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Tag Archives: mystery
Poker Face (Peacock 2023), by Rian Johnson
I feel odd using this promo image: I think they airbrushed Natasha Lyonne’s face, and erased some of Charlie as they did.
Rian Johnson continues to be one of my favorite directors and writers. I was excited about this show as soon as I heard that he was working on it, and I knew the basic premise before I watched the first episode. That didn’t spoil anything. I’ll do my best to not spoil anything here either. Welcome to Poker Face.
Charlie, our protagonist played by Natasha Lyonne, is an itinerant human lie detector consistently ending up around yet another dead body or dastardly mystery. The show is intended to be episodic. While you should definitely watch the first episode first, I understand the later episodes are less reliant on any specific sequencing.
I wasn’t sure how this first episode would establish Charlie’s existence as an itinerant lie detector. Nor did I have any idea how it would establish stakes to give the rest of the show tension. But it’s great! The first episode gives us all the background we need, and doesn’t give us much more than that. We know why Charlie is on the road, and we know who she is: a basically decent human being, a mostly average person with an unusual talent, someone who absolutely has a sense of right and wrong but doesn’t have much power or influence to do anything about it.
She’s a marvelous average Jane.
I especially appreciate what feels like a tonal nod to Columbo: Charlie isn’t a genius, she’s not a detective, she just feels compelled to do the right thing and will catch when people are lying. And, as one might expect when watching a mystery show, she often pays attention to details and inconsistencies. And if you pay attention yourself, you can see her catch those details.
But this show isn’t adversarial.
That’s because Poker Face contines Rian Johnson’s embrace of showing us the story’s (the episode’s) central death. It’s not a question of who, or how, or even necessarily why; though we don’t have all the details, the show’s mystery isn’t a whodunnit. It’s a how’ll-Charlie-catch-it. Or a what’ll-Charlie-do-about-it.
As I said, the show isn’t adversarial. The writers aren’t trying to pull anything over on the audience (in episode one at least, I haven’t seen more yet). It’s even more generous than Knives Out, or Glass Onion: we aren’t kept in the dark, we don’t have to race to solve anything, we know more than our protagonist does. And because our enjoyment isn’t found in solving the case alongside of, or before our protagonist can, Johnson doesn’t have to plant red herrings or mislead us about the death.
I admire this approach! Instead of obsessing over the mystery, we can delight in the way our main character approaches things, the way she lives her life while surrounded by lies and mysteries. And we can enjoy the choices she makes, and see her bear up under the consequences.
Now, because we know more than our protagonist does, I suspect there will be a great many times when Johnson borrows tension from classic horror genre tropes. We in the audience will be yelling “Don’t go in the basement!” or “Stay away from him, he’s the killer!” while Charlie sits and chats and smiles and nods. It’s marvelous.
Of course, this show might not be for you if that sort of tension isn’t your jam. If you aren’t willing to stew like that while Charlie fumbles through life, just trying to be a decent person in the midst of potentially scary people… I don’t know.
Try the first episode. See if it’s for you. You can do that much for free.
Back to the show… I think Charlie’s desire to just live, and her competing desire to do what seems right, is part of what makes her so magnificent. She’s just a normal person (I mean, apart from being able to suss out lies), choosing to do the right thing as best she can. I love it.
Anyway. If you want some good TV, if you crave murder mystery, if you’re looking for something that hasn’t been worn into an axle-breaking rut by the procedural genre… try Poker Face. I’m glad I did. I want to watch more.
Teen Killers Club, by Lily Sparks
Sometimes books read like TV shows. This is one of those times. Hardly surprising, given that the author has a background writing for TV dramas. She does a good job of it here, too.
Lily Sparks’ Teen Killers Club handled me roughly. I loved it. Riding its ups and downs, I felt emotionally whipsawed and had to set it aside a few times to take breathers and regain equilibrium (something our poor narrator never has a chance to do). By the time I finished, I felt like I’d just gotten off a roller coaster. I wandered around in a daze for an hour or so, still locked in admiration for the ways the story had pulled me back and forth time and again. Because for all that I’d been on a ride, it was an impressive ride. Sparks knew how to grab my heartstrings, and she did it fearlessly. The book had caught me and reeled me in, and pulled me along for the whole thing.
Well, not quite the whole thing: at the start I was partly distracted by needing to finish another book. But it was easy to slip back into it after finishing the other book. Then, of course, it was hard to put it down.
And yes, I’m on board for reading the sequel (which I suspected would exist, but wasn’t certain about until writing this). I’m a little concerned about it, for reasons that are lightly spoiler-y and which I’ll share in more detail below. Blandly put, I’m not sure which genre tropes the story-to-come will follow. There are a variety of options available, after all. But the story’s overall tone could go in several directions, and I won’t know how well it will fit my palate until I read the dang thing—which I will definitely do.
