All posts by Lars Walker

‘Tell No Lies,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Tell No Lies

Everyone’s got a con, a pinch of deceit, a green light at the end of the dock. And a dream, however grand or modest. A way they want it to be and an angle to get there.

Daniel Brasher is the scion of a San Francisco elite family. He turned his back on all that, and on his egregious mother’s wishes, to marry a “community organizer” and become a counselor to parolees. He’s tough on them. No lying in his group. He’s good at his job, and his marriage is happy, especially after his wife survived cancer.

The mail room in the moribund building where he works is little-used, so Daniel is surprised, visiting it one day after ignoring it a while, to find several envelopes addressed to other people in his box. He takes them home, planning to forward them the next day. Then he learns that one of the addressees was murdered. Opening the envelope, he discovers a letter threatening that person, giving them a now-expired deadline to “tell what you done.”

Daniel calls the police, but that’s not the end of his involvement. As further murders occur, he finds that a circle of violence is coming to center upon him personally. Fighting to save his own life and his wife’s, he’s forced to confront his own secret wrongdoings – his own kinship with the criminals he counsels. That’s the premise of Tell No Lies.

Gregg Hurwitz does not disappoint in this thriller. The writing is great, the tension merciless, and the characters throb with life. I sometimes find Hurwitz’s books almost more suspenseful than I can handle. And yet I keep coming back.

I might mention that there are political themes in Tell No Lies, but they’re handled right. Both conservatives and liberals get held up to scrutiny and are generally found wanting. The author is looking for a deeper truth here than mere party slogans.

Highly recommended. Cautions for language and violence.

‘The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World’

Robert Louis Stevenson

James McNamara reviews a new novel, written in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson, in the Washington Post:

“Stevenson spent his days roaming the sprawling legendary city by the bay, spending miserly sums on food and half a bottle of wine per night, and writing furiously to try to make enough money to support the family he would instantly have when married.” He also kicked around an idea for a novel, “Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World,” but, as Doyle writes, no evidence of his manuscript or John Carson has ever emerged.

From this truthful starting point, [Brian] Doyle imagines the book Stevenson might have written: a glorious, swashbuckling tale that celebrates love, friendship and the sheer delight of being alive.

Hat tip: Books, Inq. Which got it (of course) from Dave Lull, Man of Mystery.

‘The War of Art,’ by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

Someone suggested to me that I might enjoy Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (and yes, I caught the reversal on Sun Tsu’s The Art of War… eventually). I’ve been struggling with my work in progress (it’s coming, but I’m fighting for every inch of ground), and I thought, what could it hurt?

It’s a remarkable book. I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it, though.

It might save you the cost of purchase if I give you the basic message right here – the only way to succeed as a writer is to become a professional. Sit yourself down at your desk at the same time every day, and work at your craft. Don’t listen to the negative voices in your head. Especially don’t listen to the ones that say, “I’ll just skip it today.”

But the value of the book is (of course) in the reader’s journey. In polished, powerful prose Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and other bestselling books) analyses the writer’s problem (we have an enemy, which he calls “Resistance,” and we must learn to tread it under our feet). And he tells the story of his own evolution from a blocked, self-pitying wannabee to a fulfilled professional (anyone can do it, he says, which I think is an exaggeration. Not for me, of course, but for you other folks).

What troubles me about the book is its religious nature. When Pressfield talks about his Muse, he’s not being metaphorical. He lays out a whole theory of reality and consciousness (based on Jung), and says he believes that his muse actually exists. He prays to her each time he sits down to write.

On the negative side, he condemns all forms of Fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism and art,” he says, “are mutually exclusive.”

I take that kind of personally. I think you could call the medieval Roman Catholic Church fundamentalist, by his definition, and they did pretty well on the art front. The Puritans themselves gave us Milton and Bunyan.

So I’m uncomfortable with Pressfield’s religious statements. Speaking as a fundamentalist, I worry that he may have sold his soul to a devil, or be possessed in some way.

So I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The War of Art. As a motivational book, it’s excellent (I had a pretty good writing day the day I finished reading it). But spiritually I found it hazardous.

