BOOK REVIEWS

Family Honor, by Robert B. Parker
(Hardcover, 322 pages)

Most people familiar with the work of Robert B. Parker know of Spenser, the tough Boston P.I. who later became the subject of the popular television series Spenser, For Hire. Parker had been writing Spenser mysteries since the 1970s (with only two or three forays into other types of writing), when he decided to branch out in the late 90’s. A new private detective named Jessie Stone came into the mix, a tough but confused ex-cop heading up the Paradise series.

Now, in the last year of the century, Parker surprises us. He’s got a new Boston detective working the beat, another ex-cop with the same type of relationship woes as Jessie Stone and the same type of cadre as Spenser. So what makes this new character different?

Her name is Sunny Randall, and she is the first female Parker has ever written about so extensively. After a brief outward look, we are taken into the first-person voice of Randall, a tough former cop trying to live an individual life despite still being in love with her ex-husband. She’s tough, a little unsure, and (unlike Spenser) a horrible cook – and at the beginning of Family Honor, she has a new case.

Randall is called upon by Brock and Betty Patton, a couple who don’t seem all that concerned that their daughter Millicent has been missing for over a week. Brock is a cocksure misogynist, Betty is an uppity, too-perfect rich wife, and Sunny doesn’t much like either of them. Reluctantly, she decides to help the Pattons, thinking this will probably be an open-and-shut of finding a runaway girl and bringing her home.

Like all the best Parker mysteries, this one is far too complex to be open-and-shut. After finding Millicent and scaring off her pimp, Sunny finds herself drawn into a conspiracy of murder. The deeper she digs, the more she discovers about Millicent’s parents’ frightening extracurricular lives, the twisted secrets they barely kept from their corruptible daughter. At the same time, Sunny finds herself upsetting the delicate peace between rival Boston mobs, Italian and Irish. And when it comes down to kill-or-be-killed, Sunny finds she must face the weakness within herself, and overcome it.

Family Honor is a refreshing breath of air from Parker. At first, the first person point of view is disorienting – you know this is a seventy year old man writing from the point of view of a young, petite woman. The writing is so compelling, though, that you abandon all real-world intrusions early and get sucked into the story. As usual, Parker tries a little hard to be politically correct (especially in some feminist passages near the end, and with Sunny’s gay friend Spike) but he never loses sight of the story. Fast-past, exciting and thrilling, the story here is all that really matters.


HANNIBAL, by Thomas Harris

From the outset of Thomas Harris’s newest novel, Hannibal, things seem to be going from bad to worse. The resilient yet troubled FBI trainee Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs is now a nine-year veteran … and in trouble. A drug bust gone wrong has left Clarice with some very bad press, and the threat of termination from the Bureau.

We switch then to Mason Verger, the lone survivor of the long, cannibalistic murder spree of the psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Verger, a slimy, mainly soulless pedophile, was coerced into slicing his face to bits and feeding the pieces to his dog by Lecter years ago; now, he wants revenge. His idea is clever and dark, perhaps too gruesome even for Hannibal Lecter. The reader reads on, shocked but exhilarated at this very intense series of events.

Then, something goes wrong. Perhaps it’s with Harris’ hundred-page side-trip into Florence, Italy, where the action is mainly hinted at rather than shown. Or maybe it’s in the casting of Lecter in the form of a Hero and not the brilliant Antihero he was in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. Either way, by the time the novel is done showing us the beautiful sights of Florence, Harris seems to have lost interest in his story, wanting only to deliver terrible shocks juxtaposed with examples of Lecter’s taste.

For once, a novel’s style seems more important than its story. Harris employs a challenging shifting-of-style tone throughout the book, switching from third to second person at will, and plays around with present and past tenses just for fun. The device is distracting at first (one wonders what time frame Harris is discussing at times), but becomes intriguing – far moreso than the story’s plot.

By the novel’s truly ludicrous end, one can only wonder why Harris chose to write Hannibal this way. Was it to thumb his nose at Hollywood for commercializing and popularizing Silence? Was it an attempt to top himself, to reach into even darker corners of psychology than his last novel did? Or maybe he just wanted to see what he could get away with. In any event, readers looking for a gourmet meal will end up with a dish served cold: Hannibal is not only a pale comparison to the past


Prayers for Rain, by Dennis Lehane

The fifth installment of Dennis Lehane’s mystery-crime series, Prayers For Rain, begins like the others: an italicized scene-setter focusing on a parent and a child. What makes the opening of Prayers for Rain so different is that our hero, private investigator Patrick Kenzie is the father, and his son is an imagined future boy fearing death. From this tense, surreal beginning, Lehane enters into a novel packed with parents, children, and things far worse than death.

The story proper begins with a woman named Karen Nichols, coming to Kenzie for help with a stalker named Cody Falk. Kenzie enlists the aid of his best friend Bubba Rugowski – a militia expert and borderline psychotic – to help rough up Falk a little. Kenzie assumes then that his work is done, and he can move on. But the end is far from near. A few months later, Karen Nichols kills herself, and Kenzie becomes obsessed with finding out why.

The characters here – Bubba, Kenzie, and Kenzie’s returning ex-partner Angela Gennaro – go to hell and stay there as the simple stalking case becomes deadlier and more sinister at every turn. Karen Nichols’s family don’t seem to care that she’s dead, her boyfriend was recently rendered comatose in what may not have been an accident, and several witnesses recall seeing a mysterious blonde man with Karen at several times in the months before her death. The blonde man eventually becomes the key figure in Prayers, and the most dangerous. For he is not interested in mere murder. His game is in the destruction of the soul. The only way Kenzie can win is by beating the blonde man at his own game, at whatever cost.

Most of Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie novels have been high on crime but low on mystery. Prayers For Rain marks Lehane’s first out-and-out mystery (with a good dose of guns and violence thrown in for fun) since 1995’s A Drink Before the War. As with his other novels, Lehane mixes darkness with light, keeping his action, humorous, and contemplative scenes in constant balance. With a slam-bang climax and shocker of an ending, Lehane again leaves you with the feeling


Movies

The House on Haunted Hill

The summer of 1999 was good to the horror genre. All the old horror movie conventions came back in full force: the creature feature (Lake Placid, Bats), the Gothic ghost story (modernized in The Sixth Sense), the teens-stalked-by-unseen-killer flick (the otherwise completely original The Blair Witch Project), and the haunted house story (the remake of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting.) The quality of these films mainly fell into two categories: the amazing high-concept horror, or the bottom-of-the-barrel knockoff. Unfortunately, the mega-budgeted The Haunting fell into the latter category. An incoherent script, bored-looking actors, and special effects existing solely to exist, The Haunting was a disappointment all around.

Now comes another haunted house story: The House on Haunted Hill. I went into the theatre with trepidation: the commercials made it seem like a bad ripoff of an already overdone concept. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised … and scared.

The plot involves a theme park owner named Richard Price (Geoffrey Rush), a slightly demented man who hatches an intriguing plan for his wife's birthday. Set it in a newly restored former hospital for the criminally insane, invite a few of her closest friends, and ask them to spend the night. Whoever is alive by the next morning wins one million dollars each. However, when the guests arrive, both Price and they discover that they were not the ones chosen for the guest list … and that the hospital really is haunted.

From the beginning, the plot moves along swiftly, leaving room for logic without slowing the pace. As we get to know the characters further (character development is surprising in this type of film; the little given here is so unique one relishes every morsel), we begin to understand more about the house. Many of the characters have hidden motives, which the house plays against them. By the end, the stunningly scary special effects seem to be woven right out of the plot, rather than being just a pretty spectacle for audiences to gape at.

The House on Haunted Hill doesn't pretend to be high-concept. It sets out to scare and thrill, and it succeeds in spades. Director William Malone seems to have created the perfect B-movie: one that understands its place in its genre, and then subtly transcends that place. Sometimes, as in this case, that's all a movie needs to do.


DOGMA

Watching Dogma, I was reminded of a line from the Crash Test Dummies song, "God Shuffled His Feet": "Was that a parable or a very subtle joke?" Kevin Smith, the director, screenwriter, and supporting character of Dogma seems to believe his film can be both parable and joke. To be sure, the film is an enlightening and spiritual journey that poses some serious questions about faith and belief. On the other hand, it's pretty damned hilarious.

Dogma is very much a comedy, both highbrow and lowbrow at times (note the Excrement Demon). Skillfully woven throughout the fabric of the humor is an underlying seriousness, a deep belief in the Old Testament and in an infallible God. It's an oddly spiritual film, a road movie that, just for a moment, makes you stop and think about your own place in the universe.

The first scene opens on two angels, Bartleby and Loki, renegades who once defied the word of God and who were subsequently cast down to earth to spend forever in Wisconsin. At the beginning of the film, they are given an anonymous tip: a church being rededicated in New Jersey will now come complete with a blessed archway - anyone who walks through the church doors will be immidiately forgiven and will enter Heaven at once upon death. The angels see this as the perfect loophole back into heaven. What they don't yet see is the circumstances of the discovery of this loophole.

The main focus of the film isn't even these two. Soon enough, we are introduced to Bethany, an abortion clinic worker who continues going to church every week even though she believes "God stopped listening" awhile back. One night, the very Voice of God, Metatron, appears in a pillar of fire in her bedroom. After putting him out with a fire extinguisher, she learns of her true quest: stop the angels from entering the church. But she can't do it alone.

Helping her along in her quest are two so-called "prophets," stoners named Jay and Silent Bob who appear in every Kevin Smith film. Chris Rock, slipping into a semi-serous acting role effortlessly, plays Rufus, the thirteenth apostle left out of the Bible because he's black. He also informs the traveling cadre that Jesus was also black - another fact the authors of the Old Testament left out. Smith takes delight in skewering some accepted truths of the Bible. As he points out, God may have starred in the Book, but men wrote it, giving it their own slant. That the writers were all male also accounts for obscuring the fact that God is actually a woman.

There are more characters, more plot points. This film is so complex that it would be impossible to delineate and discuss every scene without actually writing a book. So many scenes stand out: the one where Bethany nearly gives up, saying she hates God and doesn't want this quest. Metatron appears before her, finally explaining to her what her true mission is. He relates that he also had to have such a talk with the twelve year old Jesus Christ, and how hard that also was for him. Or the one where Loki and Bartleby take to task a group of members on a Disney-like board, naming their sins before they reign the Wrath of the Almighty upon them. Or the quiet, touching final scenes showing us God in human guise: a silent, smiling Alanis Morrisette.

Some Catholic groups have attacked this film as being "blasphemous" and "anti-Catholic." Almost invariably, the film's detractors have not actually seen the film. If they had, they would see a truly remarkable work of a sincerely devout Catholic who has, amidst the crude language and violent situations, managed to create the most spiritually uplifting film of the year.