Category Archives: Reviews

‘Cold Land,’ by John Oakes

Cold Land

Another mystery set in Minnesota. I keep buying these things. Was John Oakes’s Cold Land more satisfying to me than the previous suspects? Read on and learn…

Jake Adler is a proud Texas Ranger. But he loves his wife, who left him, taking their two daughters, to go home to Minnesota. So Jake bit the bullet and drove north, lured by a job opening in Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

But this isn’t the elite, professional BCA so many of us know from John Sandford’s Prey novels. The BCA in this novel is a moribund organization, crippled by budget cuts. Just a few agents wander its empty office building, and those are mostly low achievers dumped by other agencies. This shocks Jake, but what’s worse is that he’s told his application (despite his credentials) will have to go in the queue with others, and he must wait a couple weeks for a decision.

But there’s a secretary in the center of the wreck of BCA, one of those indispensable, competent women who keep organizations afloat. She tells Jake, confidentially, that if he goes along to help Jerry Unger, a veteran agent, with a petty fraud case, she thinks she can find a way to get him hired. So Jake accompanies Jerry on that not-very-promising assignment. Only they discover a body, which makes it a murder investigation, and Jerry and Jake are now competing with other cops to thwart what gradually is revealed to be a major hijacking plot. Along the way, Jake will make shocking personal discovery.

I guess the portrayal of Minnesota is only fair. In so many novels, we see the south through northern eyes, and get an endless vista of gap-toothed, inbred rednecks. In this book, we have Minnesota viewed through southern (Texan) eyes, and the prospect is no more appealing. Minnesota seems to be full of trailer trash too. In fact we see little of the state here besides blighted neighborhoods, and the weather’s cold to boot.

I didn’t take these descriptions personally (though I wondered what Oakes has against Anoka, for which he reserves special derision. I always thought Anoka kind of a yuppy, arty place). I also found the plot a little hard to follow (which may be only a comment on me).

My real problem was with the tone of the thing. The book has a sort of a black humor voice, with serious crimes yoked to light dialogue. John Sandford finds a balance when he writes this kind of story, but Cold Land didn’t entirely gel for me. The various plot elements seemed to work against each other.

But author Oakes shows promise. I think he’ll improve with time. Cautions for the usual stuff. Some themes seemed conservative to me, but a couple shots were taken at Christians.

‘Dead Hill,’ by John Dean

Dead Hill

In the previous John Dean novel I read, To Die Alone (reviewed south of here), I came away kind of cool to the main character. Detective Inspector Jack “Hawk” Harris operates in a fictional small town in northern England. He seemed a fairly garden variety literary detective in the Inspector Morse mode – eccentric, poorly socialized, and rude to everyone (including his superior). His chief virtue was his love for animals, especially his black Labrador, Scoot, who accompanies him pretty much everywhere.

In this novel, Dead Hill (actually an earlier installment in the series), I got a better opportunity to know Inspector Harris, and I liked him better. He’s even admirable at times.

A man is found dead at the bottom of a cliff in an old quarry. However (as Harris immediately suspects) the man did not fall by accident. He was struck on the head and pushed, according to the medical examiner. Suspicion falls on a couple of visitors in the area, shady types out to steal the eggs of golden eagles for collectors. But witnesses report a third man with them – though they deny that.

A lot of people are telling lies about a lot of things, and Harris’s investigation leads him back into his own past. Many of the villains in this complex case were fellows he went to school with as a boy – and he himself came within an inch of following on their path. But he didn’t know them as well as he thought he did, and he will see many of his memories and assumptions turned upside down before all is done.

Harris’s moral character is more on display here than in the last book I read, and that improved the story immensely for me. I enjoyed it quite a bit and recommend it. With mild cautions, of course, for language and disturbing themes.

Netflix viewing report: ‘Hell on Wheels’

Hell on Wheels

The series “Hell on Wheels” was recommended to me.

I must explain, or apologize, for the title of the series – not for inventing it of course, but for not rejecting out of hand a show with a curse word in its name. “Hell on Wheels” is actually a historically bona fide term. When the Intercontinental Railroad was being built, there was a mobile town that moved with it. Whenever End of Track got out of sight, they’d load the town up on wagons, move it a couple miles, and rebuild it at the new railhead. They called it “Hell on Wheels,” which is where the expression comes from. As the name suggests, it was a town devoted to vice.

We follow former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). He has come west, not for his fortune, but for revenge. A group of Yankee soldiers violated and murdered his wife during the war, and he’s hunting them down one by one. Cullen is an interesting antihero – a man with great capabilities, but hollowed out by hate. When denied his vengeance, he collapses into a bottle.

Through circumstances I’ll skip over, Cullen becomes foreman of the Union Pacific work crew. He commands both white workers and black workers, chief among them Elam Ferguson (played by the rapper, Common) with whom he strikes up a fragile and hostile alliance. His boss is “Doc” Durant (Colm Meany), a pure huckster out for the biggest of scores. Cullen’s nemesis is “The Swede” (Chris Heyerdahl), the head of security (he confides that he’s actually a Norwegian), a man who seems to combine piety with tremendous corruption and contempt for human life.

But there are (and I salute the producers for this) actually decent, decently portrayed Christians in this series. The preacher who ministers to Hell on Wheels (Tom Noonan) delivers a pretty good explanation of the gospel as he tries to minister to Cullen’s hollowed out soul. Or at least as far as I’ve watched so far—four episodes.

Last night, after watching that fourth episode, I had what seemed like an epiphany, an attack of what I might call Writer’s Disease. I realized that, given the arc of the plot, it’s almost inevitable that something really awful is going to happen to the most sympathetic character in the series. The story kind of demands it.

And I’m not sure I have the courage to go on watching, and see that.

Writer’s Disease? Or just an old man’s moral cowardice? I’m wrestling with the question.

“Hell on Wheels” is not bad if you can handle the language and adult themes. No actual nudity so far.

‘To Die Alone,’ by John Dean

To Die Alone

Without going to all the bother of doing a serious, scientific survey, I get the strong impression that British crime fiction is becoming heavily “Midsomerized” just now. By that I mean that nobody really wants to read about what’s going on in the urban centers, so people are opting for stories about crime in small English communities, where the suspects are generally white and the situations less fraught with political deadfalls.

There are several such series to choose from, and I’ve reviewed books from a few. This time I gave a shot to John Dean’s (not the American Watergate figure) Inspector Harris series. And it wasn’t bad at all.

Jack Harris (his nickname is “Hawk,” but don’t do it without his permission) is a detective chief inspector in the fictional hamlet of Levton Bridge in the northern Pennines region. A former soldier, he’s smart and strong and shrewd. He worked for a time in London, but eagerly took the opportunity to return to the village where he grew up, because his deepest love is for the nature of the region, and for wildlife. Each book in the series, I gather, involves some crime against animals.

In To Die Alone, a man does just what the title suggests. He’s found dead in the woods, possibly struck by a tree in a windstorm, but in fact stabbed to death. Soon after that his dog is found, terribly mauled by some animal, probably another dog. That suggests to Harris a connection to a dog fighting ring which he knows to be operating locally. And that leads to illegal gambling, and the world of exotic animal smuggling. All the time Harris tries to keep his commander (whom he despises) in the dark while directing his two subordinates – a transplanted Cockney who yearns for the bright lights and a callow young female detective.

Jack Harris should have been more annoying to me than he was. I dislike people who care more for animals than humans, and Harris is clearly one of those. However, he isn’t painted as a paragon, and he came off quite sympathetically (most of the time). The writing is very good as well.

Recommended, with mild cautions for the usual suspects.

‘No Coming Back,’ by Keith Houghton

No Coming Back

In the wake of Vidar Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy” books, which did not send me over the moon, I tried a different mystery novel, also set in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region – No Coming Back, by Keith Houghton.

Alas, I did not love this one either. While Sundstøl’s books are stylish but (in my opinion) perverse, Houghton’s book seemed to me over-beaten and under-baked. Though not without promise.

Jake Olson returns to his (fictional) home town of Harper, Minnesota after nearly 20 years gone. He’s been in prison, convicted as a teenager of killing his girlfriend, Jenna. He didn’t do it. Now (and this is one of the first of many improbabilities that abound in this story) the local newspaper publisher, who has always supported him, hires him to re-investigate the murder and identify the real killer.

On the same day Jake comes home (another improbability), a large tree, a local landmark, is toppled by a storm. Under the roots a skeleton is found. Jake is convinced it’s Jenna’s. Now he’s on a mission, but he has lots of opposition. Jenna’s brother has promised to kill Jake. The local sheriff has always hated him, and is just waiting for an excuse to bust him and send him back to Stillwater on a parole violation.

And there are larger challenges. Everybody in this book – everybody – is lying. Everybody has something to hide.

The whole thing was too much for me. Too many conspiracies, and too complicated. Too many lies. Too much violence for the setting. Too many villains. Toward the end I didn’t even care about Jake, which is a major narrative failure.

I think Keith Houghton shows promise as a novelist. He can turn a good phrase when he’s on his game (though his diction can be sloppy too). But this book was just too convoluted and nihilistic for its own good, in my view.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult situations.

‘The Secret of Wild Boar Woods,’ by P. F. Ford

The Secret of Wild Boar Wood

At this point, my ongoing reviews of P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater novels are more in the line of reading reports than reviews. You already know what I think of them – not top-level literature, but amusing entertainment.

In The Secret of Wild Boar Woods, Detective Sergeant Dave Slater is landed with a new partner – a cute little female detective. To make it even more precious, her last name is Darling (and yes, comic hay is made out of that). They are called to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, last scene waiting for her mother outside her school. When the missing person case becomes murder, they’re faced with a confusing tangle of intertwining relationships, familial and sexual, among the girl’s family and their friends. Meanwhile Dave patiently attempts to teach his green and volatile new partner how to act like a grown-up cop.

As always, the story was entertaining. As always, I’m a little annoyed by the author’s treatment of his characters. He changes his mind about them between stories, so that someone we’ve been taught to like in the last book because a bad’un in the present book. That, in my opinion, is not playing entirely fair with readers who faithfully follow the series.

Still, The Secret of Wild Boar Woods was pretty good reading, and it’s not expensive in Kindle. Recommended, with cautions for adult themes.

Two-thirds of Vidar Sundstol’s ‘Minnesota Trilogy’

The Land of Dreams

Kind of like Sigrid Undset, only anti-Christian.

That’s my reaction after reading the first two volumes of Norwegian author Vidar Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy” – The Land of Dreams and Only the Dead.

Lance Hansen is a “forest cop” – a policeman in the Superior National Forest, in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. He’s a good man, devoted to his (broken) family and fascinated with genealogy and local history. One day, while checking out an illegal camping spot, he finds a naked man babbling in a foreign language. At length he recognizes it as Norwegian, his father’s native tongue. Nearby he finds another naked man, viciously battered to death.

The case is quickly handed off to the FBI, as the crime scene is on federal land. But Lance keeps poking around the edges. Not to find the truth – he’s very much afraid he knows the truth – but because he saw something that day, something he has not told and will not tell anyone, for personal reasons. Continue reading Two-thirds of Vidar Sundstol’s ‘Minnesota Trilogy’

‘The Red Telephone Box,’ by P. F. Ford

The Red Telephone Box

The Dave Slater mystery series from P. F. Ford continues. In The Red Telephone Box, Detective Sergeant Slater’s partner, DS Norman, disappears. Norman has been taking secretive calls for some time, and Dave hasn’t wanted to poke into his affairs. Now he has to.

At the same time, a “new broom” has arrived in the police station in Tinton, Hampshire. Detective Inspector Goodnews (seriously, that’s her name) has been sent in to straighten out the somewhat chaotic organization of the department. Dave gets off to a rocky start with her, but gradually comes to appreciate her leadership qualities and detective skills. Also, she’s quite attractive, and they’re soon both hard at work denying to themselves their mutual attraction.

I’ve spoken condescendingly about the writing in this series, and in truth it’s not top notch. But there’s an interesting metanarrative in view here – minor subplots in the various books form an overarching narrative which (one assumes) will be made manifest in books to come. That helps keep the reader’s interest up. And author Ford isn’t afraid to mess with the cast. The characterizations, on the other hand, are a little ham-handed. Characters seem to do drastic things for inadequate reasons, just to move the plot along.

But I’m enjoying the series. I’ll read a couple non-related books now, and come back to Dave Slater. Mild cautions for adult situations.

‘The Wrong Man,’ by P. F. Ford

The Wrong Man

Another Dave Slater mystery from P. F. Ford. I’m working my way through the series, but I can’t read too many in a row because they make for same-same reviews. The Wrong Man is fast-food literature, enjoyable but without great substance.

Diana Woods was a beautiful housewife. All her friends and neighbors praise her as a wonderful friend. But her ex-husband and a few others tell a different story – that she was devious, two-faced, greedy, and sexually promiscuous. In any case, she’s dead now, stabbed with a knife in her kitchen.

Detective Sergeants Slater and Norman, of the fictional small English town of Tinton, quickly find evidence that points to the ex-husband. But he seems genuinely distraught by Diana’s death. DS Slater is uncomfortable with charging him, even in spite of pressure from his commander.

P. F. Ford’s forte is in fooling the reader. There are surprises and counter-surprises right to the end. I was baffled and thoroughly taken in (though I’ll admit I’m not the cleverest mystery reader). The writing, as always, is average, and the characterizations uneven, but the puzzle was highly enjoyable.

Recommended with mild cautions for adult themes.

‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

The Conversion of Scandinavia

It’s a little disappointing, after my glowing review of Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings (reviewed a few inches south of here), to deliver a less than enthusiastic review of his earlier work, The Conversion of Scandinavia. Of course it’s ridiculous for me, an amateur historian and fantasy novelist, to challenge a scholar of Winroth’s stature. But this is my area of interest, blast it, and I’m going to defend it with whatever flimsy weapons I’ve got.

The thesis of The Conversion of Scandinavia is fairly easily stated. In Winroth’s view, the conversion essentially never happened – not in the way we’ve been taught. All those cultural clashes and crusader atrocities are just the fancies of Icelandic storytellers. What actually happened (in this view) is that various chieftains and kings realized that Christianity offered both prestige and (in the Church) a bureaucratic model that could be expanded and adapted to solidify their own power. The kings were baptized, and their kingdoms declared officially Christian. Other than that, the changes were few, but the people gradually adapted to the new religious order.

One thing that immediately struck me was that Winroth completely bypasses the institution of the Things, the Viking democratic assemblies that balanced and limited royal power. He writes of the Scandinavian kings as if they were autocrats, ruling by decree. Although he doesn’t explain this omission, I imagine he considers the idea of the Thing another invention of Icelandic saga writers – and in his view (apparently) the very fact that a saga writer says it is conclusive proof of falsehood. He does not recognize the recent work of scholars in the field of folklore studies, who argue that useful information can be preserved in pre-literate societies for three centuries or more through traditional mnemonic devices, before being written down. Continue reading ‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

‘The Late Show,’ by Michael Connelly

The Late Show

Michael Connelly introduces a new detective character in his latest novel, The Late Show.

He’s obviously studied his market, because he delivers the precise kind of detective readers want today – a feisty, alienated woman cop.

Renee Ballard works “The Late Show,” police slang for the 11:00 to 7:00 shift, in Hollywood. She’s there because she had a personal conflict with a former superior. The Late Show is where cops are sent when nobody wants them. Late Show cops don’t even get to work cases to the end – they have to hand them off to day shift detectives in the morning.

One night Renee is called to the scene of the brutal beating of a transsexual prostitute. Then there’s a multiple shooting at a night club. Renee follows up certain clues relating to one of the victims, a waitress, even though it’s somebody else’s case by then. This sets her on a road that will lead her into tremendous personal danger, and to corruption in high places.

As you’ve probably guessed if you’ve been reading me a while, I’m not enthralled with Renee Ballard. It’s doubtless my misogyny (I don’t like women sent into danger, which makes me evil, of course), but I don’t approve of woman cops. And this woman has issues. She’s not a team player, and she consciously steps on other officers’ investigations. If I were her commander, I’d demote her too.

But The Late Show is a good novel by one of the best writers in the crime fiction genre. I recommend it on its own merits, with cautions for language, violence, and sexual situations.

‘Florence,’ by P.F. Ford

Florence

I’m carrying on with P.F. Ford’s Dave Slater mystery series. Dave is a police detective in a small English town, partnered with DS Norman, who preaches positive thinking.

In Florence, an old man is found dead in his home, and Dave writes it off as an accident, with good reasons. But then there are break-ins in the man’s house, and the pathologist confirms that bruising on the body suggests possible homicide. And there’s the mystery of the man’s will. He left everything to his sister, whom he insisted shortly before his death was still alive. But there’s no record of the woman.

Dave and his team slowly uncover the secret history of a defunct local orphanage, a history that certain powerful people will go to any length to keep secret.

Florence seemed to me a little more serious than the previous books in the series. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because author Ford can sometimes overdo the jokes. He’s learning how to write a good mystery, though. He did an excellent job of distracting me from the pea under the shell.

Recommended for light reading – though very serious themes are addressed. Minor cautions for language and adult themes.

‘The Age of the Vikings,’ by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings

Charlemagne himself rode toward the plundering Northmen, bringing with him his beloved pet elephant, Abul-Abbas, a gift from the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad. The elephant suddenly died after crossing the Rhine River, a bad omen.

Hear me: From this day forth, and until I change my mind, when someone asks me for a good introduction to the Viking Age, I will recommend to them Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings.

The book opens with a vivid description of a feast in a Swedish chieftain’s hall. The warriors enjoy a dessert treat of exotic walnuts. A skald recites a poem, which all praise but few understand, in honor of his host.

This, in my opinion, is the way to open a book on the Viking Age. Author Winroth, who teaches medieval history at Yale, knows his material, but he also knows how to grab a reader. There’s no excuse for a book on the Vikings to be dull, though some writers accomplish that feat. Winroth, on the other hand, milks the drama for all it’s worth, and it makes his book a joy to read. He’s an excellent stylist too.

He covers such subjects as the relative violence of the Vikings (compared to their contemporaries), Viking Age emigration, Viking ships, Viking trade, Viking political development, everyday life, and religion. No subject is covered exhaustively, but his material is authoritative and his scholarship up to date.

He writes some things that surprised me and contradicted information I thought I knew. Chances are he’s right and I’m wrong. He exercises the normal caution of contemporary scholars in using the Icelandic sagas; I’m associated with the revisionist party on that point. I hope that scholarly opinion will alter in the future. Till then, Winroth’s cautious approach is prudent.

Highly recommended. Suitable for ordinary readers teenaged and up, but students of the age (like me) will also learn things.

‘Just a Coincidence,’ by P. F. Ford

Just a Coincidence

This is number two in the Dave Slater mystery series by P. F. Ford. I enjoyed the first one, and reviewed it just below. This one was fun too.

At the start of Just a Coincidence, Dave, a detective sergeant in the small English town of Tinton, is called to a crime scene, after a dog walker has discovered a woman’s body, battered to an extent that seems hardly possible. The dog that first found the body then runs up with a human femur in his mouth – an old one. A search of the area uncovers a shallow grave containing the bodies of a woman and a young girl.

And then it gets really weird. Turns out all three bodies are related.

Dave Slater once again teams up with the inveterate optimist DS Norman. The trail leads to a millionaire who practices serial monogamy and a smuggling operation run by shadowy Eastern European gangsters. The investigation is hampered by an unstable team member who creates dissension in the police ranks. And all through, DS Norman does his best to keep Dave thinking positive.

I enjoyed Just a Coincidence just as much as I enjoyed Death of a Temptress. The writing isn’t always the best, but the entertainment never flags. Author Ford has an interesting way of taking characters in unexpected directions, so the reader should never take anything – or anyone – for granted.

Recommended for grownups. Cautions for language and stuff.

‘Death of a Temptress,’ by P. F. Ford

Death of a Temptress

An hour or so later, they were pretty sure they were both on the same page. In fact, they were in complete agreement. They completely agreed they had no idea what it was they were investigating.

Sometimes a book benefits from contrast with what you last read. After my brief, grim sojourn among Norwegian mystery writers, this story came like a break in the clouds. In spite of some flaws.

The hero of Death of a Temptress (first in a series of police procedurals by P.F. Ford) is Dave Slater, a detective sergeant in Tinton, a small, fictional Hampshire (England) town. Dave has been demoted, having been made the scapegoat for another officer’s mistakes. When his superior assigns him to a missing person case, he’s bitter at first. He considers it a waste of his time. He isn’t any happier when he’s teamed with DS Norman Norman (his actual name), a fat detective with a reputation for laziness. Dave is soon disabused of this prejudice. DS Norman turns out to be a smart and wise cop, who preaches positive thinking to him to with some success. Continue reading ‘Death of a Temptress,’ by P. F. Ford