All posts by Lars Walker

‘Raven,’ by Stan Jackson

Like the raising of the Mary Rose, Suzie’s words, and now Cyl’s, had brought it to the surface and like the Mary Rose, the thought emerged covered in stuff I didn’t want to delve into.

I’ve been calling this series of mysteries by Stan Jackson the “Ste Webster” series, because that’s what everyone’s been calling the character up to now in the books. But in the present volume, Raven, “Ste” and his friends have started referring to him as Perry. Which is also what the series is called on the Amazon pages, so I guess that’s what I ought to be calling him now.

Ste, or Perry, Webster is, as you may recall, a professor of philosophy at the University of York. His fiancée was murdered in the first volume, Blonde, and he managed to identify the killer. This has given him a reputation as a detective, and occasionally people ask him to solve other crimes.

This time out, Perry is approached by a former student, Laura “Raven” Wellbourne. She tells him that as a girl she attended St Barnabas School, a prestigious nearby institution, comparable to an American prep school. During her time there, she tells him, she was blackmailed and serially abused in secret by the headmaster, Dr MacDonald. As an adult, now with an academic degree, she changed her identity and appearance and returned to the school, getting a job as an instructor. Her plan was to somehow find evidence of MacDonald’s true character, and expose him.

But now Dr MacDonald has been murdered, found floating in the school swimming pool with his head smashed. Raven is the police’s chief suspect, but she swears she didn’t do it. Since she’s been relieved of duties, someone is needed to cover her classes. Could Perry fill in for her, on a pretext, and try to find the real killer?

Perry is so appalled by what she’s been through that he agrees to do it. Before long an audit reveals that Dr MacDonald has been involved in massive misappropriation of school funds, to the extent that its future is jeopardized. This is of great concern to the acting interim headmistress, Julia Emburey, a very attractive woman who has raised an interest in Perry that he hasn’t felt since his fiancée died. But is MacDonald’s embezzlement the motive for the murder?

I’m enjoying this series of novels immensely. Sometimes you just “hit it off” with a series or a character. I like Perry Webster, and enjoy spending time in his company. Also, author Jackson has fixed some of the writing problems I’ve identified in earlier books.

So I recommend Raven, along with the whole series. Mild cautions for adult themes.

‘A Fatal Liaison,’ by David Pearson

On a country road near Dublin, a wealthy property developer is found dead in a crashed car. It wasn’t the crash that killed him.

Not far away, in a shed in the woods, a young man is found naked and stabbed to death.

Detectives Aidan Burke and Fiona Moore are on the case. The books at the older victim’s office look fishy, and his company’s labor force seems dodgy. But his family situation was odd as well. No lack of motives here, but lots and lots of secrets.

That’s the premise of David Pearson’s A Fatal Liaison, second in his Burke and Moore mystery series. I’ve reviewed the previous volume before, and this one completes the series to date. No doubt there will be more, because these books work pretty well.

As a Typical Male ™, I assumed at first that Aidan Burke, the senior detective, was the main character. But he’s really not. Aidan is smart enough and knows his job, but he has a drinking problem and has lost a step or two. He doesn’t treat Fiona badly, according to his somewhat Neanderthal lights, but his younger sergeant is actually smarter than he is. More than once she suggests a line of inquiry that he barely notices, which turns out vital once she’s followed it up.

A Fatal Liaison is a solid entry in a solid series. It’s not one of my personal favorites, but I have no cause to complain. Cautions for language and mature subject matter. Also implied criticism of traditional Christian morality.

‘Brunette,’ by Stan Jackson

Stan Jackson’s Ste Webster mystery series continues with its second hair color title, Brunette. Once again Ste, a professor at the University of York, has a murder to solve… for reasons of his own.

Mackenzie West was, despite her brown hair, a golden girl at the University. Beautiful and popular, she was a good student and a star athlete, a prospect for the British Olympic fencing team. Until one morning she plunged down a stairwell to her death.

