‘No Second Chance,’ by Harlan Coben

Conner nodded, pleased by my response. I love him. He breaks my heart and brings me joy in equal measure and at exactly the same time. Twenty-six months old. Two months older than Tara. I watch his development with awe and a longing that could heat a furnace.

Harlan Coben has a winning formula for turning out thrillers that grab the reader. He starts with love – love for lovers, for spouses, and (especially) love for one’s children. Then he asks, “What do we fear the most for these people?” Then he takes that fear and distills it, producing at the end of the coils a spirit that burns like carbolic acid. And he applies that spirit to some innocent, fairly decent protagonist.

That, my friends, is how story-building works.

No Second Chance stars Dr. Marc Seidman, plastic surgeon, who wakes up in a hospital room to learn he’s been in a coma for weeks. He was shot in his own home, and barely survived. His wife, also shot, did not survive.

And his infant daughter Tara vanished like smoke

The police have no leads. Their best theory is that Marc himself engineered his wife’s murder, but that theory makes no sense, and they know it.

Then a ransom note comes to Marc’s wealthy father-in-law. He and Marc agree to involve the police, but they will regret it, because the cops get spotted, the kidnappers get away with the money, and Tara remains lost.

The next time a demand comes, eighteen months later, they leave the cops out. But Marc instead brings in someone from his past, a former FBI agent he dated in college and nearly married. Working with an old lover can be a complication in any endeavor – but this time it might blow up in all their faces.

I like most of Harlan Coben’s books, and I liked No Second Chance more than most. The plot is very complex, but it’s revealed in layers, which kept this old man from getting confused (I like that). There were also some intriguing side characters, like a former child actress turned stone-cold-hitwoman, and a mullet-wearing, NRA-member, redneck who turns out to be good friend to have in a corner (this book is a few years old. I wonder if Coben would have the nerve to include such a character in a novel today).

Highly recommended, with cautions for intensity.

‘John Clum, Apache Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone,’ by Woodworth Clum

When, as often happened, one of the raiders lost his mount, he would proceed, running on his own feet, being careful not to set too fast a pace for the ponies.

Recently I saw an old Audie Murphy movie which, even within the canon of Audie Murphy’s ouvre, was fairly non-memorable. Walk the Proud Land was an attempt on Murphy’s part to broaden his range through playing, not a gunfighter, but a man of peace. That man, a genuine historical character, was John P. Clum. The movie failed at the box office in its time, but it succeeded in piquing my interest in a man I’d wondered about before. I knew John Clum as editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, mayor of Tombstone, and a staunch friend of Wyatt Earp. I’d also read he was a devout Christian. I’d been mostly unaware of his exemplary career as an Indian agent.

John P. Clum was a Dutch Reformed boy from a farm in New York state. Intending to enter the ministry, he attended Rutgers University, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. His education did earn him a job as a weather observer for the US Army Signal Corps in Santa Fe, New Mexico, however. This led, through a college connection, to his appointment as Indian Agent at the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.

Clum was 22 years old when he arrived at San Carlos, not entirely sure what he’d find. In general, he was pleasantly surprised. He found the Apaches, by and large, decent (by their lights) and hard-working people, scrupulously honest, and historically eager to be friends with Americans (it was the Mexicans they hated). John Clum, Apache Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone (a compilation of two books) begins with a narrative of United States relations with the Apaches, and it’s a sad and painful story. For every American willing to treat the Apaches decently, there seem to have been ten who, motivated by greed or bigotry, lied to them, cheated them, or killed them like animals.

Clum set about earning the Apaches’ trust, helping the decent ones and punishing  the (minority of) bad actors. In time he was able to set up a working self-government system. He was particularly proud of his efficient Apache police force, which operated with distinction and crowned its achievements with the capture of Geronimo (the only time – as Clum takes pains to point out – when he was captured without voluntarily surrendering).

In time, however, bureaucratic interference and changed Indian policies left Clum with no alternative, in his own mind, to resigning his post and leaving the reservation. The later history of his Apache friends is sad to read.

There is considerable pride in Clum’s account, along with great contempt for narrowminded and bigoted Americans who spoiled what might have been an exemplary peace. The only character Clum seems to hate more than these bureaucrats is the “bad Apache” Geronimo, whom he describes as a liar, a master manipulator, and a merciless killer. He is particularly offended that his friends ended up sharing Geronimo’s fate of exile and imprisonment, without the advantages that Geronimo enjoyed – celebrity status and income from souvenir sales.

