Category Archives: Fiction

‘Penance,’ by David Housewright

Penance

All in all, it’s a great time to be a private investigator: Nobody trusts anybody.

Sometimes – rarely, of course – I surprise myself with my ignorance. Discovering a “new” detective author whom I would rate on the level of John Sandford and (before he went full PC) Robert B. Parker was a surprise. Finding out he’s a local (Minneapolis) author amazed me. But so it is. David Housewright is a very good hard-boiled writer, and I’m enjoying his Holland Taylor series a lot.

At the opening of Penance we find former police detective, now private eye, Holland Taylor in an interrogation room, being grilled by two policemen. He was surprised to be arrested, but not surprised when he learned the reason. The drunken driver who killed Taylor’s wife and daughter, recently released from prison, has been murdered. Taylor is the obvious first suspect.

As suddenly as he was arrested, Taylor finds himself released, and he returns to his current case, which involves a beautiful, dark horse, third-party gubernatorial candidate who is being blackmailed. Eventually he learns there’s a link between the first case and this one, and things get convoluted and deadly. In the end the revelations he unearths will be genuinely shocking.

The plot’s more complex than it needs to be, with too many characters and plot lines. But the story gripped me and the narrator was fascinating. Widower detectives have gotten to be a trope (because the situation offers lots of scope for female companionship, and an excuse for not bonding), but author Housewright handles the trope well. I was hooked, and I’ve been scarfing these books up one after another. More reviews to come.

The stories are a little dated, being written back in the 1990s (though a fourth in the series came out this year). The usual cautions for language and mature situations apply. The politics are hard to nail down – which is just fine by me.

‘Coffin, Scarcely Used,’ by Colin Watson

Coffin, Scarcely Used

I am fond of English police procedural mysteries. But I’m frequently annoyed by the increasing political correctness infecting the genre and turning it into a form of fantasy. So a series of English procedurals written during the 1950s seemed like just the ticket for me, especially when the books are described by critics as “wickedly funny.”

Coffin, Scarcely Used is the first of the Inspector Purbright series, set in the fictional seaside town of Flaxborough. No crime is suspected when a city councillor dies suddenly. But when his neighbor, the former local newspaper publisher, is found dead of electrocution, wearing carpet slippers, underneath an electric pole near his house, questions get asked. As Purbright and his assistant dig into the lives of the two men and their circle they unearth secrets that the foremost citizens of the town would rather keep secret.

I didn’t enjoy Coffin, Scarcely Used as much as I hoped. The whole affair seemed to me lightweight and superficial, in the way of the classic English cozies. I generally approve of cozies in the moral sense, but I prefer the grittiness of hard-boiled stories and the more recent generations of procedurals. And the humor, though sometimes fairly Wodehousian, just didn’t move the needle enough for my purposes.

But you may feel differently. If Coffin, Scarcely Used sounds to you like your cup of tea, enjoy it.

The Pure Fun of LitRPG

Professor Joseph Bottum explored a new genre a couple years ago, one he found fairly enjoyable despite its weaknesses.

LitRPG, this new fiction is called, its stories set inside computerized role-playing games. The result is a little hard to describe. It’s sort of a cross between science fiction and fantasy—with a good dose of layered realities, à la The Matrix, as the characters transition in and out of computer simulations. And as of this summer, Amazon lists well over a thousand of the things, with around 90 percent of them existing only as e-books, and 90 percent of those self-published.

If a single one of the novels is well-written I have yet to find it, as I crashed my way through thirty or so of them in the past few months.

I looked up one of the novels he mentioned and found this note on an updated edition, “The new edition features heavy grammar and word choice updates.” So the previous edition must have been a draft. But while the ambitions of these writers are low, their stories are generally pretty fun. “As a result,” Bottum says, “they’re producing what is sometimes more fun, but always more pure, as a species of light genre fiction.”

‘A Private Investigation,’ by Peter Grainger

A Private Investigation

Bittersweet. The last of a good thing is always bittersweet, and Peter Grainger’s DC Smith books have become one of the small pleasures in my life. This one may be the last in the series (though the ending is ambiguous).

As A Private Investigation begins, Detective Sergeant D.C. Smith is rapidly approaching mandatory retirement, two weeks away (it was a little weird for me to start this book just as I was two weeks away from the end of my own job). Smith is keeping a low profile, tidying up the records on his last case. No one expects him to do any serious investigation; he’s just filling time. His old team has been broken up. His new superiors, one a former subordinate, the other a long-time rival, are keeping their distances.

And then a teenage girl disappears. It strikes Smith as odd that his career should end with the abduction of a young girl; that’s what his first major case was.

But then there’s a shock – a connection is discovered between that old first case and this present one. Which does not impel Smith into action – that would be against regulations. But he pays attention, and gives his friends on the case some useful pointers.

But that won’t be enough. Someone is preparing a final showdown. D.C. Smith’s career will not end quietly.

I very much enjoy this whole series of books. D.C. Smith is a fascinating, engaging character – reserved, ironic, quirky, but beneath it all a man who truly cares about victims and the justice due to them. Also, here and there, author Grainger throws in hints of a conservative world-view.

There may have been some bad language, but I don’t recall any. I really have no cautions for you. I enjoyed A Private Investigation, and recommend you read the whole series.

Who knows? There may even be another book.

Two New Animated Godzilla Movies

I never watched the original Godzilla from 1954 in Japanese or 1956 in American English, but I think I did see one of those early films, one with Mothra or Rodan maybe. What I remember is a Godzilla that acted more like the savior of Tokyo and all Japanese children, not the embodiment of retribution against human hubris as he is today. He was more like the giant robots I played with as a kid. (Does anyone remember the robotic Shogun warriors? I had Raideen. Hey, there’s Godzilla with the warriors in a commercial.)

In this decade, the Godzilla franchise has turned back to the themes of the original movie. The King of Monsters was originally a symbol for the atomic bomb. Though they kill him at the end of the first movie, we are told another beast just like him could emerge if nuclear weapons testing continues. We were the horror we unleashed on the world, something as destructive as a giant radioactive dinosaur! There’s an argument in the 1954 movie about releasing the research done to create the weapon that kills the monster. “Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all! As a scientist – no, as a human being – I can’t allow [the release of the research] to happen!”

In the new stories, the nuclear threat has been blended with pollution and all threats to the environment in summing up the reason Godzilla exists, and the anime movies I mean to review here (two parts of a trilogy) don’t try to offer a cogent reason for the monster’s existence, only hints and statements quickly abandoned to the action.

The Earth after Godzilla
The Earth after Godzilla in Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters begins with the human race on an interstellar ark searching for a new place to live. We quickly learn Captain Haruo Sakaki is the angry radical of the group who believes the leaders are cold-hearted and aimless. He’s also the one who hateses Godzilla the mostest, my precious! After a tragedy with a landing party, leadership concludes it’s been roughly 10,000 years since they left Earth (time having shifted due to their spacecraft’s warp drive). Surely Godzilla is dead and Earth can receive them again.

With little development in the story, we learn humanity has been joined by two alien peoples, both of whom lost their planets to monsters like Godzilla. One group, the Exif, is primarily represented by the priest Metphies. He calls on the others to seek a vague god figure and harmony while also encouraging Haruo to pursue his passion to destroy Godzilla (If you believe in yourself, kid, you too can kill a really big monster). The other group appear to be all logical warriors, the Bilusaludo. This group was on earth trying to build the Mechagodzilla counter-weapon before the King of Monsters smote them with his unyielding wrath.

Continue reading Two New Animated Godzilla Movies

‘Random Revenge,’ by William Michaels

Random Revenge

I’d classify this book as one that ultimately worked, but it had some weaknesses.

My main problem was that Random Revenge by William Michaels doesn’t roll out in optimal fashion. It’s sort of a Columbo story, where in the first half you see the crime committed, and in the second half you watch the detective solving the crime.

The problem here was that we spent that first half mostly with the criminal and victim, who were both unpleasant enough to make the going tedious. One of them (I won’t say whether they’re murderer or victim) is Melanie Upton, a ruthless, aspiring actress with very few sympathetic qualities. The other is Lenny Gruse, a ruthless, aspiring paparazzo with no sympathetic qualities at all. I got a few glimpses of our hero, Detective Robert Winter, within that section, and his appeal was all that kept me with the book. The second half, where he takes center stage, is much better.

Winter, a detective in a small Massachusetts town where a movie is being filmed, is another in a long list of fictional “loose cannon” cops, but he’s original enough to make him interesting. He’s impatient of regulations and protocol, but he has a very high clearance record. And he’s not above doling out a little street justice. His method is to follow his instincts, but also to think a lot. He has a genius for playing out a multitude of possible scenarios in his head, making connections other cops wouldn’t make. He’s not like Columbo in the genius department – Columbo usually knew who was guilty from square one. Winter tries out and rejects a thousand theories before finding one that works. It’s the genuine scientific method.

The ending of the book was surprising, but not out of the blue, in light of what we’ve learned about Winter. His idea of closing a case isn’t always precisely the same as what the law prescribes.

Random Revenge started slow, but worked well once it got going. Cautions for adult themes and language, and some moral ambiguity. There were moments of sloppy writing. But I’d like to read the next book in the series (I trust one is coming), because I think Detective Robert Winter might have a big future.

‘Murder of a Silent Man,’ by Phillip Strang

Murder of a Silent Man

Yet another in an apparently infinite supply of English police procedural mystery series. I tried Murder of a Silent Man (I suppose I identified with the title) by Phillip Strang. It had certain virtues which I won’t deny, but overall I wasn’t much impressed.

Gilbert Lawrence is the murder victim in this story. He’s an old, reclusive man who only went out once a week, to the liquor store. No one would have guessed he was one of the richest men in the country, unless they noticed the large house where he lived, holed up in a small locked area. But someone took the trouble to stab him to death in his front garden, and now DCI Isaac Cook and his team must unravel the mystery. It’s compounded by the discovery of a human skeleton in an upstairs bed.

There’s no lack of suspects. Lawrence had two estranged children, one a prosperous wife, the other a drug addict and con man. For years his affairs have been handled by his solicitor and his daughter, who have been profiting well from his business interests – perhaps too well.

The great virtue of this book was its realism. It followed police procedure in a believable way. No flashes of genius insight here, no car chases or terrorist situations. Just solid police work leading finally to a solid – and undramatic – conclusion. I don’t mind that at all. Some people might want more bells and whistles, but I liked this approach.

What I didn’t care for was the presentation of the story. The prose was sometimes weak. The characters weren’t very vivid – the suspects were more interesting than the cops, but they weren’t all that fascinating either. We weren’t even given descriptions of most of the cops – except for DCI Cook, who is Jamaican by heritage. Apparently author Strang assumed the reader would have read the earlier books in the series and would remember earlier descriptions.

So all in all, I wasn’t greatly impressed. I did appreciate the realism, though.

‘The Snowman,’ by Jo Nesbo

The Snowman

So I’d kicked the dust of John Verdon off my feet, and was looking for another mystery to read. “Hey,” I said to myself, “you’re gonna be unemployed soon. Why not check out the public library’s selection?” So I did that.

The public library site is kind of hard to browse, but eventually I hit on Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, another in his long-running Harry Hole series. And I thought, “I don’t love the Hole books, but this’ll be free. Give him another chance.” So I did that.

Takeaway: A readable, exciting book. Also overcooked and kind of annoying.

Harry Hole (pronounced “hoo-leh”) is an Oslo police detective. His colleagues often joke that he’s a specialist in serial killers, even though Norway has never had a serial killer case (his expertise comes from visits abroad). But now they’ve got one. They just hadn’t realized it. Continue reading ‘The Snowman,’ by Jo Nesbo

‘White River Burning,’ by John Verdon

This isn’t a review. It’s more of an adieu (hmm, there’s a song there, somewhere). It’s my farewell to John Verdon’s Dave Gurney series.

I’ve enjoyed this series, but White River Burning brought about that moment when (as Job said) “the thing I greatly feared had come upon me.”

I’d been concerned about the increasing levels of political messaging in the books. Not that I think that’s a sin – I’m an ideological writer myself. But I know I’ve lost readers because of the opinions I’ve embedded in my books. In the same way, John Verdon has lost me.

I didn’t get far into White River Burning, which centers on the murder of a policeman in a city torn by riots similar to the Trayvon Martin unrest. It didn’t take many pages before we were treated to a scene where a “commentator” on the RAM News Channel (which seems to be a surrogate for FOX) engages in open white supremacist rhetoric.

I can understand how a leftist might think that FOX is a forum for neo-Nazis fresh out of their white sheets. FOX is often criticized as racist by the left, but this is because leftists generally believe that all conservative opinions are racist. It isn’t surprising that author Verdon might think you can turn on FOX on any given day and hear its commentators calling for, oh, a return to Jim Crow and revived miscegenation laws.

But it’s not reality. And at that point I couldn’t overlook the political passion of the author. I wish him well, but I’m confident he doesn’t want my business.

‘Wolf Lake,’ by John Verdon

Wolf Lake

I continue my trek through John Verdon’s Dave Gurney mysteries, continuing the adventures of the retired NYPD detective retired to the Catskill Mountains.

In Wolf Lake, Dave and his wife Madeleine are headed for a week of snowshoeing in Vermont, when he is asked to look into a mystery at Wolf Lake lodge, which is located more or less on the way. He almost begs off for Madeleine’s sake, but – uncharacteristically – she encourages him to make the detour.

There they meet Richard Hammond, a psychiatrist famed – and notorious – for his experiments with hypnotism. He had been living at the lodge at the invitation of its wealthy owner, but now that owner is dead by suicide. On top of that, three other men have committed suicide in various places around the country. Each one was treated for cigarette addiction by Hammond, and each reported having an identical nightmare, before killing himself – also in an identical manner.

The local district attorney is building a case against Hammond, for “murder by hypnosis.” The whole thing seems crazy to Dave, and he continues to look for reasonable explanations, even as inexplicable things happen around him, and Madeleine grows deeply troubled but refuses to leave the place.

I thought, frankly, that Wolf Lake was a little over the top. Portents in nature, a prophetic madman, a snowstorm orchestrated to raise the stakes in the climax – some of this gets explained, but overall it seemed melodramatic to me. And the solution seemed contrived. Also, author Verdon appears to have grown more comfortable expressing his politics in his books. The evils of homophobia underpin a lot of the narrative.

I’m reading the next book, but I’m not sure I’ll finish it. I’ve liked the Dave Gurney stories, but a little more politics will put me off them.

Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

“I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. . . . “But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people  together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running . . . but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing.”

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is one in which everyone has taken the easy route to learning, living, and contributing to society. We, the people, started it, neglecting books and thinking, choosing big screens and reality shows. After some years of that, state representatives began to outlaw these channels of deeper thought. They burned libraries,  and schools taught that books were filled with nonsense. You could call this censorship, but it’s the censorship the people want. They want a comfortable life spent in front of a wall-to-wall interactive screen (or three or four wall-to-wall screens, if they could afford them), their “families” yakking at them through broadcasts.

Books put crazy, false, and conflicting ideas in people’s heads. What’s on screen is real, current, and unified. There’s no mention of any churches, but why would there be? Only those that had morphed into social clubs would be left standing.

The houses in Fahrenheit 451 are complete fire-proof, so when a homeowner is found in possession of books and he won’t be taken into custody or removed to an asylum, he is torched within his offending home. They do it at dusk or after, so the neighborhood bonfire will make the most spectacle, a warning to anyone still harboring the printed word.

As you can tell from the quotation above, someone people won’t follow the crowd–probably homeschoolers. They have more curiosity than society wants them to have. They will suffer for it for a while, but after society has eaten itself they will rebuild, like they always do, taking life’s hard road because that’s the only one left.

Cruciform Press Is Publishing Fiction

Cruciform Press, the people behind several excellent books (the one title Cruciform is a good choice), has begun to publish fiction.

One of the first things we did when weighing this fiction venture was to network a little to try to find some potential candidate manuscripts. What we found was certainly encouraging, but we also know that these must be just the tip of a much larger iceberg!

As fans of good fiction on Christian themes, we have to admire this optimism. They are releasing three titles for this effort, all speculative fiction, two new works, and one republication by Charles Dickens that they are calling a forgotten classic. Prices look good. They offer several pages as a free sample, and there’s a 30% discount running.

Truth Is No Stranger to Fiction

 

‘Peter Pan Must Die,’ by John Verdon

Peter Pan Must Die

At times like this he always recalled, uneasily, that everyone on earth at a particular latitude sees the same stars in the sky. But no two cultures see the same constellations. He’d seen evidence of the phenomenon again and again: The patterns we perceive are determined by the stories we want to believe.

Another novel in John Verdon’s interesting – and somewhat disturbing – series of mystery-thrillers starring David Gurney, retired NYPD detective. Now living with his wife on a farm in the Catskills, he keeps getting diverted from the peaceful, pastoral pursuits she prefers to various murder mysteries that people bring to him.

At the beginning of Peter Pan Must Die, Dave gets a request for help from his friend Jack Hardwick. It’s really more than a request, and his relationship with Jack is more complex than ordinary friendship. A constitutional rebel, Jack has helped Dave in previous cases by passing him information civilians shouldn’t get access to. Now Jack is calling his favors in. He’s been fired from the state police and has set up as a private investigator. He’s got a big case on the line, and needs “famous” Dave’s participation to close the deal.

Jack’s client is the wife of Carl Spalter, a hard-driving real estate tycoon who was running for governor. Spalter was shot fatally by a sniper during his mother’s funeral, and the wife was convicted of hiring the assassin. She thinks – and Jack agrees – that the defense was incompetent and the prosecution corrupt. All they need to do is identify the holes in the prosecution case, inform her new attorney, and bank their payment check.

But that’s not enough for Dave. What obsesses him is the solution, what really happened. As he examines the evidence, he discovers that the murder shot could not possibly have been fired from the spot which ample evidence shows the killer must have used. That’s only the first of the conundrums that will fuel his obsession and ultimately put him in conflict with – very possibly – the most dangerous human being he has ever encountered.

Like all the books in the Dave Gurney series, Peter Pan Must Die was fascinating and engrossing. But there’s something more – an unease, the constant dissonance in Dave’s marriage and the underlying knowledge that something is seriously wrong with Dave. He analyses everything except his own heart, and is blind to the subconscious urges that force him to put himself – and often the people he loves – in danger again and again.

Cautions for language, adult themes, and intense situations. Highly recommended if this is your sort of thing. The final twist is pretty good too.

Did Susan Pevensie Fall Away?

Doug Wilson talks about Susan’s character arc in the Chronicles of Narnia. He walks through almost every scene she is in, noting the details show of her character. So what should we make of Susan becoming no “friend of Narnia”?

Why does the apparent apostasy of Susan seem like a gaping narratival hole that doesn’t fit with any part of the larger story? I want to argue that it does not seem to fit because it really doesn’t fit. My intention is to show that a final apostasy on the part of Susan is really a literary impossibility.

You may be thinking of Wilson’s end game already. We’ve seen it on this blog before. There are four thrones at Cair Paravel. All four will be filled, because (odd how this mists my eyes almost every time) “once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

‘Let the Devil Sleep,’ by John Verdon

Let the Devil Sleep

He’d long ago discovered that one way to get to a solution was to step away from the problem and go on to something else. The brain, relieved of the pressure to move in a particular channel, often finds its own way. As one of his born-and-bred Delaware County neighbors had once said, “The beagle can’t catch the rabbit till you let him off the leash.”

I continue to work my way through John Verdon’s very satisfying (to me at least) series of Dave Gurney mysteries. Dave, as you may recall, is a decorated New York police detective, retired. Now he lives on a farm in the Catskill Mountains with his wife Madeleine, in a relationship both loving and full of tension. She loves nature and growing things, and “lives in the moment.” He never feels alive unless he’s solving a complex murder mystery – which is why his retirement has involved one unofficial investigation after another, often stepping on the toes of the real authorities.

In Let the Devil Sleep, Dave is recovering from a fight to the death in the previous book which left him with both emotional and physical trauma. Then he hears from an old acquaintance, a female journalist. She asks him for a favor – to “look over the shoulder” of her college-age daughter, who is working on a journalism project. Would he give her some pointers? He soon understands that the real, underlying request is for him to help the girl investigate the unsolved case of “the Good Shepherd,” a killer who shot six people to death in their cars on lonely roads. They were all driving the same expensive model automobile. The killer released a “manifesto,” a fanatical screed against greed, vowing to wipe out all the greedy people on earth. Dave immediately suspects the manifesto is a smokescreen, which means that the working theory of all the investigators, including the FBI, has been wrongheaded all these years. Continue reading ‘Let the Devil Sleep,’ by John Verdon