Kubrick’s Game, by Derek Taylor Kent (2016)

51pvfNx4SWLThis book came to me almost by accident — I was at a charity sale this morning and it was next to a book I wanted to look at. I picked it up and thought, “Hmm, interesting title, I wonder what that’s about?” I bought two bags of books but this is the one that I dropped everything to read this afternoon.

Right off the bat — this is not really detective
fiction. But I don’t only read detective fiction, and I trust you don’t either; I suspect you, like I, merely enjoy good books no matter what genre into which they fall. This book, however, I suspect will appeal to people who enjoy puzzle mysteries.

 

Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

Kubrick’s Game is a member of a very small sub-genre known as the “puzzle adventure”. I’m not sure exactly how to define the boundaries of the genre … the books in the category are of necessity unique, but they share some characteristics.

Lolita (1962)

Lolita (1962)

 

The book’s basic structure contains a puzzle or game that has to be solved by the protagonist; generally, there is an antagonist who wants to solve the puzzle first. The stakes are

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

almost always high and the puzzle is always very difficult to solve. The common thread is that the puzzle is solved by the protagonist (and a small crew of assistants) right in front of the reader, so that the reader feels like s/he has some

2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

chance of reaching the solution with (or even before) the protagonist.  There’s usually quite a bit of action involved, within a fast-moving plot, but the key element is watching the characters solve a difficult puzzle before your eyes.

 

Possibly the easiest way to describe the puzzle adventure is by giving a few examples.  Some are well-known, others are more obscure.

  • The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown (2003)
  • The Eight, by Katherine Neville (1988)
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011) (this will be a blockbuster movie next year and I can’t wait to see it!)
  • Wyrm, by Mark Fabi (1997) (suffers a bit from having the computer programming be out of date, but the crossword puzzle in the middle makes up for it)
  • The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (1980)
  • National Treasure, a 2004 film
A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

So if you like that sort of thing and recognize any of that list as something you’ve liked in the past, I hope you now have something to look for next. But first get a copy of Kubrick’s Game.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon (1975)

The book is about an elaborate game, or puzzle, that is buried within the films of Stanley Kubrick — at least, the films over which he had full control. Apparently for half his life, Kubrick was burying tiny clues within his films to a game that he planned

The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

to have film fans play after his death, or perhaps it’s better to say clues to a puzzle that he hoped they could solve. On the 15th anniversary of his death, groups of film students at various important film

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

schools receive a package from Kubrick’s estate; three UCLA students and a faculty member become fascinated by the puzzle and form a team to solve it.

 

The main character is Shawn, a film student

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

who is variously described (also by himself) as being autistic or on that spectrum of diagnosis; perhaps a high-functioning Asperger’s patient. He’s developed an obsessive focus on Kubrick’s films and an expertise sufficient to argue with his

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

professor, the resident expert, about the details of tiny elements of various films. Shawn starts to work on the first clue with pretty much his only friends: Wilson is a former child star determined to return to the industry with a directing career, and Sami is a beautiful young woman who also wants to direct.

 

I won’t tell you the details of the plot, which is pretty much the reason you’d want to read this book. Instead I’ll borrow one of the features of my long-time favourite Dell mapbacks and ask you … Wouldn’t you like to know …

 

  • Which of Kubrick’s films contains the only appearance by the director in his own work?
  • Where in 2001: A Space Odyssey there is a chessboard in plain sight that you will never have noticed before?
  • Why people think Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing footage shown on television?
  • Which Kubrick project is known as “The greatest movie never made”?
  • Why “Spartacus Square” at Universal Studios is the only Kubrick set still known to exist?
  • Which film of Kubrick’s was finished after his death by Steven Spielberg, very nearly shot for shot as Kubrick had wanted it?
  • Where there’s an album cover for 2001: A Space Odyssey in A Clockwork Orange, and why it differs from the album as released?
  • Why Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining are filled with imagery referring to the Freemasons?
  • Why CRM-114 is a repeating element in both Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange?

You may not know much about the films of Stanley Kubrick — I certainly didn’t know any of this when I started this book, and no previous viewing of any of these films is necessary. By the time I was finished, I was looking through my collection for copies of all his films in order to have a retrospective screening. You’ll find answers to all those questions and a lot more. One thing this book has done has made me want to see all Kubrick’s films again, with my finger on the slo-mo button.

In fact it is very, very clear that the author, Derek Taylor Kent, knows more about the films of Stanley Kubrick than perhaps anyone (although I imagine right now there are five people posting on a message board somewhere who think I’m hopelessly naive for saying so). Tiny details, conspiracy theories, and the ability to tease a workable puzzle plot out of this mass of tiny details and crazy theories — it all adds up to a wild, wild ride that I very much enjoyed. I read it in a single sitting and I actually recommend you try to manage that, if you can — it will be easier to hold all the details in your head.

There are some flaws to this book, I must add. The characterization is rather flat, but I think this is not for the same reason as Golden Age detective fiction, where rounded characters would make the plotting more difficult. I think it’s just that Kent is still learning how to create realistic characters. The basics are there but there are none of the finer touches that help to truly appreciate the characterization. Definitely a step ahead of cardboard but not by much.

Also the book suffers a little from the defects of its virtues. It is very difficult to create a rambunctious wide-ranging plot with plenty of twists and turns and action scenes and reversals and re-reversals, and have it be perfectly balanced. There are a couple of ideas in the book that I think are overly tweaked, taken just one step beyond where they might have reasonably gone, and for the mere sake of surprising the reader. Since this is Kent’s first adult novel, I suspect he may now have learned that he can carry his audience along — admirably! — and they don’t need to be slapped in the face every 40 pages to keep them awake and on point. On the other hand, what doesn’t work in a book might well work as a screenplay, where realism can be brutally suppressed by spending $75 million on action sequences and special effects. Like I said, the defects of its virtues. The author may yet make a huge pile of money from this book if someone makes an expensive movie out of it. And who knows? Steven Spielberg might, since he’s actually in it as a character.

In my bookstore days, I used to keep copies of a few novels on the list above in stock for my fellow readers who share my taste for this very small category; rather like the special whiskey for favoured customers. If you like what you’ve heard, you may share that taste and will find this book enjoyable; I’ll recommend it. But if the thought of this kind of intellectual activity is something you’d rather have be accompanied by grown-up characters, or at least better-drawn ones, I’ll be back soon with a more traditional detective story, I’m sure.