It could have been an accident, or suicide, but the police suspect murder, and Inspector Allen would like nothing better than to pin it on Ste Webster. Failing that, there’s another faculty member he has his eye on, Matt Harper, head of the Philosophy Department. Matt’s a friend, and Ste doesn’t believe he did it. When both Mackenzie’s parents and Matt ask him to look into the matter, he hesitates but agrees, partly to appease his personal demons. He’ll have to keep out of Inspector Allen’s way, but he’ll try.

It soon appears that Mackenzie had dark secrets no one guessed. Ste finds not one but several people who had plausible reasons for killing her. Which gives them reasons for silencing Ste as well…

As with Blonde, the previous book in the series, I enjoyed Brunette quite a lot, but had reservations. The prose is very good, and I like Ste and his supporting cast. As an added bonus, both Chesterton and C. S. Lewis get quoted (though Ste is not religious).

On the down side, I’m still annoyed by Ste’s tendency to walk into danger without protection, and the author’s tendency to rescue him through sheer luck. That’s a plot strategy that can’t be sustained forever. Also, the conclusion of the book was a little bit ambivalent in moral terms.

Still, I’m going on to the next book. The pleasures outweigh my reservations. Minor cautions are in order for language and subject matter.

‘Blonde,’ by Stan Jackson

The occupant of the final ensemble, the only one of the three sitting, combined wrinkles with lack of hair like a pug slightly ironed.

Years back, I read a mystery called By Frequent Anguish, by S.F.X. Dean. It was the story of an academic whose girlfriend is murdered. It moved me deeply, for personal reasons. The sequel, however, left me cold, and I didn’t read any more in the series.

Blonde, by Stan Jackson, had much the same effect on me, and shares a similar premise. Perry “Ste” Webster, who teaches philosophy at a fictional campus of the University of York in England, was in love with Anna, a local barmaid. Though her social status displeased Ste’s upper-class parents, she was beautiful and smart and full of life – until Ste found her stabbed to death in her apartment one night. The police, of course, fixed on him as their primary suspect, but he has an alibi and powerful friends.

Soon he discovers an important clue – Anna’s diary. But reading it, he finds that she wrote in it about a personal secret he confided to her. He doesn’t want the police to see that secret. So, in spite of his grief, he takes it upon himself to investigate Anna’s personal connections. Some of the people she worked with were involved in a disastrous investment scheme, and owed a lot of money. Ste uncovers some dark secrets and angers some dangerous people, but the final solution to the mystery will be a complete shock.

I enjoyed Blonde very much. Not only was the mystery fascinating and the characters appealing, but the writing sometimes rose to a very high level (though the author has a lamentable tendency to overuse exclamations marks). And though no particular deference is paid to Christianity, Ste Webster as a philosopher and reader seems to me to be mostly on the right lines.

On the other hand, Ste can be an annoying detective. His approach to dangerous situations is generally to just walk in and trust that some deus ex machina will save his bacon. That weak plot device was used a little too much in this book, imho.

However, I have proceeded to the next book in the series. Recommended.

‘A Deadly Dividend,’ by David Pearson

David Pearson, an established Irish mystery writer, kicks off a new police procedural series set in Dublin with A Deadly Dividend.

In the classic model of the Anglo-Irish police story, you’ve got your grizzled male Detective Inspector, supported by a younger female detective. What makes this series somewhat different is that the older male detective is not always on top of his game, and his assistant (who does not look like a model) has to save him from himself from time to time.

In A Deadly Dividend, a young banker is stabbed to death in an alleyway. When Detectives Aidan Burke and DS Fiona Moore inquire at his bank, it becomes apparent that the victim has been fiddling with his international accounts. It turns out he has had a clandestine dealings with shady interests. When another murder follows, they need to move fast – if Fiona can keep Aidan sober long enough to get the job done.

