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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Film - Rampart - directed by Oren Moverman

Star rating – 7/10

Seeing all the razzmatazz and glitz of the Oscars this week, it’s very difficult to see how on earth Woody Harrelson was overlooked for a nomination for Best Actor for his role in Rampart, except maybe that the subject matter of the film is a shade or two too dark for Hollywood favour. Although the film itself is not flawless, his performance as bad LAPD cop Dave Brown is nothing short of phenomenal. 
Brown is sexist, racist, brutal , and violent – he is basically out to punish bad guys, and he doesn’t care if he breaks the law to do so. His call sign amongst his colleagues is ‘Date Rape’ – gained by the apparent murder of an alleged date rapist some time ago. But the problem for Brown is that the notorious LAPD is in the middle of trying to clean up its act – or at least persuade the public that it is doing so. Save for the powerful and beguiling way Harrelson makes the audience sort of root for the unlikely cop, he would not be a character you would waste much time worrying about. From the start he bullies a female officer under his command into eating her French fries when she clearly does not want to – a chilling insight onto his deeper psyche. 

His domestic set-up is odd – he has married and had children with two sisters, who live next door to each other, and to both he is still weirdly attached. Harrelson said that the thing that persuaded him that he could play this police officer was the fact that he had a deep love of his family. And the fact that the part of a policeman is so alien to Harrelson’s nature makes it all the more remarkable a performance. He gets under the skin of Brown like no-one else could. His performance is simply mesmerising.

The film itself is slightly less impressive, as it loses its way towards its climax. And the climax is a bit of a letdown – truth be told. But Harrelson more than makes up for any weaknesses here with his formidable acting. And there’s a great cameo performance by Sigourney Weaver as his superior who is clearly exasperated by his antics and continued lawbreaking. The cinematography is wonderful, with some beautiful shots of the LA cityscape at night. This film is worth seeing just for the mesmerising performance of Woody Harrelson, even if it did not tick all the Academy’s boxes.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Gigs - Jamie N. Commons - Sacred Trinity Church, Salford

Star rating - 8/10

Jamie N. Commons is one of the BBC sounds of 2012, and judging by the gig at Sacred Trinity Church in Salford on his first headline tour, that accolade is well deserved. He is just 22, with an interesting background fusing Bristol, Chicago, and London; but the sound he creates is pure blues.
 He has a rich, deep, gruff voice, which is very surprising coming out of such a young, self effacing and modest guy with his 5 piece band. Of course he could have misspent many years already on whisky and cigarettes, and for all I know he might have done, but somehow I doubt it. Many of his songs are very Old Testament, very apt for the church setting, and tell of heartache and the fires of hell. So nice and dramatic then, just the way I like it. 

He is very modest, and the way he couldn’t quite believe that all the audience had paid to come and see them was very endearing. The set mixed loud blues/rock numbers, with some quieter ‘romantic’ songs. A highlight was ‘Devil In Me’, their new single, released at the end of March. Overall the night, and in particular Jamie’s voice, was exhilarating and bewitching. And they finished off with a lovely a cappella version of ‘Hold On’ to finish – which is my favourite track from last year’s EP ‘The Baron’.  

And if he needs a few more years to get the country and blues scars of performers like Tom Waits, Muddy Waters, and Johnny Cash, then I’m sure his growing numbers of fans, will have an incredible time watching him acquire them.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

DVD - Benda Bilili - directed by Florent De La Tullaye & Renaud Barret

Star rating – 9/10

If you want an uplifting and heart warming documentary with some great music at its core, then you should try to catch Benda Bilili on DVD. It follows a group of Congolese street buskers, many of whom are disabled, and all of whom are virtually penniless and living on the streets on cardboard if they are lucky. 
A French film crew discovered them, and over a period of 5 years, with many ups and downs, helped them to make a trip to Europe to delight crowds with their infectious rhythms and positive take on their extremely challenging environment.

It’s not just a sympathy trip though – they hardly even refer to their disabilities at all during the film. They are genuinely talented musicians, especially their leader and father figure ‘Papa’ Ricky Likabu, who instils a serious work ethic into his band despite the hardships they face.

Most touching of all is Roger, who comes to the city from his home village many miles away when he is still a boy to try to make money to help his mother and siblings back home. All he has is a homemade instrument consisting of an empty tin can, a piece of wood, and some wire. Over the course of the filming he develops his musical talent using this same instrument alone, into a truly wonderful thing. The final scenes of him enjoying every second of his European fame, and milking it on stage for every ounce he can, are absolutely delightful.

This is one of those films that you feel much better for having seen, that makes you feel very grateful for all that you have got, and in truth a bit guilty for not appreciating it a bit more.

Books - The Cold Cold Ground - by Adrian McKinty

Star rating – 7/10

Adrian McKinty has certainly achieved a very likeable and original creation in Sean Duffy as that rare thing, a Catholic police officer in the RUC in the 1980’s. And Northern Ireland at the time of the Maze Prison Hunger Strikes is a great setting for a crime novel – it gives so much more scope to break out of the often limiting confines of the genre.
The writing is good, and pacey enough to keep up interest throughout. And the unique dangers of Duffy’s position are fleshed out very well. He is on the trail of a murderer who is seemingly unconnected to the ‘Troubles’; and is that rare thing for that time and place; a serial killer. And making this a serial killer of gay men at a time when homosexuality was still illegal on both sides of the Irish border gives a great canvass to play with and serious themes to explore. Add to that the unconnected suicide of the ex wife of one of the hunger strikers and Detective Sergeant Duffy is kept very busy.

I did have a couple of problems with the book through. There is an awful lot of signposting of the politics of the times, which feels a bit like an ABC of the modern history of Northern Ireland. I am not sure that McKinty really needs to spell out in such basic detail what the various factions such as the UVF and the UDA stand for, as he does at the start of the book. And the use of real figures to play such a prominent role in the unfolding drama, such as Gerry Adams, felt like a bit of a distraction from the action at times. I just kept wondering if they really would have done those things. And the end felt like a slight cop out, and although I am all for my crime novel heroes crossing the thin blue line in the cause of a good story, I didn’t totally buy some of the things that Duffy ends up doing. 

But having moaned a bit, I would be very interested to follow what DS Duffy gets up to next, as this is the first part of a trilogy about him from McKinty. It did keep me turning the proverbial pages right to the end, and I did have a lot of empathy with the hero and his situation, so I call that a very entertaining and intelligent start.

Theatre - Oliver! - Palace Theatre, Manchester

Star rating – 8/10

I’m a sucker for a great musical, and Charles Dickens is up there with the greatest writers for me too, so this touring version of ‘Oliver!’ is pretty much a perfect recipe for my delight and delectation. And it did not disappoint.
It’s difficult to get the images and performances from the classic 1968 film out of your head, but for the most part I was transported back to a world nineteenth century poverty and petty crime in the way I was supposed to be. And that in no small part was due to the wonderful set - the clever use of perspective on the relatively small Palace stage, and the series of transformations from one scene to another were really magical and very effective.

The other major plus were some of the bigger musical multi cast numbers, such as ‘Consider Yourself’ as the charming Artful Dodger and Oliver meet for the first time; ‘Who Will Buy’ set against a fantastic London sunrise backdrop; and the bar room ditty ‘Oom- Pah- Pah’, led by Samantha Parks giving a great performance as Nancy. These big numbers really made the show come alive and surely have the power to put a smile on even the most resistant of faces.

Neil Morrissey was a bit of a revelation as Fagin. Although his voice might not be the strongest he was really great as the crafty old leader of the pick pockets. He even managed to get a ‘Bob the Builder’ reference in there too - bless him. Some of the storyline is a bit messed around with, but compromises always do have to be made. Overall this Oliver gave just what I wanted from a great musical – good performances; great foot tapping musical numbers; a good story; and thrilling sets. And a real live Bull’s Eye as Bill Sykes’ dog. Job done.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Gigs - First Aid Kit - Manchester Academy

Star rating – 8/10

After the charm of The Secret Sisters at the Ruby Lounge a few weeks ago, comes another delightful sibling creative coupling in the shape of Swedish duo First Aid Kit. And to be honest, anyone who can write a song about Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, who happen to be my all time favourite duet pairing, and set the standard of how to wrap one beautiful voice around another in perfect harmony, is off to a very promising start in my book.
Johanna and Klara Sonderberg are surprisingly young, at 21 and 19, but confidently command the stage with their beautiful fresh music. They have a folksie country sound, with some perfect pop thrown in, as in the aforementioned ‘Emmylou’, which has been much played by the likes of 6 Music. They played this perfect crowd pleaser about the craft of classic country duets like Harris/Parsons and Cash/Carter quite early on in the set instead of saving it up. But lots of other tracks from their accomplished second album ‘The Lion’s Roar’ sounded just as good. 

Some of their songs have lyrics redolent of much more mature artists, like their opener ‘This Old Routine’ about relationships going stale. And on the subject of their lyrics, it never ceases to amaze me how people from other countries write songs, sing, and speak so fluently in English when it is not their native tongue. Cue to hang our British heads in shame I think...

They did a brave number without their microphones, and ‘Ghost Town’ really sounded more melodic and haunting for it. They did go a bit new age/prog rock at the end, with their long hair flying about the stage like some sort of female Jethro Tull, but their music, voices, and personalities are so charming it was a minor blemish. They finished with the rousing ‘King of the World’ ... ‘I'm nobody's baby, I'm everybody's girl. I'm the queen of nothing. I'm the king of the world.’ First Aid Kit are the perfect combination of light and shade, and they really are a joy to behold.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Books - Story of a Secret State - by Jan Karski

Star rating – 8/10

Jan Karski’s  story of fighting for the Polish Underground during the Second World War, in fierce resistance to their Nazi oppressors, reads at first a bit like a thrilling espionage boy’s own story. But this detailed account is the true story of the author’s wartime experiences. 
It was first published in 1944 in an attempt to get the Allies to support the Polish struggle to regain their country. It is surprisingly published now for the first time in this country, and so the message seems all the more poignant, falling as it did on deaf ears following the end of the war and carve up of the Polish nation.

Karski suffered torture by the Gestapo, recounted in horrifying detail. “Of all the beatings I have endured, I never felt anything to equal the instant of sheer pain produced by the impact of the rubber truncheon. It made very muscle in my body wince in sharp agony.” But that was nothing in comparison to the horrors he witnessed perpetrated against the Polish Jews in the Nazi death camps and the Warsaw ghetto, where he was taken to make sure he could recount the exact horrors of those places to British and American politicians. What a damning indictment it was of Eden and Roosevelt et al they did not really listen to him in 1943. 

Aside from these horrific memories, Karski is able to recall the details of the life as a Polish Underground member in thrilling and fascinating detail. Although he does say that some of the time it was really quite boring, often little more than unglamorous ‘office routine’.  He gives a very moving account of the experiences of some of his female fellow fighters, whom he feels had a much tougher time than the men, as they were often more exposed and more dispensable than their male counterparts, but were in his opinion better suited to a life of espionage.

Karski comes across as incredibly brave and determined, and he lived a long life until 2000. Although his account is not very descriptive or flowery, sticking as he does to the facts and details of his experiences, they are more than enough to impress, astonish and horrify the modern reader. So hopefully his memoir will still convey a powerful message, even if not quite the one it was written for.

DVD - Treacle Jr - directed by Jamie Thraves

Star rating – 6/10

This low budget British film by director Jamie Thraves has its heart in the right place with this story of Tom who walks out on his family during  a mid life crisis. The world he finds in London amongst the ‘dispossessed’ is a little clichéd at times, but nevertheless worthy of focus.
Tom (Tom Fisher) is a middle class architect with a wife and baby, but at the start of the film is obviously having a sort of break down. He finds himself in the strange and often scary world of a homeless person. Aidan Gillen is brilliant as Aidan the happy go lucky Irish odd job guy with some form of leaning difficulty, who has a heart of gold. His performance is sad and touching and very funny.

Their fleeting friendship is very affecting, and although this is not a hard hitting Loach type analysis, Treacle Jr does raise very valid and relevant questions about prejudice, happiness, and belonging.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Gigs - Spector - The Deaf Institute

Star rating – 8/10

I went to see Spector on the strength of a very impressive ‘Later...’ debut and their great current EP. They are a young band from London with a very engaging and enigmatic front man in Fred MacPherson. And they were even better live than I imagined.
They are a suited and booted five piece who sing very anthemic songs like ‘Chevy Thunder’, their current single, and ‘Never Fade Away’ which have the audience dancing and clapping along effortlessly. It was nice to see them making maximum use of the Deaf Institute’s enormous fabulous glitter ball in their set too.

Their lyrics are intelligent and the music fast, tuneful, and furious. They will be supporting Florence and the Machine on her forthcoming tour, but they deserve to be, and I confidently predict will be, firmly in their own spot light after that. They may even be a bit drowned out in the stadium venues that will involve, but in the intimate atmosphere of venues such as this they really shine. 

With a name like Spector, and a fusion of a similar wall of sound, with the energy of the Ramones, and in MacPherson the intelligence and charm of Jarvis Cocker, well, it sounds like a sure fire recipe for success to me. A really great gig and a very entertaining and talented guitar band.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Theatre - The Winter's Tale - The Lowry

Star rating – 7/10

The Winter’s Tale is the story of Leontes, King of Sicilia, who wrongly accuses his wife Hermione of having an affair with his close friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia. It is tragic and comic in equal measure, as the results of his grave error result in the death of his son and heir, and of his queen too. She leaves a baby girl, Perdita, whom Leontes disowns, and who grows up far away in Bohemia, unaware of her heritage. So you could say he makes a right mess of things.
The all male Propeller theatre company are performing it on tour, and there is therefore the obvious issue of having no women actors for the key female roles. I’m not at all sure it worked too well here – although Richard Dempsey playing Hermione was the best thing about the first scenes in Sicilia. He was the only one who really got to grips with the power of the Shakespearian language and lyrical cadences of the play, especially during the tragic trial scene. But the lovely young Perdita played by a man? – it didn’t really work for me, and I’m not so sure why it should.  

In general Sicilia did not really come to life, but the later Bohemia parts were much better. The mini Glastonbury type festival setting really worked as director Edward Hall used great humour, interpretation and fun to good effect. There were some very funny parts, notably John Dougall and Karl Davies as a peasant and his son. Tony Bell as an aging rock god Autolycus in ill advised leather trousers was especially hilarious and scene stealing. I didn’t think I would ever experience a rendition of a Beyoncé song in a Shakespearian play but it really worked. 

Overall this is a good production, with many strengths, a few flaws, and some bad ass sheep costumes to boot. And I’m sure having no female cast members is much less of an issue in their other current companion production, Henry V.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Film - Martha Marcy May Marlene - directed by Sean Durkin

Star rating – 8/10

Elizabeth Olsen gives an amazing central performance as a young woman escaping from the damaging influences of a cult (referred to by its members as a community). It’s not clear how and why she got there, but after two years she makes a desperate and confused phone call to her elder sister, who then picks her up and takes to the safety of her weekend retreat in Connecticut. 
Despite her initial guilt at not having done more to prevent whatever it was caused Martha to run away, the sympathy of her and her wealthy husband soon runs out, as Martha’s behaviour gets increasingly weird with no explanation at all from her.

The story is told in constant flash back and forward between the community life and life with her sister. John Hawkes, last seen in ‘Winter’s Bone’ is suitably domineering, manipulative and menacing as the cult leader, Patrick. The film is sometimes a bit too opaque, and there are a few plot lines thrown in that are not really explained or expanded on. The materialist values of the wealthy couple are called into question, but quite what should replace them is never made clear. Certainly not the creepy cult, no matter how strong the sense of belonging it engenders in its members at times.

The chilling and atmospheric soundtrack throughout, which is not so much music as creepy sounds, really helps to build the tension. The storyline might have benefitted from being a bit less mysterious, but it is still a very gripping, unsettling, and creepy watch, and Olsen’s performance is fantastic.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

DVD - Tyrannosaur - directed by Paddy Considine

Star rating – 9/10

Paddy Considine certainly pulls no punches with his brilliant directorial debut ‘Tyrannosaur’, which is just out on DVD after a shamefully limited release last year. It’s a challenging watch from the very first frame, as drink fuelled rage causes Joseph, played by the wonderful Peter Mullan, to kick his dog to death. But the silent heartbreak he feels at murdering his beloved pet gives a sense of the contradictions to come. Nothing is quite how it should be in this film, and the story is all the more potent for it.
Joseph finds himself turning to a smiling, middle class charity shop worker for a sort of redemption. But Hannah, played by Olivia Colman, giving what must surely be a career-defining superb performance, does not quite fit the stereotype. She drinks to take away the grim reality of her abusive husband, with Eddie Marsan completing this trio of fine actors.

The sheer bleakness of the story is reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil By Mouth’, but there are some redemptive features in the morass of alcohol, violence, pit bull terriers, and loneliness. Joseph’s relationship with his young neighbour is touching, as is his honesty about his own, not insignificant, failings.

Considine, who also wrote the script, has made a very dark film which is tremendous in its power and honesty. And as it says in the final credits, don’t worry ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this film.’

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Film - Chronicle - directed by Josh Trank

Star rating – 6/10

It may get off to a bit of a slow start, but when first time director Josh Trank gets into his stride, ‘Chronicle’ is surprisingly entertaining. It owes much to films such as ‘Cloverfield’ in its use of homemade footage but has some nice original twists too.

Three high school friends accidentally discover super powers, which come upon them slowly but very surely. The tone of the film moves into whimsy and light hearted for a while as they experiment harmlessly. But inevitably having such capability cannot easily be confined or kept secret, and a much darker side to the tale appears. Personal insecurities, parental problems and general adolescence mixed with supernatural strength are suddenly not such a clever combination.

There are three good performances from the young leads, Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B Jordan. And some of the special effects are great. It’s not perfect by any means, with a bit of a trite ending, but Josh Trank is certainly a director to look out for.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Books - Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

Star rating – 7/10

Writing yet another biography of a famous person must be a difficult task. Claire Tomalin is an example of an author who is so skilled at this craft that she makes any great life an exciting read, no matter how often is has been written about before. As with her recent insightful offering about birthday boy Charles Dickens.

In her latest biography of Virginia Woolf, cultural historian Alexandra Harris acknowledges that hers is not a definitive version of this literary life, but rather a guide to her writings, with snippets of Woolf’s life thrown in. And, although quite a slim volume, it is very readable in that context, with some great illustrations and prints included to bring it to life.

Woolf is a difficult woman to write about and achieve any degree of warmth from the reader, as she could be aloof, snobbish, and was certainly privileged. But, as I discovered myself when reading her diaries for the first time a couple of years ago, she can be completely fascinating. She famously suffered from an early age from ‘breakdowns’ and severe depression, probably brought on by her mother’s death when she was just thirteen. Her illness frames her life and her literary career, as with the closing of each writing process as one novel came to an end, she knew that a depression would inevitably arrive and be in danger of overwhelming her. 

Harris shows how some of her great friendships and relationships shaped her writing, in almost an exact opposite manner to the way Woolf herself reveals similar details via her diaries. And there are some interesting facts revealed about her, as when she turned down an honorary degree from the University of Manchester due to her hatred of the trappings of fame and her love of privacy.

The shadow of Fascism loomed over Virginia and her Jewish husband Leonard. They made practical preparations for how they would commit suicide together if the Nazis managed to invade Britain. But famously it was Virginia who committed suicide alone; preferring to drown herself rather than go through another bout of severe depression when she was approaching sixty. She also could not bear to put her husband and close friends through the trauma of looking after her again. 

She asked her husband to destroy all her papers after her death. Thank goodness he didn’t or else we would not have her diaries to savour. For she is one of the most interesting and readable diarist there ever has been. And in this primer for her novels, Harris makes a good case for going beyond her journals to sample her fictional writings too.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

DVD - Post Mortem - directed by Pablo Larrain

Star rating – 6/10

This is a bit of an odd offering from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, which is just out on DVD. It is the juxtaposition of a film about social misfits, with the backdrop of the brutal 1973 military coup that overthrew the socialist Government of Salvador Allende.

Mario is an assistant in a pathology lab in Santiago, who is a loner and an odd looking chap to say the least. He is strangely obsessed with his neighbour, the dancer Nancy. He turns up at her work and they begin an odd and very brief ‘relationship’ which is distinctly one sided.

Then the military coup led by General Pinochet causes chaos and much bloodshed on the streets. Nancy’s home is raided and her family taken away. Mario is affected at work as well as at home, as body after body arrives with gunshot wounds to be catalogued and covered up. Then comes a very sinister request to do a top secret and highly political autopsy, which is understandably more than his colleague Sandra can bear.

It’s an interesting, if very odd watch, and I was not entirely sure what Larrain was trying to say. Alfredo Castro is suitably odd, not to say creepy, as Mario, and Antonia Zegers is great as the heartless and troubled Nancy. In truth it felt like two films in one, both of which might arguably have benefitted from a separation from each other. It ends suddenly and oddly, not entirely out of keeping with the rest of the story.

Theatre - An Inspector Calls - The Lowry

Star rating – 5/10

Maybe I was spoilt by the genius set of the Ladykillers at Liverpool last year, where the stage design added so much to that glorious production, but from the off I was bewildered. The set of ‘An Inspector Calls’, currently on a triumphal national tour after a sell out West End run for the former National Theatre production, was so distracting that it was a hindrance rather than a help to the performance.

Such are the accolades this production has received, I was expecting great things, but found the play decidedly average, predictable and totally farfetched. I understand that J.B. Priestley was using it as a vehicle to get his moral and political point across, and so was not too bothered about the story not ringing true. I have no problem in theory with that at all. But I just didn’t buy this production.

Maybe if the action had been taking place in a living room as was originally intended, instead of a dolls’ house of a set that obscured most of the dinner party in the wealthy pre First World War family house, then it would have been better. The merriment is interrupted by an Inspector Goole (the clue is in the name) who calls with news of the horrible suicide of a young woman in a nearby hospital, and continues to reveal how each member of the party has had some hand in her tragic demise.

It is a morality tale, and I heartily agree with the sentiments expressed, but the production simply got in the way. For half the time I thought the actors were going to fall off or trip up on the elaborate set. For the other half I didn’t care what happened to them at all. I am not sure if it Priestley himself who I blame, or director Stephen Daldry, but it was not a night to remember for me at all, even if for the characters in the play it was allegedly a game changer.

Gigs - Lindi Ortega - The Castle Hotel

Star rating – 8/10
There’s nothing quite like a great intimate live gig, no matter how good an artist sounds on record (...disc/download for younger readers). And Canadian country songstress Lindi Ortega proved that again at a great small gig at the recently refurbished Castle Hotel (great venue by the way – check it out) in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
Lindi is no stranger to touring, having been backing singer with the Killers’ Brandon Flowers, and support to Kevin Costner’s band. These days she is standing on her own with guitar in hand and heart firmly pinned on her sleeve. She seemed beautiful, small, and even vulnerable as she politely asked the audience to excuse her as she made her way through them to the Castle stage, but so confident and engaging the minute she stepped up to sing. And she has a damn fine voice which is surprising in its power and depth.
Her self penned new CD ‘Little Red Boots’ has some great country songs on it, many of which run along the death and heartache themes. But although they are really good on disc, they don’t really prepare you for the heartfelt and entertaining performance Ortega gives. My personal favourites include ‘Dying of Another Broken Heart’, and ‘When All the Stars Align’, as she uses personal romantic setbacks to her advantage in the shape of great songs. Now that’s a recipe for country success if ever there was one.
Throw in tales of substance abuse and addiction, and her self-confessed demons are charmingly and wittily recounted. She does a good line in Johnny Cash covers with ‘Fulsome Prison Blues’ and ‘Delia’s Gone’ and a not quite so successful Aretha Franklin cover in ‘I Never Loved a Man’. Her song about chasing across the States on a greyhound bus after a missing lover ‘Cigarettes and Truckstops’ was absolutely spell binding.
But her sassy attitude is summed up by the fabulous ‘I’m No Elvis Presley’ about some slick music industry executives who were so busy on their Black Berries that that weren’t even listening to her. “I’m no Elvis Presley so who the hell are you?” – what a lyric. Lindi Ortega may not be the next EP – but she is witty, smart and she sure as hell can sing.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Books - An Agent of Deceit – by Chris Morgan Jones

Star rating – 7/10

Espionage is back in vogue following last year’s big screen adaptation of John le Carré’s classic novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’. And this very well written debut from Chris Morgan Jones delves into the murky world of Russian espionage, only this time it is ‘business intelligence’ that it at the heart of the story. To you and me that means powerful oligarchs paying people to spy on their competitors - and much, much worse besides.

Morgan Jones would certainly be an interesting person to meet at a party and have a casual chat with about his own background advising wealthy bankers, governments and corporations around the world on business intelligence – although I’m sure he wouldn’t give many secrets away. And he is clearly on home turf with this thrilling book which sees journalist Ben Webster emerge from a tragic loss in Kazakhstan a decade earlier, to his current job as a private spy. He is assigned to help a rich Russian businessman sniff out trade secrets about the decidedly dodgy dealings of one of his business rivals, Konstantin Malin.

Webster finds himself locking horns with the respectable face of this particular oligarch (don’t you just love that term); his English lawyer Richard Lock. Lock seems to be the heart of multimillion dollar deals, named as he is as the owner of many of the newly acquired assets involved. But Lock soon begins to feel very hunted himself, and turns to Webster as his only way of escape.

The writing is pacey, intelligent, and very involving. One weakness for me is in the motivations and backgrounds of Lock and Webster, the two main protagonists. I wasn’t quite convinced of how suddenly Lock could become aware of the moral bankruptcy of his lifestyle, and more to the point that of his bosses, after over a decade of illicit dealings and lavish trappings. And I was also not quite convinced of the motivations of Webster, whose character is not fleshed out in great detail, but who seems to be working for a Russian who is little better than Malin.

But maybe that is part of the point - that espionage is not all black and white like a James Bond film, but rather moral shades of grey. This is a very enjoyable ride at any rate, and hopefully will be one of many offerings from Morgan Jones. And if you think the plot of Russian oligarch backed industrial espionage and murder is a bit farfetched – then you clearly haven’t been watching the excellent series about Vladimir Putin’s Russia on BBC2....