Category Archives: Reviews

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped,’ Season 2

The second season of the Icelandic miniseries, Trapped, (I reviewed Season One below) was – in some ways – superior to the first (in my view). There were parts I didn’t care for, but I admit that was mostly due to my personal opinions and tastes.

Two years have passed since we last saw our bearded hero, Andri Olafsson (Olafur Darri Olafsson). He’s moved back to Reykjavik to be a cop there again, one assumes to be close to his daughters, who were living with his ex-wife. Only the older one, Thorhildur, has returned to the small town of Siglufjordur to be close to her friends – especially a particular boy. She is now a rebellious teenager, and in the tradition of teenaged girls in thrillers, is a complete idiot when it comes to her personal safety.

Andri is called back to Siglufjordur when a local farmer one day appears near Parliament in Reykjavik, sets himself on fire, and tries to ignite the Minister of Industries along with himself. She is, in fact, his twin sister, a Siglufjordur native who long ago turned her back on the place. He had been involved in protests against the expansion of an aluminum plant near his home, as well as with right-wing nationalist groups. Shortly after Andri is reunited with his old team of local cops, a manager at the plant is murdered, setting off a string of crimes and arrests that culminate in a kidnapping and a pursuit across the heaths.

There were several elements in the series that rubbed me the wrong way. One was the involvement of right-wing groups – though when I think of it, they were treated with surprising understanding. Another was the cliché of the predatory industry that thinks it can make money by killing its customers. Most uncomfortable of all was a subplot about homosexuals. Instead of the brief heterosexual sex scene we saw in the first series, this time we got two men involved in displays of affection – at one point in bed together. These are my principles – I care about whether homosexuals live or die. I care that they not be railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit. But I cannot be made to care whether the boy gets the boy. There is no microscope sensitive enough to detect my interest in that subject.

Another problem is the family relationships. Most of the suspects (and victims) are bound (in classic saga style, I’ll admit) by a bewildering tangle of marriages, divorces, and irregular liaisons. Everybody is a cousin or an in-law of all the others, and for the life of me I couldn’t keep it all straight.

On the other hand, there were some fine elements here. Because this story is set in the fall, we lose the claustrophobia of the snowed-in town that so permeated Season One. Now we’re treated to vistas of Icelandic heaths and mountains, herds of horses and flocks of sheep. Conscious tribute is paid to the sagas, especially in a plot thread where a local boy flees the police on horseback across the fells, looking for all the world like an outlaw of old.

The resolution worked out in the same spirit as Season One – the mystery is solved, the hostage rescued, but in a general environment of ancient injuries, unhealed psychological wounds, and the shock of an Episode 8 plot development that blindsided me (at least).

All in all, fascinating TV, and pretty watchable. Cautions for language and all the stuff I talked about.

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped’

My part-time job keeps me generally aware of Scandinavian miniseries, but somehow this Icelandic one, a few years old now, had escaped my notice. Trapped (Ófærð) is a crime series that has much in common with so many European crime series these days (except that the main character, instead of being a plucky single mother, is a plucky single father). But it‘s interesting in its own right, and the locations are fresh and scenic.

On a winter‘s day in the small northern Iceland town of Siglufjordur, a headless, limbless torso is fished out of the fjord. Since the ferry from Denmark just came in, the police have to detain the boat and all its passengers – displeasing the passengers, the crew, and the Danish government. The “big boys“ from the Reykjavik police are supposed to come in to investigate, but a sudden blizzard grounds all aircraft and road travel. So the responsibility falls on the three-person local force, most especially on the chief, Andri Olafsson (played by Olafur Darri Olafsson, surely a contender for some award for the most generously bearded TV detective in recent memory).

But Andri’s problems aren’t limited to solving the torso murder. There are the difficulties associated with the blizzard, as well as an avalanche that follows. Questions arise anew over a crime from the past – the death of Andri’s ex-wife’s sister in a fire in a fish factory, for which a young man went to prison (unjustly). There’s also a human trafficking investigation, involving two young Nigerian girls wandering lost in the snow. And there is political chicanery on the part of the town’s governing authorities, all involved in a shady land scheme with the Chinese.

It all works out to be pretty fascinating. The main character is a compelling and principled presence on screen, and the production values are high (this was the most expensive miniseries ever made in Iceland). The resolution ties up loose ends pretty well, though it’s typically Scandinavian in being rather downbeat and bleak. The Icelandic title has a broader meaning than the English word – it also refers to a blocked road. A running theme is the discontent of the town’s young people, who feel trapped in one of the remotest towns in a generally remote country.

But I enjoyed Trapped, and recommend it, with cautions for language, sex, brief nudity, and disturbing themes. There’s a second season, too.

‘An Advancement of Learning,’ by Reginald Hill

I think I tried to watch one episode of the long-running BBC series, “Dalziel and Pascoe,” based on Reginald Hill’s mystery novels. It just didn’t grab me. But I thought I’d try one of the original books, to see if I caught the magic there. The formula’s pretty familiar – old, grizzled detective teamed with young, callow detective – only these books are old enough that the young detective is allowed to be male.

An Advancement of Learning (the title comes from a book by Sir Francis Bacon) takes place at Holm Coultram College, a fictional school in Yorkshire. A statue is being moved from the spot where it has stood for five years, when human bones are discovered under its base. They turn out to be those of the former Principal of the College, Alison Girling, who was assumed to have died in an avalanche in Switzerland, also about five years ago. Detective Inspector Andrew Dalziel and his assistant Peter Pascoe are assigned the case. Dalziel is an old working-class type, contemptuous of intellectuals and the academic life. Pascoe is a college graduate who once considered a scholar’s life – indeed an old college girlfriend turns out to be on the faculty here. They will encounter partisan instructors, politically radical students (who seem pretty mild by current standards – this was the early ‘70s), drugs and satanic rituals. And there will be more murders. All in all, Dalziel’s view of academics seems to be validated when all is revealed.

There were things I liked about An Advancement of Learning. It was written long enough ago that social norms were a little more conventional – homosexuality is still scandalous, and most people seem to be nominally Christian (though the only vocal Christian in the book is pretty unattractive).

But I didn’t care for author Hill’s writing technique. He spends a lot of pages telling us people’s thoughts. I’ve learned to expect to see plot advanced through dialogue and conflict, rather than interior monologue. So I found it kind of slow going. Also, although I was prepared to like Insp. Dalziel, I didn’t. His personality didn’t seem to go very deep. The ending was moderately satisfactory, though.

You may like this book more than I did. The language was pretty mild, and the violence and sex were mostly off stage.

‘Agent In Place,’ by Mark Greaney

One more book in Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series, and it’s as good as its predecessors. In fact, I think I’d rate Agent In Place as one of the best.

It seems like an odd assignment for the world’s greatest assassin, but Court Gentry, the Gray Man, has been hired by a group of Syrian expatriates in Paris to kidnap a supermodel. Bianca Medina is the mistress of a fictionalized president of Syria, Ahmed Azzam, and she has secretly borne him a son. The Syrian patriots who hired Court hope to use her to get to the tyrant.

Court succeeds, but as usual there are wheels within wheels. Azzam’s wife in Damascus is plotting against Bianca with her Swiss lover, a ruthless security expert who is himself plotting to get himself out of Syria. Just as the Syrian army, the Syrian resistance, the Russians, the Americans, ISIS, the Iranians, the Kurds and others are fighting for various purposes in the desert, one faction is fighting another in Europe, each trying to leverage the instability for their own purposes, noble or ignoble or purely mercenary.

In the style of all the Gray Man books, situations that start out complex rapidly unreel into tangles and twists and betrayals that threaten to bring Court’s storied career to a sudden and bloody end. But whatever happens, in Europe or in Syria, Court will find his moral center and do what he sees as right, even to the point of death.

Lots of fun. Agent In Place had a climactic fight scene as deeply satisfying as any I’ve ever read in a book. Cautions for violence, language, and high dramatic tension.

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Mindhunter’

The Amazon Prime miniseries Mindhunter is well-done. I’m not sure whether I’d call it “watchable,” because sometimes it’s hard to watch (though, thank Heaven, there are no dramatizations of actual murders, which might frankly have driven me off). And having watched both the first season and the newly-released second season now, I’m not entirely sure what the point is.

The series is based on the development of the discipline (I won’t say science) of criminal behavioral profiling at the FBI in the 1970s and ‘80s. The main characters, FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt MacCallany), are based on real men – John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler. They are, however, fictionalized beyond all recognition. Holden is a young agent, kind of a genius with an intuitive understanding of human motivation, but poor at social relations and office politics. Bill is old school, at first skeptical of profiling but gradually won over. He runs interference for his partner when he steps out of line. Which is often. There’s also a professional psychologist, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who is a closeted lesbian and chafes at being kept out of the action on the street.

The experiment begins with the agents doing long, intense interviews with various incarcerated serial killers. Richard Speck is one of them, and they “get” Charles Manson in Season Two. But the most “helpful” is Ed Kemper, the “Co-Ed Killer” (Cameron Britton), who is portrayed as remarkably articulate and self-aware, but helpless to control his impulses – a fascinating performance, chilling in its ambivalence. Gradually (they believe) they begin to recognize social and behavioral patterns matching various kinds of “organized” serial killers.

The show is fascinating (I think) mainly in its portrayals of the criminally insane. I’m less impressed with the value of behavioral profiling in itself. In the real world (or so I’ve read), profiling doesn’t really do much to solve crimes. By its nature it can’t provide positive evidence. That problem seems to be echoed in the aura of futility that hangs over much of the production. Season Two ends with the conviction of Wayne Williams, the Atlanta Child Killer, but the resolution leaves the agents frustrated. And Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, appears in regular vignettes. But in fact, profilers had little or nothing to do with Rader’s conviction. He was identified through digital forensics.

So I’m not sure what to say about Mindhunter. It’s fascinating to watch the process and be shocked by the face of evil, but there aren’t a lot of satisfactions here. Serious cautions for disturbing material, foul language, sex and nudity.

‘No Good Deed,’ by James Swain

The second book in James Swain’s intriguing Lancaster and Daniels series has now been released. No Good Deed is well worth your time and money.

Former Navy Seal and cop Jon Lancaster, and FBI agent Beth Daniels, are not officially a team, but once again they end up working together. Jon works for The Adam Project, a group devoted to finding kidnapped children. When he learns of the abduction of a teenaged girl in a small Florida town, he cancels a fishing vacation to see if he can help. And he does – he discovers a clue suggesting that the missing girl was not the kidnappers’ real target. They wanted her grandmother, who was murdered at the scene, but things didn’t go according to plan.

This links the crime to a string of abductions of adult women across the state. That brings in the FBI, and Lancaster and Daniels meet again – awkwardly. They’d had a couple dates after their last case, but then Daniels stopped answering his calls. They like and respect each other, and share a passion for their work, but their approaches are different. Lancaster is all about the objective – he’ll cut corners to save a life, without hesitation. Daniels needs to do things by the book. Cooperating with Lancaster will mean compromising her standards and breaking FBI regulations. Can she justify enabling Lancaster? Can she justify not enabling him? Each of them will learn the others’ darkest secrets, and share their own, before they solve the case.

No Good Deed is an exciting story, well told. Christianity gets a couple favorable mentions. I liked it. Cautions for language and intense situations.

Old movie review: ‘Passport to Suez’

Ever since I started spending my days at home, I’ve been exploring television options (when I’m not listening to talk radio). There were a couple different choices on free broadcast TV for old westerns, but I’ve begun to exhaust those over the past year. Now, having recently acquired a new Blu-Ray player (the old one died; they seem to have the life expectancy of goldfish), I’ve begun exploring the possibilities of that device. One thing I can do with it is stream Amazon Prime video. Last night I tried out an old movie in a series I knew mostly by reputation – Passport to Suez, a Lone Wolf movie starring Warren William.

Warren William had an intriguing career. He looks and sounds like an Englishman, but was actually born in the small town of Aitkin, Minnesota. One’s immediate impression when he comes on screen is, “This can’t be the hero. He’s too old.” He does indeed look old, but nevertheless he is the star. Like Basil Rathbone, he was known as a screen villain, but had a successful run as a movie detective – Michael Lanyard, “The Lone Wolf.” (This 1943 movie would be his last appearance in the role. He would die in 1948, aged 53.) The Lone Wolf character was similar to the Saint – a reformed thief now operating as a private detective. The character was created by American writer Louis Joseph Vance in 1914. Though English, Michael Lanyard (it is clearly explained) is now a patriotic American citizen.

The Lone Wolf does not noticeably live up to his nickname. He is staying in a Cairo hotel with his constant companion, his valet Jamison (Eric Blore), and immediately gets flowers sent by the hotel’s owner, his old buddy Johnny Booth (a young Sheldon Leonard playing a sort of Rick Blaine without the secret sorrow). A driver named Fritz (a youthful Lloyd Bridges showing off a not-bad English accent) comes to take them to visit the head of British intelligence in the city, but Fritz is actually a Nazi agent. He delivers them to a German spymaster, who threatens them to help him but is bluffing – he knows Lanyard will try to double-cross him, and he’s planning on that.

It all gets complicated (and implausible). Actress Ann Savage is there as the Dangerous Dame, and a series of Middle Eastern sinister types worthy of “Algiers” (one of my favorite movies) pop in and out, often through an odd tiled wall in Johnny’s office, equipped with a secret door. (It seems as if anybody can wander in; I’d have it nailed shut if I were him.) But all in all, Passport to Suez was a pleasant entertainment, atmospheric and streaked with interesting shadows. I liked it.

My only real quibble is the final action sequence, which involves Lanyard in a borrowed plane, firing a machine gun at a car driven by fleeing Nazis. This is supposed to be Egypt, but the landscape looks like the American Midwest. I mean, there’s plenty of desert not far from Los Angeles. Couldn’t they have shot there? (I expect the answer is, “We were using stock footage.”)

Still, a fun flick. I think I’ll watch another.

‘Gunmetal Gray,’ by Mark Greaney

Another Gray Man novel by Mark Greaney. The books make no claim to literary excellence or psychological depth. They’re just action movies in print form, low on credibility but high on entertainment value.

The basics of super-operative Court Gentry’s life have changed in Gunmetal Gray. (By the way, this use of the term “gunmetal” annoys me a little. Everyone assumes – as I did at first – that the word “gunmetal” refers to the color of iron or steel. Because that’s what we make guns out of today. But originally [I looked it up once] it referred to a yellow color, the color of brass – because that’s what cannons used to be made of. Not that anyone cares anymore.) Anyway, Court Gentry is back in the good graces of the CIA, not as a regular agent but as a deniable private contractor. This situation, though one he’s longed for for years, is not as good as he imagined, as he will soon learn.

A Chinese army computer hacker named Fan Jiang has defected. He had intended to run to Taiwan, but ended up in the hands of Hong Kong gangsters. The Chinese contracted with Sir Donald Fitzroy, an old (though estranged) friend of Court’s, to retrieve Fan. Sir Donald’s first two teams got killed, and so he asked Court to step in. The Chinese have added an incentive – they’ve kidnapped Sir Donald, and promise to kill him if he can’t get the job completed.

Court takes the job, with the CIA’s encouragement. They don’t care about Sir Donald – they want Fan for themselves. Court, though, plans to do it his own way – to divert Fan to the Americans while rescuing Sir Donald.

Piece of cake.

If the plot sounds kind of convoluted, it is. I found a lot of the book unengaging – you’ve got a couple kinds of gangsters plus the Chinese and the Russians (I didn’t mention the Russians before), and Court himself, running around bumping into one another like characters in a French bedroom farce – except bloodier. It was kind of hard to tell the players apart.

It got better toward the end, when Court paired up with a beautiful Russian operative who’s sort of a distaff image of himself (sparks fly). At that point my interest returned. Court comes out looking pretty good, though otherwise it’s hard to tell the white hats from the black in this story.

In spite of cynicism about the CIA (no doubt justified), there’s a basic morality and American patriotism in the Gray Man books that please me. I recommend Gunmetal Gray if you’re a fan of this kind of story, though it’s not the best of the series. Cautions for language, violence, and some off-stage sex.

‘A Dangerous Man,’ by Robert Crais

Robert Crais switches off between books starring his private detective character, Elvis Cole, and books starring Joe Pike, Elvis’s associate, whose actual vocation is security and covert ops. The Elvis books are notable for the main character’s charm – he’s a laid back, slightly flippant character. Joe Pike is his dark shadow – grim and taciturn, physically conditioned and in perfect control of his body and reactions. He rarely speaks, wears sunglasses almost all the time, and lives an ascetic, squared-away life.

A Dangerous Man is (as you might have guessed) primarily a Joe Pike book. Joe is at the bank one morning when he witnesses the attempted abduction of one of the tellers, Isabel Roland (who has a secret crush on Joe). Joe intervenes and rescues the girl. Soon afterward the kidnappers are mysteriously released on bail and murdered. Then Isabel disappears again.

Nobody has hired Joe, but he makes it his case. He feels responsible. To locate Isabel, he needs to find out why a not very well-to-do bank teller would be kidnapped (this is Elvis’s job). The investigation will uncover old ties to Isabel’s parents, drug dealers, the witness protection program, and a whole lot of missing money.

The special delight of a Joe Pike novel is the moments when we peek behind his armor. Joe is so stolid that he almost counts as a type rather than a character. But that makes those rare human moments shine through like sunbeams.

A Dangerous Man was an extremely satisfying read. Highly recommended, with mild cautions for language and violence.

‘Back Blast,’ by Mark Greaney

Court realized that people here in the U.S. were nicer to strangers than in the other places he’d traveled in the past five years–when they weren’t shooting you in the ribs, that was. And while Court had no problem with politeness, for a man who lived his life moving through society without leaving a trace, this was problematic.

In a fictional series, it seems to me, the reader expects a certain familiarity. The story ought to be the same kind of story as those that preceded it. But it can’t be too familiar. Mark Greaney does a very good job rejiggering the formula in his Gray Man novels, starring white hat international assassin Courtland Gentry, formerly of the CIA, now hunted by them.

Back Blast provides a dramatic new wrinkle — Court is finally back in the US. For five years, he’s been a man without a country, living in the shadows on several continents, taking contract hit jobs (but only against bad guys). He’s a consummate martial artist, a dead shot, and a master of camouflage — even in urban environments. But now, thanks to a grateful friend in Mossad, Court is back home. He’s in the Washington DC area, and he’s identified his target — Denny Carmichael, operations chief of the CIA. Denny put the kill order out on Court, and Court wants to know why. He wants it fixed. He wants to come home.

But Denny has deep and dark secrets to protect. His resources are almost unlimited. He has a plan — a devious and ruthless one — not only to kill or capture Court, but to make Court the scapegoat for his own crimes. It’s a David and Goliath fight — but this David is no simple shepherd boy. He does, however, have a big shock in store for him.

Lots of fun. Very satisfying. Be prepared to suspend your disbelief, of course, and enjoy the ride.

Cautions for language and violence, but not too bad. Recommended, like the whole series.

‘The 12th Man,’ by Scott and Haug

A multitude of stories of courage and endurance come out of World War II. Surely one of the most remarkable is that of Jan Baalsrud (pronounced “Yon Bowls-rood”), the subject of the book, The 12th Man by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug. (If you see a book called Defiant Courage, it’s the same book. They changed the title to go with the release of a 12th Man movie a couple years back.)

Jan Baalsrud was one of a team of 12 saboteurs who sailed to Norway from Scotland in a fishing boat as part of a “Shetland Bus” operation in 1943. They were to deliver arms, munitions and supplies to the Resistance, and to attack some air bases. Tragically, a missed connection led to their betrayal, and a German patrol ship attacked them. They managed to blow their boat up, but the whole team except for Baalsrud were either killed on the spot or captured, tortured, and executed. Baalsrud himself escaped into the mountains with one foot bare and wounded.

Then followed months of working his way eastward toward the Swedish border through some of the roughest terrain in the world. He endured an avalanche, starvation, frostbite, gangrene (he amputated his own toes) and snow blindness. He received help and supplies from scattered farms along the way, but when he finally came to the great mountains around Manndalen he was unable to go further under his own power. He then became dependent on a team of Resistance sympathizers in the area who – in spite of killing weather and repeated missed appointments – refused to let this brave man die.

It’s a harrowing, almost unbelievable story. It was first publicized (I believe) by David Howarth in his book The Shetland Bus. Later he devoted a whole book, We Die Alone, to the tale.

Unfortunately (the authors report) Howarth didn’t get the whole story. Apparently, the Norwegians he interviewed were suspicious of him, and did not tell him everything they knew. Authors Scott and Haug spent five years interviewing surviving participants and combing the records, in order to provide what they believe to be an accurate account.

Sadly, their book isn’t very well written. Ms. Scott and Dr. Haug describe themselves as co-authors, but to me The 12th Man reads exactly like a bad translation (and I know bad translations). The phrasing is consistently Norwegian (hence awkward in English), the word choice poor. I wish I could say otherwise, but the book needed a good editor badly. I’m not quite satisfied with a few passages in Viking Legacy, but I felt better after reading this.

But if you can deal with the clumsy writing, it’s one heck of a story. Cautions for intense situations.

‘Gone To Sea In a Bucket,’ by David Black

‘That’s why the trade has a reputation for being a bit more easy-going than the proper navy. You’ll have heard it and you’ll hear it again. But only from those that don’t understand. There isn’t less discipline in the trade, Mr. Gilmour. If anything, the discipline here is the hardest of all. Self-discipline….’

I don’t generally read novels about World War II, but Gone To Sea In a Bucket by David Black starts in Norway, and so I noticed it. Not a bad book, either.

It opens during the Battle of Narvik, in 1940. Sub Lieutenant Harry Gilmour is experiencing his first naval battle, but it’s not much of an experience. Guided by aerial spotters, the ship he’s on is lobbing cannon shells over the mountains from one fjord to another. They can’t even see the enemy.

Harry Gilmour is making a poor start to his naval career. He was brought in as part of a Navy program to increase the officer pool, outside traditional training sources. But that doesn’t make him welcome to the “old navy” hands. Harry’s not quite their sort.

But a compassionate senior officer intervenes. He informs Harry of openings in the submarine service (known to its members as “the trade”). It’s a different world there. The small crews and tight spaces make traditional navy discipline and separation of ranks impossible. Submarine service is dauntingly dangerous and physically demanding, but it gives Harry the best possible opportunity to develop his personal qualities – he discovers he’s hard-working, brave, and fiercely loyal. His service will bring him near death, and take his “boat” into a secret mission to the edge of the world.

I was not much impressed at the start of Gone To Sea In a Bucket. I thought the writing muddy and wordy, and I caught some grammar lapses. But it grew on me as I read. Once I got used to the author’s style it seemed to get better and better, until I found myself admiring various passages.

I also liked the treatment of the characters. Author Black likes to give us a bad first impression of a character, and then gradually reveal his or her story until we come to admire – or at least sympathize with – them.

The Harry Gilmour series seems to be sort of a modern Horatio Hornblower saga. I probably won’t be continuing with it, because I find submarine stories kind of… claustrophobic. But if this is your kind of epic, I would recommend it. Minor cautions for language and intense violence.

‘Game of Snipers,’ by Stephen Hunter

The West cannot be destroyed through numbers; it must be destroyed through its imagination.

You know what you’re getting when you start one of Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger novels. It’s not realism (though a fair amount of technical detail may be involved). A Bob Lee Swagger novel is transparent bunkum, like the imitative title of this book. But the entertainment value for money is 100 per cent.

Game of Snipers opens with old Bob Lee, relaxing on the front porch of his ranch house, getting visit from Mrs. Janet McDowell, widow and gold star mother. Her only son, she tells him, was killed in the Middle East by a legendary Al Quaida killer known as “Juba the Sniper.” Since then she has made it her obsession to learn all she can about the man. She has traveled to the Middle East and been beaten and raped. She even converted to Islam (this did not please me), to “get inside his head.” She thinks she knows where the man is hiding, but she’s worn out her welcome with the CIA and the military. Could Bob Lee use his contacts to get her a hearing, in the hope that he can be stopped at last?

Bob Lee goes to his friends in Mossad, and (improbably) is invited along on a raid on Juba’s hiding place. The raid misses Juba himself, but Bob Lee, with his sniper’s eye, notices a clue that tells him Juba is planning a job in the United States – a high-profile assassination at the distance of a mile.

He takes this information to the FBI. They pull his old friend Nick Memphis (improbably) out of retirement to coordinate a desperate effort to learn the place, the time, and the target. Meanwhile we follow Juba himself – fanatical, concentrated, and not without honor, as he prepares an act of terror that might very well tear the United States apart.

As with all Bob Lee Swagger novels, I didn’t believe it for a minute, but it was a fun ride. Stephen Hunter combines the ability to expertly raise the plot stakes with a mastery of character and dialogue. A fun ride is even better in the company of old Bob the Nailer.

Highly recommended. Mild cautions for language.

‘Dead Eye,’ by Mark Greaney

Moving along through Mark Greaney’s implausible but enjoyable The Gray Man series, we come to Dead Eye. I have to say that, though the temptation to fall into tropes is probably strong, author Greaney manages to keep the concept fresh.

The concept, in case you missed previous reviews, is this: Court Gentry is the world’s greatest assassin. Former military, former CIA, he was suddenly targeted for death by his former employers, he doesn’t know why. Now he lives as a professional hit man, but he only kills people he considers genuinely evil. He is totally isolated, with no family, no living friends, no fixed address.

Like all action heroes, Court is effectively infallible, always one step ahead of his enemies, capable of sustaining injuries that would stop a lesser man. But as Dead Eye begins, he makes a mistake. He’d be dead because of it except for the intervention of an unexpected ally – a member of the hit squad sent to kill him, who suddenly changes sides. Court is grateful but skeptical. The guy seems a little off.

His savior, Russell Whitlock (code name Dead Eye) is almost Court’s clone. He moves like him, thinks like him, even resembles him physically. And he’s been a student of Court’s career. He wants to team up. Together, he says, they’ll be unstoppable.

But that’s not what Whitlock really wants. His true plan is devious and ruthless. Court rushes through northern Europe to catch and stop him, forming an uneasy alliance with a female Mossad analyst, until the Gray Man and Dead Eye meet in one final showdown.

Dead Eye was, like all the Gray Man books, completely preposterous. But highly readable (in spite of some slips in diction). I highly recommend Dead Eye, if you don’t mind some bad language and lots of violence.

‘Ballistic,’ by Mark Greaney

If you’re looking for realism, Mark Greaney’s The Gray Man series is probably not for you. If you’re looking for pulse-pounding action entertainment, you could hardly do better.

Years ago, Eddie Gamboa went far beyond the second mile in Southeast Asia, to save the life of CIA operative Court Gentry. Later on, Eddie returned to his native Mexico, where he became a drug enforcement officer, one of the few honest ones trying to stop the cartels. Not surprisingly, that got him killed, along with most of his team.

As Ballistic begins, Court, now “The Gray Man,” international assassin without a country, is passing through Mexico, on the run after a pretty hairy mission. He stops by Eddie’s grave to pay his respects, and accidentally meets his widow. She insists he must come with her and the family to a memorial service in Puerto Vallarta the next day. But the service turns into a bloodbath when cartel gunmen start firing on the crowd. Court is able to save most of the family and get them away, but now he has two big problems – he has innocent people to protect with limited resources – and his picture was taken and published, meaning his many enemies around the world know where to find him.

The situation looks impossible, but impossible is what Court is good at.

I was about three-quarters of the way through Ballistic when I realized what it was. It’s A Fistful of Dollars.

Which is Yojimbo. Which is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

The plot is a hardy perennial – and as far as I’m concerned, Ballistic is as effective a retelling as any.

This book has an interesting and somewhat strange subplot involving religion. Court is puzzled but attracted by the Catholic faith of his charges, especially that of Eddie’s beautiful sister. A very odd scene involves her explaining her faith to him in a very winsome way – but that testimony leads into to a sex scene, which was a little weird.

Nevertheless, I thought Ballistic worked very well. Cautions for language, violence, and mild sex.