Category Archives: Reviews

‘A Deadly Dividend,’ by David Pearson

David Pearson, an established Irish mystery writer, kicks off a new police procedural series set in Dublin with A Deadly Dividend.

In the classic model of the Anglo-Irish police story, you’ve got your grizzled male Detective Inspector, supported by a younger female detective. What makes this series somewhat different is that the older male detective is not always on top of his game, and his assistant (who does not look like a model) has to save him from himself from time to time.

In A Deadly Dividend, a young banker is stabbed to death in an alleyway. When Detectives Aidan Burke and DS Fiona Moore inquire at his bank, it becomes apparent that the victim has been fiddling with his international accounts. It turns out he has had a clandestine dealings with shady interests. When another murder follows, they need to move fast – if Fiona can keep Aidan sober long enough to get the job done.

I quite enjoyed A Deadly Dividend. It definitely leaned more to the mystery than the thriller side, and dealt realistically with the plain drudgery that police work involves. And the fact that Aidan has a drinking problem and makes serious job mistakes – which Fiona must cover for – makes them an unusual fictional team. I also liked occasional suggestions of non-PC opinions.

There’s only one more book in the series to date, but I’m planning to read it.

‘the Pirate,’ by Walter Scott

The earth is rented from its surface down to its most central mines; — the fire, and the means of feeding it, are currently bought and sold; — the wretches that sweep the boisterous ocean with their nets, pay ransom for the privilege of being drowned in it. What title has the air to be exempted from the universal course of traffic?

In early 1725, a pirate named John Gow (or Goff) returned to his birthplace of Orkney, passing himself off as a prosperous merchant. He even courted a local girl. However, he was recognized and denounced by a genuine merchant. He and his men stormed a mansion and hid there for a while, but finally fled by ship. They were captured when their vessel ran aground. Goff was tried at Newgate in London, and hanged in the customary style.

Nearly 100 years later, Sir Walter Scott took that basic story and added romantic elements, along with lore and local color he’d collected on a visit to the Northern Isles some years before, and produced the novel, The Pirate. It is this novel I’ve been reading for about a week, and have finished at length.

Most of the story is set in the Shetlands (here called Zetland). There are two main characters. The first is a handsome young man named Mordaunt Mertoun (seriously, that’s his name). He’s a “stranger” on Zetland, in the sense that his father came from England, and is not of the old Norwegian stock. Nevertheless, he’s popular with the islanders, and a favorite at the home of the island chieftain, Magnus Troil, known as the “Udaller.” Magnus has two beautiful daughters, Minna and Brenda, and people speculate as to which of them Mordaunt will choose to marry.

One day a ship is wrecked at Sumberg Head, and Mordaunt rescues (against his neighbors’ advice, see my blog post further below) the lone survivor, with the help of a local character called Norna of the Fitful Head. She is an old woman believed to have powers of prophecy and weather control. The survivor calls himself Captain Cleveland. Captain Cleveland is rich, handsome, and refined, and soon becomes a new favorite with the Udaller. Mordaunt can’t help noting that his own welcome at the Troil home grows cold after Cleveland’s arrival. Nevertheless, he attends a big house party there. There he clashes with Cleveland, there is a fight, and both men mysteriously disappear.

The action comes to a crisis somewhat later at the annual fair at Kirkwall in Orkney, where Cleveland has to balance his chance of escape against his desire to see his beloved, Minna, one last time. The conclusion of the story is romantic, semi-tragic, and implausible.

I like to pose as someone who can appreciate older literature better than the average modern, but I have to admit The Pirate was a bit of a slog. The language is ornate and dense, a problem not improved by this Kindle edition, produced with OCR technology and not vetted for word mistakes. Also, footnotes are frequently not recognized as such, and so get stuck, confusingly, in the middle of sentences.

Modern writers know they’re competing with television and movies, and make it a point to grab the reader from the first sentence and run, to avoid distractions. Authors in Scott’s time had more latitude. They staged their novels like salons, introducing you to each character in a leisurely way, and leaving you with them to get acquainted, even if they’re bores. Sometimes especially if they’re bores – bores are considered good for a laugh.

For me, the glimpses into “Zetland” lore and legend (there’s magic here, but it’s rationalized) was intriguing, and made it worth my time. You might not find it as rewarding. Even among the field of Scott’s novels, I don’t think The Pirate is in the first rank. And boy, was it long.

