Paradox

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“Yes, we will watch and enjoy Zoë Bell in anything.”

paradoxEven as a scientist. Seemed like a bit of a stretch for one of our favourite two-fisted heroines, but here, it turns out she’s actually an undercover NSA agent. She is only pretending to be a brainiac, whose cover identity of “Gale” is sent in to infiltrate a mysterious, highly secretive project being run in an underground facility by the equally mysterious “Mr. Landau” (Yoba); he has made a fortune on the stock exchange with an impeccable knowledge of its future movements. Perhaps related, turns out his team have been working on a time-machine, though it requires so much power, it fries the grid over a wide area – not unimportantly, sealing them into the underground base. Their first effort involves sending one of the group, Jim (Huss), ahead an hour; the plan is then for everyone else to “catch up.” A few minutes later, he returns, having seen a future where most of the scientists are dead, and the survivors stalked by an unknown assailant. Can their rapidly approaching. lethal fate be changed, or is it immutable?

I’m a sucker for time-travel films, but they need to be rather more rigorous than this one, which feels sloppy both in tone and execution, as if the makers couldn’t decide quite what they were trying for. One minute, it’s hard sci-fi, the next it’s a slasher pic. No, hang on – it’s a romance between Gale and one of the scientists! Wait, it’s suddenly Zoë Bell kicking ass? Not all of these work equally well, and the shifts between them are rarely less than jarring. There are also plot-holes – not so much with the time-travel aspect, which is handled relatively well, despite a film title that almost appears to be apologizing in advance. Most obviously, how does this underground facility have absolutely no stairs? Or, given the first use of the time-machine triggered a massive black-out, why is it then used repeatedly thereafter without issue?

The cast is equally inconsistent. Bell is, naturally, the best, but Yoba (whom we recognized from Alphas) is okay as an enigma dressed in a dark suit. The rest of the performers, however, appear to have been picked up at random from a local community college; someone needs to check if the director owns a white van or has made large, online purchases of chloroform. For the other actors appear capable of delivering lines or showing emotion – just not both, and certainly not at the same time.  This may be where the film comes closest to the slasher film, in that you care precious little for most of the victims or their fate. I’ll admit that we did not see the final twist coming, and like most time-travel films, may merit a second viewing, just to figure out whether or not it still makes sense, in the light of the late reveal. But there are an awful lot of movies further up the list.

Dir: Michael Hurst
Star: Zoë Bell, Malik Yoba, Adam Huss, Bjørn Alexander

Revolver Rani

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“More bemusing than amusing.”

revolverraniThe problem with satire, is you have to know what’s being satirized in order to appreciate it. In this case, the twin targets are Indian politics and Bollywood – the local movie industry. I am better informed about the latter than the former, though this is as much because I know virtually nothing about their politics, as because I have the soundtrack to Singh is Kiing [and, yes, that is how it’s spelled]. So it’s possible the satire here went over my head; however, given it was a box-office flop in its home territory, it’s perhaps more likely, this just isn’t very good.

I do get that the heroine appears based on Phoolan Devi, the subject of Bandit Queen. who transitioned from outlaw to politics. Here, Alka Singh, a.k.a. “Revolver Rani” (Ranaut), has just seen her group toppled in elections by her opponents in the Tomar party, led by her nemesis Udaybhan Singh (Hussain) – there is also a blood feud there, as Rani killed one of his relatives in her outlaw days. Her political career is further derailed by Alka falling for wannabe Bollywood actor, Rohan Mehra (Das), and the Tomars decided to take some of their revenge on her by kidnapping him. While she rides to the rescue and succeeds in liberating him, their relationship grows increasingly complicated: not only does she have to deal with the Tomars, her uncle (Mishra), who has been carefully plotting her rise to power and influence over the preceding years, is also unimpressed with what he sees as Rohan’s distraction. So he drugs his protege, and forces Rohan to marry in order to get him out of the picture, even though alka is, by now, pregnant with his child.

It is, presumably, deliberate that the songs here are quite extraordinarily crappy, featuring lyrics like “I am not bad, I am brutal, my baby/I will eat you like noodle, my baby.” And do not even get me started on the band of Michael Jackson impersonators, hired to perform at an event. The main issue is that, after a fun, animated opening credit sequence and Alka’s rescue of her boyfriend, we see virtually nothing of her bad-assishness until the very end of the film. Despite her fondness for metallic lingerie, “Revolver Rani” spends most of the intervening time – and, in keeping with Bollywood tradition, that is a lot of time (this runs 132 minutes in total) – either unconscious or wanting to be little more than a mother and housewife. She eventually does rebel against her uncle and his scheming betrayal, just as the Tomars send their forces to take her out, and the resulting gun-battle is impressively-staged; the very end also suggests Kabir has more than a passing acquaintance with Kill Bill. It is, unfortunately, very much a case of “too little, too late,” and while I admit this may play better to a native audience, any unprepared Westerner picking it up off Netflix is going to be very, very confused.

Dir: Sai Kabir
Star: Kangana Ranaut, Vir Das, Zakir Hussain, Piyush Mishra

Skirt Day

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“Those kids became my enemies.”

skirrtdayGuaranteed to put anyone off education as a career, this stars Gallic sex-kitten from the 80’s, Isabelle Adjani, now all middle-aged and playing French literature teacher Sonia Bergerac. whose career has devolved into hell – hence the line atop this review. She’s teaching a teenage class who, virtually without exception, clearly don’t want to be there, when she finds a gun in one of their bags. A struggle erupts, and when the dust settles, Sonia has the gun, a student is lying on the floor with a bullet-wound, and a siege situation has begun. On the outside, police negotiator Labouret (Podalydès) is having a bad day himself, trying to avoid a blood-bath, while his political masters try to spin news of the unexpected hostage crisis. But inside the theater, Sonia finds that it’s not just political power that grows from the barrel of a gun: she hasn’t ever had pupils pay such impeccable attention to her lessons before…

Made in 2009, this has, if anything become even more topical in the light of the refugee crisis which has become a hot-button issue in Europe of late. For this pulls few punches in its criticism of those who adopt politically-correct policies, simply to avoid trouble with minorities. The title refers to one of Sonia’s unusual demands, a day that women can wear skirts without the risk of harassment by political or religious conservatives, and writer-director Lilienfeld is also scathing in his criticism of immigrants who don’t integrate into their new homeland (a later reveal indicates it’s the latter aspect which is most important), as well as, it appears, yelling at local kids to get off his damn lawn. It is almost certainly the case that aspects of this will make more sense to a local audience; viewers outside France have to work backwards from what’s presented, to read Lilienfeld’s view of French society, rather than the other way around. However, he is also careful not to paint the pupils with a single brush: some are every bit as aggrieved with the status quo of appeasement as Sonia – and, arguably, with greater justification.

It’s not a film without its problems. The exterior scenes don’t have anything like the same impact, and the end feels almost like the director ran out of things to say, and opted for the simplest way to tie up all the loose ends, regardless of how abrupt it might seem. But it’s still genuinely thought-provoking – not something we find often in our genre here – and even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything Lilienfeld has to say, he deserves respect for saying it in a reasonable way. Adjani, who largely came out of retirement to make this, does a great job: the scenario sounds kinda silly, yet largely through her portrayal of a woman at the absolute end of her rope, it becomes plausible enough to work. Hard to imagine anything like this coming out of Hollywood, that’s for sure.

Dir: Jean-Paul Lilienfeld
Star: Isabelle Adjani, Denis Podalydès, Yann Ebonge, Sonia Amori
a.k.a. La Journée de la jupe

Super Cops

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“Less a review, more of a warning.”

supercopsNot, in any way, to be confused with Jackie Chan/Michelle Yeoh vehicle Super Cop, this one barely has enough action heroine content to qualify here, despite the presence of both Khan and Oshima, who must have been in Taiwan for the weekend or something, and agreed to take on roles of a local cop and a Japanese Interpol agent respectively. Despite a feisty misunderstanding when they first meet, Khan mistaking Oshima for a thief, this is much more about brother and sister Siu-Tong and Chee-Loy, who head to the big city in search of their uncle. They end up getting work in a restaurant, except this brings them into conflict with the local gangsters – fortunately, the brother is kinda good at kicking ass, and this leads to ever-increasing waves of thugs descending on the eating establishment. Really, you wonder why anyone goes there to eat, since it seems barely five minutes goes by without the need to order replacement glass-topped tables.

Meanwhile, Khan and Oshima are seeking to trap heroine dealer Billy Chow, and the two plot strands, which have been so disparate I was seriously thinking this was a pair of films edited together on Godfrey Ho’s day off, finally converge. This happens at an open-air banquet celebrating Chow’s birthday, to which all the characters are somehow invited. Hey, look! More tables through, over and into which people can be hurled! The action is okay in quality – there’s some scampering around a train at the opening which looks genuinely dangerous – yet severely deficient in quantity. Instead, a lot of the running time consists of more or less blatant padding, such as the brother dressing up in drag to ensnare his boss at the restaurant. It’ll have you yearning for the subtle comedic stylings of Benny Hill.

There’s not much point in saying more: I wasted enough time watching this, and don’t feel you should have to waste time too, as I struggle toward the usual word count. Just know that this one is for Khan and Oshima completists only, and even they will find little here worthy of their attention. There’s certainly absolutely nothing super about it.

Dir: Chiang-Bang Mao
Star: Chia-Hui Liu, Ka-Kui Ho, Cynthia Khan, Yukari Ôshima
a.k.a. Huo tou da jiang jun

Queen of the Desert

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“Just deserts”

queendesertEccentric explorers with strong personalities facing the challenge of the wilderness is hardly uncharted territory for Herzog. Most famously, his pair of incendiary collaborations with fellow German, Klaus Kinski, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God are both classics, so I had high hopes for this biopic about Gertrude Bell, who was, according to her Wikipedia page, “an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, spy and archaeologist,” operating in the Middle East during and after the first World War.

Daughter of an English baronet, she found the aristocratic English life stifling, and want to Teheran where her uncle was a diplomat. She fell in love with the region and its people, and spent almost the entire rest of her life there. It was a time of turmoil, as the ruling Ottoman Empire was collapsing, with other Western empires, including the British, seeking to take over the territory. In that setting, Bell’s expert knowledge of the region was invaluable, and she became an intelligence asset, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Pattinson). better known as Lawrence of Arabia. But her personal life was more troubled; her father refused permission to marry her first love (Franco), who then committed suicide. After a long lay-off from love, she begins a relationship with soldier Charles Doughty-Wylie (Lewis) – who is already married.

Herzog’s work is at its best when he invests fully in it, such as Fitzcarraldo, where he told the story of a man who dragged a steam-boat over a mountain (for rubber plantation purposes), by actually dragging a steam-boat over a mountain – watch the documentary, Burden of Dreams, for more on this, and the psychological toll the whole production took on the director. Here, you don’t get any sense of personal cost; it’s probably the most slick and Hollywood film Herzog has ever made, and that takes away more than it adds. Kidman is decent enough, yet her depiction is likely too restrained. It peaks very early, with Bell’s barely-suppressed, seething hatred for the suitors who come to woo her in England, and there are not many occasions after, where you get any sense of emotion. The desert landscapes are impressive [not the first time Herzog has been there either; see his post-war documentary on the Kuwaiti oil fields, Lessons of Darkness], yet there’s only so often you can watch Bell riding across them while a vaguely epic score swells behind her, before the impact diminishes.

All told, you probably get a better insight into Bell’s life from reading the Wikipedia page mentioned earlier. The obituary quoted there is likely a better testament to its subject, than the two hours of scenic desert landscapes and unresolved sexual tension we get here:

No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.

Dir: Werner Herzon
Star: Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis, James Franco, Robert Pattinson

The Great Chase

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“Driver with a thousand faces.”

greatchaseShinobu Yashiro (Shiomi) is nationally known as a race-car ace, but also moonlights as an undercover agent for Japanese law enforcement. That’s motivated by a desire to track down those responsible for the death of her father; he was a ship’s captain, convicted of smuggling drugs, who “committed suicide” in prison, though Shinobu thinks he was framed by the real perpetrator. She gets a possible lead, in the shape of Henry Nagatani and starts tracking him down, with the help of the brother and sister who run her fan-club (!) out of a florist’s shop (!!). Using a wide range of disguises, from a businessman through an old wonan to a nun and a Cambodian diplomat, Shinobu gets closer to the core of the conspiracy, and the man responsible, Onozawa (Ishibashi) though the cost on those she knows proves heavy indeed.

It’s kinda all over the place in terms of tone, charmingly naive and innocently light-hearted in some ways, such as the entirely gratuitous presence of Mach Fumiake, as a nightclub singer who follows up her songs with an in-club wrestling bout. [Fumiake was at the time, one of the starts of All Japan Women’s Wrestling, along with a tag team known as the “Beauty Pair”, whose name inspired the Dirty Pair]. Similarly, Shinoby’s disguises are also more than somewhat variable in terms of how convincing they are, and the drug-running through a convent, with guys dressed as nuns, may have inspired a similarly ridiculous plot thread in They Call Her Cleopatra Wong. Yet this can be grubbily sleazy, particularly in the second half. Onozawa likes to have rough sex while dressed in a bear suit, which reminded me of Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête, released the same year, and there’s also an excessive amount of S&M, though Shiomi, naturally, remains above that sort of thing.

The action is probably not as frequent as Sister Street Fighter, and probably not as good, except for the final battle, where Shiomi gets to wield her nunchakus to excellent effect. Up until that, there are a lot of scenes where her kicks and punches don’t seem to have much force to them – to be honest, Fumiake comes over rather better in that department! The whole race-car driver aspect is rapidly discarded, and provides nothing more than the title sequence; I was expecting at least a car-chase so the heroine could show off her mad driving skills, but the makers apparently felt no particular need to justify their choice of name for the movie. Yet it moves along briskly, and you have to appreciate Shiomi’s enthusiastic performance, selling over-cooked lines such as: “Can’t you tell who I am? We’ve seen each other so many times. A woman gambler at times; a young gentleman at times; a tea-serving old lady at times; a nun in a black dress at times; and a white haired Cambodian woman. And, under the mask, my true self is the daughter of Masahiro Yashiro, who was brutally murdered by you five years ago – Shinobu Yashiro!” Half a star extra, purely for delivering that with a straight face.

Dir: Noribumi Suzuki
Star: Sue Shiomi, Eiji Go, Mach Fumiake, Masashi Ishibashi

New Adventures of Senorita Scorpion, edited by Percival Constantine

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: Variable

senoritaPulp Western writer Les Savage, Jr. (1922-1958) was short-lived, dying at 35; but he began writing at the age of 17, and managed to produce over 20 books, as well as a substantial body of short fiction. Though he’s not well-known today, genre critics who have taken note of his work agree that he was more enlightened in his view of women and of ethnic minorities than most pulp writers (and editors/readers) of his day. An example of his trail-blazing in both areas is his series heroine Elgera Douglas, a.k.a. Senorita Scorpion, who stars in a body of stories set in the mountainous Texas-Mexico border country west of the Pecos River. In 2012, through their Altus Press imprint, modern pulp publisher Pro Se Press have brought all these stories back into print in the two-volume collection The Complete Adventures of Senorita Scorpion. I’ve already reviewed that collection for this site.

Perhaps to whet interest for the originals, in 2013 Pro Se also brought out this short collection of three modern Senorita Scorpion pastiches, written specifically for this book by three authors who’ve published other work with Pro Se previously: Nancy A. Hansen, Aussie writer Brad Mengle, and Andrea Judy. I actually read this anthology (which I received as a review copy from Pro Se, with no strings attached) before I read the originals, but chose to wait until I’d reviewed those here before reviewing this spin-off. This was my first exposure to the work of any of these three.

All of the stories, in relation to the original corpus, take place before Savage’s second story, “The Brand of Senorita Scorpion.” Both Hansen’s “The Bells of St. Ferdinand” and “Wanted: Senorita Scorpion” by Mengel are excellent stories, that would earn five stars from me in their own right. They’re well plotted and constructed, with capably drawn characters, realistic dialogue and credible motivations, nice evocation of suspense, Western action that’s not too over the top to be believable, just the right level of detail, and (in one of the stories) a satisfying note of low-key romance. Each of the two authors has his/her own style; but both portray Elgera and her situation in a way that’s basically consistent with the original stories, as a good pastiche should be –though Elgera’s skill with using a whip as a weapon, which Hansen depicts, isn’t a feature of any of the original stories. (Chisos Owens, who in the originals sometimes threatens to eclipse Elgera, is mentioned here but doesn’t actually appear in person.) Both writers avoid use of bad language, with which Savage himself was restrained as well. Elgera comes across in these stories as the sort of “outlaw” the law-abiding can respect and admire: brave, caring, and sparing with lethal force.

Though having only three stories here is regrettable, it’s also understandable; Senorita Scorpion isn’t as well-known as some other classic pulp characters, so not many modern writers were lining up to want to write about her. That makes it doubly disappointing, though, that one of the three, Andrea Judy’s “A Woman’s Touch,” simply comes nowhere near the standard of the other two. It starts with an implausible premise and throws in a couple more, hangs its plot on an improbable coincidence, offers action scenes so over the top they read like parodies (for instance, no real human beings, no matter how athletic they are, jump in and out of a shot-out window when there’s a door right next to it!), is predictable from start to finish, and never generates any emotional response except irritation. Worse, the portrayal of Elgera and her situation here is markedly “off,” compared to the original stories: there, she’s fully in touch with social reality around her, whereas here, she and her dependents are practically totally ignorant of the outside world beyond their mine; here, she’s quite blase’ about shooting people, (except in the one case where she’s obviously foolish not to!), and here she uses “ain’t” where in both the other stories she speaks proper English. (Judy is also the only writer of the three that uses bad language –but that fails to make her dialog very lifelike.) I would seriously doubt that this author ever actually read the original stories.)

In my overall rating, I deducted a star for the one weak story, but I still felt the other two were strong enough to merit four stars for the book. I’d read more by both authors; and I’d even try more by Judy. She’s apparently the youngest and least experienced writer of the three, and I don’t think tried her best here. With more aggressive editing that demanded her best, her tale might have been much better. (Constantine’s role as editor here, I’m guessing, was just to compile the stories and to draft the short author bios at the end of the book –not to impose any quality control.)

Editor: Percival Constantine
Publisher: Pro Se Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Good Morning, Killer

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“And I still don’t know the significance of the title.”

gmkBased on a 2003 novel of the same name by April Smith, I can’t speak to the novel. but this TV movie doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from… Well, from anything else to be honest; the overall impact here, is of a not-exactly superlative episode of one of those three-letter acronym shows Chris enjoys watching [star Bell was part of one such – JAG]. After a young girl is abducted from a shopping mall, FBI special agent Ana Grey (Bell) and her colleagues have to try and locate the perpetrator, who appears to be a previously-unknown serial predator (Jordan), who kidnaps his victims and rapes them over a period of time, tormenting their families with telephone calls, before releasing the traumatized victims with a chilling reminder, “You won’t forget me.” Meanwhile, Ana is having relationship issues, both with her boyfriend, fellow detective Andrew Berringer (Hauser), and a colleague who doesn’t appear to appreciate the need for intra-departmental loyalty.

It’s hard to know quite where to put the blame for this one, but I think it’s mostly on a poorly-written script that, particularly, in the first half, wanders around without focus. If they had established the characters first, on both sides of the case, they could then have incorporated the relationship stuff, but instead, it feels as if you are supposed to care about these people, before the film has given you any reason to do so. Maybe you are supposed to have read the book first? If so, I didn’t get that particular memo. Perhaps it doesn’t help either that this is based on the second Ana Grey book – the first remains unfilmed – an over-zealous attention to remaining faithful to the source may explain why the makers don’t bother to explain as much as they should about who anyone is.

Bell is competent enough, and the second half of the film is generally an improvement, concentrating more on the case and less on the soap-opera bubbles. In particular, the perp’s fondness for taking pictures of his victims during their ordeals, is a chilling element that comes over well in the film. However, there are some glaring loose ends, such as the fate of the homeless man who is, apparently, a key witness, and the climax, which sees Ana taken hostage by the prime suspect, doesn’t exactly provide a great deal of confidence in her abilities as an FBI agent. It seems to be going for a Silence of the Lambs vibe there; it doesn’t come anywhere close, and you can only presume a great deal was lost in translation from page to screen, given this is part of what appears to be a fairly well-regarded series of books.

Dir: Maggie Greenwald
Star: Catherine Bell, James Jordan, Cole Hauser, Genevieve Buechner

Robot Revolution

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“The revolution will not be televised.”

My heart sank when I saw the production company’s logo in the opening credits, as I realized this was from the same people who brought us Earthkiller, which… Well, wasn’t very good, to put it mildly. Four years and several features later, has Bellware and his micro-budget associates improved? Yes, actually, they have. Not that this is “good”, by any neutral standards, especially if you’re expecting anything like glossy, big-budget SF. However, it does seem more aware of its own limitations, and works within them a lot better than Earthkiller.

robotrevolutionIt’s set somewhat in the future, where Constable Hawkins (Logan) and her android partner have been ordered to pay a visit to the apartment of a researcher (Murphy), who is allegedly working on a weapon for a notorious terrorist. Unfortunately, the terrorist’s henchmen show up at the same time, and the weapon is activated. It consists of a swarm of nanobotz that can “hack” into anything containing electronics and control it. Which is unfortunate, since in this future, all adults have been implanted with an identification chip. Fortunately, the scientist has a somewhat effective countermeasure, but she and Hawkins still have to try and make their way out of the apartment, dealing with both the infected human residents and the automated cleaning robots, that are intent on preventing them.

It’s actually not a bad idea, even if derivative of Dread [which was, itself, derivative of a truly superlative Indonesian action film, The Raid] With just a single location, it’s a good setting for a low-budget film – except Bellware, for some reason, still injects repeated, really crappy CGI exteriors, and the static-laced camera shots, whether from the android’s POV or elsewhere, are also far too excessive. He should just have kept things claustrophobic. A bigger problem are the infected residents, who are about the least threatening monsters I’ve ever seen: a trickle of blood from the nose and five minutes of Zombie 1.0.1. training do not make you scary. [Indeed, it’s probably less horrific than their attempts at acting] The cleaning robot is far more impressive: in form and execution, it appears to have strayed in from a much bigger, better movie.

Logan, sporting a fetching eyepatch, for no readily apparent reason, isn’t bad, projecting a degree of no-nonsense competence appropriate to the character. However, in the film’s second half, it does degenerate into a long series of sequences in which people creep around corridors, that are neither as tense or as interesting as Bellware seems to think. Though I did appreciate the discussion on whether or not these should be considered as zombies, and whether shooting them in the head is the only way to kill them. If Earthkiller’s 1½-star rating was charitable, this one is perhaps a tad harsh, though my appreciation may in part be due to expectations that were not so much low, as subterranean. At this rate, by 2030 or so, Bellware might actually be making decent films.

Dir: Andrew Bellware
Star: Virginia Logan, Mary Murphy, Matthew Trumbull, Dirk Voetberg.

The Sleeping Partner, by Madeleine E.Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

sleepAt the age of 16, the intelligent and spirited daughter of a country baronet, Sarah Brereton –the girl who would become the Sarah Tolerance that series fans know and admire– fell deeply in love with her brother’s fencing instructor, and he with her. (For modern readers, it’s important to recognize that in that day, teens were expected to mature and become responsible early; 16-year-old girls might well be married. So this wasn’t some sort of sick, pedophilic situation; Sarah was a young woman with the passion and impetuousness of youth, but in her society she was a woman, not a child, and Charles Connell was a normal, decent male.) Because of the class difference and paternal opposition, though, this relationship didn’t lead to a happy engagement and marriage, but to a hasty flight to the Continent, with Sarah disgraced, disowned by her family, and consigned to permanent Fallen Woman status. (Fallen men in her culture didn’t suffer any similar opprobrium.)

Like many people in that pre-antibiotic era, Connell died young, leaving her in effect a widow without ever having technically been a wife. Now, some 12 years later (we’re up to April, 1811 in this volume), she’s living in London under an assumed name, to spare her family from embarrassment. To support herself without resorting to the usual expedient of prostitution (friendless and helpless women in that environment being, pretty much invariably, sexually exploited women), she’s created the profession of “agent of inquiry” –a private investigator, in our parlance– for herself, putting her unique abilities to use. She’s smart, inquisitive, brave, able to move in a range of social circles and to pass for a man when she needs to, well trained by Connell in the use of a sword, and not afraid to pack and use a pistol. (In this volume, the level of violence in her physical altercations is again dialed down to the one-star level; but her weapons do come out, and she can definitely defend herself with aplomb.)

Her latest client is a young married woman, who desperately wants Sarah to find and rescue the lady’s 16-year-old younger sister (daughter of a peer), who’s disappeared, leaving behind a note indicating that she’s eloped with an unnamed lover. Obviously, this case stirs some very deep-seated feelings for Sarah. It will get more personal and wrenching, rather than less, as she investigates. And series fans won’t be surprised that there’s more to the mystery than at first meets the eye.

Many of my general comments on the preceding two books of the series apply to this one as well. Robins’ prose style and characterizations are as fine as ever; not just Sarah, but all of the characters (good and bad) are thoroughly real people whom we like, pity or detest. (Some are old friends from the earlier books, some are newly met.) The period flavor is as rich and rewarding as ever. (As usual, a concluding “Note on History, Faux and Real” explains the historical background, and where the author’s slightly alternate world diverges from ours in a few details.) Considering the kind of case our heroine is investigating, and the fact that she lives in a cottage behind her (also Fallen –“the black ewe of her generation”) aunt’s high-class brothel and has a prostitute for a close friend, sexual content here is relatively minimal. We also get a glimpse here of Sarah in church, which helps to deepen her character. Like many people of that day –including Jane Austen herself, a writer whose influence Robins readily admits– she doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but it’s there, to a lot greater extent than some of the more ostentatiously pious might give her credit for. (Then and now, many of the latter tend to forget that a Christian society has to be, first and foremost, a community of forgiveness.) And the volume isn’t simply treading water in terms of the development of the series; there’s significant growth and change in relationships here.

Why, then, only four stars, when the two previous books got five? For only one reason. Here, in the resolution/explanation of the skullduggery at the heart of events, there’s one major logical contradiction (which is impossible to explain without a spoiler). Robins papers it over without any real explanation (and it’s possible she actually didn’t recognize it herself!), but because it’s central to the resolution of the book, I had to reluctantly deduct a star for it. But it’s still a great read!

A couple of notes are relevant on the way words were used differently in 1811 than today. First, a clergyman here is said to be “Unitarian.” Today’s “Unitarians” are somewhat similar to the “Deists” of Sarah’s day (except that most today would be even more skeptical, and less willing to accept a label of Christian, or even of theistic). “Unitarians” in Sarah’s world, however (like the slightly later March family in Little Women) were what are sometimes called “Biblical Unitarians,” holding orthodox views on the atonement and the authority of Scripture, and definitely not Deists –in other words, much more conservative than the term suggests today. Second, the word “whore” is used in these books simply as the normal word for what we would today call a prostitute. Obviously, it was an inherently insulting term to apply to a woman who was NOT in that trade, but for those who were, it didn’t have any particularly insulting connotation; the girls themselves used it as a normal self-designation. No speaker today would use it, even to a woman who is a sex worker, without a deliberate intention to hurt and demean; but in 1811, there generally is no such intention (and usually no such effect).

This is the latest Sarah Tolerance book to date –published in 2011, seven years after the previous one. It isn’t clear whether Robins intends to continue the series past this point. If not, there are features to this volume that could make it a satisfactory conclusion to what will then be a trilogy. But if the author does ever intend, in the future, to visit Sarah’s London again, I and I’m sure a goodly number of other fans will eagerly come along for the ride!

Author: Madeleine E. Robins
Publisher: Plus One Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.