I quite enjoyed A Deadly Dividend. It definitely leaned more to the mystery than the thriller side, and dealt realistically with the plain drudgery that police work involves. And the fact that Aidan has a drinking problem and makes serious job mistakes – which Fiona must cover for – makes them an unusual fictional team. I also liked occasional suggestions of non-PC opinions.

There’s only one more book in the series to date, but I’m planning to read it.

“That should be in quotes,” he said

“By her troth,” she said, “she thought it was time to bid Mr. Mertoun gang hame and get bandages, when she had seen, with her ain twa een, Mordaunt ganging down the cliff like a wildcat….”

What you see in the passage above is an example of something I had heard of (from my friend, the scholar Dale Nelson), but had never encountered – or hadn’t noticed before. It has to do with the use of quotation marks. Turns out the rules have changed over time.

For you and me – living today and erudite as we both are – the rules of quotations are fairly simple. You’ve got direct quotations and indirect quotations (there are probably proper names for them I never learned – feel free to enlighten me). A direct quotation is supposed to recount what the character said, word for word. Direct quotations are to be set off with quotations marks:

“Lars Walker’s books,” he said, “are the best Viking novels written in Robbinsdale, Minnesota in our time.”

Then there are indirect quotations, usually indicated by the word “that”:

He said that Lars Walker’s books are the best Viking novels written in Robbinsdale, Minnesota in our time.

The quotation way up at the top of this post comes from Walter Scott’s The Pirate, which I reviewed below. The speaker is a woman named Swertha, and the “she” who thought it was time to bid Mertoun “gang hame” was Swertha herself.

Quotation marks were a relatively new thing in those days, and writers hadn’t yet worked out exactly how they should be used.

Our rules for direct and indirect quotations are, in fact, a fairly recent phenomenon. They should not be applied (in my view) to older literature, such as the Bible.

‘the Pirate,’ by Walter Scott

The earth is rented from its surface down to its most central mines; — the fire, and the means of feeding it, are currently bought and sold; — the wretches that sweep the boisterous ocean with their nets, pay ransom for the privilege of being drowned in it. What title has the air to be exempted from the universal course of traffic?

In early 1725, a pirate named John Gow (or Goff) returned to his birthplace of Orkney, passing himself off as a prosperous merchant. He even courted a local girl. However, he was recognized and denounced by a genuine merchant. He and his men stormed a mansion and hid there for a while, but finally fled by ship. They were captured when their vessel ran aground. Goff was tried at Newgate in London, and hanged in the customary style.

Nearly 100 years later, Sir Walter Scott took that basic story and added romantic elements, along with lore and local color he’d collected on a visit to the Northern Isles some years before, and produced the novel, The Pirate. It is this novel I’ve been reading for about a week, and have finished at length.

Most of the story is set in the Shetlands (here called Zetland). There are two main characters. The first is a handsome young man named Mordaunt Mertoun (seriously, that’s his name). He’s a “stranger” on Zetland, in the sense that his father came from England, and is not of the old Norwegian stock. Nevertheless, he’s popular with the islanders, and a favorite at the home of the island chieftain, Magnus Troil, known as the “Udaller.” Magnus has two beautiful daughters, Minna and Brenda, and people speculate as to which of them Mordaunt will choose to marry.

One day a ship is wrecked at Sumberg Head, and Mordaunt rescues (against his neighbors’ advice, see my blog post further below) the lone survivor, with the help of a local character called Norna of the Fitful Head. She is an old woman believed to have powers of prophecy and weather control. The survivor calls himself Captain Cleveland. Captain Cleveland is rich, handsome, and refined, and soon becomes a new favorite with the Udaller. Mordaunt can’t help noting that his own welcome at the Troil home grows cold after Cleveland’s arrival. Nevertheless, he attends a big house party there. There he clashes with Cleveland, there is a fight, and both men mysteriously disappear.

The action comes to a crisis somewhat later at the annual fair at Kirkwall in Orkney, where Cleveland has to balance his chance of escape against his desire to see his beloved, Minna, one last time. The conclusion of the story is romantic, semi-tragic, and implausible.

I like to pose as someone who can appreciate older literature better than the average modern, but I have to admit The Pirate was a bit of a slog. The language is ornate and dense, a problem not improved by this Kindle edition, produced with OCR technology and not vetted for word mistakes. Also, footnotes are frequently not recognized as such, and so get stuck, confusingly, in the middle of sentences.

Modern writers know they’re competing with television and movies, and make it a point to grab the reader from the first sentence and run, to avoid distractions. Authors in Scott’s time had more latitude. They staged their novels like salons, introducing you to each character in a leisurely way, and leaving you with them to get acquainted, even if they’re bores. Sometimes especially if they’re bores – bores are considered good for a laugh.

For me, the glimpses into “Zetland” lore and legend (there’s magic here, but it’s rationalized) was intriguing, and made it worth my time. You might not find it as rewarding. Even among the field of Scott’s novels, I don’t think The Pirate is in the first rank. And boy, was it long.

2 more reviews from Moerbe

Mary J. Moerbe at Meet, Write and Salutary, has completed reviewing my Erling Skjalgsson books to date.

She reviews Hailstone Mountain here:

I also think this book blends together Lars Walker’s two types of writing: his Norse saga and more contemporary stuff more. I’m a big fan of both, but maybe it means this book contains a few extra surprises for those who haven’t read his other writings, set in more contemporary and/or futuristic times.

And she reviews The Elder King:

This book really played with tensions. The poor priest Ailill, whom you come to love as a man of faith and action and unabashedly real humanity, has to face three of the greatest challenges for a celibate Christian: romantic love, relics, and . . . Arianism! With a shockingly early possibility of Arianism in Norway!

Thank you, Mary!

‘Serenity Avenged,’ by Craig A. Hart

This is the third in Craig A. Hart’s “Serenity” series of thrillers, starring Shelby Alexander, retired boxer and ethical thug, who has retired to his home town of Serenity, Michigan. For peace and quiet, which he never gets.

In Serenity Avenged, Shelby drives in haste to Grand Rapids, where his daughter is in the hospital with pregnancy complications. There he is reunited with his ex-wife, Helen. His feelings for Helen are definitely mixed. They get more mixed – but also protective – when he learns that Helen has large gambling debts. But when the loan shark threatens their daughter, he moves into action.

There were elements in this book that I liked. I like the male banter between Shelby and his friend Mack, though it’s overdone in places. I like Shelby himself as a character, and the hints of conservativism that sneak out through the narrative now and then. I liked a new character who faced some serious moral dilemmas and made the right decisions at a cost to himself.

But Serenity Avenged wore out my suspension of disbelief. We’re getting into heavy thriller territory here, to the extent of including a psychopathic supervillain with a secret lair. That seemed (to me) kind of out of proportion for a loan shark in Grand Rapids. Villains like that should be plotting to overthrow the nation or the Anglo-American alliance or something.

So I’m done with this series, at least for now. Your mileage may vary. Cautions for language and intense violence.

“Gifts of the sea”

Sumbergh Head, Shetland. (Photo credit: Joe DeSousa.) This is one of the locations in Scott’s The Pirate.

I’m currently reading Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. This is a pleasant thing, for several reasons. First, it’s a fairly enjoyable read, for anyone who can handle the old novel style. Second, it’s public domain, hence cheap. Third, it’s very long, reducing my book buying expenses. Fourth, it’s set in Shetland, and thus full of Norse tradition and custom. The main problem is that it forces me to think creatively about what I’ll blog about, until I finish the interminable thing and can review it.

But the book solves that problem too, by dropping topics in my lap, through its many long digressions. Tonight: the curious Shetland taboo against rescuing shipwreck victims.

