Category Archives: Fiction

‘A Cotswolds Murder,’ by Roy Lewis

When I bought Roy Lewis’s A Cotswolds Murder, I’d forgotten that I’d bought another volume in the Inspector Crow series (first published in the 1970s) and reviewed it some time back. I wasn’t terribly impressed with that one. I liked this one quite a lot better. I might even become a fan.

Chuck Lindop was a man on the margins of civil society. A con man, a charmer, a would-be burglar, he held down a respectable job as manager of a “caravan site” (what Americans would call a trailer park). But he dreamed of the big score that would make him rich – and he wasn’t above resorting to violence when charm wouldn’t do the job.

So it’s no great surprise when his body is found in front of his caravan, his skull bashed in by a crowbar. And there’s no shortage of suspects with motives to kill him – spurned lovers, jealous husbands, victims of his cons, and angry former associates. But the police have a hard time working out who had opportunity to kill him, based on the comings and goings at the site that night.

So they call in Inspector John Crow of Scotland Yard. (By the way, I read some time back that this never actually happens. Scotland Yard is a metropolitan police service, and does not provide consultation for departments in the provinces. But the visiting inspector is a hoary trope of English mysteries, so what are we to do?) Inspector Crow is tall and skeletally thin, with a bald head. He looks like a vulture, but he’s an empathetic man. His great advantage as an investigator is his sympathetic understanding of human nature.

Author Lewis does an excellent job of fooling the reader with red herrings in this story, and tops it all with a surprising – but dramatically satisfactory – final surprise.

I enjoyed A Cotswolds Murder quite a lot. I recommend it, and no cautions are necessary.

‘Murder On the Run,’ by Bruce Beckham

I’ve been a fan of Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series for some time, but I think I may have been underestimating it. These are entertaining traditional mysteries set in remote English Cumberland. Inspector Dan Skelgill is a skilled investigator, curmudgeonly before his time. He amuses himself by being thoughtless with his subordinates, even DS Jones, an attractive woman who is openly interested in him, but whom he considers too young for him. He has been burned in love in the past, and so sublimates his feelings through his work and his hobbies – fishing, motorcycling, and fell (mountain) running.

It’s while he’s out on a run at the beginning of Murder On the Run that he discovers a fresh talent – Jess, a young woman with the makings of a record-breaker (he himself holds the current record). When he discovers that she’s part of his far-flung extended family, he takes her under his wing and becomes her coach. This despite the hostility of her negligent mother, who seems to be a prostitute and a drug addict.

Meanwhile DS Jones has been temporarily transferred to a task force investigating drug smuggling in the area, and a seductive female officer has been sent to replace her, causing much amusement. Skelgill mistrusts the officer running the operation, and fears for DS Jones’ safety – with good reason. His own family connections are at the edges of the criminal action, and Jess may be in mortal danger if Skelgill can’t run interference for her.

Tolkien was told by his friends that hobbits are only amusing when in “un-hobbit-like situations.” I like Skelgill best when he’s acting in an un-Skelgill-like manner. In Murder On the Run he breaks out of his alienation to show genuine care and concern for another human being, and that element made this book my favorite of the series to date. I also noted some very good prose, while foul language is pretty completely avoided.

Author Beckham does misuse the word “myriad,” but I guess everyone does that nowadays. Recommended.

‘Only to sleep,’ by Lawrence Osborne

The Raymond Chandler estate has asked three authors (Robert B. Parker, Benjamin Black, and now Lawrence Osborne) in recent years to write continuation novels about classic private eye Philip Marlowe. Only to Sleep is the third and most recent, written by Osborne.

The book is set in 1988, and the investigator is now 72 years old, rusticating in a hotel in Baha, California. When two insurance company representatives show up and ask him to go to Mexico and make some inquiries for them, he finds himself interested. He’s bored, and doesn’t really care much if the job gets dangerous (which they assure him it will not).

He sets out on the trail of Donald Zinn, an American businessman who was found murdered on a beach – and very quickly cremated. The company paid out his wife’s insurance claim, but they’re suspicious. The hunt leads to that wife, a young and beautiful woman who fascinates Marlowe. He soon becomes certain that the man she’s traveling with is in fact Zinn, who faked his death. But Marlowe’s actions after finding them are… ambivalent.

I wasn’t greatly impressed by Only to Die. There’s some good writing here, but the story – like its hero – has weak legs. Raymond Chandler’s famous advice on plotting was, “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” That policy doesn’t work very well when your hero is in his seventies, though. If tough guys with guns show up too often, the show will pretty much be over. So other ways have to be found to pass the time. And although Marlowe’s meditations on life are one of the pleasures of a Chandler novel, they can’t carry a whole book – especially in the hard-boiled genre.

On top of that, a major plot point involves Marlowe doing something that strongly violates his private eye code (as I understand it). He mitigates that choice through later actions, but the whole business diminished him for me.

So I don’t highly recommend Only to Sleep. I finished it, so it didn’t insult my intelligence, but it wasn’t what I hoped for. Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Neon Prey, by John Sandford

Another year, another John Sandford Prey novel (this one’s number 29). In Neon Prey, hero Lucas Davenport, still living in St. Paul and now operating as a US Marshal, gets called to a bizarre crime scene in Louisiana. Cops raided a hit man’s house, and discovered a number of bodies buried in the adjacent swamp – and those bodies show signs of being butchered. This killer is a cannibal. Lucas and his two regular partners, marshals Bob Matees and Rae Givens (double gags there – “Bob and Rae” for old radio fans, plus a hat tip to Elmore Leonard) join the hunt for this guy. They trace him as he hooks up with his brother, a home invasion expert, and members of his gang in Las Vegas. The clues are few and far between, but the cannibal proves no asset to his brothers’ gang, and in the end it will be every person for themselves.

Author Sandford offers the usual pleasures of a Prey book here – the familiar, interesting hero, plus a lot of politically incorrect cop humor. But I have to say that if this had been the first book in the series I’d read, I probably wouldn’t read another. I found the ending highly unsatisfactory.

So, my verdict is this: If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll probably enjoy Neon Prey, at least up to a point. If you’re not, I really don’t recommend it.

Cautions for language, violence, and very disturbing scenes.

Unsolicited endorsement

Pat Patterson dropped a rather nice review of The Elder King over at Goodreads:

Take Major Mythic Story; kick it HARD in the nose; and then…DANCE! (while you can)

On the off-chance that you HAVEN’T read Lars Walker until now, you are in for a treat. When “The Elder King” became available on March 14, I murmured “HOORAY!”The only reason I was that restrained is because of the overwhelming backlog of reviews I owe, of excellent books written by excellent writers. I really did NOT want to disrupt my queue! However, I downloaded the book, and then let my affection and Need to Read take over.

Thanks, Pat. Read it all here.

‘The Body on the Shore,’ by Nick Louth

In a quiet English town, a young architect is shot to death in his office. Shortly after that, far away on the Lincolnshire coast, a man is found murdered on the beach. The police don’t know it yet, but the two crimes are linked. Meanwhile, a wealthy mother is concerned about possible threats to the lives of her adopted children – but the police don’t take her seriously. When the two children are kidnapped from their school, though, Detective Chief Inspector Craig Gillard is forced to investigate – having no idea that the kidnapping is tied to the murders. He will discover the common thread before long – Albanian origins. And he will see things that shock him to his core when he follows the trail to the wilds of Albania itself.

I discovered when I bought The Body On the Shore, second in a series, that I had bought the first book already. I must have set it aside for some reason. I persisted with this one, and was rewarded with a pretty good read. Though not a world-beater, in my view.

I have read other books by Nick Louth, and one thing I enjoyed about them was their occasional flouting of political correctness. I take it Louth has turned over a new leaf with this more recent series, as the social consciousness lessons are there (though I’ll admit they’re subtle). The excursion to Albania was calculated to shake any reader. I can’t say the events there were exaggerated, but I found the action a little unbelievable. That’s how thrillers tend to be, though. I really prefer mysteries, but the genres are blending these days.

The Body On the Shore is well-written, with an engaging hero. Recommended if you like this kind of thing. Cautions for language and mature situations, including one real shock.

An authorial sin

When I spend substantial time with a book, and then throw it aside in frustration, half-finished, I don’t like to name the work or its author publicly. After all, I haven’t given either of them the full time they asked for. But I sometimes want to tell you about it, anyway, in case it might be of some use – especially if you’re a writer.

So it is with the book I 86’d over the Easter weekend. It shall remain nameless. It shall not go unchastened.

It was promoted as a sort of Wodehousian comedy, and I guess it was. In a way. It was generally lacking in actual funny lines, but the author did a fairly good job of building up ridiculous situations, so that I sometimes chuckled over the altitude of the gag, if I can put it that way.

But he offended me – as a Scarlet Letter puritan – by treating it as a matter of course that a couple will fall into bed the very evening they fall in love. It got worse when I learned that the (admittedly charming) main female character had been married before to a man who adored her and was faithful, but had dumped him because she wanted more excitement in her life.

That ain’t funny, in my world.

And then, about halfway through the book, the hero made a stupid, stupid decision. A decision calculated to bring him trouble and put him on the run from the law. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he’d ever do the stupid thing. It was illogical and imprudent. Worse than that, it was out of character.

In other words, it looked as if the author had forced the decision on him against his will, simply to keep the plot going. If he’d done anything that made sense, the story would have been over. And happily.

My righteous writer’s fury blazed up against this author, and I cast his book into the outer darkness of Kindle limbo.

Go and do thou differently, O writer.

‘The Invisible Man,’ by P. F. Ford

Number 14 in the ongoing Dave Slater mystery series by P. F. Ford is The Invisible Man. Our two heroes, former police detectives Dave Slater and Norman Norman of Tinton, England, are contemplating the collapse of their private detective enterprise. Lack of clients is the problem. Then, just as they’re preparing to shut down, a woman comes to see them. Lizzie Becker says that her 14-year-old daughter Lily died in a car crash two years before. The police say the girl had stolen the car, but Lizzie won’t believe it. In any case, she has just received a text message from her daughter’s phone. The phone has not been seen since the accident. She knows her daughter is dead. But what kind of monster would send her a message like that, to open old wounds?

Dave and Norman take the case. An examination of the accident site leads them to a strange homeless man, one who claims to be a war veteran with PTSD, who claims to have seen the aftermath of the accident. Interrogation of the girl’s other family members, and of the family that owned the stolen car, leads them to questions of business fraud, adulteries, and possible child abuse. There are dark secrets here, and deep hatreds, and a ruthless plan for vengeance.

As I’ve said before, I don’t rate the Dave Slater series extremely high as detective literature. The prose is less than masterful, and the plotting (I think) somewhat weak. I like the characters of Dave and Norman (that’s the main reason I keep coming back), but they seem to spend an awful lot of time just chatting back and forth. And the ending of this story was… kind of a letdown.

But it’s another book in a pleasant series, and it was enjoyable. Minor cautions for fairly mild rough language and disturbing themes.

Raising my profile

I clicked over to the Amazon listing for The Elder King today, and was delighted to see that I already have 6 reader reviews, all glowing.

Thanks to everyone who took the trouble write a review. It does matter, and it is appreciated.

It occurs to me that I could appeal to madness of crowds, and ask for promotional tips.

What methods would you suggest for a writer with not too much money to draw attention to his work?

We all know, of course, that the better the advice, the less likely I am to take it. Because really useful promotional techniques generally involve a degree of chest-puffing, arm-waving, and horn-tooting that’s simply beyond my capacity.

But at least you can say you tried.

Original Prin: Canadian Writes Real Laugher

Micah Mattix praises Randy Boyagoda’s Original Prin as a terrifically funny religious satire. In it a small liberal arts college, newly named University of the Family Universal, needs more money to keep treading water, so a specialist is hired to uncover their options. She offers them two options: “sell UFU’s buildings to a Chinese developer to transform into an assisted living care facility where the professors would provide ‘stress free’ workshops to residents, or take money from the university-less country of Dragomans in exchange for providing online classes and degrees to its citizens.”

Someone will have to ferret out these options to see which one is better. Enter our hero, Professor Prin, who specializes in seahorses in Canadian literature.

Read Mattix’s review for better feel for the comedy what looks like good and proper skewering of some of our institutions.

‘The Common Enemy,’ by Paul Gitsham

I’ve been going through Paul Gitsham’s DCI Warren Jones series, and frankly it’s getting harder to carry on. The books have always been a little dreary, but The Common Enemy is positively depressive.

In the fictional town of Middlesbury where Jones is Chief Inspector, a “super-mosque” is scheduled to be built. There has been considerable push-back from white supremacist groups. On a night when a far-right party had scheduled a demonstration, police pulled protection away from an existing mosque to keep the peace at the parade. Someone then set fire to the mosque, and two people were left injured, close to death. On top of that, one of the leaders of the racist party leading the march was found stabbed to death in an alley.

Inspector Jones and his team (and superiors) have to walk on eggshells as they try to untangle a snakes’ nest of hatred, fear, prejudice, and paranoia. If they can’t find who set the fire, minorities will accuse them of covering up for bigots. If they can’t solve the murder, far-right extremists will make the man a martyr.

It all leads to a shocking climax.

The book was well-written, but it had few rewards for me. I felt I’d fought my way through a lot of tension and unpleasantness, only to get a punch in the gut at the end.

On top of that, although author Gitsham did a pretty good job treating all his characters – including the slimy racists – as human beings with individual stories, and indeed in spreading some of the guilt around, I noticed that one group came off as utterly innocent and entirely made up of victims. That was the Muslims. You can’t blame the author, I suppose. You’re pretty much not allowed to allow for any sin within Islam, in modern publishing.

But I didn’t find the book very rewarding.

‘Run Away,’ by Harlan Coben

He’d later learn that it was for show, that Ingrid had the same fears and insecurities that plague all of us, that part of the human condition is that all decent people think they are phonies and don’t belong at some point or another.

The same but different. That’s what Harlan Coben’s novels tend to be. All based on themes of the strength of love, and the danger of secrets. But each one very much its own story. That goes also for his new novel, Run Away, which I liked very much.

Simon Greene is a successful financial advisor. He becomes a YouTube sensation briefly, when he attacks a homeless man in New York’s Central Park. What all the people who liked and shared his video, commenting on how evil he was, didn’t know, was that he was trying to help his drug addict daughter, to save her from the homeless man, who had gotten her hooked in the first place.

The daughter gets away. But then Simon and his wife Ingrid get a tip about someone who might be able to help them find her. They end up in a New York crack house, and shots are fired…

And Simon must go on alone to follow faint leads into a convoluted tangle of bizarre criminal conspiracies. Gradually he learns that his daughter’s plight is only peripheral to a much larger crime, and he will be placed on a lengthening list of people marked for murder, due to no fault of their own.

I found Run Away pretty amazing. Not only does Coben trace the familiar ground of family love and loss, and parental sacrifice, but he also creates a pair of unforgettable villains – remorseless killers who happen to be deeply in love, and very sympathetic in their scenes together. That kind of ambivalence shakes me more than distilled evil ever could. And the final revelation of the story was a genuine shocker, one to keep you awake pondering.

I thought the climax of Run Away a little far-fetched, but overall I consider it one of Coben’s best. Highly recommended. As usual with Coben, the profanity is minimal.

Christ Jesus, A New Hero

“Christ’s death on the cross offered healing to billions over the past 2,000 years—and it also inaugurated a different kind of storytelling. The hero no longer had to be a Hercules whose strength moved huge stones. He could be one who gave his life for another—and then God would roll away the stone. “

World News Group’s Marvin Olasky wonders how many stories have been inspired by the life of Christ. I’d say, not so many that thousands more wouldn’t be welcome.

‘Silent as the Grave,’ by Paul Gitsham

As I’ve been working my way through Paul Gitsham’s DCI Warren Jones series, I’ve commented that Inspector Jones distinguishes himself from other series detectives in (seemingly) having no particular skeletons in his closet. No old traumas, or addictions, or PTSD, which seem to be obligatory for the genre.

How wrong I was. Plenty of skeletons are revealed in Silent As the Grave, in which all Jones’ chickens seem to come home to roost at once.

An elderly man is found stabbed to death in a park. The crime seems unremarkable, except for the unusual dearth of clues, or a possible motive. The man had been a simple gardener, without known enemies.

Then Jones is approached by a man he does not know, but knows about. The man was his own predecessor in his present job – a cop gone bad, disgraced and facing trial. He says the gardener was murdered at the orders of a crime lord recently released from prison, now out for revenge. There will be more murders, he says. He’ll help Jones solve the case, in return for help in clearing himself.

Jones scoffs. The man is obviously trying to manipulate him, for his own benefit. Then the man plays his trump card – Jones’s father was innocent, he says, and he can help him prove it.

This is world-shattering. Jones’s father, we learn, was a policeman who committed suicide – Jones himself, a teenager at the time, found the body. His father was discovered to have been corrupt, and apparently killed himself out of shame.

Could that have been a mistake? Jones has spent most of his life hating his own father. Has he been doing him an injustice? Or is his informant just playing him cynically, for his own advantage?

Finding the answer will bring Jones himself, as well has his family, into mortal danger before a complex mystery is finally unraveled. The climax of the story is unexpected and shocking.

This one was somewhat more intense than I expected. The story still moves a little slowly, as with all the books in the series, but all in all it was pretty satisfying. Minimal cautions for language and mature subject matter.

‘No Smoke Without Fire,’ by Paul Gitsham

A sort of a cross between Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and “Midsommer Murders.” That’s how I’d explain Paul Gitsham’s DCI Warren Jones novels.

In No Smoke Without Fire, young women start disappearing in the English town of Middlesbury. When their bodies are found, they have been raped and strangled. The crime scenes are remarkable for their lack of forensic evidence. This monster has studied police forensic procedures, and knows what to do. More young women will die until Jones and his team can get into his strange, twisted mind and put a stop to him.

I’m enjoying these books, but I have to admit I also find them slow for long stretches. I think that’s because author Gitsham does a good job describing the tedious, day to day routine of police work. He saves the fireworks (except for somewhat harrowing descriptions of the abductions) for the obligatory showdown at the end.

I thought this was a new series for me, but I find I reviewed one of the books some time back, before rediscovering it.

These are intelligent, enjoyable books, if occasionally slow. Christianity, again, is generally treated with respect. Only a few cautions for language.