‘Pursuit and Persuasion,’ by Sally Wright

Pursuit and Persuasion

This is more like it. I was a little disappointed in the previous novel in Sally Wright’s Ben Reese series, thinking it overly complex and hard to follow. Pursuit and Persuasion is much better, as my personal taste runs.

Georgina Fletcher, a Scottish scholar and heiress, has died suddenly of a stomach ailment. No one expected her to leave her entire estate to her student assistant, an American named Ellen Winter. Equally unexpectedly, she left a letter behind for Ellen, telling her that if she (Georgina) should die suddenly, for any reason, she was to engage a private investigator to look for evidence of murder.

Ellen turns to her former college advisor, Ben Reese, who is still in Scotland in the wake of his previous murder investigation. Ben finds that, although Georgina was a well-liked person, she did have enemies – an accountant who disapproved of her (generous) business practices, and neighbors who object to the changes she’s made in the family estate, among others. Before he’s done he’ll learn of an old family crime, hidden obsessions, and an attempt to right a very old wrong. He’ll also come into imminent peril of death.

I had fun with Pursuit and Persuasion. The plot wasn’t as complex as in the last book, and the cast of characters was less confusing. Most importantly, the focus was mostly on our hero, Ben himself, who is an interesting figure. A couple romantic possibilities turn up to raise the human interest of the exercise. And the Christianity of the story is never in doubt (although the book opens outside the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, author Wright resists the temptation to give either C. S. Lewis or Tolkien cameo roles).

Highly recommended. Suitable for most readers.

Dennett’s Dizzying Intellect

While he may not repeat a word the meaning of which he is uncertain, Daniel Dennett does exhibit a dizzying intellect. David Bentley Hart reviews his latest book.

The simple truth of the matter is that Dennett is a fanatic: He believes so fiercely in the unique authority and absolutely comprehensive competency of the third-person scientific perspective that he is willing to deny not only the analytic authority, but also the actual existence, of the first-person vantage. At the very least, though, he is an intellectually consistent fanatic, inasmuch as he correctly grasps (as many other physical reductionists do not) that consciousness really is irreconcilable with a coherent metaphysical naturalism. Since, however, the position he champions is inherently ridiculous, the only way that he can argue on its behalf is by relentlessly, and in as many ways as possible, changing the subject whenever the obvious objections are raised.

For what it is worth, Dennett often exhibits considerable ingenuity in his evasions — so much ingenuity, in fact, that he sometimes seems to have succeeded in baffling even himself.

Contemporary Buildings Actually Hate You

Let’s be really honest with ourselves: a brief glance at any structure designed in the last 50 years should be enough to persuade anyone that something has gone deeply, terribly wrong with us. Some unseen person or force seems committed to replacing literally every attractive and appealing thing with an ugly and unpleasant thing. The architecture produced by contemporary global capitalism is possibly the most obvious visible evidence that it has some kind of perverse effect on the human soul.

Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson explain why you dislike contemporary architecture and, if you don’t, why you should, with some truly stunning examples. (via Hunter Baker)

‘Cast Iron,’ by Peter May

Cast Iron

Here we have the final novel in Peter May’s Enzo Macleod mystery series. Years ago, Enzo, a forensic scientist, made a bet that he could solve a series of famous French cold cases described in a book written by a friend. Two cases are left, but they’ll both be unraveled by the end of Cast Iron.

In 1989, 20-year-old Lucie Martin was murdered, her body hidden in a lake. In 2003, due to a drought, the body was uncovered and examined. The skeleton had a broken hyoid bone, a sign of strangulation. Suspicion settled on a pimp named Regis Blanc, who had been convicted of strangling three prostitutes, and who had been dating Lucie. But he had a “cast iron” alibi.

In 2011, Enzo Macleod turns his attention to the Lucie Martin case. He thinks there’s more to the matter than earlier investigators guessed. And – intriguingly – he discovers a link to a previous murder he solved, though he wasn’t able to identify the person who paid for that murder for hire. This he will learn in Cast Iron. And clearly he’s getting too close to the truth for somebody, because a threat of violence is directed at someone near and dear to him.

As I mentioned in my last review, Enzo has grown in character through the series. I still don’t entirely like him, and I don’t think he’s ever really taken responsibility for some of his sins against others. But he’s better than he was, and this book brings the series to a satisfying conclusion. Three narrative threads are actually tied up at the end. Two I saw coming, but one came right out of left field and was an entertaining surprise.

Recommended, with cautions for language and mature themes.

The joys of home ownership

In my mind, it’s a great big crisis; high drama.

What it is, is that I agreed long ago to go along with my neighbor on a mutually beneficial property improvement project. And yesterday I signed the contract and cut a check, and the work will probably start this weekend.

My neighbor has been as amiable as he could be. I’ll be slightly in debt for a few months, but I saved a big chunk of money by scheduling at this time of year, so that’s OK.

Everything’s fine. And I feel like retiring to my fainting couch.

Is this what it’s like to be a grown-up?

And now, this:

Gene Edward Veith shared this “open letter” today, taken from a comment on his blog. It’s a letter to the next church shooter, inviting him to consider the writer’s own church.

And the whole “death” thing raises a very important point. Ours is a Christian church and death is a particular interest of ours. We think we have it figured out. As you enter our sanctuary, you won’t be able to help noticing that the most prominent feature displayed there is a large cross – an ancient Roman instrument of execution. It’s our teaching that it was a death, the death of God’s Son on a cross like that, that frees us from the fear of our own death. Don’t misunderstand – we’re not seeking death, but we’re not fearing it, either. Jesus demonstrated that if we followed Him through our own death, we would then follow Him into resurrection and eternal life. He demonstrated this for us and that demonstration was remarkably well-documented both in the Book He left for us and in the lives of His closest friends and followers, most of whom died rather than deny that Jesus’ resurrection had happened. Which to our way of thinking is a very strong endorsement.

Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2017/11/dear-next-mass-church-murderer/#Mu5vrWCFBfEv2QZ3.99

‘The Girl Who Lived,’ by Christopher Greyson

The Girl Who Lived

I’ll just start by saying that I really enjoyed this book. Christopher Greyson has shown great promise in producing his series of “Jack” thrillers, all of which I’ve reviewed. But he’s knocked it out of the park with The Girl Who Lived, a stand-alone novel.

Faith Winter’s thirteenth birthday party turned into a life-altering nightmare. At her family’s vacation cabin, her father, her sister, her best friend, and the friend’s mother were slaughtered, and Faith barely escaped. She told the police the killer was a “rat-faced man” who chased her through the woods, but they don’t believe her. They call it a murder-suicide, and blame her father as the culprit.

Faith’s life spiraled into a maelstrom of dysfunction after that. She became an alcoholic and spent time in mental hospitals and prison. Now, ten years later, she is being released on parole, required to attend AA and survivors’ group meetings, and to look for a job. Continue reading ‘The Girl Who Lived,’ by Christopher Greyson

It’s also worth doing well

I have very few fond memories of the time – decades ago – when I used to watch the 60 Minutes TV program. But one of them is (I think, it might possibly have been a different show) a segment on the Portsmouth Sinfonia, “the worst orchestra in the world.” Atlas Obscura has an article about it:

The original Sinfonia consisted of 13 members, mostly students who had little to no musical experience. The “scratch” orchestra was meant as a one-off joke, part of a larger collection of silly acts. And they didn’t win the contest. Still, their playful irreverence hit a nerve. Spurred on by an outpouring of enthusiasm for their initial performance, the Sinfonia continued to play, growing in size over the next several years. Their policy was that anyone, of any skill level, could join, with the exception being that skilled musicians could not join and simply play poorly on purpose. Another rule was that all members had to show up for practice.

For a while they attracted large crowds, and they even cut a couple albums. People (like me) were charmed by the blatant effrontery of the thing. It was a sort of an embodiment of Chesterton’s maxim, in his essay on amateurism, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

The concept is fun, but it seems to me there’s a serious side too. The pleasures of bad music, like other pleasures of the flesh, are fleeting. In the end, quality counts. There’s a difference between enthusiasm and virtuosity, and virtuosity has staying power. It’s worth preserving.

Which brings me to this link, from Legal Insurrection, about protests at very liberal Reed College, Portland, Oregon. A number of students are angry that the school’s Humanities 110 course, a core course in the freshman curriculum, concentrates on western civilization.

I’m gonna go ahead and say it. Western civilization is the best civilization the world has ever seen. The very anger of the course’s opponents is a symptom of their cognitive dissonance, a refusal to accept the evidence of history, science, and their own senses.

Miłosz: “All I Wanted Was to Get Out”

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died. (from “Campo dei Fiori“)

His biographer notes his depression, even at least one moment of despair.

Half a deadpan paragraph treats as more or less normal the moment when Miłosz swallowed a quantity of vodka, loaded a revolver with a single bullet, and played Russian roulette. Graham Greene, a not-so-dissimilar character, also gave way to this particular form of nihilism—or is it vanity? . . .

The Sovietization of Poland was bound to be fraught with moral choices that would lead either to reward or to punishment, possibly a concentration camp and death. . . . Once he was in the West, Miłosz himself was to observe, “All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen next,” accepting that this amounted to making “a pact with the devil.”

‘Pride and Predator,’ by Sally Wright

Pride and Predator

Sally Wright’s second Ben Reese novel, Pride and Predator, takes our American archivist hero to Scotland, where he gets involved in a classic “cozy” mystery.

Jonathan MacLean, a minister of the Kirk of Scotland, is found dead on the island of Lindisfarne (famous in Viking lore, though that’s not mentioned here), killed by an allergic reaction to a bee sting. The fact that he was carrying a picnic basket, in which dead bees were found, is suspicious, as he had never before carried a basket on his walking trips. And it’s hard to imagine who would have wanted him dead. He was a popular pastor, beloved by his wife, friends and family. He possessed no great riches, though he had inherited a title. A few people disliked him, but not murderously. As he uncovers the truth, Ben will find himself working against time to stop a killer before he kills again.

I liked the first book in the series, Publish and Perish, very much. I have to say I was less taken with this one. The cast of characters seemed to me huge, and almost all of them had Scottish names. I had a lot of trouble keeping them straight. There also seemed to be a lot more talking than strictly necessary, and the plot was convoluted.

Still, cozy fans will probably enjoy it (I myself like cozies if they’re well done), and the language is decent and the values Christian. Moderately recommended.

‘Two Kinds of Truth,’ by Michael Connelly

Two Kinds of Truth

“Look, I’m sorry. But I wanted to catch these guys. What that kid did, the son, it was noble. When this all comes out, people will probably say he was stupid and naïve and didn’t know what he was doing. But they won’t know the truth. He was being noble. And there isn’t a lot of that out there in the world anymore….”

It’s amazing how Michael Connelly manages to keep the stakes high in his long series of Harry Bosch detective novels. At the beginning of Two Kinds of Truth I was thinking that the formula was getting a little old, but before long I was fully invested. Harry Bosch is a driven character, a man with a near-Christian sense of vocation, and you can’t help starting to care as much as he does.

Harry used to be a police detective in Los Angeles, but he’s past retirement, and now he works on a semi-volunteer basis for the police department in San Fernando, a small, autonomous enclave within greater LA. His official task is cold cases, which he loves, but because he’s the most experienced detective available, he ends up working current cases as well. Continue reading ‘Two Kinds of Truth,’ by Michael Connelly

‘Publish and Perish,’ by Sally S. Wright

Publish and Perish

What was it Richard had said in his next-to-last volume? “Logic is the fruit of reason; meaning is the child of imagination.”

Ben had never felt a conflict between the two and he doubted that Richard had either. Any more than either one of them had seen a conflict between reason and revelation.

I linked to an article about Sally Wright a couple days ago, and said I was reading one of her novels. I am delighted to report that author Wright has sailed past my critical misogyny to make me an immediate fan. She writes a pretty good male hero, in the tradition, I would say, of Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey (though Ben Reese is a very different kind of character).

In Publish and Perish, first novel in a series, Ben Reese, World War II intelligence veteran, is an archivist at a private college in Ohio. The year is 1960. He is in England doing research when he gets news that his dearest friend has died of a sudden heart attack. Ben (who is his friend’s executor) rushes home to deal with the aftermath. He is disturbed by certain puzzling circumstances surrounding the death, and the local police chief agrees with him. Ben starts asking questions, and someone else dies, and then Ben himself becomes the target of a murder attempt.

We often complain about the poor quality of Christian literature. Sally Wright’s work is a shining example of the sort of thing we’ve been pleading for. The writing is superior, the characterizations and dialogue polished and entertaining, the mystery satisfying. And the tone of the thing is appropriate both to Christianity and to the time period – there is no, or very little, obscenity. The Christian characters talk like human beings, not tracts, and the values are unashamedly old-fashioned.

I enjoyed Publish and Perish immensely, and look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

Bruno, Chief of Police

Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, chief of police of the small French town of St. Denis, is a decorated veteran who served with the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. If he wished, he could find exciting work in Paris, but he likes the life he has. He lives in a remodeled shepherd’s cottage, keeps a large vegetable garden, and coaches young men in soccer and tennis. He likes the slow pace of country life, where his biggest problem is generally tipping off local farmers when EU produce inspectors are on the prowl. He’s had enough action in his life, merci.

But action is coming to him. The first book in Martin (no relation) Walker’s popular Bruno series, Bruno, Chief of Police, involves the murder of an elderly Algerian refugee, whose body is found with a swastika carved into it. The old man was a decorated veteran of the French army, and his death ignites lingering passions from the German occupation, and contemporary resentment of North African immigration. Bruno will see his peaceful town torn by a riot and discover very dark secrets, leading finally to an imperfect – but arguably just – resolution. And there will be a little romance along the way.

I liked Bruno, Chief of Police quite a lot. It started out pretty much as a “cozy” mystery, but got rapidly dark, burrowing deep into human memories and motivations. Bruno is not the simple man he tries to appear, but neither is anyone else.

I’d be happy to read the next book in this series, but the publisher wants twelve bucks for the Kindle version, which is too much.

Cowles on Sally Wright

Ashlee Cowles has an appreciation of the mystery novels of Sally Wright at The University Bookman:

Thematically, the Ben Reese mysteries touch on many topics that will resonate with “bohemian Tory” conservatives of the Kirkian variety, where local culture, a living connection to the past, and a love of the land are more important than the “hot button” political squabbles of the day. In Out of the Ruins, for example, Ben Reese must solve a murder linked to a historic family’s ownership of Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, “now threatened by developers and government takeover.” This notion of big business and big government as equal threats to authentic culture and human flourishing was one of Russell Kirk’s favorite themes, evident in several of the ghostly tales collected in Ancestral Shadows.

On the strength of this article, I’m reading my first Ben Reese book now.

Tip: Dave Lull.

‘Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories,’ by Dale Nelson

Lady Stanhope's Manuscript

You know what’s spooky? I’ll tell you what’s spooky. As far as I know, I’d never heard of the author M. R. James before I read the book I’ll review tonight, Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories, by Dale Nelson. And what does Phil do today but link to an article citing M. R. James? [Cue Twilight Zone music.]

Full disclosure: Dale Nelson, author of this story collection, is a good friend of mine and generally the first reader for my novels. He sent me a signed copy as a gift.

Dale, by his own statement in the Preface, has written many of these stories in conscious emulation of James’ “antiquarian” works. I’m not generally a reader of ghost stories, in part because nowadays the genre has gotten mixed up with horror, which I don’t like at all. But as I read this book, I was reminded of Poe’s essay on poetry, in which he says that the purpose of a poem is to leave a single, vivid impression in the mind of the reader. This sort of ghost story has much the same purpose – not necessarily to shock or terrify you, but to leave you with a feeling of unease, of invisible doors left ajar, of watching eyes behind your back in the darkness, of secrets best left buried.

The genres of the stories in fact range beyond ghost tales. There’s plain science fiction here, and fantasy explorations of folklore themes. There’s a straight Christian miracle story. All expertly written, with keen insight into human nature and an understanding of Orthodox theology (and I intended the capitalization on “Orthodox,” because a distinct preference for the eastern church is easy to discern).

Recommended. And yes, I’m prejudiced.

‘The English eerie is on the rise’

A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle. . . . We are, certainly, very far from “nature writing”, whatever that once was, and into a mutated cultural terrain that includes the weird and the punk as well as the attentive and the devotional.

Robert Macfarlane writes about the eerie lands of England in many art forms, beginning with a good summary of a strange story. (via Alan Jacobs)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture