All posts by Lars Walker

‘The Late Show,’ by Michael Connelly

The Late Show

Michael Connelly introduces a new detective character in his latest novel, The Late Show.

He’s obviously studied his market, because he delivers the precise kind of detective readers want today – a feisty, alienated woman cop.

Renee Ballard works “The Late Show,” police slang for the 11:00 to 7:00 shift, in Hollywood. She’s there because she had a personal conflict with a former superior. The Late Show is where cops are sent when nobody wants them. Late Show cops don’t even get to work cases to the end – they have to hand them off to day shift detectives in the morning.

One night Renee is called to the scene of the brutal beating of a transsexual prostitute. Then there’s a multiple shooting at a night club. Renee follows up certain clues relating to one of the victims, a waitress, even though it’s somebody else’s case by then. This sets her on a road that will lead her into tremendous personal danger, and to corruption in high places.

As you’ve probably guessed if you’ve been reading me a while, I’m not enthralled with Renee Ballard. It’s doubtless my misogyny (I don’t like women sent into danger, which makes me evil, of course), but I don’t approve of woman cops. And this woman has issues. She’s not a team player, and she consciously steps on other officers’ investigations. If I were her commander, I’d demote her too.

But The Late Show is a good novel by one of the best writers in the crime fiction genre. I recommend it on its own merits, with cautions for language, violence, and sexual situations.

Anders Winroth on the conversion of Scandinavia

Here’s a ten minute video of Anders Winroth, whose book The Age of the Vikings I reviewed a few inches south of this post. In this interview he discusses his previous book, The Conversion of Scandinavia. I have purchased that book and will report when I get it finished.

I generally agree with his view that conversion had prestige value in the Viking Age. I’m interested to see if he cites Fridtjof Birkeli’s untranslated book, Tolv Aar Hadde Kristendommen Vaert i Norge (Twelve Years Had Christianity Been in Norway). Birkeli argues that, in Norway, Haakon the Good’s peaceful approach to missionary work was just as (or more) effective over the long run than the better-publicized bloody crusades of the two Olafs.

Home improvement

I haven’t done a Lileks-esque “day in the life” post in a long time.

But your string of good luck is over. I haven’t finished reading a book today, and I’m fresh out of links.

How’s the writing going? It’s going. Erling 5 (I’m pretty sure I’ll come up with a better title given time) is stalled at about an estimated 40 or 50% of its final length. This is the standard half-way (or 2/3 way) slump I generally experience with books. I know where the story is going, and have a general idea of how it will come out. But I have to build a bridge to the rest of the book, and I’m a little vague on schematics and materials.

So I’m studying what I’ve done so far, and I’ve solicited comments from a trusted friend. Usually the answers to these problems can be found in stuff you’ve already written but not thought out sufficiently.

Today in the library I interviewed a prospective volunteer. I think she’ll be a great addition, and she has a library degree, which never hurts.

I called a guy about my garage door. I’ve had it in mind to get a new one for some time. My present one is extremely old, made of wood, and heavy. It runs loose and sits crooked. From time to time it jumps the track, and I’ve called a guy to fix it. I’ve grown to trust him, so when I called him today about the thing breaking down again, I asked him to sell me a new steel door with an opener. It’s unlike me, but I’m tired of living in the first half of the 20th Century, door-wise. We agreed to meet at my place at 6:00 p.m. When I rolled in about 5:30, he was actually just ahead of me. We did a deal. I could probably save some money if I invested time in research and taking bids, but this guy’s cut me slack in the past, and I’d feel bad giving the job to anyone else. It’ll be a couple weeks to get it, because the width is non-standard. Continue reading Home improvement

‘Florence,’ by P.F. Ford

Florence

I’m carrying on with P.F. Ford’s Dave Slater mystery series. Dave is a police detective in a small English town, partnered with DS Norman, who preaches positive thinking.

In Florence, an old man is found dead in his home, and Dave writes it off as an accident, with good reasons. But then there are break-ins in the man’s house, and the pathologist confirms that bruising on the body suggests possible homicide. And there’s the mystery of the man’s will. He left everything to his sister, whom he insisted shortly before his death was still alive. But there’s no record of the woman.

Dave and his team slowly uncover the secret history of a defunct local orphanage, a history that certain powerful people will go to any length to keep secret.

