Category Archives: Reviews

‘Deadly Still,’ by Keith Moray

West Uist, the fictional Hebrides island that provides the setting for Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon mysteries, suffers from Midsommer Syndrome. It’s a remote and bucolic place, filled with a population divided among the inoffensive and the eccentric, and yet it keeps throwing up murders. The latest involves the age-old tradition of illegal whisky distillation on the island.

As Deadly Still begins, Police Sergeant Morag Driscoll is off for a morning jog when she discovers a local teenager wandering blind in the heather. She and two friends had been celebrating completing their final tests with peatreek (the Scottish equivalent of moonshine) in an abandoned World War II bunker. Now she can’t see, one of her friends is unresponsive, and the other has disappeared entirely.

At about the same time, a local businessman is found dead. It looks like the result of a drunken fall, but laboratory analysis will show that he’s been imbibing the bad peatreek as well.

Except that the level of methyl alcohol in this stuff is way higher than is probable in ordinary home distilling. Someone has a grudge and an agenda, and Inspector Torquil McKinnon (who already had his hands full with his wedding plans) will need to stop that person before anyone else dies. And what happened to the missing girl?

I always come back to the Torquil McKinnon books with pleasure. I like the setting, I like the characters. I don’t rank Deadly Still as the best in the series – I had trouble keeping the characters straight in this one, but maybe that’s just because I’m getting old.

Recommended, like the whole series.

‘The Saboteur,’ by Andrew Gross

In 1965, an English/American film called The Heroes of Telemark was released. It starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian saboteurs attacking the German “heavy water” (deuterium oxide) production facility at Rjukan in Telemark during World War II. Heavy water was a necessary buffering agent in the German program to split the atom, presumably to produce an atomic bomb.

The film took a highly cinematic approach to the story, compressing all the action into a couple weeks and replacing the actual participants with fictionalized and combined characters. It found a mixed response in Norway, where people who’d been through the war complained that it took Kirk Douglas two weeks to do by himself what it took a whole team two years to accomplish in real life.

I kept thinking of that film as I read The Saboteur, Andrew Gross’s similarly (though not so thoroughly) fictionalized account of the same clandestine operations.

Kurt Nordstrum is a Norwegian engineer who leaves his career to join the Resistance – with tragic consequences in his personal life. When an engineer at the Norsk Hydro facility in Rjukan tells him and a comrade that they need to get some microfilm to the English immediately, they hijack a coastal steamer and – just barely – manage to escape to Scotland. Then he and his friend join Company Linge, the Norwegian commando unit, and are eventually airdropped back in Norway. Their mission, from which they do not expect to return alive, is to destroy the Heavy Water production facility. Kurt’s father used to tell him, “A true man goes on until he can go no further… and then he goes twice as far.” And that’s precisely what he and his team will be called on to do before it’s over.

Honestly, I found this a hard book to read, but I’m not sure it’s the book’s fault. I knew this story pretty well already, and so was preparing myself emotionally for the unpleasant parts. Author Gross anticipates those expectations to an extent by making small changes in the story. Kurt Nordstrum (who is essentially standing in for real saboteur Knut Haukelid but has a very different back story), is enabled by his imaginary status to do stuff, and get into dilemmas, that Haukelid never did. I found some of those stuff and dilemmas somewhat implausible, but I can’t deny I was moved by the entirely imaginary heroics at the end.

I was bothered all through by the fictional changes, especially the handling of the characters. Several of the saboteurs here are real people, others are fictional (including an entirely imaginary Norwegian-American). I understand the narrative freedom that gave the author (as mentioned above), but it kind of nagged at me.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about the spelling of Norwegian names and places. It’s pretty hit and miss, but I probably should be thankful for the effort.

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I can recommend The Saboteur to those who aren’t already familiar with the Heavy Water mission. But after you read it, you’ll want to read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress or something like that to get the actual facts.

‘Murder at the Meet,’ by Bruce Beckham

‘We did a project on it when I was at primary school. The Vicious Vikings. Although most of the settlements’ names are quite innocuous. Applethwaite, Brackenthwaite, Crosthwaite – quite often you can work it out.’

DS Leyton looks rather bemused.

‘So, what – did they speak English?’

DS Jones giggles as though she thinks he must be joking. But then she responds. ‘No – we speak Old Norse.’

It’s one of the charms of Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill novels (for me) that there are occasional allusions to the history of the Cumberland region where Skelgill operates. In the passage above, our detectives, Skelgill, DS Jones (female) and DS Leyton (male) are talking about local farm names, which often contain the element “thwaite,” which is related to the Norwegian word “tvedt.” Both mean “field.”

But that’s not what Murder at the Meet, the latest Skelgill novel, is mainly about. More than 20 years ago, a young wife and mother named Mary Wilson disappeared during the annual Shepherd’s Meet. As it happens, that was the same year a teenager named Dan Skelgill won the Fell Runners’ race, setting a long-standing record. At the time, the police employed brand-new technology, DNA testing, matching it to the one discovered piece of evidence, to try to identify her attacker or abductor (assuming she didn’t just run off). But without success.

Now Mary’s bones have been found, by archaeologists in a local cave. Skelgill and his team start interviewing surviving witnesses and family members, and discover – as you would expect – a number of old secrets and personal grudges. And all the while Skelgill does his own eccentric thing – applying his knowledge of local geography, biology and weather, along with the sensibilities of a fisherman.

It’s all enjoyable and familiar for the Skelgill fan. I did think this effort was a little unfair to the reader, as we were denied the information that finally unlocks the puzzle until after the climax – and so we didn’t know what all the urgency was about. That reduced the suspense for me.

But that aside, Murder at the Meet was an enjoyable read, and is recommended.

‘The Truth About Murder,’ by Chris Collett

There’s a lot of good to be said about Christ Collett’s new stand-alone mystery, The Truth About Murder. But I also found it somewhat aggravating.

First of all, full marks for originality in giving us a new kind of investigative hero – Stefan Greaves is a lawyer in the (fictional, I presume) middle English town of Charnford. From the beginning, it’s clear that Stefan suffers from some kind of disability, but author Collett (annoyingly, in my view) puts off naming it until nearly half-way through the book. I’ll risk spoiling it by telling you that he has cerebral palsy. To reduce associated muscle tension, he smokes pot regularly. Because social interactions are difficult (he has trouble being understood when he talks) he sees an “escort” regularly.

Stefan gets a visit from a local nurse, who is concerned about mortality rates in the neonatal ward where she works. Not long afterward she disappears, and when her body is found in the river, the verdict is suicide – though her daughter insists she was a Catholic and would never do that.

Investigating the disappearance and death is Mick Fraser, a local cop. Mick is concerned about his partner, whose time has been monopolized by their commander lately. He’s been secretive, and Mick begins to suspect him of corruption. In fact, it’s far worse than that…

As the plot thickens (rather slowly I thought, and with too much reliance on coincidence) Stefan and Mick are drawn together to uncover a sinister and heinous plot that threatens the whole country.

I never fell in love with The Truth About Murder, or with Stefan Greaves as a character. (He shares, with many fictional detectives, a gift for having attractive women throw themselves at him constantly, in spite of his disability. I complain of this trope often in my reviews, and if you think that means I’m jealous… well, I am.)

However, the book’s themes pleased me greatly. Without spoiling it for the reader, I’ll just say that it involved controversial issues of medical ethics. Author Collett seems to be unaware of (or is avoiding) the fact that the evil in view here is more associated with the Left than the Right in our time. But that may be a strategic choice intended not to alienate readers. I don’t know Collett’s politics, but if he’s conservative I salute his strategy, and if he’s liberal I salute his moral sense.

I can’t give The Truth About Murder my highest recommendation, but it’s worth reading. There’s a suggestion that this might be the start of a new series. I’m not wholly enthusiastic about that prospect.

Retro movie review: ‘5 Card Stud’

Hard as it might be to believe, I’m still lacking a finished book to review tonight. I’m finding my current read a little slow, I guess – though it’s gaining interest as I proceed. It’ll probably be ready tomorrow.

What else to talk about? Today lacked the pulse-pounding social interactions of yesterday. I watched the last half of a movie I’m fond of last night, though. I can gas about that.

5 Card Stud (1968) is not a great movie, but I find it endlessly entertaining, and generally watch it whenever it shows up. Its attractions are many.

Dean Martin in the lead. Dino was the archetypal Italian-American and seems an odd choice as a western star. But he loved westerns, and excelled in roles where he could play breezy, wisecracking types. By all accounts he was a nice guy too, and faithful to his wife, at least for a long time. Similarly, he joked about drinking a lot, but didn’t actually… until the time came when he did. Here he plays Van Morgan, a gambler who tries to stop fellow card players from lynching a cheater, but fails. Later the participants in the game start being murdered, one by one.

Robert Mitchum plays Rev. Jonathan Rudd, a mysterious preacher who comes to town and starts tweaking the surviving players’ consciences. Mitchum, I was interested to learn a while back, was half Norwegian. His mother was Norwegian.

It’s odd when I think back, but I can recall as a young boy thinking that Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum were the same guy. I guess tall, dark guys like that weren’t very common in my world and they all looked alike to me.

But the big draw in 5 Card Stud is Inger Stevens, who plays a prostitute named Lily Langford. It has been my contention for many years that Inger was the most beautiful woman to show up on the public scene in my lifetime. (My friend Mark Goldblatt calls her the “ultimate shiksa.”) She was a Swedish immigrant, but had assimilated to the extent that she had to re-learn her accent when she got the title role in the TV series, The Farmer’s Daughter. An unhappy woman, they say, a little like Marilyn Monroe in forever searching for fulfillment in a man’s love and never finding it. She would die just two years later, in 1970, probably a suicide.

But what beauty! At once regal and impish.

Sadly, most of the films she did that show up on TV from time to time are ones I don’t want to watch. Not even Hang ‘em High, with Clint Eastwood, which is pretty good for the most part, but includes a multiple hanging scene that I, wimp that I am, just can’t handle.

Anyway, 5 Card Stud is a mystery without much actual mystery, and the acting is sometimes over the top. The dialogue can be weak too, though the script was written by Marguerite Roberts, who would write the great True Grit a few years down the line. (However, it should be noted that True Grit follows Charles Portis’s novel very closely, so not a lot of creativity was required. Anyway, Roberts was a Commie.)

But it’s a treat to watch Martin, Mitchum, and Stevens go through their paces. And Dean sings the title song.

‘The Unknown, by Brett Battles

Jonathan Quinn and his team of international agents return in The Unknown, the 14th book in the series. Regular readers will know what to expect, and author Brett Battles delivers.

On a winter night in Austria, a very important scientist named Brunner is traveling under the protection of bodyguards provided by the Office, the private security firm our heroes work for. It should be a routine mission, but they are attacked, there is loss of life, and Brunner is expertly extracted by kidnappers. This is bad news for the Office, which has only recently reconstituted itself as a business, so their operational chief contacts Jonathan Quinn. Though ostensibly a Cleaner, a wiper of evidence after “wet” operations, Quinn has a well-earned reputation for effective and efficient field work. He summons his regular team, including his wife Orlando, his old partner Nate, and a couple East Asian friends. As a concession, they allow Kincaid, the failed bodyguard, to come along. He has something to prove.

They face well-organized, efficient, and well-financed opponents, but Quinn always finds a way. This time out they are assisted in particular by Jar, a minor character in previous books. Jar is a Thai computer genius, a woman. She is obviously autistic, but is learning to deal with illogical normals. She provides a surprisingly charming addition to the cast.

They also get unexpected – and suspicious – help from a source they neither understand nor trust, though it seems to be leading them in the right direction.

Like all the Jonathan Quinn books, The Unknown was fun. It wasn’t deathless literature, but it offered interesting interactions and a fast pace. Recommended.

Thursday thoughts, including Inspector Thursday

I need to write something extra-good tonight, because there’s a good chance I’ll be absent tomorrow. Being retired, I can usually figure on my schedule being pretty open, but tomorrow I have two long meetings . (Both, alas, meetings unconnected with the earning of money.)

But I’m short on subject matter. I drained my brain last night; I’m fresh out of profound thoughts.

Fended off a Facebook con artist this morning. Got a friend request from a young woman in another state, suspiciously attractive judging by her picture. But we had a mutual friend, and she had the right kind of links posted on her home page, so I gave it a shot. It was but the work of a moment for her to message me and tell me she was looking for a boyfriend. I did give her a fair chance, telling her politely that I was much too old for her. When she told me she didn’t care about that, I severed our association. I may be a fool, as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, “but I’m not a bloody fool.”

I guess I can be proud I’m still sharp enough not to fall for such things.

I’m also a little sad that I’m old enough to have lost all illusion in the area.

The sixth season of Endeavour is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Six seasons already? How did that happen?

I keep waiting for Shaun Evans to acquire that mark on his temple that his older self has.

I liked the original Morse series very much, but I’m strongly tempted to like this prequel even better. It’s a good recreation of the era when I came of age (though Morse was a little older than me) and it’s more character-driven, I think. The Morse series concentrated mostly on the interplay between Morse and Lewis – and that was excellent. But Endeavour has a larger continuing cast, characters about whom we have come to care. For my part, I particularly like Inspector Bright, who reminds me of a number of older men I’ve known in church work. He came in pretty unsympathetic, but we’ve come to see his finer qualities since then.

The first episode had a character I immediately marked as the Culprit, simply on the basis of established contemporary TV stereotypes. I was delighted to be wrong.

Maybe things will work out all right in the world.

‘Crimes of the Levee,’ by John Sturgeon

It seems to me one of the tragedies of our current literary situation (which I pray is transitional) that authors who have something to say and good author’s instincts often lack the “school of hard knocks” experience and editorial hoop-jumping that forced us old guys to learn our craft. John Sturgeon, author of Crimes of the Levee, strikes me as having that problem.

Crimes of the Levee is set in Chicago in 1905. “The Levee” is a vice district, where prostitution, gambling, and drug use are endemic (some of these things, like prostitution, are actually legal). Patrick Moses is a police detective who works there. He is a practicing Catholic, but embittered by the deaths of his wife and children. His chief friends are the prostitute he dates; his partner, a German-American named Gunter; and the priest who was his father figure when he was growing up in an orphanage. But he keeps them at a distance. When the pain gets too great, he drinks or uses opium.

He and Gunter are public heroes as the book starts. They arrested Simon Kluge, a serial killer who has just been executed. Now they are asked to hunt for a missing woman – the niece of the Italian ambassador, who is rumored to have been kidnapped by white slavers and put to work in the Levee. At about the same time, fabled merchant Marshall Field summons Patrick personally, asking him to investigate the death of his son. Supposedly, Marshall Field, Jr. shot himself while cleaning his gun, but the father doubts that story. To his puzzlement, Patrick finds that the old man himself seems to have organized the cover-up.

To top it all off, women are being murdered again, in the very same way Simon Kluge killed his victims. Was the wrong man executed? Or did Kluge have an accomplice?

Crimes of the Levee, taken as a story, is a pretty good “mean streets” sort of tale. There’s a good sense of place and atmosphere. However, I had trouble figuring out the story’s final resolution – I think I may have puzzled it out, but it seemed to me too subtle by half.

But my big problem with the book was the writing itself. Author Sturgeon has problems with basic spelling and punctuation – he has trouble with verb tenses. He uses question marks where they’re not wanted and leaves them out where they are. He employs redundancies, as in this passage: “This Sunday, I had hoped for rest, peace, and quiet. What I got was conflict, and this took away from everything else.” He confuses homophones, such as “vial” for “vile.” At one point the hero breaks an arm, but the author barely considers the problems that would create for a man living alone – such as in tying a necktie.

The author seems to have done a fair amount of research for this book, but some subtleties pass him by – for instance, he doesn’t seem to know that, up until the 1970s, unmarried women were addressed as Miss and married women as Mrs. He uses “Ms.,” which in those days was nothing more than a regional mispronunciation. And the diction was generally was too modern, something that diminished the atmosphere for me.

Still, this was a pretty non-objectionable book considering its subject matter, and there are no digs at Christianity. I recommend it conditionally, with my criticisms in mind. I probably won’t read the next book in the series, though I’ll admit I am mildly curious.

‘Tahoe Deep,’ by Todd Borg

I got a free deal on Todd Borg’s Tahoe Deep, Book 17 in the Owen McKenna series. Not a bad read, though I have quibbles.

Back in 1940, a legally blind teenager named Danny Callahan overheard and saw enough to know that his beloved sister murdered her boyfriend, leaving his body on the SS Tahoe, a lake steamer about to be scuttled and sunk. Today he is a curmudgeonly old man, surviving in his own home with the help of a kindly neighbor, Mae O’Sullivan. When Danny is attacked in his home and beaten up, Mae goes (against Danny’s wishes) to private eye Owen McKenna. She hopes he can somehow fight through Danny’s misanthropic shyness to identify and stop the people trying to extort information from him. When the same criminals try to murder Mae, Danny starts cooperating. He has a strange story to tell, but he still doesn’t understand what he has that the criminals want.

Lake Tahoe detective Owen McKenna makes a pretty good hero, in the cheerful Spenser tradition. Owen is healthy and positive-minded, and has good relationships with his entomologist girlfriend and his gigantic Great Dane dog. His investigation stirs up conflict and danger, but he will not be intimidated until the mystery is solved and the criminals are stopped.

I liked the characters in Tahoe Deep, and the plotting was pretty good. But I saw again the problem that shows up over and over in contemporary novels – sloppy proofreading, enabled (I assume) by self-publishing. In particular, misspellings and homophone confusion. Also author Borg can be weak with his dialogue. When his characters go into exposition, they often drop into Encyclopedia Mode, talking like a (fairly dry) book.

Also, there seems to be an anti-gun thing going on here. McKenna never carries a gun, he proudly proclaims, and the author’s attempts to invent exciting non-gun action leads to occasionally far-fetched scenarios.

But not bad, all in all. No notable cautions that I can recall.

‘Jack of Diamonds,’ by Christopher Greyson

I have enjoyed the Jack Stratton series by Christopher Greyson, well-written and well-conceived mystery/thrillers suitable for a Christian audience, but better in quality than the average Christian fare. An admirable hero you can root for. Good values.

Jack of Diamonds marks a milestone in the series – it’s about Jack’s wedding to his girlfriend, Alice. Something he’s been working up to for a while.

But of course, in the world of fiction, such an event can’t go off smoothly. Jack, who is operating as a bounty hunter since losing his police job, catches a distress call from a cop at a rural location. Being closer to the spot than the real cops, he drives in to help. He finds the policeman suffering from a head injury, and inside the house he finds a room decorated with drawings of women. Among them is a picture of Alice – plus a wedding invitation.

Obviously the wedding needs to be postponed. But explain that to Alice, who’s being nearly driven to distraction by the pressures of preparation. She and Jack had wanted a simple ceremony, but a wealthy former client whose life they saved insisted on paying for a production worthy of the Kardashians, complete with a relentless wedding planner.

Meanwhile, seemingly random women are disappearing, and Jack is convinced their vanishings are connected to the wedding stalker. And when an abandoned church is found filled with corpses, the weirdness goes off the scale.

I liked Jack of Diamonds, as I’ve liked all the books in the series. But I have to admit I found the premise of this one pretty implausible. It spoiled it somewhat for me.

Still, it’s a fun read. Recommended, but on a lower level than the previous Jack Stratton books.

‘Rewinder,’ by Brett Battles

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I got a deal on an SF book by Brett Battles, whose mysteries I’ve enjoyed. So I gave it a shot. Rewinder wasn’t bad at all.

Rewinder is a time-travel story. It starts in an alternate universe where the United States never won its independence. Instead, our hero, Denny Younger, lives in a British empire in which society is intensely stratified. Born a lowly “Eight,” Denny has little to look forward to in life beyond a manual factory job. However (to his father’s alarm) he tests high in history. And the day after finishing high school, he finds himself taking the entry test for the Upjohn Institute. That enterprise ostensibly does historical research to verify the genealogy of upper-class individuals hoping for prestigious appointments.

But that, Denny learns, is only the public face of the thing. In fact, Upjohn employees are time travelers. They go back in time to observe people’s ancestors and learn their dirty secrets. They can then use those secrets to blackmail their clients, bringing in government grants and preferential treatment for the corporation.

But one of Denny’s trainers, Marie, senses something uncommon in him. She gives him hints that she and (perhaps) some others are sometimes going beyond their instructions – “doing right” rather than just “doing well.”

When Denny makes a bumbling mistake and erases his own timeline entirely, replacing it with one that will be familiar to you and me, he will be faced with a shattering decision – “fix” his mistake or choose a better world.

Rewinder was a fun book. I’ve done some time travel writing myself, and it makes my head hurt, so I can only imagine the kind of labor it must have taken to plot out the many paradoxes here. Science fiction fans, especially, will enjoy Rewinder.

‘The Lost Cause,’ by James P. Muehlberger

On December 7, 1869, two men attacked the Daviess County Savings and Loan in Gallatin, Missouri. One of them murdered the cashier and grabbed a metal box (which turned out to be full of worthless documents). They fled riding double, as one of their horses had run off. On the way out of town they stole a farmer’s horse to make a successful getaway.

The lost horse was quickly identified. It was a blooded Kentucky thoroughbred, well known as belonging to one Jesse Woodson James. This was Jesse’s first identified post-Civil War crime, and a Kansas City newspaperman named John Newman Edwards took interest. He began writing laudatory articles, sparking what would become an American legend.

The Gallatin raid has traditionally been viewed as a botched bank robbery. But lawyer James P. Muehlberger, author of The Lost Cause: The Trials of Frank and Jesse James, has uncovered the original documents of the lawsuit that followed the event, in which a lawyer named Henry McDougal sued Jesse on behalf of the farmer who lost his horse. The evidence he uncovered strongly suggests that this was not a bank robbery at all, but a failed assassination attempt. The outlaws were after another Gallatin man, Major Samuel P. Cox, who had come into possession of a pair of pistols owned by the guerrilla leader Bloody Bill Anderson, killed in the war. Anderson’s brother Jim had written Cox a threatening letter demanding the pistols back. Evidence indicates that the murderers went to Gallatin to kill Cox, but instead shot bank employee John Sheets, who resembled Cox. The other robber, long thought to be Frank James, was probably Jim Anderson.

Muehlberger goes on to give a kind of legal history of the James gang, from McDougal’s original lawsuit up through the murder trials that followed Frank James’ final surrender in 1882, in which he was acquitted and set free.

Muehlberger’s purpose is partly to tell the story and share the fresh information he’s uncovered, and partly to plead his own case – that the James gang was not a romantic band of Southern heroes, oppressed by corrupt carpetbaggers, but a low-life group of thugs, contemptuous of others’ lives and property, who benefited from a positive public relations campaign. Rather than robbing the rich to give to the poor, Jesse’s take tended to go toward paying off his race track gambling debts. Muehlberger also wishes to debunk the whole idea of the “lost cause,” the claim that the Southern cause in the Civil War was not about slavery but about constitutional rights.

I tend to agree with him on that point, though I think it’s overstated. I disagree with those who say that secession had nothing to do with slavery, but I also disagree with those who say it was only about slavery. I think there’s a middle ground there.

I do agree about the James gang, though.

The Lost Cause is a book of considerable interest to anyone curious about that period of American history. The writing isn’t top-notch but it’s not bad. Recommended.

‘Only the Details’ and ‘Good Girl,’ by Alan Lee

He stood taller than me, which isn’t easy, and he was much wider, which is silly.

Two more reviews of Alan Lee’s Mack August novels. Then I’m done for a while. There are a couple more books to date, but they’re a side series starring Mack’s US Marshal friend, Manny. I’ll save them for later.

It’s not every man who suddenly finds himself – to his complete surprise – married to the woman of his dreams, who also happens to be filthy rich. But that’s the situation of Roanoke, Virginia private eye Mack August at the beginning of Only the Details. Which makes it a pretty good day.

Right up until a potential client injects him with a soporific, and he finds himself loaded on a jet headed for Naples, Italy. A disgruntled crime lord has put out a contract on Mack, but that contract has been bought up by a different crime lord, who has a use for him. He wants Mack (who used to be an underground cage fighter) to represent his criminal family in an annual international tournament in Naples. Elimination in this tournament means actual elimination, but the winner becomes a hero in the underworld. Except that, as his captor explains, he’s promised to kill Mack when it’s over, regardless of the results.

To Mack August, such setbacks are only obstacles to be overcome. Half of Only the Details involves Mack’s never-say-die conduct during the tournament. The other involves the efforts of his Virginia friends to rescue him. It’s all preposterous fun.

In Good Girl, the next book (and I realize the fact that there is a next book constitutes an unavoidable spoiler), Mack is asked to work for a man who suffers anteretrograde amnesia – the condition where one remembers the past, but can make no new memories. Ulysses Steinbeck survives by keeping copious notes, depending on the assistance of his housekeeper.

Steinbeck lost his memory in a car accident several years back. One memory he has from the very end has to do with a dog he bought – something even he doesn’t understand, because he doesn’t even like dogs. But the dog is important… for some reason. Can Mack find the dog and figure out the secret?

Mack goes to work, acquiring the dog, a mature and well-behaved Boxer. He learns that someone else is looking for the dog too, and some exercise of his fighting skills will be required before the conclusion, which is a highly satisfying one. Author Lee says in a note that he felt that Only the Details was pretty intense, and it was time for a warmer and fuzzier sequel.

I liked both these books a lot, and recommend them, if you can handle the language (see my previous reviews). The author also needs to work on his vocabulary – he generally does pretty well with Robert B. Parker-esque erudite vocabulary, but now and then he stumbles.

Realism is not strong in this series – I’m thinking particularly about Mack’s relationship with his fiancée/wife “Ronnie,” who seems to me more a figure of male fantasy than a plausible character.

But it’s all a lot of fun anyway.

‘Flawed Players’ and ‘Aces Full,’ by Alan Lee

The economy of Portsmouth was propped up on freight shipping, mountains of it. There was no new construction but this part of town looked healthy. Like, we have enough money but we don’t want nice things because sailors might break them. (Aces Full)

Jason Bourne for fans of John Eldridge.

That’s my current thumbnail description of Alan Lee’s Mack August books, my current semi-guilty obsession.

Mack, as I’ve mentioned, is a big, strong, intrepid Christian private eye in Roanoke, Virginia, the single father of an infant. I’m reading his books so fast (in spite of recent resolutions to spend less on books) that I’m going to review two at once tonight.

Flawed Players has Mack hired by a local academic, who faces a prison sentence for stealing stuff from the neighbors in his tony neighborhood. All the stuff was found in his office closet, and he swears he has no idea how it got there. His argument is weakened, however, by the fact that he’s a classic absent-minded professor, and could conceivably have done it and forgotten. However, it’s hard to figure a motive for the crime.

On a closer, more personal level, someone close to Mack has been murdered. He discovers that the organized crime figures whose noses he’s been tweaking know how to hold a grudge.

In Aces Full, Mack is hired to find evidence to mitigate the sentence of a confessed murderer named Grady Huff. Grady is rich, entitled, and the biggest ass Mack has ever met. But his lawyer thinks there’s something more beyond his story that he killed his house cleaner purely on a whim.

Meanwhile, Mack is learning more about the woman he loves, the incandescent “Ronnie” Summers. She has dark secrets, and deep obligations to some very bad people. Mack conceives a plan to set her free, centered on an epic underworld poker game, which will take a dramatic and unexpected turn.

I’ve described this series as a Christian one, but I’m ambivalent about using that term. It’s Christian in the sense that the hero is a Christian, trying to live a Christian life. But he’s not the kind of Christian you’d expect – his best friend is a corrupt US Marshal, and another friend is the local cocaine distributor – who also goes to his church.

I’m reminded in one sense of the minor controversy that exists around Veggie Tales. The Veggie Tales videos are clever and entertaining productions promoting Christian values. But, as some have noted, they’re not Christian in the sense of sharing the gospel. They’re all Law.

In the same way, a reader of the Mack August books might come away thinking that Christianity is just a set of rules to live by – and most of us wouldn’t stand up as well as Mack does to the extreme temptations he faces. Even his cocaine-merchant friend has asked him whether he’s shared the Good News with Ronnie (who would appear to need it desperately), but Mack never gets around to it.

So I’m still not sure what to say about these books from a theological perspective.

But I sure am having fun reading them. (In spite of some homophone problems in spelling.)

Recommended, with cautions for adult themes, violence, and language.

‘The Desecration of All Saints,’ by Alan Lee

I am now officially obsessed with Alan Lee’s Mack August mysteries. Expect the reviews to come fast and thick for a few days.

Mack, as I’ve told you previously, is a big, strong Christian private eye in Roanoke, Virginia. He’s not a model evangelical – he drinks a little, and uses bad language now and then. And occasionally he fornicates, though he always resists it and has not consummated his passion for “Ronnie” Summers, the girl he loves. Unfortunately she’s engaged to another man (the marriage was arranged by her father, who happens to be a local drug lord).

Mack knows there will be trouble at the beginning of The Desecration of All Saints, when two vestrymen from the big Episcopal church in town come to hire him. They want him to investigate their pastor, a celebrity preacher named Louis Lindsey. One of his subordinates has complained that Lindsey has been making homosexual advances. They are sure the accusation is groundless, but they want Mack to look into it, just to vindicate their pastor.

As he investigates, Mack discovers that there’s good evidence the accusations are true.

Even worse, a local boy has been kidnapped, and Mack begins to suspect that Lindsey is the one who took him. And is likely to kill him, if he can’t be stopped.

Funny, engaging, and sometimes inspirational, I enjoyed The Desecration of All Saints. The book (which is marketed as a stand-alone, not part of the series, for some obscure reason) has flaws. Part of the fun of Mack’s character is his self-deprecatory humor, often framed in elevated vocabulary. But (in this book more than the others I’ve read) he uses the words wrong occasionally. He also falls victim to homophone confusion. This one needed a better proofreader.

The Desecration of All Saints also deal with a touchy subject – homosexuality. As Mack expresses his views, he’s more easygoing about it than I am, falling into the “we’re all sinners, gayness is no big deal” school. However, he also seems to suggest that lack of father figures is a contributing factor to homosexuality, so he’s not entirely in the “enlightened” camp.

I might also mention that if you like sexy books – as opposed to dirty books – you can hardly look for hotter stuff than the Mack August series. Unlike most fictional private eyes, Mack tries to shun fornication, which means that in the scenes where “Ronnie” comes on to him, the sexual tension is off the charts. There’s nothing so erotic as chastity, and that’s proven here.

Recommended, with cautions for language and subject matter.