‘A Long Time Coming,’ by Aaron Elkins

I was weary of the string of brainless mystery/thrillers I’d been reading, so I looked for a change of pace. A novel by Aaron Elkins showed up on an Amazon list. I have no idea where or when I conceived an opinion on Aaron Elkins, but I had an idea he wrote intelligent mysteries. I was not wrong.

In A Long Time Coming, we meet Val Caruso, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Val is preparing for a trip to Milan, to do prep work for a touring exhibit. He gets a call from his friend Esther, who works with a foundation devoted to returning art stolen by the Nazis to its original owners. The case she wants help with now is one they lost. Italian courts have a high view of the rights of good-faith purchasers, and so old Sol Bezzecca has lost his claim to a pair of early Renoir paintings that once hung in his great-grandfather’s home. But the current owner of the paintings is a friend of Val’s. Would it be possible to persuade him to lend the old man one of them, just until he dies, which can’t be long now?

Val agrees to try. He’s helped the foundation out before. In Milan he approaches his friend, art dealer Ulisse Agnello, and proposes the deal. Ulisse says he’s inclined to agree, but there are “complications.”

The complications involve a high-class loan shark and a slightly dubious art restorer. Eventually there will be murder, and Val’s knowledge of Impressionist art will enable him to untangle a devious, ruthless scheme and make an old man happy.

I enjoyed A Long Time Coming quite a lot. The details about the art world and Milanese culture were interesting. The characters were plausible and quirky. The writing was very good, sometimes moving. And it was a great relief to finally read a book where the detective has the sense to listen to his doctors and stay in bed after sustaining a concussion.

I recommend A Long Time Coming. There may have been some bad language, but it left no impression on me.

‘Wild Justice,’ by Tripp Ellis

I’m a sucker for boats. That’s my problem, I think.

Recently I’ve been reading a string of mystery/thrillers set in the coastal American south, most of them having boats on their covers. I like boats, and stories about boats. I really loved the sailing mysteries Bernard Cornwell wrote a long time ago, but apparently nobody else liked them. So he went on to historical epics, which I don’t like nearly as much. At least I don’t like his approach…

Where was I?

Oh yes, so the last book I reviewed was Wild Ocean by Tripp Ellis, and although the story didn’t shiver my timbers, I gave the series one more try with the second installment, Wild Justice.

I think that’s plenty.

Tyson Wild, hero of the series, former black-ops contractor now living in Coconut Key, Florida, is approached by the local sheriff, who’s short-handed. He wants Tyson and his buddy JD to help him investigate the murder of a reputed drug dealer. They agree, mostly for the fun, and in between juggling their various gorgeous girlfriends and intervening in JD’s drug-using daughter’s problems, they do this. An innocent woman gets killed in a horrible way, and a good deal of implausible heroics are indulged in.

I’ve had enough. Wild Justice is low grade male entertainment, comparable to a shallow-end romance novel for women. I don’t recommend it. Also, there are a lot of homonym errors, and an annoying tendency to end speculative sentences not phrased in the form of a question with question marks.

‘Wild Ocean,’ by Tripp Ellis

I had hoped for more than I actually got from Tripp Ellis’s Wild Ocean. This thriller begins with the main character enduring a vision of Hell, as he lies unconscious in a hospital bed. He awakens determined to avoid Hell at all costs. I thought that might be an opening for some deeper elements in the story, but alas, it’s just a jumping-off point.

Tyson Wild works for one of those “private” security companies to whom governments contract out some of their more dubious clandestine work. When he survives (pretty improbably) an assassination attempt while he’s recovering from a gunshot wound, he learns that he’s under suspicion from his employer, who is keeping his liquidation as an option. He decides to go home to Coconut Key, Florida, where his sister runs a bar and an old friend, JD, runs a charter boat service. Before long a friend of his sister’s will be murdered, and Tyson and JD will need all their skills to uncover the murderer and save some innocent people from being collateral damage in a big drug bust.

I would rate this book as OK entertainment. Nothing very profound, competent writing (except for a few misspellings), lots of action and lots of beautiful women and sex (nothing too explicit). I probably wouldn’t have bought the second book in the series if I saw anything more interesting coming up, but I didn’t.

