Eric Jager knows we have a thing for historical mysteries. His new book, Blood Royal, tells the riveting true story of murder and detection in 15th-century Paris. In this case, the victim is Louis of Orleans, but his is not the only murder that has shocked and engrossed a nation. In the following guest post, Jager shares with us ten truly grisly murders that will send thriller writers racing to their history books for inspiration.
The (mainly) historical murders listed here are not just gruesome but also involve high-profile victims whose violent deaths were political acts and often dramatic public statements by the killers. Many other cases, including the Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper murders, are thus omitted.
According to Greek myth, this king of Argos and victorious commander of the Greeks survived the ten-year Trojan War only to die at home by the hand of his wife. Returning with his captive and concubine, Cassandra, Agamemnon was stabbed in the bath by his jealous and vengeful wife Clytaemnestra, who during his absence had taken her own lover. (Sources: The Oxford Classical Dictionary and Aeschylus, The Oresteia.)
According to biblical apocrypha, this Assyrian general was slain by the Jewish heroine Judith. She beguiled him in his tent, then beheaded him while he slept, hiding his head in a bag and tricking his guards into letting her leave. Returning to Jerusalem in triumph with her trophy, she rallied her people against their enemies. (The Book of Judith)
3. Edmund, King of East Anglia
In 969, he refused to fight the Vikings. Unimpressed, they shot him full of javelins (or arrows) until he looked “like a porcupine, or Saint Sebastian,” then cut off his head and threw it into a forest. A wolf miraculously guarded the king’s head, which cried out to a search party sent to find it, “Here! Over here!” The reassembled body of the martyr-king was then properly buried. (Aelfric, The Passion of Saint Edmund)
4. Thrain (the Slain)
Caught in a legendary feud, Thrain was killed in a battle on frozen river ice (c. 990). His attacker leaped onto the ice and “shot forward with the speed of a bird. Thrain was just about to put on his helmet as Skarp-hedin bore down on him and struck at him with his axe, ‘Battle-Troll.’ The axe came down upon his head and split it right down to the jaw, so that his jaw teeth dropped out onto the ice.” (Njal’s Saga, trans. Bayerschmidt and Hollander)
5. Charles the Good, Count of Flanders
Charles was sliced to pieces with broadswords in 1127 by conspirators from the rival Erembald family, who surprised their victim at prayer in church. Charles’s father, Canute IV of Denmark, had also been killed in a church, reportedly pierced through the flank by a lance after he and his knights barricaded themselves in the sanctuary against a rebel army. (Galbert of Bruges, The Murder of Charles the Good)
6. Louis of Orleans
One night in November 1407, the widely hated brother of the insane French king, Charles VI, was attacked by a gang of masked assassins armed with swords and axes as he rode along a Parisian street. A post-mortem, which still exists, describes “enormous” wounds across the face and forehead that sectioned Louis’s head into three parts and caused his brain to protrude, as well as a severed hand and a nearly severed arm. (Eric Jager, Blood Royal)
7. King Henri IV of France
Born a Protestant, Henri converted to Catholicism to become king, supposedly remarking, “Paris is well worth a mass.” His reign, marked by religious tolerance, ended with his assassination in 1610 by a fanatical priest, François Ravaillac. Shadowing the royal carriage through a crowd in Paris, Ravaillac jumped aboard and stabbed the king, piercing a lung and severing his aorta. “‘It’s nothing,’ said Henri, before slumping over, his mouth gushing blood.” Within moments he was dead. (Vincent Pitts, Henri IV of France)
8. The Pazzi Conspiracy
In April 1478, during Sunday mass, an attack by the Pazzi family to seize power from the rulers of Florence left Giuliano de’ Medici bleeding to death with nineteen stab wounds on the floor of the city’s cathedral, Il Duomo. But his brother Lorenzo escaped to avenge him. Accused conspirators, some perhaps innocent, were hanged, beheaded, or chopped to pieces, and the Pazzi were exiled from Florence. (Lauro Martines, April Blood)
9. Tsar Alexander II
A reformer who emancipated the serfs, he was assassinated in 1881 in Saint Petersburg. A first bomb thrown under his carriage killed a Cossack guard, but the tsar escaped injury and got out. A second bomb thrown at his feet shattered his legs and mutilated his face. One of those who helped lift the mortally wounded czar into a sleigh was a third assassin carrying an unexploded bomb. The tsar died soon after reaching the Winter Palace, and reforms in Russia virtually stopped. (Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar)
10. Leon Trotsky
The Russian revolutionary leader, ousted from the Communist Party and in exile, was attacked at his home in Mexico in 1940 by a Soviet agent almost certainly sent by Stalin. Having gained Trotsky’s trust, the assassin approached him from behind with an ice-axe and struck him on the head. The blade penetrated several inches into Trotsky’s skull but did not kill him at once; indeed, Trotsky bit his attacker on the hand. Taken to hospital, where he underwent surgery, Trotsky died the next day. (Robert Service, Trotsky: A Biography)
London, 1968: the time and place evoke strong sense memories, but in William Shaw’s new novel, not everything is swinging. The police are called to a residential street in St. John’s Wood where an unidentified young woman has been murdered. Detective Cathal Breen and policewoman Helen Tozer, two investigators on opposite sides of a generational divide, must work together to solve the case. Shaw describes what WPC Tozer would listen to in his note below.
Police culture was very different in 1968. A lot of this was to do with the fact that the police lived communally, in police flats or section houses.
WPC Tozer lives in Pembridge House, the Women’s Section House just off the Bayswater Road. She shares a room with another policewoman. They squabble over what records they put on. Her roommate likes Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdink. She like The Beatles, but doesn’t think much of The White Album.
When she’s alone, this is what Tozer plays. You can listen to some of these songs through the Spotify player above.
There is a point on any project when you know it’s going to work.
When my agent asked me, in the politest possible way, never to send him another piece of fiction again, I understood. He was trying to be kind. Stop wasting the long months it takes to write a book.
To be fair to him, I had never been convinced that either of the manuscripts I’d handed to him had worked either. He had done his utmost but enough was enough.
I was quite relieved to find that in spite of his advice, I couldn’t stop writing.
And when I found myself writing a scene in which one of the Apple Scruffs, the young fans who hung around The Beatles in 1968-9 was found dead in an alleyway, close to EMI’s soon-to-be-famous Abbey Road studios I remember having this peculiar feeling; “I have no idea where this is going but I know this is going to work.”
Part of it was discovering the right form. I am a huge fan of the 60s and 70s thriller writer Nicholas Freeling and novels like Love in Amsterdam and Guns Before Butter. With the massively growing popularity of European noir, I think it’s well worth revisiting his work; set in Holland, it has a remarkable sense of time and place. They are novels which immerse you in the culture of northern Europe, its food and in all its social spikiness.
“The past,” L P Hartley famously says at the start of The Go Between, “is another country.” What if I wrote about 1968 as if it was another country? In many ways it is. Our image of 1968 may be all tie-dyes and acid but the truth is that 45 years ago, Britain was a very different place. It’s not just different from Britain in 2013; it’s different from how we imagine 1968 to have been.
I realised that the book would work if I regarded it as much as crime fiction as a cultural fiction—attempting to tread in Freeling’s footsteps. This was a Britain which was being overtaken by a tidal wave of pop culture that pitched one generation against the other. People like my parents were from a generation that struggled with the idea of pop music.
For all the supposed radicalism of the Vietnam marches and the Paris uprisings, 1968 was a man’s world of jobs for life, Sunday dinners and limited pub opening times. This was an unrecognisably racist country in which Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech struck a chord with the majority of British people. Feminism had yet to arrive. There were policewomen like my character WPC Tozer, but they were allowed to do only a fraction of what a modern WPC is allowed to do. The pill was available, but in the 60s the idea of free love was a man’s fantasy come true rather than a liberation for women.
And then there was Biafra. A forgotten largely war but one which, by 1968, had turned into one that was incredibly violent. This was territory I knew about because my own family had lived in Nigeria and had had to leave the country in 1966 as the upheavals began and had returned there in 1970 after the bloodletting and mass starvation had subsided.
What if some of the ripples of that war had spilled over into the London of Carnaby Street and Abbey Road studios?
So I ignored my (former) agent’s kind advice and carried on. And was thrilled when, over a year later, my new agent called me up to say that Mulholland Books thought it worked too. And they wanted the first three books in the series, a narrative arc that takes WPC Tozer and her superior DS Breen into the even more uneven year of 1969.
She’s Leaving Home arrives in bookstores today! This essay is adapated from Crime Time—many thanks to them for letting us re-run the piece.
Dominion, C.J. Sansom’s magisterial new novel, hinges on a big what-if: What if Winston Churchill had never become Prime Minister in 1940? What if a coalition government, headed by Lord Halifax, were to choose a policy of appeasement toward the strengthening Nazi party, instead of one of opposition? But Sansom’s novel isn’t just about World War II and what might have been; it also asks a big what-if of contemporary politics: what if we became obsessed with nationhood? What happens when a country becomes so consumed by its myth of selfhood that it forgets its own people? Sansom elaborates on this idea in the historical note that concludes Dominion—which has been updated since its 2012 publication in the UK. Below is an excerpt from the original historical note, and we leave it to you to read the US edition of Dominion to find out what, if anything, has changed.
I find it heartbreaking — literally heartbreaking — that my own country, Britain, which was less prone to domestic nationalist extremism between the wars than most, is increasingly falling victim to the ideologies of nationalist parties. The larger ones are not racialist, but they share the belief that national identity is the issue of fundamental, overriding importance in politics; it is the atavistic notion that nationhood can, somehow, allow people to bound free from the oppression — nationalism always defines itself against some enemy “other” — and solve all their problems. UKIP promises a future that will somehow be miraculously golden if Britain simply walks away from the European Union. (To what? To trade with whom?) At least they have the honesty to be clear that they envisage a particular type of political economy, based on that other modern dogma which has failed so often and disastrously, not least in Russia, that “pure” free markets can end economic problems.
Far larger, and more dangerous, is the threat to all of Britain posed by the Scottish National Party, which now sits in power in the devolved government in Edinburgh. As they always have been, the SNP are a party without politics in the conventional sense, willing to tack to the political right (as the 1970s) or the left (as in the 1980s and 1990s) or the center (as today) if they think it will help them win independence. They will promise anything to anyone in their pursuit of power. They are very shrewd political manipulators. In power, they present themselves as competent, progressive democrats (which many are) but behind that, as always, lies the appeal to the mystic glories of independence, which is what the party has always been for. Once ruling an independent state, they will not easily be dislodged. How people who regard themselves as progressive can support a party whose biggest backers include the right-wing Souter family who own Stagecoach, and Rupert Murdoch, escapes me completely. Like all who think they will be able to ride a nationalist tiger, they will find themselves sadly mistaken.
The SNP have no real position on the crucial questions of political economy that affect people’s lives, and never have; their whole basis has always been the old myth that released national consciousness will somehow make all well. They promise a low-regulation, low-corporate-tax regime to please the right, and a strong welfare state to please the left. The wasting asset of oil will not resolve the problem that, as any calculation shows, an independent Scotland will start its life in deficit.
