‘Thread of Doubt,’ by Jeff Shelby

Plowing through Jeff Shelby’s interesting “Thread” series of mystery/thrillers. The hero, Joe Tyler, as you know if you’ve been following these reviews, is a former cop in Coronado, California. His life changed when his little daughter was kidnapped, and he spent years single-mindedly chasing her down. In the end he did locate her, now a teenager, and brought her home. At the beginning of Thread of Doubt she’s just back from college for Christmas break. She wants to talk to Joe about something, but he has trouble making time. He’s been teaching high school, and is behind on his class work. On top of that, he’s got a new investigation to look at in his free time.

He hadn’t intended to look for another kid, but the request came from an old cop friend, Mike Lorenzo. Mike’s nephew, for whom he was a sort of father figure, has disappeared. The young man has a history with drugs, but had seemed to have cleaned up his act. He was a musician, and his band looked to be on the brink of a commercial breakthrough.

Joe talks to the young man’s friends and girlfriend. What he learns brings him to a grim discovery, and grim solution to the mystery.

Thread of Doubt was a fairly by-the-numbers effort, and the end surprisingly low-key. But I like the characters and have had a good time following Joe’s odyssey. I enjoyed Thread of Doubt, and recommend it, with only minor cautions.

‘Thread of Revenge,’ by Jeff Shelby

Somehow I’d gotten the idea that Jeff Shelby’s “Thread” series of mystery/thrillers had come to an end. I was even more surprised to find that I’d missed one. By which I mean that I’d missed the book before the last book I reviewed here, Thread of Danger. I have a vague idea that I noticed at the time that something big had changed. Turned out I’d skipped an episode.

Anyway, Thread of Revenge is the book I skipped, which I’ve now read. I almost think I might have bypassed it purposely, because some awful things happen and I enjoyed this one least of them all.

It’s always necessary to give you deep background, especially with this series. It started out with the hero, Joe Tyler, searching for his daughter Elizabeth, who was snatched from his front yard just before Christmas one year. After years of searching, he did locate her (with an unaware adoptive family in Minnesota), and now the family is almost back together. He and his wife Lauren, now divorced, have been reconciling.

But in his quest to find Elizabeth, Joe desperately asked a favor of a very bad man in Minnesota. The bad man asked him for a favor in return. Joe did not keep his part of the bargain, and lied to him about it.

Now the bad man knows. And he’s kidnapped Lauren. Jack must do the awful thing he promised to do, or Lauren will die.

That’s a pretty horrifying scenario. Joe has to do his best in a lose/lose situation, and things will get very nasty indeed.

I found this story unpleasant, and somewhat unsatisfying. Also, a major plot element didn’t make sense to me – though author Shelby is likely setting up a return visit to the situation in a future book.

But the writing’s good, and I like the characters. I’m continuing to read the series, as you’ll learn with tomorrow’s review.

But Thread of Revenge was a bit of a downer. Cautions for the usual stuff.

Copyediting Stereophile Magazine

Vintage editor Richard Lehnert tells something of his story in this three page web article on his years at Stereophile magazine. (via Prufrock News)

Larry would hand me endless accordion-pleated foldings of copy, printed in some knockoff of Palatino by a clacking daisy-wheel printer on a single endless roll of paper. I would take them home, mark them up in red pencil, and then, if delivering them after or before office hours, drive in my ’66 VW bug from my abuelita hovel on Alicia Street, in the Barrio, to Early Street, and leave them in the Stereophile mailbox—until one day four long articles bleeding red with my crabbed edits vanished from that mailbox, no doubt seized by an irate postperson, and I had to do them over from scratch.

‘A Cotswolds Murder,’ by Roy Lewis

When I bought Roy Lewis’s A Cotswolds Murder, I’d forgotten that I’d bought another volume in the Inspector Crow series (first published in the 1970s) and reviewed it some time back. I wasn’t terribly impressed with that one. I liked this one quite a lot better. I might even become a fan.

Chuck Lindop was a man on the margins of civil society. A con man, a charmer, a would-be burglar, he held down a respectable job as manager of a “caravan site” (what Americans would call a trailer park). But he dreamed of the big score that would make him rich – and he wasn’t above resorting to violence when charm wouldn’t do the job.

So it’s no great surprise when his body is found in front of his caravan, his skull bashed in by a crowbar. And there’s no shortage of suspects with motives to kill him – spurned lovers, jealous husbands, victims of his cons, and angry former associates. But the police have a hard time working out who had opportunity to kill him, based on the comings and goings at the site that night.

So they call in Inspector John Crow of Scotland Yard. (By the way, I read some time back that this never actually happens. Scotland Yard is a metropolitan police service, and does not provide consultation for departments in the provinces. But the visiting inspector is a hoary trope of English mysteries, so what are we to do?) Inspector Crow is tall and skeletally thin, with a bald head. He looks like a vulture, but he’s an empathetic man. His great advantage as an investigator is his sympathetic understanding of human nature.

Author Lewis does an excellent job of fooling the reader with red herrings in this story, and tops it all with a surprising – but dramatically satisfactory – final surprise.

I enjoyed A Cotswolds Murder quite a lot. I recommend it, and no cautions are necessary.

Sub-creators

A snippet from Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter.

This is from his account of the long night’s conversation among Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Hugo Dyson at Oxford in 1931, which bore fruit a few days later in Lewis’s conversion. It’s tremendously important.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil….

Lewis listened as Dyson affirmed in his own way what Tolkien had said. You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.

‘Tolkien: a Biography,’ by Humphrey Carpenter

During the war he had said to Christopher: ‘We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring’ and now he wrote: ‘The War is not over (and the one that is, or part of it, has largely been lost). But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on, and it is no good growing faint.’

The trailers for the new Tolkien movie looked kind of good, so I figured I might go to see it. It seemed to me it would be a good idea to read a Tolkien biography before I did that. And although I’m now hearing that the movie leaves out Tolkien’s Catholic faith – which means I probably won’t see it after all – I’m glad I bought Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien: A Biography.

The book is easy to read and not too long. It follows “Toller’s” life from his birth in South Africa to his death in England, and the author is clearly a sympathetic fan – though he is often amused by Tolkien’s eccentricities. Which were many.

This is, I believe, the classic Tolkien biography, and it’s fairly old now. I expect there are new things to be learned from more recent ones. I noted, for instance, that Carpenter speaks of “Jack” Lewis’s transfer to Cambridge University only in passing, as a step backwards in the two men’s friendship. While that’s true enough, it should have been noted that it was through the good offices of Tolkien himself that Jack got the job.

But, reading as a fan, I found Tolkien: A Biography fascinating. I recommend it highly.

‘The Saga of a Supercargo,’ by Fullerton Waldo

A little while ago Dale Nelson, a friend of mine, sent me a book he thought might interest me. It was an old work called The Saga of a Supercargo, by the now-forgotten author Fullerton Waldo, copyright 1926. It’s an account of a tramp steamer voyage from Philadelphia to Greenland, on which Waldo served as a “supercargo” (a representative of the ship’s owners with supervisory duties). Dale thought I might enjoy it for its descriptions of Greenland. I did – more than I expected, actually – though I wish I’d read it before I wrote West Oversea.

At the time, Greenland (a protectorate of Denmark) was embargoed to foreign trade – in order to protect the native Inuit (here called Eskimos, of course) from exploitation and disease. However, Greenland had one export product – the mineral cryolite (which Waldo spells kryolith), used in various industrial applications, mostly for cleaning. The Pennsylvania Salt Company had a license to receive part of the island’s cryolite production each year, to help defray the costs of the colony to the Danish crown. The P.S.C.’s ships were the only non-Danish ships permitted in Greenland, and Waldo, as a writer, was interested to document the voyage.

It’s a lively account. Waldo recounts the stormy voyages to and from Greenland (no wonder the Vikings didn’t do it more), and the frontier conditions in which a small colony of Danish officials, mining engineers, and laborers made a life in a frontier setting, often in dangerous conditions. Inuit life is described in amusing detail. Forecasts said that the cryolite deposit would run out in a few years, and then all this would end.

Waldo was a pretty good writer. He writes as an author of his time – his writing is a little more flowery than what we’re used to today, but unlike many older writers, he uses the flowery language well, and doesn’t overdo it. It illuminates his meaning. I found it an interesting study in style. I also enjoyed his sharp character sketches of his fellow crewmen – mostly Norwegians.

This book is, apparently, fairly rare, and the facsimile on sale at Amazon isn’t cheap. But if you run across it and find the subject interesting, it’s well worth reading.

‘Murder On the Run,’ by Bruce Beckham

I’ve been a fan of Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series for some time, but I think I may have been underestimating it. These are entertaining traditional mysteries set in remote English Cumberland. Inspector Dan Skelgill is a skilled investigator, curmudgeonly before his time. He amuses himself by being thoughtless with his subordinates, even DS Jones, an attractive woman who is openly interested in him, but whom he considers too young for him. He has been burned in love in the past, and so sublimates his feelings through his work and his hobbies – fishing, motorcycling, and fell (mountain) running.

It’s while he’s out on a run at the beginning of Murder On the Run that he discovers a fresh talent – Jess, a young woman with the makings of a record-breaker (he himself holds the current record). When he discovers that she’s part of his far-flung extended family, he takes her under his wing and becomes her coach. This despite the hostility of her negligent mother, who seems to be a prostitute and a drug addict.

Meanwhile DS Jones has been temporarily transferred to a task force investigating drug smuggling in the area, and a seductive female officer has been sent to replace her, causing much amusement. Skelgill mistrusts the officer running the operation, and fears for DS Jones’ safety – with good reason. His own family connections are at the edges of the criminal action, and Jess may be in mortal danger if Skelgill can’t run interference for her.

Tolkien was told by his friends that hobbits are only amusing when in “un-hobbit-like situations.” I like Skelgill best when he’s acting in an un-Skelgill-like manner. In Murder On the Run he breaks out of his alienation to show genuine care and concern for another human being, and that element made this book my favorite of the series to date. I also noted some very good prose, while foul language is pretty completely avoided.

Author Beckham does misuse the word “myriad,” but I guess everyone does that nowadays. Recommended.

Survivor’s report

Photo credit: Erik Patton

Above you see me this last week, at the Festival of Nations in St. Paul. The Festival of Nations is a celebration held annually to rejoice in the rich diversity of our community.

Can you speak the words “rich diversity” without that intonation that implies quotation marks? I know I can’t. I’ve tried.

It’s not a bad event, and my sales (more on those below) were pretty good. But it’s grueling. It just involves sitting around, but you sit around in a windowless, echoing concrete cavern, and Friday and Saturday are twelve-hour days – ten to ten. It wears on an old man.

We had an example of rich diversity at a nearby vendor’s stall, where a gentleman was selling “Ojibway Beadwork.” Another Native American came over and insisted he had no right to make or sell what he was making and selling. Wrong tribe or wrong designs or something. The offender packed up and left, saying he felt unsafe.

You may extract what moral you will from this story.

But I did pretty good business. Saturday in particular was excellent – at one point I had a line of three people waiting to buy Viking Legacy (the book I translated, if you’re new around here). This occurred – of course – just as I was sitting down to eat the Chinese meal I’d brought from the food section.

It’s not true that I’d rather eat than make money. I produce this anecdote as proof. My sesame chicken was cool by the time I got to it, but I made sales.

I really think we’ve got great possibilities in Viking Legacy. Again and again I had the experience of explaining the book’s theme (the influence of Viking democracy on our own democracy today) and a kind of light would go on in people’s eyes and they’d reach for their wallets.

My investment in stock was expensive, but I made it all back and took in a fair profit.

Capitalism is good, as every Viking will tell you.

Warren Wiersbe, pastor, author, Bridge Builder

Dr. Warren Wiersbe, 89, author of over 150 books that opened the Bible to readers around the world, died yesterday. His grandson, Dan Jacobsen, writes about him with his persistent voice in his ear: “As I write, I can’t help but imagine him hovering in the background and trying to find a way to edit what I’m writing so that it reflects a crisp tone with active voice and genius alliteration. (Grandpa mutters the phrase, ‘write for the ear, not for the eye!’ but what does that even mean?!) “

Wiersbe described himself as a bridge builder. “When he said it, he meant that he had a knack for filling leadership roles as the interim between giants. The hallmark picture of this has always been his tenure as senior pastor at the historic Moody Church in Chicago.” Wiersbe served at Moody Church between George Sweeting and Erwin Lutzer. Jacobsen remembers he frequently said, “You know the best thing I ever did for that place was leave so that Lutzer could pastor there.”

Of course, Jacobsen doesn’t stop with the professional aspects of his grandfather’s life. Get a run down of those details here.

Grandpa taught me what it is to pray. I think it was only two or three years ago this month that I spent a weekend with him. At many junctures along our days he would stop me and say, “let’s have a word of prayer together,” and he would acknowledge the Lord. I got the sense from him that he knew Jesus better than I even thought possible, and his life was lived in daily, sometimes hourly admission of his need for Christ in prayer.

A day in the bunker

Day One of the Festival of Nations is done. This was the easy day – 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tomorrow and Saturday will be roughly 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday wraps it up for good at 6:00 p.m.

Today and tomorrow morning were/are student days. The place rings with the laughter of children, and the ennui of teens.

When I say “rings,” I mean it. The River Centre is part of a complex (adjective) complex (noun) comprising the Excel Energy Center, the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, and probably a couple other institutions I never noticed. What the River Centre appears to be – mostly – is the basement of the whole thing.

I am not a sun worshiper. I wear a hat for shade when I go outside, and never wear shorts. In general, I prefer to spend my time indoors, away from the sunburn and insect bites.

But a day in the River Centre drives me to consider nudism.

(Not really.)

It’s not only the artificial light – I expect they replaced all the fluorescents with LEDs long ago – but the sound of the place. The reverberations of noise off the bunker walls. I’m too old for this.

However, I recently invested in a stock of Viking Legacy (the paper version is available from Saga Publishing, even though Amazon only carries the Kindle version. For some reason). I’m eager to recoup my expenses. Even at the expense of voluntary incarceration.

Sold 3 copies today, plus one of West Oversea. I consider that OK for student days at the Festival. I don’t expect to sell a lot of copies to kids.

Tomorrow should, I hope, bring serious sales. I seem to recall I’ve had good sales in the past (it’s been a few years).

One high school guy came by and told me he already owned the book. And he hadn’t bought it from me.

I didn’t ask him what he thought of it.

‘Only to sleep,’ by Lawrence Osborne

The Raymond Chandler estate has asked three authors (Robert B. Parker, Benjamin Black, and now Lawrence Osborne) in recent years to write continuation novels about classic private eye Philip Marlowe. Only to Sleep is the third and most recent, written by Osborne.

The book is set in 1988, and the investigator is now 72 years old, rusticating in a hotel in Baha, California. When two insurance company representatives show up and ask him to go to Mexico and make some inquiries for them, he finds himself interested. He’s bored, and doesn’t really care much if the job gets dangerous (which they assure him it will not).

He sets out on the trail of Donald Zinn, an American businessman who was found murdered on a beach – and very quickly cremated. The company paid out his wife’s insurance claim, but they’re suspicious. The hunt leads to that wife, a young and beautiful woman who fascinates Marlowe. He soon becomes certain that the man she’s traveling with is in fact Zinn, who faked his death. But Marlowe’s actions after finding them are… ambivalent.

I wasn’t greatly impressed by Only to Die. There’s some good writing here, but the story – like its hero – has weak legs. Raymond Chandler’s famous advice on plotting was, “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” That policy doesn’t work very well when your hero is in his seventies, though. If tough guys with guns show up too often, the show will pretty much be over. So other ways have to be found to pass the time. And although Marlowe’s meditations on life are one of the pleasures of a Chandler novel, they can’t carry a whole book – especially in the hard-boiled genre.

On top of that, a major plot point involves Marlowe doing something that strongly violates his private eye code (as I understand it). He mitigates that choice through later actions, but the whole business diminished him for me.

So I don’t highly recommend Only to Sleep. I finished it, so it didn’t insult my intelligence, but it wasn’t what I hoped for. Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Meet, Write, and Salutary’

Got a nice plug for The Elder King today from Mary J. Moerbe of the Meet, Write, and Salutary blog (for the unenlightened, that title puns on a line we all memorized from Luther’s Small Catechism). I’m not entirely sure whether she’s read the book, but she talks it up through general praise of its author.

It absolutely set me off daydreaming. Lars Walker has written, what, nine books now? (Sorry, but this is going to get into some of my personal neuroses.) That’s a lot of books for a mom with young children to read—these are books I’ll want to read back to back! Possibly multiple consecutive times. Knowing that Lars Walker offers quality reading, awesome viking material, rigorous research, and rich insight makes me want to have quality time with each of his books!

Read it all here.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture