who is crooked, who is an infiltrator pretending to be a wise guy, who can be trusted, and who is a skilled actor. There is a subplot involving a Harvey Weinstein-like character running a sex trade ring specializing in, shall we say, jail bait. (Tapper was no doubt influenced by Sue Lyon, the 14-year-old lead actress in Lolita and the love interest of 53-year-old James Mason.)


There is a lot going on in The Devil May Dance. There are mobsters such as Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli; film director John Frankenheimer; scandal rags; Disneyland; internal struggles between the CIA and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI; the rise of Scientology; and Fidel Castro. It’s no secret that many of the people in the novel were creeps in real-life–Hoover and L. Ron Hubbard, for instance–or bores (Bob Hope). Nor is a secret that the now-sainted Bobby Kennedy was a real S.O.B. when he was Attorney General. The big question in Tapper’s novel is the which-side-are-you-on role of Sinatra. He could be a brutal and crude man, but is he really what he appears to be in the book, a man wounded by his divorce from Ava Gardner? Hollywood is nicknamed Tinseltown for a reason; in its own way it’s every bit as illusory as Disneyland and just as powerful. As the book blurb puts it, “corruption and ambition form a deadly mix….” In such a milieu, nothing is beneath those holding onto power and privilege–not even stuffing a corpse into a congressman’s trunk. No wonder Bobby Kennedy wonders if it’s safe for his brother, President John F. Kennedy, to stay at Sinatra’s house during a West Coast fundraising trip. (Can even a president turn down an invite from Old Blue Eyes?)


You might that Tapper’s speculation rings entirely true. Conversely, you might find the entire thing a tank of banana oil. Either way, though, if you are a fan of thrillers, The Devil May Care is (if I might) a thrilling read.


Rob Weir