Category Archives: Fiction

‘Fallen Out,’ by Wayne Stinnett

I like stories about boats on the ocean. Not boats on lakes, which are commonplace where I live, but boats on the deep sea. Perhaps it’s an atavism out of being descended from Norwegian islanders, or more likely it’s just a quirk. In any case, such stories make me feel good. Bernard Cornwell used to write such books, but they didn’t sell, certainly not like the historical novels he moved on to.

I also miss John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee series. I’m always looking out for a new McGee substitute; nobody quite fills the bill. But Wayne Stinnett’s Jesse McDermitt gives me some of the same vibe.

Fallen Out is the prequel (now the first volume) to the Jesse McDermitt series of thrillers. As it opens, we observe Gunnery Sergeant McDermitt retiring from the Marine Corps. He has a fair amount of money from an inheritance, but is unsure what to do with himself. As he notes, his chief job skill is killing people from up to a mile away.

But he has an old Marine Buddy running a bar in the Florida Keys, and he heads south to see him. While he’s visiting, someone mentions being a fishing charter captain to him. On a whim, he purchases a very nice, large boat, complete with souped-up motors, confiscated from drug runners, at a government auction. He also buys a very small island, planning to build a home there. Soon he’s becoming part of the Conch community, and enjoying his new life. Except that, sometimes, he misses the action.

Then one day he and a friend rescue a couple women from a group of men he suspects might be human traffickers. In time he becomes close to one of them. Then he and some of his friends move their boats into a river mooring to ride out a hurricane. And the traffickers show up again.

Fallen Out wasn’t great literature, but it was a fun story which I enjoyed a lot. Pure entertainment reading. And a very satisfying climax. I recommend it. Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Grettir’s Saga’

Father and son parted with little love between them. Many wished him a good voyage, but few a safe return.

I figured you were ready for a break from James Scott Bell novels, so I picked up an Icelandic saga I hadn’t read in a long time – Grettir’s Saga, (also known as The Saga of Grettir the Strong). My overall reaction is that I see why it’s generally listed among the great sagas, but it’s great in a different – and less interesting to me— way than some of the others.

Grettir is famed as the greatest Icelandic outlaw, because he lasted twenty years as a fugitive, longer than any other. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, outlawry in Iceland meant just that – being placed outside the law. Any man could kill you without breaking the law, and it was a crime to help you.

Grettir was the son of a farmer named Asmund, and distinguished himself from his youth by his unusual size and strength. His reported behavior at that stage – which strikes me as more historically reliable than a lot of stuff in this saga – shows him as not particularly admirable. He is a bully. He pushes people around and feels justified in taking their stuff, because he can get away with it.

In the saga story, the great decisive moment in his life is when he subdues and “kills” a ghost. If you’ve read my novels, you know that a Norse ghost wasn’t like our kind. They weren’t incorporeal wraiths. They were more like the Walking Dead – made strong by evil magic, and invulnerable. The only way to “kill” them was to cut off their heads.

Grettir challenges and kills a terrible ghost named Glam. Before his demise, Glam places a curse on Grettir – great bad luck and fear of the dark, meaning he needs company at night. One detects – possibly – a hint of what we’d call PTSD here. For the rest of his life, as Grettir puts it, “I can no longer live alone even to save my life.”

On a voyage to Norway, Grettir kills (accidentally, he claims) some Icelandic enemies. Coming home to Iceland, he finds himself outlawed. Thereafter he is dependent on a few people powerful enough and friendly enough to him to defy the law by providing him hiding places.

Eventually, accompanied by his brother Illugi and one slave, he takes up residence on an island called Drangey, where his hilltop refuge can only be reached by a ladder. In the end, just at the point where his “sentence” has reached its maximum length and would have become void, he and Illugi are killed in a treacherous attack.

I do not like Grettir’s Saga as much as I like several of the other major sagas, like Egil Skallagrimsson’s or Laxdæla. The magical quality I find in those tales, that of revealing interesting personalities whom the reader feels he gets to know a little, is completely lacking here. Grettir is a stock hero performing stock heroics in a stock story. The value of this account, I would guess, is largely in its displaying so many classic saga elements all in one place. The episodes of the story which show what I would guess to be somewhat true historical events, are fairly sordid and show Grettir in a bad light. The other episodes, where he fights all kinds of berserkers, monsters, trolls, ghosts, and witches, are boilerplate, set pieces that can be inserted into any saga when the story needed some action. (One even detects elements from Beowulf in one adventure.) His death is blamed, not on the fact that he’s fighting with a gangrenous leg, but on witchcraft. Even Grettir’s dialogue is unoriginal – all saga heroes deliver “one-liners” from time to time, but Grettir’s are mostly just traditional proverbs.

The saga writer gives one very interesting explanation why this story was found particularly worthy of preservation. Grettir, he says, is the only Icelander whose death was ever avenged in Constantinople. The last chapters tell the story of a brother of Grettir’s, who runs into the man responsible for his death while serving in the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and carries out a successful plan to even the score.

I was not very happy with this particular translation, which I bought for my Kindle and read this time. I’m not entirely sure which translation it is – it says Penguin Classics, but Penguin published two (is it pirated? I don’t know). As a translator myself, I found it often too literal. Many lines seem to be translated almost word for word, and the reader is expected to guess the meanings of the idioms. Even I had trouble figuring them out sometimes. And odd word choices were made – like translating “ghost” as “spook.” I can understand it in a way – they’re probably translating an Icelandic root to the current Norwegian word “spøkelse,” which does mean ghost. But “spook” in English lacks the gravity appropriate to the context.

Grettir’s Saga is worth reading for the serious saga fan, but I’d recommend reading others first. And get a different translation.

Double review: ‘Blind Justice,’ and ‘One More Lie,’ by James Scott Bell

Not that I am unemotional, but I do have a certain kind of permanent brain damage known as the “legal mind.”

Jake Denny, the hero of James Scott Bell’s Blind Justice, is a legal accident waiting to happen. Fiercely determined to succeed, he came to Los Angeles and had some success, before developing a drinking habit and suffering the breakup of his marriage. Now he’s looking at the end of the line, without work and facing eviction from his shabby little office.

Then he gets a call from the mother of Howie Patino, a childhood friend. Howie was below average in intelligence, but sweet natured and harmless. Now he’s been arrested for the brutal stabbing murder of his wife in the small town of Hinton.

Jake knows this case could be his redemption, but his confidence is gone. On top of that, Howie himself insists he’s guilty – though his story doesn’t make much sense, including the part where he says he saw the devil. Still, Jake’s the only lawyer the Patinos can afford, and he doesn’t feel he can turn them down.

When it comes to the trial, he has two seemingly invincible opponents – the small town district attorney who masterfully opposes him, and his own incompetence, fueled by alcohol. The worse things go for him, the more he drinks.

But he has a couple friends supporting him – one is his investigator, the other is Howie’s sister. They both tell him God can help him, and warn him of dark spiritual forces at work in Hinton.

There was a lot to like about Blind Justice. I personally thought the supernatural elements that got worked in (the book veers toward horror in places) were distracting and unnecessary. But I enjoyed the book overall. This is Bell, so there’s no obscenity.

Just me and a tray of cold cereal and a roll they could have picked off the ice at an L.A. Kings game. Coffee squeezed from the underside of a welcome mat after a hard rain.

I’m reluctant to tell you too much about the plot of James Scott Bell’s novella, One More Lie. There are so many surprises coming so fast that I’d spoil them for you.

Suffice it to say that Andrew Chamberlain, the hero and narrator, starts out the story on top of the world. He’s a highly successful Los Angeles lawyer with a beautiful wife and all the toys money can buy. Very suddenly his world goes to pieces – he’s accused of murder, and very neatly framed. In spite of the services of a friend who’s a top criminal lawyer, he finds himself on trial for his life. He will hit bottom hard before he begins to realize what really happened to him.

One More Lie is an engaging story, though I must tell you I figured out the last big surprise ahead of time. However, there are lots of other surprises to keep you interested.

One More Lie is, as I said, a novella. Three clever short stories are also appended, to give you your money’s worth.

It should be no surprise by now that there’s no obscenity in the book.

Double review: ‘Your Son Is Alive,’ and ‘Watch Your Back,’ by James Scott Bell

“I had to give up hope ten years ago. The hope was killing me.”

Dylan and Erin Reeve, the principal characters in James Scott Bell’s Your Son Is Alive, had a storybook life until one day 16 years ago, when their five-year-old son Kyle disappeared from a tee-ball game. No trace of him was ever found. The pain destroyed their marriage. But gradually they’ve learned to live with the sorrow. Dylan is even taking a chance on dating again.

Then, one night, he finds an envelope pushed through his mail slot. The message, written in crayon, says, “Your son is alive.” Erin gets mysterious phone calls. Is someone playing a game with them, or is this the beginning of a ransom demand, after all these years? Or both? There will be shocking surprises (some of them humdingers), and the implausible becomes very real as our heroes are thrown onto a roller coaster of re-opened emotional wounds and genuine physical danger.

I enjoyed reading Your Son Is Alive. It worked very well as a thriller, pushing all my empathy buttons. And the conclusion was satisfying.

The final revelation, though, struck me as pretty implausible. It was the sort of thing I expect more from Dean Koontz. Of course, I love it when Koontz does it. But one expects Koontz’s villains to come out of left field.

Recommended, with points deducted for believability. As usual with Bell, no obscenity.

This is how insanity starts. You get these thoughts and you let them play out and they cut a groove in your brain. If the groove gets big enough, you stay in it, like a diseased yak chained to a pole.

James Scott Bell writes pretty well in the shorter form as well as in novels. This is demonstrated in his collection, Watch Your Back, which contains a titular novella plus several short stories.

Watch Your Back is an interesting study in self-destruction, inspired by James M. Cain. Cameron Cates works for a large pension management company, doing computer security work. He makes a lot of money and is engaged to a lovely young woman. But he hates his job (though he’s good at it) and secretly chafes at the prospect of commitment in marriage.

Then a woman named Laine comes to work at his company. Laine is exotically beautiful and seductive, and Cam can’t stop thinking about her. When she shows an interest in him, he’s easy to seduce. And when she suggests a way they can become insanely rich, his resistance is as flimsy as his character. Trouble is, he doesn’t know some important things, and those things just might kill him.

Watch Your Back is a very neat Noir tale, nicely set up and paid off.

The other stories are good too. I especially enjoyed Heed the Wife, which played off an orthographic detail with which many of us who know old literature will be familiar.

Author Bell says that he published this book to explore a modern medium for re-creating the market for short stories, which died with the demise of pulp magazines. Sounds like a good idea to me. Mature themes, but no obscenity.

‘Try Fear,’ by James Scott Bell

I fired up the car and found a Denny’s on the way back to the freeway. I went to their bathroom and freshened up, as they say, and came out feeling like three bucks.

James Scott Bell wraps up his very satisfying Ty Buchanan legal thriller trilogy with Try Fear. Our hero, a very good lawyer who has dropped out of the big time, is called on to defend Carl Richess, a 6’ 5”, 250 pound alcoholic who was arrested just before Christmas for drunk driving and being a public nuisance after fleeing the police dressed only in a g-string and a Santa hat. Amazingly, Ty gets him off, hoping the man will get some help. Carl’s mother and brother are grateful.

Then there’s a murder in the family, and Ty is called to action again in the defense. But there’s more to the case than meets the eye. And the trail will lead very high in the city, indeed.

Also, somebody has been cyber-stalking Ty’s volunteer assistant, Sister Mary Veritas. Ty calls in favors to try to hunt the stalker down, but it’s kind of awkward because they’re trying to distance from one another. Sister Mary hasn’t taken her solemn vows yet, but she feels that Ty is an impediment to her calling.

It all turns out in a very warm and satisfying way, at least for me (a certain segment of Christian readers may disagree).

The Ty Buchanan trilogy is an extremely rewarding reading experience. Besides the clever mysteries, there’s a rich meta-narrative involving Ty’s spiritual journey. This is not a conversion story, but it is a pilgrimage story. And quite a good one.

Mature themes. No objectionable language.

‘Try Darkness,’ by James Scott Bell

We drank. Whatever it was, it had a gentle kick, like an eight-year-old girl soccer player.

When I reviewed Try Dying, the first novel in James Scott Bell’s Ty Buchanan trilogy of legal thrillers, I said I found it a little pallid compared to his Mike Romeo books. That was a hasty judgment. This series, I now realize, is wonderful in its own way.

Ty Buchanan, as you may recall, was a high-powered lawyer with a big Los Angeles firm. His life got turned upside down when his fiancée was killed and he himself was arrested and charged with murder. He managed to prove his innocence and identify the real killers with the help of unlikely allies – a priest and a nun, from a nearby Catholic retreat center.

Try Darkness finds Ty living a strange, transitional new life, inhabiting a little trailer at the retreat center. He’s given up his old job, and for the time being is providing legal help to the poor, operating from a table at a coffee shop. Father Bob and Sister Mary Veritas are still his best friends – except that his feelings for Sister Mary are causing both of them considerable discomfort.

Father Bob brings Ty a potential client, a woman who’s living with her daughter, Kylie, at a transient hotel. The hotel makes it a practice to evict all tenants after 28 days, which prevents being reclassified as a residential hotel, making them subject to housing regulations. The practice is illegal, but the law is rarely enforced. Ty agrees to help her sue them.

But suddenly she’s found murdered, leaving little Kylie behind. Ty, leery of handing her over to Child Protective Services, takes her to the retreat center, where the nuns welcome her immediately (except for Sister Hildegarde, the unsympathetic mother superior, whom Ty, Father Bob and Sister Mary attempt to keep in the dark as much as possible).

Ty’s investigation – as you’d expect – will bring him up against powerful and dangerous people.

What was particularly fine about Try Darkness was that it had a lot of heart. Ty is working his way through grief, and his relations with Kylie – and with Sister Mary – are opening his mind and heart to a whole new way of life.

Highly recommended. The books should be read in order. No objectionable language.

‘Try Dying,’ by James Scott Bell

He had a salt-and-pepper ponytail and L.A. eyes—trying to look cool and detached and hungry for money.

When you think about it, the thriller genre is almost ideal for Christian storytelling. A good thriller takes its hero and strips him of every comfort and illusion, forcing him to look at the plain truth unblinking.

Kind of like repentance.

James Scott Bell’s thriller, Try Dying, does a very good job of doing just that thing.

Ty Buchanan is a hotshot young L.A. lawyer. He works for a prestigious firm, owns a nice home, drives a nice car. He’s involved in a high-profile case, a lawsuit against a celebrity psychologist famous for helping people recover “repressed memories.” But best of all, he’s blissfully in love with schoolteacher Jacqueline Dwyer, to whom he’ll be married in a few days.

Then Jacqueline dies in a freak accident on the freeway.

After the funeral, he’s approached by a guy who looks homeless. He says he has information to sell him. That Jacqueline wasn’t killed in the accident. “They” killed her, he says.

When Ty presses him for more information. The man attacks him and runs off.

Ty can’t let this go. He starts hunting for the man, and trying to figure out why anyone would murder Jacqueline. Clues lead him to investigate a trendy self-help cult, one that has thugs on its payroll. But Ty won’t give up – even when he finds himself accused of murder and locked up.

This first novel in the Ty Buchanan series wasn’t as much fun as Bell’s Mike Romeo books, in my opinion, but I found it engaging and compelling. Prose, plotting, and characters were excellent. Ty’s existential crisis allows him to think about some of the the most important questions.

Highly recommended. No offensive language.

‘Last Call,’ by James Scott Bell

Keely Delmonico is a high-end call girl in Los Angeles. She does not have a heart of gold. She is, however, extremely intelligent. Enough to know that her present career has no future. She just doesn’t know what to do about that.

As James Scott Bell’s Last Call begins, one of Keely’s clients dies of a heart attack during a session. On instinct, she takes his cell phone away with her.

Her instinct is correct that the cell phone is valuable.

But she had no idea how valuable it is to certain people, and to what lengths they will go to reclaim it. Murder is just the beginning.

Keely runs to Las Vegas, to try to drop out of sight. But she’s underestimated the power of the people she’s crossed. And now she’s placed someone she cares about in mortal danger.

My reaction to Last Call was mixed. Author Bell did an excellent job ramping up the suspense. The tension was almost unbearable at times.

But plotting can be too tight. This story required some highly choreographed coincidences and deus ex machinae (is that the correct Latin plural?) to avert disaster. The plausibility suffered for this reader.

As with Bell’s other books, there is no obscene language.

The Mike Romeo novels by James Scott Bell

A bookstore is the best place to be lost. There’s always a volume to grab, and inside there may be pleasures awaiting, wisdom to be gained, or at least something to make you mad. If you’re mad, you know you’re alive, which is a good thing to know from time to time.

I’d heard of James Scott Bell (he used to write the monthly fiction column for Writer’s Digest). I had an idea he was a Christian. I also had a vague idea I’d tried one of his books and didn’t care for it. But now I don’t think I did, because I’m suddenly a fan.

I’ll admit I was skeptical of Romeo’s Rules, the first volume in his Mike Romeo series, initially. I thought it a little ham-handed, working too hard to be amusing. But I kept reading. And the more I read, the better I liked the book. And the one that followed. And so on.

Mike Romeo (not his real name) is a genius. He was admitted to Yale at 14, but left at 15 due to a personal tragedy. Then he knocked around, learning the trade of private investigator, training his body, and becoming a champion cage fighter for a while. Now he’s drifted into Los Angeles, where he’s staying with his only friend, Ira, a wheelchair-bound former Mossad agent, now a rabbi. Mike has begun to think he’s stayed in one place too long. People are hunting him, and he needs to keep moving. But life keeps holding him here.

In Romeo’s Rules, Mike is out jogging one day when a woman approaches him, asking his help in looking for her children, who have disappeared. Then a nearby church blows up. Mike goes inside to make sure the kids aren’t there, and finds a dead body. This brings attention from the police, something Mike does not want. He gets sucked into the woman’s problems – she’s trying to get custody of her children from her powerful husband, who may have kidnapped them. In any case, they’ve gone missing.

In Romeo’s Way, Mike is hired to go to San Francisco as a mole in a political campaign, working for the opponent, whom he considers a rare decent candidate. San Francisco will be everything he expected (that is, just as bad as he expected), but he will meet an interesting woman who may or may not be on his side.

In Romeo’s Hammer, Mike finds a beautiful woman on the beach, naked and disoriented, and rushes her to a hospital. Then she disappears again, and her father appears to ask Mike to look for her. The trail will lead to radical environmentalists and a cult that’s even weirder than the usual California variety.

Finally, in Romeo’s Fight, Mike gets an offer that’s hard to refuse. A big fight promoter wants him to do a major cage match for him, for a lot of prize money. Mike knows he can beat his opponent, but he desires neither the fight nor the money. However, an old friend, another fighter, is arrested for murder and begs Mike to help clear him. That involves getting involved in the fight world again, only this one will be a fight for his life.

Once I developed a taste for the Mike Romeo stories it was like eating potato chips. I devoured them one after the other. Mike is a guy who’s forever citing philosophy and mythology to people, and they never get it. I can identify with that. He was almost the perfect male fantasy character for me. There were echoes of Travis McGee and Spenser here, but the ideas were conservative.

I enjoyed these books a lot, and recommend them highly. The Christian themes are only implicit, but the books are delightfully devoid of profanity. That’s hard to do well in a realistic story, but author Bell carries it off admirably.

‘Fair Warning,’ by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is best known for his brilliant series of Harry Bosch police procedural novels. But he has other series. The most minor of these (only in terms of volume count) is his Jack McEvoy series. I have a personal fondness for Jack, because it was the first J.M. novel, The Poet, that introduced me to Connelly’s work.

Jack McEvoy is a journalist, occasionally a famous one. He broke a couple big serial killer stories, and parlayed them into bestselling books. But time moves on. There isn’t much work for journalists these days, and Jack’s books have settled back into publishers’ midlists; he can’t live on the royalties. So, as Fair Warning begins, he’s working as an online journalist, for a consumer web site called Fair Warning.

Jack gets a visit from the police. A woman with whom he once had a one-night stand has been murdered, and he’s briefly among the list of persons of interest. But she did a lot of dating, it turns out.

Still, Jack is curious and troubled by the murder. He does some research and discovers that this woman has one thing in common with several other recent female murder victims – she had contacted a popular DNA mapping site on the web, to make contact with relatives.

Jack’s beat isn’t homicide anymore, but he can’t let this go. He goes to the one person he knows who could really help make sense of this thing – Rachel Waller. Rachel used to be a top profiler for the FBI. Now – thanks to a mistake on Jack’s part – she’s doing research for an insurance company. Also, Rachel and Jack are in love, but Jack keeps messing up and spoiling their prospects. Still, she is intrigued by Jack’s theory and agrees to help him.

They will learn horrifying things, both about the potential for abuse in the field of genetic testing, and about the amoral world of Dark Web communities.

I enjoyed Fair Warning very much. It was nice to catch up with Jack and Rachel, and the story was satisfying. I was a little disappointed to see that a political message was inserted in a couple places, but it’s a message that’s perfectly natural for Jack as we know him.

Cautions for language and mature, sometimes troubling situations. Recommended.

Dumping a series: ‘The Driver,’ by Mark Dawson

I’ve been working my way through Mark Dawson’s John Milton series of thrillers. As you may recall, I was a little disappointed with the first one, and liked the second better.

I began the third, The Driver, and have now officially dumped the series.

In The Driver, John Milton is now living in San Francisco, drawn into a search for a young prostitute who has disappeared.

I quit reading where I got to the part (I should have seen it coming, but I was optimistic) where he gets into American politics, which for him are pretty simple. On the Left, the good guys, on the Right, the bigots.

Author Dawson appears to have learned his American politics from CNN, where he apparently also learned about guns. Defectively in both cases.

I do not need John Milton in my reading life. He is barely distinguishable from a half dozen other thriller heroes available. And most of the other heroes’ creators have the sense not to insult half their prospective readership.

Michael Connelly vs. Raymond Chandler

Below the title on the front cover of Michael Connelly’s new novel is a quote: “‘Connelly is the Raymond Chandler of this generation’—Associated Press.” This is unfair to Chandler and Connelly both. Chandler wrote like “a slumming angel,” as Ross Macdonald said. The  bravura style of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and the other titles on the Chandler shelf is one of the glories of American literature, influential worldwide. Connelly’s sentences are workmanlike, unremarkable. But Chandler couldn’t plot to save his life, whereas Connelly is a master of the art. Chandler was brilliant, undisciplined, alcoholic, demon-ridden, quick to take offense and quick to sneer; he wrote only a handful of novels. Connelly is disciplined and generous, and he excels at collaborative work (for instance, the Bosch TV series produced by Amazon) as well as solo writing; Fair Warning is his thirty-fourth novel. Chandler’s moral sense, in some ways acute, was often unreliable; Connelly’s is sounder.

John Wilson on Michael Connelly and Fair Warning

‘Saint Death,’ by Mark Dawson

Yesterday I left you in breathless suspense, waiting to learn whether the second John Milton book by Mark Dawson was more satisfying that the first one.

I’m pleased to say that I liked this one, Saint Death, better, though I still have quibbles.

As you may recall, John Milton is one of those thriller heroes (the field’s getting a little crowded) who used to be an elite operative for a super-secret government agency. But his conscience overcame him, and he dropped out of sight. His old bosses do not accept this – the only way out of Group Fifteen is feet first. John, for his part, is on a personal quest to atone for his sins.

As Saint Death begins, John has successfully fled England, and is now in Juarez, Mexico, working as a cook. One day, some cartel gangsters walk into the restaurant and open fire at a group of three young people. John intervenes, saving the life of one young woman, and also of a couple cops who happen to be present.

With the (somewhat skeptical) help of one of the policemen he saved, John takes on the job of protecting the woman survivor, a journalist who has been operating a blog devoted to exposing the cartels. She is being hunted by a legendary assassin known as Santa Muerta – Saint Death. He’s the best, and his drug dealing bosses are sparing no expense to eliminate this woman. John has his work cut out for him.

But that’s not all. John’s old bosses have picked up his trail again, and they’re on their way to Mexico to bring him in.

The thing I liked about Saint Death, in contrast to the last book, The Cleaner, is that John is allowed a little more success. Most of the good and innocent people around him aren’t injured or killed this time. And courage and generosity are rewarded a little more. The writing, as before, is professional and good.

My main complaint is that the author bought the Accepted Wisdom that it’s possible to walk into an American gun show and just buy a firearm without a background check. People who believe that should try it sometime.

Cautions for language and violence.

‘The Cleaner,’ by Mark Dawson

If you believe violence never solves anything, writing a thriller is probably not the best use of your time. You need to write a quiet, tragic story about the necessity of always submitting to bullies.

I’m not sure that’s author Mark Dawson’s actual problem. But it’s my only real objection to his The Cleaner, the first novel in his John Milton series.

John Milton is, like so many thriller heroes these days, a professional assassin, part of a super-secret British Government operation, this one called Group Fifteen. John is their Number One, their top operative. But he’s burned out. In his last assignment, he allowed mercy to outweigh professionalism, and so was suspended.

Instead of facing discipline, he simply disappears, something he’s very good at. One day in London, he saves a young woman, Sharon, from suicide on the Underground. She confides her story at last. She’s a single mother. She’s already lost her oldest son to drug addiction; now her younger boy, Elijah, is flirting with involvement in a street gang. She doesn’t know how she can face it all.

John is immediately fascinated. This, he thinks, is a situation he can do something about. He has (and he actually uses these words) “a particular set of skills.” If he can help to save this boy, he imagines, get the villains off his back, it might help to ease his own karmic debt, get him some peace from his nightmares.

But even for John, who has faced some of the most remorseless terrorists in the world, it will be a challenge to face off against the inhuman brutality of London gang leaders and drug dealers.

If that wasn’t challenge enough, Group Fifteen is close on his heels now. Once they pinpoint his location, they will apply their own ruthless coercive tactics to the task of silencing John Milton forever.

The Cleaner is a very competent entry in the expanding field of thrillers about benevolent ex-operatives. The writing is good, the characters engaging. My problem with it was that the story’s resolution involves so much collateral damage that it left this reader wondering whether the whole effort was worth the price.

Well, I’ll see how the next book works. I actually bought The Cleaner some time back, and didn’t finish it. But then I bought the next book in the series (on a bargain deal) and figured I’d better read The Cleaner first. I’ll read Saint Death now and let you know how it goes with that one.

Cautions for violence and crude language.

‘Before You Leap,’ by Keith Houghton

There’s a literary technique known as the “unreliable narrator.” Often the unreliable narrator is only revealed at the end, when the reader suddenly realizes he’s been lied to, and all sorts of mysteries suddenly become clear – “This character has been messing with us.”

More difficult is the consciously unreliable narrator – a narrator who knows he’s often mistaken or deluded. English author Keith Houghton attempts this difficult transaction – mostly successfully – in an American setting in his novel, Before You Leap.

The book opens with a flash-forward – we see our hero in a high-speed chase with the police, finally cornered at the top of a high bridge, yelling at the old friend who’s led him into this predicament.

Then we go back to the start. Greg Cole is a psychotherapist – a “talk therapist” – working in Bonita Springs, Florida. Like so many psychotherapists – at least in fiction – he has a full load of baggage of his own. Long ago in Michigan, his twin sister was murdered, and he fled to Florida to get away from the memories. He’s dating a woman police detective, separated from her husband, and contemplating taking the relationship to the next level, something that scares him.

Then word comes that the man convicted of his sister’s murder has been exonerated and released. Greg is certain of the man’s guilt – he himself was the star prosecution witness. If he was wrong, he did him a great injustice.

And then his oldest friend shows up unannounced – a man he hasn’t seen for 18 years. The friend tells him he’s in danger, but Greg doesn’t believe him. But then there’s a murder, and Greg becomes a suspect. He starts wondering about his old friend – but he also worries about what he himself may have done – he does have these blackouts from time to time…

Surprise twists are frequent here, and I figured out one of the most important fairly early. On the other hand, another twist I thought I figured out turned out to be no twist at all (that was clearly intentional). The plotting was fairly good.

My main problem with Before You Leap was that I didn’t always sympathize with the hero/narrator. Greg got on my nerves from time to time. I found the whole thing a little frenetic for my taste.

But your mileage may vary. Cautions for what you’d expect.