‘Dead South,’ by David Banner

This is another southern mystery, the first book in a series set in Charleston, South Carolina. Dead South introduces police detective Ryan Devereaux. Ryan is a native son of Charleston, and the book is as much about Charleston as about the mystery. Everywhere author David Banner rhapsodizes about the beauty of the place, its gracious traditions, its friendly people. You’d think there wasn’t any dark side to the south at all, apart from a murder or two.

As the story begins, Ryan gets a call that a body has been found buried a swamp. It’s an old body, long skeletonized. But when he sees it, he knows immediately who it is. It’s Haley King, his high school girlfriend. She’s wearing the dress she wore to the prom, the night she stood him up.

Because he’s a cold case detective, Ryan is assigned the case. He swings into it with a vengeance. Someone in town killed Haley, and that person will not hesitate to kill again and again, to keep the truth hidden

Usually when I say a book is badly written, I mean it literally. Grammatical and spelling errors have become tiresomely common in the new, more egalitarian publishing world. Dead South isn’t badly written in that sense. Author Banner knows how to write a decent sentence. His problem is that he hasn’t mastered telling a story.

It’s hard to sympathize with Ryan Devereux. He’s so sure of himself, so obsessed with the case, so willing to cut corners and disobey his superiors, that he seemed like a madman to me. We’re constantly told in this book how laid-back and casual Charleston people are, but Ryan is like a high tension wire, vibrating in a hurricane. Also, I found much of the plot implausible.

So I wasn’t terribly impressed with Dead South, though I did stick with it to the end. Profanity and mature content were pretty minimal.

‘Lost In the Storm,’ by Mark Stone

There’s much to be said for Mark Stone’s novel Lost In the Storm, the first in a series. The hero is Chicago police detective Dillon Storm. For the first time in a dozen years, he’s back in his home town, the elite city of Naples, Florida. He didn’t want to come. He’s the illegitimate son of the richest man in Naples, and was never acknowledged by his father. But that father is dead now, and there are questions. When his father’s lawyer is found murdered with Dillon’s phone number in his cell phone, it starts getting personal.

Dillon will re-kindle some old relationships and learn some things he never knew about the family that shut him out. And he will discover important things about himself.

The story in itself was pretty good. I liked the characters, and found Dillon Storm a compelling hero.

The problem was the writing. The book needed heavy editing. There were lots of misspellings. And in one amazing passage, the author moved the sunset from the west to the east.

I might try another in the series, hoping the proofreading improves, because I did like the story. There were even some positive references to Christianity.

But I can’t wholly endorse it as a work of literature.

The ‘Titus’ series by John D. Patten

I had a fair amount of time to read over my long weekend out of town, and in that time I polished off the three books (to date) of John D. Patten’s Titus series of mystery/thrillers. I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say about them. They’re strange. But fun.

Titus (he never tells us his last name) is a former Boston police detective who did some time in prison, though he was exonerated and released. Recently he went to Miami, with the sole intention of killing a man. That man, he believes, killed the only woman he ever loved.

But his first night in town, his car was stopped on a bridge by a beautiful policewoman. For some reason, after that encounter, he lost some of his fire. He’s delaying killing his target, instead renting a room and working in a bar, waiting for… something.

One night, a very rich woman approaches him in the bar’s parking lot. Titus was referred to her, she says, by a friend. Her daughter has disappeared. The girl has had some trouble with drugs, but was straightening her life out. Can Titus look for her?

Titus has an intuition that something’s hinky about the woman’s story, but he takes the case, having nothing better to do. He enters a world of Miami nightclubs, drugs, excess, human trafficking, lies and betrayal. That’s the premise of the first book, Miami Burn.

In the second book, Miami Chill, Titus takes a bodyguard job which leads him to deal, again, with human traffickers. He also discovers some secrets about his personal and family history.

The third book, Miami Storm, starts with Titus in a hospital bed, recovering from a gunshot wound he can’t remember sustaining. A surprising friend rescues him (he was being held by people who wanted him to remember valuable information), helps him regain his physical strength, and turns him loose to run down some international criminals and to discover shocking truths about his own past.

What can I say about the Titus books? Back when I was young, before Robert B. Parker raised Spenser’s (another one-name detective from Boston) consciousness, there used to be a lot of mysteries aimed at the male market. Prominent representatives were Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott. Aside from action and mystery, these books featured a whole lot of sex. Improbably gorgeous women constantly threw themselves at these heroes, and the heroes took ample advantage of their opportunities.

Titus is kind of like that – women are always jumping on him, sometimes going to the trouble of disrobing before propositioning him. Titus is a little more reluctant than the old school private eyes – he generally tries to resist, especially when (as is often the case) the women are much younger than he. But he gives in a lot, too, especially when he’s had too much to drink. The sex isn’t explicit, but there’s a lot of it.

On the other hand, there’s the character of “The Reverend.” Like Spenser, Titus has a big, muscled, dangerous black friend. But this friend is a preacher, a reformed thug who runs an inner city mission and often preaches to Titus. But he’s also a good man to have at your back in a fight. And he gradually influences Titus’s thinking.

So what we’ve got here is kind of a Crossway Books story by way of Mickey Spillane. An odd concoction.

But I have to admit – I had more fun with these books than I’ve had with many books in a long time.

So I recommend them conditionally – if you can handle the sexual situations, the violence, and the profanity, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had here. And even a little inspiration. The writing isn’t bad either.

Festival postmortem

There and back again. Since we spoke last, I’ve been up to Moorhead, Minnesota (which is just to the right of Fargo, North Dakota if you don’t know the neighborhood) for the Midwest Viking Festival at the Hjemkomst Museum.

The theme this year was rain and mud. I worried about rain driving up, I worried about rain when I slept, and I spent the days sitting under my awning, worrying about rain. The usual drill is to arrive Thursday afternoon and set up, to be ready for the opening on Friday morning. But it was raining Thursday, and Friday looked to be a little better, so I went straight to the motel for the night and drove to the museum the next morning to set up then. And indeed it wasn’t raining Friday morning. It didn’t rain at all on Friday, though the skies were cloudy all day (as “Home On the Range” doesn’t say).

But it rained overnight, and it rained off and on all Saturday. The heathens were doing their weather magic, which benefited them not at all. And that’s some comfort. I prayed about the weather myself, of course, but always with the tragic understanding that God has greater concerns than my comfort.

The rain did let up for a while in the afternoon, though, so although we had to pack up our tents wet, we didn’t have to do it in the rain (mostly). Which was something.

But the festival itself actually went better than I’d have thought, considering the precipitation. Attendance wasn’t bad, and I sold out my supply of Viking Legacy, plus a fair number of West Oversea. Also, Blood and Judgment achieved a surprising popularity.

One cheerful woman wanted two Viking Legacys and one West Oversea. Then she changed her mind and asked for a third Viking Legacy.

An example to us all.

A blonde young woman came by and didn’t buy anything, but she was amazingly beautiful, and the smile she gave me packed enough wattage to dry my tent out.

I wonder what it’s like to live like that – to be so beautiful that almost everyone’s happy to see you show up. It must be like having a free pass everywhere.

Also got a chance to meet a Facebook friend and fellow reenactor I’d never met before. Nice to meet you, Einar Severinson. Not as nice as meeting the blonde, I’ll admit, but nice enough.

I had a strange encounter with an old guy who informed me that he was a “historian.” When I gave him my spiel about Viking Legacy, he interrupted me. “I always get mad when people talk about Viking democracy,” he said.

I asked him why.

“Because they weren’t all equal.”

I said, “I didn’t’ say egalitarian democracy.”

He said, “Well, that’s what most people understand by democracy.”

I said, “The Athenian democracy wasn’t egalitarian either.”

He wandered off mumbling about how I was deceiving people.

Historian, my eye.

Anyway, when all was done I got my car loaded up with wet canvas and gear (thanks to the invaluable help of the Patton boys and some of their friends. I don’t know what I’d do without the Patton boys. If they can’t attend some year, I may have to bow out myself).

And now I’m home at last, beginning to recover. I’ve got my tent drying in the basement, and some money to count.

Could have been worse.

Joy Harjo Named Poet Laureate

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.

from “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo has appointed the next U.S. poet laureate. She is of the Muscogee Creek nation, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the first Oklahoman to be named poet laureate.

She told Tulsa World, “I know a lot of young people were turned off from poetry when the teacher would ask us to ‘tell what the poem means.’ But sometimes, it’s better just to listen. I mean, we all listen to something like ‘Hotel California,’ but could we really explain what it means? What is so amazing about poetry is that it’s a way to speak beyond words.”

Many outlets are reporting that Harjo is the first Native American to be appointed to this position, but poet William Jay Smith, who was part Choctaw, held the position in 1968-70. (This detail was pointed out by A.M. Juster, which I learned through Prufrock)

Eating Seasonally, Feasting Locally

We don’t plant a backyard garden every year and have grown a good crop only two or three times. You may have had more zucchini than you could eat time and again, but we’ve only begun to approach that level once. Usually our squash grows leaves and flowers but no fruit. Once I grew some nice turnip greens; at least the first batch was nice. The second was to bitter. I put only tomatoes and basil out this year, because I didn’t get around to clearing the other bed and trying beans.

Gracy Olmstead has a good piece on feasting, the church calendar, and seasonal eating, noting the self-control and humility it takes to live closer to the land around you.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re incredibly fortunate to get avocados and bananas year-round, and to have refrigerators and freezers in our houses. But I think we’ve also lost some of the joy of food, the ability to treasure the flavors of the seasons, because we no longer understand these patterns of waiting and feasting.

This concern became especially real for me two summers ago, after my husband and I moved to the Virginia countryside. As we were unpacking our books and clothes, I transplanted our fledgling tomato plants into a garden plot the previous homeowners had left behind. Those plants seemed to shoot upward overnight, spreading with fervent glee. . . .

Soon we were picking giant bowls full of tomatoes every day, and the toddler and dog would sit next to each other in the garden and eat them to their hearts’ content. 

Midwest Viking Festival

If I don’t post tomorrow, it will be because I’m in Moorhead, Minnesota, gracing the Midwest Viking Festival with my presence. The festival is Friday and Saturday. It’s supposed to rain starting Thursday (when we’ll be setting up) and through Saturday (when I’ll be bundling my wet tent canvas up and stuffing it back into my car).

But don’t let that discourage you. If you’re in the area, stop to see us.

Read about it here.

And pray for drought.

‘A Litter of Bones,’ by J. D. Kirk

The office was small, but fastidiously neat to the point it didn’t look like a functioning workplace at all. Rather, it was like something IKEA might use as a showpiece for its new office range designed for the deeply unimaginative.

I dislike calling books “un-put-down-able.” A book can always be put down. Just let your house catch fire and you’ll see. But there are books that keep you turning pages, that you have trouble putting aside. It’s a quality I find rarer as I grow older. But that’s how I found A Litter of Bones. And when I note that it’s a first novel, I’m deeply impressed.

Jack Logan is a police detective in Glasgow, Scotland. He made his reputation solving the “Mister Whisper” serial abduction-murder case years ago, finding a man who tortured and murdered several little boys. One boy’s body was never found, and that haunts him. The trauma of the whole case marked him, destroying his marriage.

Now a boy has been kidnapped in the Highlands, and Logan is dispatched to go and lead that investigation. The case mirrors the original case closely – including details never made public. So the question arises, did Logan get it wrong the first time? Logan is certain that can’t be true. He doesn’t know where the copycat got his information, but the original Mister Whisper is behind bars.

A Litter of Bones features some excellent character development. Jack Logan seems unsympathetic at first. He’s driven, obsessive, abrasive, certain of his own judgments.

But as we get to know him better, we see his motivations. He cares, perhaps too deeply. He has reasons for his certitude. And he will go to any lengths to save a victim – even at the expense of his career, his freedom, and his life.

The final solution was a blindside punch. Followed by a bittersweet anticlimax.

I’m really looking forward to the second book in the Jack Logan series, which I’ve pre-ordered.

Cautions – there is deeply disturbing material in this story, including the torture of animals (some people, for some reason, are more troubled by that than by the torture of children). So be warned that this is no feel-good story. But I recommend it highly, if you appreciate this sort of thing.

‘The Holy Island of Lindisfarne,’ by David Adam

[Bishop] Aidan was deeply moved by such generosity, and, taking hold of the open hand of [King] Oswald, said, ‘May this hand never wither with age.’

Not long afterwards, aged only 38, Oswald was killed in the battle of Maserfeld….

This is the book I mentioned reading the other day, about the island of Lindisfarne, renowned both in religious and secular history as a center of early English Christianity and the site of [supposedly] the first Scandinavian raid of the Viking Age.

The author, David Adam, is an English clergyman and for 13 years served as vicar of the church at Lindisfarne. As such, he brings a wealth of personal experience to this work, making The Holy Island of Lindisfarne rather a subjective book.

Beginning in the heroic age of British resistance (what we call the Arthurian Age, though Adam doesn’t mention that), we learn how the heathen Saxon invader, King Oswald, applied to the Irish church for a bishop. This led eventually to the establishment of an episcopal seat on the mystical island of Lindisfarne, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, but is fully an island twice a day. Author Adam goes on to tell of the community’s ups and downs through history, illuminating the historical facts with his own personal experience of the place. It’s quite a charming account.

As a pure work of history, I think The Holy Island of Lindisfarne probably falls short of the mark. But as a virtual tour, it’s excellent. You’ll want to visit the place. The author isn’t embarrassed to draw spiritual lessons now and then too.

Recommended.

Death Levels Us All

Matthew McCullough’s recent book on death was featured last week in World Magazine’s Saturday series. It’s not a subject I like to think about, perhaps because I like to imagine I’m above it just as he says here:

The reality of death is profoundly humbling. It tells me that I’m not indispensable. It assures me I will be forgotten. And so death boots me from my self-appointed place at the center of the universe. But learning to recognize death’s challenge to my subconscious narcissism also raises haunting questions about who I am. It isn’t just that death is humbling. It can also be profoundly disorienting.

Most of us would probably agree that a reality check is a generally a good thing. No one likes a narcissist. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if none of us saw himself as more important than everyone else? If death puts us in our place, that’s ultimately healthy, right?


Yes … but. Death’s challenge actually pushes even deeper. Death’s statement does more than put us in our place. It also raises questions about where our place actually is.

LIndisfarne

I’ve been reading a book about Lindisfarne, the English island where (according to received wisdom) the Viking Age began with a brutal raid on the renowned monastery there. The date of the raid is generally considered to be June 8, 793, so we just passed the anniversary (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a January date, but that’s unlikely. Vikings didn’t generally raid in the winter).

I’m reading the book because I’m scheduled to do a presentation on LIndisfarne later this summer. I have a lot to learn yet — I find some disagreement in sources. The video above says the original 793 raiders stole the Lindisfarne Gospels book, but the book I’m reading says no, the monks hid it. I do believe I’ve read that the book was taken by Vikings at some point though, so I’ll have to dig a little more into that.

Anders Winroth suggests that the Viking raids were a net good to Europe, as they took wealth that had been stockpiled in church institutions and injected it back into the economy.

I’m sure that was a great comfort to the enslaved monks and nuns.

PTSD in Greek Tragedy

Scott Beauchamp reviews a Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama production of Euripides’s Herakles. It’s being performed in ancient Greek with English projections, so — dang! And the music is no afterthought, evoking a unique, ancient feel.

Beauchamp says the story of the god-like Herakles, who returns home to save his family but is deceived by malicious gods, draws him in.

As a former soldier myself who spent years away from his family, it’s difficult for me not to read PTSD into the story of Herakles. Trauma never finds you where you expect it to. It’s never in the moment of combat itself, or triggered by toy guns or cars backfiring (at least not in my experience). PTSD sneaks in through the attic window when you least expect it. You might be driving along on a beautiful day, listening to the radio. Or grocery shopping. Or mowing the lawn. It’s never when you’re ready for it, when it’s obvious. Lyssa [the goddess of rage] comes in at the most anodyne times, or the most exalted ones. She comes right at the moment when your labors are done, you’ve returned home, and put your house back in order. She destroys your clichés from the inside out.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture