Category Archives: Reviews

Last Things, by Ralph McInerny

Here I am, a bona fide professional writer, and I’m stuck for words to describe the loveliness of today’s weather. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art less humid and more temperate….” I should have taken the day off and gone to the state fair and fired questions about Bohemian Grove at Michael Medved. But, as Yogi Berra once sagely remarked, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

If you think you know about the Father Dowling mystery books because you used to watch Tom Bosley in the ridiculous TV version some years back, be assured that you don’t. Father Dowling is a priest named Father Dowling, and he does live in the Midwest and he does have a nosey housekeeper, but that’s about the extent of the similarity.

The original, authorized Father Dowling is a sort of clerical Sherlock Holmes (he’s tall and thin and smokes a pipe), but kinder and more inclined to suffer fools (and sinners). He was once a rising young star in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but job pressures led to alcoholism, and the church sent him to Fox River, Illinois, a transitional suburb of Chicago, as a sort of second chance-cum-penance. But he discovered that parish ministry is his real calling, and he loves taking care of his little flock. Except for the remarkable number of unsolved murders that seem to crop up. (Also it should be noted that there are no roller-skating nuns to be seen anywhere.)

The drama in Last Things centers on the conflicts and dysfunctions of the Bernardo family, whose patriarch is Fulvio Bernardo, owner of a string of local greenhouses. Fulvio has only been moderately honest in his business dealings, and has been serially unfaithful to his pious wife, Margaret. But now his health is failing, and his children are gathering for the end.

The children include Raymond, who was once a promising young priest, but he ran away with a nun, with whom he now lives out of wedlock in California. Andrew is the underachieving middle brother who teaches English at a local college and has a live-in as well. Jessica is a successful novelist, much envied by Andrew, and remains a believer. She’s planning to write a novel based on her family’s story, and there’s an aunt who is much alarmed at that prospect, going so far as to ask Father Dowling to persuade Jessica to drop the project.

But it’s Andrew who gets into big trouble, when an insufferable colleague blames him for holding back his career, and starts a campaign of harassment against not only Andrew but his whole family. And when the colleague is found murdered in the street, well, who do you think comes under suspicion?

Father Dowling works it all out, of course, relying on his profound understanding of human motivations and sins. Along the way he also helps Raymond come to terms with the guilt he’s been carrying (and denying) ever since his defection.

All things taken together, I think I prefer Father Dowling stories to Father Brown stories. That’s heresy, I know, but although I’m crazy about G.K. Chesterton about 80% of the time, I always found the FB mysteries a little facile, a little too neat. They seem to me analogous to an archer shooting his arrows first and then painting targets around them. The Father Dowling stories are richer and more humane, less didactic (which isn’t to say there aren’t moral and theological lessons).

As a Protestant, of course, I find points in the stories where I disagree with some of the detective’s basic assumptions about Christianity. But it doesn’t interfere much for me, and the quiet, peaceful presence that Father Dowling imparts to these stories make reading them a comfort and a delight.

Spook, by Bill Pronzini

There are a million injustices in the mean streets of Publishing Town. The greatest of all, it goes without saying, is my own failure to find a new publisher. But not far behind is the tragic fact that Bill Pronzini is not a major, bestselling mystery writer.

He’s published and respected and he wins awards, but he’s never broken out as I think he should. He has everything I want in a mystery writer. He sets out a good puzzle, but he also paints a good character, which is what I really want.

I realized years ago, reading Science Fiction, why I don’t care for most Science Fiction. It’s because the authors treat their characters like specimens on a dissection tray. “Let’s poke the subject here, and see what its reaction is.” They had no compassion for their characters, and I put down their books with relief.

There are mystery writers like that too, but Bill Pronzini isn’t one of them. His characters are 98.6 F warm. They act like real people, for real motives, and Pronzini has compassion on them—even the bad ones.

His continuing character is known as “The Nameless Detective,” not because he’s a man of mystery, but because Pronzini started writing about him in short stories without giving him a name, and once he’d established him that way it would detract from the stories to suddenly drop a name on him (although he did let us know, some years back, that Nameless’ first name is Bill).

Nameless has grown over the years. He started out as a young San Francisco private eye who consciously modeled himself on the hard-boiled sleuths of the old pulp magazines, of which he is a collector. He was also a heavy smoker at the start, which gave Pronzini the chance to kill him off from cancer in one memorable short story. But (like Conan Doyle) he succumbed to the temptation to bring his detective back. Nameless had a remission, and has taken care of himself since then.

He’s middle-aged now, and married to a woman named Kerry. They’ve adopted a little girl. He’s planning to semi-retire soon, and has taken on a partner, a young black woman named Tamara whom he mentored. In this book they also hire an operative, a former cop named Jake Runyon. Runyon has many personal demons, which helps him fit right in.

In Spook, the agency is hired by a San Francisco film company to discover the identity of a homeless man whom everyone called “Spook,” a gentle, mentally disturbed man who was shot to death in an alley behind their studio. It’s not supposed to be a Whodunnit. It’s just that the filmmakers liked the man, and would like to notify his family, or arrange for burial themselves.

Following the clues they turn up, the detectives send their new operative, Runyon, out to a small town in the Sierras to discover the tragic story behind “Spook’s” decline. Runyon doesn’t mind. He has absolutely nothing in his life anymore except for his work, and he provides an empathetic eye as he turns over the old log he finds, to see what worms writhe underneath.

But there’s more than just worms there. There’s a wasp—someone very angry and very crazy, with a brainful of hate and resentment. And a gun.

Pronzini is a fine, professional storyteller who draws you in and makes you care. Profanity and sexual situations are on the low side for the genre. I recommend Spook, and all Pronzini’s novels.

The Chess Machine, by Robert Löhr

For his first novel, accomplished German author and playwright Robert Löhr spins a remarkable yarn from an obscure historical incident. In 1770, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen revealed a clockwork device called the Mechanical Turk. It was a chess-playing automaton or at least was presented as such. In reality, it was a clever bit of gears and controls beneath the wooden façade of a stern Turkish chess master (about which Edgar Allen Poe writes in this essay, having witnessed the Turk many years later).

In The Chess Machine, Löhr uses that stone to produce a 300-page soup of deception, ambition, lust, loyalty, prejudice, and faith—with a touch of murder. The lead character is the man within the machine, the brilliant Tibor Scardanelli. Tibor’s religious worldview frames most the drama. When he is first offered a job as the automaton’s mind, he refuses it, citing the commandment to avoid false witness. Within a day his circumstances become so desperate that he runs to find Kempelen to accept the offer. From that point on, Tibor, a dwarf who had lived as an outcast of society, has to become non-existent, because no one can know that Kempelen has been associating with a man who could fit inside his new chess machine.

When he arrives at the workshop which is to be his entire world for several months, Tibor meets another outcast working with Kempelen, a Jew named Jakob whose woodcarving gives the Turk its mystic aura. The three men are a wild success everywhere they perform, which stirs up envy among the mechanicians who know it can’t be done and fear from priests and parishioners who believe it’s of the devil. The deception grows dangerous when a beautiful woman dies while alone with the machine. That’s more of a teaser than you’ll get from the video created by the book’s Dutch publisher.

Tibor causes the most trouble for himself when he sneaks away from Kempelen’s in-house arrest to breathe the wild air of the world. One time he gets caught up in a Viennese masquerade party. Another time he takes refuge with a somewhat deranged sculptor. In both cases, he is carried away by the lust of the flesh and deeply troubled by his sin. This is the most realistic conflict Löhr describes. Tibor is powerless over his sin, and he pleads for God’s absolution. Yet even while he prays, one time, his thoughts turn salacious. Horrified at himself, he stabs his legs with carving tools, hoping to pay for God’s forgiveness. I wish I could say he learned that forgiveness was already bought for him through Jesus Christ, but the story ends ambivalent on this point—perhaps leaving his faith at an altar, perhaps only leaving one faith tradition for another.

The Chess Machine winds up slowly and spins a dramatic finish. It isn’t a safe book (thinking of Association of Christian Retailer guidelines), but it is enjoyable and smart. Translator Anthea Bell did an excellent job bringing this work to English.

Dead Simple, by Peter James

I’ve just got to share this post from Junkyard Blog. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words, but that one is.

I picked up Dead Simple by accident. I’d intended to check a book by J. J. Jance out of the library, having not tried her work yet, and through inattention I went home with the book that had been shelved right next to the volume I meant to take. Once I got it home and discovered my mistake, I figured I might as well give it a shot.

I’m not sorry I did. It was an interesting and well-plotted book. I can’t give it the highest accolades, for reasons I’ll explain, but it kept me turning the pages.

The set-up is tremendous. Michael Harrison is a young English entrepreneur. He makes a lot of money and lives in style. He’s about to marry a gorgeous woman whom he loves very much.

When the book begins, Harrison is half-unconscious in the back of a van, pub-crawling with his buddies as part of his bachelor party. Michael has been a ruthless and rather cruel practical joker, especially in relation to his friends’ bachelor parties, and they have a dandy revenge in store for him.

They put him in a coffin (one of the friends works at a mortuary) and bury him in a shallow grave with a bottle of whiskey, a dirty magazine, a flashlight and a walkie-talkie. There’s an air tube to keep him from suffocating. The plan is to leave him there for a few hours, then dig him up again.

Except that there’s an accident, and his friends end up either dead or in a coma.

And when Michael’s partner, who missed the party because of a delayed flight, comes home and hears the news… he does nothing at all. In spite of the fact that he knows Michael is buried out there somewhere.

I love a neat set-up like that. And James keeps the tension rising, revealing information to the reader in careful, cruel doses. When you think things can’t get any worse, they do.

The hero of the book is Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police (I wish James had chosen another name. Whenever I read “Grace said…” I think of a woman). He’s the most interesting character in the book. A man alone (his beloved wife simply disappeared a few years back), he lives mainly for his work. The big handicap in his career seems to be his advocacy of the use of psychic evidence in his investigations.

Needless to say, that’s a problem for me. I consider most (perhaps all) psychics frauds. If any are not frauds, then they are in contact with dangerous spiritual forces, and anyone who contacts them is putting himself in severe peril. The author’s bio on the flyleaf says that Peter James has a “deep interest” in the paranormal.

This is not quite “playing the game,” by the rules of traditional detective fiction. Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “Problem Picture” in The Mind of the Maker, quotes the following question asked of applicants to the Detection Club:

PRESIDENT: Do you promise that your Detectives shall well and truly detect the Crimes presented to them, using those Wits which it shall please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance upon, nor making use of, Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?

CANDIDATE: I do.

Of course times have changed, and Miss Sayers wouldn’t have cared for a whole lot of what goes on in mysteries today. But I can’t help thinking that appealing to the supernatural in what is presented as a standard mystery is a bit of a deus ex machina. I think I’d feel the same if prayer were used similarly in a Christian mystery (but who knows? Maybe I’m deluding myself).

Detective Grace’s tentative attempts to begin dating again, in his rare free moments, provide an appealing subplot, helping to flesh out what is really the only fully-rounded character in a plot-driven book.

But the plot is driven very well indeed.

All in all an entertaining novel, but I have no great desire to read more by the author.

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin is one of those slow novelists who brings out a moving, life-altering book every decade or so, like a geological fault spawning earthquakes.

This is probably good, for two reasons. First of all, it’s really depressing for an ordinary author like me to read something as perfect as a Helprin book. It makes me feel like a junior higher who’s just discovered The Lord of the Rings and sets out to pen his own epic on his laptop, in a really neat font he downloaded off the web.

Also, it’s a fact, too often overlooked in the publishing industry, that you can’t produce a superior book like one of Helprin’s in a year. Or two. Even three.

It’s worth the wait.

My favorite Helprin novel (the same as pretty much everybody else’s) has got to be Winter’s Tale. My second favorite is probably Memoir From Antproof Case. A Soldier of the Great War is tremendous, but the tragic elements were too much for me. I haven’t read Refiner’s Fire (got to look for that).

But I think Freddy and Fredericka has supplanted MFAC as my second favorite. Briefly put, it was a delight from beginning to end.

Think of an Evelyn Waugh novel, written by P. G. Wodehouse. That’s the British part.

Think of a Tom Wolf or Mark Twain novel, also written by Wodehouse. That’s the American part.

The final segment, back in England, is merely sublime and moving.

It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed out loud, again and again, over a novel. But Freddy and Fredericka did that for me.

Here’s the (ridiculous) premise: Freddy and Fredericka are a fictionalized version of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but it’s impossible not to recognize the royal family here as the one we know in our own, slightly inferior world.

Freddy seems, perhaps, a bit more solid than Prince Charles. He is strongly traditional and conservative in his opinions. Sound fellow. However, he has a problem. He is prone, sometimes because of irresistible impulses, and sometimes because of what Jeeves used to call “a concatenation of circumstances” to do ridiculous things in public that get him onto the front pages of the tabloids, such as (for instance,) trying to get back in through the gate of Buckingham Palace, stark naked, tarred and feathered, with a takeout chicken box on his head.

Fredericka, on the other hand, seems even more vapid and photogenic than her real world prototype. (At one point she asks Freddy, seriously, “What is a raw egg?”) On the other hand, she seems to be something of an airhead savant. She has bizarre flashes of brilliance, doing complex algebra problems in her head, for example.

My favorite line of her dialogue: “Lord Louey sent me a book on compassion that I have to read because he wants me to be the author.”

Because of the bad press, and because he has failed an occult family test to determine his worthiness to rule, Freddy and Fredericka are sent on a quest.

They are to parachute into New Jersey, incognito, clad only in rabbit skin bikinis, to win the United States back for the Commonwealth.

Piece of cake.

What follows is a satiric and affectionate odyssey through America, in which F & F (totally unrecognized by people who’ve been looking at their pictures all their lives) take odd jobs, ride the rails, serve as forest rangers, impersonate dentists, and Freddy becomes a speech writer for a presidential candidate (who bears no discernible resemblance to Bob Dole, despite the fact that Helprin himself was chief writer for his campaign, something I suspect even he would admit is not the highlight of his résumé). Like all good travelers, they learn not only to love the new country, but to love their own country better through it.

And the final chapters, when they go home, are deeply moving, filled with hope for the world.

One only wishes Prince Charles really were Freddy. And that Di had been Fredericka, of course.

I don’t award stars to books, but if I did I’d add a star for this one. Get it. Read it. Laugh. Be touched. Thank me later.

Weekend reading

The word from Our Beloved Supervisors in the Twin Cities today is, “Stay inside. Do not attempt any strenuous work out of doors. The temperature is too high; the ozone level up in the Oh! Zone.”

I defied that advice, rebel that I am. In the first place the temperature was lower than expected, only a little over 80. Also my walking schedule has finally gotten me to the level where my body (like a dog) actually expects and wants its daily walk, and is disappointed if it misses it.

The humidity level was in Jacques Cousteau territory. I thought breathing was a little difficult too, but that was likely psychosomatic. Is ozone really dangerous to breathe, like cigarette smoke or something? Am I going to die now? Maybe I should just take up tobacco.

It says much about my psychological disorder(s) that, although I’m essentially very lazy, I judge a good or bad weekend by what I’ve accomplished. By that standard, it was a pretty good weekend. I mowed the lawn. I mopped the bathroom. I waxed Mrs. Hermanson, my car. And that was all on Saturday. On Sunday I did precisely nothing, as is my preference, except for church and reading. I shall now tell you about my reading.

No full reviews on these, just observations.

I finished Michael Connelly’s Echo Park. It’s another Harry Bosch novel, and a strong book in a dynasty of strong books. Harry is back with the L.A. police department now, working the Cold Case unit. A serial killer is arrested with human body parts in his van, and he confesses to a series of murders, including one that Harry worked on back in 1993, when it was new, and has been revisiting from time to time ever since. The problem is that Harry has been certain from the first that somebody else murdered that particular victim. And Harry is told that he missed a vital clue back in ’93, one that could have saved a number of lives if he’d followed it up. There’s an escape, cops are murdered, and Harry works two puzzles at once.

There’s nothing cheerful in a Harry Bosch book. Harry lives in a dark, confused world, where doing right (and Harry always tries to do right—that’s part of his problem) isn’t always the same thing as following the rules. Harry gets the job done, but there’s always a cost.

I also read an oldie, Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. I like Crais better with each book of his I read. In this story, L.A. private eye Elvis Cole is hired by Peter Alan Nelson, a powerful Hollywood producer (whose characterization is deftly kept just this side of parody) to locate his ex-wife and son, who left him years before and simply dropped out of sight.

Elvis has to travel far from home to find the two, and when he does he discovers a desperate situation that calls for swift and forceful action. Needless to say, he brings in his dangerous partner, Joe Pike, but the real delight of Lullaby Town is the character arc traced by Nelson, the movie producer, as his family’s danger gradually forces him into a strange new territory known as The Real World, and how he begins to grow up as a man.

I think we lose a lot in contemporary storytelling through the abandonment of belief in objective truth. When you believe that there is an actual “thing” out there called Truth (or Goodness), then you can believe that everyone has an obligation to it, and you can root for them as they approach it, or sorrow for them as they move away from it.

When you believe that everybody makes his own truth, your rooting for a character is only a function of your personal taste (and his). It’s a game without a fixed goal. It’s pointless.

I don’t know if Crais had that kind of lesson in mind, but that’s what I drew from Lullaby Town, and it was very satisfactory to me.

Point of Impact, by Stephen Hunter

I said a little about Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact a few posts back, and I told you I was enjoying it quite a lot.

That was an understatement.

Now, I suppose that’s old news to many of you. I expect I’m far behind the curve (as is so often the case), since this book and its sequels and collaterals have been out for a while. So this review would probably better be called an appreciation. I just want to babble a little about how much I enjoyed Point of Impact, and to share my priceless insights on why I think it’s so great.

The chief beauty here is that the book is centered on a strong, well-rounded, sympathetic hero. If you’ve been reading this blog for any time at all you know I think character is king, and Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of this book, is a hero and a half. I don’t think there’s been a straight-ahead, singleminded, admirable main guy like this since Louis L’Amour died, and L’Amour wasn’t as good a writer as Hunter (I speak as an admirer of L’Amour).

Bob Lee Swagger of Blue Eye, Arkansas is everything books and movies and television have been teaching us to despise for most of my lifetime. He’s a white southerner. His formal education is limited. He’s ex-military, and he loves his guns. He also loves his country, to the point where he destroys evidence that might clear him of a capital accusation, because its release might make America look bad.

Swagger is approached by a mysterious pair of strangers, obviously former soldiers, who offer him a short-term job. They want him to test some new ammunition, they say. His testimonial would be valuable to them, as he was a legendary Marine sniper in Vietnam.

He does the job, and the ammunition is good. But something isn’t right. Bob Lee is not only a shooter, he’s a hunter of men. His hunter’s sense tells him they’re not telling him the full truth, but they entice him with a lure he can’t resist—there’s a plot to kill the president, they say, and the shooter coming in to do the job is a Russian, a famous sniper whom the Vietnamese brought in to take out Bob Lee himself during the war. That sniper crippled Bob Lee and killed his spotter. Bob Lee’s job will be to figure out where the attack will come, and to help them prevent it.

Of course it all goes south from there. Before long Bob Lee is on the run, wounded and the target of a nationwide manhunt.

Another great character is Nick Memphis, an FBI agent who first hunts Bob Lee, and then forms an alliance with him. Nick was a sniper too, years back. He tried to take out a criminal who was holding several women hostage. But he missed the shot and paralyzed a hostage. He married the woman and nursed her for the rest of her life. It doesn’t seem to have ever occurred to him to do anything else.

Even the villains are entirely believable and realistically motivated.

And the women—the women in this book are solid gold, Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man,” grand ladies. They may have moments of envy for the easier lives enjoyed by women who chose lesser men, but they know that they could have had that kind of man if they’d wanted one. (I suppose these women are as much fantasy characters as Bond Girls in the movies. But it’s a whole ‘nother kind of fantasy.)

The plotting is flawless. Tension grows and grows as Bob Lee’s enemies’ plans unfold, and he finds the whole world more and more against him. Yet he never loses his nerve. He never gives up—even with a bullet hole in his chest.

I couldn’t help thinking of James Bond as I read Point of Impact. Like a Bond movie (the books not so much), this novel presents a vision of manhood that most of us can only dream of.

The difference is that, after reading Point of Impact, I wanted to be a better man than I am.

As you’d expect, there’s mature subject matter and harsh language. But I recommend Point of Impact for every grownup man. I have no idea what women think of it.

The Ritual Bath, by Faye Kellerman

Will this work? I have my doubts. I’ve had the kind of afternoon where every time I reach for something I knock something over, and every time I pick something up I drop it (I’m exaggerating, but it feels like that). So I figure either my computer will crash or Bloo will go down just about the time I’m ready to post. But I shall make the effort.

I bought Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath (first in a series of mysteries involving Det. Peter Decker and widow Rina Lazarus) on the strength of my fondness for her husband Jonathan’s Alex Delaware novels. I had misgivings. Generally I don’t care for mysteries written by women (I’m not weighing in on our discussion, some time back, of whether men write the best mysteries or not. I find men usually write the best mysteries for me, which is a very different matter).

I was very pleasantly surprised. The Ritual Bath is both a satisfying crime story and a sensitive examination of the conflicts and stresses involved in being seriously religious in a secular society.

Rina Lazarus lives at an orthodox yeshiva (Torah school) in a run-down section of Los Angeles. Ordinarily an unmarried woman wouldn’t live at an all-male yeshiva, but her late husband was a student, and the school gave her a job and a home so that she could take care of her two young sons. Her job involves cleaning and caring for the mikvah (ritual bath), used monthly by students’ wives.

The night the novel begins, a young woman is attacked and raped outside the mikvah. Detective Peter Decker and his partner arrive to investigate.

There is immediate chemistry between the tall, red-haired detective and the tiny Jewish widow. But though Decker pursues her singlemindedly throughout the book, Rina has to explain, again and again, that there is no way she could possibly date a goy. As the likelihood grows that the rapist (who keeps coming back) may be someone inside the yeshiva, there are numerous opportunities for personal and professional missteps and misunderstandings.

The picture of life in an Orthodox community appears (so far as I can tell) to be pretty accurate. At least it’s credible. The constant nuisance of concern for ritual cleanliness is not glossed over, but neither are the joys of deep belief and genuine community life. (As a sideline, it made me more aware than ever of Paul’s statement that “the letter of the law kills,” and reminded me how grateful I ought to be that Christians are free of such.)

Another pleasure was Kellerman’s portrayal of Detective Decker. I suspect that one reason so many female writers have a hard time with male characters is that they find it both difficult and repellant to try to get into our heads. I found no false notes in Peter Decker. He struck me as a very believable decent guy, at once strongly aroused by Rina and making an honest effort to keep his hormones suppressed.

