The Bletchley Circle

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“A kinder, gentler time? Hardly.”

Set in the early 1950’s, this was a brief – seven episodes over two seasons – but very effective TV series, with heroines who used brains, rather than brawn, to solve crimes which the authorities are either unable or unwilling to address. The origins of the group were during World War II, when their analytical skills were put to vital use, cracking German communications, out of the then-secret Bletchley Park base. But after the war, the women returned to normal lives; Susan Gray (Martin) is now married, a mother of two, and uses her talents for nothing more taxing than crosswords. But she is intrigued by a series of serial murders, and detects an apparent pattern in them. When her attempts to through official channels are met with little more than a pat on the head and a suggestion to return to the kitchen, she contacts her colleagues from Bletchley, who begin gathering and analyzing information on their own. This makes use of the skills each has:  for instance, Jean (Graham) works as a librarian, while Lucy (Rundle) has a photographic memory, and asks as the group’s computer database.

There are basically three feature-length stories here. The first takes place over three 45-minute episodes, the others being covered in a pair. After the serial killer case, the group then move on to a case of murder involving another Bletchley Park girl, who is accused – with apparently damning evidence and no denial – of the murder of a scientist. The third story was, for me, the most interesting: one of the circle is involved in slightly-shady black market trades, which brings her into the circle of a vicious organized crime gang, perhaps surprisingly, also led by a woman, Maltese immigrant Marta Magro (Brana Bajic). It becomes apparent they are trading in a good deal more than French perfume and illicit booze – and also have friends in high places, who have no interest in having the highly profitable apple-cart upset by four inquisitive women.

This is a well-constructed look back at a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, despite significant contributions to the war effort less than a decade previously. If occasionally a bit hand-wavey on the details, it’s also nice to see a series that values pure intelligence; while the physical aspects are limited, that works to the show’s advantage, since you know the heroines have to rely on their wits. There is a certain amount of over-correction in the other direction, with none of the male characters being particularly likable, and certainly nowhere near as smart as the female ones, and in a longer show that could become wearingly one-sided. However, the women are depicted as not without their flaws either. It’s not dissimilar in tone or era to another British show, Call the Midwife, though is much less sentimental and nostalgic; this was a time when food rationing was still in effect, and the nation was still struggling to rebuild itself.

It’s certainly a shame the show was so relatively short-lived, even by the brief standards of UK TV shows. There’s a quality of production here – not just in the period atmosphere, also in the performances – that is all too rare, and its an idea that had almost unlimited potential for future expansion. Refreshingly free of any need for romantic diversions or unresolved sexual tensions (I’m looking at you, Agent Carter), this may be relatively placid compared to some of the entries we cover here, yet is no less worthy for putting mind before muscle.

Creator: Guy Burt
Star: Anna Maxwell Martin. Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle, Julie Graham

Battle for Sevastopol

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“Russian into battle.”

battleWe wrote previously about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” one of the many bad-ass Soviet women who helped fight off the Nazis in World War II. So, if you’ve been paying attention, you should already know her story, as a female sniper credited with over three hundred enemy kills before being wounded and forced out of front-line action. She then became a spokesperson for the Russians, globe-trotting to raise funds and elicit overseas support, becoming the first Soviet citizen received at the White House, by then President Franklin Roosevelt, and his wife Eleanor – with whom, if this film is to be believed, Pavlichenko developed a strong friendship.

The movie was a Russian-Ukrainian co-production, which is interesting in itself, given the often strained nature of recent relations between the countries. I guess one of the few things on which they can both agree, is that killing Nazis should be lauded. The results are solid enough, hitting the expected notes and telling a respectful, if somewhat too distant, portrait of a heroic figure. The original Russian title translates as Indestructible, and that seems perhaps more appropriate, as she get blown up, shot, and blown up again, defiantly begging her way back to the front repeatedly. Mokrytskyi is at his best with these large-scale spectacles, unfolding over a soundtrack both period and contemporary; in particular, a sequence during an evacuation by boats is stunningly well-constructed, giving a real sense for the hideous, beautiful chaos of war.

