Can We Stop Yelling and Talk a Minute?

For those of us who believe in turning the other cheek (or at least we believe in the one who said we should turn the other cheek, whether or not we think at all about cheek-turning), civility is never futile. But it may be ignored.

The Intercollegiate Review is talking about civility this season. Alexandra Hudson notes the example of most American abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison “knew that true civility was more than trivial courtesy or naive ‘niceness.’ Civility requires taking our opponents’ dignity seriously, which means taking their ideas seriously, and that sometimes requires forceful and robust argumentation.” Frederick Douglass said, “’If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’ But for Douglass,” Hudson explains, “‘struggle’ did not mean winning at any cost. He knew that if he was to ensure that all enjoyed the advantages of the rule of law, he could not undermine the rule of law in the process.”

Here’s a word from Douglass that still resonates today: “Had the pulpit been faithful, we might have been saved from this withering curse.”

Gracy Olmstead recommends pulling back from our current hot spots and talking face to face.

This would help take the hot air out of online debates and put such discourse back into a humane context. It would also help citizens remember their duty to the physical spaces and neighborhoods around them. The decline of civility is part of a larger trend toward isolation in our society—a pulling away that, while not caused by the internet, has certainly been exacerbated by it.

‘Highway 61,’ by David Housewright

Highway 61

The saga of Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie continues with Highway 61. The title of the book refers to a semi-famous road going north out of the Twin Cities (it goes south too, but nobody cares). Did Bob Dylan write a song about it? I don’t know; I take pride in my ignorance of Bob Dylan.

Anyway, as you know by now, Mac McKenzie is a former cop, now a millionaire. For his own satisfaction, he does unlicensed private eye work as “favors for friends.” Jason Truhler is definitely not one of those. He’s the ex-husband of Mac’s girlfriend Nina, and he treated her so badly as to put her off marriage for life (or so she claims). But their daughter Ericka is a friend of Mac’s, and she begs him to help her dad.

So Mac talks to Jason, who says he was set up. He went up to a jazz festival in Thunder Bay, met a girl, got drugged, and woke up in what I’ll call here, for purposes of suspense, a “compromising situation.” Now somebody’s blackmailing him with a photograph, and he says he can’t afford it anymore. If the blackmailers release the photo, it will devastate Nina and Ericka, two people Mac loves. So he agrees – reluctantly – to look into it.

About the first thing Mac learns is – surprise! – that Jason didn’t tell him the whole truth. Further investigation leads to an extensive prostitution ring, with ties to Minnesota’s rich and powerful. People get killed, of course.

Highway 61 is a solid private eye novel, featuring an intriguing hero and a fun cast of characters. I enjoyed it. Cautions for the usual.

‘The Taking of Libbie, SD,’ by David Housewright

The Taking of Libbie, SD

Big Joe was standing in front of me, making a large hole in the sunlight. He looked like the guy that Jack met at the top of the beanstalk.

Implausibility is not necessarily a defect in a detective mystery. If the author manipulates his characters skillfully enough, he can make them do things way, way outside their comfort zones. In fact, that’s kind of what plotting is all about.

The Taking of Libbie, SD begins with home invaders breaking into detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie’s St. Paul home, dumping him in the trunk of their car, and driving him to the small town of Libbie, South Dakota. After some discomfort and embarrassment, the town fathers finally admit that the thugs they hired kidnapped the wrong guy.

But how were they to know? How many Rushmore McKenzies could there be in the world? Especially at that particular address?

Finally Mac gets the story out of them. A man using his identity went to the town and persuaded the civic leaders that he was planning to invest in a big real estate project there. Many locals invested. Then one day both he and their money disappeared. The local “big man,” the town’s mover and shaker, hired some guys to kidnap McKenzie, and the cops went along with it.

It takes a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to convince the reader that it makes sense for Mac not only to forgive the kidnapping, but to agree to investigate. Before he’s done, some of the locals will wish he’d left the mystery alone.

The picture of small town life in The Taking of Libbie, SD isn’t bad. I can say that as a small town boy. The description of rural economic desperation rings true. The number of beautiful women living in the town is a major exaggeration in my experience, but author Housewright makes it a running joke in the book, which is probably the best way to handle that sort of thing. He also does a good job of motivating Mac to take on a case for people he has no reason to care about.

Cautions for language and adult themes. A pretty good job of selling a highly improbable plot.

Contending for the Faith or Being a Jerk?

Jared Wilson has seen a lot of backlash and argument since the WWW installed itself on our society. Watch bloggers are now a thing. Twitter is easily understood as a cess pool and Facebook an echo chamber. For some people, chatting about anything online feels like walking in front of a firing squad. I preemptively blocked a couple profiles on Twitter last week after they attacked the character of a podcasting pastor under the mantle of spiritual discernment.

To believers who appear to be aggressively attempting to hold everyone accountable, Jared asks, “Is it possible you aren’t contending for the faith but are just being a jerk?

This is something missing in far too many of the online prophets — tears. Setting aside the fact that the biblical vocation of God’s anointed messengers isn’t really a one-to-one correlation with self-appointed pundits on Twitter, we certainly can learn from them — and many other places in Scripture — that there is a certainly a place within the church for pastoral rebuke, prophetic witness, and courageous calls to repentance. But this is but one aspect of prophetic ministry. The guy spending all day every day looking for people to fisk, mock, or otherwise use for his own promotion and praise isn’t echoing biblical prophetic ministry. If anything, he is more like the pharisaical enterprise of nitpicking, condemning, and “laying traps” to catch people in alleged errors or missteps.

‘Jelly’s Gold,’ by David Housewright

Jelly's Gold

This one was fun. One of my favorite sub-genres is what I might call the “archive mystery,” where the detective digs into an old, unsolved crime, examining dusty documents and deserted buildings, and talking to old-timers (if there are any left).

Jelly’s Gold centers on Frank “Jelly” Nash, a legendary bank robber, who was rumored to have stolen gold from a South Dakota bank in 1933. That very night he was in St. Paul, hobnobbing with local society (St. Paul was an “open city” in those days – it was understood that gangsters could stay in town, spend their money, and not be bothered by the police, so long as they didn’t break any local laws). A few days later, Jelly was shot to death in Kansas City. But rumor persists that he left his gold with one of his rich St. Paul friends, and it’s never been found.

When this story starts, St. Paul millionaire detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie is approached by an old friend, a female graduate student. Her boyfriend believes he knows how to find Jelly’s gold, and they figure Mac can help them. He’s intrigued enough to start looking into it. He soon learns that others are on the same trail – and then someone is murdered.

I found Jelly’s Gold fascinating. I was annoyed by another snide reference to Minnesota’s concealed carry law (which has actually worked out pretty well, thank you). On the other hand, a student at Bethel University, a Baptist school, plays a part, and she’s treated with surprising respect. I thought I figured out whodunnit, but I was wrong, which is always fun.

Cautions for… well you know. But this was a particularly good one, to my taste.

Bury Evil and Penalize Truthsayers

Progressive ideologues undermine every freedom they enjoy and increasingly blame the Jews for everything. From The New Critereon, “The way we live now”:

The dismissal of the Holocaust as “white on white crime” is of a piece with another revisionary gambit. Campaigners for transgender rights at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently suggested that their political opponents be sent to the gulag, explaining (when criticized for this robust expedient) that Soviet gulags were places of “educational” reform and “rehabilitation.” To wit, a group called the lgbtqSociety at Goldsmiths said, “sending a bigot to [a gulag] is actually a compassionate, non-violent course of action.” Why? Because, according to these sages, the Soviet “penal system was a rehabilitatory one and self-supporting, a far cry from the Western, capitalist notion of prison. [Well, they got that last point right.] The aim was to correct and change the ways of ‘criminals.’ ”

Since you mention gulags, Solzhenitsyn had a thing or two to say. “In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”

Writing, leprosy, and other afflictions

A quiet day today. The sky was overcast, the air cool. I noticed this when I went out to get groceries. They were entirely out of Fishers’ Light Dry-Roasted Peanuts at the Cub store. Can Soviet-style food lines be far behind?

Not much happened. I did some translation, but not the kind you get paid for. Then on to the novel. I’m done with marking up the latest draft of The Elder King, and I made a little start on changing the document file.

I’m scared of this book, again. I go in and out with the fear. I actually think it’s pretty good. Maybe almost great. I think I’m afraid because I’ll have to show it to my first readers soon, and they might tell me it’s not as good as I think.

I started to write an essay on leprosy, of all things, for this blog post, but I accidentally lost it and I’m not up to repeating the effort. I’ll just mention that leprosy’s medical name, Hansen’s Disease, comes from a Norwegian doctor, Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), who first identified the bacillus, though somebody else actually linked it to the disease. He seems to have been something of a jerk, and he lost his job at a hospital for trying to infect a woman with leprosy without her consent. The fact that he was an atheist should not be taken as a having anything to do with that. Leprosy was a serious problem in Norway, especially among the poor. Hansen, to his credit, managed to reduce the incidence drastically during his tenure as Norwegian medical officer for leprosy.

‘Madman On a Drum,’ by David Housewright

Madman On a Drum

Ever since the Coen brothers film came out, I am quick to tell outsiders that no one in Minnesota actually speaks with the vocabulary and accents of the characters in Fargo. Only to to my embarrassment, I am reminded from time to time that some of us do.

I’m plowing through David Housewright’s St. Paul-based McKenzie mystery novels. Madman On a Drum seems to me the best of the series so far. It takes a already interesting cast of characters and goes deeper with them, under the most stressful of circumstances.

Wealthy, amateur detective (and former cop) Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie has no real family. He has a steady girlfriend, but she adamantly refuses to discuss marriage. The closest thing he has to a family is the Dunstons, the family of his childhood best friend Bobby, also a cop. Mac is constantly at their house and spoils the two daughters, Victoria and Katie, shamelessly. He’s made them his heirs.

So it’s not just another case to him when Victoria is kidnapped, in broad daylight. The kidnappers, by phone, demand a million dollars in ransom. It’s obvious where they expect it to come from – it will have to come from Mac.

Mac doesn’t mind that. He’d give everything he has for Victoria.

But he and Bobby both understand what must follow. The kidnappers must be found, and they must die.

They quickly identify the voice on the phone as that of an old childhood friend, a neighborhood guy who took the wrong road in life. But finding him and getting Tori back is only the beginning. There’s someone behind him – someone with a passionate hatred for Mac, someone who plans to make Mac pay for his own murder.

The dynamics of a family group faced with the kidnapping of a child are described with what looks to me like great sensitivity and insight in Madman On a Drum. There’s also a lot of discussion of our current prison system (it doesn’t come out very well).

I liked Madman On a Drum a lot. Hard to put down. Recommended, with the customary cautions for language and subject matter.

Bing Crosby, Forgotten Giant

There’s no good reason Bing Crosby is not at the top of everyone’s list of twentieth century superstars. He had a voice just about every man wanted, even those who didn’t like men singing.

Crosby recorded 396 hit singles, 41 of which topped the charts—yet only one, his 1942 “creator recording” of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” the bestselling record of all time, continues to be heard regularly. He was also the most popular movie star in the world for five consecutive years between 1944 and 1948, a record topped only by Tom Cruise—yet few of the four dozen feature films in which he starred are still shown with any frequency on TV.

Terry Teachout reviews a new biography on Crosby, part two of what may be a three part set. Gary Giddins released the first volume back in 2001, so readers will have waited a fair piece to see Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946. Maybe that’s because writing about this man is a challenge. He led an eventful life.

Still, readers who want to know as much about Crosby as Gary Giddins wishes to tell us—among whom I count myself—will find Swinging on a Star a compelling study of the middle years of a popular artist who by the end of the Second World War was so closely identified with the American national character that he seemed to embody it.

(via Prufrock News)

‘Dead Boyfriends,’ by David Housewright

Dead Boyfriends

There’s no special trick to conducting an interview. All it requires is a little patience, an ear for the important utterance, and the simple knowledge that to most people the sweetest possible music is the sound of their own voice.

I’m back, after a hiatus of reading other stuff for one reason or another, to working through David Housewright’s superior St. Paul-based detective series starring hobby investigator Rushmore “Mac” Mckenzie. Mac quit the police in order to accept a large finder’s fee from an insurance company, after locating a big embezzler for them.

Dead Boyfriends begins with Mac just trying to help out. He finds a woman, drunk and filthy, on her lawn, screaming about her dead boyfriend. Going inside, he finds the boyfriend several days dead, and proceeds to call the St. Paul police. The cop who shows up roughs the woman up, and Mac tries to cool him down. That earns him 36 hours in a police cell. When he gets out, he’s eager to help the woman’s lawyer, who thinks she can get her off and win a big damage suit from the city to boot.

Getting the case dropped is easy, but the repercussions are bloody, and the threads of the expanding mystery reach into the highest levels of state politics. At the end, Mac will face a hard choice, balancing his sense of justice against his respect for the law.

Good story. It got kind of convoluted at the end, but I’m liking McKenzie more and more. The political comments seem to strike right and left pretty evenly, but some statements are made about government that suggest to me that the author has some sensible opinions. Cautions for language and mature themes, but not too bad.

‘Cold Fire,’ by Dustin Stevens

Cold Fire
I bought this book because I got an Amazon discount. Most of the way through I thought it was pretty good, but it fell apart at the end.

When Cold Fire begins, former DEA agent “Hawk” Tate is finishing his last trip of the season as a Yellowstone wilderness guide in Montana. When a woman with a Russian accent shows up asking him to make one last trip, he demurs. It’s too late in the season; snow is coming. She insists, saying that her brother is out there, and he hasn’t checked in with the family. She offers Hawk an exorbitant fee for the job, so he takes her in.

And then there’s shooting, and Hawk is pulled back into a world he’d left behind – a world of law enforcement, Mexican cartels, Russian syndicates, and personal betrayal. The criminals have a plan – but the one thing they haven’t planned on is Hawk’s own burning hunger to get justice for a deep wrong done to him and his family.

Author Dustin Stevens makes the story work right up until the climax, when he loses his dramatic sense. Instead of the rising dramatic tension you want at the end of a thriller, he makes the final climax a plain procession of executions, carried off without a hitch. I suppose he was saving his surprises for the two Big Reveals at the end, but neither of those reveals worked for me. The first was obvious (it seemed to me) from fairly early in the story if you thought about it logically. The second CONTRADICTED EVERYTHING WE’D BEEN TOLD UP TO THAT POINT, without explanation. That was just annoying.

So I don’t recommend Cold Fire particularly. You might like it better. Cautions for the usual stuff.

‘Disaster Inc.’ by Caimh McDonnell

Disaster Inc.

Still, the Victory had a colourful history, even by the standards of New York, where any hotel worthy of the name collects incidents of infamy just by existing in the city that doesn’t sleep – or if it does, it sleeps with someone else’s partner.

Caimh McDonnell’s Dublin Trilogy series has come completely loose from its moorings. The trilogy is done, but the characters continue in further adventures, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Because they’re so much fun.

In Disaster Inc., the first book of a new series, we are reunited with big, bibulous Bunny McGarry, former Dublin policeman. Officially he’s dead and buried, but in fact he’s been transported to the United States by a shadowy group possibly connected to the CIA. They’ve equipped him with a debit card and an indestructible cell phone, to facilitate his search for the love of his life. She’s a jazz singer named Simone, and has lived her life on the run from other shadowy agents, because she “knows too much.”

Unfortunately for Bunny, as the book starts he’s eating an unsatisfactory breakfast in a roadside diner, having been robbed of his rucksack, which contained the card and the phone, during a drunken binge. As he’s pondering his next move a pair of masked gunmen invade the diner, announcing that this is a robbery. Bunny immediately identifies them as amateurs, and neutralizes them. Then he beelines for the door, because he’s in the US illegally and he’d rather not explain himself to the police.

But a car pulls up in front of him on the highway. Inside is a woman who was also in the diner. The robbers, she says, were actually there to kill her. She, too, “knows too much.” If Bunny can come to New York and help her get out of her problem, she’ll pay him a lot of money. After some hesitation, Bunny accepts, figuring he can find whoever stole his rucksack at the same time.

Which kicks off a highly improbable, but extremely enjoyable, adventure. McDonnell’s trademark wit is well in evidence, though I found a couple editorial errors – a wrong word choice and a confusion of attributions in a stretch of dialogue.

But still it was a lot of fun, and I recommend it – if you can handle the obscenities.

A good man and true

Jury

More pulse-pounding excitement in my larger-than-life life, today. I got a summons for jury service. It starts on a date next month.

This is a pretty mundane thing, of course, but what struck me as I read the notice was that, if I were writing a novel about my life (not a project I’d recommend), this is precisely where I’d stick in a spot of jury duty. A new experience, outside my ordinary routine, just when things were getting dull and I had no particular commitments.

As if there were a Guiding Hand in the universe, or something.

Actually, I did jury duty once before, when I was living in Florida. I got called in, sat through a voir dire (is that how you spell it?) got rejected for the jury (it was a child abuse case, and I’ve been abused). I was told, along with the rest of the pool, at the end of the day (I think it was the third) that our services would no longer be required.

I expect doing it in the gritty metropolis of Minneapolis will be somewhat different.

But hey! Ten bucks a day!

How we live now

Sorry I didn’t post last night.

I’m living my life right now like a… I don’t know. I need a good metaphor. Like a duck hunter? I don’t know when a job is coming in, but I try to have my shotgun ready and my eye on the sky. The email arrives – “Can you get this episode done before the end of the business day tomorrow?” (8 hours ahead in Norway) – and I clear the decks for action. An episode revision takes about a day to do, but it can vary. I don’t plan on doing much of anything else that day.

I live a life of action, like a TV hero.

Yesterday I actually did have something else going on – one of those rare occasions when a family member drops in to crash on my sofa for a night. It went fine. I was able to go out to dinner with him and still get the work done by about 9:00 p.m. I wasn’t able to make much conversation with my guest, but hey, that was a plus for him. Continue reading How we live now

Book Reviews, Creative Culture