Posts Tagged ‘Thriller’

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl –¬†because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! –¬†but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed.¬†And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some¬†emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty¬†is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes.¬†And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do: ¬†some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office. ¬†¬†

Some names are big. The shadows they cast are long and deep, so that even people with only the barest grasp of that particular field of endeavour will have heard of them. After all, you can’t talk about tennis without mentioning Roger Federer. But there is a phenomenon I’m coming to loathe with a fiery, stabby vengeance – the dark side of such overwhelming notoriety in the literary world. It is the use, over and over and over, of a single speculative phrase. It consists of five little words. They are:

The Next J. K. Rowling.

Sweet merciful donkey-gods, I am sick of it. On hearing that I’m a writer, or a writer of fantasy/young adult books, the first hopeful-teasing reaction of far too many strangers is, ‘So, you’re planning to be the next J. K. Rowling?’ In that context, it’s not a compliment or a vote of confidence: it’s a grasping-after-relevance on behalf of the speaker, clutching at the most famous name they can think of to try and reverse-orient their perception of what it is I actually do, and whether or not I’m likely to succeed at it. Depending on my mood, this is either amusingly unoriginal or a source of withering despair, but at least, when it does occur, there’s a good Goddam reason: 99% of the time, I’m speaking to someone who doesn’t read much, or who doesn’t read fantasy/young adult titles, and the name-drop represents an effort on their behalf, however misguided, at finding some conversational middle-ground.

But literary reviewers have no such defence. Google the above phrase, and you’ll see what I mean: G. P. Taylor, Catherine Banner, Stephenie Meyer, Maggie Stiefvater, F. E. Higgins and Michelle Paver have all been described thusly at one time or another; puzzlingly, so has Philip Pullman, despite the fact that the first volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy was published in 1995, two years prior to the advent of Potter, with the final two books appearing in 1997 and 2000. It is a phrase currently in danger of being abused to the point of ritual castigation, and worse, it seems to be employed more out of hopes for hype and the preemptive desire to create yet another worldwide marketing phenomenon than as an admission that the book in question is brilliantly written. The public yearneth for another Cinderella story – which Rowling, with her initial poverty, blonde hair and squillions of rejection letters, personified – and journalists are eager to provide. There is a tendency to forget that she also wrote an incredible series of seven books, the popularity of which stemmed, not from her underdog status, but from the creation of a fabulous world, brilliant characters and a well-plotted story arc.

The latest candidate for the TNJKR mantle is an Australian mother of four, Rebecca James, whose teeange thriller, Beautiful Malice, has earned an advance of more than $1 million from Allen & Unwin and started a bidding war over the international publication rights after being rejected by the Australian market. More, the windfall came just as James’s business folded, effectively saving the family. Regardless of whether the book lives up to expectations, there is warmth in the story on those grounds alone: underdog victories are always emotionally satisfying. As for the book itself, I’ll certainly read it, if only because the application of the Rowling moniker will make me remember the author. There you go, Marketing Guys – viral publicity strikes again! Thank the writers at the Wall Street Journal. After all, they started it.

I wish Rebecca James every success, and I’m extremely happy that she’s managed to achieve her goal. But in future, can we please have a moratorium on calling each new writer to earn a big advance, publish in the YA fantasy genre and/or write their book as a teenager the next JK? It’s like hailing each new addition to the Australian cricket team as the next Don Bradman: unnecessary and, ultimately, inaccurate. Because what made the Potter phenomenon so powerful was that no one predicted it. Rowling didn’t earn a $1 million advance for the first volume. The series was seven books long, and they were published over an entire decade – that’s a long time to work up a fanbase, infiltrate the market and create hype for each successive instalment. Chances are, when the Next Big Thing comes knocking, most of the world will be two rooms over with their music turned up loud, and will have to hear about it on the evening news. So until then, let’s just keep our eyes peeled and defer judgement to the delivery of an actual product, shall we?

Firstly: Major spoiler alert!

Secondly: I am a sucker for trashy action/thriller/fantasy flicks, which perhaps explains why I exist in a state of near constant debt to the local video store for failing to return Hellboy or Journey to the Centre of the Earth on time.

Thirdly: The DaVinci Code was on TV the other week. In accordance with the aforesaid suckerishness, I’d seen¬†it at the movies, but seeing as how the TV was already on, and the remote was all the way over there, and I was just mucking around on the laptop anyway, I ended up watching most of it again.

Which is why, last night, my husband and I shelled out something in the vicinity of fifty bucks to see Angels and Demons, no less than seventeen dollars of which paid for two medium drinks and a packet of peanut M&Ms. Out of morbid curiosity, I had the popcorn jockey, who looked about nine, explain the individual pricings to me in a slow voice. There should be some kind of Goddam law prohibing the sale of readily attainable junk at 200% markup, or maybe I just need a radioelectric shock collar that activates when I and my wallet come within a ten meter radius of the candybar, which, by the way, is a stupid American word that I resent using.

Anyway.

So, Angels and Demons. If you want to see Tom Hanks explaining why male statues in the Vatican have had their penises replaced with fig leaves, it’s really your best bet, although¬†contrary to one review I read, there are no exploding priests. Which isn’t to say it’s dull: the plot moves along swiftly, there are several nice lines, the cast is well-picked and Ewan McGregor does a fantastic job as the Camerlengo. The physics is complete and utter rubbish, of course, and even had I not been able to tell for myself, it was confirmed by a friend whose father is a senior engineer at CERN.¬†Fortunately, any attempts at scientific explanation take a backseat to Ayelet Zurer being anxious about battery life and hurrying a good deal. There’s a¬†lot of exposition, but the run-time, though long, didn’t feel inappropriate, and¬†as a nice touch, there were no strawmen among the religious characters.

The biggest problem comes from Dan Brown’s tendency to reuse the same twist.¬†Thus, one¬†can summarise both Angels and Demons and¬†The DaVinci Code as follows:¬†The Superficially Good Guy Is Actually The Bad Guy, While The Superficially Bad Guy Is Really Just A Zealous Police Officer Trying To Do His Job. Which means, if you are even slightly cynical, that the entire film is spent waiting for Ewan McGregor to stop being helpful and start snarling – which, true to form, he eventually does. Though disappointed, I salvaged some cheering geekery from the notion of Obi-Wan Kenobi¬†playing an essential¬†Palpatine,¬†wielding power through¬†his benign visage and a Sith Lord’s¬†talent for deception. My husband¬†rolled his eyes and¬†reminded me that not everything can or should be reduced to Star Wars, but in this instance, I begged to¬†differ.¬†

Angels and Demons is not a bad film. Neither is it brilliant. Unless you’ve got a yen for the big screen, you’re probably better off waiting for DVD, but¬†¬†if you go, you’ll at least ¬†have something to talk about afterwards. And often, that’s the best part of any film.