Category Archives: Reviews

‘Santa Fe Mojo,’ by Ted Clifton

Vincent Malone, hero of Ted Clifton’s Santa Fe Mojo, was once a hotshot lawyer in Dallas, until alcohol trashed both his career and his marriage. He drifted to Denver, where he found his niche as a legal investigator. Then he developed gout, and missed too much work. Figuring a warmer climate would help, he headed for Albuquerque, and cheap housing. But in a diner in Santa Fe he saw an ad for a job driving a customer van for a bed and breakfast. On a whim, he applied for the job.

Vincent is a misanthrope, a man who’s seen the worst in people and has distanced himself from them. But the couple who hire him are annoyingly nice. He doesn’t know what to do with them, but he kind of likes working there as he gets used to it.

They’re excited to greet their first guests at the B&B, but something is wrong. The rooms were booked by a major sports agent who lives locally, for a group of his top clients and their spouses. But when they hold a meeting, it ends in shouting and threats.

The next morning the police come. The agent has been murdered. Vincent can tell that the sheriff’s department would like to hang something on him, but they quickly settle one of the clients – a major league baseball player. Security video shows the two men fighting in the agent’s front yard, a few hours before the murder.

Vincent, though, based on his investigative experience, thinks the cops haven’t looked far enough. They found an easy suspect and stopped detecting. The accused’s lawyer shows up, and he’s the accused’s uncle and Vincent’s spiritual twin – a hard man who got rich defending whoever paid him, using any kind of trick he could get away with. But he’s older now, and thinking it might be nice to form some kind of bond with his only surviving relative. At least he forms a bond with Vincent, who shares his bemusement at discovering morality late in life.

Santa Fe Mojo straddles the line between cozy mystery and hard-boiled, and does it pretty well, I think. The gradual softening of Vincent’s hard shell in the warmth of human friendship provides an enjoyable sub-plot. I enjoyed Santa Fe Mojo quite a lot. Cautions for language, mostly.

‘The Musketeer’s Seamstress,’ by Sarah D’Almeida

Sarah Hoyt is a Facebook friend and a fellow Baen author. Aside from her SF work, she has produced, under the nom de plume (a particularly appropriate term in this case) Sarah D’Almeida, a seies of novels about Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers. These are mysteries, and have been inserted directly into the timeline of that classic novel. The Musketeer’s Seamstress, second in the series, occurs shortly after D’Artagnon meets his swashbuckling friends, but (if I understand correctly) before all the bother about the queen’s diamonds.

Aramis, the romantic musketeer destined for the church, is at the palace, dallying with his mistress, a lady of the court whom he refers to with his friends as his “seamstress.” He steps out of the chamber for a moment. When he returns, he finds her dead, a dagger through her heart. Like so many idiots in mysteries, he pulls the dagger out, getting blood all over his hands. When he hears people at the door, he makes a leap from the balcony onto a convenient tree and then manages to get away over a wall – stark naked. He is fortunate enough to find his friends Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnon at guard at one of the gates, and they help make his escape. Cardinal Richelieu, who seems to cherish a particular dislike for Aramis, sets a hunt going, but Aramis manages to get away to his home estate, while his friends try to uncover how an “impossible” murder was committed.

The author, I think, did an interesting job with the familiar characters. She invents back story material for them that Dumas only hinted at, and as far as I can remember it’s pretty consistent with his portrayals. I particularly like the character of Porthos, who is envisioned as a man not stupid, but simply plain-minded and practical. Which makes it possible for him – sometimes – to see things his subtler friends miss.

I felt a certain tension in the insertion of a whodunnit into what is essentially an action/adventure setting. The action is quite good when it happens, but a lot of the book involves people just thinking and discussing matters, which struck me as a little incongruous. However, as I said, I liked what was done with the characters, so such scenes were not without interest.

I wouldn’t rate The Musketeer’s Seamstress as a top-shelf book, either as an actioner or a mystery, but it was an enjoyable read, and I had a good time reacquainting myself with what is, perhaps, the archetypal male-bonding group in all literature.

‘Desires and Dreams and Powers,’ by Rosamund Hodge

During the later part of the war, the government issued a pamphlet on how to recognize changelings. Violet read it (a green tinge of the features; propensity to cruelty) and laughed. The real signs had been far more pervasive, far less clear. Sometimes she thought she had only realized she wasn’t human when she was fourteen. Sometimes she thought she had always known.

That’s the first paragraph of a story called “More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand,” possibly my favorite among the stories in Rosamund Hodge’s delightful collection, Desires and Dreams and Powers.

A friend sent me a copy as a gift, and I’m extremely grateful to him. As I’ve often said, I don’t much care for most modern fantasy. But when someone gets it exactly right – as in the cases of Walter Wangerin, and Mark Helprin, and Leif Enger, the result is delight of an exquisite sort.

The stories in Desires and Dreams and Powers are of diverse kinds, within the general fantasy genre. There is urban fantasy, and tales of witches, and tales of monsters. But most of them (at least as I recall them) are faery stories. And that’s like a birthday present to me.

Ever since I read Tolkien’s essay, “On Faery Stories,” I’ve wanted to write faeries properly. I tried it in Troll Valley – which I think is a pretty good book, but I’m not at all sure I got the Faery/Huldre thing right. Susanna Clark got it right, I think, in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And now I declare, by the powers vested in me, that Rosamund Hodge gets it right too. The strangeness, the danger, the alien unreason of the faeries is as well depicted here as it ever has been. Kudos to the author.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. On top of the imaginative genius, the prose is first class. Cautions are in order – not for the usual “adult” material, but for the weird and the alien and the disturbing (and the cruel). But read it, if you’re a grown-up and not overly sensitive. There may be a Christian element here too, though it’s not at all explicit.

‘The Conservative Mind,’ by Russell Kirk

The assault on institutional religion, on old-fashioned economic methods, on family authority, and on small political communities has set the individual free from nearly everything, truly; but that freedom is a terrifying thing, the freedom of a baby deserted by his parents to do as he pleases.

I have done it. I have successfully read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind all the way through. I rate this accomplishment just a bit behind getting my master’s degree.

The essence of conservatism is aristocracy – at least that’s what this book seems to be saying. Which is not optically optimal, in my mind. And I may be misreading Kirk’s intentions – he may simply be accurately transcribing the arguments of the historical conservatives he’s surveying, from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot.

Most English and American conservatives, up until recently, have defended some kind of aristocracy. Not because they believe aristocrats to be superior by blood, but for prudential reasons. Your alternatives in governance, they argue, are either some kind of autocracy – where a monarch or a dictator rules by personal caprice – or pure democracy, where the public, which knows only what it wants, uses its votes to allocate all the wealth to itself. You can’t get any kind of real justice from either alternative.

The aristocracy, they have argued, is some kind of class of men (or people) who’ve been schooled in the ancient truths and the lessons of history. They preserve the institutions that guarantee rights and freedom, which dictators and the masses alike would take away.

Since the 20th Century, though, the cause of aristocracy has mostly been lost, and we’ve been trying to find a way to raise an aristocracy out of the general public through education. Kirk saw hope for the future at the time of writing, feeling that conservatives were producing good art and analysis and positively influencing culture.

It seems to me, however, that prospects look less sunny since the 1980s when the book was last updated. We now have an educational system expressly committed to erasing the Anglo-American tradition. And our immigration policies are focused on bringing in large numbers of people who are either indifferent or actively hostile to that tradition.

Kirk’s original title for the book was The Conservative Rout. He meant it to be a story of a long retreat, but with hope in the end. For the conservative reader in the early 21st Century, I fear the outlook is less encouraging.

And that was before the epidemic…

Blogging through ‘The Conservative Mind’: Evangelicalism

Continuing my fairly random commentary on Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind:

Good will is not enough to safeguard freedom and justice: this delusion leads to the triumph of every demagogue and tyrant, and no amount of transplanted Idealism can compensate for the loss of religious sanctions. Men’s passions are held in check only by the punishments of divine wrath and the tender affections of piety.

This passage from Kirk’s chapter on Orestes Brownson is part of one of many discussions where the place of Christianity – or at least religion in general – is considered. Although most of the notable conservatives in the book are heterodox in some sense, and some are even agnostics or atheists, the importance of religion as such looms large. One exception is Roman Catholicism – several of the great conservatives are Catholics, or at least high Anglicans.

Catholics come off pretty well in this book – which annoys me a bit, of course. Still, I can’t deny that the Reformation was a liberalizing force (heck, I’m proud of it. See my post last night). Luther didn’t abolish the hierarchy of the church (check out the organizations of most Lutheran churches worldwide), but he affirmed the principle that there’s a direct line between the believer and Christ, absent the mediation of the priest. In the context of history, this was a step toward individualism and what Kirk calls “atomization” – mankind conceived as a mass of unconnected individuals, all free-floating clients of the state, undistinguished by family, status, or personal qualities.

It’s interesting for an evangelical to observe that evangelicals are newbies to the conservative movement. Again, this is something I already knew – evangelicals were Abolitionists and the Prohibitionists, trying to re-shape the world through legislation, to change mankind through enlightened government force.

But there were dangers in that approach, as we can see now. The reformer who wants to save the world from slavery and Demon Rum, goes on to try to save it from guns and cigarettes and fossil fuels and transphobia.

And yet I don’t believe in a purely libertarian approach either. I think the government has a role to play in legislating morality – all laws, after all, legislate morality to one extent or another.

I’m thinking it over.

Blogging ‘The Conservative Mind’

OK, folks. I’m back on course. I hope you’re all safe, sheltering in place, avoiding hugs, and keeping well.

As I explained a few inches down the page, I’m reading Russell Kirk’s interesting but interminable The Conservative Mind, and blogging as I go. Parts of the book were kind of a shock to me, though a salutary one.

One thing you learn in reading this book this that it’s not a canard to say that conservatives are against Democracy. To the contrary, early conservatives (like Edmund Burke, particular hero of this book), considered Democracy a positive threat to a decent social order. The American Founders generally shared that view. When we say “We are not a democracy, we’re a republic,” it’s true – or was.

Kirk lays that principle down, early in the book, in a list of conservative principles. Here are his words:

[Conservatives hold a ] Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservative often have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

This idea in itself was not a surprise to me – I talk about the same thing in my work with Lutheran Free Church history. But I’ve approached it from the other side. I’ve often told listeners and readers that the Norwegian Lutheran pietists who founded my church body were liberals in their time. That the primary difference between liberals and conservatives in those days was their different ideas about the place of the common people in society. Conservatives wanted hierarchy and ancient privileges preserved. Liberals wanted the common people to participate ever more fully in all public life. Hence universal education, leading to broader voting rights.

To the early conservatives, this was all disastrous. The breakdown of the social classes must inevitably lead to the debasement of moral life. There would be no more great, highly educated men to emulate – everything would be debased to a common level of undistinguished mediocrity.

I don’t think we’re meant to take all the early conservatives’ ideas seriously – they mostly distrusted the abolition of slavery, for instance (wanting it to be delayed and happen naturally). For my own part, I can’t help being proud of the achievements of (limited) democracy in America – Abraham Lincoln, as I’ve often said, was a walking reproach to the class-conscious old conservatives.

On the other hand, the horrors those old conservatives predicted seem to be coming upon us at last.

Possibly the American experiment was a fragile flower, one that bloomed briefly in a specialized environment in a blessed time and place, never to be seen again.

But I hope not.

‘Return to the Future,’ by Sigrid Undset

Pre-Christian pagans – Greeks and Romans and Nordic peoples, or redskins and Asiatic tribes – have usually conceived of the Golden Age as having been some time in the past. The present was hard, and the future was dark and full of menace. When the Christian Church began to speak and taught that God’s kingdom would come, it was in reality challenging people’s innermost convictions.

Inconstant and fickle as I am, I shall now contradict what I told you yesterday about blogging my way through The Conservative Mind. A small writing job came up which required me to bone up on Sigrid Undset, and I decided I needed to read an Undset book I’ve owned for a while but had not yet read – her 1942 war memoir, Return to the Future.

The original manuscript for Viking Legacy included a short passage from Undset, about the ancient piles of stones in Norway which have been cleared from the fields over the centuries. She declares them Norway’s “proudest monuments of antiquity” (my translation). Sadly, that passage (which I adored) was omitted from the final version. I didn’t realize, until I picked up Return to the Future, that it was the opening paragraph of that work.

In April 1940, as the Germans advanced northward in Norway, author Sigrid Undset left her home in Lillehammer in haste. She and her youngest son, Hans, fled with other refugees up to the coast at Molde, where they turned eastward toward the Swedish border, traveling at times on foot or on skis. It was only after their arrival in Sweden that they learned that her oldest son, Anders, an officer in the Norwegian army, had been killed in action. After a short stayover in Sweden, she and Hans took a Russian plane for a connection to the Trans-Siberian railroad.

The trip on the Trans-Siberian forms a large section of the book, and does not present an appealing picture. Even traveling first class, they found the accommodations (built under the Czars and badly maintained) filthy, the food terrible, the compartments stifling (you could not open the windows because of the soot, which got in anyway), and there was no running water. What she saw of the country revealed nothing but poverty, filth, and dull, lifeless faces. In spite of vaunted universal literacy, almost nobody read anything. The Catholic Undset saw in Russia everything she already suspected about Communism.

Arriving in Vladivostok, they take a steamer to Japan, and it’s a whole different world. Though like the rest of the world she is appalled by reports of Japanese atrocities in China, she can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the clothing and the architecture, the delicate politeness of the people (though they insist on ignoring her in favor of Hans, because he’s the male), and the cleanliness everywhere. Her description of the Japanese leg of her trip gives her the opportunity to meditate at length on the nature of politics and power, and how the West has – to some extent – brought the war on itself through treating non-westerners as if they were as materialistic as we are.

Her voyage ended in the United States, and she crossed our country by train, finally settling in Brooklyn. But the book ends before her arrival. One assumes it was brought out fairly quickly, as part of her campaign to promote the cause of the Norwegian government in exile.

Return to the Future was interesting, both for the first-hand account of Norway under attack, and for Undset’s thoughts about international politics, morality and war. She spends a lot of time on the historical sins of the Germans (she baldly declares Martin Luther a “psychopath,” but I forgive her). The sense of the title, as I understand it, is that the Nazi invasion had plunged Norway back into the dark past, and that in coming to America she was returning to the “future” to which she was accustomed. The implication is that America had an obligation to bring that future back for the victims of the war. I would rate the translation by Henriette C. K. Naeseth as adequate, though I flatter myself that I could have done better.

‘Rollover,’ by James Raven

Thrillers as a genre are different from mysteries, but there tends to be a lot of overlap. Thrillers concentrate on building tension and unease in the reader, but a mystery element adds to that tension. Me, I’m more of a mystery person than a thriller person, and Rollover, by James Raven, kept me reading, but took me far beyond my comfort zone. Which will have been, of course the point.

Danny Cain is a journalist, partner in a struggling independent news agency in Southampton, England, with his friend Vince. One evening he gets a call from Vince – he has to come right over. Vince has won the national lottery! Their troubles are over!

But when he gets there, Danny finds Vince dead, bludgeoned to death on the floor. Before he can telephone the police, he gets a call from his wife’s mobile phone – a strange man’s voice says to get out of there and wait for further instructions. They have kidnapped Danny’s wife and 6-year-old daughter; if he doesn’t follow instructions, they will die.

Then begins Danny’s ordeal – once of those situations where things start impossible and then get worse. He has no resources to call on, and his enemies seem organized, omniscient, and remorseless. Doing what he’s told might be impossible, and even if he can, chances of survival are low.

Meanwhile, Hampshire Detective Jeff Temple is called to the crime scene. Danny Cain looks like the obvious culprit, but Jeff isn’t sure. Things don’t add up, but he has no idea what awful revelations will come to light before it’s all over.

Taunt, tense, and remorseless, Rollover is a masterful thriller. It worked so well that I’m scared to continue on with the sequel.

Amazon Prime video review: ‘The Adventures of Jim Bowie’

Sometimes, as I said when I reviewed the series, “Yancy Derringer” a while back, you can watch a beloved childhood show and be pleasantly surprised. And sometimes the show is just as dumb as you expect. Such is the case with “The Adventures of Jim Bowie,” a two-season series that ran from 1956 to 1958. I streamed it on Amazon Plus.

Simplified and sanitized for a half-hour time period and a kids’ audience, “The Adventures of Jim Bowie” is sort of Bizarro-Jim. A lot of what happens is based on actual events – but they’re usually portrayed the wrong way around.

The very first episode, for instance, explains how Jim designs his knife and gets it made by a blacksmith. His kid-friendly reason for this is given as a need to protect himself from bears. (Wilderness survival tip – this does not work.) In real life, Jim acquired his knife because he’d been in a life-and-death fight with a man and his pistol misfired. Stories vary as to who designed the knife – it may have been his smarter brother Rezin – but it probably wasn’t Jim himself.

Aside from his efforts in the Texan War of Independence, which are genuinely impressive, Jim Bowie’s main accomplishments mostly consisted of criminal activity. He and his friend, the pirate Jean Lafitte (who appears in several episodes), conspired to exploit a loophole in the laws forbidding the importation of slaves. This allowed them to effectively “launder” their human merchandise, and then sell it at a premium. (Look up the details if you’re interested; it’s complicated.) In this series, the issue of the slave trade is generally avoided, except for one episode where Jim risks his life to rescue a slave he has freed from being sold again.

Jim’s biggest scam, though, involved forging old Spanish land grants, which the US government had agreed to honor. Jim created a large number of fake grants (not very skillfully), and managed to tie up quite a lot of land titles for a long time. He eventually lost all his claims in court, but not before many innocent people lost a lot of money. In my memory, there was one episode of the show that dealt with false land grants, but in which Bowie uncovers rather than perpetrates the fraud. However, that must be the one episode that Amazon Prime skips in its rotation, because I didn’t see it here.

The knife that bore the Bowie name, his great trademark, gets flashed a lot in the show, but doesn’t actually get used much for its proper purpose. He throws it often, frequently to disarm other men. But only one opponent gets stabbed as far as I can recall, and that’s pretty much by accident.

A number of historical characters show up – John James Audubon, Andrew Jackson (whom Bowie didn’t support, contrary to the show), Sam Houston, Johnny Appleseed, Jefferson Davis. They are often portrayed in fairly authentic ways (they take particular pains to make Davy Crockett look right. The Walt Disney series was a recent memory then). You could actually learn some fair basic history by watching this show, if you discount the main character himself.

Beyond that, the writing is simple and the plots dumb. This is a garden variety TV western aimed at kids, but without revolving pistols. It’s OK for mindless entertainment, but your life won’t be impoverished much if you give it a miss.

A note on the star: Scott Forbes was an English actor who learned his southern accent from a female voice coach whom he went on to marry. He plays the party pretty broadly. According to one source, he walked off the set just before the last episode was filmed, on hearing that the show had been cancelled. They covered by hiring another actor (not a famous one) to play an outlaw who gets a pardon for going on a mission to Texas in Bowie’s place.

‘Murder at Flood Tide,’ by Robert McNeill

A woman is strangled in an out-of-the way spot in Edinburgh. Detective Inspector Jack Knox is surprised to learn that the case has been taken over by a “more sophisticated” police team from western Scotland. Their leader, however, turns out to be a decent and sensible fellow. He puts Jack in operational command and makes his people available to reinforce the local cops, who know the territory.

Crime scene investigation, witness reports, and CCTV suggest that the killer drove a delivery van, so the team begins a systematic investigation of delivery companies and their drivers. Slowly the noose tightens, but surprises are in store.

That’s how Robert McNeill’s Murder at Flood Tide goes. It’s not a thriller, but a fairly realistic police procedural, like the previous volume in the series, The Innocent and the Dead, which I’ve already reviewed. The drama is mostly low-key, but along with the threat of the serial killer, there is an insubordinate team member to be dealt with.

I like the realistic approach of this series, but I can’t pretend I find these books compelling. They are entertainment with a moderate level of dramatic tension; nothing to keep you awake at night.

‘Redhead,’ by Stan Jackson

I used to be a beanpole, just below six foot of skin, muscle and bone, but now, when I showered in the morning, it was like navigating the Yorkshire Dales.

It is a melancholy thing to come to the end of a book series you’re enjoying a lot. I don’t know if Stan Jackson intends to write any more Perry Webster novels – he’s kind of running out of hair colors. Peroxide? Titian? Dishwater?

Anyway, Redhead is the fourth in the series, and perhaps the best, depending on your preferences. Author Jackson gets better as he goes.

At the risk of spoiling it for people who haven’t finished the previous book, I have to tell you that Perry is married now, to Julia Emburey, the headmistress of a prep school. Julia thinks she has no relations, but is startled to learn she has a cousin – in France. Perry and Julia travel to the home of this woman, Gabrielle Dupont (originally Gale Emburey) who is very rich. Julia had known of Gabrielle’s father, her uncle, who was accused of murdering his wife and disappeared with his baby daughter. Now she learns that he went to France, where he changed his identity and had considerable business success.

Gabrielle says that her late father was innocent of the murder. She would like Perry to investigate the cold case. If he can vindicate her father, Gabrielle will make a major (and much needed) contribution to Julia’s school.

Both of them dislike Gabrielle from the start, but the money is tempting, and what harm could there be in righting an old injustice?

There was another suspect in the case, the “redhead” of the title – a French au pair who also disappeared at the time of the murder. But she had no apparent motive. Perry begins questioning friends and associates from those days, asking questions that most of them find puzzling, but that one of them finds absolutely threatening…

I enjoyed Redhead, as I have enjoyed the whole series. The writing has always been good, and the plotting has improved from book to book.

I’m happy that Perry has found a satisfying marriage, though I’m not entirely sold on Julia. She’s great most of the time, but occasionally she exhibits a prickly, feminist humorlessness that puts me off. No doubt female readers will react differently.

There’s an odd element in this one related to religion. Perry visits a sort of modern hippie commune, where they teach what seems to be a rationalized Christianity. “Grace” is their watchword, but without all that supernatural stuff. No doubt that seems positive to the contemporary English; I don’t think it holds up in practice. You’ve got to deal with original sin – a topic which, ironically, gets mentioned in passing.

I should note that at one point author Jackson uses the phrase “begging the question” correctly. Full marks for that! A rare pleasure in contemporary books.

Also, there’s a chilling anticlimax.

Good book, and recommended. I’ll read the next, if there is one. Mousy? Bald?

‘Raven,’ by Stan Jackson

Like the raising of the Mary Rose, Suzie’s words, and now Cyl’s, had brought it to the surface and like the Mary Rose, the thought emerged covered in stuff I didn’t want to delve into.

I’ve been calling this series of mysteries by Stan Jackson the “Ste Webster” series, because that’s what everyone’s been calling the character up to now in the books. But in the present volume, Raven, “Ste” and his friends have started referring to him as Perry. Which is also what the series is called on the Amazon pages, so I guess that’s what I ought to be calling him now.

Ste, or Perry, Webster is, as you may recall, a professor of philosophy at the University of York. His fiancée was murdered in the first volume, Blonde, and he managed to identify the killer. This has given him a reputation as a detective, and occasionally people ask him to solve other crimes.

This time out, Perry is approached by a former student, Laura “Raven” Wellbourne. She tells him that as a girl she attended St Barnabas School, a prestigious nearby institution, comparable to an American prep school. During her time there, she tells him, she was blackmailed and serially abused in secret by the headmaster, Dr MacDonald. As an adult, now with an academic degree, she changed her identity and appearance and returned to the school, getting a job as an instructor. Her plan was to somehow find evidence of MacDonald’s true character, and expose him.

But now Dr MacDonald has been murdered, found floating in the school swimming pool with his head smashed. Raven is the police’s chief suspect, but she swears she didn’t do it. Since she’s been relieved of duties, someone is needed to cover her classes. Could Perry fill in for her, on a pretext, and try to find the real killer?

Perry is so appalled by what she’s been through that he agrees to do it. Before long an audit reveals that Dr MacDonald has been involved in massive misappropriation of school funds, to the extent that its future is jeopardized. This is of great concern to the acting interim headmistress, Julia Emburey, a very attractive woman who has raised an interest in Perry that he hasn’t felt since his fiancée died. But is MacDonald’s embezzlement the motive for the murder?

I’m enjoying this series of novels immensely. Sometimes you just “hit it off” with a series or a character. I like Perry Webster, and enjoy spending time in his company. Also, author Jackson has fixed some of the writing problems I’ve identified in earlier books.

So I recommend Raven, along with the whole series. Mild cautions for adult themes.

‘A Fatal Liaison,’ by David Pearson

On a country road near Dublin, a wealthy property developer is found dead in a crashed car. It wasn’t the crash that killed him.

Not far away, in a shed in the woods, a young man is found naked and stabbed to death.

Detectives Aidan Burke and Fiona Moore are on the case. The books at the older victim’s office look fishy, and his company’s labor force seems dodgy. But his family situation was odd as well. No lack of motives here, but lots and lots of secrets.

That’s the premise of David Pearson’s A Fatal Liaison, second in his Burke and Moore mystery series. I’ve reviewed the previous volume before, and this one completes the series to date. No doubt there will be more, because these books work pretty well.

As a Typical Male ™, I assumed at first that Aidan Burke, the senior detective, was the main character. But he’s really not. Aidan is smart enough and knows his job, but he has a drinking problem and has lost a step or two. He doesn’t treat Fiona badly, according to his somewhat Neanderthal lights, but his younger sergeant is actually smarter than he is. More than once she suggests a line of inquiry that he barely notices, which turns out vital once she’s followed it up.

A Fatal Liaison is a solid entry in a solid series. It’s not one of my personal favorites, but I have no cause to complain. Cautions for language and mature subject matter. Also implied criticism of traditional Christian morality.

‘Brunette,’ by Stan Jackson

Stan Jackson’s Ste Webster mystery series continues with its second hair color title, Brunette. Once again Ste, a professor at the University of York, has a murder to solve… for reasons of his own.

Mackenzie West was, despite her brown hair, a golden girl at the University. Beautiful and popular, she was a good student and a star athlete, a prospect for the British Olympic fencing team. Until one morning she plunged down a stairwell to her death.

It could have been an accident, or suicide, but the police suspect murder, and Inspector Allen would like nothing better than to pin it on Ste Webster. Failing that, there’s another faculty member he has his eye on, Matt Harper, head of the Philosophy Department. Matt’s a friend, and Ste doesn’t believe he did it. When both Mackenzie’s parents and Matt ask him to look into the matter, he hesitates but agrees, partly to appease his personal demons. He’ll have to keep out of Inspector Allen’s way, but he’ll try.

It soon appears that Mackenzie had dark secrets no one guessed. Ste finds not one but several people who had plausible reasons for killing her. Which gives them reasons for silencing Ste as well…

As with Blonde, the previous book in the series, I enjoyed Brunette quite a lot, but had reservations. The prose is very good, and I like Ste and his supporting cast. As an added bonus, both Chesterton and C. S. Lewis get quoted (though Ste is not religious).

On the down side, I’m still annoyed by Ste’s tendency to walk into danger without protection, and the author’s tendency to rescue him through sheer luck. That’s a plot strategy that can’t be sustained forever. Also, the conclusion of the book was a little bit ambivalent in moral terms.

Still, I’m going on to the next book. The pleasures outweigh my reservations. Minor cautions are in order for language and subject matter.

‘Blonde,’ by Stan Jackson

The occupant of the final ensemble, the only one of the three sitting, combined wrinkles with lack of hair like a pug slightly ironed.

Years back, I read a mystery called By Frequent Anguish, by S.F.X. Dean. It was the story of an academic whose girlfriend is murdered. It moved me deeply, for personal reasons. The sequel, however, left me cold, and I didn’t read any more in the series.

Blonde, by Stan Jackson, had much the same effect on me, and shares a similar premise. Perry “Ste” Webster, who teaches philosophy at a fictional campus of the University of York in England, was in love with Anna, a local barmaid. Though her social status displeased Ste’s upper-class parents, she was beautiful and smart and full of life – until Ste found her stabbed to death in her apartment one night. The police, of course, fixed on him as their primary suspect, but he has an alibi and powerful friends.

Soon he discovers an important clue – Anna’s diary. But reading it, he finds that she wrote in it about a personal secret he confided to her. He doesn’t want the police to see that secret. So, in spite of his grief, he takes it upon himself to investigate Anna’s personal connections. Some of the people she worked with were involved in a disastrous investment scheme, and owed a lot of money. Ste uncovers some dark secrets and angers some dangerous people, but the final solution to the mystery will be a complete shock.

I enjoyed Blonde very much. Not only was the mystery fascinating and the characters appealing, but the writing sometimes rose to a very high level (though the author has a lamentable tendency to overuse exclamations marks). And though no particular deference is paid to Christianity, Ste Webster as a philosopher and reader seems to me to be mostly on the right lines.

On the other hand, Ste can be an annoying detective. His approach to dangerous situations is generally to just walk in and trust that some deus ex machina will save his bacon. That weak plot device was used a little too much in this book, imho.

However, I have proceeded to the next book in the series. Recommended.