Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thoughts on Two Killings


My taste for British and European TV mysteries predisposed me to like The Killing, the cable mini-series that finally ended its run this last weekend on AMC. That’s “finally” with a sigh of relief.

The Killing is a series that most viewers seem to absolutely love or totally hate, no Mister In-betweeners. As I maybe do too much for some, I stand somewhere in the middle, though, in the end, I think the series a failure. I watched it from first to last and while I enjoyed much of it—the acting and direction, the rainy, Gothic-noir atmosphere—the sins washed away the virtues.

The Killing is an American adaptation of a Danish series called Forbrydelsen (The Crime), reconfigured over here by Veena Sud (an American of Canadian, Filipino and Indian Hindu descent). The Danish version’s first season followed one case for 20 episodes, one day per episode, in one season. It was a huge hit, especially in England where it beat Mad Men in viewer ratings. A third season with a new case is now in production. It’s even ignited a fashion craze.

The American version won’t be welcomed back. It takes the same mystery plot, the murder of a young girl, but strings it out over the course of 26 days and 26 episodes, then splits that into two seasons. A lot needs to happen, but, in the end, as finely made as the show was, its scripting let it down. Not much in the way of surprises did happen and some of them stretched credibility to the snapping point. So many red herrings were flying around, it started smelling like a fish market.

While I didn’t feel as burnt by the reversal at the end of season one as many others, I wondered if they’d run out of rabbits to pull from their hats during season two. And they just about did. Toward the end, we were squirming with irritation and, when the far-fetched reveal came, we shrugged with relief.

I’m all for realistic depictions of flawed detectives who make errors of judgment and who war against the corruption within and without (as in Prime Suspect and The Wire). I can even get with the bad guys escaping justice. But detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (played by Mirielle Enos and Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, both excellent in difficult roles) break down so many wrong doors, run out so many wrong threads, and have soooo many personal problems that I wanted to give them both a big big hug before taking away their badges away for good.

I felt almost as intensely against them as I did toward Kenneth Branagh’s mind-blowing, absurd portrayal of the Swedish cop Wallander (the BBC version, guaranteed must-miss TV)—I don’t want these two anywhere near my murder. The Seattle police department is portrayed as being so muddle-headed, I’d much prefer the Baltimore cops in The Wire to be the ones picking over my bullet-ridden corpse.

Much has been made about The Killing’s similarity to David Lynch’s surreal Twin Peaks, but I sensed its real ambition lay in the realist direction of The Wire. If true, then this show really misses the end of the dock. Focusing its lens on a single murder keeps The Killing from taking a wider view of its Seattle setting than it seems to yearn for. It never weaves a genuinely absorbing Dickensian tapestry, a goal The Wire achieved and then some. It never achieves true verisimilitude and instead settles for gloomy attitude. It’s not nearly as deep as it wants to be.

Its attempts to draw connections between Rosie Larsen’s murder, Seattle politics, and back to her family feel poorly contrived—the plotline involving the mayoral campaign seems more irritating than illuminating. Finally, the story of how Rosie Larsen meets her end is unbelievable. I’ve never seen a fictional murder victim go so far out of the way to get killed.


The excellent contemporary noir writer David Corbett has recently published his first short story collection, Killing Yourself to Survive (in e-book editions only). This collection lives right up to its title with seven vivid and twisting tales of desperation and homicide.

Here, all crime is grubby pathos and suffering is its soil. Illness and disease are often the major villains. (Only one classical shark-eyed psychopath reaches from murky corners here.) Each of the seven stories portrays criminals as desperadoes in the original, unromantic sense of the word: desperate souls trying to free themselves from their hand-to-mouth struggle for existence, bring about the awful fates they’re trying to escape.

As most anyone—including me--who’s worked in and around law enforcement knows, criminals are human beings. Corbett’s stories draw them with grim, sometimes blackly comic, pathos. His characters are sunk in miasmas of sickness, cruel circumstances, low expectations, and plain old bad luck. No one, but no one, is ever as clever and hip as they think they are. Reality always has a joker up its sleeve. Whatever your scheme, there’s always another one being played under the table, or in a back room.

This is noir at its blackest, so there’s no hope here, not even for wisdom. This leads to certain blunt determinism after awhile, where you can feel doom tugging your sleeve from the first page.
So, if you’ve got a good spine and strong stomach there’s some excellent vividly written work here. One of my favorites was “Axiom of Choice,” a Hitchcockian fable about a melancholy math professor who encourages his wife to have an affair with a student.

I also got a nasty kick out of “It Can Happen”, a James Cain-type tale set in San Francisco about a wheelchair-bound husband, his scheming wife, loyal daughter, lurking crooks and hoodlums, and an insurance scheme that backfires grandly.

“Bobby the Prop Buys In” paints a colorful, gripping portrait of Bay Area gambling life, as a lowball card player schemes to rob one of the many card rooms that populate the area, a bad idea, especially when he tries to betray the man he trusts the most.

Probably my favorite story is a nifty noir procedural, “Dead by Christmas.” A Phoenix-area homicide detective, grieving over the death of his young son and dissolution of his marriage, pursues a pair of restaurant owners who moonlight as restaurant robbers, but finds they’re getting help from a surprising source.
The title story, the most ambitious of the volume, fell short for me. “Killing Yourself to Survive” is the most doom-shadowed story of all, as an Iraq War vet and special ops contractor working in Guatemala City gets involved with both a blacks ops scheme to kidnap a major Central American drug runner and a beautiful human rights activist. (I may have told too much right there.) It’s beautifully written, full of exact, pungent details that gives you feeling of being right on the ground in one the world’s bad places, a world where “given the impatience of powerful men, the short run always held the cards.” Even so, I saw the ending coming from too far away.

(Re-edited 6/24/12; Veena Sud did NOT create the  original Danish version, as stated earlier.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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