All posts by Lars Walker

‘Like to Die,’ by David Housewright

Like to Die

Another entertaining Mac McKenzie novel from David Housewright. Like to Die is the last book published to date in the series, and as it happens it’s the last I plan to read. The author tipped his hand at last. More on that further down.

Mac McKenzie, millionaire former St. Paul police detective, does investigative favors for friends from time to time. One of those friends is dating Erin Peterson, better known as “Salsa Girl” in spite of her blonde hair and blue eyes. Erin manufactures six highly regarded flavors of salsa in a factory in St. Paul, and business is great. But somebody super-glued her factory locks shut one night. Erin doesn’t think that’s worth calling Mac in for, but then someone does the same to the locks on her company trucks. So she agrees to let Mac look into things. But she’s strangely reluctant, and Mac realizes he doesn’t really know much about Erin at all.

Turns out Erin and her business have problems with a big distributor. Not to mention with a flaky partner, a Mexican drug cartel, and organized crime. Erin has deep, deep secrets.

I enjoyed Like to Die very much, for the most part. Mac is a splendid main character, and the cast of supporting players is vivid and fun – especially the enigmatic Erin.

But this time author Housewright reveals his politics, a topic on which he’s been pretty evenhanded in the past. A conservative Christian is portrayed in such a stereotypical manner that I wondered if I’d stumbled into a Saturday Night Live sketch, or a Lee Child novel. Also, the charge of racism, which Householder has aimed at Norwegians in the past, is now extended to Minnesotans in general. What’s up with that?

Anyway, I’m sure David Housewright doesn’t want my bigoted, conservative business, so I don’t plan to buy any more of his books.

Otherwise, it was great.

Research and re-writing

Today has been, and continues to be, a heavy work day. I have an assignment from Oslo, not for a translation, but a sort of research job. I’m scanning through a very long document, extracting relevant passages into a separate document.

Not uninteresting. And it will take a while. Which is nice, since my time for translation will be curtailed when I go on jury duty. That promises a healthier paycheck at the end of the month.

Today’s Writer’s Aggravation:

There’s an article in the current Writer’s Digest about finding time to write, and writing faster. And it’s a good article, all in all. Lots of handy tips that are likely to be useful to aspiring authors.

What annoys me is the closing line. It goes like this: “And with nine minutes a day, you can arrive at The Sound and the Fury (97,000 words) in just under four months.”

That’s inspiring, but overpromising, friend. I’ll grant that it might be possible to finish a first draft in four months, employing the methods suggested. But that first draft will not be a novel. You’ve still got another year (or six months, anyway) of revising. It’s great to finish a first draft. I’ve often said that getting that one thing done is (to my way of thinking) the most important milepost in the process of writing a book.

But books aren’t written – they’re re-written. Heaven help the agent who gets that 97,000 first draft in the email from some nine-minute-a-day writer who thinks that’s sufficient.

‘What the Dead Leave Behind,’ by David Housewright

What the Dead Leave Behind

Surprise! I have yet another review of a David Housewright novel for you tonight.

Well, actually there is a surprise. Here it is: I didn’t like What the Dead Leave Behind a whole lot. Definitely my least favorite of the Mac McKenzie series.

To some extent that’s because the author waxes political in this one. But that’s not the only reason.

Mac McKenzie is a millionaire former cop in the Twin Cities who does investigations for friends, just to keep his hand in. But when his girlfriend’s daughter Erica asks him to look into something for her college friend Malcolm, he’s not sure about it. He doesn’t like Malcolm that much on short acquaintance.

Malcolm’s father was found murdered a year ago in a park in New Brighton, a northern Minneapolis suburb (I was there on Sunday, as it happens). The police haven’t made any progress finding the killer. Oddly, Malcolm’s mother seems less than enthusiastic about Mac’s investigation. Mac learns there was another unsolved murder in New Brighton recently, that of a cosmetics company owner, and – oddly – Malcom’s father had worked for the same company. Mac starts looking into their connections, and is drawn to an apparently innocent group of friends – families of high school softball players who get together for “hot dish” (that’s Minnesotan for casserole, of course) dinners once a week.

I had two problems with What the Dead Leave Behind. One was that it seemed to be tailor-written for the Me Too movement – there’s lots of sermonizing on rape and rape culture. Mac’s breezy sense of humor sits awkwardly in a setting where he has to pause periodically to apologize for his sins. I could have told the author that there’s no point trying to write a book to show women that you understand their problems. They won’t believe you, and they’ll still condemn you by association.

A short trip to New Ulm gives Mac the opportunity to offer a one-sided synopsis of the Dakota War. On the other hand, he spends time in a bar there I visited once.

Also, all the female suspects – and there are a bunch of them – are very nice people, and physically beautiful whatever their ages. I found it impossible to keep them straight, which interfered with my reading.

What the Dead Leave Behind was disappointing to me. You may like it better. Cautions for the usual.

‘Stealing the Countess,’ by David Housewright

Stealing the Countess

A man came up behind Heavenly. He was young and blessed with the kind of good looks God gives to the extras in beer commercials.

I like David Housewright’s McKenzie novels, and Stealing the Countess is right there in the top two for me, I think.

It’s a cool heist mystery. On top of that, it prominently features one of the series’ most interesting continuing characters – a girl with the odd name of Heavenly Petzyk. Heavenly is, we are told, stunningly beautiful, and she takes shameless advantage of her beauty – using it to open doors that would be closed to common people. She describes herself as a “salvage specialist” (shades of Travis McGee), and skirts the borderline between legal and illegal. She’s sometimes been Mac McKenzie’s ally, sometimes his rival. But there’s just enough sadness in the background to allow the reader to like her. Cautiously.

“The Countess Borromeo” is a famous Stradivarius violin, currently entrusted to a renowned virtuoso, Paul Duclos, a native of Bayfield, Wisconsin (a town I visited a couple years back). A week ago, Paul gave a concert in his home town, and that night the violin was stolen. The problem is that the insurance company has announced that they won’t pay any ransom for its return. Paul wants Mac to find the thieves and get his beloved violin back – he’ll pay for it himself. The whole thing gets way more complicated than a simple property theft should be, and business, legal, and personal interests put Mac and Heavenly (in temporary alliance) in danger of their lives.

I liked Stealing the Countess a whole lot. Highly recommended, with the usual cautions.

A translator’s day

Surprise! I don’t have a book review today. I binge-watched Daredevil yesterday, to take my mind off… things.

One-paragraph review: Worthy of the first two seasons, superior in some ways to Season Two. I thought the climax a little contrived, but it was good. Odd to have a superhero season without the hero getting into his suit once.

I shall tell you how I live my current life. This schedule may change; in fact it’s likely to change.

My life kind of centers on free-lance assignments coming in from Meteoritt, my Norwegian employer. The business day in Oslo starts while we’re asleep in Minnesota, so one of the first things I do when I wake up (which is pretty much whenever I want to) is check my email for a notice. It’s always in the form of a request – sometimes a personal request, sometimes a general appeal to the group. Sometimes I miss out on those, though, since the local Norwegians have a time advantage. But the boss often offers me exclusives, because she likes my work. I have no complaints.

If I get an assignment, there’s generally a deadline. And I’ll already be a few hours behind. So my day is generally devoted to that work. I do take frequent breaks though (which accounts for the amount I’ve been reading lately). I can’t do translation steadily for several hours – it just wears me out and my body rebels. As the day goes on, though, I find I can usually work longer sessions, and the translation – for some reason – seems to get easier in the evening. And into the night.

If there’s no assignment for the day, I can work on my translation for the Georg Sverdrup Society. I’m translating quite a long piece for the next Journal. And, of course, I can work on The Elder King, the coming Erling book, though right now I’m pausing (which one needs to do sometimes when writing fiction anyway) to wait for feedback from my First Readers. I’m not sure if we’ll get the book out before Christmas, but we’re trying.

And how was your day?

‘Unidentified Woman #15,’ by David Housewright

Unknown Woman #15

“She’s a good person.”
“How can you tell?”
Nina tapped the center of her chest.
“The heart never lies,” she said.
“Of course it does. That’s what’s wrong with it.”

Coincidence is a very bad story element, if you resort to it to solve a plot problem within a story.

Coincidence can work just fine, though, if you make it the jumping-off point for a story, and build the conflict on top of it. Because coincidences do happen in life; just not generally when it’s convenient.

It’s a coincidence that criminals trying to kill a woman by throwing her out of the back of a pickup truck to be hit by a car, should toss her into the path of a private eye with a Don Quixote complex. But that’s how David Housewright starts Unknown Woman #15, the next book in the McKenzie series. The accident happens, by the way, on Highway I-94 where it passes from Minneapolis to St. Paul, a spot I know pretty well.

The pretty victim is injured, but not killed, thanks to “Mac” McKenzie’s quick thinking. But she suffers (or claims to suffer) amnesia from the trauma. She ends up staying in Mac’s condo, with him and his girlfriend Nina, after her release from the hospital. They both like her tremendously, but Mac can’t suppress his suspicions, which only increase when she suddenly vanishes, and people start getting killed. Following up a few clues she dropped, he begins to unravel her true identity – and the disturbing reasons why somebody wants her dead.

Unknown Woman #15 actually follows a classic Noir template (I won’t say which one). I found it riveting, though the story was fairly downbeat, like any Noir. Author Housewright once again takes a shot at Minnesota’s concealed carry laws (and again paradoxically carries a gun past a “guns forbidden” sign), which annoyed me. But all in all I liked Unknown Woman #15 quite a lot.

Cautions for the usual.

‘The Devil May Care,’ by David Housewright

The Devil May Care

The receptionist at the Lake Minnetonka Community Bank had green eyes that glowed like the numbers on an ancient calculator, the kind you used to be able to buy at Radio Shack.

A continuing character in David Housewright’s series of McKenzie mysteries is old Mr. Walter Meulenhaus, sometime ally, sometime enemy, sometime client of our hero, millionaire detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie. Mr. Meulenhaus, we are informed, is the eminence gris of Minnesota politics, the string-puller behind the scenes who makes everything happen in our state. Which has to be a joke, because we’re told he’s a Republican and there hasn’t been a Republican in a state office for some time now.

Anyway, in The Devil May Care, Mac is approached, not by the old man, but by his granddaughter, Riley Bodin. She has fallen in love – against her family’s wishes – with the son of a prominent Spanish family, Juan Carlos Navarre. Partly because he likes Riley, and partly just to twist Mr. Meulenhaus’s shorts, Mac agrees to help her.

And before long there’s murder and arson, and gang war, and federal investigators, and Riley herself in mortal danger. Turns out Juan Carlos was not who he said he was, and not who he’d claimed to be before that, either.

The Devil May Care is enjoyable and well-written, like all the other books in the series. I think author Householder can lay off the lesbian characters for a while now, though. He must have filled his quota to satisfy whatever PC regulation he’s trying fulfill.

Cautions for minor grown-up stuff.

‘Dark Sacred Night,’ by Michael Connelly

Dark Sacred Night

Rejoice. Michael Connelly has brought out a new Harry Bosch novel. Except Harry’s getting long in the tooth (apparently he’s grown his mustache back too. I’m pretty sure he shaved it off a few years back), and is not technically an LAPD detective at all anymore. So in Dark Sacred Night he teams up with Connelly’s new detective character – surfer chick-detective Renee Ballard, heroine of The Late Show.

Renee is the victim of sexism in the department, and has been exiled to the “the late show,” the night shift. Surprisingly, she’s found she kind of likes that shift. She’s surprised when she sees an older cop rummaging in a filing cabinet one night. She learns that it’s Harry Bosch, who’s investigating a cold case – the murder of an underage prostitute, Daisy Clayton. Harry knows Daisy’s mother, who is a drug addict and recently cleaned herself up. She’s living with Harry right now, and he promised her he’d try to find the killer. When Renee learns about it, she wants in, and Harry and she find they work pretty well together. They’ll need that synergy when the case gets dangerous, and the brass interfere.

Not the best of a long series, Dark Sacred Night is a satisfying but somewhat downbeat visit with an old friend, professionally delivered. Recommended with the usual cautions.

The promise that isn’t there

I think I can explain everything that’s wrong with western politics today. All intelligent people (that is, everyone who already agrees with me) will understand immediately.

I think the problem rises from the fact that westerners – even those who expressly reject Christianity – base their ethic on the teachings of Christ.

Only they misunderstand it.

They start with Christ’s Golden Rule: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do yet also unto them.” And that’s good. It’s the best of ethical rules, and well worth following.

But they assume a corollary. They assume the next stage is, “And then they will do the same unto you in return.” Be nice to others, and no one will hurt you. A thousand Sunday School papers and children’s books make the tacit promise that that’s true.

But the passage doesn’t actually say that.

There’s no promise that anyone will return your kindness. In fact, Jesus often warns His disciples that people will hate and persecute them.

Most sophisticated westerners assume that if you’re peaceful and act peaceful, and if you’re kind, that will protect you from evildoers. Your kindness will make them kind, too.

There is no such promise.

That’s why the Apostle Paul tells us that the emperor bears the sword. Because somebody has to protect the vulnerable.

It isn’t the government’s job to practice the Golden Rule, unless you want everybody to die.

Here endeth the lesson.

And now, just to prove to you how old and white I am, another instrumental piece from my youth for a Friday – “The Syncopated Clock,” by Leroy Anderson (1908-1975). He was Swedish-American, by the way, and is probably best remembered for the Christmas favorite, “Sleigh Ride.”

‘The Last Kind Word,’ by David Housewright

The Last Kind Word

Yet it was her eyes that I found most remarkable. They were warm and wide open and so honest that meeting them made a fellow regret his long-forgotten sins.

I had a weird moment while reading The Last Kind Word, another in David Housewright’s McKenzie mystery series. It occurred to me that this was kind of like a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

Your classic Wodehouse confection involves a group of English aristocrats gathered in a country house. Their house party is intruded on by an Impostor – a guy who’s come to steal a silver cow creamer, or a manuscript, or a prize pig, or something. Humor rises through the impostor’s attempts (facile or clumsy) to put off the very reasonable suspicions of the (few) intelligent people (always women) in residence.

The Last Kind Word alters that scenario a bit – substitute a northern Minnesota fishing cabin for the stately country house. Substitute a group of lower-middle-class Minnesotans for the English gentry. And substitute our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie for the Wodehouseian impostor.

Aside from that, there are many similarities.

Federal agents have convinced Mac to help them locate some Mexicans who are selling automatic weapons connected with the Fast and Furious scandal (you may not remember it; the press sent it down the memory hole). Mac poses as a dangerous prisoner and is permitted to escape from custody, taking with him another prisoner, who has connections to the only known lead to the gun runners. Continue reading ‘The Last Kind Word,’ by David Housewright

‘Curse of the Jade Lily,’ by David Housewright

Curse of the Jade Lily

Her smile reminded me of the promise on a package of lightbulbs I had recently purchased – “Lasts up to 10 times longer while using 75% less energy.”

Author David Housewright got on my wrong side near the beginning of Curse of the Jade Lily. He explained how to tell Norwegians from Swedes based on how they spell “son” in the names (and got it wrong), and then went on to discourse on racism, for no pertinent reason. But I persevered, and all in all the book was OK.

Housewright may be messing with us, though. Sometimes, for instance, he gets his directions diametrically wrong. In this book, for instance, he has Mac go east from Minneapolis to get to Theodore Wirth Park. It ought to be west. Maybe it’s a gag.

As you probably recall, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie retired from the St. Paul Police Department a few years ago, when he accepted a multi-million-dollar finder’s fee from an insurance company. That good fortune comes back to bite him in Curse of the Jade Lily. A rare Chinese sculpture (the eponymous lily) has been stolen from a small Minneapolis art museum. The thieves have offered to sell it back, but they have one condition – Mac has to deliver the money. Because the insurance company asks him for the favor, and because of a certain amount of pressure from various levels of government, he agrees. Then the suspected thief is found murdered, and someone else is murdered during the ransom delivery, and the whole thing turns into a complex mystery, with elements of international intrigue.

It’s complicated, and Mac gets hurt multiple times, but he figures it out in the end. Author Housewright put my back up a little with his Norwegian crack, but not enough to put me off the series. Recommended with cautions for language, mature themes, and anti-Norwegian bias.

‘Highway 61,’ by David Housewright

Highway 61

The saga of Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie continues with Highway 61. The title of the book refers to a semi-famous road going north out of the Twin Cities (it goes south too, but nobody cares). Did Bob Dylan write a song about it? I don’t know; I take pride in my ignorance of Bob Dylan.

Anyway, as you know by now, Mac McKenzie is a former cop, now a millionaire. For his own satisfaction, he does unlicensed private eye work as “favors for friends.” Jason Truhler is definitely not one of those. He’s the ex-husband of Mac’s girlfriend Nina, and he treated her so badly as to put her off marriage for life (or so she claims). But their daughter Ericka is a friend of Mac’s, and she begs him to help her dad.

So Mac talks to Jason, who says he was set up. He went up to a jazz festival in Thunder Bay, met a girl, got drugged, and woke up in what I’ll call here, for purposes of suspense, a “compromising situation.” Now somebody’s blackmailing him with a photograph, and he says he can’t afford it anymore. If the blackmailers release the photo, it will devastate Nina and Ericka, two people Mac loves. So he agrees – reluctantly – to look into it.

About the first thing Mac learns is – surprise! – that Jason didn’t tell him the whole truth. Further investigation leads to an extensive prostitution ring, with ties to Minnesota’s rich and powerful. People get killed, of course.

Highway 61 is a solid private eye novel, featuring an intriguing hero and a fun cast of characters. I enjoyed it. Cautions for the usual.

‘The Taking of Libbie, SD,’ by David Housewright

The Taking of Libbie, SD

Big Joe was standing in front of me, making a large hole in the sunlight. He looked like the guy that Jack met at the top of the beanstalk.

Implausibility is not necessarily a defect in a detective mystery. If the author manipulates his characters skillfully enough, he can make them do things way, way outside their comfort zones. In fact, that’s kind of what plotting is all about.

The Taking of Libbie, SD begins with home invaders breaking into detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie’s St. Paul home, dumping him in the trunk of their car, and driving him to the small town of Libbie, South Dakota. After some discomfort and embarrassment, the town fathers finally admit that the thugs they hired kidnapped the wrong guy.

But how were they to know? How many Rushmore McKenzies could there be in the world? Especially at that particular address?

Finally Mac gets the story out of them. A man using his identity went to the town and persuaded the civic leaders that he was planning to invest in a big real estate project there. Many locals invested. Then one day both he and their money disappeared. The local “big man,” the town’s mover and shaker, hired some guys to kidnap McKenzie, and the cops went along with it.

It takes a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to convince the reader that it makes sense for Mac not only to forgive the kidnapping, but to agree to investigate. Before he’s done, some of the locals will wish he’d left the mystery alone.

The picture of small town life in The Taking of Libbie, SD isn’t bad. I can say that as a small town boy. The description of rural economic desperation rings true. The number of beautiful women living in the town is a major exaggeration in my experience, but author Housewright makes it a running joke in the book, which is probably the best way to handle that sort of thing. He also does a good job of motivating Mac to take on a case for people he has no reason to care about.

Cautions for language and adult themes. A pretty good job of selling a highly improbable plot.

‘Jelly’s Gold,’ by David Housewright

Jelly's Gold

This one was fun. One of my favorite sub-genres is what I might call the “archive mystery,” where the detective digs into an old, unsolved crime, examining dusty documents and deserted buildings, and talking to old-timers (if there are any left).

Jelly’s Gold centers on Frank “Jelly” Nash, a legendary bank robber, who was rumored to have stolen gold from a South Dakota bank in 1933. That very night he was in St. Paul, hobnobbing with local society (St. Paul was an “open city” in those days – it was understood that gangsters could stay in town, spend their money, and not be bothered by the police, so long as they didn’t break any local laws). A few days later, Jelly was shot to death in Kansas City. But rumor persists that he left his gold with one of his rich St. Paul friends, and it’s never been found.

When this story starts, St. Paul millionaire detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie is approached by an old friend, a female graduate student. Her boyfriend believes he knows how to find Jelly’s gold, and they figure Mac can help them. He’s intrigued enough to start looking into it. He soon learns that others are on the same trail – and then someone is murdered.

I found Jelly’s Gold fascinating. I was annoyed by another snide reference to Minnesota’s concealed carry law (which has actually worked out pretty well, thank you). On the other hand, a student at Bethel University, a Baptist school, plays a part, and she’s treated with surprising respect. I thought I figured out whodunnit, but I was wrong, which is always fun.

Cautions for… well you know. But this was a particularly good one, to my taste.