Showing posts with label Shetland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shetland. Show all posts

13 April 2022

The Irish & Their Discontents


There’s a lovely line in Thomas Perry’s new book, Eddie’s Boy – and I’m unreasonably envious – “The sky was the color of disappointment.”

Here’s one from Ed Dee, not so recent.  I think it’s in Bronx Angel. An old New York harness bull is retiring after thirty years, and the boys are sending him off.  Two cops are leaving the party.  One cop asks the other one what he thinks of the guy, and the second cop says, “He’s got Irish Alzheimer’s, he’s forgotten everything but his grievances.” Dennis Lehane wouldn’t kill for that? Or me, or George Higgins?

And then, of course, the inimitable John Gregory Dunne, in True Confessions. The set-up is two brothers, one a cop and the other a priest: Tom, the homicide dick, is on the pad; Des, rising fast in the church, is consigliere to the cardinal. Tom and his partner catch a murder, a dead woman dismembered in a vacant lot, and the victim has a votive candle in her vagina.  Tom’s partner remarks, “Looks like a job for your brother the monsignor.”

These would be, of course, Irish-American tropes, going back to Finley Peter Dunne and his Mr. Dooley sketches, and up to Edwin O’Connor and The Last Hurrah, with a little Studs Lonigan thrown in along the way.  It’s a rich vein, if it sometimes veers into caricature.  You could make the case that John Ford did as much to compromise the immigrant experience as he did to celebrate it.  All that blarney, along with an unhappy nostalgia for the Ould Sod that wraps violence in sentiment.  Then again, Jimmy Breslin’s World Without End, Amen turns that delusion inside out, and makes the politics of denial an engine of despair.

Which is by way of saying that we look at the Irish of the Troubles through an American lens, one sort of tribalism translated by another, provincials both.  It’s altogether bracing to discover that contemporary Irish thriller writers aren’t wearing those leaden shoes.  Irish noir may not be getting quite the rouse of the Tartan variety, but it’s coming up strong on the turn.  Stuart Neville, for one, who I first encountered with Ratlines, and Ken Bruen – his first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards, won the Shamus, and was nominated for both the Edgar and the Macavity.  Not by coincidence, Jack Taylor got his own TV series.

This all to introduce a more recent Irish cop show.  My pal Carolyn, who’s a fan of Jack Taylor, turned me on to the series Single-Handed, which ran for four seasons – the Brits call them series, meaning not the full run of the show, but a single year – and is now gone.  The first three are ninety-minute features, made-for-TV movies.  The last season is three two-hour episodes.  It has something of the flavor of Shetland, in that it’s a dour, damp landscape, but with sudden, striking shafts of light breaking through, that show off its extraordinary beauty.

The Quiet Man it ain’t, though.  This isn’t the Ireland of Sodom and Begorrah, it feels very genuine.  The thing Carolyn liked about it, and why she recommended it to me, and why I’m recommending it to you, is that it has a depth.  You sense a life, and a community, off-camera.

It’s not ground-breaking.  The guy leaves Dublin, under a cloud, and comes back to the west of Ireland, the town where he grew up, where his own Da is the Garda constable, a sitch-ee-ay-shun, as Victor McLaglen might say, rife with conflict. Not as light as The Coroner, not quite as dark as Justified. But close. The kid takes over from his dad, and the storm clouds gather.

I’m sorry, but you gotta watch it.  I can’t describe why I find it so compelling.  The cast and the characters are engaging (some you know to trust, some you know are suspect); the landscape is there, but not a character in itself, as with Shetland; the plots are involving, but not contrived, they seem organic, they rise up out of the yeast and ferment of the place.  Wow, some metaphor.

One other thing.  Thinking about it, it might be the most Irish quality of the show.  The rhythm.  The way the beats are placed.  It really isn’t Law & Order, and I mean no disrespect, but you have to get used to a different ebb and flow. You’re listening to some other instrument. 

11 February 2016

Vera


I have no problem with being “a woman of a certain age.” Well, to be frank, old. So long as you don't refer to me as a “senior” or some other namby-pamby euphemism, I’m OK with old. Youth may be wasted on the young, but they're the only ones with the energy to endure it. No, aside from “the ills that flesh is heir to” as Hamlet puts it, I’m pretty content, except for my quarrel with the almost uniformly young and glamorous heroines of popular novels and TV series.
Oh, it’s fine for a George Gently to show white hair and a bit of a paunch. Kurt Wallander was done in by dementia not low ratings, and Inspector Lewis, with a bit of makeup and hair dye, looks to go on until he's older than his one time mentor Inspector Morse.

Not so the women of mystery, who need youth or glamor and preferably both. Except for Hetty Wainthropp, I don’t think anyone has picked up Miss Marple’s cardigan. So it has been a pleasure to discover Vera Stanhope, the crusty, plain spoken DCI from Newcastle, who is the featured detective in Vera. The series from ITV is now several seasons old but is just now showing up on my set.

This DCI is middle aged and dumpy. Her wardrobe can best be described as functional. She has a peculiar and distinctive voice and calls everyone, even prime suspects, either Love or Pet. If she’s got emotional trauma in her past, secret addictions, or unlikely obsessions, she keeps them private. Brenda Bethyn plays her as a grown up lady and all the better for that.


Based on the novels of Ann Cleeves, who is also responsible for that taciturn depressive, Jimmy Perez of Shetland, Vera uses a nice blend of up to date tech – the cry for CCTV footage goes out several times in every episode – with a good sense of human nature to solve her cases.

Accompanied by her young and handsome DS Joe Ashworth (David Leon), Vera is often abrasive but never heartless, being particularly sympathetic to younger offenders. She’s no softie, but she’s a good listener who, unlike her able young sergeant, can draw on a vast experience of human oddities and frailties. She’s been around long enough so that nothing too much surprises DCI Stanhope. Nice to see age is worth something!

The TV show encouraged me to sample Cleeves’ Silent Voices, part of a Vera Stanhope series. I was not disappointed. Like the Shetland novels, Silent Voices is well written with an intricate plot, an abundance of red herrings and misdirection, and a fine sense of landscape and atmosphere – like me, the author is clearly a countrywoman.

But Vera is a much more interesting, rough-edged, and generally sparky character than the hero of the Shetland series, and these traits are emphasized in the novel more than on the screen. Vera occasionally succumbs to envy and she has a nice line in snarky thoughts. She gets cranky with her staff and over works Joe, her conscientious sergeant, who is her closest companion as well as assistant.

At the same time, the DCI never falls into self pity, although she is a lonely person. She is quick to apologize and also to praise. This is a well rounded character, with a good deal of sympathy for the people who get entangled in crime and violence, as well as a tremendous excitement about her job. Like Sherlock Holmes, she can’t wait for the game to be afoot.

There are differences between screen and print versions of the character. Clearly a novel is much better at presenting the inner thoughts of the characters and the intellectual process of detection. But it is also interesting that, as with Elizabeth George’s Barbara Havers, Vera has been tidied up a bit for TV. She is chunky but not really fat, and Brenda Bethyn is only a decent haircut and a nicer wardrobe away from being totally presentable.

Not so Vera of the novel, who is depicted not only as homely but as terminally undesirable, a convention I find unfortunate. If only the svelte and pretty were attractive, there would be no population problem anywhere, and it strikes me that Vera’s blank romantic life is simply the female variant of the suffering detectives are supposed to endure.

But maybe not forever. In the last TV episode, a would-be admirer appeared. Vera turned him down – but left the door open. Now a plain faced, overweight female detective of a certain age with a bona fide admirer would really break a number of stereotypes.

I hope the script writers will go for it!