Category Archives: Fiction

‘The Aggrieved,’ by Brett Battles

The Aggrieved

I’ve been following Brett Battles’ Jonathan Quinn series for some time now. I’m not generally a reader of espionage fiction, but these books deal with a different kind of character, a guy whose job tends to be a throw-away in other books – the Cleaner. The cleaner comes in after a hit has been carried out, and removes the bodies and all the evidence. Jonathan Quinn is the best at his job, and his skills make him more than equal to various challenges he meets that take him outside the limits of his job description.

In The Aggrieved, Jonathan and his team face a new kind of challenge. In earlier outings they generally ended up trying to rescue somebody. This time, due an incident at the end of the last book (I’ll write carefully, so as not to drop spoilers), they’re out for vengeance. An important member of the team has been killed, and Quinn and company are singlemindedly pursuing revenge. Meanwhile their own relationships are strained, as guilt generates resentment among friends and even family.

This was not my favorite installment in the Jonathan Quinn saga. I think that was largely due to the revenge motivation, although the author makes it clear that the killer they’re pursuing deserves no mercy. The book seemed to me essentially a sequence of planned operations, some more successful than others, without a lot of human interaction – and most of what there was, was unpleasant.

I did enjoy a fairly new character named Jar, a female Asian computer geek somewhere on the autism spectrum. She was kind of fun.

If you’ve been following the books you’ll want to read The Aggrieved, but don’t start with this one. Cautions for the usual.

‘From the Corner of His Eye,’ by Dean Koontz

Out of the Corner of His Eye

“The problem with movies and books is they make evil look glamorous, exciting, when it’s no such thing. It’s boring and it’s depressing and it’s stupid. Criminals are all after cheap thrills and easy money, and when they get them, all they want is more of the same, over and over. They’re shallow, empty, boring people who couldn’t give you five minutes of interesting conversation if you had the piss-poor luck to be at a party full of them….”

I did it again. Bought a Dean Koontz book I thought I hadn’t read, but I had. However, it’s such a sprawling, multi-threaded epic work that I’d forgotten most of it and didn’t tip to my mistake until I was a long way in.

From the Corner of His Eye is ostensibly about a remarkable, gifted boy who goes blind. But that boy, Bartholomew Lampier, actually occupies the stage for a small portion of the book, and much of that while he’s a baby. The real central character might be his mother Agnes, “the pie lady,” who has devoted her life to baking delicious pies, which she delivers to disadvantaged neighbors, along with groceries. Or it might be Detective Thomas Vanadium, former Jesuit priest and amateur physicist, who devotes his life to hunting down murderers, sometimes employing magic to apply psychological pressure.

One day in the early 1960s, a pastor in a small Oregon church delivered a radio sermon called, “This Momentous Day.” It focused on the career of the obscure apostle Bartholomew as an example of an individual who seemed undistinguished, but who in fact had eternal and world-spanning influence. Junior Cain, a murderer and a rapist, happened to hear that sermon. Somehow, within the foul fistula that made up his mind and soul, he came to believe that there was a man named Bartholomew – somewhere out there – who was bent on destroying him. So Junior makes it the obsession of his life to find this Bartholomew and kill him. Continue reading ‘From the Corner of His Eye,’ by Dean Koontz

Is Wolf Time coming?

Wolf Time

I’m very gratified that the good folks over at Grim’s Hall, one of my favorite blogs, have decided to host a multi-part discussion of my novel Wolf Time. It’s been a long time since I wrote that book, but there are some who think it holds up, and even has things to say today. Parts of it, I like to think, are prescient.

Here’s the first post in the discussion.

And here’s the second.

And here’s video of Sen. Bernie Sanders essentially arguing for at least a part of the Definition of Religion Act, a major plot element in Wolf Time.

‘By the Light of the Moon,’ by Dean Koontz

By the Light of the Moon

I bought this book by mistake. I knew a new Dean Koontz was coming out (I’ll review it soon), and somehow I got the idea that By the Light of the Moon was it. Once I had it on my Kindle I realized I’d read it before, and I expect I’ve reviewed it here before. But Koontz will bear a reprise, so I read it again.

Koontz isn’t a repetitive writer, but he does tend to give us recognizable types and situations. The setup in this story is classic Koontz. A mad scientist, Lincoln Procter, on the run from merciless killers, waylays three innocent people in an Arizona motel and injects them with a formula he’s developed. He’s not sure what the results will be, he explains, but they could be positive.

The three victims are Jilly Jackson, a female stand-up comic, and Dylan O’Connor, a traveling artist who is sole custodian of his autistic brother. Procter warns them that the men pursuing him will soon pursue them, to destroy the formula that now flows in their veins. Dylan, Shep, and Jilly set out on a breakneck race to save their lives, but are constantly waylaid, not by the bad guys, but by strange compulsions that start to come over Dylan, causing him to take action to prevent horrible crimes. Shep begins to exhibit a power of his own, a valuable one, but the difficulties of communicating with an autistic person add considerable dramatic tension.

Lots of fun, lots of excitement, some romance, and a measure of wisdom. Good book. I particularly liked the villain, Lincoln Procter (whose name, I think, is intended to echo Hannibal Lector). He’s an original kind of antagonist – a thoroughly bad and selfish man who thinks he can justify himself through constant self-criticism. I know people kind of like that (I’m one of them myself. There! I just did it again!).

Recommended. Cautions for language and intense situations.

‘Among the Dead,’ by Kevin Wignall

Among the Dead

‘…A death, it’s quite something to deal with. Ultimately that was our problem – we were shallow, just not shallow enough.’

The most profoundly moral kind of book, I think, is a genuinely realistic story about immorality. It’s easy for moralists (even, or especially, Christian moralists like me) to say what people ought to do in this or that situation. But the disturbing question is, “Would I really do the right thing? Especially if it was hard and embarrassing? Or how far would I go to cover it up?” Those are among the questions raised by Among the Dead, a fascinating novel by Kevin Wignall.

Ten years ago, five university student friends in England were driving from a party, all of them a little drunk, when their car struck a young woman who darted into the street. Since she was dead anyway, they agreed they couldn’t do anything to help, and reporting the accident to the police would only cause unnecessary trouble, doing no one any good.

Now, ten years later, they are generally out of touch with each other. They’ve tried to forget the past – with mixed success. When one of them dies of an overdose, Alex, a sleep researcher who suffers from insomnia and night panics, tries to get in touch with the others, to let them know.

But more deaths are coming. Is it coincidence? Or is someone killing the group off, a decade after their crime?

Among the Dead wasn’t a cheery read, but I found it fascinating and challenging. I recommend it for serious readers. Cautions for language.

‘People Die,’ by Kevin Wignall

People Die

He did feel bad for burdening her, yet at the same time he’d wanted to tell her much more: that he was lonely, that he felt like indistinct bits of him were dying, that nothing was clear anymore. It was enough though, what he’d told her was enough, like a gasp of pure oxygen, burning the tissue of his lungs.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of People Die, Kevin Wignall’s debut novel. It’s not exactly amoral, but not exactly moral either. I suspect it’s one of those sophisticated books not intended for middlebrows like me.

JJ Hoffman is a freelance hit man, based in Geneva. He has an impeccable reputation in his field – he does his work efficiently and dispassionately, leaving no metaphorical messes behind.

But now he has found his handler murdered, and rumor says that several others of his colleagues have been killed too. Almost by coincidence (I think it counts as a minor deus ex machina) he is contacted by an American who tells him he knows what’s going on. He wants JJ to come and visit him, at an inn in New England.

The problem is that the inn is owned by a woman whose husband JJ murdered a few years ago.

People Die is a well-written tale. I thought it passed the bounds of plausibility a few times – and not in the normal way of thrillers, on the action side. The implausibilities here are psychological. And the resolution just made no sense to me. There’s a kind of grace at work here (in fact the book could be seen as a sort of Christian metaphor), but there’s an amorality at the same time. I couldn’t work out what to think about it in the end.

Worth reading though. Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes.

‘The Missing and the Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

The Missing and the Dead

I swore I wasn’t going to read another Stuart MacBride novel.

The last time I read one of his Logan McRae books, it went in a very, very creepy direction, and I dropped it before it could get any worse. I mentioned on this blog that I was done with it.

But one day I was looking for another book to read, and I had a momentary lapse of memory. By the time I remembered what I thought of the series, The Missing and the Dead was on my Kindle. I figured I’d give it a chance.

It didn’t offend me the way the last one did. And I stayed with it to the end. But I’m still not a fan.

Logan McRae used to be a Scottish police detective. But somewhere since the last story I read, he got demoted to uniformed policing in the far north – centered at a station in the town of Banff, on the North Sea. He’s in charge of a small squad, but of course the plainclothes detectives get to do the interesting work. Continue reading ‘The Missing and the Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

‘The Girl from Kilkenny,’ by Pete Brassett

The Girl from Kilkenny

Good writing. Disturbing story. That’s Pete Brassett’s The Girl from Kilkenny.

It’s not a mystery. It’s one of those stories where you watch a metaphorical train wreck going on, waiting for the moment when somebody will identify the problem and stop it.

Nancy McBride showed up at the Irish farm a few years ago. She was small and beautiful, and the young farmer, who lived with his widowed father, fell in love with her and married her. Granted, her moods tended to change violently from time to time, and she could be cruel with her words. But she showed no desire to leave the lonely farm, and her husband adored her and built his life around her.

When news comes that men have been mysteriously murdered in nearby towns, it never crosses his mind that his wife might be responsible. But there are a lot of things he doesn’t know about…

The Girl from Kilkenny is a neatly plotted tragedy, told in elegant prose.

It’s not a book to cheer you up.

Recommended for those who like this sort of thing.

‘Prayer for the Dying,’ by Steve Brassett

Prayer for the Dying

This novel by Pete Brassett is quite short, almost a novella. But it was an intriguing story, one I enjoyed. And the price was right.

At the beginning of Prayer for the Dying, small-town Irish police detectives Maguire and O’Brien are called to view the body of a dead priest, lying in an onion patch on the grounds of a school for orphan boys. The late priest was once headmaster of the school, but had retired, and was suffering dementia.

Various threads of narrative provide the back story, in bits and pieces and out of sequence. In his time, the dead priest was a terrifying figure, abusive and sadistic. A former staff member tells how he resigned because he couldn’t live with the cruelty anymore. And we are told of another former instructor, a gentle Spaniard who is now catatonic in a mental hospital – but who still finds a way to provide an important clue.

The story was heartbreaking, as any account of child abuse must always be. And there were spiritual elements that were slightly unsettling. But I appreciated the fact that the priests were not stereotyped – most of them were good men. And the ending had resonance.

Cautions for language – Irish cursing which uses somewhat unfamiliar words and so seems less offensive. Also for disturbing subject material. Recommended.

The Handmaid’s Secular Theocracy

Ross Douthat contrasts the society of The Handmaid’s Tale with our current one.

But precisely because of the ways that Atwood’s novel plumbed and surfaced the specific anxieties of 1985, her story is necessarily time-bound and context-dependent and in certain ways more outdated than prophetic. So adapted for our later era, “The Handmaid’s Tale” feels like more like an alternate-history universe in the style of “The Man in the High Castle” than an exercise in futurism. Which should make the adaptation an opportunity to study the contrasts between our actual post-Reagan trajectory and Atwood’s imagined path to Gilead, and to see our own particularities afresh.

‘Citadel,’ by Stephen Hunter

Citadel

A slight rain fell; the cobblestones glistened; the whole thing had a cinematic look that Basil paid no attention to, as it did him no good at all and he was by no means a romantic.

In the wake of reading Stephen Hunter’s G-man (reviewed below), I also downloaded his novella Citadel, available as an e-book. I had some niggles with G-man, but I found Citadel pure delight – a brisk, exciting mystery and spy story.

Basil St. Florian is an agent for Britain’s SOE during World War II. He accepts a dodgy assignment with little chance of success – to fly into occupied France, break into an antiquarian library in Paris, and photograph selected pages of a rare manuscript. Supposedly (nobody’s really sure) those pages contain the key to a “book code” which will allow (for reasons explained in the story) the British to pass information on German plans to the Soviets. Alan Turing is involved.

Basil is an interesting character – the kind of upper-class ne’er-do-well who was never useful to society until the war gave scope for his less respectable talents. His adventures introduce him to a bore of a Luftwaffe officer and a rather decent Abwehr agent.

Citadel was fun. Lots of wit went into the story, and it was fascinating to watch the unflappable Basil overcome repeated seemingly fatal setbacks. The plot tied itself up neatly in the end and left a good taste in my mouth.

Recommended light adventure and suspense, with a touch of Hogan’s Heroes. Only minor cautions for mature stuff.

‘G-Man,’ by Stephen Hunter

G-Man

Dave Lull reminded me that the new Bob Lee Swagger book by Stephen Hunter was coming out the other day, and I was on it like a fedora on J. Edgar Hoover. I had a good time with the book, though it’s not among my favorites in the series.

In G-Man, old Bob Lee finally sells off the family homestead in Blue Eye, Arkansas. As the house is being demolished, workmen discover a strongbox buried in the foundation. Inside are a pristine Colt 1911 pistol, a hand-drawn map, an old, uncirculated thousand-dollar bill, and a piece of metal that looks like a rifle suppressor, though Bob Lee can’t identify it right off.

Various clues indicate the box must have been buried by his grandfather, Charles F. Swagger, a kind of a mystery man. He was county sheriff, and a World War I hero, and an angry alcoholic. Bob Lee’s father Earl made it his life’s goal to be nothing like him. The Colt 1911 belongs to a batch that went to the FBI in 1934. Could old Charles have been an FBI agent for a while? Continue reading ‘G-Man,’ by Stephen Hunter

Discovering Early American Serials

Early American Serialized Novels is a project dedicated to publishing novels serialized in US newspapers and magazines from the 1780s to the 1820s. The project grows out of a graduate seminar on early American literature and the digital humanities at Idaho State University.

I have a heart for early America, though perhaps not enough patience, so an ongoing project like this appeals to me. They have seven stories now. The hosts explain the context in which these tales first appeared.

Novel installments were often printed without predetermined knowledge of how many weeks or months would be devoted to the story, thus requiring authors to adapt accordingly. In addition, readers were never assured that the novels would reach a resolution and therefore became accustomed to complex, dissonant texts in which narrative suspension was a defining feature.

(via Prufrock News)

‘Murder at the Wake,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder at the Wake

‘Still, Guv – darkest hour before dawn, eh?’

‘What?’

Skelgill’s tone is irate, though DS Leyton seems not to notice.

‘It’s what they say, Guv – that it’s the darkest hour before dawn.’

‘No it’s not. It starts getting light in the hour before dawn. It’s called nautical twilight. The darkest hour’s in the middle of the night, Leyton.’

I have an idea that Bruce Beckham, author of the Inspector Skelgill mysteries, is having us on. Just as his main character likes to play tricks on his longsuffering subordinates, Jones and Leyton, Beckham has a lot of stuff going on in his books that’s not apparent on the surface. One obvious example is the language – his characters never employ any curse stronger than “darn” in the dialogue, but the narrator informs us matter-of-factly that the actual words were much saltier. And it’s fairly plain that Skelgill enjoys a rich and varied sex life, but we only learn about it from hints – as when he appears at work wearing the same clothes he wore the day before. The same goes for his attractive female subordinate DS Jones, and there are signs they may have something going between them. But it’s never stated, at least thus far.

Beckham also likes to play with names, in Dickensian style. An actor character, for instance, is named Brutus. That’s kind of nice, I have to admit (it helps me keep track of the characters, which is often a problem for me). But naming a Dublin legal firm “Mullarkey & Shenanigan, Solicitors,” may be a bridge over the Liffey too far.

The form of these novels is generally cozy, but unlike Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Inspector Skelgill is no cold-blooded thinking machine. Skelgill barely thinks at all. He’s a purely physical man who solves his puzzles kinetically, as a kind of by-product of his physical exertions. In the early books it was mostly “fell running,” but more recently it’s been fishing on the lakes of England’s Lake District, where he is a policeman.

That gut-based method of operation is severely restricted in Murder at the Wake, which takes place after a freak blizzard and extended cold spell have rendered the lakes unfishable. When elderly Declan O’More is found clubbed to death in his study in his family’s stately home, one week after the death of his older brother, Skelgill is helping the mountain rescue team search for a lost hiker. He gets the helicopter pilot to drop him near the hall, and is confronted with something like a classic Agatha Christie problem – the residents of the hall, gathered for the funeral, have been isolated there. They are Declan’s five grand-nephews and nieces, plus a few servants and business connections. One of them must be the killer.

Skelgill goes to work in his usual fashion, being rude and insensitive to almost everyone and attracting strong attention from the females present. After the roads open up the investigation proceeds along more conventional lines, and the inquiries stretch as far as Dublin. The murderer is finally unmasked in a dramatic, but somewhat contrived, scene.

Skelgill annoys me, but I keep coming back to his stories. So I must be entertained. In that light I recommend Murder at the Wake, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

‘The Tracker,’ by Chad Zunker

The Tracker

I’m going to go a little beyond giving this book a good review and a recommendation. I’m going to indulge in a little advocacy for The Tracker, by Chad Zunker.

Sam Callahan is 25 years old, almost finished with law school. He looks forward to a bright future that once seemed an impossible dream.

He takes a summer job as a “tracker.” Trackers are operatives for political campaigns. They’re the people who follow the opposition candidates around with their smart phones, recording everything so that every slip of the tongue and bad facial expression can be saved and shared.

He goes to a motel where (an anonymous tipster has informed him) the candidate he’s tracking is about to engage in some unacceptable behavior. What he sees is, first, a romantic tryst, and then a murder.

But the candidate has powerful backers, who falsify the evidence to make Sam into the suspect. Soon he’s on the run with the FBI on his heels.

Fortunately he’s not without resources. In his past he was a street kid, and in that life he acquired some useful skills – like breaking and entering, jacking cars, and picking pockets. He also has a hacker friend with high level abilities. And beyond that, he possesses a natural gift – situational awareness at an unusual level, allowing him to find ways of escape where others would be baffled.

The Tracker reminded me quite a bit of the last Gregg Hurwitz novel I reviewed, Trust No One. But that’s no criticism. When you’re doing a Hitchcockian “wrong man” thriller, where an innocent man becomes a fugitive, it’s a good move to give your hero a checkered past and some experience with extra-legal (or military) survival techniques. Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, one example among many, employs a similar approach.

Sam Callahan is an appealing hero – a guy with a rough past who’s turned his life around and is still learning how to give and receive love and trust. What makes the book particularly interesting to me – and probably to most of this blog’s readers – is that it contains openly Christian elements. It’s not a “message” book where everything works up to a conversion, but Christian characters speak the gospel in an open way.

The writing is good. The characters worked. Author Zunker hasn’t entirely polished his prose style (he falls into redundancies like “processing through” information, and “revert back”). But he has a feel for the craft, and I expect him to only get better. And he’s not bad now.

Highly recommended.