Category Archives: Reviews

Old film review: “Impact”

I’m still working my way through my renter’s collection of old mystery movies, and this weekend I was pleasantly impressed by a fairly obscure 1949 production called “Impact,” starring Brian Donlevy.

“Impact” is technically classed as Film Noir, but in honesty it must be about the least noirish Noir film ever made. Instead of the angular shadows and cramped urban settings we expect in Noir, this film is largely set in the sunny outdoors and bright interiors. More importantly, instead of the fatalism and cynicism so characteristic of the form, this movie is about redemption and mercy. As a matter of fact, this one is so saturated with Christian values that you almost expect to see World Wide Pictures in the credits.

Donlevy plays Walter Williams, the head of engineering for a major corporation. At work he’s an alpha male, aggressive, savvy and a risk-taker.

But at home, in the company of his young, beautiful wife, Irene (played by Helen Walker [no relation]) he’s a pussycat. He defers to her, spoils her, and actually simpers in her presence. (By the way, this movie made me revise upward my estimation of Donlevy as an actor. I always had a hard time buying him as a tough guy. He struck me as a shrimp with an attitude, all swagger and no punch, especially when cast as a heavy against tall guys like Joel McCrae and Gary Cooper. But here he’s given other things to do than strut around trying to be intimidating, and he does a very creditable job in the vulnerable scenes). Irene bestows on him the nickname “Softy,” and he thinks it’s an endearment (I know what that suggests, I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers intended it, but this was 1949, when Hollywood still understood subtlety).

So poor Walter hasn’t the least suspicion when Irene suddenly begs off accompanying him on a road trip to Denver on business. Instead she asks him to give a lift to her “cousin.” The cousin is actually her lover, a man named Jim Torrance, and he and Irene have worked out a plan for him to murder Walter on the way and make it look like an accident.

But fate intervenes. Jim fails to finish Walter off, and then is himself killed in a fiery crash. The charred remains in Walter’s car are assumed to be his.

Hitching a ride in a passing moving van after regaining consciousness, Walter soon figures out, through newspaper stories and a couple strategic phone calls, that he’s been betrayed in the worst possible way. When he reads in the papers that his wife has been arrested for his murder, he figures it would be both just and satisfying to let the law take its course. So he hits the road.

Soon he fetches up in the pretty town of Larkspur, Idaho, where he gets a job as a mechanic at a gas station owned by the fetching Marsha Peters (Ella Raines). And it’s here that simple, small town (Christian) virtues begin to wear away at his anger and bitterness. Two significant scenes involve Walter’s first evening as a boarder with Marsha and her mother (where he reaches for the food, only to discover that they’ve bowed their heads to say grace. Imagine that happening in a movie today), and a Sunday church service (after which Walter breaks down and tells Marsha his true story).

Walter’s difficult (also well-scripted and acted) decision to do the right thing plunges him into the final conflict of the film, in which he finds himself on trial for his own life. His only hope is Marsha’s (and a cop’s, played by the old, reliable character actor Charles Coburn, who keeps forgetting to keep up his Irish accent) faith in him and determination to prove his innocence.

A preachy, spoken introduction and epilogue are a weakness in the story, but they used to do that sort of thing a lot in those days.

Rent “Impact” if you get the chance. I think you’ll like it.

Silent Joe, by T. Jefferson Parker

The weekend was beautiful, and so was today. High temperatures around, or above, freezing. We may not really deserve a mild stretch like this, but we feel as if we do.

In church on Sunday, among the praise songs our worship team had chosen for us was a number which contained (I’m not making this up) the following lines:

So much holy

So divine

Yours and so much mine….

Our God reigns

Over the heavens

Over the earth

Our God reigns

Praise His name

All still standing

All that was

All that remains

Our God reigns

I can feel my brain cells atrophying just on account of transcribing those inane lyrics. In what way, I ask, is singing such content-free drivel (over and over, of course) any different from chanting “Om” in a Transcendental Meditation center?

Commenter Aitchmark told me about T. Jefferson Parker’s mystery novel, Silent Joe, and I ordered it out of curiosity. I found it a compelling book. Flawed, but as fascinating as any novel I’ve read in a long time.

Joe Trona, the narrator and hero of the book, is the adopted son of Will Trona, an Orange County (California) supervisor. He works as a jailer, on his way to a police career, but at night he helps Will with “delicate” business—serving as his driver and bodyguard for trips and meetings and exchanges that he doesn’t want publicly known. Joe has no problem with this. He has complete faith that Will is a good man, and any corners he cuts are cut in a good cause.

Joe is tall, strong, a trained martial artist and a crack shot. He’s handsome, except that an act of abuse by his birth father left him with a serious scar on his face. Joe has cultivated good manners in order to be unthreatening, and he generally wears a hat to shade his features, but he’s profoundly self-conscious.

One night he and Will make a mysterious run that involves delivering some money and picking up a little girl. Then they are ambushed. Although Joe manages to kill two of the attackers and get the girl out of the line of fire, he can’t protect Will, who is shot to death. The rest of the book chronicles Joe’s quest to learn who set up the murder, and why it was done.

As a pure mystery, I can’t give Silent Joe the highest marks. Although political affiliations are not explicitly stated, it becomes clear pretty early on who are the Democrats and who are the Republicans. And once you’ve identified the Republicans, you know who’s guilty. Only the details remain to be worked out.

By the way, here’s a tip (but only a minor spoiler) for any liberal mystery novelists who happen by—it’s been about forty years since unmasking a white, male Christian clergyman as a hypocrite and degenerate has had any surprise value. We figured out a long time ago that whenever you introduce a white, male Christian clergyman, he’s going to turn out to be a hypocrite and a degenerate. If you want to actually surprise anyone, try doing something we haven’t seen a thousand times. Show us an ethical clergyman, or a sympathetic Republican, or a Muslim terrorist. Mix it up a little.

Although the mystery was no great shakes, the writing and the characterizations in Silent Joe were absolutely top level. Parker writes prose with great precision and grace. Not a word is misplaced. And although I probably identify more with Joe Trona than most people do, I think everyone will find him a fascinating character, at once tough and vulnerable, dangerous and child-like, smart and innocent.

There’s a particular section where Joe meets a woman, finds her attractive, and works up his nerve to ask her out. I actually had to put down this un-put-downable book a couple times because I had a hard time handling the tension. Those of you who can’t, like me, strongly identify with Joe’s shame issues will still (I think) find it an effective and moving episode.

I generally just drop liberal novels if I find them politically strident or condescending. I never had much trouble with Silent Joe. The story and the characters kept me riveted, and I enjoyed it very much.

Some rough language. Some sex, but not explicit (rather well handled, I thought) and violence. Not a perfect book, but a very, very, good one.

Walker is right. Again. For once. Right, anyway.

I had a vision today. For a moment the veil of the future was swept aside, and I received an impression of things to come.

Bear in mind when I say that that my predictions are pretty much always wrong. If there’s such a thing as Second Sight, I was third in line.

But I had a vision of a possible scenario. Imagine (it isn’t hard to do) that Hillary Clinton doesn’t win the Democratic nomination this year.

I can see her turning on her party. I can see her becoming a Republican, writing nasty books about her years with Bill (whom she will have also dumped by then), and showing up regularly on Rush Limbaugh to comment on Democratic politics from the perspective of a former insider. Kind of the same thing Dick Morris is doing now.

Remember, you read it here first.

Not long ago I made a reference to my interest in Wild Bill Hickok. This led me to glance at my bookshelf, and I noticed that I had a book on Wild Bill there that I hadn’t read yet. More surprisingly, it was a book by Joseph G. Rosa, the foremost Hickok authority today (oddly enough, an Englishman), and a man with whom I once exchanged a couple letters.

So I read Wild Bill Hickok: Gunfighter. It was a good book, as I expected, and Rosa has done his usual yeoman work uncovering obscure sources previously unseen. The copy editing could have been better, but that’s pretty much a universal problem in publishing nowadays.

What particularly interested me was his comments on one of Hickok’s most famous photographs. You can see a small version here. It’s the picture at the top, where he’s standing in a buckskin shirt.

Somewhere, and I think it must have been in his magnum opus, They Called Him Wild Bill (the second edition came out in 1974), Rosa had identified that picture as probably coming from late in Hickok’s life, when he was traveling with the original stage production that Buffalo Bill Cody produced before he went whole hog with his “Wild West” show.

When I wrote a letter of appreciation to Rosa, I said that I thought the picture must be earlier, probably from Hickok’s time as an army scout. I noted, first of all, that Hickok looks quite thin in this picture. Anybody who’s studied the photographs (and Hickok liked getting photographed) knows that he put on weight as he got older.

Secondly, I noted that his mustache looks pretty modest, compared to the flowing affair he sported later on.

And I mentioned that his hair was parted in the middle. In his later pictures, his hair (when he’s bareheaded) is combed straight back.

Rosa replied (I have the letter somewhere, though I can’t put my hand on it right now) that the head-brace Hickok would have worn to hold him still for such a photograph would have stretched out his head and neck, making him look thinner; that the mustache length would probably have varied frequently; and the same would be true with the hair part.

In his comments on this photograph on page 35 of this new book, Rosa now identifies the picture as an early one, and says, “…a close examination of the photograph reveals that he wears his hair parted in the middle, an affectation he had discarded by 1870.”

I don’t claim that it was my argument alone that changed the biographer’s mind. He also notes that identification of the original photographer helps to date the picture. And doubtless I wasn’t the first person to study the picture closely and come to the same conclusion.

But I feel vindicated!

Another comment I made (and Rosa obviously hasn’t yet come around on this) is that I think the pair of Colt pistols Hickok is wearing here are not Navies (.36 caliber) but Armies (.44 caliber). I say that just because I’ve done a lot of shooting with a Navy replica, and they have rather small handles, about right for my hands, which are also pretty small. Hickok was a fairly tall man, and in proportion to his size, those pistol grips just look too large for Navies, to my eyes. The grips on an Army are a little bigger.

The flaw in this theory is that it’s known that Hickok owned at least one matched pair of nickel-plated, ivory-handled Navies. But there’s no record of a similar pair of Armies belonging to him.

But this is my night for bold theories. So make a note that you read this here first, too.

Winter Haven, by Athol Dickson

Vera Gamble goes to Winter Haven, an isolated island 50 miles off the coast of Maine, in response to a surprising call. Her brother’s body has been found on a beach there. She hasn’t seen him for years and had hoped he wasn’t dead, but at the same time, she has been trying to forget him. How did he get across the country and ocean to die on Winter Haven’s beach? Her initial questions seem irrelevant once she gets to the island, because the body isn’t her brother’s. At least, if it is her brother’s body, how could he be the same age he was when she last saw him?

That’s the primary mystery of Athol Dickson’s new novel, Winter Haven, coming in April. Vera must stay on Winter Haven until some facts on her brother’s death are collected, but the village folk aren’t warm people, particularly the widow with the only spare room for her sleep in (cash in advance, two night minimum). And she shouldn’t leave the village, because the local witch could kill her, the ancient trees could trap her, or one of the ghosts could drive her mad—if she isn’t actually mad now.

It’s an interesting, uncomplicated story which I enjoyed, but it has one weakness. You know how authors often hint at something troubling without telling you what it is until later? Sometimes it’s an undefined danger, something the characters only understand enough to see the danger or suspect it. Naturally the reader does not know what’s coming because the characters don’t. But when the character does know and simply doesn’t tell you, the story arc feels different.

That’s the weakness of one character in Winter Haven. Throughout the story, she hints at troubling memories, perhaps past abuse which she can’t allow herself to dwell on, and she won’t tell the reader until much later. It doesn’t feel like undefined danger; it feels like obstruction. Perhaps if we see her worry and fear when she does remember something and hear much less that she doesn’t want to relive the worse memories (the ones that come later in the book), then the suspense would be maintained. As it is, I was a little tired, in fact a bit disappointed, at the artificial suspense of her refusal to level with me.

Despite that, the book is fun and well-written. Several times I wondered if Dickson was describing the actual landscape of Maine or an island in that area of the continent or if he was imagining the setting with rich detail. Everything in Winter Haven feels authentic from the ghostly fog to the discovery of . . . well, I shouldn’t tell you that part.

Trouble, by Jesse Kellerman

I know you’ll all be relieved to read a review written by me which isn’t about a Dean Koontz novel. No, no. The looks on your faces are all the thanks I need.

Trouble is an extremely impressive thriller written by a young novelist. I found it gripping, frightening, and engaging. The writing was elegant and crisp, the characters real and sympathetic, and often very funny.

And yet, in the end, I found it unsatisfying.

The concept is promising. It’s the old “Fatal Attraction” scenario—the hero gets sexually involved with a woman who turns out to be a psychopath. The twist in Trouble is that the woman doesn’t want to hurt the hero. She wants him to hurt her.

The main character is Jonah Stem. He’s a medical student in his third year—that purgatorial year when you work long hours, get treated like a beast of burden, and subsist on a couple hours of sleep a night—in a Manhattan hospital. Twice a month he takes the train to visit his former girlfriend, who is sliding into schizophrenia, to help her father with her care.

Yet he’s not too beaten down to get involved when, on his way home from work one night, he sees a large homeless man standing with a knife over a young woman. He jumps in to protect her, and when it’s all over the attacker is dead, and Jonah is a tabloid hero.

It doesn’t hurt that the girl is extremely cute.

Eventually they bump into each other again, and there are sparks, and they do what modern young people are expected to do. (I should probably note here that there’s a fair amount of sex in this book, some of it pretty kinky.)

But gradually it becomes clear that this woman has something more wrong with her than simple loose morals. She wants to be hurt. She demands that Jonah hurt her. She is convinced that Jonah has committed himself to an “art project” with her, and she’s utterly shameless in manipulating and threatening him, and those around him, to get his cooperation.

And then it gets worse.

If a story like this could have been written (it couldn’t) back in the 1950s (for instance) there would have been an implicit moral lesson. “Don’t have sex with people you’ve just met,” or even, “Don’t have sex with someone you’re not married to.”

I see no sign of a lesson of any kind in Trouble, though. Not that all stories have to have explicitly stated morals. But in a classic story the hero is expected to at least learn something from his ordeal. In this book, the hero seems to be pretty much unchanged in the end by the horrible events he experiences. The only lesson the story seems to teach is that it’s dangerous to help people. But even that (bad) lesson doesn’t seem to be the point here. I guess the point is that stuff happens, and sometimes it gets really intense, you know?

Jesse Kellerman is the son of two bestselling mystery novelists, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. I’m a big fan of his dad’s and not much of a fan of his mother’s. Jesse didn’t need their help to get published, though, I suspect. He’s a real talent, and a very accomplished storyteller. Expect big things from him.

I just hope he can find a way to write stories with something at stake in them.

The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz

Sorry to do another Koontz review. But Koontz is who I’m reading just now, and the day hasn’t produced any other subject material—at least none that I noticed. If I were James Lileks, I could get a couple thousand words out of how I avoided eye contact with the guy trying to sell Strib subscriptions in the grocery store tonight.

Oh, I had my dialogue worked out. He’d say, “Interested in subscribing to the Star Tribune?”

And I’d be like, “No.”

And he’d say, “Why not?”

And I’d be like, “I can get my beliefs and politics insulted for free any time I like. Why should I pay the Strib to insult them?”

But in real life those exchanges never work out like you’ve scripted them, so I just rushed by, pretending he wasn’t there.

Anyway, to the book. The Good Guy begins with the hero, Timothy Carrier, a master mason, sitting alone in his favorite bar. A man takes a stool near him and starts a conversation as if he knows him. Assuming the man has confused him with someone else, Timothy plays along for a few minutes, just as a lark.

It stops being funny when the man hands him an envelope containing ten thousand dollars, along with a photograph of a woman he wants him to murder, and then rushes out.

Not only is Timothy not in the least interested in murdering anyone, but he finds the woman’s face extremely attractive.

So begins an odyssey in which Timothy locates the woman, a novelist named Linda Paquette, and goes on the run with her, fleeing a murderer who is a talented professional as well a total, narcissistic sociopath.

But there’s hope. Because Timothy isn’t just a good guy. He has considerable resources of his own, and the conspirators made a very big mistake when they stumbled over him.

The Good Guy is one of Koontz’ recent books, and he’s become as good at building a story as (we’re informed) Timothy is at laying bricks. Timothy is just the kind of guy the reader wants to be, and Linda just the kind of woman he’d like to fall in love with (or vice versa if the reader’s a woman. If I know anything about women. Which I don’t). I put the book down from time to time, because I had to sleep and work, but it was a struggle. The villain was interesting, frightening and believable, but Timothy and Linda caught my full sympathy and held it.

I’m kind of glad Koontz doesn’t do a lot of sequels. That means Timothy and Linda will probably live happily ever after, without running into any more ruthless serial killers. That’s kind of nice to think about.

The Door to December, by Dean Koontz

I’m becoming a fan of Dean Koontz, almost against my will. As I familiarize myself with his body of work, I’ve developed a theory about him, which I’ll share at the end of this incisive review.

The Door to December is one of Koontz’ earlier works, first published under a pseudonym. It exhibits the usual weaknesses you expect from early Koontz. And yet… I loved it.

As the story begins, Laura McCaffrey, a psychologist, is summoned by the police to a house where her ex-husband has been found horribly murdered, along with two other men. Her concern is not with her ex, but with her daughter Melanie, whom he kidnapped six years ago. Besides the bloody corpses in the house, beaten beyond recognition, a room is found containing a sensory deprivation chamber and an electro-shock aversion therapy chair. Of Melanie there is no sign at first, but the little girl is soon discovered wandering naked on a nearby street. She is physically unharmed, but appears to be autistic.

At the crime scene Laura meets police detective Dan Haldane, who immediately takes an interest in the attractive doctor and her vulnerable child. As they look at the evidence, it becomes clear that Melanie has been the subject of a heartless, long-term psychological experiment.

And the horror isn’t over, because whatever killed the men in the house is killing others connected with the project. And Melanie, in her rare lucid moments, expresses her certainty that when the Thing is done killing the experimenters, it will kill her too.

I found lots of things to complain about in the writing here. The dialogue in particular was clunky. There’s one scene where Det. Haldane has a long argument with his greatest enemy in the world, his police superior. At one point he starts explaining himself to the man, sharing his deepest fears and motivations. This is ridiculous. Men hate to bare their souls to their closest friends. They don’t voluntarily point out their own weak spots to people who are likely to use the information against them. I know why Koontz did it. It’s a temptation for an author—you need to insert some exposition, explaining why your character acts the way he does. You’ve got a passionate dialogue scene; your character’s emotions are up. It seems to be just the place to throw the exposition in. You willingly ignore the fact that your character is expositing to the wrong person.

It’s easy to do. I’ve been tempted to do it myself (and have probably succumbed). But it’s bush league, and it damages credibility. (I’m reading the more recent The Good Guy now, and Koontz’ craftsmanship seems to have improved a lot.)

In spite of my criticisms, I liked this book exceedingly. And I think I know why (here comes my theory). Koontz is different from the average thriller writer. The average thriller writer is interested in examining the Problem of Evil. That’s an important question, and well worth looking at.

But Koontz prefers to examine the Problem of Good. When you consider it, the problem of good is just as puzzling, and certainly as important, as the other problem. And there’s the added advantage that there’s a whole lot less being written on the subject.

From that point of view—the point of view of looking at why people do good things, why they love and sacrifice and care for one another—I found The Door to December very moving. The climax, in particular, surprised me completely (it would probably not surprise a more virtuous reader as much).

I won’t say I like Koontz as well as Andrew Klavan, even now. But I’m liking him better and better. And he has a lot more books out there for me to find and read.

Chistmas report, and The Husband by Koontz

Hope you had a good Christmas. I’ll be celebrating (if anything I do can properly be described by that word) with my family here on Saturday.

So how did I spend the holiday? Mostly shoveling snow, as best I recall. We got another couple inches on Christmas Eve night, and my renter and I cleared that out. Christmas Day snow was predicted to be light, but Mother Nature was in a giving mood, so we got a couple more inches on Christmas Day and overnight. My renter being at work today, I shoveled all that by myself. My neighbor, who generally does our shared driveway with his snowblower, continued his tradition of perfect timing by being out of town. (Traditions mean so much at Christmas, after all.)

But I found time to stretch out on the couch with a book too. (Actually I had little choice after all that snow shoveling.) I read Dean Koontz’ The Husband. Good book. I won’t make this reading report an actual review. I think most of you know (and I’m figuring out by now) what to expect of a Dean Koontz book. He appears to be improving as a writer with the years, from what I can tell, but I wouldn’t rate him as a great novelist. But I’ve discovered that he’s an author I can go to and pretty much count on for a good experience—even a moving experience. The Husband is about a man who’s a husband in two senses. He’s married to a woman he loves, and he also runs a lawn service (which makes him a “husbandman” in the traditional English parlance). He lives a conventional middle class life and is happy in it. So it makes no sense when he gets a call telling him the caller has kidnapped his wife, and wants two million dollars in ransom.

Great story. Not (I think) a typical Dean Koontz thriller in that the supernatural element is almost entirely absent. But the tension never lets up, and the morality is excellent. There’s also some insightful social commentary. Enjoyed it very much.

Book review: Vengeance, by Stuart M. Kaminsky

I picked up Vengeance at a used book store, thinking that it was one of the few Lew Fonesca novels I haven’t read yet. Turns out I’d done this one already, but I read it again anyway, just because Lew is a guy I like to hang out with.

Lew Fonesca is a Florida detective, but (aside from courage and personal integrity) that’s about all he has in common with Travis McGee or Doc Ford. Lew came to Florida a couple years back, ending up on the seedy side of Sarasota because that’s where his car broke down when he drove south after the death of his wife. He’s not technically a private detective. He makes a marginal living as a process server. He lives in one half of his two-room office next to a Dairy Queen. He doesn’t own a car anymore, and usually travels by bicycle. He’s short and skinny and bald, and has a large nose. People frequently comment that he “looks sad.”

But sometimes a problem comes up, and he looks into it for someone. More than once he puts himself into insanely dangerous situations, and he isn’t sure why, though his psychiatrist has theories.

In this first book in the series, Lew is approached by a woman from Kansas who has come looking for her fourteen-year-old daughter, who ran away to join her father in Sarasota. There’s good reason to think the father has been molesting the daughter. Lew agrees to look into it for a small retainer.

Immediately afterward he meets with a very different client, a big-time real estate developer, an aging man whose beautiful young wife has disappeared. He can’t live without her, he says. He’s confident she still loves him, and doesn’t know why she went away. He wants Lew to just deliver a message, to ask her to talk to him. Lew agrees to search for her too.

The investigations very quickly put him in danger, and he has to call on his friend Ames McKinney for help. Ames is a tall Texan who was once a millionaire and now makes his living sweeping out a bar (you may recall my theory of the Psycho Killer Friend™ in mystery fiction. Ames isn’t really a psycho, but he fulfills the function). Ames is a good man to have along in a tight place, but Lew doesn’t always call on him when he needs him. Lew also meets a compassionate female social worker with whom he begins a tentative, cautious relationship. In the end the two mysteries intertwine in a heartbreaking fashion.

The plot seemed to me far-fetched at times, but contained such believable proportions of tragedy and hope that it never lost my sympathy. I suppose you could call the Lew Fonesca books “soft-boiled mysteries.” Kaminsky writes with his characteristic concern for basic right and wrong, and compassion for the human condition. He’s one of my favorite writers and I enjoyed this book almost as much on the second reading.

Book review: Hot Springs, by Stephen Hunter

Sorry about my silence last night. Wednesday is the day one of my assistants comes in to work at noon, so I took that opportunity to drag myself home and lie down in bed. Later on, for a change of pace, I lay down on the sofa. It seemed such a good program that I chose not to mess it up with blogging or Christmas card writing.

I think I’m a little better today, sort of. Perhaps. I seemed to have more steam to get me through the afternoon, but I think I’ve been spewing toxic aerosol more today than yesterday. Still, I think I’m making my way toward the end of Kubler-Ross’s Seven Stages of the Cold:

1. Tickle.

2. A little sore, but it was probably that hot soup I ate.

3. Oh man, this is serious. What’s in the medicine cabinet?

4. I really feel like staying home from work. Am I sick enough to take a day off?

5. I’m not well enough to go to work, but I’m well enough to drive to the drug store for Sudafed and Ibuprofen. And chocolate, of course (got to keep my strength up).

6. I could go back to work, but I’d be spreading germs to all my co-workers.

7. How come there’s nothing in the fridge?

I read another Swagger book from Stephen Hunter—Hot Springs. It’s a doozy. This is another Earl Swagger story (I think there are actually more Earl books than Bob Lee books, though I’m too lazy to tally them up). It begins in the aftermath of World War II, with Earl getting the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Truman, and then heading home with his new wife. In spite of his hero status, all that awaits him is a job in a sawmill (where, we are informed, everybody loses a hand or an arm eventually). He can’t understand why he’s so miserable, hitting the bottle so hard, but it becomes clear that in his deepest heart he misses the war. The war was his drug. He never expected, or intended, to come home at all.

Then he’s approached by two men. One is an ambitious politician, the newly elected District Attorney in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The other is a legendary former FBI agent, generally considered the greatest pistol shot in the country. They have a job offer for Earl, one more interesting than saw mill work.

The district attorney wants to clean up Hot Springs, which (we learn) is in that time what Las Vegas will be later on. In fact Bugsy Siegel, who will later establish the casino industry in Vegas, is in Hot Springs just at this time, checking out the possibilities.

The plan is to form a flying squad of young men, kind of like Eliot Ness’ Untouchables, but trained the Marine way by Earl Swagger. They will be turned into hard, keen fighting men, experts in all kinds of firearms. Using military tactics, they will shut down vice in the city.

In spite of his wife’s fears, Earl takes the job. What follows is a story of courage and betrayal, and a trip into Earl’s darkest heart.

Because he knows Hot Springs, though he won’t admit it to anyone. He knows Hot Springs because his father, a feared lawman, respected Baptist churchman and brutal, child-beating hypocrite (fortunately, Hunter provides a couple decent Christian characters for balance, so I wasn’t offended), had business in Hot Springs of his own, on a regular basis, before his death.

I hardly need say that in the end Earl Swagger does what has to be done, by thunder, and does it so nobly you just want to build a statue to him.

One of Hunter’s best, I think.

Book Review: Brother Odd, by Dean Koontz

Our commenter Aitchmark recommended Dean Koontz’ Odd Thomas books to me. I dragged my feet, because I’d read one Koontz and wasn’t terribly impressed. I didn’t think he used language very skillfully.

But I picked up Brother Odd last week, and frankly it turned my world upside down and gave it a good shake.

I still don’t think Koontz is a very good wordsmith. Time and again it seemed to me he was aiming for effects he wasn’t achieving.

But in Odd Thomas he has created a character who won my heart, and I’ll bet he’ll win yours too. You should not pick up this one first, though, but go back to the earlier books in the series to get the tragedies in sequence, because it does make a difference.

Odd Thomas (Odd is his first name. He explains it as a typo on his birth certificate, where it was supposed to say, “Todd.” Koontz doesn’t seem to be aware that Odd is an uncommon but not unknown Norwegian name, a variant of “Odin”) is a young man who makes his living as a fry cook. He is totally unremarkable (disregarding the pain he has suffered in his life) except for his unusual gift. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense and that girl on the TV show, he sees dead people.

But it’s harder for him than it is for them, because the dead don’t speak to him. The ghosts who linger in this world, in these stories, are mute. They are usually the victims of murder, and it’s Odd’s task to figure out their unspoken secrets and give them rest.

This all sounds very New Age, but it’s anything but that. Odd is a devout, practicing Roman Catholic.

In Brother Odd, in fact, he has left his California home and entered a Colorado monastery, overwhelmed by the personal losses he experienced in earlier adventures. It’s fairly quiet there for him—the only resident ghost is a monk who hanged himself in the bell tower and appears only occasionally.

But it doesn’t stay quiet. Besides ghosts, Odd is able to see spirits he calls “bodachs,” dark, shadowy figures that always gather in advance of acts of massive death and violence.

At the beginning of the story, Odd sees three of them. And they head straight for the monastery’s associated school, where the nuns care for retarded and handicapped children.

In his efforts to prevent whatever unknown horror is threatening the children, Odd must uncover the secrets of the monastery residents.

But these aren’t the kind of secrets you expect in a contemporary thriller. The monks and nuns are not practicing secret sexual rituals, or abusing the children, or plotting the overthrow of democracy. They are, by and large, sweet souls, the kind of people you can believe have given their lives in service to God and their fellow man. (I have to give Koontz tremendous props for these characterizations. As C.S. Lewis noted [I think] in The Four Loves, good characters are “the very devil” for an author.)

No, the secrets are deeper than that, and the evil resides in a place Dan Brown would have never imagined.

Koontz got completely past my reservations about his style, and grabbed me with the characters and the story. I don’t often cry over a book, but Brother Odd got to me.

Highly recommended. I’ve got to read the earlier installments, Odd Thomas and Forever Odd.

Book review: Web of Evil, by J. A. Jance

I’d read one J. A. Jance novel before, I think, and hadn’t been terribly impressed (I thought I’d reviewed it, but can’t find it in the archives, so I guess I didn’t). If I remember correctly, it had a male protagonist and, like so many female authors (in my opinion) she didn’t write a guy very well. No doubt we male writers have the same trouble with female characters.

But Web of Evil is one of Jance’s Ali Reynolds books, stories about a woman amateur detective, and I found it a lot of fun.

Ali Reynolds is a former Los Angeles news anchor. Today she lives in a double-wide mobile home (though a nice one) in Sedona, Arizona, where her parents run a diner. She’s in the midst of a bitter divorce from her husband, Paul, a network executive, and also an unfair dismissal suit against her old TV station (the two facts are not unrelated).

One day she gets in her car to drive to L.A., where she’s going to sign her final divorce papers. But there will be no signing. Her husband turns up dead, locked in the trunk of a car which was then left on the railroad tracks to wait for the next train.

As it happened, the murder occurred near the highway Ali was driving, just about the time that, by her own account, she was passing through the area. Suddenly the police are looking very closely at her movements and personal affairs.

This mystery was one of the most tech-savvy I’ve read. Ali is a blogger, and her blog, as well as her cell phone, are important parts of the plot.

I especially liked Ali’s parents, who bear the fine Scandinavian name of Larson. They are decent, caring people and unabashedly conservative (how often do you see that in a novel these days?).

Ali herself is a classic female detective. She’s smart, beautiful and spunky. Like all amateur detectives, she goes where the police say she shouldn’t go, and does what the police say she shouldn’t do, and yet doesn’t get locked up long enough to keep her out of the action. When you sit down to analyze the plot, the whole thing is a little far-fetched, and Ali’s close involvement with the investigation improbable, but Jance keeps the story moving so skillfully that you don’t notice. She kept me turning the pages, and I found it a very entertaining read.

Not great literature, but a lot of fun. Worth the price.

Short movie review: No Country For Old Men

Thanksgiving went just fine. My turkey was once again a success, and nobody got food poisoning (or if they did, they’re thoughtfully keeping the fact from me).

At the end of the day my brother Baal and I found ourselves alone here, and we decided to see a movie. So we went to see “No Country For Old Men.”

Brilliant writing, brilliant dialog, brilliant acting. And an ending designed to make ordinary people want their money back, while critics at Cannes applaud their manicures loose.

My one-line review goes like this: “No Country For Old Men” is an elegant, three-hour shaggy dog story.

And do you think Tommy Lee Jones will ever get tired of being the Texan Steppin Fetchitt? I’m sure there’s a lot of money in being the go-to guy whenever Hollywood wants to show how bigoted, hateful or irrelevant (irrelevant in this case) white Texan males are (Billy Green Bush made a good living in the same gig back in the 70s. Maybe you’re required to have three names to get the job), but do you think he ever feels a little embarrassed about it?

Review: Viking Warrior, by Judson Roberts

If you want to read a good Viking novel, your choices are pretty few. There’s me, of course, but I’m out of print. Bernard Cornwell is doing a series about Vikings and Saxons in Alfred’s England (I’m avoiding them, though, because, from what I read, he’s trashing Christianity again. I wish he wouldn’t do that. I really like Cornwell otherwise). There’s Tim Severin’s new series, which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, mea culpa. You can sometimes find a copy of the English translation of Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships here or there.

But the field is pretty sparse. Which is why I’m delighted to welcome Judson Roberts to our small but elite club.



Viking Warrior
is a Young Adult novel which will be enjoyed by older readers as well. It begins the story of Halfdan, who, as the story opens, is a young slave on a large farm in Denmark. He is actually the natural son of the chieftain who owns the farm, but his mother is a slave from Ireland. So all his life he has known only hard work and bitterness.

Everything changes when his master and the master’s son return from an abortive raid in England. His master is dying. On his deathbed, he makes a bargain with Halfdan’s mother—he will acknowledge Halfdan, free him, and make him an heir. But in return Halfdan’s mother must make a terrible sacrifice. She does this willingly, in a deeply moving but troubling segment of the story.

Suddenly Halfdan’s life is changed out of recognition. Harald, his master’s freeborn son and chief heir, befriends him and begins to teach Halfdan the skills of a warrior. Harald is extremely likeable, and Halfdan grows in character as he learns to set aside old angers, even as he is learning a whole new way of living.

One thing Harald does not need to teach Halfdan is the use of the bow. Halfdan has been learning the arts of the bowyer and the fletcher for years, and has been hunting in secret. His skill with a bow is already formidable, and it’s a skill he’ll come to need very much, very soon.

Because there is an enemy out there—a vicious and ruthless enemy who wants the whole family dead; one who cares nothing for honor or fair dealing, nor for how many murders it takes to achieve his goal.

I can hardly think of a way this book could have been better. If I’d written it, I’d have taken pains to anglicize the speech a little more—to avoid words with Latin roots, but that’s my own bugbear, and probably means little to the average reader. The prose was tight, the characters well-rounded, the emotions rang true, and the plot was compelling. I wished it were longer—but fortunately there’s a sequel for me to order.

References to Christianity were generally negative, but that was appropriate to the story. Although Halfdan’s mother is a Christian, she doesn’t seem to have conveyed much of it to her son, so Halfdan’s opinions are those of the average Scandinavian heathen of the time. There is a ceremonial matter toward the beginning of the story that was extremely conflicting for me to read, but it was in no way unreasonable in the time and place.

The only false note (in my opinion) was a scene later in the book, where Halfdan, having killed his first man, is troubled not to feel any guilt about it. I think that’s a projection of modern and Christian values. I don’t believe a Norse pagan in the 9th Century would have been bothered by that at all. I think he would have been pleased.

But that’s the sort of thing it’s almost impossible to avoid, when moderns write about the past. I’m sure I’ve done the same in my own books.

I strongly recommend Viking Warrior. Cautions for violence and sexual references (but no explicit sex scenes). It would make a much-valued Christmas gift for that Viking aficionado on your gift list (and who doesn’t have one of those?).

Book Review: Proof Positive, by Phillip Margolin

Another negative review for you today. I’ve found a reason in my old age to finish books I dislike. The pain of reading them is balanced (at least somewhat) by the pleasure of insulting the authors, at a safe distance. The petty vengeance of the failed novelist.

Proof Positive is a legal thriller written from viewpoint of the defense side.

It led this reader to root for prosecutors even more than a Robert K. Tanenbaum novel could.

It’s one in a series of novels starring a young female defense attorney in Portland, Oregon named Amanda Jaffe. She’s the daughter of a prominent criminal lawyer.

The story starts with the execution of a convicted murderer by lethal injection. His lawyer, Doug Weaver, observes the death of his gentle, not-too-bright client, consoling himself that the man must have been guilty, because a forensic expert found his fingerprint on the murder weapon.

Later, mobster Art Prochaska is arrested for the murder of a drug dealer. Amanda, whose father has often represented Prochaska’s boss, is retained to represent him.

There’s damning forensic evidence against Prochaska, but by now the author has revealed to us that the forensic investigator who documented the evidence is in fact in the practice of planting manufactured clues.

At the same time, Doug Weaver is retained to defend a psychotic young man accused of murder, also the victim of falsified forensics.

As the attorneys seek the truth, the crooked CSI begins to commit murders of his own, in order to protect himself.

If this synopsis seems a little dry, it’s because I DIDN’T CARE FOR ANY OF THESE CHARACTERS FOR ONE SINGLE MOMENT!

That’s an exaggeration. I found two human scenes in the book. One was where the young psychotic meets with his parents in the jail, and they finally make a connection after many years. The other involved a moment of sexual banter between two lovers.

Other than that, author Margolin took apparent pains to keep us eternally at an emotional distance from his characters. One of his irritating techniques was to always convey his characters’ thoughts at a remove, saying (for example), “He thought that he made a mistake…” rather than, “He thought, ‘I made a mistake.’”

And all the characters do this tedious thinking in the same way. Men and women. Cops and civilians. Professional criminals and solid citizens. There was nothing to distinguish them in their characterizations. They all thought and reacted (at least to my perception) in precisely identical ways.

This was especially annoying in regard to the gangsters in the book. Margolin didn’t seem to care at all that these were very bad guys who make their livelihoods off human suffering. They were targets of the rogue CSI, so they were treated as charming and slightly amusing tough guys.

Margolin obviously wants us to realize that police power can be abused, and that even forensic evidence isn’t always solid. True enough. There have been cases like this, where the system has been abused.

But he undercuts his argument by whitewashing the crooks and (especially) by BORING ME WITH A DULL NARRATIVE.

Margolin is apparently a very successful novelist. I have no idea why, on the basis of this book.