Friday, October 16, 2015

Egyptian Gods and Thanksgiving Journeys

The Jackal Man: A Wesley Peterson Mystery by Kate Ellis (2011): Breezy, enjoyable mystery throws archaeology into the mixture, which apparently happens in every Wesley Peterson mystery from Kate Ellis. Detective-Inspector Wesley Peterson works in South Devon, thus putting a small-town, English spin on the crime-solving. 

In this novel, Egyptian mythology and funerary practices come into play as a murderer puts on the jackal head of Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead, and starts murdering young women. While Peterson and the rest of the police investigate the crime, Peterson's archaeologist pal Neil Watson stumbles across a series of murders in 1903 that resemble the current killings. It all seems to tie into the formidable collection of Egyptian antiquities at nearby Varley Castle.

Ellis does a nice job of characterization when it comes to characters minor and major. The mystery is pleasingly convoluted without seeming too contrived. She's not the world's most interesting prose stylist, but she gets the job done. The Egyptian mythology and cultural practices make for some moments of body horror, sensitively handled. The gross-out factor is minimal, and the violence far from graphic.

Plot-wise, the only major flaw comes when Ellis goes to the stereotypical threat to the loved ones of a detective. I realize that a detective story isn't a paean to realism, but the contrivance of this event -- something that almost never happens in reality -- has come to be a real turn-off for me. It's a too-artificial source of suspense, especially in a novel that already has threats and mysteries enough to keep the reader entertained and involved right to the final solution. Still, this is a solid diversion. Recommended.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: written and directed by John Hughes; starring Steve Martin (Neal Page) and John Candy (Del Griffith) (1987): Having only seen stretches of the broadcast-TV version of this movie for years (actually, decades), I'd forgotten how much swearing there is in the movie, especially in a great scene between Steve Martin's anal-retentive marketing guy and a car rental agent played by the indispensable Edie McClurg.  And despite the heavy dose of schmaltz the movie dumps on us at the end, this remains a great comedy. Getting home for Thanksgiving has never been such a harrowing, comic enterprise.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles certainly is not subtle, and for someone whose films tended to trumpet the virtues of the working class over those of the upper middle-class, John Hughes does have a thing for using poor rural people as comic grotesques. But they're funny grotesques. John Candy is magnificent as the slob-Falstaffian shower-ring salesman Del Griffith, while Steve Martin makes a perfect foil who also gets some moments of comic rage that recall Daffy or Donald Duck as much as they suggest any human antecedents. Hughes movies were never entirely realistic, which is actually one of their charms -- they're comic fables when they're at their best, ones in which driving around in an immolated rental car singing along to the radio makes perfect sense. Highly recommended.

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