All of which is to say, if you like YA teen drama and serial killers and murder mysteries, this is a great book for you. Be ready for a heck of an emotional ride.
I can’t go into detail about this without implied spoilers for the book. But this series of observations are eating my brain, so here goes.
This varies by subgenre, but dramas don’t like to kill characters or let them stay dead. This is especially true of TV dramas, which often suffer from what I’ll call a dramatic conservation of characters.
I say suffer, but in moderation this conservation is a positive thing. Because dramas build up value in their characters, investing them with growth, backgrounds, and relationships that make them richer and more interesting, these dramas are loathe to sacrifice their developed main characters or let them die—even when that death would make sense. This dramatic conservation of characters feeds into the “main character glow” or “plot protection” that shields developed characters from death. But this conservation also provides the audience with reliable narrative focal points, and both encourages and rewards the audience’s emotional investment.
Some stories are more prone to this than others, but I think it’s especially prevalent in character dramas that specialize in arranging (and rearranging) their characters along various social faults of contention. Characters twist or are twisted into new disagreements, the situation is milked for all the drama it can hold, and then some new development arises that prompts another realignment. The longer a story runs, the more realignments happen, and the more strange situations people end up in as the writers try to deliver new and exciting stakes. This is the process that leads to jumping the shark. It’s also the process that results in somebody being caught in a terrible accident or dangerous what-have-you and then miraculously surviving (possibly with some character-altering development, like amnesia).
Usually, dramatic conservation of characters is maintained. Usually the characters don’t actually die, or if they do they aren’t actually gone for all that long. That’s part of the reason that so few character deaths are treated seriously in these stories… or at least, why so few are treated seriously amongst these stories’ audiences. The genre-savvy know from past experience that characters don’t usually die or stay dead.
This, sadly, only makes it harder to actually up the stakes in these genres.
It doesn’t help that these stories sometimes try to up the stakes by killing off people the audience has little attachment to. Instead of demonstrating that the situation is dangerous, this only reinforces the relative safety of the main characters. Scalzi’s Redshirts is all about this trope as it exists in Star Trek. Other stories try to demonstrate how dangerous and gritty they are by killing off characters seemingly at random—sometimes this works, and sometimes it just feels like the author is trying to be edgy.
I think character death in these stories usually works best when it’s given space and weight, or at least makes an impact on other characters (I’ve written a bunch of posts about this). There are a handful of exceptions.
But the thing that’s eating at me, the thing I’m concerned is going to happen in the sequel, is that Sparks won’t let characters die when they really ought to… or will kill more characters just to show that she can. She’s set herself up for a tricky path going forward, and I suspect *EXPLICIT SPOILERS* based on the end of the book that she won’t let characters stay dead when that would actually fit her story well. But I don’t know! Maybe she’s just lulling me into a false sense of security. As I said above, I’ve got to read the sequel to find out. *END SPOILERS*
Still on board for YA drama about teen serial killers, with some murder mystery on the side?
Get thee to the library (or bookstore).
A Dead Djinn In Cairo, by P. Djèlí Clark
Short, fast, fun. A Dead Djinn In Cairo is a good read, with a marvelous setting. It’s also my first time reading any of P. Djèlí Clark’s work.
As a veteran fan of investigative mystery horror, adventure, and Mythos stories, the tropes here feel familiar. That seems intentional. These character and plot tropes are called on to lend the story its structure and familiarity, and they make the story quick and tight when it might otherwise require more explanation and exposition. This works well; it’s an expert’s use of the existing genre shorthand to sketch in structure and conventions, and it lets Clark explore ideas and settings that rarely make it into these genres. It’s skillfully done, and worth admiration.
That exploration is part of why I don’t mind P. Djèlí Clark’s reliance on tropes for narrative stability. He lavishes his attention on novelty elsewhere, with quick splashes of set dressing that seep slowly out of the scenery. The combination of elements is delicious (a turn-of-the-1900s ascendant Egypt, women’s increasing independence, religious turmoil, fantastical creatures and beings in our world following the removal of some of reality’s barriers…). It’s all very good. I love the world he’s created here and will happily read more of it.
But that reliance means I don’t yet have a sense of whether I’ll like P. Djèlí Clark’s other narratives. At some point I’ll want more than my enthusiasm for this cool setting; I’d love for the narrative and its tropes to feel exciting without feeling like they hew so closely to the genre’s conventions, and I’d love for Clark to take the standard tropes and twist them a little more firmly into his own setting’s image. That said, I’d certainly recommend this story over any number of other genre stories. He delivers the expected tropes at least as well as any of the older examples I have to hand, and the trappings of P. Djèlí Clark’s story are more appealing to me. Based on this, I hope he’ll find other ways to exceed those stories as well.
The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night had been on my to-watch list since it came out last year. I finally watched it Monday, early in the morning after my body decided three and a half hours of sleep was all I would get.
This movie was damn good.
These sorts of stories—stories with the feelings evoked by The Vast of Night—are usually pegged as horror movies. But most horror movies fail to deliver them well. Those movies are too caught up in the scare, in the burst of adrenaline and the heart-pumping thrill of being prey. Not so with The Vast of Night.
It is, at its heart, a mystery.
It’s about two young people, people who yearn for some way out of their small New Mexico town, discovering something odd and trying to chase down the truth behind it before it disappears. And it feels more like the slower paced, unsettling investigations sometimes found in The Twilight Zone or The X-Files than like any other horror movie I’ve seen in ages. I mean, damn, the movie even opens with an implied framing narrative as an episode of something like The Twilight Zone, right down to the Rod Serling-esque intro voiceover.
It’s been ages since I’ve been this captivated by watching people sit and talk to each other about things that aren’t happening on screen.
You may think that’s a joke, but seriously, I both loved it and didn’t understand it. Reflecting on the movie immediately after watching it, I couldn’t figure it out why I found that so rewarding. And yet, I did. Heck, there’s even the incredibly bold choice to simply hold on a black screen for a while, while we listen to someone speak, and it’s GOOD.
As you might expect from all that, this movie is low key. It’s grounded, both metaphorically and literally. The camera work very intentionally stays at or below shoulder height the vast majority of the time, leaving us just as stuck in this town as the main characters. There’s even a long low shot (that baffled me until I dug up more about it) which does an incredible job of tying the whole space of the town together.
There’s only one scene I can think of that really pulls out the stops and delivers the scares you might have expected from a movie listed as a sci-fi mystery thriller, and even then it’s incredibly subdued by thriller movie standards.
Instead, the movie hones its craft on a low-effects presentation that focuses more on the uncanny, the strange, and the wondrous, and it does this well. Extremely well.
A few other good notes that I must mention…
The sound design and music are great. I recommend watching the movie with a good sound system, or good set of headphones if you’re watching it alone. It’s worth it just to be sure you get all the details of everyone’s lines, all the richness of their voices.
And the consistent technical skill of the actors interacting with their props! That was really good. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but there’s something special for me about seeing characters on screen interacting with complicated machines in a way that brings both the machine and the character to life. That’s most true when the interactions are physical, and requires them to be internally consistent; that combination gives the character a feeling of expertise, and tells me more about them as a person. Part of what I appreciate about that internal consistency is that I know it’s not easy to create on set: you rarely get any of the feedback from a prop that you’d get from the actual device, so the appearance of fluid ease and competence (and the internal consistency of use that lets you learn how the machine works as they go) means that the actor put a lot of time into either learning the actual use of the machine or developing a legible acting language of use.
I could keep nerding about how much I like that for ages, but I’ll just say that it’s present in this movie and did a lot for my feeling of immersion and belief in the characters.
So. If you like investigative mysteries and the uncanny or strange, indulge yourself with The Vast of Night.
Tamsyn Muir’s Sword-wielding Lesbian Space Necromancers
This isn’t anything in-depth about Gideon the Ninth or Harrow the Ninth. It’s much faster than that.
If “lesbian swords and necromancy in space” doesn’t sound appealing, I guess you should look elsewhere. I thought it was great. Gideon the Ninth has plenty of drama, channels anime in places and ways that I found very satisfying, and delivers convoluted mystery alongside swordplay, violence, and necro-magic. Tamsyn Muir (Tor page, Tumblr, homepage) has my attention.
I’m also enjoying the separate in-universe story The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex, which takes place before the opening of Gideon the Ninth.
For those who don’t like starting a series until it’s finished… first, that’s silly, it’s not how publishing works. If you want a series to exist, you should damn well read the first book and recommend it to others. Secondly, I don’t think you need to worry as much about that here: while Gideon the Ninth is obviously the first of multiple books, the ending ties the story up neatly and resolves things while still leaving room for a satisfying next story.
I read Gideon the Ninth last year and loved it. I took a little while to really sink into it, but once I had been caught I was stuck in it and couldn’t put the book down. It juked and weaved all over the narrative space; I never felt like it was letting me down by breaking narrative rules, but always felt like I should have seen the next twist coming and was instead surprised by it. I realize that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightful.
I also loved the deeply anchored first person perspective that carried the narration throughout. I took a while to tease out where Gideon’s perspective was reliable and where it wasn’t, but honestly that only made the whole book more fun for me. The generally grisly nature of the story, the YA drama undertones (or just tones sometimes), and the excellent adventure / mystery plot were only made better by Gideon’s grumbling, scathing commentary.
I haven’t started Harrow the Ninth yet.
I’m really looking forward to it.
The Monster in the Middle of the Road is Me, by J.P. Romney
Aside from having a name long enough to make my post-title formatting sensibilities cringe, this was a pretty good book. I had some other thoughts about it too, which I’ll address after the break, but at first blush it’s good fun: a young adult paranormal mystery set in Japan. I’m glad my friend gave it to me when I asked for something new to read.
Miracle at St. Anna
They’re looking at the narrative, just offscreen.
When I first saw the title and plot summary for Miracle at St. Anna, I thought that I was going to see a refashioned telling of the battle of Sommocolonia (which I’d just read about shortly before watching the movie). I was totally wrong. This movie was never quite what I expected it to be.
Possibly valuable, probably confusing, Miracle at St. Anna is a composite of several different stories, all mashed together in a fascinating but bewildering mix of historical fiction that feels more like very subdued historical magical realism. The narrative focus wanders back and forth, encompassing so many story lines that it never feels like it zeroes in on any one of them. Nor does it ever focus enough to mold a sense of coherence out of the disparate pieces. I like the story at its core, I think, but … I feel lost. It’s almost too nebulous to really understand, in some ways, and it certainly leaves many questions entirely unanswered. Or maybe it answers some questions, but in unsatisfying ways? It’s a bit of a mess.
But why? It seemed so promising, after all.
Gravity Falls: X-Files for kids, Comedy for adults
I just spent much of Saturday evening blazing my way through Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch‘s absolutely wonderful cartoon series. Gravity Falls was first described to me as “like The X-files but with kids in rural Oregon,” which does a decent job of introducing it. That also puts it dangerously (tantalizingly?) close to Twin Peaks territory, but fails to convey just how damn funny the show is; I was chortling the whole way through, and would happily watch many of the episodes again (a rare experience for me with most TV shows). There’re still many more episodes for me to watch, and I honestly can’t wait. I might take a break from writing this just to watch the next one.
So yeah, Gravity Falls is what would happen if you mashed Twin Peaks and the X-Files together in a hilarious and intelligent kids show. It chronicles the summer adventures of Dipper and Mabel, a pair of twins who’ve gone to spend the summer with their great-uncle (Grunkle) Stan. They live with him in his house / Mystery Shack tourist attraction, and have the dubious pleasure of working for him while they try to enjoy their summer in the bizarre town and its even stranger environs.
They must face boredom:
And popcorn-machine math:
What’s not to like? And yes, I did just watch another episode. Honestly, if you’re at all interested in smart animated comedies, you should give Gravity Falls a look. It’s definitely a kids’ show, but like the best kids’ programming it uses that as a vehicle to go deeper than you’d expect, instead of holding back. Despite the innately fantastical nature of the show, it still feels like a very real depiction of the emotional lives of its protagonists, and it doesn’t shy away from the realities of social pressure for impressionable youngsters. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I really want to watch another episode.
The Sorcerer’s House, by Gene Wolfe
I should probably re-read this book. In fact, from what I understand I should probably read and then re-read a good deal of Gene Wolfe‘s work. There’s a lot of it that I haven’t bothered to pick up at all, but the attention he pays to the construction of his novels is something from which I stand to learn a great deal. It’s no surprise, then, that The Sorcerer’s House is a slowly unfolding marvel of consistent inconsistency, even on my first read-through. And what the devil do I mean by that?
I’ll start with the narrator. We are treated to the sometimes pleasing, sometimes grating prose of one Baxter “Bax” Dunn, as the entire story is told through the lens of his letters (with the addition of a few letters that were sent to him). It is an epistolary, and as such we are entirely at the mercy of Bax’s representation of events as he begins to deal with moving into (squatting in, really) what appears to be a supernaturally expanding house. But one of the few things that we know of Bax is that he was recently released from prison after being convicted for fraud. There are other confounding factors at play as well, hinted at but generally sidelined as being of little relative importance, but I’ll leave those for you to discover when you read the book. Suffice to say that the narrator is tremendously unreliable, to the extent that I’m not sure how much of the book actually happened (I’m certainly unsure how much happened as he represented it, and I think I’ve caught at least one lie). As if that wasn’t enough, he often walks forward or back through the course of events until you’re working hard just to keep the timeline straight in your head.
On a similar note, I’m impressed by how palatable Wolfe manages to make a character I so grew to dislike. Dislike might be the wrong word for it; there were so many things about Bax which I found so unlikeable or frustrating, but he exuded such amiable bonhomie that I found it difficult to hate him for very long, as he’s perhaps the very definition of sleazy but charming. I can only imagine it was second nature to him. The fact that I’m able to tell you all of this about Bax is part of what I so admire about Gene Wolfe.
There’s a great deal more to say about this, but as per usual I’m going to segregate the spoilers. So for my pre-final closing thoughts, or whatever you call this bit, I just want to say that this is a fascinating read even if you don’t end up liking Bax very much. And if you can deal with the several-decades-old gender relations.