‘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.

Anti-intellectual thoughts

How shall I put this delicately?

I’m going to start by talking about a very private bodily function… in the vaguest possible terms. Because I’m a sensitive soul. Then I’ll go on to make a vapid point.

I clicked on an article that showed up on the Book Full of Faces a little while back.

It was about the aforementioned Private Bodily Function. This is a function performed frequently by every person, saint or sinner, male, female, or delusional. The headline informed me that I was finishing up this function “THE WRONG WAY!”

Out of curiosity, I read the article. When I was finished, I thought, “It appears that the author of this article has never actually performed this bodily function.”

Which I find somewhat unlikely.

Then I noticed who published it. When I saw that the article was aimed at college students, all became clear. An academic wrote it. And academics, as you’ve probably noticed, literally don’t know… many things.

It takes an academic to analyze a commonplace physical act and declare that all mankind has been doing it wrong from time immemorial. The whole scam of modern higher education is based on taking what is known and understood, deconstructing it, and rendering it mysterious and in need of expert intervention.

There was a time in history when the purpose of education was to learn the higher mysteries, the beauty and wisdom concealed behind the commonplace.

That changed (I think) some time around the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment decided there were no higher mysteries, and turned its energies to deconstruction and demythologizing. Instead of learning what we’d never known, the modern student is meant to unlearn what everybody already knows.

I was reminded of the first line of Alan Bloom’s book, Love and Friendship (quoting from memory because I can’t locate my copy at the moment). Describing Rousseau, he writes, “A Swiss told the French they were bad lovers, and the French believed him.”

That was just the beginning.

‘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.

If Your Eye Causes You to Sin, here’s a Knife.

I read an article the other day criticizing a renewed push by some U.S. House conservatives as well as some writers to ban pornography in America. The writer took no moral stance for or against it, but defended it as a point of individual rights. But what is freedom if it is not moral freedom? What is law if not moral law?

I almost linked to this First Things article arguing for ways we could regulate and restrict it, but I feared it was misguided. And maybe I feared other things.

It’s hard to ignore the implicit cries for help seen on Twitter by survivors of sexual abuse who say a parent groomed them with dirty images or that criminals are fueled by it. But being only one person, what can you do?

One of our favorite authors, Jared Wilson, points out the shock factor in Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:8-9, “And if your eye causes you to fall away, gouge it out.”

He says, “It’s not the temptation that leads you away—it’s your ‘foot.’ It’s not the sinful vision that leads you away—it’s your ‘eye.'” And the stakes for continuing in sin are far higher than you want to admit.

‘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.

In a Perfect World, We Would Ruin Everything

Here’s a thought for the new year: Take away all your trouble, all the hardship in your life, and you’d invent new trouble on your own.

Eden was a perfect garden. It lacked no plant that was “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9), and then man came along to ruin it.

When Abram told Lot they should separate their clans, Lot looked at the well hydrated Jordan Valley, “like the garden of the Lord,” and took his people into it (Gen 13:10). In that beautiful valley nestled Sodom and Gomorrah.

If you’re inclined to blame your environment over the coming year for your indiscretion, peevishness, overaction, or pride, remember the environment in which sin first entered the world and remember you brought it with you when you came in.

Photo by Emiel Molenaar on Unsplash

‘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.

Common Temptations, Demonic Influence at College

This is a timely word from Dr. Hans Madueme, Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, delivered in chapel last November. He says some leaders are worried their college (perhaps all Christian colleges) are helping students speak Christianly while continuing to think and act in a worldly manner. The devil has been working his craft for a very long time; he knows how to leverage his influence over us.

‘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.

‘Look For the Silver Lining’

In case you missed the memo, today is the last day of 2019. That doesn’t make it the end of the Teens Decade (even though Dennis Prager says it does), but that’s not a fight I want to have right now. In any case I’m more than ready to ashcan this one.

2019 was a year in which I hoped for much, and (mostly due to my own mistakes) ended up with my teeth scattered in the gravel. On top of that, we suffered a tragedy in my extended family – which I’ll not discuss right now – last weekend, just to wrap it all up in an ugly, asymmetrical bow.

I’m bemused by the memes going around pointing out that we’re about to enter the new Roaring Twenties. I kind of like that. Both my parents were born around 1920, and I grew up among people to whom that year was recent history – because it was. So I’m more comfortable with the Jazz Age than with whatever Age we’re shambling into now.

I looked for songs that became hits in the year 1920, and here’s one: “Look For the Silver Lining.” From the musical “Sally,” which debuted that year. Music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Clifford Grey and book by Guy Bolton, who was P. G. Wodehouse’s regular collaborator. There’s are a couple songs with Wodehouse lyrics in the play, “Joan of Arc” and “The Church Around the Corner,” recycled from earlier flop shows. “Sally” was a big hit, and made a star of its female lead, Ziegfield Girl Marilyn Miller.

It’s not a bad message to start a year with, even a century later.

‘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.

Keep Him Distracted or Sentimental

I came to this lost letter between two tempters late this season. Justin Wainscott found it somewhere and offers it to us for the useful instruction it has. The senior tempter advises his pupil not to try to turn his charge against Christmas all together, but to weakness his reflection on any of the details.

Keep him distracted as much as possible. “Keep him overly committed to all sorts of things (yes, even good things). Make sure he goes to every party and feels obligated to go out and purchase a gift for each one. Make sure he attends concerts and dinners and charity events. If his calendar isn’t full, you’ve failed.”

Failing that, keep him sentimental. “By all means, let him sing and be merry. Hell knows we have made good use of those kinds of things just as much as we have misery and gloom.”

Failing that, he has one more suggestion, all of which make for good advice for the coming year.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels

‘A Thousand Candles In the Gloom’

It being Christmas Eve, you probably expected a Christmas song from Sissel. And you shall not be disappointed.

But wait! There’s myrrh! (As the meme says.)

Below is my quick translation of the lyrics. The original hymn is Swedish, music and words written in 1898 by Emmy Kohler.

A thousand candles in the gloom

Shine all around the earth,

And heaven’s stars are smiling down

To hail the Savior’s birth.

In palace and in cottage low

The news goes round tonight

Of He who in a stable born

Is God and Lord of Light.

Thou shining star of Bethlehem

So bright and fair above

Remind us of the angels’ song

Of light and peace and love.

To each poor lonely heart on earth

A beam of blessing send

So they may find the way that leads

To Bethlehem again.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture