‘Dodge City,’ by Tom Clavin

Long ago, based on an article I read in some magazine, I joined the anti-Wyatt Earp party. Anti-Wyatt people like to point out that Wyatt Earp was primarily a gambler, not a lawman – he was never the marshal of anyplace, though he was a deputy off and on. Also that the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral (which took place not in the corral, but in a nearby vacant lot), is told in so many contradictory ways that it’s impossible to get at the truth, but that the Earps’ conduct is suspicious at best. And that Wyatt’s famous vendetta ride, though understandable in light of the murder of one brother and the maiming of another, was entirely extralegal and far from a law ‘n order affair. And, oh yes, there’s evidence Wyatt was a pimp, at least for a while.

Since then I’ve softened a bit. Wyatt was no Hugh O’Brien (that’s the guy who played him on TV, for your kids out there), but neither were his enemies – white hats were hard to find in them parts, in those days.

My real favorite Wild West lawman is Wild Bill Hickok. And yet I keep picking up books about Earp. Maybe because there are more mysteries in his story. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of him.

So I picked up Tom Clavin’s book, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town In the American West. It has its virtues, but in terms of a search for the facts, I think it’s a step back rather than forward.

One great virtue of Dodge City is that it provides a lot of context. Although the narrative is centered in Dodge, it sends feelers out to touch on a lot of places that involved the main characters through the second half of the 19th Century. I appreciated this; I know my Old West fairly well, but my sense of what was contemporaneous with what was improved.

The book’s particular virtue is that, instead of concentrating on the almost mythic figure of Wyatt Earp, Clavin also keeps his eye on Wyatt’s close friend Bat Masterson. Masterson has gotten too little attention, and Clavin makes a good case (with which I tend to agree) that he was the more accomplished of the two. For one thing, Bat was actually an elected sheriff, at least for a while. But he was also involved in more adventures, from the legendary Adobe Wells fight to various manhunts, shootouts, and arrests as a lawman. William S. Hart knew both men, but it was Masterson he identified as his character model.

The great weakness of Dodge City is that it scores low on the factual scale. Clavin treats these men as if they were career lawmen, men on a mission to bring peace to the frontier, like in the movies. I don’t think you can honestly make that case. His account of the feud with the Clantons is routinely biased toward the Earps. And there are simple mistakes of fact. I’m not a “real” historian, but Clavin’s accounts of events involving Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid are wrong in important details, to my best knowledge. (Although I could just be behind on the scholarship. It keeps changing. But Clavin does not inspire my confidence as scholar.)

Dodge City has some value for the reader looking for a sweeping overview of a colorful time and place in our history. But if you’re looking for objective scholarship, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.

New Avengers: Other Worlds and A Perfect World

Jonathan Hickman put a poetic balance in his New Avengers: Illuminati tale of the end of universes. Several times we read Reed Richards saying, “Everything dies. You. Me. Everyone on this planet. . . . eventually the universe itself. This is simply how things are. It’s inevitable. And I accept it, but what I will not tolerate–what I find unacceptable–is the unnatural acceleration of that end.”

The select men who form the Illuminati fear they must do horrible things to avoid the death of their instance of Earth (explained in an earlier post). So far they’ve only had to destroy planets that were dead or dying. In Other Worlds, the Black Swan tells them of a device she calls a mirror that allows someone to see into realities or universes. Because in this type of sci-fi all you need is to conceive of a thing in order have a working device in the next few days, they build this device and begin scanning for incursion points on other Earths. In this way they see other societies with other heroes being invaded by the horrifically deadly agents they have only heard about: Mapmakers and Black Priests. In the second book, Infinity, they return to Black Swan after defeating Thanos, and she ridicules them. Why worry about a dog when you have a demon charging you? she asks, because what’s coming is irresistable death.

It’s never clear whether she is shooting straight with them, and as the weeks burn up they see potential threats that only make them fear the worst. In A Perfect World the worst comes in the least acceptable form. The next world incursion is not filled with abominations but with heroes who could be their superiors. Are they willing to destroy a good world to save their own this time?

In this other version of Earth, we read Dr. Richards’ dialogue with a different spin from a Superman-like figure called Zoran, the Sun God.

“Everything lives. It lives before it dies and we are judged by what we do during that time. Like a brilliant, life-giving star, we illuminate the universe, chasing away the shadows. We create life and then celebrate that creation.”

After reading Zoran’s hopeful words, I thought they may right every wrong, even if it took turning back the clock. But now I see this is only part of a much longer story. It probably won’t turn hopeful or patch certain holes in character arcs. Maybe the bottom line comes from one of the characters, who said these men were not heroes but kings. Kings have authority from birth and do not reason within normal human morality; they commit necessary evil to defend their people, and even though you may be able to argue that certain acts were not necessary, if the people are safe, then the actions were acceptable.

That’s more like embracing the shadows than chasing them away.

Free-Lancing, and ‘The Girl Hunters’

Happy Friday. Some people still have Fridays, I’m told. Such people are described as Essential. I am not worthy, I am sure, to unlace the latchets of their sandals.

I was busy yesterday, though. The translation job I got had me working 12 hours straight, pausing only for meals and comfort stops. Also to open the windows, because the day was beautiful.

I won’t say it’s a joy of the free-lancing life, but it’s certainly one of its qualities, that much of the time you wish you had work, and then occasionally you have too much. The big stars can regulate their own schedules, but the rest of us are carrion birds, on the watch for cadavers of opportunity.

While I was working, I streamed a curious old movie on Amazon Prime: The Girl Hunters, a 1963 Mike Hammer flick. What makes it memorable is that the creator of the character, writer Mickey Spillane, played his own creation in this one.

The story involves PI Mike Hammer waking up from a long drunk to find that his secretary Velda is dead, and that his cop friend Pat Chambers now hates his guts. Then Mike gets a hint that Velda might be alive. He will, of course, steamroll anybody who tries to keep him from finding her.

As a late semi-noir, The Girl Hunters isn’t bad. It was produced by an English company, and the obscure cast (except for Lloyd Nolan and Shirley Eaton, who’s best remembered for getting painted gold in “Goldfinger”) turn in solid work. Spillane himself is better than you might fear. He gets his words in the right order, and generally keeps his facial expressions and body language consistent with them. His big problem is that he has zero charisma. He’s not good looking enough to be a leading man, and on top of that he isn’t likeable. You wouldn’t trust this guy to watch your suitcase in a train station.

But the production’s not bad, the music’s good, and the script is adequate. Worth watching mostly for the novelty of the thing.

Bible Translation Can Be Murder

John Wilson describes Daniel Taylor’s new novel Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, the third in a mystery series featuring Jon Mote, an amatuer dectective in the Minnesota area. Mote is something of an academic and is currently working as an editor for a publishing house. Wilson writes:

When his employers decide that they want a piece of the lucrative if already crowded market for Bible translations, Jon is drafted to serve as a non-voting member of the committee that will oversee the new translation. “The word is, Mr. Mote, that you grew up among the fundamentalists. Those are your people. We need someone on our side who understands them.” Of course, Jon didn’t grow up among “fundamentalists,” but his bosses aren’t interested in such fine distinctions.

Wilson calls it hilarious, but having not read it myself I can’t say how light-hearted or overall comical it is. It’s new today.

Daniel Taylor’s first novel, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, won the Christianity Today 2016 Book Award for fiction. Lars reviewed it and Do We Not Bleed? in earlier posts.

Happy at Home, staying at Home

Here’s a little Latin you may find useful when you’re working from home, recovering at home, taking refuge at home, or being confined at home.

Domi manere convenit felicibus. — It befits those who are happy at home to remain there.

I hope that’s true for you; it’s not true for too many, because as Ovid says, “Dos est uxoria lites,” that is, strife is a wife’s dowry. May that not be your home, for domus sua cuique tutissimum refugium (every man’s home is his safest place of refuge).

Remember that a friendly house is the best of houses (domus amica domus optima), but remember also that pain compels all things (dolor omnia cogit).

You may find it useful to say to yourself and others:

  • Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you)
  • Dominus providebit (The Lord will provide)
  • Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my light)
  • Deus det [nobis pacem] (May God give [us peace])
  • Deus propitius esto mihi peccatori (God be merciful to me a sinner)

Here are a few others words you may wish to repeat, echoing the wisdom of the ages.

  • Honesty is the poor man’s pork and the rich man’s pudding.
  • Hope is grief’s best music, but help which is long on the road is no help.
  • Keep a thing seven years, and you’ll find a use for it.
  • Little fires burn up much corn.
  • Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.
  • Many a man asks the way he knows full well.

Found in W. Gurney Benham’s A Book of Quotations: Proverbs and Household Words (Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash)

A librarian’s best friend

I’m in haste tonight. Got a translation assignment, and I think I may have promised to deliver faster than I should have. So time’s wingéd chariot is tailgating me like a Ferrari on a blue highway.

In lieu of anything original, I’ll share this nice article from Atlas Obscura about the curses medieval scribes placed in books, so that people wouldn’t steal or mangle them.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

No Amazon link. I checked and Drogin’s book is very rare and copies are expensive. At those prices, they should have their own curses.

‘The Silencer,’ by Mike Ryan

Here’s the concept: A burned CIA agent, now hunted by his old bosses, meets a computer genius. The genius tells him he’s found a way to hack into police and security databases, to identify ordinary people who are under threat. He needs an agent to intervene and protect those people. He has almost unlimited funds to set them up in the hero business.

If you think this sounds like the old Jim Caviezel TV show, Person of Interest, that’s how it sounds to me too. The main difference is that The Silencer is set in Philadelphia. Our hero takes the name of Mike Recker, and eases into his new life. Soon he will have his hands full, and will begin to make his first human connections after a long personal drought.

Aside from the un-original concept, I found the story in The Silencer entertaining in itself. (One thing that annoyed me was that our hero, supposedly a master of covert operations, loses no time in making himself a public legend. He might at least have varied his costumes, instead of allowing himself to be identified in the papers as “the man in the trench coat.” That’s not keeping a low profile).

But the biggest problem with this book was the author’s weak grasp of English grammar. He’s constantly dropping howlers like, “But things rarely go as planned, don’t they?” And, “There was maps of the area on a wall….” This author needs an editor. Badly.

Light-weight, derivative entertainment, marred by clumsy writing. You might enjoy the book, if you’re less picky than I am.

‘The October Five,’ by Thomas Fincham

There’s an upstairs apartment in Chicago where a small group of middle-aged men maintain a secret club, The October Five. They are all Marine Vietnam War veterans, survivors of one horrific operation that went very bad. They tell no one about their club, even their families and closest friends. That’s because they work on secret projects together, projects that are highly illegal.

Detective Karl Whaler has a mystery on his hands. A young man has been murdered in his apartment, and no forensic evidence can be found. It’s hard to think why anyone would kill a person as universally beloved as this fellow was – until Karl learns that this man had been systematically defrauding many people, most of whom (such was his charm) still think of him fondly.

A chance discovery puts Karl on a surprising track – is this one in a series of murders, very neat murders in which the victims are people who very much deserved death, but whom the law could not touch?

Soon Karl will be pursuing the October Five. But he’s not their worst danger. Their worst danger will come from a quarter they could never have imagined.

For this reader, The October Five started out in an unpromising way. The beginning of the story meandered, and I got kind of bored with the Five themselves, going about their everyday lives. I had some trouble telling them apart. And Karl Whaler was not a terribly interesting detective.

But the book grabbed me as I moved on.  I was particularly pleased with the story’s positive portrayal of Vietnam veterans.

Recommended, with cautions for language, violence, and ambiguous morality.

The New Avengers: Illuminati by Bendis, Reed, and Cheung

I put aside my reading of the New Avengers series to look at this collection of five issues called The New Avengers: Illuminati. I thought it was a prequel to the other series and it does begin that way, but somehow I got mixed up on publication dates. My library site has 2019, but these issues start in 2008 and may stretch to 2010-11, putting this book well before my current series.

But it begins as I expected. Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, Tony Stark, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Charles Xavier, Stephen Strange, and Black Bolt have pulled together to tackle select work of a specialized nature in light of war between the Kree and Skrulls that spilled onto the Earth. Richards has called the meeting and tells them he has one (no, three) of the infinity gems. Oh, and a gauntlet. Understanding it would be super-dangerous for anyone to have all six gems, Richards suggests they are just the super-dangerous men to collect all six in order to keep them out of everyone else’s hands.

Of course, they collect the other three gems, and The Watcher shows up to say, “My job is to watch and record the universe’s defining events.” (I think he’s contractually obligated to say that.) And, Reed, I am so disappointed in you. He says no one should have all six gems, especially a human, so Reed distributes them to the team.

What could go wrong?

In the next issue, the deal with an entirely overpowered young man who just wants to have fun. Then they handle another young man who’s really, really mad at mankind. Finally they talk over the implications of someone they’ve found and realized their efforts to end a future Skrull invasion have kicked open a remodeled level of Hell.

When I said that reading comic books usually involves hopping into the middle of some kind of story arc, this is book has more open ends than a farmhouse in summertime. While it does set up the Secret Invasion series (which might have been nice to learn from the preface), as a whole this book is like watching five disconnected episodes in an evening marathon, the last of which is barely more than a cliffhanger scene.

‘Thin Gray LInes,’ by Mark Hazard

I kind of enjoyed Lines of Duty, the first book in Mark Hazard’s Deputy Corus series, set in King County, Washington. So I went on to Book Two, Thin Gray Lines.

Corus, who was a police trainee in the first book, is now a rookie with the department. His boss decides his particular skills, honed in Special Operations, will be useful in investigating a drug operation that seems to be operating on a very large onion farm downstate, near Walla Walla. He sends Corus off with his superior, Danny Jamison, to babysit him, but Danny has other plans. He wants to spend the weekend with his wife, working on their marriage problems. So Corus ends up going on his own.

He decides to go in undercover, as an illegal Hispanic laborer. He will encounter the strange, dysfunctional family that runs the place, along with their innocent daughter and her lover, a South African struggling with his conscience. Also various bad guys, not so bad guys, and plain victims, including an illegal laborer trying to actualize the teachings of Tony Robbins. The final showdown will be – literally – explosive.

Thin Gray Lines was entertaining and engaging, with the same positive energy I noticed in the first book. What I didn’t like about it was, first of all, that the amusing cast of characters we got to know in the last book get very little time on stage in this one. Also, there was some New Age stuff, and a negative depiction of strict Christian groups.

So I guess I won’t go on with this series. But it’s not bad.

Infinity by Hickman, Spencer, Latour, et al

Earlier I said I was missing parts of the story being framed up in Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers series, volume two, called Infinity. That missing part was something like the whole backside of a house. I feel as if I’ve read three Longest-Day-style war stories back to back, and I’m glad I didn’t borrow this collection of issues before reading Everything Dies. While that collection begins with a page telling part of a previously told story, those details introduced the opening scene neatly. Whenever you pick up a comic book that is not issue one, you should assume you’re stepping into the middle of a story at some point.

Infinity by Hickman, Spencer, Latour, and many illustrators begins at issue seven in the series I’ve been reading and issue fourteen in a separate series, so yeah, if I was inclined to be lost by characters I’ve never even heard scant rumor of, then I’d be lost like the shed key I thought I put in the drawer back in October and, I assume, has since been borrowed by the little people of the house.

There’s no way to summarize this book, but I can say its plot is instigated by the loss of the infinity gems I alluded to in the other post. When the gems were used, it appears at least three powerful beings, Thanos among them, noticed immediately. War is raging through the universe, and Thanos looks over Earth and sees an opportunity to accomplish one of his life ambitions–to kill his son.

The battles are legitimately marvelous, and Captain America shines as the man who sees the winning strategy when brute force has been beaten against the wall. But sometimes the more powerful characters appear to be holding back.

One young man, maybe fifteen years old, is known by many others as having great, cosmic power, but he doesn’t know it himself. So when he has to be coached into using his strength, there’s a sense to it; when other characters use their fists until they are almost struck down before ka-booom! they let loose their unique power, I’m left wondering why they didn’t do that to begin with.

I assume this book reflects Marvel’s mythological metanarrative accurately, but that narrative may not be neatly defined. There are plenty of cosmic beings, one of whom is a beautiful woman who apparently created everything. The great enemy that brings so many disparate empires and heroes together to oppose it claims to be agents of evolution, destroyers and creators as they deem appropriate. They note they were created by the universal mother and have since rejected her. At another time, as she lay unconscious, the heroes repeat the main refrain of these books, that everything dies–men, worlds, gods, and galaxies. We’re all just dust in the wind, I suppose.

So what’s the point of it all? asks a younger team member, an Australian named Eden. “How do you make sense of it? Fate? Faith?”

Continue reading Infinity by Hickman, Spencer, Latour, et al

Liberation Day

Today is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, “Victory in Europe Day,” in 1945. It was a bigger commemoration when I was a boy, when those events were still recent history to all the grownups I knew.

In Norway it’s known as Frigjøringsdag, “Liberation Day.” The bit of newsreel footage I’ve posted above provides one of the more amusing moments of that event. A German commander, Oberst Karsch, marches up to British Air Commander Darrell, a big smile on his face, as if hoping to convince him it’s all been a big misunderstanding and to let bygones be bygones. Darrell is not amused, and appears to defer to his Norwegian colleagues.

It’s an important date. Too bad the Norwegians can’t celebrate it properly under current conditions.

‘Lines of Duty,’ by Mark Hazard

Sometimes a novel can be fairly ordinary in itself, but will reveal intriguing possibilities. That was my reaction to Lines of Duty, by Mark Hazard, first installment in the Deputy Corus series.

“Corus” is the only name of the main character; he has no first name (This is the second book I’ve read recently with a one-name character. Can you even do that in the modern world?). His personal background is mysterious, but the book begins with his last day on Special Forces duty in Afghanistan. He is a brave and decorated soldier. Shortly after his return to the States, he and his wife establish themselves in Seattle, where he has enrolled in a special, elite police training program.

Corus is the best shot in his class. Another classmate, Albert Chu, is the best academically. They fall into an odd, symbiotic friendship as they deal with the considerable pressures of the program. One day, while they are doing grunt work with unclaimed evidence, Corus discovers some diamonds that were never reclaimed by their owner. That, along with other strange points about the evidence, leads him and Chu to poke into the old case. This will have them investigating rodeo people, drug dealers, and an eccentric old lady with an amazing heart.

The author, Mark Hazard, is – judging by this book – good at characterization, but middling on dialogue. His characters sometimes talk like books. But I still liked the characters, and there’s an attitude of positivity here that I can’t help liking. I’m reading the second book now.

Mild cautions for language and violence.

‘The Faraway North,’ translated by Ian Cumpstey

And it was then Sigurd Sven,

He rode on under the hills,

And a troll came down from the high fells,

And asked to ride with him.

A troll came down from the high fells,

All dressed in a shirt of silk,

His nose was like a cattleshed,

And his eyes like tarns on the hill.

I have a fondness for old ballads. Mostly I’ve read the British kind (you may have read “Barbara Allen” or “Sir Patrick Spens” in school). They’re voices of the past; sometimes heard indistinctly, sometimes garbled in the hearing, sometimes in the retelling. Often they’re like assemblies of interchangeable parts – you can mix and match them. Or change the hero’s name and you’ve got a ready-made new story. The ballad is often a marvel of narrative simplicity – you may learn what’s happening solely through dialogue (even monologue); you may even have to guess a bit what’s going on.

I’ve had some exposure to Scandinavian ballads in the past; generally they follow the same forms the British ones. The chief difference is that when a hero in a British ballad meets a supernatural being, it’s likely to be some kind of Faery. In the Scandinavian kind, you get trolls most often, then sometimes it’s the Huldre (the Underground Folk, the Scandinavian equivalent of Faery; I mention them in my novels).

Ian Cumpstey is a Swedish-to-English translator, but in his collection, The Faraway North, he has collected examples from Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish ballads, all done over into English. They sound very much like the ones we’re familiar with. They don’t always rhyme, but ours don’t either – I wondered as I read whether the translator’s creativity had failed, but he says in his notes that the originals often don’t rhyme either.

We encounter some famous characters in these verses – St. Olaf and King Harald Hardrada, for instance, or Sigurd (the one in the verses quoted above), better known to us as Siegfried the Dragon-slayer. But many of them are mysteries – if their characters ever lived at all, their stories are preserved only in these songs.

I enjoyed read The Faraway North very much. You might like it too, if you’re fond of antiquities.

‘The Boy from the Woods,’ by Harlan Coben

I’ve become a fan of Harlan Coben’s novels, especially since he moved out of sports-based mysteries to more domestic stories, in which responsible husbands and fathers go to extraordinary lengths to rescue family members.

I’m not so keen on the turn he’s taken with his latest novel, The Boy from the Woods.

The hero of The Boy from the Woods is a man known only as Wilde. Wilde comes equipped with a fairly implausible back story. As a boy, he was found living in the New Jersey woods, apparently a feral child – although he could speak and read English. No family ever stepped forward to claim him. He entered the military, and then briefly became a private investigator. He still lives in the woods.

The closest thing he has to a family is that of Hester Crimstein (a continuing character who often shows up in Corben’s novels), a tiny but relentless celebrity criminal lawyer. He was particularly close to her youngest son, who died in an auto accident. Now he’s kind of a mentor to her grandson Matthew, who’s in high school.

One day Matthew contacts Wilde and asks for his help. A girl in his class, Naomi Pine, has disappeared. Naomi had been the victim of universal bullying in their school. Matthew is concerned she may have done herself harm.

Wilde’s investigation will lead to unexpected connections with the campaign of a popular presidential candidate, one whom Hester dislikes and fears. This man (a sort of cross between Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh, by way of Nietzsche and Mussolini) has secrets he will go to any length to cover up. However, even when the truth comes out at great cost, it will prove to be not quite the truth.

The Boy from the Woods kept my interest all the way through. However, some aspects of the story never worked for me. The “feral child” thing struck me as unlikely. (From what I’ve read, such children have been found from time to time in the real world, but they were pitiful physical specimens, nothing like the hunk Wilde has grown into). The mystery of his origins is clearly meant to be an ongoing thread in future books (this is obviously the beginning of a series), but it didn’t convince me.

Also – for no reason I can think of, except to score points with feminists – a group of security people consisting entirely of women (except for one transgender) is introduced. And when Wilde merely hints that their boss (a friend of his) might want to find a less dangerous job, since she’s the mother of four small kids, he gets shot down hard for sexism.

Also, the resolution of the story is unsatisfying in multiple ways.

So my final verdict is that The Boy from the Woods is an interesting, engaging (though ultimately frustrating) story, I don’t think I’ll follow the series any further.

Cautions for language and mature themes.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture