Why Did I Ditch “The Undoing”?

Because it was boring and obvious. The murderer had to be Hugh Grant. But I kept up with the story since my spouse watched it religiously for the New York wealth porn (clothes!  interiors!).  So I got regular plot reports, and I also read media updates which tried to stir up a frenzy about a lukewarm project that had none of the electricity or coherence of Big Little Lies.

How did I know who the killer was? Well, one way was patterns. I’ve reviewed hundreds of mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and read many hundreds more on my own over the years. I’ve also written a crime series that’s earned kudos from major national newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

In classic crime fiction, the killer is often the least likely person. In this case, there was a meta piece to the puzzle. When you cast an actor renowned for his supernatural charm, there has to be one major reason: it’s a red herring.  “Hugh Grant?  But he’s such a sweetheart?  He can’t be a crazy killer!”  Well, duh, of course he can.  He has to be.

As for the other suspects? There just weren’t enough of them, enough to be believable, that is. Nicole Kidman didn’t know about the affair so how could it be her? Neither did Donald Sutherland. The son? Puh-leeze. Sylvia? What compelling motive did she have? Grant was the super-obvious choice from episode one and each subsequent episode nailed that coffin shut. 

In addition to the regular plot updates from my spouse, nothing about the snippets I occasionally caught when I wandered into the living room tempted me back to watch the miniseries. Things just didn’t add up. Kidman was a counselor when she looked dressed and groomed for a holiday in Paris staying at The Ritz? Inconceivable. It would be too distracting to the clients, and my psychologist spouse agreed. Kidman took late night walks in New York alone? Were the writers on drugs? My spouse and I both grew up in Manhattan and her solo strolls were totally unreal.

TIME magazine put it quite well: The show was “littered with predictable plot twists, hoary genre clichés, thin supporting characters and relatively little to say.”

But maybe it appealed to Americans in lockdown, the way Depression-era fans flocked to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies.  Too bad the miniseries didn’t have their wit or pizazz.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and has been moderator or panelist at dozens of panels at mystery conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  He’s published 26 books in a wide range of genres and hundreds of short stories, essays, reviews, and blogs.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, by wajakemek | rashdanothman

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How Reading Henry James Changed My Life

I had an amazing senior year of college reading (and reveling in) George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James.

While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42.

lady(Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion’s 1996 film of Portrait)

That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

It may sound like a cliché, but I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for.  My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining.  It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction in a wide range of genres.