Tag Archives: mystery

Errol Morris in Hillermanland

The one venture into fiction filmmaking by documentarian Errol Morris (Fog of War, Thin Blue Line) was the first film adaptation of a Tony Hillerman mystery, “The Dark Wind” (1991). It was shot on location with Navajo and Hopi technicians and extras by Morris’s usual cinematographer Stefan Czapsky.


Hillerman supplied plots, and the intersection between murders and drug trafficking in The Dark Wind is very complicated and confusing, but his series of Navajo Tribal Police procedurals was character-driven more than plot-driven, with a major emphasis on Navajo (and in this instance, Hopi) beliefs about evil spirits and just plan evil (the dark wind).

At the start, Jim Chee (Lou Diamond Phillips), whose thoughts we hear in voiceovers (a departure from Hillerman’s third person) is new to the Tuba City station and on a boring stakeout for someone who is vandalizing windmills. He sees a small plane crash, runs to the scene, where he finds the pilot dead and a man in a suit with a Wigwam Motel card in his mouth. He hears, but does not see a truck driving away.

When a corrupt and sadistic pair of FBI (not DEA?) investigators arrive, Chee becomes a prime suspect of having made off with the cocaine. His boss (herein) Lt. Leaphorn (Fred Ward) sends him to liaison with a corpulent Hopi deputy, “Cowboy” Dashee (Gary Farmer). There is a corpse on Hopi territory with its fingertips and toetips hacked off, which is the m.o. of Navajo witches (skinwalkers).

And there is a burglary of pawned jeelry at the Burnt Water Trading Post. Of course, all these are collected and the motive that collects them is very hidden. And our dogged investigator will figure it all out, though getting roughed up a couple of times. Indeed, he is the character who spends the most time handcuffed during the movie (handcuffed by the federal officers).


The movie seems true to the spirit and characters and setting of Hillerman’s novels. Much as I like Adam Beach, both in general and as Jim Chee in the three made-for-PBS Hillerman/Navajo mysteries in particular, I think that Phillips was better at bringing out the lonely, depressive side of Chee’s character. Beach seems a more extroverted, convivial, and self-confident person, even when bewildered and frustrated. Both excel in showing commitment to traditional belies and respect for the elders, and I like all four screen adaptations.

Apparently, the movie previewed badly, producer Robert Redford panicked and had someone else shoot the action sequences. The movie was not theatrically released, and images with mikes hanging into the shot that would have disappeared in the planned 1:1.85 ratio are sometimes visible. No final “release print” was made, and the DVD was made from the camera original.

Phillips (who is 1/8th Cherokee and also of Spanish, Scottish/Irish, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian descent, born on a US naval base in the Philippines) was outstanding as the lead in “La Bamba” (1987), and in supporting roles in “Stand and Deliver” (1988), and “Courage Under Fire” (1996), and has had work, though less of a carree than I think he he should have. Farmer was the star of the first great Native American movie, “Pow Wow Highway” (1989) and for me was the best part of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1995). As his weight continues to increase, he became the boss of both Leaphorn and Chee, Capt. Largo, in the three PBS Hillerman adaptations.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

More thrills based in a Taipei night market


Incensed (2016, Taiwanese-American Ed Lin’s second novel Ghost Month was the first) centered on Taiwanese UCLA dropout Jing-Nan (has many aspects that are mysterious to the owner of a Night Market sausage and skewered-entrails stand. Jing-Nan’s proprietor persona, the tout “Johnny,” is less shy than the orphaned Taiwanese 25-year-old Jing-Nan, and uses his fluency in English to draw American tourists to his stand.

It is an especially family-focused time of year (the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival), and Jinh-Nan is called upon by his Taichung gangster uncle, Big Eye, to watch over Big Eye’s rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Mei-ling. Big Eye wants her to finish high school. Jing-Nan wants to be a singer (though both her father and her older cousin don’t think she has any talent).

There is an Indonesian she has broken up with and whom her father abhors on principle (xenophobic principles) and wants to ensure is distanced from his daughter. There is the Taipei primo capo (to borrow an Italian Mafia term) from whom Big Eye has won a lot of money gambling. There are Big Eye’s fierce and fiercely loyal bodyguards, and a similar formidable pair of employees Hing-Nan has inherited along with the market business. One of them, Dwayne, is Ami (one of the aboriginal Polynesian peoples) and the book illustrates inter-ethnic animosities (aboriginal peoples against Chinese who arrived from the 17th through the 20th century, Holo-speakers (Taiwanese), Hakka, the predatory defeated Kuomintang who fled defeat on the mainland after WWII, and the swarms of tourists from the PRC) as well as explaining (with a light touch) the multitude of gods and goddesses Taiwanese attempt to get to aid, or at least not to obstruct their endeavors. Not just temples and the night market, but other parts of Taipei geography are also revealed, with a major lynchpin of the plot occurring on the relatively new (since 2007) Maokong string of gondolas above Taipei.

Although there are two murders, the novel is not at all a whodunit. There are many surprises for Jing-Nan, who is alarmed at the responsibility for a wild 16-year-old forced on him by a ruthless gangster. There is a lot of humor, not least about celebrity. Jing-Nan is a minor celebrity for having deflected a bullet with his main cooking pot (back in Ghost Month). And the novel begins with a droll account of a contest to eat especially rank stinking tofu between a Japanese and a Taiwanese who alternate winning contests wolfing down food. They put their minor celebrity to work at a rally in the night market for a protest rally involving Jing-Nan’s activist girlfriend Nancy (politicized since Ghost Month).


I think the book is just a bit too long. There are too many punk-rock (and post-punk) references for me (especially the Joy Division obsession), but I enjoyed the voice of the young somewhat Americanized Taiwanese narrator and the atmosphere of scrambling to succeed in Taipei.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Gripping thriller/romance based in Taipei Night Market


Ghost Month (2014), the first of the (to-date two; the second is Incensed) Taipei Night Market mysteries by Ed Lin, is a somewhat chaotic mix of opinions about various facets of Tawan’s culture and history with a thriller plot. The latter involves government(s) collusion with Chinese gangs, covert technology transfer to the PRC and the murder of Julia Huang. Julia grew up with the narrator, Jing-nan. Both of their parents had stands in a Taipei night market. She was a better student than he, but he was good enough to get into UCLA (while she went to NYU).

They had agreed not to have any contact until they graduated, at which point they would wed. Because Jing-nan’s father was dying, he returned to Tapei and his mother was killed in a traffic accident on the way to pick him up from the airport. After which his father died and he inherited gambling debts from his grandfather, so had to run the night market stand. Fortunately, he also inherited a staff of two very competent cooks, the burly Ami (one of the fourteen recognized aboriginal groups on Taiwan), Dwayne, and the son of a mainlander, Frankie. Jing-nan is a benshengren (Han who went from Fujien to Taiwan before it was ceded to Japan in 1895), so the stand provides a sample of interethnic antagonism with a descendant each of the original Austronesian inhabitants, of the early “settlers” (who, like American ones pushed aside the aboriginal inhabitants), and of the Chinese who fled the loss of the civil war to the communists and took over what the Japanese had developed (jobs, housing, infrastructure).

Jing-nan has renamed the shop selling skewers of sausage and internal organs of pigs “Unknown Pleasures” in honor of his favorite album by his favorite post-punk band, Joy Division. Its lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1979, something like a decade before Jing-nan was born.

Jing-nan is shocked to learn that Julia (1) has been murdered and (2) was working as a scantily clad seller of betel nuts at a roadside stand on an exit to Hsinchu City (35 miles south of Taipei’s international airport in Taoyuan). He did not know that she had returned to Taiwan and finds it difficult to believe that she could have been employed as a near-prostitute (or a more than near one).

After visiting Julia’s parents (and being warned off trying to find out what had happened to her by seeming gangsters), Jing-nan contacts two of their schoolmates who had also gone to NYU, Peggy (from a very affluent mainlander family of entrepreneurs) and a doughy boy everyone called “Cookie Monster.”

At a music emporium called Bauhaus, he meets a young woman three years his junior who idolized him when they were in high school, Nancy. (Peggy also had a major crush on him, though he was very visibly focused on Julia.) Thus, most of the major characters other than the Unknown Pleasure employees went to school together

Jing-nan has also inherited the illegally constructed shack in which his grandfather and father died. It is near the major tourist attraction temple in Taipei, Longshan, one that also has heavy traffic, especially during Ghost Month (the seventh lunar month) from Taiwanese, with altars to multiple gods, the goddess Mazho, and the bodhisattva Guan Yin. Julia and Jing-nan scoffed at the profusion of Taiwanese deities and their worshippers, but he ends up going there on instructions beyond the grave from her (she visits him in dreams).


(offerings at a Taipei temple (Hsian Tian Kong)


(worsipper in Longshan Temple)

In addition to two major romances and the longings of the two other Taiwanese who went to NYU, where they had little contact with Julia, and a dogged murder investigation opposed by police and the dominant (Black Sea) gang, Jing-nan opines at length about punk and post-punk Anglophone bands (I only recall one mention of a Taiwanese singer and no mention of any Taiwanese or Japanese bands), Taiwanese religious syncretism (placating gods and deities to be on the safe side even if one is not convinced they exist), love/sex, and official corruption (both police and building inspectors and permit-issuers), and the complicated history of expropriations).

I find Jing-nan convincing, albeit very in the noir tradition of a non-professional investigator who is clueless about how gangs and government collude, and there is plenty of plot with developments I did not foresee. There is lots of specificity about Taiwan geography and traffic, weather and pollution (the latter has improved considerably since the completion of the subway system). Other than not caring about his “musical” favorites, I thought there were too many dreams in the book. And I thought the characterizations were strong, varied, and interesting.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Shimao’s “The Devil’s Disciple”


Viscount Hamao Shirô (1895–1935) derived from two very elite families (marrying into his wife’s family, the Hamaos). After a few years as a prosecutor, he turned to writing crime fiction. In that it lacks a detective or even a murder, “The Devil’s Disciple” (1929) does not strike me as a “detective story” or a “murder mystery.”* There is a corpse and some mystery. The author of a long account (long for a letter, short for a novel!), Eizô Shimaura begins with the unusual report hat “I am being held here [jail] as a murderer. But the truth is that I am probably not that murderer. That’s right: Probably.”

He wanted his pregnant wife, whom he had come to loathe, to die and provided her what would be for her a fatal dose of sleeping powder, but when he woke from his own drugged sleep, expecting to find her dead beside him, he instead saw her rolled-up futon and found her not just alive, but chipper in the kitchen. She knew that she could not take a dosage like his.

And then he finds that the woman he does love has taken a fatal overdose of his sleeping powder while he was off trying to arrange his wife’s death. It would be hard to consider Eizô Shimaura “innocent,” but in legal terms, the most he is culpable for was negligence in leaving what could be a lethal dose of sleeping powder with his beloved (stockpiled for his own use, not intended for hers). Though his intent was nefarious, he is not even guilty of attempted murder.

Eizô Shimaura is far from being a model citizen. If he is an “unreliable narrator,” it is not in exculpating himself. What is dubious, indeed, what seems unbalanced, is his opening denunciation of the recipient of his letter, his former lover (another male) who is now a prosecutor, Tsuchida. Tsuchida, who is two years senior to Eizô, seduced Eizô when they were in school. Eizô berates Tsuchida for corrupting him, which is not primarily their former sexual relationship, but in introducing Eizô to drugs (for sleeping), alcohol, and for breaking his heart. After their two years of constant being together, Tsuchida (then 22) graduated. Eizô (then 20) remained in the school and was heartbroken that Tsuchida took on a new (19-year-old) favorite.

Tsuchida did not “corrupt” Eizô’s desire or sexual functioning with women. Eizô does not blame his first female love, Sueko, for dropping him and marrying up. After Sueko’s husband dies in an earthquake, the married Eizô starts sleeping with her. That is, he has ongoing sexual relations with two women (and no males).

The homophobia of “the disciple” Eizô’s attack on “the devil” Tsuchida is not an explication of Hamao’s own views. Hamao was a pioneer defender of same-sex love in Japan, defending the old accommodations of acted-upon desire for bishônen (beautiful boys) against the imported patholigization (as perversion). Tsuchida is a fictional character for whom first love led to first heartbreak… and in a very convoluted way to the death of the source of his second heartbreak. Though trying to blame another (Tsuchida) for his character and life, Eizô strikes me more as guilt-ridden than as ashamed for what he did, what he intended, and who he is. And the serial seducer of younger males, Tsuchida, does not show any signs of feeling either ashamed or guilty for his modus operandi of dazzling favorites (and dropping them later on).

  • In his very helpful introduction, translator J. Keith Vincent identifies the Japanese genre: a mix of “aestheticized decadence, gothic horror, and pseudo-scientific sexology and criminology known in 1920 Japan as ero-guro-nansensu or ‘erotic grotesque nonsense.’”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray