All posts by Lars Walker

‘A Hard Ticket Home,’ by David Housewright

A Hard Ticket Home

After Minneapolis author David Housewright wrapped up his Holland Taylor detective series (temporarily, as it turned out) he moved on to create another Minneapolis PI with a slightly more Travis McGee flavor – Rushmore McKenzie, former St. Paul police detective. “Mac” didn’t leave the force because of a traumatic experience or a principled conflict with the brass. He recovered several millions of embezzled money, and the insurance company paid him a 50% finder’s fee – but only after he’d resigned. Now he lives in a big house and, like Travis McGee, just “does favors for friends.” Unlike McGee, he doesn’t care about being paid. Hard Ticket Home is the first book in the series.

The Carlson family of Grand Rapids, Minnesota needs a favor. Their youngest daughter is dying of leukemia and has to have a bone marrow transplant. They think their older daughter Jamie might be a compatible donor – but Jamie ran away several years ago. Mac agrees to try to find her.

This leads him to walk into – and partly set off – a murderous crime spree involving some of the most successful people in Minnesota – people hiding a very dark secret. They have dangerous associates who don’t like private eyes snooping around, and some of them have no scruples about killing Mac – or the people he cares about.

I enjoy Housewright’s stories very much, and I always relish a Twin Cities setting. My only concern is that as he goes on he comments more and more on politics. He’s fairly mainstream, but I think he hits the right harder than the left.

But he hasn’t lost me yet. Cautions for language, very ugly violence, and mature themes.

A peg-legged legend

Long John Silver

It be our fashion to honor “Talk Like a Pirate Day” here at Brandywine Books, and I’d be a Dutchman if I failed in my bounden duties in that regard. So here’s a tale for ye, mateys, from a book called The Pirates, by Douglas Botting, published in 1978 by Time-Life Books:

The lead-up: In August 1720, an East Indiaman called the Cassandra (an ill-fated name if ever I heard one) was set upon by two pirate vessels commanded by Edward England and John Taylor, off the island of Johanna near Madagascar. The Cassandra’s skipper was James Macrae. Macrae ran his ship aground to escape the attackers, and after ten days in hiding returned to try to negotiate with the freebooters. The pirates were divided in their opinions as to whether to kill the captain or to spare him on account of his bravery.

At a critical moment a fierce-looking, heavily whiskered pirate seaman, with a wooden leg and a belt stuffed with pistols, stomped up the deck swearing like a parrot; taking Macrae by the hand he swore that he knew the captain, he had sailed with him once, and was very glad to see him. “Shew me the man that offers to hurt Captain Macrae,” he roared, “and I’ll stand to him, for an honester fellow I never sailed with.” This unnamed member of Taylor’s crew was to gain immortality many years later as the inspiration for Treasure Island’s Long John Silver.

The pirates allowed Macrae to go free….

Captain Macrae’s savior, however, was not the sole inspiration for “Barbecue” Silver (who used a crutch, not a wooden leg). Author Robert Louis Stevenson told the poet and editor William Ernest Henley, author of “Invictus” (who had one leg), that he was the original.

‘Another One,’ by Tony Faggioli

Another One

I’m ambivalent about the “naturalistic” school of Christian fiction. There’s a small group of Christian authors – and make no mistake, they are brave souls – who’ve decided that the gospel is badly served by the sugar-coating and bowdlerizing so common in Christian fiction. They believe it’s time to drop the taboos, because how can we expect people to believe what we say about heavenly things when we don’t tell the truth about earthly things?

I salute their courage and honestly, and I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong. I try to steer my own fiction closer to that line than many, so I’d be kind of hypocritical to condemn them. But I can’t deny they make me a little uncomfortable. It may be just because I’m old.

Tony Faggioli is the author of Another One, the first in a trilogy of supernatural crime novels starring Evan Parker, a Los Angeles police detective. The book is presented from multiple viewpoints, following Parker (an Iraq War veteran with PTSD) as he and his partner investigate the murder of a Hispanic gang member shot to death in a Korean neighborhood. We follow Father Bernardino Soltera, who is trying to help a young girl who has gotten pregnant by her gang member boyfriend, and is contemplating abortion. And Hector Villarosa, a gang leader just released from prison. He finds that his girlfriend has taken up with another man, and is contemplating revenge even as he struggles with guilt over setting his own cousin up to be murdered.

These men are bound together, not only by intertwined crimes, but by the visions they see – beings of good and beings of evil who respectively promise to protect or to kill and damn them. Continue reading ‘Another One,’ by Tony Faggioli

‘Darkness, Sing Me a Song,’ by David Housewright

Darkness, Sing Me a Song

I’m not sure why author David Housewright decided to resurrect his Holland Taylor detective series after turning his attention to a much longer series with another character. But so he did, just this year, six years after the previous installment. I liked Darkness, Sing Me a Song, though I was a little annoyed by the addition of politics to a series that had been pretty evenhanded up to now.

Things have changed since Dearly Departed (reviewed below). Minneapolis detective Holland Taylor has broken up with his girlfriend, and is instead seeing a married woman, off and on. He moved out of his house, into an apartment. He now has a partner in his private investigations business.

His work is mostly dull, and he’s not complaining. But one of his best clients, a high-powered law firm, asks him to help with the legal defense of Eleanor Barrington, one of the richest women in the state. She is accused of shooting her son’s fiancée, Emily Denys, to death. She denies guilt, though she does not hide her contempt for the young woman.

Investigation reveals that Emily Denys did not exist – her identity was false. Trying to trace her true name leads Taylor to a small Wisconsin town, where feelings are running high on both sides of the (fracking-related) sand mining business. Taylor will also uncover very dark secrets about the Barrington family. There’s a “surprise” twist near the end, which didn’t surprise me at all, nor do I think it will surprise many seasoned mystery readers. However – it must be noted – it’s not the surprise itself but the original twist author Taylor puts on the surprise that makes the book work in the end. And it does work.

I enjoyed Darkness, Sing Me a Song, but not quite as much as the previous books. Recommended, with cautions for language and mature themes.

Oh yeah, at one point he says that the city of Shakopee is southeast of the Twin Cities. It’s actually northwest. Weird.

‘Dearly Departed,’ by David Housewright

Dearly Departed

I put the older man at sixty. Hard. You could roller skate on him.

The saga of Holland Taylor, Twin Cities PI, continues with Dearly Departed. I like the way author David Housewright puts fresh spins on old plot themes. Dearly Departed, a story in the tradition of the movie “Laura,” was my favorite in the series so far.

Hunter Truman is the sleaziest of ambulance-chasing lawyers, a man unesteemed even in his own profession. He sued Holland Taylor once. And yet here he is, asking to hire Taylor to look for a missing woman. Taylor wants nothing to do with him – until he looks at the fascinating photograph of Alison Emerton. Truman plays him a tape Alison left behind, in which she states that if anyone hears this, she will be dead, and her ex-boss is the killer.

Alison has disappeared without a trace. All her possessions are still in her house. She must be dead, but Truman’s clients want to know exactly what happened to her.

Against his better judgment, drawn by the visceral appeal of the photograph and the voice, Taylor agrees to look for her. His hunt will take him to a resort town where residents are at each other’s throats over the question of a new Indian casino. There’s a plot twist that isn’t much of a surprise, but that just sets the stage for further surprises.

Dearly Departed drew me in and kept me fascinated. I enjoyed the characters and was fascinated by the mystery. I appreciated the examination of men’s perceptions of women, realistic and delusional.

Cautions for language and mature situations. Recommended.

‘Practice to Deceive,’ by David Housewright

Practice to Deceive

I felt about as big as a period at the end of a sentence.

The second book in the highly enjoyable Holland Taylor series by David Housewright is Practice to Deceive. I liked it as much as the first book.

When Taylor’s parents invite him to visit them in Florida, they have an ulterior motive (their relationship is awkward). His father introduces him to Mrs. Gustafson, a friend who’s been swindled out of all her money by a slick Minnesota investment counselor. Can Taylor do anything to help her get it back?

At first he resists. It’s not his kind of case; he doesn’t understand these matters. But when his father explains exactly what the investment counselor did – getting her power of attorney, then investing her funds in a risky real estate project after she’d suffered a stroke and was expected to die – he’s outraged and agrees to look into it.

Since the counselor has technically not broken the law, Taylor decides to take a more high school approach to the problem – harassing him, hacking his online accounts, working juvenile practical jokes. And it almost works – until somebody kills the counselor and steals the money he was going to pay Mrs. Gustafson back with. Suddenly the game is deadly serious, and Taylor’s own life is on the line.

Great fun. Although there’s plenty of traditional detective stuff, Housewright can take very unconventional approaches to his plots, turning old situations fresh. Cautions for language and mature situations, including some fairly creepy scenes involving a transvestite. And some hard-boiled irony.

‘Penance,’ by David Housewright

Penance

All in all, it’s a great time to be a private investigator: Nobody trusts anybody.

