Category Archives: Reviews

‘Citadel,’ by Stephen Hunter

Citadel

A slight rain fell; the cobblestones glistened; the whole thing had a cinematic look that Basil paid no attention to, as it did him no good at all and he was by no means a romantic.

In the wake of reading Stephen Hunter’s G-man (reviewed below), I also downloaded his novella Citadel, available as an e-book. I had some niggles with G-man, but I found Citadel pure delight – a brisk, exciting mystery and spy story.

Basil St. Florian is an agent for Britain’s SOE during World War II. He accepts a dodgy assignment with little chance of success – to fly into occupied France, break into an antiquarian library in Paris, and photograph selected pages of a rare manuscript. Supposedly (nobody’s really sure) those pages contain the key to a “book code” which will allow (for reasons explained in the story) the British to pass information on German plans to the Soviets. Alan Turing is involved.

Basil is an interesting character – the kind of upper-class ne’er-do-well who was never useful to society until the war gave scope for his less respectable talents. His adventures introduce him to a bore of a Luftwaffe officer and a rather decent Abwehr agent.

Citadel was fun. Lots of wit went into the story, and it was fascinating to watch the unflappable Basil overcome repeated seemingly fatal setbacks. The plot tied itself up neatly in the end and left a good taste in my mouth.

Recommended light adventure and suspense, with a touch of Hogan’s Heroes. Only minor cautions for mature stuff.

‘G-Man,’ by Stephen Hunter

G-Man

Dave Lull reminded me that the new Bob Lee Swagger book by Stephen Hunter was coming out the other day, and I was on it like a fedora on J. Edgar Hoover. I had a good time with the book, though it’s not among my favorites in the series.

In G-Man, old Bob Lee finally sells off the family homestead in Blue Eye, Arkansas. As the house is being demolished, workmen discover a strongbox buried in the foundation. Inside are a pristine Colt 1911 pistol, a hand-drawn map, an old, uncirculated thousand-dollar bill, and a piece of metal that looks like a rifle suppressor, though Bob Lee can’t identify it right off.

Various clues indicate the box must have been buried by his grandfather, Charles F. Swagger, a kind of a mystery man. He was county sheriff, and a World War I hero, and an angry alcoholic. Bob Lee’s father Earl made it his life’s goal to be nothing like him. The Colt 1911 belongs to a batch that went to the FBI in 1934. Could old Charles have been an FBI agent for a while? Continue reading ‘G-Man,’ by Stephen Hunter

‘Murder at the Wake,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder at the Wake

‘Still, Guv – darkest hour before dawn, eh?’

‘What?’

Skelgill’s tone is irate, though DS Leyton seems not to notice.

‘It’s what they say, Guv – that it’s the darkest hour before dawn.’

‘No it’s not. It starts getting light in the hour before dawn. It’s called nautical twilight. The darkest hour’s in the middle of the night, Leyton.’

I have an idea that Bruce Beckham, author of the Inspector Skelgill mysteries, is having us on. Just as his main character likes to play tricks on his longsuffering subordinates, Jones and Leyton, Beckham has a lot of stuff going on in his books that’s not apparent on the surface. One obvious example is the language – his characters never employ any curse stronger than “darn” in the dialogue, but the narrator informs us matter-of-factly that the actual words were much saltier. And it’s fairly plain that Skelgill enjoys a rich and varied sex life, but we only learn about it from hints – as when he appears at work wearing the same clothes he wore the day before. The same goes for his attractive female subordinate DS Jones, and there are signs they may have something going between them. But it’s never stated, at least thus far.

Beckham also likes to play with names, in Dickensian style. An actor character, for instance, is named Brutus. That’s kind of nice, I have to admit (it helps me keep track of the characters, which is often a problem for me). But naming a Dublin legal firm “Mullarkey & Shenanigan, Solicitors,” may be a bridge over the Liffey too far.

The form of these novels is generally cozy, but unlike Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Inspector Skelgill is no cold-blooded thinking machine. Skelgill barely thinks at all. He’s a purely physical man who solves his puzzles kinetically, as a kind of by-product of his physical exertions. In the early books it was mostly “fell running,” but more recently it’s been fishing on the lakes of England’s Lake District, where he is a policeman.

That gut-based method of operation is severely restricted in Murder at the Wake, which takes place after a freak blizzard and extended cold spell have rendered the lakes unfishable. When elderly Declan O’More is found clubbed to death in his study in his family’s stately home, one week after the death of his older brother, Skelgill is helping the mountain rescue team search for a lost hiker. He gets the helicopter pilot to drop him near the hall, and is confronted with something like a classic Agatha Christie problem – the residents of the hall, gathered for the funeral, have been isolated there. They are Declan’s five grand-nephews and nieces, plus a few servants and business connections. One of them must be the killer.

Skelgill goes to work in his usual fashion, being rude and insensitive to almost everyone and attracting strong attention from the females present. After the roads open up the investigation proceeds along more conventional lines, and the inquiries stretch as far as Dublin. The murderer is finally unmasked in a dramatic, but somewhat contrived, scene.

Skelgill annoys me, but I keep coming back to his stories. So I must be entertained. In that light I recommend Murder at the Wake, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

‘The Tracker,’ by Chad Zunker

The Tracker

I’m going to go a little beyond giving this book a good review and a recommendation. I’m going to indulge in a little advocacy for The Tracker, by Chad Zunker.

Sam Callahan is 25 years old, almost finished with law school. He looks forward to a bright future that once seemed an impossible dream.

He takes a summer job as a “tracker.” Trackers are operatives for political campaigns. They’re the people who follow the opposition candidates around with their smart phones, recording everything so that every slip of the tongue and bad facial expression can be saved and shared.

He goes to a motel where (an anonymous tipster has informed him) the candidate he’s tracking is about to engage in some unacceptable behavior. What he sees is, first, a romantic tryst, and then a murder.

But the candidate has powerful backers, who falsify the evidence to make Sam into the suspect. Soon he’s on the run with the FBI on his heels.

Fortunately he’s not without resources. In his past he was a street kid, and in that life he acquired some useful skills – like breaking and entering, jacking cars, and picking pockets. He also has a hacker friend with high level abilities. And beyond that, he possesses a natural gift – situational awareness at an unusual level, allowing him to find ways of escape where others would be baffled.

The Tracker reminded me quite a bit of the last Gregg Hurwitz novel I reviewed, Trust No One. But that’s no criticism. When you’re doing a Hitchcockian “wrong man” thriller, where an innocent man becomes a fugitive, it’s a good move to give your hero a checkered past and some experience with extra-legal (or military) survival techniques. Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, one example among many, employs a similar approach.

Sam Callahan is an appealing hero – a guy with a rough past who’s turned his life around and is still learning how to give and receive love and trust. What makes the book particularly interesting to me – and probably to most of this blog’s readers – is that it contains openly Christian elements. It’s not a “message” book where everything works up to a conversion, but Christian characters speak the gospel in an open way.

The writing is good. The characters worked. Author Zunker hasn’t entirely polished his prose style (he falls into redundancies like “processing through” information, and “revert back”). But he has a feel for the craft, and I expect him to only get better. And he’s not bad now.

Highly recommended.

‘Trust No One,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Trust No One

This should end my run of Gregg Hurwitz reviews for a while. I’m enjoying his books, but I’ve read everything available that interests me for the time being. So I’m happy to end on a positive note by saying I enjoyed Trust No One quite a lot.

Nick Horrigan made a terrible mistake 17 years ago, when he was 17 years old. Because of it his family was shattered, and he spent a long time on the road, living under the radar. Now he’s back at home in Los Angeles, but he’s still keeping a low profile. He’s learned to be cautious and not to take risks.

Until the night Secret Service agents break into his apartment and drag him off to a nuclear power plant. A terrorist has taken control of the spent fuel facility, they tell him. He says he will speak to only one person – Nick Horrigan. Nick is baffled. He has no knowledge of this man. But he agrees to go in and talk to him. Things go very, very wrong, and then Nick is on the run again with a bag full of money and a few clues, accused of terrorism in his own right.

Nick has two choices – to run away, as he did 17 years ago, or to emulate the man he respected most in his life by uncovering secrets, taking the fight to his enemies, and trusting… a few people.

This story was a little less over the top than a lot of Hurwitz’s books. It was a little more grounded, though far from a likely scenario. I was particularly impressed with the handling of politics. Although political parties aren’t directly named, Nick’s opinions are easily recognizable as liberal. However, there are surprises – even an implied criticism of gun control.

I enjoyed Trust No One very much. It’s not only a thriller but a story about coming of age and a character reintegrating into human relationships.

Cautions for language and violence.

‘The Tower,’ by Gregg Andrew Hurwitz

The Tower

Before he was a bestselling author (and before he deserved to be) Gregg Hurwitz wrote his first novel, The Tower, including his middle name in his byline. I figured I’d read it just for fun.

It is, definitely, a first novel.

You can see the author’s potential. It’s a high-energy story, written more like an action movie than a work of fiction. Author Hurwitz admits in his introduction that The Silence of the Lambs was his model, and there are a number of similarities—though Hurwitz lacks Thomas Harris’ character depth.

The male hero has the confusing, semi-Raymond Chandler-esque name of Jade Marlow. Marlow is a former FBI agent who (rather improbably, but the improbabilities pile up past counting) is temporarily re-attached to the agency in order to pursue serial killer Allander Atlasia. Atlasia has escaped from a fictional (and unlikely) high-security prison unit. Marlow attempts to get inside Atlasia’s head and anticipate his moves, resulting in a lot of chases and near-misses. Atlasia, of course, turns it into a game and teases Marlow with obscure clues.

It all doesn’t work very well.

At this point in his career, Hurwitz hasn’t mastered characterization. He attempts to dig below the surface, and provides vivid accounts of the personal traumas that led his main characters to become what they’ve become. But the bottom line is that I didn’t believe in them for a minute, and their behavior didn’t always make sense. On the other hand I didn’t dump the book from my Kindle unfinished either, so it could have been worse.

I don’t recommend The Tower very highly, unless you’re just keen to complete your Hurwitz collection. Cautions for violence, mild sex, and lots of rough language.

‘The Benedict Option,’ by Rod Dreher

The Benedict Option

“When a man first comes to the monastery, the first thing he notices is everybody else’s quirks—that is, what’s wrong with everybody else,” said Father Martin. “But the longer you’re here, the more you begin to think: what’s wrong with me? You go deeper into yourself to learn your own strengths and weaknesses. And that leads you to acceptance of others.”

OK, this time it is a review. I read The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher.

I won’t lie to you–I didn’t want to. I had a pretty good idea what this book would be—a depressingly realistic appraisal of the current, radically changed situation in which orthodox Christians find themselves. Plus a series of suggestions for dealing with the new normal—all of them uncomfortable.

I was correct.

Dreher describes how the situation of the (small “o”) orthodox church in America (and in the west as a whole) has changed, suddenly and (apparently) for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the cultural earthquake that the Gay Movement brought forth, Christians who had been ensconced, relatively comfortably, within our culture just a decade ago are now an isolated, and increasingly threatened, minority.

Dreher sees no chance of altering that situation through politics or public relations. All we can do, he believes, is what Saint Benedict of Nursia did in the 6th Century, after the fall of Rome. Benedict founded western monasticism, creating communities of committed believers who cared for one another, cared for their neighbors, and preserved the wisdom of the Classical age for the future. Little Noah’s Arks in a sea of barbarism. Continue reading ‘The Benedict Option,’ by Rod Dreher

‘Avarice,’ by Pete Brassett

Avarice

In the sequel to She, which I reviewed last night, Pete Brassett’s Scottish Detective Inspector Munro is back home in Scotland, having retired from London policing. When a woman’s body is found in a glenn, under suspicious circumstances, the local inspector persuades his superiors to bring in Munro, rather than turning the case over to CID. The hope is that Munro can unravel the case before they have to turn it over to the “big boys.” A little authorly plot manipulation gets Detective Sergeant Charlie West, Munro’s sidekick in the last book, into the immediate vicinity and available to help out. And so Avarice gets its momentum up.

With the help of the local force they begin to examine the woman’s past (she was a German immigrant, and previously married), uncovering various motives (mainly financial) why certain people would want her dead. The real culprit(s), however, are a surprise.

This is a fairly cozy police procedural, with lots of quiet interviews and red herrings and tea getting drunk. Inspector Munro is amusingly curmudgeonly (he even takes a moment to criticize political correctness, which pleased me). No explicit sex or violence, but some rough language.

Recommended if this sort of thing is your cuppa tea. I liked it.

‘She,’ by Pete Brassett

She

‘You’re…’

‘I kid you not. What’s the time?’

‘Five. Give or take.’

‘That makes it 1am in Perth,’ said Munro. ‘Let’s give her a wee call.’

‘At this hour?’ said West. ‘She’ll be in bed, surely?’

‘Nae bother. She’ll have to get up to answer the phone anyway.’

The Amazon summary describes She by Pete Brassett as a “Scandinavian style suspense thriller.” I’m not sure I know exactly what that means. I was reminded more of Inspector Morse. The police procedural featuring the crusty, insensitive senior officer and the callow, long-suffering younger officer seems to be in vogue these days, and for good reason. It’s a formula that works. The Inspector Skelgill mysteries I’ve been reviewing are examples of the same sort ot thing. In fact, Inspector Munro, hero of this book and its sequels, bears a pretty close resemblance to Skelgill, except that he’s a few notches less abusive.

Inspector Munro is from Scotland, but works in London, where he fled after the death of his beloved wife. He’s paired with Sergeant Charlotte (Charlie) West, an attractive young woman with a drinking problem. What seems like a routine missing person case turns out to be part of a string of bizarre murders and dismemberments. In a parallel narrative we learn about their suspect, an innocent-looking young woman who conceals bizarre compulsions.

The picture of the killer is compelling, in a flashing-lights-and-ambulances-by-the-side-of-the-road sort of way, but the main interest of the story (for me) was watching Munro work with Sergeant West. A smart and talented officer, she walks the razor edge of career disaster with her alcohol-caused mistakes and late appearances. Munro takes a sergeant-major approach with her, cutting her no slack, and gradually she responds positively to the challenge.

The plot wraps up in an extremely neat way. In fact it’s so neat that author Brassett throws in an epilogue to throw everything we think we’ve learned into question.

I’m not sure I’ve forgiven him for that trick. But I have read two more books in the series, so I must not be too angry.

Cautions for language, gore, and adult themes.

‘Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus,’ by Nabeel Qureshi

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

Islam is not just a set of religious beliefs. It is an all-encompassing identity. It is inconceivable to change that identity, even for those who barely practice their Islamic faith. To do so is like suicide. It kills the identity of the convert and leaves the rest of the family in a state of shameful mourning.

Nabeel Qureshi has given us, I think, not only an outstanding memoir of conversion to Christianity from the Islamic faith, but a formidable work of apologetics, in his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. It makes an excellent companion work to Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (indeed, Strobel provides the introduction to this expanded edition).

If you’re expecting a story of a man who longed for freedom from Islamic bondage and found it at last, you will be disappointed here. Nabeel Qureshi is more like C.S. Lewis, “dragged kicking and screaming” into Christianity, a “most reluctant convert.”

Nabeel was raised in a loving, even somewhat indulgent home of Muslims of the Ahmadi sect. He adored his parents, loved his mosque, and was proud of his Islamic community. His family was Muslim-American, his father a Navy officer. Nabeel spent much of his childhood in Scotland, where his father served at a naval base, before relocating to the US. Like most Muslims, he believed Muhammad self-evidently superior to the Prophet Issa (Jesus, whom he nevertheless revered), and the Quran (preserved without error) much nobler than the corrupted Christian Bible. Islamic culture, of course, was obviously the most perfect in the world. Continue reading ‘Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus,’ by Nabeel Qureshi

‘Golden Prey,’ by John Sandford

Golden Prey

If you like John Sandford’s Prey novels, you’ll probably like his latest, Golden Prey. I do, and I did.

Golden Prey is pretty much written to pattern, except that the locations and the cast of characters have been shaken up. Hero cop Lucas Davenport has left the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and joined the US Marshal’s Service. His unique status, as one who saved the life of the woman expected to be the next president (clearly modeled on Hillary Clinton), allows him, unlike other marshals, to be selective about his assignments. He holds out for “interesting” jobs, which means what he’s always done best – pursuing serial killers.

This time he goes to the American southwest to hunt a couple of stick-up men who ripped off a huge money delivery meant for a drug cartel, killing several people in the process. Meanwhile a pair of killers sent by the cartel are on the robbers’ trail as well. Their investigative methods are not subtle – they torture to death anyone they can find who knows their targets.

Lucas teams up with a female/male/black/white team of FBI agents to catch the robbers before the cartel killers can get to them, meanwhile trying to identify the cartel killers’ next targets so they can be protected. There are a lot of interesting opportunities for moral ambiguity, balancing off our sympathies as awful people are pursued by even more awful people.

Golden Prey breaks little new ground. It’s written pretty much to pattern, and if you like the pattern, you’ll probably enjoy the book. Cautions, as usual, for lots of black cop humor, foul language, and violence.

Amazon Prime Video Review: ‘Bosch,’ Season 3

Bosch Season 3

I’m pretty sure I reviewed Bosch, the Amazon Prime Video series based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch mystery novels, earlier on this blog. Still it’s been a while, and I just finished the new third season, so I’ll praise it again. Because it is quite good.

Harry (Hieronymus) Bosch is a Los Angeles homicide detective. He’s a military veteran and has a high case clearance rate, though he can be a pain in the anatomy to his co-workers and superiors. He’s almost obsessively by the book in his work ethic, but he can cut moral corners when he feels it’s justified. He is in fact motivated by inner demons, but he keeps them buttoned up.

In this third season, the first major plot line involves a reprehensible Hollywood producer (that’s an oxymoron, I suppose), who had a lowlife acquaintance murdered because he knew too much about a previous murder he’d committed (this is complicated by the fact that Bosch has been pursuing the guy himself over another matter, and has the murder on film, which he can’t use because his surveillance is illegal). The second big plot line centers on a group of former Army Special Forces guys who pull off a big theft and aren’t shy about killing people along the way. Their combat skills make them formidable adversaries for Bosch – and eventually for each other. Continue reading Amazon Prime Video Review: ‘Bosch,’ Season 3

‘When One Man Dies,’ by Dave White

When One Man Dies

There are times when I read a book that doesn’t grab me, and I just delete it from my Kindle and move on.

And there are times when a book annoys me so much I have to finish it, just so I can give it a bad review.

When One Man Dies, by Dave White, is an example of the second category.

The book has good reviews on Amazon, and was nominated for awards.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

The first, obvious problem is that of paragraphing. As I’m sure you know, it’s the protocol among all writers of English dialogue that when a new speaker talks, you give him a new paragraph.

This book does not do that. One character will speak at the beginning of a paragraph, and the other will reply at the end of the same paragraph, without attribution. This is highly confusing. The reader has to stop frequently to figure out who said what. However, that may not be the author’s fault. It may be the fault of whoever set it up as an ebook. This appears to be a digital reissue of a previously published work. Continue reading ‘When One Man Dies,’ by Dave White

‘The Survivor,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Survivor

Cielle curled her legs beneath herself on the couch. “Is it scary?”

“Being sick?”

She nodded. Her fists rose to her chin, elbows on her knees. She might have been six or ten. “What’s it like?”

He could feel Janie, too, focused on him. The stillness was electric.

“It teaches you that no part of you is sacred,” he said. “And that other people are.”

Dear heavens, what Gregg Hurwitz puts me through with his novels.

Listen to the premise of The Survivor:

Nate Overbay has nothing left to live for. He lost his family, thanks to PTSD. Now he has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). And so he climbs out on a ledge on the 11th story of a bank building, to get it over with before the real suffering starts.

But instead of killing himself, he stops a bloody bank robbery, killing four out of five of the bank robbers. The lone survivor, before fleeing, tells him, “He will make you pay, in ways you can’t imagine.”

Soon, in spite of a steadily failing body, Nate is fighting desperately for the lives of his wife and daughter. Along the way he finds redemption he’d never thought possible.

Completely implausible. I didn’t believe the premise for a second. This book is so over the top it would never work if it weren’t being told by a consummate storyteller who knows how to flip all our switches. You will care – deeply – about this man and his family, people who come alive in stirring ways. You’ll even care about the villain, to an extent. The Survivor is, simply, a moving, irresistible read.

Cautions for language, violence, and plain intensity.

‘The Crime Writer,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Crime Writer

“You’re living an investigation?”

“A story. We all are, but this segment of my life has a pleasing structure to it.”

“Maybe that’s why it happened to you.”

“I don’t believe in intelligent design.”

“Sure you do.” She waved a hand at the book spines in all their eye-catching glory.

Drew Danner, the hero of Gregg Hurwitz’s novel The Crime Writer, is precisely that. He writes crime thrillers, and has gotten a movie deal and a TV series. He’s kind of a minor big shot in LA.

Until the day he wakes up in a hospital bed with a cop watching him. He is informed that a brain tumor has been removed from his head, and that he has murdered his ex-girlfriend. He can’t remember anything about it.

Drew gets off on a temporary insanity plea, thanks to the tumor, but he’s haunted. He needs to know whether he did this thing or not. He becomes even more frantic after another woman is murdered, with evidence pointing to him again. Has he become a danger to society, homicidal during blackouts?

His investigation (in which he learns, embarrassingly, that he knows less than he thought he did about the things he’s been writing about) leads him to meet an emotionally fragile, damaged woman with whom he begins a relationship. In Hurwitz’s trademark style, the tension zooms rather than ratchets up, and the stakes are soon greater than just Drew’s freedom – they involve his sanity and his very sense of himself.

I think I liked this book better than any Hurwitz I’ve read to date (I also think it’s the first thriller he wrote). Aspects I appreciated included some Christian characters who were treated simply as decent human beings, without a trace of condescension. There was a homosexual character who was so subtly revealed that you only began to suspect his orientation gradually, as is often the case in real life. And – perhaps for the first time in a novel for me – there was a sex scene that actually did advance the plot. It was done in good taste, and was very touching.

I probably need to mention that I did figure out whodunit fairly early on. That didn’t really bother me, though. I loved The Crime Writer for its own sake.

Highly recommended. Cautions for the usual.