Saturday, January 6, 2018

Broadchurch: One of the Best Things I Watched in 2017

Scott D. Parker

Some series arrive out of the blue and land your radar that you wonder how it is you never heard of it. Chances are good that the reason I never knew about Broadchurch was that I am not—as yet—a Doctor Who fan.

Someone correct me if I’m mistaken but it seems to me that Broadchurch must have been written by Chris Chibnall with star David Tennant in mind. He plays detective Alec Hardy, a grizzled veteran recently assigned as lead detective to the police station down in Broadchurch (a fictional town Dorset, England) largely to get away from a case that had gone badly. He immediately ruffles the feathers of detective Ellie Miller (the brilliant Olivia Colman) who had just returned from a vacation with the full expectation that she would land the job of lead detective. You can imagine her chagrin at not getting the post, but all of that is subverted when the body of a young boy is found on the beach, below a massive cliff.

What makes Broadchurch the series so utterly compelling is how the death of the boy affects the residents of Broadchurch the town. The first season (all seasons are eight episodes) zeroes in on the family of young Danny Latimer. The Latimers—father Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan); mother Beth Latimer (played by future Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker); and sister Chloe—are understandably beside themselves with grief. They are also good friends with the Millers—Ellie’s son was friends with Danny; Ellie is best friends with Beth—and that relationship is stretched from time to time as the investigation drags on.

As in most great mysteries, we viewers see certain characters doing things that casts shades of guilt over them. The mystery is compelling, but the acting is superb. This counts as my first exposure to Tennant and if he brings this kind of gravitas to Doctor Who, I’m so there. I saw myself in Whittaker and Buchan, as the grieving parents, and wondered if I would do anything much differently. But the true breakout star (for me) of this series is Colman’s Ellie. Indeed, she won a BAFTA for Best Actress. Over the course of season one, she quickly grew to be my favorite character and she stayed that way all the way to the series finale. Her humanness at what she witnesses is compelling and draws you in more and more. Colman’s ability never to hide her true feelings is refreshing in a TV detective, and her strength, while tested, remains strong. I’ve not watched an episode of “The Crown” but as soon as I learned Colman would assume the lead role, I put that show on my list.

Word of advice: do not watch season one and read up on the series on the internet. You will spoil the reveal of the true culprit.

Season two of the series focuses on two plot threads: the trial of the person responsible for Danny’s death—and what it does to the town—and the old case Tennant’s Hardy failed to solve that eventually led to his assignment at Broadchurch. Where many second seasons and sequels tend to go over the top, with Broadchurch, you merely get additional layers peeled away. Colman continues to shine as my favorite character, but the actions and motivations of the Latimer parents take a prominent role. We get a bit of backstory with Tennant’s Hardy here, especially as he asks Ellie to review and re-investigate the previous case which has landed again in his lap.

Again, do not read up on this season, but stay to the very, very powerful ending that will have you asking if you could do it.

The third and last season jumps forward in time about three years. Hardy is back in Broadchurch and he and Ellie investigate the brutal rape of a woman at a 50th birthday party at a nearby mansion. Like the previous two seasons, the detectives investigate folks and we see them not only doing something that makes them look suspicious but also outright lying to the investigators. Season three uses this story to say a few things about modern culture, not all of it good. As you have come to expect, the acting is superb and Colman shines, as does Tennant.

This is an excellent series and is one of the best things I saw in 2017 (we finished a few days shy of 2018). All the episodes are on Netflix. I’m not a binger, but I started to be as this series progressed. Season one was a one-episode-per-night thing. Season two had a couple of nights where my wife and I watched two episodes. Not so with the third season. Most nights were two episodes each. I ended up finishing the series sooner than I would have liked, but it is so good I didn’t really care.

Broadchurch: Seasons 1-3: Highly Recommended

P. S. Happy Birthday, Sherlock!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Weekend with Sue Grafton

by Holly West

I've said before that one of things I love about attending writing conferences and author events is that it gives me the opportunity to meet my writing heroes, or, as I like to call them, my rock stars. For me, there was no bigger rock star than Sue Grafton.

I didn't discover her books until I was in my 30s, but once I did, I devoured the lot of them (or, what had been published up to that point), one after another, over the course of a few months. Sue, along with David Liss and Lawrence Block, re-fueled my desire to write a novel and inspired me to set my sights on crime fiction. I owe them all a lot, but none so much as Sue.

I've been sitting here for the last couple of hours, writing, deleting, writing, deleting, trying to express how I felt about her and why. Everything I've written is long-winded and overly personal, not very interesting to anybody but me. Let me try again.

In 2009, when I was but a wee writer hoping to someday be published, I met Sue for the first time at the Shamus Awards banquet at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. I didn't know she'd be attending and when she walked into the restaurant with her husband, Steve, I was breathless with excitement.

Some of you might be familiar with Ali Karim, who seems to know everyone in the crime fiction community. He was at the banquet himself, and I told him how thrilled I was that Sue was there. He said, "Would you like to meet her?"

Before I could respond with anything resembling coherency, Ali left and returned with Sue. He introduced us and I took gushing to a new level as I told her how much I loved her books. I might've also cried a little. After I composed myself, we spent the next ten or so minutes in conversation, during which she asked all about me and what I was working on, and gave me a little insight into her own work process.

She was a delight.

About a month after Bouchercon, I attended a second conference, the Crime Bake in Massachusetts. Sue was to be the Guest of Honor and I'd signed up for both cons without knowing I'd have the unexpected pleasure of meeting her at Bouchercon. Going into Crime Bake, I had little expectation she'd remember me, but I looked forward to seeing her again, nonetheless.

My husband and I were sitting in the bar when she arrived with a couple of the conference organizers. As the three of them passed our table I said hello to her and reminded her of our meeting the previous month. She surprised me by asking, very shyly, "Can I sit with you?"

We ordered a round of drinks and Sue asked for a glass of Chardonnay. I don't remember if she specified a brand, but when it came, she didn't like the taste and requested the wine menu before ordering something better. My husband ended up drinking the first glass.

We still laugh about that--my husband drinking Sue's cast-off wine. Sue wasn't at all rude about it and the situation wasn't awkward--she just wasn't going to drink a glass of shitty wine just to be polite. I have to respect her for that.

Afterward we sat there, drinking and talking, like two people who'd known each other forever. I mentioned a scene in one of her books that took place near where we lived in Santa Monica and she told me about meeting her husband while living near University High School in West Los Angeles. We dished about old boyfriends. I told her I didn't think it was realistic that her famed protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, cut her hair with nail scissors. Sue insisted it was because she used to do it herself.

We might've talked about writing--funny, I don't remember that.

Many of the tributes to Sue I've read mention how sweet she was. How gracious, and how generous she was with her time. And she was all those things. But she also had an edge. She was sassy, the kind of person you might get busted with for smoking cigarettes in the girls room. She was fun and flirty and beautiful.

The next day, Saturday, was busy with conference stuff for both of us. But later that evening I met her as she exited the elevator. She'd dressed up somewhat for that night's dinner and I told her how pretty she looked, complimenting her scarf. She'd knitted it herself from cashmere and said it was about as big a knitting project as she had patience for. When I got closer I saw she had something on her face and without thinking, I brushed it off her cheek. It was such an intimate gesture and yet, at the time, there seemed nothing weird about it.

Jesus. I sound like a creepy stalker now, don't I?

She asked again if she could sit with us, so I brought her over to our table in the bar. I'd been sitting with a couple of other attendees and Sue chatted with all of us until one of the conference organizers approached her and told her she was supposed to be having cocktails with another group. She refused to leave our table. She wanted to hang out with us. With me. And, funny enough, with my husband. She liked him more than she did me, I think.

Over the years, I saw her a few more times. She always remembered me, but we never had another conversation like the ones we had that weekend. I wrote about one of our subsequent encounters here, when I attended my first conference as a published writer:

"After my Left Coast Crime panel, I dutifully went downstairs with the other authors to sit at the signing tables. The first thing I saw when I got there was that Sue Grafton, who'd had a panel during the same time I did, was at one end of the table and I was at the other end. We were "bookends," if you will. This moment was not lost on me. In all the fantasies I'd ever had about being a published author, this had not been one of them--it had never even occurred to me. I was thrilled.

I waited until Sue's long line of fans had dissipated and took the opportunity to tell her just what it meant to me. My first conference as a published author and here I was sitting at the signing table with my idol. Always a gracious one, she gave me a big hug and congratulated me.

I spend a lot of time complaining about how hard writing is but let me tell you--there are a lot of great moments along the path to publishing. This was one of mine."

It felt like gut-punch when I got the email from Elizabeth Little, then president of the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and the chapter to which Sue belonged. It was December 29 and I'd been putting the finishing touches on the SoCalMWA newsletter (I've edited it for the past several years) and hadn't been online for a few hours. The subject line told me everything I didn't want to know: Sad News--Sue Grafton.

I said at the beginning of this post that I'd deleted the earlier versions because they were too long-winded, only to write an even longer one before hitting "publish." And damned if it isn't pretty darned personal and might not be of interest to anybody but me. The truth is that Sue's death has hit me harder than I could've ever imagined and if I can't be honest with you all, who else can I be honest with?

But along with my sadness, I feel gratitude. Gratitude to Sue for giving us Kinsey Milhone and a game-changing series of books that will forever impact the mystery genre. Gratitude for her dedication to the crime fiction community, her unfailing graciousness, her wry humor, and her willingness to share the tricks of the trade she’d mastered so well. And finally, gratitude for the personal exchanges I had with her. They are among my most treasured memories in my writing career.

And, dare I say it?

I think I shall.

I'll always have that weekend at Crime Bake.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Cleanup Reading

It goes without saying that I'm looking forward in 2018 to another year of great reading.  The thing is, I'm ending 2017 in a way that's rather sloppy, with, I see in Goodreads, seven books that I'm currently reading.  How did I let things get so out of hand?  To read this many or even more books at one time may be common practice for other people, but it's not for me.   I usually read one or two books at a time, at most three - let's say a novel, a non-fiction book, and maybe a collection of short stories - but seven, at least for me, is ridiculous.  It's probably silly (because it's not like I'm in school and must finish what I started or face a consequence), but I've decided that before I get into anything new in 2018, I'll finish the seven books I left unfinished from 2017.

Here's the list:

1) The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder by Patricia Highsmith: 25% done, says Goodreads
2) The Confessions of Arsene Lupin by Maurice Leblanc: 30% done
3) Four Novels: The Square, Moderato Cantabile, 10:30 on a Summer Night, The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas by Margurite Duras: 50% done (in this case, two of the short novels, Cantabile and Andesmas, I've read)
4) Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980, edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre: 85% done
5) The Thefts of Nick Velvet by Edward D. Hoch: 51% done
6) Don't Look Now: Selected Stories by Daphne Du Maurier: 85% done
7) Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon: 54% done

A varied enough list, I suppose, with an emphasis, not surprisingly, on crime and suspense, though from various time periods.  Mystery in White is the only full-length novel of the bunch, a 1937 Golden Age era mystery set during Christmastime that I specifically picked up to read over Christmas but which, because of one thing and another, I didn't get through as fast as I thought I would. So here I am after New Year's feeling like a student overdue on an assignment. I shouldn't be reading this novel with the holiday season over. What's the matter with me? But I will read the rest of  the book since I need to find out the secret behind all the mysterious doings going on at the isolated house caught in a snowstorm. Naturally, a number of strangers are snowbound there together.

For sheer narrative pleasure, the standout among these books is the Daphne Du Maurier collection.  Her short stories are much tougher and darker in tone, and more varied in subject matter, than you might expect if you know Du Maurier from her historical novels and Rebecca.  She's a masterful plotter and knows how to take a menacing premise, a bizarre set-up, and milk every single ounce of possible tension from that premise. She is also, I'm realizing, quite modern in her takes on twisted psychology and sexuality.  And every story I've read ends on a strong note of discomfort.  That's discomfort both for you, the reader, and her main characters. It's great stuff.

Anyhow, that's my reading situation right now.  It's not a life or death thing, but something bugs me about having seven books sitting there started within the last year and yet still unfinished.  So, as I said, that's it.  I'll read all these books to the end before I start anything new.

Though, on the other hand, who knows?  There's that Sara Gran book I've been meaning to get to -  Come Closer - and Sweet Days of Discipline by the Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy and that Cesar Aira book The Seamstress and the Wind, and what about all the 2018 crime novels coming, many by friends...

This is worse than being in school!