Category Archives: Fiction

‘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.

A Fanciful Underground Railroad

Railroad tunnel“Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.”

This is how Kirkus summarizes Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize. The novel is not historical fiction, because the central idea is existence of a slave-rescuing railway that runs through tunnels beneath the states.

Betsy Child Howard says it isn’t a fun book, but “sometimes we must look with open eyes at the evil humans can perpetrate themselves or countenance in others.”

In 21st-century America, we too often assume that those born into privilege are the deserving, without taking into account the generational effects of enslavement and Jim Crow on those we label “undeserving.” Whitehead is too good at his craft to spell out modern-day implications of our country’s dark history, but they reveal themselves.

‘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.

‘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 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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Heartbreak Hotel

I don’t know how Jonathan Kellerman does it. The premise of his Alex Delaware novels is pretty implausible – child psychologist works as consultant for the L.A. Police Department, and gets closely involved in a long series of homicide cases at the request of his friend, Detective Lt. Milo Sturgis (the least gay homosexual in literature). But not only does Kellerman make it work, he keeps the series fresh and exciting.

In Heartbreak Hotel, Alex receives a call from Thalia Mars, an elderly lady (nearing 100, he learns) who lives in a private cottage at a “hotel” which is actually a recovery facility for cosmetic surgery patients. She offers a high retainer for a little of his time, but he goes to see her mostly out of curiosity. A charming lady, she asks him whether he believes there’s such a thing as a criminal personality. Then she promises to tell him something of her story when he returns the next day.

But there is no second appointment. Overnight Thalia is murdered. Alex calls Milo, and Milo catches the case.

Thalia is a woman of mystery. She has hid her past, and the sources of her wealth, well. But Alex and Milo go to work following clues to old gangland crimes from more than a half century in the past, to thwart a conspiracy of “criminal personalities” who think Thalia owed them something. The climax is shocking, and the anticlimax more shocking still, in its own way.

I loved Heartbreak Hotel. Pure mystery reading pleasure. Highly recommended, with cautions for adult themes and (probably, though I didn’t actually notice) language.

Silence: A Difficult, Important Film

John Murdock talks about beautiful, but problematic the movie Silence is. It isn’t a success story. The power of believing doesn’t end the war. It ends on a note that will need explanation for many viewers.

In an age of ISIS brutality, its themes are sadly relevant today, and it opens a window on a period in church history of which too few are aware. It is not a perfect picture, but those who proclaim it a masterpiece have reason to do so.

‘The Hanging Tree,’ by Ben Aaronovitch

The Hanging Tree

If you’ve followed my reviews of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series of comic-mystery fantasies, you know that Detective Constable Peter Grant works for “the Folly,” a secret division of the London Metropolitan Police. The Folly’s brief is to deal with supernatural, magical crime. Peter is still learning his magical craft under Inspector Nightingale, an eccentric officer over a century old. The “Rivers” of the series title refer to several women who are in actuality the local goddesses of London’s various rivers, the daughters of “Mother Thames.”

In this installment, The Hanging Tree, a young socialite is found dead of a drug overdose in an upscale apartment building. The investigation turns up connections to certain members of Mother Thames’ family, and so the Folly is called in. Their inquiries uncover drug dealing among members of the semi-magical “demimonde,” and the trail leads to the Faceless Man, a magical supervillain Peter and Nightingale have been hunting for some time. It all culminates in a magical showdown in which a great deal of real estate gets trashed.

As always, the writing is excellent (although I’m annoyed by Peter’s narratorial tendency to use the construction, “me and x did so and so”), and the story combines excitement and wit.

However, I think this will be the last Rivers of London book for me. The series bears a resemblance to the revived Doctor Who TV series (for which author Aaronovitch has been a writer), including its ideological themes. Each book works more LGBTQ (etc.) characters in. I suppose the idea is to acclimate the reader to such things, in a frog-in-the-kettle manner. However (as you probably know), the frog in the kettle is an urban myth. Real frogs in real life stay until the water gets uncomfortable, and then jump out.

Which I’m doing now.

‘Dead Wood,’ by Dan Ames

Dead Wood

Sometimes there’s nothing much really wrong with a book except that it annoys me. That was my problem with Dead Wood, the first volume of the Grosse Pointe Pulp series, by Dan Ames.

The hero, John Rockne, was once a Grosse Pointe policeman – very briefly. Then one night he made a well-meaning decision that cost a man his life, and him his career. Today he’s a private investigator in the upscale Detroit suburb. He’s married and a father.

He gets a visit from a retired Country music star. The man’s daughter, a brilliant guitar maker, has been brutally murdered. The police blame a junkie who broke into her workshop, but the old man is sure it was his daughter’s boyfriend, whom he never liked.

John’s investigation leads him into the world of music recording, where the daggers in the back are not always metaphorical. He also comes face to face with a very old enemy.

This synopsis makes the story sound fairly grim, but in fact the tone is relatively light – which was one of the problems for me. John Rockne (who has a Norwegian name but never mentions being Norwegian, only one of the things I didn’t like about him) is a wiseacre. Now wiseacrey is a cherished tradition among hard-boiled private eyes. But you’ve got to earn the right to it, and John doesn’t (in my opinion). He’s not really hard-boiled. In fact, he’s kind of a wimp, constantly nagged by his wife and his older sister. He doesn’t show much sign of fighting ability – but nevertheless manages to survive, apparently mostly by luck, even when set upon by a pair of bodybuilders. In a related issue, he suffers from Fictional Transitory Injury Syndrome, the condition common to TV and movie heroes, where a guy suffers fairly serious injuries one day, and then seems entirely untroubled by them the day after.

On the plus side, I thought the prose wasn’t bad, and the ending of the book was quite affecting.

But, although this is a three-book set, I didn’t like Dead Wood enough to read the follow-up books. At least for now. Your mileage may deviate.

Cautions for language.

‘Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland

Rachel Griffin flies again (on a broom) in the third entry in the Unexpected Enlightenment series by L. Jagi Lamplighter: Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland.

If you’ve missed my reviews of the first two books, Rachel is a freshman at Roanoke Academy of the Sorcerous Arts, an institution invisible to the Unwary (non-magical) World. Similarities to the Harry Potter books are obvious, but there are important differences too. The chief one is that the Unwary World of these books is different from ours in important ways.

Rachel has only been in school a short time, but has already been through a series of perilous adventures. This time out, she and her friends (who include a princess and a dragon-slaying orphan boy) are refining techniques for traveling in dreams. One of their friends has the ability to enter the dream world and move through other people’s dreams, which allows them to travel anywhere that someone is dreaming of, so long as they keep holding hands. As before, Rachel acquires knowledge that permits her to help thwart the plans of demonic forces – though she never gets credit.

A highlight of this book is a daring visit to the Ghost’s Ball at Halloween, where Rachel and her boyfriend meet various ghosts, some pathetic, some evil, some quite nice – and are able to do favors for a few of them.

As with the previous two installments, the whole thing ends in a rousing sorcerous battle scene, well worth the cost of admission.

I’m enjoying the Rachel Griffin books quite a lot, and look forward to the release of the next one. I was particularly pleased to see that Christian themes are beginning to come into focus.

Recommended.

‘The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel

Rachel Griffin, student sorcerer, returns in The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel, the second entry in L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Unexpected Enlightenment series. It’s another delightful exercise in exuberant fantasy.

We pick up the story immediately where the last book left off, on a terrible night when rogue magicians nearly succeeded in destroying Roanoke Academy of the Sorcerous Arts. Only the quick actions of Rachel and her friends (but mostly Rachel) prevented disaster. Soon they learn that the evil magician behind that attack, Montague Egg, has escaped. Egg has much bigger plans than the destruction of the school – he wants to destroy the whole world. And various Roanoke students, including Rachel, are his targets in a diabolically cruel scheme that will break down all protecting walls if it succeeds.

Through the course of the story, Rachel comes to understand her own powers better, and receives guidance from potent supernatural entities. She also learns terrible secrets about her own family history.

The story is (pardon the term) enchanting. I take it on faith that Christian themes are being served here, because they’re only hinted at in the actual narrative. One thing that troubles me is a recurring pattern of Rachel disobeying her elders and superiors, and being generally proven right in doing so. That’s somewhat surprising in books that pay occasional homage to C.S. Lewis, both his Narnia books and his Ransom trilogy. I await further enlightenment on that point in the volumes that follow.

I recommend the series highly, though I’m not entirely sure they’re suitable for children inclined to rebelliousness. No objectionable material except for the magic itself.

8 Steps to Revive Christian Fiction

Christian fiction has been pronounced dead in some circle, and E. Stephen Burnett is running with that idea. If it really is dead, how can it be reborn? He offers eight steps.

  1. Figure out what fiction is even meant to do, starting with Scripture.
  2. Find fans who have similar biblical conviction and imagination.
  3. Stride forth with winsomeness, a confident voice, and ‘swashbuckling.’
  4. Encourage bravery about certain words and topics.
  5. However, do nothing for outrage’s own sake—that is the dark side.
  6. Budget each month to buy great Christian novels you’ve heard about.
  7. Don’t ‘ban’ any genres: romance, fantasy, mystery, literary, popular.
  8. This is ‘Christian fiction,’ so let’s see more than generic Christianity.

I like this last one. Let’s write stories with true-to-life people in them, people who attend close-to-actual churches with real theological traditions. I’d be willing to believe many novels depict vaguely Christian characters because their authors have vaguely non-denominational beliefs. But I don’t know what a survey of Christian authors would produce. Perhaps their theological depth is no deeper than that of the reading public.