Category Archives: Reviews

‘Winter Moon,’ by Dean Koontz

The November sky was low, a uniform shade of lead gray, like an immense plastic panel behind which glowed arrays of dull fluorescent tubes.

Every Dean Koontz book raises the question: What will he try this time? His work spans sub-genres, and even entire genres. In Winter Moon, he switches into Lovecraftian mode, with an eldritch, evil, invertebrate monster – though probably not as ancient as Cthulhu.

In a near-future Los Angeles gradually sliding into entirely predictable chaos, Officer Jack McGarvey is nearly killed in a bloody shoot-out. After a long recovery and rehabilitation period, he works hard to maintain his native optimism – he assures his wife Heather and his son Toby that everything will be fine. But it’s hard to see how.

Then – an unexpected legacy. A man he hardly knows has willed him a ranch in Montana. When they visit, it seems like Paradise – a mountain retreat, far from the dangers and dysfunction of the big city. They happily move in and look forward to an idyllic life there.

But there’s something they don’t know. In the mountain woods, an Entity lurks. It is utterly alien – it has no understanding of people or even of terrestrial biology. And it doesn’t care. Its sole compulsion is to possess and absorb everything not itself.

Winter Moon scared the bejeebers out of me. Because this was Koontz and not Lovecraft, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t end in universal misery and perdition – and I was greatly relieved when the family acquired a Golden Retriever, always a good sign in a Koontz book. But I couldn’t figure out how the family could possibly escape. Which makes for high suspense.

Highly recommended, with cautions for the sort of thing you’d expect in this kind of novel.

I’m reading a Jane Austen book now. I felt like I needed a change.

‘Hideaway,’ by Dean Koontz

Pornography is the new mechanics of sex without the emotional context: lust ceaselessly indulged, love eternally unmentioned. That is also how novels of the supernatural read to me when they make much of otherworldly horror but say nothing of otherworldly redemption.

So I wrote a novel that dealt with both sides of the equation, in the belief that the forces of darkness seem more real and scarier when they are one half of a balanced narrative that includes the forces of light—just as making love with a cherished partner is immeasurably better than finding satisfaction in a porn film.

The passage above does not come from the text of Dean Koontz’s novel, Hideaway, but from an afterword to this edition, in which he reminisces about the book’s reception. He tells us how it became the first of his novels to receive a substantial amount of hate mail – because it assumes the existence of God. And he tells how it got made into a film – and how he eventually lost the artistic control he’d been promised but managed to get his name (mostly) removed from the film’s advertising, so great was his disgust with the final product.

When Hatch and Lindsey Harrison go off an icy mountain road in their car, victims of a drunk truck driver, they end up in a freezing river. Hatch dies and Lindsey barely survives. But by good fortune, the world’s foremost center for “re-animation” is only minutes away. A dedicated medical team brings Hatch back to life – after a record time dead, and amazingly without visible injury.

In the flush of a second chance, the couple decides to rebuild their life. Their major decision is to adopt a disabled child, a beautiful, spunky, and smart girl named Regina. Their second chance seems to be both physical and spiritual.

But somewhere in the darkness, in a secret place, there lurks a monster – an evil young man with a supernatural link to Hatch. This man worships Satan, and lives to kill. Through their psychic tie, the two men became aware of each other – Hatch is horrified, but the monster sees in his family the perfect prey he’s been hunting for.

I’d actually read Hideaway before, but I’d forgotten it almost completely, and the suspense was unimpaired on this reading. And suspense there was. I’d call Hideaway a tour de force in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength – a story where good is portrayed in heartbreaking beauty, while evil is exposed in all its banality and repulsiveness. I hardly made it through this book, but it was rewarding. And essentially a Christian story.

Recommended, with cautions for grotesquery and intense suspense.

‘No Second Chance,’ by Harlan Coben

Conner nodded, pleased by my response. I love him. He breaks my heart and brings me joy in equal measure and at exactly the same time. Twenty-six months old. Two months older than Tara. I watch his development with awe and a longing that could heat a furnace.

Harlan Coben has a winning formula for turning out thrillers that grab the reader. He starts with love – love for lovers, for spouses, and (especially) love for one’s children. Then he asks, “What do we fear the most for these people?” Then he takes that fear and distills it, producing at the end of the coils a spirit that burns like carbolic acid. And he applies that spirit to some innocent, fairly decent protagonist.

That, my friends, is how story-building works.

No Second Chance stars Dr. Marc Seidman, plastic surgeon, who wakes up in a hospital room to learn he’s been in a coma for weeks. He was shot in his own home, and barely survived. His wife, also shot, did not survive.

And his infant daughter Tara vanished like smoke

The police have no leads. Their best theory is that Marc himself engineered his wife’s murder, but that theory makes no sense, and they know it.

Then a ransom note comes to Marc’s wealthy father-in-law. He and Marc agree to involve the police, but they will regret it, because the cops get spotted, the kidnappers get away with the money, and Tara remains lost.

The next time a demand comes, eighteen months later, they leave the cops out. But Marc instead brings in someone from his past, a former FBI agent he dated in college and nearly married. Working with an old lover can be a complication in any endeavor – but this time it might blow up in all their faces.

I like most of Harlan Coben’s books, and I liked No Second Chance more than most. The plot is very complex, but it’s revealed in layers, which kept this old man from getting confused (I like that). There were also some intriguing side characters, like a former child actress turned stone-cold-hitwoman, and a mullet-wearing, NRA-member, redneck who turns out to be good friend to have in a corner (this book is a few years old. I wonder if Coben would have the nerve to include such a character in a novel today).

Highly recommended, with cautions for intensity.

‘John Clum, Apache Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone,’ by Woodworth Clum

When, as often happened, one of the raiders lost his mount, he would proceed, running on his own feet, being careful not to set too fast a pace for the ponies.

Recently I saw an old Audie Murphy movie which, even within the canon of Audie Murphy’s ouvre, was fairly non-memorable. Walk the Proud Land was an attempt on Murphy’s part to broaden his range through playing, not a gunfighter, but a man of peace. That man, a genuine historical character, was John P. Clum. The movie failed at the box office in its time, but it succeeded in piquing my interest in a man I’d wondered about before. I knew John Clum as editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, mayor of Tombstone, and a staunch friend of Wyatt Earp. I’d also read he was a devout Christian. I’d been mostly unaware of his exemplary career as an Indian agent.

John P. Clum was a Dutch Reformed boy from a farm in New York state. Intending to enter the ministry, he attended Rutgers University, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. His education did earn him a job as a weather observer for the US Army Signal Corps in Santa Fe, New Mexico, however. This led, through a college connection, to his appointment as Indian Agent at the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.

Clum was 22 years old when he arrived at San Carlos, not entirely sure what he’d find. In general, he was pleasantly surprised. He found the Apaches, by and large, decent (by their lights) and hard-working people, scrupulously honest, and historically eager to be friends with Americans (it was the Mexicans they hated). John Clum, Apache Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone (a compilation of two books) begins with a narrative of United States relations with the Apaches, and it’s a sad and painful story. For every American willing to treat the Apaches decently, there seem to have been ten who, motivated by greed or bigotry, lied to them, cheated them, or killed them like animals.

Clum set about earning the Apaches’ trust, helping the decent ones and punishing  the (minority of) bad actors. In time he was able to set up a working self-government system. He was particularly proud of his efficient Apache police force, which operated with distinction and crowned its achievements with the capture of Geronimo (the only time – as Clum takes pains to point out – when he was captured without voluntarily surrendering).

In time, however, bureaucratic interference and changed Indian policies left Clum with no alternative, in his own mind, to resigning his post and leaving the reservation. The later history of his Apache friends is sad to read.

There is considerable pride in Clum’s account, along with great contempt for narrowminded and bigoted Americans who spoiled what might have been an exemplary peace. The only character Clum seems to hate more than these bureaucrats is the “bad Apache” Geronimo, whom he describes as a liar, a master manipulator, and a merciless killer. He is particularly offended that his friends ended up sharing Geronimo’s fate of exile and imprisonment, without the advantages that Geronimo enjoyed – celebrity status and income from souvenir sales.

The later part of his book is Clum’s own account of his career as mayor and editor in Tombstone, during the fabled days of the Earp-Clanton feud. He is staunch in his support of Wyatt Earp (who would seem, on the face of it, an odd friend for a good Dutch Reformed boy), and (regrettably) his account varies not at all from the well-known (and much-questioned) version told by Stuart N. Lake in Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. What will be fresh for most western buffs is Clum’s own account of what he believed to be an assassination attempt against himself on a stage coach run, when he ended up leaving the stage and proceeding on foot, to be less of a target.

The book John Clum, Apache Agent was not written by Clum himself, but was edited by his son Woodworth Clum, from his father’s unpublished papers and reminiscences. The prose is not bad – generally avoiding the excesses of Victorian baroque. The main problem with this electronic edition is that it was obviously produced through OCR transcription, so there is the occasional misread word – as well as entire lines of text getting lost now and then. But it wasn’t enough to spoil the story as a whole.

If you’re interested in the Old West, John Clum, Indian Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone makes interesting reading. I suspect Clum left out some of the juiciest – and/or most appalling – details, so the book is suitable for most readers.

‘A Good Death,’ by Chris Collett

I think I’m caught up on Chris Collett’s Inspector Mariner police procedural series now. All the books to this point have been titled (or re-titled; at least some were originally published under different titles) with names including the word “Lies.” Now they’ve come out with a new book that breaks the pattern – A Good Death is the eighth book in the series.

I found this one a tad stressful, because it dealt with religious people more than earlier books. One Christian and one Muslim family are involved and – predictably, in our times – the Muslims appear somewhat more admirable than the Christians. Though the author doesn’t take a hatchet to either side. Inspector Mariner makes a dismissive comment about “God-botherers” and one point, but that’s consistent with his established character. He doesn’t “get” religion – like most Caucasian Europeans.

A Good Death involves the investigations of three separate deaths. There’s the death in a house fire of an elderly Muslim patriarch – quickly identified as arson. This is complicated by the discovery of a second body in the ashes of the same fire.

Then there’s the disappearance of a wealthy young man, just before his wedding date. I figured out, if not the culprit, at least the motive (kind of), quite early on. However, oddly enough, I deduced it from the wrong piece of evidence. (Am I brilliant, or what?)

The Inspector Mariner mystery series is a solid one. A Good Death was not my favorite of these books, but in spite of my comments on the handling of religion, it was not offensive. Recommended, with the customary cautions.

‘Destry Rides Again,’ by Max Brand

I’m the kind of buckaroo who’s interested in the books movies are based on. Even more, I’m interested in how the movies change the story, for better or worse. Recently, one of the digital broadcast channels ran both iterations of the film, Destry Rides Again. The 1939 version, a classic comedy-drama, starred James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. It was remade in 1954, almost shot-for-shot, with Audie Murphy and some actress nobody remembers (“Hey gang! Let’s do it all over again just the same, but this time let’s make it stink!”). When I read the Wikipedia article, I noted that the movies bore almost no resemblance (except for the hero’s name, and they even changed the first part of that) to the original novel by Max Brand. That intrigued me enough to get the book for my Kindle.

They did not lie. Max Brand must have thought he was getting money for nothing when they paid him for the film rights, because very little of his work made it to the screen. (There was an earlier 1932 version with Tom Mix, which is said to have been closer to the book.)

The story of the movie, briefly, is this. The town of Bottleneck needs a new deputy sheriff, so they call in young Tom Destry, son of a legendary former sheriff. Only when he shows up, he’s a disappointment. He’s meek and quiet, and does not carry a gun. The toughs of the town, led by the local saloonkeeper, laugh at him. The saloonkeeper is behind a scheme to buy up all the properties on a strip of land that cattle drives need to cross. Then he can get rich off exorbitant watering fees. Destry employs his charm and disarming manner to defuse violence for a while, but eventually things get out of hand, and he at last straps on his pistol and meets the saloonkeeper for a showdown. There’s also a love triangle involving Marlene Dietrich’s saloon girl and a virtuous girl, both in love with Destry.

The book Destry Rides Again could hardly be more different. Harry Destry is the hero, and he’s a wild, tough, uncivilized young man, even a bit of a bully. He’s convicted of a robbery he did not commit, and comes back a changed – and darker – character. Each man on the jury had a personal grudge against him, and Harry has a plan to get revenge on each and every one of them. However, he does not guess his true enemy, a purported friend who in fact set him up and profited by it. The pure faith of the girl who loves him, and a boy who idolizes him, combine to help him begin to see the futility of his ways.

One can discern certain points where moments of the book might have suggested the film plot. When the story begins, Harry doesn’t have a gun – but that’s because he lost it in a poker game. When he returns from prison, he at first makes out to be a broken man, and appears unarmed – but that’s only a ploy. Also, there’s an idol-worshiping boy in both versions.

Otherwise they’re entirely different stories, in entirely different spirits.

What kind of a writer was Max Brand? I’ve read one of his novels before, and this one impressed me less. The term “purple prose” might have been coined for this book. Here’s a snippet:

There was no answer from Cleeves. He never again would answer any man. His lips were cold. Until Judgment Day, a thousand trumpets might blow, and Hank would never reply. He whom a hundred thousand eyes had seen now had vanished. He was gone. He was away. Deeper than the seas he was buried, and deeper than the mountains could hide him. The impalpable spirit was gone, and only the living blood remained to tell of him, dripping down into the silence of the old shack, drop by drop, softly spattering, like footsteps wonderfully light and wonderfully clear….

And it goes on. Brand originally wrote this story as a magazine serial, and here you see the unmistakable traces of an author being paid by the word.

He also helpfully provides exclamation marks at the ends of narrative sentences on frequent occasions – so we’ll know when to be excited!

Destry Rides Again was amusing to read, but only as an artifact of its time. It is simplistic, overwritten, and improbable. Cautions for the occasional racial slur, too.

Big Men’s Boots, by Emily Barroso

Prayer is like that fire causing the pot to boil. God does nothing unless we pray. He has chosen us to be his co-workers on the earth. Prayer moves His divine hand. You need to remember to listen to what God is saying when you pray–he gets bored with lists. If you listen He will talk back.

What drew me to start reading Big Men’s Boots was the setting of the Welsh revival in 1904-05. What could be more exciting on its face than a historic outpour of the Holy Spirit?

According to Barroso, Wales was primed for change. English landowners clashed with common Welshmen on every front. Labor unions were taking up arms. Welsh Nonconformists chafed against Anglicans, who spoke another language and seemed to have all of the power. Would rising up against the English businessmen bring equality and justice to the Welsh, or would it drive all jobs out of the country?

The story begins with three men praying over the body of a young man who had passed away three days prior. They hold nothing back in urging God to act, even calling the boy to rise in Christ’s name, believing their earnest faith will produce the miracle they require. Outside the window, the boy’s friend Owen Evans, 13, also prays. The whole community must reckon with their grief and what they believe as social trouble begins to brew. Owen’s growing faith and what appears to be a prophetic gift frame up the rest of the story.

I want to praise this book and recommend it without reservation. That’s what I want to do with every book. But I have to be honest and say I didn’t finish reading it. Because I didn’t finish it, I delayed reviewing it until now. It feels overly long. Historical novels have their own pace as do readers. Perhaps you would enjoy it more than I did.

‘Missing Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Sorry I didn’t post the last couple nights. I was having trouble with myinternet connection. Still not sure the problem is solved. It seems to work fine in the mornings, but in the evenings it freezes up like an old man’s knees.

My plan was to review another Inspector Mariner mystery, byChris Collett. Missing Lies is the seventh book in the series, concerning abachelor police detective in Birmingham, England.

In the previous book, Tom Mariner became the guardian of anadult autistic man. This gives author Chris Collett (who is a woman) a chanceto teach him a lesson about what working mothers go through. (Personally,unreconstructed Victorian that I am, I think it just proves that mothers shouldstay at home, if they can). Anyway, Mariner now has to structure his lifearound his dependent, and it’s an annoyance and an education – through it hasits satisfactions too. On top of this, his most valuable subordinate, a newmother, is on maternity leave, and his second most valuable, a man, is on aspecial assignment. Another male subordinate appears to be less than diligentat his work – but is doing more than Mariner thinks (this character, interestingly,is a born-again Christian). A new member of the team, very promising, is yet another single mother.

In Missing Lies, a young woman, daughter of a prominent citizen, has disappeared. She started out along a city street to a party and never arrived at her destination. The case gets headlines, and corresponding pressure from superiors. Then a package arrives at police headquarters, containing most of the young woman’s clothing, all meticulously laundered and pressed.

Then another woman disappears. And another package arrives.

The mystery will spread far afield, and then spiral back in close to home.