It does not take more than a casual glance at its history to show that the SNP have never had any interest in the practical consequences of independence. They care about the ideal of a nation, not the people who live in it. They ignore or fudge vital questions about the economy and EC membership. In recent times, before the Euro crisis, they cheerfully talked of an independent Scotland joining the euro (they evade the huge issue of whether an independent Scotland, as well possibly as the remainder of the UK, would have to reapply for EU membership, a legal minefield). Before 2008 they spoke of the banking sector, of all things, as the core of an independent Scottish economy, forecasting a Scottish future comparable to that of Ireland and Iceland, shortly before both countries went so catastrophically bust. Now they talk of keeping the pound but following an independent economic policy. (How would that work? Why should the rest of the UK agree effectively to write a blank check? How would that be independence exactly?) But the practical problems of the real world have never been of interest to parties based on nationalism; on the contrary populist politicians like Alex Salmond ask people to turn their backs on real social and economic questions and seek comfort in a romanticized past and shared — often imagined — grievances. National problems are always someone else’s fault. The unscrambling of the British economy and British debt after three hundred years of intimate unity is impossible to calculate using any accounting formula. Arguments are already leading to bitterness and growing national hostility on both sides of the border. That is what nationalism does, and what it feeds off. And all the arguments, all the ill feeling, are tragically unnecessary.
Meanwhile the SNP are trying to manipulate the independence referendum to secure a maximum vote for themselves, by holding it in the anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn and lowering the voting age to include sixteen- and seventeen- year- olds, because polls have shown that age group is most likely to vote for them. This smacks dangerously of electoral manipulation by a ruling party to stay in power and increase its power. God knows we have seen enough of that in modern European history. John Gray has recently written that while the dictatorships of the 1930s are unlikely to return, “toxic democracies based on nationalism and xenophobia” could emerge in a number of countries and be in power for long periods.11 Scots are proud, rightly, of seeing their country in a European context. This, today, is the context.
Nicholas Mennuti, one of the authors of Weaponized, is a true cineaste. In this post, written at the end of 2013, he shares with us his favorite film scores of the year. You can stream these scores as a playlist via the Spotify widget below.
There’s still a few scores I’ve been waiting to get my hands on: Roque Banos’s Oldboy, Arcade Fire’s Her, Danny Elfman’s Unknown Known, and Explosions in the Sky and Steve Jablonsky’s work on Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, so I hate to make this list without hearing them—because judging from the composers’ prior work, I’m sure one of them would have made it—however, December is winding down and being cursed with a sense of impending time comparable only to a Italian railroad official, I wanted to get my thoughts down on film scoring in 2013.
I’ve been told by those “in the know” that lists of ten are so common they tend to get passed over by search engines, so here are the 11 best film scores of 2013.
CLIFF MARTINEZ – ONLY GOD FORGIVES
It’s hard to justify one’s love for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive follow-up, Only God Forgives, without dropping caveats up front—yes, it sure is excessive and slow; luckily, you don’t have to do the same for Cliff Martinez’s score.
Refn and Martinez both hit it big with Drive, which relied as much on songs from Johnny Jewel’s “Italians Do It Better” label—as it did Martinez’s score—to back a meticulously executed, but seriously derivative film that at times felt like a cryogenically frozen fetish object.
Only God Forgives is Martinez’s solo show and this film—which has been compared to a vomitorium—is the furthest thing from derivative, excepting a few discreet borrowings from The Grifters. Refn has seemingly invented his own genre this time around; if not invented, then thrown so many together, from Leone and Jodorowsky to Hitchcock, that Martinez gets the opportunity to put his unique stamp on five different film scoring standards.
With tracks like “Sister Part 1” Martinez evokes his traditional eerily moving ambient sound that he’s patented during his years with Steven Soderbegh. In tracks like “Chang and Sword,” he creates a soundscape with twanging guitars and long plucks that sounds like electro-Morricone, or a Spaghetti Western unfolding on the banks of the River Styx. With “Mai Quits Masturbating”, we’re almost in Bernard Herrmann territory, with anxious, mournful strings providing a sonic analogue to distorted sexuality. With “Wanna Fight” we enter something akin to John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” with an Asian flair. However, the most stunning to my ears was Martinez’s descent into what can only be called Thai Hell, which consists of Mike Oldfield pianos, gongs, chimes, shrieking strings, and an avant-garde rumble—almost Pendericki—that truly sounds like sulfur spitting or tectonic plates shifting.
Whether or not you think Refn’s film will endure—I tend to think it will—I have no doubt that Martinez’s score will.
THOMAS NEWMAN – SIDE EFFECTS
The penultimate film in Steven Soderbergh’s mad pre-retirement dash (including Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, and Behind the Candelabra) was this unjustly overlooked thriller that takes place in the nebulous world of healthcare kept afloat on big Pharma money. It’s the type of movie that rarely escapes from Hollywood these days: mid-budget, actor-driven, provocative without being preachy, and R-rated for all the right reasons. And it’s the type of film Soderbergh tends to do best: rigorous formal control (bordering on icy) with a burning center.
Soderbergh has a stable of composers and tends to dole out scoring duties depending on the genre, illustrated in the brief breakdown below:
Cliff Martinez: Has been with Soderbergh from the beginning (1989’s Sex Lies and Videotape) and tends to be his stylistic soul mate. They both employ a hypnotic ambient arsenal of texture, misdirection, and tonal ambiguity. In fact, I’m shocked Martinez didn’t get the Side Effects job, but I’m going to bet it had to something to do with the fact that he already had three movies lined up to score this year.
David Holmes: Generally gets the job within the crime/thriller genre when Soderbergh wants a funkier, lighter, 70′s Schifrin-esque vibe to complement his Pop-Art visuals.
Alberto Iglesias, Marvin Hamlisch: The biopic composers. Both superlative talents brought in for Che, The Informant, and Behind the Candelabra respectively, and finally,
Thomas Newman: Tends to get Soderbergh’s—for lack of a better word—“prestige” projects: Erin Brockovich, The Good German, and Side Effects. Newman—more than any composer today, I think (outside maybe James Newton Howard), is a master of giving the director what they need musically to tie a film together. In fact, Newman’s music is so good that in some cases he can literally create the illusion of continuity and sense (see The Adjustment Bureau for example) where none exists.
Side Effects didn’t need his sonic glue to hold it together—Soderbergh’s craft has never been better—but let me allow the late Roger Ebert to say exactly what Newman’s spell-binding and spine-tingling music brings to the project, because I can’t put it any better:
The music tells us what kind of movie Side Effects is going to be. It coils beneath what seems like a realistic plot and whispers that something haunted and possessed is going on. Imagine music for a sorcery-related plot and then dial it down to ominous forebodings. Without Thomas Newman’s score, Side Effects would be a lesser film, even another film.
SHANE CARRUTH – UPSTREAM COLOR
Steven Soderbergh may shoot, edit, and direct his movies, but Shane Carruth can go one (nay two) better: he also scored and acted in Upstream Color, the movie I’m sure all Terrence Malick fans hoped To The Wonder would be. A film that’s simultaneously about romance, recovery, thieves, parasites, mysterious pig farmers, and the interconnected heartbeat of the universe. Somehow it works. The highest compliment I can pay it is this: It rewards all the attention you give it; there are mysteries in there worth searching out. And Carruth’s own score plays a huge role in making the viewer feel this way; the music binds together and deepens the film’s mysteries.
One can use all the stock terms to describe the score: ambient, airy, pillowy, ethereal, Eno-esque. And they’re all true. But there’s something more going on here, and it’s what makes both the film and the score vault past abstract metaphysical concerns: the beautiful, broken romance at the center. Although neither the film nor the music make it explicit, they both seem to say the same thing:
There are more mysteries in the world than one can even begin to conceive of, nothing makes sense at all, and the thing that makes the least sense of all is love. And be thankful for that.
STEVEN PRICE – GRAVITY
I’ll be upfront about this one: I don’t think Gravity is the most overrated movie of the year. I think it may be the most overrated movie since American Beauty or Crash (another Sandra Bullock project. Ha! I just realized that). But this is a list about film scoring, and on that front, Steven Price’s score is such a marvel of mood and scope (moving from ambient to all out action) I didn’t even have to think about its inclusion on this list.
On top of which, the score itself is also a potent illustration of two larger trends in film scoring:
1. Bands or single band members (Air, Arcade Fire, Alex Ebert, Kevin Shields, Jonny Greenwood, Steven Price comes from Basement Jaxx) or electronic artists (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, M83, Daft Punk, Skrillex) muscling into film scoring, and snaring it away from traditional orchestral sound, which brings us to point two…
2. Narrative film has fundamentally changed, thus so have the traditional requirements of film scoring.
Movies have become fractured, employing editing techniques something akin to digital cubism, and the music itself reflects this, falling somewhere between electronic scoring and sound design. Some movies today aren’t even designed for a traditional big-screen intake; they’re for you to stream on whatever’s handy. Modern life just doesn’t sound like Korngold or Herrmann or Miklos Rosza anymore, and film music must reflect this fact. Modern life doesn’t go from A to B anymore. It’s pulsating, digital, discordant, and poses more questions than it answers, and at this point in time, the only current films that require some of the old sturm-und-drang of traditional Hollywood scoring are genre epics and comic-book movies.
The preceding two paragraphs may seem counterintuitive since “Gravity” is by all counts a space-opera, the most tried-and-true of all genre gambits. But it’s a space-opera subjected to the minimalist art-film aesthetics of director Alfonso Cuaron, a true visionary, whom a big space score was never going to satisfy, and who, with Steven Price’s work, got a score so good that it made me wish I enjoyed the film even more.
HANS ZIMMER – 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Hans Zimmer has changed the sound of film scoring more than any composer since John Williams. Whether you like where he’s taken it or not is an entirely different matter. On four separate occasions he’s reset the template for modern action scores.
Black Rain in 1989 was the first action film to seamlessly employ both synth and traditional orchestral accompaniment. (Jerry Goldsmith tried this combination with considerably lesser results through the 80s.) With Crimson Tide in 1995, Zimmer finished what he started in Black Rain and, since then, literally nothing has changed in action scoring except for when Zimmer decides it should…
Which he did in 2000 with Gladiator, where he started the now ubiquitous trend of ethereal female vocals over action scenes (Lisa Gerrard in this case)—that reached its zenith or nadir, whichever you prefer with Horner’s score for Troy. Ten years after Gladiator, Zimmer added to the synth, orchestra, and female voice template with the now infamous “Inception trombone” (which in all fairness actually originated in Zack Hemsey’s trailer music), but was strewn throughout Zimmer’s film score as well.
All of that preamble was to remind people that although Zimmer is known for bringing the bombast, he first gained recognition for his smaller more character driven scores—Rain Man, Thelma and Louse, True Romance—and actually excels at finding the heart of a movie. And sadly he’s been doing less and less of that lately, which is why his work on 12 Years A Slave comes as such a pleasant surprise. It was a simultaneous reminder that Zimmer can do this type of material, and that when he wants to, he’s one of the best.
Sure, he recycles some of his greatest hits moments—parts of 12 Years sound a little The Thin Red Line-by-Inception at times—but when it sounds this good who cares. Zimmer does what Zimmer does best – he finds the sonic heart of Solomon Northrop just as acutely as he did Thelma and Louise. Try not to be moved by it.
TINDERSTICKS – BASTARDS
Claire Denis can be hit-or-miss for me. I’ll go to the mat for Beau Travail and I Can’t Sleep, but I genuinely have no idea what the hell she was going for in Bastards, which plays like a Gallic Get Carter without any of the suspense or humor. Denis is such a deliberate director that on some level I have to believe that the utter absence of tension, character, and efficient plotting must be intentional.
Thank God, then, that her frequent composers Tindersticks seem to have kept their eyes closed and gave the movie the score it deserves. In fact, the score is so good, you can almost picture in your head the movie it was supposed to accompany—and what a movie that is:
A smoky, mournful Parisian noir with synths that sound close to organs, something heavenly but blasphemous, because an angel was dragged to Earth and abused. A revenge thriller with a twist—the avenger may be just as unstable and dangerous as the people he seeks. Even the music doesn’t know what to make of him, evidenced by long, ponderous silences between the notes and question marks in the form of endless reverb. An investigation into the seamy underbelly of high-finance and cheap, underage sex set to a dance-beat. And then the kicker: the cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” when you realize just how sick the movie really is. The vibrating bass line matched by the tremor in Stuart Staples’ voice. Even the music seems shocked by the depravity.
And once again, like Steven Price’s Gravity, this is a masterful score in search of a better movie.
PINO DONAGGIO – PASSION
Not to sound like Christopher Walken in The Comfort of Strangers, with his oft-repeated monologue (“To talk about me, I have to talk about my father”), but to talk about Pino Donaggio, one has to talk about Bernard Herrmann.
Bernard Herrmann provided Hitchcock with his most memorable set of scores until they parted company after a particularly acrimonious dispute over the score to Torn Curtain. Herrmann wanted to sound like Herrmann, and Hitchcock wanted him to sound “jazzy” to capitalize on new trends in film scoring. Enter a long fallow period for Herrmann, until Brian De Palma burst onto the scene with 1973’s Hitchcock/Polanski pastiche Sisters, to which Herrmann lent a Moog-infused symphony of sexual dread. De Palma and Herrmann collaborated until Herrmann’s untimely death in 1976, at which point De Palma enlisted Pino Donaggio to score Carrie, and—except for a brief flirtation with Ryuichi Sakamoto—Donaggio has been De Palma’s go-to guy for scoring his now-infamous brand of erotic thrillers. And truth be told, he might even be a better fit for De Palma’s work than Herrmann.
What makes a De Palma thriller a “De Palma” thriller is also what makes a Donaggio score a “Donaggio” score—they tinker with the audience, providing light-on-their-feet, neo-classical sexual languor before the horror starts. They don’t just actively flirt with self-parody; they step up to the line and obliterate it. And Passion, which is their seventh collaboration, lives up to their previous triumphs.
The centerpiece of Passion is a full-on set piece at a performance of Debussy’s ballet “Afternoon of a Faun,” complete with the now-infamous De Palma split-screen. But Debussy has been with the score even before we go to the ballet. He was there subtlety imprinting the gleaming high-rises, the deco apartments, the constant flirtation, and sexual ambiguity. Donaggio’s score, like Debussy’s ballet, can be up-tempo, erotic, confrontational, misleading, but most importantly, like most symbolist-influenced impressionists, it’s beautiful.
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT – VENUS IN FUR
Alexandre Desplat has been omnipresent on the American film scoring scene since 2004, when he broke out with his work on Jonathan Glazer’s Birth—incidentally, one of the best scores of last decade. Post-Birth he has literally been scoring between 6 to 8 films a year, ranging from blockbusters like Harry Potter and Twilight: New Moon to intimate films like Tree of Life and Philomena.
Roman Polanski has always been one of the most musically astute directors. Try to imagine Chinatown without the way he used Goldsmith’s score, or Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby without Komeda’s eerie jazz fusions. Plus Polanski has also directed opera for the stage. Hell, he even starred in Amadeus in Paris. The guy has an ear.
So when Polanski and Desplat joined forces in 2010’s The Ghost Writer, I had high expectations, and their work together leapt over even my highest hopes. And Desplat’s work on Venus In Fur, although not quite The Ghost Writer, still makes a powerful minimalist mark with 36 minutes worth of music.
To explain why what Desplat has done is remarkable, allow me a brief anecdote. Famed screenwriter William Goldman once said—and I’m paraphrasing—that for a director, shooting a desert vista is the easiest thing in the world, but shooting two people talking in a room is fucking hard. Polanski’s Venus In Fur is an adaptation of David Ives’s two-character play about a sexual dance between an auditioning actress and a director who keep turning the tables on each other. And I’m going to imagine that scoring a film about two people talking in a room isn’t much easier than directing it.
The score begins with a powerfully baroque organ that feels like the sonic equivalent to a carnival barker inviting you in. The carnivalesque feel remains throughout the score, fading in and out, and supplemented by tinkling chimes and bells—reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar’s motif for Lucy in Coppola’s Dracula—and playful piano and strings. But make no mistake—and this is where both Polanski’s film and Desplat’s score truly impress—just when you think you have the mood nailed down, it turns on a dime.
PHILIP GLASS – VISITORS
If there’s one underlying thread linking many of these disparate film score choices, it’s the fruits of a long-term director/composer collaboration. We’ve already had Donnagio/DePalma, Newman/Soderbergh, Tindersticks/Claire Denis, and here’s another one that stretches back to the mid-80s: Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio. Their first film together was Koyaanisqatsi, a silent juxtaposed tone poem about the effects of modern civilization told through still shots of nature photography and sped-up images of worldwide urban life. Their latest effort, Visitors, is told through the eyes of a lowland gorilla, and is an effort to make humans see themselves through the POV of an animal, and to appreciate all our strangeness and contradictory behavior.
I sadly can’t comment on how the music works alongside with the images—the film hasn’t been commercially released yet—but I can tell you that the score is among the high-water marks of Glass’s career in composing for film (his day job is writing symphonies and biographical opera).
Glass has made a few inroads into traditional film scoring with Stephen Daldry’s The Hours,Cassandra’s Dream for Woody Allen, and the Angelina Jolie thriller, Taking Lives, but his best work has always been for non-narrative work and documentary for filmmakers like Reggio and Errol Morris. Not for nothing did Morris say Glass “can create a feeling of existential dread better than anyone I know.” And let’s be honest, there’s not much of a need for that in current Hollywood film, and in some cases (Notes on A Scandal) Glass’s music can seem downright oppressive against conventional narrative.
Those who listen to Glass regularly will notice certain hallmarks present in Visitors: the minimalist maelstrom on tracks like “The Day Room” and “Off Planet 2.” The flutes of dread popping up on “Off Planet 1.” But there’s something new in this score that’s been steadily creeping into Glass’s work of late: a transcendental longing, a spiritual questioning. His work on Visitors is magical, simultaneously one of his lightest and most dexterous scores and also one of his most thematically heavy.
ALEXANDER EBERT – ALL IS LOST
No director this year enacted a larger pendulum swing than J.C. Chandor, who debuted in 2011 with the ensemble financial thriller talk-fest, Margin Call, and two years later created an almost wordless sea-faring adventure staring solely Robert Redford and the regrets etched in every crevice on his mesmerizing face. On the surface it may sound like Gravity for the AARP set, but Alexander Ebert’s score keeps the film from drowning in the manufactured sentiment that ultimately sunk Cuaron’s lone survivor tale.
Ebert’s score does the seemingly impossible: it functions both as “environmental music”—using water as one of its prime elements—and the soundtrack of Redford’s mind, literally becoming the film’s second character. The score can be deceptively simple, using alto flutes, whistling, male voices, and silence—at times it feels like Britten’s Billy Budd adapted by John Cage—but it’s doing the nigh impossible: it’s providing the aural counterpoint to Chandor’s images, exactly what film scoring should always strive for, but rarely achieves.
I feel like the previous two paragraphs have made Ebert’s work sound dangerously academic or impenetrable, and the truth couldn’t be further from that. Like many composers on this list, Ebert has a day job: he’s the lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and although he’s shorn himself of every trick in the pop musician’s arsenal, his entertainer’s instincts haven’t left. This is just full-on beautiful music. Try and listen to the main theme, “Excelsior,” or the closer, “Amen,” without a lump in your throat.
CLIFF MARTINEZ AND SKRILLEX – SPRING BREAKERS
Cliff Martinez is back.
It was a hard call for the final space between this soundtrack and Hans Zimmer’s superlative score for Rush, but Martinez won it because he had the harder job. Harmony Korine’s whacked-out masterpiece runs the gamut from beach party kitsch to soft-core exploitation to beach-noir to European neon-lit dread, and back again. And the soundtrack runs the same schizo sprint from Skrillex to Birdy Nam Nam to Gucci Mane to Britney Spears, and holding it all together is Cliff Martinez’s patented and endlessly adaptive ambience.
In several interviews, Korine said he wanted the film to evoke the feel of a “pop song” more than a film. I think he succeeded. And a huge part of every great pop song is a chorus with a hook that brings everything back to the center to recharge before exploding again, and this is exactly what Martinez’s score allows co-composer’s Skrillex’s contribution to do.
Skrillex is all glitches and beeps and distortion. Martinez is all synth wash. They allow each other to be their best. Martinez brings the shimmering neon. Skrillex brings the shotgun blasts against the sky. It’s one of the best soundtracks of the year to one of the best films of the year.
Our favorite books are the ones that surprise us, either by deviating from the clichés of crime fiction, reclaiming those motifs in fresh new ways, or blurring the boundary between genres. Thomas Sweterlisch—whose terrific debut scifi-noir novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, will be published in July—shares with us a list of a dozen books that bridge the gap between science fiction and crime fiction.
Crime writers have perfected the art of fusing the mechanics of plot to explorations of the human condition, so it comes as no surprise that crime and mystery novels often serve as the primary influence for some of the greatest science fiction writing. Narrowing down a list of novels that blend science fiction with mystery writing is difficult—so, please, if I’ve left out a great book, let me know!—but here is a list of twelve of my favorites:
The City and The City by China Miéville
A young woman’s corpse is found in a rubbish-strewn skate park near the docks of a city called Besźel. he senior detective on scene is Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, but what begins as an investigation into this woman’s death escalates into an international conspiracy involving Besźel’s neighboring city, Ul Qoma—two cities separated by fierce political and cultural differences. Or are they, in fact, the same city? Miéville’s brilliant procedural is set in this labyrinthine world of overlapping cities, lending a Borgesian complexity to a story of crime and conspiracy.
Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Early in his career, Jonathan Lethem wrote genre-bending science fiction that was as equally bleak as it was comic. “Gun, with Occasional Music” torques Chandleresque P.I. fiction into a future California where Conrad Metcalf tracks the wife of a doctor who soon turns up dead—a classic set up for a private eye. Metcalf is forced to negotiate government-sponsored mind control, tracking his own “karma points” and dealing with highly evolved animals that can walk and talk, including a kangaroo hit man—problems Marlowe never had to deal with.
I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl: Poems by Karyna McGlynn
One of the most compelling collections of poetry I’ve ever read, this book has haunted my imagination for quite some time. These poems distill the essence of noir and the mind-bending sense of fragmented identity of the best time travel narratives. Highly recommended.
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
Houellebecq is among the most challenging and brilliant writers of our time—many of his works use science fiction tropes to explore sexuality, religion, science and death. The Map and the Territory is Houellebecq’s most accessible book, an examination of visual art told through the story of Jed Martin, a world-famous painter preparing for a show of new works. Although this book is neither science fiction nor a mystery novel per se, it uses elements of both—a near future setting that speculates on art’s role in our current and future society, and the investigation of a startling and gruesome murder that drives the book to its conclusion.
The Nova Trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, Nova Express) by William Burroughs
Radical in his use of experimental technique and graphic sexual content, Burroughs remains one of the most influential literary figures of the past century—playing an important role in Beat poetics, “postmodern” fiction, New Wave science fiction and Cyberpunk. Following his most famous novel, The Naked Lunch, The Nova Trilogy is Burroughs’ masterpiece of the “cut up” method of writing, in which he cut apart and randomly rearranged passages of his own writing to recombine language into startling effects. The plot of the Nova Trilogy follows the Nova Police as they track the Nova Mob, a cops and robbers parable set in a media-nightmare dystopia that serves as an exploration into addiction and recovery, while at the same time interrogating the mechanisms of societal control.
El Borbah by Charles Burns
Widely known for his darkly surreal take on teenage angst and sexuality in the graphic novel Black Hole, Charles Burns’s earlier work includes a comic strip about El Borbah, a private detective drawn like a mashup of King Kong Bundy and a Luchador, solving crimes in a Mike Hammer punch-first-ask-questions-later style that takes him through a science fiction crimescape of criminal androids, perverts and mutants.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Gaining popular success and critical acclaim with her noir-infused science fiction novels Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes’s most recent book, The Shining Girls, refracts the serial-killer thriller through the lens of time-travel science fiction. The novel is polyphonic as we meet the horrific Harper Curtis and his various “shining girls,” young women of different historical eras that form the insane constellation of Curtis’s lust for blood—including Kirby, the one shining girl who managed to survive Curtis’s attack, now tracking her would-be killer through time.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Famous as the inspiration for Blade Runner, Dick’s novel is a somber and philosophically reflective story about a bounty hunter charged with retiring escaped Nexus-6 androids by testing their levels of empathy, the only characteristic that still sets humans and androids apart. Less hard-boiled in tone than Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? utilizes the detective narrative to not only ignite the plot, but to ask questions about desire and what it means to be human. Essential reading.
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
The Last Policeman is a procedural following a thoughtful detective, Henry Palace, as he investigates the ostensible suicide of a depressed man, Peter Zell—only in this story, the procedural plays out against the background of an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, set to strike in a matter of months and almost certain to wipe out all life on the planet. Winters refrains from playing up sordid violence or the mayhem of a disaster movie, but wisely focuses on the detective as he puzzles out what exactly a man’s life is worth.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Fans of Spillane, Chandler and Hammett will recognize the setup: a hard-as-nails private investigator is coerced by a wealthy old man to track down a killer—but Morgan sets this hardboiled mystery in the far future, where “resleeving” (the ability to download consciousness into a new body) is commonplace. The first in the popular Takeshi Kovacs series of mysteries, Altered Carbon keeps the narrative raw-knuckled and brutal.
Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
Told in alternating chapters, the driving plot of this dreamlike novel concerns a Calcutec, one of the agents of The System, involved in an infowar against the Semiotecs of The Factory; it is also the story of a man who finds himself in a strange walled city, tasked to read the dreams from the skulls of unicorns. Indebted to Chandler, Hammett and The Maltese Falcon as well as Cyberpunk, this novel is quintessential Murakami, full of hallucinogenic imagery, pop-culture intelligence and middle-aged ennui.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
One of the most startlingly original and influential novels written in the twentieth-century, Gibson’s Neuromancer is the essential Cyberpunk text, credited with coining the term “cyberspace” and glimpsing into the future of the internet, here called the “Matrix.” Amidst visionary descriptions of networked computer systems and the rise of a self-aware Artificial-Intelligence, Neuromancer is, at its core, a heist novel—the main character, a “console cowboy” computer hacker named Case, is hired by an ex-military man named Armitage to carry off a seemingly impossible theft.
What’s missing from this list? Let us know in the comments!
Rob W. Hart—associate publisher of MysteriousPress.com, class director of LitReactor, and all-around friend of Mulholland—knows his crime fiction. We’d wager he’s read a fair bit of it. And when you read a lot within a genre, you begin to notice some familiar signposts… Today on our blog, Rob lists his crime fiction bugbears.
Any cliché can be twisted and reinvented so that it’s fresh and exciting. Clichés can serve as enduring and comfortable tropes that remind us why we love the crime fiction genre.
But that’s not always the case—sometimes they can be tired rehashes of scenarios and traits that have been done to death, resurrected, and then killed again.
Here are, from my vantage point, the top ten clichés that continually pop up in crime fiction.
1. The deep and intense relationship with alcohol.
Has there ever been a private investigator or a hard-boiled protagonist who didn’t drown his or her feelings in a bottle? Bonus points if that alcohol is amber and smoky. Vices are fun, but too often, they’re overused as a defining characteristic.
2. The deep and intense relationship with music.
A lot of authors name-check musicians. In crime fiction it’s almost always jazz or the blues. Again, amber and smoky. Where’s the polka? The Norwegian death metal? It would be great to see some characters with a little range.
3. The uptight female character as potential sex toy.
If a prudish but pretty woman meets the male protagonist in the first 50 pages of a story, you know they’ll end up having sex. It’ll be liberating for her, a moment of vulnerability for him—and the author will get to work out some deep-seated sexual fantasy. Everyone wins!
4. The Sherlock-type figure.
A protagonist who is brilliant, quirky, and seemingly infallible… save his or her inability to relate to people. Usually accompanied by a level-headed but easily-flustered accomplice, who serves the dual purpose of sounding board and conduit to the human race. Sound familiar?
5. All (broken) families are alike…
Cops, private detectives, spies—they’re all haunted. They’ve faced the worst of humanity, and sometimes their own mortality, and it leaves them broken. You’d think they would seek comfort for that breakage in their families—instead they push them away, for dramatic effect.
6. Everyone has daddy issues.
Daddy issues are an easy way to explain away prickish behavior. Got a protagonist with a fresh mouth, or who is quick to throw a punch? Just factor in some abuse by a father figure, and it’s like a free pass—you can’t really blame them right? And thusly, a dark character attribute turns into a storytelling crutch.
7. The snitch as cannon fodder.
You know that joke about how it was always the crewmembers in red shirts who were killed on Star Trek? In crime fiction it’s the snitch. They’re a safe kill—not so virtuous that we really feel bad, not so integral to the main cast that we’re terribly shocked. But they’ve usually got a strong enough relationship with the protagonist that you know some bloody vengeance is coming down the pike.
8. The narrator goes native.
How often do you see this? The protagonist needs intel or supplies, so they go someplace that’s clearly not on their turf. Say, a black or Latino neighborhood. There’s an elder-type figure or gang leader who gives the protagonist a pass, because they have some sort of shared history or mutual respect. And we all learn a valuable lesson about equality.
9. The bad guy gets captured on purpose.
This is especially useful if you want to give the villain a little more time to monologue, on their twisted philosophy or dastardly plan. And when the tables turn—oh, the drama!
10. The brilliant serial killer.
Maybe we should call this one Hannibal Lecter-type figure. It certainly goes hand-in-hand with the Sherlock-type figure. Done well once, hammered into the ground after that. Bonus points if the brilliant serial killer is quick to irrational anger, or has some kind of personal history with the protagonist.
Those are mine. What do you think are the biggest clichés in crime fiction? Share in the comments or tweet @robwhart.
This wonderful list of top noir novels comes to Mulholland Books courtesy of Reed Farrel Coleman. Tell us in the comments how many of these books you’ve read…and let us know of any omissions!
Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman
From one of the great underappreciated writers in the crime fiction genre. Red Cat has it all, including the sexiest cover image ever. But the real magic is in the writing. The best dovetailing of plot and subplot I have been fortunate to come across. A masterful PI story of blackmail, performance art, sex, and dysfunctional families.
The Shanghai Moon by SJ Rozan
Sometimes the best books about the Holocaust are not set in Europe. That is surely the case in The Shanghai Moon, a novel set in today’s New York Chinatown and in Shanghai’s Jewish Ghetto circa WWII. It is a heartbreaking tale of murder, robbery, romance, and myth drawn with Rozan’s deft and evocative hand. Why this book didn’t garner more attention is a mystery worthy of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith.
The Last Good Day by Peter Blauner
In the days immediately following 9/11, many authors were compelled to take on the stunning events of that day by rushing at the subject full-speed ahead. Not Blauner. He comes at it obliquely, using negative space, letting suburban drama and tragedy shine an indirect light on the greater horror that had occurred a short commuter train ride away.
The Graving Dock by Gabriel Cohen
The best book in the Jack Leightner series. Better even than the Edgar Award–nominated Red Hook. Here Leightner, a NYPD homicide detective, has to deal not only with bodies washing ashore, but with parts of New York City that often go ignored: its waterways and harbor islands. Cohen uses them not only as a backdrop, but as an allegory for the dark, unexplored, and often ugly places in the human heart.
Die a Little by Megan Abbott
Sure, Megan is a hot commodity these days, but before Dare Me, before her Edgar-winning Queenpin, and her other superb novels, there was Die A Little. This claustrophobic tale set in 50s LA features Hollywood in all its horrible glory. There’s a studio fixer, addiction, prostitution, and maybe even room for a little true love. Maybe.
A Prayer for Dawn by Nathan Singer
A supremely disturbing, very ambitious, yet entertaining novel that defies easy description. It took courage to write it and maybe a little to read it. You’re unlikely to forget it. It would be silly to say more.
Closing Time by Jim Fusilli
Tragedy of a grand scale done in microcosm. The magic is Fusilli’s ability to make protagonist Terry Orr’s pain universal while making it our own to bear. A book of contrasts, particularly Terry’s grief and revenge fixations set against his daughter’s remarkable resilience. He, too, shows a side of Manhattan that, until then, was left relatively unexplored.
Author’s Note: Yes, a lot of these folks are my friends. So what? Yes, most of these selections are set in and around New York City. Again, so what? It’s my list. I promise you that there isn’t a stinker among them. You may not love them all, but you will love some. These books all deserved way more attention than they received.
Reed Farrel Colemanis the author of eighteen novels. He is a three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year and a two-time Edgar Award nominee. He has also won the Audie, Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards. He is an adjunct instructor in English at Hofstra University and a founding member of Mystery Writers of America University. He lives with his family on Long Island.
The day has come! At long last, S., conceived by J.J Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, is in bookstores across the country and we can finally start spreading the word about just what Abrams and Dorst have unleashed on the world.
News about Abrams’ and Dorst’s novel has spread far and wide. CBS News has some highlights from this morning’s interview with J.J. and Doug right here, as well as bonus content that didn’t air on CBS This Morning. Publishers Weekly gives S. a starred review, proclaiming the novel “multilayered and complex,” and going on to write: “the Talmudic commentary fascinate[s]…a must-read.”
Breed by Chase Novak is now available as a trade paperback, and to mark the occasion, he gives us a few words on Breed and its forthcoming sequel, Brood.
It could be—and has been—argued that television is a kind of unwitting enemy of reading. And surely anything that gets in the way of reading hurts writers, too. But the current renaissance in long-form television, in which writers, directors, and actors have weeks and even years in which to develop and deepen the characters they have created serves as a kind of inspiration to writers who have created stories (and characters, and worlds) that take more than one book to fully explore.
I was not more than half way through Breed before realizing that whatever happened to Adam and Alice in that novel would not be the end of their story. Breed begins with the (extremely privileged) journey of Alex Twisden and Leslie Kramer as they struggle with their infertility, and spare no trouble or expense to have a child—a desire that begins with longing and soon becomes an obsession. Once pregnancy and birth are achieved, the novel turns its attention to the business of actual parenting—something, of course, hundreds and millions of people experience, though most of them without the added challenge of having been genetically altered and driven quite mad by uncontrollable cannibalistic urges.
The primary (and primal) terror of Breed is a child’s fear of her or his own parents. But once that story came to its climax, the further story of what would become of Alex and Leslie’s twins began to occupy my mind, and Brood was born. Brood asks: what can we do to keep the beast within in check? Brood explores how nurture will fare in a struggle with nature. And what do you do when your wishes are fulfilled and you realize you have wished for the wrong thing? In Brood, as is generally the case in life, terror begins at home.