It is no exaggeration to say I have been eagerly anticipating Samm Deighan’s monograph of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film. I love the film and I am a big fan of Deighan’s movie writing, so the combination is bound not to disappoint. And it didn’t.
As Deighan puts it in her introduction, M ‘exists in a liminal space between urban social drama, crime thriller, and horror film’. It was arguably the first serial killer film, long before the FBI coined the term in the early 1970s. Anchored by a superb performance by Peter Lorre as the paedophiliac child killer, Hans Beckert, it was certainly the first motion picture in which a serial killer was the central protagonist. Another crucial innovation was the way in which Lang depicted the character of Beckert in a not entirely unsympathetic light. This same sensibility would have a influence on some subsequent serial killer cinema, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror/thriller, Psycho.
Deighan discusses M’s broader social and political themes, including the film as a critique of modernity and a text for Germany on the brink of totalitarian control, appearing as it did a year before the Nazi’s assumed power and Lang had to flee the country.
Another fascinating aspect of the book is the discussion of how the themes in M would echo in Lang’s subsequent work, particular the threat of the lawless mob violence and what is perhaps the director’s most defining idea, how even the most noble individual is capable of brutal murderous thoughts and actions. The monograph also contains a terrific discussion of 1920s and early 1930s expressionist German cinema and the how it reflected social, economic and political trends in Germany, in general, and Berlin, in particular, during that time.
My only beef with this book was that it did give not more than a cursory mention to Joseph Losey’s strange but, in my opinion, compelling 1951 remake of Lang’s work. This is first class film writing and one of a number of excellent monographs that have been released by Auteur publishing. Full disclosure, Auteur’s science fiction series, Constellations, published my book on Norman Jewison’s 1975 film, Rollerball. In addition to M (which is published by their Devil’s Advocates series on horror cinema), this year I also thoroughly enjoyed Nick Riddle’s monograph on Losey’s The Damned (1963), and am eagerly awaiting Kate Ellinger’s take on the wonderfully weird 1971 Euro-vampire flick, Daughters of Darkness, and Martyn Conterio’s upcoming book on Mad Max (1979)
The rest of my top 10 books for 2019, in no particular order, are:
False Dawn, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
I have been reading a lot of science fiction for the third and final pulp and popular fiction book I am co-editing for PM Press, provisionally titled, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1980, and the 1978 work, False Dawn was one of the best. A great slice of feminist dystopian writing.
Kill all Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan to Trumblr to Trump and the Alt Right, Angela Nagle
Trying to understand the political clusterfuck that much of the world is in led me to Nagle’s excellent book. Another useful contribution in this area was Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warning: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right.
Nada, Jean Patrick-Manchette
“Don’t tell me you’re a Maoist?”
“I’m not a complete idiot,” answered Cash.
I adore Machette’s work and this book, about a kidnapping gone wrong set amidst the crumbling, dissolute world of post-1968 Paris radical politics, and full of cutting asides about the French left and right, is one of his best.
The Godmother, Hannelore Cayre
Another French book, this thin slip of a book is a wonder of noir storytelling. Think a middle class, female, French version of the TV show Breaking Bad, but waaaaaay better.
Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
I have steadily worked through worked Levin’s catalogue this year in an effort to discover what made him so successful. He’s just an amazing storyteller, as evidenced by this book, which combines an easy prose style with the masterful pacing in terms of the subtle and restrained release of plot points, particularly around the way that Rosemary’s husband sets her up as the mother of Satan’s child.
True West, David Whish-Wilson
I have said on this site many times before that Perth based Whish-Wilson is one of the most under-appreciated crime writers working in Australia at the moment and True West, a twisty not tale set among neo-Nazi politics in 1980s West Australia, confirmed this me for again.
Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winter
Part crime/part SF, the story focuses on a black bounty hunter who plies his trade in an alternative – but not that alternative – America in which slavery is still legal in four states. This is an amazing and incredibly disturbing read.
Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Undergound, Kinohi Nishkawa
We need less books about the great works of literature and more about the down and dirty world of pulp fiction. Based on Nishikawa’s PhD dissertation on the history of the white owned, ‘black experience’ pulp publisher, Holloway House, it combines fascinating historical insights with painstaking research.
Only to Sleep, Lawrence Osborne
Probably one of the most beautifully written crime novels I have read in a long time. As is the case with all the best PI novels it is full of dark themes and existential musings, but they never get in the way of the pace. A stunning evocation of an elderly Philip Marlowe and Mexico in the 1980s, full of menace and wonderful nuances, characters and dialogue.