It’s rather less successful at giving us insight into the character of the heroine, as played by Peresild; she’s clearly a strong-willed young woman, but that’s about all you get. There are various semi-romantic interludes, as various of her male comrades are wheeled on and off, yet these seem only to provide pauses before the next burst of (undeniably impressive) mayhem. The structure also leaves a little to be desired, switching back and forth between her wartime exploits, and Pavlichenko’s trip to the United States where she met Mrs. Roosevelt (Blackham). It’s all a little bit fragmented, without much narrative flow, and feels more like a selection of unconnected segments, rather than providing a sense of Lyudmila developing as a character. Perhaps it might work better for an already audience familiar with the backdrop of time and places in which it’s set; my knowledge of the Eastern front and Soviet geography is sketchy, to say the least, and the movie appears to presume a higher level.

This is somewhat disappointing, though some of that is because it makes for a really good trailer (below), and because this has been teasing me from the “to watch” pile for what feels like ages, as I waited for coherent English subtitles to be available. Not to say this is a bad film – far from it – just that Mokrytskyi has a better handle on the explosions than his character. Perhaps he is the Michael Bay of Russian cinema? If so, at least it’s closer to good Michael Bay, e.g. The Rock, than bad Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor).

Dir: Serhiy Mokrytskyi
Star: Yulia Peresild, Joan Blackham, Yevheniy Tsyganov, Vitaliy Linetskiy

The Bride Wore Black

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“I’ve got a little list, of society offenders who might well be underground,”

“No remorse, no fear… The justice of men is powerless. It can’t punish me. I’m already dead.
I died the same day David did. I’ll join him after I’ve had my revenge.”

brideworeblack2Undeniably highly influential, this 1968 French film starts with a woman, Julie Kohler (Moreau) trying to commit suicide. Stopped by her mother, she begins her mission: to track down the five men who were, to some extent accidentally, responsible for gunning down her husband, literally outside the church where they had just got married. She jets around the country, taking care of them, and crossing their names off a list in her notebook. Sound familiar at all? Yes, this is another one of the sources which Quentin Tarantino shamelessly ripped off was inspired by for Kill Bill, though obviously Kohler is nowhere near such a sword-swinging badass as The Bride, opting mostly for less arterial techniques. Tarantino says he never saw it, but for a devoted film fan who worked in a cult video store, that’s about as credible as his claim not to have seen City on Fire before making Reservoir Dogs. It also inspired, as documented elsewhere, the Kate Bush song The Wedding List, in which a widow seeks revenge for those who slew her husband.

Truffaut had just finished a lengthy set of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, and you can see the influence here, not least in the score by frequent Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Hermann, which riffs on the Bridal March to positive effect. Though the director spent so much time on set here arguing with his cinematographer, that Moreau ended up directing the actors for significant chunks. Truffaut expressed disappointment at the time of its release, and the critical response was underwhelming, but it was a commercial success and its reputation has grown over time. You can see why, with Moreau holding the episodic nature of the film together well, gluing the segments together devoted to each victim. She may not be able to overpower them physically, and the film works within that admirably, using her smarts and guile as a weapon, to reel them in and put them in a position where they are vulnerable. Her first victim is an excellent example, as she flirts with the man and eventually gets him to climb over a high balcony to retrieve her scarf. One little push, and she gets to cross a name off her list.

brideworeblack3This intelligence holds throughout the entire movie. At first, it seems a fatal mistake when she leaves behind a bit of evidence at the scene of a crime, and worse still when she then attends the funeral of the victim, where she is arrested by the police. However, this leads to a glorious moment of realization for the viewer, when you figure out that it is all part of her meticulously-crafted plan. The last shot of the movie follows that to its logical conclusion [well, logical if you accept that, in sixties France, men and women could be held in the same prison; hey, it’s France!], in an entirely satisfying way.  Its inevitability is part of its charm, because the viewer and the heroine know what’s about to happen, while everyone else is ignorant. In effect, you become Julie’s accomplice at the end, and it works brilliantly.

It’s an interesting choice to make her targets not evil or even particularly malicious; careless, is probably closer to the truth, and the cost of that carelessness is, arguably, far in excess of what it deserves. This gives the film a moral ambiguity that’s the complete opposite of Kill Bill, where the rest of the DIVAS were set up as utterly deserving of the Bride’s vengeful fury. This almost absurdist balance seems typically French, as does the heroine’s remorseless quest for payback; both aspects are reminiscent of Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources, albeit clearly without those two films’ pastoral setting and tone. The film is based on a 1940 novel by American noir author Cornell Woolrich, though some imprints have it published under Woolrich’s pseudonym, William Irish. The novel opens with a quote by Guy de Maupassant: “For to kill is the great law set by nature in the heart of existence! There is nothing more beautiful and honorable than killing!”, and this is an apt summary of what follows.

It wasn’t Truffaut, but another cornerstone of the French new wave, Jean-Luc Godard, who supposedly said “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl” [though indications are, he was quoting D.W. Griffith]. While Godard certain included the combination often enough in his own work, it’s from Truffaut we get a more fully-fledged exploration of the theme, even if Julie barely touches an actual gun over the course of the film – it’s understandable, given the nature of her husband’s death, that she would adopt other approaches. This manages to be as much a satire of, as a loving homage to, both Hitchcock and the tropes of the “vengeful woman” genre, though plays it dead straight, so can be appreciated and enjoyed purely on its own merits. If certainly not lacking in style, Truffaut – and, perhaps more importantly, Moreau – also manage to deliver the substance, and almost fifty years later, this stands the test of time with rare persistence.

Dir: François Truffaut
Star: Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Bouquet, Charles Denner
[a.k.a. La Mariée était en noir]

Brianna’s Reprisal, by David Wittlinger

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

reprisalAlthough this book was just published on Jan. 3, I actually had the privilege of beta reading it last month, so this review is based on that read. (The final text has some minor additions, and a slight re-working of one incident.) This sequel to The Strong One is set about six months after the events of the first book, and our principal setting is Vineland, New Jersey (which is a real city, population 54,800).

Author Wittlinger didn’t originally intend to create a series character in Brianna, but he found her so captivating that he had to explore her story further. That’s an understandable reaction; I noted in my review of the first book that I was invested in her myself, and eager to see more of her personal growth. She’s one of the more interesting characters I’ve encountered in modern fiction, and the author brings her to well-rounded life with impressive skill. Despite her potty mouth, misguided sexual attitudes, and the emotional baggage she carries from a childhood and young womanhood that no human being should have had to suffer through, she has a basic core of kindness and honor, with a gritty pluck and will to better herself, that makes you naturally tend to root for her. The woman she was at the end of the first book had grown significantly from the person she was at the beginning. Her journey will continue in this volume, and it will take her to a crossroads where she has to make a crucial moral choice. How readers will feel about her decision will depend on the person –it’s a thought-provoking dilemma that forces us to put ourselves in her shoes and ponder how we’d react, or how we should. But whether you agree or disagree with her choice, you’re apt to continue to care about her.

The strengths of the first volume ate present here, too: lifelike characterization, well-handled prose, suspense, plotting that’s credible but that has some serious twists and surprises, good handling of action scenes, and considerable evocation of real emotion. While there are still a couple of sex scenes, there’s less explicit sexual content here than in the previous book –though this tale also explores another facet of the slimy underbelly of America’s illicit sexual culture, this time the horrors of human trafficking in sex slaves. (And yes, this goes on in real life in the good ol’ U.S.A.)

IMO, the series should be read in order. This book makes reference to events of the previous one that you won’t really be familiar with without having read it, and to fully understand who Brianna is, you have to follow her development and story arc from the beginning. (Both books are quick, compulsive reads –I read this one in three days.) Neither book ends with anything like a cliffhanger –there’s resolution of the particular events depicted– but both set the stage for a succeeding volume; Brianna’s adventures will be at least a trilogy. I’m committed to following them for the long haul; and if you read this far, I think you will be, too!

Author: David Wittlinger
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, currently only as an e-book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Battle of the Amazons

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“This world was made for hate, not love.”

amazonsIt’s startling to think that when this came out, this merited not only a theatrical release in the United States, but a review from perhaps the most respected critic of our time, the late Roger Ebert. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for the film, but Ebert tearing apart a film is still fun to read. I particularly liked the line, “There are spears and bows and arrows and swords, which suggests early times, but then again all of the women on both sides are fresh from the hair dryer. They also exhibit impressive technical advances in the art of brassiere-design.” Yeah, welcome to The Magnificent Seven – only set in a vaguely Greco-Roman era, with a tribe of rather vicious Amazons the antagonists.

They live by raiding and plundering local villages, under Queen Eraglia (Love), but after they kill her father, local lass Valeria (Tedesco) has had enough, and rents the service of conveniently-passing bandit Zeno (Tate), to teach the village farmers how to defend themselves. However, the sexual chemstry that flies between Valeria and Zeno fail to impress her betrothed, who convinces a group of village men, that their best chance of survival is to switch sides, reveal details of the defense plans to Eraglia, and hope she sees fit to give them mercy. It turns out though, that he may not be the only snitch present in the town camp, as things proceed towards the entirely expected finale, a lengthy battle pitting the raiding women against the defending agriculturalists.

It’s actually a little darker and possibly somewhat more well-thought out than I expected: the final line of dialogue being the one atop this review, which sprinkles a nice sense of doom and futility over things, and the multiple levels of betrayal are effectively handled. I started watching this on a plane flight to New York, but I think the second topless torture scene was about where I opted to save it for another day, though there really isn’t much else here worse than PG-13 rated. Tedesco makes a good impression as the feisty heroine, and it’s a nice touch to have women effectively leading both sides, though when it comes to the actual fighting, Valeria obviously steps aside for Zeno. Sadly, the Amazons also step aside when the action kicks off, largely being unconvincingly replaced by male stunt doubles in masks and wigs. Valeria acquits herself best there as well, indeed coming to the rescue of her employee in the final face-off. I can’t honestly say I minded the dubbing as much as Roger, and the time passed briskly enough on its way to an appropriately grandiose finale. Though I’m certainly agree with him on one point: I’m not quite sure why the local men made such a fuss about getting kidnapped…

Dir: Alfonso Brescia
Star: Lincoln Tate, Paola Tedesco, Lucretia Love, Mirta Miller

The Big Bad

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“What big eyes you have…”

bigbad1Few things are more irritating than a film where the characters clearly know what’s going on, they just refuse to let the audience in on it, jabbering away to each other in cryptic dialogue that obscures more than it reveals. Not that a movie’s script has to lay everything out from the start, or can’t be subtle. But if you are going to go for an understated approach, this has to be tempered with sufficient well-handled exposition, that the viewer can understand who the players are, and care about them and their role in proceedings as they unfold. It’s here where this falls down, repeatedly. There’s one conversation which ends with the heroine, Frankie Ducane (Gotta), being banged on the head and shoved into the trunk of a car. Who did this? Why? Where is he taking her? None of these questions are ever adequately answered, and I reached the end of the film, with only a vague idea of who Frankie was, or her situation.

As the title hints, and her fondness for swigging shots of liquid silver emphasizes, this is a werewolf movie, with Frankie on the bloody trail of Fenton Bailey (Reynolds), the man responsible for her current situation. There’s an apparent clock running – at one point, we see a notebook with “3 DAYS LEFT” written in important-sized letters, but like so many elements here, its significance is never explained, and there no sense of any particular impetus to the plot resulting from it. Mind you, this is a film which is happy to spend quite a bit of time with Frankie chatting to a girl in a bar – apparently populated entirely through a casting call at the local roller derby bout – in an effort to discover what she knows about Fenton. This probably goes on far longer than necessary, but you have to respect a film which is prepared to let things unfold at their own pace, even if the audience might be tapping pointedly on their wrists and making hurry-up sounds.

What does work, better than the plot, is the atmosphere, feeling like a modern-day version of a Grimm Fairy Tale, with Gotta making a decent enough Red Riding Hood – one more interested in vengeance, than visiting Grandma with a basket of goodies. Frankie’s dagger proves quite an effective equalizer, and proves much needed when she wakes up from her trip in the trunk, to find someone has an eye on her eyes, as it were. This sequence was probably the most effective, in terms of being a modernized legend, even though its relevance is dubious. It’s an infuriating failure as a whole, feeling too much like a short film needlessly stretched to feature length (though at 78 minutes, barely so), without enough thought given to whether it possesses sufficient meat to sustain its running-time.

Dir: Bryan Enk
Star: Jessi Gotta, Jessica Savage, Timothy McCown Reynolds, Alan Rowe Kelly

Bound To Vengeance

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“Bound to disappoint”

boundforvengeanceI’ve been watching horror movies for over 30 years now, and appreciate that a certain amount of idiotic behaviour is to be expected. People will go into cellars. They will stand right beside the apparently-dead body of a masked killer. They will trip over those pesky tree roots. They will split up. That goes with the territory. But this entire film is predicated on a terrible decision which the lead character makes early, then refuses to reconsider, though the results clearly indicate its wrongness and she could change her mind at any time. Eve (Ivlev) has been captured by the psychopathic Phil (Tyson), but lures him into a trap by feigning unconsciousness, bludgeoning him with a brick and chaining hum up in her place. Escaping the house, she finds herself in the middle of nowhere, but gets the keys to the truck. At this point, what absolutely any sensible person would do, is high-tail it out of there, notify the authorities and let them take over.

But then, there’d be no film. Instead, she takes at face value Phil’s claim that he has a number of other houses, also containing kidnapped women [itself, a scenario that begs the question, “Why?” Wouldn’t it make more sense to have one large house with multiple rooms?]. Worse yet, she decides to make him lead her to them, so she can free the other captives. Even after neither the first nor the second go anything like as desired, Eve plunges on, apparently for no better reason than a touching belief that, hey, third time’s the charm. Of course, if she gave up, she (and we) would never find out the connection to her boyfriend (Kjornes), crudely telegraphed by the director through frequent inserts of shaky home-video footage of the two of them, interacting before her abduction. Mind you, nor would it allow for the moral to become “All men are bastards” rather than “This man is a bastard”; as is, there is not a single redeemable male character in the entire thing.

Credit is due for focusing almost entirely on the revenge side of the equation: we know Eve has been through hell by the point we meet her, and Cravioto doesn’t feel the need to have that aspect portrayed at length. Ivlev and Tyson are both decent in their roles, with the former demonstrating a steady growth in personal badassness that is adequately gratifying, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion with one final decision which actually does make sense. It is an enormous shame that everything leading up to the moment is based on a horrendously-flawed concept, which the film doesn’t attempt to acknowledge – hell, the worst genre film is still required to have a scene of someone waving their cellphone around and muttering, “No signal…” Even if some of the other aspects are laudable, as mentioned above, the overall result is irrevocably weakened, and won’t stick in your mind for any good reasons.

Dir: J. M. Cravioto
Star: Tina Ivlev, Richard Tyson. Kristoffer Kjornes
a.k.a. Reversal

Bait

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“Tea and no sympathy.”

baitBex (Smurfit) and Dawn (Mitchell) are partners in a market-stall selling coffee and cake, and have dreams of opening a “proper” coffee-shop, but lack the necessary funds to do so. Traditional sources of money, such as banks, turn them down, so when Dawn’s new boyfriend, Jeremy (Slinger) turns out to be an angel investor, it seems too good an opportunity to be true. Which, of course, is exactly what it is, because Jeremy turns out to be the acceptable face of a very brutal loan-sharking operation. Even though they actually refuse his money before accepting it, he insists on them paying for his time, an amount which rapidly escalates out of control. It’s clear Jeremy will stop at nothing to extract payment, and demonstrates exactly that savagery, on both women, as well as their loved ones. Gradually backed into a corner, there’s only one way out for Bex and Dawn; be every bit as ferocious and merciless.

It probably helps that Smurfit and Mitchell have been friends since their drama school days, and their easy relationship comes over as entirely natural – though non-native British speakers may occasionally want to opt for subtitles! [Hell, I found myself straining my ears on occasion, having clearly been out of the old country for too long…] It’s very much a long, slow descent into hell, with the women on the receiving end for more than 80% of the movie before – and I trust this isn’t much of a spoiler here, given the film opens with a blood-stained Dawn slumped by a bath – finally getting to unleash their fury in a gore-drenched finale.

While certainly satisfying on a visceral level, this comes over as somewhat far-fetched, with neither woman having demonstrated any real tendencies for aggression; the “defending the family” approach only goes so far, not least because it’s the child-less Bex who goes furthest. Not that Jeremy doesn’t deserve it; Slinger comes over as a psychotic version of Simon Pegg, and it’s crucial that the film creates a villain who is both monstrous and believable. Be sure to stick around after the credits for a spectacularly splattery bit of claymation from maverick film-maker Lee Hardcastle, which is just glorious; it almost suggests a sequel where Bex and Dawn turn into a hardcore, British vigilante version of Thelma & Louise.

Must admit, I’d probably have preferred to see that, with the set-up here taking longer than necessary – for example, is there any reason we need to see quite so many scenes of Jeremy and his sidekick extracting payment? Still, the final payback is fully deserved, and gleefully shot by Brunt, leading into a coda which suggests a new, steely determination and “take no shit” attitude as a result of the hell through which the heroines have gone. It suggests an almost Nietzschean fable is being told, that what does not destroy you, in the end will make you stronger and help you achieve your goals. Seems more than slightly morally questionable, although maybe it’s just me!

Dir: Dominic Brunt
Star: Victoria Smurfit, Joanna Mitchell, Jonathan Slinger, Rula Lenska
a.k.a. The Taking

Big Driver

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“Lady Vengeance”

bigdriverEasily punching above its weight for a Lifetime TVM, this is as disturbing as you’d expect from the director of the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, working off a Stephen King short story. Crime writer Tess Thorne (Bello) is on her way back from a speaking engagement, when her car gets a puncture; the large gentleman (Harris) who stops to help, turns out to be a savage rapist, who brutalizes Tess repeatedly, before leaving her for dead in a storm-drain, beside his previous victims. Tess survives, but is traumatized by the experience, and won’t tell anyone what happened. Her mind begins to fracture, with the leading character in her book (Dukakis) coming to life and talking to her – as well as the GPS in her car (not credited, but reportedly the voice of King). Digging in, Tess finds that her accident may not have been quite as accidental as she thought, and her quest for vengeance, is going to require a broader net than she initially thought.

It’s the performances which make this work, though the concept is solid enough, containing a number of elements readily identifiable as King staples, e.g. dead people talking. The translation to screen does have its issues; never explained, for example, is how Tess’s disabled car shows up in the parking lot of a biker bar, fully intact and with her possessions inside. Much though the resulting cameo from 80’s rocker Joan Jett is welcome,, it’s a blatant plot hole which should have been addressed. That aside, it’s much grittier than I expected, with the assault in particular pulling so few punches, I have to wonder if the version which played on Lifetime was edited for content compared to this DVD release. Bello does a good job of taking the audience inside the disintegrating mind of Thorne, to the point where we genuinely wondered how much of what we were seeing had a basis in reality, or if it was just a psychological coping mechanism. Dukakis is also excellent, providing a restrained, yet sarcastic counterpoint of commentary to the heroine’s actions, as she falls apart, yet still proceeds with her mission.

Things proceed to a thoroughly adequate conclusion, even allowing for the vast difference in size and strength between Tess and her assailant; if nothing else, guns are certainly a great equalizer! But Tess’s smarts are just as important as her aggression or lust for vengeance, helping her both uncover the truth about what happened, and then ensure that the police don’t track her down after the event. The traumatic experience certainly leaves her a changed person, and probably only right it should; not a journey I’d want anyone I know to experience themselves, but it may indeed be a case of, what does not kill you, makes you stronger.

Dir: Mikael Salomon
Star: Maria Bello, Will Harris, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen King

The Bandit of Hell’s Bend, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

banditBorn in 1875, as a youth Burroughs actually spent time working as a cowboy on a 19th-century Western ranch owned by his brother. Though that was in Idaho, while this novel is set in Arizona, his knowledge of basic ranch life and Western conditions in the frontier era was firsthand; and the descriptions here suggest that he had some personal familiarity with the landscape of the Southwest as well. So in this novel, he was following the axiomatic advice for authors, “Write about what you know.” His main weakness in much of his work, his disdain for research, is therefore largely moot here, while his main strengths –an ability to deliver adventurous plots and stirring depictions of action, creation of strong heroes who embody what are traditionally thought of as “masculine” virtues, moral clarity, and a masterful evocation of the theme of “primitivism” that can appeal to repressed and regimented readers– are undiminished. I’m not typically a Western fan, because I think modern examples of the genre too often degenerate into cliché.’ But the early Westerns produced by the writers of Burrough’s generation (which also included Zane Grey, whose influence I recognize here) preceded the modern cliches,’ and possess a more original quality –even if some of the tropes were beaten to death by later writers.

In 1880s Arizona, the inhabitants of the Bar-Y Ranch and neighboring Hendersville have to contend with occasional lethal Apache attacks, and the stage carrying bullion from Elias Henders’ mine is being held up with disconcerting regularity. Local suspicion pegs the principal masked culprit as Bar-Y cowboy Bull –but is local suspicion correct? And the plot will soon thicken, because both ranch and mine will face a suave menace that fights with the machinery of the law rather than with guns and tomahawks. The storyline is genuinely exciting, with a strong narrative drive that kept me eagerly turning pages to see what would happen next, with an element of mystery. (I guessed the culprit’s identity before the denouement, but I didn’t foresee everything that would happen.) Burroughs also understood that romance doesn’t need to be sappy to be romantic. There’s a well-drawn theme of conflict here between the effete, over-civilized, arrogant East that fights through dishonesty and wants to take from others (and the West that Burroughs saw was in many ways an oppressed colony of the U.S.-European industrialized world, as much as the hapless peoples of Asia and Africa were) vs. the primal, strong, down-to-earth West whose people look you in the eye and fight for what’s theirs

Burroughs has created a hero and heroine that you strongly care about, and want to see come through their jeopardy. Bull is more flawed than some Burrough’s heroes, because he has to struggle with a bit of an alcohol addiction; but that doesn’t diminish him for me –he’s a human being, with some human weakness as well as strength. Diana Henders is not a weak hot-house flower who functions solely as a damsel in distress –like any of us, she may find herself in need of a rescue sometime, but not through any weakness or incompetence on her part; and she’s also ready to do some rescuing herself when it’s needed. Of any of the Burroughs heroines I’ve encountered –and that’s been several– she’s the one I like the best, and that I find to be the most sharply-drawn, and most possessed of leadership and heroic qualities. (She’s an intelligent, likeable girl who enjoys reading and playing her piano. If you’re attacked by an Apache war party bent on ending your life, you’d also find her a very capable and cool-headed ally to have at your side with her Colt.) Some of the secondary characters here also come across as more vivid and lifelike than is usual for this writer, IMO.

Like other regional writers of his day, Burroughs was careful to reproduce authentic dialect in the character’s speech, indicated by unconventional spellings that reflect the pronunciations, not only of Western cowboy patois, but of a thick Irish brogue and a Chinese accent as well. This isn’t done to ridicule anyone; indeed, some characters who exhibit each of these speech patterns prove to be very sympathetic.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping, in that Wong the cook is knowledgeable about poisons, and an opium user (of course, a fair number of 19th-century Chinese were opium users –not very surprisingly, since the British promoted the opium trade, and forced it on China in two wars!) and there’s no real attempt to understand or present the Apache viewpoint. (Though even if their basic grievances are just and legitimate, when they’re attacking with the intention of killing you, fighting back IS your only short-range option.) But the only real villains here are white. And while Bull’s comment, “Thet greaser’s whiter’n some white men,” is phrased in racist terms, the insight he’s experiencing is subversive of racism. (“Greaser” is an ethnic slur some characters use for the Hispanic character, but he thinks of Anglos as “gringos” with just as little authorial censure; I think Burroughs here is only reflecting the common parlance of the day, as with his dialect speech. When Wong is referred to as an “insolent Chink,” it’s by a creep whom the reader readily recognizes as Wong’s inferior.)

My rating of four stars rather than five was for a very few logical slips in details, and for a few glossed-over points where plot developments were a tad dubious, IMO. But those are quibbles; this was a really good read, for any Western and/or action adventure fan!

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Publisher: Both Ace Books and CreateSpace, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.