Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Great Movie Plot: "Derailed"

Copyright © 2013, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I saw a great thriller the other day: the 2005 movie Derailed, directed by Mikael Håfström. So many movies that bill themselves as thrillers disappoint, with predictable and overused plots -- or violence and special-effects masquerading as a plot -- and characters that are a bit too heroic for ordinary mortals. Derailed thankfully avoids that.

Really great mystery/thrillers fool the reader into thinking they know what's coming next. The protagonist starts out as an innocent Joe who is sucked into violent or dangerous circumstances beyond anything he's encountered before. As the story progresses his life is thrown into turmoil. But little by little, he becomes hardened and more savvy. He learns to fight back. And there's a plot twist.

In Derailed, Charles, a married man with a chronically ill daughter, meets a sexy woman named Lucinda (Jennifer Anniston) on a commuter train. Within a few days, their innocent encounters go further, drawing them to a cheap downtown hotel room. But as they are about to consummate their adulterous act, a thug bursts into the room to rob them. Charles is beaten into unconsciousness and the woman is raped. Later, she refuses to allow Charles to call the police; her husband will divorce her and take away the children.

But, the criminal isn't done with them: he has their wallets and knows where they live. He demands money. Charles pays, thinking that will end it, while desperately trying to conceal the affair from his wife. But the harassing calls keep coming, as do the demands for more blackmail money. He takes Lucinda hostage, demanding $100,000. Charles feels guilty that Lucinda was raped, and will pay anything to protect her.

Charles enlists the help of an ex-con he knows, who works in the company mail room. The ex-con's plan is to frighten the blackmailer with a gun when the money is to be paid. Instead, he is murdered while in the car with Charles. Charles escapes, but the police are now investigating the murder and question him.

As the story nears the end, we discover the robbery and blackmail are not what they seem. Charles becomes suspicious when Lucinda vanishes, and finds she didn't have the high-powered job and family she claimed. He soon discovers she and the thug are a team of scam-artists, and Charles was their latest mark. He then hatches his own plan to trap them in their next scam.

The plot twist -- the scam -- comes as a total surprise because the viewer has invested so much sympathy in Lucinda. Charles' character is slowly transformed from a naive, frightened victim into a determined, cunning schemer bent on revenge. In the final scene, where the sneering thug has Charles right where he wants him, Charles turns the tables, and the thug realizes he's the one who has been set up, making for a thoroughly satisfying ending.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: The Chase, by Clive Cussler

Copyright © 2012, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

The Chase, written by Clive Cussler, is the first offering in his Issac Bell series. It is set in 1906, where Bell is an ace detective for the Van Dorn detective agency of Chicago.

The plot centers around a clever bank robber who murders all witnesses in the target bank, earning him the nickname Butcher Bandit. The crimes take place mostly in small western mining towns on the very day a large payroll lies in the vault. His escapes bewilder local authorities; he seems to vanish without a trace.

Issac Bell and the Van Dorn agency are called in to solve the case. Bell is independently wealthy, heir to a Boston banking dynasty, who foregoes the banking business to instead chase criminals for Joseph Van Dorn’s agency. Working from the Denver office, he assembles a small team of detectives and sends them off to the affected towns to scour for any information that may help. They gather a few sparse clues that eventually lead them to San Francisco, drawing them tantalizingly close to their villain.

The Chase contains many enjoyable historical details about towns in the West, the railroads, and the raunchy lifestyle of San Francisco. A few historical characters make cameo appearances, such as author Jack London. And, of course, the climax coincides with San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake.

The book begins and ends in April 1950, where a salvage crew attempts to raise a submerged train from Flathead Lake, Montana. As the 1906 plot unfolds, the reader is drawn closer and closer to the event in Montana that results in the sunken train.

The plot is excellent, pulling the reader forward from chapter to chapter. However, the writing itself is somewhat crude, especially Cussler’s annoying overuse of adverbs with dialog tags. Phrases like “she said sincerely” or “he said pessimistically” litter the pages by the dozens and dozens. Also, I found several obvious errors, such as using the wrong person’s name on dialog tags or in narration, leading me to believe this book was never professionally edited before publication. These flaws aside, The Chase is a good read for a lazy weekend.