Sunday, November 23, 2014

Break Down

Sara Paretsky has written two non-genre novels, and they break her VI Warshawski mysteries into three eras. There are the classic Warshawski novels, written and set in the 1980s and early 1990s.  That Warshawski is a pioneer, both in character and in her position as one of the Founding Mothers (along with Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone) of the hard-boiled female PI novel.  I remember them as classics and assume they'll stand up on re-reading, but their setting (before cell phones, electronic searches, and 24-hour news) may as well be a foreign country.  Between Ghost Country and  Bleeding Kansas come Warshawski's middle period, four novels I enjoyed but which didn't seem to make much of an impression.  Paretsky seemed to struggle with adjusting her heroine's age and with the 24-hour media world established by the turn of the 21st Century.

Hardball kicked off VI Warshawski's renaissance, a tightly written, fast-paced mystery I literally could not put down, and one in which Paretsky gracefully shaved a few years off VI's age and placed her comfortably in the digital world.  Her next two novels haven't been quite as good as Hardball, but I've enjoyed them.

Break Down starts out in a graveyard on a rainy summer night, where VI, at the panicked request of her cousin Petra, searches for a group of tweens holding an initiation ceremony based on a Twilight-like series.  She finds them near the fresh corpse of a somewhat disreputable private investigator.  VI gets the girls out of the graveyard, deals with the police, and thinks that's the end of her involvement.  It's not, of course - VI finds herself being pulled towards the case by the powerful and connected mothers of two of the tweens she retrieved from the graveyard, by a former classmate in the midst of a manic episode, and by her friend Murray's fight for his journalistic career in a media conglomerate more interested in promoting a Glenn Beck clone.  Paretsky deftly ties the threads together, although she paints the Beck character a bit too broadly.  Still, she shows why she deserves her position in the mystery writing pantheon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All

I remember the DTP scare.  Every news magazine in the early 80s did a segment on how the pertussis part of the combination vaccine, although still safer than the disease, caused seizures and possibly brain damage.  England switched to pertussis-free DT vaccine (and faced a wave of whooping cough cases), and the pertussis vaccine was eventually reformulated.  Infectious disease expert Dr. Paul Offit starts Deadly Choices with this scare.  A scare that laid the foundation for the current anti-vaccine movement, and one that wasn't supported by the evidence.  There was no link between the pertussis vaccine and seizures once epidemiologists analyzed the data, but not until a spate of lawsuits drove most vaccine manufacturers out of the market and a combination of Congressional hearings and additional news stories planted doubts in the minds of parents.

Dr. Offit spends about half of his book discussing this false scare and the anti-vaccination groups it spawned.  An undercurrent of fear, a lack of familiarity with what were once common diseases, and the presence of a few well-organized groups meant that when Andrew Wakefield's falsified study claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, people were ready to believe.  Most of the MMR discussion is familiar, but it bears repeating.  Multiple studies have shown that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and while no vaccine is 100% safe it is several orders of magnitude safer than any of the diseases it prevents.

Offit's style is an odd combination of ranting and plodding (he's a doctor, not a writer), but his passion comes through.  He also does a good job of explaining how low vaccination rates hurt the population in general.  Unfortunately, I suspect that his audience consists entirely of those who trust in science, not the anti-vaccine crowd who need to learn the truth.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Mirror Crack'd

After reading The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, I decided to watch the movie.  Released in 1980, The Mirror Crack'd appeared between two Poirot adaptations (and two of my favorite movies), Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.  The Mirror Crack'd isn't quite in the same league.  It's entertaining, but plays a bit like an episode of Colombo.  We see a murder, a roster of suspects, familiar faces in typecast roles, and the underestimated detective solves the crime in under two hours with a slightly intrusive soundtrack which brings smooth jazz to a mid-20th Century English village.  It's no a bad movie, just a bit forgettable.

There are a few highlights.  I particularly liked Angela Lansbury's performance, which was pricklier than how Miss Marple usually appears on screen, and she mostly compensated for the fact that she was at least 20 years too young for the part.  The movie also added some back-stage scenes to Marina's movie, and some sniping between Marina and co-star/rival Lola Brewster.  Kim Novak, as Lola, and Tony Curtis, as producer Marty Fenn, chewed just enough scenery to be entertaining, and Elizabeth Taylor played Marina as a desperate woman who still knows how to manipulate an audience.  I also like Edward Fox's movie-fan Inspector Craddock, and the script is surprisingly faithful to the book.  Still, it's a bit too neat, even for a comfortable Christie.  Fun, but forgettable.

If you do watch, take a close look at the young man playing Lord Darnley to Marina Gregg's Mary Stuart.  Under that unfortunate hairstyle and costume is a future James Bond - Pierce Brosnan in one of his earliest roles.

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

Warning - spoilers

It's been a rough few weeks, so I pulled another frequently read Christie off the shelf.  I don't read The Mirror' Crack'd from Side to Side as often as, say Sparkling Cyanide, but I've read it often enough to nod familiarly at several passages.

The 1960s have come to St. Mary Mead, bringing a suburban development and a supermarket to the edge of the quiet village.  They've also brought frailty to Jane Marple, and the indignity of a paid companion who believes that mental decline accompanies (or precedes) physical decline.  Needless to say, Miss Marple is much sharper mentally than the clucking Miss Knight, and manages to slip away from the younger woman's smothering attention for a brisk walk through The Development.  She's busy confirming her view that human nature doesn't change - those tough-looking boys are posing and will grow up to be steady young men; that young woman cannot trust her fiancĂ© - when she trips over a rough piece of pavement and is "rescued" by Heather Badcock.  We've all known a Mrs. Badcock - she's always the first to volunteer for a committee, works tirelessly, and annoys the world with her generosity.  Kind-hearted but so single-minded that she cannot see whether her help is needed (or wanted), she "comforts" Miss Marple with a cup of over-sweetened tea and the somewhat rambling story of how she left her sickbed, slathered on makeup, and met her favorite star (and current resident of Gossington Hall), Marina Gregg.

A few weeks later, Heather meets Marina again, launches into the story of their prior meeting, and then dies after drinking a daiquiri meant for Marina.  Luckily, the detective sent by Scotland Yard knows Miss Marple and keeps her appraised of the investigation.  No one can see either motive or opportunity for the attempt on Marina's life, or a source for the threatening letters which follow.  And yet, there must be a plot because two murders (of the butler and of Jason Rudd's secretary) follow. Miss Marple puts together Heather's illness, Marina's frozen look, and an indeterminate pronoun and realizes that Heather was the intended victim.  When they'd met a dozen or so years earlier, Marina had been pregnant and Heather ill with rubella.  Marina had contracted the illness, and the subsequent damage to her child had led to a breakdown from which he had never fully recovered.  Since the debut of Sherlock, I've looked at Christie's novels with an eye towards modern-day adaptations.  Sadly, with the rise of the anti-vaccination movement, I can see The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side fitting into the 21st Century quite well.