2 more reviews from Moerbe

Mary J. Moerbe at Meet, Write and Salutary, has completed reviewing my Erling Skjalgsson books to date.

She reviews Hailstone Mountain here:

I also think this book blends together Lars Walker’s two types of writing: his Norse saga and more contemporary stuff more. I’m a big fan of both, but maybe it means this book contains a few extra surprises for those who haven’t read his other writings, set in more contemporary and/or futuristic times.

And she reviews The Elder King:

This book really played with tensions. The poor priest Ailill, whom you come to love as a man of faith and action and unabashedly real humanity, has to face three of the greatest challenges for a celibate Christian: romantic love, relics, and . . . Arianism! With a shockingly early possibility of Arianism in Norway!

Thank you, Mary!

‘Serenity Avenged,’ by Craig A. Hart

This is the third in Craig A. Hart’s “Serenity” series of thrillers, starring Shelby Alexander, retired boxer and ethical thug, who has retired to his home town of Serenity, Michigan. For peace and quiet, which he never gets.

In Serenity Avenged, Shelby drives in haste to Grand Rapids, where his daughter is in the hospital with pregnancy complications. There he is reunited with his ex-wife, Helen. His feelings for Helen are definitely mixed. They get more mixed – but also protective – when he learns that Helen has large gambling debts. But when the loan shark threatens their daughter, he moves into action.

There were elements in this book that I liked. I like the male banter between Shelby and his friend Mack, though it’s overdone in places. I like Shelby himself as a character, and the hints of conservativism that sneak out through the narrative now and then. I liked a new character who faced some serious moral dilemmas and made the right decisions at a cost to himself.

But Serenity Avenged wore out my suspension of disbelief. We’re getting into heavy thriller territory here, to the extent of including a psychopathic supervillain with a secret lair. That seemed (to me) kind of out of proportion for a loan shark in Grand Rapids. Villains like that should be plotting to overthrow the nation or the Anglo-American alliance or something.

So I’m done with this series, at least for now. Your mileage may vary. Cautions for language and intense violence.

Shippey on the Staffordshire Hoard

Photo credit: theguardian.com

We usually specialize in Vikings on this blog, but we are not above tolerating Anglo-Saxons, especially when there’s a Tolkien connection.

Tom Shippey, successor to and biographer of J.R.R. Tolkien, has a review in the London Review and Books of a new book on the Staffordshire Hoard, a rather amazing 2009 find:

What one can say is, first, that the hoard is unique from the period. Previous discoveries have been grave burials, or single finds, not collections buried with (presumably) the intention of later recovery. Second, the general nature of the hoard is clear. It is strongly weapon-related, but without weapons. There are no coins, no brooches, no items of women’s jewellery, not even a single knife or sword blade. Some 80 per cent of the objects are fittings from weapons, mostly sword-hilt parts. An Anglo-Saxon sword typically had a wooden hilt fitted over the iron tang on the blade, but to this were added an upper and a lower guard, each secured by two hilt plates and a hilt collar, fixed by bosses, with a pommel on top. All these appear in the hoard in large numbers.

Read it all here. Thanks to Dale Nelson for sending me the link.

‘Origami Man,’ by Matthew Fitzsimmons

The Origami Man, blank as paper, only folded into the shape of a man.

Years ago, Gibson Vaughn, (former Marine and current master computer hacker) was nearly hanged to death by a remorseless assassin, the same man who had murdered his father. This set off a series of events that resulted in Gibson’s becoming an international fugitive.

Now that assassin, the Origami Man, the kind of man who will hide inside a wall for five weeks in order to murder a family, has reappeared in Gibson’s life. He hands Gibson an encrypted thumb drive. The drive, the assassin says, was taken from a Russian crime boss who double-crossed him. He wants Gibson to unlock it for him. Gibson’s motivation is to be that it contains data on a massive industrial hack. He doesn’t know the details, but he knows that if it’s allowed to proceed, hundreds of thousands of people will die. The Origami Man doesn’t care about the deaths, but he wants payback.

Gibson would rather take a bullet than cooperate with this affectless, amoral man, a figure who still haunts his nightmares. But lives are at stake, and he and his team of fugitive friends, who are making a tenuous living as security specialists, agree that the frog will have to be swallowed, so to speak.

So begins a quest that will see them making unlikely alliances and balancing loyalties and treacheries against each other. An old Russian gangster trying to redeem a few of his sins will be the joker in the game. The action will move from Ireland to Switzerland to Germany, and it will be a close-run thing.

I enjoy the Gibson Vaughn series immensely. The stories are exciting, the characters multifaceted and sympathetic, the prose extremely good. I highly recommend Origami Man (as well as the whole series) with mild cautions for language and intense situations.

‘Serenity Stalked,’ by Craig A. Hart

We move along now to book two in Craig A. Hart’s “Serenity” series, set in a fictional town in Michigan. In Serenity Stalked we find our hero, ex-boxer and ex-“fixer” Shelby Alexander, continuing his affair with Carly, a much younger woman. When Carly tells him she’s being pestered by an old boyfriend, who happens to be married, Shelby (against Carly’s wishes) decides to have “a little talk” with him.

When the old boyfriend turns up murdered shortly thereafter, along with his family, the local sheriff – who does not like Shelby at all – makes him his prime suspect.

But the real killer is watching. He’s an accomplished serial killer, and now he’s focusing on Carly as his next victim. The reader will spend considerable time in his creepy company as he makes his plans to eliminate Shelby and take Carly for his own purposes.

True to the form of the first book, Serenity, Serenity Stalked is a fairly straightforward story, opting for action and suspense over mystery. Our hero is reactive in his actions, but fortunately for everyone his reaction time is fast and his fighting skills superior. And there’s a nice surprise at the end. For the action fan, Serenity Stalked offers value for money.

I may read the next one. Haven’t made up my mind yet.

‘Vanish Without a Trace,’ by Bill Kitson

The adventures of Yorkshire Detective Inspector Mike Nash continue in Vanish Without a Trace, the second book in the series by Bill Kitson.

When a young woman named Sarah Kelly fails to return home after heading out to a nightclub one evening, her mother contacts the police. Although such missing persons reports usually come to nothing, Mike Nash is impressed with the mother’s story. But as time passes, no trace of the girl is found, except for her purse, lying in an alley.

A chance comment gets Mike thinking about other disappearances. Some research reveals that there has been a string of similar disappearances all across the north of England – and in each case, the missing girl looks like a sister to all the others. Is it even possible to identify and stop a killer who leaves no clues, leaves no bodies, and moves all over the map? Mike and his team will try, but the threat will come very close to home.

Vanish Without a Trace was a little less high-tension than the previous volume, What Lies Beneath. That’s OK with me; I prefer mysteries to thrillers. My problem with this series is an element I’d hoped would be a one-off with the first volume – Inspector Nash gets clues from prophetic dreams. To my mind, this moves the books into the realm of Paranormal Fiction, against which I’m prejudiced. So I won’t be reading any more of the Mike Nash books, though they are fascinating and highly readable.

Your mileage may vary. Cautions for the sort of thing you’d expect.

‘Serenity,’ by Craig A. Hart

This book is not to be confused with the science fiction TV series, “Serenity.” However, you could plausibly cast Nathan Fillion as the hero.

Shelby Alexander, hero of Serenity, is a former prizefighter. After that he became what he calls a “fixer,” solving people’s problems through the application of violence. Finally, in his ‘60s, he has returned to his home town of Serenity, Michigan (northern Lower Peninsula) for a more peaceful life.

Not going to happen.

One night Shelby looks out his window and sees a human figure huddled in the snow by his barn. He finds a woman there, a local character named Jenny Ellis, mentally retarded and the only well-liked member of her family. The Ellises are local outlaws, known to be involved in the drug trade. Jenny dies before help can come.

Then, to his surprise, Shelby gets a visit from Jenny’s brother Harper, the head of the family. He wants Shelby to investigate Jenny’s death. Bigger criminals from Detroit are moving into the area, trying to take over the Ellis drug operations. Shelby has no desire to work for the Ellises, but he did like Jenny, so he agrees to look into it.

Before long he’s got people shooting at him, and the new sheriff – very possibly corrupt – is trying to frame Shelby for murder. But Shelby has handled worse.

What you’ve got here is a pretty simple story. This is not a cerebral mystery. In fact, Shelby Alexander never once deduces anything – he reacts to events and generally solves problems with his fists. Action is the watchword here, and in those terms the book is pretty good. There were also moments when Shelby expressed opinions on the social conservatism side, so I liked that.

Serenity is pure entertainment, probably aimed at male readers, and I recommend it after its kind. Cautions for the usual.

‘West Oversea’ reviewed

Blogger Mary J. Moerbe continues her series of reviews of my work. This one is West Oversea:

The thing that makes me so enamored with Erling Skjalgsson is that he is a man with a real chance of being honorable and lordly. His pagan setting and background highlight how difficult it isto do the right thing and cut through expectations in pursuit of a higher wisdom and trust. All of which makes him a really powerful Christian figure!

Read it all here.

‘Clearinghouse,’ by Randall Schanze

Full disclosure – Randall Schanze is a Facebook friend, whom I met through blog-crawling quite a few years back. We’re not close, but I read his previous book Ice Cream and Venom, and liked it pretty well. So I tried his new story collection, Clearinghouse.

Clearinghouse is a collection of stories Schanze has written since the start of his career. The backbone of the assemblage is a series of stories set in an alternate history where the NASA Moon and Mars projects are not cancelled in the 1970s. Tragic, heroic, and funny events happen. Science ain’t my long suit, but the technical details seemed authentic and plausible.

Not all the stories relate to that cycle. There are far future stories, fantasies, and even farces. The majority of the far future stories are tied together and involve a radically altered human situation. But each NASA story is followed by a “Frame” sequence, in which author Schanze communicates with a fan (implied to be his only fan), who keeps urging him to write more while he himself hangs back, discouraged by his lack of publishing success. Such a device might be expected to come off as self-indulgent, but it worked for me, and added a certain piquancy and unity to the whole exercise.

I’m not a Science Fiction fan myself, but I enjoyed Clearinghouse and recommend it.

‘what Lies Beneath,’ by Bill Kitson

In a Yorkshire tarn (a mountain lake), a fisherman snags a human skull. When divers are sent in, they find two skeletons, both of young girls. Skeletal abnormalities indicate that they were sexually abused for a long time.

Detective Inspector Mike Nash, who recently relocated from London to Yorkshire, is on the case, though distracted by concern over his girlfriend, who is hospitalized and paralyzed. It’s soon apparent that they’re dealing with international human traffickers, which brings a visit from Russian police, including a very attractive – and ruthless – woman. Their Anglo-Russian alliance will be up against a criminal conspiracy led by well-financed and very dangerous men. Men for whom human life is meaningless, and no atrocity out of the question.

That’s the premise of What Lies Beneath, first in a series of novels I’ll be following up with. Author Bill Kitson sets a good scene and does good prose. I liked his characters and got caught up in the suspense. The plot had some holes, it seemed to me, but (as in a movie) things moved along so quickly that this reader just went along with it.

Mike Nash is unusual as a fictional detective in that he has prophetic dreams. He doesn’t always understand them, and he insists he’s not psychic. I am prejudiced against this sort of thing, but it does add to narrative interest.

More character descriptions would have been welcome. There’s one character named “Viv” who is only revealed to be a man after some pages, and only revealed to be black toward the end of the book.

Imperfect but cinematically engaging, I enjoyed What Lies Beneath. I was also horrified by some of the details of the human trafficking industry, which the author claims are genuine. Cautions for shocking content, plus the usual.

‘Until the Debt Is Paid,’ by Alexander Hartung

When Berlin police detective Jan Tommen wakes up in bed with his girlfriend, to discover he’s completely forgotten the last two days, that’s annoying. But when he’s arrested for the torture murder of a judge with whom he clashed in the past, it becomes terrifying. His worst fear is that he might have done the crime – he can’t recall a thing.

But (in the great tradition of improbable detective heroics) he makes a plan to escape from custody with the help of a friend who lives on the margins of Berlin’s underworld. He recruits two more friends, a (gorgeous, of course) female medical examiner and a computer geek (obligatory in every thriller) to figure out what happened. There are further murders from the same culprit, so he knows he’s not guilty – but his police colleagues don’t.

That’s the premise of Until the Debt Is Paid, first in a series by Alexander Hartung, translated from German by Steve Anderson.

First, I’ll say what I liked about it. Until the Debt Is Paid was not what I expected. When I pick up a European mystery, I pretty much assume dark, nihilistic stuff in the tradition of Scandinavian Noir. This book was nothing like that. Jan Tommen is a throwback to older German stereotypes – he’s cheery and optimistic and enjoys life. He has his dark moments, but he snaps back. This was refreshing, especially since the story involves some extremely shocking elements. And the final solution was a surprise (at least for this dull reader).

What I disliked was that the police procedures seemed (to me) more 1970s TV than real life. I don’t believe the German police are this loose in their disciplines and security. I don’t think Jan Tommen would have remained free for more than a few hours in the real world. Also, at one point he foolishly plays around with a gun in a way no professional ever would.

And (without dropping a spoiler) one plot element that pleased me in terms of my values went horribly bad.

As for the translation, I’d call it good. It starts out excellent – I was impressed as a translator myself – but it lost some luster as it proceeded, slipping at times into dull literalism. But I can’t really fault that. I know from experience that translating a whole manuscript is a lot of work, and you sometimes run out of time, so you make sure the first few chapters are polished up nice, hoping you’ll have won the readers’ good will by then.

My takeaway: Not bad, and distinctive as a departure in tone from genre tropes. But poorly researched and lacking in plausibility.

‘Not George Washington,’ by P. G. Wodehouse

Before I had been in Walpole Street a week I could tell by ear the difference between a rejected manuscript and an ordinary letter. There is a certain solid plop about the fall of the former which not even a long envelope full of proofs can imitate successfully.

P. G. Wodehouse began his very long writing career more than a century ago, in the first decade of the 20th Century. It follows that a number of his earlier works have fallen into the public domain. Among them is his novel Not George Washington, which I read in one of the several collections of his out-of-copyright works available for Kindle.

One can detect the nascent signs of later genius in this book, but if he’d been hit by a bus in 1908, we probably wouldn’t remember him on the basis of this work (which was written in collaboration with one Herbert Westbrook).

The story, narrated by several point of view characters, starts on the Channel island of Guernsey, where a young woman named Margaret Goodwin, an island resident, meets James Orlebar Cloyster. The couple fall in love, and though her mother approves, they agree he needs to go to London to pursue his career as a writer before they can marry. He can’t hope to support a wife without achieving some success.

We then follow James to London, where he makes his fortune fairly quickly (his career follows Wodehouse’s own – Wodehouse wrote the “On the Way” column for the Globe newspaper, while Cloyster writes a column of the same name for a paper called the Orb).

At this point Cloyster finds himself in a quandary. He realizes he doesn’t really desire married life. Even his feelings for Margaret have faded. He wants to continue as a footloose London writer, but his growing fame will surely be noticed in Guernsey.

He then hits on a scheme. He pays three friends a ten percent commission each to submit literary works written by him, but under their names. Thus he can pretend to Margaret that he’s still struggling.

All of this eventually blows back in his face, as anyone but a fathead would have expected (channeling the spirit of one of Wodehouse’s later aunt characters).

As I said, there are foreshadowings of later genius in this work – especially in the employment of impostership in the plot. Otherwise, Not George Washington is a pretty minor work.

But Wodehouse fans (like me) will want to add it to their list of works read.

‘On Eden Street,’ by Peter Grainger

I pulled out all the stops and actually paid full price for the latest Peter Grainger mystery novel, On Eden Street. The DC Smith books hold a special place in my regard. Alas, this novel marks the point in the saga where Smith himself – now retired and recovering from injuries – has only a small part to play, though he does show up.

It takes a pair of new officers, DCI Kara Freeman and an organizational genius named DI Greene, to replace Smith at the head of a new team, the Kings Lake Central Murder Squad. Most of Smith’s own team are still on hand, along with some new officers. DCI Freeman is planning to spend their first day as an operational unit doing team-building exercises and reviewing cold cases. But then a body is discovered. One of the local homeless has been found dead in the doorway of a Chinese restaurant. On examination, the man proves to have been stabbed to death.

Although the narrative point of view shifts between various characters, the main protagonist in this one is DS Christopher Waters. Waters’s investigation brings him into contact with a blind woman who runs a florist shop, and romance… blossoms. Meanwhile, the dead man, who claimed to have been a war veteran, turns out to have been an impostor. So was he the murderer’s actual target, or was it a case of mistaken identity? If so, where is the real veteran, who seems to have fallen off the grid?

Peter Grainger is a solid and rewarding writer, and I enjoyed reading On Eden Street. My only complaint is that Smith is mostly out of the picture. Nobody can replace Smith.