‘The Wedding Guest,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Reading a new Alex Delaware novel by Jonathan Kellerman is like dropping in on an old friend, whose place is comfortable and nobody expects you to dress up or bring a bottle. It’s welcome and easy.

In The Wedding Guest, Detective Milo Sturgis invites his psychologist friend/consultant, Dr. Delaware, to help him interview witnesses at a murder scene. The scene is a former strip club repurposed as a party venue, where a wedding party had been going on. One of the bridesmaids went to use a washroom most of the other guests didn’t know about, and found a dead body inside. A young and beautiful woman dressed in red, drugged and strangled.

The bride’s family are Los Angeles nouveau-riche, beautiful people with rough edges. The groom’s parents run a veterinary practice and are more down-to-earth, but they have money too – and access to the drug that helped kill the victim. The chief problem at first is that the dead girl seems to be entirely off the grid – no identification, no police record, and nobody at the wedding will admit to knowing her.

Putting a name on her takes hard work, but when it’s done there’s still the question of discovering why she was there that night, and who among those present would have a reason to end her life.

I thought the climax was a little perfunctory, but it was all about the ride anyway. The Wedding Guest could have been three times as long and I’d have enjoyed it all the way through. I particularly liked the non-stereotyped characters. Cautions for language and adult themes. Recommended, as is the entire Alex Delaware series.

‘Blood Guilt,’ by Ben Cheetham

An interesting read, which I found, in the end, over the top and under the moral line. But definitely exciting and readable.

Ben Cheetham’s Blood Guilt tells the story of Harlan Miller, an English cop (in London, I assume, though I don’t think it’s ever specified) whose promising career ends when his young son dies in an accident. After that, Harlan slides into depression and alcohol, until one terrible night he kills a man in a bar fight.

Four years later, he’s out of prison. His wife would like to start over again, but Harlan just can’t find a way to care. His guilt consumes him.

Then a shocking thing happens. One of the sons of the man he killed is kidnapped. Ben takes hold of the hope that he can somehow redeem himself through using his investigative skills to find and rescue the boy. He has an advantage over the regular police in not being bound by rules of evidence – or limitations on the use of force.

The premise of Blood Guilt is intriguing, and I think it could have been, not only a good thriller, but an interesting moral experiment. However – for me – it didn’t entirely work on either plane. The action seemed to me excessive and improbable (in one instance, we’re treated to yet another hero who checks himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders and somehow manages to function in violent action). And the moral elements – though they seemed promising – collapsed entirely at the end, in a climax that satisfied me in no way.

Maybe I’m blinkered by my Christian theology, but this story didn’t work for me. Your mileage may vary. It’s definitely a page-turner, though. Cautions for language and violence.

‘The High Costs of Fantasy Sainthood’

It’s always nice — rare as it is — to be cited as an author. Jessica McAdams praises my novel, The Year of the Warrior in an article just published at Tor.com. My book even closes the show:

I love this book for its clear insistence that sainthood requires transformation. In order to follow the call, Aillil must change. He can’t stay the man he is: sort of bad, sort of good, mostly selfish and sorrowing. He has to be courageous—worse yet, he has to be charitable. If there is real evil in the world and real good, he has to pick a side, and then he has to let that choice manifest itself and become real in his own self—living it out in his own inclinations and actions and habits.

And that might be the most costly sacrifice of all.

Read it all here.

‘The Woods Murder,’ by Roy Lewis

Inspector John Crow is a tall, ungainly man. He never looks like he fits in anywhere, and even less when he’s called in to a small town to take over a murder investigation from the locals. They have a murder case to deal with already – an unusual circumstance – so they’ll have to endure his presence, and that of his assistant, Sergeant Wilson.

In The Woods Murder, by Roy Lewis, a solicitor named Charles Lendon has been found in a forest hut, an iron skewer thrust through his heart. There are many people who might possibly have wanted Lendon dead. For one thing, he was an inveterate womanizer, and made no distinction between married and unmarried women. Also there’s a farmer who blames him for the death of his daughter (this is the previous murder mentioned above). Lendon closed off a lane through his woods which children used to use as a shortcut. With that way blocked, they have to take a longer route now – and the farmer’s daughter was killed along that route.

But there’s more to Lendon than is commonly known. As Inspector Crow uncovers layers of old secrets and lies, it becomes a possibility that his death might not have sprung from his sins – but from his (few) virtues.

The Woods Murder is part of a series of books published back in the late 1960s, and republished now. I thought I might find it more congenial than a lot of politically correct contemporary books. And it was all right, but I must admit I didn’t love it. I guess I’ve gotten used to a more character-driven style of storytelling. Nothing against this book, but it didn’t ring my bell.

I do have to note one remarkable line of prose – not typical of the book as a whole: “…for her mind was patterned with doubt and incomprehension, a cicatriced amorphous mass criss-crossed with questions and uncertainty.”

I’m not sure how any publisher would let a self-indulgent line like that stand in a popular novel. But I suppose the rules were different back then.

‘Dead Man’s Walk,’ by Antony James

A “fan-fic” novel, set between the end of the “Endeavour” TV series, and before the beginning of “Morse?” And written by the chairman of the Inspector Morse Society? Available free in e-book form? I was willing to take a chance on that. And all in all, I thought Dead Man’s Walk worked pretty well.

The year is 1971, and Morse is a Detective Sergeant in the Oxford police. A stamp dealer named Hugo Latimer is found dead next to his tumbled bicycle, cause of death suspicious. Shortly after, a man named Ridler is found murdered in a similar manner. Young detective Morse is immediately suspicious, because the crime scenes are both near the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford, where Protestants Latimer and Ridley were famously burned at the stake. This is obviously a puzzle meant for him.

Die-hard Morse fans may find non-canonical elements here to carp at – I myself only noticed a couple homonym problems, like “populous” for “populace,” to complain of (Morse would have been on those like a terrier on a rat). There’s romance. There’s an appreciative scene set in the Eagle & Child pub, with (laudatory) comments on the Inklings. The author sometimes indulges in presenting travelogues – telling us too much about the histories of places where Morse visits. There’s a depiction of a Christian family that seemed to me unsympathetic – but then Morse was an atheist, so what do I expect?

There’s also a boy named Dexter here, who wants to be a writer – but it can’t be author Colin Dexter, because he was an adult by this time. I have no idea what that was about.

I found the final solution of the mystery a little disappointing, but all in all I enjoyed reading Dead Man’s Walk quite a lot. I recommend it, especially for fans of the Colin Dexter novels and the famous TV series (plural).

‘Rancour,’ by Pete Brassett

The Inspector Munro series by Pete Brassett is an enjoyable set of stories about an aging police detective in the west of Scotland, and the young female detective he mentors, “Charlie” West. I’ve reviewed the previous books, and here’s the new one, Rancour.

On the Arran islands, a young girl goes climbing on high Goat Fell on a winter night, and is found the next day frozen to death. When her companions, who turned back, are asked why they didn’t stop her, they say the girl was determined.

Soon after, another girl is found dead on the mainland, while a school friend is found unconscious. All three girls have been drugged.

Suspicions center on an Italian man of questionable morals and business ethics, who recently moved to the area and has cut a swathe through the ladies.

But looking into his life, and the girls’, brings up a lot of other questions, and the investigation grows quite complex. Inspector West is leading the squad now, since Munro is retired, but he’s keeping his hand in and gently guiding – while trying to remodel his cottage and decide how to handle a question of his own health.

It all turned out in ways that surprised me. I enjoyed spending time with my old friends Munro and West, and recommend Rancour, as well as the rest of the series.

‘Intelligences to Replace Us’

We are rushing into the unconsidered embrace of a computerized future that, deep in the core of its design process, hates us. “Engineers at our leading tech firms and universities tend to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution,” Team Human notes. “When they are not developing interfaces to control us, they are building intelligences to replace us.”

Joseph Bottum in his review of Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff. It’s an uneven book, he says, with many good details and many mushy proposals presented as solutions.

‘Out of the Dark,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Coming up: a review of Gregg Hurwitz’s Out of the Dark.

But first, this urgent news update:

January 25, Deadline.com: EXCLUSIVE: Gregg Hurwitz, author of the best-selling Orphan X series, has inked what’s described as a “significant seven-figure deal” with publisher Minotaur Books for the next three volumes in the series. The next book in the series, Out of the Dark: The Return of Orphan X, hits shelves on Tuesday, Jan. 29.

Dave Lull just sent me the above item, and it pleases me no end, because there can’t be enough Orphan X books for me. No doubt the TV series will ruin the concept, but keep the books coming, Gregg.

And now for our book review:

Wetzel had read somewhere that Hollywood directors liked to hose down streets to make the asphalt sparkle on film. Washington was like that naturally, a black-ice kind of town—lose your focus and you’d slip and break your neck.

Any review of the Orphan X books requires a little orientation lecture, but that’s OK, because it’s fun to tell.

Evan Smoak is “Orphan X.” As a boy, he was “recruited” from a group home into the super-secret, ultra-deniable US government “Orphan” program. Under this program, smart, athletic kids whom no one would miss were trained to be the world’s most dangerous assassins and covert operatives. But gradually, under the direction of a bureaucrat named Jonathan Bennett, the program lost its focus and become badly corrupted. Jack managed to break free and, subsidized by income streams he can still tap (I never quite followed how that works), he now lives in secret in Los Angeles. His home is a luxury apartment, impenetrably secure, and from it he operates as “The Nowhere Man.” He’s a sort of a hero on call. People he helps refer him to other people who need a hero. One case at a time, Evan attempts to do penance for the sins of his earlier life.

He has one major existential challenge – Jonathan Bennett is now the president of the United States. And for several years he has been systematically been killing off the few surviving Orphans. But of all the Orphans, Evan Smoak is the one he is most determined to eliminate – though Evan has no idea why.

In Out of the Dark, Evan is busy planning the assassination of the president. A challenge, but he thinks he can carry it off. On top of that, he needs to save an autistic young man who, simply because of his naïve honesty, is targeted for murder – along with his whole family – by one of the most dangerous drug lords in the world.

All the usual pleasures of a great thriller are present in Out of the Dark – rising suspense, heart-pounding danger, lots of high-tech electronics and computer hacking. (Frankly I found some of the action scenes over the top, but I was happy to suspend disbelief.) But what sets the Orphan X books apart is the sharpness of the writing – great characters, crackling dialogue, moments of wit. As well as just good, well-crafted prose. It’s a pleasure to read Gregg Hurwitz.

Highly recommended, with cautions for violence, adult themes, and mature language.

‘A Killer’s Mind,’ by Mike Omer

(Sorry about the internet silence the last couple days. I’ve been down with some kind of stomach bug, and not much use for anything. I think I’m coming back now.)

Here’s an example of a book that had some flaws, but still earned my thumbs up through its various virtues. A Killer’s Mind, by Mike Omer had (in my opinion) some plotting problems, but the characters and the writing carried the project through.

Zoe Bentley is a psychologist who works as an FBI consultant, mostly profiling. She lives in Virginia, but is sent to Chicago to help the police with some serial killings. Assigned to accompany her is FBI agent Tatum Gray, a hunky fellow who immediately rubs her the wrong way.

In Chicago, someone is kidnapping young women, strangling them to death, and then embalming them and leaving them in posed positions in quiet spots. Zoe struggles to try to comprehend the mind of such a criminal, and it leads her to break the rules and earn the anger of the Chicago cops. But that brings her and Agent Gray closer together as they slowly learn to get inside this guy’s very twisted head.

What I especially liked about A Killer’s Mind was the characters. Zoe is an interesting main character – no super-cop, she’s a damaged personality with a shocking back story. In social situations she comes off as distant and curt, but she is not actually a cold person. She’s in fact so naturally empathetic that she has to raise emotional barriers to keep her sanity. Also I like stories where a man and woman hate each other at first sight, and then warm to one another. This is that kind of story.

What I had problems with was how Zoe’s character worked into the plot. We’re supposed to believe that an accomplished, adult professional woman would withhold what she believes to be material evidence in an ongoing homicide investigation, because she’s afraid of a repeat of childhood embarrassment. Author Omer works to make this plausible, but I never really bought it.

Still, all in all I liked A Killer’s Mind, and I’m likely to read the next volume in the series.

Go Podcast, young man

Everyone is podcasting these days. Your aunt is probably planning one if she can only get Clippy and Bob to show her how to record it. There are over 630,000 podcasts available today on just about everything. True crime is a popular topic. For months I’ve daydreamed about the details of a mock crime podcast that could use the song above as a theme, present itself in the tone and rhythm of true crime shows, but actually tell a story about nothing at all. If I could find one or more colorful Southerners who tell jokes and funny stories for hours, I would have material for a great recurring segment. I’d probably be the only one who thought it was funny though.

Podcasting has been taken up by both professionals and amateurs, like anything on the Internet. A couple of my favorites are “The World and Everything in It,” the news show from World News Group. It is the best news out there. I recommend playing the show from your desktop, if you don’t do podcasts in a mobile-like devicy kind of way. (You might ask Alexa to play “The World and Everything in It” and see what you get. I have no idea.) Also I’m new to a show that has been around since 2009, “The Sporkful,” a show about food for the rest of us. It’s a ton of fun. A recent episode on southern BBQ in Chicago made me want to get out and try things (which I won’t do, of course, because budgets mean something in my house.)

That may lead you to ask, has podcasting been around ten years already? Yes, it began in 2004. The first how-to book came out in 2005. Even before that, we had audioblogging in some capacity.

The way I listen to my handful of shows is through one ear while driving. I don’t want to plug both ears in case I need to hear something, so with road and wind noise in the background I need podcast audio to be clear with a steady volume. I know I’m usually behind the tech curve, so I wonder if my listening experience is typical, but I encourage the podcasters out there who are recording their conference calls in hopes of landing a better book contract to listen to those recordings with plenty of outside background noise. If you can’t hear what’s been said, neither will I.

Why We Read Fiction?

We suffer from a worldly sickness engineered by the Enlightenment project, a misapprehension of reason as the highest faculty and as dislocated from our imagination. Such an assumption leads us to consider literature as unwarranted; Novels and poems play with our emotions, we think, and clutter our pure reason. But what if our emotions help us register our humanity, guiding us in moral decision-making? C. S. Lewis argues as much in The Abolition of Man. How we imagine God, the world, and our place in relation to both transforms how we act. Great literature trains the moral imagination.

Jessica Hooten Wilson, “In Praise of Useless Reading,” TGC, Jan. 25

‘Ivory Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

As I write this review, I have beside me an exact-sized, museum-authorized replica of one of the kings from the Lewis chessmen. Because as I read this book, I felt I just had to have one.

The Lewis chessmen are one of the most famous, and intriguing, archaeological treasures in the world. They’re surrounded by mystery – we know they were discovered on the island of Lewis in the Hebrides in 1831, but by whom, and exactly where, are the subjects of contradictory tales. They are 93 objects (one an ivory buckle), which include elements from several chess sets – including, probably, non-chess pieces. And in themselves they’re fascinating objects. Like the contemporary Icelandic sagas, they speak to us across the centuries with almost a modern voice. Each piece is a distinct individual, and their postures and gestures seem to be telling us something – though we can’t be sure we can read them across time and cultures.

Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, was not exactly the book I expected from the title. And that’s good. Over the years, in my amateur historical reading, I’ve come up again and again against books that take one small piece of evidence, build a huge framework of supposition on top of it, and then declare that they have “proved” some radical new theory. This book is not like that. This is a good work of history with a somewhat grandiose title.

Author Brown examines the Lewis chessmen by category – Rooks, Bishops, Queens, Kings, and Knights. First she describes the pieces, and relates how their functions changed over the centuries, and how they worked under the rules of the 12th Century (when they were probably carved). Then she relates those functions to the history of what might be called the Norwegian Sphere of Influence during the early Middle Ages. We are treated to a pretty good overview of Scandinavian/North Atlantic history in that period, with an emphasis on Iceland and Norway.

In recent years the prevalent scholarly view has been that the Lewis pieces were carved in a workshop in Trondheim. Author Brown makes a good argument that the pieces were in fact carved by an Icelandic woman mentioned in the saga of Bishop Pall Jonsson of Skalholt: “Margret the Adroit.”

Her case for Margret is not watertight, but it’s a good, plausible one, worthy of attention. And in the course of the argument, she provides us with an excellent history lesson.

I enjoyed Ivory Vikings, and recommend it.

Scott Sterling, Comic gold

Witness comic genius in these two skits about the epic Yale athlete Scott Sterling and his ability to block the ball. The first video featuring soccer penalty kicks came out in 2014 (though before this weekend I thought it was much older than that). It’s one of the funniest videos of the decades, only made better by the follow-up volleyball video released in 2016. The execution and pacing of these videos sells the comedy marvelously.

The unstoppable Scott Sterling, soccer goalie
The unstoppable Scott Sterling, volleyball team captain

Like the man said, when Armageddon comes I want to be in a bunker made of that man’s face.

A little tour of Avaldsnes

From time to time I talk to you about the parish of Avaldsnes in Norway, where my great-grandfather was born, and where one of the most dramatic events in Erling Skjalgsson’s career occurred.

They’re very aware of their Viking heritage at Avaldsnes, as you can see by viewing the short video below. This is the Viking farm they’ve built on the nearby island of Bukkoy. I’m not sure why they identify the naust (boathouse) as a great hall — except that that’s how it’s used in the TV series Northmen, which is filmed there. But still, this video will give you some idea of the place.

…but Christians can’t do science!

From Hillfaith, (tip, Instapundit):

Meet J. Warner Wallace. No, Wallace is not a former congressional investigator, but he is one of the world’s most respected experts at solving the toughest crime cases, the ones that have gone unsolved for years.

Read the rest here.

He’s NBC’s “Cold Case Detective,” and he’s a Christian. Author of, among other works, Cold-Case Christianity.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture