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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 5, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Bosch, Beauty, Krall's Wallflower

Michael Connelly has long been known for taking noir mysteries in a new -- and true -- direction. Harry Bosch is a lonely man whose life has been devoted to the constant cat-and-mouse game of catching the perpetrators of terrible crimes and bringing them to whatever passes for justice.

Sometimes they aren't punished. Sometimes they can't be; sometimes they shouldn't be. That's not his job. His job is finding out why and how each victim died.

So it's appropriate that he's spending the first few years of his "retirement" back on the force, working as an independent contractor to help clear cold cases. But it happens that some real resources are being poured into the effort these days, so he has the resources to delve into cases long abandoned by other cops.

This makes for some evocative storylines, especially because he has the chance to research cold cases of his own -- stories that have left him wondering for a long time.

Angle of Investigation, a collection of three Harry Bosch stories, begins with Harry Bosch's first DB -- dead body. That is, his first as a policeman -- in Vietnam, he was one of the guys who was sent down into Viet Cong tunnels with a flashlight, a gun, and a knife. He's seen plenty of dead bodies, so he is not put off by the sight and smell of a woman who drowned in her bathtub and went undiscovered for a week.

His partner, an experienced cop, is much more bothered and goes outside the house to wait for the detectives to arrive. As uniformed cops, their job is not to investigate anything -- that's in other hands.

Skip to the present day: There's one piece of evidence from the original crime scene that the detectives couldn't do anything with back in the day: A palm print. Now there's a database of palm prints, but it only has a few thousands instead of millions. Luckily, though, there's a hit, and following it up takes Bosch to a place he never thought to go.

In all three of the stories in Angle of Investigation, what's really driving the stories is Bosch himself -- his humanity, his personal response to what's going on.

In Father's Day, he has to deal with a father who forgot that he had his handicapped baby in the car with him and left him for two hours on a 95-degree day. It forces Bosch to face his own fatherhood, and the daughter he barely knows.

All three stories prove that you can tell a complete, satisfying mystery in the few dozen pages of a short story. It helps that we already know Harry Bosch through other stories -- but it's not essential. If this were the first Harry Bosch book you ever read, you'd get to know him just fine. Connelly knows his business as a writer, and each story contains all you need to know to make sense of it.

Angle of Investigation seems to be the third in a series of three-story anthologies that exist only as Kindle books and Audible.com downloads. Why would Amazon.com invest so much in the risky business of mystery short stories? Well, when you're not printing hardcovers, you're not investing quite as much -- but Connelly doesn't write for cheap. Short stories are as hard to write as novels, even if there's less typing time. This isn't something Connelly can whip out in his spare time.

It all makes sense, though, when you realize that Amazon is investing a lot more than the cost of nine audio productions. Amazon Prime is launching a downloadable, streamable TV series, beginning on February 13th. Since Amazon Prime reaches into the UK and Germany, the series will launch there simultaneously with the US debut, and a dubbed version will appear on HBO Nordic in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway.

They even remembered Canada: CraveTV will start carrying all ten episodes as of February 14th. And releases are planned for New Zealand and Italy.

American network shows almost never appear simultaneously in so many countries. This is a rollout much closer to the way movies are handled. And they're showing every sign of having done this right.

For one thing, they have cast the part of Harry Bosch brilliantly. Clint Eastwood did a decent job in Blood Work, but he was already too old when that movie came out, and his taciturn style of acting really didn't work for a detective who uses his brain and his words a lot more often than his gun.

The TV series stars Titus Welliver, who has been a character actor in so many tv shows and movies that his filmography looks like a history of the American screen since 1990. Welliver is a very familiar face -- but I'll bet very few of you know his name. I certainly didn't.

He played the "man in black" in the last season of Lost -- you know, when they were trying (and failing) to wrap everything up in a satisfying way. But Welliver has played many much more interesting characters over the years. He doesn't look like a hero -- but Harry Bosch should not, either.

Instead, Welliver projects an image of strength and intelligence and peril. That doesn't make him a bad guy, though he plays bad guys very convincingly. You simply know that you don't want to get on his bad side, not because he'll physically hurt you, but because once he catches on to whatever game you're playing, he will mess it up without a qualm.

Titus Welliver is a superb choice for the lead in the series Bosch, but the real question is: Who can write the episodes so they'll be true to the spirit of the Connelly books -- but still be good TV?

The answer is encouraging. Connelly himself is listed as the sole Creator of the series, and the team of writers includes writers from The Sopranos, Northern Exposure, Law & Order in all its permutations, Homicide: Life on the Street, CSI: New York, and ... Jeopardy? Well, the Jeopardy writers can't be boneheads -- writing guessable clues is really hard, and is not unrelated to some aspects of mystery writing.

The actual show runner (i.e., executive producer) is fairly new at the game -- his credits include only two tv series -- Bosch and The Hundred Code. But with a staff of writers like the one he's working with, perhaps it won't hurt that he's relatively inexperienced.

You don't have to wait till the 13th, though. The pilot for the series actually aired a year ago, on Feb. 6th, 2014. If you can call an internet download "airing." But why not? Words change meaning to fit the way we need to use them. So we "fire" a pistol even though there's no flash in a pan of powder anymore, and we "drive" a car even though we aren't prodding it forward like an ox.

Here's where you can find the pilot episode of Bosch, entitled "'Tis the Season."

When I clicked the link, Amazon didn't recognize me as a Prime member, but it still told me I could watch the episode for free. This is definitely shot like a real TV series -- and, true to the spirit of Connelly's stories, it gives you the feel of Los Angeles.

There are deliberate nods to previous Bosch novels -- they show us the entrance to Angels Flight, for instance.

It also gives us a Los Angeles rainstorm -- something they haven't had in years, but during El Niño it can be brutal.

The episode begins with Bosch and his partner tailing a man, determined to arrest him tonight. But in a rainy, dark alley, the man seems to go for his gun and Bosch shoots. When Bosch's supervisor shows up, he says, "Bosch. Another one?" Uh-oh. Bosch seems to have a bad habit of killing people -- not a badge of honor for a cop.

The language is in line with the books -- with lots of words generally not used in prime time. The canon is also slightly updated by making Bosch a veteran of the Gulf War and Afghanistan instead of Vietnam.

In the pilot, there's a courtroom scene that is astonishingly realistic. The lawyers are either at a podium or at their tables -- none of the usual Perry Mason leaning-on-the-witness-box nonsense. And while Bosch has enemies in the department, he also has friends. The TV series promises to be as faithful to the fiction as Game of Thrones, with similarly high production values, though of course the setting is more contemporary and it's closer to our familiar reality.

Though I'm happy that my familiar reality does not include murder scenes, suicides, and human bones found in the woods.

I'm not sure whether the ten-episode series matches up with the nine stories in the three anthologies; the short stories are worth reading -- or listening to -- for their own sake.

The performances of the audiobooks are splendid, and in Angle of Investigation, two of the stories moved me, and the other one wasn't meant to. Connelly is at the top of his game. You can get him pure in the books; you can get the excellent episodic TV version from Amazon.

And hey, the first episode is free. What can you lose?

Keep in mind, however, that the pilot episode doesn't really stand alone. It raises several storylines, and resolves exactly none of them. But it's so well written and well performed that I was content with the open-endedness.

*

Seen on Tumblr today: "Lazy is such an ugly word. I prefer the term selective participation."

Wow. That's so much better than the term I've been using: "Old, fat, and tired."

I remember the (probably apocryphal) story of an early motion-study expert ("efficiency expert"). Coming to a factory, the first thing he did was ask to be shown "the laziest worker you've got." Then he would study how that worker did things -- because he would have found ways to do the job right, but with less physical work and needless repetition.

I've always doubted that story, because such a worker would probably not be tagged as "lazy." He would probably be called "productive." But ... who am I to doubt ancient lore?

*

I just ran across a Tumblr photo collection called "Enchanting Views" (http://bonitavista.tumblr.com/), which has an extraordinary and growing collection of photographs of truly magical places throughout the world.

Some of them are wild or rural settings, but most are architecturals -- interiors and exteriors that achieve what in the 19th century was called "picturesque."

In that era, such enchanting views could only be recorded in full color by painters. But painters were already abdicating any commitment to beauty and starting to create work designed to document the artist's superiority to mere reality. Of course, they were not (and are not) superior to beauty. But now beauty is largely the province of photography.

Blogs devoted to art often have many examples of shoddy work, but "Enchanting Views" has very, very few photos that are less than excellent in their framing and in the choice of time of day and surrounding weather.

Photographers can depict unbelievably extravagant cloud formations and gorgeous-but-rare slants of sunlight that would never be believable in a painting.

"Enchanting Views" has a shot of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, for instance, that has the castle high in the frame, looking like the perfect brooding pile from a gothic novel, complete with a lowering sky. But if you cast your eyes down, you have a twilight street in Edinburgh, with streetlights and shop windows aglow.

Both elements are beautiful and picturesque; the juxtaposition more than doubles the magic.

Growing up as a photographer's son, I acquired my father's devotion to shapes and shadows. While I reject abstraction in painting, I embrace it in photography, as long as I can still see what the subject of the photo actually is.

My dad once went to the old Ironton plant in Springville, Utah, and took an array of photographs, color and black-and-white, of rusting machinery. The art was in the framing of the picture -- what he included, and what was left out.

Often the shape that was revealed only existed from this exact angle -- move a foot to one side or the other, and the objects in frame no longer formed a coherent shape.

What limited my dad's photographic achievements was time. He had to keep his day job to feed the family, and there were always family projects, church service, and the occasional second job (usually sign painting, till he started painting the sides of Life Flight helicopters) to chew up his rare free time.

He almost never had the luxury of going to a beautiful place and then waiting with his camera, snapping the scene in all the lights and weathers of the day.

It takes patience to be a photographer of natural beauty. When you see a movie that has gorgeous scenery, remember that usually the cinematographer didn't just "happen" to get that glorious sky, that perfect light. While the crew can control interior lighting with great subtlety, when you're shooting outdoors you have to use the sky that happens to be there.

Sometimes it really is just dumb luck: The schedule demands that you shoot this scene today, and it's completely unpredictable that these clouds would block the sun this much, but not more, and that last night's rain would transform the landscape.

But now and then, especially when the scenery is being shot by the second crew, they can do multiple takes. Sometimes they're trying to match the lighting of previously-shot scenes with the actors in them; sometimes, though, they have the luxury of waiting for sheer beauty, or a particular mood, to come along.

Also, a lot depends on where you're shooting. Use Morocco for your movie, and you're highly unlikely to get moody skies. Mostly your choice is between blinding sunlight and complete darkness.

But if you decide to shoot in England, you're going to get a lot of different skies. If you're trying for consistency between two different days of shooting, give it up and head for Morocco.

The sky in England is almost never boring. Englishfolk carry umbrellas for a reason, and the constant threat of rain can make cinematographers tear their hair out. But nature often cooperates in creating lushness, depth, subtlety, and moodiness.

Think of one of the most beautiful movies of all time, Far from the Madding Crowd, which was shot by Nicolas Roeg (who also did second unit on Lawrence of Arabia and directed The Man Who Fell to Earth). The sky and weather function as characters in the film on more than one occasion.

In a culture that often celebrates ugliness (under the alias "edgy"), I'm always pleased -- no, relieved -- to find that there are still people devoted to finding beauty of various kinds, and sharing it with others.

*

Jazz singer Diana Krall, at age 50, may just be coming into her own as a singer. Though she is on record as intending her newest album, Wallflower, to be a pop album rather than jazz, she is still Diana Krall.

In fact, one of her strengths is that despite the jazz-singer label, she has never succumbed to the tuneless riffs of be-bop. She has always remembered that she is singing a song -- words and music, working together, to create a message and a mood.

The album came out on February 3rd, and Amazon, true to its word, offered it to me for download moments after midnight (I had paid for it earlier, as a presale).

Wallflower opens with Leon Russell's haunting "Superstar," which Karen Carpenter turned into a hit back in the early 1970s. Diana Krall couldn't match the lushness of Karen Carpenter's voice -- nobody can or ever could, not even Streisand on a good day -- but Krall doesn't compete. She makes the songs her own.

The result is a quiet, melancholy, downtempo version of the song, which is the yearning of woman who had a fling with a musician who was passing through -- we can think of it as "Plaint of the Groupie." But the song has always surpassed its subject matter (and we can't overlook Leon Russell's own wrenching performance of the song) -- way better than "Killing Me Softly," the other famous song from a fan's point of view.

Back in 1972, when I was a missionary in Brazil, some local teenagers asked me to translate into Portuguese the lyrics of a new hit song from the U.S.:"Alone Again (Naturally)," written and performed by Gilbert O'Sullivan.

The words were pretty clear; it was only hard to translate because I could not believe that a song that stupid could possibly have been recorded, let alone become a hit. But when I gave them a blow-by-blow interpretation of this celebration of shallow, suicidal self-pity, they seemed content. Not for the first time, I realized I was out of step with my generation.

Diana Krall is thirteen years younger than me, but her purpose in this album was to "record music that I share with my peers." In short, the music that was part of her life from age ten to thirteen, which is the age when kids leave their parents' culture and enter into the heady culture of their fellow teens.

But that means that Krall apparently hit "Alone Again" when she was too young to know it was stupid; just young enough to take a great deal of pride in her angst. Yet she does little to make the song her own -- perhaps because she sings it with Michael Buble, which means she really can't put her own stamp on the song.

Most of the other songs are wonderful, though her general approach is to take already-sad songs and slow them down until they're almost inert. Singers with less soul might wither to nothingness with this approach, but it works well for Krall. Songs like "I Can't Tell You Why," "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," and "In My Life" are memorable and, depending on your taste, may be better than the originals.

I can't imagine anybody doing "Operator" better than Jim Croce -- but the simplicity of her performance is a worthy companion to Croce's.

Two of the tracks were new to me. "If I Take You Home Tonight," by Paul McCartney, has not been previously recorded. And I had never heard the lovely title track, "Wallflower." This may be because it was written by Bob Dylan. If he performed it himself, that means it has never been sung before.

The only attempt at an up-tempo song is "Yeh Yeh," by Jon Hendricks, which qualifies as pure bubble-gum. Nothing can turn it into a listenable song. You have to be dancing, and you have to be under twelve or seriously drunk to find any pleasure in it.

This album is not party music. I think it needs to be listened to when you're alone, and maybe just a little tired, so that you can get into the melancholy and loneliness of the songs. This album doesn't leave you "excited," but, except as noted, I found it moving and beautiful.


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