Category Archives: Fiction

‘Bleak Harbor,’ by Bryan Gruley

The Peters family is more dysfunctional in sum than any of its individual member knows.

Carley Bleak Peters, the central character in Bleak Harbor, is a descendant of the man who founded the upscale town of Bleak Harbor, Michigan. She is estranged, however, from her widowed mother, and has been cut out of her will. She was working in Chicago before her husband moved them back to Bleak Harbor, and she does not like commuting. It limits her time with her beloved son Danny, born of a fling with a drug dealer 15 years ago. But she has a plan. She will use documents she’s stolen to blackmail her boss, who pressured her into sex. This will allow her to flee Bleak Harbor with Danny.

Her husband, Danny’s stepfather, Pete Peters, is a nice guy, but not one of life’s winners. Formerly a successful commodities trader in Chicago, his career languished when he had to switch to online trading. Fired from his job, he moved to Bleak Harbor to open a medical marijuana shop – a sure-fire goldmine, he thought. Only he’s found that the only way to compete wtih the illicit market is to buy his stock from very bad people.

Fifteen-year-old Danny Peters is “on the autism scale.” He is handsome and intelligent, but does not relate well to people. His passions are dragonflies, perch (the fish), and one particular poem by Wallace Stevens. Neither of his parents is sure how much he understands about their situation.

When Danny is kidnapped, and cryptic text messages come to his parents demanding an odd ransom amount, Carley and Pete each believe it has to do with their own sins coming home to roost. They will be pushed to their personal limits, sometimes cooperating with the police and sometimes going behind their backs, to satisfy the demands of a bizarre kidnapper who seems determined to bring some of the Bleak family’s old skeletons to light.

Bleak Harbor was a departure for me, a different kind of thriller. I think it will be surprising to a lot of readers. The plot seems to me (I may just be uninformed) a pretty original one. I did guess the kidnapper’s identity a little ahead of schedule, but it was pretty surprising, and the surprise was well set up.

I’m not entirely sure what the theme of Bleak Harbor was, to be honest, but it kept my interest and kept me turning pages. Recommended, with minor cautions for language.

‘Deadly Still,’ by Keith Moray

West Uist, the fictional Hebrides island that provides the setting for Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon mysteries, suffers from Midsommer Syndrome. It’s a remote and bucolic place, filled with a population divided among the inoffensive and the eccentric, and yet it keeps throwing up murders. The latest involves the age-old tradition of illegal whisky distillation on the island.

As Deadly Still begins, Police Sergeant Morag Driscoll is off for a morning jog when she discovers a local teenager wandering blind in the heather. She and two friends had been celebrating completing their final tests with peatreek (the Scottish equivalent of moonshine) in an abandoned World War II bunker. Now she can’t see, one of her friends is unresponsive, and the other has disappeared entirely.

At about the same time, a local businessman is found dead. It looks like the result of a drunken fall, but laboratory analysis will show that he’s been imbibing the bad peatreek as well.

Except that the level of methyl alcohol in this stuff is way higher than is probable in ordinary home distilling. Someone has a grudge and an agenda, and Inspector Torquil McKinnon (who already had his hands full with his wedding plans) will need to stop that person before anyone else dies. And what happened to the missing girl?

I always come back to the Torquil McKinnon books with pleasure. I like the setting, I like the characters. I don’t rank Deadly Still as the best in the series – I had trouble keeping the characters straight in this one, but maybe that’s just because I’m getting old.

Recommended, like the whole series.

‘The Saboteur,’ by Andrew Gross

In 1965, an English/American film called The Heroes of Telemark was released. It starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian saboteurs attacking the German “heavy water” (deuterium oxide) production facility at Rjukan in Telemark during World War II. Heavy water was a necessary buffering agent in the German program to split the atom, presumably to produce an atomic bomb.

The film took a highly cinematic approach to the story, compressing all the action into a couple weeks and replacing the actual participants with fictionalized and combined characters. It found a mixed response in Norway, where people who’d been through the war complained that it took Kirk Douglas two weeks to do by himself what it took a whole team two years to accomplish in real life.

I kept thinking of that film as I read The Saboteur, Andrew Gross’s similarly (though not so thoroughly) fictionalized account of the same clandestine operations.

Kurt Nordstrum is a Norwegian engineer who leaves his career to join the Resistance – with tragic consequences in his personal life. When an engineer at the Norsk Hydro facility in Rjukan tells him and a comrade that they need to get some microfilm to the English immediately, they hijack a coastal steamer and – just barely – manage to escape to Scotland. Then he and his friend join Company Linge, the Norwegian commando unit, and are eventually airdropped back in Norway. Their mission, from which they do not expect to return alive, is to destroy the Heavy Water production facility. Kurt’s father used to tell him, “A true man goes on until he can go no further… and then he goes twice as far.” And that’s precisely what he and his team will be called on to do before it’s over.

Honestly, I found this a hard book to read, but I’m not sure it’s the book’s fault. I knew this story pretty well already, and so was preparing myself emotionally for the unpleasant parts. Author Gross anticipates those expectations to an extent by making small changes in the story. Kurt Nordstrum (who is essentially standing in for real saboteur Knut Haukelid but has a very different back story), is enabled by his imaginary status to do stuff, and get into dilemmas, that Haukelid never did. I found some of those stuff and dilemmas somewhat implausible, but I can’t deny I was moved by the entirely imaginary heroics at the end.

I was bothered all through by the fictional changes, especially the handling of the characters. Several of the saboteurs here are real people, others are fictional (including an entirely imaginary Norwegian-American). I understand the narrative freedom that gave the author (as mentioned above), but it kind of nagged at me.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about the spelling of Norwegian names and places. It’s pretty hit and miss, but I probably should be thankful for the effort.

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I can recommend The Saboteur to those who aren’t already familiar with the Heavy Water mission. But after you read it, you’ll want to read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress or something like that to get the actual facts.

‘Murder at the Meet,’ by Bruce Beckham

‘We did a project on it when I was at primary school. The Vicious Vikings. Although most of the settlements’ names are quite innocuous. Applethwaite, Brackenthwaite, Crosthwaite – quite often you can work it out.’

DS Leyton looks rather bemused.

‘So, what – did they speak English?’

DS Jones giggles as though she thinks he must be joking. But then she responds. ‘No – we speak Old Norse.’

It’s one of the charms of Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill novels (for me) that there are occasional allusions to the history of the Cumberland region where Skelgill operates. In the passage above, our detectives, Skelgill, DS Jones (female) and DS Leyton (male) are talking about local farm names, which often contain the element “thwaite,” which is related to the Norwegian word “tvedt.” Both mean “field.”

But that’s not what Murder at the Meet, the latest Skelgill novel, is mainly about. More than 20 years ago, a young wife and mother named Mary Wilson disappeared during the annual Shepherd’s Meet. As it happens, that was the same year a teenager named Dan Skelgill won the Fell Runners’ race, setting a long-standing record. At the time, the police employed brand-new technology, DNA testing, matching it to the one discovered piece of evidence, to try to identify her attacker or abductor (assuming she didn’t just run off). But without success.

Now Mary’s bones have been found, by archaeologists in a local cave. Skelgill and his team start interviewing surviving witnesses and family members, and discover – as you would expect – a number of old secrets and personal grudges. And all the while Skelgill does his own eccentric thing – applying his knowledge of local geography, biology and weather, along with the sensibilities of a fisherman.

It’s all enjoyable and familiar for the Skelgill fan. I did think this effort was a little unfair to the reader, as we were denied the information that finally unlocks the puzzle until after the climax – and so we didn’t know what all the urgency was about. That reduced the suspense for me.

But that aside, Murder at the Meet was an enjoyable read, and is recommended.

‘The Truth About Murder,’ by Chris Collett

There’s a lot of good to be said about Christ Collett’s new stand-alone mystery, The Truth About Murder. But I also found it somewhat aggravating.

First of all, full marks for originality in giving us a new kind of investigative hero – Stefan Greaves is a lawyer in the (fictional, I presume) middle English town of Charnford. From the beginning, it’s clear that Stefan suffers from some kind of disability, but author Collett (annoyingly, in my view) puts off naming it until nearly half-way through the book. I’ll risk spoiling it by telling you that he has cerebral palsy. To reduce associated muscle tension, he smokes pot regularly. Because social interactions are difficult (he has trouble being understood when he talks) he sees an “escort” regularly.

Stefan gets a visit from a local nurse, who is concerned about mortality rates in the neonatal ward where she works. Not long afterward she disappears, and when her body is found in the river, the verdict is suicide – though her daughter insists she was a Catholic and would never do that.

Investigating the disappearance and death is Mick Fraser, a local cop. Mick is concerned about his partner, whose time has been monopolized by their commander lately. He’s been secretive, and Mick begins to suspect him of corruption. In fact, it’s far worse than that…

As the plot thickens (rather slowly I thought, and with too much reliance on coincidence) Stefan and Mick are drawn together to uncover a sinister and heinous plot that threatens the whole country.

I never fell in love with The Truth About Murder, or with Stefan Greaves as a character. (He shares, with many fictional detectives, a gift for having attractive women throw themselves at him constantly, in spite of his disability. I complain of this trope often in my reviews, and if you think that means I’m jealous… well, I am.)

However, the book’s themes pleased me greatly. Without spoiling it for the reader, I’ll just say that it involved controversial issues of medical ethics. Author Collett seems to be unaware of (or is avoiding) the fact that the evil in view here is more associated with the Left than the Right in our time. But that may be a strategic choice intended not to alienate readers. I don’t know Collett’s politics, but if he’s conservative I salute his strategy, and if he’s liberal I salute his moral sense.

I can’t give The Truth About Murder my highest recommendation, but it’s worth reading. There’s a suggestion that this might be the start of a new series. I’m not wholly enthusiastic about that prospect.

‘The Unknown, by Brett Battles

Jonathan Quinn and his team of international agents return in The Unknown, the 14th book in the series. Regular readers will know what to expect, and author Brett Battles delivers.

On a winter night in Austria, a very important scientist named Brunner is traveling under the protection of bodyguards provided by the Office, the private security firm our heroes work for. It should be a routine mission, but they are attacked, there is loss of life, and Brunner is expertly extracted by kidnappers. This is bad news for the Office, which has only recently reconstituted itself as a business, so their operational chief contacts Jonathan Quinn. Though ostensibly a Cleaner, a wiper of evidence after “wet” operations, Quinn has a well-earned reputation for effective and efficient field work. He summons his regular team, including his wife Orlando, his old partner Nate, and a couple East Asian friends. As a concession, they allow Kincaid, the failed bodyguard, to come along. He has something to prove.

They face well-organized, efficient, and well-financed opponents, but Quinn always finds a way. This time out they are assisted in particular by Jar, a minor character in previous books. Jar is a Thai computer genius, a woman. She is obviously autistic, but is learning to deal with illogical normals. She provides a surprisingly charming addition to the cast.

They also get unexpected – and suspicious – help from a source they neither understand nor trust, though it seems to be leading them in the right direction.

Like all the Jonathan Quinn books, The Unknown was fun. It wasn’t deathless literature, but it offered interesting interactions and a fast pace. Recommended.

‘Crimes of the Levee,’ by John Sturgeon

It seems to me one of the tragedies of our current literary situation (which I pray is transitional) that authors who have something to say and good author’s instincts often lack the “school of hard knocks” experience and editorial hoop-jumping that forced us old guys to learn our craft. John Sturgeon, author of Crimes of the Levee, strikes me as having that problem.

Crimes of the Levee is set in Chicago in 1905. “The Levee” is a vice district, where prostitution, gambling, and drug use are endemic (some of these things, like prostitution, are actually legal). Patrick Moses is a police detective who works there. He is a practicing Catholic, but embittered by the deaths of his wife and children. His chief friends are the prostitute he dates; his partner, a German-American named Gunter; and the priest who was his father figure when he was growing up in an orphanage. But he keeps them at a distance. When the pain gets too great, he drinks or uses opium.

He and Gunter are public heroes as the book starts. They arrested Simon Kluge, a serial killer who has just been executed. Now they are asked to hunt for a missing woman – the niece of the Italian ambassador, who is rumored to have been kidnapped by white slavers and put to work in the Levee. At about the same time, fabled merchant Marshall Field summons Patrick personally, asking him to investigate the death of his son. Supposedly, Marshall Field, Jr. shot himself while cleaning his gun, but the father doubts that story. To his puzzlement, Patrick finds that the old man himself seems to have organized the cover-up.

To top it all off, women are being murdered again, in the very same way Simon Kluge killed his victims. Was the wrong man executed? Or did Kluge have an accomplice?

Crimes of the Levee, taken as a story, is a pretty good “mean streets” sort of tale. There’s a good sense of place and atmosphere. However, I had trouble figuring out the story’s final resolution – I think I may have puzzled it out, but it seemed to me too subtle by half.

But my big problem with the book was the writing itself. Author Sturgeon has problems with basic spelling and punctuation – he has trouble with verb tenses. He uses question marks where they’re not wanted and leaves them out where they are. He employs redundancies, as in this passage: “This Sunday, I had hoped for rest, peace, and quiet. What I got was conflict, and this took away from everything else.” He confuses homophones, such as “vial” for “vile.” At one point the hero breaks an arm, but the author barely considers the problems that would create for a man living alone – such as in tying a necktie.

The author seems to have done a fair amount of research for this book, but some subtleties pass him by – for instance, he doesn’t seem to know that, up until the 1970s, unmarried women were addressed as Miss and married women as Mrs. He uses “Ms.,” which in those days was nothing more than a regional mispronunciation. And the diction was generally was too modern, something that diminished the atmosphere for me.

Still, this was a pretty non-objectionable book considering its subject matter, and there are no digs at Christianity. I recommend it conditionally, with my criticisms in mind. I probably won’t read the next book in the series, though I’ll admit I am mildly curious.

‘Tahoe Deep,’ by Todd Borg

I got a free deal on Todd Borg’s Tahoe Deep, Book 17 in the Owen McKenna series. Not a bad read, though I have quibbles.

Back in 1940, a legally blind teenager named Danny Callahan overheard and saw enough to know that his beloved sister murdered her boyfriend, leaving his body on the SS Tahoe, a lake steamer about to be scuttled and sunk. Today he is a curmudgeonly old man, surviving in his own home with the help of a kindly neighbor, Mae O’Sullivan. When Danny is attacked in his home and beaten up, Mae goes (against Danny’s wishes) to private eye Owen McKenna. She hopes he can somehow fight through Danny’s misanthropic shyness to identify and stop the people trying to extort information from him. When the same criminals try to murder Mae, Danny starts cooperating. He has a strange story to tell, but he still doesn’t understand what he has that the criminals want.

Lake Tahoe detective Owen McKenna makes a pretty good hero, in the cheerful Spenser tradition. Owen is healthy and positive-minded, and has good relationships with his entomologist girlfriend and his gigantic Great Dane dog. His investigation stirs up conflict and danger, but he will not be intimidated until the mystery is solved and the criminals are stopped.

I liked the characters in Tahoe Deep, and the plotting was pretty good. But I saw again the problem that shows up over and over in contemporary novels – sloppy proofreading, enabled (I assume) by self-publishing. In particular, misspellings and homophone confusion. Also author Borg can be weak with his dialogue. When his characters go into exposition, they often drop into Encyclopedia Mode, talking like a (fairly dry) book.

Also, there seems to be an anti-gun thing going on here. McKenna never carries a gun, he proudly proclaims, and the author’s attempts to invent exciting non-gun action leads to occasionally far-fetched scenarios.

But not bad, all in all. No notable cautions that I can recall.

‘Jack of Diamonds,’ by Christopher Greyson

I have enjoyed the Jack Stratton series by Christopher Greyson, well-written and well-conceived mystery/thrillers suitable for a Christian audience, but better in quality than the average Christian fare. An admirable hero you can root for. Good values.

Jack of Diamonds marks a milestone in the series – it’s about Jack’s wedding to his girlfriend, Alice. Something he’s been working up to for a while.

But of course, in the world of fiction, such an event can’t go off smoothly. Jack, who is operating as a bounty hunter since losing his police job, catches a distress call from a cop at a rural location. Being closer to the spot than the real cops, he drives in to help. He finds the policeman suffering from a head injury, and inside the house he finds a room decorated with drawings of women. Among them is a picture of Alice – plus a wedding invitation.

Obviously the wedding needs to be postponed. But explain that to Alice, who’s being nearly driven to distraction by the pressures of preparation. She and Jack had wanted a simple ceremony, but a wealthy former client whose life they saved insisted on paying for a production worthy of the Kardashians, complete with a relentless wedding planner.

Meanwhile, seemingly random women are disappearing, and Jack is convinced their vanishings are connected to the wedding stalker. And when an abandoned church is found filled with corpses, the weirdness goes off the scale.

I liked Jack of Diamonds, as I’ve liked all the books in the series. But I have to admit I found the premise of this one pretty implausible. It spoiled it somewhat for me.

Still, it’s a fun read. Recommended, but on a lower level than the previous Jack Stratton books.

‘Rewinder,’ by Brett Battles

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I got a deal on an SF book by Brett Battles, whose mysteries I’ve enjoyed. So I gave it a shot. Rewinder wasn’t bad at all.

Rewinder is a time-travel story. It starts in an alternate universe where the United States never won its independence. Instead, our hero, Denny Younger, lives in a British empire in which society is intensely stratified. Born a lowly “Eight,” Denny has little to look forward to in life beyond a manual factory job. However (to his father’s alarm) he tests high in history. And the day after finishing high school, he finds himself taking the entry test for the Upjohn Institute. That enterprise ostensibly does historical research to verify the genealogy of upper-class individuals hoping for prestigious appointments.

But that, Denny learns, is only the public face of the thing. In fact, Upjohn employees are time travelers. They go back in time to observe people’s ancestors and learn their dirty secrets. They can then use those secrets to blackmail their clients, bringing in government grants and preferential treatment for the corporation.

But one of Denny’s trainers, Marie, senses something uncommon in him. She gives him hints that she and (perhaps) some others are sometimes going beyond their instructions – “doing right” rather than just “doing well.”

When Denny makes a bumbling mistake and erases his own timeline entirely, replacing it with one that will be familiar to you and me, he will be faced with a shattering decision – “fix” his mistake or choose a better world.

Rewinder was a fun book. I’ve done some time travel writing myself, and it makes my head hurt, so I can only imagine the kind of labor it must have taken to plot out the many paradoxes here. Science fiction fans, especially, will enjoy Rewinder.

‘Only the Details’ and ‘Good Girl,’ by Alan Lee

He stood taller than me, which isn’t easy, and he was much wider, which is silly.

Two more reviews of Alan Lee’s Mack August novels. Then I’m done for a while. There are a couple more books to date, but they’re a side series starring Mack’s US Marshal friend, Manny. I’ll save them for later.

It’s not every man who suddenly finds himself – to his complete surprise – married to the woman of his dreams, who also happens to be filthy rich. But that’s the situation of Roanoke, Virginia private eye Mack August at the beginning of Only the Details. Which makes it a pretty good day.

Right up until a potential client injects him with a soporific, and he finds himself loaded on a jet headed for Naples, Italy. A disgruntled crime lord has put out a contract on Mack, but that contract has been bought up by a different crime lord, who has a use for him. He wants Mack (who used to be an underground cage fighter) to represent his criminal family in an annual international tournament in Naples. Elimination in this tournament means actual elimination, but the winner becomes a hero in the underworld. Except that, as his captor explains, he’s promised to kill Mack when it’s over, regardless of the results.

To Mack August, such setbacks are only obstacles to be overcome. Half of Only the Details involves Mack’s never-say-die conduct during the tournament. The other involves the efforts of his Virginia friends to rescue him. It’s all preposterous fun.

In Good Girl, the next book (and I realize the fact that there is a next book constitutes an unavoidable spoiler), Mack is asked to work for a man who suffers anteretrograde amnesia – the condition where one remembers the past, but can make no new memories. Ulysses Steinbeck survives by keeping copious notes, depending on the assistance of his housekeeper.

Steinbeck lost his memory in a car accident several years back. One memory he has from the very end has to do with a dog he bought – something even he doesn’t understand, because he doesn’t even like dogs. But the dog is important… for some reason. Can Mack find the dog and figure out the secret?

Mack goes to work, acquiring the dog, a mature and well-behaved Boxer. He learns that someone else is looking for the dog too, and some exercise of his fighting skills will be required before the conclusion, which is a highly satisfying one. Author Lee says in a note that he felt that Only the Details was pretty intense, and it was time for a warmer and fuzzier sequel.

I liked both these books a lot, and recommend them, if you can handle the language (see my previous reviews). The author also needs to work on his vocabulary – he generally does pretty well with Robert B. Parker-esque erudite vocabulary, but now and then he stumbles.

Realism is not strong in this series – I’m thinking particularly about Mack’s relationship with his fiancée/wife “Ronnie,” who seems to me more a figure of male fantasy than a plausible character.

But it’s all a lot of fun anyway.

‘Flawed Players’ and ‘Aces Full,’ by Alan Lee

The economy of Portsmouth was propped up on freight shipping, mountains of it. There was no new construction but this part of town looked healthy. Like, we have enough money but we don’t want nice things because sailors might break them. (Aces Full)

Jason Bourne for fans of John Eldridge.

That’s my current thumbnail description of Alan Lee’s Mack August books, my current semi-guilty obsession.

Mack, as I’ve mentioned, is a big, strong, intrepid Christian private eye in Roanoke, Virginia, the single father of an infant. I’m reading his books so fast (in spite of recent resolutions to spend less on books) that I’m going to review two at once tonight.

Flawed Players has Mack hired by a local academic, who faces a prison sentence for stealing stuff from the neighbors in his tony neighborhood. All the stuff was found in his office closet, and he swears he has no idea how it got there. His argument is weakened, however, by the fact that he’s a classic absent-minded professor, and could conceivably have done it and forgotten. However, it’s hard to figure a motive for the crime.

On a closer, more personal level, someone close to Mack has been murdered. He discovers that the organized crime figures whose noses he’s been tweaking know how to hold a grudge.

In Aces Full, Mack is hired to find evidence to mitigate the sentence of a confessed murderer named Grady Huff. Grady is rich, entitled, and the biggest ass Mack has ever met. But his lawyer thinks there’s something more beyond his story that he killed his house cleaner purely on a whim.

Meanwhile, Mack is learning more about the woman he loves, the incandescent “Ronnie” Summers. She has dark secrets, and deep obligations to some very bad people. Mack conceives a plan to set her free, centered on an epic underworld poker game, which will take a dramatic and unexpected turn.

I’ve described this series as a Christian one, but I’m ambivalent about using that term. It’s Christian in the sense that the hero is a Christian, trying to live a Christian life. But he’s not the kind of Christian you’d expect – his best friend is a corrupt US Marshal, and another friend is the local cocaine distributor – who also goes to his church.

I’m reminded in one sense of the minor controversy that exists around Veggie Tales. The Veggie Tales videos are clever and entertaining productions promoting Christian values. But, as some have noted, they’re not Christian in the sense of sharing the gospel. They’re all Law.

In the same way, a reader of the Mack August books might come away thinking that Christianity is just a set of rules to live by – and most of us wouldn’t stand up as well as Mack does to the extreme temptations he faces. Even his cocaine-merchant friend has asked him whether he’s shared the Good News with Ronnie (who would appear to need it desperately), but Mack never gets around to it.

So I’m still not sure what to say about these books from a theological perspective.

But I sure am having fun reading them. (In spite of some homophone problems in spelling.)

Recommended, with cautions for adult themes, violence, and language.

‘The Desecration of All Saints,’ by Alan Lee

I am now officially obsessed with Alan Lee’s Mack August mysteries. Expect the reviews to come fast and thick for a few days.

Mack, as I’ve told you previously, is a big, strong Christian private eye in Roanoke, Virginia. He’s not a model evangelical – he drinks a little, and uses bad language now and then. And occasionally he fornicates, though he always resists it and has not consummated his passion for “Ronnie” Summers, the girl he loves. Unfortunately she’s engaged to another man (the marriage was arranged by her father, who happens to be a local drug lord).

Mack knows there will be trouble at the beginning of The Desecration of All Saints, when two vestrymen from the big Episcopal church in town come to hire him. They want him to investigate their pastor, a celebrity preacher named Louis Lindsey. One of his subordinates has complained that Lindsey has been making homosexual advances. They are sure the accusation is groundless, but they want Mack to look into it, just to vindicate their pastor.

As he investigates, Mack discovers that there’s good evidence the accusations are true.

Even worse, a local boy has been kidnapped, and Mack begins to suspect that Lindsey is the one who took him. And is likely to kill him, if he can’t be stopped.

Funny, engaging, and sometimes inspirational, I enjoyed The Desecration of All Saints. The book (which is marketed as a stand-alone, not part of the series, for some obscure reason) has flaws. Part of the fun of Mack’s character is his self-deprecatory humor, often framed in elevated vocabulary. But (in this book more than the others I’ve read) he uses the words wrong occasionally. He also falls victim to homophone confusion. This one needed a better proofreader.

The Desecration of All Saints also deal with a touchy subject – homosexuality. As Mack expresses his views, he’s more easygoing about it than I am, falling into the “we’re all sinners, gayness is no big deal” school. However, he also seems to suggest that lack of father figures is a contributing factor to homosexuality, so he’s not entirely in the “enlightened” camp.

I might also mention that if you like sexy books – as opposed to dirty books – you can hardly look for hotter stuff than the Mack August series. Unlike most fictional private eyes, Mack tries to shun fornication, which means that in the scenes where “Ronnie” comes on to him, the sexual tension is off the charts. There’s nothing so erotic as chastity, and that’s proven here.

Recommended, with cautions for language and subject matter.

‘August Origins,’ by Alan Lee

“It’s reverse sexism to pretend girls are never girls and never experience distress. That creates faulty and impossible standards, like magazine covers.”

Pending surprises, I’m pretty much all in on Alan Lee’s Mack August detective series now. And for some of you, that will be a sign of reprobation in me. Because these novels have Christian themes, but they are morally complex and there’s a limited amount of full-blown profanity and obscenity. I don’t think I’d have the nerve to write books like these. But I’m enjoying and appreciating them.

Mackenzie August is a private eye in Roanoke, Virginia. He’s a former cop and underground cage fighter, also a former youth pastor and English teacher. He goes to church and reads the Bible, but is a work in progress, wrestling with how to be a Christian.

In August Origins, the county sheriff comes to Mack’s office, along with a local policeman, to request his help. A new drug boss has moved into town, and the street gangs have adopted a practice imported from California – each new member must “make his bones” by killing an innocent teenaged girl. Three have died so far. They want Mack to go to work temporarily as a high school teacher, to try to figure out who’s running the gangs.

Mack is always up for a challenge. He likes teaching and is good at it. He cares about the kids and tries to help them. But he observes some hinky stuff going on – and then the word spreads among the student population that Mr. August is a nark. His life and those of some of his students will depend on his identifying the drug bosses, and putting a stop to them.

Also he meets a girl who fascinates him – Veronica “Ronnie” Summers, local lawyer and part-time bartender. She’s all he’s ever wanted, but if he wants to be with her, he’ll have to make a moral compromise he’s not willing to make.

There are some shocking elements in August Origins, and the resolution is not very neat at all. But the effect is more realistic than what you’ll generally find in Christian fiction, and that particular story line is not finished yet.

Not for the squeamish, or those offended by profanity. But I rate August Origins very highly.

‘The Last Teacher,’ by Alan Lee

“I don’t know. I don’t go to church, I don’t have any religious friends, I don’t like the christian radio stations, I drink, I don’t feel like baptists would like me anymore than I like them. I read but cannot understand the Old Testament. Sometimes,” I said, and paused. “Sometimes I don’t even think God likes me very much, though I know that’s not true. Whatever that is, that’s what I am.”

Now here’s an intriguing book, part of an intriguing series. A Christian mystery series, which many Christians will hate. The Last Teacher is a sort of prequel to the Mack August series by Alan Lee.

Mackenzie August is a former cop and former underground cage fighter. Also a former youth pastor. A single father. Now he’s taken a job as a middle school teacher in the small town of South Hill, Virginia. Just trying to figure out where he belongs in the world, and puzzling over God’s will. He’s pretty sure that will does not include a relationship with the hot teacher who starts throwing herself at him from the day he arrives.

Shortly thereafter, he discovers the body of a fellow teacher, shot to death in the school yard. Mack isn’t sure whether he’ll make a good teacher, but he’s a good detective. He’ll need to be, especially when another teacher is murdered in the same way. Mack begins to realize that someone is fixating on him, killing the people around him out of some kind of twisted obsession. That’s personal enough, but when his baby son gets kidnapped, it becomes a matter of life and death.

Alan Lee is a very brave writer, braver than I am, for good or ill. He grapples head-on with one of the major challenges facing Christian fiction writers today: the problem of realistic language. The time has passed when you could get away with having worldly and depraved characters confine themselves to expletives like “gosh” and “darn.” The audience expects people to talk the way they would in real life. That means using language most of us don’t want to spread around.

Author Lee uses that language. The book isn’t full of profanity or obscenity, but it’s there. It will shock and offend many Christian readers. But it’s possible that Lee isn’t writing for the healthy, but for the sick, who are in need of a physician, as the Gospel says.

One of the many things I liked about The Last Teacher was Mack’s voice as narrator. He speaks in the tradition of Philip Marlowe, that tough guy/erudite voice with just a hint of self-mockery. Alan Lee writes this kind of stuff very well indeed. I laughed often as I read. Another trope in detective stories is gorgeous women throwing themselves at the hero. That’s present in these books too, with the novelty of the hero resisting those women.

I found the final resolution a little implausible, but that may just be due to personal prejudices.

If you’re morally offended by bad language in Christian stories, stay away from the Mack August books. But if you’re open to it, there’s a good time reading to be had here.

Recommended, with the aforementioned cautions.