Category Archives: Fiction

‘They’re Watching,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

They're Watching

A sometime model from Bulgaria, she had a knee-weakening accent and natural eyelashes longer than most Hollywood prenups.

Patrick Davis briefly realized his dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. He saw his script turned into a major picture. Then one day, on the set, he managed to sabotage his career, and shortly thereafter his marriage began to fall apart. Now he’s sleeping on the couch, contemplating a separation, and has taken a job teaching college-level writing. He feels pretty bad, but it’s about to get worse.

At the beginning of They’re Watching (by Gregg Hurwitz) Patrick brings in the morning paper one day to find an unlabeled DVD inside it. The video on the disc demonstrates that someone has been watching and filming him – even coming inside his house. After a couple more DVDs are delivered – and the police say they can’t help – he starts getting demands that he carry out certain tasks.

The odd thing is that they’re nice tasks.

But what follows is not nice at all. Soon Patrick is the chief suspect in a headline homicide, facing the prospect of conviction and execution. All indications say that the people manipulating him are powerful on a world-class scale, and have resources neither he nor the police (even if they believed him) can match.

I think They’re Watching is one of Gregg Hurwitz’s earlier books, and it seemed to me he hadn’t quite mastered the “start with an earthquake and then escalate” style his most recent books demonstrate when he wrote it. And frankly I liked that. The more leisurely beginning was easier for me to handle. But the stakes got high quickly enough, and I was riveted (despite the highly improbable plot – but after all they’re all highly improbable). It’s the kind of book designed to be made into a Mark Wahlberg movie with loads of choppy action and chase scenes. Lots of fun.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes, as you’d expect. Recommended for its proper audience.

‘The Star Fox,’ by Poul Anderson

The Star Fox

What I liked best about this book was that it’s a military science fiction novel written before political correctness. Thus, Poul Anderson’s The Space Fox is blessedly free of tiny little girls with mystic ninja skills who throw 200-pound men around in the manner of Summer Glau.

Centuries in the future, the earth is ruled by a Federation, which also has jurisdiction over various space colonies. One of the most promising of those colonies, New Europe (settled by Frenchpeople), has been conquered by an alien race, the Alerians. The Alerians report that all the human settlers have (unfortunately) been killed. The earth government, dominated by pacifists, is inclined to accept the fait accompli and cede the planet to them.

Gunnar Heim, industrialist, is not so sure. He knows New Europe and doesn’t find the Alerian story plausible. He expects that the humans there survive in the wilderness, and are waiting for relief from earth. When he meets a Hungarian folk singer who has brought evidence of just that, but can’t get a hearing from the government, he starts moving. With the help of a combative French (!) legislator, he concocts a scheme to exploit a loophole in the law to set out in his own war ship, the Space Fox, becoming a latter-day privateer.

The Star Fox was recommended to me by a friend as right up my alley, and it has numerous theoretical attractions for me. It was written by a Danish-American who grew up partly on a Minnesota farm. The hero, Gunnar, is a Norwegian-American who lapses into Norwegian in his conversation from time to time. And it was written as a commentary on the Vietnam War, which Anderson supported, as did I.

And yet, I didn’t love it as much as I should have. I don’t know what it is that puts me off about Poul Anderson. I’m in the habit of criticizing his characters, but I couldn’t really find fault with the characters here. Gunnar especially is very well drawn, and I was even moved by his troubles from time to time. Yet when I was finished, I had no great yearning to pick up another Anderson. So I guess it’s just me.

On that understanding, I recommend The Star Fox. In keeping with publishing norms in its time in history, it has no elements that make it unsuitable for any age of reader likely to enjoy it.

‘Murder in the Mind,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder in the Mind

‘Do you catch by logic, Daniel – or is it gut feel?’

Skelgill turns to her, blinking.

‘You mean fish?’

‘Fish – or criminals. Is there a difference?’

Now Skelgill is forced to contemplate the distinction.

‘After I’ve caught a fish – when I’m thinking about it – maybe driving home, walking the dog, whatever – I can explain how I did it.’ He pulls of his Tilley hat and absently combs back his hair with the fingers of one hand. ‘I can’t honestly say I always see it at the time.’

I think I have a codependent relationship with Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill mysteries, set in England’s Cumbria county. The man is annoying by design, and he does annoy me. He’s obsessive, exploitative of his underlings, and insensitive to others generally. And yet I keep coming back to the books.

In this outing, Murder in the Mind, Skelgill is more irritating than usual (even after appearing to make progress in the previous book). He and the long-suffering Sergeant Leyton drive out to a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane. The complaint is – apparently – a trivial one. Some supplies have gone missing. Yet before long two patients are dead, and later two more escape, one with a hostage. Continue reading ‘Murder in the Mind,’ by Bruce Beckham

The Fist of Iron and Clay

Marvel’s latest Netflix series Iron Fist has its moments. There’s a fight with a hatchet-wielding gang that’s reminiscent of the hallway battle in Daredevil’s first season only a step less exciting. I don’t know if that’s because it reminded me of the earlier scene or the hatchet fight was less dramatic. But it may be that this fight would have been better in a better context. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

I don’t want to write a negative review of Iron Fist. I want to love it, but somewhere in the middle I began wondering if the story could be told differently, and by the end I thought it was relying on clichés. How many master warriors or chosen heroes say they need to complete their training? Just about all of them nowadays. Did a gunslinger ever say, “I need to get back to the Broken Hand Ranch to complete my training”? This is the story of a man who has been given the mantle of The Iron Fist, living weapon, protector of a holy city against an eternal enemy.

Before I finished the series, my wife and I watched Jackie Chan’s 1994 action-comedy The Legend of Drunken Master. It’s hilarious overall and increasingly intense. The finale was amazing, somewhat comical, and exhausting. When Chan’s character confronts the strongest henchmen, a tall man who relies on kicking, you wonder if Chan can really win. I know Iron Fist is a completely different show with different skill sets, but it didn’t have fighting anyway close to this.

In many Kung Fu movies, someone confronts the hero with his gang, and they begin fighting two on one, then four on one, then eight or sixteen. A formula like that would have been perfect for a gauntlet run Danny undertakes in the series’ first half. He does start against two, but then he moves to a one-on-one of a very different nature and then another one-on-one with a type of weapons master. That last one is pretty good, but could we not bring in eight or more guys in the middle of that fight to increase the intensity?

Another common scene in Kung Fu movies is when the master happens into a gang of thugs who won’t let him go without a fight. He takes them down without breaking a sweat. Danny sweats through every fight. Maybe the writers considered similar ideas and left them in rehearsal. Perhaps they considered them cliché.

Continue reading The Fist of Iron and Clay

‘You’re Next,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

You're Next

“And it means the world to Mike. I’m worried about him. He’s been really… angry. I’ve never seen him like this.”

“You don’t worry about Mike when he’s mad,” Shep said. “You worry about him when he’s quiet.”

Mike Wingate, the hero of You’re Next, by Gregg Hurwitz, doesn’t know his real last name. As a boy of four he was abandoned by his father at a playground, with a promise that he’d come back to reclaim him someday. Mike waited, but he never returned.

Growing up in a group home, Mike learned to survive. He and his friend Shep formed a simple code: “Endurance. Loyalty.” Shep becomes a criminal but Mike, after a brief term in prison, goes straight. He marries and fathers a daughter. Eventually he becomes a property developer. He builds a “green” community that gets his picture in the papers with the governor of California.

And that’s when everything starts to go horribly wrong.

Someone has been looking for Mike all his life. Someone who wants him dead, along with his daughter. Mike will see his perfect life shattered, and he’ll have to call on Shep to help him protect his family and solve a decades-old mystery involving land and bloodlines and merciless greed.

The plot is Hitchcockian, the stakes high, the tension tight enough to snap steel. Honestly, these novels by Gregg Hurwitz are almost more than I can handle (but I’m kind of a wimp, as you know). Just when you think the danger can’t get worse, it does. Just when you think the mystery is solved, a new wrinkle appears. I was scared and I was moved. When it was done, I bought a Bruce Beckham novel to read next. I can’t handle too much of this all at once.

Cautions for language and violence. There are a couple of political barbs, but they point both ways. Highly recommended, unless you have a weak heart.

Dracula Revised and Updated for Iceland 1900

Dracula was published in 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company of Westminster, UK. It was released in the US in 1899 and ran as a serial in the Charlotte Daily Observer for the latter half of that year. In January 1900, Iceland’s newspaper Fjallkonan began its serialization of the novel, translated by the paper’s editor Valdimar Ásmundsson. He gave it the title Makt Myrkranna (Powers of Darkness), and according to The Times Literary Supplement, it was eighty-five years later before anyone noticed the significant changes Ásmundsson made to Bram Stoker’s work.

Powers of Darkness: The lost version of “Dracula” has roughly the same bone structure as Stoker’s original, but is split in­to two parts, the first being the journal of Jonathan Harker (his name is changed to Thomas Harker), recounting his stay in the castle in the Carpathians. In the latter part, however, there is no epistolary element, and the story is taken up by an omniscient narrator. Part One reads like a long first draft, in which the author maps out his characters and surroundings – it is, in fact, almost twice as long as the original.

(via Prufrock News)

‘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 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.

We Loved Your Story; Write Another Just Like It

Danny Rubin, who gave us the wonderful movie Groundhog Day, thought he’d found his place in Hollywood after that film’s success. Everyone wanted to talk to him, and they all wanted him to do the same thing he’d done before. S. I. Rosenbaum interviewed him for Vulture.

He kept writing scripts for his own ideas, and he kept selling them, pretty steadily, over the years — to Universal, to Amblin, to Castle Rock, to Miramax. But none of them were produced, and even when one of them spent some time being developed, Rubin would often be booted off the project. He wrote a movie about a woman; they asked if it could be about a man. He wrote a silent film; they asked if it could have dialogue. “People weren’t responding to my stuff by making movies out of it,” he says. “They were optioning it, but then there were the same arguments over and over: They were trying to make a movie I said I was expressly not interested in making.”

The man behind Groundhog Day has proven Hollywood is stuck in a loop of its own making. (via Prufrock News)

Dostoevsky’s Characters Speak for Themselves

What makes Dostoevsky’s characters so real? They aren’t just mouthpieces for the author’s voice.  Peter Leithart describes it.

Dostoevsky’s polyphonic world is full of free subjects, not objects. We don’t know what they might say or do next, and we suspect that the author doesn’t know either. They speak in their own voices, and Dostoevsky doesn’t drown them out. His voice is only one among many.

But Dostoevsky is also concerned with the suppression and source of true human freedom. “True freedom is love, the capacity to sacrifice one’s Ego for the good of others.” And the only way to sacrifice one’s Ego is to surrender to Christ. (via Prufrock News)

‘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.

A Fanciful Underground Railroad

Railroad tunnel“Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.”

This is how Kirkus summarizes Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize. The novel is not historical fiction, because the central idea is existence of a slave-rescuing railway that runs through tunnels beneath the states.

Betsy Child Howard says it isn’t a fun book, but “sometimes we must look with open eyes at the evil humans can perpetrate themselves or countenance in others.”

In 21st-century America, we too often assume that those born into privilege are the deserving, without taking into account the generational effects of enslavement and Jim Crow on those we label “undeserving.” Whitehead is too good at his craft to spell out modern-day implications of our country’s dark history, but they reveal themselves.