All posts by Lars Walker

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘August Origins,’ by Alan Lee

“It’s reverse sexism to pretend girls are never girls and never experience distress. That creates faulty and impossible standards, like magazine covers.”

Pending surprises, I’m pretty much all in on Alan Lee’s Mack August detective series now. And for some of you, that will be a sign of reprobation in me. Because these novels have Christian themes, but they are morally complex and there’s a limited amount of full-blown profanity and obscenity. I don’t think I’d have the nerve to write books like these. But I’m enjoying and appreciating them.

Mackenzie August is a private eye in Roanoke, Virginia. He’s a former cop and underground cage fighter, also a former youth pastor and English teacher. He goes to church and reads the Bible, but is a work in progress, wrestling with how to be a Christian.

In August Origins, the county sheriff comes to Mack’s office, along with a local policeman, to request his help. A new drug boss has moved into town, and the street gangs have adopted a practice imported from California – each new member must “make his bones” by killing an innocent teenaged girl. Three have died so far. They want Mack to go to work temporarily as a high school teacher, to try to figure out who’s running the gangs.

Mack is always up for a challenge. He likes teaching and is good at it. He cares about the kids and tries to help them. But he observes some hinky stuff going on – and then the word spreads among the student population that Mr. August is a nark. His life and those of some of his students will depend on his identifying the drug bosses, and putting a stop to them.

Also he meets a girl who fascinates him – Veronica “Ronnie” Summers, local lawyer and part-time bartender. She’s all he’s ever wanted, but if he wants to be with her, he’ll have to make a moral compromise he’s not willing to make.

There are some shocking elements in August Origins, and the resolution is not very neat at all. But the effect is more realistic than what you’ll generally find in Christian fiction, and that particular story line is not finished yet.

Not for the squeamish, or those offended by profanity. But I rate August Origins very highly.

‘The Last Teacher,’ by Alan Lee

“I don’t know. I don’t go to church, I don’t have any religious friends, I don’t like the christian radio stations, I drink, I don’t feel like baptists would like me anymore than I like them. I read but cannot understand the Old Testament. Sometimes,” I said, and paused. “Sometimes I don’t even think God likes me very much, though I know that’s not true. Whatever that is, that’s what I am.”

Now here’s an intriguing book, part of an intriguing series. A Christian mystery series, which many Christians will hate. The Last Teacher is a sort of prequel to the Mack August series by Alan Lee.

Mackenzie August is a former cop and former underground cage fighter. Also a former youth pastor. A single father. Now he’s taken a job as a middle school teacher in the small town of South Hill, Virginia. Just trying to figure out where he belongs in the world, and puzzling over God’s will. He’s pretty sure that will does not include a relationship with the hot teacher who starts throwing herself at him from the day he arrives.

Shortly thereafter, he discovers the body of a fellow teacher, shot to death in the school yard. Mack isn’t sure whether he’ll make a good teacher, but he’s a good detective. He’ll need to be, especially when another teacher is murdered in the same way. Mack begins to realize that someone is fixating on him, killing the people around him out of some kind of twisted obsession. That’s personal enough, but when his baby son gets kidnapped, it becomes a matter of life and death.

Alan Lee is a very brave writer, braver than I am, for good or ill. He grapples head-on with one of the major challenges facing Christian fiction writers today: the problem of realistic language. The time has passed when you could get away with having worldly and depraved characters confine themselves to expletives like “gosh” and “darn.” The audience expects people to talk the way they would in real life. That means using language most of us don’t want to spread around.

Author Lee uses that language. The book isn’t full of profanity or obscenity, but it’s there. It will shock and offend many Christian readers. But it’s possible that Lee isn’t writing for the healthy, but for the sick, who are in need of a physician, as the Gospel says.

One of the many things I liked about The Last Teacher was Mack’s voice as narrator. He speaks in the tradition of Philip Marlowe, that tough guy/erudite voice with just a hint of self-mockery. Alan Lee writes this kind of stuff very well indeed. I laughed often as I read. Another trope in detective stories is gorgeous women throwing themselves at the hero. That’s present in these books too, with the novelty of the hero resisting those women.

I found the final resolution a little implausible, but that may just be due to personal prejudices.

If you’re morally offended by bad language in Christian stories, stay away from the Mack August books. But if you’re open to it, there’s a good time reading to be had here.

Recommended, with the aforementioned cautions.

‘Sticks and Stones,’ by John Carson

Another day, another British police procedural series. Not a bad one either, judging by this first book, Sticks and Stones, by John Carson.

Edinburgh DCI Harry McNeil is new to homicide, having previously worked in the Scottish equivalent of Internal Affairs. With his sidekick, female DS Alex Maxwell, he’s sent to a country estate to hunt for a bride who disappeared from the wedding reception. Odd duty, but the bride’s father, Broderick Gallagher, is a wealthy man with many important friends, so he gets special favors. Harry and Alex figure the woman just got cold feet, so it’ll be an easy weekend with some good food and drink.

Until searchers discover a headless body, aflame in the woods.

And the bride’s sister is kidnapped.

The whole conspiracy leads back to a long-ago murder-suicide, and revenge nurtured for years, to be served up cold at the wedding.

Sticks and Stones wasn’t absolute top-flight crime fiction, but it was pretty good. The writing was lively, and the characters interesting.

I did note a small problem with cop banter. A lot of cop banter went on here. I like cop banter. The problem in this book – and I hope author Carson will fix this in future outings – is that the banter is all the same. There are three main pairs of cops who banter back and forth, and their banter is almost indistinguishable. Distinct styles of banter are called for here, particularly to distinguish male-female banter from male-male banter.

Just a suggestion.

Not a bad novel, though. Cautions for the stuff you’d expect.

‘The Geordie Murder,’ by Roy Lewis

There’s a feeling I get when I’m reading a book and not really enjoying it, but it seems like I ought to be. Like one of those modern masterpieces they assign you in college, where you have it on authority that it’s good, but you don’t get it.

I’m not sure whether The Geordie Murder, by Roy Lewis is like that or not. Or what that says about it, or me.

Eric Ward is a former Newcastle (England) policeman. He had to leave the force when he developed glaucoma. He’s seeing again now after surgery, but he’s become a lawyer. He’s also married to a very wealthy younger woman, but refuses her offers to work for her company. He prefers to maintain a struggling private practice serving the “little people” who get overrun by the system.

A local official asks for his help trying to make a case against a loan shark. Eric tries, but even the victims won’t help. They distrust the law more than they dislike the moneylender – and they’re afraid of him.

Meanwhile, a young girl is kidnapped. Her non-custodial mother is the daughter of a tycoon, but her father is an unemployed fellow who happens to be one of the victims of the loan shark (some complicated back story is necessary to justify this plot element). He promises Eric he’ll give evidence, if only Eric can find his daughter again.

My problem with The Geordie Murder (which is an older novel, from back in the 80s) is that is was slow. It seemed to me the author was sauntering through passages that a more skilled mystery writer would reduce to a sentence – or skip entirely. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by recent trends in fiction.

And the climactic showdown – well, it was so low key that I figured it was just a preliminary scene. But nope. Story over.

Author Lewis has a good feeling for characters, and knows how to avoid black and white portrayals. He also has a sympathetic heart for the urban poor. But he used too many words describing these things, in my opinion.

Your mileage may vary. Only minor cautions for subject matter.

‘The Missing Nurse,’ by Roger Silverwood

The Inspector Morse template seems to be a big success in the world of publishing. You have your older Inspector, supervising one or more younger subordinates. He is grumpy and occasionally insulting, but his heart is of gold, and once his co-workers get used to him, they learn to appreciate that he’s partly joking, partly pushing them to improved effectiveness.

Roger Silverwood’s Yorkshire Mystery Series appears to be constructed on that template, judging by the first book in the series, The Missing Nurse.

The setting is the town of Bromersley. Inspector Michael Angel of the Bromersley police is tall and fat and irascible. He is married without children, and fond of cats. He hates hot weather. Which is unfortunate, because it’s August in the hottest year on record, and on top of that his wife has gone away to visit her sick mother. This leaves him to run the house alone, a challenge that seems beyond him (he delegates much of the work to a rookie subordinate). Also, his favorite sergeant is out of town taking a course.

When Miriam Thomas, a middle-aged nurse from Wales, comes to his office to report her sister missing, Angel is not greatly concerned. The woman had been visiting in town, and such disappearances usually turn out to be simple failures of communication. He tells Miriam not to worry.

But he realizes there’s reason to worry, when a body shows up in a park and matches the sister’s description. Even more sinister, Miriam herself has now disappeared. Angel puts his team on the hunt for her, for her own protection and to try to find an explanation for the murder. The explanation, as it turns out, will take them to an old unsolved case.

Meanwhile a couple thugs hold up a service station and pistol whip the young girl who was working there. Such behavior offends Angel deeply, and he puts his team on the hunt for them too.

I think we’re intended to find Inspector Michael Angel amusing, in the Morse manner. It didn’t really work that way for me. Being intentionally unpleasant to people under your authority is a game to be played with a light hand, in my opinion. Angel lays it on thick. He has his virtues – he cares deeply about crime victims – but he annoyed me.

Such things are subjective. The book might work better for you. The usual cautions apply.

‘In the Bleak Midwinter’

The nice thing about December is that if I can’t think of anything to blog, I can post a Christmas music video. In my case, that usually means something from Sissel.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is in keeping with the weather, in my neighborhood. Poem by Christina Rossetti, music by Gustav Holst. Orchestration by a bunch of heretics in Salt Lake City.

‘Depth of Winter,’ by Craig Johnson

Sometimes titles are misleading. When you pick up a book called Depth of Winter, starring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, you assume you’ll get a story set in the Wyoming winter.

That’s not what this entry in Craig Johnson’s Longmire saga is, at all (the title’s from a quotation from Camus). It’s a quest story, in which old Walt heads down to Mexico (where it’s hot), all alone, to rescue his daughter Cady, who’s been kidnapped by a vengeful Mexican cartel boss. Instead of his usual cast of supporting characters, we have here a new group of people to help him out, and they’re pretty bizarre – a blind, legless humpback called “The Seer,” a young man with a pink Cadillac, a rancher, a mute Indian sniper. When a fictional series brings in a previously unknown supporting cast, you can be fairly sure those characters will suffer a high mortality rate, and that’s true in this case.

If I remember the first Longmire novel correctly (it’s been a while since I read it), Longmire was originally an overweight county sheriff who made a lot of jokes and was smarter than he appeared when it came to solving crimes. Now (probably under the influence of the TV series), he’s become a larger than life action hero, enduring and inflicting suffering beyond what’s plausible for a guy his age.

Depth of Winter was readable and rousing, with lots of action. But I had trouble believing in it. The final showdown was cinematic and completely unbelievable.

I bridled at a slighting comment on religious faith, though that comment was made in the context of Longmire giving thanks to… Somebody.

I want to read some of the earlier books, to verify my impressions about the evolution of the character, but for some reason I’ve only been able to find the more recent books available from my public library for KIndle. I find the Longmire books readable, but I’m not in love with them. This book struck me as uncharacteristic enough to qualify as extra-canonical.

Cautions for language and intense violence.

‘Depraved Difference,’ by J. Robert Kennedy

If you like your thrillers equipped with major plot twists, Depraved Difference by J. Robert Kennedy may be just what you’re looking for.

Me, I’m still thinking it over.

Aynslee Kai, an ambitious young TV journalist in Manhattan, starts receiving videos by e-mail, videos that might make her career. A year ago a couple thugs beat and kicked a young woman to death on the subway. Two more low-lifes videoed the murder and shared it on the net, where it went viral.

Now someone has started identifying the onlookers, the people caught on the video watching but doing nothing to help. Each onlooker is being hunted down and murdered, and each murder is filmed and sent to Aynslee. She is shocked, but also energized by this big career break.

She feels a little guilty, though, about not cooperating more with Detective Hayden Eldridge, a cop who’s asked to see the videos before they’re broadcast. She assists him to an extent, but her boss’s priorities come first. This bothers her a bit, because she’s developed a crush on the hunky Eldridge.

Author Kennedy is very good at surprising his readers, and there are several shockers in this story up until the very climax. There he blindsides you (unless you’re a lot smarter than me) with a twist so bizarre I’m still trying to decide whether he played fair with his readers or not.

Oddly, this book is labeled Number One in the “Detective Shakespeare” series. Justin Shakespeare is Eldridge’s partner, and he doesn’t even show up in the book until the 40% point (on my Kindle). Shakespeare is mentioned often before that, but only as a fat, lazy time-server just putting in his time until retirement. We will gradually learn that there’s more to him than that.

Depraved Difference was a compelling read, and one you won’t soon forget. I’m still not sure whether I approve of the final twist, though. I also thought the character psychology kind of implausible.

Cautions for lots of violence and disturbing situations, plus strong language.

‘Perilous Cove,’ by Rich Bullock

If you like Christian romances and Christian mysteries, Perilous Cove by Rich Bullock might be just your kind of book.

It’s not my kind of book, but I don’t know everything.

Natalie Clayton is a recent widow living in Missouri, contending with a hostile mother-in-law. When her house is torched by an arsonist and someone dies, she begins to suspect that somebody is out to get her. She doesn’t know the half of it.

Detective Addison Conner is a recent widower, trying to raise a teenaged daughter. When he investigates the arson at Natalie’s house, there’s a spark of electricity between them. Natalie has nowhere to go when her house is gone, so he takes her in to live with him and his daughter, temporarily. When a second murder attempt is made on Natalie, “temporarily” begins to look pretty brief.

Natalie knows what she has to do – disappear and relocate to California. But she and Addison are not out of each other’s lives yet.

Perilous Cove was an exciting read, and I’ll admit it caught my emotions.

But it was clumsily written, and heavy on romance novel stuff; the villains were over the top, the conflicts improbable (or so it seemed to me). I found the explosive climax less than credible.

If this is your kind of book, you’ve probably figured that out by now. You’ll probably love Perilous Cove. But I found it disappointing. Fortunately I got it on an Amazon deal.

No bad language, and no cautions except for garden-variety fictional violence.

Biographical stand-ins

I caught an old movie the other day. “Till the Clouds Roll By,” starring Robert Walker (no relation). It’s a biographical film, based on the life of Broadway composer Jerome Kern.

I like old movies in general, but this one interested me because I knew Kern wrote along with P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton in his early years, doing a lot to invent the American musical comedy as we know it. Up until their time, Broadway musical plays had been mostly adaptations of European ones. This team, plus a few others, invented more character-centric stories, where the songs always advanced the plot. I wondered how the movie would treat that collaboration.

They treated it, in typical Hollywood fashion, by replacing it entirely. In the movie, instead of working with various collaborators, the young Kern teams up with a fictional older lyricist named Jim Hessler (Van Heflin). The Hessler character comes fully equipped with a fictional family, including a young daughter who becomes a surrogate little sister to Kern, and adds dramatic conflict to the third act so that all can be resolved in the big musical climax.

That got me thinking about the subject of fictional characters. That is, fictional characters included in real life stories, in order to avoid using real people – who sometimes sue you (or their heirs do) if they don’t like the way they’ve been depicted. (Movies were made about Wyatt Earp before his widow died, but they had to change his name, because she refused to give approval.)

Perhaps the most famous case is Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, introduced in Henry V, Part 1. Falstaff was a stand-in for a genuine historical figure named Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle had a similar career to the fat man in the play, except that he joined the Lollards, the proto-Protestant followers of Wycliffe, and eventually died a martyr’s death, roasted over a fire. His descendants, who were influential, made it very clear that they did not want their ancestor belittled, so Will Shakespeare just wrote Oldcastle out, replacing him with Falstaff. Probably just as well.

In both versions of “Shadowlands,” the film about C.S. Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman (I prefer the original BBC version), we see Jack together with his friends, the Inklings, debating, laughing, smoking pipes, and drinking beer. Except for his brother Warnie, who plays a major role in the play, all these friends are fictional. There is no J. R. R. Tolkien there, nor any Hugo Dyson or Owen Barfield. Including them (especially Tolkien) would have been a distraction, I imagine. The audience would be trying to identify them rather than following the story.

And they all had living families, always potential complications.

It makes perfect prudential sense to fictionalize.

And yet I always feel a little cheated when it’s done.