Category Archives: Reviews

‘The Last Kind Word,’ by David Housewright

The Last Kind Word

Yet it was her eyes that I found most remarkable. They were warm and wide open and so honest that meeting them made a fellow regret his long-forgotten sins.

I had a weird moment while reading The Last Kind Word, another in David Housewright’s McKenzie mystery series. It occurred to me that this was kind of like a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

Your classic Wodehouse confection involves a group of English aristocrats gathered in a country house. Their house party is intruded on by an Impostor – a guy who’s come to steal a silver cow creamer, or a manuscript, or a prize pig, or something. Humor rises through the impostor’s attempts (facile or clumsy) to put off the very reasonable suspicions of the (few) intelligent people (always women) in residence.

The Last Kind Word alters that scenario a bit – substitute a northern Minnesota fishing cabin for the stately country house. Substitute a group of lower-middle-class Minnesotans for the English gentry. And substitute our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie for the Wodehouseian impostor.

Aside from that, there are many similarities.

Federal agents have convinced Mac to help them locate some Mexicans who are selling automatic weapons connected with the Fast and Furious scandal (you may not remember it; the press sent it down the memory hole). Mac poses as a dangerous prisoner and is permitted to escape from custody, taking with him another prisoner, who has connections to the only known lead to the gun runners. Continue reading ‘The Last Kind Word,’ by David Housewright

‘Curse of the Jade Lily,’ by David Housewright

Curse of the Jade Lily

Her smile reminded me of the promise on a package of lightbulbs I had recently purchased – “Lasts up to 10 times longer while using 75% less energy.”

Author David Housewright got on my wrong side near the beginning of Curse of the Jade Lily. He explained how to tell Norwegians from Swedes based on how they spell “son” in the names (and got it wrong), and then went on to discourse on racism, for no pertinent reason. But I persevered, and all in all the book was OK.

Housewright may be messing with us, though. Sometimes, for instance, he gets his directions diametrically wrong. In this book, for instance, he has Mac go east from Minneapolis to get to Theodore Wirth Park. It ought to be west. Maybe it’s a gag.

As you probably recall, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie retired from the St. Paul Police Department a few years ago, when he accepted a multi-million-dollar finder’s fee from an insurance company. That good fortune comes back to bite him in Curse of the Jade Lily. A rare Chinese sculpture (the eponymous lily) has been stolen from a small Minneapolis art museum. The thieves have offered to sell it back, but they have one condition – Mac has to deliver the money. Because the insurance company asks him for the favor, and because of a certain amount of pressure from various levels of government, he agrees. Then the suspected thief is found murdered, and someone else is murdered during the ransom delivery, and the whole thing turns into a complex mystery, with elements of international intrigue.

It’s complicated, and Mac gets hurt multiple times, but he figures it out in the end. Author Housewright put my back up a little with his Norwegian crack, but not enough to put me off the series. Recommended with cautions for language, mature themes, and anti-Norwegian bias.

‘Highway 61,’ by David Housewright

Highway 61

The saga of Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie continues with Highway 61. The title of the book refers to a semi-famous road going north out of the Twin Cities (it goes south too, but nobody cares). Did Bob Dylan write a song about it? I don’t know; I take pride in my ignorance of Bob Dylan.

Anyway, as you know by now, Mac McKenzie is a former cop, now a millionaire. For his own satisfaction, he does unlicensed private eye work as “favors for friends.” Jason Truhler is definitely not one of those. He’s the ex-husband of Mac’s girlfriend Nina, and he treated her so badly as to put her off marriage for life (or so she claims). But their daughter Ericka is a friend of Mac’s, and she begs him to help her dad.

So Mac talks to Jason, who says he was set up. He went up to a jazz festival in Thunder Bay, met a girl, got drugged, and woke up in what I’ll call here, for purposes of suspense, a “compromising situation.” Now somebody’s blackmailing him with a photograph, and he says he can’t afford it anymore. If the blackmailers release the photo, it will devastate Nina and Ericka, two people Mac loves. So he agrees – reluctantly – to look into it.

About the first thing Mac learns is – surprise! – that Jason didn’t tell him the whole truth. Further investigation leads to an extensive prostitution ring, with ties to Minnesota’s rich and powerful. People get killed, of course.

Highway 61 is a solid private eye novel, featuring an intriguing hero and a fun cast of characters. I enjoyed it. Cautions for the usual.

‘The Taking of Libbie, SD,’ by David Housewright

The Taking of Libbie, SD

Big Joe was standing in front of me, making a large hole in the sunlight. He looked like the guy that Jack met at the top of the beanstalk.

Implausibility is not necessarily a defect in a detective mystery. If the author manipulates his characters skillfully enough, he can make them do things way, way outside their comfort zones. In fact, that’s kind of what plotting is all about.

The Taking of Libbie, SD begins with home invaders breaking into detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie’s St. Paul home, dumping him in the trunk of their car, and driving him to the small town of Libbie, South Dakota. After some discomfort and embarrassment, the town fathers finally admit that the thugs they hired kidnapped the wrong guy.

But how were they to know? How many Rushmore McKenzies could there be in the world? Especially at that particular address?

Finally Mac gets the story out of them. A man using his identity went to the town and persuaded the civic leaders that he was planning to invest in a big real estate project there. Many locals invested. Then one day both he and their money disappeared. The local “big man,” the town’s mover and shaker, hired some guys to kidnap McKenzie, and the cops went along with it.

It takes a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to convince the reader that it makes sense for Mac not only to forgive the kidnapping, but to agree to investigate. Before he’s done, some of the locals will wish he’d left the mystery alone.

The picture of small town life in The Taking of Libbie, SD isn’t bad. I can say that as a small town boy. The description of rural economic desperation rings true. The number of beautiful women living in the town is a major exaggeration in my experience, but author Housewright makes it a running joke in the book, which is probably the best way to handle that sort of thing. He also does a good job of motivating Mac to take on a case for people he has no reason to care about.

Cautions for language and adult themes. A pretty good job of selling a highly improbable plot.

‘Jelly’s Gold,’ by David Housewright

Jelly's Gold

This one was fun. One of my favorite sub-genres is what I might call the “archive mystery,” where the detective digs into an old, unsolved crime, examining dusty documents and deserted buildings, and talking to old-timers (if there are any left).

Jelly’s Gold centers on Frank “Jelly” Nash, a legendary bank robber, who was rumored to have stolen gold from a South Dakota bank in 1933. That very night he was in St. Paul, hobnobbing with local society (St. Paul was an “open city” in those days – it was understood that gangsters could stay in town, spend their money, and not be bothered by the police, so long as they didn’t break any local laws). A few days later, Jelly was shot to death in Kansas City. But rumor persists that he left his gold with one of his rich St. Paul friends, and it’s never been found.

When this story starts, St. Paul millionaire detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie is approached by an old friend, a female graduate student. Her boyfriend believes he knows how to find Jelly’s gold, and they figure Mac can help them. He’s intrigued enough to start looking into it. He soon learns that others are on the same trail – and then someone is murdered.

I found Jelly’s Gold fascinating. I was annoyed by another snide reference to Minnesota’s concealed carry law (which has actually worked out pretty well, thank you). On the other hand, a student at Bethel University, a Baptist school, plays a part, and she’s treated with surprising respect. I thought I figured out whodunnit, but I was wrong, which is always fun.

Cautions for… well you know. But this was a particularly good one, to my taste.

‘Madman On a Drum,’ by David Housewright

Madman On a Drum

Ever since the Coen brothers film came out, I am quick to tell outsiders that no one in Minnesota actually speaks with the vocabulary and accents of the characters in Fargo. Only to to my embarrassment, I am reminded from time to time that some of us do.

I’m plowing through David Housewright’s St. Paul-based McKenzie mystery novels. Madman On a Drum seems to me the best of the series so far. It takes a already interesting cast of characters and goes deeper with them, under the most stressful of circumstances.

Wealthy, amateur detective (and former cop) Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie has no real family. He has a steady girlfriend, but she adamantly refuses to discuss marriage. The closest thing he has to a family is the Dunstons, the family of his childhood best friend Bobby, also a cop. Mac is constantly at their house and spoils the two daughters, Victoria and Katie, shamelessly. He’s made them his heirs.

So it’s not just another case to him when Victoria is kidnapped, in broad daylight. The kidnappers, by phone, demand a million dollars in ransom. It’s obvious where they expect it to come from – it will have to come from Mac.

Mac doesn’t mind that. He’d give everything he has for Victoria.

But he and Bobby both understand what must follow. The kidnappers must be found, and they must die.

They quickly identify the voice on the phone as that of an old childhood friend, a neighborhood guy who took the wrong road in life. But finding him and getting Tori back is only the beginning. There’s someone behind him – someone with a passionate hatred for Mac, someone who plans to make Mac pay for his own murder.

The dynamics of a family group faced with the kidnapping of a child are described with what looks to me like great sensitivity and insight in Madman On a Drum. There’s also a lot of discussion of our current prison system (it doesn’t come out very well).

I liked Madman On a Drum a lot. Hard to put down. Recommended, with the customary cautions for language and subject matter.

‘Dead Boyfriends,’ by David Housewright

Dead Boyfriends

There’s no special trick to conducting an interview. All it requires is a little patience, an ear for the important utterance, and the simple knowledge that to most people the sweetest possible music is the sound of their own voice.

I’m back, after a hiatus of reading other stuff for one reason or another, to working through David Housewright’s superior St. Paul-based detective series starring hobby investigator Rushmore “Mac” Mckenzie. Mac quit the police in order to accept a large finder’s fee from an insurance company, after locating a big embezzler for them.

Dead Boyfriends begins with Mac just trying to help out. He finds a woman, drunk and filthy, on her lawn, screaming about her dead boyfriend. Going inside, he finds the boyfriend several days dead, and proceeds to call the St. Paul police. The cop who shows up roughs the woman up, and Mac tries to cool him down. That earns him 36 hours in a police cell. When he gets out, he’s eager to help the woman’s lawyer, who thinks she can get her off and win a big damage suit from the city to boot.

Getting the case dropped is easy, but the repercussions are bloody, and the threads of the expanding mystery reach into the highest levels of state politics. At the end, Mac will face a hard choice, balancing his sense of justice against his respect for the law.

Good story. It got kind of convoluted at the end, but I’m liking McKenzie more and more. The political comments seem to strike right and left pretty evenly, but some statements are made about government that suggest to me that the author has some sensible opinions. Cautions for language and mature themes, but not too bad.

‘Cold Fire,’ by Dustin Stevens

Cold Fire
I bought this book because I got an Amazon discount. Most of the way through I thought it was pretty good, but it fell apart at the end.

When Cold Fire begins, former DEA agent “Hawk” Tate is finishing his last trip of the season as a Yellowstone wilderness guide in Montana. When a woman with a Russian accent shows up asking him to make one last trip, he demurs. It’s too late in the season; snow is coming. She insists, saying that her brother is out there, and he hasn’t checked in with the family. She offers Hawk an exorbitant fee for the job, so he takes her in.

And then there’s shooting, and Hawk is pulled back into a world he’d left behind – a world of law enforcement, Mexican cartels, Russian syndicates, and personal betrayal. The criminals have a plan – but the one thing they haven’t planned on is Hawk’s own burning hunger to get justice for a deep wrong done to him and his family.

Author Dustin Stevens makes the story work right up until the climax, when he loses his dramatic sense. Instead of the rising dramatic tension you want at the end of a thriller, he makes the final climax a plain procession of executions, carried off without a hitch. I suppose he was saving his surprises for the two Big Reveals at the end, but neither of those reveals worked for me. The first was obvious (it seemed to me) from fairly early in the story if you thought about it logically. The second CONTRADICTED EVERYTHING WE’D BEEN TOLD UP TO THAT POINT, without explanation. That was just annoying.

So I don’t recommend Cold Fire particularly. You might like it better. Cautions for the usual stuff.

‘Disaster Inc.’ by Caimh McDonnell

Disaster Inc.

Still, the Victory had a colourful history, even by the standards of New York, where any hotel worthy of the name collects incidents of infamy just by existing in the city that doesn’t sleep – or if it does, it sleeps with someone else’s partner.

Caimh McDonnell’s Dublin Trilogy series has come completely loose from its moorings. The trilogy is done, but the characters continue in further adventures, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Because they’re so much fun.

In Disaster Inc., the first book of a new series, we are reunited with big, bibulous Bunny McGarry, former Dublin policeman. Officially he’s dead and buried, but in fact he’s been transported to the United States by a shadowy group possibly connected to the CIA. They’ve equipped him with a debit card and an indestructible cell phone, to facilitate his search for the love of his life. She’s a jazz singer named Simone, and has lived her life on the run from other shadowy agents, because she “knows too much.”

Unfortunately for Bunny, as the book starts he’s eating an unsatisfactory breakfast in a roadside diner, having been robbed of his rucksack, which contained the card and the phone, during a drunken binge. As he’s pondering his next move a pair of masked gunmen invade the diner, announcing that this is a robbery. Bunny immediately identifies them as amateurs, and neutralizes them. Then he beelines for the door, because he’s in the US illegally and he’d rather not explain himself to the police.

But a car pulls up in front of him on the highway. Inside is a woman who was also in the diner. The robbers, she says, were actually there to kill her. She, too, “knows too much.” If Bunny can come to New York and help her get out of her problem, she’ll pay him a lot of money. After some hesitation, Bunny accepts, figuring he can find whoever stole his rucksack at the same time.

Which kicks off a highly improbable, but extremely enjoyable, adventure. McDonnell’s trademark wit is well in evidence, though I found a couple editorial errors – a wrong word choice and a confusion of attributions in a stretch of dialogue.

But still it was a lot of fun, and I recommend it – if you can handle the obscenities.

‘Holy Ghost,’ by John Sandford

Holy Ghost

John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers novels take a different approach from his more famous “Prey” novels starring Lucas Davenport. Virgil investigates in small town and rural Minnesota, and he generally handles less horrific crimes than Davenport. But that makes the stories no less interesting, and the puzzles in Holy Ghost are plenty challenging for any reader, I’d say.

Wheatfield, Minnesota was a moribund little town until the young mayor and a friend come up with a questionable scheme for reviving the economy. It involves a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the local Catholic church. They mean no harm, though they certainly profit from the situation. Pretty much everyone is happy with how things are going (including a skeptical visiting priest), until somebody starts shooting at visitors.

Virgil Flowers, former lady’s man (he’s now in an exclusive – though unmarried – relationship), and part-time outdoor writer, goes to Wheatfield in his capacity as an agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He meets a series of colorful characters (described pretty much without condescension), and pokes into everybody’s business in his low-key style. These are simple people, but the mystery is not simple at all.

I liked Holy Ghost the best, perhaps, of any of the books in this series. And that’s in spite of the depiction of a religious hoax, which is handled more casually than I approve of. But I liked the treatment of small-town people, and the dialogue was often quite funny.

Cautions for language, dirty jokes, violence, sexual references, and lighthearted handling of religious matters.

‘The Forbidden Door,’ by Dean Koontz

The Forbidden Door

I’ll read pretty much anything Dean Koontz writes these days, and the Jane Hawk series definitely has an intriguing concept. But frankly, I think The Forbidden Door is an unnecessary book.

We continue the saga of Jane Hawk, former FBI agent who is all that stands between civilization and The Arcadians, a high-level conspiracy of elites who are gradually taking the country over through implanting nanomachines in people’s brains, turning them into slaves without free will. The Arcadians have already murdered her husband, and now they’ve turned Jane into the FBI’s most wanted criminal. Legal and extralegal resources are being marshaled to capture her. She hid her son Travis with friends, but now that hiding place has been discovered, and Travis is now staying with the most unlikely protector in the world – a brilliant agoraphobe who lives in a hidden bunker. If the Arcadians capture him, they’ll use him to bring Jane in.

I was interested to read The Forbidden Door, but I found it hard to read. Jane actually doesn’t do much in this story. Most of our time is spent either with her vile enemies, or with their victims or potential victims. The level of unease is high, and it’s not relieved as often as I would have liked.

I have a suspicion (probably wrong) that Koontz sketched this series out as a trilogy, and the publishers persuaded him to pad the story with one extra volume, to increase revenue. This book mostly represents that padding.

So I don’t recommend it highly, except in the sense that if you’re reading the whole series – which is worthwhile – you’ll probably need to read this one.

Cautions for language, violence, and disturbing themes.

Amazon Prime film review: ‘The Hunter’s Prayer’

The Hunter's Prayer

Some time back I reviewed Kevin Wignall’s novel, The Hunter’s Prayer. I like Wignall’s work, and judging by my review, it was an interesting story that took a somewhat shopworn premise in unexpected directions. We’re used to stories about hit men who have a crisis of conscience and decide to save a target. In this book, a hit man saves a young girl, but then their paths diverge, going in surprising – and shocking – directions.

The movie version, which I watched on Amazon Prime the other night, does not follow the book very closely. It starts right – a teenaged girl in a private school in Switzerland (Ella Hatto, played by Odeya Rush) is attacked in a nightclub along with her date, but they are suddenly rescued by an efficient professional killer, Stephen Lucas (Sam Worthington). They go on the run, but contrary to the book the boy soon bails out. And the story after that runs along conventional action movie lines. The climax, though featuring plenty of violence and shooting, is pretty predictable.

My own judgment, as a storyteller only peripherally connected to the movie industry, is that the filmmakers had the choice of being faithful to the book and doing something dangerous and unconventional, or sticking to tried and true patterns. They chose the safe route, and came out with an adequate action film that no one will remember much a few hours after it’s over.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes.

‘The Eyrbyggja Saga and the Story of the Heath-slayings,’ trans. by William Morris

Eyrbyggja Saga

And therewithal Bardi nameth witnesses, and gives forth that he putteth from him Gudrun, Biorn’s daughter “and for this cause,” says Bardi, “that thou art by a great deal too much of a miser for any doughty man to put up with having thee for a father-in-law; nor shalt thou ever have back from me either dower or jointure.”

I figured it was time to read the Eyrbyggja Saga again, and that was before I even knew I’d be speaking to the Icelanders in a week. I like Laxdaela Saga a little better, because it has stronger characters, but the two sagas are often paired, as they share a general locality and several major players.

The big problem with reading any saga is keeping the actors straight. Every saga volume should include a detachable card with a list of characters on it (this is a particular problem with ebooks). And since about 2/3 of the characters have names that start with “Thor,” the struggle is real. I’ll confess that, supposed expert that I am, I lost track of who was who much of the time, and only guessed the teams by who they were fighting against.

Eybyggja means “the Eyr builders,” or the people who settled at Eyr. Eyr is a locality in northwest Iceland, and I visited the area on my one Icelandic trip. The gist of the narrative is that proud men tend to step on each others’ toes, and in an honor culture that leads to bloodshed. Accident leads to insult, and insult leads to blows or seizure of property, and then honor is offended and the killing starts. This continues unabated until the death of the mighty chieftain Arnkel. With him out of the way, his rival Snorri the Chieftain (or Priest, a character who appears in my novel West Oversea) gains power. Snorri is clearly not regarded as highly as Arnkel by his neighbors (or by the saga writer), but it must admitted his sometimes devious schemes tended to promote peace, and the area finally gets some rest from killing under his influence.

The really fascinating thing about Eyrbyggja Saga is its fantastic elements. There are a lot of ghosts in this story – the Norse kind of ghost, which is corporeal like a zombie (but does not, it should be noted, eat brains). Nevertheless these ghosts have a malign influence wherever they walk, and people tend to sicken and die – or even be assaulted – when they encounter them. There’s Thorolf Halt-foot, a malicious and greedy old man whose body must at last be burned to stop him walking. There’s Thorgunna the rich widow (who appears in West Oversea while still alive). There’s Thorir Wooden-Leg and his crew, who also appear in West Oversea. They provide the saga with a somber flavor that makes it unforgettable.

Appended to this edition (William Morris’s translation) is also The Story of the Heath-Slayings, a fragmentary saga which features (again) some of the same characters, at least in bit parts. The section we have largely involves a raid by northern farmers against southern farmers (for revenge, of course). The story advances by choreographed stages (reminding me, for some reason, of The Magnificent Seven), and also leaves a strong impression on the reader (or at least on this reader).

I’m not sure I recommend William Morris’s version. His intentions were good, if I understand them correctly – to use a lot of antique diction and obscure words to give an impression of the flavor of the Icelandic originals. But frankly, the sagas are hard enough to follow as they are, without all those obsolete words. Eyrbyggja is not the greatest of the sagas, but it’s one the saga fan will not want to miss.

‘The African Connection,’ by Mark W. Sasse

The African Connection

Mark Sasse’s bizarre “Forgotten Child” series continues with The African Connection. An unconventional fantasy in an unconventional trilogy. I got a free review copy from author Sasse.

The first book in the series, A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far (which I reviewed previously) told the story of Francis Frick, the original Nasty McNasty, you might say. Rich, powerful, greedy, cruel to his employees and to his daughter, he seems irredeemable. Until he is awakened one night by “Bee,” a fairy-like creature who hovers over his bed eating a pomegranate. She transports him to strange places and past times, where he gradually learns to empathize with others, and finally saves a child from the Cambodian holocaust. He also finds a cause – destroying Heinrich Ulrich, an amoral arms dealer with whom he formerly did business. But there are repercussions on the spiritual level – Bee is not following the rules for spiritual beings. Disaster follows, in a cliff-hanging climax.

In The African Connection, we find Francis in FBI custody, frustrating the agents with his nonchalance. Meanwhile Hatty Parker, a young woman, a new character in the story, steals a document linking her boss to Heinrich Ulrich. Arrested by the FBI as well, she ends up accompanying Francis on a series of hops through space and time, in which they grow attached to one another and he learns shocking things about his own origins. And gradually their support from Bee diminishes, as she finds herself under pressure from other spiritual beings, and in danger of losing her protector, the powerful Ash.

The African Connection is a strange read – I still haven’t made up my mind whether it’s quirkily brilliant or just naïve. It can be very funny and very poignant in turns. There are a few instances of mistaken word use – “extolling” for “exhorting” – that sort of thing. Still, I’m interested in finding out how it all turns out.

No cautions that I can recall for language or objectionable adult themes. Recommended.

‘Pretty Girl Gone,’ by David Housewright

Pretty Girl Gone

Her smile was bright, but brittle. You could smash it with a word.

There is a town of Victoria, Minnesota. It’s a northwest suburb of the Twin Cities, and I was there for a community festival just a few weeks ago. However, in David Housewright’s third Mac McKenzie mystery, Pretty Girl Gone, the town (or at least its name) is transported to southwestern Minnesota. That’s where Jack Barrett, fictional governor of the state, grew up. He launched his career there as one of the “Victoria Seven,” a Cinderella basketball team that famously won the state championship.

Barrett’s wife is named Lindsay, and she comes from St. Paul where she was once the girlfriend of our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie, pro bono private eye. She meets with Mac and asks him to go to Victoria to investigate a nasty rumor that’s going around – that Jack murdered his high school sweetheart, who died the night before the big game.

Of course Mac goes to check it out. He will turn over a lot of old rocks, and tangle with some local thugs, before he manages to discover the shocking truth.

So far so good. I’m enjoying this series. The politics sometimes seem to lean left, but there are interesting exceptions (as when Mac makes fun of Minnesota’s concealed carry law, and then carries his piece past a “Firearms Forbidden” sign anyway). One thing I like is that author Housewright seems to have a pretty balanced view of small town and lower-middle-class people, who tend to get treated pretty badly by liberal writers.

Pretty good. Recommended, with the usual cautions.