The promise that isn’t there

I think I can explain everything that’s wrong with western politics today. All intelligent people (that is, everyone who already agrees with me) will understand immediately.

I think the problem rises from the fact that westerners – even those who expressly reject Christianity – base their ethic on the teachings of Christ.

Only they misunderstand it.

They start with Christ’s Golden Rule: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do yet also unto them.” And that’s good. It’s the best of ethical rules, and well worth following.

But they assume a corollary. They assume the next stage is, “And then they will do the same unto you in return.” Be nice to others, and no one will hurt you. A thousand Sunday School papers and children’s books make the tacit promise that that’s true.

But the passage doesn’t actually say that.

There’s no promise that anyone will return your kindness. In fact, Jesus often warns His disciples that people will hate and persecute them.

Most sophisticated westerners assume that if you’re peaceful and act peaceful, and if you’re kind, that will protect you from evildoers. Your kindness will make them kind, too.

There is no such promise.

That’s why the Apostle Paul tells us that the emperor bears the sword. Because somebody has to protect the vulnerable.

It isn’t the government’s job to practice the Golden Rule, unless you want everybody to die.

Here endeth the lesson.

And now, just to prove to you how old and white I am, another instrumental piece from my youth for a Friday – “The Syncopated Clock,” by Leroy Anderson (1908-1975). He was Swedish-American, by the way, and is probably best remembered for the Christmas favorite, “Sleigh Ride.”

‘The Last Kind Word,’ by David Housewright

The Last Kind Word

Yet it was her eyes that I found most remarkable. They were warm and wide open and so honest that meeting them made a fellow regret his long-forgotten sins.

I had a weird moment while reading The Last Kind Word, another in David Housewright’s McKenzie mystery series. It occurred to me that this was kind of like a P. G. Wodehouse novel.

Your classic Wodehouse confection involves a group of English aristocrats gathered in a country house. Their house party is intruded on by an Impostor – a guy who’s come to steal a silver cow creamer, or a manuscript, or a prize pig, or something. Humor rises through the impostor’s attempts (facile or clumsy) to put off the very reasonable suspicions of the (few) intelligent people (always women) in residence.

The Last Kind Word alters that scenario a bit – substitute a northern Minnesota fishing cabin for the stately country house. Substitute a group of lower-middle-class Minnesotans for the English gentry. And substitute our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie for the Wodehouseian impostor.

Aside from that, there are many similarities.

Federal agents have convinced Mac to help them locate some Mexicans who are selling automatic weapons connected with the Fast and Furious scandal (you may not remember it; the press sent it down the memory hole). Mac poses as a dangerous prisoner and is permitted to escape from custody, taking with him another prisoner, who has connections to the only known lead to the gun runners. Continue reading ‘The Last Kind Word,’ by David Housewright

‘Curse of the Jade Lily,’ by David Housewright

Curse of the Jade Lily

Her smile reminded me of the promise on a package of lightbulbs I had recently purchased – “Lasts up to 10 times longer while using 75% less energy.”

Author David Housewright got on my wrong side near the beginning of Curse of the Jade Lily. He explained how to tell Norwegians from Swedes based on how they spell “son” in the names (and got it wrong), and then went on to discourse on racism, for no pertinent reason. But I persevered, and all in all the book was OK.

Housewright may be messing with us, though. Sometimes, for instance, he gets his directions diametrically wrong. In this book, for instance, he has Mac go east from Minneapolis to get to Theodore Wirth Park. It ought to be west. Maybe it’s a gag.

As you probably recall, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie retired from the St. Paul Police Department a few years ago, when he accepted a multi-million-dollar finder’s fee from an insurance company. That good fortune comes back to bite him in Curse of the Jade Lily. A rare Chinese sculpture (the eponymous lily) has been stolen from a small Minneapolis art museum. The thieves have offered to sell it back, but they have one condition – Mac has to deliver the money. Because the insurance company asks him for the favor, and because of a certain amount of pressure from various levels of government, he agrees. Then the suspected thief is found murdered, and someone else is murdered during the ransom delivery, and the whole thing turns into a complex mystery, with elements of international intrigue.

It’s complicated, and Mac gets hurt multiple times, but he figures it out in the end. Author Housewright put my back up a little with his Norwegian crack, but not enough to put me off the series. Recommended with cautions for language, mature themes, and anti-Norwegian bias.

Can We Stop Yelling and Talk a Minute?

For those of us who believe in turning the other cheek (or at least we believe in the one who said we should turn the other cheek, whether or not we think at all about cheek-turning), civility is never futile. But it may be ignored.

The Intercollegiate Review is talking about civility this season. Alexandra Hudson notes the example of most American abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison “knew that true civility was more than trivial courtesy or naive ‘niceness.’ Civility requires taking our opponents’ dignity seriously, which means taking their ideas seriously, and that sometimes requires forceful and robust argumentation.” Frederick Douglass said, “’If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’ But for Douglass,” Hudson explains, “‘struggle’ did not mean winning at any cost. He knew that if he was to ensure that all enjoyed the advantages of the rule of law, he could not undermine the rule of law in the process.”

Here’s a word from Douglass that still resonates today: “Had the pulpit been faithful, we might have been saved from this withering curse.”

Gracy Olmstead recommends pulling back from our current hot spots and talking face to face.

This would help take the hot air out of online debates and put such discourse back into a humane context. It would also help citizens remember their duty to the physical spaces and neighborhoods around them. The decline of civility is part of a larger trend toward isolation in our society—a pulling away that, while not caused by the internet, has certainly been exacerbated by it.

‘Highway 61,’ by David Housewright

Highway 61

The saga of Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie continues with Highway 61. The title of the book refers to a semi-famous road going north out of the Twin Cities (it goes south too, but nobody cares). Did Bob Dylan write a song about it? I don’t know; I take pride in my ignorance of Bob Dylan.

Anyway, as you know by now, Mac McKenzie is a former cop, now a millionaire. For his own satisfaction, he does unlicensed private eye work as “favors for friends.” Jason Truhler is definitely not one of those. He’s the ex-husband of Mac’s girlfriend Nina, and he treated her so badly as to put her off marriage for life (or so she claims). But their daughter Ericka is a friend of Mac’s, and she begs him to help her dad.

So Mac talks to Jason, who says he was set up. He went up to a jazz festival in Thunder Bay, met a girl, got drugged, and woke up in what I’ll call here, for purposes of suspense, a “compromising situation.” Now somebody’s blackmailing him with a photograph, and he says he can’t afford it anymore. If the blackmailers release the photo, it will devastate Nina and Ericka, two people Mac loves. So he agrees – reluctantly – to look into it.

About the first thing Mac learns is – surprise! – that Jason didn’t tell him the whole truth. Further investigation leads to an extensive prostitution ring, with ties to Minnesota’s rich and powerful. People get killed, of course.

Highway 61 is a solid private eye novel, featuring an intriguing hero and a fun cast of characters. I enjoyed it. Cautions for the usual.

‘The Taking of Libbie, SD,’ by David Housewright

The Taking of Libbie, SD

Big Joe was standing in front of me, making a large hole in the sunlight. He looked like the guy that Jack met at the top of the beanstalk.

Implausibility is not necessarily a defect in a detective mystery. If the author manipulates his characters skillfully enough, he can make them do things way, way outside their comfort zones. In fact, that’s kind of what plotting is all about.

The Taking of Libbie, SD begins with home invaders breaking into detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie’s St. Paul home, dumping him in the trunk of their car, and driving him to the small town of Libbie, South Dakota. After some discomfort and embarrassment, the town fathers finally admit that the thugs they hired kidnapped the wrong guy.

But how were they to know? How many Rushmore McKenzies could there be in the world? Especially at that particular address?

Finally Mac gets the story out of them. A man using his identity went to the town and persuaded the civic leaders that he was planning to invest in a big real estate project there. Many locals invested. Then one day both he and their money disappeared. The local “big man,” the town’s mover and shaker, hired some guys to kidnap McKenzie, and the cops went along with it.

It takes a fair amount of suspension of disbelief to convince the reader that it makes sense for Mac not only to forgive the kidnapping, but to agree to investigate. Before he’s done, some of the locals will wish he’d left the mystery alone.

The picture of small town life in The Taking of Libbie, SD isn’t bad. I can say that as a small town boy. The description of rural economic desperation rings true. The number of beautiful women living in the town is a major exaggeration in my experience, but author Housewright makes it a running joke in the book, which is probably the best way to handle that sort of thing. He also does a good job of motivating Mac to take on a case for people he has no reason to care about.

Cautions for language and adult themes. A pretty good job of selling a highly improbable plot.

Contending for the Faith or Being a Jerk?

Jared Wilson has seen a lot of backlash and argument since the WWW installed itself on our society. Watch bloggers are now a thing. Twitter is easily understood as a cess pool and Facebook an echo chamber. For some people, chatting about anything online feels like walking in front of a firing squad. I preemptively blocked a couple profiles on Twitter last week after they attacked the character of a podcasting pastor under the mantle of spiritual discernment.

To believers who appear to be aggressively attempting to hold everyone accountable, Jared asks, “Is it possible you aren’t contending for the faith but are just being a jerk?

This is something missing in far too many of the online prophets — tears. Setting aside the fact that the biblical vocation of God’s anointed messengers isn’t really a one-to-one correlation with self-appointed pundits on Twitter, we certainly can learn from them — and many other places in Scripture — that there is a certainly a place within the church for pastoral rebuke, prophetic witness, and courageous calls to repentance. But this is but one aspect of prophetic ministry. The guy spending all day every day looking for people to fisk, mock, or otherwise use for his own promotion and praise isn’t echoing biblical prophetic ministry. If anything, he is more like the pharisaical enterprise of nitpicking, condemning, and “laying traps” to catch people in alleged errors or missteps.

‘Jelly’s Gold,’ by David Housewright

Jelly's Gold

This one was fun. One of my favorite sub-genres is what I might call the “archive mystery,” where the detective digs into an old, unsolved crime, examining dusty documents and deserted buildings, and talking to old-timers (if there are any left).

Jelly’s Gold centers on Frank “Jelly” Nash, a legendary bank robber, who was rumored to have stolen gold from a South Dakota bank in 1933. That very night he was in St. Paul, hobnobbing with local society (St. Paul was an “open city” in those days – it was understood that gangsters could stay in town, spend their money, and not be bothered by the police, so long as they didn’t break any local laws). A few days later, Jelly was shot to death in Kansas City. But rumor persists that he left his gold with one of his rich St. Paul friends, and it’s never been found.

When this story starts, St. Paul millionaire detective Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie is approached by an old friend, a female graduate student. Her boyfriend believes he knows how to find Jelly’s gold, and they figure Mac can help them. He’s intrigued enough to start looking into it. He soon learns that others are on the same trail – and then someone is murdered.

I found Jelly’s Gold fascinating. I was annoyed by another snide reference to Minnesota’s concealed carry law (which has actually worked out pretty well, thank you). On the other hand, a student at Bethel University, a Baptist school, plays a part, and she’s treated with surprising respect. I thought I figured out whodunnit, but I was wrong, which is always fun.

Cautions for… well you know. But this was a particularly good one, to my taste.

Bury Evil and Penalize Truthsayers

Progressive ideologues undermine every freedom they enjoy and increasingly blame the Jews for everything. From The New Critereon, “The way we live now”:

The dismissal of the Holocaust as “white on white crime” is of a piece with another revisionary gambit. Campaigners for transgender rights at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently suggested that their political opponents be sent to the gulag, explaining (when criticized for this robust expedient) that Soviet gulags were places of “educational” reform and “rehabilitation.” To wit, a group called the lgbtqSociety at Goldsmiths said, “sending a bigot to [a gulag] is actually a compassionate, non-violent course of action.” Why? Because, according to these sages, the Soviet “penal system was a rehabilitatory one and self-supporting, a far cry from the Western, capitalist notion of prison. [Well, they got that last point right.] The aim was to correct and change the ways of ‘criminals.’ ”

Since you mention gulags, Solzhenitsyn had a thing or two to say. “In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”

Writing, leprosy, and other afflictions

A quiet day today. The sky was overcast, the air cool. I noticed this when I went out to get groceries. They were entirely out of Fishers’ Light Dry-Roasted Peanuts at the Cub store. Can Soviet-style food lines be far behind?

Not much happened. I did some translation, but not the kind you get paid for. Then on to the novel. I’m done with marking up the latest draft of The Elder King, and I made a little start on changing the document file.

I’m scared of this book, again. I go in and out with the fear. I actually think it’s pretty good. Maybe almost great. I think I’m afraid because I’ll have to show it to my first readers soon, and they might tell me it’s not as good as I think.

I started to write an essay on leprosy, of all things, for this blog post, but I accidentally lost it and I’m not up to repeating the effort. I’ll just mention that leprosy’s medical name, Hansen’s Disease, comes from a Norwegian doctor, Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), who first identified the bacillus, though somebody else actually linked it to the disease. He seems to have been something of a jerk, and he lost his job at a hospital for trying to infect a woman with leprosy without her consent. The fact that he was an atheist should not be taken as a having anything to do with that. Leprosy was a serious problem in Norway, especially among the poor. Hansen, to his credit, managed to reduce the incidence drastically during his tenure as Norwegian medical officer for leprosy.

‘Madman On a Drum,’ by David Housewright

Madman On a Drum

Ever since the Coen brothers film came out, I am quick to tell outsiders that no one in Minnesota actually speaks with the vocabulary and accents of the characters in Fargo. Only to to my embarrassment, I am reminded from time to time that some of us do.

I’m plowing through David Housewright’s St. Paul-based McKenzie mystery novels. Madman On a Drum seems to me the best of the series so far. It takes a already interesting cast of characters and goes deeper with them, under the most stressful of circumstances.

Wealthy, amateur detective (and former cop) Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie has no real family. He has a steady girlfriend, but she adamantly refuses to discuss marriage. The closest thing he has to a family is the Dunstons, the family of his childhood best friend Bobby, also a cop. Mac is constantly at their house and spoils the two daughters, Victoria and Katie, shamelessly. He’s made them his heirs.

So it’s not just another case to him when Victoria is kidnapped, in broad daylight. The kidnappers, by phone, demand a million dollars in ransom. It’s obvious where they expect it to come from – it will have to come from Mac.

Mac doesn’t mind that. He’d give everything he has for Victoria.

But he and Bobby both understand what must follow. The kidnappers must be found, and they must die.

They quickly identify the voice on the phone as that of an old childhood friend, a neighborhood guy who took the wrong road in life. But finding him and getting Tori back is only the beginning. There’s someone behind him – someone with a passionate hatred for Mac, someone who plans to make Mac pay for his own murder.

The dynamics of a family group faced with the kidnapping of a child are described with what looks to me like great sensitivity and insight in Madman On a Drum. There’s also a lot of discussion of our current prison system (it doesn’t come out very well).

I liked Madman On a Drum a lot. Hard to put down. Recommended, with the customary cautions for language and subject matter.

Bing Crosby, Forgotten Giant

There’s no good reason Bing Crosby is not at the top of everyone’s list of twentieth century superstars. He had a voice just about every man wanted, even those who didn’t like men singing.

Crosby recorded 396 hit singles, 41 of which topped the charts—yet only one, his 1942 “creator recording” of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” the bestselling record of all time, continues to be heard regularly. He was also the most popular movie star in the world for five consecutive years between 1944 and 1948, a record topped only by Tom Cruise—yet few of the four dozen feature films in which he starred are still shown with any frequency on TV.

Terry Teachout reviews a new biography on Crosby, part two of what may be a three part set. Gary Giddins released the first volume back in 2001, so readers will have waited a fair piece to see Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946. Maybe that’s because writing about this man is a challenge. He led an eventful life.

Still, readers who want to know as much about Crosby as Gary Giddins wishes to tell us—among whom I count myself—will find Swinging on a Star a compelling study of the middle years of a popular artist who by the end of the Second World War was so closely identified with the American national character that he seemed to embody it.

(via Prufrock News)

‘Dead Boyfriends,’ by David Housewright

Dead Boyfriends

There’s no special trick to conducting an interview. All it requires is a little patience, an ear for the important utterance, and the simple knowledge that to most people the sweetest possible music is the sound of their own voice.

I’m back, after a hiatus of reading other stuff for one reason or another, to working through David Housewright’s superior St. Paul-based detective series starring hobby investigator Rushmore “Mac” Mckenzie. Mac quit the police in order to accept a large finder’s fee from an insurance company, after locating a big embezzler for them.

Dead Boyfriends begins with Mac just trying to help out. He finds a woman, drunk and filthy, on her lawn, screaming about her dead boyfriend. Going inside, he finds the boyfriend several days dead, and proceeds to call the St. Paul police. The cop who shows up roughs the woman up, and Mac tries to cool him down. That earns him 36 hours in a police cell. When he gets out, he’s eager to help the woman’s lawyer, who thinks she can get her off and win a big damage suit from the city to boot.

Getting the case dropped is easy, but the repercussions are bloody, and the threads of the expanding mystery reach into the highest levels of state politics. At the end, Mac will face a hard choice, balancing his sense of justice against his respect for the law.

Good story. It got kind of convoluted at the end, but I’m liking McKenzie more and more. The political comments seem to strike right and left pretty evenly, but some statements are made about government that suggest to me that the author has some sensible opinions. Cautions for language and mature themes, but not too bad.

‘Cold Fire,’ by Dustin Stevens

Cold Fire
I bought this book because I got an Amazon discount. Most of the way through I thought it was pretty good, but it fell apart at the end.

When Cold Fire begins, former DEA agent “Hawk” Tate is finishing his last trip of the season as a Yellowstone wilderness guide in Montana. When a woman with a Russian accent shows up asking him to make one last trip, he demurs. It’s too late in the season; snow is coming. She insists, saying that her brother is out there, and he hasn’t checked in with the family. She offers Hawk an exorbitant fee for the job, so he takes her in.

And then there’s shooting, and Hawk is pulled back into a world he’d left behind – a world of law enforcement, Mexican cartels, Russian syndicates, and personal betrayal. The criminals have a plan – but the one thing they haven’t planned on is Hawk’s own burning hunger to get justice for a deep wrong done to him and his family.

Author Dustin Stevens makes the story work right up until the climax, when he loses his dramatic sense. Instead of the rising dramatic tension you want at the end of a thriller, he makes the final climax a plain procession of executions, carried off without a hitch. I suppose he was saving his surprises for the two Big Reveals at the end, but neither of those reveals worked for me. The first was obvious (it seemed to me) from fairly early in the story if you thought about it logically. The second CONTRADICTED EVERYTHING WE’D BEEN TOLD UP TO THAT POINT, without explanation. That was just annoying.

So I don’t recommend Cold Fire particularly. You might like it better. Cautions for the usual stuff.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture