Mystery and Thriller Writer

Category: Reviews

Knives Out is Terrific

Knives Out was the best movie I saw in 2019.

To borrow a line from Red Dead Redemption 2, “The competition ain’t too fierce.” I think this past year saw us go to the theater less than any other. I don’t mean to diminish the movie’s excellence with this, though—it’s terrific, and I would think so if I saw eight or eighty movies last year.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (probably best known for The Last Jedi, which everyone has An Opinion on), Knives Out is a throwback to the murder mysteries of yesteryear. Private detective Benoit Blanc (a scenery-devouring, Southern-drawl-speaking Daniel Craig) is summoned to a mansion to investigate the death of famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (the always-terrific Christopher Plummer). It’s the cast of characters Blanc meets there which makes the movie.

We learn of old Harlan’s demise as the movie opens, though it takes some time to encounter all the suspects, many of whom are the writer’s relatives. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Colette, Chris Evans, and more), and while some probably don’t get enough screen time, all of them are good. They look like they’re enjoying themselves, and they’re in on the fact this is supposed to be a comedy.

Knives Out poster

We also meet Marta (Ana de Armas, a delight), Harlan’s nurse and the last person to see him alive. She has a quirk that she can’t lie without vomiting. It seems random, and it is, but you know it’s going to matter for more than laughs before the movie’s over, and it does. The Thrombey family seemingly likes her, but after their patriarch’s death, they all try to pull one over on Ana, including using her mother’s immigration status against her.

At its heart, though, this is a mystery, and we get plenty of sleuthing. There’s not a lot of action, but the characters and the terrific dialogue make up for it. Blanc isn’t as smart or perceptive as Hercule Poirot, the character upon which he’s obviously and unabashedly based, but he navigates the investigation pretty well. 

This is a movie you’ll want to pay attention to. Lines and details you learn earlier will prove important at the end. I figured out who the killer was—it becomes pretty apparent by the midpoint if you’ve ever seen a movie before—though I missed a detail or two along the way. I thought a couple small things around the demise of Harlan were questionable, but those are minor nitpicks of a very enjoyable film.

If you like mysteries, humor, and character-driven stories, Knives Out has all three. I highly recommend it. 

Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (let’s just call it Thor 3 for short) is raucous, good fun. It features good action scenes, some great images, plenty of laughs, and a story that moves the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) forward. There are some moments where it’s a little too cheeky for its own good, but you can look past them and enjoy the ride.

The movie: Fresh from stopping the demon Surtur (voiced by the great Clancy Brown–yes, the guy who is both The Kurrgan and Mr. Krabs) from starting Ragnarok, thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard. He exposes Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise. The brothers then go in search of their missing father, aided by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Odin tells them that his first daughter Hela (Cate Blanchett) is coming, and he can’t hold her back now that his time is up.

Hela arrives soon enough, laying waste to the brothers and destroying Thor’s hammer Mjolnir in the process. When Thor and Loki flee via the Bifrost, Hela follows and knocks them out into the void of space. She returns to Asgard, where she gains henchman Skurge (Karl Urban) and begins taking over.

Thor crash-lands in a dump, where a bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson) quickly captures him. She takes him to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who puts Thor into his network of arena fighters, all waiting for a crack at the champion. If you’ve seen a trailer for this movie, you know the champion is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). After their fight (which, of course, each thinks he won), Thor recruits the Hulk (and Loki) to help him take Asgard back from Hela. He learns that the bounty hunter who collected him is actually the last remaining Asgardian Valkyrie, and she eventually agrees to go back home and lend a hand.

Thor: Ragnarok

Not the god of hammers.

Heimdall (Idris Elba) has been hiding the people of Asgard from Hela, but she discovers them eventually. Thor and his “Revengers” arrive and the Big Boss Battle ensues. Hela is too strong, however, as she draws her power from Asgard, forcing Thor and Loki to undertake a desperate gambit to stop her.

The writing: Thor 3 hits the notes you would expect from an MCU film. The characters are written well, and their motivations are generally clear and believable. Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie probably has the best arc, though Thor learns quite a bit about himself in the arena against the Hulk and battling Hela at the end. (“Are you the god of hammers?” is a memorable line.)

I mentioned at the beginning that the movie was too cheeky in a few spots. It was legitimately funny, and it showed us that Chris Hemsworth has good comic timing. I think a few scenes were played too much for laughs, though, even at the expense of the characters (including Thor himself a couple times). Those moments aside, the movie entertained me the entire time. Mark Ruffalo gets a good turn as both the Hulk and Bruce Banner, and we get some insight as to the conflict between them. Of course, you’ll want to stay through the credits and see a scene that continues the setup for Avengers: Infinity War.

Thor: Ragnarok is a solid addition to the MCU. It’s probably the funniest movie they’ve made, but despite that, it has serious action chops and a few somber moments that are done well. It’s the best of the three Thor movies, and I say that as someone who liked Thor: the Dark World more than most.

Go see Thor: Ragnarok.

Review: Little White Lies

Robert B. Parker’s Little White Lies, by Ace Atkins.

Little White Lies is Ace Atkins’ sixth Spenser book since the Robert B. Parker estate chose him to continue the series following Parker’s death. The books have ranged from just OK (Kickback) to quite good (Wonderland). Little White Lies lands solidly toward the very good end of the scale.

The venerable Spenser gets a referral from his longtime lover Susan Silverman. Connie Kelly wants him to find M. Brooks Welles, an alleged former CIA operative and current commentator who swindled her out of about $300,000 in a real estate scam. Spenser soon learns Welles is a phony; he fabricated his intelligence background and the resulting expertise he claims.

Cover of Little White Lies

It doesn’t take long for Spenser to tie Welles to a local gun club and its owner, Johnny Gredoni, who also seems to be involved in the land swindle. The ATF’s interest means Gredoni (and maybe Welles) are running guns. Spenser soon finds Welles and the two men are shot at, and then Gredoni is killed. Now Spenser has to find Welles again, and he does, as Welles surfaces as Pastor Wells (no E) in the Atlanta suburbs. (Connie, still in love with Well(s)s for some reason, also winds up there.) With longtime ally Hawk in tow, along with Tedy Sapp and the ATF, Spenser goes after Well(e)s and his gun-running friends.

Little White Lies is a solid entry in the Spenser series. Ace Atkins has been on the Spenser beat for six years and, in that time, he has found the voice of not only our intrepid hero, but also the supporting characters. Hawk, Susan, Frank Belson, even Henry Cimoli, all sound like they did in the Parker heyday. That’s no easy feat. Atkins doesn’t write his own books in Parker’s sparse style but he’s done a better job of replicating it as the series has gone on.

The last several Spenser books that Parker wrote didn’t measure up to the best in the series. The plots were a little thinner, and the stories more reliant on dialogue than narrative. Still, each book had some true Spenser moments, as well as the snappy dialogue Parker wrote in every book. Little White Lies is a good book and, more importantly, a good Spenser book. Welles, as the villain, is easy to dislike but not without charisma. (He’s probably based in part on former commentator Wayne Simmons, accused of fabricating his CIA background and defrauding a lover in a real estate scam in 2013.) If you’re a Parker loyalist who has been skeptical of the Atkins Spenser books, shelve that and pick this one up. I think you’ll like it.

Recommended for Spenser fans, Atkins fans, and mystery readers in general.

Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is easily the best movie in the DCEU. Considering the competition, I’m sure you could interpret that as damning with faint praise. It’s not. This movie is great. It’s a shining light in a sea of otherwise dreary and mopey grey.

The movie: Young Diana, the princess of the island of Themiscyra, wishes to train with her fellow Amazons. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) initially refuses, but, as Diana grows into a teenager, tells Antiope (Robin Wright) to train the girl harder than any Amazon before.

As a woman, Diana (Gal Gadot, who’s absolutely terrific) has become a great warrior. After training one day, she sees a plane crash off the shores of the island. Diana resuces the pilot, American Air Force Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), on loan to British Intelligence against the Germans. The Germans discover the plane and attack the island, which goes poorly for all of them and a few of the Amazons.

Learning of “the War to End All Wars,” and fearing that war god Ares has returned, Diana and Steve leave Themiscyra, seeking the war. It doesn’t take them long to find it. When they arrive to find the small town of Veld under constant siege by the Germans, Diana is horrified by the Allies’ indifference and takes matters into her own hands. And it’s awesome. Mostly by herself, she lays waste to an entire German batallion.

Womder Woman, as played by Gal Gadot

Diana, Steve, and their small band of misfits have to stop German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) from unleashing chemical weapons and undoing the upcoming armistice. Even when they think they’ve succeeded, Diana discovers that Ares has indeed returned, and she has to stop the god of war to end the war.

The writing: The best part of the writing is the character of Diana (she’s never called “Wonder Woman” in the movie, btw). Credit Gal Gadot for a great performance: she’s fierce, sympathetic, anguished, and curious at the right times and in the right amounts. Good writing and acting went into the humorous fish-out-of-water scenes, as we see this world through Diana’s eyes. The most important thing is that DC finally got a hero right.

See, Diana is the inspiring hero who genuinely wants to help the helpless we should have gotten with Superman in Man of Steel. Instead, we got Sir Mopes-a-Lot. Diana cares about the oppressed, is appalled when the Allied soldiers won’t help, and opens a giant can of whoop-ass on the Germans. It’s tremendous, and if it doesn’t make you want to go out and punch an evildoer in the face, the problem is yours.

The first two acts of the story are really, really good. The third is the generic Fight Against the Big Bad (Ares, in this case). Based on the quality of the first two acts–especially the second–I expected more from the third. It’s not bad, but it’s underwhelming in context. Diana seems to accrue new powers (or more power) in the fight, I guess because she collected enough plot coupons or experience points to level up.

The third act not living up to the first two is all that’s bad here. The boss fight is fine, and the identity of Ares may surprise you if you weren’t paying attention. But this movie earns its accolades on the backs of the actors who turned in good performances, and a script with a damn fine second act.

Go see Wonder Woman.


Get two free chapters of my upcoming novel The Reluctant Detective, plus exclusive bios of the characters! Information is right here.

Review – Logan

Preamble: this movie review, and others you’ll see on this site, will focus on both the movie and the writing. This is, after all, a site about writing by a writer. This review covers the recent movie Logan, the final entry in the Wolverine saga. Yes, I’m lame enough that I missed it in theaters.

The movie: Logan is set in 2029. In this dreary future, no mutant have been born in the last 25 years. No longer going by Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is driving a limo and dealing with a healing factor that’s no longer working well. The adamantium bonded to his bones is poisoning him and, coupled with his dodgy healing ability, is causing him constant pain.

Logan poster

Logan also cares for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now 90 and suffering from Alzheimer’s. If you think it sounds bad that the world’s most powerful telepath has a brain disease, you’re right: Xavier’s seizures have devastating consequences for anyone around. The movie hints that one seizure killed seven X-Men. Only Logan seems able to function, more or less, during one of these episodes.

Logan and Xavier eventually meet Laura (Dafne Keen, terrific in her film debut), a mutant not born but grown in a lab by Alkali/Transigen. She also has adamantium claws and can regenerate, but she’s eleven, and has all the self-control you might expect from an eleven-year-old. Not surprisingly (though Logan seems surprised for some reason), Wolverine’s DNA runs in her veins. Transigen wants Laura and other escaped young mutants back, and to retrieve them, they send a clone of Logan called X-24.

Laura and the other young mutants are trying to get to North Dakota, where they will cross the Canadian border to some type of sanctuary. (Comic geeks, like me, may presume that Alpha Flight is going to host and protect them.) Transigen, its security chief Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and X-24 find Logan and the kids before this can happen, of course, and we get a pretty epic final battle out of it.

The writing: I’m trying not to spoil anything here, so I’ll just say that the characters (and what happens to them) benefited from good writing. Logan is much a road movie as it is a superhero one. If not for a few mutant powers, this wouldn’t be a superhero movie at all.

The pacing is mostly good, though I think it drags in the second act. Logan was right to want to move on and not stay at the Munson family farm. The resultant scenes were good and moved the story forward, but it vexes me when characters do things they know are dumb. At least there’s a payoff. Also, the Canadian border as some magical sanctuary bugged me. Even if Alpha Flight were there and waiting, Transigen had a squad of Reaver mercenaries. It didn’t appear to be a sure thing, at any rate.

This movie is rated R, and it’s a pretty hard R. There’s a lot of neck stabbing, face stabbing, belly stabbing, leg stabbing . . . this is just a stabby movie. The violence is swift, brutal, and done well. Language is the other factor earning this movie its R rating. (Tidbit: you only get one F-bomb in a PG-13 movie.) I have no problem with cursing in fiction (books, TV, or movies), but several of the F-bombs felt gratuitous. It was like the movie was making up for being constrained in the cursing department with the prior two Wolverine scripts.

The story is good, though, and the characters (both good and bad) are written and portrayed well. I definitely recommend seeing Logan, but know going in that it’s violent, bloody, and sometimes swears to hear itself doing so. But it’s good.


If you haven’t already, go here to get your free sample chapters and character bios for my upcoming mystery novel The Reluctant Detective!

Review: No Middle Name, by Lee Child

No Middle Name collects all the Jack Reacher short stories into one volume.

Whatever your opinion of Reacher, this collection won’t change it. I’ve read all the books (and seen both movies), so I like the character. However, I also recognize that he has his faults. Reacher can be pretty pompous and annoying at times, bordering on insufferable in some moments. The good and the occasionally vexing are all in here. The good wins out. I’ll focus more on the longer stories in this review.

The book opens with “Too Much Time,” a brand-new novella. (All the other stories were previously published somewhere.) In a small Maine town, Reacher witnesses what looks like a random purse-snatching and intervenes. Of course, it ends up being a lot more than that, and Reacher ends up arrested on a trumped-up charge. He has to figure out who had him locked up and why. And what was in that bag to cause all of this? It’s a good story, probably not meaty enough for a full novel, but great as a novella.

No Middle Name cover

“Small Wars” goes back to 1989, when Reacher, still an MP, works the case of a young, fast-rising officer shot in her sports car on a random forest road. The local police run their own investigation, which complicates things. This story does a good job of showing how smart and adaptable Reacher can be, as he assembles some disparate facts, plus a few assumptions, and figures it out.

“Not a Drill” takes us back to Maine. Reacher, looking to see the northern terminus of I-95, finds himself in the Maine woods with some campers. When the hiking trail is closed by the military, Reacher and one of the hikers set off to figure out why. “High Heat” sets the wayback machine to 1977. Seventeen-year-old Reacher is in New York City in the middle of a heatwave. He runs afoul of a local made man, romances a girl, and sees a strange character outside of a car. This is one of the time Reacher borders on annoying, as the man’s movements lead Reacher to conclude things about his past and eventually posit that he’s the Son of Sam. Which, of course, he is. Still. the story is entertaining.

“Second Son” cranks the rewind even harder, showing Reacher as a preteen newly-arrived in Okinawa. He’s mostly the same as he is as an adult, just smaller. In this story, Reacher beats up an older, smelly bully and manages to solve a case that has confounded the MPs. Child’s writing is always compelling, and he’s great at pacing and moving the story forward. This story strained credulity, however. I’ll come along for the ride and buy Reacher as a smart brawler at seventeen. I could probably go down to sixteen, but that would be it.

“Deep Down” takes Reacher back to his Army days again. He’s trying to find the spy among four female officers. Maybe all four are clean. Maybe one is dirty. One definitely ends up dead, but was she the double agent? “Guy Walks into a Bar,” “James Penney’s New Identity,” “Everyone Talks,” “The Picture of the Lonely Diner,” “Maybe They Have a Tradition,” and “No Room at the Motel” are shorter stories that complete the book. “James Penney’s New Identity” was my favorite of the bunch. They’re all pretty quick reads, usually just covering Reacher in one situation, rather than navigating a harrowing problem.

No Middle Name shows a great character in many different situations. Some are like Child’s bestselling thrillers; some are more like vignettes. If you like Reacher, you’ll like No Middle Name. If you’ve never read any of the Reacher books, this is a good introduction to the character. After finishing this book, go directly to Killing Floor. Do not pass Go.

But do buy this book.

Book Review: Smart Baseball by Keith Law

Smart Baseball, by ESPN senior writer Keith Law, is a comprehensive and entertaining look at the world of baseball statistics, both the better new ones and some older ones that have lost relevance.

Yes, I’m something of a baseball nerd. Over the years, football has become my favorite sport to sit and watch on TV, but baseball is still my favorite sport to follow. A large reason for that is the game’s statistical history and depth. I collected baseball cards when I was young, culminated by having a complete Topps 1983 set.

Keith Law will tell you that many of the stats on your old baseball card are garbage.

Smart Baseball cover

I had learned this previously. In the words of Bowie, it came as some surprise. I missed the Bill James revolution, but internet baseball writers like Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski, and Keith Law opened my eyes to newer and better stats.

If you’ve been a participant in the sabermetric revolution, there’s still plenty in Smart Baseball for you. The first part of the book, dubbed “Smrt Baseball” (“smrt” is a Simpsons reference, and it’s worth Googling if you’re not familiar with it) talks about older stats whose time has come. Law tosses things like batting average, pitcher wins, and saves onto the fire, and pillories sacrifice bunts for good measure. Most importantly, he explains what those stats don’t tell us, and why they’ve fallen out of favor over the years. If you enjoy Law’s snark, it’s displayed most often in this section.

Part 2 (“Smart Baseball”) looks at the more modern stats defining the game today. Here is where you’ll find OBP, WAR, UZR, WPA, and more. A common complaint of the newer stats is that you need a spreadsheet to calculate them (and, implicit in there, this somehow makes you less of a baseball fan). That may be true, but how many people sit on their couches and calculate batting averages? Even if you don’t know how to compute WPA or WAR–and I don’t–Law explains them in terms readers can easily understand.

Part 3 (“Smarter Baseball”) looks at the future of data in baseball. How are clubs using Statcast info, along with their own metrics, to evaluate players? What’s the role of traditional scouting in this data-driven era? These are some of the questions Law asks and answers in this section.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m reviewing a baseball book. After all, I’m a fiction writer, and (I presume) many of the people reading this blog are fiction readers. The reason is that good writing is important, and Smart Baseball is good writing. We as writers can learn from nonfiction, too.

If you like baseball, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of old or new stats, I think Smart Baseball is worth the read. It’ll broaden your horizons as a fan and teach you a few things. That’s not as awesome as watching your team win the World Series (I’ve been waiting since 1983; come on, Orioles!), but it’s still pretty good.

Definitely recommended.

Review: Marvel’s Iron Fist

Marvel’s Iron Fist (hereafter Iron Fist) is the fourth of the Marvel Netflix series (joining Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage). It’s also the last one to be released before our heroes join together in The Defenders. And as a lead-in to The Defenders, it’s . . . fair.

This show has not been reviewed well. Some of the complaints levied in those reviews are legitimate. The two that ring truest are the pacing and the quality of the fight scenes. I think negative reviews about Finn Jones’ overall performance are off the mark, however. We’ll explore each of these shortly. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep the recap as spoiler-free as possible.

Danny Rand was presumed dead in a plane crash with his parents at age 10. In reality, he was rescued by monks from a secretive order and spent 15 years training in kung fu. That culminated with him becoming the Iron Fist. As the Iron Fist, Danny can periodically focus his chi, which visibly manifests in his hand glowing. With his chi focused, he can do things like punch out a wall or even heal another person. If you think that sounds kinda lame, I won’t say you’re wrong.

After 15 years away, Danny returns to modern-day New York and finds that no one believes he’s who he claims to be. Opposing him, to varying degrees, are his father’s old business partner Harold, Harold’s children Ward and Joy (who currently run the Rand company), and the ninja clan the Hand. Aiding him is dojo owner Colleen Wing, who is absolutely the best part of the show.

The show suffers from pacing issues. All the Marvel Netflix shows do. If they were all 11 episodes instead of 13, many of those issues might go away. Instead, the shows generally start strong, hit a wall around episode 8, and then regroup for a good finish. Iron Fist is courteous enough to get its pacing issues out of the way early. Starting around episode 5, the show hits a better stride and maintains it.

What doesn’t really get better is the fight scenes. There are some good ones; the problem is, most of those don’t involve Danny. Finn Jones is not a martial artist and it shows. The fights are quickly edited and sometimes hard to follow. Jones has also been criticized for not being very good in the role, being too languid, etc. I think those criticisms are unfair. Danny is written as a naive man–he’s basically a ten year-old in the body of a 25 year-old–who’s struggling with his emotions and probably some form of PTSD. I thought Jones was optimistic and cheery at the right times, and also conflicted and angry at the right times. No complaints there.

What I found weird is Danny’s comfort with modern New York. Let’s assume the show is set in 2017. That means Danny vanished in 2002. A hell of a lot has changed in the world since 2002 (including, in the MCU, all of the events since Iron Man). Because the city of K’un-Lun is supposed to be in another dimension, it’s reasonable to presume Danny missed out on the last 15 years. Yet he seems perfectly comfortable with technology, the Internet, etc. Did they have broadband internet and smartphones in K’un-Lun? Really good satellites to watch the news?

Overall, I would say Iron Fist is decent. I think it’s the weakest of the Marvel shows (Jessica Jones is the best for my money, but the others all range from pretty good to great). But it was compelling enough to hold my (and my wife’s) interest once it shed its early pacing issues. The basic plot isn’t very original, and I think the show suffers for not having a great villain. There are also too many scenes set in Rand boardrooms or focused on Rand company politics. Give me more (and better) punching, please.

The verdict: definitely watch Iron Fist if you’re a completist. I think it’s better than many of its reviews would indicate, though definitely not great. But if you try it and can’t get past the pacing of the first few episodes, I understand.

© 2020 Tom Fowler

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