All posts by Lars Walker

‘People Die,’ by Kevin Wignall

People Die

He did feel bad for burdening her, yet at the same time he’d wanted to tell her much more: that he was lonely, that he felt like indistinct bits of him were dying, that nothing was clear anymore. It was enough though, what he’d told her was enough, like a gasp of pure oxygen, burning the tissue of his lungs.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of People Die, Kevin Wignall’s debut novel. It’s not exactly amoral, but not exactly moral either. I suspect it’s one of those sophisticated books not intended for middlebrows like me.

JJ Hoffman is a freelance hit man, based in Geneva. He has an impeccable reputation in his field – he does his work efficiently and dispassionately, leaving no metaphorical messes behind.

But now he has found his handler murdered, and rumor says that several others of his colleagues have been killed too. Almost by coincidence (I think it counts as a minor deus ex machina) he is contacted by an American who tells him he knows what’s going on. He wants JJ to come and visit him, at an inn in New England.

The problem is that the inn is owned by a woman whose husband JJ murdered a few years ago.

People Die is a well-written tale. I thought it passed the bounds of plausibility a few times – and not in the normal way of thrillers, on the action side. The implausibilities here are psychological. And the resolution just made no sense to me. There’s a kind of grace at work here (in fact the book could be seen as a sort of Christian metaphor), but there’s an amorality at the same time. I couldn’t work out what to think about it in the end.

Worth reading though. Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes.

We call them ‘wall hangers’ nowadays

Viking sword
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Via Dave Lull: An article from J-Stor by James MacDonald, on new Danish research that indicates that some Viking swords were never meant for a fight. “The trick to creating an ideal sword using this technique is to distribute different types of metal that balance hardness and flexibility—durable enough to hold an edge while absorbing the shock of contact. The scanned swords were not made in such a way that they can both cut and flex.”

I mentioned the story to a reenactor friend last weekend, and he wasn’t greatly surprised. The sagas do not speak of swords made entirely for show — what we call “wall hangers” today. But we know that sword making was an iffy proposition. The “Havamal” says, “Praise no sword until it has been tested.” And one unfortunate character in one of the sagas comes proudly home from Norway with a beautiful sword with gilded furniture. But when he tries it in a fight, it bends, and he has to set the tip on the ground and try to straighten it by stepping on it.

So it’s not unreasonable that a status-conscious Viking might have bought a sword purely for show, as a status symbol, but would depend in battle on his trusty axe, which was easier to use anyway.

‘The Missing and the Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

The Missing and the Dead

I swore I wasn’t going to read another Stuart MacBride novel.

The last time I read one of his Logan McRae books, it went in a very, very creepy direction, and I dropped it before it could get any worse. I mentioned on this blog that I was done with it.

But one day I was looking for another book to read, and I had a momentary lapse of memory. By the time I remembered what I thought of the series, The Missing and the Dead was on my Kindle. I figured I’d give it a chance.

It didn’t offend me the way the last one did. And I stayed with it to the end. But I’m still not a fan.

Logan McRae used to be a Scottish police detective. But somewhere since the last story I read, he got demoted to uniformed policing in the far north – centered at a station in the town of Banff, on the North Sea. He’s in charge of a small squad, but of course the plainclothes detectives get to do the interesting work. Continue reading ‘The Missing and the Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

Memorial Day 2017

On Memorial Day, it is customary to remind people, in the midst of their barbecuing, to take a moment to remember the sacrifices made by soldiers in many wars, so that we might enjoy our freedom.

I think it would be more appropriate, this year, to take the ashes from our barbecues, strew them on our heads, dress in sackcloth, fall to our knees, and beg forgiveness for the uses to which we’ve put that freedom.

‘The Girl from Kilkenny,’ by Pete Brassett

The Girl from Kilkenny

Good writing. Disturbing story. That’s Pete Brassett’s The Girl from Kilkenny.

It’s not a mystery. It’s one of those stories where you watch a metaphorical train wreck going on, waiting for the moment when somebody will identify the problem and stop it.

Nancy McBride showed up at the Irish farm a few years ago. She was small and beautiful, and the young farmer, who lived with his widowed father, fell in love with her and married her. Granted, her moods tended to change violently from time to time, and she could be cruel with her words. But she showed no desire to leave the lonely farm, and her husband adored her and built his life around her.

When news comes that men have been mysteriously murdered in nearby towns, it never crosses his mind that his wife might be responsible. But there are a lot of things he doesn’t know about…

The Girl from Kilkenny is a neatly plotted tragedy, told in elegant prose.

It’s not a book to cheer you up.

Recommended for those who like this sort of thing.

‘Prayer for the Dying,’ by Steve Brassett

Prayer for the Dying

This novel by Pete Brassett is quite short, almost a novella. But it was an intriguing story, one I enjoyed. And the price was right.

At the beginning of Prayer for the Dying, small-town Irish police detectives Maguire and O’Brien are called to view the body of a dead priest, lying in an onion patch on the grounds of a school for orphan boys. The late priest was once headmaster of the school, but had retired, and was suffering dementia.

Various threads of narrative provide the back story, in bits and pieces and out of sequence. In his time, the dead priest was a terrifying figure, abusive and sadistic. A former staff member tells how he resigned because he couldn’t live with the cruelty anymore. And we are told of another former instructor, a gentle Spaniard who is now catatonic in a mental hospital – but who still finds a way to provide an important clue.

The story was heartbreaking, as any account of child abuse must always be. And there were spiritual elements that were slightly unsettling. But I appreciated the fact that the priests were not stereotyped – most of them were good men. And the ending had resonance.

Cautions for language – Irish cursing which uses somewhat unfamiliar words and so seems less offensive. Also for disturbing subject material. Recommended.

‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

The Last Gunfight

None of the Earps were flawless saints, but they also were not shady characters who lucked into heroic places in Western history. What they did do, Wyatt especially, was exaggerate their accomplishments and completely ignore anything in their past that reflected badly on them. In this, they were typical of men of their time—and men today.

Wyatt Earp wanted a desk job. You could argue that that simple fact is responsible for the bloodletting that occurred in an empty lot next to C.S. Fly’s photographic studio, not far from the OK Corral, on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. All the Earps dreamed of wealth and social respectability, but they had to settle for gambling, police work (usually as deputies), and sometimes less reputable work like pimping, until they could catch the brass ring. Which none of them did in their lifetimes.

Wyatt thought he had a fair shot at being elected sheriff of the newly-created Cochise County, Arizona, on the Republican ticket. He was a deputy to his brother, Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp, who was also Tombstone chief of police. He thought he could arrest several wanted “cowboys” (a word that meant rustlers at the time), if he made a deal with the rancher Ike Clanton to betray his cowboy friends. Unfortunately, Ike got the idea that Wyatt had been telling people about the deal, and got so mad that he spent the night of October 25 lurching from one saloon to another, bragging about everything he was going to do that two-faced Earp. This was a stupid thing to do if he wanted the deal kept secret, of course, but brains were never Ike’s strong suit. The next day Virgil deputized his brothers and Doc Holliday and led them down to the vacant lot to disarm Ike and his friends. The rest is… about 1% history and 99% myth and romance.

Though the Amazon description calls Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight the “definitive” account of the affair, it’s not and cannot be, as Guinn himself admits in his Afterword. New information keeps turning up, and sometimes it’s pretty illuminating. What The Last Gunfight offers is a fairly recent, and fairly comprehensive, account of the personalities and forces that led to the shoot-out, and the events that followed, with the focus on the Earps. Continue reading ‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

Mano a Mannix

TV Guide

Dave Lull has done it again. He found an anecdote about D. Keith Mano in a posting at It’s About TV. The author, Mitchell D. Hadley, recaps an issue of TV Guide from May 18, 1967 (I was about to finish my junior year in high school that week, but we didn’t take TV Guide). Mano isn’t featured in the magazine, but Hadley has a recollection:

It reminds me of a story told by the novelist D. Keith Mano, who was teaching a creative writing class and slogging through some dreadful efforts by earnest would-be writers. When one, complaining about his low grade, protested, “But this is how it was,” Mano replied, “Yes, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” And that’s why Joe Mannix’s life is more interesting than yours, Mister Private Detective.

We watched Mannix at our house, but I was never a big fan. I remember that he seemed to get knocked unconscious roughly once a week. I was no neurologist even then, but I was pretty sure you’d be drooling in a nursing care facility if that happened in real life.

‘Citadel,’ by Stephen Hunter

Citadel

A slight rain fell; the cobblestones glistened; the whole thing had a cinematic look that Basil paid no attention to, as it did him no good at all and he was by no means a romantic.

In the wake of reading Stephen Hunter’s G-man (reviewed below), I also downloaded his novella Citadel, available as an e-book. I had some niggles with G-man, but I found Citadel pure delight – a brisk, exciting mystery and spy story.

Basil St. Florian is an agent for Britain’s SOE during World War II. He accepts a dodgy assignment with little chance of success – to fly into occupied France, break into an antiquarian library in Paris, and photograph selected pages of a rare manuscript. Supposedly (nobody’s really sure) those pages contain the key to a “book code” which will allow (for reasons explained in the story) the British to pass information on German plans to the Soviets. Alan Turing is involved.

Basil is an interesting character – the kind of upper-class ne’er-do-well who was never useful to society until the war gave scope for his less respectable talents. His adventures introduce him to a bore of a Luftwaffe officer and a rather decent Abwehr agent.

Citadel was fun. Lots of wit went into the story, and it was fascinating to watch the unflappable Basil overcome repeated seemingly fatal setbacks. The plot tied itself up neatly in the end and left a good taste in my mouth.

Recommended light adventure and suspense, with a touch of Hogan’s Heroes. Only minor cautions for mature stuff.

‘G-Man,’ by Stephen Hunter

G-Man

Dave Lull reminded me that the new Bob Lee Swagger book by Stephen Hunter was coming out the other day, and I was on it like a fedora on J. Edgar Hoover. I had a good time with the book, though it’s not among my favorites in the series.

In G-Man, old Bob Lee finally sells off the family homestead in Blue Eye, Arkansas. As the house is being demolished, workmen discover a strongbox buried in the foundation. Inside are a pristine Colt 1911 pistol, a hand-drawn map, an old, uncirculated thousand-dollar bill, and a piece of metal that looks like a rifle suppressor, though Bob Lee can’t identify it right off.

Various clues indicate the box must have been buried by his grandfather, Charles F. Swagger, a kind of a mystery man. He was county sheriff, and a World War I hero, and an angry alcoholic. Bob Lee’s father Earl made it his life’s goal to be nothing like him. The Colt 1911 belongs to a batch that went to the FBI in 1934. Could old Charles have been an FBI agent for a while? Continue reading ‘G-Man,’ by Stephen Hunter

News flash: ‘The Great Army’ was actually great

Via Dave Lull: A report from The Guardian on a new exhibition in England, devoted to the Viking Great Army (also known as the Great Heathen Army) which wintered over in England in 872:

A major exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum, staged in partnership with the British Museum, draws on new research by the universities of York and Sheffield. According to Professor Dawn Hadley, one of the co-directors of the universities’ project at the site of a Viking winter camp, archeologists and historians had thought that the invading Viking armies numbered in the low hundreds. But archeological work at the camp on the river Trent at Torksey, Lincolnshire, suggested otherwise.

Historians have been inclined to consider contemporary chronicles, which numbered the Great Army in the thousands, as exaggerations, because… because historians always think medieval chroniclers were very gullible and stupid, and exaggerated everything. In general, my impression is that trusting the most contemporary sources is generally a prudent approach.

17 May 2017

Today is Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day (not, as I’m sure you remember from previous years, its Independence Day).

As happened last year (I’m pretty sure) it rained today, so I couldn’t display my Norwegian flag once again. I did wear my Norwegian flag tie, plus a Norwegian flag button, to work, however.

In celebration, I’ll post this video, the most memorable Norwegian thing I’ve seen recently.

It’s not memorable, I think you’ll agree, for its beauty or its music. It’s memorable for featuring an idiot in a man-bun who does things on mountains that no sane person should even think about.

I suppose it’s meant as a reminder of one thing Norwegians all have in common — a death wish.

After all, we’re the country that gave the world the lemming.

‘Murder at the Wake,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder at the Wake

‘Still, Guv – darkest hour before dawn, eh?’

‘What?’

Skelgill’s tone is irate, though DS Leyton seems not to notice.

‘It’s what they say, Guv – that it’s the darkest hour before dawn.’

‘No it’s not. It starts getting light in the hour before dawn. It’s called nautical twilight. The darkest hour’s in the middle of the night, Leyton.’

I have an idea that Bruce Beckham, author of the Inspector Skelgill mysteries, is having us on. Just as his main character likes to play tricks on his longsuffering subordinates, Jones and Leyton, Beckham has a lot of stuff going on in his books that’s not apparent on the surface. One obvious example is the language – his characters never employ any curse stronger than “darn” in the dialogue, but the narrator informs us matter-of-factly that the actual words were much saltier. And it’s fairly plain that Skelgill enjoys a rich and varied sex life, but we only learn about it from hints – as when he appears at work wearing the same clothes he wore the day before. The same goes for his attractive female subordinate DS Jones, and there are signs they may have something going between them. But it’s never stated, at least thus far.

Beckham also likes to play with names, in Dickensian style. An actor character, for instance, is named Brutus. That’s kind of nice, I have to admit (it helps me keep track of the characters, which is often a problem for me). But naming a Dublin legal firm “Mullarkey & Shenanigan, Solicitors,” may be a bridge over the Liffey too far.

The form of these novels is generally cozy, but unlike Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Inspector Skelgill is no cold-blooded thinking machine. Skelgill barely thinks at all. He’s a purely physical man who solves his puzzles kinetically, as a kind of by-product of his physical exertions. In the early books it was mostly “fell running,” but more recently it’s been fishing on the lakes of England’s Lake District, where he is a policeman.

That gut-based method of operation is severely restricted in Murder at the Wake, which takes place after a freak blizzard and extended cold spell have rendered the lakes unfishable. When elderly Declan O’More is found clubbed to death in his study in his family’s stately home, one week after the death of his older brother, Skelgill is helping the mountain rescue team search for a lost hiker. He gets the helicopter pilot to drop him near the hall, and is confronted with something like a classic Agatha Christie problem – the residents of the hall, gathered for the funeral, have been isolated there. They are Declan’s five grand-nephews and nieces, plus a few servants and business connections. One of them must be the killer.

Skelgill goes to work in his usual fashion, being rude and insensitive to almost everyone and attracting strong attention from the females present. After the roads open up the investigation proceeds along more conventional lines, and the inquiries stretch as far as Dublin. The murderer is finally unmasked in a dramatic, but somewhat contrived, scene.

Skelgill annoys me, but I keep coming back to his stories. So I must be entertained. In that light I recommend Murder at the Wake, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

‘The Tracker,’ by Chad Zunker

The Tracker

I’m going to go a little beyond giving this book a good review and a recommendation. I’m going to indulge in a little advocacy for The Tracker, by Chad Zunker.

Sam Callahan is 25 years old, almost finished with law school. He looks forward to a bright future that once seemed an impossible dream.

He takes a summer job as a “tracker.” Trackers are operatives for political campaigns. They’re the people who follow the opposition candidates around with their smart phones, recording everything so that every slip of the tongue and bad facial expression can be saved and shared.

He goes to a motel where (an anonymous tipster has informed him) the candidate he’s tracking is about to engage in some unacceptable behavior. What he sees is, first, a romantic tryst, and then a murder.

But the candidate has powerful backers, who falsify the evidence to make Sam into the suspect. Soon he’s on the run with the FBI on his heels.

Fortunately he’s not without resources. In his past he was a street kid, and in that life he acquired some useful skills – like breaking and entering, jacking cars, and picking pockets. He also has a hacker friend with high level abilities. And beyond that, he possesses a natural gift – situational awareness at an unusual level, allowing him to find ways of escape where others would be baffled.

The Tracker reminded me quite a bit of the last Gregg Hurwitz novel I reviewed, Trust No One. But that’s no criticism. When you’re doing a Hitchcockian “wrong man” thriller, where an innocent man becomes a fugitive, it’s a good move to give your hero a checkered past and some experience with extra-legal (or military) survival techniques. Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, one example among many, employs a similar approach.

Sam Callahan is an appealing hero – a guy with a rough past who’s turned his life around and is still learning how to give and receive love and trust. What makes the book particularly interesting to me – and probably to most of this blog’s readers – is that it contains openly Christian elements. It’s not a “message” book where everything works up to a conversion, but Christian characters speak the gospel in an open way.

The writing is good. The characters worked. Author Zunker hasn’t entirely polished his prose style (he falls into redundancies like “processing through” information, and “revert back”). But he has a feel for the craft, and I expect him to only get better. And he’s not bad now.

Highly recommended.

‘Trust No One,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Trust No One

This should end my run of Gregg Hurwitz reviews for a while. I’m enjoying his books, but I’ve read everything available that interests me for the time being. So I’m happy to end on a positive note by saying I enjoyed Trust No One quite a lot.

Nick Horrigan made a terrible mistake 17 years ago, when he was 17 years old. Because of it his family was shattered, and he spent a long time on the road, living under the radar. Now he’s back at home in Los Angeles, but he’s still keeping a low profile. He’s learned to be cautious and not to take risks.

Until the night Secret Service agents break into his apartment and drag him off to a nuclear power plant. A terrorist has taken control of the spent fuel facility, they tell him. He says he will speak to only one person – Nick Horrigan. Nick is baffled. He has no knowledge of this man. But he agrees to go in and talk to him. Things go very, very wrong, and then Nick is on the run again with a bag full of money and a few clues, accused of terrorism in his own right.

Nick has two choices – to run away, as he did 17 years ago, or to emulate the man he respected most in his life by uncovering secrets, taking the fight to his enemies, and trusting… a few people.

This story was a little less over the top than a lot of Hurwitz’s books. It was a little more grounded, though far from a likely scenario. I was particularly impressed with the handling of politics. Although political parties aren’t directly named, Nick’s opinions are easily recognizable as liberal. However, there are surprises – even an implied criticism of gun control.

I enjoyed Trust No One very much. It’s not only a thriller but a story about coming of age and a character reintegrating into human relationships.

Cautions for language and violence.