Category Archives: Fiction

‘The Blue Hallelujah,’ by Andy Straka

The Blue Hallelujah

Another by Andy Straka, but this one is a stand-alone.

The hero of The Blue Hallelujah is Jerry Strickland, an old cop with a bad heart, pretty much just waiting to die. The heart – and the faith – have gone out of him since the death of his wife Rebecca, who died in prison, having killed a serial killer/rapist.

But he has a few miles left in him, as he discovers when he gets word that his granddaughter has been kidnapped. His status as a retired detective buys him some slack from the police investigators to stick his nose in. And soon he becomes convinced that this abduction is no random crime. It directly relates to the crimes of the man Rebecca killed. And the key to the mystery lies in his own set of old police files.

This is my favorite of all the Andy Straka novels I’ve read, though I thought it had a couple weaknesses. Actually one weakness, because I think the second is only a possible misunderstanding.

The first problem is with strong language – or rather, its absence. When a character who’s not identified as a practicing religious believer says “What in the world’s going on here?” instead of something stronger, that’s morally good. But it weakens the story. It pulls the reader out of the narrative, making him ask, “Why did he put it that way? That doesn’t sound like him.” It’s a problem we’ve discussed often on this blog, and there’s no entirely satisfactory answer, in my view.

The second problem is a likely misperception of genre. This story starts out looking like a regular mystery story. But it develops into a Christian spiritual thriller, complete with visions and minor miracles. I have no objection to that (in fact I welcome it), but some readers may feel as if they’ve been blindsided.

For all that, the story reeled me in and held on to me, and I was in tears at the end. Wise, beautiful, and touching, The Blue Hallelujah gets my highest recommendation.

2 more Frank Pavlicek novels

Flightfall The K Street Hunting Society

Continuing forging my way through Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek detective/falconry mysteries.

Flightfall is a novella in which Frank and his daughter/partner Nicole get a call from their mysterious friend Jake Toronto. One of his falcons has been shot to death, and Jake believes it may have been an act of revenge. I think on consideration that my criticism of the previous book, which I reviewed last night, may actually have properly belonged to this one – it’s kind of over before it really gets started. But it’s nice to get to know Jake better, because he’s an interesting character.

The K Street Hunting Society is a far better developed story. It also takes place in Washington DC, and there’s not a lot of falconry involved. Frankly, that’s OK with me. I have nothing against falconry, and I admire the tradition of the thing, but I don’t find it a terribly compelling plot device.

This time out, Jake Toronto has hired Frank and Nicole to help him in a routine bodyguarding job in downtown Washington. But they come under attack by an assassin with an automatic weapon, and lose a client – and nearly lose one of their own. You just don’t do that to Frank, and you certainly don’t do it to Jake. They’re going to find the killer and even the score, whether the local police and the FBI want their help or not. I thought this was the strongest book in the series to date.

As I’ve said before, the language is clean, the violence isn’t overdone, and the morality is generally good. Author Straka takes the opportunity to say a good word for the Christian faith now and then. I don’t care for Frank’s penchant for relying on hunches rather than deduction, but that’s personal taste. Enjoyable reading, highly recommended.

‘A Night Falcon,’ by Andy Straka

A Night Falcon

As you’ve probably noticed, when I find a book series I like, I’m likely to read my way through it chronologically. And that’s what I’m doing with Andy Straka’s enjoyable Frank Pavlicek series. A Night Falconer is installment number four.

This time out, Frank finds himself leaving his current natural environment to return temporarily to a former one – Manhattan, where he once was a cop. The residents of a luxury condo are losing their pets, and one of them – an assertive woman doctor – is convinced her cat was killed by a Great Horned Owl. Not only that, but she thinks she saw a falconer carrying the owl, running off in the darkness. Crime mixed with falconry? Who else do you call but Frank Pavlicek, Virginia PI and accomplished falconer? So New York PI Darla Barnes, an old friend of Frank’s from the force, asks him to come up and investigate.

It seems like a strange job, but Darla’s a friend, so Frank drives up to check it out, bringing along his new partner – his daughter Nicole. What they discover is much bigger and even stranger than the idea of someone hunting in Central Park with an owl.

