Passivity personified

Here’s a tip if you’re a disorganised writer, prone to procrastination: don’t join a well-stocked DVD library. Or if you do, swiftly admit your mistake and disengage as soon as possible. I’ve been having a grand time recently, watching films I hadn’t seen for years, or had meant to watch when they were released, or had never heard of. A fair few were based on books, like Elling, LA Confidential, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Elling was every bit as special and amazing a film on the second watch; it’s based on the third book of a quartet as far as I remember, the only one available in English rather than the original Norwegian but I’m holding out for the first book being translated. I did try learning Norwegian, but being able to describe OneMonkey’s appearance or ask for breakfast is a far cry from picking up a literary nuance. LA Confidential put me in the mood for some hard-boiled detection (more of which shortly), and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil felt wonderfully slow, atmospheric and literary (probably won’t read the book though, without John Cusack and Kevin Spacey I’m not sure how much it would hold for me).

Feeling guilty for watching so many films, but still not stirred to write much, I read a couple of novels you’d definitely file under noir. The first I was wary about but delighted with, the second was disappointing but maybe only in comparison to the first.

Poodle Springs, by Raymond Chandler and Robert B Parker: I don’t know how much of the manuscript Chandler had left but I couldn’t see any joins. I’ve never read any of Parker’s novels (I will now) but my dad, about as keen on Raymond Chandler as I am, had read this hybrid work when it came out (1990) and pronounced it OK. At first I thought Marlowe wasn’t acting the way you’d expect, then I realised that was almost entirely down to the circumstances (we first encounter our hero returning from his honeymoon to a small Californian town), and once I’d accepted that I was drawn in and dragged along to the end at a fast pace, forgetting it wasn’t Chandler through and through.

In the mood for more of the seamy side of California, I picked up Die a Little by Megan Abbott in the local library; it had a recommendation from James Ellroy (whose book was behind the film I’d just watched) on the cover, and another quote that said ‘the kind of book that should make devotees of Cain and Chandler fall down and beg for mercy’, which at the time I thought was intended positively but now I’m not so sure. Set in the 1950s but published in 2005 I wasn’t sure how well Abbott had caught the tone. Lora King is a strait-laced teacher from a small town, moved to LA with her brother Bill who becomes an investigator in the District Attorney’s office. Bill marries a girl with a shady background which might not be as strictly in the past as it seems and Lora, worried about her brother, sets out to investigate.

As a premise it sounded good, but part of what I mean by not catching the tone is that Lora seemed too modern in her grey areas: there was nothing to suggest she wasn’t every bit as innocent as you’d expect from her background, but the way she uncovered some things without apparently batting an eyelid didn’t sit right for me, and in the end she comes across as morally ambiguous with no real explanation. On the technical side, there was no sign of investigation until a good third of the way through, and there were a few loose threads (for instance Lora makes a note of the address when she sees someone she knows going into a house, then later sees an address and because it’s the same street she wonders if it’s the same house – surely she’d know, or be able to look at her note?) and a bit of a ‘look I’ve researched the 1950s’ info-dump (a half-page list of dinner party dishes Bill’s wife learns to make, plus the named kitchen gadgets she buys to assist). I did read the book all the way to the end so it can’t have been that bad, but it left me unsatisfied. Maybe if I hadn’t read it straight after such a good example of the genre my reaction would have been a bit more favourable.

I will mention the last film I watched, before I settle down to write: Bunny and the Bull, a recent British film which has some things in common with Elling I suppose, as far as the set-up goes (shy, neurotic man with a loud, sex-crazed best friend with questionable personal habits). Visually it’s very striking, lots of interesting animation styles and clever representations of a reclusive man’s shaky grasp on reality. Quite sad and touching in places, but also daft, funny and crude. Well worth missing a couple of hours’ writing time for.

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