Sunday 22 January 2012

A bit of praise for Endeavour

Inspector Endeavour Morse is one of favourite tv detectives. So I had mixed feelings when I heard the news that a prequel film was to be made to try out a new series of Morse adventures for when Lewis is pensioned off. I need not have worried as the care and attention devoted to detailing Morse's early years were as near perfect as this sort of show can be.

From the first moments when the kind of incidental music a young Morse should have starts up, the film did nothing wrong. We first meet Morse as a young and disillusioned man on the verge of giving up on being a copper, but a case involving all the traditional Morse themes of unattainable women, art and serial killing university dons keep him in the force and in Oxford. The premise lives or dies on the issue of whether the new actor is believable in a role that is nearly impossible to play. Shaun Evans has to be a young Morse, a young John Thaw, and be himself too. Somehow the actor achieved all that, despite looking nothing like John Thaw. There was just something about the intensity in his eyes as he watches everything and everyone while appearing both vulnerable and in control that made it work. The scene where he makes a terrible and embarrassing pass at a woman who he admires for her artistic ability was a painfully perfect depiction of everything that Morse, the person and Morse, the show is about.

This time round the young Morse is the sidekick to his boss and the choice of boss Fred Thursday is an excellent one. Roger Allam has appeared in Morse before, but this time he essentially gives his Supermac performance from series two of Ashes to Ashes. I liked him in that series and I was irritated he got killed off quickly, so I was pleased to see him again as he makes a perfect sixties copper, treading that difficult line between community policing and what would now be viewed as corruption. He got the tone right with his lecturing speech pattern and he even got to do some good old-fashioned policing with his fists. I was also amused by the fact that in Ashes to Ashes Roger Allam and Shaun Evans both played corrupt coppers and Roger had Shaun bumped off.

Also in the mix is a young Max, the pathologist, who is played perfectly by someone who is believable as a young Max. These links to the later series work well and in fact the whole episode was littered with references, including witty repeating of titles of Morse episodes. There's also hints at how Morse first becomes interested in his famous car, his first pint of beer, and the usual cameo from Colin Dexter. The only bum note for me, although I gather this was popular with viewers, was John Thaw passing on the gauntlet to his younger self. This felt unnecessary as John Thaw's daughter had already passed on the gauntlet in a perfect bit of fourth wall breaking dialogue with her moving line that she and Morse had probably met in another life.

That aside, the sixties were excellently depicted without any undue nostalgia or lingering tracking shots to show us the expensive sets. The story itself evoked the sixties nicely with links to a famous scandal of the day and amusingly one of the actors looked like, sounded like and dressed like Michael Caine playing Harry Palmer. The pace of developments was perfect with escalating tension and one of the best dramatic endings to any Morse episode. By the time Morse had become Thursday's bagman and the old Morse theme tune played over the closing title credits, I'd already started hoping that a series gets commissioned.

Saturday 21 January 2012

A bit of a whinge about Sherlock: series 2

Over the New Year period I was looking forward to only two tv programs: the return of Sherlock with excitement and the arrival of Endeavour with dread. As it turned out, the former disappointed and the latter exceeded my expectations. I'll talk about the Inspector Morse prequel tomorrow, but today I'll have a whinge about Sherlock: series two.

Sherlock is the most universally acclaimed popular drama the BBC has made in decades. It's hard to find any criticism, which makes me wonder what I was missing as although I enjoyed the latest episodes, I preferred the first series. I've concluded that I'm at fault in failing to accept it's become a fantasy romp rather than being the detective yarn I want it to be. It's the tv equivalent of the blockbuster movie where you're supposed to sit back with a beer in hand and accept that nothing will make sense, but don’t worry because it's not meant to.

My problem is that it didn’t start that way. I'm not a big Sherlock Holmes fan, although I've read many of the stories and watched plenty of adaptations. My favourite version is Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, so I was prepared for liberties to be taken and, as it turned out, the pilot episode was one of the best I've ever seen. I accepted Watson in minutes and Sherlock in seconds. The story featured a perfect escapist detective yarn in which Sherlock solves a complex crime using brilliant deduction. At the end of the pilot I'd decided I'd found my new favourite tv series and although the next two episodes weren't as good, they were still entertaining. The middle episode was criticised for being weakly plotted, which wasn't deserved, and the third episode built nicely until Moriarty's audience splitting arrival.

I was in the camp that thought Moriarty didn't work, but the cliffhanger was fun and I eagerly awaited series two. Sadly, the new series got off on the wrong foot with a poor solution to the cliffhanger. If Sherlock is so clever, he should have resolved his dilemma rather than relying on the copout of the villain giving up because it's not the end of the story yet. With an eighteen-month gap between series, viewers deserve better than a feeble joke solution.

That start set the tone for the rest of an episode that featured lots of running around, quick-fire dialogue and a nonsense story. There certainly wasn't an interesting crime for Sherlock to solve and he wasn't interested in the macguffin of stolen compromising pictures. Arch-enemy Irene Adler was supposed to provide Sherlock with a worthy adversary, except she came over as an ordinary femme fatale. The nude scene came over as being put in to make Daily Mail readers froth at the mouth, which it did when the paper provided full-page pictures. But frankly a brilliant detective who can work out your dog's name from the shape of your shirt buttons should have gathered information from Adler's skin. Worse, that set up the rule that the sight of skin fools Sherlock. That made me spend the rest of the series noting every time Sherlock picked up a clue from someone's skin and add further weight to the theory that Adler was a weak male fantasy figure and not a strong independent woman.

I hated the ending that stole Adler's independence meaning that a story built around the chemistry between Sherlock and Adler didn't work for me as they didn’t have any. In fact the scenes with Sherlock and pathologist Molly were more believable and interesting. The actress who plays Molly delivers adoration and hurt, strength and disappointment without uttering a word while Sherlock with his posture alone both acknowledges that he knows what he means to her while also denying it. If there is a will they / won’t they element in future Sherlock stories, it'll work better with Molly than with Adler as it involves a situation we can all relate to. And while I'm on the chemistry subject, I grew bored of the Sherlock and Watson being a gay couple joke in the pilot episode and it's now become annoying.

I hoped for better things from the second tale concerning a certain hound, which like most people is my favourite Sherlock tale. The writer's recent excellent documentary series on horror films showed he has the same tastes and opinions as I have about film horror and so I expected an interesting take on the tale. But I struggled to watch the episode all the way through. I welcomed the slower pace that let the story breathe, but the tale was pure hokum until the even more hokum solution involving bad CGI and hammy acting. And there were too many filler scenes. There was a tedious trip around a military unit put in to justify the expense of the big set. There was wandering around in the dark being scared, which was less interesting than most scenes involving people wandering around in the dark being scared. And the scene where Watson hides in a cage while Sherlock enjoys watching him be frightened ruined the sense of their growing friendship.

The worst padding came when the story ignored the rules the show had set for Sherlock so that it could avoid him fingering a culprit who was so obvious he might as well have 'I did it' written on his forehead. One moment Sherlock's proving he's in control by working out that someone missed their train this morning from the number of sugars they put in their tea, and the next moment he can't find out where someone keeps the sugar in their kitchen, something everybody can do. And I particularly hated Sherlock's mind palace where he waves his arms around. The pilot episode superbly depicted how Sherlock's deductive mind works with graphics and clever direction, but every subsequent episode has depicted a different technique, none of which work as well. Oh and the less said about Russell Tovey's acting and accent the better.

I therefore put all my hopes into the final episode and, in the sections where Moriarty wasn't around, it worked well, but every time he appeared all credibility went with him. I usually like to see actors try something different, but that performance was too different. I never once believed in Moriarty, as I didn't know if he was deranged, or a man pretending to be deranged, so the concept that he was what Sherlock could become if he turned to the dark side was lost. And the idea of the most dangerous man in the world wandering around in full view doesn’t work. If he was that dangerous, the secret services would have made him disappear a long time ago.

As a result the ending fell flat, although I was pleased that Net pundits worked out how Sherlock could cheat death before the credits rolled. Of course, based on the resolution to series one, the actual answer will be sillier, and I have no great hope that next time Sherlock will be set in the real world. It's probably just me but I'd like him to solve interesting crimes that have defied resolution while the coppers look on in amazement and his brother acts amusingly in the background, as happened in the first series. Instead we have power games where nothing matters because nothing is real and Sherlock might as well admit he owns a sonic screwdriver while Moriarty should admit he's a barking mad regeneration of the Master.

On a more mundane level the series suffers from a classic middle act problem. This problem often affects shows featuring a genius, as writers struggle to make plots work with characters who are ten steps ahead of their adversaries. The result is that each episode since the pilot has been half an hour too long. Trimmed down to an hour, each episode would have been better. Sherlock can solve ten unsolvable cases before breakfast while completing today's Times crossword using only clues from yesterday's crossword, so it's hard to rack up the tension in the middle act. So the stories either forget he's brilliant, or wander off track, or add in yet another story, or add in yet another layer that contradicts everything that went before.

This final point also creates an odd tone. In the first series my only main criticism was that the tales didn’t connect well so that the middle episode didn't feel as if it followed the first. This is more striking this time round where the tales link together in only superficial ways and therefore miss opportunities. For example the groundwork for the final episode premise that the police begin to distrust Sherlock could have been laid throughout the series, but instead it happens for reasons that weren't any more valid than the numerous other occasions when they could have doubted him.

Anyhow, now that I've got that off my chest I'll stop whinging and say again that I enjoyed the series, even if it doesn't sound like it. I wish more programs like Sherlock were made, with care and intelligence and which are good enough to be worth criticising. The series features superb set pieces, fun exchanges of dialogue, the production values are glossy, and the leads are perfect. I love the banter between Sherlock and Watson, and between the other regulars, while the moments when Sherlock works out how many children someone has from the colour of their bootlaces are always brilliant. But somehow the sum of the many good parts is less than it ought to be and I wish I'd enjoyed it even more.

Sunday 15 January 2012

The Gallows Gang now available on Kindle

I'm pleased to announce that my Black Horse Western The Gallows Gang (published 2008) is now available on Kindle. The book has been republished by Hale as part of their plan to make Black Horse Westerns available for download.

I reckon this book is a decent one to read if you fancy plenty of fast-paced action. I seem to remember that my previous book had gathered the editorial comment that it had been light on action and so I decided to rectify matters with this one by cramming in as many action set-pieces as I could while still telling a story and having some surprises and twists along the way.

With this one, there were three things I enjoyed writing. Firstly, the main character Nathaniel McBain had appeared in my first novel and I'd intended him to be a recurring hero, but to my surprise after being a good guy in several books, he turned to the dark side. He finally got what he deserved in Wanted: McBain and he was sent to jail for a seven-year stretch, but I'd always thought that one day I'd find out what he did next. I had several false starts with a prison hardship novel, a dirty dozen type tale and the inevitable prison breakout story, but my heart wasn't in any of those tales and they fizzled out. But then I had an idea for a story that starts with his last day in jail...

I also like doing literal cliff-hangers; that being scenes ending with the hero dangling by his fingertips from a cliff. Riders of the Barren Plains had one and the forthcoming Beyond Redemption has another, but I think this one has the best of the three. Nathaniel is manacled to the bars of a cage that's teetering on the edge of a cliff. The only person who can help him is a raving psychopath, who is also manacled to the bars, and for good measure a stick of fizzing dynamite is rocking back and forth in the swaying cage just out of his reach... I loved writing that one!

The other thing I enjoyed writing was the character of the Preacher. My characters usually have valid motivations for doing either good or bad, but I hadn't done a completely enigmatic character before. The Preacher was that man, someone who is a raving, serial-killing religious fanatic who either knows the answer to everything, or who then again might know nothing. Nathaniel spends a chunk of the story chained to him and I loved writing their dialogue as the Preacher speaks only using Biblical quotations. Finding appropriate lines for him to say was a lot of fun.

Anyhow the book is now available on and

After escaping en route to their appointment with the gallows, eight condemned men led by Javier Rodriguez blazed a trail of destruction. Wherever they went, the Gallows Gang left behind swinging bodies as a reminder of the fate they had avoided.

Four men set out to bring them to justice, but the prison guard Shackleton Frost and Marshal Kurt McLynn both blamed the other for the prisoners having escaped. All they could agree on is that they didn't trust Nathaniel McBain. Wrongly condemned himself, the Gallows Gang held the key to proving Nathaniel's innocence. None of them knew what demons drove the enigmatic man known only as The Preacher.

Can this mismatched group put aside their personal feuds for long enough to end the Gallows Gang's reign of terror?

Saturday 14 January 2012

Reginald Hill

I've just heard the sad news that the author Reginald Hill has died at the age of 75. He is mainly known for the creation of Andy Dalziel, who is comfortably my favourite fictional copper and who featured in dozens of novels written over a 40 year period since 1970. His books showed how it was possible to write formula fiction without ever resorting to being formulaic.