All posts by Lars Walker

‘Troubleshooter,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Troubleshooter

Accustomed to full-bore ART kick-ins requiring heavy firepower Guerrera didn’t handle his Beretta with the same facility he did an MP5. Tim caught him holding the handgun up by his head and gestured for him to straight-arm it or keep it in a belt tuck. The Starsky & Hutch position was good solely for catching a closeup of an actor’s face in the same frame as the gun; in real life a startle reaction to a sudden threat would leave an officer momentarily deaf and blind, or with half his face blown off.

Tim Rackley is back in Troubleshooter, Gregg Hurwitz’ third book in his series starring a Los Angeles US Deputy Marshal who screwed up seriously in the first installment, but has been reinstated through what was a pretty blatant case of authorial deus ex machina. But who cares? The stories are great, and Troubleshooter doesn’t disappoint.

Outlaw biker gang members usually just keep their mouths shut and do their time when caught. They don’t generally mess with cops. But the Laughing Sinners, a local gang, is changing the game. First of all, they killed a couple cops. Then they carried out a meticulous, brilliantly timed rescue, killing some more cops in the process. Now it’s open war between the bikers and several police agencies, including the marshals and the FBI. The bikers are going all out, in a scheme that involves drug dealing and terrorism on a scale unseen in this country since 9/11.

And meanwhile, Tim Rackley himself is working under the threat of a terrible personal loss.

What can I say? Troubleshooter has all the virtues of Hurwitz’ other novels – sharp, professional prose, well-drawn characters, excruciating plot tension, big stakes. As always, some elements are implausible when considered coolly, but there’s little leisure for cool consideration in the midst of all this action.

Cautions for language, adult themes, and violence. Otherwise, highly recommended.

Mano vs. the Oxford comma

Dave Lull sent me a link to this recent Boston Globe column by Jeff Jacoby. It includes a section on the Oxford comma debate, in which he cites the late D. Keith Mano:

The story reminded me of one of those great exchanges that for years made William F. Buckley’s “Notes & Asides” — the column in which he regularly reproduced his exchanges with colleagues, readers, and other correspondents — the best part of National Review. From December 1972:

“A ukase. Un- negotiable. The only one I have issued in seventeen years. It goes: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas.” NOT: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges and bananas.” I am told National Review’s style book stipulates the omission of the second comma. My comment: National Review’s style book used to stipulate the omission of the second comma. National Review’s style book, effective immediately, makes the omission of the second comma a capital offense!”

Among the responses was this lament from D. Keith Mano, a National Review columnist, to the magazine’s managing editor, Buckley’s sister Priscilla:

“I have read with dismay WFB’s ukase on the serial comma. I can’t do it. No way. It’s just plain ugly. WFB says this is un-negotiable. . . . How serious is he? Can I arrange a dispensation?

“Look: I’ll compromise. There should be peace in the family. Instead of “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas” — how about if he just buys oranges and bananas? Or a head of non-union lettuce. You see what this sort of restriction leads to. And they ask me why fiction is dying. Erich Segal, I bet, uses the serial comma.

“You may tell WFB that, from now on and as ordered, I salute the red and white.”

I’m frankly a little disappointed — I’ve been won over to the Oxford comma side, myself. I have the idea the Forces of History are in its favor. Perhaps that was Mano’s fate, to be a genius forever tainted by his associations with questionable movements. Playboy Magazine. Dropping the Oxford.

Of course, my advocacy of the O.C. probably dooms it…

Colin Dexter, 1930-2017

Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter, the author of the Inspector Morse novels, has passed away at the age of 86. Born in 1930, he didn’t become a full-time writer until 1966. Success came to him fairly late in life, but it came big. BBC News quotes him as saying:

“I think Morse, if he had really existed and was still alive, would probably say to me, ‘Well, you didn’t do me too bad a service in your writing’.

“He might say, ‘I wish you’d made me a slightly less miserable blighter and slightly more generous, and you could have painted me in a little bit of a better light’.

“If he had bought me a drink, a large Glenfiddich or something, that would have been very nice, but knowing him I doubt he would have done – Lewis always bought all the drinks.”

Dexter took a shrewd tack with the TV series based on his books. Some authors hate to see their precious works disfigured on film – John D. MacDonald famously loathed every movie or TV show adapted from any of his works, including the original “Cape Fear,” which is considered a classic. But Dexter embraced the BBC series and deliberately accommodated it. For instance, Sergeant Lewis is actually two policemen in the first book, Last Bus to Woodstock. But seeing how well the pairing of actors John Thaw and Kevin Whately worked onscreen, he quietly blended the subordinate officers and carried on without missing a step.

I enjoyed the Inspector Morse books, and the TV series perhaps even more. And I think I like the new prequel, Endeavor, more than that. RIP Colin Dexter.

‘The Program,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Program

Before I say anything else, I think I should mention that all guys named Tim owe Gregg Hurwitz a debt of gratitude. The name “Tim” is not often found attached to tough-guy heroes, at least in our time. But Hurwitz has hung that neglected moniker on one of the most hard-core, two-fisted heroes since Clint Eastwood mothballed his serape.

In The Program, former Deputy US Marshal Tim Rackley is asked to extract the young-but-adult stepdaughter of a Hollywood producer from a secretive mind-control cult. It’s a tricky job, because the cult leader, though under suspicion, is not actually being investigated for any crime. Strongly mindful of his own murdered daughter, Tim takes up the challenge. He assumes a false identity and goes undercover, relying on his military training in resisting brainwashing to keep his head on straight. It turns out to be a bigger challenge than he expected – “TD,” the leader of the cult, is a brilliant and manipulative man who latches on to Tim in particular as a potential collaborator in empire building. Repeated escalating setbacks for the good guys set up, first of all, a hilarious scene where Tim and some allies disrupt an informational meeting, and then a heart-in-your throat rescue attempt. Tim also finds plenty of opportunity to exercise his high pain threshold.

I’m always most impressed by the character portrayals in stories, and The Program excelled in this area too. One character in particular, who started out looking like a stereotype, displayed hidden depths once the chips were down.

The Program is another home run for Gregg Hurwitz, in my opinion. Cautions for language, sexual situations, and violence. Certain clues suggest that the author leans left politically, but he doesn’t rub it in our faces, which is all I ask. Highly recommended.

‘Be Thou My Vision’ (martial version)

Here’s the best-loved Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” done by… I don’t know whom. A male group. I chose this version because it includes the often-skipped third verse, beginning, “Be Thou my battle-shield…”

The original could well have been known by Father Ailill, the narrator of my Erling novels. It’s often attributed to the sixth-century Saint Dallan, though some scholars date it to the eighth century. Pre-Viking in either case.

It was first translated into English in 1905, but the singable verse version was done by Eleanor Hull in 1912. The tune would not have been used by medieval monks, but is an Irish folk tune called “Slane.”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

‘The Kill Clause,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Kill Clause

A book about vigilantes is no novelty. And the broad story arc of Gregg Hurwitz’s The Kill Clause is entirely predictable. The magic is in the… execution.

Tim Rackley is a decorated Deputy US Marshall, former military. When his only child, a little girl, is kidnapped, raped, and murdered, and the killer gets let off on a technicality, something dies inside him. He is approached by a representative of a secret group, “The Commission.” Their high-sounding mission is to find people clearly guilty of terrible crimes, who have been released by the courts. They will “execute” them in a fair, just manner. Tim’s job is to carry out the executions.

But his integrity and compassion are too great to work long that way. As the Commission comes apart and two dangerous members go rogue, Tim learns terrible secrets about his own tragedy. He finds himself racing against time to protect the very men he had planned to kill – including the killer of his daughter.

The conclusion of the book is a masterpiece of irony.

Gregg Hurwitz is a big writer, with a screenwriter’s sensibilities. That means high drama, high tension – and a certain level of improbability in the plot. What makes The Kill Clause work so well is the treatment of the characters – even the most repellant of them have their private stories, which are treated with empathy and respect. And the depiction of Tim’s grieving process (and his wife’s) is moving.

Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes. Otherwise, highly recommended.

The faith of LCR

Conservatives are often accused by liberals of having a “civil religion,” of getting our Christianity confused with our patriotism.

It’s a fair cop. I’m sure I do that, and I’m pretty sure I do it more than I’m aware.

But liberals have a civil religion too, and I have an idea very few of them recognize it at all.

Like the conservative kind, Liberal Civil Religion (LCR) is a denatured form of Christianity. It goes like this:

There’s Original Sin. In LCR, original sin is privilege. “White Privilege” is the fashionable variety right now, but liberals have always been ashamed of privilege of one kind or another. Being a citizen of a prosperous, free country is the pretty much the worst kind of privilege. Since liberals believe in a zero-sum world (if you have $2.00 and I have $1.00, you must have stolen fifty cents from me), all our freedom and all our wealth must have been torn from the poor. We are thieves and parasites.

There’s Penance. Penance takes the form of voting for Democrats (or Socialists, if you’re really a saint) and supporting policies which we suspect will hurt ourselves and our families. We deserve it.

There are Indulgences. Indulgences are paid in the form of high taxes. We may know that government programs are by nature inefficient and even counterproductive ways to help the less fortunate. But helping them isn’t the point. The point is making ourselves suffer. The pain provides a momentary, fleeting sense of expiation.

And what about grace?

There is no grace in LCR. The guilt goes on and on forever.

If grace were offered, how would people be persuaded to do perpetual penance?

‘The Nowhere Man,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Nowhere Man

Evan struggled to find the words. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been out in the cold, nose up to the glass, looking in. I may not get to come inside…. But I’m sure as h*ll not gonna let the wolves in at everyone else. No. That’s one thing I’m good for.”

This is the second book in the Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz. In The Nowhere Man, Evan Smoak, former secret government assassin, present-day free-lance rescuer, continues his strange career. He saves people’s lives pro bono, generally by killing someone who can be stopped in no other way. But this book takes the story in a new direction. Someone very, very good at surveillance and special ops manages to capture him. It’s just business, as his captor has noticed Evan’s elaborate, high-security online financial activities. He wants Evan to transfer a large amount of money to him, on pain of torture. But he gradually realizes that Evan is a different kind of target than any he’s ever dealt with, and he decides to put his very life on auction.

I found the tension almost unbearably high in this one, as I’ve always found stories about imprisonment and escape emotionally difficult. Evan’s challenges rise to the level of the existential, as he comes to the end of his (considerable) personal resources, and reaches the point where he needs the help of others, something very hard for him to accept.

Once again, I found this Orphan X book riveting, and I highly admired the author’s skill at cranking up the tension while turning out superior prose. The depth of the characterization gives the book substantial weight. The plot is sometimes a little implausible, but we’re treading the borderline between novel and comic book here, so I just went with the ride. And an exciting one it was.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult situations. I also ought to mention that Evan practices transcendental meditation, which I don’t care for. But all in all, this is about as much quality entertainment for your book-buying dollar as you’re going to find anywhere.

‘Orphan X,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Orphan X

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book.

Evan Smoak, hero of Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz, does not officially exist. As a young boy he was taken (voluntarily) from a group home for orphans, to join a secretive US intelligence team. Members of the Orphan Program are highly skilled agents and assassins, entirely deniable and expendable in case of capture. Evan was raised in near-isolation by his handler, Jake Johns, a good man who taught him not only tradecraft, but human values as well. He instilled in Evan his own Ten Commandments, rules of operation by which he has lived ever since.

But around the time he was thirty, Evan decided to come in from the cold. He left the program, at great personal cost. Now he’s a kind of freelance hero. When he helps someone out of a life-and-death situation, he tells them to give his phone number to one other person, and only one. This keeps his work from becoming overwhelming.

But when he gets a call from a woman in debt to the Las Vegas mob, whose father is being held hostage until she pays up, and then shortly after is contacted by another “client,” he knows his system has been compromised. Someone with skills similar to his own is hunting him. Who should he trust? How can he be sure who really needs his help?

And what should he do about his neighbor, a single mother, to whom he’s attracted? Particularly considering the fact that she works in the District Attorney’s office?

Gradually, he starts to break Jack’s Ten Commandments, one after another.

One can’t help thinking of a cross between Jason Bourne and Batman here. But Orphan X digs deeper, uncovering layers of dysfunction and contradiction in the personality of a man who lives to do good, but doesn’t know how to relate to other human beings. When I was a kid, I used to watch TV Westerns, in which the heroes often seemed to travel from place to place with no other occupation than Righting Wrongs. When I got older, I began to wonder how they paid the bills (for the record, The Lone Ranger, at least, owned a silver mine). But there’s a deeper question – where does the hero go to meet his own emotional needs? Is he really a good man if he doesn’t dare – or know how – to love?

Orphan X is the first book of a series that I eagerly anticipate following. There’s one sequel to date, which I’ll review soon. Aside from the exciting (sometimes improbable) plot and vivid characters, the writing here is top notch. Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes. Highly recommended otherwise.

Linkage

Marcus Selmer photograph

The wonderful Mirabilis.ca shares a link to information on the Dano-Norwegian photographer Marcus Selmer, who left remarkable images of 19th Century Norwegian peasants.

And Dave Lull passes on news about a planned TV series based on Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis books.

I expect they’ll ruin it by making Milo a militant gay, but the news is interesting anyway.

‘Broken Skin,’ by Stuart MacBride

Broken Skin

More and more often, it seems to me, a book series I’m enjoying “jumps the shark,” from my point of view. The reasons vary, but usually they’re political or religious.

I’m dropping the Logan McRae series of dark comic police mysteries for a slightly different reason.

In Broken Skin, we rejoin Detective Sergeant Logan McRae of Aberdeen, Scotland, as he continues to operate (after a fashion) in a chaotically dysfunctional police department, investigating deadly serious crimes. This time a famous football (soccer) player is suspected of a string of sadistic rapes, but the police can’t break his alibi. And a BDSM porn star is discovered murdered in a rather… unconventional way.

I was all in with the story until the very climax, which (to me) was kind of… icky.

Then I moved on to the next book, Flesh House, which involves (I’m not making this up) a serial cannibal. And once I figured out where the story was going…

I metaphorically got up out of my seat and left the theater. None of that for me, sir, thank you very much.

Author Stuart MacBride has made the decision – and it may very well be a wise one in business terms – to go full shockmeister in this otherwise enjoyable series. He seems to be quite successful, so he probably hasn’t misjudged his audience.

But it’s not to my taste.

Lars’ Labors Lost

What a weird night last night was.

It was as if God was playing a practical joke on me (which, in my theology, is not entirely inconceivable).

I told you in my last installment how I accidentally scheduled myself for two appointments at nearly the same time yesterday. First, at 6:00, a meeting at a restaurant with an elderly man who wanted translation help. Then, at 6:30, my annual meeting with my tax preparer.

I didn’t have the elderly man’s phone number, so I decided to be at the restaurant, catch him going in, apologize for having to leave right away, and reschedule.

I arrived ten minutes early. I stood (couldn’t sit in my car because the nearest spot was behind a big van) in a pretty chilly wind for 25 minutes, waiting for the man. Nobody of his description showed up. At 6:05 I went inside to see if he’d beaten me there and was waiting. The only old guy present told me (rather alarmed at my Ancient Mariner aspect, I think) that he wasn’t the guy I wanted. I don’t think he actually said, “Don’t hurt me,” but he looked like he wanted to.

So I went to my tax appointment. (I later got a call from the elderly guy. He’d been detained, and will call again to reschedule).

When I walked in to the tax place, the receptionist said, “We’ve been trying to reach you.” Turned out they wanted to reschedule, and had left a message on my home answering machine. Which I never got to hear, because I’d been waiting at the restaurant.

As it was, somebody was there to help me, so I got the ordeal over with.

The final score is that, of the two overlapping appointments I so worried about, neither one was actually operative. I could have skipped out on one or both without a problem.

But I had no way of knowing that. So I kept my promises.

Sometimes that’s the best you can do in this life.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Slave to the calendar

When you’re me (I’ll agree the odds of that are fairly low), one thing you should never have to worry about is non-job-related schedule conflicts. When you have half a dozen appointments per month (at most) during your own time, the odds are against lightning striking twice on the same day, let alone the same hour.

Yet here I am, with a conflict that’s not only inconvenient, but embarrassing.

Of course, pretty much everything embarrasses me.

Sunday morning I was getting ready for church when I got a call. It was from an elderly gentleman who’d gotten my name and number somehow. He had some documents in Norwegian, related to his family, that he wanted translated. He’s from my town, and he wanted to meet at a restaurant. I told him, off the top of my head, that we could meet Tuesday evening at 6:00.

After we ended the call, I checked my pocket calendar. What do you know – my annual appointment with my tax preparer is Tuesday at 6:30. There isn’t time for both things.

What was worse, I hadn’t thought to get his phone number (my land line doesn’t remember these things). And I could only remember his last name.

So I tried to find all the locals with that name in the phone directory. Of course I don’t have an actual phone book in my house. I used to be able to find numbers easily online.

Have you tried to find a number online recently? Most of the sites won’t refine the search in greater granularity (“granularity” is a great word – I learned it in library school) than the entire metropolitan area. The rest of them are trying to sell you people-finding software.

Then I checked my calendar again and heaved a sigh of relief. The “TAXES” note I’d made in there didn’t indicate the actual appointment, but was just a reminder to make sure my records were in order the week before. Dodged the bullet, I thought.

Only today I checked again. I was looking at the wrong week. It’s tomorrow I have the tax appointment, all right. So I’m double-booked after all.

If I can’t find this guy’s number to get a rain check, I figure I’ll show up at the restaurant and apologize, and reschedule then.

What I need is people. Handlers. A retinue!

I’m an artist. I can’t work under these conditions.

‘Dying Light,’ by Stuart MacBride

Dying Light

The Regents Arms was a little bar on Regent Quay with a three am licence. Not the smartest place in Aberdeen; it was dark, dirty, missing an apostrophe, and smelled of spilt beer and old cigarettes.

Imagine that the Keystone Kops were real policemen in the real world, running around in feckless circles while real criminals carried out their genuine atrocities in technicolor splendor. That’s sort of the impression I get from Stuart MacBride’s series of police procedurals starring Detective Sergeant Logan McRae of Aberdeen, Scotland. No stalwart, heroic cops here – just confused and overworked plods keeping after the criminals until the criminals make a mistake.

I suspect the realism level is pretty high in these darkly comic books. One authentic element is that the detectives don’t have the luxury of concentration. They work several cases at once. In Dying Light, a serial killer is abducting and murdering prostitutes, someone is screwing doors shut and torching homes with families inside, and a young husband has been reported missing.

In the previous book, Cold Granite, which I reviewed a couple weeks ago, DS McRae worked under Inspector Insch, a clownish-looking fat man, but intelligent and concerned about his team. In Dying Light, he’s assigned to Inspector Steel, a raddled lesbian who’s sloppy, lazy, glory-grabbing, and oblivious to her subordinates. McRae’s frustration level spikes as his sleep deficit widens, but he plugs on in his obsessive way, until all the questions get answered in the wake of a pretty explosive climax.

I could easily dislike the Logan McRae books, which are fairly cynical in many ways. But I enjoy the high quality prose and the slapstick, and the fact that the good guys generally muddle through in the end. Hard to believe Sgt. McRae doesn’t find another line of work, though. Cautions must be given for language, adult situations, and disturbing violence.