Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bellissimo Montalbano!

For awhile now I’ve been nudging you to check out the programming broadcast via MHZ Networks, an independent public TV distributor based in northern Virginia.

MHZ presents programming for “A Globally Minded Audience.” It specializes in international news, a kind of truly global PBS.

Certainly it’s one place to go when you can’t take another minute of lame pledge-break programs. (“Strengthen Your Brain with Eric Clapton’s Doo-Wop Hits.”)

Indeed, KQED, my San Francisco Bay Area PBS station, should take a look over its shoulder. After some time away, MHZ has returned to San Mateo College station KCSM. Meaning it’s time for me to quit the nudging, jump on the old pogo stick and jam up and down the street like Paul Revere—MHZ is not only back, it’s better than ever.

Joy reigns mostly due to MHZ’s most unique contribution: International Mystery, a nightly rotating series of crime films and TV series originating from such countries as Sweden (the original Wallander, Martin Beck, and Anno 1790), Norway (the sleek, stylish and thrilling Varg Veum); France (evergreen Maigret), and Germany (the baffling Commissario Brunetti, featuring Venice cops speaking perfect, precise HochDeutsch): a perfect lineup of alternatives for genre fans who wish Masterpiece Mystery wasn’t so darned Anglo-centric.

All of them are well produced (and sub-titled), and, of course, some clearly better than others. International Mystery serves up a terrific and varied menu, but the item to start with is one from Italy, a show I believe most everyone will get a kick out of and maybe even fall deliriously in love with: the boisterous and delightful Detective Montalbano.

Adapted from a series of novels by Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, Montalbano first appeared on Italian television in 1999. MHZ picked it up for U.S. broadcast sometime in the mid-2000s. Twenty-six episodes have been produced to date at a rate of three or four every couple years (the usual practice with European series—better to get to get-‘em-right instead of get-‘em-out-fast.) The latest series of four episodes premiers this Sunday evening, September 1; check these listings or watch it on MHZ’s website.)

Montalbano is set in the fictional Sicilian seaside town of Vigata, a place of crumbling ancient beauty that is beset by the erosion of time, modern problems, and the occasional shadow thrown by la Mafia. Vigata’s police force is captained by Commissario Salvo Montalbano, an exuberant man wrestling with crime and corruption, his lusty appetites and a motley team of crime fighters, made up of the good, the bad, and the bumbling.

As will all the best crime series, Montalbano is about more than its crimes (some of which are very well plotted and some not). Montalbano fully animates and complements its Sicilian setting.

Some of the other International Mystery series, while slickly done, are hollow, gimmicky procedurals, failing to develop their characters and inhabit the worlds they live in—give them English dialogue and you’d have a so-so Masterpiece Mystery show, or a somewhat off episode of The Wire.

Montalbano lopes along like a good long meal, but there’s always a sense of something happening, something to look at, in in its rough and sunny beauty. You may not know much about Sicily but you know you are nowhere else. You feel the breeze off the Mediterranean, the baking of the sun, the pang of hunger in your belly as il Commissario sits down to savor another delicious meal. Montalbano feels completely Sicilian, Italian to its rocky soil. It’s work done with great charm, broad humor, and genuine love.

Salvo Montalbano, of course, is the classic figure of the honest cop trying to maintain his moral compass in a crooked world. What lift him head and shoulders above other fictional cops is both the writing and the actor who plays him:  Luca Zingaretti.

Zingaretti is a dynamic performer and real star. While many actors play their cop roles as cool and in control, Zingaretti, refreshingly and unashamedly, plays Montalbano as a bald, ebullient bear who never loses his lust for life, even when crime and murder wash up at his door (or, as it does in one episode, interrupt his morning swim). He deserves to better known outside Europe, a most pleasing actor and a handsome gentleman.

Zingaretti heads a swell supporting cast playing well-drawn characters, too many to praise here. Director Alberto Sironi and the cinematographers never miss a chance to root their characters in the colorful sunbaked world around them, as though they’d grown from the rocky soil.

A big nod also for composer Franco Piersanti, whose main theme and background score combines what may be Sicilian folk tunes with unsettling rhythms and eccentric arrangements using traditional instruments. His music is pleasingly reminiscent of the master Ennio Morricone without being derivative.

In addition, MHZ is premiering six other new crime series this coming week, all of them new to me. (I intend to sample them all.) A weirdly myopic New York Times article this week reported on the ones produced in France without a single mention of MHZ or the other shows. Clearly, International Mystery is the best-kept secret in this Golden Age of Television. And Detective Montalbano is one of its secret crown jewels.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Thoughts on "A Delicate Truth" by John le Carré

John le Carré is about the best genre writer sitting in my bookcase—he writes literate espionage thrillers with exquisite style, keen observation, and dark wit. His books are complex in texture and thought and are rich with detail, atmosphere, and mystery. They bear re-reading, becoming a different experience each time, as new slippery meanings and treacherous ambiguities pulse under their surfaces. In le Carré’s world, the concrete under our feet grows thin, eroded by betrayal and poisonous secrets.

It’s not surprising his former antagonist Salman Rushdie recently said he thought Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to be one of the great novels of post-World War II Britain. His novels also seem to be portraits of a nation in steep decline, falling so low, it no longer has control over its own foreign policy and, hence, its fate.

Another le Carré theme is the dilemmas faced by good guys when they become ensnared in bad deeds on behalf of the institutions whose values they loyally serve, even when those values are betrayed.

A Delicate Truth, le Carré’s twenty-first title, returns to that theme. It opens from the enigmatic point of view of a nameless veteran official in the British Foreign Office who, dressed in a second-hand alias fitted by his superiors, is sent as a behind-the-lines observer on a mission to capture a suspected jihadist said to be hiding out on the island of Gibraltar.

The mission, as far as he can see from watching via a bank of fuzzy video monitors, looks to be a success. The diplomat, whose real name is Christopher “Kit” Probyn, is rewarded a sinecure post in the Caribbean and retires with a knighthood, confident that he did right by King and Country.

At the same time, another side player in this game, Toby Bell, a private secretary to Minister Fergus Quinn, supposedly the raid’s architect, is wondering exactly what his boss has been up to. Despite Toby’s official relationship his boss, Quinn and his allies do not trust Toby’s blend of easygoing liberality and integrity, and so they excise him from their inner loop, leaving him a puzzled spectator.

Gnawed ratty with suspicion, Toby cleverly records an ultra-secret meeting between Quinn and the raid’s commandos. From there, he nudges about, trying to share his information. But he’s ignored and then finally warned off by his Foreign Office mentor, Giles Oakley. After the raid, he’s abruptly shunted to a faraway post in a faraway corner of the globe, where, those in power suppose, his suspicions will do no harm.

Three years later, Kit is visited by Jeb, one of the commandos Toby recorded on his secret tape along with Kit, as it turns out. Jeb’s conscience is eating him to death. He tells Kit that he saw nothing of what really happened that night: the raid did not go off as promised and, in fact, led to an ugly, if unsurprising, tragedy.

Kit, with his pleasing old-style Englishman’s sense of honor and human decency, is staggered by this revelation of his culpability. He reaches out to Toby for help in uncovering the ugly truth of what happened that night and seeing that justice is done.

I don’t think this le Carre’s best book, but it’s still very good, in how its plot and story twist and wind about. It end with an extremely taut and hair-raising climax, as the cover-up unwinds at the same time that dark forces wind in around Toby and Kit.

The prose is finely sinuous as ever, but the author sometimes seems too determined to hammer home his dismay about the current conduct of the so-called War on Terror. A Delicate Truth hectors more than I like and feels a little too “ripped from today’s headlines.” (Full disclosure: I don’t like overly “messagy” prose, regardless of whether I agree with its sentiments or not. It’s fine for characters to have opinions, but a third-person narrator should be circumspect. Once an author starts shaking his own finger in my face I . . . well, I sometimes get peckish.) 

Also, as awful as the crime that hides within A Delicate Truth’s is, it feels dwarfed by the real events of the last twelve years. It feels like more of a footnote than a symbol of something larger. While reading, I thought about the many pages of nonfiction out there that would do a better job in facing the same issues probed here.

For example, if we had also seen events as they happened at the other end of the gun barrel, the novel might have been more effective.

At its best, A Delicate Truth portrays our queasiness at being trapped between a realistic fear of jihadist war and an equally plausible fear we should feel about those we’re supposed to look to for protection.

Le Carré, the ex-British spy, has been out of the actual espionage business for fifty years now and much about spying has changed. But reading his books, I’m still left with a sense of how things really work in the world of espionage and fading empires.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.