Category Archives: Reviews

‘The Sandman,’ by Lars Kepler

The Sandman

I took a chance on another Scandinavian Noir novel which looked to be a little different from the usual run. The Sandman, by Lars Kepler, is certainly different.

Joona Linna is a police detective in Stockholm (his exotic name is Finnish). 13 years ago, he faked the deaths of his wife and daughter, and sent them away so that he would have no knowledge of them again. He did this to save them from Jurek Walter, a serial killer who scares him to death, even though he’s confined to the mental ward of a high security prison.

Joona was the one who arrested Walter, when he found him exhuming a living woman from a grave where he’d been keeping her prisoner, with just a minimum of air and water. That is Walter’s modus operandi – to kidnap the loved ones of people who have offended him, and bury them alive. Walter promised to do the same to Joona’s family – and Joona believes him, in spite of his being locked up.

Now another of Walter’s victims, the son of a famous novelist, is found stumbling, disoriented, over a railroad bridge on a winter night. He is malnourished, freezing, and sick. Joona and his team are given the opportunity to investigate, and Joona jumps in. If he can figure out Walter’s crimes and locate his victims, maybe he can settle things and contact his family again.

But is Jurek Walter just a flesh-and-blood psychopath? Or does he possess supernatural powers? How is it that people have seen him looking in their windows at night, even though he’s in prison? Why are his guards warned never to speak to him, for fear that he’ll gain power over them just through a conversation?

The Sandman reminded me of nothing so much as The Silence of the Lambs. It had the same creepy fascination, the same quality of depicting a villain so freakishly intelligent that everyone else is always two or three moves behind him. The book kept me fascinated, and it sucked me in. If I don’t read any more books in the series, it’s just because I don’t care much for horror.

Recommended, if this is your kind of story. Cautions for language, sex, and violence.

By the way, “Lars Kepler” is the pseudonym of a husband-wife writing team, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril.

TV review: ‘Bosch, Season 4’

Bosch, Season 4

The fourth season of Amazon Prime Video’s Bosch series was released recently, and I continue to like it a lot. Many changes have been made from the original books – some of which are pretty old now – but the spirit of the novels flies high, in my opinion.

Season 4 is based on the first Bosch novel I read, Angels Flight. Angels Flight is the name of a quaint funicular rail line in Los Angeles, and this mystery concerns the death of a famous, headline-hungry defense lawyer, who is found shot to death on board the car one night. (The operator has also been killed.) Racial tensions in the city immediately spike, because the lawyer had been on the brink of going to court with a case of excessive police violence against a black man. Harry Bosch is named to head a special task force to identify the killer. The obvious suspects are the cops the attorney was going to accuse – but Harry suspects the killer is someone with deeper motives.

There’s a subplot involving Harry’s ex-wife Eleanor (Sarah Clarke), who has a gambling problem but is trying to get reinstated with the FBI through going undercover and into danger. Their daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz) plays a major role in the story.

I don’t watch much TV anymore, but Bosch is a must for me, at least so far. The best part, as before, is Titus Welliver’s portrayal of the main character. He has Harry down cold – the impassive face, the world-weary, disillusioned attitude that doesn’t stop him from fully investing in every case.

Recommended, with cautions for language and violence. Not for the kids.

‘Jack Frost,’ by Christopher Greyson

Jack Frost

I’ve been following Christopher Greyson’s Jack Stratton mystery series with great pleasure. The latest entry, Jack Frost, is exciting and entertaining.

Private eye Jack Stratton and his fiancée/business partner Alice are hired by an insurance company to investigate the death of a sound man on a popular reality show. The show’s premise is that the contestants have to compete in survival games on a treacherous mountain. But there have been accidents, the worst of which killed a sound man. The insurance company won’t underwrite another season without someone undercover to keep an eye out. That will be Jack, who has climbing experience. Alice will have to stay home with their dog – which she hates. But there’s work for her to do too, mainly background research on the contestants. On top of that, she just learned that her childhood trauma, the death of her parents in an auto accident, may not have been accidental after all.

Meanwhile on the mountain, Jack endures the indignities of his cover job – gopher to the technical crew – as one after another “accident “ occurs. Before long people start dying, followed by a monster blizzard, which puts him and the cast and crew in a genuine Agatha Christie “and then there were none” situation.

The Jack Stratton books aren’t the best written novels out there, but they’re well above average, especially for books where the heroes pray without embarrassment. Author Greyson builds interesting characters and puts them in exciting peril. I enjoyed Jack Frost very much, and recommend it.

‘Record of Wrongs,’ by Andy Straka

Record of Wrongs

In another stand-alone novel, departing once again from his Frank Pavlicek detective/falconer books, Andy Straka has produced Record of Wrongs, and it’s quite good.

Quentin Price is a black man, convicted of raping and murdering a young white woman. After ten years, DNA evidence sets him free. The day he leaves prison, he’s surprised to find someone waiting to give him a ride home – it’s the mother of his supposed victim.

She’s an alcoholic and her life is generally in disorder, but she has the idea that Quentin might want the same thing that’s holding her together – to identify the real killer, and set all the questions to rest.

At first Quentin doesn’t want to get involved. He just wants to rebuild his life. But the girl’s father, who was a cop and is now a private investigator, does not believe in Quentin’s exoneration. He’s determined to prove Quentin guilty, and he’s willing to go outside the law to do it. Quentin will have to look for answers just to save his own life and freedom. Maybe the special investigator sent by the state attorney general can help too – if he believes in Quentin’s innocence.

And there’s one other thing. Quentin has a secret. He hasn’t told anyone what really happened the night the girl died.

Record of Wrongs is a well-conceived and executed mystery. It’s not in the top rank, but Andy Straka is learning his craft. Christian readers will be disappointed to note that the Christian elements he usually includes are soft-pedaled (though not entirely left out) in this story, and that Straka has decided to include a little profanity for verisimilitude (something he hasn’t done before).

Recommended. I’ll keep watching Straka. He seems to be a writer with a future.

‘The Blue Hallelujah,’ by Andy Straka

The Blue Hallelujah

Another by Andy Straka, but this one is a stand-alone.

The hero of The Blue Hallelujah is Jerry Strickland, an old cop with a bad heart, pretty much just waiting to die. The heart – and the faith – have gone out of him since the death of his wife Rebecca, who died in prison, having killed a serial killer/rapist.

But he has a few miles left in him, as he discovers when he gets word that his granddaughter has been kidnapped. His status as a retired detective buys him some slack from the police investigators to stick his nose in. And soon he becomes convinced that this abduction is no random crime. It directly relates to the crimes of the man Rebecca killed. And the key to the mystery lies in his own set of old police files.

This is my favorite of all the Andy Straka novels I’ve read, though I thought it had a couple weaknesses. Actually one weakness, because I think the second is only a possible misunderstanding.

The first problem is with strong language – or rather, its absence. When a character who’s not identified as a practicing religious believer says “What in the world’s going on here?” instead of something stronger, that’s morally good. But it weakens the story. It pulls the reader out of the narrative, making him ask, “Why did he put it that way? That doesn’t sound like him.” It’s a problem we’ve discussed often on this blog, and there’s no entirely satisfactory answer, in my view.

The second problem is a likely misperception of genre. This story starts out looking like a regular mystery story. But it develops into a Christian spiritual thriller, complete with visions and minor miracles. I have no objection to that (in fact I welcome it), but some readers may feel as if they’ve been blindsided.

For all that, the story reeled me in and held on to me, and I was in tears at the end. Wise, beautiful, and touching, The Blue Hallelujah gets my highest recommendation.

2 more Frank Pavlicek novels

Flightfall The K Street Hunting Society

Continuing forging my way through Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek detective/falconry mysteries.

Flightfall is a novella in which Frank and his daughter/partner Nicole get a call from their mysterious friend Jake Toronto. One of his falcons has been shot to death, and Jake believes it may have been an act of revenge. I think on consideration that my criticism of the previous book, which I reviewed last night, may actually have properly belonged to this one – it’s kind of over before it really gets started. But it’s nice to get to know Jake better, because he’s an interesting character.

The K Street Hunting Society is a far better developed story. It also takes place in Washington DC, and there’s not a lot of falconry involved. Frankly, that’s OK with me. I have nothing against falconry, and I admire the tradition of the thing, but I don’t find it a terribly compelling plot device.

This time out, Jake Toronto has hired Frank and Nicole to help him in a routine bodyguarding job in downtown Washington. But they come under attack by an assassin with an automatic weapon, and lose a client – and nearly lose one of their own. You just don’t do that to Frank, and you certainly don’t do it to Jake. They’re going to find the killer and even the score, whether the local police and the FBI want their help or not. I thought this was the strongest book in the series to date.

As I’ve said before, the language is clean, the violence isn’t overdone, and the morality is generally good. Author Straka takes the opportunity to say a good word for the Christian faith now and then. I don’t care for Frank’s penchant for relying on hunches rather than deduction, but that’s personal taste. Enjoyable reading, highly recommended.

‘A Night Falcon,’ by Andy Straka

A Night Falcon

As you’ve probably noticed, when I find a book series I like, I’m likely to read my way through it chronologically. And that’s what I’m doing with Andy Straka’s enjoyable Frank Pavlicek series. A Night Falconer is installment number four.

This time out, Frank finds himself leaving his current natural environment to return temporarily to a former one – Manhattan, where he once was a cop. The residents of a luxury condo are losing their pets, and one of them – an assertive woman doctor – is convinced her cat was killed by a Great Horned Owl. Not only that, but she thinks she saw a falconer carrying the owl, running off in the darkness. Crime mixed with falconry? Who else do you call but Frank Pavlicek, Virginia PI and accomplished falconer? So New York PI Darla Barnes, an old friend of Frank’s from the force, asks him to come up and investigate.

It seems like a strange job, but Darla’s a friend, so Frank drives up to check it out, bringing along his new partner – his daughter Nicole. What they discover is much bigger and even stranger than the idea of someone hunting in Central Park with an owl.

I didn’t consider A Night Falconer the best of the series. The plot seemed to resolve itself unnecessarily rapidly at the end. But it wasn’t bad either. As usual, no foul language, only muted violence, and the sex happens offstage (the Christian morality of these books is generally admirable, though Frank seems to think sex before marriage is OK if the couple is engaged, which I consider debatable).

Still, recommended.

‘A Cold Quarry,’ by Andy Straka

A Cold Quarry

Book 3 in Andy Straka’s Frank Pavlicek series, about a former New York cop who is now a private investigator in Virginia, as well as a falconer.

In A Cold Quarry a friend of Frank’s, a fellow falconer named Chester Carew, is murdered while out with his bird. The police say it’s a hunting accident, but it doesn’t seem right to Frank. Also, what happened to Chester’s hawk, which had recently shown signs of disease or poisoning? He decides to look into it, and his dangerous, mysterious friend Jake Toronto wants to help. He was a friend too.

Clues lead them to a right-wing militia group, and then they’re warned off by the Feds, who tell them they’re planning an operation against the group – stay away. But Frank is convinced something more is going on – someone much smarter, more devious, and more ruthless than a group of rednecks is planning an operation far bigger than officials suspect.

A Cold Quarry was an enjoyable read, which I can pretty much recommend without reservation. Not only is the writing good and the language clean, but the morality is generally good. And author Straka finds several opportunities to make positive references to the Bible and Christianity. It’s not enough to be preachy, but it’s unavoidable too. These books are just the kind of Christian literature a lot of us have been begging for.

‘Murder on the Old Bog Road,’ by David Pearson

Murder on the Old Bog Road

It’s storming along the Old Bog Road in Clifden, Galway, Ireland. A woman has to stop her car before passing over a bridge, because it’s been damaged and there are stones strewn about. As she clears the stones, she sees a woman in a red coat, lying drowned in a ditch. She calls the Garda, who are baffled when they find that the woman has no identification. It’s clearly murder – someone hit her in the head with something hard.

Inspector Mick Hays and Detective Sergeant Maureen Lyons lead the investigation. Gradually they learn that the woman was a Polish “sex worker,” and there are a number of men – some of them influential – who do not wish their relationships with her to be made public.

Murder on the Old Bog Road, by David Pearson, is clearly intended to take advantage of the current popularity of “Celtic” police procedural mysteries. This is a genre I enjoy, when it’s done well. It offers mystery and atmosphere. However, I did not find this book a successful entry in that field.

The writing was pedestrian at best, and sometimes clumsy. The characters seemed shallow to me. The two leads, Hays and Lyons, ease into a sexual relationship in a way that seemed unrealistic – Hays makes inappropriate jokes without Lyons taking any offense, and they are not at all bothered by the professional impropriety of their relationship.

On top of that, author Pearson makes one repeated writing mistake that annoyed me very much (though it could be the editor’s fault). The accepted rule when writing fiction is that if a character gives a long speech, which is broken up by paragraphs, you leave the closing quotation marks off the end of the first paragraph, giving the reader notice that the speech is not finished. If the quotation mark is there at the end, the reader assumes the next paragraph is being spoken by another character.

Pearson breaks this rule all the time, making his dialogue sections extremely hard to follow.

I found Murder on the Old Bog Road unpolished and unsatisfying. Maybe the series will get better, but I won’t be reading the next book for now.

Cautions for mature material.

‘Deathly Wind,’ by Keith Moray

Deathly Wind

Inspector Torquil McKinnon is on holiday at the beginning of Deathly Wind, the second in the Torquil McKinnon mystery series, set on the fictional Hebrides island of West Uist. Constable Ewan McPhee, his friend and subordinate, is supposed to be watching the store while he’s gone. But Ewan goes missing. People frequently go missing on this island, and it usually means they’ve drowned. That leaves Constable Megan Munro to police the place alone. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be impossible, as crime is low in these communities. But just now there’s rising unrest, as a new Laird has inherited the big estate, and is implementing a plan to dispossess long-time crofters and put up wind turbines on their property. Also, people are suddenly getting killed. Quite a few of them.

Torquil does return to take things in hand, but he’s not sure he can handle the pressure either – as his superior on the mainland keeps reminding him over the phone. But with his knowledge of the community, and the help of his uncle Lachlan, the old priest, he starts uncovering the secrets of people he thought he knew, and unraveling a vicious revenge scheme.

Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon series is not at the top of my must-read list – the writing is not particularly distinguished (I thought the plot of this one a little far-fletched). But the books are entertaining and readable, the characters are appealing, and no shots are taken at Christianity. I don’t recall much bad language either. There were some sexual situations. I’ll continue with the series. Recommended.

‘I’ll Keep You Safe,’ by Peter May

I'll Keep You Safe

Sometimes a book can be less than optimal in certain respects, but make up for it wonderfully in the sheer reading experience. For me, Peter May’s I’ll Keep You Safe is one of this sort.

Niamh and Ruairidh McFarlane are childhood sweethearts who grew up together on the island of Harris in the Hebrides. As a married couple, they took over ownership of “Ranish Tweed,” a small operation producing a cloth that’s similar to Harris Tweed, but softer and lighter. To their amazement, their tweed was discovered by a rising young designer, who made it the center of his whole collection that year, and before long they were running a large and profitable operation.

But there are shadows in their lives. Their parents still disapprove of their marriage, due to old injuries that the book reveals in stages. There are professional enemies, and false friends.

When the story begins, they’re in Paris for a fabric fair, and Niamh is suspicious, for the first time in her life, that Ruairidh might be having an affair. Then he enters a cab with the woman she suspects is his mistress, and the cab explodes. Suddenly a widow, wracked with guilt and doubts, she must return to her home and face the continued hostility of her in-laws, the suspicions of the police, and a growing recognition that the killing is not over. Someone wants her dead too.

I was not surprised by the final revelation of the killer in I’ll Keep You Safe. And there was an earlier plot surprise that also didn’t surprise much. But I didn’t care, because the ride itself was the reward. Author May, as he has shown many times before, excels in painting evocative descriptions of Hebridean geography and nature. It might be the next best thing to visiting the place.

Minor cautions for grown-up stuff, but I highly recommend I’ll Keep You Safe as splendid reading entertainment.

‘Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed,’ by Christopher Shevlin

I was a little disappointed with this sequel to Christopher Shevlin’s The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax, which I reviewed favorably a few days back. But I’m not sure I’m being fair.

When last we saw our shy, ineffectual hero, he had survived great dangers and won the girl of his dreams.

At the beginning of Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed (set five years later), the girl of his dreams is completely out of the picture. He is living with a different girlfriend, and he’s working at a job he hates, as a temp at Fylofax, the most powerful corporation on earth. Jonathon isn’t quite sure what Fylofax does, but then nobody else is, either. In fact, the company’s unprecedented growth is the result of blatant fraud on the part of one of its top managers, an American who is on the verge of taking it over completely. He will do anything to succeed, including cold-blooded murder. By chance he becomes aware of Jonathon’s existence, and grows convinced that he’s a corporate spy. Therefore, Jonathon must be eliminated – from the face of the earth.

Meanwhile, Jonathon experiences unemployment, a breakup with his girlfriend, homelessness, and falling in love with another girl of his dreams. As in the previous book (and I didn’t really make this clear when reviewing it), Jonathon is more a maguffin than a hero, a calm, somewhat stagnant center for the story, and most of the real action revolves around his handsome, elegant friend Lance Ferman, who is Jonathon’s exact opposite, except for the fact that they’re both men of good will.

I had the impression that this book was less funny than its predecessor, but that may just be my prejudice. I took almost personal offense to the author’s writing out Rachel, the love interest in The Perpetual Astonishment… Her disappearance was explained, but I didn’t really buy it, and I think it embittered me. There were a lot of funny moments, and I laughed, but it wasn’t the same (for me). Brief, not too biting, jabs were taken at Christianity and at capitalism (though to be fair that was mostly at Ayn Rand, whom I don’t like either).

So you may want to ignore my jaundiced viewpoint. Jonathon Fairfax Must Be Destroyed is still funnier than most books around. Cautions for language and sexual situations. Also (once again) semi-comic murder.

Film review: ‘The King’s Choice’

The King's Choice

Fair warning: I’ll probably be reviewing a few more Scandinavian movies and TV shows than usual in the future. Or not; maybe I’ll get tired of them. Since I’ve become (peripherally) associated with the Norwegian film industry, I figure I ought to have some familiarity with the field.

The film The King’s Choice, released in 2016, is probably the most acclaimed recent movie out of Norway. It is not one of those that “my” company worked on, but I decided to see it, so I’d be able to discuss it at all those industry cocktail parties I expect I’ll be invited to soon.

The film concerns Norway’s King Haakon VII (played by a Danish actor, Jesper Christensen. This makes sense, as King Haakon began life as a Danish prince. I was delighted to find that I could identify his Danish accent when he spoke). When he became king of Norway in 1905, he changed his name to Haakon and his son Alexander’s to Olav, because those were the names of the last two kings of the old royal line in the 14th Century. Thus, he symbolically picked up the dynasty where it had broken off – and by and large the Norwegians loved him for it (except for a few stubborn republicans).

At the beginning of the movie, it’s 1940, and Haakon is an arthritic old man with a purely ceremonial job, mostly occupied with playing with his grandchildren. But word comes suddenly that the Germans have invaded, and he, his family, and the government flee northward, sometimes under enemy fire, beginning what will come to be a long exile. Eventually he will be approached individually by the German ambassador, and faced with a very hard decision. Continue reading Film review: ‘The King’s Choice’

‘The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax,’ by Christopher Shevlin

The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax

Occasionally you run into a book that doesn’t fit neatly into any of your existing mental categories. Then there’s a temptation to pan it because it’s not the kind of book you think it ought to be.

But that’s unjust. The author should be judged on the basis of what he accomplished, not what you were expecting.

Christopher Shevlin is a pretty Wodehousian writer. And because of that, it’s a little jarring when actual murder enters the stage of his book. In a Wodehouse novel, the worst thing you’ll see is the abstraction of a silver cow creamer, or the purloining of a prize pig, or the alienation of a French cook’s services.

But The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax begins with the murder of a fairly innocent middle-aged woman. And it’s played for laughs.

That kind of threw me for a loop.

But I stayed with it, because it was a very funny, very well written book.

Jonathon Fairfax is an ineffectual young man with deep insecurities, living in London. So he’s none the wiser when he (inadvertently) helps a murderer to find his victim’s address, then makes friends with two fashionable people in a disreputable café, and finally meets “the most deeply and woundingly beautiful girl [he] had ever seen,” all in a single day. He stumbles his way through an improbable courtship while getting unintentionally involved in the exposure of a massive government conspiracy. Continue reading ‘The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax,’ by Christopher Shevlin

‘The Secret Knowledge,’ by David Mamet

The Secret Knowledge

David Mamet is, of course, one of America’s foremost dramatists. He was highly respected by critics until he came out as a conservative a few years back. Since then many have discovered that he has no talent at all.

Still, he perseveres, and he has written a book about Politics, The Secret Knowledge, to explain how his mind has changed on a number of issues and to provide a few glimpses into his personal pilgrimage. I don’t agree with all his opinions, but the book was fascinating to read.

The title is paradoxical. There is no secret knowledge, Mamet informs us. The basic truths of life are widely known by all people, even (or especially) the extremely unsophisticated. It is the intellectuals and the avant garde who reject obvious truth and embrace nonsense, to which they cling desperately, because their adherence marks them as among the Enlightened.

Any review is likely to devolve into commentary on Mamet’s actual beliefs, either approving or condemning them. So I’ll content myself with providing a few choice quotes – of which there are many. I think I may have highlighted about a third of the text.

Writers are asked, “how could you know so much about (fill in the profession)?” The answer, if the writing satisfies, is that one makes it up. And the job, my job, as a dramatist, was not to write accurately, but to write persuasively. If and when I do my job well, subsequent cowboys, as it were, will talk like me.

Continue reading ‘The Secret Knowledge,’ by David Mamet