The Green Mill Murder by Kerry Greenwood

This is the fifth installment of the Phryne Fisher series and to date, I honestly think this is Greenwood’s best one so far. She’s finally found her stride and rhythm.

It seems that Greenwood has a template that she sticks to, yet her stories never feel repetitive. Picking up a Phryne Fisher novel, it looks like I can expect the following:

  • Crimes that require attention to detail to solve, rather than brute force and luck.
  • Realistic assistance from the supporting cast like her loyal maid, Dot.
  • A variety of characters that do not feel repeated in any way.
  • Beautiful descriptions of 1930s fashion and style.
  • Steamy sex scenes conducted by a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid of to get it.

Greenwod has established everything she needs to for a solid and reliable series; we know all her key supporting characters, and we have a realistic understanding of her star detective’s capabilities, so now we can finally focus on Miss Fisher’s ingenuity and her adventures.

She has found the perfect blend between realism and fantasy. Greenwood understands that this world she’s created is essentially a fantasy world; one where rich socialites with gumption and good sense can pursue careers they would never have been able to in the 1920s.

Yet none of her characters are cartoonish or flat; they almost seem rooted in someone real that Greenwood has encountered in her legal career. From the controlling matriarch her murky motives that Phryne never truly understands, to the vivacious buxom singer that hits Phryne right in the ego, there is never a character that gives me a sense of déjà vu.

This novel seamlessly blends two crimes together but doesn’t make the story feel disjointed or crowded. And the story ends on a realistic note, one that doesn’t make Phryne feel like an all-knowing persona with no vulnerabilities, and again, this helps grounds the series.

If all her installments are roughly this quality, I can see why the Phryne Fisher series has lasted as long as it has.

 

On Another Note

I think once I polish off about ten installments, I’ll start watching the ABC ‘Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries’ series. I don’t want to give myself any spoilers but I’m honestly not waiting till I catch up to all 20+ books.

I also have five unread books in this series so I’m debating whether I should independently review them or do a joint one since I worry I might be writing about the same issues in each one.

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Catch Me If You Can by Frank W. Abagnale

This was an enlightening read. Not only in the behaviour of a conman but in his exploits.

The memoir details his youth and his exploits as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, but most importantly, as a cheque forger. It spans over his entire career before ending at his final escape, right before he’s caught for the final time.

It’s a fast-paced, adventurous read. If I didn’t know it was based on true events, I would have thought it was a highly entertaining but very improbable story. If this autobiography had gone on for any longer, the boasting would have gotten tiring but it ends at exactly the right place. Abagnale knows how to control his story for the audience and when to end it before it goes too far, and I expect nothing less from one of the most daring American con artists.

Abagnale thinks highly of himself. Like, really thinks he’s the bee’s knees. He even admits in the opening paragraph that “Modesty is not one of my virtues”. But even from the most damning critic, you can’t deny that he was a bright, talented, young man with a desire for wealth and beautiful women. Here was a man who could understand medical journals, pass the bar exam and teach himself the inner workings of a bank, all before the age of 21. Abagnale was, for all intents and purposes, a force of nature.

And like any arrogant young man, Abagnale humble-brags. For example, he points out his own inexperience and lack of contacts in counterfeiting but quickly points out in the next paragraph that this autonomy prevented the police from finding him for years since they didn’t know anyone who knew him. He also emphasised that he “shunned any place that smacked of being a criminal haunt”, like he was above the common riff raff.

But there is absolutely no doubt that he knows his stuff, and whilst his crimes are unbelievable, his knowledge and character make it believable that he could have committed all of this. Abagnale takes care to outline the detail behind his crimes, like discussing the serial numbers on each cheque, almost as if to remind his audience that he didn’t just coast by on his good looks and personality.

His writing style is not that of a trained author though, but I don’t think a ghost writer was in play, or at the very least, Abagnale wrote 99% his autobiography himself, and it’s because too much of his personality shines through. The writing feels a little cheesy at times but I feel like that’s part of the charm; Frank never downplays his confidence or his intelligence and I can see why so many people fell for his act. For example, he refers to himself as the “Prince of Philanderers” which is a title even Don Juan would not have called himself. But it works.

He even drops little gems of wisdom that, if written by any other author would have made me roll my eyes but really fits in with his charm. When explaining to his audience how he can get away with the occasional mistake in his forgers, or con experienced colleagues into forgiving his mistakes, he explains:

… A thrift-shop dress is usually mistaken for high fashion when it’s revealed under a mink coat.

There were two additions to the memoir that I liked: a third person recount of what happened to Frank after his final escape and an interview with Stan Redding. Abagnale writes his adventures as nothing more than hijinks that spiralled into something out of control, and that he never intended to let it get so far. But these two elements grounds his memoirs, so it’s reads less like Abagnale is bragging about his wonderful brain and I was reminded that the events weren’t charming antics of a young man, but rather a criminal act.

It’s fascinating and audacious and everything you expect a conman to be. I highly recommend this.

 

On Another Note

I watched the movie before I read the autobiography so I was surprised by some of the events written because, shockingly, Spielberg has to make a few concessions to cram a 300 page book into a two hour movie. For example:

  • The portrayal of his parents greatly deviated from the movie, for example, Movie!Dad was a conman who encouraged Frank to pursue a life of crime as a means of revenge against the US Government vs. Book!Dad who was, by Frank’s accounts, an upstanding man.
  • Amy Adam’s character, Brenda Strong, was comprised of several of Frank’s girlfriends and is a much, much more sympathetic character.
  • Spielberg really played up Abagnale’s tragic past and just how big of an impact the divorce had on him. Even by Frank’s own admission

But I’m glad the main events were actually rooted in truth like Abagnale’s encounter with a high-class call girl and swanning into Miami airport with a bunch of women. Those were my favourite cons in the movie and I’m happy they weren’t exaggerated. Spielberg did the autobiography justice.

BBC Mini-Series: And Then There Were None

The British love their mini-series, don’t they? And they really love Agatha Christie, so this was kind of inevitable. Before I start, I just want to establish a few things:

  • There will be spoilers.
  • The acronym I will be using for the ‘And Then There Were None’ will be ATTWN.
  • My angle will be to review ATTWN in comparison to the book, not as a stand-alone mini-series.
  • I found this very difficult to write. I had a thousand things I wanted to discuss but for some reason they weren’t flowing onto the page.

Clear then? Let’s get started!

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To summarise, this mini-series was perfect in every way possible. BBC may not have been completely loyal to Christie’s masterpiece but they captured the essence of the story. And what this story essentially is, is not a murder mystery, but rather a psychological drama showing how people cope when confronted with crimes they thought would never come back to haunt them. They showed what people are truly like under the fear of death and what they come to regret.

There were some immaterial changes for example,

  • They fiddled around with some of the motives behind the murders committed by the victims,
  • There was a confrontation between the last victim and the serial killer, and
  • A romance was created between Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard.

But in terms of their contribution to the story, the impact just meant that BBC made its mark on the story, rather than a straight adaptation.

And as for the cast…

  • Charles Dance (as Justice Wargrave) was amazing, given the little time on screen that he had, but then again, Dance rarely fails.
  • I thought Maeve Dermody (the woman who played Vera Claythorne) could be better. I mean she was good, but not great. Vera is a natural liar and sociopath, there should be no feelings of pity at her death in the end, only satisfaction that someone like Vera is killed. However, Dance’s performance as Wargrave was so overwhelming, you would still be left reeling at the revelation.
  • But the standout was really Aidan Turner (who played Philip Lombard). I can see why everyone’s clamouring to make him the next James Bond, he’s certainly James Bond material. There’s something very primal in his swagger which probably drives half his sex appeal. Luckily BBC changed his crime from the racist act of ‘letting Africans die instead of White Men because Africans are apparently used to that sort of thing’ to the greedy act of ‘killing twenty-one people for diamonds’. I assume the change was so certain parts of the demographic wouldn’t feel morally conflicted when the continued to lust after Turner and his portrayal of Lombard.

There were some areas that I thought the mini-series did better than the book:

  • The analysis of social, racial and gender discrimination. This story forces ten different kinds of people, from all different walks of life, to congregate on an island. Under normal circumstances, none of these people would have met and watching them being forced to interact was an enlightening commentary on the British social structure in the 1930s.
  • They’ve expanded the roles of some of the inhabitants, especially Lombard. In ATTWN, the people take a more active role in trying to work out who the killer is, instead of just flailing about in the novel.
  • I especially enjoyed the visual portrayals of each of the ten people’s crimes. The producers used flashback and hallucinations to really drive the point home.

But there was one sticky point I thought the mini-series didn’t capture so well; the mini-series doesn’t explain how Justice Wargrave came to find the other nine victims.

In the novel, Wargrave writes a long letter that is basically the denouement, explaining why and how he’s done it; BBC condensed that into a ten minute confrontation between him and Vera and made it seem as if he found them using the power of deus ex machina. Which is disappointing because it doesn’t show the intense planning he put in his murders and this is a particularly important characteristic that makes it believable that Wargrave is the killer.

Furthermore, showing that he had connections to the victims makes how he tracked down Vera even more symbolic; it was only through chance that he learnt about Vera Claythorne’s crime, which is a fitting end, as it was only through chance that Vera got away with her murder. It would have made their final confrontation more momentous.

Nor does he explain the rationale behind the order of his victims, for example, Mrs Rogers was killed early as she was merely complicit in her husband’s crime and therefore didn’t deserve the pain of a long-drawn out psychological torture. It’s a pity because Wargrave puts in so much planning in his crime and the audience never really gets to appreciate it.

I will be recommending this series to everyone. This series isn’t just for long-time Agatha Christie fans but for anyone who wants to understand the enduring appeal of Christie and her ability to understand what makes people tick.

Inferno By Dan Brown

I know good and well what to expect when I pick up a Robert Langdon novel. I know what to expect from the plot structure, the character development, the plot twists. And although this doesn’t deviate from the usual model, it was probably Brown’s weaker entry in the Robert Langdon series and it’s because he tried to appear more high-brow than he actually is.

Generally speaking, when I read a story, and by a story I literally mean any story, I don’t need some fancy-pants meaningful literature for it to be enjoyable. I just want some semblance of a plot, character interaction that makes sense (not necessarily character development, although that’s a bonus), continuity, and a conclusion that answers most questions raised in the story.

If you expect any of the above, do not read this book. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

First things first, reading a Dan Brown novel requires certain suspension of disbelief. You can’t start nitpicking at the first flaw you read, or the whole house of cards fall. You have to accept and be entertained by his novels for what they are: a Sunday afternoon of mindless fun.

You have to accept that a Harvard Art History Professor has that kind of connections and wealth and influence. You have to accept that there are apparently multiple secret groups out to destroy the world. You have to accept that these secret groups constantly use special codes a person with an understanding of Art History could crack (Kate Middleton has an Art History degree, could she technically be featured in the next Langdon novel theoretically? But I digress with my usual sarcasm).

But even with the above caveats, there were still multiple problems with ‘Inferno’.

The plot’s pacing was uneven; it crawled at a snail’s pace at the beginning and then Brown just started firing off multiple plot twists towards the end, releasing information intended to make so-and-so to be the bad guy but was obviously not the Big Bad because it wasn’t close enough to the conclusion. It made it difficult to take revelations seriously as plot twists were less shock-inducing and more like another piece of information I had to digest, but most likely didn’t need, to understand the ending.

Furthermore, none of the characters were probably developed, but the character that angered me the most was Sienna. That’s no fault on Sienna, it was simply how she was written. Brown went to a lot of trouble to create Sienna; most of his other characters were given cursory background dumps but Sienna was given entire chapters dedicated to her perspective and history. And the more background you share with your readers, the more you focus and relate to that character. And the more that character doesn’t seem to make sense, the more frustrating it is for readers.

The only person whose behaviour made any sense was Robert Langdon and that’s because Robert is basically Dan Brown 2.0.

Compounding to this problem, Brown has a very weak understanding of how people who are not art historians employed at fancy universities interact in the real world. The conversations don’t seem to flow right, unless Langdon launches into one of his many art history lectures. I cringed when I watched Sienna flirt with some teenagers because no teenager would be impressed by her flirtations. I also had to skip the sex scenes, not because I’m a puritan, but because they were so awkward and stupid.

And I hated how it ended. Brown is trying to make transhumanism more grandiose and important than it really is, but that’s classic Brown to blow things out of proportion and using information as it suits him, not in its correct context.

And apologies for spoilers but this was also the first ending where Brown almost justifies what the Big Bad was doing, which I assume he did to give his book grey morality and depth. However, this in itself failed horribly. It really cheapened the story and when you force readers to think more critically about ‘Inferno’, it just served to highlight all of his additional writing flaws. If he had simply stuck to his usual routine of ‘Good versus Bad’ with a healthy dose of Good Triumphing, this book would have been less painful.

But here are some things I did like.

I liked the art history lessons, and they are one of my favourite things about the Robert Langdon series. I know they come across as self-absorbed and just an opportunity for Brown to show off how much he really knows. They’re also overly exaggerated to emphasise certain points but I treat them like a jumping board to other points of interest for me, for example, I wouldn’t mind learning more about Dante’s Divine Comedy.

And I know everyone mocks Brown’s writing style but I’m exceptionally fond of his bemused social commentaries on his surroundings; I think it’s here that’s he’s being most honest about his opinions:

After listing the vast array of famous composers, artists, and authors who had created works based on Dante’s epic poem, Langdon scanned the crowd. “So tell me, do we have any authors here tonight?”

Nearly one-third of the hands went up. Langdon stared out in shock. Wow, either this is the most accomplished audience on earth, or this e-publishing thing is really taking off.

And this sharp jab at modern technology:

Langdon had no idea what language the woman spoke, but the global proliferation of iPhones, iPads, and iPods had resulted in a vocabulary as universally understood as the male/female symbols that graced restrooms around the world.

And for some reason, I can’t stop laughing at the end of the following sentence, because I can almost hear the slight pause and the perfect comedic timing in my head:

Sienna gave Langdon a surprised look, but Langdon had toured enough churches worldwide to know that baptismal fonts almost always afforded their priests easy access to emergency swaddling cloths – the unpredictable ability of infants’ bladders a universal risk of christening

But here is where Brown has infused his idiosyncrasies completely and wholly into the story and into his protagonist:

As they approached the train station, the passed the Grand Hotel Baglioni, which often hosted events for an art conference Langdon attended every year. Seeing it, Langdon realized he was about to do something he had never before done in his life.

I’m leaving Florence without visiting the David.

The reason why I keep coming back to the Robert Landgon series despite Brown’s glaring faults as a writer, is that I like that Brown doesn’t take the whole thing seriously. But he’s hurt himself by pushing an ending where the antagonist isn’t condemned. If you don’t like Dan Brown’s writing style, don’t read this because it will not change your mind. If you do like this series, I’d still read it but I wouldn’t buy it new.

 

On Another Note

I was getting worried for a second because I was past halfway and I still hadn’t encountered any descriptions of Langdon’s appearances. And then I got to Chapter 61:

Langdon was a tall man, with urbane good looks and a deep voice. His clothing at the moment, Sinskey had to assume, was his classroom attire – a tweed jacket, khaki slacks, and loafers – which made sense considering the man had essentially been scooped off his campus with no warning. He also looked younger and far more fit than she’d imagine, which only served to remind Elizabeth of her own age. I could almost be his mother.

Just to remind everyone, this is what Dan Brown looks like:

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I will never, ever, ever be bored of this indulgent self-insertion fanfiction writing. It is my sole motivation for reading the Robert Langdon series.

Look it’s all in good fun. And who amongst us hasn’t imagined themselves saving the world with our highly obscure knowledge in improbable situations? Even XKCD has dedicated some cartoons to this:

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XKCD: Regular Expressions

 

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I’ve been sitting on this for a while since this is my first time reviewing a play in the written format as opposed to watching it in a theatre so I apologise if it’s a bit wonky. In short, I loved it; it sucked me in right from the beginning.

Despite never having read or watched ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ I was still aware of the general themes and plot; it’s too prominent in modern American literature:

  • I was already aware of the big ‘Stella!’ yell from Kowalski and the infamous “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers”. Those lines are too iconic in pop culture for me to not know.
  • I knew that it would end in tragedy; nothing good comes from a play where collapse of mental health is intertwined with fall from social grace.
  • I’ve never seen the movie with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh but it’s so difficult to imagine anyone else playing Blanche Dubois or Stanley Kowalski.

(But all cards on the table, my first exposure to ‘Streetcar’ was the Simpson’s parody and I kept getting flashbacks of Flander screaming “Stella” and Marge making out with Apu.)

Since everything is driven by dialogue, I can’t really comment on the imagery or scenery description. And to appreciate a play fully, there is no greater substitute than to view it. You just see how the entire stage is utilized and all the extra elements that are used to drive home the themes. I want to hear what kind of polka music is being played whenever Blanche flirts with the fine line between mental stability and instability. I want to see how the shadows are used to foreshadow the inevitable showdown between Blanche and Stanley. I want to see Stanley stalk and dominate the stage. Imagination doesn’t get me very far.

But the sheer force of this story and the interactions between the characters was enough for me to lose myself in the plot. Blanche may jump out of the page with her drama, hypocrisy and vulnerability but Stanley’s animalistic behaviour is the spark needed to make Blanche’s tragic descent all the more believable.

I also loved the juxtapositions that didn’t feel anvilicious; the contrasts between the old and the new world (and just what it takes to survive in the new world); and the contrasts between brash masculinity and something softer. Without this sounding like a SparkNotes entry, Williams was able to pack a lot in the eleven short scenes.

I don’t know as much as I’d like to about American culture or history and it’s one thing to pick up a history textbook, but it’s another to see how it’s portrayed in popular literary classics. I think you get a better idea of how America perceived themselves during the 1930s from ‘Streetcar’ and that is a difficult feat for any author, especially in a play format.

Reading a play isn’t the same as seeing it performed live so I want to be able to see it in a theatre one day, although I don’t know if us Australians could do it justice; this story is so inherently American. But just reading the play alone has made me fall in love with ‘Streetcar’ so watching the play is definitely on my bucket list.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this as much as I did. I thought I’d find it lukewarm at best but Ham doesn’t try to share any morals or life lessons, but rather impart an enjoyable story written in an unpretentious manner.

The plot itself requires a little suspension of disbelief: a haute couture dressmaker returns to the tiny repressed country town she was exiled from to make her peace. And at first glance, I thought it’d be like a ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ situation; the educated city girl returns to expose her home town to culture and class, where she herself will find love and learn that there’s no place like home, but not right after the universe solves all past wrongs in a tidy fashion and the town realises how Special and Unique she is.

But Ham takes all this and turns it on its head. It’s not a satire as such but there is humour. With a town full of eccentric character like a cross-dressing policeman and a nosy gossip in charge of the town’s post, it’s hard not to have a bit of a giggle throughout the novel. This isn’t a romantic comedy though and the matter-of-fact social cruelties inflicted by the people of Dungatar on outcasts are used by Ham to remind her audience that though her novel may not be tragic, it is still bittersweet.

Also there is a surprising gothic tone underlying the story that keeps it from being too saccharine. Despite lacking the horror element common in gothic fiction, the fact that Tilly believes she’s cursed to harm people around her keeps things interesting. The inclusion of revenge spanning across multiple generations, and the notion that Fate itself is not above using death as a means of righting wrongs gives it the gothic tone that it otherwise would not have had for a story set in a 1950s repressed Australian country town.

And I can’t finish this review without commenting on the paragraphs dedicated to describing the dresses that Tilly makes for her neighbours. I am now dying to see the movie just so that I can covet the fashion; I love 50s clothes! I thought by constantly veering between descriptions of sheep and high-end clothing would make the story feel quite jarring, like it would just feel like Ham is just indulging her desire to describe pretty clothes. But it actually served as an effective method of using the setting of a quiet rural town to highlight the hypocrisy of the people living in Dungatar:

A fat woman with unsightly hair wore a streamlined, waistless wool crepe, princess-cut frock with a standaway collar and Magyar sleeves, which hung like cold honey and flattered her fridge-like form. A small, pointy woman wore a soft pink suit, double-breasted and wide-collared with revers and purple trim, all of which softened her leather-like complexion. Next to her, leaning on a broom, a girl with a boyish figure wore a design she was sure had not yet even been invented. It was a fine black wool dress with a shallow boat-shaped neckline and short sleeves. The bodice bloused gently into a wide, black calfskin belt with a huge black buckle. The skirt was narrow and knee length! There was a blonde showing great panache in satin-velour pedal-pushers, a shopkeeper in a smart faille tunic suit, and a small, taut woman in silk capri pants and a very chic sleeveless paletot. The stranger went back to her room to smoke her cigarettes. She wondered how Paris had found its way to the dilapidated confines and neglected torsos of banal housewives in a rural province.

If I had to nitpick one thing, it would be that there wasn’t enough of Tilly’s interaction with the locals. I felt like Tilly was a bit passive in her interactions with the locals and it was only towards the end when she had well and truly hardened, after endless suffering, did she stand up and take control of her fate. Hamm provided a lot of backstory for the other characters which I enjoyed, but it did distract from Tilly, at times, she felt like a supporting character in her own story.

I think why this story works so well, is that Ham took an original idea and applied it to the basic principles of a successful story-telling. There is complexity, there is character development, there is romance and there is a fiery conclusion worthy of the injustice Tilly has suffered. I recommend everyone to read this. It’s one of the most unique stories I’ve read in years.

 

On Another Note

I was reading this at the Hobart Airport waiting for my flight home and I started chatting with the elderly man next to me about ‘The Dressmaker’ and our love for reading physical books instead of on a smartphone. I wish this was more common, I wouldn’t mind bonding more with strangers about books that we’ve read.

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HBO TV Series: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I just finished watching the HBO series ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ and it was one of the finest tv series I have seen in a few years, hands down. And it hurts me that the series was cancelled after one season.

Watching a tv series is totally different from reading a book series. It’s ok if the story is plot-heavy, and by that I mean that it’s a case of “this happened, and then that happened, and then we have a cliffhanger”. A series of events is fundamentally easier to translate onto the screen because you only have to worry about the action, the dialogue, and if the actors are up to par.

If the plot is character heavy however, or if the characters enjoy having a lot of internal dialogue, then adapting the story is significantly harder. The director almost needs to have a complete understanding of the series because they need to capture all the prose that describes the character in a visual form.

Furthermore one big difference between adapting a series versus a stand-alone novel is that the characters have had a longer period to show development and complexity. The author has time to detail their history, show their opinions, how they respond to problems, and essentially flesh them out. 

And a series like ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, with all its nuances and biting social commentary needs to have a director that understands the tone and underlying themes of the series and be able to effectively adapt it.

But I think the HBO series did an amazing job.

  • The actors that played Ramostwe, Makutsi, and Matekoni were spot on. Not only did they physically resemble the characters but they owned the entire representation, all the little quirks and behavioural tics, and the portrayal of their relationships really drove the series.
  • I love the little inside jokes such as the fact that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is always referred to by his full name (in the book series, the author has yet to reveal his first name). I giggled when one woman even insists that Matekoni never reveals his name to keep the mystery.
  • The scenery was stunning. One of the defining features of the series is that Alexander McCall Smith describes the Botswana land in such beautiful prose that there is no doubt in the readers mind that he holds immense reverence for the land and the director was able to translate this love into the screen.
  • A couple of storylines were expanded or removed to suit the series but the overall essence of the series was not altered. For example, the rival detective that shows up in Book 4 is a much more persistent nemesis to Mma Ramotswe in the tv adaptation.

    This tv series took the book series and essentially translated into a tv series so I believe if you are well versed in the series like I am, being able to watch a faithful adaptation is immensely satisfying. 

    However, if this is your first foray into ‘The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ then I have a feeling that some of the storylines and characters might fall flat. The eternally optimistic Mamostwe and her dues ex-machina ability to neatly solve all her cases with a clear black-and-white result, with good always emerging triumphant over evil can feel two-dimensional.

    And this is quite sad because the book series is anything but two-dimensional. When I watched the series I already had an understanding of the characters and all their behavioural tics so I already had the emotional baggage, but for someone starting fresh, that history was missing.

    It also covers many serious themes like depression and AIDS but this isn’t expanded on in the tv series.

    If you’re a fan of the series I highly recommend watching this. But if it’s your first exposure, I highly recommend reading a few installments first.