As Scott tells it, the Shetland Islanders had a strong cultural prohibition against rescuing anyone from a shipwreck. This seems peculiar for Christians, especially in light of Acts 27 and 28, which describe St. Paul’s shipwreck in Malta, and praise the kindly Maltese who took the victims in.

Nevertheless, I can believe this story about the Shetlanders. Not that they’re bad people. But due to reasons I learned when I visited Iceland.

As Scott tells it, it was the firm belief of the Shetlanders that if you rescued anyone from a shipwreck, it would bring disaster on you. And that disaster would come through the very person you rescued. So if the sea took someone, that was their fate – one in which you dared not interfere.

The cause of this was the Shetlanders’ economic situation. These were poor people, dependent on subsistence farming and fishing. When a ship broke up on their shores, they (like the southern islanders with their cargo cults) saw it as a gift from God. But if God had sent the flotsam, what of the previous owners? Their deaths must also be God’s will. If they survived, their property claims would be a major inconvenience.

When I visited Iceland, the guide told us is that for a very long time, the Icelanders refused to build lighthouses on their coast. The reason was the same – loot from shipwrecks formed an important, sometimes a lifesaving, supplement to their economy. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn they had a similar superstition.

This is a caution to all of us. I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on biblical morality, and submit my personal interests to God’s commands. But nothing blinds you like the cares of this world.

Shippey on the Staffordshire Hoard

Photo credit: theguardian.com

We usually specialize in Vikings on this blog, but we are not above tolerating Anglo-Saxons, especially when there’s a Tolkien connection.

Tom Shippey, successor to and biographer of J.R.R. Tolkien, has a review in the London Review and Books of a new book on the Staffordshire Hoard, a rather amazing 2009 find:

What one can say is, first, that the hoard is unique from the period. Previous discoveries have been grave burials, or single finds, not collections buried with (presumably) the intention of later recovery. Second, the general nature of the hoard is clear. It is strongly weapon-related, but without weapons. There are no coins, no brooches, no items of women’s jewellery, not even a single knife or sword blade. Some 80 per cent of the objects are fittings from weapons, mostly sword-hilt parts. An Anglo-Saxon sword typically had a wooden hilt fitted over the iron tang on the blade, but to this were added an upper and a lower guard, each secured by two hilt plates and a hilt collar, fixed by bosses, with a pommel on top. All these appear in the hoard in large numbers.

Read it all here. Thanks to Dale Nelson for sending me the link.

Rite of Spring

Today was one of those deceptive, insidious March days in Minneapolis, when the sun shines bright, the temperature soars into the upper 30s, the snow tries to melt, and all nature smiles. It’s false, that smile, hiding ample devious malignancy for a dozen bad dames in hard-boiled mysteries. She’s a beautiful dame, with classic lines that never go out of style, but she has a gun in her garter, a stiletto up her sleeve, and her ring holds a secret compartment containing a rare Middle Eastern poison, undetectable by modern science.

In other words, it’s March in Minnesota, and we’re gonna have at least one more blizzard. But the dame was lookin’ good today, and you might as well enjoy her beauty before she shivs you in the ribs.

I left the cocoon of Blithering Heights to journey out to the mean streets of Minneapolis. There’s a big church near Franklin Avenue known as Mindekirken (Memorial Church). It’s your one option if you want to attend a Lutheran church service in Norwegian in this city. It also serves as a sort of Norwegian cultural center.

Every Tuesday Mindekirken hosts an open house, with a nice Norwegian-style lunch and an invited speaker. Today that speaker was Your Ob’t. Servant. I spoke about the Icelandic Sagas, and they let me sell books afterwards. (Yes, I know today was Monday, not Tuesday. Just for this week, they had to move the event because of the primary elections tomorrow. The church, I assume, is a polling place.)

It went well. Turnout was good. Some audiences are better than others. This audience, though mostly made up of people (even) older than me, was sharp and appreciative. They laughed loudly at the story of “Thorarin’s Toe” from Heimskringla, which is my gauge of the mental acuity of an audience.

Good (and profitable) days have been rare for me of late. Thanks to the Mindekirken folks for making one possible. I was so buoyed that I actually took myself out for dinner at Perkins tonight, something I don’t do often anymore.

The Lighting of the Beacons

I’m sure you recognize this clip from The Two Towers, in which the beacons are lit in Gondor, to call for help from Rohan.

I believe (I could be wrong) that the inspiration for this plot element in The Lord of the Rings was the following passage from Heimskringla (here in Lee Hollander’s translation) and the Saga of King Haakon the Good:

After this battle King Haakon incorporated into the laws for all the land along the seas, and as far inland as the salmon goes upstream, that all districts were divided into “ship-levies”; and these he parcelled out among the districts…. Along with this it was ordered that whenever there was a general levy, beacons were to be lit on high mountains, so that one could be seen from the other. It is said that news of the levy travelled from the southern-most beacon to the northernmost borough in seven nights.

If anyone knows of an earlier example of such a beacon signalling system, which might have inspired Tolkien, let me know.

‘Origami Man,’ by Matthew Fitzsimmons

The Origami Man, blank as paper, only folded into the shape of a man.

Years ago, Gibson Vaughn, (former Marine and current master computer hacker) was nearly hanged to death by a remorseless assassin, the same man who had murdered his father. This set off a series of events that resulted in Gibson’s becoming an international fugitive.

Now that assassin, the Origami Man, the kind of man who will hide inside a wall for five weeks in order to murder a family, has reappeared in Gibson’s life. He hands Gibson an encrypted thumb drive. The drive, the assassin says, was taken from a Russian crime boss who double-crossed him. He wants Gibson to unlock it for him. Gibson’s motivation is to be that it contains data on a massive industrial hack. He doesn’t know the details, but he knows that if it’s allowed to proceed, hundreds of thousands of people will die. The Origami Man doesn’t care about the deaths, but he wants payback.

Gibson would rather take a bullet than cooperate with this affectless, amoral man, a figure who still haunts his nightmares. But lives are at stake, and he and his team of fugitive friends, who are making a tenuous living as security specialists, agree that the frog will have to be swallowed, so to speak.

So begins a quest that will see them making unlikely alliances and balancing loyalties and treacheries against each other. An old Russian gangster trying to redeem a few of his sins will be the joker in the game. The action will move from Ireland to Switzerland to Germany, and it will be a close-run thing.

I enjoy the Gibson Vaughn series immensely. The stories are exciting, the characters multifaceted and sympathetic, the prose extremely good. I highly recommend Origami Man (as well as the whole series) with mild cautions for language and intense situations.

‘Serenity Stalked,’ by Craig A. Hart

We move along now to book two in Craig A. Hart’s “Serenity” series, set in a fictional town in Michigan. In Serenity Stalked we find our hero, ex-boxer and ex-“fixer” Shelby Alexander, continuing his affair with Carly, a much younger woman. When Carly tells him she’s being pestered by an old boyfriend, who happens to be married, Shelby (against Carly’s wishes) decides to have “a little talk” with him.

When the old boyfriend turns up murdered shortly thereafter, along with his family, the local sheriff – who does not like Shelby at all – makes him his prime suspect.

But the real killer is watching. He’s an accomplished serial killer, and now he’s focusing on Carly as his next victim. The reader will spend considerable time in his creepy company as he makes his plans to eliminate Shelby and take Carly for his own purposes.

True to the form of the first book, Serenity, Serenity Stalked is a fairly straightforward story, opting for action and suspense over mystery. Our hero is reactive in his actions, but fortunately for everyone his reaction time is fast and his fighting skills superior. And there’s a nice surprise at the end. For the action fan, Serenity Stalked offers value for money.

I may read the next one. Haven’t made up my mind yet.