All posts by Lars Walker

‘The Sandman,’ by Lars Kepler

The Sandman

I took a chance on another Scandinavian Noir novel which looked to be a little different from the usual run. The Sandman, by Lars Kepler, is certainly different.

Joona Linna is a police detective in Stockholm (his exotic name is Finnish). 13 years ago, he faked the deaths of his wife and daughter, and sent them away so that he would have no knowledge of them again. He did this to save them from Jurek Walter, a serial killer who scares him to death, even though he’s confined to the mental ward of a high security prison.

Joona was the one who arrested Walter, when he found him exhuming a living woman from a grave where he’d been keeping her prisoner, with just a minimum of air and water. That is Walter’s modus operandi – to kidnap the loved ones of people who have offended him, and bury them alive. Walter promised to do the same to Joona’s family – and Joona believes him, in spite of his being locked up.

Now another of Walter’s victims, the son of a famous novelist, is found stumbling, disoriented, over a railroad bridge on a winter night. He is malnourished, freezing, and sick. Joona and his team are given the opportunity to investigate, and Joona jumps in. If he can figure out Walter’s crimes and locate his victims, maybe he can settle things and contact his family again.

But is Jurek Walter just a flesh-and-blood psychopath? Or does he possess supernatural powers? How is it that people have seen him looking in their windows at night, even though he’s in prison? Why are his guards warned never to speak to him, for fear that he’ll gain power over them just through a conversation?

The Sandman reminded me of nothing so much as The Silence of the Lambs. It had the same creepy fascination, the same quality of depicting a villain so freakishly intelligent that everyone else is always two or three moves behind him. The book kept me fascinated, and it sucked me in. If I don’t read any more books in the series, it’s just because I don’t care much for horror.

Recommended, if this is your kind of story. Cautions for language, sex, and violence.

By the way, “Lars Kepler” is the pseudonym of a husband-wife writing team, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril.

Writing update

I missed blogging on Friday, because I was caught up in… something. I forget what all. Part of it was working on the novel, though.

Tonight I had an obligation at work, and had to stay late.

But I’ve dropped in to tell you that I finished the first draft of my new Erling book, provisionally titled The Elder King. I had feared that the translation work would interfere with the book, but it was not so in the event. In fact, the discipline I’ve had to summon up to produce paying work on the translation seems to have “translated” into remembering how to work when I don’t have a bilingual project going. Thus, I’ve made steady progress on the book.

Now you recall, if you’ve been reading this blog, my dictum that “First drafts are meant to be dreck. Just write it. Worry about making it good afterward.”

That’s where I am now.

But I’ll say this — as I wrote the climactic scene, I got the old thrill. My heart beat faster. I was in the zone. I remembered that writing could be fun.

TV review: ‘Bosch, Season 4’

Bosch, Season 4

The fourth season of Amazon Prime Video’s Bosch series was released recently, and I continue to like it a lot. Many changes have been made from the original books – some of which are pretty old now – but the spirit of the novels flies high, in my opinion.

Season 4 is based on the first Bosch novel I read, Angels Flight. Angels Flight is the name of a quaint funicular rail line in Los Angeles, and this mystery concerns the death of a famous, headline-hungry defense lawyer, who is found shot to death on board the car one night. (The operator has also been killed.) Racial tensions in the city immediately spike, because the lawyer had been on the brink of going to court with a case of excessive police violence against a black man. Harry Bosch is named to head a special task force to identify the killer. The obvious suspects are the cops the attorney was going to accuse – but Harry suspects the killer is someone with deeper motives.

There’s a subplot involving Harry’s ex-wife Eleanor (Sarah Clarke), who has a gambling problem but is trying to get reinstated with the FBI through going undercover and into danger. Their daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz) plays a major role in the story.

I don’t watch much TV anymore, but Bosch is a must for me, at least so far. The best part, as before, is Titus Welliver’s portrayal of the main character. He has Harry down cold – the impassive face, the world-weary, disillusioned attitude that doesn’t stop him from fully investing in every case.

Recommended, with cautions for language and violence. Not for the kids.

‘Jack Frost,’ by Christopher Greyson

Jack Frost

I’ve been following Christopher Greyson’s Jack Stratton mystery series with great pleasure. The latest entry, Jack Frost, is exciting and entertaining.

Private eye Jack Stratton and his fiancée/business partner Alice are hired by an insurance company to investigate the death of a sound man on a popular reality show. The show’s premise is that the contestants have to compete in survival games on a treacherous mountain. But there have been accidents, the worst of which killed a sound man. The insurance company won’t underwrite another season without someone undercover to keep an eye out. That will be Jack, who has climbing experience. Alice will have to stay home with their dog – which she hates. But there’s work for her to do too, mainly background research on the contestants. On top of that, she just learned that her childhood trauma, the death of her parents in an auto accident, may not have been accidental after all.

Meanwhile on the mountain, Jack endures the indignities of his cover job – gopher to the technical crew – as one after another “accident “ occurs. Before long people start dying, followed by a monster blizzard, which puts him and the cast and crew in a genuine Agatha Christie “and then there were none” situation.

The Jack Stratton books aren’t the best written novels out there, but they’re well above average, especially for books where the heroes pray without embarrassment. Author Greyson builds interesting characters and puts them in exciting peril. I enjoyed Jack Frost very much, and recommend it.

“Give people a story!”

Defeating Jihad

Met with some students at the Bible school again today for lunch. What we’ve done is start a weekly “Inklings” group, to talk about writing, mythopoetics, theology, etc. It’s an appropriate time to schedule it, as the social branch of the Inklings used to meet at noon on Tuesdays at the Eagle and Child (Bird and Baby) pub in Oxford. We’re exactly like them, except without the beer and the smoking. And with more females present.

Today the subject was “stories.” When they asked me for my input, I quoted something I heard from Dr. Sebastian Gorka, who guest hosted for Larry Elder on his radio talk show yesterday.

Gorka said (as I recall it) that when he’d finished his book, Defeating Jihad, he showed the manuscript to his wife. Her response was, “Is this all there is?”

I’m sure that Gorka – like all the rest of us writers – had been hoping for a response more along the lines of “This is the most wonderful thing I ever read! I laughed, I cried, I wanted it to go on forever!”

But she explained. “You’ve got to give people a story. Nobody will care unless you tell them a story.”

So, he says, he added a long preface, telling the story of his father. His father was in the anti-communist underground in Hungary, during the Cold War. He was betrayed (by the noted Judas, Kim Philby), and sent to a political prison. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 he was released, and he decided to flee to the West. A friend asked him to take his 17-year-old daughter along with him, so she could live in the free world. They managed to escape (crawling through a mine field at one point), and eventually settled in England. He and the girl married, and Dr. Gorka is their son.

“Whenever anyone talks to me about my book,” Gorka said, “they never talk about the body of the thing. They want to talk about that preface – the story.”

‘Record of Wrongs,’ by Andy Straka

Record of Wrongs

In another stand-alone novel, departing once again from his Frank Pavlicek detective/falconer books, Andy Straka has produced Record of Wrongs, and it’s quite good.

Quentin Price is a black man, convicted of raping and murdering a young white woman. After ten years, DNA evidence sets him free. The day he leaves prison, he’s surprised to find someone waiting to give him a ride home – it’s the mother of his supposed victim.

She’s an alcoholic and her life is generally in disorder, but she has the idea that Quentin might want the same thing that’s holding her together – to identify the real killer, and set all the questions to rest.

At first Quentin doesn’t want to get involved. He just wants to rebuild his life. But the girl’s father, who was a cop and is now a private investigator, does not believe in Quentin’s exoneration. He’s determined to prove Quentin guilty, and he’s willing to go outside the law to do it. Quentin will have to look for answers just to save his own life and freedom. Maybe the special investigator sent by the state attorney general can help too – if he believes in Quentin’s innocence.

And there’s one other thing. Quentin has a secret. He hasn’t told anyone what really happened the night the girl died.

Record of Wrongs is a well-conceived and executed mystery. It’s not in the top rank, but Andy Straka is learning his craft. Christian readers will be disappointed to note that the Christian elements he usually includes are soft-pedaled (though not entirely left out) in this story, and that Straka has decided to include a little profanity for verisimilitude (something he hasn’t done before).

Recommended. I’ll keep watching Straka. He seems to be a writer with a future.

Translators throw down

Through a discussion in comments over at Threedonia, a blog I frequent, an article from Christianity Today on a dispute between N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart over how the New Testament ought to be translated:

Wright’s primary concern seems to be Hart’s understanding and use of language—both Greek and English. Hart claims his translation will in many parts be “an almost pitilessly literal translation,” intending to “make the original text visible through as thin a layer of translation as I can contrive to superimpose upon it.”

While Wright seems to respect what Hart is trying to accomplish, he nevertheless argues that instead of making the original text visible, Hart may actually be obscuring it by trying to render Greek syntax and idioms in English. “Greek and English, as Hart knows well, do not work the same way,” Wright argues. “… The strange English here has nothing to do with a cultural clash between the first Christians and ourselves.”

For the record, as a minor translator myself in a different language field, I’m pretty much on Wright’s side. As I told some seminarians recently, “The translator has two targets to shoot at — accuracy and faithfulness. They are not the same targets. In general, I opt for faithfulness.”

Just say what you mean!

I’ve taken to meeting with a small group of Bible school students for lunch once a week. We talk about writing, and stories, and the Inklings, etc.

Two weeks ago I talked about the difficulty we all have in writing plainly.

I’m inclined to think that it’s evidence of original sin that writing plainly is so hard.

Objectively, what should be easier than writing down exactly what you mean? It’s your own meaning. Just put it in words.

But it turns out to be one of the hardest things in the world.

We write a sentence, or a story, or a book, and then we look at it. We say, “No, that wasn’t what I really meant. It’s not quite right.” So we change some words.

But that wasn’t quite what we really meant either.

And so we go through revision after revision, deleting and adding words, replacing words, altering sentence length, breaking up and combining paragraphs. Until we finally hammer out something that seems to say (kind of) what we want.

But even when it’s done – even after it’s published (if we’re so lucky) there’s a lingering doubt. “Was that really what I meant to say? Could I have said it better? How would Phil Wade have put it?”

I think the reason is original sin. We’re so perverted in our nature, so blind to our own hearts, that saying what we mean is nearly the hardest thing we can do. (C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces has this idea as a central theme.)

Ecclesiastes 7:29 says, “Lo, this only I have found, that God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.”

I’m going to post this now, though I probably could have put it better.

‘The Blue Hallelujah,’ by Andy Straka

The Blue Hallelujah

Another by Andy Straka, but this one is a stand-alone.

The hero of The Blue Hallelujah is Jerry Strickland, an old cop with a bad heart, pretty much just waiting to die. The heart – and the faith – have gone out of him since the death of his wife Rebecca, who died in prison, having killed a serial killer/rapist.

But he has a few miles left in him, as he discovers when he gets word that his granddaughter has been kidnapped. His status as a retired detective buys him some slack from the police investigators to stick his nose in. And soon he becomes convinced that this abduction is no random crime. It directly relates to the crimes of the man Rebecca killed. And the key to the mystery lies in his own set of old police files.

This is my favorite of all the Andy Straka novels I’ve read, though I thought it had a couple weaknesses. Actually one weakness, because I think the second is only a possible misunderstanding.

The first problem is with strong language – or rather, its absence. When a character who’s not identified as a practicing religious believer says “What in the world’s going on here?” instead of something stronger, that’s morally good. But it weakens the story. It pulls the reader out of the narrative, making him ask, “Why did he put it that way? That doesn’t sound like him.” It’s a problem we’ve discussed often on this blog, and there’s no entirely satisfactory answer, in my view.

The second problem is a likely misperception of genre. This story starts out looking like a regular mystery story. But it develops into a Christian spiritual thriller, complete with visions and minor miracles. I have no objection to that (in fact I welcome it), but some readers may feel as if they’ve been blindsided.

For all that, the story reeled me in and held on to me, and I was in tears at the end. Wise, beautiful, and touching, The Blue Hallelujah gets my highest recommendation.

2 more Frank Pavlicek novels

Flightfall The K Street Hunting Society

Continuing forging my way through Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek detective/falconry mysteries.

Flightfall is a novella in which Frank and his daughter/partner Nicole get a call from their mysterious friend Jake Toronto. One of his falcons has been shot to death, and Jake believes it may have been an act of revenge. I think on consideration that my criticism of the previous book, which I reviewed last night, may actually have properly belonged to this one – it’s kind of over before it really gets started. But it’s nice to get to know Jake better, because he’s an interesting character.

The K Street Hunting Society is a far better developed story. It also takes place in Washington DC, and there’s not a lot of falconry involved. Frankly, that’s OK with me. I have nothing against falconry, and I admire the tradition of the thing, but I don’t find it a terribly compelling plot device.

This time out, Jake Toronto has hired Frank and Nicole to help him in a routine bodyguarding job in downtown Washington. But they come under attack by an assassin with an automatic weapon, and lose a client – and nearly lose one of their own. You just don’t do that to Frank, and you certainly don’t do it to Jake. They’re going to find the killer and even the score, whether the local police and the FBI want their help or not. I thought this was the strongest book in the series to date.

As I’ve said before, the language is clean, the violence isn’t overdone, and the morality is generally good. Author Straka takes the opportunity to say a good word for the Christian faith now and then. I don’t care for Frank’s penchant for relying on hunches rather than deduction, but that’s personal taste. Enjoyable reading, highly recommended.

‘A Night Falcon,’ by Andy Straka

A Night Falcon

As you’ve probably noticed, when I find a book series I like, I’m likely to read my way through it chronologically. And that’s what I’m doing with Andy Straka’s enjoyable Frank Pavlicek series. A Night Falconer is installment number four.

This time out, Frank finds himself leaving his current natural environment to return temporarily to a former one – Manhattan, where he once was a cop. The residents of a luxury condo are losing their pets, and one of them – an assertive woman doctor – is convinced her cat was killed by a Great Horned Owl. Not only that, but she thinks she saw a falconer carrying the owl, running off in the darkness. Crime mixed with falconry? Who else do you call but Frank Pavlicek, Virginia PI and accomplished falconer? So New York PI Darla Barnes, an old friend of Frank’s from the force, asks him to come up and investigate.

It seems like a strange job, but Darla’s a friend, so Frank drives up to check it out, bringing along his new partner – his daughter Nicole. What they discover is much bigger and even stranger than the idea of someone hunting in Central Park with an owl.

I didn’t consider A Night Falconer the best of the series. The plot seemed to resolve itself unnecessarily rapidly at the end. But it wasn’t bad either. As usual, no foul language, only muted violence, and the sex happens offstage (the Christian morality of these books is generally admirable, though Frank seems to think sex before marriage is OK if the couple is engaged, which I consider debatable).

Still, recommended.

Sola Gratia: Grace Alone

The choir of the Bible school where I work is just wrapping up a tour of Germany. They got to visit a number of notable Reformation sights. I was impressed by a video they posted on Facebook, where they got the opportunity to sing a Bach piece at Bach’s tomb. I was hoping to post that tonight, but at this point it’s only on Facebook.

So here’s one (filmed in our chapel) that is on YouTube — a number which (I believe) is part of their repertoire in Germany. “Grace Alone.”

‘A Cold Quarry,’ by Andy Straka

A Cold Quarry

Book 3 in Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek series, about a former New York cop who is now a private investigator in Virginia, as well as a falconer.

In A Cold Quarry a friend of Frank’s, a fellow falconer named Chester Carew, is murdered while out with his bird. The police say it’s a hunting accident, but it doesn’t seem right to Frank. Also, what happened to Chester’s hawk, which had recently shown signs of disease or poisoning? He decides to look into it, and his dangerous, mysterious friend Jake Toronto wants to help. He was a friend too.

Clues lead them to a right-wing militia group, and then they’re warned off by the Feds, who tell them they’re planning an operation against the group – stay away. But Frank is convinced something more is going on – someone much smarter, more devious, and more ruthless than a group of rednecks is planning an operation far bigger than officials suspect.

A Cold Quarry was an enjoyable read, which I can pretty much recommend without reservation. Not only is the writing good and the language clean, but the morality is generally good. And author Straka finds several opportunities to make positive references to the Bible and Christianity. It’s not enough to be preachy, but it’s unavoidable too. These books are just the kind of Christian literature a lot of us have been begging for.

‘Murder on the Old Bog Road,’ by David Pearson

Murder on the Old Bog Road

It’s storming along the Old Bog Road in Clifden, Galway, Ireland. A woman has to stop her car before passing over a bridge, because it’s been damaged and there are stones strewn about. As she clears the stones, she sees a woman in a red coat, lying drowned in a ditch. She calls the Garda, who are baffled when they find that the woman has no identification. It’s clearly murder – someone hit her in the head with something hard.

Inspector Mick Hays and Detective Sergeant Maureen Lyons lead the investigation. Gradually they learn that the woman was a Polish “sex worker,” and there are a number of men – some of them influential – who do not wish their relationships with her to be made public.

Murder on the Old Bog Road, by David Pearson, is clearly intended to take advantage of the current popularity of “Celtic” police procedural mysteries. This is a genre I enjoy, when it’s done well. It offers mystery and atmosphere. However, I did not find this book a successful entry in that field.

The writing was pedestrian at best, and sometimes clumsy. The characters seemed shallow to me. The two leads, Hays and Lyons, ease into a sexual relationship in a way that seemed unrealistic – Hays makes inappropriate jokes without Lyons taking any offense, and they are not at all bothered by the professional impropriety of their relationship.

On top of that, author Pearson makes one repeated writing mistake that annoyed me very much (though it could be the editor’s fault). The accepted rule when writing fiction is that if a character gives a long speech, which is broken up by paragraphs, you leave the closing quotation marks off the end of the first paragraph, giving the reader notice that the speech is not finished. If the quotation mark is there at the end, the reader assumes the next paragraph is being spoken by another character.

Pearson breaks this rule all the time, making his dialogue sections extremely hard to follow.

I found Murder on the Old Bog Road unpolished and unsatisfying. Maybe the series will get better, but I won’t be reading the next book for now.

Cautions for mature material.

‘Deathly Wind,’ by Keith Moray

Deathly Wind

Inspector Torquil McKinnon is on holiday at the beginning of Deathly Wind, the second in the Torquil McKinnon mystery series, set on the fictional Hebrides island of West Uist. Constable Ewan McPhee, his friend and subordinate, is supposed to be watching the store while he’s gone. But Ewan goes missing. People frequently go missing on this island, and it usually means they’ve drowned. That leaves Constable Megan Munro to police the place alone. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be impossible, as crime is low in these communities. But just now there’s rising unrest, as a new Laird has inherited the big estate, and is implementing a plan to dispossess long-time crofters and put up wind turbines on their property. Also, people are suddenly getting killed. Quite a few of them.

Torquil does return to take things in hand, but he’s not sure he can handle the pressure either – as his superior on the mainland keeps reminding him over the phone. But with his knowledge of the community, and the help of his uncle Lachlan, the old priest, he starts uncovering the secrets of people he thought he knew, and unraveling a vicious revenge scheme.

Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon series is not at the top of my must-read list – the writing is not particularly distinguished (I thought the plot of this one a little far-fletched). But the books are entertaining and readable, the characters are appealing, and no shots are taken at Christianity. I don’t recall much bad language either. There were some sexual situations. I’ll continue with the series. Recommended.