I liked Missing Lies. Mariner is a solid character,believably solitary, carrying old scars. He is skittish withrelationships, but we are given reasons to understand him.

Recommended, with only minor cautions for what you’d expect.

‘Buried Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Continuing the DI Tom Mariner police procedural series by Chris Collett. This story takes Mariner out of his usual haunts in Birmingham, to a more rustic setting.

At the end of the previous novel in the series, Married Lies, Tom Mariner suffered a shocking personal loss. When Buried Lies begins, he has decided to take a holiday – a walking tour in the Welsh mountains. Back in his teens, he spent a summer in a village there, and he thinks he’ll revisit some old scenes.

At the same time, an ex-prisoner begins a series of revenge killings, repaying old “wrongs.” Everyone thinks he’s headed for Ireland, but in fact he’s on his way to Wales.

Driving to Wales, Mariner picks up a hitchhiker, a personable elderly academic who doesn’t seem to know much about walking tours. By chance they reconnect in Mariner’s destination village, where they share a room in a former youth hostel, owned by a woman who was Mariner’s girlfriend on that long-ago summer.

Meanwhile, Mariner comes across a murdered body on one of his hikes. And he grows curious about a local estate owned by a mysterious Russian, as well as a neighboring farm which claims to be growing organic vegetables(though Mariner can’t figure out how they’re paying the bills). When Mariner discovers yet another murder victim, the local police have no choice but to arrest him on suspicion.

I enjoyed Buried Lies, though I thought it tried to juggle too many balls at once. The final dramatic climax seemed a little contrived.

Still, Mariner is an interesting and admirable investigator, and the characters were interesting. Recommended with only minor cautions.

‘Debris Line,’ by Matthew FitzSimmons

A quarter mile from the Faro Airport, the old hotel seemed like a last-ditch option for those on a budget holiday. It rose out of the ground and sloped sleepily to one side. Jenn felt sure that if God reached down, he’d be able to wiggle the hotel back and forth like a loose tooth.

Another installment in Matthew FitzSimmons’s interesting Gibson Vaughn series of thrillers, which I’m enjoying. My only problem (and it’s not confined to this series) is that the books come out slowly enough that I have to get reacquainted with the characters each time around. (Yes, I know –physician heal thyself.)

Gibson Vaughn started the series as a kind of a loner. As a boy, he was arrested for hacking into a prominent senator’s computer. Soon after that his father, who worked for the senator, was found hanged to death – supposedly suicide, but it wasn’t. Vaughn avoided prison thanks to a kindly judge who got him enlisted in the military instead, and he ended up a trained commando with hacking skills. Since then, over the course of the books, he’s gotten attached to a disparate group of dangerous people – George, a Japanese man who used to be their boss, when he still had a company. Daniel, a middle-aged, black former cop. And Jenn, a kick-butt operative with whom Gibson carries on an on-and-off relationship.

As Debris Line begins, the group is in hiding from federal authorities. They’re hiding in the Algarve, the Riviera of Portugal. Their host and protector is an old friend of George’s, the “godfather” of the Algarve. When drugs were legalized in Portugal some years back, this man consolidated organized crime in his region, making it a way station for Mexican cartel drug shipments, and establishing peace in his own bailiwick.

But now the godfather wants a favor in return for his hospitality. Someone has electronically “hijacked” a shipment of drugs, and he needs it freed up before the deadline for delivery to the Mexicans. Gibson’s skills are needed to retrieve the shipment. Gibson has no desire to help, but mobsters are still mobsters, and pressure is applied. Gibson agrees, reluctantly, to help. Then he discovers a horrific secret – and the job becomes a mission of mercy and rescue – and justice.

What’s particularly nice about Debris Line is that there’s no predictability here. Decisions and actions come out of left and right field, and it’s hard to tell what anyone will do. When you think you’ve got a character figured out, they surprise you – though their behavior makes perfect sense once it’s explained.

I enjoyed Debris Line. Cautions for language and disturbing content, but recommended.

‘Immoral,’ by Brian Freeman

Immoral

Brian Freeman is a new novelist to me, and I almost loved his novel, Immoral. Almost.

The hero of Immoral, police Lt. Jonathan Stride, works in Duluth, Minnesota. Fourteen months ago, a local teenaged girl disappeared, leaving no trace. That’s not impossible in a place surrounded by the north woods, but it’s frustrating for Jonathan – and unbearable for her parents – that the crime hasn’t been solved. Now another young girl has gone missing – Rachel Deese. Rachel was the most beautiful girl in the local high school – seductive, promiscuous, manipulative. Was she murdered – perhaps by the predator who (probably) murdered the first girl? Or did she disappear on her own initiative? But if that’s true, she sure did an expert job of framing her stepfather for murder before lighting out for the territories.

In the course of his investigation, which will take three years to wrap up, Jonathan will puzzle over Rachel’s parents’ bizarre relationship, probe the broken hearts she left behind, meet a woman he wants to marry, travel to Las Vegas, and then meet a woman he wants to marry more. The final truth, once discovered, will be extremely complex and morally mystifying. The final judgment on Rachel – and on Jonathan – will be difficult to make.

I liked the writing in Immoral. I liked the characters too. Brian Freeman is a good writer – with one jarring exception. He takes the sex scenes way too far (in my opinion), making bedroom behavior unnecessarily explicit. There’s also a hypocritical pastor, but – oddly – the author doesn’t seem particularly outraged by the hypocrisy. Also he pushes the modern view of marriage, which holds that it is not legitimate unless there’s romantic passion. This, in my view, justifies a lot of cruelty and betrayal.

I’m not sure what to say about Immoral in the end. I found the conclusion problematic, but understandable. I’d almost be eager to read more of Freeman’s work, but the combination of near-pornographic sections, the questionable resolution, and the handling of marriage put me off a little. You might like it better than I do. There are a lot worse books out there.

‘When It Grows Dark,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

When It Grows Dark

I’ll just briefly review this book by Jørn Lier Horst. I enjoy the William Wisting series of police procedurals, and I enjoyed this one, When It Grows Dark. I think it must have been released recently in Kindle format, because I’m pretty sure I’d have read it before if it had been available.

In this episode, Larvik (Norway) detective William Wisting calls on some students in the police academy to help him solve a very cold case. The case involves the disappearance of what we’d call a limousine driver, back in the 1980s. Wisting has recently discovered what he thinks is the missing man’s car, abandoned in a disused barn. But that barn also seems to be connected to an even older crime, going back to the 1920s.

And so we enter into a prolonged flashback, in which we observe young William Wisting, then a uniformed policeman, as he follows up some clues on his own time and sets out on the path that will make him a detective.

A cold case story, and William Wisting. That’s a winning combination for me. Wisting is – as far as I know – unique in Scandinavian crime literature. He’s not suicidal; not even especially depressed (though he has his sorrows). He’s not an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or a sex addict. He’s not a Communist, as far as I can tell. He’s just a decent man and a conscientious cop. He seems to have what my friend Gene Edward Veith would call “a sense of vocation.”

My only real complaint with When It Grows Dark is that the translation is weak in places. Otherwise, highly recommended, as is the whole Wisting series.

‘The Pretender: Saving Luke,’ by Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle

The Pretender: Saving Luke

I reviewed the first novel in the “rebooted” Pretender series a few days ago. Now I’ve read the second, and I’m equally – or more – disappointed.

The old Pretender TV series (which I loved) concerned Jarod, a young man, a genius able to absorb knowledge fast enough to become anything he wishes very quickly. He was raised in a scientific laboratory where he was used to test out scenarios for various customers, some of them pretty evil. Then he escaped. Now he was going around looking for cases of cruelty and injustice, and setting up the bad guys for exposure and punishment (usually the legal kind).

The literary reboot, written by the series’ two head writers, alters that formula a tad. Jarod is the same, and his chief opponents – Sydney, the closest thing he has to a father, and Miss Parker, a miniskirted attack dog who’s half in love with him – are pretty much the same. But Jarod is taking on bigger challenges now.

In the first book, Jarod helped a few people incidentally, in service of his greater goal, rescuing a kidnapped boy named Luke. Luke was taken by terrorists in order to pressure his father, an engineer, into committing a major act of terrorism (I’m not sure it’s ever explained what the terrorists’ actual political or financial goal is). Luke was not rescued at the end of the last book, so The Pretender: Saving Luke finishes that story.

I liked spending time with Jarod, although this Jarod is a little more coldblooded than the TV one. He does some pretty cruel things to people in pursuit of his goals. Granted, they’re bad people, but that kind of ruthlessness does not build reader empathy, unless the reader is a psychopath. Also, the plot is (to my mind) just too big. A big terrorist plot, a ticking clock, and heroics that frankly pass credibility. This is a superhero story, kind of like Batman. I don’t go to The Pretender for a superhero.

Also, the writing hasn’t improved: awkward sentence structure, confusion of words – imminent/eminent, rappel/repel. The book really, really needed a copy editor.

I’m not sorry I read The Pretender: Saving Luke, but it missed the bullseye for me.

Also, there seemed to be more transsexualism and lesbianism than strictly necessary.

Cautions for a little rough language and sexual situations.

‘Bats In the Belfry,’ by E.C.R. Lorac

Bats In the Belfry

A while back one of our kind commenters recommended books published by Poisoned Pen Press, which is reprinting old British mysteries. Working at random, as none of the authors were familiar to me, I settled on Bats In the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (a pseudonym).

The book opens appropriately, with a drawing room party of cultured Londoners in the 1930s. There’s a once-famous novelist, his actress wife, a playwright, his minor female ward, and a young man who’s in love with her. The conversation wanders into the subject of murder fiction, with the various characters discussing good ways to dispose of a body. The young man also asks to marry the girl, and her guardian refuses to permit it.

Then the novelist leaves town and disappears completely. The young man, looking for clues to his whereabouts, searches an abandoned artist’s studio, where he finds the novelist’s suitcase.

At that point Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard takes up the investigation. He has as much trouble keeping the missing man’s friends from muddying up the case as in figuring out what actually happened.

Bats in the Belfry is a “fair play” mystery, in which all the necessary information is placed before the reader. This is the kind of classic “cozy” mystery that nearly defined the genre for a century. “Cozies” aren’t really my thing – I prefer the more character-driven hard-boiled variety of mystery. I think it’s a personality thing – the cozy provides many people with a fun intellectual challenge that entertains them. If you’re that kind of reader, you may enjoy Bats in the Belfry, and other classic offerings from this publisher.

No reader’s cautions necessary.

‘The Pretender: Rebirth,” by Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle

The Pretender: Rebirth

I was a huge fan of the old TV series, The Pretender, starring Michael T. Weiss. It was, I felt, a refreshing concept – on top of the old, familiar theme of the Imposter, one who “becomes” whatever he chooses to be and operates well enough to fool others, you have the theme of an adult male encountering the real world for the first time – childlishly delighted to discover the Three Stooges, or aerosol cheese, or Pez candy. The character of Jarod, a genius combining superior intelligence with naivety, was an invitation to us all to stop and appreciate the wonders that surround us. His quest to find his mother, from whom he’d been kidnapped by the sinister “Centre,” where he was raised as a guinea pig, reminded us of the importance of family.

But the show wasn’t well served by its production team. Each season, Jarod would discover a chain of clues leading to his true identity, and would follow them up, and then the next season that chain would be completely abandoned for another, frustrating the fans. The scripts began to lose track of the original series concept. The show died. There was an attempt to revive it on the TNT network, but that plot was another pointless detour, with uncalled-for mystical accretions.

So I was interested to see that the show’s original creators, Steven Long Mitchell and Craig W. Van Sickle, had come out with a couple new Pretender books. The first is The Pretender: Rebirth. I read it with considerable enjoyment, though it’s flawed.

As in the TV version, Jarod, the Pretender, has escaped the Centre. Jarod is a rare genius, a young man with quick learning and empathy skills that allow him to “become” anything he chooses to be, with just a little research. Pursuing him are Miss Parker, sort of like Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel with a harder edge, and Sydney, the scientist who monitored Jarod through childhood, helped him develop his gifts, and became his father-figure.

It’s not enough for Jarod to search for his own origins. He also helps people whenever he can. Here Jarod is intrigued by a news story about a boy who disappeared in a river after an auto accident. Jarod doesn’t believe the boy is dead, and he has a strong suspicion where he is – or at least who can tell him where he is. All he needs to do is become a surgeon overnight, ingratiate himself with a prominent doctor with a grandiosity complex, and spring someone from a mental ward. Continue reading ‘The Pretender: Rebirth,” by Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle