Category Archives: Fiction

‘The Hope That Kills,’ by Ed James

I thought it was time to try another British crime series. Ed James’s DI Fenchurch novels are going cheap right now, so I thought I’d start with the first, The Hope That Kills.

Simon Fenchurch is a police inspector in east London. He’s a hollow man, ruined by a family tragedy. Ten years ago, his little girl Chloe disappeared, and has never been seen again. On top of his regular case load, Fenchurch is constantly running down leads on Chloe – missing persons cases, unidentified bodies. No luck. His marriage has broken up, and he’s always at odds with his superiors.

When a young prostitute is found stabbed to death in the streets, Fenchurch is electrified. The victim isn’t Chloe, but she could be. Right age, similar appearance. This motivates him into a frenzied, sleepless investigation in which he violates all the rules and lines of command. The trail leads to the rich and powerful, and to a criminal scheme almost incredible in its degeneracy.

I’m not sure about this series yet. There’s no charm in it. Just passion. And it’s depressing. Probably pretty realistic (except for Fenchurch’s scenes physically chasing criminals, which seem cinematic and repetitive). Also the final solution, which I just described as “almost incredible,” does seem a little over the top.

But the ending of the story was somewhat hopeful, and I’m giving the second book a chance. I’ll let you know.

Cautions for language, violence, and disturbing situations.

‘First to Kill,’ by Andrew Peterson

I was looking for a new mystery series to read – especially one that would be cheap – and I thought I’d give Andrew Peterson’s Nathan McBride series a try. I’d say it’s not really a mystery, but is pretty good of its kind, though not to my taste.

Nathan McBride and his friend Harve run a private security company. But they have ties to the FBI (it doesn’t hurt that Nathan’s father is an influential senator) and sometimes they’re called in to do dirty work that permits agency deniability. Nathan was a Marine sniper in the past, and bears on his face and body a set of scars that testify to the time he spent under torture in Nicaragua.

As First to Kill begins, Nathan and Harve are asked to assist in an FBI attack on a compound where three brothers are holding a cache of Semtex, which they’ve been selling to fringe groups. The brothers prove to be more resourceful than expected, and Nathan ends up killing the youngest brother, an action that saves lives. But the other two brothers get away through a tunnel nobody knew about, vowing to get even. They get their revenge shortly after, through a horrific terrorist act.

Now Nathan and Harve become the sharp end of the federal government’s response – they will hunt the brothers down, secure the Semtex, and kill them, employing any means necessary. For justice and national security, the gloves are off now. But they will also discover some shocking betrayals, at very high levels.

First to Kill is an exciting excursion in a kind of story that doesn’t really ring my bell (except for Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger books, which are a special case). Such stories are revenge fantasies, where the reader can enjoy the hero’s ruthlessness. The hero will violate people’s rights, and even employ torture, for a higher good. I have no doubt that there are situations when such things may be justified (it relates to the whole just war doctrine, which I believe in), but I’m not really capable of enjoying such stories.

The writing wasn’t bad, except for a couple places where exposition got repeated, as if the author had moved a few sentences and forgot to omit the original passage. Also at one point it confused the sequence of action.

But all in all it was pretty good of its kind. If you like this sort of thing.

‘The Program,’ by James Swain

James Swain’s Jack Carpenter series continues – sort of – in The Program. It’s not strictly a Jack Carpenter book though, as Jack only appears a couple times. This adventure belongs to a secondary character in the previous books – FBI agent Ken Linderman. Linderman runs the FBI’s Miami Abducted Children office. His work is motivated by his own unfinished business – his teenaged daughter was abducted, and her fate remains unknown.

A serial killer has been murdering women – mostly prostitutes – by cutting their throats. However, that killer has now been forensically linked to a pair of abductions of young boys, who were later found shot in the head. Now a third boy has disappeared.

Serial killers don’t generally change their game plans in this fashion. Ken teams up with Rachel Vick, an ambitious young FBI agent, to try to identify and stop this killer, whom they call Mr. Clean. Their trail leads to an even more dangerous figure – an incarcerated serial killer with a brilliant mind and a plan for escaping and commencing a new round of atrocities.

The Program was the kind of book that keeps my interest, but makes me uncomfortable. I have some trouble handling stories where I spend substantial time inside the minds of very evil people, and in the minds of imprisoned victims. Such episodes were limited here, but I did sometimes have trouble getting back to the book for that reason. I should mention that, unlike most of Swain’s books, this one included a fairly explicit sex scene (actually a rape scene) which made me uncomfortable. The scene was, however, pretty necessary to the plot. So I don’t blame it, but I think you should be warned.

There was an inordinate number of typos in this book. It’s been released solely as an e-book, and shortcuts appear to have been taken.

I found the ending (mostly) highly satisfactory. So I do recommend The Program, if you bear my cautions in mind.

‘The Night Monster,’ by James Swain

I have seen the dead more times than is healthy. One thing I’ve learned from the experience: The dead don’t talk, but they do scream.

I’m continuing with James Swain’s interesting Jack Carpenter series. Jack is a former Broward County, Florida, police detective, once head of their missing persons unit. Now he makes a marginal living as a private eye, specializing in missing children. He lives above a bar. His marriage has broken up, but he’s still friendly with his wife and college-aged daughter. He has a dog, an Australian Shepherd named Buster.

Years ago, when he was in uniform, Jack blew the opportunity one day to stop a gigantic kidnapper who nearly killed him, and disappeared with a young girl, who was never found again. It was that experience that left him obsessed with finding kids.

At the beginning of The Night Monster, Jack gets a call from his daughter, who is on a university basketball team. A creepy guy has been following her team around, filming them with a cell phone. When Jack intercepts the guy after a game, he finds himself attacked by a familiar form – the very giant who nearly killed him when he was a rookie. Again, Jack barely gets away with his life. But the creepy stalker and his giant partner make off with a prize – one of Jack’s daughter’s teammates, the daughter of a very rich man.

This time, Jack is determined to find the giant, and end a string of abductions going back years. The investigation (bankrolled by the victim’s father) will take him to a closed state mental hospital with a dark secret, and to a quiet Florida town with a secret even weirder.

Pretty good thriller. Like the other books in the series, The Night Monster keeps the tension high and ramps it up. The language is relatively mild for the genre. Some of the situations are disturbing. But the storytelling is tops, and the surprises really surprising. Recommended.

‘The Night Stalker,’ by James Swain

Five minutes later, a cruiser pulled up in front of LeAnn Grimes’s house with its bubble light flashing. It contained the classic mismatch of uniformed officers; a crusty male veteran, and an inexperienced young female. The pairing worked great on TV cop shows; in real life it created nothing but friction.

Book 2 in James Swain’s Jack Carpenter series. In The Night Stalker, Abb Grimes, a convicted serial killer on Florida’s death row, nearing execution, calls Jack – who helped put him away – to ask for a favor. His grandson has been kidnapped, he says. The police think his son snatched the boy himself, but Abb says that’s not true. Someone has taken the boy and is threatening to kill him unless Abb keeps silent about certain things he knows.

Jack is impressed by Abb’s appeal, and agrees to look into it. He will clash with old fellow cops and rivals, and discovers long-buried secrets and cover-ups. As in all James Swain’s books, the suspense never lets up as Jack (assisted by his faithful Australian Shepherd dog) races the clock to learn the truth.

Fun book. I found it interesting that a couple characters are described as born-again Christians, and their conversions are seen as valid and good things. I don’t know whether author Swain himself is a believer (he also writes occult fiction), but at least he respects Christianity.

He does, however, promote the false message of “always follow your heart.”

The language is relatively mild, but there are intense scenes and descriptions. Fun and recommended.

‘Midnight Rambler,’ by James Swain

The King Tides, which I reviewed last night, is the first book in a new series by James Swain. But he has an earlier series – which is oddly almost identical in character, setting, and themes – and Midnight Rambler is its first volume.

