‘See How They Run’

Derivative and old-fashioned it may be, but there’s something immensely entertaining in this 1950s whodunnit set in London’s West End and the production of Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap.

As chances of a Hollywood film are discussed, so a murder following the 100th performance of the play puts such plans in jeopardy. But whodunnit? With a minimal number of suspects – cast members and production team – that’s up to cynical old-hand Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell – Moon, Seven Psychopaths) and naive new recruit, WPC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn, Atonement) to solve.

With more than a nod towards Wes Anderson (including a starry cast), See How They Run is a fun, camp romp as the likes of gay playwright David Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo – Selma, The Midnight Sky) and Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson – Where the Crawdads Sing, Beach Rats) all come under suspicion.

Rating: 63%

‘Snow’ by John Banville

Featuring a young Irish detective – earnest, somewhat troubled – by the name of St. John (pronounced Sinjun) Strafford, Snow is a 1950s-set murder mystery – a surprisingly accessible story by one of Ireland’s most literary of authors, John Banville.

Initially playing on the game of Cluedo or an Agatha Christie whodunnit, the victim (a Roman Catholic priest) is found dead in the library of a large, rambling manor house in County Wexford, south of Dublin. A candlestick lies close to a pool of blood. Blanketed by deep, pre-Christmas snow, the aristocratic (protestant) Strafford is dispatched to keep a lid on events: the murder of a priest in 1950s Ireland in the home of the landed gentry (albeit impoverished) is not one for public consumption. As the Church moves to publicly suppress the story, so Strafford finds himself the likely lamb to the slaughter, expected to act quickly and keep quiet in what is a ‘closed house’ of suspects.

But like all good murder mysteries, there’s plenty of secrets to be uncovered – even if, by contemporary reading, with a priest and ex-remand home stable boy in the mix, a motive is plainly obvious. Banville, however, remains true to its timeframe when the country was unquestioning of the Church and priests were revered or feared. It’s through careful detective work that Strafford uncovers motives: a second murder both complicates but ultimately explains the course of events on the fateful night.

Rich in characterisation, Snow is a narrative to be savoured, a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling. It’s Banville’s prose that draws you in as Strafford interviews the household at Ballyross House or talks to the locals at the inn. The novel is as much a (genteel yet barbed) commentary on the divisions between class and religion as it is a murder investigation.

Authentic in its setting, Snow may be slight as a detective novel, but its a rich, thoughtful tale of Ireland in the 1950s and a time of Banville’s own County Wexford childhood.

‘Motherless Brooklyn’

A sublime, laid-back jazz-based soundtrack (Daniel Pemberton, Winston Marsalis, Thom Yorke and Flea) supports a quiet, lovingly-made mood piece of a feature.

Lonely, affected by Tourette’s, Ed Norton (American History X, Birdman) is a private detective out to find who killed his boss and only friend, Bruce Willis (Die Hard, the Sixth Sense). It’s 1950s New York and anything goes in the public planning offices. Corruption is rife as Norton finds himself supporting Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Concussion) and a group involved in a battle against all-powerful official, Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, The Departed).

A labour of love (written, directed and produced by Norton, adapted from the novel by Jonathan Lethem), Motherless Brooklyn, with its real sense of time and place, is a slow, gentle homage to its genre.

Rating: 73%

‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler

Published in 1939, The Big Sleep saw the introduction of Philip Marlowe, one of the most renowned private-eyes in fiction, to detective story novels.

Tough, wise-cracking, hard-drinking who, whilst fair, takes no nonsense. That’s Philip Marlowe. And that, of course, to many, is Humphrey Bogart, so famously associated with the hard-nosed detective. It’s hard to visually get past the 1940s Hollywood adaptation of this particular little storyline with Bogart and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood.

1940s Hollywood cleaned up the storyline somewhat as Marlowe finds himself working for the wealthy General Sternwood in an attempt to deal with Arthur Geiger, a bookseller who is blackmailing his wild young daughter, Carmen. It transpires Geiger’s store is a pornography lending library and Carmen is something of a star model. But The Big Sleep – a euphemism for death – is a lot more complicated than that – this is LA and its seedy underworld with money and reputation at stake. Both Sternwood daughters are spoilt brats with a great deal of cash to throw around – and Vivian’s latest husband, Rusty Regan, is missing.

Complex, tough, slightly breathless and with an undercurrent of wry humour as Marlowe and Vivian spar off each other, The Big Sleep is an archetypal detective novel with plenty of thrills and spills. Yet it transcends its genre, with poet WH Auden famously stating Chandler’s works should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art. It’s a view shared by many – The Big Sleep appears in many top 100 best novels lists.

‘Inherent Vice’

inherent-vice-us-posterDisappointing. Personally, I  love the work of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) but this offbeat, somewhat incoherent stoner of a film has its moments, but it has significantly too many misses.

In words, the original Thomas Pynchon novel was riotous and anarchic. Translating this to the screen has resulted in something of a confused mess.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2015 (adapted screenplay & costume)

Rating: 51%