All posts by Lars Walker

‘The Last Straw,’ by Paul Gitsham

I was in a mood for a change of pace from intense crime thrillers, and thought I’d look for a good, old-fashioned police procedural. I found it in The Last Straw, Paul Gitsham’s first in a series starring Detective Chief Inspector Warren Jones of the (fictional) Middlesbury police force, in England.

Professor Alan Tunbridge of the (also fictional) University of Middle England’s biology department was a genius and, by all accounts, a pretty vile man. He abused his colleagues, exploited and sabotaged his student assistants, and pursued any pretty young woman who came his way.

Nevertheless, he didn’t deserve to have this throat cut. Which is what happened, in his office, on a day when the laboratory building was nearly empty.

A suspect is quickly identified. A figure on the building’s closed circuit TV is readily identifiable as a former student of Tunbridge’s, an Italian man with good reason to hate him. When bloodstained clothing is found on the man’s property, it follows naturally he must be arrested and charged.

But DCI Warren Jones, newly promoted and transferred in to Middlesbury, is a stickler for “dotting the Is and crossing the Ts,” as he repeatedly says. And he and his subordinates begin to have doubts about the evidence. Looking more closely, they begin to uncover a ruthless conspiracy, one which will not stint at committing further murders to keep its secrets —  and even cops are not safe.

To be honest, I found The Last Straw a little dull at first. I’ve grown accustomed to angst-ridden detectives, bedeviled by alcoholism, PTSD, bad marriages and ingrown guilt. DCI Jones is another kind of policeman altogether. He’s healthy, well organized, and generally cheerful. And when personal conflicts appear on his team, he handles them in a manner that’s an example to us all. I do worry about his marriage though – his wife is remarkably patient, but the pressure is heavy.

The book grew on me. It didn’t hurt that a couple of the characters identified as Christians and church-goers. I recommend The Last Straw for a more leisurely read than common in the genre, with only a mild caution for language.

‘Another Kingdom,’ by Andrew Klavan

I’d been told that Hollywood was where you went if you wanted to sell your soul to make movies. I went, but I never sold my soul. No one would buy it. I just got tired of carrying it around.

As a fantasy writer myself, I resent the way an interloper, like thriller writer Andrew Klavan, can just waltz in and write a compelling fantasy without (apparently) breaking a sweat or learning the secret handshake.

I comfort myself by finding a few nitpicks in my generally enthusiastic reception.

The hero of Another Kingdom is Austin Lively, a lowly Hollywood “story analyst.” A story analyst reads unsolicited scripts, and novels under consideration for script development, for Hollywood studios. Austin wrote a very good script once, but it died in development purgatory. Now he just gets by, a Hollywood drone, the despair of his high-achieving family.

But one day he has an impulse to re-read a book he “analyzed” a while back. The author withdrew it from consideration, but it stuck in his mind. He can’t find it on Amazon, and no bookseller seems to have it. On his way to check out another possibility, he walks through a doorway…

And finds himself in a tall castle window, teetering over the edge. He has a bloody dagger in his hand, and a beautiful woman lies dead, stabbed to death, on the floor behind him. Armed men break in and arrest him, dragging him off to a dungeon. There he nearly loses his mind with fear, until the guards come to take him away for torture. As he passes through the door again, he is transported back to Los Angeles…

Where he soon finds himself being hunted by a sexually ambiguous hit man, who works for a billionaire – who just happens to be the man who employs his father, his mother, and his brother. Who also owns the studio where Austin works.

Somebody will be killed, and Austin will be blamed. And all the while, at uncontrollable intervals, when he least expects it, Austin will be dropped back into the world of Another Kingdom, where he is now part of the resistance to a tyrannical government, fighting to bring back the rightful queen.

Each time he passes into Another Kingdom, he learns something – something that helps him survive in the “real world” of Los Angeles. And gradually he matures, becoming the man he always wanted to be, but never believed he could be.

Because this is Klavan, I assume Another Kingdom is Christian fantasy. But it’s not like your ordinary Christian fantasy (not even mine). There’s foul language, and sex scenes without any reference to Christian morality. I’m expecting the lessons to be deeper, and to become apparent later in the trilogy.

