All posts by Lars Walker

New Viking book by Neil Price

Via our friend Dave Lull, a London Review of Books review of Neil Price’s new book on the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm.

In one of several vignettes, Price imagines a younger son on the impoverished west coast of Norway, whose childhood sweetheart has a new brooch: a present from a boy who spent a successful summer raiding. What is young Orm or Gunnar going to do? Not only does he need money for the bride-price paid to her family, he needs a reputation: ‘The act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself.’ And if he went raiding he might in any case acquire a woman for free. DNA has shown that ‘a very large proportion – even the majority – of female settlers in Iceland were of Scottish or Irish heritage.’

Looks like the kind of book a man of my pretensions needs to read. It’s coming August 25th.

‘Low End of Nowhere,’ by Michael Stone

Michael Stone has the Hardboiled voice down. In Low End of Nowhere, first of his series starring a Denver bounty hunter who goes by the name of Streeter, he gives us gems like this:

His face had the warmth of age, like an old wooden desktop.

There was a strange menace to his entire being, like barbed wire covered with pale skin.

He had the scarred complexion of a public golf fairway but wore an impeccable herringbone suit.

When Streeter busts a beautiful female insurance scammer, frustrating her bogus injury claim, the last thing he expects is for her to turn around and hire him. But Story Moffat (that’s her name) was impressed with his efficient work and apparent integrity. She is the sole heir of her boyfriend, a murdered drug dealer. She knows he had money squirrelled away somewhere, but she can’t locate it. She wants Streeter to find it for her, for a generous fee. The job appears to be legal, and the woman’s interesting, so Streeter takes the job. This will put him in competition with a sleazy lawyer and his two semi-human thugs, as well as a corrupt cop. People will get killed in unpleasant ways.

I loved the prose in Low End of Nowhere. This is extremely good gumshoe writing, harkening back to Chandler and Hammett. My reservations come from… what shall I call it? The ambience. It’s a sad story about a group of people who aren’t very sympathetic (except for our hero himself and a couple friends). Although I enjoyed reading the book, I’m not eager to go down these mean streets again.

You might like it better than I do. Cautions for language and mature themes.

‘Bitter Legacy,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

I’ve made it to Book Number 5 in H. Terrell Griffin’s Matt Royal mystery series, set in Longboat Key, Florida. Matt is a retired lawyer with all kinds of fighting skills left over from his days as a Green Beret.

The plot of Bitter Legacy – which is fairly complicated – centers around an acquaintance of Matt’s, Abraham Osceola, an elderly member of a small Caribbean tribe known as the Bahamian Seminoles. Abraham travels to see Matt, wanting his advice on a document he’s discovered, which could mean a lot of money to his tribe. But Matt is out of town, and Abraham is attacked and hospitalized.

When Matt comes home from his vacation, he finds that somebody has been shooting at his friend Logan (which shouldn’t really surprise him; it seems no friend of Matt’s can turn around without getting shot at). Trying to discover the source of the threat, Matt meets J. D. Duncan, a new female cop in town who’s smart and sexy (surprise!) and sparks fly. Before long his friend Jock, the mysterious secret agent, shows up too and they follow clues that seem to lead to one of the richest men in Florida.

I think I’ve had enough of Matt Royal for a while. The books are fast and fun, but if you’ve read one, you’ve kind of read them all. The author employs the same tricks and tactics again and again, relying just a little too much on lucky breaks to keep his heroes alive.

There’s another issue too, which may just be nitpicking on my part. Our hero Matt talks a lot about his war experiences in Vietnam, and the PTSD symptoms he and his friends suffer after killing anyone. I don’t dispute that this is realistic – I hate to think how I’d respond if I ever killed anyone, Heaven forbid. But this psychological agonizing doesn’t (for me) fit in well with the rather cinematic improbability of the violence portrayed in the stories.

Your mileage may vary. I recommend reading the Matt Royal books one at a time, with other reading in between.

‘Wyatt’s Revenge,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

Book Number Four in H. Terrell Griffin’s Matt Royal mystery series is Wyatt’s Revenge. In Wyatt’s Revenge, one of Matt’s old friends, Lawrence Wyatt, is murdered in his condominium. Police have no clues, and there seems to be no suspect with any motive. Matt, former Green Beret and retired lawyer, takes the deaths of his friends very seriously. And when things start getting sticky, he has well-connected, dangerous friends to whom he can turn for backup. Even if the trail leads to Europe and old Nazis.

Wyatt’s Revenge, like all the books in the series, is fast-paced and exciting. But I begin to weary of the author’s tricks. He tends to repeat his action scenarios. And he relies too much on coincidence to keep his hero alive – an error aggravated by his having Matt say that he doesn’t trust coincidences.

Also, he doesn’t know the difference between a clip and a magazine.

But I’ll read at least one more. The books aren’t bad, just a little limited in creativity.

‘Tidin Rennur’ on my birthday

The title means something like “Time Runs On (like a river).” It’s a beloved hymn of the Faeroe Islands, sung here by the world’s greatest singer, Norway’s Sissel Kyrkjebo. She’s singing in Faeroese, which I understand only a little better than you do. It’s an ancient dialect of Old Norse, and the Faeroese claim that it’s closer to what the Vikings actually spoke than modern Icelandic is. But the gist of the thing is that time runs on like a river, and I am in a little boat. Who will bring me safely home? Only Jesus can do that.

Appropriate thoughts for my birthday. I had a nice day. Went out to lunch with a friend, and reveled in the pleasure of having paying work, and the promise of more to come. Thank you for your friendship here.

‘Blood Island,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

Continuing H. Terrell Griffin’s Matt Royal mystery series, we come to number three, Blood Island. This one was a bit of a disappointment, in this reader’s view.

Matt Royal, you may recall, is a retired lawyer living on Longboat Key, near Sarasota, Florida. He is also a former Green Beret who keeps his skills up – which is handy because people keep trying to kill him for one reason or another.

In Blood Island, Matt gets a call from his ex-wife Laura. She left him with good reason years ago, when he went through a self-destructive period that might have pulled them both down. She’s remarried, but they still care for each other. She has a stepdaughter named Peggy, who has disappeared unaccountably. Matt is happy to help her out, and starts hunting for her, assisted by his friend Logan Hamilton.

It all leads to a big terrorist plot, originating with a delusional Christian evangelist who runs a string of brothels (!). I was disappointed with that plot element, though it was made clear that this guy was crazy and not representative of evangelicals generally.

My other main problem with Blood Island was plausibility. Author Griffin works hard to keep stuff moving fast, but it didn’t move fast enough this time out to overcome my skepticism. If a civilian tips a bunch of law enforcement agencies off to a terrorist plot, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t all agree to put the civilian in charge of their operation, even if he’s a former Green Beret with a superspy buddy.

There’s a tragic subplot which worked fairly well, but not well enough to sell the overall plot to me.

However, I’m not disillusioned with the series yet. I’ll give it another chance.

The work of a translator

I’ve told you of my woes enough in this space; I owe it to you to report my good days. I had a good day on Monday, and I’ve been upbeat all week. Which is an excellent thing when you’re my age and approaching a birthday.

I told you a while back that I was out of the script translation business. Well, I’m happy to say that I’m back in it. My outlawry has expired. I shall be cagier in the future about telling you what I’m working on, but working I am. Or will be, when the next job shows up. I am, as Bertie Wooster would say, “chuffed.”

While I wait for script work, I’m working on promotional material for my friends at Saga Bok publishers in Norway. I’ve told you that they’ve been translating the massive Flatøy Book of Icelandic sagas into modern Norwegian, the first time in history that’s been done. That project is complete now – six big, leather-bound volumes, copiously illustrated by the artist Anders Kvåle Rue, all on the market and selling well in Norway. Did I mention their next project is an English translation?

Before you ask, no, I’m not doing that translation. That’s being done the right way – by an Icelandic scholar from the original language. But they’ve asked me to translate some promotional material. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. A fun project. I hope there’s more. You can read about the English project here, though the interview comes from 2016. Now it’s underway. If you’re interested in the project, and have money to donate, I can put you in touch. Just saying.

‘Murder Key,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

If the criminals hadn’t been stupid enough to try to kill Matt Royal, they’d have been home clear. Retired Florida lawyer Matt recently discovered three men near a beached boat while out jogging. Two of them were dead, the other just hanging on. Matt called the police and got help for the survivor. That’s how Murder Key begins.

Shortly after, Matt and his friend Logan are minding their own business in a bar when somebody tries to kill Matt. Logan saves his life. Then somebody tries to kill Logan. Matt has no idea what’s going on.

It’s time for him to call in the big guns – his childhood buddy Jock, who happens to be an agent for an unnamed, super-secret government agency. Before long Matt and Jock are headed to Mexico to learn about the illegal immigrant pipeline, and then investigating a slave labor camp back home in Florida.

Lots of action, interesting characters, a good story. This is entertainment worth the entrance fee, and (unlike the last book) I didn’t figure out the big surprise ahead of time.


‘Longboat Blues,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

If your taste runs to Florida beach bum private eyes in the tradition of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, there seem to be plenty to choose from. I suppose it’s the lingering McGee mystique that inspires them, and I’m not complaining. H. Terrell Griffin’s Matt Royal seems to be another example, and I liked him just fine.

Matt Royal, the hero of Longboat Blues, is a former lawyer. He used to fly high, working around the clock, making the big bucks, loving the game. But his obsession finally destroyed his marriage, and then he went into a tailspin. His ex-wife’s intervention and one last high-paying case turned him around. He retired with enough money to live in his adopted home of Longboat Key, Florida (near Sarasota), fishing and loafing and enjoying a low-stress life in paradise.

Until one day a woman in his social circle is strangled to death, and her body is found on the condominium balcony belonging to his friend, Logan Hamilton. Desperate and without resources, Logan asks Matt to defend him. Matt can’t say no. But Logan has been framed so neatly that it will involve a lot of investigating to identify the real killer, who is well protected.

I liked Matt Royal as a hero right from the start. He’s thoughtful and easygoing, and (if I understood certain hints in the text) essentially conservative. There was plenty of action in the book, and the mystery was engaging (though I figured out the real villain fairly early – the author needs to work on camouflaging his clues). I have read the second book already and am working on the third. Good stuff. I didn’t notice any offensive language; there were some typos, though.


Amazon Prime film review: ‘Come and Get It’

Still up to my ears in translation, so I’ll reach back all the way to earlier this week, and review a movie I watched on Amazon Prime. One of the oldies again. This one was of particular interest, because it was based on a book I’ve reviewed here, Come and Get It by Edna Ferber. And I have family connections to the setting.

As you may recall if you have photographic memory and nothing better to think about, Come and Get It is Edna Ferber’s novel about the lumber industry in late 19th and early 20th Century northern Wisconsin. The hero is Barney Glasgow, a man with a dream of being rich which he fulfills, but at cost to himself and others.

In the film, the great character actor Edward Arnold plays Barney , which is a case of miscasting. Barney in the book was a big man, but not fat, at least at the start. Still, he gets the character right – a classic American go-getter, an obsessive A-Type before those labels were invented. When I watched a couple clips from the film on YouTube while reading the book, it appeared to me the movie took a lot of liberties. But watching the film, it seemed to me pretty faithful to heart of the story.

The book starts with Barney going to work in a lumber camp as a boy. The movie prunes the story at both ends, jumping forward at the beginning to the moment when Barney comes to visit his friend Swan Bostrom (Walter Brennan, whose Swedish accent might have been worse, I guess) in Iron Ridge, Wisconsin (standing in for Hurley, Wisconsin where my great-grandmother was born). He’s been working out in the camps as a foreman, but now he’s got a big idea to sell to the boss. If the boss goes along with it, Barney will be a partner.

In a saloon, they meet Lotta Morgan, a saloon singer (played by Frances Farmer in her first major movie role). Lotta falls for Barney, thinking he’s her ticket out of the gutter. However, Barney decides to marry the boss’s daughter, a condition of the big business deal. An embittered Lotta marries Swan instead.

Skip forward a couple decades, and Barney is now sole owner of the company, father to two adult children (Joel McCrae plays his son). He hasn’t learned much with the years; he runs roughshod over his family’s feelings, and feels no responsibility to the land he despoils with his logging. Then he’s persuaded to go back to Iron Ridge to visit Swan. He finds Swan now widowed, but he has a daughter (she was a granddaughter in the book), also named Lotta, who looks just like her mother (Farmer played both roles). Now it’s Barney’s turn to play the fool in love – he hires Lotta and brings her to Chicago with him, hoping he can possess her. But his next rival will be his own son.

I enjoyed watching Come and Get It more than I expected. Critical judgment hasn’t been enthusiastic, but I found it enjoyable and relatable. The ending seemed abrupt and anticlimactic, though, as if the writers couldn’t figure out how to wrap it up.

My grandfather worked in one of those camps as a boy. He started out young – he was tall and could get away with lying about his age. I don’t think he was actually a lumberjack proper; his stories were mostly about moving logs around, in wagons or on trains. He once told me a story about a guy driving a wagonload of timber that I thought was the funniest thing I ever heard. Only I can’t remember it at all after all these years.

I do remember his story about transporting logs on a flatcar. They piled them up high, and a couple guys had to ride on top to keep an eye on the merchandise. One day, he told me, he had to do something else and asked a friend to trade off on that day’s run. That was the day the logs started rolling off, and the guys riding on the flatcar, including his friend, were killed.

‘Murder at the Fitzwilliam,’ by Jim Eldridge

Sometimes a book shows promise, but the author appears to have bitten off more than they can chew. Such is the case – in this reader’s view – with Jim Eldridge’s Murder at the Fitzwilliam, first in a series starring detective Daniel Wilson.

Danny Wilson used to be a Scotland Yard detective. He worked under the well-known Inspector Abberline during the Jack the Ripper investigation. Having grown disillusioned with the official police, he is now a “private enquiry agent.”

He’s invited up to Cambridge by the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, which boasts an impressive Egyptian collection. A man has been found dead in one of their sarcophagi. The man looks Middle Eastern, but carries no identification. The local police dismiss the matter as an accident suffered by a burglar, but the director suspects more is going on. For one thing, one of their mummies has disappeared.

An employee of the Museum, Miss Abigail Fenton, who discovered the body is eager to help. Danny finds her intelligent and resourceful. Together they start asking questions, as attraction grows between them – resisted by them both.

The essential story here could have worked, I think, but the author wasn’t up to it. I thought the characters were well-conceived in themselves, but they were badly limned. A person’s feelings and attitudes can be suggested in a narrative, without the necessity of spelling everything out for the reader. You need to trust your reader’s intelligence. This book tells us too much and suggests too little. And the romance story line was clumsily executed.

Clearly a fair amount of research went into Murder at the Fitzwilliam, but not enough to be convincing. The dialogue (already clunky) often fell into modernisms. And there were historical errors – the author thinks a photograph could be printed in a newspaper the next day in 1894 – I’m fairly sure you couldn’t do that yet.

I think author Eldridge shows promise as a novelist, but Murder at the Fitzwilliam didn’t work.

Amazon Plus film review: ‘Dripping in Chocolate’

Working hard at translation these days, which is a good thing. I’m doing a promotional project for Saga Bok Publishers in Norway, but I won’t say much about it because I don’t know what their timeline is.

Which means I have to spend some of my valuable reading time actually producing work. Hence the fact that I don’t have a book to review today.

But, as I’ve mentioned, I like to stream Amazon Prime while I’m working. Today I watched an interesting production, more recent than is my usual fare. It’s an Australian movie called Dripping in Chocolate.

At the top of the cast are David Wenham, whom you might recognize (I missed it) as Faramir from The Lord of the Rings, and Louise Lombard, an English actress I haven’t seen before.

Wenham plays Bennett O’Mara, a police detective struggling with personal issues (aren’t they all?). He’s on some kind of cleansing diet, to the amusement of his colleagues. In contrast, Lombard plays Juliana Lovece, who runs a high-end chocolate shop. The camera lingers on her cooking procedures in a sensual manner. Thus are film characters established. When a high-end call girl is found strangled in the street with the wrapper from one of Juliana’s candies on her body, O’Mara goes to see her. As you’d expect, romantic sparks fly between them, though O’Mara’s too buttoned up to do anything about it.

When Lovece’s chocolate wrappers start showing up at other murder scenes, things get complicated – and sometimes not very plausible. However, the likeability of the leads and their excellent chemistry keeps our interest up. The scenery’s nice too. And the final solution surprised me completely.

Dripping in Chocolate has the look of a TV movie, but it’s an enjoyable TV movie. There was sexual suggestion, but nothing explicit. I enjoyed it, and it was a fun break from old black ‘n whites.

‘Murder on the Moor,’ by Bruce Beckham

There are few surprises for the loyal reader in Bruce Beckham’s latest Skelgill mystery, Murder On the Moor. But surprises aren’t what we look for, any more than Skelgill himself looks for novelty when he spends long hours fishing. The exercise is itself the pleasure.

Dan Skelgill is, as you may recall, a police detective in rural Cumbria. He is supported by his regular team, DS Leyton, a transplanted Cockney from London, and DS Jones, an attractive young woman. Skelgill and Jones almost flirt occasionally, but he’s older than she and doesn’t seriously consider it. Essentially he’s a loner.

In Murder On the Moor, the team is called to investigate the theft of some jewels from the stately home of a local nobleman. Lord Edward Bullingdon. His lordship is married to a much younger wife, a fashion model with expensive tastes and a wandering eye. She even makes a play for Skelgill when he interviews her. He’s not impressed with security at the castle, and especially dislikes Lawrence Melling, the predatory gamekeeper. Local conservationists are concerned about a pair of rare birds of prey nesting on the estate. Melling has made it clear he considers the conservationists a nuisance, and the birds a danger to the grouse they raise for hunting, a necessary income for the operation.

Then Melling is murdered in a very suggestive way, and it’s up to Skelgill and his team to sort through a complexity of possible approaches and alibis to discover the killer.

I’ll have to admit I found Murder On the Moor a little slow around the middle. A lot of the plot hung on the physical layout of the estate, which I never quite mastered. Things picked up toward the end. I enjoyed it all in all, and there was no obscenity. I’ll read the next one.

Nat’l Review on D. Keith Mano’s ‘The Bridge’

“We of the Council, convened in full, have decided that man in good conscience can no longer permit this wanton destruction of our fellow creatures, whose right to exist is fully as great as ours,” the decree states. “It is therefore decreed that men, in spontaneous free will and contrition, voluntarily accede to the termination of their species.” The operative word is contrition. Guilt is a force eating people from inside. Citizens are too cowed, too stricken with guilt, to mount any organized resistance to the Council’s diktat. Although not all have chosen to give up on life, everything is in ruins and life expectancy for citizens is low indeed.

Our friend and instigator Dave Lull is well aware of my fondness for the late author D. Keith Mano. He sent me a link to this recent article from the National Review on one of Mano’s nearly forgotten but uncomfortably relevant novels, The Bridge.

Perhaps the scenario evoked in The Bridge is too general in nature to belong to Mano or to any one writer. But anybody who reads Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road and Mano’s The Bridge, published 33 years earlier, will quickly see how much the later novel has in common with the earlier one. 

I thought myself audacious (and feared I was prescient) when in my Epsom novels I postulated a near future in which “Extinctionism” was a popular movement. I in fact cherished a hope that I could manipulate Fate by exploiting its reluctance to ever prove me right. But we’ve seen Extinctionism begin to take hold in recent years, and one looks at imagined futures like those of The Road and The Bridge, today, with growing alarm.

The Bridge, writer Michael Washburn notes, is out of print but can be obtained online. It sounds intriguing, but – honestly – I’m afraid to read it. Also, look at the price on Amazon!

Musing on old movies

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been streaming a lot of old B movies of late on Amazon Prime. The films range across several decades, but (for some reason) I have a special fondness for the ones from the 1930s – when talkies were new and nobody had yet figured out how to handle the technology. (A well-known example is the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, in which all documents are visibly sopping wet. That was because they hadn’t worked out how to filter the sound of crackling paper.)

Today my theme is acting styles. My view of the old silent movies is that they’re really a form of interpretive dance. Actors had to use broad, unnatural gestures and exaggerated facial expressions to convey their messages to the audience. These were skills that transferred pretty well from stage acting, where you have to play to the cheap seats. This meant that nobody was ready for the subtleties that sound demands.

The first film I watched was One Rainy Afternoon, a 1936 effort starring Francis Lederer and Ida Lupino. Lederer was a Czech actor who plays a Frenchman here – because everybody knows Americans can’t distinguish foreign accents (and they’re right). Irving Thalberg had plans to make Lederer a big star, but died before he could get the ball rolling. Instead Lederer got rich in California real estate.

Here he plays a young actor who’s having an affair with a married woman (this is an English version of an earlier French film). They go to a movie together, but enter separately. In the dark, Lederer sits next to the wrong girl – a very young and pretty Ida Lupino. When he kisses her, thinking it’s his paramour, she reacts in a big way. Soon there’s a riot, the press is called in, and Lederer is pilloried in the newspapers as “the Monster.” Guardians of public morality call for his prosecution, and he’s sentenced to a few days in jail. Lupino, regretful about all the fuss, secretly bails him out. You can probably predict the rest of the story based on that.

What stuck in my mind about this movie was the portrayal of the proto-MeToo women’s group that calls for Lederer’s blood. When their leader makes her denunciations, she strikes attitudes appropriate for a speech to a large arena, and uses a voice appropriate for the same arena with no sound amplification. It’s entirely artificial and embarrassing to watch. But at the time, this was cinematic convention. Margaret Dumont, in the Marx Bros. films, actually toned it down a little.

Also present is an actor named Hugh Herbert, who is mostly familiar to my generation from the many times he was caricatured in old animated cartoons. His shtick was acting flustered, patting his fingertips together and making “Woo-woo” noises. His form of comedy is preferable to the feminist oratory, but only by a little.

Moving along, I saw another movie which is generally better, though it was made earlier. I’ve reviewed “Sapper” McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond on this blog. This is the film version from 1929, based on a stage play. Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond is described in the books as big and not very handsome. Here he’s played by Ronald Colman, who is not particularly big and quite good looking. The character would be played by several actors over the years, but all would follow this precedent.

Bulldog Drummond is a young World War I veteran in London who chafes at peacetime boredom. He longs for adventure, and apparently has no sense of fear at all (you might put it down to PTSD nowadays). He advertises in the Times for dangerous work, and gets a note from Miss Phyllis Benton (played by a very pretty, very young Joan Bennett). She is concerned that her father has gotten involved with sinister characters. She is correct in this, so Drummond plunges in in his customary senseless style, pulling irritating practical jokes on the plotters, until he finally escapes certain death and thwarts a major criminal conspiracy.

Notable in this movie is a different kind of bad acting. The villains talk… slow. They strike dramatic attitudes and enunciate every word carefully through curled lips. This may account for Drummond’s improbable success against long odds – these oafs give him lots of time to act while they’re just talking. Once again, this is (I think) a carryover from silent films. What actors and directors still hadn’t figured out was that the challenge now was not to communicate thoughts, but to replicate reality (or rather the illusion of reality).

Also notable in Bulldog Drummond is his sidekick Algy, played by Claud Allister. Think of Bertie Wooster, without the massive intellect. All nose and teeth, with a monocle and a tendency to stand with is mouth gaping open, Allister is the archetype of the upper class twit. I actually found it painful to look at him sometimes. It was like staring at a freak in a sideshow.

Nevertheless, Bulldog Drummond left me with a positive feeling, while One Rainy Afternoon just felt embarrassing. Things (and people) have to be judged according to their times and contexts, not compared to our own ideals – which will, no doubt, look stupid to our descendants someday.