Crime Fiction


I have just finished reading Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John Pfaff. This book describes the growth of mass incarceration in the United States and describes a set of reform policies to reduce the prison population. In itself this is not unusual – the book takes as its launching point the political consensus in the USA that there is a need to “decarcerate” a large number of people – but this book presents a completely different set of causes of mass incarceration to the accepted story, and lays out a very different strategy for achieving real change. It also argues that the existing reform effort, while valuable, may actually sow the seeds of a long term failure to decarcerate, and risks normalizing a political framework that will be disastrous if crime rises again in America.

Pfaff defines the accepted causes of mass incarceration as the “Standard Story,” which argues that mass incarceration is driven primarily by three factors: the war on drugs[1], excessively long sentences, and private prisons. In the first few chapters he demolishes this story succinctly and using detailed statistics. Only 16% of all prisoners are in prison for drug crimes, and of these a large proportion probably were charged on drug crimes as an easier alternative to conviction for violent crimes; and releasing all of these prisoners would do almost nothing to shift the racial disparities in incarceration, because these disparities are universal. Indeed, since 1990 only 14% of new prison admissions were due to drug use, while 60% were for violent crimes. He then presents a wide range of evidence that prison sentences have not actually increased in length over the past 30 years in the USA: Increased prisoner numbers are due to increased admissions, not larger number of prisoners hanging around longer. Finally, Pfaff drags out the statistics on private prisons, to show that only 8% of US prisoners are in private prisons; and he argues that the lobbying efforts of private prisons are tiny compared to the lobbying efforts of prison guard associations, and from other interests that have greater influence in the zero-sum funding environment of state financing decisions in the USA (most private prison lobbying happens at the state level, where a dollar given to one interest is necessarily a dollar not given to another). In fact, throughout this book Pfaff regularly revisits the power of prison guard associations and lobby groups for prosecutors, and regularly makes the point that the USA’s mass incarceration problem is a catastrophe entirely wrought by public agencies on the public purse. Private prisons in the US might suck, and you might think it’s a bad or a weird idea, or that profiting from human misery is nasty, but they aren’t the cause of the problem.

Having demolished the “Standard Story”, Pfaff then goes on to explain what he thinks are the real causes of incarceration in the USA, which is a complex mish-mash of bad design, lack of political accountability, and public choices, against a backdrop of rapidly increasing crime rates. At the core of his story is the prosecutor. Prosecutors in the USA are the equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service in the Westminster system, but they are radically different from the CPS. They are generally elected in county (local) elections, and funded at this level, so they are answerable to only local political forces. They have complete discretion as to who to charge, how and with what crime, and they typically are supported by a police force that is funded at the county level. Prosecutors typically are always re-elected, and no incumbent ever suffers from being too harsh on crime. But the real problem is in two aspects of the deployment of their considerable discretion: Whether to charge for misdemeanour or felony, and what plea bargain to make. If a prosecutor charges someone with a felony, that person goes to prison (not jail! The US has some kind of weird distinction!) – but prisons are funded by the state, not the county. This means that there is no financial pressure on them not to send people to prison. But it is the state that makes the laws, and at the state level there is often political pressure to create new laws and increase maximum penalties for those laws. So in recent times the prosecutor has been gifted with a wide range of potential felonies that they can threaten suspects with, that carry very large maximum penalties that are unlikely to be enacted by the judge but sound terrifying to the suspect. This means that it is very easy for prosecutors to get suspects to make plea deals for low level felonies, and there is no local pressure for them not to, but at the next election they are most likely to be judged for successfully putting felons away. This increasing freedom and power has occurred at a time when numbers of prosecutors have increased rapidly, and public defenders – the service that the government supplies to suspects – are massively underfunded and often barely have the time to meet their clients, let alone to help them defend their case. Prosecutors are also notoriously defensive about their work, there is almost no data on what they do, and their representative organizations have enormous clout. These are almost always the people whose perspective you see on shows like Law and Order, Major Crimes, etc.: they are the completely unconstrained and unmonitored heroes of the judicial system, and in the past 30 years the proportion of all cases that they decide to recommend for felony charges has doubled, at the same time as the number of prosecutors has doubled, and crime rates have risen. This, Pfaff argues, is the root cause of the growth of mass incarceration.

But beyond this, Pfaff identifies a much more challenging and much more politically challenging aspect of the growth of mass incarceration, which is going to be very difficult to reverse. Most people in US prisons are in prison for real, serious crimes: 60% of the growth in prisoner numbers since 1990 was due to people imprisoned for violent crimes, and people convicted of the most serious violent crimes (murder, manslaughter, forcible sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery) take up a disproportionately large amount of prison space and prison time. Seriously reducing the US prison population is going to require that the US voter be comfortable with releasing these prisoners, and being less harsh on violent criminals in future. This is a very politically challenging project, and lies at the core of the reform process: If the US criminal justice system doesn’t find a way to deal differently with violent criminals, the prison population will never significantly decline. To his credit Pfaff makes a powerful and clear argument that from a human rights and a law enforcement perspective, more lenient sentences and better policing are the key to reducing crime and mass incarceration. I find his argument persuasive, but then I would, wouldn’t I? And if you don’t, then you have to accept that the US is going to have a very large number of prisoners, much larger than most other countries, and there is no solution to this problem.

Pfaff goes further, to point out that much of the rhetoric of the prison reform movement is antithetical to this ultimate goal. Many prison reform efforts are pushed as efforts to release low-level prisoners to make space for those who “truly deserve prison”, and even if this balance is not stated explicitly it is implicit in the argument that prison should be for violent crime. America is experiencing a period of declining violent crime at present, but if that should reverse then this logic of reform will be hard to reverse, and it will be hard to argue for more lenient sentences for violent criminals after years of arguing that prison is what these people deserve. Pfaff also points out that the last 10 years of prison reform efforts – which he argues have been supported by all sides of politics in the US – have shown very limited effect, and that this is primarily because they are focusing on a very small proportion of the US prison population (first time drug offenders) and that they need to move from these “low hanging fruit” to the real drivers of prison growth – and those who really suffer in this system – violent offenders.

Within this story there is a lot of other material to consider – this book is a short and well written work with a rich vein of material to consider. It certainly changed my view of the drivers of mass incarceration in the USA and the real reforms it needs. It also shocked me with how callous the US criminal justice system is, and how shambolic. In contrast to the UK, Japan or Australia, where the prison, police and legal systems are all relatively well organized around a single structure that coordinates well, the US system is fragmented and full of perverse incentives, all corrupted by the horrors of having public servants like prosecutors elected at the county level (shudder!) Pfaff also consistently returns to a discussion of how damaging prison is for inmates, their families and the communities they are drawn from, reminding the reader regularly that prison is a destructive experience for everyone involved, and he also reminds the reader regularly of the US electorates’ appetite for punishment. But the real challenge of this book is his focus on the need to treat violent offenders differently. He even challenges the concept of “violent offenders”, arguing that we should refer to them as “people who committed violent crimes”, and argues compellingly that our attitude to violent crime is completely wrong. This struck me because although I’m generally in favour of not sending people to prison for all the reasons Pfaff describes, I am just as prone as anyone else to demanding people be locked up (e.g. that was my first response to the Grenfell Tower fire) or to thinking a sentence isn’t harsh enough (as if I, someone who has never been to prison or spent any time as a free adult anywhere I didn’t want to be, could possibly comprehend whether a three year sentence is any less harsh than a five year sentence!). And Pfaff’s argument is pretty clearly that probably I, and most of the rest of us, have got it completely wrong on prison sentences – that a suspended sentence or a year or two is probably just as good a deterrent as five or ten years, but has significantly less social and economic cost.

If I had any complaints about this book it would be that although he talks about race a little he doesn’t go into a discussion of race in depth, a problem in the American context. Also, although he repeatedly describes the lack of financial disincentives to county prosecutors sending prisoners to state prisons, Pfaff doesn’t seem to draw the obvious extra lesson here – that county prosecutors might have strong disincentives to send people to county jails, which have much less serious ramifications for their inmates than state prisons. In avoiding a full confrontation with the issue of race, and not fully drawing out all the implied pressures on prosecutors, Pfaff manages to miss the obvious possible extension argument underlying the points he makes: that a lot of prosecutors may well be cruel, racist arseholes, and that a root-and-branch reform of the entire prosecutorial system may be in order. But this is a common problem when confronting Americans’ assessments of their own problems, whether its Bernie Sanders or the gun control movement or Black Lives Matter: The American political system is rotten to its core, and it is going to take a lot more than a few piecemeal changes to parts of it to fix the huge problems lurking at its base. We’ve just passed the 4th July, so it’s probably worth reminding my American reader(s): you could ask the UK to take you back, you know. For all its flaws, the UK’s democracy is vastly superior to yours. You’ll have to give up your guns and you may have to learn to shut up occasionally, but in exchange you’ll get a functioning democracy. Think about it!

Anyway, jokes aside, this is a great book, a truly enlightening exposition of one of America’s great problems. If you are interested in drug decriminalization and have always assumed that this issue is at the heart of America’s prison problems, or if you are generally concerned about the way America needs to reform its criminal justice system to become a better country, then this book is a must read. It’s well written, well argued, dry but not exhausting, and compassionate towards the people at the core of the story: the prisoners, who by now are a large proportion of America’s population. If you care about the human rights of all people, regardless of what you might think of their worth as individuals, then this book is a compelling read. I recommend it to anyone interested in this important topic.


fn1: this is often characterized on the left and by libertarians as “the war on (some classes of people) who use (some classes of) drugs” but this book makes it very clear that the prejudice in the criminal justice system extends across the board, and that singling out one class of crimes (drug crimes) as a cause of racial disparities in incarceration won’t work, because the same racial disparities exist across all laws.

But he deserved it! Why all these forms?

But he deserved it! Why all these forms?

This week’s issue of PLOS Medicine has an excellent, simple article about the problem of police killings in America. It hinges around the simple fact that the Guardian’s website The Counted appears to have more accurate and up to date information on police killings than the American government, even though the US government has a real-time update of deaths in the largest 122 cities, and an ongoing FBI database of police killings that seems to significantly undercount the true numbers. The article makes the reasonable point that governments should be able to keep track of how many people their police kill, and that killings of police are tracked in great detail.

The article argues for the public health relevance of counting police killings on two grounds. First of all, based on just the data from the website, it compares the toll from police killings to other diseases, and the results are kind of shocking:

As of September 19, 2015, the cumulative 2015 total of 842 US persons killed by the police notably exceeded the corresponding totals reported for the 122 cities’ 442 deaths under age 25 (all causes) and also 585 deaths (all ages) due to pneumonia and influenza, and likewise exceeded the national totals for several diseases of considerable concern: measles (188 cases), malaria (786 cases), and mumps (436 cases), and was on par with the national number of cases of Hepatitis A (890 cases)

Putting aside the rather alarmingly large number of mumps and measles deaths, it’s quite shocking that police have killed more people in America this year than the total number of people aged under 25 who died in the 122 largest cities. The authors don’t spend much time on the fact, but a remarkably large number are black: at the time I am writing this post the website counts 1061 deaths and gives a population rate of 6.34 per million for blacks and 2.67 for whites. The death rate is highest in Oklahoma, at nearly 9.3 per million. The total death rate for violence in the USA in 2010 was 56.6 per million, which suggests that police killings are approximately 10% of all deaths due to interpersonal violence in the USA.

By way of comparison, the death rate due to interpersonal violence in Japan was 7.4 per million in 2010; in the UK it was 5.6 per million. The police in the USA have a higher death rate than everyone in the UK.

The article also makes a strong argument for the public health importance of police killings. The authors say that

Police are one of the most visible “faces” of government, whose work daily puts them in view of the public they are sworn to protect. Combine excess police violence with inadequate prosecution of such violence, and the ties that bind citizens and their democratically elected governments become deeply frayed, with vicious cycles of distrust and violence fueling dysfunctional policing and dysfunctional governance more generally. The direct effects and spill-over effects matter for public health and medicine alike, as reflected in the impact on emergency medical services, trauma units, mental health, and the trust required to deliver and implement any government-sponsored program, public health or otherwise.

They also mention in the previous paragraph the challenge of police deaths, which appear to be quite high in the USA and, I suspect, as a rate are quite horrifyingly high (I don’t know how many police there are in the USA). Police in the USA have to contend with an environment of uncontrolled gun use, and I’ve no doubt that some portion of the killings listed in the Guardian website would almost certainly have been averted if the police could have some confidence that the men and women they are dealing with are unlikely to be armed. Nonetheless, police are functionaries of the government, the primary means by which the state exerts its monopoly of force, and a huge amount of our social behavior is dependent on how restrained they are in the exercise of that monopoly. I think the authors of this article are right to observe that the behavior of the police is relevant to public health, and certainly when I worked in clinics for people who inject drugs in Australia, good relations with the police were a hugely important part of our public health work – senior medical staff in the clinics I worked at spent a lot of time negotiating with police and making sure that they understood their public health role, and having the police onside paid huge dividends in our public health work.

The article finishes by recommending that deaths involving police – either of police or by police – be publicly notifiable, like AIDS mortality or measles. This would enable the state to track the behavior of police, and to give real-time information about how police are behaving to public health authorities. I think this is a good idea, though I don’t think it’s necessary in every country. In Australia police deaths and deaths in custody are already notifiable [that link is from Queensland but I think every state is the same], and I think it’s safe to say that Australian police activities are not hampered by this requirement. Australia went through this discussion in the 1980s and 1990s, when there was a major government inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody that turned up some remarkable and counter-intuitive findings[1], and made important reforms to the way police behave. It’s really not difficult to enact these reforms if a government wants to, and although reforming police forces can be tough and requires political leadership, and police forces are often very racist, they are also bound together by a calling to civic duty that can be used to force powerful changes. Requiring that police deaths be counted is the first step to holding police accountable for those they kill. It’s always worth remembering this simple principle: if you aren’t counted, you don’t count.

Police violence in America seems to be something that happens in Republican and Democrat jurisdictions (Chicago seems to have developed its very own police torture centre, and yet Chicago is a Democrat stronghold). I suspect that problem is not one of simply political will, but also requires gun control and other anti-corruption measures at the political level that would seem natural in the rest of the world but seem to be anathema in the USA. It might also require removing appointment of police commissioners and deputies from public vote to political appointment. I don’t know what the correct changes would be. But actually forcing the police to register the people they kill – to count the dead – would be a big first step towards the changes that need to be made.

Let’s hope President Trump agrees with me …

fn1: In brief, Aboriginal people were no more likely to die in custody than white people, but were much, much more likely to be charged and taken into custody than white people, which produced a perception in Aboriginal communities of slaughter in prison. The reason for the charges was identified, primarily as the “trifecta”: a police officer approaches an Aboriginal person over the charge of offensive language, which rapidly escalates to abuse of an officer, and then becomes resisting arrest. The first of these three charges was almost exclusively applied only to Aborigines, and no one even really understood that this thing was happening until the government inquiry uncovered it and introduced a range of recommendations to reduce the rate at which Aboriginal people entered custody. Result: less black deaths in custody. It occasionally still enters the news, but mostly has become an irrelevant part of Australian history. My guess is that the same straightforward approach to discrimination won’t happen in America …

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Hrmph! I never wanted to go there anyway!

Indiana, USA[1] has just passed a law that discriminates against ordinary arseholes, and especially confirmed atheist arseholes. This law would make discrimination okay so long as the discriminator [hereafter referred to as “the arsehole”] is religious, and clearly sets up three categories of people with different sets of rights: nice people who want everyone to get along, religious arseholes and non-religious arseholes. Into the latter category we can add arseholes who are religious but whose arseholery is clearly not religiously-based, which is a distinction I’m sure the current Supreme Court can have a lot of hours of fun with.

As a confirmed, unrelenting but unfortunately atheist arsehole, I will be boycotting Indiana from now on. I was planning to visit later this year, rent a massive gas guzzling car with sealskin hubcaps and drive around throwing money to passing orphans while snorting cocaine off the naked bodies of zero-size barely legal models, but I refuse to throw away my arsehole currency in a state that classifies me as a second-class citizen. I will instead visit a state that allows all arseholes to be equally arseholey[2].

I mean, what is the point of this law except to redefine arseholes into two categories? It can’t possibly be the case that the LGBT couple who are refused service will be all peachy about it just because the refuser is wearing a funny hat, or believes in some funny beardy dude; I accept that intent is important in framing law (see e.g. manslaughter vs. murder) but usually it is limited to classifying degrees of severity, not allowing some people to break the law with impunity. Sure, if the law defined degrees of discrimination it might make sense (and a whole new season of Law and Order would be born) but to just define away criminality for certain classes of arsehole? Isn’t that … discriminatory?

This Vox article tells me that 20 states in the USA have these laws in place, and suggests to me that arsehole freedom is the next great civil rights movement in America (we could call ourselves the moonies). It also makes me wonder if there are any adults left in America, because it suggests that most of these laws have been passed to protect “religious minorities” and gives an example of Amish trying to protect themselves from a law that requires them to hang a glowing light on their buggies. They had to go to court to get protection against that law? Couldn’t everyone just discuss the law and come up with a compromise? Apparently not in America. And did the Amish really think they were so special that they were willing to go to special legal lengths to ensure that they didn’t have the same road safety responsibilities as everyone else? And why should they?

The same applies to vaccination exemption laws. If you believe in some beardy dude who says that women are second-rate citizens, gay people should be shot (I’m looking at you, Californian arseholes!) and pi is 3.0, you get to endanger other peoples’ kids by refusing  a medically safe and proven technology. But if your intention is simply to endanger other peoples’ kids because you’re a misanthropic arsehole who is too smart to believe the blather of a 2000 year old book that was written before people understood how to be nice to each other then too bad! You gotta be nice or face a fine.

Why this extreme double standard against arseholes?

America needs a movement of arseholes, willing to throw off their shackles and rise up against discrimination, before it becomes impossible to be intelligent and mean in any state of the union! Rise up, arseholes of America, and reclaim your right to be mean to people you don’t like for no other reason, without having to dishonestly cloak it in superstitious blather! Truly, liberation of pure arseholes is the movement 21st Century America needs, and truly 21st Century America is ready for it!

fn1: What is it with Americans thinking they don’t need to specify which country their states are in?

fn2: Suggestions in comments please

Going feral at the ends of the earth

Going feral at the ends of the earth

Top of the Lake is a seven part television series about misogyny and violence, set at the southern tip of New Zealand. It was directed by Jane Campion, director of the Piano, another movie about misogyny and violence in New Zealand that was very well received when it was released. In her return to New Zealand for this show, Campion has moved her setting from the lush fern forests of the North Island to the desolate peaks and wilderness of the far South Island, and has skipped in time from the colonial era to the modern – though looking at the behavior of the protagonists in this movie, it’s hard to find much of a civilizing influence of modernity.

The basic story of Top of the Lake is an apparently straightforward investigation of child abuse. A 12 year old girl called Tui (pictured) is pregnant and a cop from Sydney called Robin is brought in to investigate the case. The story is set in the fictitious town of Laketop, near Queenstown. Robin grew up in this town but moved to Australia to work, and has returned to Laketop temporarily because her mother has cancer, so she’s ideally placed to investigate the crime. Unfortunately, things don’t proceed simply: Tui is the daughter of a singularly malicious and nasty man, Matt Mitcham, who is a Scottish migrant and the dodgiest thug you’ve ever seen (well, at least until you meet some of his associates in episode 5). He is singularly unhelpful in the case, and Tui is also being very unhelpful – it’s not clear if she even understands what has happened to her, and soon after the show starts she disappears. Furthermore, Robin has her own dark history in Laketop, and pretty much every other person you meet is entangled in something dark and horrible: wherever you turn you see a suspect or their conspirator, and it’s really hard to believe that this town is not deeply enmired in misogyny, sexual violence and repression. Through all of this, Robin is trying to find and help Tui, and the rest of the town are taking a singularly colonial-era and feral approach to Tui’s problems, with almost no one seeming to be aware that it’s dangerous for a 12 year old girl to be pregnant, and dangerous for her rapist to be at large.

Campion’s exploration of the setting really helps to give this impression of a town that hasn’t worked out what modernity is, or updated its attitudes towards women accordingly. Queenstown is a famous tourist town and playground of the rich and famous, but we never see that side of the area: as far as we can tell, Laketop is a rundown and wild place in the middle of nowhere, a little cluster of huts hanging off of freezing, windy mountains and staring out at nothing. The children are wild, playing in canoes and on horses, keeping bones in their homes and wandering wild over the hills and forests, and Tui herself is feral to the point of being fey. The adults are also wild, but in a much nastier and ferocious way. Matt Mitcham, his family and associates cast a long shadow over the town, and he is a violent, sinister presence, completely unreformed and often more like a force of nature than a human. His direct children are ill-mannered, stupid thugs; another of his sons lives in a tent by the lake and spent eight years in a Thai prison; Tui is his daughter by a different woman, and there are children in his house who he doesn’t even really seem to know. The people of the town ride horses and hunt, and Mitcham’s associates use severed deer’s heads on poles as an emblem. The police in the town have a very vague understanding of what crime is or what their purpose is as police. The chief of the police, Al – played with incredible subtlety by David Wenham – alternates between being an urbane and intelligent modern policeman and a quietly dangerous, selfish and very sinister figure. The only apparently “normal” people in this show are a group of women from America and Australia who have formed a commune by the side of the lake, but these women are just as touched as the rest of the place: they live in shipping containers on the edge of the lake, they’re all deeply damaged in some way, and their guru GJ is a remote, harsh and judgmental woman who doesn’t appear to have any kind feelings for her charges at all – and these women also don’t seem to have any conception of the importance of protecting Tui or finding out who raped her. All these people are presented against the backdrop of a wild, silent and unforgiving landscape, cold and windy and desolate but stunningly beautiful, that acts as a perfect counterpoise for the wild, strange character of the people we meet.

Just as in The Piano, Campion uses the landscape to stunning effect as a backdrop to the story. It is beautifully filmed and presented, and in our various excursions to the top of the lake and the mountains beyond it we lose all sense that we are in the modern era. Watching the show makes you feel a kind of sympathetic chill as if you were experiencing the wind and rain and cold of the South Island yourself, but it’s impossible not to be amazed by the harsh beauty of the place. In The Piano, the wilderness offered a lush and sensual backdrop to the corrupted sexuality of the main protagonists; in Top of the Lake the chill, serene lake and cold, distant mountains reflect perfectly the sinister secrets of the town and the impenetrable wildness of the town’s main victim, Tui.

The acting in this television series is also exemplary. Robin is played with fine skill by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men, who does a brilliant job of portraying her human vulnerability and professional strength, as well as her bravery in the face of a town that seems determined to destroy her. Her slow unraveling over the course of the story is brilliantly done. David Wenham gives a master class in his potrayal of the chief policeman, Al, whose motives and allegiances are extremely suspicious, and the other major characters – Johnno and Matt Mitcham and his daughter Tui – are all perfectly cast.

The story is fairly simple and well told, without a real twist but with just enough red herrings and dead ends in its development that you aren’t sure you are right about the key points until the very end, and even then a few things are not fully resolved. It’s essentially a story about corruption and the extent to which a few evil men’s influence can completely corrupt a small community, and although it comes to the resolution one would hope for once one knew the facts, it remains deeply disturbing. It’s even more disturbing if anywhere in New Zealand is actually like the place depicted. My main complaint about the plot is that the commune by the lake plays a big role in the show, but is largely irrelevant to the plot and seems like a kind of boutique side story that Campion put in just to please herself. I think this commune should have been given a different, more satisfying role in the plot or should have been dropped, and I can’t work out exactly why it was important. But aside from that, the story is well told and has that feeling of completeness where nothing stood out as wrong or confusing, and the only unresolved parts were unresolved because the characters couldn’t know the answers, not because there were no answers or because of some plot incoherency. Quite a lot happens for just seven episodes, and it’s an impressively tightly coiled story.

I was surprisingly deeply affected by this show. It’s beautiful, the acting is powerful, the story is disturbing and the characters are amazingly engaging. It also tells a story about a side of New Zealand that maybe doesn’t really get shown much internationally in amongst all the Hobbitons and Rivendells that have emanated from there recently. It’s not always easy going, though it’s not openly brutal, and at times it is breathlessly tense, but in an enjoyable rather than an overly terrifying way. This is a good show to watch for anyone who is interested in crime stories, thrillers and mysteries – especially if you’re interested in seeing those stories unfold in a very unique and almost magical setting.

I’ve started watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian TV show based loosely on the series of Phryne Fisher murder mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. The basic idea behind these novels and the TV show is simple, effective and fun: Phryne Fisher is a young (28 year old) Australian woman who has returned to Melbourne after serving as a nurse in the Great War (1914-1918), having received an inheritance and a title from a distant aunt in the UK. Suddenly wealthy and flung into the licentious era of the twenties, she starts an investigative agency, and begins meddling in police affairs, as well as having many affairs. She’s “not the marrying kind,” and of course in the twenties this kind of attitude is scandalous but also increasingly accepted. The implication in the TV show (I’m not sure about the books) is that she comes from a poor background and has a sad past (in the books this is her wartime experience as a nurse; in the TV show it’s her younger sister, who was murdered). Since 1918, she tells us, she “hasn’t taken anything seriously,” and this is the atmosphere in which she conducts her investigations. She also collects poor people around her: she has adopted two orphans, and is close friends with a pair of communist activists, one a wharfie and one a cabby.

The TV show definitely has its flaws – sometimes the acting is a bit wooden and it feels like the directors weren’t sure if they were writing a comedy or a drama – but this is the normal experience of watching Australian TV. Typically, the only TV shows that Australian directors can make with any confidence are shit-boring dramas about enormously boring middle-class suburban lives, quirky comedies about rural idylls, or gritty stories of political corruption. Anything else is approached with a kind of self-conscious dread of being caught being pretentious, and this trepidation inevitably spoils the product as the director tries to inject a bit of self-deprecating humour, or gets caught looking over their own shoulder checking that they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. It’s an Australian thing. This self-consciousness is why Australia can make excellent quirky rural comedies (e.g. Seachange) but will never, ever produce a decent science fiction show. Something like Firefly is physically inconceivable to the average Australian movie critic – merely glancing sideways at the script for an Aussie Firefly would cause 99% of Australian movie critics’ heads to explode[1].

So, having attempted to break out of the standard mold of Aussie drama, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is already painfully self-conscious. But if you can deal with that (and I’m sure it will relax as future episodes are unveiled) you get an actually pretty excellent TV show. Phryne is a fun character: she’s got guts, she’s going against convention, she’s clever, she’s compassionate and she’s lusty. Her two working class friends, the wharfie and the cabby, are intensely Australian men, laconic and kindly and macho all in one, simultaneously shy and big-hearted. Her maid, Dot, is an amusing combination of sassy girl-next-door and Catholic repression. The setting is unashamedly Australian – the Ballarat express[2], the Melbourne University boat club, flying a Tiger Moth out to the countryside to meet “Vic” – who leans in the doorway and talks out the side of his mouth in just the way you expect of an Aussie shearer – the dodgy Turkish baths and the backyard abortionist behind the pie shop, they’re all classic Australian settings. The characters also convey that strange Australian combination of conservatism and vital, progressive energy that makes our politics and culture simultaneously so small-minded and so visionary. For non-Australian viewers this show manages to present Australia in a suitably exotic light even though it’s set in Australia’s second largest city. It’s a nice introduction to some of Australia’s wilder history, as well as to the very special physical environment of South East Australia, which in its own way is easily as exotic as the Top End. At any moment you expect Phryne to just waltz out of the city and go solve the mystery of hanging rock.

Another thing that this show does very nicely is its depiction of gender issues. The twenties were an era of newfound sexual liberation against a backdrop of essentially very conservative sexual values, and this show does a good job of depicting the sexism of the time without making it menacing or overbearing: it depicts this sexism as contested and malleable, as also is the homophobia and racism, so that we don’t have to endure a stultifying atmosphere of overpowering misogyny such as mars shows like A Game of Thrones. Phryne is clearly liberated not just because she is a woman in the twenties, but because she is rich; the women around her are not so lucky, and we see this, but we also see how they make their own place in the world despite adversity, and how the men of the time adapt and respond to these challenges to traditional gender roles. Even though as a crime show it has license to be grounded in “gritty realism,” we get a much better example of how to depict institutional sexism without creating an atmosphere of woman-hating, which I think directors with much bigger budgets might benefit from watching.

I guess for people living outside Australia this TV show is going to be hard to see – it’s been produced by our public broadcaster but it’s not available over the internet if you live outside of the country. I’m sure there are ways, though … and if you’re interested in seeing a nice depiction of how Australians view our own history, through the vehicle of a fairly well-designed (but occasionally overly self-conscious) murder-mystery show, then I recommend this. Obviously, as well, the twenties are a fun era full of progressive girls wearing splendid clothes and men who spout over-the-top English. However, if you can’t abide shows with slightly stilted acting that don’t quite know what they want to be, or you can’t handle anything that isn’t standard American crime fare, then you should probably steer clear. I like it though, and will be watching more where I get the chance.

fn1: oh, I wish someone would write one!

fn2: which seems to take all night, even though Ballarat is – what – 3 hours from Melbourne?

Can he see you...?

As part of my new year plan to improve my Japanese, I am on a manga collecting binge, starting with Psychic Detective Yakumo (Shinrei Tantei Yakumo,心霊探偵八雲) by Manabu Kaminaga. This is a series of case files about a cynical and slightly misanthropic college student called Yakumo, seen mostly through the perspective of the slightly eccentric college girl Ozawa Haruka. Yakumo was born with a single red eye that enables him to see spirits and ghosts, and the trouble that this eye has brought him has turned him into something of a recluse and a bit of a bastard. His mother even tried to kill him and then abandoned him when he was a kid, so he’s understandably a little cynical about people. Haruka, on the other hand, wants to help others because when she was about 8 years old she accidentally got her older sister killed, and ever since she’s wanted to be the child who everyone loves, but behaves eccentrically in her quest for this fulfilment. What she doesn’t know – but finds out through Yakumo’s red eye – is that her sister’s ghost is following her around as a kind of guardian angel – and maybe this is why Haruka is the impetus for the adventures that we read in the manga.

In the first episode we also discover that Yakumo is a bit of a fraud, cheating at card games through a mirror pinned to the door of his club room in the University, and then offering to exorcise a ghost from a completely normal memorial picture of the English professor’s dead daughter – in exchange for higher marks and attendance records. “I sell peace of mind,” he tells Haruka, “And it’s an awesome business!” However, he is basically good at heart, and although very off-hand and cool with Haruka maybe he has a bit of a thing for her. By the end of the first instalment we have seen hints of a love triangle, and then tacked on to the end of the book there is an amusing “interview” conducted by the intrepid report “M” who ambushed Yakumo as he was waking up, in which we see the depths of his misanthropy and lack of interest in ordinary life.

The story itself is simple but effective. From here on I shall give a few spoilers, but since there’s no english translation of this manga as far as I know, i doubt you will be reading it, gentle reader (if you can read Japanese, maybe skip this paragraph). Haruka approaches Yakumo for help, having never met him before, because her friend Miki is in a coma in hospital after a strange incident, and a friend suggested Yakumo could help. Miki visited an abandoned house with her boyfriend Kazuhiko, and was attacked by a ghost from behind the door of “the forbidden room,” a room whose door had a sign on it saying “do not open.” Subsequently Kazuhiko “commits suicide” on the train line. Yakumo visits the girl and identifies that she has been possessed by the ghost of a girl called Yuri. Haruka and Yakumo do some investigating on the computer system of the university (which Haruka has access to through a part-time job) and discover that a girl called Yuri went missing a little earlier. The girl was from Haruka’s class, and by tracing rumours of attachments they identify Yuri’s ex-boyfriend, who Haruka goes to talk to. He tries to kill Haruka, revealing as he does so that he had a brief fling with Yuri and got her pregnant, even though “after we had sex just a few times she started acting like my girlfriend.” But Haruka’s sister’s ghost gets Yakumo, who comes and saves her, revealing as he did so that he had guessed that the boyfriend killed Kazuhiko as well. The reason? When Kazuhiko and Miki were fooling around outside the abandoned building, Kazuhiko took a photo of Miki and in the background was the faint image of Yuri’s boyfriend carrying her body away from the scene of the crime. In good Japanese style, having been discovered, the boyfriend turns himself in. The story closes with Haruka and Yakumo getting involved with the case of a serial killer.

The story is pretty simple, but it works as a basic detective story, and a lot of it is about boy/girl interactions between the lead characters. In fact, the manga is probably better called “bumbling helper Haruka” because it seems to focus more on her (and the story of her sister’s tragic death) than on Yakumo, who remains an enigma. The narrative force is largely with Haruka, who though a little ditzy and physically weak is a clever and forceful character, possessed additionally of an emotional depth and moral depth that Yakumo definitely lacks. In all it’s a good story and an amusing tale of a burgeoning friendship (or love affair?) between two people whose characters are guaranteed to create trouble for each other, and it is clearly set up so that we will slowly learn more about Yakumo, while we watch Haruka become a skilled ghostbuster and reconcile herself with her sister.

The artwork is fine, typical manga black-and-white drawings, though everyone seems to have the same features, which makes it hard for me to work out who is talking. But the clear plan in this series of manga is to focus on the story and interactions, not the pictures, so it works as basic background information to support the basic story. I can recommend this to anyone who is able to read Japanese (and I might add, the kanji are entirely supported by furigana, so it’s smooth and easy to read compared to, say, Emma or Shuna’s Journey). If you’re looking for an easy introduction to intermediate Japanese with a fun story and good characters, this is the manga for you!

The next in my line of eBook downloads, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan is perhaps best described as a cyberpunk Space Opera. It is set in a near future, perhaps 500 years from now, in which humans have developed a technology of human mind replication. This technology is not cheap, but it enables people to back up their mind and memories (their stack) and install it in a new human being (their sleeve) when their current human dies. This provides a kind of immortality, and changes many aspects of ordinary human life, including:

  • punishment: prison is time spent “on stack” while the sleeve in which you committed the crime is rented out to others to use
  • insurance: every person’s goal is to get a resleeving policy, so that when they die they can be reborn based on their last backup, in a new sleeve
  • torture: if you really really want to torture someone, you upload their stack into a virtual system, and torture them there for as long as you want – they can’t die

The very rich can afford regular backups, perhaps as often as every 48 hours and done remotely, but for the vast majority of even the middling rich, the mind and memories are backed up only internally, in essentially a memory chip inside their head. This enables them to die for real if their head is destroyed or the stack is removed and lost.

The story centres around a criminal called Takeshi Kovacs who has retired from a specialist psychotic marine unit called the Envoys. He is dragged out of a long prison sentence (on stack) by a very rich and long-lived man (a methuselah, or “meth”), who was murdered two days earlier and wants his death investigated by an independent operator. Unfortunately all is not as it seems (of course) and after a slight mishap on the first day, Kovacs ends up to his neck in real and virtual shit. There are a lot of tricks based on the fundamental conceit of the altered carbon (at one point we briefly meet an assassin who uses a copy of himself for backup, because he can’t trust anyone else); but there is also a sensitive and intelligent investigation of the consequences of this backup process for human society. What does death and childhood mean when you can live forever? Does money become more significant or less when it has the power to buy you eternal life? How does one prosecute a war when the dead can come back to life? And how does one deal with criminals who have no fear of death?

Kovacs answers most of these questions using an advanced array of extremely dangerous weaponry, and the author produces some very poignant moments based around the experiences of ordinary mortals cast into these situations. He also writes very well, giving simultaneously an excellent story, believable characters and an interesting and unpretentious exploration of some of the philosophical consequences of the phenomenon at the centre of the novel. This is an excellent novel, well worth reading, and I will definitely be pursuing the series as he writes more!

Next Page »