Category Archives: Reviews

‘Well of the Winds,’ by Denzil Meyrick

Well of the Winds

This is more like it. I was disappointed with Denzil Meyrick’s previous DCI Jim Daley novel, The Rat Stone Serenade (reviewed a little south of here). But Well of the Winds is (to my taste) a much better novel, showcasing the strengths of this engaging police series.

On the island of Gairsay, near Daley’s town of Kinloch, a Jewish family has lived for years. They came as refugees during World War II, and settled well into community life. But one day the mailman arrives to find them all vanished. Shortly afterward the body of the oldest of them, the grandmother, is found washed up on a beach in Ireland.

When Jim’s sergeant Brian Scott goes to investigate, he discovers a hidden cellar under the house – concealing a trove of old documents in German, apparently Nazi in orientation. Who were these people, really?

Although Special Branch and MI6 rush in to take over the investigation, Jim’s new superior, Superintendent Carrie Symington, insists that they carry on their own inquiries, in secret. Jim himself is contacted by a mysterious stranger, who gives him an old journal dating back to 1945. It was written by one of Jim’s predecessors in Kinloch, a detective named Urquhart who disappeared mysteriously in the wake of an unsolved murder. As Jim studies the journal, old secrets come to light.

Unlike the overblown and overcolored previous book in the series, Well of the Winds keeps the story smaller, simpler, and more local, as well as more character-driven. I liked it a lot, right up to the end, which was somewhat frustrating – but probably on purpose, to prime us for the next installment. Some skepticism about the European Union seems to be in evidence here, which doesn’t lose the book any points with me.

Recommended, with the usual cautions.

‘Empty Nets and Promises,’ by Denzil Meyrick

Empty Nets and Promises

Author Denzil Meyrick takes a semi-departure from his series of Jim Daley novels to conduct us back in time in the same location as those books – the picturesque Kintyre village of Kinloch, Scotland. The year is 1968, and Empty Nets and Promises offers only one of the regular cast of characters – Hamish the drunken fisherman with the second sight, a man in his prime at the time of this story.

Hamish, first mate on a fishing boat, is concerned like all his friends about the bad catches that year. Never have they taken so few herring in any man’s memory. He and his friends have a theory as to the cause – it’s the supersonic test flights coming from a nearby Air Force base. It’s Hamish himself who comes up with a “brilliant” plan to stop the tests, which involves getting a couple pilots drunk and taking them away to a remote croft so they’ll be AWOL.

Well, it makes sense to them.

But they don’t reckon with the local fisheries inspector, who suspects them of smuggling whisky, and the skipper’s wife and daughter, who suspect them of planning to play a trick on the daughter’s fiancé on the eve of the upcoming wedding.

What follows is an amusing comedy of errors that almost leads to nuclear war.

Empty Nets and Promises is a funny story, full of vivid, idiosyncratic characters and well-painted landscapes. It’s somewhere between a short story and a novella, and good value for your book-buying dollar at the price. Minor cautions for language.

‘The Rat Stone Serenade,’ by Denzil Meyrick

The Rat Stone Serenade

I’m quite enjoying Denzil Meyrick’s DCI Daley series of rural police procedurals. So I’m sorry to say that The Rat Stone Serenade was a little disappointing.

Our hero, Detective Chief Inspector Jim Daley, has decided to resign his post and leave police work altogether. It’s partly weariness after the mayhem he’s been witnessing, and partly because he’s grown desperately in love with a subordinate, Sergeant Mary Dunn (with whom he had an affair earlier), and he wants to save his shaky marriage for the sake of his baby son.

His final duty is to help with security for the Annual General Meeting of the Shannon Group, “the world’s largest corporation,” which sprang originally from an estate in a nearby town on the Kintyre Peninsula. Once a year the Shannon heirs and other corporate officers meet at the great manor house on the cliff. It’s a haunted place, cursed by a blacksmith from whom an ancestor stole the land, and by the mysterious, unsolved abduction of the heir apparent years ago, when he was a small boy.

What follows is kind of a mess, in my opinion. There are so many plots and counterplots going on, so many double-crosses, so many generational secrets to be revealed one after another, that it’s pretty much impossible to keep up. (Also there’s a convenient once-in-a-century snow storm to isolate most of the cast of characters. And a sinister ancient blood cult, in case things get dull.) I found it all pretty unconvincing.

And I didn’t care for the direction Daley’s relationship with Sergeant Mary took (although a surprise is coming there, too).

I like the series and plan to continue with it, but The Rat Stone Serenade was built a couple stories taller than building codes ought to allow.

Cautions for language and sexual situations.

‘Authentic Christianity,’ by Gene Edward Veith and A. Trevor Sutton

Authentic Christianity

What [Reformation thought] meant in practice is that the “spiritual disciplines” moved out of the monastery into secular life. Celibacy became faithfulness in marriage. Poverty became thrift and hard work. Obedience became submission to the law. Most important, prayer, meditation, and worship – while still central to every Christian’s vocation in the Church – also moved into the family and the workplace.

What does the Church require to reclaim lost ground in the 21st Century? How can we answer postmodernism? What can unite the countless feuding – and dissolving – denominational groups into a force for reclaiming the culture? We do not lack for books offering answers to those questions. My friend Gene Edward Veith, along with co-author A. Trevor Sutton, maintains in Authentic Christianity that the perfect solution is one already in place – Lutheran theology. (I did not receive a review copy, for the record.)

The “star” of the book is a Lutheran philosopher of whom (I have to admit) I’d never heard – Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88). Goethe, we’re told, called Hamann “the brightest mind of his day.” A convert from Enlightenment thinking, Hamann deconstructed rationalism and insisted that reason was useless and destructive when separated from faith. According to the authors, he anticipated postmodernism in his critique of autonomous reason. He may, they suggest, have been the father of that linguistic analysis which so dominates modern philosophy. But for him this line of thought led, not to absurdity and despair, but to trust in Jesus Christ, His Word, and His Church.

Veith and Sutton go on to analyze the (self-destructive) thinking of the modern world, and they explain how Lutheran theology answers the inherent questions of our time and fills basic human spiritual needs.

The book works itself out as a systematic apologetic for Lutheranism, aimed at modern readers. If you’re looking for a stable church home, you could do far worse than reading this fresh and interesting book. Recommended.

‘The Heretics of St. Possenti,’ by Rolf Nelson

The Heretics of St. Possenti

Not what I expected, that was what Rolf Nelson’s The Heretics of St. Possenti was. I figured it for a military sci fi novel, set in a dystopian future. In fact it’s a utopian story of a sort, set in the present or the very near future.

By “utopian story” I mean the kind of story that proposes a major societal change and tries to demonstrate how well it will work. The books of this sort I remember best are Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. I suppose Ayn Rand’s novels are the same sort of thing (quite close to the kind of story this is), but I’ve never read Rand.

The Heretics of St. Possenti introduces us to Bishop Thomas Cranberry, who through misadventure spends a night in jail and is then given a leave of absence by his archbishop. Intrigued by the complaints of the men he’d met in jail – who said the Church offered them nothing that was of use here and now – he decides to get to know some of these “marginal” men. In a dojo and in a bar he meets military veterans, many of them suffering from PTSD, who can find no place in the world. They encounter nothing but Catch-22s in the VA, the welfare offices, or drug treatment centers. They can’t get work with a living wage. Many are deeply in debt. Continue reading ‘The Heretics of St. Possenti,’ by Rolf Nelson

‘The Awful Truth About Forgetting,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Awful Truth About Forgetting

I’ll confess right here that I feel a little embarrassed following a Christian Young Adult fantasy series starring a girl character. But the Rachel Griffin series is delightful, rewarding, and uplifting. The Awful Truth About Forgetting is just as good as its predecessors.

In this episode, Rachel returns to the Roanoke Academy of the Sorcerous Arts after a visit home, following the traumatic battle that ended Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland. Rachel, as you know if you’ve been following along, lives in an alternate world where magic is real and neither Judaism or Christianity has ever been heard of. She is one of the “Wise” – those who see and understand magical things, as opposed to the “Unwary” – ordinary folks who know nothing of Rachel’s world. In other words, Muggles. Rachel is the daughter of an English duke who is also a top law enforcement agent in magical matters.

Rachel has an eidetic memory – she remembers everything, which makes learning easy. But she’s in an odd situation now, since false memories were implanted in her mind after her recent traumas (for her own protection). This means she has a double set of memories. She can fool the people who gave her the false memories by pretending those are all she has, but then her friends – who do remember what she’s supposed to have forgotten – would know something was wrong, and they might get drawn into the whole mess. But she has the help of a very powerful supernatural protector, which also comes in handy when the school comes under magical attack.

There’s also a lot of typical school story material here, about who’s best friends with whom, and how different friendships are ranked against each other. And boyfriend stuff, and a new attraction.

But what I love about the Rachel Griffin books is that there are Narnia moments. Not only moments of homage to those books (“Jack” even gets a mention), but scenes that evoke the feelings I get from Narnia stories. That’s what really makes this series shine.

Recommended for teens and up – except that there’s a lot of magic and wizardry and mythological stuff which some Christian families will find unacceptable.

‘Dark Suits and Sad Songs,’ by Denzil Meyrick

Dark Suits and Sad Songs

I’m liking Denzil Meyrick’s series of DCI Jim Daley mysteries more and more. Dark Suits and Sad Songs could have gone badly off course, in my opinion, but author Meyrick brings it in to port with the sure hand of an old pilot.

Jim Daley is a Glasgow police detective who’s been put in charge of the station at Kinloch, a beautiful town on the Kintyre peninsula. The idyllic, old-fashioned community is beset by a continuing problem with drug smuggling, and its past chief inspector was found to be corrupt. But Jim has suspicions that he’s been sent to Kinloch for less obvious, more sinister reasons. And he’s right.

The trouble starts when a senior civil servant douses himself with gasoline on a local dock and commits suicide by immolation. Then a couple local drug dealers are found murdered in vicious ways characteristic of foreign drug cartels. Closed circuit TV reveals that a well-known international assassin is in town. And – oh yes – UFOs have been sighted.

Meanwhile, Jim is worried about his marriage, and whether it’s worth saving. His wife has given birth to a son, but he has reason to doubt whether the child is his. Also his best friend, DCS Scott, has been sent to help him out, but is largely useless, as he’s been traumatized by a gunshot wound and has crawled into a bottle for comfort.

The action of the story becomes fairly cinematic toward the end, which means plausibility suffers. But it’s exciting anyway, and some important ongoing narrative threads get tied up at last (though the series goes on). I had a good time reading Dark Suits and Sad Songs, and I recommend it. Read the books in order for the best effect.

Cautions for language, violence, and gore. No attacks are made on Christianity, which is always nice. And the CIA shows up, and for once is not the bad guy.

‘Watches of the Night,’ by Sally Wright

Watches of the Night

I find, as I work my way through Sally Wright’s Ben Reese series of mysteries, that I enjoy the books that center on Ben himself most of all. Watches of the Night, the fifth of them, set in 1962, is one of those.

Ben is having some trouble at work as the story starts (after a flashback to World War II). His university’s integrity-challenged new president is putting pressure on him to collude in an illegal act. His immediate boss, the chief librarian, is aiding and abetting the president.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, Kate Lindsay, a widow to whom Ben is attracted, receives a shocking package in the mail. It’s the eye of her late husband, killed nearly 20 years before in combat. Ben is planning a trip to Europe on archive business anyway, so he agrees to talk to her. Little do they know that they’re uncovering the secrets of a powerful, ruthless man, who will stop at nothing to keep his past covered. Before they’re done there will be murder and Ben will face a nightmare out of his own past.

I was particularly impressed by the treatment of war scenes in Watches of the Night. One doesn’t expect (because “one” is a famous sexist) that a female writer will handle battle situations well, but I found those parts in this book (and there are many in flashbacks) extremely good.

Also Ben’s and Kate’s cautious courtship passes a milestone this time out, which is nice.

Mature themes, but no profanity. Recommended.

‘Out of the Ruins,’ by Sally Wright

Out of the Ruins

Book four in the Ben Reese mystery series by Sally Wright is Out of the Ruins, a venture into Southern Gothic. In this episode, archivist Ben has returned to his university in Ohio from Scotland, but is taking some sabbatical time to travel to the South, to evaluate a collection of art being donated to his school. While there he gets a call from an old friend named Hannah Hill, who owns a large estate on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Hannah suffers from MS, and is confined to her bed. She is concerned about local attempts to acquire her estate for development, or for a national park. Also, she has had “dreams” about a masked figure coming into her room at night and spraying things with a spray gun.

By the time Ben arrives, Hannah Hill is dead, apparently of pneumonia. Most suspicious. He enters a world of old family feuds, greed, and hypocrisy, in which Hannah’s heir – a young female opera singer – is the target of long-simmering, murderous hate.

Out of the Ruins was not my favorite book in this series. I found the action of the climax kind of hard to follow. And author Wright, though generally a good writer, has one bad habit that annoys me. When writing telephone conversations, she employs what I call “TV phone call writing.” You know how it goes on TV – you only hear one side of the conversation, so they have to have the character on screen repeat everything the character on the other end says, even though people don’t do that in real life (Bob Newhart did some great comedy routines in that format back in the ‘60s). There are only two ways to handle phone conversations in a novel, in my opinion. Either leave the reader uncertain about what the unheard party is saying (this could be useful in a mystery), or just give us both sides of the conversation.

But Out of the Ruins was generally entertaining, and I enjoyed reading it. Recommended.

‘The Last Witness,’ by Denzil Meyrick

The Last Witness

I relished the first Detective Daley mystery by Denzil Meyrick, Whisky from Small Glasses, which I reviewed not far south of this post. I got just as much pleasure from the second book in the series, The Last Witness.

This outing finds DCI Jim Daley relocated from Glasgow to the location of the first novel, the fictional town of Kinloch on the Kintyre peninsula. He’s grown to like the town and its easy sense of community. Even his marriage seems to be improving.

Meanwhile, in Australia, a former criminal now in the British equivalent of witness protection is brutally murdered, along with his wife. What raises red flags in Glasgow is that the killer’s face is clearly seen on closed circuit TV – and he is plainly a man who’s supposed to be dead. James Machie was the godfather of Glasgow organized crime, and the dead man had testified against him, before Machie was sentenced to prison and then murdered.

Another witness, also under protection, lives near Kinloch. On top of that, Daley’s friend and subordinate, DS Scott, participated in Machie’s arrest – and Machie vowed vengeance on him as well.

People are going to die, seemingly murdered by a ghost, and a network of lies and betrayals will be brought to light. The Last Witness works up to a thundering climax at sea, and when you think all the mysteries have been solved, new twists appear.

Above the basic plot, an overarching meta-plot is winding its way through these stories. I’m eager to learn what comes next. Cautions for language and mature themes. Christianity, though not a major element in the book, seems to be handled with respect.

‘Whisky from Small Glasses,’ by Denzil Meyrick

Whisky from Small Glasses

As he adjusted his belt he heard a stream of expletives issuing from two youths who were seated in front of him. The young men were not being intentionally offensive; in the west of Scotland punctuation was gradually being replaced by curses. He and Liz had recently spent a weekend in York, and he remembered being surprised by the absence of swearing.

Detective Inspector Jim Daly works for the Strathclyde Police in Glasgow, under a superior who used to be his friend but has now become a perfect political animal. When a woman’s body washes up near the scenic small town of Kinloch on the Kintyre peninsula, Jim is sent to lead the investigation. The woman had been tortured before being strangled, and when another woman is found also tortured to death, it looks as if a serial killer is at large. But the two women had ties to the local drug trade as well, and that proves to be a bigger operation the closer they look.

That’s the premise of Whisky from Small Glasses, an impressive first novel by Denzil Meyrick. The book has many virtues – an obvious love for the Kintyre scenery, lively, often humorous, dialogue (though much of it is in dialect which some Americans will find it hard following), and very interesting, layered characters. Jim Daly is mostly a good man and a good cop, though he has trouble with his temper and is insecure about his weight and his relationship with his beautiful wife, whom he adores in spite of known unfaithfulness. His friend and colleague Scott is a drunken, profane man raised on the streets, but a good cop and a loyal friend. His superior, Donald, seems fairly slimy, but sometimes shows moments of genuine wisdom. However, he also gives us glimpses of something far darker.

The minor characters also bubble to life. I was particularly pleased with the genuine affection for small town life that’s on view – it’s an easy, cheap shot for writers to condescend to village folk, but author Meyrick is having none of that. The townspeople are a canny lot, and infuriating in their ability to know everybody’s business almost immediately, whether the police want it kept quiet or not. There’s also an amusing old fisherman with the second sight, to make cryptic predictions.

Serious, funny, and occasionally touching, Whisky from Small Glasses is a superior, rewarding crime novel. Cautions for language (as the excerpt above suggests) and mature, often gory, subject matter.

‘Pursuit and Persuasion,’ by Sally Wright

Pursuit and Persuasion

This is more like it. I was a little disappointed in the previous novel in Sally Wright’s Ben Reese series, thinking it overly complex and hard to follow. Pursuit and Persuasion is much better, as my personal taste runs.

Georgina Fletcher, a Scottish scholar and heiress, has died suddenly of a stomach ailment. No one expected her to leave her entire estate to her student assistant, an American named Ellen Winter. Equally unexpectedly, she left a letter behind for Ellen, telling her that if she (Georgina) should die suddenly, for any reason, she was to engage a private investigator to look for evidence of murder.

Ellen turns to her former college advisor, Ben Reese, who is still in Scotland in the wake of his previous murder investigation. Ben finds that, although Georgina was a well-liked person, she did have enemies – an accountant who disapproved of her (generous) business practices, and neighbors who object to the changes she’s made in the family estate, among others. Before he’s done he’ll learn of an old family crime, hidden obsessions, and an attempt to right a very old wrong. He’ll also come into imminent peril of death.

I had fun with Pursuit and Persuasion. The plot wasn’t as complex as in the last book, and the cast of characters was less confusing. Most importantly, the focus was mostly on our hero, Ben himself, who is an interesting figure. A couple romantic possibilities turn up to raise the human interest of the exercise. And the Christianity of the story is never in doubt (although the book opens outside the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, author Wright resists the temptation to give either C. S. Lewis or Tolkien cameo roles).

Highly recommended. Suitable for most readers.

‘Cast Iron,’ by Peter May

Cast Iron

Here we have the final novel in Peter May’s Enzo Macleod mystery series. Years ago, Enzo, a forensic scientist, made a bet that he could solve a series of famous French cold cases described in a book written by a friend. Two cases are left, but they’ll both be unraveled by the end of Cast Iron.

In 1989, 20-year-old Lucie Martin was murdered, her body hidden in a lake. In 2003, due to a drought, the body was uncovered and examined. The skeleton had a broken hyoid bone, a sign of strangulation. Suspicion settled on a pimp named Regis Blanc, who had been convicted of strangling three prostitutes, and who had been dating Lucie. But he had a “cast iron” alibi.

In 2011, Enzo Macleod turns his attention to the Lucie Martin case. He thinks there’s more to the matter than earlier investigators guessed. And – intriguingly – he discovers a link to a previous murder he solved, though he wasn’t able to identify the person who paid for that murder for hire. This he will learn in Cast Iron. And clearly he’s getting too close to the truth for somebody, because a threat of violence is directed at someone near and dear to him.

As I mentioned in my last review, Enzo has grown in character through the series. I still don’t entirely like him, and I don’t think he’s ever really taken responsibility for some of his sins against others. But he’s better than he was, and this book brings the series to a satisfying conclusion. Three narrative threads are actually tied up at the end. Two I saw coming, but one came right out of left field and was an entertaining surprise.

Recommended, with cautions for language and mature themes.

‘The Girl Who Lived,’ by Christopher Greyson

The Girl Who Lived

I’ll just start by saying that I really enjoyed this book. Christopher Greyson has shown great promise in producing his series of “Jack” thrillers, all of which I’ve reviewed. But he’s knocked it out of the park with The Girl Who Lived, a stand-alone novel.

Faith Winter’s thirteenth birthday party turned into a life-altering nightmare. At her family’s vacation cabin, her father, her sister, her best friend, and the friend’s mother were slaughtered, and Faith barely escaped. She told the police the killer was a “rat-faced man” who chased her through the woods, but they don’t believe her. They call it a murder-suicide, and blame her father as the culprit.

Faith’s life spiraled into a maelstrom of dysfunction after that. She became an alcoholic and spent time in mental hospitals and prison. Now, ten years later, she is being released on parole, required to attend AA and survivors’ group meetings, and to look for a job. Continue reading ‘The Girl Who Lived,’ by Christopher Greyson

‘Pride and Predator,’ by Sally Wright

Pride and Predator

Sally Wright’s second Ben Reese novel, Pride and Predator, takes our American archivist hero to Scotland, where he gets involved in a classic “cozy” mystery.

Jonathan MacLean, a minister of the Kirk of Scotland, is found dead on the island of Lindisfarne (famous in Viking lore, though that’s not mentioned here), killed by an allergic reaction to a bee sting. The fact that he was carrying a picnic basket, in which dead bees were found, is suspicious, as he had never before carried a basket on his walking trips. And it’s hard to imagine who would have wanted him dead. He was a popular pastor, beloved by his wife, friends and family. He possessed no great riches, though he had inherited a title. A few people disliked him, but not murderously. As he uncovers the truth, Ben will find himself working against time to stop a killer before he kills again.

I liked the first book in the series, Publish and Perish, very much. I have to say I was less taken with this one. The cast of characters seemed to me huge, and almost all of them had Scottish names. I had a lot of trouble keeping them straight. There also seemed to be a lot more talking than strictly necessary, and the plot was convoluted.

Still, cozy fans will probably enjoy it (I myself like cozies if they’re well done), and the language is decent and the values Christian. Moderately recommended.