Category Archives: Reviews

‘A Cotswolds Murder,’ by Roy Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tolkien: a Biography,’ by Humphrey Carpenter

During the war he had said to Christopher: ‘We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring’ and now he wrote: ‘The War is not over (and the one that is, or part of it, has largely been lost). But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on, and it is no good growing faint.’

The trailers for the new Tolkien movie looked kind of good, so I figured I might go to see it. It seemed to me it would be a good idea to read a Tolkien biography before I did that. And although I’m now hearing that the movie leaves out Tolkien’s Catholic faith – which means I probably won’t see it after all – I’m glad I bought Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien: A Biography.

The book is easy to read and not too long. It follows “Toller’s” life from his birth in South Africa to his death in England, and the author is clearly a sympathetic fan – though he is often amused by Tolkien’s eccentricities. Which were many.

This is, I believe, the classic Tolkien biography, and it’s fairly old now. I expect there are new things to be learned from more recent ones. I noted, for instance, that Carpenter speaks of “Jack” Lewis’s transfer to Cambridge University only in passing, as a step backwards in the two men’s friendship. While that’s true enough, it should have been noted that it was through the good offices of Tolkien himself that Jack got the job.

But, reading as a fan, I found Tolkien: A Biography fascinating. I recommend it highly.

‘The Saga of a Supercargo,’ by Fullerton Waldo

A little while ago Dale Nelson, a friend of mine, sent me a book he thought might interest me. It was an old work called The Saga of a Supercargo, by the now-forgotten author Fullerton Waldo, copyright 1926. It’s an account of a tramp steamer voyage from Philadelphia to Greenland, on which Waldo served as a “supercargo” (a representative of the ship’s owners with supervisory duties). Dale thought I might enjoy it for its descriptions of Greenland. I did – more than I expected, actually – though I wish I’d read it before I wrote West Oversea.

At the time, Greenland (a protectorate of Denmark) was embargoed to foreign trade – in order to protect the native Inuit (here called Eskimos, of course) from exploitation and disease. However, Greenland had one export product – the mineral cryolite (which Waldo spells kryolith), used in various industrial applications, mostly for cleaning. The Pennsylvania Salt Company had a license to receive part of the island’s cryolite production each year, to help defray the costs of the colony to the Danish crown. The P.S.C.’s ships were the only non-Danish ships permitted in Greenland, and Waldo, as a writer, was interested to document the voyage.

It’s a lively account. Waldo recounts the stormy voyages to and from Greenland (no wonder the Vikings didn’t do it more), and the frontier conditions in which a small colony of Danish officials, mining engineers, and laborers made a life in a frontier setting, often in dangerous conditions. Inuit life is described in amusing detail. Forecasts said that the cryolite deposit would run out in a few years, and then all this would end.

Waldo was a pretty good writer. He writes as an author of his time – his writing is a little more flowery than what we’re used to today, but unlike many older writers, he uses the flowery language well, and doesn’t overdo it. It illuminates his meaning. I found it an interesting study in style. I also enjoyed his sharp character sketches of his fellow crewmen – mostly Norwegians.

This book is, apparently, fairly rare, and the facsimile on sale at Amazon isn’t cheap. But if you run across it and find the subject interesting, it’s well worth reading.

‘Murder On the Run,’ by Bruce Beckham

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

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

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

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

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

‘Only to sleep,’ by Lawrence Osborne

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Neon Prey, by John Sandford

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

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

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

Cautions for language, violence, and very disturbing scenes.

The Curious Christian, by Barnabas Piper

I remember a relative in the family of one of my college friends telling me about his bright young son (maybe grandson) before going to school. He was inquisitive about everything and was encouraged to love learning. But after a year in first grade he shut down; he didn’t ask questions or chat about his observations anymore. His father (or grandfather) blamed it entirely on the school system, took the boy out, and taught him at home. I think he said it took a few months for the little guy to regain his curiosity. A nurturing environment was all he needed.

I remembered this story while reading Barnabas Piper’s book, The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life. His premise is as simple as that subtitle. We need curiosity in our lives to worship the Lord fully, engage our world courageously, and live together as God directs. We may call it by another name: invention, devotion, problem solving, hospitality, or even perseverance; Piper draws all of those things together into curiosity. That’s what we need.

By having curious minds we will take interest in others and in the culture around us. We will share stories and listen to others share theirs. Too many of us believe we have resolved the answers to the big questions and fear the answers or exploration others have found if they differ significantly from our understanding. Our school system presses us into this mold: know what’s being graded and repeat that answer for the test. If you ask too many questions (particularly the wrong sort of questions), you’ll get shamed or possibly kicked out.

From behind our overprotective hedge, we don’t have anything like this passage in mind:

All of creation resonates with God’s voice, sometimes only as echoes faint, distant, and indistinct. It reflects Him in some way, blurry or clear. Nothing exists that was not created by God and sustained by God. Sustained means that every day He keeps it existing. We have a hard time imagining the opposite of this, so we take it for granted. But without God’s sustaining power, we would cease to exist. We would not fall down dead. We would not crumble into dust or ashes. We would not melt like wax. We would be erased, all of our matter simply gone. Just as God spoke the world into existence–out of nothing, a total void–with His word, so He keeps it in existence daily with His word. And so the world continues to bear God’s mark and echo His divine voice.

Piper encourages us to lean into God’s mark on the world by asking questions and taking an interest in what’s around us. How is the Holy Spirit active in our community? What new avenues can we take in love, joy, peace, and the rest that will worship our Lord more wholeheartedly and love our neighbor more selflessly?

This review may come too late in the season, but I think The Curious Christian would make a great graduation gift. It’s a short, well-written book that could light a fire under people who feel a little hemmed in by undefinable cords. Its message is easily one of those that seem obvious at first blush but need to be repeated and applied in various ways to truly stick. It’s easy, enjoyable reading, though it could be improved by adding some stories.

Unsolicited endorsement

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

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

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

Thanks, Pat. Read it all here.

‘The Body on the Shore,’ by Nick Louth

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

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

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

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

‘The Invisible Man,’ by P. F. Ford

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

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

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

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

Raising my profile

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

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

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

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

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

But at least you can say you tried.

‘The Common Enemy,’ by Paul Gitsham

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

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

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

It all leads to a shocking climax.

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

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

But I didn’t find the book very rewarding.

‘Run Away,’ by Harlan Coben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Silent as the Grave,’ by Paul Gitsham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vikings: From Odin to Christ, by M. & H. Whittock

The voluntary nature of the Scandinavian conversion – in Denmark and Sweden at least – seems to have led to communities feeling that they did not need to significantly alter their artistic communication or abandon their traditional culture in order to be good Christians.

C. S. Lewis writes somewhere that one of the best methods of evangelism would be for Christians, not to produce more “Christian” work, but to simply do better work as Christians. From my perspective as an amateur historian, I would say that Martyn and Hannah Whittock (father and daughter) have produced superior historical work in producing The Vikings: From Odin to Christ, published by Lion Books, a Christian publisher.

It’s weird for a guy like me, a promoter of the historical value of the Icelandic sagas, to say, but there’s good reason to believe that the story of the conversion of the Vikings, as presented in the sagas, may be misleading. The Whittocks point out – and somehow I’d missed this – that there is little report of violence in the conversions of Denmark and Sweden. Only in Norway, where saga writers had political motivation to glamorize Olaf Haraldsson as Norway’s national hero and saint, do we have stories of torture and threats of death.

It may be true that Olaf was a bloody-handed tyrant (I believe that). But his work may not have been as influential in the conversion as the sagas suggest. There’s good reason to think that the earlier Christian king, Haakon the Good, who gets short shrift in the sagas, may have been a far more effective missionary than history remembers.

This harmonizes with things I’ve been saying in my lectures for some time. Now, having read the Whittocks’ book, I have more ammunition for those arguments.

I’m also delighted that the Whittocks have very clearly read Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli’s untranslated book, Tolf Vintrer Hadde Kristendommen Vært i Norge (which Anders Winroth, for all his expertise, overlooks entirely in his book on the conversion of Scandinavia). I’m delighted that Birkeli’s important ideas, largely unknown to English readers till now, are being conveyed through this book.

The Vikings: From Odin to Christ covers a lot more than the conversion of Norway, of course. We start with a historical overview, then examine each Scandinavian country in turn, followed by various regions that the Vikings colonized. I have a couple minor quibbles – at one point they suggest St. Olaf’s opposition was motivated by heathenry, but they correct that later on.

I haven’t found a history book a page-turner in a long time. The Vikings: From Odin to Christ kept me turning the pages. I recommend it highly.