Sir Robert and good works

Before I say anything else, I want to give you this link from Blue Crab Boulevard concerning a new replica Viking ship that recently made its trial run. Why news outlets waste time on Middle East wars when they could be covering really important events like this, I’m at a loss to understand.

In the Comments yesterday, I said I’d write a little more about Sir Robert Anderson, the English Secret Service official, Scotland Yard commander, lay preacher and amateur theologian.

I wanted to tell you a story he told that I read some years back (in Decision Magazine, I think). I can’t find it online, so I’ll retell it from memory. I always thought it was neatly put (unfortunately you’ll be getting my words, not his).

Sir Robert recalled a visit to his office by a wealthy woman. She confided to him that she was unable to feel secure in her salvation. She felt that God demanded something more from her in payment for her sins.

“You already do many good works,” he said. “I’ve been told that you frequently host meals for the poor.”

She admitted that she did that.

“Do the poor pay you for these meals?”

“No. Of course not. They have no money to pay.”

“But surely they have something! They could give you the clothes they wear, for instance.”

The woman laughed. “If you were to see the filthy rags those people wear,” she said, “you’d know that I wouldn’t ever even want them.”

“And that is precisely how it is with God!” said Sir Robert. “The Bible says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags to Him. He does not want your filthy rags of good works in payment for His forgiveness. His forgiveness is already paid for out of His infinite abundance in Christ.”

Spaniards off the hook? Plus Hollywood-bashing!

Also via Mirabilis, there appears to be evidence that, contrary to what you’ve been told all your life, the Spanish did not in fact destroy the Aztec civilization by bringing in smallpox, to which the native Americans had no immunity. It appears from this article that the Aztecs knew all about smallpox long before the white man came, and the disease that devastated their empire was nothing like it. The Spanish probably won’t escape all blame, since the deaths are still blamed on lowered resistance due to the enslavement of the natives, but the easy explanation (as is so often the case) may well be wrong.

This may change the way some books are written on the subject. Won’t change movies, though. Not for a long time. You can be sure of that.

I was thinking about Hollywood and nuance today. Hollywood people like to think that they are much more sophisticated and nuanced in their thinking than Jethro in Flyover Land.

But by and large, it seems to me, movies tend to be essentially black and white.

One of my favorite movies is The Outlaw Josey Wales. Perhaps the last great “classic western” (as I’d define it) ever made. I’ve read the book Gone To Texas, by Forrest Carter, on which it was based. One difference between the book and the movie that hit me right off was that in the book Josey’s young friend is wounded as he and Josey are robbing a bank. In the movie, the boy is shot with all his comrades as he tries to surrender to the Union Army, at the end of the Civil War. It’s all the fruit of a plot by an evil (clearly Republican) senator.

Hollywood can’t resist making this kind of change. Nuance is for books. In movies, we have to judge people by their actions. If you (the filmmaker) want us to like a character, you’ve got to show him doing wonderful, wonderful things. If you want us to hate a character, you show him eating babies, lynching blacks, or cutting taxes. These broad, semaphoric signals are part of the vocabulary Hollywood inherited from the silent era, and they’ve never really strayed far from it.

More examples, from a couple more westerns: In The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, with Paul Newman, the salty but lovable judge hangs a Texas cowboy for killing a Chinese man, although the cowboy protests that it’s not “against the law to kill a Chinaman!”

The original legendary story (which may or may not be true), had Judge Bean bringing the cowboy to trial, only to find himself surrounded by a large crowd of the cowboy’s heavily armed friends, ready to rescue him by force and shoot up the town. Bean is supposed to have flipped through his law book and to have said, “I don’t see anyplace in here where it says it’s against the law to kill a Chinaman!” So he let the fellow go.

Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman, is a good movie, but not nearly as thoughtful as the book it was based on, written by Thomas Berger. The movie begins with the hero and his sister being rescued by Cheyenne braves from a massacre committed by another tribe (I forget which one offhand). In the book, it was the Cheyenne themselves who performed the massacre, under the influence of alcohol, sparing the children on a whim. The children grow to love the Cheyenne anyway. The book was a multifaceted picture of the real conflicts and moral dilemmas involved in the opening of the American West. The movie was an Indian tract.

Remember these things the next time a Hollywood celebrity lectures you on nuance.

Mickey Spillane, 1918-2006

Mickey Spillane, 88, recipient of lifetime achievement awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America, died today in his hometown, Murrells Inlet, SC. His first novel, “I, the Jury,” starring Mike Hammer, was published in 1946.

The AP reports: “Spillane, a bearish man who wrote on an old manual Smith Corona, always claimed he didn’t care about reviews. He considered himself a ‘writer’ as opposed to an ‘author,’ defining a writer as someone whose books sell.”

Jack the Ripper mystery solved?

This article from the London Times (via Mirabilis) tells how a copy of Sir Robert Anderson’s memoirs, annotated by Chief Inspector Donald Swanson of Scotland Yard, may give the true identity of Jack the Ripper.

I believe I’ve read about this copy of the memoirs before, so I don’t think it’s actually new news. The Times article also doesn’t mention the reason I’ve most often seen given for the suppression of the serial killer’s identity, that the police were afraid there might be antisemitic riots if Jack was revealed to be Jewish.

Sir Robert Anderson, by the way, was a prominent and vocal evangelical Christian, besides being a senior police official. I’ve often thought there was a great Christian novel in the story of his investigation of the Ripper murders.


Can you name the top three bestselling authors worldwide? Let me help. The third one is Paulo Coelho from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His most recent hardback, The Zahir, is about a bestselling novelist who loses his wife, a war correspondent, in what may be adulterous betrayal. Another novel (republished by HarperCollins) is The Devil and Miss Prym, which deals with man’s struggle with good and evil.

Unlike the other two current bestselling authors on our list, Coelho has never sold the film rights to his books. On his website, he says, “I have never allowed [his books to be made into movies]. I recently made a US$2 million offer to recover the only rights I ever sold, The Alchemist (to Warner Bros.). They are studying the matter. I don’t intend to sell any film rights, because I think the film should be in the mind of the reader. My books use the creativity of those reading them.”

Are you familiar with Coelho? Do you know who the other two authors are?

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Publicity, Good or Bad, Is Publicity

Author Katha Pollitt has turned a bad review into an interesting article in the NY Times on whether publicity is bad only when it’s unnoticed.

“Actually, this is good,” my editor said when my book got panned. “It’s a long review by a well-known person. It’s on a good page. It’s even got a caricature of you.” . . .

“Yes, it was pretty negative, and your arms looked like tree stumps,” said one friend, helpfully. “But so what? That just means you’re a star!”

I wonder how many people told her to avoid watching Amazon’s sale rank. I understand the appeal having checked my own site stats more often than I knew I should, but what is an author’s alternative? Do publishers let you know how many of your books sold in a certain time, say quarterly at least?

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Spider Slayer, Bee Friend

[first posted September 24, 2003] I found a fat, orange spider on my car this afternoon. He was as big as my thumb, and though he showed sufficient fear when I poked at his legs, I dispatched him to the underworld. He was scary. I thought his bite would hurt should he decide to stake a claim on the car’s interior and run out trespassers, but I’m not heartless. I took artistic photos of him so he could live in immortality, which is more than any spider could hope for.

Driving home this evening, I had my window down. The Autumn Equinox has encouraged me somehow. My evening commutes are more heartening than they have been lately. While stopped at a light, a honey bee landed on my arm. I turned to look, and he was inches from my nose; but I blew him off and continued waiting without even a rise in blood pressure. He wasn’t scary.

Why am I afraid of the fly-catcher and not the honey-maker? Maybe since I haven’t stroked the back a fat spider while he was gathering pollen from a dusty lawn weed, I haven’t bonded with one like I have with a bee. Touching the back of honey bee like you would a baby’s nose has magic in it [In fact, I touched one again yesterday, July 15, 2006]. I am a friend to them now. Perhaps, they let me walk in peace. Whatever it is, I don’t fear them like I do some other bugs.

Insomniac thought of a mystery fan

Has anyone ever been smothered with a pillow in real life?

It happens all the time in fiction, but I’ve tried holding a pillow tight over my own face (as an experiment, not as a suicide attempt), and I’ve always been able to get sufficient air in.

But maybe that’s because I have a larger than average nose.


Your word for today is graminivorous, which is an adjective meaning feeding on grass. For an example of its use, take this definition of abdomen from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

ABDOMEN, n. — The temple of the god Stomach, in whose worship, with sacrificial rights, all true men engage. From women this ancient faith commands but a stammering assent. They sometimes minister at the altar in a half-hearted and ineffective way, but true reverence for the one deity that men really adore they know not. If woman had a free hand in the world’s marketing the race would become graminivorous.

The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly

I gave blood again this afternoon. It was well worth it, not only because somebody with A+ blood won’t have to keep using a pint of his old hemoglobin past its expiration date, but because of the appreciation I got. Apparently after work on a summer Friday afternoon isn’t premium time for blood drives. Normal people have plans on such evenings. So it’s up to Avoidants, paranoids and old ladies who keep three dozen cats in their houses to keep those plasma levels up.

The girl who drained my vital fluids was bored enough to want to make conversation.

“What are you doing this evening?” she asked.

“Washing clothes.”

I am the master of the conversational thud.

She told me about the movie she’d rented on VHS, “Waterloo Bridge.” She’d broken the tape, she said, and had to buy it, and she hadn’t even watched it yet. She was planning to repair it.

“I walked across Waterloo Bridge a couple years ago,” I told her.

“Really? Where is it?”

Turned out she’d had the idea it had something to do with Waterloo, Iowa.

This was the most substantive conversation I’ve had with another human being in weeks, by the way.

The Lincoln Lawyer is a departure for Michael Connelly. Most of his novels to date (maybe all of them; I forget) have involved, at least tangentially, his continuing characters Terry McCaleb and/or Harry Bosch. But he killed off McCaleb a couple books ago, so perhaps this marks the beginning of a new series character. Or not.

In any case he’s a character who could carry a series. Mickey Haller is a hustling, high-priced defense attorney. This doesn’t mean he’s rich. He has two ex-wives, a daughter and a mortgage to support, and his overhead is high (although he uses one of his four Lincoln Continentals as an office).

When we first meet him he doesn’t appear admirable. He defends some extremely unsavory people, and cops and (most) prosecutors despise him. But as we spend time with him, we discover agreeable traits. Both his ex-wives (one of whom is a prosecutor) still like him. He’s making a serious effort to be a better father to his little girl. He spends time he can’t afford representing down-and-out clients who’ll never be able to pay him.

His attitude to the legal system appears be that he treats it as a game. He’ll trick his opponents, but he won’t break the rules. If he gets a case thrown out on a technicality, he feels righteous indignation against the police – they broke the rules. They betrayed the system.

The issues of genuine guilt or innocence are not on his radar screen. He doesn’t even care to hear his clients’ protestations of innocence.

The only exception is his single professional nightmare – he’s afraid he’ll someday have an innocent client, and not realize it. That he won’t go to the wall for a genuine innocent.

And one day he discovers that this has already happened. He learns that a man he pleaded down to a lesser charge years ago actually did not commit the murder he’s doing hard time for.

And he learns something more – he’s been afraid of the wrong thing. He was afraid of not recognizing innocence, when in fact he should have been worried about not recognizing evil. He encounters a genuinely evil man, one who gains control over him, murders one of his friends, and threatens him and his family. Haller must engage in a battle of wits with a man who may very well be smarter than he is, and the price of losing is unthinkable.

Connelly’s work is always solid and satisfying. It carries a flavor of authenticity, along with the complexity and sadness of real life. The Lincoln Lawyer is no different. I was a little surprised by the ending, because Connelly had dropped hints that something else would happen, but it leaves the door open for more Haller For the Defense books.

I’ll read them.

Christian Book Awards Winners

The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) announced the winners of the Christian Book Awards (formerly the Gold Medallion Awards). Mark Kuyper, head of the ECPA, said, “From contemporary page-turner fiction to significant theological works, the Christian Book Awards recognize the best within our industry.” The categories are Bibles, Bible Reference & Study, Christian Life, Fiction, Children & Youth, and Inspiration & Gift.

I have confidence in the quality of two of the winners: A Sacred Sorrow by Michael Card (Navpress – Christian Life) and The Ezekiel Option by Joel Rosenberg (Tyndale House – Fiction). I don’t know about the rest.

What do you think about these categories? The whole industry summed up in six little boxes. Last year, there were 20 categories, including Biography/Autobiography, Devotional, Christianity and Society, and Elementary Children. You can see all of the them on

I wonder what the criteria is for judging the Bibles. This year’s winner is The Message: Numbered Edition. The original unnumbered edition won in 2003.

Barry McGuire and a Lott more

Kevin at Collected Miscellany recently posted this interview with author Jeremy Lott on his new book In Defense of Hypocrisy. I hate to dispel the common misconception that I have everything figured out, but this interview cleared up an important logical point for me. I’ve realized for a long time that there’s a fallacy in the modern insistence that hypocrisy is the worst sin, and that everyone who fails to live up to his own moral code at every single point is a hypocrite (“therefore,” the argument goes, “there’s no point even trying. Enjoy yourself and forget ethics!” The new moral prophet is John Belushi in Animal House).

What Lott explains here is that there’s a difference between hypocrisy and moral weakness. A guy who tries to live up to his principles and fails is not a hypocrite. He’s morally weak (as we all are to some extent). But he’s not a hypocrite. He’s not worthy of contempt.

This helps me. “There’s a difference between hypocrisy and moral weakness” is an axiom, and I personally need axioms in order to think. Maybe some of you can think clearly without them, but I can’t do it.

Alan at the Thinklings writes about Barry McGuire today.

You youngsters won’t remember McGuire, but I remember him well. He first swam into my ken as a member of the New Christy Minstrels folk group (and yes, I liked them. So indict me). He was everybody’s favorite Minstrel. He had a gravelly voice that added a microgram of spice to that highly processed musical mix. After he left the group, he had one big single hit, “The Eve of Destruction.” All about how the world couldn’t possibly survive past 1970 or so.

Then he became a Christian. There was much rejoicing. This was part of a phenomenon, related to the Jesus Movement, which will seem as strange as the New Christy Minstrels to younger readers. Lots of famous people (B List at least) were professing Christ back around then. McGuire, Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary (whatever happened to him, anyway?), even Wonder Woman. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash (who brought in Kris Kristofferson for about a week). Jimmy Carter, a professing born-again Christian, was elected president.

We were on a roll, we thought. Bill Bright had a plan for evangelizing the whole world by the year 2000. I had my doubts, but anything seemed possible at the time.

Today, a little more than a quarter century later, we’re wondering how long the government will allow us to keep our churches open.

Things change.

Let’s hope that remains true.

Does the Space Shuttle Excite You?

This just in–Astronauts take day off as space mission winds down. And yesterday what was it, a space walk to replace some foam somewhere? Sounds like the equivalent to getting a flat tire on a camping trip. “And in news from the family camping trip, Dad is checking the car to see if any damage occurred when they hit that big whatever-it-was in the road.”

Because this is the stuff of science-fiction and national imagination, I want to ask, does the Space Shuttle excite you? Do you think NASA is pursuing the right goals, or do you wish they would get the funding or inspiration to do something better?

Book Reviews, Creative Culture