Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Crime-fighting Horse of Newfoundland and the Mummy That Sank the TITANIC

The World's Strangest Mysteries by Rupert Furneaux (1962): I bought this paperback on a lark, figuring it would be chock-full of loopiness. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that for books of this type, it's surprisingly even-handed. It's certainly no Cosmos, but neither is it like modern-day History Channel stupidity.

Obviously, much of the material explored here has become dated -- the book is more than 50 years old, after all. Nonetheless, sections on Kaspar Hauser, the Man in the Silk Mask, Anastasia, and other mysterious figures lay out and evaluate the various cases for who these people were or weren't.

We also get some stories of things that would turn out to be hoaxes after the book's publication (the infamous Brass Plate of California being one of them), or that were always hoaxes if one knew where to look for decent information (Welcome to Oak Island, suckers!). The book may be wrong in its conclusions about some of these things, but there is an argumentative process at work: Furneaux isn't completely gullible and accepting.

Well, OK, sections on the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti seem to have been thrown together, though Furneaux at least explains the overall reasoning for why they may exist (which is to say, cryptids were still showing up in 1961 with some regularity).

His section on the Shakespeare authorship (non)controversy is solid, though he appears ignorant of the simple fact that we know more about the life of Shakespeare than we do of virtually any other person of his socioeconomic class from the same time period: his was not a mysteriously under-chronicled life, and Furneaux repeats some misinformation about the Shakespeare statue in Stratford-Upon-Avon (and seems ignorant of the fact that the "second bed" was actually the best bed to will somebody -- as the guest bed, it hadn't been used).

Overall, fun stuff, with some interesting mysteries to follow up from other sources. Worth picking up if you see it lying around in a used bookstore for a fair price. It's also deceptively long, hailing as it does from a time when the paperback publishers tried to save money on paper by printing everything in tiny, tiny type. Recommended.

The Strange and Uncanny by John Macklin (1967): I'm pretty sure I read this unsourced compendium of weird, 'true' stories when I was about ten. And ten is pretty much the Golden Age for this sort of book. Now we can just download these strange sorts of tales directly from the Internet into our neocortexes. Truly this is a disturbing universe.

One can assess the probably verity of its contents by noting that it rehashes the completely fabricated story of Princess Amen-Ra and her mummy's role in the sinking of the Titanic, a story that still pops up a lot in stories about unexplained mysteries. Alan Moore even offered a version of it in the graphic novel From Hell.

However, more because of the ridiculous claims of the book than despite them, there's a lot of fun to be had. I can see how some of the stories creeped me out when I was a lad (including that of the malevolent Egyptian mummy). Others are actually reined in a bit too much for maximum enjoyment. If a story tells me that a demon killed someone, I'd like to discover that the guy was ripped apart by an invisible assailant. I don't want to learn that he was found with a single gunshot wound to the head. Pistol-packing demons would be cool in certain circumstances, but they lack a certain oomph in this situation.

Some of the 'true' stories here bear remarkable resemblances to fictional ghost stories I've encountered. And there's absolute no sourcing here -- no notes, no bibliography. Ah, well. You get to read about the telepathic, precognitive Newfoundland horse called Lady Wonder, who helped police in that province solve a couple of missing persons cases. Is this true? I'll have to look it up. Recommended.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Grand Pulp Railroad

The Great Pulp Heroes by Don Hutchison (1996): Canada's own long-time genre historian, editor, and writer Don Hutchison gives us a book on the two decades or so in which single-character pulp-hero magazines flourished in America. It's a fun, breezy, and informative read. For some reason, ChaptersIndigo once had about a million copies of these things in stock at $2 a pop. So, they're out there.

American pulp(-wood, for their cheap, acid-heavy paper) magazines followed a peculiarly evolutionary path. They started off in the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century as generalists. Magazines that included Argosy and All-Story published stories from every genre (including the first serialized Tarzan and Mars novels from Edgar Rice Burroughs).

Then the magazines specialized in terms of genre (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Western, et al.) and then sub-genre (flying adventure stories, 'spicy' detective stories). Finally came the magazines devoted to individual heroes. The Shadow, simultaneously a radio hero, was the first hero to get his own magazine. The sales success of the Weird Avenger of Crime swiftly led to imitators (Phantom Detective, The Spider) and slightly different types of heroes from the same company, Street & Smith (Doc Savage, The Skipper, The Avenger).

This was a world in which sound movies had just appeared, and in which radio and the pulp magazines dominated the day-to-day entertainment business. There was no television, much less the Internet or computer gaming. Even electricity had not yet been supplied to all Americans. Or indoor plumbing. And the problems of the Great Depression seemed to fuel a desire in a lot of readers to see heroes who took up arms against gangsters, murderers, evil rich people, and crazy dictators.

Of course, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a recurring character in The Spider and the Operator 5 series), most heroes were rich people who fought for the common good. That trope, which predated the hero pulps, still persists in such comic-book superheroes as Batman and Green Arrow today, in whatever media in which they appear.

The pulp adventure heroes had a time of about 22 years from the first appearance of The Shadow in magazine form to the last issue of the last surviving hero-magazines in 1953. Subsequent decades would see reprints and revivals, though only The Shadow and Doc Savage have proved to have any staying power in the popular imagination.

While it lasted, though, the adventures -- especially in the 1930's -- ran wild and wooly. The Spider and Operator 5 probably had the most apocalyptically destructive adventures, with whole cities and indeed countries (including all of Canada in the case of Operator 5) being wiped out in every issue. Doc Savage and The Shadow did a better job of keeping most of New York standing, which may be why they were the gold standard for heroism.

The pulps in their entirety even managed to arouse censorship flaps from time to time. New York's Mayor LaGuardia threatened all the pulp publishers based in New York (which is to say, all of them) with expulsion if they didn't clean up their act. Pulp magazines were blamed for youth crime. Of course they were.

Hutchison's book performs its most valuable service in giving plot synopses of many of the most outlandish adventures of these heroes. The Spider, Operator 5, and G-8 stories often seem like fever dreams of ultraviolence and desperate heroism. Even the failed magazines deliver some truly bizarre moments, none moreso than the single issue of a magazine devoted to a super-villain rather than a superhero, The Octopus. That guy was bananas.

So if you can track this down, go forth and do so. Only some glaring typos and a lack of colour illustrations disappoint, though the B&W cover reproductions are still swell. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Le Massif Attack

The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison (1992): If you've read Harrison's novella "The Great God Pan" in the 1988 horror anthology Prime Evil, then you've read a chunk of this novel, though the characters' names differ. The novel also makes the title of the novel, an homage to the classic Arthur Machen story of the same name, abundantly clear in a way that the novella itself did not.

Machen's novella, first published in 1890, essentially involves a series of encounters with either Satan himself or with an amoral avatar of the natural world. Opinions differ. I tend to side more with the latter than the former, as Machen's story seems to me to foreground the possible metaphysical implications of the seemingly Godless natural universe being revealed to scientists in the 19th century. More than any other Machen work, "The Great God Pan" gestures forward towards H.P. Lovecraft's mathematically malign cosmos.

Harrison's novel deals with similar cosmic issues, though Harrison has always been one of the most mysterious and difficult to quantify of all writers of horror and dark fantasy. If that's even what he's writing. The movement to come up with a new way of categorizing certain stories that led to the concept of the 'New Weird' in the early 21st century oriented itself around Harrison and his body of work, at least initially. He is really a one-off: no one writes like him.

In The Course of the Heart, three British university students and a self-styled Gnostic magician conduct some sort of ritual back in the early 1970's. 20 years later, they're still dealing with the consequences of that ritual. Strange, seemingly supernatural events plague the three students. The magician himself has plunged further and further into the world of magic, though whether or not magic works remains a question throughout the novel.

Harrison can frustrate people in his short stories with the lack of answers to the questions his stories seem to pose. At the length of a short novel, that mystery grows accordingly. The Course of the Heart isn't exactly a horror novel -- it is, instead, a novel of Something Sublime interacting with the human world, and the multitudinous consequences of that interaction.

I can think of two recent novels -- Peter Straub's A Dark Matter and Joe Hill's Horns -- that seem to me to be much less successful attempts at what Harrison has succeeded in creating here: an existential mystery, a Sublime whodunnit, a Mysterium Tremendum. It might actually be a great novel. It might be an ultimately pompous and non-committal mess (though beautifully written in either case). I'm still digesting it. Or being digested by it. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges #1) (2014) by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (2014): The uberprolific Stephen King tries his hand at a non-supernatural mystery thriller this time out. It's pretty good. It's also reminiscent of some of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder mysteries in its cast of characters, but not in an overpoweringly odd way.

In an unnamed Ohio city which could be either Cleveland or Cincinatti (or even Columbus), 62-year-old retired police detective Bill Hodges increasingly finds himself contemplating suicide. But then a spree killer he didn't catch before his retirement six months earlier sends him a letter taunting him. And we're off.

The killer has new plans in mind; Hodges finds himself both reinvigorated and haunted by the belief that he and his partner screwed up during their investigation of the person the press has dubbed 'The Mercedes Killer.'

Hodges is very much a quintessential King protagonist, one of those flawed, grey knights going up against the Darkness. King supplements him with a couple of interesting partners in investigation and a few better-than-normal plot twists. King also gets in a lengthy scene that seems like an update of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, complete with an overt reference to that novel of the Great Depression.

The novel's greatest achievement is its antagonist, the Mercedes Killer. He's tech-savvy and fairly clever. But he's also fallible, over-confident, and occasionally just plain lucky. He's certainly a more believeable killer than all the legions of hyperintelligent aesthetes spawned by Hannibal Lecter. And the novel evokes a certain level of pity for him. It's a much better portrait of a killer than we got in We Have to Talk About Kevin, for instance, but as it's Stephen King and not a literary writer, I doubt the mainstream press will shower praise upon him for psychological verisimilitude.

There are a few minor missteps. I'm pretty sure I could live the rest of my life without reading another sex scene written by Stephen King (your results may vary). But the novel rings true in enough cases -- whether in its depiction of how a well-meant police investigation can go wrong because of the smallest of understandable but incorrect assumptions, or in its mirrored portrait of not one but two intensely screwed up families and the mentally damaged children that have resulted -- to make it a tense, worthwhile summer read. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

'Old' Books

The Dark Man and Other Stories by Robert E. Howard, edited by August Derleth (1963): Eclectic collection of non-Conan stories from Robert E. Howard, originally published in hardcover by Arkham House. Magazines of the 1920's and 1930's originally published everything included here, including the wonderfully named Oriental Tales. Boy, those were the days. Was Edward Said the editor?

Basically, one gets some contemporary horror stories, of which "Pigeons from Hell" is the marvelously titled best, and at worst Howard's second-best pure horror story. Howard's ancient Pict leader Bran Mak Morn shows up a few times, even after he's dead. Some Lovecraftian horrors show up, as do a few ghosts and demons and one malevolent magic snake.

Roaming freebooters of the Middle Ages, Turlogh O'Brien and Athelstane, have a couple of adventures involving lost civilizations and massive bloodshed. And a couple of (then) modern-day Americans suddenly flash back to past lives of adventure, as happens a lot in Howard's stories. Viva reincarnation! Recommended.

Cinder and Ashe: written by Gerry Conway; illustrated by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Joe Orlando (1988): Solidly written thriller from Gerry Conway, Cinder and Ashe follows private detectives Jacob Ashe and Cinder DuBois as an enemy from their shared past in Viet Nam long thought dead suddenly turns up in a case they're working in 1988.

This miniseries, from that long-lost era when DC Comics regularly released non-superhero work under the main DC banner (as opposed to under the Vertigo banner) has never been collected into book form so far as I know, so you'll have to check out the back-issue bins.

Conway's writing does the job -- you can see how he would seamlessly transition from writing for comics to working for the Law and Order franchise in the years to come .

And the art, by longtime DC mainstay Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, is fantastic -- beautifully detailed and fluid. Because Garcia-Lopez works here on normal people and not super-heroes, his artistic similarity to the great Milton Caniff and other comic-strip giants really shines through. Not only does the art alone make a case for permanent collection, it makes a case for oversized permanent collection so that the often exquisite linework becomes fully visible. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

H.P. Lovecraft's "One Froggy Evening"

Weird Shadows over Innsmouth, edited by Stephen Jones (2005; this revised edition 2013), containing the following stories: Another Fish Story by Kim Newman; Brackish Waters by Richard A. Lupoff; Discarded Draft of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" by H. P. Lovecraft; Eggs by Steve Rasnic Tem; Fair Exchange by Michael Marshall Smith; From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6 by Caitlin R. Kiernan; Raised by the Moon by Ramsey Campbell; Take Me to the River by Paul J. McAuley; The Coming by Hugh B. Cave; The Quest for Y'ha-nthlei by John S. Glasby; The Taint by Brian Lumley; Voices in the Water by Basil Copper.

England's Titan Books seems to have gotten into the H.P. Lovecraft business. Gratifyingly, their first two releases are the long-out-of-print tribute anthologies Shadows over Innsmouth and Weird Shadows over Innsmouth, both of which riff on Lovecraft's novella "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (which was retitled "The Weird Shadow over Innsmouth" for one American collection of the 1960's). A third anthology, Weirder Shadows over Innsmouth, came out in hardcover in late 2013, though Titan hasn't yet reprinted it in paperback.

I eagerly await Completely Normal Shadows over Innsmouth.

Most of the stories were original to the volume, with a couple of exceptions. Lovecraft's early 1930's novella about a New England coastal town inhabited by human/man-sized-frog hybrids really seems to strike a chord with a lot of writers. It's not my favourite Lovecraft novella, but it is a good time. And with the sea containing an awful lot of volume to contain multitudes of sinister, intelligent servants of the malign Great Old Ones, the novella offers a lot of avenues to explore. Or canals, to keep with the aquatic theme.

The Deep Ones are Lovecraft's ancient race of sentient amphibians, worshippers of Dagon, a demi-god-like lieutenant of the Great Old One Cthulhu, one of many beings with designs on Earth that don't include leaving humanity in charge. Or alive. The Deep Ones can produce viable offspring with human beings. Which is unusual, but so it goes. They apparently want some stuff they can only get from land-dwellers, so a pact is struck with a Yankee South Seas trader named Obed Marsh. He comes home to Innsmouth in the late 18th century having struck a pact with Deep Ones.

Consequently, Innsmouth goes to the frogs.

The stories riff in a fairly wide variety of ways on Innsmouthian horror and miscegenation. Some, like "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6" by Caitlin R. Kiernan, cleverly offer stories seemingly set in the same universe as Lovecraft's original novella without slavishly imitating that novella in form or content (though Kiernan's non-linear approach to the narrative seems to me a bit of a mis-step). Others offer what could be called parallel situations, or variations on an aquatic theme -- Ramsey Campbell sends an English student-teacher on an ultimately unfortunate (though bleakly comic) detour into a mysteriously deserted village by the sea, while Paul McAuley offers up a terrifically entertaining story about a Bristol music festival where the bad drugs do a lot more damage than Woodstock's brown acid.

There are a couple of questionable inclusions here, but the problems are minimal compared to a lot of Lovecraft-themed anthologies. And the delights, whether a history-twisting, metafictionally tinged outing from Kim Newman or Brian Lumley's bleak "The Taint", are many. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Historian (2006) by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2006): This first novel from Kostova ignited a major bidding war among publishers back in 2005. I think that's because it bears a certain resemblance to the books of Dan Brown, only four times as long and with Dracula in it. 

Honestly, that should be the blurb on the front cover: "Like Dan Brown, only four times as long and with Dracula in it!"

The Historian's what I'd call a horror novel for people who don't read horror novels. And that's not praise, as it also reads like a horror novel from someone who's never read a horror novel (with the possible exception of Bram Stoker's Dracula). Actual frights are few and far between.

Between those frights loom lengthy stretches of travelogue and food tour (food-o-logue?) as the novel slowly and deliberately takes us through Istanbul, France, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, England, Greece, and an unnamed city in America. Much landscape description, cultural tidbits, and assessments of local food and drink are to be had. If you've always wondered what would happen if Rick Steves fought vampires in every foreign country he visited, this may be the book for you.

The Dan Brown apparatus comes from the novel's quest for Dracula through information gleaned from various archives, libraries, churches, history books, local historians, and local legends. Dan Brown gave us a dashing symbolologist; Kostova gives us two dashing historians and a fetching, tough-minded anthropologist. And for about 900 pages, we follow Dracula's trail all over Europe.

And by Dracula, the novel means Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, the historical ruler of Wallachia upon whom Bram Stoker based his vampire character. Did he really become a vampire after his death in battle against the Turks in the late 15th century? Is he still up to vampiric shenanigans now? Where is he really buried?

Well, over the course of 900 pages, perhaps you'll find out. I started skimming much of the landscape description by about the midway point, primarily because there's so bloody much of it, but also because it pretty much is just landscape description: it doesn't attempt to summon up dread or horror. It's just there to take you on a little trip.

Kostova also sets up a mystery near the beginning that the book doesn't really address at any point until near the end, at which point the solution is tossed off as if unimportant. But in a novel in which we're told and shown again and again how clever everyone is, that mystery seems to be the first thing everyone should be addressing as it should affect the entire rationale of the search for Dracula. Don't worry. If you read the novel, you'll quickly figure out what I'm talking about -- and become increasingly frustrated by the novel's increasingly unbelievable skirting of a fundamental plot question.

In any case, just read Bram Stoker's Dracula. Or if you want revisionist Dracula material, Fred Saberhagen's Dracula series and Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series are excellent. If you want a tour through a huge swath of Eastern Europe -- not to mention a bed-and-breakfast in rural France and several historic spots in Istanbul -- you could do worse than this novel. Not recommended.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cities in Fright

R.I.P.D.: adapted from the Peter M. Lenkov comic book by Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, and David Dobkin; directed by Robert Schwentke; starring Jeff Bridges (Roy), Ryan Reynolds (Nick), Kevin Bacon (Hayes), Mary Louise Parker (Proctor), and Stephanie Szostak (Julia) (2013): One of 2013's biggest box-office busts, R.I.P.D. isn't awful -- indeed, I've seen a lot of hits that were worst. That doesn't mean it's good, however.

The Rest in Peace Department (R.I.P.D., get it? ha ha!) enlists dead police officers to apprehend escaped dead criminals, or 'Deados' as they're colloquially known. Newly dead Ryan Reynolds partners with 19th-century Western lawman Jeff Bridges to protect the streets of Boston. Nefarious doings are afoot, related to Reynolds' death during a drug bust.

The movie's premise echoes previous entries in the dead-cop subgenre that include the TV shows Reaper, Brimstone, and G. Vs. E. (all of which are a lot better than this movie, by the way). But it's most closely modelled on Men in Black, with a third act right out of Ghostbusters.

There are some clever flourishes throughout -- weird little bits and strange production design. Jeff Bridges is the most interesting thing in the movie, as he so often is. The peculiar speech pattern of his lawman seems so specific and odd that it seems like a private joke. I have the feeling he had to keep himself interested amidst all the green-screen work and rote police shenanigans. Lightly recommended.

Godzilla: written by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, based on the Toho Studios character; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Serizawa), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody) and Elizabeth Olsen (Elle Brody) (2014): The newest version of Godzilla begins in murky menace and ends in metropolitan mayhem. I enjoyed it a lot, despite the Spielbergian family stuff that every blockbuster now seems required to carry around. Does every hero have a family he wants to get home to? Must he? Must she? Must they?

The first 40 minutes play like a horror movie. Indeed, they play a lot like director Gareth Edwards' only previous directorial effort, Monsters, which was that rarest of rare birds, an Indy giant-monster movie, and a pretty good one. Edwards did all the visual effects for that one at home on his computer over the course of a couple of years. Here, he's got a much bigger budget to work with, and much bigger commercial expectations to satisfy. Hence the Hollywood 101 family quest.

The acting is mostly fine, with nice turns from Kickass Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the narrative focalizer (ha ha!) and Ken Watanabe as a New-Agey Japanese scientist who apparently has a Ph.D. in Monster Studies. The monster work gives us the currently de rigeur gray behemoth look. I prefer my Godzilla bright-green, thank you.

But anyway, much monster mayhem ensues. The movie balances scenes of civic destruction with a few set-pieces filled with dread and the Sublime. The best of these set-pieces, a high-altitude paratrooper drop into the middle of a monster-devastated San Francisco, manages a feeling of cyclopean, Lovecraftian Sublime horror that one sees very rarely in movies of any era. It's a show-stopper. Recommended.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Hello, Walls!

The Legend of Hell House: adapted by Richard Matheson from his own novel; starring Roddy McDowall (Ben Fischer), Pamela Franklin (Florence Tanner), Clive Revill (Dr. Barrett), Gayle Hunnicutt (Ann Barrett) and Michael Gough (Belasco) (1973): The late, great Richard Matheson adapts his own haunted-house novel here in effective fashion, especially given what couldn't be shown in a movie of the time. The whole thing even manages to make an impossible-not-to-laugh cat-attack scene work without the benefit of CGI.

Where Matheson's I Am Legend gave vampires a scientific rationale for existing, The Legend of Hell House offers a quasi-scientific exploration of an extraordinarily dangerous haunted house. There's certainly a tip of the cap to Shirley Jackson's monumental haunted-house novel The Haunting of Hill House starting with the title and the four-person psychic investigation team.

But whereas Jackson's novel offered no real antagonist other than the house itself, Matheson's work gives us a malign human -- Emeric Belasco, builder of the house and a Satanic presence who would have made Aleister Crowley look like the Church Lady.

Back in the 1920's, Belasco built the house and then sealed it away from the outside world with its two-dozen or so inhabitants inside. When the house was opened, everyone was dead and Belasco had vanished. One of the subtle drolleries of Hell House is that the most haunted house in the world is less than 50 years old: it was built to be haunted.

Teams investigating the house have been devastated by Something, to the extent that the only one of a dozen previous investigators to survive both physically and mentally is Roddy McDowall's Ben Fischer. Fischer was a teen-aged medium when he entered Hell House with the last group to investigate it before the events of the novel. Now, he's the middle-aged Voice of Doom with a new team which ultimately aims to use technology to dissipate Hell House's restless spirits. Good luck with that.

The performances here are all fine, and suspense builds to a satisfying conclusion. McDowall is especially fine as the withdrawn and wounded Fischer. The book fleshed out Fischer's personality by describing his thoughts and experiences. Here, McDowall has to build his wounded psychic without the benefit of voice-overs. I think he succeeds admirably, as does the movie itself. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Christine: adapted from the Stephen King novel by Bill Phillips; directed by John Carpenter; starring Keith Gordon (Arnie Cunningham), John Stockwell (Dennis Guilder), Alexandra Paul (Leigh Cabot), Robert Prosky (Will Darnell) and Harry Dean Stanton (Detective Junkins) (1983): Competent adaptation of King's horror novel never quite soars, possibly because of budgetary restrictions -- the epic car chases of the novel have instead become epic studies in stupidity, as people try to escape the homicidal car by running down the middle of the road. Because that always works so well.

The script also errs in trying to squeeze in the entire timeline of King's lengthy novel, resulting in the triumph of plot over character. Carpenter manages some nice set-pieces and one truly great image involving fiery cars and fiery bodies, and the whole thing isn't boring -- just a bit frustrating. The acting by the leads is fine, though Harry Dean Stanton is wasted as a police detective, and Robert Prosky and Roberts Blossom blow the young leads off the screen whenever they share a scene. Lightly recommended.

Zero Effect: written and directed by Jake Kasdan; starring Bill Pullman (Daryl Zero), Ben Stiller (Steve Arlo), Ryan O'Neal (Gregory Stark) and Kim Dickens (Gloria Sullivan) (1998): Jake Kasdan's first film as a writer-director is clearly a labour of love, complete with a certain self-indulgence when it comes to trimming the fat off the film.

A modern riff on Sherlock Holmes, Zero Effect follows Holmes-like Daryl Zero and his assistant Steve Arlo as they unravel a case of blackmail. Pullman does surprisingly well as the twitchy, weird Zero -- indeed, casting decisions even in 1998 would have suggested that Kasdan accidentally reversed the casting of the two leads. The result is the sort of detective movie that would have been right at home in the theatres of 1974, but which vanished without a trace in 1998. Which is too bad, because I'd have liked to see more weirdly titled cases of Daryl Zero. Recommended.