Also, cautions for language.

‘The First Rule,’ by Robert Crais

The First Rule

I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to observe that when you pick up a novel advertised as an action thriller and it begins with a happy family doing ordinary stuff, something awful is about to happen.

And so it is in Robert Crais’ The First Rule. The man whose life is destroyed here is Frank Meyer, a guy who used to work for Joe Pike as a mercenary. The police inform Joe of this, and question him. The other victims of this particular gang of murderers and thieves have been involved in organized crime, so they figure Frank must have been dirty too. Joe cannot believe that. With the help of his friend and business partner, private detective Elvis Cole, Joe employs his formidable military skills to unravel a scheme involving prostitution, illegal arms sales, and a kidnapped baby.

Author Crais has intentionally moved the Elvis Cole series from straight mysteries to action thrillers, which means a bigger role for the mysterious and dangerous Joe Pike. This has been a good move, as Joe is one of those laconic characters – few words and economical but explosive action – who work extremely well in high tension stories. A particular pleasure in The First Rule is the ironic scenes showing Pike’s developing relationship with the rescued baby – all the more touching in contrast with Joe’s cold, focused, almost monastic persona.

It occurred to me as I read that there are theological implications here (certainly not intended by the author). Joe is the kind of rescuer every true victim dreams of, though often silently. He does not only inflict violence on evildoers – he is terrible (in the sense of inspiring terror) when he does it. People who live in relatively safe and just environments have trouble understanding the need for a terrible avenger. It’s not enough that the wicked should be slain – they should be frightened as they die. Modern westerners don’t generally understand the aspect of terror that belongs to the just God of the Bible, but the oppressed and the persecuted do.

Anyway, I recommend The First Rule for those who can handle the language and violence. First class action entertainment.

‘Murder by Magic,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder by Magic

I’m liking Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series better and better as the novels go on. However, there’s one problem with Murder by Magic that means I’ll have to include in this review a warning for our readers.

This time around, Inspector Skelgill of the Midlands CID grows curious about a spate of sheep mutilations in the Lake District. Then he and his team look into the disappearance of an eastern European tourist, who seems to have disappeared on an extensive estate recently purchased a foreign scholar.

The inquiry leads to human trafficking, a black magic coven, and a violent climax in which Skelgill shows considerable personal courage, and even (surprisingly) a modicum of consideration for one of his sergeants, Sergeant Leyton, a Cockney he tends to run roughshod over. It’s less surprising that he takes care of his female sergeant, Sergeant Jones, an attractive woman he’s been flirting with passively throughout the series.

My problem with the story is a theological one. It’s pretty much impossible nowadays to write a story with evil black witches, I guess, unless you throw in a good white witch to prove you’re not a Salem Puritan. So here we have an attractive, wise, and helpful white witch who provides material assistance to the inquiry.

No mention of Christian spiritual teachings about magic are in evidence.

I suppose author Beckham had no choice. The story as a whole was good enough – the best in the series so far, I think – that I’ll probably read more, even in spite of the detour into the occult.

I suppose that means I’m getting old and soft.

Otherwise, recommended. The violence is not graphic, and the bad language is masked with circumlocutions, some of them pretty creative. Beckham also excels at descriptions of nature, which will be a special draw for certain readers.

‘The Viking Battalion’

Viking Battalion

Last week I was contacted on Facebook by a fellow who’s involved in a Viking commemoration a tad different from the kind I’m used to. But I was honored to be asked to assist him, and I want to publicize his effort. He’s the president of a group devoted to memorializing a remarkable World War II US Army unit.

The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), also known as the Viking Battalion, was organized in 1942 at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Its purpose was (originally) a specific, specialized one (that’s what the word “Separate” means). It was intended for the invasion of Norway – an option for the European invasion that remained under consideration long into the war. The bulk of its manpower came from Norwegian merchant sailors who’d been stranded overseas by the German invasion in 1940, plus Norwegian-American young men, many of whom had grown up speaking Norwegian. They trained for mountain warfare in Colorado, and later as commandos in Scotland.

As it worked out, of course, the invasion happened in Normandy. The 99th participated in that action and its aftermath, and fought with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge. Finally they were sent to Norway after the surrender, in order to help establish order and evacuate the German occupation troops in an orderly manner.

There’s going to be a special commemoration event on Saturday, August 12, at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota. I’ve been asked to be there in Viking costume (just to confuse the visitors, I imagine) and I may bring some other Vikings along. If you’re interested in the event, let me know in comments, or just watch this space. I’ll be keeping you posted.

‘Murder on the Lake,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder on the Lake

I decided to turn away from my reading of Gregg Hurwitz, and take up Bruce Beckham, whom I dropped a while back. I’m not tired of Hurwitz, but I was a little exhausted by the level of dramatic tension he dispenses. I thought something a little milder, in a kinder, gentler literary world, might be enjoyable for a change. So I returned to Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill novels. No one would call the prickly Lake District detective “cozy,” but his stories are closer to the world of Agatha Christie than to the thriller genre.

Author Beckham has a little fun with that fact as Murder on the Lake begins. At the start, we’re confronted with a classic “Ten Little Indians” situation – a group of people isolated on an island estate, in a storm without electricity or telephones. One of them dies, and the suspicion rises that they might have a murderer in their midst.

In steps Inspector Skelgill. He’s been fishing on the lake, and the storm has forced him to the island’s dock. There he meets a young woman, one of the party at the hall (it’s a writers’ retreat), and he goes up to investigate. Once he’s met everyone and heard their stories, he returns to his boat, where he has left his mobile phone – but the boat has mysteriously vanished. He has to sleep in the hall, and overnight another guest dies.

Having had his little genre joke, author Beckham then brings things back to normal. Skelgill is rescued by his sergeants the next morning, and they take up the investigation in their usual style: Skelgill drives his subordinates nearly mad through thoughtlessness, demands on their time, and food-filching (he’s a mountain runner and always hungry). But gradually, by way of his disorganized, rather intuitive deductive processes, he uncovers the truth – along with some unpleasant truths about the publishing industry.

Beckham has fun with this story. Several of the characters have Dickension names – a literary agent named Lampray, a critic named Cutting, etc. I don’t really care for the present-tense narration employed, but I have to admit I soon forgot about it. The language is remarkably restrained – Beckham employs circumlocutions whenever his characters sink to foul language.

I enjoyed Murder on the Lake. I can only take Inspector Skelgill in small quantities, but I am reading the sequel now.

‘Troubleshooter,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Troubleshooter

Accustomed to full-bore ART kick-ins requiring heavy firepower Guerrera didn’t handle his Beretta with the same facility he did an MP5. Tim caught him holding the handgun up by his head and gestured for him to straight-arm it or keep it in a belt tuck. The Starsky & Hutch position was good solely for catching a closeup of an actor’s face in the same frame as the gun; in real life a startle reaction to a sudden threat would leave an officer momentarily deaf and blind, or with half his face blown off.

Tim Rackley is back in Troubleshooter, Gregg Hurwitz’ third book in his series starring a Los Angeles US Deputy Marshal who screwed up seriously in the first installment, but has been reinstated through what was a pretty blatant case of authorial deus ex machina. But who cares? The stories are great, and Troubleshooter doesn’t disappoint.

Outlaw biker gang members usually just keep their mouths shut and do their time when caught. They don’t generally mess with cops. But the Laughing Sinners, a local gang, is changing the game. First of all, they killed a couple cops. Then they carried out a meticulous, brilliantly timed rescue, killing some more cops in the process. Now it’s open war between the bikers and several police agencies, including the marshals and the FBI. The bikers are going all out, in a scheme that involves drug dealing and terrorism on a scale unseen in this country since 9/11.

And meanwhile, Tim Rackley himself is working under the threat of a terrible personal loss.

What can I say? Troubleshooter has all the virtues of Hurwitz’ other novels – sharp, professional prose, well-drawn characters, excruciating plot tension, big stakes. As always, some elements are implausible when considered coolly, but there’s little leisure for cool consideration in the midst of all this action.

Cautions for language, adult themes, and violence. Otherwise, highly recommended.

Mano vs. the Oxford comma

Dave Lull sent me a link to this recent Boston Globe column by Jeff Jacoby. It includes a section on the Oxford comma debate, in which he cites the late D. Keith Mano:

The story reminded me of one of those great exchanges that for years made William F. Buckley’s “Notes & Asides” — the column in which he regularly reproduced his exchanges with colleagues, readers, and other correspondents — the best part of National Review. From December 1972:

“A ukase. Un- negotiable. The only one I have issued in seventeen years. It goes: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas.” NOT: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges and bananas.” I am told National Review’s style book stipulates the omission of the second comma. My comment: National Review’s style book used to stipulate the omission of the second comma. National Review’s style book, effective immediately, makes the omission of the second comma a capital offense!”

Among the responses was this lament from D. Keith Mano, a National Review columnist, to the magazine’s managing editor, Buckley’s sister Priscilla:

“I have read with dismay WFB’s ukase on the serial comma. I can’t do it. No way. It’s just plain ugly. WFB says this is un-negotiable. . . . How serious is he? Can I arrange a dispensation?

“Look: I’ll compromise. There should be peace in the family. Instead of “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas” — how about if he just buys oranges and bananas? Or a head of non-union lettuce. You see what this sort of restriction leads to. And they ask me why fiction is dying. Erich Segal, I bet, uses the serial comma.

“You may tell WFB that, from now on and as ordered, I salute the red and white.”

I’m frankly a little disappointed — I’ve been won over to the Oxford comma side, myself. I have the idea the Forces of History are in its favor. Perhaps that was Mano’s fate, to be a genius forever tainted by his associations with questionable movements. Playboy Magazine. Dropping the Oxford.

Of course, my advocacy of the O.C. probably dooms it…

Colin Dexter, 1930-2017

Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter, the author of the Inspector Morse novels, has passed away at the age of 86. Born in 1930, he didn’t become a full-time writer until 1966. Success came to him fairly late in life, but it came big. BBC News quotes him as saying:

“I think Morse, if he had really existed and was still alive, would probably say to me, ‘Well, you didn’t do me too bad a service in your writing’.

“He might say, ‘I wish you’d made me a slightly less miserable blighter and slightly more generous, and you could have painted me in a little bit of a better light’.

“If he had bought me a drink, a large Glenfiddich or something, that would have been very nice, but knowing him I doubt he would have done – Lewis always bought all the drinks.”

Dexter took a shrewd tack with the TV series based on his books. Some authors hate to see their precious works disfigured on film – John D. MacDonald famously loathed every movie or TV show adapted from any of his works, including the original “Cape Fear,” which is considered a classic. But Dexter embraced the BBC series and deliberately accommodated it. For instance, Sergeant Lewis is actually two policemen in the first book, Last Bus to Woodstock. But seeing how well the pairing of actors John Thaw and Kevin Whately worked onscreen, he quietly blended the subordinate officers and carried on without missing a step.

I enjoyed the Inspector Morse books, and the TV series perhaps even more. And I think I like the new prequel, Endeavor, more than that. RIP Colin Dexter.

‘The Program,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Program

Before I say anything else, I think I should mention that all guys named Tim owe Gregg Hurwitz a debt of gratitude. The name “Tim” is not often found attached to tough-guy heroes, at least in our time. But Hurwitz has hung that neglected moniker on one of the most hard-core, two-fisted heroes since Clint Eastwood mothballed his serape.

In The Program, former Deputy US Marshal Tim Rackley is asked to extract the young-but-adult stepdaughter of a Hollywood producer from a secretive mind-control cult. It’s a tricky job, because the cult leader, though under suspicion, is not actually being investigated for any crime. Strongly mindful of his own murdered daughter, Tim takes up the challenge. He assumes a false identity and goes undercover, relying on his military training in resisting brainwashing to keep his head on straight. It turns out to be a bigger challenge than he expected – “TD,” the leader of the cult, is a brilliant and manipulative man who latches on to Tim in particular as a potential collaborator in empire building. Repeated escalating setbacks for the good guys set up, first of all, a hilarious scene where Tim and some allies disrupt an informational meeting, and then a heart-in-your throat rescue attempt. Tim also finds plenty of opportunity to exercise his high pain threshold.

I’m always most impressed by the character portrayals in stories, and The Program excelled in this area too. One character in particular, who started out looking like a stereotype, displayed hidden depths once the chips were down.

The Program is another home run for Gregg Hurwitz, in my opinion. Cautions for language, sexual situations, and violence. Certain clues suggest that the author leans left politically, but he doesn’t rub it in our faces, which is all I ask. Highly recommended.

‘Be Thou My Vision’ (martial version)

Here’s the best-loved Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” done by… I don’t know whom. A male group. I chose this version because it includes the often-skipped third verse, beginning, “Be Thou my battle-shield…”

The original could well have been known by Father Ailill, the narrator of my Erling novels. It’s often attributed to the sixth-century Saint Dallan, though some scholars date it to the eighth century. Pre-Viking in either case.

It was first translated into English in 1905, but the singable verse version was done by Eleanor Hull in 1912. The tune would not have been used by medieval monks, but is an Irish folk tune called “Slane.”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

‘The Kill Clause,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Kill Clause

A book about vigilantes is no novelty. And the broad story arc of Gregg Hurwitz’s The Kill Clause is entirely predictable. The magic is in the… execution.

Tim Rackley is a decorated Deputy US Marshall, former military. When his only child, a little girl, is kidnapped, raped, and murdered, and the killer gets let off on a technicality, something dies inside him. He is approached by a representative of a secret group, “The Commission.” Their high-sounding mission is to find people clearly guilty of terrible crimes, who have been released by the courts. They will “execute” them in a fair, just manner. Tim’s job is to carry out the executions.

But his integrity and compassion are too great to work long that way. As the Commission comes apart and two dangerous members go rogue, Tim learns terrible secrets about his own tragedy. He finds himself racing against time to protect the very men he had planned to kill – including the killer of his daughter.

The conclusion of the book is a masterpiece of irony.

Gregg Hurwitz is a big writer, with a screenwriter’s sensibilities. That means high drama, high tension – and a certain level of improbability in the plot. What makes The Kill Clause work so well is the treatment of the characters – even the most repellant of them have their private stories, which are treated with empathy and respect. And the depiction of Tim’s grieving process (and his wife’s) is moving.

Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes. Otherwise, highly recommended.

The faith of LCR

Conservatives are often accused by liberals of having a “civil religion,” of getting our Christianity confused with our patriotism.

It’s a fair cop. I’m sure I do that, and I’m pretty sure I do it more than I’m aware.

But liberals have a civil religion too, and I have an idea very few of them recognize it at all.

Like the conservative kind, Liberal Civil Religion (LCR) is a denatured form of Christianity. It goes like this:

There’s Original Sin. In LCR, original sin is privilege. “White Privilege” is the fashionable variety right now, but liberals have always been ashamed of privilege of one kind or another. Being a citizen of a prosperous, free country is the pretty much the worst kind of privilege. Since liberals believe in a zero-sum world (if you have $2.00 and I have $1.00, you must have stolen fifty cents from me), all our freedom and all our wealth must have been torn from the poor. We are thieves and parasites.

There’s Penance. Penance takes the form of voting for Democrats (or Socialists, if you’re really a saint) and supporting policies which we suspect will hurt ourselves and our families. We deserve it.

There are Indulgences. Indulgences are paid in the form of high taxes. We may know that government programs are by nature inefficient and even counterproductive ways to help the less fortunate. But helping them isn’t the point. The point is making ourselves suffer. The pain provides a momentary, fleeting sense of expiation.

And what about grace?

There is no grace in LCR. The guilt goes on and on forever.

If grace were offered, how would people be persuaded to do perpetual penance?