Tuesday, 24 February 2015 08:02

MooreGraham TheSherlockian
When Graham Moore accepted his Oscar for The Imitation Game for best adapted screenplay, his speech wasn’t the usual thank you.

Instead, the 33-year-old screenwriter spoke of his bout with depression and of his suicide attempt at age 16. His message to those who also have depression was simple: “Stay.” Stay who you are.

A message that everyone should take to heart.

Before Moore became a sought-after screenwriter, he also was a mystery writer.

His novel The Sherlockian was published in 2010 and went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

The Sherlockian alternated between two time periods—a conference for Arthur Conan Doyle fans set in the present day and Doyle’s attempts to aid a Scotland Yard investigation in the year 1900.

In my review of The Sherlockian, I said: “The Sherlockian works as an insightful look at the rise of celebrities, extreme fans, and a character who continues to be bigger than life as well as a testament to the power of storytelling.”

My review later stated: “Moore smoothly delivers an evocative view of late-19th century London as well as its 21st century version. . . . Doyle would be proud of Moore’s ingenious The Sherlockian. So would Holmes. As will any fan of the Holmes canon.”

I also named The Sherlockian as one of the best debuts of 2010 and said, “The game’s afoot as Arthur Conan Doyle in the 19th century tries to prove he is more important than his creation Sherlock Holmes while a 21st-century Holmes devotee tries to solve the murder of a Holmes expert.”

Moore’s next project is to be the film adaptation of Erik Larson’s 2003 nonfiction The Devil in the White City, which is supposed to star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Moore isn’t the only mystery writer to transition to screenwriting and win an Oscar for his efforts.

John Ridley’s script for 12 Years a Slave won the 2014 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, making Ridley the second African American to win the award.

Ridley wrote some terrific, hard-edged novels including Everybody Smokes in Hell, Stray Dogs, Love Is a Racket, and What Fire Cannot Burn. These were edgy novels about people on the margins of society.

Great movies from very good mystery writers.

Saturday, 21 February 2015 01:02

bettercallsaul1 odenkirk
First, if you have not watched Breaking Bad—and really, what are you waiting for?—get yourself to Netflix or On Demand or whatever and start binge-watching now.

Only after you’ve seen the entire five seasons of Walter White going from high school chemistry teacher to meth kingpin should you read this column, or, more importantly, watch the new AMC series Better Call Saul.

Better Call Saul isn’t a sequel to Breaking Bad but a prequel, taking place six years before Saul Goodman signed on to represent Albuquerque’s most notorious criminal.

Walter White and Jesse Pinkerman are nowhere near the new series; Jesse would still have been in high school, wondering, no doubt, how that lame chemistry class taught by Mr. White would ever be useful.

Six years before, Saul Goodman didn’t exist yet. Instead, the lawyer who would be known as Saul Goodman was still called by his birth name, Jimmy McGill, a small-time attorney with a bleak future and almost no clients.

Breaking Bad was about how a man loses his soul as he builds a drug empire. Better Call Saul shows a man at odds with the intersection of morals and ambition.

At the end of Breaking Bad—spoiler alert—Saul Goodman predicted that “the best-case scenario” for his tenuous future would be as manager at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska.

And in a black-and-white prologue, that is exactly what Saul is doing—rolling out the dough, putting out the Cinnabon sign in the mall, sweeping up, and constantly looking over his shoulder, worried that somehow, someday, the criminals from Arizona will find him.

At night, Saul drinks alone in his apartment and, for fun, watches the cheesy television commercials he made for his law practice back in the day.

bettercallsaul2 odenkirk
The series then begins to show the maturation of Jimmy McGill, whose practice is so low-rent that his office is in the back of a nail salon, next to the utility room. It’s also where he sleeps.

While the first episode of Better Call Saul sets up the premise, it is the second episode that kicks into high gear and shows that Jimmy McGill really was a good lawyer.

No, make that an excellent lawyer. His negotiation on behalf of two “clients” during a tense standoff in that second episode is sheer brilliance.

Jimmy also has a brother, Chuck, who is forced to leave his job at his high-powered law firm, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, due to the sudden onset of what Chuck describes as electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

No one respects Jimmy, not the woman who owns the nail salon and not even his brother for whom he is the only lifeline to the outside world. Jimmy, of course, hasn’t quite learned to respect himself.

Is Better Call Saul as brilliant as Breaking Bad?

No.

Breaking Bad set a standard that comes just under The Wire.

But Better Call Saul is good—darned good—and it has the potential to develop into a great series.

bettercallsaul3 odenkirk
That quality is due to the fact that Better Call Saul is created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the team behind Breaking Bad.

But more importantly, Better Call Saul has Bob Odenkirk reprising his role.

Odenkirk has always been a brilliant actor as well as a comedian. He has been able to immerse himself into his roles so that he often is unrecognizable, as in last year’s TV series Fargo. Odenkirk makes us care about the man who will be Saul, sad over Jimmy’s current state and cheering him when he shows his mettle.

Odenkirk has been a longtime personal favorite, going back to the days of the HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show With Bob and David.

While Saul often was the comic relief in Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is definitely a drama with bits of gallows humor here and there. Odenkirk shows how hungry Jimmy is for that one break, yet how he tries to do the right thing.

But Jimmy knows that ambition will win over in the end.

Better Call Saul also will show how Jimmy met Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the ex-Philadelphia cop who would become Saul’s private investigator.

There also is one other returning character from Breaking Bad, but that person’s arrival is a wonderful surprise, and I don’t want to spoil that for you. At this point, no one else from Breaking Bad has been signed up to appear in Better Call Saul, though there is talk that a couple of characters may make cameos. Albuquerque can be a small city!

The first season of Better Call Saul is off to a great start and a second season already is in the works.

Better Call Saul? Yes, you should.

Better Call Saul airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on AMC.

Photos: Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul. AMC photos

Wednesday, 18 February 2015 01:02

rotella theconvertssong
Fact and fiction often merge when journalists also write thrillers.

Sebastian Rotella has woven reality into his two excellent novels, The Convert’s Song, which came out December 2014, and his 2011 debut Triple Crossing.

As a journalist, Rotella specializes in covering national security and terrorism. His reporting about Muslims in Europe was chosen as a Pulitzer finalist.

He also wrote about the Paris cell to which the Kouachi brothers who committed the murders at Charlie Hebdo belonged.

The Kouachi brothers were from the 19th arrondissement and trained in the Buttes-Chaumont park, where a scene takes place in The Convert’s Song (Little, Brown).

Recently, Rotella published a piece on ProPublica on Argentine conspiracies and Alberto Nisman, the Argentine special prosecutor whose mysterious death has made international headlines and left Argentina in turmoil.

Nisman was investigating a terrorist bombing that killed 85 people at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994.

Rotella’s The Convert’s Song looks at that merging of organized crime, Islamic terrorism, law enforcement, and intelligence services. The Convert’s Song explores the psychology and motivations of Islamic extremists and counterterror warriors.

In The Convert’s Song, Rotella sets private investigator Valentine Pescatore on a dangerous new journey—from Buenos Aires to the jungles of South America, from Paris to Baghdad. Pescatore must capture a deadly international terrorist, who just may be his closest childhood friend, before he strikes again. 

Pescatore’s friend, a charming, failed musician who has converted to Islam, is suspected of an attack on a shopping mall. But is he really the suspect…a spy…or just a scam artist?

Rotella will discuss his work at 6:30 p.m., February 20, at the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.