The later part of his book is Clum’s own account of his career as mayor and editor in Tombstone, during the fabled days of the Earp-Clanton feud. He is staunch in his support of Wyatt Earp (who would seem, on the face of it, an odd friend for a good Dutch Reformed boy), and (regrettably) his account varies not at all from the well-known (and much-questioned) version told by Stuart N. Lake in Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. What will be fresh for most western buffs is Clum’s own account of what he believed to be an assassination attempt against himself on a stage coach run, when he ended up leaving the stage and proceeding on foot, to be less of a target.

The book John Clum, Apache Agent was not written by Clum himself, but was edited by his son Woodworth Clum, from his father’s unpublished papers and reminiscences. The prose is not bad – generally avoiding the excesses of Victorian baroque. The main problem with this electronic edition is that it was obviously produced through OCR transcription, so there is the occasional misread word – as well as entire lines of text getting lost now and then. But it wasn’t enough to spoil the story as a whole.

If you’re interested in the Old West, John Clum, Indian Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone makes interesting reading. I suspect Clum left out some of the juiciest – and/or most appalling – details, so the book is suitable for most readers.

‘New Year comes but once a twelvemonth’

This is something of a commonplace post for the year ahead with quotations taken from my withdrawn library book of quotations, that wealth of knowledge and marginalia about which the impoverish youths of the world have not a clue. Happy New Year.

For the life to come, I sleep out the thought of it. – Autolycus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.
– Lewis in Shakespeare’s King John

When the tree is fallen, all go with their hatchets.

I have learned thy arts, and now
Can disdain as much as thou.
– Thomas Carew, “Disdain Returned”

On finding a wife:

  • Choose a wife rather by your ear than your eye.
  • Choose your wife as you wish your children to be.
  • Choose a good mother’s daughter, though her father were the devil. (The latter two come from Gaelic proverbs.)

Who riseth from a feast 
With that keen appetite that he sits down? 
Where is the horse that doth untread again 
His tedious measures with the unbated fire
That he did pace them first? All things that are, 
Are with more spirit chased than enjoy’d. 
– Gratiano in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

Turn your tongue seven times before talking. (Originally French)

What is new is seldom true; what is true is seldom new. (Originally German)

Brief Review of Avengers: Infinity War

We watched Avengers: Infinity War today (it appeared on Netflix last week). I don’t want to recap the plot and offer a bunch of spoilers. What’s the point of that? Three quarters of those who want to see it have already seen it. I’d just like to take a moment for a few thoughts.

  1. I still like comic book movies, but nonstop fantasy fighting gets old. Watch the Ip Man movies about the founder of Wing Chun and something of a superhero in his own right for several good, made-for-movie fights. The second season of Iron Fist had good fights too.
  2. The more power you give someone, the more difficult it is to watch him fight.
    Frank: “I can stop any attack with a mere thought.”
    Bubba: “And I’m going to shoot you in the head!”
    Frank: “Ha ha! You’ll never get –” [BANG]
    Budda: “Didn’t see that coming, didya punk!”
    [Spoiler] Did we see Thanos beat up the Hulk at the beginning? How is he breaking a sweat with these other guys? I hear that answer from the back. Convenience is correct.
  3. [Spoiler] I’ve haven’t read many comic books, and I know there are some bad ones out there, even among the good heroes. Still I am glad to learn the plot of Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t come from the comics. The story of Thanos and his quest to save the universe from itself begins in the books at the place the movie ends, not after a massive failed attempt to stop him but after his success quest to obtain all six infinity stones without the Avengers knowing about it. That’s a lot better than the story we’re given in this movie because of one overused formula.
  4. At the very beginning we see a character say he has one of the great-and-powerful stones and he would give it up to save the life of someone else. That formula is used twice more and a third time in reverse. Did we focus group other rationales to advance the plot and them all unbelievable? That gets as old as the hour-long battles and is probably the weakest part of this movie.
  5. The parody How It Should Have Ended proved its genius again.
  6. The last thing I’ll say is long movies like this make me want to take a hike in the real world. I’m not sure my new shoes are the right thing for hiking though. Maybe I could find alternatives.

Monk Day

Today is Thursday. That’s Monk Day for me.

As you know (always a dangerous phrase in a story, but this is real life, where you can get away with lots of nonsense), I am currently a free-lance translator. I work from home, setting my own hours – something less ideal than it sounds. I either work quite long hours, or sit around worrying about not working.

But that’s beside the point. The point is that I work in a manner pleasing to myself – usually in sweat clothes on my sofa (sometimes, for exercise, in an easy chair), with the TV on. I have a current TV routine. The H & I Network runs mystery marathons in nine-hour blocks, five days a week. Thursday is Monk Day. Nonstop Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive-compulsive police consultant, whose frailty enables him to see things others miss, even as he barely functions as an adult.

This is a character I identify with.

But that’s not exactly my point either.

I’ve had multiple opportunities to view the two-part pilot episode, and the plotting impresses me a lot. I think it’s a very good example of exemplary character plotting.

We have our “hero,” Adrian Monk, who is afraid, essentially, of everything. He has a long list of phobias, but chief among them is his fear of dirt and germs. He keeps his personal space immaculate and meticulously organized, and can’t even shake hands without wiping down immediately with a towelette. He has a nurse/personal assistant who serves as his mediator with the world.  Her name is Sharona (she is replaced in the third season, but that doesn’t matter here), and she’s more or less his opposite – she’s an earthy New Jersey girl with a blousy style and considerable street smarts. They annoy each other immensely, but each also provides the other with things they need. In spite of themselves, they care for one another – non-romantically.

So in the pilot episodes, the writers set up a perfectly splendid dilemma for Monk. Sharona is kidnapped by a murderer, who drags her off as a hostage – into the sewers of San Francisco.

This constitutes an existential crisis for Monk. His whole life (and his survival, in his own mind) depends on keeping clean. But now he has to climb down into a sewer, where he must encounter sewage, or possibly lose Sharona.

This is splendid character plotting. Monk’s choice is not only agonizing (in a comic way), but it’s germane to the character established in the story. He is tested at his weakest point. He’s forced to leave his comfort zone, to do what he believes he can’t do. His choice to follow into the sewer (you knew he’d do that, didn’t you?) is in actuality an act of faith.

Dramatically, it’s far superior to the more famous “Sophie’s Choice.” Sophie’s choice achieved drama purely through its extremity, but revealed nothing about her character and taught her (and the reader) nothing but despair. The author who counsels despair is like the debater who ends the argument with a punch in the face. It’s effective, but nothing is learned.

Monk is good for you. Good for me, anyway.

‘A Good Death,’ by Chris Collett

I think I’m caught up on Chris Collett’s Inspector Mariner police procedural series now. All the books to this point have been titled (or re-titled; at least some were originally published under different titles) with names including the word “Lies.” Now they’ve come out with a new book that breaks the pattern – A Good Death is the eighth book in the series.

I found this one a tad stressful, because it dealt with religious people more than earlier books. One Christian and one Muslim family are involved and – predictably, in our times – the Muslims appear somewhat more admirable than the Christians. Though the author doesn’t take a hatchet to either side. Inspector Mariner makes a dismissive comment about “God-botherers” and one point, but that’s consistent with his established character. He doesn’t “get” religion – like most Caucasian Europeans.

A Good Death involves the investigations of three separate deaths. There’s the death in a house fire of an elderly Muslim patriarch – quickly identified as arson. This is complicated by the discovery of a second body in the ashes of the same fire.

Then there’s the disappearance of a wealthy young man, just before his wedding date. I figured out, if not the culprit, at least the motive (kind of), quite early on. However, oddly enough, I deduced it from the wrong piece of evidence. (Am I brilliant, or what?)

The Inspector Mariner mystery series is a solid one. A Good Death was not my favorite of these books, but in spite of my comments on the handling of religion, it was not offensive. Recommended, with the customary cautions.

Pray for Early Rain Covenant Church IN CHENGDU, China

Our technology has allowed us to expand our awareness to the entire world, making requests for prayer seemingly boundless. I hesitate to say this is the biggest prayer request of the month, but the persecution of Early Rain Covenant in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China, is something important to pray and praise the Lord over. I copied their Christmas Eve update below. Here’s a letter from earlier this month for more context on the government’s unlawful routing of their congregation.

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” (Matt. 2:13-15)

Like the “White Terror” during the first Christmas, brothers and sisters of Early Rain Covenant Church, as members of the Lord Jesus, are currently walking the path that the Church’s Head once walked. Authorities are continuing to suppress Early Rain Covenant Church through everything from criminal detention, administrative detention, enforced disappearances, stalking, and financial pressure to the seizing of church property. 

On Christmas Eve, the 23rd-floor sanctuary of Early Rain Covenant Church was taken over by the Chengdu Qingyang District Shuangyanjing Community Police and converted to a community police office space. Linxishu Church, a church plant of Early Rain Covenant Church, was seized by the Pidu District authorities and community police. The church property at Enyue Church, another church plant of Early Rain, was cleared out by New Tianfu District authorities. The current church spaces were privately purchased or rented. As long as the civil contract has not expired, no one is allowed to alter or cancel it without the permission of both parties. Officials and local governments have violated both the law and morality. They have stolen nearly 1000-square-feet of real estate without paying one penny. 

And yet, Lord, we still praise you. Lord’s Day worship at Early Rain Covenant Church was observed in the homes of families and small groups called and set apart by the Lord, as well as other locations. Some brothers and sisters were confined to their own homes. One small-group’s worship was interrupted by police. A total of 20 people (including 8 children) were all taken to the police station. They returned peacefully to their homes the same day. Another small group was forced to change locations. Yet another was spoken to by police after the meeting ended. In these difficult circumstances, the Spirit of the Lord has been feeding, strengthening, and challenging everyone through Chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel and through His servants who are in the middle of these trials and tribulations. 

Continue reading Pray for Early Rain Covenant Church IN CHENGDU, China

Dark Day

It was 990 years ago today that Erling Skjalgsson (hero, in case you missed it, of my Viking novels) was treacherously killed by one of St. Olaf Haraldsson’s men at the battle of Boknafjord.

My new Erling book is coming along, thanks for asking. I’m nearing the end of another draft, which I thought would be the final one. Not sure now. I’ll keep you posted.

Erling would have known this as St. Thomas’s Day. It’s the shortest of the year.

New Works For Public Domain

At the start of the new year copyrighted works from 1923 will become public domain after a twenty year hiatus. That’s because Congress listened to corporate arguments for extending copyright restrictions and put a hold on anything entering public domain. The
Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 attempted to say, “I’ve got you, babe,” to American artists by making 1922 the cutoff for public domain for the last twenty years.

The Smithsonian calls that cutoff remarkable.

The novelist Willa Cather called 1922 the year “the world broke in two,” the start of a great literary, artistic and cultural upheaval. In 1922, Ulysses by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” were published, and the Harlem Renaissance blossomed with the arrival of Claude McKay’s poetry in Harlem Shadows. For two decades those works have been in the public domain, enabling artists, critics and others to burnish that notable year to a high gloss in our historical memory. In comparison, 1923 can feel dull.

Starting next year we’ll see more works on Google Books and other digital libraries for use in rebuilding western civilization, reviving our sagging economy, colonizing Mars, and making shepherding great again, and other worthy goals long held by the readers of BwB.

‘Destry Rides Again,’ by Max Brand

I’m the kind of buckaroo who’s interested in the books movies are based on. Even more, I’m interested in how the movies change the story, for better or worse. Recently, one of the digital broadcast channels ran both iterations of the film, Destry Rides Again. The 1939 version, a classic comedy-drama, starred James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. It was remade in 1954, almost shot-for-shot, with Audie Murphy and some actress nobody remembers (“Hey gang! Let’s do it all over again just the same, but this time let’s make it stink!”). When I read the Wikipedia article, I noted that the movies bore almost no resemblance (except for the hero’s name, and they even changed the first part of that) to the original novel by Max Brand. That intrigued me enough to get the book for my Kindle.

They did not lie. Max Brand must have thought he was getting money for nothing when they paid him for the film rights, because very little of his work made it to the screen. (There was an earlier 1932 version with Tom Mix, which is said to have been closer to the book.)

The story of the movie, briefly, is this. The town of Bottleneck needs a new deputy sheriff, so they call in young Tom Destry, son of a legendary former sheriff. Only when he shows up, he’s a disappointment. He’s meek and quiet, and does not carry a gun. The toughs of the town, led by the local saloonkeeper, laugh at him. The saloonkeeper is behind a scheme to buy up all the properties on a strip of land that cattle drives need to cross. Then he can get rich off exorbitant watering fees. Destry employs his charm and disarming manner to defuse violence for a while, but eventually things get out of hand, and he at last straps on his pistol and meets the saloonkeeper for a showdown. There’s also a love triangle involving Marlene Dietrich’s saloon girl and a virtuous girl, both in love with Destry.

The book Destry Rides Again could hardly be more different. Harry Destry is the hero, and he’s a wild, tough, uncivilized young man, even a bit of a bully. He’s convicted of a robbery he did not commit, and comes back a changed – and darker – character. Each man on the jury had a personal grudge against him, and Harry has a plan to get revenge on each and every one of them. However, he does not guess his true enemy, a purported friend who in fact set him up and profited by it. The pure faith of the girl who loves him, and a boy who idolizes him, combine to help him begin to see the futility of his ways.

One can discern certain points where moments of the book might have suggested the film plot. When the story begins, Harry doesn’t have a gun – but that’s because he lost it in a poker game. When he returns from prison, he at first makes out to be a broken man, and appears unarmed – but that’s only a ploy. Also, there’s an idol-worshiping boy in both versions.

Otherwise they’re entirely different stories, in entirely different spirits.

What kind of a writer was Max Brand? I’ve read one of his novels before, and this one impressed me less. The term “purple prose” might have been coined for this book. Here’s a snippet:

There was no answer from Cleeves. He never again would answer any man. His lips were cold. Until Judgment Day, a thousand trumpets might blow, and Hank would never reply. He whom a hundred thousand eyes had seen now had vanished. He was gone. He was away. Deeper than the seas he was buried, and deeper than the mountains could hide him. The impalpable spirit was gone, and only the living blood remained to tell of him, dripping down into the silence of the old shack, drop by drop, softly spattering, like footsteps wonderfully light and wonderfully clear….

And it goes on. Brand originally wrote this story as a magazine serial, and here you see the unmistakable traces of an author being paid by the word.

He also helpfully provides exclamation marks at the ends of narrative sentences on frequent occasions – so we’ll know when to be excited!

Destry Rides Again was amusing to read, but only as an artifact of its time. It is simplistic, overwritten, and improbable. Cautions for the occasional racial slur, too.

Big Men’s Boots, by Emily Barroso

Prayer is like that fire causing the pot to boil. God does nothing unless we pray. He has chosen us to be his co-workers on the earth. Prayer moves His divine hand. You need to remember to listen to what God is saying when you pray–he gets bored with lists. If you listen He will talk back.

What drew me to start reading Big Men’s Boots was the setting of the Welsh revival in 1904-05. What could be more exciting on its face than a historic outpour of the Holy Spirit?

According to Barroso, Wales was primed for change. English landowners clashed with common Welshmen on every front. Labor unions were taking up arms. Welsh Nonconformists chafed against Anglicans, who spoke another language and seemed to have all of the power. Would rising up against the English businessmen bring equality and justice to the Welsh, or would it drive all jobs out of the country?

The story begins with three men praying over the body of a young man who had passed away three days prior. They hold nothing back in urging God to act, even calling the boy to rise in Christ’s name, believing their earnest faith will produce the miracle they require. Outside the window, the boy’s friend Owen Evans, 13, also prays. The whole community must reckon with their grief and what they believe as social trouble begins to brew. Owen’s growing faith and what appears to be a prophetic gift frame up the rest of the story.

I want to praise this book and recommend it without reservation. That’s what I want to do with every book. But I have to be honest and say I didn’t finish reading it. Because I didn’t finish it, I delayed reviewing it until now. It feels overly long. Historical novels have their own pace as do readers. Perhaps you would enjoy it more than I did.

The Tree of Christmas Past

This photo comes from the Walker family collection. Theoretically, it should be easy to guess the year, because there’s a calendar right there. But my scan doesn’t have enough resolution. I could consult a perpetual calendar too, but that sounds like too much work. It’s probably the ’30s or ’40s. Certainly well before I was born. My guess would be the ’40s, because I don’t imagine there was money for so many presents in the ’30s. Though it was a large family, and this probably works out to one for each member.

This was the “old parlor” in the house where I grew up. In my time we just called it the living room. The first Christmas tree I remember stood in that very spot, though I recall that one as being somewhat taller and fuller. Later, Dad would knock out a wall and we moved the tree to a different location. I think that carpet was still there when I was very young, and possibly that sad sofa. But we had different curtains by then. They were heavy, and printed with Grandma Moses scenes.

The house burned to the ground in 1986.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture