Category Archives: Fiction

‘Murder of a Silent Man,’ by Phillip Strang

Murder of a Silent Man

Yet another in an apparently infinite supply of English police procedural mystery series. I tried Murder of a Silent Man (I suppose I identified with the title) by Phillip Strang. It had certain virtues which I won’t deny, but overall I wasn’t much impressed.

Gilbert Lawrence is the murder victim in this story. He’s an old, reclusive man who only went out once a week, to the liquor store. No one would have guessed he was one of the richest men in the country, unless they noticed the large house where he lived, holed up in a small locked area. But someone took the trouble to stab him to death in his front garden, and now DCI Isaac Cook and his team must unravel the mystery. It’s compounded by the discovery of a human skeleton in an upstairs bed.

There’s no lack of suspects. Lawrence had two estranged children, one a prosperous wife, the other a drug addict and con man. For years his affairs have been handled by his solicitor and his daughter, who have been profiting well from his business interests – perhaps too well.

The great virtue of this book was its realism. It followed police procedure in a believable way. No flashes of genius insight here, no car chases or terrorist situations. Just solid police work leading finally to a solid – and undramatic – conclusion. I don’t mind that at all. Some people might want more bells and whistles, but I liked this approach.

What I didn’t care for was the presentation of the story. The prose was sometimes weak. The characters weren’t very vivid – the suspects were more interesting than the cops, but they weren’t all that fascinating either. We weren’t even given descriptions of most of the cops – except for DCI Cook, who is Jamaican by heritage. Apparently author Strang assumed the reader would have read the earlier books in the series and would remember earlier descriptions.

So all in all, I wasn’t greatly impressed. I did appreciate the realism, though.

‘The Snowman,’ by Jo Nesbo

The Snowman

So I’d kicked the dust of John Verdon off my feet, and was looking for another mystery to read. “Hey,” I said to myself, “you’re gonna be unemployed soon. Why not check out the public library’s selection?” So I did that.

The public library site is kind of hard to browse, but eventually I hit on Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, another in his long-running Harry Hole series. And I thought, “I don’t love the Hole books, but this’ll be free. Give him another chance.” So I did that.

Takeaway: A readable, exciting book. Also overcooked and kind of annoying.

Harry Hole (pronounced “hoo-leh”) is an Oslo police detective. His colleagues often joke that he’s a specialist in serial killers, even though Norway has never had a serial killer case (his expertise comes from visits abroad). But now they’ve got one. They just hadn’t realized it. Continue reading ‘The Snowman,’ by Jo Nesbo

‘White River Burning,’ by John Verdon

This isn’t a review. It’s more of an adieu (hmm, there’s a song there, somewhere). It’s my farewell to John Verdon’s Dave Gurney series.

I’ve enjoyed this series, but White River Burning brought about that moment when (as Job said) “the thing I greatly feared had come upon me.”

I’d been concerned about the increasing levels of political messaging in the books. Not that I think that’s a sin – I’m an ideological writer myself. But I know I’ve lost readers because of the opinions I’ve embedded in my books. In the same way, John Verdon has lost me.

I didn’t get far into White River Burning, which centers on the murder of a policeman in a city torn by riots similar to the Trayvon Martin unrest. It didn’t take many pages before we were treated to a scene where a “commentator” on the RAM News Channel (which seems to be a surrogate for FOX) engages in open white supremacist rhetoric.

I can understand how a leftist might think that FOX is a forum for neo-Nazis fresh out of their white sheets. FOX is often criticized as racist by the left, but this is because leftists generally believe that all conservative opinions are racist. It isn’t surprising that author Verdon might think you can turn on FOX on any given day and hear its commentators calling for, oh, a return to Jim Crow and revived miscegenation laws.

But it’s not reality. And at that point I couldn’t overlook the political passion of the author. I wish him well, but I’m confident he doesn’t want my business.

‘Wolf Lake,’ by John Verdon

Wolf Lake

I continue my trek through John Verdon’s Dave Gurney mysteries, continuing the adventures of the retired NYPD detective retired to the Catskill Mountains.

In Wolf Lake, Dave and his wife Madeleine are headed for a week of snowshoeing in Vermont, when he is asked to look into a mystery at Wolf Lake lodge, which is located more or less on the way. He almost begs off for Madeleine’s sake, but – uncharacteristically – she encourages him to make the detour.

There they meet Richard Hammond, a psychiatrist famed – and notorious – for his experiments with hypnotism. He had been living at the lodge at the invitation of its wealthy owner, but now that owner is dead by suicide. On top of that, three other men have committed suicide in various places around the country. Each one was treated for cigarette addiction by Hammond, and each reported having an identical nightmare, before killing himself – also in an identical manner.

The local district attorney is building a case against Hammond, for “murder by hypnosis.” The whole thing seems crazy to Dave, and he continues to look for reasonable explanations, even as inexplicable things happen around him, and Madeleine grows deeply troubled but refuses to leave the place.

I thought, frankly, that Wolf Lake was a little over the top. Portents in nature, a prophetic madman, a snowstorm orchestrated to raise the stakes in the climax – some of this gets explained, but overall it seemed melodramatic to me. And the solution seemed contrived. Also, author Verdon appears to have grown more comfortable expressing his politics in his books. The evils of homophobia underpin a lot of the narrative.

I’m reading the next book, but I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I’ve liked the Dave Gurney stories, but a little more politics will put me off them.

Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

“I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. . . . “But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people  together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running . . . but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing.”

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is one in which everyone has taken the easy route to learning, living, and contributing to society. We, the people, started it, neglecting books and thinking, choosing big screens and reality shows. After some years of that, state representatives began to outlaw these channels of deeper thought. They burned libraries,  and schools taught that books were filled with nonsense. You could call this censorship, but it’s the censorship the people want. They want a comfortable life spent in front of a wall-to-wall interactive screen (or three or four wall-to-wall screens, if they could afford them), their “families” yakking at them through broadcasts.

Books put crazy, false, and conflicting ideas in people’s heads. What’s on screen is real, current, and unified. There’s no mention of any churches, but why would there be? Only those that had morphed into social clubs would be left standing.

The houses in Fahrenheit 451 are complete fire-proof, so when a homeowner is found in possession of books and he won’t be taken into custody or removed to an asylum, he is torched within his offending home. They do it at dusk or after, so the neighborhood bonfire will make the most spectacle, a warning to anyone still harboring the printed word.

As you can tell from the quotation above, someone people won’t follow the crowd–probably homeschoolers. They have more curiosity than society wants them to have. They will suffer for it for a while, but after society has eaten itself they will rebuild, like they always do, taking life’s hard road because that’s the only one left.

Cruciform Press Is Publishing Fiction

Cruciform Press, the people behind several excellent books (the one title Cruciform is a good choice), has begun to publish fiction.

One of the first things we did when weighing this fiction venture was to network a little to try to find some potential candidate manuscripts. What we found was certainly encouraging, but we also know that these must be just the tip of a much larger iceberg!

As fans of good fiction on Christian themes, we have to admire this optimism. They are releasing three titles for this effort, all speculative fiction, two new works, and one republication by Charles Dickens that they are calling a forgotten classic. Prices look good. They offer several pages as a free sample, and there’s a 30% discount running.

Truth Is No Stranger to Fiction

 

‘Peter Pan Must Die,’ by John Verdon

Peter Pan Must Die

At times like this he always recalled, uneasily, that everyone on earth at a particular latitude sees the same stars in the sky. But no two cultures see the same constellations. He’d seen evidence of the phenomenon again and again: The patterns we perceive are determined by the stories we want to believe.

Another novel in John Verdon’s interesting – and somewhat disturbing – series of mystery-thrillers starring David Gurney, retired NYPD detective. Now living with his wife on a farm in the Catskills, he keeps getting diverted from the peaceful, pastoral pursuits she prefers to various murder mysteries that people bring to him.

At the beginning of Peter Pan Must Die, Dave gets a request for help from his friend Jack Hardwick. It’s really more than a request, and his relationship with Jack is more complex than ordinary friendship. A constitutional rebel, Jack has helped Dave in previous cases by passing him information civilians shouldn’t get access to. Now Jack is calling his favors in. He’s been fired from the state police and has set up as a private investigator. He’s got a big case on the line, and needs “famous” Dave’s participation to close the deal.

Jack’s client is the wife of Carl Spalter, a hard-driving real estate tycoon who was running for governor. Spalter was shot fatally by a sniper during his mother’s funeral, and the wife was convicted of hiring the assassin. She thinks – and Jack agrees – that the defense was incompetent and the prosecution corrupt. All they need to do is identify the holes in the prosecution case, inform her new attorney, and bank their payment check.

