Category Archives: Fiction

‘An Advancement of Learning,’ by Reginald Hill

I think I tried to watch one episode of the long-running BBC series, “Dalziel and Pascoe,” based on Reginald Hill’s mystery novels. It just didn’t grab me. But I thought I’d try one of the original books, to see if I caught the magic there. The formula’s pretty familiar – old, grizzled detective teamed with young, callow detective – only these books are old enough that the young detective is allowed to be male.

An Advancement of Learning (the title comes from a book by Sir Francis Bacon) takes place at Holm Coultram College, a fictional school in Yorkshire. A statue is being moved from the spot where it has stood for five years, when human bones are discovered under its base. They turn out to be those of the former Principal of the College, Alison Girling, who was assumed to have died in an avalanche in Switzerland, also about five years ago. Detective Inspector Andrew Dalziel and his assistant Peter Pascoe are assigned the case. Dalziel is an old working-class type, contemptuous of intellectuals and the academic life. Pascoe is a college graduate who once considered a scholar’s life – indeed an old college girlfriend turns out to be on the faculty here. They will encounter partisan instructors, politically radical students (who seem pretty mild by current standards – this was the early ‘70s), drugs and satanic rituals. And there will be more murders. All in all, Dalziel’s view of academics seems to be validated when all is revealed.

There were things I liked about An Advancement of Learning. It was written long enough ago that social norms were a little more conventional – homosexuality is still scandalous, and most people seem to be nominally Christian (though the only vocal Christian in the book is pretty unattractive).

But I didn’t care for author Hill’s writing technique. He spends a lot of pages telling us people’s thoughts. I’ve learned to expect to see plot advanced through dialogue and conflict, rather than interior monologue. So I found it kind of slow going. Also, although I was prepared to like Insp. Dalziel, I didn’t. His personality didn’t seem to go very deep. The ending was moderately satisfactory, though.

You may like this book more than I did. The language was pretty mild, and the violence and sex were mostly off stage.

‘Agent In Place,’ by Mark Greaney

One more book in Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series, and it’s as good as its predecessors. In fact, I think I’d rate Agent In Place as one of the best.

It seems like an odd assignment for the world’s greatest assassin, but Court Gentry, the Gray Man, has been hired by a group of Syrian expatriates in Paris to kidnap a supermodel. Bianca Medina is the mistress of a fictionalized president of Syria, Ahmed Azzam, and she has secretly borne him a son. The Syrian patriots who hired Court hope to use her to get to the tyrant.

Court succeeds, but as usual there are wheels within wheels. Azzam’s wife in Damascus is plotting against Bianca with her Swiss lover, a ruthless security expert who is himself plotting to get himself out of Syria. Just as the Syrian army, the Syrian resistance, the Russians, the Americans, ISIS, the Iranians, the Kurds and others are fighting for various purposes in the desert, one faction is fighting another in Europe, each trying to leverage the instability for their own purposes, noble or ignoble or purely mercenary.

In the style of all the Gray Man books, situations that start out complex rapidly unreel into tangles and twists and betrayals that threaten to bring Court’s storied career to a sudden and bloody end. But whatever happens, in Europe or in Syria, Court will find his moral center and do what he sees as right, even to the point of death.

Lots of fun. Agent In Place had a climactic fight scene as deeply satisfying as any I’ve ever read in a book. Cautions for violence, language, and high dramatic tension.

‘No Good Deed,’ by James Swain

The second book in James Swain’s intriguing Lancaster and Daniels series has now been released. No Good Deed is well worth your time and money.

Former Navy Seal and cop Jon Lancaster, and FBI agent Beth Daniels, are not officially a team, but once again they end up working together. Jon works for The Adam Project, a group devoted to finding kidnapped children. When he learns of the abduction of a teenaged girl in a small Florida town, he cancels a fishing vacation to see if he can help. And he does – he discovers a clue suggesting that the missing girl was not the kidnappers’ real target. They wanted her grandmother, who was murdered at the scene, but things didn’t go according to plan.

This links the crime to a string of abductions of adult women across the state. That brings in the FBI, and Lancaster and Daniels meet again – awkwardly. They’d had a couple dates after their last case, but then Daniels stopped answering his calls. They like and respect each other, and share a passion for their work, but their approaches are different. Lancaster is all about the objective – he’ll cut corners to save a life, without hesitation. Daniels needs to do things by the book. Cooperating with Lancaster will mean compromising her standards and breaking FBI regulations. Can she justify enabling Lancaster? Can she justify not enabling him? Each of them will learn the others’ darkest secrets, and share their own, before they solve the case.

No Good Deed is an exciting story, well told. Christianity gets a couple favorable mentions. I liked it. Cautions for language and intense situations.

‘Gunmetal Gray,’ by Mark Greaney

Another Gray Man novel by Mark Greaney. The books make no claim to literary excellence or psychological depth. They’re just action movies in print form, low on credibility but high on entertainment value.

The basics of super-operative Court Gentry’s life have changed in Gunmetal Gray. (By the way, this use of the term “gunmetal” annoys me a little. Everyone assumes – as I did at first – that the word “gunmetal” refers to the color of iron or steel. Because that’s what we make guns out of today. But originally [I looked it up once] it referred to a yellow color, the color of brass – because that’s what cannons used to be made of. Not that anyone cares anymore.) Anyway, Court Gentry is back in the good graces of the CIA, not as a regular agent but as a deniable private contractor. This situation, though one he’s longed for for years, is not as good as he imagined, as he will soon learn.

A Chinese army computer hacker named Fan Jiang has defected. He had intended to run to Taiwan, but ended up in the hands of Hong Kong gangsters. The Chinese contracted with Sir Donald Fitzroy, an old (though estranged) friend of Court’s, to retrieve Fan. Sir Donald’s first two teams got killed, and so he asked Court to step in. The Chinese have added an incentive – they’ve kidnapped Sir Donald, and promise to kill him if he can’t get the job completed.

Court takes the job, with the CIA’s encouragement. They don’t care about Sir Donald – they want Fan for themselves. Court, though, plans to do it his own way – to divert Fan to the Americans while rescuing Sir Donald.

Piece of cake.

If the plot sounds kind of convoluted, it is. I found a lot of the book unengaging – you’ve got a couple kinds of gangsters plus the Chinese and the Russians (I didn’t mention the Russians before), and Court himself, running around bumping into one another like characters in a French bedroom farce – except bloodier. It was kind of hard to tell the players apart.

It got better toward the end, when Court paired up with a beautiful Russian operative who’s sort of a distaff image of himself (sparks fly). At that point my interest returned. Court comes out looking pretty good, though otherwise it’s hard to tell the white hats from the black in this story.

In spite of cynicism about the CIA (no doubt justified), there’s a basic morality and American patriotism in the Gray Man books that please me. I recommend Gunmetal Gray if you’re a fan of this kind of story, though it’s not the best of the series. Cautions for language, violence, and some off-stage sex.

‘A Dangerous Man,’ by Robert Crais

Robert Crais switches off between books starring his private detective character, Elvis Cole, and books starring Joe Pike, Elvis’s associate, whose actual vocation is security and covert ops. The Elvis books are notable for the main character’s charm – he’s a laid back, slightly flippant character. Joe Pike is his dark shadow – grim and taciturn, physically conditioned and in perfect control of his body and reactions. He rarely speaks, wears sunglasses almost all the time, and lives an ascetic, squared-away life.

A Dangerous Man is (as you might have guessed) primarily a Joe Pike book. Joe is at the bank one morning when he witnesses the attempted abduction of one of the tellers, Isabel Roland (who has a secret crush on Joe). Joe intervenes and rescues the girl. Soon afterward the kidnappers are mysteriously released on bail and murdered. Then Isabel disappears again.

Nobody has hired Joe, but he makes it his case. He feels responsible. To locate Isabel, he needs to find out why a not very well-to-do bank teller would be kidnapped (this is Elvis’s job). The investigation will uncover old ties to Isabel’s parents, drug dealers, the witness protection program, and a whole lot of missing money.

The special delight of a Joe Pike novel is the moments when we peek behind his armor. Joe is so stolid that he almost counts as a type rather than a character. But that makes those rare human moments shine through like sunbeams.

A Dangerous Man was an extremely satisfying read. Highly recommended, with mild cautions for language and violence.

Can Christians Write Good Satire?

A popular fact-checking, myth-busting website has been in something of a stare-down with a popular Christian satire site over everyone’s favorite topic since 2016–fake news. Worries flare over the possibility that readers will take headlines like this, “Portland Police: ‘We Wish There Were Some Kind Of Organized, Armed Force That Could Fight Back Against Antifa’,” as actual reporting.

Christianity Today’s “Quick to Listen” podcast interviewed an editor of the biggest Christian satire and humor magazine in our lifetime on that topic and what Christians should expect from satire.

The Wittenberg Door and other Christian satire at its best would be like the little boy in the old fable who was the only one who would say the king is buck naked. Everybody else was just nodding about how well-dressed the king was. Well, good satire is sometimes that little boy who points out what we’re all either afraid to say or just overlooking.

‘Back Blast,’ by Mark Greaney

Court realized that people here in the U.S. were nicer to strangers than in the other places he’d traveled in the past five years–when they weren’t shooting you in the ribs, that was. And while Court had no problem with politeness, for a man who lived his life moving through society without leaving a trace, this was problematic.

In a fictional series, it seems to me, the reader expects a certain familiarity. The story ought to be the same kind of story as those that preceded it. But it can’t be too familiar. Mark Greaney does a very good job rejiggering the formula in his Gray Man novels, starring white hat international assassin Courtland Gentry, formerly of the CIA, now hunted by them.

Back Blast provides a dramatic new wrinkle — Court is finally back in the US. For five years, he’s been a man without a country, living in the shadows on several continents, taking contract hit jobs (but only against bad guys). He’s a consummate martial artist, a dead shot, and a master of camouflage — even in urban environments. But now, thanks to a grateful friend in Mossad, Court is back home. He’s in the Washington DC area, and he’s identified his target — Denny Carmichael, operations chief of the CIA. Denny put the kill order out on Court, and Court wants to know why. He wants it fixed. He wants to come home.

But Denny has deep and dark secrets to protect. His resources are almost unlimited. He has a plan — a devious and ruthless one — not only to kill or capture Court, but to make Court the scapegoat for his own crimes. It’s a David and Goliath fight — but this David is no simple shepherd boy. He does, however, have a big shock in store for him.

Lots of fun. Very satisfying. Be prepared to suspend your disbelief, of course, and enjoy the ride.

Cautions for language and violence, but not too bad. Recommended, like the whole series.

‘Gone To Sea In a Bucket,’ by David Black

‘That’s why the trade has a reputation for being a bit more easy-going than the proper navy. You’ll have heard it and you’ll hear it again. But only from those that don’t understand. There isn’t less discipline in the trade, Mr. Gilmour. If anything, the discipline here is the hardest of all. Self-discipline….’

I don’t generally read novels about World War II, but Gone To Sea In a Bucket by David Black starts in Norway, and so I noticed it. Not a bad book, either.

It opens during the Battle of Narvik, in 1940. Sub Lieutenant Harry Gilmour is experiencing his first naval battle, but it’s not much of an experience. Guided by aerial spotters, the ship he’s on is lobbing cannon shells over the mountains from one fjord to another. They can’t even see the enemy.

Harry Gilmour is making a poor start to his naval career. He was brought in as part of a Navy program to increase the officer pool, outside traditional training sources. But that doesn’t make him welcome to the “old navy” hands. Harry’s not quite their sort.

But a compassionate senior officer intervenes. He informs Harry of openings in the submarine service (known to its members as “the trade”). It’s a different world there. The small crews and tight spaces make traditional navy discipline and separation of ranks impossible. Submarine service is dauntingly dangerous and physically demanding, but it gives Harry the best possible opportunity to develop his personal qualities – he discovers he’s hard-working, brave, and fiercely loyal. His service will bring him near death, and take his “boat” into a secret mission to the edge of the world.

I was not much impressed at the start of Gone To Sea In a Bucket. I thought the writing muddy and wordy, and I caught some grammar lapses. But it grew on me as I read. Once I got used to the author’s style it seemed to get better and better, until I found myself admiring various passages.

I also liked the treatment of the characters. Author Black likes to give us a bad first impression of a character, and then gradually reveal his or her story until we come to admire – or at least sympathize with – them.

The Harry Gilmour series seems to be sort of a modern Horatio Hornblower saga. I probably won’t be continuing with it, because I find submarine stories kind of… claustrophobic. But if this is your kind of epic, I would recommend it. Minor cautions for language and intense violence.

‘Game of Snipers,’ by Stephen Hunter

The West cannot be destroyed through numbers; it must be destroyed through its imagination.

You know what you’re getting when you start one of Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger novels. It’s not realism (though a fair amount of technical detail may be involved). A Bob Lee Swagger novel is transparent bunkum, like the imitative title of this book. But the entertainment value for money is 100 per cent.

Game of Snipers opens with old Bob Lee, relaxing on the front porch of his ranch house, getting visit from Mrs. Janet McDowell, widow and gold star mother. Her only son, she tells him, was killed in the Middle East by a legendary Al Quaida killer known as “Juba the Sniper.” Since then she has made it her obsession to learn all she can about the man. She has traveled to the Middle East and been beaten and raped. She even converted to Islam (this did not please me), to “get inside his head.” She thinks she knows where the man is hiding, but she’s worn out her welcome with the CIA and the military. Could Bob Lee use his contacts to get her a hearing, in the hope that he can be stopped at last?

Bob Lee goes to his friends in Mossad, and (improbably) is invited along on a raid on Juba’s hiding place. The raid misses Juba himself, but Bob Lee, with his sniper’s eye, notices a clue that tells him Juba is planning a job in the United States – a high-profile assassination at the distance of a mile.

He takes this information to the FBI. They pull his old friend Nick Memphis (improbably) out of retirement to coordinate a desperate effort to learn the place, the time, and the target. Meanwhile we follow Juba himself – fanatical, concentrated, and not without honor, as he prepares an act of terror that might very well tear the United States apart.

As with all Bob Lee Swagger novels, I didn’t believe it for a minute, but it was a fun ride. Stephen Hunter combines the ability to expertly raise the plot stakes with a mastery of character and dialogue. A fun ride is even better in the company of old Bob the Nailer.

Highly recommended. Mild cautions for language.

‘Dead Eye,’ by Mark Greaney

Moving along through Mark Greaney’s implausible but enjoyable The Gray Man series, we come to Dead Eye. I have to say that, though the temptation to fall into tropes is probably strong, author Greaney manages to keep the concept fresh.

The concept, in case you missed previous reviews, is this: Court Gentry is the world’s greatest assassin. Former military, former CIA, he was suddenly targeted for death by his former employers, he doesn’t know why. Now he lives as a professional hit man, but he only kills people he considers genuinely evil. He is totally isolated, with no family, no living friends, no fixed address.

Like all action heroes, Court is effectively infallible, always one step ahead of his enemies, capable of sustaining injuries that would stop a lesser man. But as Dead Eye begins, he makes a mistake. He’d be dead because of it except for the intervention of an unexpected ally – a member of the hit squad sent to kill him, who suddenly changes sides. Court is grateful but skeptical. The guy seems a little off.

His savior, Russell Whitlock (code name Dead Eye) is almost Court’s clone. He moves like him, thinks like him, even resembles him physically. And he’s been a student of Court’s career. He wants to team up. Together, he says, they’ll be unstoppable.

But that’s not what Whitlock really wants. His true plan is devious and ruthless. Court rushes through northern Europe to catch and stop him, forming an uneasy alliance with a female Mossad analyst, until the Gray Man and Dead Eye meet in one final showdown.

Dead Eye was, like all the Gray Man books, completely preposterous. But highly readable (in spite of some slips in diction). I highly recommend Dead Eye, if you don’t mind some bad language and lots of violence.

‘Ballistic,’ by Mark Greaney

If you’re looking for realism, Mark Greaney’s The Gray Man series is probably not for you. If you’re looking for pulse-pounding action entertainment, you could hardly do better.

Years ago, Eddie Gamboa went far beyond the second mile in Southeast Asia, to save the life of CIA operative Court Gentry. Later on, Eddie returned to his native Mexico, where he became a drug enforcement officer, one of the few honest ones trying to stop the cartels. Not surprisingly, that got him killed, along with most of his team.

As Ballistic begins, Court, now “The Gray Man,” international assassin without a country, is passing through Mexico, on the run after a pretty hairy mission. He stops by Eddie’s grave to pay his respects, and accidentally meets his widow. She insists he must come with her and the family to a memorial service in Puerto Vallarta the next day. But the service turns into a bloodbath when cartel gunmen start firing on the crowd. Court is able to save most of the family and get them away, but now he has two big problems – he has innocent people to protect with limited resources – and his picture was taken and published, meaning his many enemies around the world know where to find him.

The situation looks impossible, but impossible is what Court is good at.

I was about three-quarters of the way through Ballistic when I realized what it was. It’s A Fistful of Dollars.

Which is Yojimbo. Which is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

The plot is a hardy perennial – and as far as I’m concerned, Ballistic is as effective a retelling as any.

This book has an interesting and somewhat strange subplot involving religion. Court is puzzled but attracted by the Catholic faith of his charges, especially that of Eddie’s beautiful sister. A very odd scene involves her explaining her faith to him in a very winsome way – but that testimony leads into to a sex scene, which was a little weird.

Nevertheless, I thought Ballistic worked very well. Cautions for language, violence, and mild sex.

‘Dead on Arrival,’ by Jeff Shelby

I’ve liked most of the Jeff Shelby novels I’ve read. He seems to be proliferating series, and they span several sub-genres, from humorous cozy all the way to hard-boiled. So I figured I’d check out the first book of his Capitol Cases series, starring Washington DC-are private eye, Mack Mercy.

This series is a spin-off of a series starring “Rainy” Day, who was Mack’s office assistant, but has now moved out on her own. At the beginning of Dead on Arrival, Mack is searching halfheartedly for a replacement for her. He’s having trouble finding anyone competent, and he hates office work in general. A middle-aged bachelor, he’s not the most organized guy in the world.

So when Glen Pulaski, an insurance agent and passionate home gardener, calls him about following his wife to see if she’s cheating, Mack is happy to jump on that case instead. Except that when he goes to see Glen at his home, he finds him dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, an apparent suicide. But Mack is suspicious. He doesn’t have any strong evidence, but he has a sense that something’s off. Might Glen’s wife have killed him? Or her lover? Or someone with more obscure motives?

In the course of the case Mack finds a new assistant, a near-clone of the departed Rainy, and he gradually starts trusting her to help him with actual investigations, beyond office work.

Dead on Arrival was a pleasant mystery in the “cozy” tradition. I found it amusing, but I  also found Mack a little dull as a character – laid back, non-motivated people don’t generally make good fictional heroes. I also figured out the culprit early on – though I didn’t guess the motive.

Dead on Arrival was okay. Cozy fans may enjoy it very much. It looks like some romance may develop between Mack and his new assistant, and I might even read another book to see where that’s going. But it’s not at the top of my reading list.

‘Deep Water,’ by Jeff Shelby

I really like Jeff Shelby’s Noah Braddock mystery series, and am delighted that he’s revived it after a brief hiatus. Deep Water is the second book in the new “season,” so to speak, and I think it’s my favorite to date.

I would have never thought I’d warm up to a series about a surfer detective, but author Shelby makes it work with Noah Braddock. Noah went into a tailspin a while back, after a personal loss. He avenged the loss, and then went back to work because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. In the previous book he found a new girlfriend, and step by step he’s coming back to life.

In Deep Water, he gets an offer from San Diego State University to investigate a student death. A young woman, Emma Kershaw, died as a result of falling down some stairs at a fraternity party. It looks like a clear-cut accident, with the only culpability being Emma’s own for being extremely drunk. But the university wants to be sure they won’t be surprised by any unguessed liability. Noah is to ask questions and find out about Emma and her world.

It’s quite a world. It turns out Emma was almost universally disliked. As an officer in her sorority, she was bullying and tyrannical. Her romantic relationships were volatile. Lots of people wished her harm, but did anyone hate her enough to push her down those stairs?

This book was a nice change in literature for me. There was precious little violence; just systematic questioning and analytical thought (not really what you’d expect from a surfer, but preconceptions exist to be punctured). Noah is a sympathetic person, and his final resolution of the mystery was an empathetic one that made me want to stand up and cheer.

Also, the book contained a plot element that mirrored (at least for me) a similar element in the overarching plot line of several of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books. I didn’t like the way Parker handled it (one of the main reasons I stopped reading him), but I loved the way Jeff Shelby dealt with it here.

So Deep Water gets my unreserved endorsement. Minor cautions for language and adult themes.

‘On Target, by Mark Greaney

I’m grateful to my friend Mark for recommending Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series of thrillers. Thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea, but these are very satisfying.

In the first book, The Gray Man, the hero, Court Gentry, was kind of a force of nature. Single-minded, relentless, highly skilled, this legendary assassin will let nothing stop him from completing a job – so long as he thinks the job is justified. No odds deter him, no setback dismays him, no injury stops him. It was very exciting, but a little fantastic. On Target, the second book in the series, mixes the formula up a little.

This time, Court has weaknesses. Still feeling some pain from the horrific injuries he suffered in The Gray Man, he’s gotten hooked on pain killers. He’s been reduced to taking work from a man he distrusts – a Russian who idolizes assassins. But the target is a “worthy” kill – the president of Somalia, a venal monster with the blood of thousands on his hands.

Only the game changes when one of his old CIA comrades contacts him. They know about the deal, and want Court to alter it somewhat. If he helps them kidnap the president, bring him out for trial, Court will be reinstated. The “Shoot On Sight” order that now stands against him will be revoked. He’ll be part of the team again.

How can Court say no?

In the days that follow, everything will go wrong. Court will be diverted on a quixotic detour to save a lady in distress. Friends will become enemies, and vice versa. Never has Court been so alone, in so much danger, so far from any help.

This book almost defines the phrase, “page-turner.”

The tension never lets up. This new, slightly vulnerable Court is more interesting than the earlier one. There’s considerable pathos in his constant fight, not only to survive, but to do what’s right – if he can just identify it among all the lies.

Highly recommended. Cautions for violence and language.

How Landing on the Moon Changed Us

We once thought nothing was in the heavens, at least nothing like what we saw around us. We didn’t see the moon as a destination of any kind. Joseph Bottum says that began to change after the Renaissance. Authors used the moon as a metaphor for their own commentary for a while; later sci-fi authors explored how we could get there and who might meet us. Before the moon landing, authors told new stories of an uninhabited moon.

But after the 1969 moon landing, the expectation shifted again—to the notion that now we would see a rapid expansion of human settlement out into the solar system. The moon would be a pawn in interplanetary politics, a hostage in the fight between such dominant powers as Mars and the moons of Saturn.  . . . That space mission 50 years ago—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moonwalking on July 20, 1969—felt to science-fiction writers mostly a precursor, a first step, to the planets beyond. 

Image by Ponciano from Pixabay