Florence seemed to me a little more serious than the previous books in the series. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because author Ford can sometimes overdo the jokes. He’s learning how to write a good mystery, though. He did an excellent job of distracting me from the pea under the shell.

Recommended for light reading – though very serious themes are addressed. Minor cautions for language and adult themes.

‘The Age of the Vikings,’ by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings

Charlemagne himself rode toward the plundering Northmen, bringing with him his beloved pet elephant, Abul-Abbas, a gift from the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad. The elephant suddenly died after crossing the Rhine River, a bad omen.

Hear me: From this day forth, and until I change my mind, when someone asks me for a good introduction to the Viking Age, I will recommend to them Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings.

The book opens with a vivid description of a feast in a Swedish chieftain’s hall. The warriors enjoy a dessert treat of exotic walnuts. A skald recites a poem, which all praise but few understand, in honor of his host.

This, in my opinion, is the way to open a book on the Viking Age. Author Winroth, who teaches medieval history at Yale, knows his material, but he also knows how to grab a reader. There’s no excuse for a book on the Vikings to be dull, though some writers accomplish that feat. Winroth, on the other hand, milks the drama for all it’s worth, and it makes his book a joy to read. He’s an excellent stylist too.

He covers such subjects as the relative violence of the Vikings (compared to their contemporaries), Viking Age emigration, Viking ships, Viking trade, Viking political development, everyday life, and religion. No subject is covered exhaustively, but his material is authoritative and his scholarship up to date.

He writes some things that surprised me and contradicted information I thought I knew. Chances are he’s right and I’m wrong. He exercises the normal caution of contemporary scholars in using the Icelandic sagas; I’m associated with the revisionist party on that point. I hope that scholarly opinion will alter in the future. Till then, Winroth’s cautious approach is prudent.

Highly recommended. Suitable for ordinary readers teenaged and up, but students of the age (like me) will also learn things.

‘Just a Coincidence,’ by P. F. Ford

Just a Coincidence

This is number two in the Dave Slater mystery series by P. F. Ford. I enjoyed the first one, and reviewed it just below. This one was fun too.

At the start of Just a Coincidence, Dave, a detective sergeant in the small English town of Tinton, is called to a crime scene, after a dog walker has discovered a woman’s body, battered to an extent that seems hardly possible. The dog that first found the body then runs up with a human femur in his mouth – an old one. A search of the area uncovers a shallow grave containing the bodies of a woman and a young girl.

And then it gets really weird. Turns out all three bodies are related.

Dave Slater once again teams up with the inveterate optimist DS Norman. The trail leads to a millionaire who practices serial monogamy and a smuggling operation run by shadowy Eastern European gangsters. The investigation is hampered by an unstable team member who creates dissension in the police ranks. And all through, DS Norman does his best to keep Dave thinking positive.

I enjoyed Just a Coincidence just as much as I enjoyed Death of a Temptress. The writing isn’t always the best, but the entertainment never flags. Author Ford has an interesting way of taking characters in unexpected directions, so the reader should never take anything – or anyone – for granted.

Recommended for grownups. Cautions for language and stuff.

‘Death of a Temptress,’ by P. F. Ford

Death of a Temptress

An hour or so later, they were pretty sure they were both on the same page. In fact, they were in complete agreement. They completely agreed they had no idea what it was they were investigating.

Sometimes a book benefits from contrast with what you last read. After my brief, grim sojourn among Norwegian mystery writers, this story came like a break in the clouds. In spite of some flaws.

The hero of Death of a Temptress (first in a series of police procedurals by P.F. Ford) is Dave Slater, a detective sergeant in Tinton, a small, fictional Hampshire (England) town. Dave has been demoted, having been made the scapegoat for another officer’s mistakes. When his superior assigns him to a missing person case, he’s bitter at first. He considers it a waste of his time. He isn’t any happier when he’s teamed with DS Norman Norman (his actual name), a fat detective with a reputation for laziness. Dave is soon disabused of this prejudice. DS Norman turns out to be a smart and wise cop, who preaches positive thinking to him to with some success. Continue reading ‘Death of a Temptress,’ by P. F. Ford

Who’s the most literate? Depends on how you look at it.

Via Dave Lull, from Digital Book World, a large, fascinating graphic on world-wide reading and literacy patterns.

Finland rates as the most literate country in the world judging by newspapers, computers, and libraries, but India wins out if you tally up reading hours per week. Scandinavia does very well generally on the first metric, but the US isn’t far behind.

Enjoy the whole thing here.

‘The Iron Chariot,’ by Stein Riverton

The Iron Chariot

One-word review: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

I hate to be one of those philistines who can’t appreciate the literature of a past age, but I have to say – the art of the crime novel has improved immensely since 1909, when The Iron Chariot was published.

Author Stein Riverton (real name Svein Elvetun) apparently gets credit for being the inventor of the Scandinavian crime genre. And The Iron Chariot is his classic work.

But even for a Norway booster like me, it’s a slog, my brothers. A genuine slog.

The story opens on a summer day at a resort on a Norwegian island. Some locals come running, announcing they’ve discovered a body. A few guests who’ve been lounging on the lawn run to look, among them the narrator (who is never named). A local gamekeeper has been clubbed to death.

Shortly a private detective is summoned from Kristiania (now Oslo). This detective sets about questioning a few people, relaxing in his room, and wandering the area, apparently without purpose. He carries on a series of languid conversations with the narrator. And about a hundred years later, he names the killer.

“Stein Riverton” is reported to have been a fan of Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun. This is not good news for the casual reader. The book is indeed Hamsun-esque, and that means slow progress and dense prose. I also didn’t like the detective, Asbjørn Krag, who is one of those inexorable, infallible thinking machines who infest so many early mystery stories.

Worst of all, I figured out the culprit’s identity very early on. After that, it was a matter of mumbling, “Get on with it! Get on with it!” for a hundred pages or more.

Valuable for its historical significance, The Iron Chariot is a yawner of a book. I recommend it only for devotees of old mysteries.

‘Faithless,’ by Kjell Ola Dahl

Faithless

Oslo police detective Frank Frølich stops a woman leaving a business he’s surveilling in connection with a series of thefts. He searches her purse and finds drugs. That’s not a major crime in Oslo; she pays a fine and goes home.

The next night, Frank goes to an old friend’s engagement party. His friend introduces him to his fiancée – who turns out to be the very woman Frank arrested the night before.

Shortly thereafter, that same woman is found murdered, naked in a dumpster.

That’s how Faithless, by Kjell Ola Dahl, begins. It’s one of the “Oslo Detectives” series, which follows Frank and his older partner, Gunnarstranda (who doesn’t seem to have a first name, or at least I didn’t catch it).

The story was well told, and pretty suspenseful. The translation got clunky now and then, but I’ve become more tolerant of clunkiness since I started translating books myself.

Indeed, the story was so interesting that it wasn’t until the very end that I realized how grim and nihilistic the whole thing had been, right up to the climactic scene, which involves a hand to hand fight in a waste treatment plant. Well, what do I expect from Scandinavian Noir?

I was ready to buy another book in the series, but I accidentally bought a stand-alone by the same author. It appeared to be a thriller about drug dealers and junkies, and I quickly lost heart and just gave it up.

But Faithless is a well-done cop thriller, and I can’t disrespect it. Cautions for language, violence, sex… pretty much everything.

‘Freeze Frame,’ by Peter May

Freeze Frame

This is the last book in the Enzo Mysteries series that is currently available for Kindle.

In Freeze Frame, police forensic expert Enzo Macleod, who lives and operates in France, takes up a cold case involving the murder of an English citizen shot to death 20 years earlier in his home on an island off the Brittany coast.

This book departs from the series’ usual protocols. Enzo is on his own this time, not surrounded by his supportive team of two daughters, their boyfriends, and his female assistant. And this story assumes the form of a classic, “cozy” puzzle mystery. The murder victim had asked, before he died, that his study be preserved exactly as he left it, until his son returned. His son, he said, would immediately understand certain clues he’d left. Unfortunately, the son died before ever seeing the murder scene. His (the son’s) widow has preserved the study untouched ever since. It’s Enzo’s challenge to decipher a puzzle involving secrets and private jokes shared by two men long dead.

I liked Enzo a little more in Freeze Frame than I did in the previous books. He actually exercises some sexual restraint this time out, and a personal challenge that confronts him finds him taking what I consider the right side on a controversial issue.

I’d read the next Enzo book if the Kindle version were available, but for now I’ll be patient. Recommended, with cautions for what you’d expect.

‘Blacklight Blue,’ by Peter May

Blacklight Blue

I kind of cooled to Peter May’s Enzo Macleod mystery series after the last volume I reviewed. But I picked the thread up again with Blacklight Blue. I’m pleased to report that some of the quirks that annoyed me in previous books have been moderated, and I enjoyed the book well enough.

This time out, Enzo has just gotten a diagnosis of terminal cancer from a doctor, when (in short succession) one of his daughters is nearly killed by a bomb, his other daughter’s boyfriend’s business is burned down, and all his credit cards are stopped.

It all seems to relate to the latest in his cold case investigations. A former forensic scientist, Enzo has made it his crusade, based on a bet, to clear up a number of unsolved French murders (though Scottish-Italian, Enzo lives in Paris). His investigation of the murder of a “rent boy” takes him (along with his usual entourage – his daughters, their boyfriends, and his female assistant) to the Auvergne region of France, where he faces a relentless enemy and a deadly confrontation on a mountainside.

I was pleased that the earlier, half-comic theme of Enzo’s devastating attractiveness to every women he meets has been downplayed. This time out he limits himself to a sympathetic female ski instructor who provides his party with a convenient hideout.

My enjoyment of these books is reduced by the fact that I don’t actually find Enzo a very appealing character. Yet I keep reading the books, so it can’t be that bad. Peter May is a good writer.

Recommended. Cautions for the usual stuff.

‘Since We Fell,’ by Dennis Lehane

Since We Fell

“Who was your father?” She turned her chair toward him. “Your real father.”

“Jamie Alden,” he said brightly. “People called him Lefty.”

“Because he was left-handed?”

He shook his head. “Because he never met a place or a person he wouldn’t leave….”

This one, it seems to me, is a bit of a departure for Dennis Lehane. Not in the sense of being less dark than his other work, but Since We Fell has the form of something like a light romance/caper novel. Except in a very minor key. Because this is Lehane, after all.

Rachel Childs got off to an insecure start in life. Her single mother, briefly famous as a pop psychologist, controlled her daughter through manipulation. One of her chief manipulations was her refusal to tell Rachel who her real father was. After her mother’s death, Rachel tried to solve that mystery (there is, I think some existentialist subtext here), with disappointing results.

Her promising career as a television journalist crashes and burns one day when, while reporting on a disaster in Haiti, she has a full-blown psychological meltdown on camera. After that she sinks into agoraphobia and sees no hope for the future.

And then Brian Delacroix, a past acquaintance, re-enters her life. He is charming and cheerful, infinitely patient with her, and genuinely devoted. With his help, she begins to find the courage to face the world.

And that’s when everything starts going south in serious ways.

I won’t tell you more about the plot, because I don’t want to spoil the fun. Since We Fell is a weirdly compelling novel which mixes romance with stark realism, and offers some major surprises (a few of them fairly improbable). I thought it was a great read, but also thought it morally questionable.

Cautions for adult situations, violence, cynicism, and language.

Book pitch: ‘Writing Speculative Fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Teacher’s Ed.’ by Lelia Rose Foreman

Writing Speculative Fiction

My friend Lelia Rose Foreman has written a text book, Writing Speculative Fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Teacher’s Ed. It is aimed especially at home schoolers teaching high schoolers. An excerpt from my novel Death’s Doors is incorporated, with my permission.

‘Dragon Tears,’ by Dean Koontz

Dragon Tears

Another Dean Koontz book downloaded to my Kindle because it didn’t seem familiar. I had read it before, of course, but I’d forgotten so much that all the surprises were still surprising (one of the side benefits of growing old, I guess).

Dragon Tears is both terrifying and sweet. The protagonists, a small group of people led by a male-female police team (who fall in love as we watch), are menaced by a truly horrifying villain – a man of no maturity at all who has nevertheless developed god-like powers, powers that grow every day. His ultimate goal is to make all humanity his slaves (he will reduce their numbers for environmental purposes). But for today he’s selected a small group – a mother and son living in their car, a homeless alcoholic, and the aforementioned pair of cops. The villain confronts them by means of avatars constructed of animated soil, warning them that he will kill them all – horribly – by dawn the next day. The cops take the initiative in trying to find a way to stop this guy, and they find assistance where they never looked for it.

Scary, charming, and a lot of fun, Dragon Tears is excellent entertainment. Cautions for intense situations and some rough language.