Category Archives: Fiction

‘Santa Fe Mojo,’ by Ted Clifton

Vincent Malone, hero of Ted Clifton’s Santa Fe Mojo, was once a hotshot lawyer in Dallas, until alcohol trashed both his career and his marriage. He drifted to Denver, where he found his niche as a legal investigator. Then he developed gout, and missed too much work. Figuring a warmer climate would help, he headed for Albuquerque, and cheap housing. But in a diner in Santa Fe he saw an ad for a job driving a customer van for a bed and breakfast. On a whim, he applied for the job.

Vincent is a misanthrope, a man who’s seen the worst in people and has distanced himself from them. But the couple who hire him are annoyingly nice. He doesn’t know what to do with them, but he kind of likes working there as he gets used to it.

They’re excited to greet their first guests at the B&B, but something is wrong. The rooms were booked by a major sports agent who lives locally, for a group of his top clients and their spouses. But when they hold a meeting, it ends in shouting and threats.

The next morning the police come. The agent has been murdered. Vincent can tell that the sheriff’s department would like to hang something on him, but they quickly settle one of the clients – a major league baseball player. Security video shows the two men fighting in the agent’s front yard, a few hours before the murder.

Vincent, though, based on his investigative experience, thinks the cops haven’t looked far enough. They found an easy suspect and stopped detecting. The accused’s lawyer shows up, and he’s the accused’s uncle and Vincent’s spiritual twin – a hard man who got rich defending whoever paid him, using any kind of trick he could get away with. But he’s older now, and thinking it might be nice to form some kind of bond with his only surviving relative. At least he forms a bond with Vincent, who shares his bemusement at discovering morality late in life.

Santa Fe Mojo straddles the line between cozy mystery and hard-boiled, and does it pretty well, I think. The gradual softening of Vincent’s hard shell in the warmth of human friendship provides an enjoyable sub-plot. I enjoyed Santa Fe Mojo quite a lot. Cautions for language, mostly.

‘The Musketeer’s Seamstress,’ by Sarah D’Almeida

Sarah Hoyt is a Facebook friend and a fellow Baen author. Aside from her SF work, she has produced, under the nom de plume (a particularly appropriate term in this case) Sarah D’Almeida, a seies of novels about Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers. These are mysteries, and have been inserted directly into the timeline of that classic novel. The Musketeer’s Seamstress, second in the series, occurs shortly after D’Artagnon meets his swashbuckling friends, but (if I understand correctly) before all the bother about the queen’s diamonds.

Aramis, the romantic musketeer destined for the church, is at the palace, dallying with his mistress, a lady of the court whom he refers to with his friends as his “seamstress.” He steps out of the chamber for a moment. When he returns, he finds her dead, a dagger through her heart. Like so many idiots in mysteries, he pulls the dagger out, getting blood all over his hands. When he hears people at the door, he makes a leap from the balcony onto a convenient tree and then manages to get away over a wall – stark naked. He is fortunate enough to find his friends Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnon at guard at one of the gates, and they help make his escape. Cardinal Richelieu, who seems to cherish a particular dislike for Aramis, sets a hunt going, but Aramis manages to get away to his home estate, while his friends try to uncover how an “impossible” murder was committed.

The author, I think, did an interesting job with the familiar characters. She invents back story material for them that Dumas only hinted at, and as far as I can remember it’s pretty consistent with his portrayals. I particularly like the character of Porthos, who is envisioned as a man not stupid, but simply plain-minded and practical. Which makes it possible for him – sometimes – to see things his subtler friends miss.

I felt a certain tension in the insertion of a whodunnit into what is essentially an action/adventure setting. The action is quite good when it happens, but a lot of the book involves people just thinking and discussing matters, which struck me as a little incongruous. However, as I said, I liked what was done with the characters, so such scenes were not without interest.

I wouldn’t rate The Musketeer’s Seamstress as a top-shelf book, either as an actioner or a mystery, but it was an enjoyable read, and I had a good time reacquainting myself with what is, perhaps, the archetypal male-bonding group in all literature.

‘Desires and Dreams and Powers,’ by Rosamund Hodge

During the later part of the war, the government issued a pamphlet on how to recognize changelings. Violet read it (a green tinge of the features; propensity to cruelty) and laughed. The real signs had been far more pervasive, far less clear. Sometimes she thought she had only realized she wasn’t human when she was fourteen. Sometimes she thought she had always known.

That’s the first paragraph of a story called “More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand,” possibly my favorite among the stories in Rosamund Hodge’s delightful collection, Desires and Dreams and Powers.

A friend sent me a copy as a gift, and I’m extremely grateful to him. As I’ve often said, I don’t much care for most modern fantasy. But when someone gets it exactly right – as in the cases of Walter Wangerin, and Mark Helprin, and Leif Enger, the result is delight of an exquisite sort.

The stories in Desires and Dreams and Powers are of diverse kinds, within the general fantasy genre. There is urban fantasy, and tales of witches, and tales of monsters. But most of them (at least as I recall them) are faery stories. And that’s like a birthday present to me.

Ever since I read Tolkien’s essay, “On Faery Stories,” I’ve wanted to write faeries properly. I tried it in Troll Valley – which I think is a pretty good book, but I’m not at all sure I got the Faery/Huldre thing right. Susanna Clark got it right, I think, in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And now I declare, by the powers vested in me, that Rosamund Hodge gets it right too. The strangeness, the danger, the alien unreason of the faeries is as well depicted here as it ever has been. Kudos to the author.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. On top of the imaginative genius, the prose is first class. Cautions are in order – not for the usual “adult” material, but for the weird and the alien and the disturbing (and the cruel). But read it, if you’re a grown-up and not overly sensitive. There may be a Christian element here too, though it’s not at all explicit.

‘Rollover,’ by James Raven

Thrillers as a genre are different from mysteries, but there tends to be a lot of overlap. Thrillers concentrate on building tension and unease in the reader, but a mystery element adds to that tension. Me, I’m more of a mystery person than a thriller person, and Rollover, by James Raven, kept me reading, but took me far beyond my comfort zone. Which will have been, of course the point.

Danny Cain is a journalist, partner in a struggling independent news agency in Southampton, England, with his friend Vince. One evening he gets a call from Vince – he has to come right over. Vince has won the national lottery! Their troubles are over!

But when he gets there, Danny finds Vince dead, bludgeoned to death on the floor. Before he can telephone the police, he gets a call from his wife’s mobile phone – a strange man’s voice says to get out of there and wait for further instructions. They have kidnapped Danny’s wife and 6-year-old daughter; if he doesn’t follow instructions, they will die.

Then begins Danny’s ordeal – once of those situations where things start impossible and then get worse. He has no resources to call on, and his enemies seem organized, omniscient, and remorseless. Doing what he’s told might be impossible, and even if he can, chances of survival are low.

Meanwhile, Hampshire Detective Jeff Temple is called to the crime scene. Danny Cain looks like the obvious culprit, but Jeff isn’t sure. Things don’t add up, but he has no idea what awful revelations will come to light before it’s all over.

Taunt, tense, and remorseless, Rollover is a masterful thriller. It worked so well that I’m scared to continue on with the sequel.

‘Murder at Flood Tide,’ by Robert McNeill

A woman is strangled in an out-of-the way spot in Edinburgh. Detective Inspector Jack Knox is surprised to learn that the case has been taken over by a “more sophisticated” police team from western Scotland. Their leader, however, turns out to be a decent and sensible fellow. He puts Jack in operational command and makes his people available to reinforce the local cops, who know the territory.

Crime scene investigation, witness reports, and CCTV suggest that the killer drove a delivery van, so the team begins a systematic investigation of delivery companies and their drivers. Slowly the noose tightens, but surprises are in store.

That’s how Robert McNeill’s Murder at Flood Tide goes. It’s not a thriller, but a fairly realistic police procedural, like the previous volume in the series, The Innocent and the Dead, which I’ve already reviewed. The drama is mostly low-key, but along with the threat of the serial killer, there is an insubordinate team member to be dealt with.

I like the realistic approach of this series, but I can’t pretend I find these books compelling. They are entertainment with a moderate level of dramatic tension; nothing to keep you awake at night.

‘Redhead,’ by Stan Jackson

I used to be a beanpole, just below six foot of skin, muscle and bone, but now, when I showered in the morning, it was like navigating the Yorkshire Dales.

It is a melancholy thing to come to the end of a book series you’re enjoying a lot. I don’t know if Stan Jackson intends to write any more Perry Webster novels – he’s kind of running out of hair colors. Peroxide? Titian? Dishwater?

Anyway, Redhead is the fourth in the series, and perhaps the best, depending on your preferences. Author Jackson gets better as he goes.

At the risk of spoiling it for people who haven’t finished the previous book, I have to tell you that Perry is married now, to Julia Emburey, the headmistress of a prep school. Julia thinks she has no relations, but is startled to learn she has a cousin – in France. Perry and Julia travel to the home of this woman, Gabrielle Dupont (originally Gale Emburey) who is very rich. Julia had known of Gabrielle’s father, her uncle, who was accused of murdering his wife and disappeared with his baby daughter. Now she learns that he went to France, where he changed his identity and had considerable business success.

Gabrielle says that her late father was innocent of the murder. She would like Perry to investigate the cold case. If he can vindicate her father, Gabrielle will make a major (and much needed) contribution to Julia’s school.

Both of them dislike Gabrielle from the start, but the money is tempting, and what harm could there be in righting an old injustice?

There was another suspect in the case, the “redhead” of the title – a French au pair who also disappeared at the time of the murder. But she had no apparent motive. Perry begins questioning friends and associates from those days, asking questions that most of them find puzzling, but that one of them finds absolutely threatening…

I enjoyed Redhead, as I have enjoyed the whole series. The writing has always been good, and the plotting has improved from book to book.

I’m happy that Perry has found a satisfying marriage, though I’m not entirely sold on Julia. She’s great most of the time, but occasionally she exhibits a prickly, feminist humorlessness that puts me off. No doubt female readers will react differently.

There’s an odd element in this one related to religion. Perry visits a sort of modern hippie commune, where they teach what seems to be a rationalized Christianity. “Grace” is their watchword, but without all that supernatural stuff. No doubt that seems positive to the contemporary English; I don’t think it holds up in practice. You’ve got to deal with original sin – a topic which, ironically, gets mentioned in passing.

I should note that at one point author Jackson uses the phrase “begging the question” correctly. Full marks for that! A rare pleasure in contemporary books.

Also, there’s a chilling anticlimax.

Good book, and recommended. I’ll read the next, if there is one. Mousy? Bald?

‘Raven,’ by Stan Jackson

Like the raising of the Mary Rose, Suzie’s words, and now Cyl’s, had brought it to the surface and like the Mary Rose, the thought emerged covered in stuff I didn’t want to delve into.

I’ve been calling this series of mysteries by Stan Jackson the “Ste Webster” series, because that’s what everyone’s been calling the character up to now in the books. But in the present volume, Raven, “Ste” and his friends have started referring to him as Perry. Which is also what the series is called on the Amazon pages, so I guess that’s what I ought to be calling him now.

Ste, or Perry, Webster is, as you may recall, a professor of philosophy at the University of York. His fiancée was murdered in the first volume, Blonde, and he managed to identify the killer. This has given him a reputation as a detective, and occasionally people ask him to solve other crimes.

This time out, Perry is approached by a former student, Laura “Raven” Wellbourne. She tells him that as a girl she attended St Barnabas School, a prestigious nearby institution, comparable to an American prep school. During her time there, she tells him, she was blackmailed and serially abused in secret by the headmaster, Dr MacDonald. As an adult, now with an academic degree, she changed her identity and appearance and returned to the school, getting a job as an instructor. Her plan was to somehow find evidence of MacDonald’s true character, and expose him.

But now Dr MacDonald has been murdered, found floating in the school swimming pool with his head smashed. Raven is the police’s chief suspect, but she swears she didn’t do it. Since she’s been relieved of duties, someone is needed to cover her classes. Could Perry fill in for her, on a pretext, and try to find the real killer?

Perry is so appalled by what she’s been through that he agrees to do it. Before long an audit reveals that Dr MacDonald has been involved in massive misappropriation of school funds, to the extent that its future is jeopardized. This is of great concern to the acting interim headmistress, Julia Emburey, a very attractive woman who has raised an interest in Perry that he hasn’t felt since his fiancée died. But is MacDonald’s embezzlement the motive for the murder?

I’m enjoying this series of novels immensely. Sometimes you just “hit it off” with a series or a character. I like Perry Webster, and enjoy spending time in his company. Also, author Jackson has fixed some of the writing problems I’ve identified in earlier books.

So I recommend Raven, along with the whole series. Mild cautions for adult themes.

‘A Fatal Liaison,’ by David Pearson

On a country road near Dublin, a wealthy property developer is found dead in a crashed car. It wasn’t the crash that killed him.

Not far away, in a shed in the woods, a young man is found naked and stabbed to death.

Detectives Aidan Burke and Fiona Moore are on the case. The books at the older victim’s office look fishy, and his company’s labor force seems dodgy. But his family situation was odd as well. No lack of motives here, but lots and lots of secrets.

That’s the premise of David Pearson’s A Fatal Liaison, second in his Burke and Moore mystery series. I’ve reviewed the previous volume before, and this one completes the series to date. No doubt there will be more, because these books work pretty well.

As a Typical Male ™, I assumed at first that Aidan Burke, the senior detective, was the main character. But he’s really not. Aidan is smart enough and knows his job, but he has a drinking problem and has lost a step or two. He doesn’t treat Fiona badly, according to his somewhat Neanderthal lights, but his younger sergeant is actually smarter than he is. More than once she suggests a line of inquiry that he barely notices, which turns out vital once she’s followed it up.

A Fatal Liaison is a solid entry in a solid series. It’s not one of my personal favorites, but I have no cause to complain. Cautions for language and mature subject matter. Also implied criticism of traditional Christian morality.

‘Brunette,’ by Stan Jackson

Stan Jackson’s Ste Webster mystery series continues with its second hair color title, Brunette. Once again Ste, a professor at the University of York, has a murder to solve… for reasons of his own.

Mackenzie West was, despite her brown hair, a golden girl at the University. Beautiful and popular, she was a good student and a star athlete, a prospect for the British Olympic fencing team. Until one morning she plunged down a stairwell to her death.

It could have been an accident, or suicide, but the police suspect murder, and Inspector Allen would like nothing better than to pin it on Ste Webster. Failing that, there’s another faculty member he has his eye on, Matt Harper, head of the Philosophy Department. Matt’s a friend, and Ste doesn’t believe he did it. When both Mackenzie’s parents and Matt ask him to look into the matter, he hesitates but agrees, partly to appease his personal demons. He’ll have to keep out of Inspector Allen’s way, but he’ll try.

It soon appears that Mackenzie had dark secrets no one guessed. Ste finds not one but several people who had plausible reasons for killing her. Which gives them reasons for silencing Ste as well…

As with Blonde, the previous book in the series, I enjoyed Brunette quite a lot, but had reservations. The prose is very good, and I like Ste and his supporting cast. As an added bonus, both Chesterton and C. S. Lewis get quoted (though Ste is not religious).

On the down side, I’m still annoyed by Ste’s tendency to walk into danger without protection, and the author’s tendency to rescue him through sheer luck. That’s a plot strategy that can’t be sustained forever. Also, the conclusion of the book was a little bit ambivalent in moral terms.

Still, I’m going on to the next book. The pleasures outweigh my reservations. Minor cautions are in order for language and subject matter.

Living in Fantastic Times

We have the privilege of living in a time when contemporary authors are creating quality fantasy stories that are funny and inspiring and that say true things. Adults and children need Jonathan Rogers’s feechie folk, S. D. Smith’s rabbits with swords, Jonathan Auxier’s courageous chimney sweeps, Andrew Peterson’s brave and flawed Wingfeather children, and others to incarnate truths for us. Battling the forces of evil and experiencing a “eucatastrophe,” a moment of redemption, with a character in a story gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to know goodness and love truth.

Ginger Blomberg, “Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga and Why We Need Fantasy”

My kids and I have enjoyed some of the books Blomberg commends. I reviewed a few in posts from days on the olden internet. Good fantasy is a marvelous thing, and these are good titles, if you haven’t looked into them. Links in the original article.

‘Blonde,’ by Stan Jackson

The occupant of the final ensemble, the only one of the three sitting, combined wrinkles with lack of hair like a pug slightly ironed.

Years back, I read a mystery called By Frequent Anguish, by S.F.X. Dean. It was the story of an academic whose girlfriend is murdered. It moved me deeply, for personal reasons. The sequel, however, left me cold, and I didn’t read any more in the series.

Blonde, by Stan Jackson, had much the same effect on me, and shares a similar premise. Perry “Ste” Webster, who teaches philosophy at a fictional campus of the University of York in England, was in love with Anna, a local barmaid. Though her social status displeased Ste’s upper-class parents, she was beautiful and smart and full of life – until Ste found her stabbed to death in her apartment one night. The police, of course, fixed on him as their primary suspect, but he has an alibi and powerful friends.

Soon he discovers an important clue – Anna’s diary. But reading it, he finds that she wrote in it about a personal secret he confided to her. He doesn’t want the police to see that secret. So, in spite of his grief, he takes it upon himself to investigate Anna’s personal connections. Some of the people she worked with were involved in a disastrous investment scheme, and owed a lot of money. Ste uncovers some dark secrets and angers some dangerous people, but the final solution to the mystery will be a complete shock.

I enjoyed Blonde very much. Not only was the mystery fascinating and the characters appealing, but the writing sometimes rose to a very high level (though the author has a lamentable tendency to overuse exclamations marks). And though no particular deference is paid to Christianity, Ste Webster as a philosopher and reader seems to me to be mostly on the right lines.

On the other hand, Ste can be an annoying detective. His approach to dangerous situations is generally to just walk in and trust that some deus ex machina will save his bacon. That weak plot device was used a little too much in this book, imho.

However, I have proceeded to the next book in the series. Recommended.

‘A Deadly Dividend,’ by David Pearson

David Pearson, an established Irish mystery writer, kicks off a new police procedural series set in Dublin with A Deadly Dividend.

In the classic model of the Anglo-Irish police story, you’ve got your grizzled male Detective Inspector, supported by a younger female detective. What makes this series somewhat different is that the older male detective is not always on top of his game, and his assistant (who does not look like a model) has to save him from himself from time to time.

In A Deadly Dividend, a young banker is stabbed to death in an alleyway. When Detectives Aidan Burke and DS Fiona Moore inquire at his bank, it becomes apparent that the victim has been fiddling with his international accounts. It turns out he has had a clandestine dealings with shady interests. When another murder follows, they need to move fast – if Fiona can keep Aidan sober long enough to get the job done.

I quite enjoyed A Deadly Dividend. It definitely leaned more to the mystery than the thriller side, and dealt realistically with the plain drudgery that police work involves. And the fact that Aidan has a drinking problem and makes serious job mistakes – which Fiona must cover for – makes them an unusual fictional team. I also liked occasional suggestions of non-PC opinions.

There’s only one more book in the series to date, but I’m planning to read it.

‘the Pirate,’ by Walter Scott

The earth is rented from its surface down to its most central mines; — the fire, and the means of feeding it, are currently bought and sold; — the wretches that sweep the boisterous ocean with their nets, pay ransom for the privilege of being drowned in it. What title has the air to be exempted from the universal course of traffic?

In early 1725, a pirate named John Gow (or Goff) returned to his birthplace of Orkney, passing himself off as a prosperous merchant. He even courted a local girl. However, he was recognized and denounced by a genuine merchant. He and his men stormed a mansion and hid there for a while, but finally fled by ship. They were captured when their vessel ran aground. Goff was tried at Newgate in London, and hanged in the customary style.

Nearly 100 years later, Sir Walter Scott took that basic story and added romantic elements, along with lore and local color he’d collected on a visit to the Northern Isles some years before, and produced the novel, The Pirate. It is this novel I’ve been reading for about a week, and have finished at length.

Most of the story is set in the Shetlands (here called Zetland). There are two main characters. The first is a handsome young man named Mordaunt Mertoun (seriously, that’s his name). He’s a “stranger” on Zetland, in the sense that his father came from England, and is not of the old Norwegian stock. Nevertheless, he’s popular with the islanders, and a favorite at the home of the island chieftain, Magnus Troil, known as the “Udaller.” Magnus has two beautiful daughters, Minna and Brenda, and people speculate as to which of them Mordaunt will choose to marry.

One day a ship is wrecked at Sumberg Head, and Mordaunt rescues (against his neighbors’ advice, see my blog post further below) the lone survivor, with the help of a local character called Norna of the Fitful Head. She is an old woman believed to have powers of prophecy and weather control. The survivor calls himself Captain Cleveland. Captain Cleveland is rich, handsome, and refined, and soon becomes a new favorite with the Udaller. Mordaunt can’t help noting that his own welcome at the Troil home grows cold after Cleveland’s arrival. Nevertheless, he attends a big house party there. There he clashes with Cleveland, there is a fight, and both men mysteriously disappear.

The action comes to a crisis somewhat later at the annual fair at Kirkwall in Orkney, where Cleveland has to balance his chance of escape against his desire to see his beloved, Minna, one last time. The conclusion of the story is romantic, semi-tragic, and implausible.

I like to pose as someone who can appreciate older literature better than the average modern, but I have to admit The Pirate was a bit of a slog. The language is ornate and dense, a problem not improved by this Kindle edition, produced with OCR technology and not vetted for word mistakes. Also, footnotes are frequently not recognized as such, and so get stuck, confusingly, in the middle of sentences.

Modern writers know they’re competing with television and movies, and make it a point to grab the reader from the first sentence and run, to avoid distractions. Authors in Scott’s time had more latitude. They staged their novels like salons, introducing you to each character in a leisurely way, and leaving you with them to get acquainted, even if they’re bores. Sometimes especially if they’re bores – bores are considered good for a laugh.

For me, the glimpses into “Zetland” lore and legend (there’s magic here, but it’s rationalized) was intriguing, and made it worth my time. You might not find it as rewarding. Even among the field of Scott’s novels, I don’t think The Pirate is in the first rank. And boy, was it long.

2 more reviews from Moerbe

Mary J. Moerbe at Meet, Write and Salutary, has completed reviewing my Erling Skjalgsson books to date.

She reviews Hailstone Mountain here:

I also think this book blends together Lars Walker’s two types of writing: his Norse saga and more contemporary stuff more. I’m a big fan of both, but maybe it means this book contains a few extra surprises for those who haven’t read his other writings, set in more contemporary and/or futuristic times.

And she reviews The Elder King:

This book really played with tensions. The poor priest Ailill, whom you come to love as a man of faith and action and unabashedly real humanity, has to face three of the greatest challenges for a celibate Christian: romantic love, relics, and . . . Arianism! With a shockingly early possibility of Arianism in Norway!

Thank you, Mary!

‘Serenity Avenged,’ by Craig A. Hart

This is the third in Craig A. Hart’s “Serenity” series of thrillers, starring Shelby Alexander, retired boxer and ethical thug, who has retired to his home town of Serenity, Michigan. For peace and quiet, which he never gets.

In Serenity Avenged, Shelby drives in haste to Grand Rapids, where his daughter is in the hospital with pregnancy complications. There he is reunited with his ex-wife, Helen. His feelings for Helen are definitely mixed. They get more mixed – but also protective – when he learns that Helen has large gambling debts. But when the loan shark threatens their daughter, he moves into action.

There were elements in this book that I liked. I like the male banter between Shelby and his friend Mack, though it’s overdone in places. I like Shelby himself as a character, and the hints of conservativism that sneak out through the narrative now and then. I liked a new character who faced some serious moral dilemmas and made the right decisions at a cost to himself.

But Serenity Avenged wore out my suspension of disbelief. We’re getting into heavy thriller territory here, to the extent of including a psychopathic supervillain with a secret lair. That seemed (to me) kind of out of proportion for a loan shark in Grand Rapids. Villains like that should be plotting to overthrow the nation or the Anglo-American alliance or something.

So I’m done with this series, at least for now. Your mileage may vary. Cautions for language and intense violence.