‘Last Orders,’ by Caimh McDonnell

Last Orders

Phil’s ideas were a lot like children: they could be wonderful or a nightmare, but regardless, you couldn’t leave them on their own for very long, or bad things would happen.

Caimh McDonnell is definitely having us on. The third book of his “Dublin Trilogy” proved to be a prequel, and it’s this fourth book (which makes it a tetralogy at this stage) that finally wraps the story up. Sort of. A note at the end informs us that a further sequel is coming.

Ah well, it’s all fun. In Last Orders, a couple old bodies are dug up in the course of a construction project, and we know (if we recall the prequel) that the bodies belong to two guys one of our heroes, old Bunny McGarry, killed 18 years ago. All in a good cause, of course. They were killers (even though one of them was an FBI agent), and he was saving a good woman’s life.

But now the specter of discovery hangs over Bunny, who has never entirely recovered from the tortures he suffered in the second book. Retired from the police force, he’s supposed to be part of the detective agency started by his friends Paul and Brigit, but his heart isn’t in it. Mostly he whiles away his time drinking and making a spectacle of himself in public.

Meanwhile Paul has become obsessed with a duel of practical jokes between his agency and a rival agency. This leads to somebody actually getting injured, leading to a lawsuit and the impending death of the agency, unless a way can be found to discredit the plaintiff. Also the course of true love is not running smooth between him and Brigit.

Last Orders is essentially a serious story, told in a hilarious way. Lots of laughs all through, along with some genuinely poignant moments. Cautions for language and immature themes. I loved it.

‘The Dead Daughter,’ by Thomas Fincham

The Dead Daughter

Possibly the worst book title I’ve ever seen. Thomas Fincham’s The Dead Daughter isn’t as bad as its name, but it’s no masterpiece.

Kyla Gardener was the daughter of a wealthy couple in the (fictional, I think) city of Milton. When her mother Sharon finds her dead, strangled and stabbed, suspicion falls on her father, Paul. The marriage is struggling, and he’s been sleeping in the guest house. The burglar alarm had been turned off. The murder knife was found in his car, and a smear of her blood was found on his shirt. He himself had been drinking and has no memory of the night at all.

But private eye Lee Callahan has information for the police – Paul had hired him to follow Sharon as part of his divorce defense. She was gone that night, not at home as she claimed, and it was she who turned off the burglar alarm. That’s enough to get Paul out on bail, and Lee takes it on himself – out of pure generosity – to try to balance the one-sided investigation the police are running. What he discovers will be shocking.

The thing that kept me reading The Dead Daughter was that the story itself wasn’t bad. Lee Callahan is interesting and sympathetic as a character. But the writing was… unfortunate. Amateur. First draft stuff.

Holt began to pace the room like he normally did. He was like a bull who wanted to let off steam.

It was a family secret, one they did not want the public to find out about.

Author Fincham, according to his bio, has written quite a few novels. Apparently he hasn’t learned a thing about writing all through the process. If he’d put some work in on that front, I think he’d be a good novelist.

‘Going Underground,’ by Michael Leese

Going Underground

I’ve often suspected that I’m somewhere on the lower end of the autism spectrum. Whether I am or not, I’ve always found autism an intriguing subject. So I purchased Going Underground, by Michael Leese, a novel with an autistic hero. It didn’t grab me, though I finished it. I’m really at a loss to say why I didn’t like it better.

The story begins with the murder of a prominent genealogist by his trusted secretary. Then a beloved philanthropist’s body is found, dismembered, in a cellar. Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Brian Hooley is sent to investigate the second case, and he brings along his favored assistant, Jonathan Roper. Jonathan has a bad reputation at the Yard because he nearly blew an important arrest before his recent suspension. But Hooley believes in him. Jonathan is autistic, and his social cluelessness makes him unpopular with other detectives. But he has amazing abilities to observe and process information. He justifies Hooley’s trust when he quickly locates hidden evidence no one else would have found. The evidence leads them to a genetic research company, where (they eventually learn) genuinely evil experiments are being carried on behind the respectable façade.

I can identify no failure in the writing in this book (except for a lamentable tendency to close individual paragraphs within extended monologues with quotation marks, which could be the fault of an editor converting the text to American punctuation). But somehow the characters never came alive for me. Maybe I’m not as comfortable with the portrayal of autism as I thought I was.

Anyway, I can’t enthusiastically recommend Going Underground, but I have no real objections to make either. Cautions for mature themes.

‘Lost Conquest” documentary

Here is a link to a recent documentary (a little over an hour) about Viking enthusiasm in Minnesota, concentrating on the Kensington Rune Stone. I am not in it; I was in the throes of graduate school when it was made. But several friends and acquaintances of mine are featured. I missed the Midwest Viking Festival this past summer, but hope to make it again this year. See it here.

‘Death Unholy,’ by Phillip Strang

Death Unholy

Sometimes you can see what an author’s going for, but he just doesn’t have the skills to deliver. That’s my judgment on Phillip Strang’s Death Unholy.

It’s become almost compulsory in British police procedurals, perhaps due to the Inspector Morse model: Team a crusty old detective with a young rookie detective. Nowadays it almost has to be a female rookie. And that’s exactly what we have in Death Unholy. Keith Tremayne is an aging cop, approaching retirement, in Salisbury. His subordinate is Clare Yarwood, a suitably attractive young detective.

One day they get a truly bizarre case – apparently spontaneous human combustion. An old man – or rather his ashes, plus his legs – is found very dead in an easy chair. Such cases are generally explained by dropped cigarettes and a smoldering effect, but this fellow didn’t smoke.

As Tremayne and Yarwood inquire into the man’s circle of acquaintances, further people start disappearing or dying by violence. Eventually their attention is drawn to a nearby village, historically isolated, where the Anglican priest lives in fear for his soul, and ancient pagan rituals continue to be practiced – and they seem to be effective.

Death Unholy just didn’t come together for me. The classic grumpy English detectives, like Morse, are usually softened by some unexpected outside interest (often music) that humanizes them. Tremayne, we’re told, has nothing beside his job in his life other than betting on horses and drinking. He’s a bore, and utterly predictable. Dialogue in a novel is supposed to reveal the characters to the reader, through observation of how people relate. Author Strang here gives us the dialogue and then informs us what it means. A big surprise near the end was obvious to me a mile off, and another smaller surprise at the very end made no sense to me based on how the character had been established.

Death Unholy starts as a police procedural, then blindsides the reader by turning into a supernatural thriller. I have an idea that author Strang may have beliefs that I approve of, but I don’t think he made them work for him in this book.

Cautions for mature themes.

A Bedbugger Talks Work on the Road

This excerpt from The Long Haul, by Finn Murphy reads like a western, and I suppose it is, even though he says, “I do not for a moment think I’m a symbol of some bygone ideal of Wild West American freedom or any other half-mythic, half-menacing nugget of folk nonsense.”

My destination is the ultrarich haven called Aspen, Colorado. This makes perfect sense because I’m a long-haul mover at the pinnacle of the game, a specialist. I can make $250,000 a year doing what is called high-end executive relocation. No U-Hauls for me, thank you very much. I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs. At the office in Connecticut they call me the Great White Mover. This Aspen load, insured for $3 million, belongs to a former investment banker from a former investment bank who apparently escaped the toppled citadel with his personal loot intact.

… How well a truck is loaded is the acid test of a mover. I can look at any driver’s load and tell at a glance if he’s any good at all.

The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road by Finn Murphy was released last year.

Me and my monocle

George Arliss with monocle
Actor George Arliss with a monocle. Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Lent is a time for confessing sins, and I must confess I have committed a social sin. I bought a monocle. And I use it.

It’s been a long time since the monocle enjoyed any kind of welcome in our culture. It was done in, I suppose, by the combination of snooty intellectuals and movie Nazis. I recently saw a photo of some leader of the alt-Right (I don’t remember his name and don’t care) who’d had himself photographed in dramatic black and white, with a monocle in his eye. Semiotically (that’s a fancy word for the symbolic meanings of everyday stuff. I know this because I’m the kind of guy who wears a monocle) the monocle is a red flag waved at egalitarian society. I can’t actually think of any beloved character, in the real world or any fictional one, who wears a monocle. Except for Lord Peter Wimsey. And he wore it so criminals would think him a fool and underestimate him.

The trouble is, I find my monocle extremely convenient and useful. It comes with a lanyard, which means I don’t have to worry about losing it. I only need vision correction (for reading) in one eye. So the monocle is just what the doctor ordered (Almost literally. When my eye doctor told me, during my last visit, that I might try wearing reading glasses with one lens removed, I asked him about monocles and he laughed. Then I checked to see if I could buy one on Amazon, and behold, they sell them there. It was the work of but a moment for me to get one all my own).

I do have the grace to be discreet about it, though. I don’t walk around wearing it all the time. I pull it out when I need to read small print, and put it away when it’s no longer needed.

Also, I work at an institution of higher learning. I consider it a solemn duty of the staff at any school to try to be as eccentric as possible, in order to create stories and legends to be recalled at class reunions. This is one of the foundations of institutional loyalty. Eccentricity at the universities made England the world’s greatest empire at one time.

