Category Archives: Reviews

‘A Hard Ticket Home,’ by David Housewright

A Hard Ticket Home

After Minneapolis author David Housewright wrapped up his Holland Taylor detective series (temporarily, as it turned out) he moved on to create another Minneapolis PI with a slightly more Travis McGee flavor – Rushmore McKenzie, former St. Paul police detective. “Mac” didn’t leave the force because of a traumatic experience or a principled conflict with the brass. He recovered several millions of embezzled money, and the insurance company paid him a 50% finder’s fee – but only after he’d resigned. Now he lives in a big house and, like Travis McGee, just “does favors for friends.” Unlike McGee, he doesn’t care about being paid. Hard Ticket Home is the first book in the series.

The Carlson family of Grand Rapids, Minnesota needs a favor. Their youngest daughter is dying of leukemia and has to have a bone marrow transplant. They think their older daughter Jamie might be a compatible donor – but Jamie ran away several years ago. Mac agrees to try to find her.

This leads him to walk into – and partly set off – a murderous crime spree involving some of the most successful people in Minnesota – people hiding a very dark secret. They have dangerous associates who don’t like private eyes snooping around, and some of them have no scruples about killing Mac – or the people he cares about.

I enjoy Housewright’s stories very much, and I always relish a Twin Cities setting. My only concern is that as he goes on he comments more and more on politics. He’s fairly mainstream, but I think he hits the right harder than the left.

But he hasn’t lost me yet. Cautions for language, very ugly violence, and mature themes.

‘Another One,’ by Tony Faggioli

Another One

I’m ambivalent about the “naturalistic” school of Christian fiction. There’s a small group of Christian authors – and make no mistake, they are brave souls – who’ve decided that the gospel is badly served by the sugar-coating and bowdlerizing so common in Christian fiction. They believe it’s time to drop the taboos, because how can we expect people to believe what we say about heavenly things when we don’t tell the truth about earthly things?

I salute their courage and honestly, and I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong. I try to steer my own fiction closer to that line than many, so I’d be kind of hypocritical to condemn them. But I can’t deny they make me a little uncomfortable. It may be just because I’m old.

Tony Faggioli is the author of Another One, the first in a trilogy of supernatural crime novels starring Evan Parker, a Los Angeles police detective. The book is presented from multiple viewpoints, following Parker (an Iraq War veteran with PTSD) as he and his partner investigate the murder of a Hispanic gang member shot to death in a Korean neighborhood. We follow Father Bernardino Soltera, who is trying to help a young girl who has gotten pregnant by her gang member boyfriend, and is contemplating abortion. And Hector Villarosa, a gang leader just released from prison. He finds that his girlfriend has taken up with another man, and is contemplating revenge even as he struggles with guilt over setting his own cousin up to be murdered.

These men are bound together, not only by intertwined crimes, but by the visions they see – beings of good and beings of evil who respectively promise to protect or to kill and damn them. Continue reading ‘Another One,’ by Tony Faggioli

‘Darkness, Sing Me a Song,’ by David Housewright

Darkness, Sing Me a Song

I’m not sure why author David Housewright decided to resurrect his Holland Taylor detective series after turning his attention to a much longer series with another character. But so he did, just this year, six years after the previous installment. I liked Darkness, Sing Me a Song, though I was a little annoyed by the addition of politics to a series that had been pretty evenhanded up to now.

Things have changed since Dearly Departed (reviewed below). Minneapolis detective Holland Taylor has broken up with his girlfriend, and is instead seeing a married woman, off and on. He moved out of his house, into an apartment. He now has a partner in his private investigations business.

His work is mostly dull, and he’s not complaining. But one of his best clients, a high-powered law firm, asks him to help with the legal defense of Eleanor Barrington, one of the richest women in the state. She is accused of shooting her son’s fiancée, Emily Denys, to death. She denies guilt, though she does not hide her contempt for the young woman.

Investigation reveals that Emily Denys did not exist – her identity was false. Trying to trace her true name leads Taylor to a small Wisconsin town, where feelings are running high on both sides of the (fracking-related) sand mining business. Taylor will also uncover very dark secrets about the Barrington family. There’s a “surprise” twist near the end, which didn’t surprise me at all, nor do I think it will surprise many seasoned mystery readers. However – it must be noted – it’s not the surprise itself but the original twist author Taylor puts on the surprise that makes the book work in the end. And it does work.

I enjoyed Darkness, Sing Me a Song, but not quite as much as the previous books. Recommended, with cautions for language and mature themes.

Oh yeah, at one point he says that the city of Shakopee is southeast of the Twin Cities. It’s actually northwest. Weird.

‘Dearly Departed,’ by David Housewright

Dearly Departed

I put the older man at sixty. Hard. You could roller skate on him.

The saga of Holland Taylor, Twin Cities PI, continues with Dearly Departed. I like the way author David Housewright puts fresh spins on old plot themes. Dearly Departed, a story in the tradition of the movie “Laura,” was my favorite in the series so far.

Hunter Truman is the sleaziest of ambulance-chasing lawyers, a man unesteemed even in his own profession. He sued Holland Taylor once. And yet here he is, asking to hire Taylor to look for a missing woman. Taylor wants nothing to do with him – until he looks at the fascinating photograph of Alison Emerton. Truman plays him a tape Alison left behind, in which she states that if anyone hears this, she will be dead, and her ex-boss is the killer.

Alison has disappeared without a trace. All her possessions are still in her house. She must be dead, but Truman’s clients want to know exactly what happened to her.

Against his better judgment, drawn by the visceral appeal of the photograph and the voice, Taylor agrees to look for her. His hunt will take him to a resort town where residents are at each other’s throats over the question of a new Indian casino. There’s a plot twist that isn’t much of a surprise, but that just sets the stage for further surprises.

Dearly Departed drew me in and kept me fascinated. I enjoyed the characters and was fascinated by the mystery. I appreciated the examination of men’s perceptions of women, realistic and delusional.

Cautions for language and mature situations. Recommended.

‘Practice to Deceive,’ by David Housewright

Practice to Deceive

I felt about as big as a period at the end of a sentence.

The second book in the highly enjoyable Holland Taylor series by David Housewright is Practice to Deceive. I liked it as much as the first book.

When Taylor’s parents invite him to visit them in Florida, they have an ulterior motive (their relationship is awkward). His father introduces him to Mrs. Gustafson, a friend who’s been swindled out of all her money by a slick Minnesota investment counselor. Can Taylor do anything to help her get it back?

At first he resists. It’s not his kind of case; he doesn’t understand these matters. But when his father explains exactly what the investment counselor did – getting her power of attorney, then investing her funds in a risky real estate project after she’d suffered a stroke and was expected to die – he’s outraged and agrees to look into it.

Since the counselor has technically not broken the law, Taylor decides to take a more high school approach to the problem – harassing him, hacking his online accounts, working juvenile practical jokes. And it almost works – until somebody kills the counselor and steals the money he was going to pay Mrs. Gustafson back with. Suddenly the game is deadly serious, and Taylor’s own life is on the line.

Great fun. Although there’s plenty of traditional detective stuff, Housewright can take very unconventional approaches to his plots, turning old situations fresh. Cautions for language and mature situations, including some fairly creepy scenes involving a transvestite. And some hard-boiled irony.

‘Penance,’ by David Housewright

Penance

All in all, it’s a great time to be a private investigator: Nobody trusts anybody.

Sometimes – rarely, of course – I surprise myself with my ignorance. Discovering a “new” detective author whom I would rate on the level of John Sandford and (before he went full PC) Robert B. Parker was a surprise. Finding out he’s a local (Minneapolis) author amazed me. But so it is. David Housewright is a very good hard-boiled writer, and I’m enjoying his Holland Taylor series a lot.

At the opening of Penance we find former police detective, now private eye, Holland Taylor in an interrogation room, being grilled by two policemen. He was surprised to be arrested, but not surprised when he learned the reason. The drunken driver who killed Taylor’s wife and daughter, recently released from prison, has been murdered. Taylor is the obvious first suspect.

As suddenly as he was arrested, Taylor finds himself released, and he returns to his current case, which involves a beautiful, dark horse, third-party gubernatorial candidate who is being blackmailed. Eventually he learns there’s a link between the first case and this one, and things get convoluted and deadly. In the end the revelations he unearths will be genuinely shocking.

The plot’s more complex than it needs to be, with too many characters and plot lines. But the story gripped me and the narrator was fascinating. Widower detectives have gotten to be a trope (because the situation offers lots of scope for female companionship, and an excuse for not bonding), but author Housewright handles the trope well. I was hooked, and I’ve been scarfing these books up one after another. More reviews to come.

The stories are a little dated, being written back in the 1990s (though a fourth in the series came out this year). The usual cautions for language and mature situations apply. The politics are hard to nail down – which is just fine by me.

‘Laughing Shall I Die,’ by Tom Shippey

Laughing Shall I Die

And what this means for us is that if you come across headlines – as these days you very often do – which say something like ‘Vikings! Not just raiders and looters any more!’ then the headlines are wrong. If people weren’t raiding and looting (and land-grabbing, and collecting protection money), then they had stopped being Vikings. They were just Scandinavians.

The trouble with reading a book that really excites you is that you end up highlighting passage after passage. Then it’s hard to pick one out to put at the head of a review. I finally chose one from near the beginning, but there were many others.

I’ve posted an excerpt previously, because I did find Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings, by Tom Shippey an intriguing and exciting book in my favorite historical field. It’s been a long time since I’ve read one more intriguing. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it. In some ways Shippey’s thesis supports “my” work (Viking Legacy, which I translated), in some ways it contradicts it. I have praised Anders Winroth in a previous review (though disagreeing with him at many points). Shippey essentially discards Winroth as one who misses the whole point.

The point being that the word “Viking” is routinely misused in our day. “Viking” means a seaborne warrior – a pirate. If you write about early Medieval Scandinavians in all walks of life and re-label them Vikings, you’re confusing the matter.

To put it bluntly (again), most scholarly books with ‘Viking’ in the title turn out not to be about Vikings, because Vikings aren’t popular among scholars. This book is different: it really is about Vikings.

Continue reading ‘Laughing Shall I Die,’ by Tom Shippey

‘Coffin, Scarcely Used,’ by Colin Watson

Coffin, Scarcely Used

I am fond of English police procedural mysteries. But I’m frequently annoyed by the increasing political correctness infecting the genre and turning it into a form of fantasy. So a series of English procedurals written during the 1950s seemed like just the ticket for me, especially when the books are described by critics as “wickedly funny.”

Coffin, Scarcely Used is the first of the Inspector Purbright series, set in the fictional seaside town of Flaxborough. No crime is suspected when a city councillor dies suddenly. But when his neighbor, the former local newspaper publisher, is found dead of electrocution, wearing carpet slippers, underneath an electric pole near his house, questions get asked. As Purbright and his assistant dig into the lives of the two men and their circle they unearth secrets that the foremost citizens of the town would rather keep secret.

I didn’t enjoy Coffin, Scarcely Used as much as I hoped. The whole affair seemed to me lightweight and superficial, in the way of the classic English cozies. I generally approve of cozies in the moral sense, but I prefer the grittiness of hard-boiled stories and the more recent generations of procedurals. And the humor, though sometimes fairly Wodehousian, just didn’t move the needle enough for my purposes.

But you may feel differently. If Coffin, Scarcely Used sounds to you like your cup of tea, enjoy it.

‘A Private Investigation,’ by Peter Grainger

A Private Investigation

Bittersweet. The last of a good thing is always bittersweet, and Peter Grainger’s DC Smith books have become one of the small pleasures in my life. This one may be the last in the series (though the ending is ambiguous).

As A Private Investigation begins, Detective Sergeant D.C. Smith is rapidly approaching mandatory retirement, two weeks away (it was a little weird for me to start this book just as I was two weeks away from the end of my own job). Smith is keeping a low profile, tidying up the records on his last case. No one expects him to do any serious investigation; he’s just filling time. His old team has been broken up. His new superiors, one a former subordinate, the other a long-time rival, are keeping their distances.

And then a teenage girl disappears. It strikes Smith as odd that his career should end with the abduction of a young girl; that’s what his first major case was.

But then there’s a shock – a connection is discovered between that old first case and this present one. Which does not impel Smith into action – that would be against regulations. But he pays attention, and gives his friends on the case some useful pointers.

But that won’t be enough. Someone is preparing a final showdown. D.C. Smith’s career will not end quietly.

I very much enjoy this whole series of books. D.C. Smith is a fascinating, engaging character – reserved, ironic, quirky, but beneath it all a man who truly cares about victims and the justice due to them. Also, here and there, author Grainger throws in hints of a conservative world-view.

There may have been some bad language, but I don’t recall any. I really have no cautions for you. I enjoyed A Private Investigation, and recommend you read the whole series.

Who knows? There may even be another book.

‘Random Revenge,’ by William Michaels

Random Revenge

I’d classify this book as one that ultimately worked, but it had some weaknesses.

My main problem was that Random Revenge by William Michaels doesn’t roll out in optimal fashion. It’s sort of a Columbo story, where in the first half you see the crime committed, and in the second half you watch the detective solving the crime.

The problem here was that we spent that first half mostly with the criminal and victim, who were both unpleasant enough to make the going tedious. One of them (I won’t say whether they’re murderer or victim) is Melanie Upton, a ruthless, aspiring actress with very few sympathetic qualities. The other is Lenny Gruse, a ruthless, aspiring paparazzo with no sympathetic qualities at all. I got a few glimpses of our hero, Detective Robert Winter, within that section, and his appeal was all that kept me with the book. The second half, where he takes center stage, is much better.

Winter, a detective in a small Massachusetts town where a movie is being filmed, is another in a long list of fictional “loose cannon” cops, but he’s original enough to make him interesting. He’s impatient of regulations and protocol, but he has a very high clearance record. And he’s not above doling out a little street justice. His method is to follow his instincts, but also to think a lot. He has a genius for playing out a multitude of possible scenarios in his head, making connections other cops wouldn’t make. He’s not like Columbo in the genius department – Columbo usually knew who was guilty from square one. Winter tries out and rejects a thousand theories before finding one that works. It’s the genuine scientific method.

The ending of the book was surprising, but not out of the blue, in light of what we’ve learned about Winter. His idea of closing a case isn’t always precisely the same as what the law prescribes.

Random Revenge started slow, but worked well once it got going. Cautions for adult themes and language, and some moral ambiguity. There were moments of sloppy writing. But I’d like to read the next book in the series (I trust one is coming), because I think Detective Robert Winter might have a big future.

‘Murder of a Silent Man,’ by Phillip Strang

Murder of a Silent Man

Yet another in an apparently infinite supply of English police procedural mystery series. I tried Murder of a Silent Man (I suppose I identified with the title) by Phillip Strang. It had certain virtues which I won’t deny, but overall I wasn’t much impressed.

Gilbert Lawrence is the murder victim in this story. He’s an old, reclusive man who only went out once a week, to the liquor store. No one would have guessed he was one of the richest men in the country, unless they noticed the large house where he lived, holed up in a small locked area. But someone took the trouble to stab him to death in his front garden, and now DCI Isaac Cook and his team must unravel the mystery. It’s compounded by the discovery of a human skeleton in an upstairs bed.

There’s no lack of suspects. Lawrence had two estranged children, one a prosperous wife, the other a drug addict and con man. For years his affairs have been handled by his solicitor and his daughter, who have been profiting well from his business interests – perhaps too well.

The great virtue of this book was its realism. It followed police procedure in a believable way. No flashes of genius insight here, no car chases or terrorist situations. Just solid police work leading finally to a solid – and undramatic – conclusion. I don’t mind that at all. Some people might want more bells and whistles, but I liked this approach.

What I didn’t care for was the presentation of the story. The prose was sometimes weak. The characters weren’t very vivid – the suspects were more interesting than the cops, but they weren’t all that fascinating either. We weren’t even given descriptions of most of the cops – except for DCI Cook, who is Jamaican by heritage. Apparently author Strang assumed the reader would have read the earlier books in the series and would remember earlier descriptions.

So all in all, I wasn’t greatly impressed. I did appreciate the realism, though.

‘The Snowman,’ by Jo Nesbo

The Snowman

So I’d kicked the dust of John Verdon off my feet, and was looking for another mystery to read. “Hey,” I said to myself, “you’re gonna be unemployed soon. Why not check out the public library’s selection?” So I did that.

The public library site is kind of hard to browse, but eventually I hit on Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, another in his long-running Harry Hole series. And I thought, “I don’t love the Hole books, but this’ll be free. Give him another chance.” So I did that.

Takeaway: A readable, exciting book. Also overcooked and kind of annoying.

Harry Hole (pronounced “hoo-leh”) is an Oslo police detective. His colleagues often joke that he’s a specialist in serial killers, even though Norway has never had a serial killer case (his expertise comes from visits abroad). But now they’ve got one. They just hadn’t realized it. Continue reading ‘The Snowman,’ by Jo Nesbo

‘White River Burning,’ by John Verdon

This isn’t a review. It’s more of an adieu (hmm, there’s a song there, somewhere). It’s my farewell to John Verdon’s Dave Gurney series.

I’ve enjoyed this series, but White River Burning brought about that moment when (as Job said) “the thing I greatly feared had come upon me.”

I’d been concerned about the increasing levels of political messaging in the books. Not that I think that’s a sin – I’m an ideological writer myself. But I know I’ve lost readers because of the opinions I’ve embedded in my books. In the same way, John Verdon has lost me.

I didn’t get far into White River Burning, which centers on the murder of a policeman in a city torn by riots similar to the Trayvon Martin unrest. It didn’t take many pages before we were treated to a scene where a “commentator” on the RAM News Channel (which seems to be a surrogate for FOX) engages in open white supremacist rhetoric.

I can understand how a leftist might think that FOX is a forum for neo-Nazis fresh out of their white sheets. FOX is often criticized as racist by the left, but this is because leftists generally believe that all conservative opinions are racist. It isn’t surprising that author Verdon might think you can turn on FOX on any given day and hear its commentators calling for, oh, a return to Jim Crow and revived miscegenation laws.

But it’s not reality. And at that point I couldn’t overlook the political passion of the author. I wish him well, but I’m confident he doesn’t want my business.

‘Wolf Lake,’ by John Verdon

Wolf Lake

I continue my trek through John Verdon’s Dave Gurney mysteries, continuing the adventures of the retired NYPD detective retired to the Catskill Mountains.

In Wolf Lake, Dave and his wife Madeleine are headed for a week of snowshoeing in Vermont, when he is asked to look into a mystery at Wolf Lake lodge, which is located more or less on the way. He almost begs off for Madeleine’s sake, but – uncharacteristically – she encourages him to make the detour.

There they meet Richard Hammond, a psychiatrist famed – and notorious – for his experiments with hypnotism. He had been living at the lodge at the invitation of its wealthy owner, but now that owner is dead by suicide. On top of that, three other men have committed suicide in various places around the country. Each one was treated for cigarette addiction by Hammond, and each reported having an identical nightmare, before killing himself – also in an identical manner.

The local district attorney is building a case against Hammond, for “murder by hypnosis.” The whole thing seems crazy to Dave, and he continues to look for reasonable explanations, even as inexplicable things happen around him, and Madeleine grows deeply troubled but refuses to leave the place.

I thought, frankly, that Wolf Lake was a little over the top. Portents in nature, a prophetic madman, a snowstorm orchestrated to raise the stakes in the climax – some of this gets explained, but overall it seemed melodramatic to me. And the solution seemed contrived. Also, author Verdon appears to have grown more comfortable expressing his politics in his books. The evils of homophobia underpin a lot of the narrative.

I’m reading the next book, but I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I’ve liked the Dave Gurney stories, but a little more politics will put me off them.

Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

“I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. . . . “But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people  together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running . . . but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing.”

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is one in which everyone has taken the easy route to learning, living, and contributing to society. We, the people, started it, neglecting books and thinking, choosing big screens and reality shows. After some years of that, state representatives began to outlaw these channels of deeper thought. They burned libraries,  and schools taught that books were filled with nonsense. You could call this censorship, but it’s the censorship the people want. They want a comfortable life spent in front of a wall-to-wall interactive screen (or three or four wall-to-wall screens, if they could afford them), their “families” yakking at them through broadcasts.

Books put crazy, false, and conflicting ideas in people’s heads. What’s on screen is real, current, and unified. There’s no mention of any churches, but why would there be? Only those that had morphed into social clubs would be left standing.

The houses in Fahrenheit 451 are complete fire-proof, so when a homeowner is found in possession of books and he won’t be taken into custody or removed to an asylum, he is torched within his offending home. They do it at dusk or after, so the neighborhood bonfire will make the most spectacle, a warning to anyone still harboring the printed word.

As you can tell from the quotation above, someone people won’t follow the crowd–probably homeschoolers. They have more curiosity than society wants them to have. They will suffer for it for a while, but after society has eaten itself they will rebuild, like they always do, taking life’s hard road because that’s the only one left.