Sometimes – rarely, of course – I surprise myself with my ignorance. Discovering a “new” detective author whom I would rate on the level of John Sandford and (before he went full PC) Robert B. Parker was a surprise. Finding out he’s a local (Minneapolis) author amazed me. But so it is. David Housewright is a very good hard-boiled writer, and I’m enjoying his Holland Taylor series a lot.

At the opening of Penance we find former police detective, now private eye, Holland Taylor in an interrogation room, being grilled by two policemen. He was surprised to be arrested, but not surprised when he learned the reason. The drunken driver who killed Taylor’s wife and daughter, recently released from prison, has been murdered. Taylor is the obvious first suspect.

As suddenly as he was arrested, Taylor finds himself released, and he returns to his current case, which involves a beautiful, dark horse, third-party gubernatorial candidate who is being blackmailed. Eventually he learns there’s a link between the first case and this one, and things get convoluted and deadly. In the end the revelations he unearths will be genuinely shocking.

The plot’s more complex than it needs to be, with too many characters and plot lines. But the story gripped me and the narrator was fascinating. Widower detectives have gotten to be a trope (because the situation offers lots of scope for female companionship, and an excuse for not bonding), but author Housewright handles the trope well. I was hooked, and I’ve been scarfing these books up one after another. More reviews to come.

The stories are a little dated, being written back in the 1990s (though a fourth in the series came out this year). The usual cautions for language and mature situations apply. The politics are hard to nail down – which is just fine by me.

‘Laughing Shall I Die,’ by Tom Shippey

Laughing Shall I Die

And what this means for us is that if you come across headlines – as these days you very often do – which say something like ‘Vikings! Not just raiders and looters any more!’ then the headlines are wrong. If people weren’t raiding and looting (and land-grabbing, and collecting protection money), then they had stopped being Vikings. They were just Scandinavians.

The trouble with reading a book that really excites you is that you end up highlighting passage after passage. Then it’s hard to pick one out to put at the head of a review. I finally chose one from near the beginning, but there were many others.

I’ve posted an excerpt previously, because I did find Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings, by Tom Shippey an intriguing and exciting book in my favorite historical field. It’s been a long time since I’ve read one more intriguing. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it. In some ways Shippey’s thesis supports “my” work (Viking Legacy, which I translated), in some ways it contradicts it. I have praised Anders Winroth in a previous review (though disagreeing with him at many points). Shippey essentially discards Winroth as one who misses the whole point.

The point being that the word “Viking” is routinely misused in our day. “Viking” means a seaborne warrior – a pirate. If you write about early Medieval Scandinavians in all walks of life and re-label them Vikings, you’re confusing the matter.

To put it bluntly (again), most scholarly books with ‘Viking’ in the title turn out not to be about Vikings, because Vikings aren’t popular among scholars. This book is different: it really is about Vikings.

Continue reading ‘Laughing Shall I Die,’ by Tom Shippey

Weekend postmortem

Had a Viking gig this weekend. We participated in the Nordic Music Festival in Victoria, Minnesota, just north of the Twin Cities. Short drive, simple event. The weather was ideal, and everyone seemed pretty happy. I’d found one unsold copy of Viking Legacy, so I brought that (and sold it) and I brought a stock of West Oversea. My sales were not bad. I’d had an idea that this wasn’t a very good event for book sales, but I was pleased. Had some good conversations too. Iceland, the Kensington Rune Stone, the sagas. There were two food wagons, and one of them had hot mini-donuts. You can’t do much better than that.

Here’s our set-up. My Viking tent, with its lean-to annex, is on the left. My presentation has evolved over the years from nudging a place in among the others at a long table, to something like an “installation,” which involves a certain amount of labor to set up, tear down, and transport. Well, that’s what happens when you keep at it long enough. Thank goodness there’s people willing to help me with the work.

Nordic Music Festival 2018

Did some fighting too. Even better, two of the new guys joined me, and carried on after I was tuckered out.

‘Love is Blue’

I never intended to designate Friday as music day around here, but I seem to consistently run out of books to review, and thoughts of any kind, by Friday. So I’ve been digging up songs from my past. Several of them were cheerful European songs, which was a kind of a thing when I was a kid.

This one, though it is European, isn’t from my childhood but my adolescence. It was a big hit around the time I finished high school and started college. It meant a lot to me in those days. “Love Is Blue,” written by Andre Popp and performed by Paul Mauriat’s orchestra. It placed fourth in the Eurovision Song Contest, but still went on to become an international hit.

Which is a lesson to us all.

Shippey on Vikings

My friend Dale Nelson suggested I read Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die, a book on the Viking Age focusing on its warrior ethos. This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading the book. It’s quite long. But I’m finding it immensely congenial, a book that reinforces my prejudices – and who doesn’t enjoy that? Broadly speaking, it’s a sort of a backlash book against the prevailing consensus in Viking studies, the one that says, “The Vikings were really pretty much like everybody else. They just got bad press because their enemies wrote the history books.” I must admit I’ve said the same sort of thing, especially at reenactment events, but I’ve always held secret reservations.

Shippey (a Tolkien biographer and “the Professor’s” successor at Oxford) says phooey to all that. The Vikings, he says, were masters of violence and of psychological warfare. They won by intimidation, and through belief in something like a death cult. Here’s what he says about the political upheavals that wracked Scandinavia in the time of Beowulf:

Using modern terms, the story is one of centralizing power, professionalization of the military, disappearance of local groups and tribal names, and wars – so Hedeager suggests – to control strategic resources including land and access to bog iron.

The last is a modern view, by a modern scholar who characteristically prefers sensible economic motives for war. Our ancient texts, like Beowulf and Hrolf’s saga, suggest just as plausibly that the wars were undertaken for glory, for revenge, to expand power.

The freelance life

Fortune cookie

Week one of unemployment. Or, depending on your point of view, week one of free-lancing. I’m a little confused on the point. In theory, I ought to be throwing myself into my job hunt right now. But (although I’ve cast a few lines into the water), I’ve been too busy… working.

The Norwegian media company I translate for (may they prosper like the North Sea oil fields) sent me a fairly hefty chunk of prose to process – another densely worded script outline. And the deadline was tomorrow, which it almost is now in their time zone. So I jumped on it and turned it in a couple hours ago. Since this will eke out my finances, however briefly, I think it merits priority over mailing resumes.

The idea of just being a freelancer is extremely beguiling. But I need more income sources than this one company. So I guess I’ll be fishing for freelance gigs at the same time I’m looking for a regular job. Sometimes I think the freelance dream is a worthy goal. Sometimes I think it’s moonshine – get a real job. After all, unemployment is way down. Unfortunately, the market for librarians is saturated, and there’s never been a big market for writers.

But we’ll see. I haven’t even gotten my bearings yet.

When I ate at a Chinese restaurant tonight, my fortune cookie said, “You will be wildly successful in the entertainment field.”

I think the Almighty’s just messing with me.

‘Coffin, Scarcely Used,’ by Colin Watson

Coffin, Scarcely Used

I am fond of English police procedural mysteries. But I’m frequently annoyed by the increasing political correctness infecting the genre and turning it into a form of fantasy. So a series of English procedurals written during the 1950s seemed like just the ticket for me, especially when the books are described by critics as “wickedly funny.”

Coffin, Scarcely Used is the first of the Inspector Purbright series, set in the fictional seaside town of Flaxborough. No crime is suspected when a city councillor dies suddenly. But when his neighbor, the former local newspaper publisher, is found dead of electrocution, wearing carpet slippers, underneath an electric pole near his house, questions get asked. As Purbright and his assistant dig into the lives of the two men and their circle they unearth secrets that the foremost citizens of the town would rather keep secret.

I didn’t enjoy Coffin, Scarcely Used as much as I hoped. The whole affair seemed to me lightweight and superficial, in the way of the classic English cozies. I generally approve of cozies in the moral sense, but I prefer the grittiness of hard-boiled stories and the more recent generations of procedurals. And the humor, though sometimes fairly Wodehousian, just didn’t move the needle enough for my purposes.

But you may feel differently. If Coffin, Scarcely Used sounds to you like your cup of tea, enjoy it.

Apres moi, le deluge

Counting down the last two days of my librarian career. I am not doing well, thanks for asking. Sleeping badly; fuzzy-headed at work, where I flounder to remember to tell people the things I need to tell them before I surrender my keys. Training my boss in the new library management system, which I haven’t yet had time to master myself. Trying – probably with little success – not to be a grump.

I feel a little like a man on death row – half terrified of the end, half wishing to get the bloody thing over already.

The interior turmoil has exterior manifestations – external to me. Stuff is being torn out. Stuff is being brought in. Half the things I’m teaching my boss may prove to be unnecessary, because they’ll be changing to other technology anyway. But I don’t know these things for sure, so I share my antique wisdom.

I’m still skeptical about the operational plan for the library. I may be less than ideal as a resource person to whom students may appeal to for help, but the new alternative seems to be nobody at all, most of the time. I find it hard to believe an absence is preferable to my presence. There will be assistants around in the afternoons, but that’s not when most of the students will be using the resources.

But, as I keep telling myself, it’s no longer my circus.

Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither. The readiness is all.