All posts by Lars Walker

‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

Think of a Number

It was a curious thing about the past – how it lay in wait for you, quietly, invisibly, almost as though it weren’t there. You might be tempted to think it was gone, no longer existed. Then, like a pheasant flushed from cover, it would roar up in an explosion of sound, color, motion – shockingly alive.

And we have a winner. I have the pleasure of recommending to you an author and a novel that I can heartily recommend. Think of a Number by John Verdon is a remarkable book, not only a superior mystery-thriller, but also a story told in a fresh and interesting way.

David Gurney is a retired New York City police detective, a decorated hero. He had a reputation for finding and stopping serial killers. But he took early retirement to move to a farm in the Catskills with his wife. It’s her turn, so to speak – she put up with New York life, which she hated, for his sake. Now they’re living in the country, where there is scenery and trees and flowers and animals, a place where she thrives. But David is unhappy there. He has an intense, analytical mind, a need to solve puzzles and bring order out of chaos, that rural life doesn’t satisfy. Although they love each other, it’s not certain their marriage will survive.

One day David gets a call from an old college acquaintance, Mark Mellery, who has grown rich running a religious-self-help retreat center. Mellery is desperate. He tells David that he got a letter containing a small sealed envelope. The letter, hand-written, told him to think of a number between one and 1,000, and then open the envelope. He found the random number he’d chosen written on the note inside. After that he got more letters, hand-written in verse, threatening him with death in vengeance for some unstated crime in the past. Continue reading ‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

‘Perdition,’ by Pete Brassett

Perdition

I was happy to find a new release in Pete Brassett’s DI Munro series. I found Perdition amusing and entertaining, as its predecessors have been.

Detective Inspector Munro, a rural Scottish policeman, is slightly hampered this time out by the fact that his long-impending retirement has finally come to pass. However, he finds retirement boring in the extreme, and soon begins meddling – unofficially – in a current investigation by his team. An investment bank employee is found dead in his car, killed by a powerful painkiller. Eventually they learn that the man was involved in loan sharking, but not before another man is found dead from the same cause, and one more nearly beaten to death.

Also, someone kills a goat with a crossbow.

The whole thing is fairly complex, with intertwining and backtracking trails and plenty of red herrings. Throughout the investigation DI Munro, as unobtrusively as possible, attempts to guide his successor, “Charlie” West, a female detective he’s been mentoring for some years now. Munro is a charming character, self-possessed, opinionated, and mildly curmudgeonly.

Lots of fun. There’s a minimum of violence and bad language. Some opinions were expressed that I don’t agree with, but I really have no serious cautions to deliver about Perdition.

‘Mirror Mirror,’ by Nick Louth

Mirror Mirror

I’m enjoying reading Nick Louth’s novels. I enjoyed reading Mirror Mirror too, but found it a tad disappointing in the end.

Mira Roskova (who, in spite of her name, is English), is currently acclaimed as the most beautiful model in the world. She appears on countless magazine covers and in dozens of ads, she has hordes of fanatical fans, and she’s dating England’s most popular “footballer.”

Unfortunately, the footballer is jealous and possessive and prone to violent rages. So her management company hires Virgil Bliss, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, as her personal bodyguard. As Virgil accustoms himself to the profoundly shallow world of international modeling, he begins to understand that Mira faces dangers far more serious than having an abusive boyfriend. The most dangerous criminal in the country has claimed her as his own – and merely being confined to a high security mental hospital will not stop him from taking her.

As usual with Louth, the dramatic tension was satisfying and the characters interesting. But he does have a weakness for over-relying on coincidence in his plots, and that’s especially true in Mirror Mirror. The ending featured a surprise twist, which didn’t entirely surprise me (I’d noticed the clues with my writer’s eye), and I found the ending a disappointment.

On the other hand, some bleeding heart liberals in the book are made to look like complete idiots, which is always fun.

Cautions for language, violence, and fairly explicit sex. Not Louth’s best.

‘Samarkand’

What a useless post this is going to be.

I’m going to criticize a song you’ve almost certainly never heard. And when you watch the video, below, you won’t understand it, because it’s in Danish.

But I thought of it last night, during one of my ever-popular sieges of insomnia. I hadn’t heard it since I stopped playing my vinyl albums, back in the ‘90s. So I checked out the video. And the more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me. Because I think it’s a really pretty and sweet piece. But also wrongheaded and soul-killing.

The singer is Birgitta Grimstad, as well-known Danish folk singer. This number, adapted from a modern Swedish popular song, was a big hit for her in that country. What it describes, in brief, is how the singer wakes up on a beautiful morning to find herself alone in her bed. And she immediately understands that “it happened, what we talked about.” Her lover has moved on – he’s searching, metaphorically, for “Samarkand,” which apparently symbolizes some transcendent dream that won’t let him settle down.

Except that’s not exactly it. She says, “…and another will be what I can never be.” In other words, her lover is looking for a new – presumably better – lover. She is sad about it, and cries. But she’s very accepting and hopes he finds what he’s looking for “if you ever find your way to Samarkand.”

There it is, the ethic of the 1970s. “Love” means sex, and sex is temporary. Nobody is obligated to stay in a relationship if some better prospect shows up. I first heard this song on the “Prairie Home Companion” program, and I remember Garrison Keillor praising its “sweet reasonableness.” Well, from what we’ve now learned about Keillor, it’s no surprise he’d consider the song reasonable. The perfect lover is one who lets you go without complaining, when you get offered an upgrade.

So here I am again, railing against sins I never got the opportunity to commit. But I’ll say this – I suspect that a lot of the anger we see in radical feminism today springs from women who were expected to play this kind of submissive game back during the Sexual Revolution years.

Tote that barge, lift that bale

Today was a big day in the history of my little library. A day long anticipated. We began our project of moving our bookshelves closer together, so that we can put in one or two new units in the space we’ve got. The minions of our Maintenance Department at the schools came up with an ingenious system for clearing one unit at a time and sliding them over a few feet using boards and ropes. And it works. So far.

Moving the shelves

I’m fairly sure the pyramids of ancient Egypt were constructed in much the same way.

‘Heartbreaker,’ by Nick Louth

Heartbreaker

I’m working my way through the novels of the English writer Nick Louth. The writing is professional, and I like the way he handles his characters. I especially like the fact that, although it seems apparent his politics are pretty leftish, he hits pretty lightly on that element.

The hero of Heartbreaker is Chris Wyrecliffe, a BBC celebrity journalist. Today he works mostly from a studio in London, but about 20 years ago he was a front-line reporter in Lebanon. There he went through a traumatic, guilt-inducing experience that caused him to set up a foundation for the aid of Palestinian refugees. Around the same time he also fell in love with an elegant Arabian woman, a westernized relation of the Saudi royal family.

Those two circumstances have won him, unbeknownst to him, an implacable mortal enemy. This enemy is implementing a masterful plan, not only to kill Chris, but to make him an instrument in a world-shaking terror plot.

In the tradition of thrillers, Heartbreaker surpasses credibility now and then. But my main problem with it was its length. The book grabbed me, and I read it in big chunks, but I thought it would have benefited from a faster pace. The lesson of the book would seem to be a cautionary one – westerners should just not meddle in the Middle East – their noblest intentions are inevitably brought down by invincible cultural barriers.

However, the conclusion of the book seemed to belie that interpretation, at least to some extent. The picture of the Muslim world here seemed to be balanced – both appreciative and appalled, depending on the particular Muslims.

I enjoyed Heartbreaker, but it was long. Serious cautions are in order for explicit sex scenes and rough language. Not Louth’s best (in my opinion), but enjoyable if you’re prepared for the ride.

‘Bite,’ by Nick Louth

Bite

I realized his sculptures describe the character of the physical world more eloquently than any chemist or physicist. He said it best: ‘You torture the metal to get it to show you its soul.’

Having enjoyed Nick Louth’s The Body in the Marsh so much, I immediately bought his first novel, Bite. As a thriller, Bite is different from The Body…, but it’s extremely successful in its own way.

On a transatlantic flight, a mysterious man sets some mosquitoes loose in the First Class section, which is filled with officers of a large, ruthless pharmaceutical company. Shortly after the plane unloads in Amsterdam, where the pharma people are planning to attend an international conference, people start coming down with a never-before-seen strain of malaria. This strain doesn’t respond to available treatments, and seems to thrive in a northern climate.

Meanwhile, Max Carver, an American sculptor with military experience, arrives in Amsterdam on the same plane, along with his girlfriend, Dr. Erica Stroud-Jones. He will be having a big gallery show in the city, while she will be delivering a paper at the pharma conference – explaining her discovery, a revolutionary approach to treating malaria.

But on the day she’s supposed to address the conference, Erica disappears. The police immediately suspect Max of murdering her, and it’s only with the help of a shadowy group of American agents that he gets out on bail. He sets out to find her, and enters a dangerous world of criminals, spies, and professional killers. He will test the very limits of his courage and endurance in the process.

Meanwhile, extracts from an old journal of Erica’s tell the story of a time in her earlier life when she was a hostage in Africa, and plumbed the depths of suffering and despair.

As I read, I compared Bite to a summer action movie. It has the same quality of being exciting to follow, but being fairly implausible when objectively considered. But it was as exciting as advertised, and I could hardly put it down. The characters were fascinating, too.

Cautions for language and mature situations, including rape and torture. There were some references to the Bible and Christianity, and they were fairly positive. Opportunities for leftist propagandizing were generally avoided. Recommended, for adults.

‘The Body In the Marsh,’ by Nick Louth

The Body In the Marsh

As you may have noticed, I’ve written a string of negative book reviews recently.

Here, at last, is one I really liked.

The Body in the Marsh, by Nick Louth, centers on Detective Chief Inspector Craig Gillard, who operates in southern England. Craig rescues an attractive woman from a mountainside while rock climbing, and believes he’s stumbled onto a good thing when he learns that she’s fun to be with and a fellow cop – though a lowly constable.

But he begins to neglect her when he gets caught up in a case of a woman’s disappearance. Liz Knight, the wife of a prominent criminologist who’s been very critical of the police recently, has disappeared. Soon after that Knight himself disappears.

Craig has a personal reason for being concerned. Long ago, Liz was his first love. She dumped him to marry Knight. If – as looks increasingly likely – Knight has murdered his wife and fled abroad, Craig has a double motive for hunting him down and seeing him imprisoned.

But it turns out it’s all a lot more complicated than that. Craig will have to reevaluate his whole life because of the shocking things he’ll learn.

The Body in the Marsh is a first-rate (though not flawless) detective thriller. The characters are complex and layered, and Craig’s passion catches the reader up. I thought there were a couple weaknesses in the plot, such as coincidences, but the whole thing worked together very well to give me a very exciting reading experience. I saw hints of liberal politics, but they weren’t shoved down my throat.

Highly recommended. Cautions for adult language and situations.

‘Red Alert,’ by James Patterson & Marshall Karp

Red Alert

In spite of James Patterson’s immense popularity, not to mention rumors that his political views tend conservative, I had only tried one of his novels up to now. And I didn’t finish that one.

But a friend recently recommended the NYPD Red series, so I figured I’d give Patterson another chance with Red Alert.

Alas, he’s just not my cuppatee.

Zach Jordan and Kylie MacDonald are the New York Police Department’s “Red Squad.” Their job is to handle threats and crimes involving the city’s rich and elite. So they’re on hand the evening a prominent architect is killed by a shaped charge while giving a speech at the elegant Pierre Hotel. At first the reaction is that such a thing was unthinkable. The man was a do-gooder, part of a foundation devoted to helping the less fortunate. But gradually a different picture emerges. He was one of a group of four men, all rich and powerful, who, years before, had gotten into trouble trying to smuggle drugs from Thailand. When another of the four is killed by a similar explosion, the truth becomes obvious – someone has a grudge against the four of them, and is picking them off one by one.

Meanwhile, a female filmmaker is found dead in what appears to be a “strangulation fetish” accident. But it’s not an accident.

The story here is told with the competence one expects from an author of James Patterson’s experience and prolific output. But somehow I had trouble caring. The characters seemed to me to have the depth of cardboard. And the heroes were pretty stereotyped – a solid, sensible male cop partnered with a wild and crazy female cop who likes to beat people up, shoot people, and drive fast. I’ve seen that one too often in the last couple decades.

So my reaction is that the book is adequate light reading, but it failed to provide the vicarious human element I personally crave. Your mileage may (and likely will) vary.

Cautions for language and adult stuff.

‘The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride

The Blood Road

Hardie rubbed at his face. ‘We’ve got two missing girls; an ex-police-officer who was stabbed to death; an exhumed murder victim no one can identify, a serving police officer who’s been hanged, and now you say the body you dug up in the middle of nowhere wasn’t just murdered, it was tortured first!’ He pressed his palms into his eye sockets and made a muffled screaming noise.

It is my plan not to read any more of Stuart MacBride’s Logan McRae novels. I bought this one by accident, as I explained a few reviews ago. But it’s not because they’re bad novels. They’re well-written and exciting, with moments of excellent, witty prose. I just don’t like the world they take me into.

In The Blood Road, our hero, Detective Inspector Logan McRae, has made a move to the Professional Standards police squad in his part of Scotland. His former boss is now his subordinate. Other cops don’t like him much because of his job, but short-handedness means he gets pulled into a murder investigation anyway.

A body is found stabbed to death in a car along a lonely road. When it’s identified, it’s a shock – it’s a former police colleague, who was supposed to be dead years before. Meanwhile there’s been a string of child abductions, and rumors are spreading of a secretive “livestock market” where these children will be auctioned off to pedophiles. Evidence mounts that somehow – it’s almost impossible to believe – this twice-dead policeman was involved with that ring. Continue reading ‘The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride

Social awkwardness in a Chinese restaurant

One aspect of being a strange person is having strange experiences. Experiences that are strange merely because it’s you involved.

A strange sort of coincidence happened to me yesterday evening. Only weird because I’m weird.

I’m a man of routine. Part of my regular agenda is to go to the gym on Wednesday evenings, and then have Sweet & Sour Chicken at Lee Ann Chin’s (a local Chinese chain) afterward. This I did last night.

I was sitting at a table, eating and reading a book on my Kindle. The table was at the back wall, and I was sitting on a long bench that stretches along that wall and serves three different tables. At the time I was the only one using any of those tables.

I was reading another Logan McRae novel – that series whose quality I admire, but which I just don’t like much. But I bought this book by accident, and I wasn’t about to dump it. Continue reading Social awkwardness in a Chinese restaurant

‘Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw,’ by Ian Crockatt

Crimsoning the Eagle's Claw

Complicated stuff, but interesting for Viking buffs. I bought Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw: The Viking Poems of Ragnvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney, by Ian Crockatt, on the recommendation of Grim over at the Grim’s Hall blog. He reviewed it here, and makes some insightful comments (he understands the subject, frankly, better than I do):

Scholars who want to understand the poems thus wisely grapple with them first by direct translation, then by seeing if they can translate them poetically as Crockatt does. It is a useful exercise for him for another reason. The poetic form shapes the word, but learning to use the form shapes the mind. Habituating the mind to the creation of poems in just this form is going to alter the way one thinks, slightly but definitely. In learning the compose poems in this strict form, you are learning to think just a bit more like the Viking who is your historical subject.

Kali Kolsson (ca. 1103-1158) adopted the first name Ragnvald in honor of a famous predecessor as earl (jarl) of Orkney. Technically he wasn’t a Viking, having been born after 1066, but it’s hard to deny him the title. He went on a great raid, fighting in Spain and off North Africa (and then doing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and proceeding to Constantinople). And he was a master of the old Norse poetic form; if his poems aren’t Viking poetry, I don’t know what they are.

Ian Crockatt succeeds in producing vigorous poems in the spirit of the originals. Some of his word choices seem strange to me – especially substituting “Eve” for the names of Norse goddesses. But in a project like this you’re going to end up making a lot of subjective choices. I can’t fault him. Oddly, in discussing previous translations, he does not mention Lee Hollander’s efforts along the same lines, which seems to me a strange omission.

Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw is fascinating reading for anyone interested in its esoteric subject. And it’s not long.

Post-Moorhead 2018

Viking Festival Camp 2018
My side of the camp. There was a lot more to it.

I got things a bit out of order yesterday. First day after a Viking expedition, I’m supposed to tell you about that. Book reviews after. But I forgot. How soon I forget. Anyway, fear not. I shall now satisfy your burning curiosity about the Midwest Viking Festival 2018, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minnesota.

This was the first long trip I’ve taken with the new Viking tent strapped to the top of Miss Ingebretsen, my semi-faithful PT Cruiser. I’m happy to report that it traveled well. I’ve developed a philosophy of tie-down straps, and they stayed tight. OK, I had to tighten them a little on the way, but that was because of a miscalculation I made with my anchoring; I learned a lesson from it to guide me in future.

So I got there (this was Thursday), and a couple fellows helped me put my tent up (it’s not something you can do alone). Then I went and checked into the motel. I will not name the place, because I can’t really speak well of it. After I’d gotten settled, I noticed a smear of black grease on my hand. Eventually I figured out it came from a spot on the room door – an area around the latch. In time I worked up the nerve to complain at the desk. The manager told me he could change me to another room, or give me a cloth to clean it up. He didn’t have any staff on at that hour. So I took a cloth and a bottle of degreaser from him, and cleaned the door. Later I found a similar slick on the bathroom door, but by then I was defeated. I just avoided touching that area.

The festival itself was great. The weather was warm, but it could have been worse, and possible rain on Saturday (the second day) did not arrive. We had about 80 reenactors there, demonstrating crafts from cooking to woodcarving to blacksmithing. Plus a group called Telge Glima from Sweden, who do an amusing Viking games show, and the regular cast of fighters (I did not participate in that). Continue reading Post-Moorhead 2018