But that’s not enough for Dave. What obsesses him is the solution, what really happened. As he examines the evidence, he discovers that the murder shot could not possibly have been fired from the spot which ample evidence shows the killer must have used. That’s only the first of the conundrums that will fuel his obsession and ultimately put him in conflict with – very possibly – the most dangerous human being he has ever encountered.

Like all the books in the Dave Gurney series, Peter Pan Must Die was fascinating and engrossing. But there’s something more – an unease, the constant dissonance in Dave’s marriage and the underlying knowledge that something is seriously wrong with Dave. He analyses everything except his own heart, and is blind to the subconscious urges that force him to put himself – and often the people he loves – in danger again and again.

Cautions for language, adult themes, and intense situations. Highly recommended if this is your sort of thing. The final twist is pretty good too.

Did Susan Pevensie Fall Away?

Doug Wilson talks about Susan’s character arc in the Chronicles of Narnia. He walks through almost every scene she is in, noting the details show of her character. So what should we make of Susan becoming no “friend of Narnia”?

Why does the apparent apostasy of Susan seem like a gaping narratival hole that doesn’t fit with any part of the larger story? I want to argue that it does not seem to fit because it really doesn’t fit. My intention is to show that a final apostasy on the part of Susan is really a literary impossibility.

You may be thinking of Wilson’s end game already. We’ve seen it on this blog before. There are four thrones at Cair Paravel. All four will be filled, because (odd how this mists my eyes almost every time) “once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

‘Let the Devil Sleep,’ by John Verdon

Let the Devil Sleep

He’d long ago discovered that one way to get to a solution was to step away from the problem and go on to something else. The brain, relieved of the pressure to move in a particular channel, often finds its own way. As one of his born-and-bred Delaware County neighbors had once said, “The beagle can’t catch the rabbit till you let him off the leash.”

I continue to work my way through John Verdon’s very satisfying (to me at least) series of Dave Gurney mysteries. Dave, as you may recall, is a decorated New York police detective, retired. Now he lives on a farm in the Catskill Mountains with his wife Madeleine, in a relationship both loving and full of tension. She loves nature and growing things, and “lives in the moment.” He never feels alive unless he’s solving a complex murder mystery – which is why his retirement has involved one unofficial investigation after another, often stepping on the toes of the real authorities.

In Let the Devil Sleep, Dave is recovering from a fight to the death in the previous book which left him with both emotional and physical trauma. Then he hears from an old acquaintance, a female journalist. She asks him for a favor – to “look over the shoulder” of her college-age daughter, who is working on a journalism project. Would he give her some pointers? He soon understands that the real, underlying request is for him to help the girl investigate the unsolved case of “the Good Shepherd,” a killer who shot six people to death in their cars on lonely roads. They were all driving the same expensive model automobile. The killer released a “manifesto,” a fanatical screed against greed, vowing to wipe out all the greedy people on earth. Dave immediately suspects the manifesto is a smokescreen, which means that the working theory of all the investigators, including the FBI, has been wrongheaded all these years. Continue reading ‘Let the Devil Sleep,’ by John Verdon

Reading report: ‘En Herse, Tre Konger,’ by Edvard Eikill

En herse tre konger

What was I reading while I spent the week in Decorah, Iowa doing back-to-the soil, Mother Jones craft stuff? No doubt you’ve been wondering. Obviously it would have to be something pretentious, to show off my erudition to other participants, to compensate for my abysmal artisanal skills. And so it was.

I was reading a Norwegian novel sent to me by the author: En Herse, Tre Konger, (One Hersir, Three Kings) by Edvard Eikill. Mr. Eikill is a retired dentist who has turned his energies to fiction and translation. He’s the translator of the massive, elegant Norwegian translation of the Icelandic Flatøybok that I’ve written about here before. We’re friends on Facebook, and he asked me if I’d read his novel about Erling Skjalgsson. I didn’t know anyone else had ever written fiction about Erling, so I was interested to read the book, which he kindly sent me.

Edvard Eikill is a rather different kind of novelist than I am (though he is a Christian). He spends less time with details and setting scenes. His book surveys Erling’s life more or less at the 30,000 foot level, moving fast through Erling’s life, hitting the highlights. Oddly (to me), far more time is spent on Olav Trygvasson’s five-year reign than Olav Haraldsson’s reign of about twelve years.

But it had to be useful to me to read a book about Erling by someone who lives in Erling’s area (though I did catch what I believe to be one historical error – Mr. Eikill thinks they harvested grain with scythes in Jaeder in the Viking Age, but my research indicates they only ever used sickles). There were historical details and relationships that had sailed over my head. I’ll probably clarify some things in my Work In Progress based on this book.

Also, Erling’s priest was an interesting contrast. Here, Erling’s priest is an Englishman named Alvgeir (which seems to be the name written on Erling’s memorial cross). Eikill imagines him as a slave, taken by Erling on a raid, and freed by him after his conversion by Olav Trygvasson.

Thanks to Mr. Eikill for sending En Herse, Tre Konger to me. It was enjoyable and illuminating.

Mistranslating Beowulf

Then it became clear,
obvious to everyone once the fight was over,
that an avenger lurked and was still alive,
grimly biding time. Grendel’s mother,
monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs.

That’s how Seamus Heaney translated the lines that begin Grendel’s mother’s part of the Beowulf. It contains the word one novelist says has been translated with bias many times over. Maria Dahvana Headley says a particular word is translated “monstrous” here and “hero” when related to Beowulf. She thinks that depiction runs over the nobility of a woman described as a bride of Cain, “because that’s not as good a story for our culture.”

“Many of these canonical texts have been kind of misinterpreted as just exclusively masculine when really many of them are about love.”

Or maybe these old texts are about whatever you want them to be about. As Jean de La Fontaine reportedly said, “Everyone believes very easily whatever they fear or desire.”

‘Shut Your Eyes Tight,’ by John Verdon

Shut Your Eyes Tight

To begin with, they occupied radically different boxes on the Myers-Briggs personality grid. His instinctive route to understanding was primarily through thinking, hers was through feeling. He was fascinated by connecting the dots, she by the dots themselves. He was energized by solitude, drained by social engagement, and for her the reverse was true. For him, observing was just one tool to enable clearer judging; for her, judging was just one tool to enable clearer observing.

I’m truly enjoying John Verdon’s series of mystery thrillers starring David Gurney, retired New York police detective now living in the Catskills. Shut Your Eyes Tight is as good as Think of a Number, which was very good indeed.

In this adventure, David is contacted by a very rich and beautiful – and dangerously crazy – woman, whose daughter has been murdered. The young woman was beheaded in her wedding dress, on her wedding day. All clues point to an enigmatic “Mexican gardener” who worked for her fiancé (a prominent expert on child abuse) and who has disappeared. But the clues at the scene are confusing, and the police are making no progress. Find my daughter’s killer, the woman tells him. I’ll pay you anything you ask.

Despite his wife Madeleine’s misgivings, Dave throws himself into the case. In so doing he will run the risk of losing both his reputation and his life, and put Madeleine in danger as well. In order to solve the case he’ll need to reexamine all his presumptions, to overcome a master of two skills of which he thinks himself the master – misdirection and deception.

The ongoing tension between David and Madeleine lays a foundation of unease that permeates the story and makes it irresistible. It would have been easy for author Verdon to make Madeleine simply a wife who “doesn’t understand,” trying to turn David into something he’s not. But she’s wiser than that. She’s trying to save his soul. She knows that in his obsessive pursuit of solutions to crimes, he’s staring into Nietzsche’s abyss. David has deep unresolved issues, and his detective work is a way of running away from them. On the other hand, he performs a social good, taking monsters off the streets. It’s complicated. And fascinating.

Cautions for troubling sexual themes and a good amount of obscene language. But if you can handle that, Close Your Eyes Tight is a very rewarding read.

Is Gotham Worth Saving?

Steven Greydanus talks Dark Knight and other superhero movies.

The dialogue between God and Abraham, in which Abraham pleads for the city, is echoed most directly in Batman Begins. “Like Constantinople or Rome before it,” intones Liam Neeson’s Ducard, later to be revealed as Ra’s al Ghul himself, Gotham “has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving. … Gotham must be destroyed.”

Bruce tries, like Abraham, to negotiate: “Gotham isn’t beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here.”

But the battle for the city doesn’t actually end.

‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

Think of a Number

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

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

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

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

‘Perdition,’ by Pete Brassett

Perdition

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

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

Also, someone kills a goat with a crossbow.

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

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