I’ll let you know when I acquire a valet to complement my eyewear.

The Darren Street novels by Scott Pratt

Justice Redeemed Justice Burning Justice Lost

I’ve enjoyed Scott Pratt’s Joe Dillard legal thrillers, so I picked up the three (to date) novels in his Darren Street series, Justice Redeemed, Justice Burning, and Justice Lost. I’ll review them in one fell swoop, because I found them weird. Problematic. Though well written.

The first book, Justice Redeemed, starts with a very clever hook. Imagine you’re a criminal defense lawyer, and the worst person you’ve ever met walks into your office wanting you to defend him. He basically admits (without remorse) the rape and murder of two little boys. When you refuse his business, he explicitly threatens your own young son. You appeal to the police, but they tell you they can’t do anything about the guy. Continue reading The Darren Street novels by Scott Pratt

A Generation of Theological Orphans

I was scared into the kingdom by one of those late-’70s “Left Behind” films. Nothing could be more important than to stand for the truth, even in the face of the anti-Christ’s persecution.

We Saw You at the Pole, where evangelical students gathered ostensibly to pray for the country but also, honestly, to thumb their noses at all those worldly humanists who wanted to take away our right to pray in schools.

We ate apologetics books like communion wafers—and were about as nourished. What we learned was to argue, to corner our opponents in their intellectually unfurnished corners, defeating them with our theistic strength and consistency.

And then something happened. Our Merlins and Gandalfs became Barnums and Baileys.

A months ago, Jared C. Wilson wrote this piece on a shifting tide. Let’s keep praying the waters will flow in the most beneficial direction for everyone.

Moby Dick Illustrated One Day at a Time

Illustrator Matt Kish says he had read Moby Dick eight times already, calling the novel “endlessly revealing.” Feeling a strong need for artistic inspiration, he returned to it.

“I wanted a slow, intense pace through the book so I decided to create one illustration a day, every day, for every single one of the 552 pages of my Signet Classics paperback, and on August 4, 2009 I began.”

He spent about 18 months on it.

Of course, there are other illustrators too.

‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

For reasons I’m not sure I entirely understand, I happened last week on this clip from the old movie, Lili. It features the song “Hi Lily, Hi Lo,” which was a very big hit when I was a very little boy. I realized, somewhat to my own surprise, that this might be my favorite song in the world.

The situation here is that Lili, an orphan in post-war France, has just lost her job in a carnival, and has been rejected by a man she thought she loved. She is contemplating suicide when the puppeteer, speaking through his puppets, engages her in conversation. Soon she is having a wonderful time. Then comes the song. I’ve watched this clip again and again, and I’m fascinated by the storytelling skill of the screenwriter, Helen Deutsch.

Notice something strange in the scene? The song is (as the lyrics say), a sad song. And indeed, most of the many performers who’ve covered it since have slowed it down and sung it soulfully, with a different chorus. But Deutsch is doing a subtle and interesting thing here. She’s creating deliberate ambiguity. The words of the song don’t match the mood of the scene. That would be a great writing error if the writer didn’t know what she was doing. But this ambiguity creates a tension in the mind of the viewer. And that tension’s like Chekhov’s famous gun – if you hang it on the wall, you’ve got to use it before the play is over. Continue reading ‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

‘Talion,’ by Pete Brassett


First of all, the blurb on the cover of Pete Brassett’s Talion ought to qualify as libel. It calls the book “A Scandinavian noir mystery set in Scotland.” This is a lie, thank God. Scandinavian noir novels are dark, dank, and suicidal, leaving the reader wondering whether life in a Socialist paradise is worth the effort of cashing the welfare checks. Pete Brassett’s Inspector Munro novels are bright and cheery (in spite of the murders). Munro is indefatigably optimistic, a role model for us all.

At the end of the last novel, Terminus (spoiler alert), it looked as if Munro was out of the picture for good. But in fact he’s just vacationing on the island of Islay. Detective Sergeant “Charlie” West manages to lure him back to their coastal Scottish community with an interesting murder mystery involving criminals Munro knows well from the past.

A young boy and his mother, on holiday at the seashore, had discovered a decomposing human body on the beach (the boy, a budding entomologist, was not in the least traumatized). It takes some time to identify the man, but it turns out to be a local drug dealer. He was part of a triumvirate of criminals in the past, and suspicion falls on his old partners in crime. Then another of the three is murdered. Who is killing these men and why? And is it possible the single mother who found the body is actually involved herself?

Like all the Inspector Munro books, Talion is a lot of fun. Munro is a wonderful character – just irascible enough to be amusing without becoming a bore. Sergeant West, who was something of a personal wreck when she first appeared, has grown and gained poise and confidence in her job. I had a great time with Talion, and recommend it wholeheartedly. Cautions for mature themes.

In memoriam: Billy Graham, 1918-2018

Billy Graham in Oslo
Billy Graham preaching in Oslo, 1955 (National Archives of Norway)

I actually worked for Billy Graham, for a few months, back in the 1970s. Not in any notable way — in those days the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters were in Minneapolis. I went to work in the “Decision Building” during a year I took off to pay for my last year of college. I did bulk mail work, mostly slinging mail bags around, though they did “promote” me to operating a Phillipsburg Inserter machine before I decamped for a higher paying job. But I distinguished myself by writing a letter to the Minneapolis Star & Tribune to dissent from a critical article they published about Billy.

I’m old enough the remember the man in his prime. My home church, a Lutheran pietist congregation, was pretty leery of Baptists in those days. But Billy was an exception. He could pretty much do no wrong in our eyes. And the funny thing was, in general he deserved it. Ethel Waters, a Graham convert and supporter, writes in her autobiography, To Me It’s Wonderful, how she immediately got suspicious the first time she saw his picture: “He’s too good-looking.” But no hint of sexual scandal ever came near him personally (he was an early adopter of what we now call the Mike Pence Rule).

I don’t think we’ll see his like again. I’ve long held a superstitious fear that God was delaying the judgment America deserves so long as Billy was alive. Without him, will there be anyone to stand in the gap?

Enter into the joy of your Master, William Franklin Graham.

‘Night Moves,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Night Moves

The fingers she offered were flash-frozen shoestring potatoes.

There’s hardly any point in me reviewing the latest Alex Delaware mystery by Jonathan Kellerman. I like the series immensely, and the books are uniformly excellent. Night Moves is no exception, though I’ll admit I did get lost in places.

Chet Corvin lives in an upscale suburb of Los Angeles with his wife and two children. He’s a braggart, and pushy, which works for him at his job, but makes him a pain to anyone who knows him. He’s outraged when he and his family come home from a night out to find a dead body in his den. The victim wasn’t killed there – there’s no blood splattered around – but his face has been obliterated by a shotgun blast and his hands have been cut off.

Det. Lt. Milo Sturgis catches the case, and he again brings in his friend Alex Delaware, psychologist, as a consultant. The Corvin family is a study – cold wife, withdrawn teenaged daughter, rebellious son. There’s also a weird next-door neighbor – an older, unsocial artist who was once a famous underground cartoonist, back in the hippie era. His classic work is pretty creepy; Milo would definitely like to talk to him, but he won’t even answer the door.

One lead after another turns into a dead end. As Alex and Milo manage to learn one after another hard-won fact, bodies pile up and they begin to uncover the tracks of a complex, improbable, and shocking serial killer.

What I love most about the Alex Delaware books is his treatment of the characters. Author Kellerman loves to explode our preconceptions. Again and again we are introduced to people who invite snap judgment, but prove on closer acquaintance to be complex and full of surprises. I did kind of lose track of the multiple plot threads this time around – but that may just be a function of me getting old.

Recommended, for older teens and up. Cautions for the usual. Good stuff.

‘Among the Shadows, by Bruce Robert Coffin

Among the Shadows

I’m not sure why I’m less than enthusiastic about Bruce Robert Coffin’s police mystery, Among the Shadows. It was quite well done, but it left me kind of cold.

John Byron is a detective sergeant in Portland, Maine. His marriage is falling apart, he’s fighting the bottle, and he’s resisting an attraction to a female subordinate. When a former cop dies in a hospital and it’s ruled not from natural causes, John’s assigned to the case. Then another old ex-cop – who’d been on the same team with the first victim – also is killed, John begins to suspect a serial killer. Cop-killings are always top priority, but for John it’s more personal. His father, long dead, was on the same team. But he finds his investigation stymied at every turn, by orders from above. He begins to suspect that one of his superiors is blocking his moves.

The story is good. I thought I’d figured out whodunnit, but I wasn’t even close. The final action was tense, dramatic, and surprising.

All I can figure out to explain my ambivalence is that I found John Byron’s character uninteresting. He was right out of central casting. Middle aged, check. Marriage failing – check. Alcohol problem – check. Loose cannon, cuts procedural corners, conflict with superiors – check, check, check. It was like all the other police procedural heroes were thrown into a blender, and John Byron was what got poured out.

The usual cautions for language and mature situations apply. The only really offensive part (for me) was a brief, passing thumbs up to Dr. Kevorkian.

Technically an excellent police procedural, Among the Shadows may please you more than it did me.

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