I didn’t consider A Night Falconer the best of the series. The plot seemed to resolve itself unnecessarily rapidly at the end. But it wasn’t bad either. As usual, no foul language, only muted violence, and the sex happens offstage (the Christian morality of these books is generally admirable, though Frank seems to think sex before marriage is OK if the couple is engaged, which I consider debatable).

Still, recommended.

‘A Cold Quarry,’ by Andy Straka

A Cold Quarry

Book 3 in Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek series, about a former New York cop who is now a private investigator in Virginia, as well as a falconer.

In A Cold Quarry a friend of Frank’s, a fellow falconer named Chester Carew, is murdered while out with his bird. The police say it’s a hunting accident, but it doesn’t seem right to Frank. Also, what happened to Chester’s hawk, which had recently shown signs of disease or poisoning? He decides to look into it, and his dangerous, mysterious friend Jake Toronto wants to help. He was a friend too.

Clues lead them to a right-wing militia group, and then they’re warned off by the Feds, who tell them they’re planning an operation against the group – stay away. But Frank is convinced something more is going on – someone much smarter, more devious, and more ruthless than a group of rednecks is planning an operation far bigger than officials suspect.

A Cold Quarry was an enjoyable read, which I can pretty much recommend without reservation. Not only is the writing good and the language clean, but the morality is generally good. And author Straka finds several opportunities to make positive references to the Bible and Christianity. It’s not enough to be preachy, but it’s unavoidable too. These books are just the kind of Christian literature a lot of us have been begging for.

‘Murder on the Old Bog Road,’ by David Pearson

Murder on the Old Bog Road

It’s storming along the Old Bog Road in Clifden, Galway, Ireland. A woman has to stop her car before passing over a bridge, because it’s been damaged and there are stones strewn about. As she clears the stones, she sees a woman in a red coat, lying drowned in a ditch. She calls the Garda, who are baffled when they find that the woman has no identification. It’s clearly murder – someone hit her in the head with something hard.

Inspector Mick Hays and Detective Sergeant Maureen Lyons lead the investigation. Gradually they learn that the woman was a Polish “sex worker,” and there are a number of men – some of them influential – who do not wish their relationships with her to be made public.

Murder on the Old Bog Road, by David Pearson, is clearly intended to take advantage of the current popularity of “Celtic” police procedural mysteries. This is a genre I enjoy, when it’s done well. It offers mystery and atmosphere. However, I did not find this book a successful entry in that field.

The writing was pedestrian at best, and sometimes clumsy. The characters seemed shallow to me. The two leads, Hays and Lyons, ease into a sexual relationship in a way that seemed unrealistic – Hays makes inappropriate jokes without Lyons taking any offense, and they are not at all bothered by the professional impropriety of their relationship.

On top of that, author Pearson makes one repeated writing mistake that annoyed me very much (though it could be the editor’s fault). The accepted rule when writing fiction is that if a character gives a long speech, which is broken up by paragraphs, you leave the closing quotation marks off the end of the first paragraph, giving the reader notice that the speech is not finished. If the quotation mark is there at the end, the reader assumes the next paragraph is being spoken by another character.

Pearson breaks this rule all the time, making his dialogue sections extremely hard to follow.

I found Murder on the Old Bog Road unpolished and unsatisfying. Maybe the series will get better, but I won’t be reading the next book for now.

Cautions for mature material.

‘Deathly Wind,’ by Keith Moray

Deathly Wind

Inspector Torquil McKinnon is on holiday at the beginning of Deathly Wind, the second in the Torquil McKinnon mystery series, set on the fictional Hebrides island of West Uist. Constable Ewan McPhee, his friend and subordinate, is supposed to be watching the store while he’s gone. But Ewan goes missing. People frequently go missing on this island, and it usually means they’ve drowned. That leaves Constable Megan Munro to police the place alone. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be impossible, as crime is low in these communities. But just now there’s rising unrest, as a new Laird has inherited the big estate, and is implementing a plan to dispossess long-time crofters and put up wind turbines on their property. Also, people are suddenly getting killed. Quite a few of them.

Torquil does return to take things in hand, but he’s not sure he can handle the pressure either – as his superior on the mainland keeps reminding him over the phone. But with his knowledge of the community, and the help of his uncle Lachlan, the old priest, he starts uncovering the secrets of people he thought he knew, and unraveling a vicious revenge scheme.

Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon series is not at the top of my must-read list – the writing is not particularly distinguished (I thought the plot of this one a little far-fletched). But the books are entertaining and readable, the characters are appealing, and no shots are taken at Christianity. I don’t recall much bad language either. There were some sexual situations. I’ll continue with the series. Recommended.

‘I’ll Keep You Safe,’ by Peter May

I'll Keep You Safe

Sometimes a book can be less than optimal in certain respects, but make up for it wonderfully in the sheer reading experience. For me, Peter May’s I’ll Keep You Safe is one of this sort.

Niamh and Ruairidh McFarlane are childhood sweethearts who grew up together on the island of Harris in the Hebrides. As a married couple, they took over ownership of “Ranish Tweed,” a small operation producing a cloth that’s similar to Harris Tweed, but softer and lighter. To their amazement, their tweed was discovered by a rising young designer, who made it the center of his whole collection that year, and before long they were running a large and profitable operation.

But there are shadows in their lives. Their parents still disapprove of their marriage, due to old injuries that the book reveals in stages. There are professional enemies, and false friends.

When the story begins, they’re in Paris for a fabric fair, and Niamh is suspicious, for the first time in her life, that Ruairidh might be having an affair. Then he enters a cab with the woman she suspects is his mistress, and the cab explodes. Suddenly a widow, wracked with guilt and doubts, she must return to her home and face the continued hostility of her in-laws, the suspicions of the police, and a growing recognition that the killing is not over. Someone wants her dead too.

I was not surprised by the final revelation of the killer in I’ll Keep You Safe. And there was an earlier plot surprise that also didn’t surprise much. But I didn’t care, because the ride itself was the reward. Author May, as he has shown many times before, excels in painting evocative descriptions of Hebridean geography and nature. It might be the next best thing to visiting the place.

Minor cautions for grown-up stuff, but I highly recommend I’ll Keep You Safe as splendid reading entertainment.

‘Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed,’ by Christopher Shevlin

I was a little disappointed with this sequel to Christopher Shevlin’s The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax, which I reviewed favorably a few days back. But I’m not sure I’m being fair.

When last we saw our shy, ineffectual hero, he had survived great dangers and won the girl of his dreams.

At the beginning of Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed (set five years later), the girl of his dreams is completely out of the picture. He is living with a different girlfriend, and he’s working at a job he hates, as a temp at Fylofax, the most powerful corporation on earth. Jonathon isn’t quite sure what Fylofax does, but then nobody else is, either. In fact, the company’s unprecedented growth is the result of blatant fraud on the part of one of its top managers, an American who is on the verge of taking it over completely. He will do anything to succeed, including cold-blooded murder. By chance he becomes aware of Jonathon’s existence, and grows convinced that he’s a corporate spy. Therefore, Jonathon must be eliminated – from the face of the earth.

Meanwhile, Jonathon experiences unemployment, a breakup with his girlfriend, homelessness, and falling in love with another girl of his dreams. As in the previous book (and I didn’t really make this clear when reviewing it), Jonathon is more a maguffin than a hero, a calm, somewhat stagnant center for the story, and most of the real action revolves around his handsome, elegant friend Lance Ferman, who is Jonathon’s exact opposite, except for the fact that they’re both men of good will.

I had the impression that this book was less funny than its predecessor, but that may just be my prejudice. I took almost personal offense to the author’s writing out Rachel, the love interest in The Perpetual Astonishment… Her disappearance was explained, but I didn’t really buy it, and I think it embittered me. There were a lot of funny moments, and I laughed, but it wasn’t the same (for me). Brief, not too biting, jabs were taken at Christianity and at capitalism (though to be fair that was mostly at Ayn Rand, whom I don’t like either).

So you may want to ignore my jaundiced viewpoint. Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed is still funnier than most books around. Cautions for language and sexual situations. Also (once again) semi-comic murder.

‘The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax,’ by Christopher Shevlin

The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax

Occasionally you run into a book that doesn’t fit neatly into any of your existing mental categories. Then there’s a temptation to pan it because it’s not the kind of book you think it ought to be.

But that’s unjust. The author should be judged on the basis of what he accomplished, not what you were expecting.

Christopher Shevlin is a pretty Wodehousian writer. And because of that, it’s a little jarring when actual murder enters the stage of his book. In a Wodehouse novel, the worst thing you’ll see is the abstraction of a silver cow creamer, or the purloining of a prize pig, or the alienation of a French cook’s services.

But The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax begins with the murder of a fairly innocent middle-aged woman. And it’s played for laughs.

That kind of threw me for a loop.

But I stayed with it, because it was a very funny, very well written book.

Jonathon Fairfax is an ineffectual young man with deep insecurities, living in London. So he’s none the wiser when he (inadvertently) helps a murderer to find his victim’s address, then makes friends with two fashionable people in a disreputable café, and finally meets “the most deeply and woundingly beautiful girl [he] had ever seen,” all in a single day. He stumbles his way through an improbable courtship while getting unintentionally involved in the exposure of a massive government conspiracy. Continue reading ‘The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax,’ by Christopher Shevlin

‘The Gathering Murders,’ by Keith Moray

The Gathering Murders

Not bad. That’s my verdict on The Gathering Murders: Dead Men Tell No Tales, by Keith Moray.

West Uist is a fictional island off the west of Scotland. Each year it hosts “The Gathering,” a Gaelic festival and book festival, subsidized by “the Laird,” the owner of a string of cut-rate book shops.

The chief law enforcement officer is Torquil McKinnon, newly promoted to Inspector. He is the nephew of the local priest, Lachlan McKinnon, and his nickname is “Piper.” In fact he has high hopes for winning first prize in this year’s bagpipes competition.

The big star at this year’s book festival is a native daughter, Fiona Cullen, a mystery writer and once upon a time Torquil’s sweetheart. She greets him with the promise of renewed affections, but she also seems determined to cause a lot of trouble. And trouble there is, beginning with the suspicious murder of a noted local poet and bootlegger. The deaths don’t stop there, and Torquil finds he may be over his head investigating this kind of crime spree.

I liked The Gathering Murders. I thought the writing a little unpolished, but the story kept my interest and the characters engaged me. If, like me, you like a Scottish setting, this is a pretty good one, well brought to life.

Cautions for mature material, mostly language and sexual suggestions (though nothing explicit). Christianity comes out pretty well, especially because Father Lachlan is a very sympathetic character.

‘Rick Cantelli, PI,’ by Bernard Lee Deleo

Rick Cantelli, PI

Have you ever met someone (usually a guy) who thinks he’s a riot? Who not only tells one lame joke after another, but laughs uproariously at himself? And he’s actually a bore?

That was the impression Bernard Lee Deleo’s Rick Cantelli, PI had on me.

Rick Cantelli is a middle-aged former Navy Seal and CIA agent, who runs a private security agency with Lois Madigan, a former Agency colleague. There’s no romance between them – she’s happily married – but she keeps a mother hen-ish eye on his romantic life (enhanced by the legal and illegal surveillance technologies they employ in their work). Their relationship is characterized by back-and-forth verbal abuse, threats, and practical jokes, which they (not necessarily the reader) consider hilarious.

I didn’t make it a third of the way through this book, so I’m not sure what the plot is. It seemed to be a collection of short stories, actually. There’s Rick’s drug addict high school girlfriend, who reappears in his life and attempts to rob and kill him, but that doesn’t stop him from sleeping with her multiple times. And Lois’s movie star sister, with whom Rick also sleeps, to Lois’s fury. And a female client who owns a fitness center, who’s a couple decades younger than Rick and also who does her best to get him to sleep with her.

You get the pattern here. Between Rick’s improbable irresistibility (which, to be fair, is puzzling to him too) and the unrelenting “humorous” backchat between the two detectives, I couldn’t handle any more.

Fortunately the Kindle version was cheap.

Not recommended. Your mileage may vary.

Get it? “Your mileage may vary!” Like gas in a car! I kill myself sometimes!

‘Ordeal,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

Ordeal

In the most recent William Wisting novel in translation, Ordeal, we find Chief Inspector Wisting’s journalist daughter, Line, on maternity leave. She is going to be a single mother. Wisting is not over the moon about this (and neither am I), but it’s certainly consistent with the reality of modern Norwegian culture.

Line meets, by chance, an old school friend, Sophie, who is already a single mother. They renew their friendship, and Line gets to see Sophie’s home, which she inherited from her grandfather. Sophie was not fond of the old man – he was a criminal – so she’s cleared all his possessions out. Except for a huge safe in the basement, too large to move. She doesn’t know what’s in it because she can’t find the key. But both Line and Sophie are curious, so they do get into it eventually – with dramatic results.

Meanwhile, Wisting himself is enduring a lot of press criticism, because of an investigation he’s leading which is making no visible progress. A taxi driver disappeared one night, and neither he nor the cab has been seen since. Wisting and his team will find their inquiry overlapping one going on in another city, and will encounter resistance from a suspiciously territorial detective there.

And, as has become usual in these books, Line’s mystery will turn out to be tied in as well.

The William Wisting books suffer, I think, from slow middles. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but I fear they will lose some readers who expect lots of fireworks all the way through. There’s plenty of tension and suspense in Ordeal once it gets going, but it does take a little time.

The translation is generally good, but has some truly clunky moments.

Recommended, for readers who prefer a more cerebral approach to detective fiction. Cautions for mature stuff. I’m looking forward to the next book.

‘The Caveman,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

The Caveman

‘We’ve just been hailed by the UN as the best country in the world to live in but, in research into citizens’ experience of happiness, Norway is in 112th place. Some country in the Pacific Ocean topped the list, a little island community where people have time for one another and take care of their fellow human beings.’

I think I liked this one best of Jørn Lier Horst’s series of William Wisting novels, to date. That probably has something to do with certain personal resonances in the story.

In The Caveman, Chief Inspector Wisting’s daughter Line, a journalist, becomes interested in the strange case of an old man who lived in the same neighborhood where she grew up. He sat dead in an easy chair in his home, the television on, for four months before his body was accidentally discovered. Line wonders how anyone could go entirely unmissed by the world for that long, and what the neglect says about modern society.

Meanwhile, her father has another case of a long-neglected body to investigate. A decomposed corpse is found under the base of a tree in a Christmas tree farm. It develops that the man was a scholar from the University of Minnesota, who had become obsessed with tracking down a serial killer who has never been apprehended. It appears he followed the man to Norway, and was killed by him. And now the disappearances of several young Norwegian women start making chilling sense.

As Line and Wisting pursue their separate investigations, it gradually becomes apparent that the two mysteries are connected.

This is a very good police procedural written by a former cop. I liked it a lot, and thought it had as much to say about life and society as about crime.

Recommended. Cautions for mature language and themes.

‘The Hunting Dogs,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

The Hunting Dogs

Wisting had found his own way: easy, quiet and patient. He could listen without letting his emotions get in the way, put himself in the other person’s shoes and demonstrate empathy. In time he had learned that, deep inside, all human beings are afraid of being alone. Afraid of loneliness, everyone craved a hearing.

On to the third novel (available in English) in Jørn Lier Horst’s William Wisting police procedural series. Chief Inspector William Wisting of Larvik, Norway finds himself suspended from the force at the beginning of The Hunting Dogs. 17 years ago he led a team of detectives who built a successful case against a man for the kidnapping and murder of a young model. Now that man is suing, claiming he has proof that the DNA evidence was faked.

Before he leaves Wisting manages to persuade the police archivist to lend him the old case files. He knows he didn’t cheat on the case, but what if one of his colleagues did? About the time he leaves, the rest of the squad starts investigating another kidnapping, that of a teenaged girl.

The pattern with the Wisting novels is that there are two plot strands. One involves the case Wisting himself is working. But at the same time we follow his journalist daughter Line as she pursues a story of her own, always one that resonates to some extent with her father’s case. This time she’s doing a feature on men who’ve served long (by Norwegian standards) sentences in prison, examining how they have changed, and whether their punishment made them more or less likely to offend again. One of the men she’ll be interviewing is the man who’s suing her father. The drama builds to a frightening confrontation.

This was the first novel in the series that I read, and I liked it very much. The reader is left, not only with an entertaining experience, but with human and societal questions to ponder. And yet no overt politics are apparent.

Cautions for mature themes and language. Recommended.