Monday, June 7, 2010

The week that was #17

Not a lot to say this week; I haven't been doing all that much other than gallivanting around a stage (well, a stage, a beach and a jetty) as Alonso in a production of The Tempest - something I'm intending to write a post about some time in the near future. But there are a couple of things I want to talk about for now.

Mystic River (the book)

I’d seen the film version of Mystic River when it was in the cinemas, liked it a lot, and considered the Academy Awards it won – Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Supporting Actor for Tim Robbins1 – to have been well-deserved. Clint Eastwood didn’t pick up a Best Director for it; he was, however, up against Peter Jackson for a little film called The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, so he probably wasn’t all that surprised.

The book was written by Dennis Lehane, who’s now had a few film adaptations made from his books in the last few years: Gone, Baby, Gone, directed by Ben Affleck and starring his brother Casey and which was good but not great; and Shutter Island directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo di Caprio2. I’d read the book of Shutter Island (which I wasn’t that impressed by; I haven’t seen the film) and another, Prayers for Rain, which is from the same series of books as Gone, Baby, Gone. I didn’t like that one all that much either.

But because I’d liked Mystic River the film so much I thought I’d give Lehane another chance to impress me. And I’m glad I did because it’s a brilliant, captivating book – easily one of the best crime/mystery novels I’ve read, and probably one of the best books of any genre I’ve read. I’d probably have liked it even more had I not known how it ends – the inevitable result of having seen the film – but it’s so well written that I was still sucked into it anyway.

I read a lot of crime fiction, probably as much – if not more – than my other favourite, contemporary literature3, at least in terms of raw numbers of books read; I’d like to think this gives me a reasonable familiarity with the genre – and its inevitable sub-genres – legal (i.e. from the lawyer’s perspective, like John Lescroart or John Grisham4), psychological (psychologists, like Johnathan Kellerman), detective (PIs and/or police) and so forth.

Mystic River is less of a ‘good guys chasing the bad guys’ story and more a ‘everybody is trying to work out what the hell happened and some of them happen to be police trying to solve a murder’ story. But that’s really only the beginning, since there’s a large number of characters, all complex and well-realised, who effectively narrate each part of the story.

It’s also a social commentary on life, particularly in the area where the action takes place – the tough, working-class, South Boston area5. But you can find all of these elements in any number of books, but – for me at least – none of them has managed to work in the same way as Mystic River did.

What makes it all come together is the complexity of the back-stories, the depth of the characterisation – it rivals, or possibly even surpasses that of one of my other favourite character-heavy crime writers, Jame Lee Burke – and Lehane’s skill at writing great, both descriptive and evocative, prose and dialogue. His ability with the last makes sense because it’s ‘his’ language; he grew up in South Boston, so he has an ear for the speech patterns specific to the dialect of that region. But the rest of it, well, that’s I can only assume is a combination of talent and attention to detail.

But it’s a bit weird, because I don’t remember noticing anything special about the two other Lehane works. But I’ll certainly be reading any more that I come across.

1Both also won the Golden Globes in the same categories.
2Who isn’t Martin Scorsese's brother, if you were wondering.
3Which may or may not be too broad to be of any real use, but to be any more specific I’d have to start getting into its sub-genres, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to try and do that.
4I haven’t read a Grisham for years, though. They got a bit irritating in their self-righteousness. That nearly every single one got made into a film didn’t help.
5This was also the setting for films such as Good Will Hunting, The Departed and The Boondock Saints; it appears to be what filmmakers consider the Irish-American equivalent of New Jersey in terms of organised crime. I’ve no idea whether it’s like that in real life - but I’m fairly sure I don’t care enough to find out.


In what these days seems to be a rare occurrence, a long-running television show actually concluded – rather than just being cancelled.

I’d watched Lost from the start and – as far as I can remember – I saw all of the one hundred and twenty-one episodes. I can’t honestly say that I ever felt I truly understood what was going on, but I kept watching anyway - and I certainly indulged in what TV Tropes refers to as wild mass guessing about what the island was and why they were there. None of what I hypothesised turned out to be true, but I suspect that has as much to do with the fact that the writers were continually changing their minds in order to keep things moving along.

Some people seem upset that it wasn't 'all explained'; I'd say that expecting it to all be laid out in a satisfying way is a foolish thing, mostly because I doubt that there ever was a straight-out explanation for what the island was - because it wasn't really important.

Despite being vaguely unsatisfied with it at times, I was happy with how it ended – and, more importantly, that it was allowed to end rather than just disappearing from our screens the way so many other interesting shows with potentially long story arcs have; the most recent example being Flash Forward, which was cancelled a few weeks back; Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was another one I followed but which won’t be returning.

There are, of course, exceptions: the shows that shouldn’t have been left to run on as long as they have because the standards had slipped not only so far that the show wasn’t good, but because the badness of it at the end began to undermine perceptions of how strong it was at the start.

The X-Files, of course, is the most well-known example of this scenario. But it’s not alone – other shows I started watching but would have preferred to see end in a blaze of glory rather than limp along to a disappointing end include Smallville and Scrubs – and, as sad as it makes me, I have to admit The Simpsons probably has to fall into that category as well. Veronica Mars really dropped off in quality in the third season, but that may have been more to do with the networks screwing around with the show than what the writers intended. Heroes was one of the best things to hit the small screen in its first series, but by halfway through the fourth I’d just stopped caring.

These are just shows that I’ve watched and (initially) liked – TV Tropes, of course, has a more thorough list in its page titled seasonal rot.

Life was another great show that doesn’t really fall into that category because it didn’t last long enough; however, it did start out well but ended less so – however, it was affected by the writer’s strike and what seemed to be cast departures. Or at least that’s how it seemed with Brooke Langton, who played main character Charlie Crewes’s lawyer and what seemed to be the intended love interest; she just kind of disappeared. Also contributing was actress Sarah Shahi, who played Crewes’s partner Reese, having her character given less screen time – though that was unavoidable given her real-life pregnancy.

It’s got to be tough to work on arc-based shows, simply because they almost always end up having their popularity wane as they go on while by their nature struggling to attract new viewers – something the networks just aren’t willing to tolerate simply to please fans. And I can only imagine the unhappiness experienced by a team of writers and producers who have gone to the effort to grind out something not only good enough to beat out the thousands of other pitched shows but which has a complex, long-term story underlying it – only to see it canned a half-dozen episodes into its first season.

But there are always shows that buck the trend. Fringe, a show I like a lot – it’s quirky and dark; two things that always impresses me – but which I am continually expecting to hear is cancelled. Though they have just announced its renewal for a third season, so there is hope. I started watching V but lost interest after a couple of episodes, but that seems to have been popular enough to justify a second season.

And no doubt there’ll always be more – I just hope that networks are prepared to give them a chance to build the kind of followings they deserve.


  1. I really love Dennis Lehane - I found Mystic River really challenging in its density and darkness, but ultimately an excellent read. I really like his Kenzie/Gennaro detective stories (but I am a well-known sucker for the unrequited love interest in fiction, so perhaps that's not surprising) - I don't remember Prayers for Rain as being outstanding but I do remember describing his first one (A Drink Before the War) as "detective fiction with a heart, a brain, and a social conscience". So maybe give that a shot if you go back to him.
    Shutter Island was so flat out terrifying that I couldn't concentrate on whether it was any good or not. Sheesh.

  2. Sadly, my library network (Norwood, Payneham and St Peters) doesn't have 'A Drink Before The War' but it does have a couple of others so I'll see what they're like.