Jack Carpenter, the series hero, is a former Fort Lauderdale police detective. He used to be in charge of Missing Persons, until he resigned (or was fired, stories vary) after beating up a suspect. Now he works as a private eye, searching for lost children.

The book starts with a neat little story where Jack locates a lost child. But soon he gets shocking news. The murderer he beat up, Simon Skell the “Midnight Rambler,” who was convicted anyway, is now appealing for release. The body of one of the Midnight Rambler’s victims has been found (the first to be found). His lawyer claims this proves his client is innocent. Skell will be released if Jack can’t discover the truth in a couple days.

The cops don’t trust him, and the press doesn’t believe him. And as he hunts, Jack realizes the Midnight Rambler crimes were more than a one-man show. Many lives will be at risk if he can’t learn the truth, fast.

I’m enjoying James Swain’s books quite a lot. I wouldn’t rank him up there with Connelly or Sandford, but he writes good, solid stories. (The plots veer into the improbable at times, but that’s how it is with thrillers.) The language in the books is fairly tame (sometimes, for instance, he uses “crummy” where I’d expect a real-life character to use a saltier word), and when Christianity or the Bible are mentioned, they get respect.

I recommend Midnight Rambler, with cautions for disturbing situations involving sexual perversion.

‘The King Tides,’ by James Swain

James Swain is an author I haven’t read before. But he turns out a good story. The King Tides grabbed me from the first page, and kept my interest as few books have in a while.

Jon Lancaster is the hero. He’s a former cop and Navy Seal who now works as an unlicensed private eye in Fort Lauderdale, specializing in finding missing children. Instead of charging his clients a fee, he asks them to buy him something – a refrigerator, or a set of silverware or something. That way, he says, he’ll always remember them as individuals. (Author Swain has also made an interesting – and puzzling – choice in giving Lancaster a big stomach. It’s the result of a congenital condition, he explains. He’s not overweight, and is in excellent shape.)

At the beginning of the book Lancaster makes a quick rescue in Melbourne, Florida (I mention that because I used to live near Melbourne). Then he gets called in by a family whose daughter has not disappeared – yet. 15-year-old Nicki Pearl is beautiful and seems innocent. But wherever she goes men are following her, carrying their cell phones. And today somebody tried to kidnap her.

About half-way through the book Lancaster connects with FBI agent Beth Daniels, a one-time abduction victim herself (it appears they’ll be a team from here on out). Together they uncover a vicious ring of human traffickers and child pornographers, protected by some very dangerous people.

I didn’t consider The King Tides among the best-written novels I’ve read, but author Swain knows how to grab the reader and keep him riveted to the story. I enjoyed reading this book immensely, and look forward to the next installment.

Cautions for language and some very disturbing accounts of sexual abuse.

‘Night Man,’ by Brett Battles

I’m a big fan of Brett Battles’s Jonathan Quinn series of thrillers. I’m less enamored of his recent X-Coms spin-off series, which is heavy on Girl Power™. But I was eager to read his new spin-off in a different direction, Night Man, starring Quinn’s partner, Nate (I’m having trouble finding Nate’s last name. I wonder if it’s ever mentioned).

As you may recall, Quinn and Nate are “cleaners,” employed by covert agencies to clean up things that might constitute evidence at scenes of action – anything from fingerprints to bodies. Their partnership suffered a setback a couple years back, when Quinn’s sister Liz, who’d been helping them out, got killed. Liz had also been dating Nate, and he and Quinn were inclined to blame each other. That break has been mended to a degree, but it’s left a space in Nate’s life. He now fills that space by living a secret life, more or less as Batman.

A psychologist might argue that Nate has suffered a psychotic break, because he hears Liz’s voice talking to him. She directs his attention to crime stories in the news, and he applies his spy skills to locating the criminals and stopping them. He does this for Liz.

This time Liz directs him to the story of a young girl seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in a northern California town. The accident turns out to be no accident at all, and Nate will uncover a monstrous evil hidden discreetly away in an innocuous setting.

Author Battles is extremely good at creating appealing characters, and can be quite funny. (I especially enjoyed the conceit of using very short chapters, a technique I’ve never had the nerve to try.) The writing is generally good, though I can’t resist noting that he misuses the term “begs the question” once. I would have hoped for better than that, but otherwise I have no complaints.

Recommended. Language and situations are adult, but not terribly shocking. Night Man is a fun thriller.

‘Echo Killers,’ by Danny R. Smith

A pair of armed robbers, one big, the other small, knock over a store in the rough Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles. The owner refuses to report the crime, but a little boy tells the cops.

The same pair (apparently) hit another store shortly thereafter, killing a well-liked storekeeper and a wino on the sidewalk.

In Danny R. Smith’s Echo Killers, Detective “Dickie” Jones has a new partner – a feisty Latino woman named Josie – and they join the hunt for a team of outlaws who mirror themselves, in a way – a big Anglo and a Latina. We learn the story of these two outlaws, too. They are Army deserters, and the woman doesn’t know she’s still being hunted by an officer she spent a night with once. Their almost star-crossed story bears the marks of tragedy, as the two hurtle toward one another on a fatalistic trajectory.

This is the third volume in Smith’s “Dickie Floyd” series. “Dickie” and “Floyd” haven’t actually been partners since the end of the first book, but they keep gravitating together. Their personal bond is a tight one. The book’s mood is somber, but the ending is rather sublime – an affirmation of what Luther would have called the policeman’s “vocation.” Another book is coming, according to Amazon.

I liked Echo Killers it a lot. Cautions for foul language, cop humor, and intense situations.

‘Door to a Dark Room,’ by Danny R. Smith

Book two in the “Dickie Floyd” police procedural series (make sure to read them in order; author Danny R. Smith routinely spoils the previous book each time out), set in Los Angeles, finds Detective Richard “Dickie” Jones returning to the job after six months. He got shot in the last book, and has been recovering both physically and psychologically. When Door to a Dark Room begins, his wife has left him, and his partner, Martin “Pretty Boy Floyd” Tyler, has been teamed with someone else. As Dickie eases back into the schedule, he’s assigned to the Cold Case Unit. Until something more compelling comes up.

In the wealthy, secure city of Santa Clarita, a woman realtor disappears. When her car is found, there’s a body in it – but they’re not sure it’s hers, as the head and hands have been removed. And her husband seems strangely impassive about the whole business.

Meanwhile, Dickie’s cop instinct is telling him he’s being watched. Soon he becomes convinced a man in a car is staking out his apartment. He keeps quiet about it at first, not sure whether his PTSD has made him paranoid.

In the end, the various investigations converge (I wonder how often that happens in real life – probably not as much as in fiction), and the cops begin moving in on a depraved killer who is not all that smart, but has remarkable animal cunning.

I’m growing fonder of the Dickie Floyd novels. They’re not as accomplished as other series I could name, but they have much to teach us. Author Smith is a former detective, and the real heart of these books is a sort of apologia for good cops – that they shouldn’t be judged by their crude jokes, but by the things they do. And that they’re under considerable psychological pressures, pressures that would destroy most people, and which often destroy them. A little like Joseph Wambaugh, without the despair.

Cautions for lots of profanity, and deeply disturbing crime situations. Recommended, if you can handle it.

‘A Good Bunch of Men,’ by Danny R. Smith

A book that didn’t grab me at first, but pulled me in as it went on. That’s A Good Bunch of Men, by Danny R. Smith. Smith is a former police detective himself, so authenticity is his strong suit.

A Good Bunch of Men is the first book in the “Dickie Floyd” series. Dickie Floyd is not the name of the main character, but the corporate name of a near-legendary detective team in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. They are Richard “Dickie” Jones, and Matthew “Pretty Boy Floyd” Tyler. Although there’s a mystery to be solved, A Good Bunch of Men is more than anything else a book about a relationship, about how two guys relate as friends and partners in extreme circumstances.

When a transsexual prostitute is found murdered in an alley, the Dickie Floyd team catches the case. When another prostitute of the same sort is found murdered nearby, they begin looking for a serial killer. But the victims’ associates have secrets, and other cops on the case aren’t working very hard. The team will wreck a couple of cars and get into a couple gunfights before the case is closed – explosively.

It’s notable that, although the two detectives make plenty of cracks about the murder victim, “her” lifestyle and her job, that doesn’t affect their investigation at all. The victim was a human being who didn’t deserve to die, and they are determined to get her justice like anyone else. I think that’s precisely the proper attitude.

Also, Dickie wears a fedora hat, which always deserves respect.

I didn’t know what to make of A Good Bunch of Men at first. The trick was in understanding Dickie’s and Floyd’s relationship – the way they talked to each other at first, I thought they were mortal enemies. Turns out it was just cop banter. We know cop banter from any number of novels by Wambaugh, Connelly, etc. – but here it is (I think) more realistic and concentrated. We gradually realize that talking trash is a psychological mechanism cops use for survival. If you think of all those dark stories you’ve heard in your life – the kind that keep you awake and night and make you doubt your faith in God – these guys live those stories. They see that stuff in person. Strong measures are necessary to keep one’s sanity, and those methods look ugly to outsiders.

The cop banter here isn’t as witty as what we get in other books. It’s cruder and less witty. But as I got to know these guys better, I got interested in them. Danny R. Smith hasn’t mastered storytelling yet, and but he shows great promise, and I’ve bought the next book in the series.

Cautions for disturbing material and obscene language.

Godzilla 3: Dream of a Deadly Death

Today I watched Godzilla: The Planet Eater, the third part of the impressively animated Netflix series released last year. Whereas the second part was largely a UPS van stuffed with technobabble, this story swapped that out for a cathedral stuffed with religiobabble. I thought this part might have a slower build, because the characters must have exhausted themselves by this point, but having to listen to the priest of the deadly death for at least forty-five minutes was boring.

Viewers would be excused for thinking this was a screed against religion as a whole. Words are said to that effect, but the religion in question is the cult of the void, the enlightened understanding that nothing is everything, death is peace, and all struggle should be assisted into oblivion preferably by a physician or qualified government agent.

No, this story seems to come from the root of Godzilla mythology. Those nuclear bombs we made, all that E=MC2 stuff (written clearly on a chalkboard during one of the priest’s expositions), brought judgment on our heads. Godzilla rose from the earth because our civilization was too advanced, but he was only phase one. Ghidorah the Golden Demise is phase two.

I may not be smart enough to run with this, but this series may be an effectively illustration against atheism. Godzilla embodies the earth fighting for itself. Ghidorah is a nihilistic void. Mankind has only its own wits to use and cannot keep up. All of the talk here of gods and salvation only makes a kind of sense because of the echoes of actual sense found in the Bible and other major religions. Many atheists understand this implicitly. What they call the nonsense of Christianity is more of an argument against what they think God may actually be, an actual creator who has every right to hold his creation accountable for their actions. Far better to paint priests and believers as a death cult.

But Christians (and Jews, Muslims, and some others) aren’t the ones arguing for death in our civilization. We’re the ones saying the weapons of war must be used wisely. Nuking a city must be a last resort, because we want everyone to live in peace.

But nuclear bombs have been dropped. Maybe the idea of a god-like monster rising up to lay down the smack on our hubris appeals to some who have no knowledge of a far greater, far more terrifying judge.

‘Deceptive Appearances,’ by P. F. Ford

I’ve been following P.F. Ford’s series of detective novels set in the fictional town of Tinton, in England. They started out as police procedurals – of a sort – and then became private eye stories when both the heroes, Dave Slater and Norman Norman (sic) went into that business.

In Deceptive Appearances, the thirteenth in the series, Dave and Norman get a visit from a young man who tells them his sister, Martha Dennis, is missing. Would they try to find her?

The two detectives are suspicious. The young man’s story seems improbably convoluted, and he just strikes them as shifty. But they’re not in a position to turn business down, and the fellow pays an advance, so why not check it out?

They will find that the sister isn’t a sister, but is an investigative journalist. Who has been using an assumed identity. And who may or may not be the same person as an unidentified body in the morgue. Their investigation will lead them to an elderly recluse, a millionaire pornographer, and the world of human trafficking. Also Dave will enter a tentative romance with a damaged woman.

I’m not sure why I enjoy the Slater/Norman books so much. They are, to be frank, not terribly well written. The steps of the investigation seemed a little improbable to me. The dialogue tends to be flaccid – it could use a lot of tightening up.

But I like the characters, and the generally upbeat tone of the books. And there’s little objectionable material in them. So I recommend them, as light reading, for the appropriate audience. Like me.

‘The Vikings on Film,’ by Kevin J. Harty

You know this film has a reputation of being a very bloody film, lots of blood, lots of fighting, and it’s just not true; there is in fact no blood shown in this picture except in this one shot where Kirk has his hand up holding the hawk and you see a small stream of blood trickling down between his fingers … but everybody talks about how bloody it was because of the impression you get. (Director Richard Fleischer on the 1958 film, “The Vikings.”)

The world of Viking reenactment is not without its controversies. I’ve seen many a dispute over subjects like acceptable levels of authenticity, whether heathenism should be compulsory, or the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone.

But one subject that almost always yields agreement is Viking movies.

We hate them all.

Some of them we hate fondly, and we enjoy watching them even as we scoff at them.

Some we consider insults to our intelligence.

But we pretty generally agree that we’re still waiting to see a good one.

So I was curious to read Kevin J. Harty’s collection of critical essays, The Vikings on Film.

My verdict: Not as enlightening as I hoped, and way too much Film Studies jargon.

There was a certain degree of the sort of thing I wanted most – stories about how the various films came to be, and evaluations of how they worked – or didn’t. As I should have expected, there were numerous critical lamentations over the levels of “problematic” masculinity in the stories.

I was surprised by some of the evaluations. The reviewer who writes on “The 13th Warrior,” doesn’t think it works very well. I think it works quite well as a story – it’s the costumes and armor that appall me. Another reviewer thought “Outlander” (the Sci-Fi version of Beowulf with Jim Caviezel) was generally successful – not my impression at all.

And some movies, like “Beowulf and Grendel” (which I hated, but which had good costumes), are barely touched on.

I didn’t read all the reviews, because they concerned movies I haven’t seen, or that don’t interest me – such as the animated “Asterix and the Vikings.”

All in all, I didn’t regret reading The Vikings on Film, but I wasn’t much enlightened by it either.

‘A Deadly Lesson,’ by Paul Gitsham

There is no lack of British police procedural mystery series out there, so I tried A Deadly Lesson, a Scottish mystery by Paul Gitsham, more or less on a whim. I liked it better than I should have, considering the nature of the product.

Jillian Gwinnett, an instructor and administrator at a Catholic school, is found strangled to death at her desk. The murder weapon appears to have been a length of hemp rope. Detective Chief Inspector Warren Jones is assigned to investigate. He and his assistant begin looking into her fellow workers and her job history, and find old conflicts involving educational philosophy and career rivalries. Through systematic investigation, they identify the culprit at last.

And that’s pretty much it. This was one of the most straightforward mysteries I’ve read in a long time. There were very few distractions in this book – either in terms of action scenes or interesting characters. Inspector Jones, as a person, was almost entirely a closed book. We learned he was married, and almost nothing more about him. It’s almost mandatory these days for British detectives to have a slew of eccentricities, but there’s none of that here. Just a plain mystery, plainly solved.

I didn’t find a lot to love here, but on the other hand, the mystery was interesting in itself, and it kept me reading. So, although I didn’t love A Deadly Lesson, I didn’t dislike it either. Recommended for readers who prefer puzzles to characters. I don’t recall any objectionable elements.