Monday, April 19, 2010

Patricia Cornwell’s “The Front” (Lifetime, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent part of yesterday afternoon watching Patricia Cornwell’s “The Front,” a sequel of sorts to Patricia Cornwell’s “At Risk.” Lifetime had run the two on successive weekends and offered them as a sort of miniseries, though each was more or less complete on its own. Like At Risk (to use the abbreviated titles), The Front was a potentially good and interesting thriller waylaid by the author’s (presumably Cornwell’s, not screenwriter John Pielmeier’s) addiction towards absurd melodramatics and the piling on of coincidence after coincidence and cheap device after cheap device until any dramatic credibility or logic collapses under the sheer weight.

The Front takes up the story of Monique “Money” Lamont (Andie MacDowell), a fiercely ambitious district attorney of Middlesex County, Massachusetts — which contains Boston who’s running full-tilt for re-election to that post after having had to give up a run for governor at the end of At Risk to nurse a father who was dying of cancer. This time dad is dead, and the elderly governor who was fearful of her chances and out to sabotage her by any means necessary has been replaced by a new, hunkier one whom Lamont is having an adulterous affair with — though that doesn’t ensure his endorsement for her re-election bid (“I’m a family-values governor!” he protests), nor does it stop her from seducing Cal Tradd (Dane DeHaan), whom we met in At Risk as a scared little blond kid who’d just got into Harvard and had rented an apartment in a converted schoolhouse where the male lead in both stories, Massachusetts State Police detective Win Garano (Daniel Sunjata, of whom we get some welcome views in this one wearing nothing but a pair of black underpants — yum!), also lives.

According to an article posted on, Andie MacDowell — showing a degree of restraint that should have given Patricia Cornwell lessons — refused to kiss DeHaan on camera on the ground that he’s younger than her 23-year-old real-life son and she didn’t want to give her son ideas that his mom is the irresponsible cross-generation sex slut she’s playing here. Instead we got to see her use a pair of handcuffs to tie him to her bedboard (I guess it was O.K. for MacDowell’s son to see his mom do that to the kid!) and have an unsatisfying sexual encounter that ends with her giving him a brutal kiss-off instead of a kiss. Given what happened to Lamont the last time she seduced a twerpy young guy and then sent him off again with indivious comments about his performance and skill, or lack of same, in the bedroom — in At Risk that character hired a hit man to kill her and set her house afire — Lamont should have learned her lesson; instead Cal turns out to be the villain of the piece, a killer who is studying criminology and, à la The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, thinks he has to become a criminal in order to get into the psyche of the crooks he’s presumably going to apprehend.

He ends up killing FBI agent Diane McClure (Kerri Smith) — who’d earlier been stalking Lamont in the guise of a mime playing Raggedy Ann (in the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!”) — and setting Garano up for the fall by doing it with his gun (he got a key to Garano’s apartment by stealing it from the building manager and having it duplicated) and planting the victim’s blood on some of Garano’s clothes. Garano is working with a one-legged detective from the police department in the suburb of Watertown — and Cornwell provides two different and contradictory explanations for how this character lost her leg — she’s only called “Stump” (Ashley Williams) and, of course, her initial hatred for Garano ripens into love, or at least sexual attraction, though unlike Garano’s female partner (in both senses) from At Risk, Sykes (Annabeth Gish) — erroneously listed on as being in The Front as well — Stump gets to survive the events of The Front and even end it in what looks like it’s headed for whatever serves as a more or less permanent relationship in Garano’s life (about two weeks to a month seems to be his longest with any one person).

Cornwell’s use of sex as a tool manipulated by her characters to get other people to do their bidding — and the limits in their abilities to manipulate other people that way — are the elements of her plot that ring truest and strike one as the most personal, especially in light of that weird little imbroglio in the 1990’s in which a male FBI agent accused Cornwell of seducing his wife into a Lesbian affair and attempted to carve out grounds for a lawsuit that would amount to alienation of affections even though that was eliminated as a cause of action decades ago — and when that failed he threatened to kill his wife and ultimately was convicted of that crime and other charges relating to the incident. Though Monique Lamont comes off as a far less sympathetic character in The Front than she does in At Risk, one can’t help but feel a certain degree of wishful thinking in Cornwell’s construction of a woman who uses both her sexual wiles and her political power to bend others to her will — just as the consistency of the sex scenes in Ayn Rand’s novels (every time she wrote about sex, she wrote about a strong, domineering woman being raped and humbled by an even stronger, more dominating man) suggested that was a deeply held personal fantasy on Rand’s part that kept working its way into her books.

The Front also contains a “cold case” murder from 1962 of a British exchange student who was supposedly blind — only she wasn’t really — who lived in a neighborhood that was supposedly a tightly knit sort of small town in the big city but was really a front for the Mafia; and a modern-day murder, committed by Cal — a strangling of an old woman in his attempt to relive and understand the crimes of the Boston Strangler. It’s an idiotic farrago of insanely melodramatic incidents and yet there’s a haunting power about it — even though to the extent it’s entertaining, it is in ways other than those the creators clearly intended — and one can appreciate how Cornwell has been able to break out of the mystery ghetto and into mainstream blockbuster fiction even though other women mystery writers who haven’t hit the mainstream audience yet write better books because they, unlike Cornwell, have what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories called “the supreme facility of the artist, the gift of knowing when to stop.”