Category Archives: Fiction

‘Closed For Winter,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

Closed For Winter

Investigating a murder case with an unknown perpetrator was like picking the label off a beer bottle. It was never possible to remove it in one piece. Instead it had to be torn off one ragged little section at a time.

This is the second book available in English, in Jorn Lier Horst’s William Wisting police procedural series, set in Norway. In Closed For Winter, Wisting’s daughter Line, a journalist, has broken up with her slightly shady boyfriend, and is spending time at her father’s seaside cottage. While she’s there, the police are called to a cottage not far away. Several cottages have been broken into and robbed, but in one of them a dead body has been found. The victim has been shot and bludgeoned, and he’s found wearing a balaclava over his face. An ambulance comes to remove the body, but it gets hijacked and set on fire. Then a second gunshot victim is found dead in a beached boat.

As Inspector Wisting and his team try to identify the dead and figure out what’s going on, they are also concerned with rumors of tensions among criminal gangs and the plans (revealed by an informant) of a particular gang to rob a bank vault. The plot tension rises constantly, and there are a couple very neat surprises at the end.

I liked Closed For Winter. It didn’t have the ordinary feel of Scandinavian Noir. There’s a strong dose of compassion for people forced into crime by poverty, balanced with a steadfast defense of the law. These are character-driven stories, and that pleases me.

Recommended. Cautions for language and mature subject matter.

‘Dregs,’ by Jorn Lier Horst


You probably recall how I feel about “Scandinavian Noir” mysteries. In general I consider them dank, grotesquely nihilistic, and overrated. However, I recently got a tip about Jorn Lier Horst’s Norwegian series starring Chief Inspector William Wisting (you pronounce the “W’s” as “V’s”). I’m quite enjoying them, to my considerable surprise.

William Wisting is a detective in the small community of Larvik, in the general area of Oslo. He’s a widower, has a girlfriend, and gets on well with his two adult children. His daughter Line (pronounced “LEE-neh”) is a newspaper journalist. Although Wisting worries about the risks she takes in her work, he respects her talent and industry, and she’s happy to assist him in his research from time to time.

Dregs is not the first book in the Wisting series (nor the first I read) but it’s the first in sequence to be translated into English, so I’m reviewing it first. The story begins with the discovery of an athletic shoe (a “trainer” as they call them in Europe), washed up on a beach. The shoe is a left shoe, and it contains a human foot. A few days later another shoe and foot wash up – but it’s another left foot. And then there’s another, also a left. Continue reading ‘Dregs,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

Did Crime and Punishment Remake the Novel?

Of course, Dostoevsky’s claim to have invented a new literary genre doesn’t solely rest on Crime and Punishment. Although it was published when he was 45, after so many books and setbacks, it marked a breakthrough, not a culmination. Its resemblance to Hamlet resides both in its details (fatherless ex-student, bookish sidekick, philosophy, mumbling, murder) and in its peculiar status, as an extraordinary achievement that also serves as the preparation for a trio of more ambitiously unsettling tragedies.

Various touches point towards Dostoevsky’s later novels: a reflection on the “holy fool” (The Idiot), a dream involving a city-wide disease (The Possessed), a smattering of theodicy (The Brothers Karamazov). It is not an insult to Crime and Punishment but a tribute to its author to say that his most famous book, the face he shows to the world, plays a more servile role within his body of work, something like a hinge, or border – a spin-off that doubles as a gateway drug to more exalted highs.

Leo Robson writes of the importance of Crime and Punishment to its author and the literary world, even those who disliked it. (via Prufrock News)

‘Last Orders,’ by Caimh McDonnell

Last Orders

Phil’s ideas were a lot like children: they could be wonderful or a nightmare, but regardless, you couldn’t leave them on their own for very long, or bad things would happen.

Caimh McDonnell is definitely having us on. The third book of his “Dublin Trilogy” proved to be a prequel, and it’s this fourth book (which makes it a tetralogy at this stage) that finally wraps the story up. Sort of. A note at the end informs us that a further sequel is coming.

Ah well, it’s all fun. In Last Orders, a couple old bodies are dug up in the course of a construction project, and we know (if we recall the prequel) that the bodies belong to two guys one of our heroes, old Bunny McGarry, killed 18 years ago. All in a good cause, of course. They were killers (even though one of them was an FBI agent), and he was saving a good woman’s life.

But now the specter of discovery hangs over Bunny, who has never entirely recovered from the tortures he suffered in the second book. Retired from the police force, he’s supposed to be part of the detective agency started by his friends Paul and Brigit, but his heart isn’t in it. Mostly he whiles away his time drinking and making a spectacle of himself in public.

Meanwhile Paul has become obsessed with a duel of practical jokes between his agency and a rival agency. This leads to somebody actually getting injured, leading to a lawsuit and the impending death of the agency, unless a way can be found to discredit the plaintiff. Also the course of true love is not running smooth between him and Brigit.

Last Orders is essentially a serious story, told in a hilarious way. Lots of laughs all through, along with some genuinely poignant moments. Cautions for language and immature themes. I loved it.

‘The Dead Daughter,’ by Thomas Fincham

The Dead Daughter

Possibly the worst book title I’ve ever seen. Thomas Fincham’s The Dead Daughter isn’t as bad as its name, but it’s no masterpiece.

Kyla Gardener was the daughter of a wealthy couple in the (fictional, I think) city of Milton. When her mother Sharon finds her dead, strangled and stabbed, suspicion falls on her father, Paul. The marriage is struggling, and he’s been sleeping in the guest house. The burglar alarm had been turned off. The murder knife was found in his car, and a smear of her blood was found on his shirt. He himself had been drinking and has no memory of the night at all.

But private eye Lee Callahan has information for the police – Paul had hired him to follow Sharon as part of his divorce defense. She was gone that night, not at home as she claimed, and it was she who turned off the burglar alarm. That’s enough to get Paul out on bail, and Lee takes it on himself – out of pure generosity – to try to balance the one-sided investigation the police are running. What he discovers will be shocking.

The thing that kept me reading The Dead Daughter was that the story itself wasn’t bad. Lee Callahan is interesting and sympathetic as a character. But the writing was… unfortunate. Amateur. First draft stuff.

Holt began to pace the room like he normally did. He was like a bull who wanted to let off steam.

It was a family secret, one they did not want the public to find out about.

Author Fincham, according to his bio, has written quite a few novels. Apparently he hasn’t learned a thing about writing all through the process. If he’d put some work in on that front, I think he’d be a good novelist.

‘Going Underground,’ by Michael Leese

Going Underground

I’ve often suspected that I’m somewhere on the lower end of the autism spectrum. Whether I am or not, I’ve always found autism an intriguing subject. So I purchased Going Underground, by Michael Leese, a novel with an autistic hero. It didn’t grab me, though I finished it. I’m really at a loss to say why I didn’t like it better.

The story begins with the murder of a prominent genealogist by his trusted secretary. Then a beloved philanthropist’s body is found, dismembered, in a cellar. Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Brian Hooley is sent to investigate the second case, and he brings along his favored assistant, Jonathan Roper. Jonathan has a bad reputation at the Yard because he nearly blew an important arrest before his recent suspension. But Hooley believes in him. Jonathan is autistic, and his social cluelessness makes him unpopular with other detectives. But he has amazing abilities to observe and process information. He justifies Hooley’s trust when he quickly locates hidden evidence no one else would have found. The evidence leads them to a genetic research company, where (they eventually learn) genuinely evil experiments are being carried on behind the respectable façade.

I can identify no failure in the writing in this book (except for a lamentable tendency to close individual paragraphs within extended monologues with quotation marks, which could be the fault of an editor converting the text to American punctuation). But somehow the characters never came alive for me. Maybe I’m not as comfortable with the portrayal of autism as I thought I was.

Anyway, I can’t enthusiastically recommend Going Underground, but I have no real objections to make either. Cautions for mature themes.

‘Death Unholy,’ by Phillip Strang

Death Unholy

Sometimes you can see what an author’s going for, but he just doesn’t have the skills to deliver. That’s my judgment on Phillip Strang’s Death Unholy.

It’s become almost compulsory in British police procedurals, perhaps due to the Inspector Morse model: Team a crusty old detective with a young rookie detective. Nowadays it almost has to be a female rookie. And that’s exactly what we have in Death Unholy. Keith Tremayne is an aging cop, approaching retirement, in Salisbury. His subordinate is Clare Yarwood, a suitably attractive young detective.

One day they get a truly bizarre case – apparently spontaneous human combustion. An old man – or rather his ashes, plus his legs – is found very dead in an easy chair. Such cases are generally explained by dropped cigarettes and a smoldering effect, but this fellow didn’t smoke.

As Tremayne and Yarwood inquire into the man’s circle of acquaintances, further people start disappearing or dying by violence. Eventually their attention is drawn to a nearby village, historically isolated, where the Anglican priest lives in fear for his soul, and ancient pagan rituals continue to be practiced – and they seem to be effective.

Death Unholy just didn’t come together for me. The classic grumpy English detectives, like Morse, are usually softened by some unexpected outside interest (often music) that humanizes them. Tremayne, we’re told, has nothing beside his job in his life other than betting on horses and drinking. He’s a bore, and utterly predictable. Dialogue in a novel is supposed to reveal the characters to the reader, through observation of how people relate. Author Strang here gives us the dialogue and then informs us what it means. A big surprise near the end was obvious to me a mile off, and another smaller surprise at the very end made no sense to me based on how the character had been established.

Death Unholy starts as a police procedural, then blindsides the reader by turning into a supernatural thriller. I have an idea that author Strang may have beliefs that I approve of, but I don’t think he made them work for him in this book.

Cautions for mature themes.

The Darren Street novels by Scott Pratt

Justice Redeemed Justice Burning Justice Lost

I’ve enjoyed Scott Pratt’s Joe Dillard legal thrillers, so I picked up the three (to date) novels in his Darren Street series, Justice Redeemed, Justice Burning, and Justice Lost. I’ll review them in one fell swoop, because I found them weird. Problematic. Though well written.

The first book, Justice Redeemed, starts with a very clever hook. Imagine you’re a criminal defense lawyer, and the worst person you’ve ever met walks into your office wanting you to defend him. He basically admits (without remorse) the rape and murder of two little boys. When you refuse his business, he explicitly threatens your own young son. You appeal to the police, but they tell you they can’t do anything about the guy. Continue reading The Darren Street novels by Scott Pratt

Moby Dick Illustrated One Day at a Time

Illustrator Matt Kish says he had read Moby Dick eight times already, calling the novel “endlessly revealing.” Feeling a strong need for artistic inspiration, he returned to it.

“I wanted a slow, intense pace through the book so I decided to create one illustration a day, every day, for every single one of the 552 pages of my Signet Classics paperback, and on August 4, 2009 I began.”

He spent about 18 months on it.

Of course, there are other illustrators too.

‘Talion,’ by Pete Brassett


First of all, the blurb on the cover of Pete Brassett’s Talion ought to qualify as libel. It calls the book “A Scandinavian noir mystery set in Scotland.” This is a lie, thank God. Scandinavian noir novels are dark, dank, and suicidal, leaving the reader wondering whether life in a Socialist paradise is worth the effort of cashing the welfare checks. Pete Brassett’s Inspector Munro novels are bright and cheery (in spite of the murders). Munro is indefatigably optimistic, a role model for us all.

At the end of the last novel, Terminus (spoiler alert), it looked as if Munro was out of the picture for good. But in fact he’s just vacationing on the island of Islay. Detective Sergeant “Charlie” West manages to lure him back to their coastal Scottish community with an interesting murder mystery involving criminals Munro knows well from the past.

A young boy and his mother, on holiday at the seashore, had discovered a decomposing human body on the beach (the boy, a budding entomologist, was not in the least traumatized). It takes some time to identify the man, but it turns out to be a local drug dealer. He was part of a triumvirate of criminals in the past, and suspicion falls on his old partners in crime. Then another of the three is murdered. Who is killing these men and why? And is it possible the single mother who found the body is actually involved herself?

Like all the Inspector Munro books, Talion is a lot of fun. Munro is a wonderful character – just irascible enough to be amusing without becoming a bore. Sergeant West, who was something of a personal wreck when she first appeared, has grown and gained poise and confidence in her job. I had a great time with Talion, and recommend it wholeheartedly. Cautions for mature themes.

‘Night Moves,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Night Moves

The fingers she offered were flash-frozen shoestring potatoes.

There’s hardly any point in me reviewing the latest Alex Delaware mystery by Jonathan Kellerman. I like the series immensely, and the books are uniformly excellent. Night Moves is no exception, though I’ll admit I did get lost in places.

Chet Corvin lives in an upscale suburb of Los Angeles with his wife and two children. He’s a braggart, and pushy, which works for him at his job, but makes him a pain to anyone who knows him. He’s outraged when he and his family come home from a night out to find a dead body in his den. The victim wasn’t killed there – there’s no blood splattered around – but his face has been obliterated by a shotgun blast and his hands have been cut off.

Det. Lt. Milo Sturgis catches the case, and he again brings in his friend Alex Delaware, psychologist, as a consultant. The Corvin family is a study – cold wife, withdrawn teenaged daughter, rebellious son. There’s also a weird next-door neighbor – an older, unsocial artist who was once a famous underground cartoonist, back in the hippie era. His classic work is pretty creepy; Milo would definitely like to talk to him, but he won’t even answer the door.

One lead after another turns into a dead end. As Alex and Milo manage to learn one after another hard-won fact, bodies pile up and they begin to uncover the tracks of a complex, improbable, and shocking serial killer.

What I love most about the Alex Delaware books is his treatment of the characters. Author Kellerman loves to explode our preconceptions. Again and again we are introduced to people who invite snap judgment, but prove on closer acquaintance to be complex and full of surprises. I did kind of lose track of the multiple plot threads this time around – but that may just be a function of me getting old.

Recommended, for older teens and up. Cautions for the usual. Good stuff.

‘Among the Shadows, by Bruce Robert Coffin

Among the Shadows

I’m not sure why I’m less than enthusiastic about Bruce Robert Coffin’s police mystery, Among the Shadows. It was quite well done, but it left me kind of cold.

John Byron is a detective sergeant in Portland, Maine. His marriage is falling apart, he’s fighting the bottle, and he’s resisting an attraction to a female subordinate. When a former cop dies in a hospital and it’s ruled not from natural causes, John’s assigned to the case. Then another old ex-cop – who’d been on the same team with the first victim – also is killed, John begins to suspect a serial killer. Cop-killings are always top priority, but for John it’s more personal. His father, long dead, was on the same team. But he finds his investigation stymied at every turn, by orders from above. He begins to suspect that one of his superiors is blocking his moves.

The story is good. I thought I’d figured out whodunnit, but I wasn’t even close. The final action was tense, dramatic, and surprising.

All I can figure out to explain my ambivalence is that I found John Byron’s character uninteresting. He was right out of central casting. Middle aged, check. Marriage failing – check. Alcohol problem – check. Loose cannon, cuts procedural corners, conflict with superiors – check, check, check. It was like all the other police procedural heroes were thrown into a blender, and John Byron was what got poured out.

The usual cautions for language and mature situations apply. The only really offensive part (for me) was a brief, passing thumbs up to Dr. Kevorkian.

Technically an excellent police procedural, Among the Shadows may please you more than it did me.

‘Little Girl Gone,’ by Brett Battles

Little Girl Gone

I’ve become a fan of thriller writer Brett Battles, especially his Jonathan Quinn novels. I get the impression that Little Girl Gone is an early novel, penned before he really found his narrative feet. It’s OK, but was not a grabber, for me.

Logan Harper works as a mechanic in his father’s garage, in his home town in California. Not so long ago he was a mercenary, working for a Blackwater-style military contracting company. But one awful day things went very wrong, and Logan’s best friend got killed. Logan was made the scapegoat. In the bad dreams that have tormented him ever since, he also blames himself. So he went home to lick his wounds.

One morning on his way to work he stops at the café run by “Tooney,” his father’s Burmese immigrant friend. Logan intervenes just in time to save Tooney from being murdered – but Tooney insists they mustn’t call the police. Eventually he learns the truth – Tooney’s granddaughter, a student, has been kidnapped by agents of the Myanmar government, who want to stop the girl’s mother from political activities. At his father’s request, Logan promises to bring the girl back. He doesn’t know at that point that this will involve traveling to Thailand and connecting with underground forces. But he’s made a promise, and he also needs to prove something to himself.

There was nothing really wrong about Little Girl Gone, but I didn’t find it compelling. The plot seemed artificial to me, and the characters were pretty black and white. Author Battles can do better, and has proved it since.

But it’s not a bad book. It’s lightweight. I can recommend it in a mild-mannered way. I don’t recall any seriously bad language or subject matter inappropriate for, say, teenage readers.

‘The Never-Open Desert Diner,’ by James Anderson

The Never-Open Desert Diner

I picked this one up on an impulse, wild and crazy book-consumer that I am. I found James Anderson’s The Never-Open Desert Diner a book with many virtues, but not enough of them to be entirely satisfying.

Ben Jones is an independent trucker, not quite making a living as the sole delivery service for a particular stretch of highway in Utah. He has this monopoly, not because of superior business skills, but because nobody else wants the route. It’s very remote, its few inhabitants mostly cantankerous loners. His best friend is Walt Butterfield, the ornery old owner of The Well-Known Desert Diner, which is never open. Walt faithfully renews his restaurant license every year, but if a customer shows up he runs them off. He’s been that way since his wife was raped and murdered decades ago.

Ben hasn’t been in the area long enough to be entirely accepted by the locals, but they like him OK. He figures he knows the area pretty well, but one day he’s amazed to discover, just across the highway from the diner, over a hill, a large abandoned housing development, where a model home still stands. He looks in a window and discovers a beautiful woman there. Continue reading ‘The Never-Open Desert Diner,’ by James Anderson

‘Hellbent,’ by Gregg Hurwitz


She felt like an anchor to him, not dragging him down but mooring him to this spot, to this moment, locking his location for once on the grid. For the first time in his life, he felt the tug as something not unpleasant but precious.

In the course of Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, which I reviewed a few inches south of this location, he mentions that thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz is a friend of his. This reminded me to check on what Hurwitz has been doing lately. Lo and behold, he has a new Orphan X book out. I snatched it up greedily, and was richly rewarded. Hellbent is a humdinger, the best (in my opinion) of a superior series.

As you may or may not recall, Evan Smoak is Orphan X, the Nowhere Man. He was recruited out of a group home as a boy, to be part of the CIA’s ultra-secret Orphan Program. The Orphans, all people without families, were trained to be deadly assassins and commandos. Not only were their actions deniable by the government, their very existences were deniable.

Around the time Evan’s lifelong nemesis Van Sciver (Orphan Y) took control of the program, Evan managed to escape, with the help of Jack Johns, his mentor and surrogate father. Now, still with access to secret bank accounts, he lives a hidden life in a large LA apartment. His existence is spartan, his apartment almost empty of adornment. He spends his time helping people, but actual human relationships would give Van Sciver – who’s still searching for him – points of access, so Evan doesn’t have any.

But now Jack has asked him for a favor – to collect and protect a young woman in danger, Joey. Joey was scrubbed out of the Orphan program, but Van Sciver is still trying to hunt her down and kill her, along with another ex-Orphan and the boy he has been mentoring. In order to carry out Jack’s wishes, Evan will have to allow another human – and a pretty disorganized one – into his ordered life. And for him, that may take more courage than fighting a team of Orphans and Secret Service mercenaries, plus the MS Thirteen street gang (which he’ll also have to do).

Exciting, clever, and very moving in parts, Hellbent delighted me. I recommend it very highly. Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes.