All posts by Lars Walker

‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Heartbreak Hotel

I don’t know how Jonathan Kellerman does it. The premise of his Alex Delaware novels is pretty implausible – child psychologist works as consultant for the L.A. Police Department, and gets closely involved in a long series of homicide cases at the request of his friend, Detective Lt. Milo Sturgis (the least gay homosexual in literature). But not only does Kellerman make it work, he keeps the series fresh and exciting.

In Heartbreak Hotel, Alex receives a call from Thalia Mars, an elderly lady (nearing 100, he learns) who lives in a private cottage at a “hotel” which is actually a recovery facility for cosmetic surgery patients. She offers a high retainer for a little of his time, but he goes to see her mostly out of curiosity. A charming lady, she asks him whether he believes there’s such a thing as a criminal personality. Then she promises to tell him something of her story when he returns the next day.

But there is no second appointment. Overnight Thalia is murdered. Alex calls Milo, and Milo catches the case.

Thalia is a woman of mystery. She has hid her past, and the sources of her wealth, well. But Alex and Milo go to work following clues to old gangland crimes from more than a half century in the past, to thwart a conspiracy of “criminal personalities” who think Thalia owed them something. The climax is shocking, and the anticlimax more shocking still, in its own way.

I loved Heartbreak Hotel. Pure mystery reading pleasure. Highly recommended, with cautions for adult themes and (probably, though I didn’t actually notice) language.

Future shock… or present shock, anyway

Tonight I am wracked with existential angst. I am contemplating changing my very way of life; of crossing a cultural divide and becoming, after long resistance, One of Them.

I’ve decided to get a smart phone.

Not a really smart phone, of course. An Android, first of all, because I refuse to be roped into the religion of the iPhone. That would be like joining a mainline Protestant church.

OK, not really. It just feels that way, when you’re an old men being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century. Or the end of the 20th Century, depending on how old a phone version I decide on. Can’t get the latest one. That would be like buying a new car – sudden and irrevocable depreciation being the wages of the sin of purchasing a time share in Vanity Fair (the town in Pilgrim’s Progress, not the magazine). Last year’s model was good enough for last year’s people, and is probably twenty years better than what I need.

What happened was I developed brake problems on Miss Ingebretsen, my PT Cruiser. Knowing I’d be without internal combustion capability tomorrow, I asked someone at work about getting a ride. He graciously agreed to do it, but mentioned Uber and Lyft. I answered, shame-faced, that I have no smart phone, and so am reduced to begging rides, like we used to do in the old days, long before he was born.

“Enough,” I said to myself. “It’s time you got some kind of smart phone. Preferably one that’s slow and prone to locking up. Like your knees.”

I tried calling my (cheap) provider after work tonight, but they said it would be a 15 minute wait, so I hung up. Who do they think they are, making me wait for 15 minutes?

I insist on at least 20. If I wanted convenience and speed, I’d get an iPhone.

‘The Hanging Tree,’ by Ben Aaronovitch

The Hanging Tree

If you’ve followed my reviews of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series of comic-mystery fantasies, you know that Detective Constable Peter Grant works for “the Folly,” a secret division of the London Metropolitan Police. The Folly’s brief is to deal with supernatural, magical crime. Peter is still learning his magical craft under Inspector Nightingale, an eccentric officer over a century old. The “Rivers” of the series title refer to several women who are in actuality the local goddesses of London’s various rivers, the daughters of “Mother Thames.”

In this installment, The Hanging Tree, a young socialite is found dead of a drug overdose in an upscale apartment building. The investigation turns up connections to certain members of Mother Thames’ family, and so the Folly is called in. Their inquiries uncover drug dealing among members of the semi-magical “demimonde,” and the trail leads to the Faceless Man, a magical supervillain Peter and Nightingale have been hunting for some time. It all culminates in a magical showdown in which a great deal of real estate gets trashed.

As always, the writing is excellent (although I’m annoyed by Peter’s narratorial tendency to use the construction, “me and x did so and so”), and the story combines excitement and wit.

However, I think this will be the last Rivers of London book for me. The series bears a resemblance to the revived Doctor Who TV series (for which author Aaronovitch has been a writer), including its ideological themes. Each book works more LGBTQ (etc.) characters in. I suppose the idea is to acclimate the reader to such things, in a frog-in-the-kettle manner. However (as you probably know), the frog in the kettle is an urban myth. Real frogs in real life stay until the water gets uncomfortable, and then jump out.

Which I’m doing now.

Books, plated

theconversation.com had an article on bookplates yesterday.

Edwardian readers were expected to share books from their own library with others, and so very special attention was paid to the plate design, to indicate the type of person that the owner was. While the wealthy were able to afford privately commissioned plates by famous artists, the average Edwardian depended on stationers or booksellers for mass-produced plates, or something from a pattern book. For the bibliophile, choosing a bookplate was a delicate process and the purchase commanded quite a price, varying from £2 to £50 – roughly £220-£5,500 today.

I’ve got some bookplates around here somewhere – in my old desk, I think. I used to have a store where I could pick them up, and I had a favored design – an etching of a full-face lion who reminded me of Aslan. It was an Antioch design, but I don’t find it at Bookplate Ink, which claims to have the largest online supply of Antioch plates.

Some years ago somebody gave me one of those embossers with Ex Libris and my name on it, so I mostly gave up bookplates. And of late I’ve bought most of my books in electronic form.

Hey — there’s a business opportunity! Bookplates for ebooks!

Linkage

The great Dave Lull sends a link to an interview with Anne Kennedy on The Eric Metaxas Show. Anne is the author of the devotional book Nailed It, which I reviewed here.

And our friend Ori Pomerantz recommends this link to the Federalist, where John Ehrett imagines the “hot takes” (a new term to me, I’ll admit) that might have been published if C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books had been published today.

Reason: “Narnia Doesn’t Need Kings”
In “Prince Caspian,” the Telmarines were on the cusp of transforming Narnia into a successfully modern state that would’ve created job opportunities for everyone. Aslan’s violent return destroyed valuable capital and plunged the regime back into a preindustrial dark age. The GDP losses are incalculable. For shame, Aslan.

‘Dead Wood,’ by Dan Ames

Dead Wood

Sometimes there’s nothing much really wrong with a book except that it annoys me. That was my problem with Dead Wood, the first volume of the Grosse Pointe Pulp series, by Dan Ames.

The hero, John Rockne, was once a Grosse Pointe policeman – very briefly. Then one night he made a well-meaning decision that cost a man his life, and him his career. Today he’s a private investigator in the upscale Detroit suburb. He’s married and a father.

He gets a visit from a retired Country music star. The man’s daughter, a brilliant guitar maker, has been brutally murdered. The police blame a junkie who broke into her workshop, but the old man is sure it was his daughter’s boyfriend, whom he never liked.

John’s investigation leads him into the world of music recording, where the daggers in the back are not always metaphorical. He also comes face to face with a very old enemy.

This synopsis makes the story sound fairly grim, but in fact the tone is relatively light – which was one of the problems for me. John Rockne (who has a Norwegian name but never mentions being Norwegian, only one of the things I didn’t like about him) is a wiseacre. Now wiseacrey is a cherished tradition among hard-boiled private eyes. But you’ve got to earn the right to it, and John doesn’t (in my opinion). He’s not really hard-boiled. In fact, he’s kind of a wimp, constantly nagged by his wife and his older sister. He doesn’t show much sign of fighting ability – but nevertheless manages to survive, apparently mostly by luck, even when set upon by a pair of bodybuilders. In a related issue, he suffers from Fictional Transitory Injury Syndrome, the condition common to TV and movie heroes, where a guy suffers fairly serious injuries one day, and then seems entirely untroubled by them the day after.

On the plus side, I thought the prose wasn’t bad, and the ending of the book was quite affecting.

But, although this is a three-book set, I didn’t like Dead Wood enough to read the follow-up books. At least for now. Your mileage may deviate.

Cautions for language.

‘Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland

Rachel Griffin flies again (on a broom) in the third entry in the Unexpected Enlightenment series by L. Jagi Lamplighter: Rachel and the Many-Splendored Dreamland.

If you’ve missed my reviews of the first two books, Rachel is a freshman at Roanoke Academy of the Sorcerous Arts, an institution invisible to the Unwary (non-magical) World. Similarities to the Harry Potter books are obvious, but there are important differences too. The chief one is that the Unwary World of these books is different from ours in important ways.

Rachel has only been in school a short time, but has already been through a series of perilous adventures. This time out, she and her friends (who include a princess and a dragon-slaying orphan boy) are refining techniques for traveling in dreams. One of their friends has the ability to enter the dream world and move through other people’s dreams, which allows them to travel anywhere that someone is dreaming of, so long as they keep holding hands. As before, Rachel acquires knowledge that permits her to help thwart the plans of demonic forces – though she never gets credit.

A highlight of this book is a daring visit to the Ghost’s Ball at Halloween, where Rachel and her boyfriend meet various ghosts, some pathetic, some evil, some quite nice – and are able to do favors for a few of them.

As with the previous two installments, the whole thing ends in a rousing sorcerous battle scene, well worth the cost of admission.

I’m enjoying the Rachel Griffin books quite a lot, and look forward to the release of the next one. I was particularly pleased to see that Christian themes are beginning to come into focus.

Recommended.

“Library hand”

Library joined hand

A character I had to read a lot about in the previous couple years was Melvil Dewey (a spelling reformer, he reformed his own first name), the father of modern librarianship and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. He was a crank generally, but he left his mark.

Atlas Obscura today has an article about another of Dewey’s projects — he didn’t invent it, but he promoted it heavily. “Library hand” was a form of handwriting librarians were expected to master before typewriters became ubiquitous.

Influenced by Edison and honed via experimenting on patient, hand-sore librarians, library hand focused on uniformity rather than beauty. “The handwriting of the old-fashioned writing master is quite as illegible as that of the most illiterate boor,” read a New York State Library School handbook. “Take great pains to have all writing uniform in size, blackness of lines, slant, spacing and forms of letters,” wrote Dewey in 1887. And if librarians thought they could get away with just any black ink, they could think again real fast. “Inks called black vary much in color,” scoffed the New York State Library School handwriting guide.

My MLIS training was deficient. They didn’t teach us a thing about this.

‘The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel

Rachel Griffin, student sorcerer, returns in The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel, the second entry in L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Unexpected Enlightenment series. It’s another delightful exercise in exuberant fantasy.

We pick up the story immediately where the last book left off, on a terrible night when rogue magicians nearly succeeded in destroying Roanoke Academy of the Sorcerous Arts. Only the quick actions of Rachel and her friends (but mostly Rachel) prevented disaster. Soon they learn that the evil magician behind that attack, Montague Egg, has escaped. Egg has much bigger plans than the destruction of the school – he wants to destroy the whole world. And various Roanoke students, including Rachel, are his targets in a diabolically cruel scheme that will break down all protecting walls if it succeeds.

Through the course of the story, Rachel comes to understand her own powers better, and receives guidance from potent supernatural entities. She also learns terrible secrets about her own family history.

The story is (pardon the term) enchanting. I take it on faith that Christian themes are being served here, because they’re only hinted at in the actual narrative. One thing that troubles me is a recurring pattern of Rachel disobeying her elders and superiors, and being generally proven right in doing so. That’s somewhat surprising in books that pay occasional homage to C.S. Lewis, both his Narnia books and his Ransom trilogy. I await further enlightenment on that point in the volumes that follow.

I recommend the series highly, though I’m not entirely sure they’re suitable for children inclined to rebelliousness. No objectionable material except for the magic itself.

Killing Cupid

I haven’t written for The American Spectator much recently, because – frankly – I’m having trouble finding anything to say. Mere anarchy, it seems to me, has been unleashed upon the world, and it’s hard to find a side to defend.

But Robert Stacy McCain is a braver man than I, and he wrote a piece for Valentine’s Day that I wish I’d written. Instead, I linked to it on Facebook. I quoted the following passage there:

Of course, even if a young woman today did want Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet, he might be afraid to attempt it. If he admired Cinderella’s beauty, feminists would condemn Prince Charming for objectifying her with the “male gaze.” If a man talks to a woman, whatever he says is denounced by feminists as “mansplaining.” Any man who attempts to initiate a romantic relationship with a woman is guilty of “harassment,” according to feminism, and any expectation that a woman might enjoy sexual activity with a man is “rape culture.”

This excerpt may have been poorly chosen by me. A number of the people who commented on the link assumed I’d chosen it primarily to complain about the fact that I can’t get a date. I can understand the mistake – my almost magically pathetic love life is of course one of the most noticeable things about me.

Maybe I should have quoted the following paragraph, which I almost chose instead: Continue reading Killing Cupid

‘The Day That Never Comes,’ by Caimh McDonnell

I was much taken with A Man With One of Those Faces, by Caimh McDonnell. I praised it here, and we even got the attention of his publisher in comments.

I won’t say that its sequel, The Day That Never Comes, was a disappointing book. It was a pretty good mystery/thriller, with the expected amount of slapstick humor. But… it didn’t work for me as well as its prequel.

In this outing our heroes, Paul Mulchrone, Brigit Conroy, and police detective Bunny McGarry, have just failed to start a private detective agency. It seemed like a good idea. Paul has finally moved out of his late aunt’s house, Bunny has been forcibly retired from the force, and Brigit has always wanted to be a detective anyway. But it all fell through. Paul sent Brigit… unfortunate photos from his cell phone on a drunken night, ending their engagement. And Bunny has now disappeared, his beloved car abandoned at a spot where many people commit suicide. But Bunny wouldn’t kill himself… would he?

Meanwhile Paul, left alone in the detective office, is approached by a Raymond Chandler-esque leggy blonde in a red dress, who wants him to follow her boyfriend, something he’s not actually sure how to do. And Brigit is certain Bunny wouldn’t commit suicide, so she’s looking for him. Though they don’t realize it at first, both their cases are related to the trial of three property developers who swindled thousands in the collapse of the Irish Celtic Tiger boom. After those three are acquitted, one of them is tortured to death. And that’s just the beginning of violence that will convulse all of Dublin.

The Day That Never Comes wasn’t a bad book, but it disappointed me. It was as if someone sat down with author McDonnell and said, “Now this time, tone down the funny writing. Concentrate on character development, back story, and social awareness.” There are plenty of humorous situations in the book, particularly slapstick arising from Paul’s adoption of a flatulent German Shepherd with an attitude. But the funny lines aren’t here. McDonnell’s Wodehouseian gift for hilarious phrasing isn’t much on display.

But it’s a perfectly fine humorous mystery. I recommend it, with cautions for the usual stuff.

In person, one night only

In case you’re in the area…

I will be speaking on The Viking Sagas on Monday, February 13, 2016 for the Vennekretsen Lodge of the Sons of Norway in Anoka, Minn. They meet at Zion Lutheran Church, 1601 4th Ave., Anoka. The time is 6:30 p.m. for the lodge meeting, 7:00 for the program. I will be selling books.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this lecture do not necessarily represent the ideas and opinions of Vennekretsen Lodge, the Sons of Norway, or of real persons, living or dead.

Nevermore to forget…

Edgar Allan Poe

A book I’ve had for many years is Louis Untermeyer’s A Concise Treasury of Great Poems, English and American, published in paperback in 1958. In his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Untermeyer notes, “The quality of his gift as well as the tragedy of his life is indicated in the words of Sir Francis Bacon which are on the Poe Memorial Gate at West Point: ‘There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.'”

Oddly enough, that gate is not mentioned in Atlas Obscura’s list of 10 Places That Rejected Poe in Life but Celebrate Him in Death.”

Edgar Allan Poe pioneered a distinctly American brand of gothic horror and romanticism, and introduced the short story to the literary tradition. Yet throughout his career he never received much fame or money. “The Raven” was his best-known work, for which he was paid $9. Poe spent his life traveling up and down the Atlantic coast, working odd jobs and performing parlor readings to make ends meet, going from one failed relationship to the next. He ultimately died with no family, raving mad in the streets of Baltimore.

As if in an attempt to rectify Poe’s lack of success, numerous locations of import during his lifetime have been posthumously dedicated to him, or at least honor his presence there. Here are 10 places in the Atlas that trace the footsteps of America’s master of macabre.

‘A Man With One of Those Faces,” by Caimh McDonnell

A Man With One of Those Faces

She was not a bad looking woman, truth be told; a couple of years older than himself, short brown bobbed hair, decent figure – she wouldn’t be launching a thousand ships any time soon but she’d undoubtedly create a fair bit of interest in a chip shop queue.

Paul Mulchrone is “A Man With One of Those Faces” – a face so ordinary that people frequently mistake him for other people. This comes in handy when he helps out in a Dublin hospice, sitting with dying old people, holding their hands, letting them imagine he’s a family member or a friend. He does this to fulfill the terms of his aunt’s will, which allows him to live in her house on a small stipend so long as he puts in a certain number of public service hours every month. It’s all fine until one night when Nurse Brigid Conroy persuades him to stay a little beyond his time with a particular old man, in return for a drive home. In the event, the old man tries to murder Paul with a knife he’s somehow acquired, and then drops dead.

Turns out the old man is a gangster whom everyone thought dead years ago, one who was involved in a legendary unsolved kidnapping. And his old partners in crime don’t know what he might have told Paul in those last moments. Best to kill him, just to be on the safe side. And Nurse Brigid too. Continue reading ‘A Man With One of Those Faces,” by Caimh McDonnell

In memory yet Green

Roger Lancelyn Green
Roger Lancelyn Green

My friend Dale Nelson recently sent me a couple old articles on Tolkien he thought might be of interest. One of them was from Amon Hen, the journal of the Tolkien Society, #44, May 1980. It was a piece by Roger Lancelyn Green, in which he reminisced on his friendship with the professor. Green has sometimes been identified as a member of the Inklings, but he does not claim that honor (or honour). His article includes the following delightful paragraph:

I never saw The Lord of the Rings before it was published, but heard a good deal about it from Lewis, who kept saying that if only Tolkien would finish it, it would be one of the great books of the century – “But Tollers just won’t finish it! Every time he gives himself a month’s holiday to do so, he begins by reading over what he has already written, and sees how he can better that, and spends most of his month on revising!”