I had a few quibbles, as I mentioned. The medieval fantasy world of Another Kingdom seems to me pretty much pro forma, a city boy’s imagination. It lacked verisimilitude, for me. I don’t expect a medieval manor house to have glass doors (too expensive and fragile). A horse is lent to the hero, and all he does with it is ride it – he doesn’t feed it or unsaddle it or rub it down or check its feet. It’s just there for his use, like a car.

But the trademark Klavan storytelling delights are all here – the action never lets up, and one deadly peril follows the other in breathtaking style. This book will not bore you, not for one moment. I recommend it (with cautions for adult stuff) and look forward to the rest of the trilogy.

‘Song of the Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The famous phrase, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” was inspired by this book [Heimskringla]: Snorri is indeed a deft biographer.


Any Viking aficionado can’t help being aware of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic chieftain who penned Heimskringla, the sagas of the Norwegian kings, and the Prose Edda, which tells us almost everything we know about Norse mythology. He is an essential figure in the lore – Tom Shippey called him “the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.”

And yet, although he has a saga we can read, most of us don’t know a lot about his life (the saga is rather sad and bloody, and was written by a relation who disliked him. I confess I haven’t read it). So Nancy Marie Brown, who wrote Ivory Vikings, which I reviewed not long ago, has done us a service by writing his biography for a modern audience in Song of the Vikings.

Song of the Vikings follows Snorri’s life story, and integrates it with commentary on his important works (some of the attributions have been questioned, but Brown seems to accept them). Thus we get insight on the events of his life through considering the things he wrote that appear to have been informed by them. For instance, the content of Heimskringla bears witness to Snorri’s ambivalent attitude toward the institution of kingship – he was somewhat star-struck by kings (and may have collaborated to subvert the Icelandic republic for a Norwegian king), but he had bitter experience of royal capriciousness. His narrative of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, may relate to some bad years Iceland suffered following devastating volcanic eruptions, and also the violence that accompanied the breakdown of his own (somewhat cynical) schemes to make himself “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”

The book begins with an anecdote about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and we learn much about the amazing influence of Snorri’s work throughout the world’s literature and art – for better and worse. This is all the more remarkable because his books weren’t even known outside Iceland until around the beginning of the 17th Century.

I was very impressed by Song of the Vikings. Any reader interested in Norse history or myth will gain many new insights. Author Brown is a good writer and an impressive scholar. I recommend this book.

Of conservatives, progressives, and Christians

My Close Personal Friend Gene Edward Veith posts an interesting meditation today on the differences between the ways conservatives and progressives think — and how Christians are (or should be) distinct from both.

It would follow that Christians, while tending towards conservatism, would also be sensitive to some of the evils that bother progressives.  But they would see them as violations of God’s design, rather than as an excuse to violate that design further.  Christians would have at best modest hopes for what human governments and “nation-states” can accomplish, avoiding all utopian thinking–whether of the conservative or the progressive variety–in a spirit of realism and skepticism, even while they do what they can to advance the common good.  The Christian’s hope is fixed not so much on this world, which will soon pass away, but on the world to come–on Christ who has atoned for the sins of the world and who will reign as King over the New Heaven and the New Earth.

From this perspective, Christians must sometimes be progressive, sometimes conservative, in relation to changing conditions.

I’m sure (because they keep saying it) that my progressive friends truly believe that we are on the brink of a fascist takeover. That we must all run to the port side of the boat right away, lest we tip over to starboard.

I can’t see that. We have an (imperfectly) conservative president, and one house of Congress that’s sort of conservative on a good day. Our educational system, our government bureaucracies, our news media and our entertainment media are uniformly progressive — and at the moment they’re competing with one another to prove who can be the most like Mao.

I’ll continue to sit over here on the starboard side, thanks. Wake me up when the president closes down a newspaper.

‘A Parting In the Sky,’ by Mark W. Sasse

In the book of Daniel, there’s a reference that’s always intrigued me to a being called “a Watcher, a Holy One.” I think such beings are usually explained as some kind of angel. I suspect – though I’m not sure – that some characters in Mark W. Sasse’s Forgotten Child Trilogy may be meant to be the same kind of creatures, though here they’re not exactly angels.

A Parting In the Sky is the third and final book in the trilogy. Our protagonist, Francis Frick, a repentant arms merchant, does not actually do a lot in this volume, being confined to a hospital bed. The main characters are Ash, a “watcher,” and Hatty Parker, a young black woman who has become Francis’s friend and ally.

Another main character in the previous books, “Bee,” a sort of giggling fairy who loves pomegranates and blithely disregards the rules by which Watchers operate, also plays a diminished role. Bee is beloved both by Francis and by Ash, but she is banished from our world for her insubordination. However, in her absence Ash finds himself restored and strengthened, and he carries on her program for Francis and his friends, to the anger of his superior.

The wicked arms merchants against whom Francis and Hatty are now working are planning a major act of terror before fleeing the US with their ill-gotten gains. Hatty willingly surrenders herself to her enemies, trusting that the powers watching over her will use her to stop the evil. Things will work out in a way beyond anyone’s hope.

The Forgotten Child trilogy is as strange a series of books as I’ve ever read. I can’t claim that the writing is elegant or precise – Sasse doesn’t know how to use the word “myriad,” for instance, and he makes other errors of diction.

But I enjoyed the books immensely. There’s an innocence and simplicity there (worked into a very complex, globe-hopping plot) that pleases and delights.

They’re the kind of books that might be Christian, but the Christianity is obliquely expressed. There seems to be an argument about theodicy embedded in the story. I recommend these books.

‘Worth Killing For,’ by Ed James

Yesterday I reviewed Ed James’s interesting first entry in his DI Fenchurch series, The Hope That Kills. I said I wasn’t sure what I thought about the series yet. But now I’ve read the second book, Worth Killing For, and I know what I think.

Detective Inspector Simon Fenchurch is an obsessive policeman in tough east London. His daughter Chloe was kidnapped ten years ago, and he’s been killing himself on the job, hoping that somehow he’ll find a clue about her fate.

In Worth Killing For, he has kept a promise to his ex-wife. He’s given up the search for Chloe, and they’ve moved in together again. He’s honored the letter of his promise, though he can’t avoid thinking about the mystery, especially since his father, working as a volunteer on cold cases, is keeping the search up.

This time out, Fenchurch and his wife are on their way to a restaurant when they see a young woman stabbed to death in the street, before their very eyes. Fenchurch pursues the suspect and finally catches him. But fingerprints on the weapon prove he got the wrong young man.

The victim was a journalist, and shortly after her death, a colleague of hers is similarly murdered – again in front of Fenchurch’s eyes.

There’s a conspiracy here – and it goes beyond street gangs. Very rich and powerful people are manipulating young black men in order to further big business and political schemes.

And that’s where the author lost me. I finished the book, but I won’t be reading any more.

What we’ve dealing with here is Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo Syndrome. The books are written from a Marxist perspective, so that all crime ultimately emanates from the dark machinations of the Evil Rich and the Evil Conservatives. A major bad guy here is a pro-Brexit politician, and the opportunity is taken to link him to Trump, who is Worse Than Hitler.

I’m sure author James doesn’t want my filthy conservative money, so I won’t read any more of the Fenchurch books. I regret that I’ll never learn what happened to Chloe – we’re bound to find out eventually – but I already know that she was the victim of some vast Right Wing Conspiracy, so I can save the money on further details.

‘The Hope That Kills,’ by Ed James

I thought it was time to try another British crime series. Ed James’s DI Fenchurch novels are going cheap right now, so I thought I’d start with the first, The Hope That Kills.

Simon Fenchurch is a police inspector in east London. He’s a hollow man, ruined by a family tragedy. Ten years ago, his little girl Chloe disappeared, and has never been seen again. On top of his regular case load, Fenchurch is constantly running down leads on Chloe – missing persons cases, unidentified bodies. No luck. His marriage has broken up, and he’s always at odds with his superiors.

When a young prostitute is found stabbed to death in the streets, Fenchurch is electrified. The victim isn’t Chloe, but she could be. Right age, similar appearance. This motivates him into a frenzied, sleepless investigation in which he violates all the rules and lines of command. The trail leads to the rich and powerful, and to a criminal scheme almost incredible in its degeneracy.

I’m not sure about this series yet. There’s no charm in it. Just passion. And it’s depressing. Probably pretty realistic (except for Fenchurch’s scenes physically chasing criminals, which seem cinematic and repetitive). Also the final solution, which I just described as “almost incredible,” does seem a little over the top.

But the ending of the story was somewhat hopeful, and I’m giving the second book a chance. I’ll let you know.

Cautions for language, violence, and disturbing situations.

Personal appearance advisory

I will be speaking at Union University, Jackson, Tennessee on Tuesday, April 9, on the subject: “When Christianity Came to the Vikings.” More information here.

Thanks to Ray Van Neste, Dean of the School of Theology and Missions, and Hunter Baker, Dean of Arts and Sciences, for putting whatever pressure was necessary on the right people to allow this event to happen.

‘First to Kill,’ by Andrew Peterson

I was looking for a new mystery series to read – especially one that would be cheap – and I thought I’d give Andrew Peterson’s Nathan McBride series a try. I’d say it’s not really a mystery, but is pretty good of its kind, though not to my taste.

Nathan McBride and his friend Harve run a private security company. But they have ties to the FBI (it doesn’t hurt that Nathan’s father is an influential senator) and sometimes they’re called in to do dirty work that permits agency deniability. Nathan was a Marine sniper in the past, and bears on his face and body a set of scars that testify to the time he spent under torture in Nicaragua.

As First to Kill begins, Nathan and Harve are asked to assist in an FBI attack on a compound where three brothers are holding a cache of Semtex, which they’ve been selling to fringe groups. The brothers prove to be more resourceful than expected, and Nathan ends up killing the youngest brother, an action that saves lives. But the other two brothers get away through a tunnel nobody knew about, vowing to get even. They get their revenge shortly after, through a horrific terrorist act.

Now Nathan and Harve become the sharp end of the federal government’s response – they will hunt the brothers down, secure the Semtex, and kill them, employing any means necessary. For justice and national security, the gloves are off now. But they will also discover some shocking betrayals, at very high levels.

First to Kill is an exciting excursion in a kind of story that doesn’t really ring my bell (except for Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger books, which are a special case). Such stories are revenge fantasies, where the reader can enjoy the hero’s ruthlessness. The hero will violate people’s rights, and even employ torture, for a higher good. I have no doubt that there are situations when such things may be justified (it relates to the whole just war doctrine, which I believe in), but I’m not really capable of enjoying such stories.

The writing wasn’t bad, except for a couple places where exposition got repeated, as if the author had moved a few sentences and forgot to omit the original passage. Also at one point it confused the sequence of action.

But all in all it was pretty good of its kind. If you like this sort of thing.

‘The Program,’ by James Swain

James Swain’s Jack Carpenter series continues – sort of – in The Program. It’s not strictly a Jack Carpenter book though, as Jack only appears a couple times. This adventure belongs to a secondary character in the previous books – FBI agent Ken Linderman. Linderman runs the FBI’s Miami Abducted Children office. His work is motivated by his own unfinished business – his teenaged daughter was abducted, and her fate remains unknown.

A serial killer has been murdering women – mostly prostitutes – by cutting their throats. However, that killer has now been forensically linked to a pair of abductions of young boys, who were later found shot in the head. Now a third boy has disappeared.

Serial killers don’t generally change their game plans in this fashion. Ken teams up with Rachel Vick, an ambitious young FBI agent, to try to identify and stop this killer, whom they call Mr. Clean. Their trail leads to an even more dangerous figure – an incarcerated serial killer with a brilliant mind and a plan for escaping and commencing a new round of atrocities.

The Program was the kind of book that keeps my interest, but makes me uncomfortable. I have some trouble handling stories where I spend substantial time inside the minds of very evil people, and in the minds of imprisoned victims. Such episodes were limited here, but I did sometimes have trouble getting back to the book for that reason. I should mention that, unlike most of Swain’s books, this one included a fairly explicit sex scene (actually a rape scene) which made me uncomfortable. The scene was, however, pretty necessary to the plot. So I don’t blame it, but I think you should be warned.

There was an inordinate number of typos in this book. It’s been released solely as an e-book, and shortcuts appear to have been taken.

I found the ending (mostly) highly satisfactory. So I do recommend The Program, if you bear my cautions in mind.

‘The Night Monster,’ by James Swain

I have seen the dead more times than is healthy. One thing I’ve learned from the experience: The dead don’t talk, but they do scream.

I’m continuing with James Swain’s interesting Jack Carpenter series. Jack is a former Broward County, Florida, police detective, once head of their missing persons unit. Now he makes a marginal living as a private eye, specializing in missing children. He lives above a bar. His marriage has broken up, but he’s still friendly with his wife and college-aged daughter. He has a dog, an Australian Shepherd named Buster.

Years ago, when he was in uniform, Jack blew the opportunity one day to stop a gigantic kidnapper who nearly killed him, and disappeared with a young girl, who was never found again. It was that experience that left him obsessed with finding kids.

At the beginning of The Night Monster, Jack gets a call from his daughter, who is on a university basketball team. A creepy guy has been following her team around, filming them with a cell phone. When Jack intercepts the guy after a game, he finds himself attacked by a familiar form – the very giant who nearly killed him when he was a rookie. Again, Jack barely gets away with his life. But the creepy stalker and his giant partner make off with a prize – one of Jack’s daughter’s teammates, the daughter of a very rich man.

This time, Jack is determined to find the giant, and end a string of abductions going back years. The investigation (bankrolled by the victim’s father) will take him to a closed state mental hospital with a dark secret, and to a quiet Florida town with a secret even weirder.

Pretty good thriller. Like the other books in the series, The Night Monster keeps the tension high and ramps it up. The language is relatively mild for the genre. Some of the situations are disturbing. But the storytelling is tops, and the surprises really surprising. Recommended.

Dispatch from the Barren North

Actual photo of my front yard. Photo, public domain.

OK, the picture above isn’t really from my place. But it expresses my personal truth.

I actually took a picture of my front yard for you, but then I thought, “Why give my enemies another clue about where to find me?”

In fact, the big snowstorm wasn’t that big. Six inches or so of heavy, wet snow. But on top of all the rest, it amounts to a lot of meringue.

I’d decided not to worry about ice dams this year – those little walls of ice that build up over the gutters, which freeze at night and often force ice up under your shingles – because my attic isn’t heated. But I talked to my neighbor the other day, and he pointed to the actual, existing ice dams on my house. He suggested I might want to do something about them. I should have gone to work with my roof rake that day, but I had a bad cold, and wanted to postpone it.

This morning I still had the cold, but decided I’d better get on it. My efforts proved ineffectual – the whole, thick layer of snow on top of my roof is hard as a glacier now, and I was only able to rake off the layer that fell over the weekend.

But I had further advice from my neighbor. “Those salt pucks work,” he said.

Salt pucks are pieces of salt you can toss onto your roof. They melt in place, and reduce the pressure overall (I guess).

I set out in search of salt pucks this morning. I thought, “I’ll bet everybody’s sold out.”

I was correct. (For a change.) But the local hardware store says they’re getting some tomorrow.

I tossed some sidewalk salt on the roof, and am hoping for the best.

Today was a nice day to be out and about, though. The temperature was still below freezing, but the sun is strong at last – like the mighty eagles at the climax of The Lord of the Rings – and thawing is going on wherever it shines.

Tomorrow will be warm, and the day after will be cold again.

It is not the end. But it is the beginning of the end.

‘The Night Stalker,’ by James Swain

Five minutes later, a cruiser pulled up in front of LeAnn Grimes’s house with its bubble light flashing. It contained the classic mismatch of uniformed officers; a crusty male veteran, and an inexperienced young female. The pairing worked great on TV cop shows; in real life it created nothing but friction.

Book 2 in James Swain’s Jack Carpenter series. In The Night Stalker, Abb Grimes, a convicted serial killer on Florida’s death row, nearing execution, calls Jack – who helped put him away – to ask for a favor. His grandson has been kidnapped, he says. The police think his son snatched the boy himself, but Abb says that’s not true. Someone has taken the boy and is threatening to kill him unless Abb keeps silent about certain things he knows.

Jack is impressed by Abb’s appeal, and agrees to look into it. He will clash with old fellow cops and rivals, and discovers long-buried secrets and cover-ups. As in all James Swain’s books, the suspense never lets up as Jack (assisted by his faithful Australian Shepherd dog) races the clock to learn the truth.

Fun book. I found it interesting that a couple characters are described as born-again Christians, and their conversions are seen as valid and good things. I don’t know whether author Swain himself is a believer (he also writes occult fiction), but at least he respects Christianity.

He does, however, promote the false message of “always follow your heart.”

The language is relatively mild, but there are intense scenes and descriptions. Fun and recommended.