Monthly Archives: August 2003

Henning Mankell – Faceless Killers

This is the first in Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. It’s a competent thriller, but it clearly shows that he hadn’t yet hit his stride. Wallander comes across as a stereotypical depressed policeman: miserable because his wife has left him, out of touch with his daughter, fighting with his father, and getting drunk far too often. He is also the stereotypical highly committed policeman: working until all hours, doggedly following down leads that others had given up on, and racking up large numbers of cuts and bruises in the course of the investigation. In the end he fights against his own personal decline as much as he fights against the decay he sees creeping over Swedish society. You’re left with the impression of a capable character: one who can overcome the obstacles thrown at him. But is he really likeable? Would I have read more Wallander books if this was the first one I had picked up? Maybe not.

The Quiet American

Michael Caine plays Thomas Fowler, an English newspaper reporter in Vietnam in the early 1950s. Brendan Fraser is Alden Pyle, the “quiet American” of the title. He is a medical aid worker who befriends Fowler, and then falls in love with Fowler’s young Vietnamese mistress. It’s unquestionably a beautiful film, with understated yet powerful performances from both Caine and Fraser, but it lays on the allegory too thickly. The three main characters play out a love story that substitutes for the recent history of Vietnam itself. The love triangle breaks apart (as it must), but just as Vietnam’s history didn’t end in the 1970s, the lives of those involved in the love story don’t wrap up neatly, either. The lack of resolution has meaning, but it also left me feeling less than completely satisfied.

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle

This is bubblegum music video filmmaking taken to extremes. It consists of a series of 3-5 minute chunks, each containing a snippet of sassy dialogue, at least one sexy pose, an action sequence, and a theme tune. It lives up to the “Full Throttle” title by never slowing down from the initial hyperactive rescue scene. There is a plot, but it’s secondary to looking good. It’s vacuous, mindless, but also kinda fun. Just for goodness’ sake don’t go in looking for anything other than mindless entertainment.

Henning Mankell – Sidetracked

When I bought Sidetracked, I had no idea that Henning Mankell is Swedish, and that this is an English translation of his book. Being bilingual, I’m always a bit wary about reading translations. I’m always wondering how much of the author’s original tone is being lost. How many figures of speech just do not survive being moved out of their original tongue? What is the translator adding in order to compensate? So usually I consider a translated work to be a collaborative effort between the original author and the translator. In this case it’s Steven T. Murray, who has also translated many of Mankell’s other novels, and he does a fine job.

Inspector Kurt Wallander of the Ystad police finds himself investigating a series of brutal murders where the victims have been scalped. The victims are also rich and well-known, and so there is a lot of outside interest and pressure for him to solve the case. At the same time he has to deal with his sick father, and figure out a way to tell his girlfriend that the case will mean he’ll have to cancel their holiday. It’s these family connections that lend Sidetracked a lot of its interest. You get the impression that Wallander (and the rest of the Ystad police force) is much more than just a cop: he is a son, a father, a lover, and a friend. Despite the viciousness of the crimes, the book feels gentle and innocent. Wallander is constantly wondering how the Sweden he loves so much can produce such a deranged killer. Despite his cynicism, he genuinely believes in the goodness of his country and its people.

Terminator 3

This is a competent third part in the Terminator trilogy. It is tentative rather than daring, but on the other hand it maintains a sense of danger and uncertainty throughout. Until the end, you’re really not sure whether Judgement Day can be averted–again–or if mankind really is doomed. Nick Stahl does a good job of a more mature John Connor who is running away from his destiny. Arnie parodies his earlier Terminators, which is a shame. The action sequences are good, but poorly paced, with too many set pieces happening too early, leaving the third act relatively weak. In general, the film could have done with fewer laughs and knowing nods to its predecessors, but hey, it’s a sequel. It draws in some interesting hooks from the previous film, and lays down plenty new ones of its own, paving the way for further ongoing material in the series. (Although I wonder if a TV series might not be a better platform for expanding the canon now.)

James Bamford – Body Of Secrets

Although the writing is dry in places (especially at the start), this is a fascinating insight into the NSA and signals intelligence. The book doesn’t go into details about how the NSA breaks codes; recent years have seen plenty of books on codebreaking. Instead it focuses on the history of the NSA, the tough, dangerous, yet often tediously boring job of signals operators in the field, and the role that electronic intelligence gathering has played since the Second World War. But as well as notes of historical interest, Bamford has dug up an astonishing amount of inside information about incidents that security agencies and politicians would prefer stayed buried. His desciptions of incidents surrounding the lead-up to the Cuban missile crisis, and the Korean and Vietnam wars are eye-opening. He digs deeply into the question of who knew what and when, and comes up with some shocking answers. Definitely a must-read.