Another thing that made the book interesting (and problematic) from a Christian point of view was the fact that Det. Decker is increasingly attracted to the Jewish religion itself, as well as to a particular Jew, as the story goes on. We are told that he was raised a Baptist but is nothing in particular now. Question: If a secular person is drawn to Judaism, does that bring him closer to, or farther away from, Jesus Christ?

Another thing that struck me was how similar the book was to a lot of Christian Booksellers Association fiction. The tall, strong, unbeliever is drawn to the beautiful believer, and as love grows he is attracted to her faith as well.

Only Kellerman does it better. Her writing is on a higher level (not perfect, but far superior to most CBA, so far as I’ve read any), her characters more rounded and believable. Also the book is earthier. There are intense situations. There is bad language. Those things might disqualify a book from CBA, but they also increase realism, giving the story greater credibility.

I’ll read more of these.

Counterplay, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

I’ll be taking a blog break till Monday, probably, unless I get a wireless connection in Moorhead and find the time. I’m going up with the Vikings for the Hjemkomst festival. Drop by if you’re in the area, but I won’t be there Sunday.

On Sunday I shoot back south, overshoot my home, and come to rest in Kenyon, Minnesota, my original home town. I’ve been asked to give a short historical talk for a special service. My home church (Hauge Lutheran) has an old stone church, the congregation’s original building (it was built in 1875 and is on the National Register of Historic Places). A service is held there once a year (it used to be in Norwegian, but that’s kind of pointless nowadays). Anyway, I’ll be helping out with that Sunday morning.

I always look forward to Robert K. Tanenbaum’s Karp/Ciampi books, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Counterplay. But I see problems in this old, dependable franchise.

Our friend Aitchmark reviewed it here. He thinks Tanenbaum has succumbed to the temptation to try to make every book “bigger” than the last. I see that, and I agree to an extent. But I think I discern a deeper problem.

First, a synopsis: The last couple books have featured Butch Karp’s great nemesis—former New York City District Attorney Andrew Kane, a rich and corrupt man who nearly became mayor of New York. We thought Kane was beaten at the end of the previous book, when his plot to destroy the Catholic Church was unmasked and foiled.

But Kane has escaped from the police, and has made it clear that he is going to a) kill everyone Karp (now District Attorney himself) cares about, and b) perform a major act of terrorism. Security people believe he’s planning to target Russian president Yeltsin on an upcoming visit to the U.S.

You get your money’s worth in entertainment with any Tanenbaum book. He rolls out the beloved stock company of funny, eccentric, well-developed regulars we’ve come to love. The most interesting part of the story for me, actually, was a sub-plot—the cold-case against a millionaire for the murder of his wife, prosecuted by good ol’ Ray Guma, on the basis of a memory recovered by the couple’s son under hypnosis.

But there really is a problem, and I think Tanenbaum needs to do something about it. I think he’s fallen into the Superman Dilemma.

The Superman Dilemma is simple. Once you’ve created a hero who is faster than a speeding bullet, bulletproof himself, inhumanly strong and incredibly smart, what do you do to give him a challenge? Yeah, you’ve got kryptonite, but you can only use that stuff so often before people get bored.

The answer is the Super-Villain. You’ve got to come up with an adversary worthy of his steel skin. Someone who matches him in at least one category, and who is as bad as he is good.

Tanenbaum, over the course of this long series, has gradually loaded the Karp family with a pantheon of super friends. Tran, the former Viet Cong, was the first, I think. He’s a leader of the Asian mob, and will do anything to protect Butch’s wife Marlene, on whom he’s been nursing a crush for years. Then there’s John Jojola, the Taos Indian/Special Forces veteran, who walks unseen and has strange mystical powers. And there’s David Grale, the psychotic who leads and army of the homeless, fighting evil in the city sewers. And there’s daughter Lucy’s new boyfriend, the cowboy Ned, who is (of course) a crack shot and a quick-draw artist. Lucy herself is a language prodigy, which helps in a lot of situations. And Marlene is the Top Gun in Manhattan. She also trains huge attack dogs.

Which means that in real life, a family like the Karps would be safer than the president in the presidential bunker, just giving folks a tour. Thus, for a challenge, we need a super-villain capable of working past all these layers of security.

Andrew Kane has been the super-villain in the last few books, and is again here. And frankly it’s getting to the point where he’s straining credibility. The man is so insane—so filled with hate and yet so omnicompetent, that it’s hard to take him seriously.

Tanenbaum has produced a comic book. A superior comic book, one well worth reading, but a comic book nevertheless.

He needs to drop the end-of-the-world scenarios, kill off some of the family’s protectors, and get back to writing stories about people we recognize. There’s plenty of ordinary evil in the world for a big-city D.A. to fight.

Even Superman shouldn’t fly out of sight.

The Last Detective, by Robert Crais

Thought, thought (for no particular reason) during a visit to the grocery store:



I do not want to see your toes.



Your mother may have told you they were adorable. Your Significant Other may tell you they’re sexy. You probably feel that traditional shoes are confining, especially in the warmer months.

But I, for one, don’t enjoy looking at other people’s toes.

The only toes I have any interest at all in are my own. And I’d just as soon not look at them much either.

This is a purely personal judgment, and I don’t expect anyone to pay any attention to it.

But I feel better now that I’ve shared.

I read one of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole novels before, at the urging of Aitchmark, who’s a fan. I think I made a poor choice. It was one (probably Voodoo River) where Cole, a Los Angeles P.I., leaves his natural habitat to do a job in New Orleans. It didn’t work for me and I didn’t have any desire to go back to the franchise.

But I picked up The Last Detective last week and underwent an attitude alteration.

For one thing, the book explains how the hero got the name “Elvis,” an element of his persona that repelled me from the start. I can forgive it now.

At the beginning of the story, Elvis Cole is looking after Ben, the teenaged son of his girlfriend, Lucy Chenier, while she’s out of town. Lucy was a character in the New Orleans novel. She fell in love with Cole and followed him to L.A.

But one afternoon, Ben goes outside to play on the hillside (Cole lives in the Hollywood Hills, not far from Michael Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch, who makes an uncredited cameo appearance) and just disappears. A phone call a short time later confirms his worst fears—the boy has been kidnapped.

Examining the site of the abduction, Cole realizes a frightening fact—this snatch was a professional operation, and the kidnappers are military trained. Better than he is, and he was an Army Ranger.

It all goes back to the military, because the kidnapper claims the boy was taken in revenge for something Cole did in Vietnam, on a day of horror when he lost his best friends, but knows he did nothing wrong.

The quest for answers leads him to stir up buried memories, about his own childhood and his wartime experiences. These flashbacks (honestly) feature some of the most affecting writing I’ve ever encountered in a mystery novel. Deeply moving, and emotionally true as a laser sight.

Cole is assisted, as he usually is, by his Psycho Killer Friend®, Joe Pike. (I’ve commented before on how detectives nowadays tend to have PKF’s. That’s probably an unfair description. Pike isn’t a psycho, just an obsessive, a man who’s stripped his life down to warrior efficiency, his friendship for Cole, and nothing else. The kind of man a Scandinavian Modern chair would be, if it were human.) But Pike isn’t 100% right now, due to a gunshot wound suffered in the previous installment.

I liked The Last Detective very much and intend to read more. Aside from the good, tight writing and the perfect emotional pitch, I particularly liked the way the military was treated. There are bad former soldiers in the book, but there’s no hint of the moral condescension you find in so many stories dealing with veterans (especially Vietnam veterans). Cole doesn’t beat a drum about his service (rather the opposite), but he’s got nothing to be ashamed of and he isn’t ashamed. Even a particular minor character, a shadowy former officer who now brokers mercenary deals, is portrayed as a man of honor.

I highly recommend The Last Detective.

Dead Watch by John Sandford

You remember all that stuff I wrote last night, about how I had so much to do tonight and might not get to post?

Never mind.

Turned out I forgot the Viking Age Society meeting was postponed this month.

And the project at work got finished up on time, pretty much. Essentially. Except for one small loose end over which I had no control. So I should be breathing a big sigh of relief.

I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon overtaking me in the last few years. I seem to have lost all capacity for taking any pleasure in completed tasks, even challenging ones. When I was young I’d mentally pump a fist in the air and allow myself a minute or two of satisfaction before finding a new subject to worry about.

Nowadays it’s just ho-hum. My primary emotional response to “Mission Accomplished” is to wonder idly what I’ve forgotten that’ll come back to bite me.

Maybe it’s a side effect of something I hesitate to call “success,” because I’m far from successful. But I’ve accomplished a number of the things I dreamed of when I was a kid. That raises the bar on everything, apparently. When you’ve reached the point when finishing the writing of a book is no big deal, most other accomplishments mean even less.

The moral: “Squelch your dreams,” I guess.

John Sandford, Minnesotan author of the Lucas Davenport Prey novels, which I like very much, has come out with a new book, Dead Watch, now out in paperback. He’s trying out a new hero in this one, and (oddly) the book isn’t set in Minnesota, but in Washington D.C. and Virginia (as if anybody’d ever want to read about those places).

Jacob Winter is the new hero. He’s a Washington insider, an established expert on what a friend calls “Forensic Bureaucracy.” Supposedly he’s the go-to guy for government problems that nobody else knows how to fix. But, suitably for the hero of a Sandford novel, he’s also a veteran of Afghanistan, a trained fighter who is only slowed down by a bad hip, the result of a combat wound.

The party who needs Jake’s help this time is the president of the United States, by way of his chief of staff. A Republican former senator, Lincoln Bowe, has disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and his wife has been threatened. The president, a Democrat, is worried that somebody in his own party has gotten out of hand, and that there’ll be political blow-back. Jake’s job is to investigate and clean things up.

One of his first visits is to the senator’s wife, Madison Bowe. Madison is a small, spunky blonde, and Jake likes small, spunky blondes, and you’ve already guessed where that leads.

The book is apparently set in the near future, and seems to also be set in an alternate universe—one where socially conservative Democratic senators aren’t a surprise, and most of the homosexuals in the story are Republicans. This is a little disorienting, but a clever tactic on Sandford’s part, allowing him to write a political thriller without alienating elements of our increasingly polarized electorate. I had trouble keeping my bearings from time to time, but I was never insulted, which earns the book a few notches on my tally stick. The fighting and killing part of Jake’s résumé turns out to be more useful than the forensic bureaucracy part in ultimately solving the problem.

I didn’t like it as much as the Lucas Davenport stories, but I have more history with L. D. I recommend it as light summer reading. There’s violence and sex, but they’re not excessive by contemporary standards. Not bad.

Promise Me by Harlan Coben

I don’t often laugh out loud (for those of you under 20, that’s an antique term for “lol”) at anything I read online, but Lileks cracked me up today with his deconstruction of a set of postcards from China in the days of the Cultural Revolution, describing an opera called “The Red Detachment of Women.”

I’m always looking for new favorite thriller writers. Klavan, Connelly, Tanenbaum, Kellerman and Lehane can only put out so much product per annum. So when I saw Harlan Coben’s new novel, Promise Me, in a grocery store rack, I figured I’d give him a try.

It was close, but he didn’t make the cut.

Not that the book’s bad. I enjoyed it and read it with interest. But… well, let me lay out the particulars.

The main character is Myron Bolitar (full points for audacity in choosing a character name), a sports and entertainment agent who divides his time between New York City and his suburban home town. Bolitar, it appears, was the hero of a series of earlier Coben novels, though he hasn’t appeared in a new book in about seven years. During those years, we are told, Bolitar has been concentrating on his business. Never married, he has recently begun dating a local widow.

One evening, during a party, he overhears his girlfriend’s daughter talking to a friend (Aimee, a girl he has known all her life, the daughter of friends of his own). They mention parties and drinking. Bolitar decides to talk to them. He gives each of them his card, asking them to promise him that if they ever find themselves in a situation where they’re faced with driving drunk, or riding with a drunk driver, they will call him. He promises to drive anywhere and pick them up, no questions asked.

It’s an admirable act, but the results aren’t what he planned on. He gets a call one night from Aimee. She’s in Manhattan and needs a ride. When he shows up, she’s not drunk at all, only troubled. She directs him to a residential address in the suburbs, then goes to a dark house that she says is a friend’s. Her friend will let her in, she says.

After that she disappears.

Myron is the last person to see her, and his story sounds thin. Also another girl from the same town has disappeared in similar fashion. Her father is desperate to find her, and not particular how he gets the information. He’s also a gangster.

Fortunately Myron has his own resources. He has a good record with the police. He also has a friend named Win Lockwood.

Many of today’s mystery heroes have psycho killer friends—scary, dangerous guys devoted to the hero for some reason, who are useful in the situations of extreme violence such stories tend to involve. We don’t like our heroes to be killing machines, I suppose, so we need the psycho killer friend to keep the hero alive.

I found Win Lockwood a kind of unconvincing PKF. He’s supposed to be the scion of very old money. As a boy, after a serious incident of bullying, he devoted his life to learning all the killing arts. Now, apparently, he just enjoys his wealth and watches Bolitar’s back for fun.

I think I was supposed to like him. Maybe I would have if I’d read the earlier novels. But in this book I found him sort of a flat, amoral deus ex machina.

I liked the book a lot in some ways. The theme overall is how much parents love their children, and the lengths to which they’ll go to protect them.

I wasn’t sure, though, whether Coben was willing to make moral distinctions. He seemed to conclude (I may have misunderstood him) that there is no real difference in kind between any child-protective acts, even including murder.

And the ending was troubling for any Christian conservative.

So I don’t think I’ll go back to Coben. Too bad. There was much to commend the book.

Excalibur by Bernard Cornwell

First off, my prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims of the Virginia Tech atrocity. Commenter Aitchmark tells me that one of his good friends is an instructor there. According to the last message I got from him, his friend would appear to be all right. But lots of other people’s friends weren’t so lucky, and there are just no words to say except that we are thinking of them and lifting them up to God.

The news didn’t match the weather, at least not here. It was an exquisite day. Seventy degrees. Last Monday it was winter. Today it was summer. It’s enough to give you whiplash.

I had a busy weekend. On Saturday my new renter moved in. So far he’s been the perfect tenant—he’s hardly been here at all. He brought three carloads of stuff in on Saturday, and then I didn’t see him again. I didn’t see him on Sunday, but while I was gone he seems to have brought some more in. Today, nothing as far as I can tell. I don’t have a number to call to check on him. Hope everything’s all right.

On Sunday I did one of my Viking PowerPoints for the Norwegian Federation in St. Paul. It’s a Norwegian-American friendship organization. They fed me a nice lunch, laughed at my jokes, bought a good number of books and promise to send a gratuity check. I have no complaints. On top of that the meeting was held at Luther Seminary, so I can now put “Lecturer, Luther Theological Seminary” on my resume. (I’m joking, I’m joking.)

When I got home I was pretty wiped out, as I usually am after public speaking engagements. But the day was so gorgeous I forced myself to go out for a walk, bribing myself by designating the local Dairy Queen the terminus of my route. There were two long lines strung out in front of the place (it’s one of the old-fashioned ones where you stand outside). Minnesotans have a lot of pent up cabin fever to work off right now. I think if the Blizzard machine had broken down, it might have gotten ugly.

I finished Excalibur, the final book of The Warlord Chronicles trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, on Saturday. I think I have rarely both enjoyed and disliked a book so much.

I enjoyed it as a drama and an action book. The battle scenes were outstanding, particularly the Battle of Camlan, Arthur’s last battle. As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking, “I can’t believe that someone could figure out a fresh, exciting way to do Camlan, after all the times it’s been done before.” But Cornwell achieves that. He mixes action, suspense, pathos and lyricism in a way I only wish I could emulate.

What I disliked was the general picture of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Cornwell seems to hold the view of the average “sensible” Briton today, that religion is all well and good, but all you really need is a little simple humanity, because religion tends to get out of hand.

Cornwell clearly isn’t promoting heathenism. Although his narrator is a heathen (through most of the book, and always in his heart), Cornwell pictures the old gods of Britain as cruel and bloody. They are, however, powerful.

Christianity, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any inherent power at all. The great advances it makes in this story are all due to the priests telling lies and extorting conversions.

Cornwell’s position, it seems to me, is the very one that’s killing Europe. “If we’re just sensible, practical agnostics, everything will be fine. We can counter militant Islam through our enlightened culture and comfortable lifestyle. We don’t need to believe anything ourselves to defend our civilization from holy war.”

Sorry. I’m obsessed with Europe these days.

Anyway, I give Excalibur high marks as a novel, low marks in the culture wars.

Addendum: I forgot to mention he puts horns on the Saxons’ helmets. This is an egregious fault for which I can think of no excuse.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Just as I expected (let’s face it—I’m always right, and it sucks) we had snow on the ground this morning. I can’t describe it as a blanket of snow. More of a sheet, with a low thread count. But it was white, and it’s not what we want to see in April (though we do, we always do). Most of it melted in the sun today, though the temperatures stayed below freezing. Tomorrow will be a little warmer, but it will be slow warming up. Easter, I think, will be about fifty.

Dave Alpern sent me Bernard Cornwell’s three Arthur books to read. I’d been thinking about reading the books, since I really like Cornwell as a writer (I especially enjoyed his seafaring thrillers, which he’s given up on because they didn’t sell). But I hesitated with these because I’ve become leery of all contemporary treatments of the Matter of Britain (reasons to follow).

Everybody, it seems, wants to write about Arthur, and some very good stuff has been done. I’ve thought about doing it myself, though it would mean trying to master a whole new cultural idiom. Stephen Lawhead did a series that pretty much accomplished what I meant to try (probably better than I’d have done it), so I figure, why bother?

Not that Lawhead entirely succeeded. I don’t think anyone has succeeded in writing a great Arthur novel since T. H. White. Since White everybody tries to set Arthur in his proper historical period. That’s fertile ground, and yet… no novel ever seems to achieve the promise.

When I read Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, or any of the earlier Arthurian material, I feel as if, from time to time, I get to peek through a spy hole in a theater curtain, looking at a great drama being performed. I can only see bits of the action and hear scattered words of dialogue, but it looks like a great play. Modern attempts to retell the Arthur story always look to me like attempts to reconstruct that hidden play, but they never live up to my hopes.

That said, Cornwell’s The Winter King (first of a trilogy) is pretty good.

Cornwell’s Arthur is not a king, but a “warlord,” regent for a king who’s still a small boy. This agrees well with the (meager) historical record, by the way, since our earliest reports of Arthur never call him a king. Also authentically, his primary concern is defending Celtic Britain from the inroads of the Anglo-Saxons. His primary challenge is the disunity of his own people, a situation he himself makes worse when he breaks an oath to a neighboring king. Real tragedy is at work here, in the classic sense where a man means to do good but is frustrated by his own passions.

The narrator is Derfel, a Saxon by birth and a former slave, who rises to become one of Arthur’s lieutenants. Derfel is a sympathetic voice, a deeply feeling and compassionate man, yet a great warrior, who writes the story in a monastery in his old age.

It was the religious element that made me wary of these books. The second volume is called The Enemy of God, after all, and that accords with some of the earliest accounts of Arthur in books of saints’ lives. Arthur seems to have had a bad reputation with the church. It’s been speculated that he appropriated church treasures to pay for his campaigns. There’s much opportunity here for an author with an anti-Christian axe to grind.

I wasn’t entirely happy with Cornwell’s treatment, but it could have been much worse, and I can’t pretend it lacks historical probability. Cornwell’s Arthur is a man of no particular religion in a Britain divided between Christians and heathens. The wars are not religious ones, and any given kingdom or army is mixed. One Christian priest is pictured pretty negatively, but other Christians look good (though it seems to me they are treated more sympathetically in reverse proportion to their orthodoxy).

On the other hand, Cornwell does not, as so many do today, gloss over the ugliness of heathenism. His Druids, even the friendly ones, are dangerous and half crazy, and their rites and ceremonies are bloody and ugly.

Merlin is presented as a Druid. He’s amusing, and reminds one of Gandalf, if Gandalf were utterly amoral and ruthless. He’s on Arthur’s side here, but everyone knows that that’s only because he finds Arthur useful. If Arthur becomes inconvenient to him he’ll throw him away like a small animal whose guts he’s divining from.

Cornwell doesn’t stick strictly to historicity. Later accretions like Lancelot and Camelot are included without apology.

As in any Cornwell novel, the battles are well thought out and vividly described. The end is extremely satisfying, but you know there’s more coming. Fortunately there are two more volumes.

I liked it a lot. It was as good as any Arthur book I’ve read, since White. It may even be the best since White.

The Deepest Sea, by Charles Barnitz

Sorry about not posting last night. I was… indisposed. I’m not going to go into more detail, because it was pretty disgusting. Don’t even think about it. I’m trying not to.

And that was a great pity, because it tacked a nasty ending onto a glorious day. The temperature was something like 80°, a record for the date. As I took my evening walk (wearing a tee-shirt) I just wanted to spread my arms and sing out—

“DON’T BE TAKEN IN!”

Don’t forget it’s March, fellow Upper Midwesterners! Haven’t you paid attention to what I’ve been saying about the deceitfulness and tricksieness of Madame March? When she gives you a beautiful day like this, it’s only for the purpose of softening you up for the big double cross. Beware! Beware!

On the other hand, she did come in like a lion. Maybe she’s tired.

No, no, no, no! Listen to me—even I am falling for it.

Cooler today. Rain coming tonight.

When frequent commenter Dave Alpern sent me a pile of books to read a while back, he included the novel The Deepest Sea by Charles Barnitz. I read it with much interest and considerable enjoyment.

If my own The Year of the Warrior ever had a sister, it would be The Deepest Sea.

I hasten to add that I don’t mean to suggest he copied my book (the first part of TYOTW came out in 1995; the Barnitz book in ’96). I’m sure he’s never read any of my books (who has?).

But clearly he was trying to do the same thing I was attempting—to tell a rollicking Viking story in a non-clunky form. I tried to do it by putting on a stage Irishman’s brogue and trying to be creative with idiom. Barnitz tries to do it by creating a character who’s been alive since Viking times (I won’t tell you how) and so speaks our language. This results in a Dark Age narrator using terms like “off ramp” and “middle managers,” which irked me at first and never entirely pleased me, but I got used to it.

The book started a little slowly, but (as many people have told me about my own books) it grew on me as I read, and I spent Sunday afternoon and evening not putting it down. One problem I saw is one I can identify with—delayed introduction of the fantasy element. Jim Baen was always complaining about that with me. “This is a fantasy, isn’t it?” he’d say. “We don’t publish historical fiction.”

There’s a natural impulse to try to draw your reader in with naturalistic narrative before taking the risk of introducing the fabulous. But the fact is, if you delay the magic too long, its introduction jars the reader. In a book like this one, where you’re planning to bring a dragon onstage later on, it’s good to set it up with something a little stronger than mystic dreams and soothsaying.

I can quibble with some of the Viking stuff. Barnitz has a character named Snorri and one named Skallagrim, in a book set in the 790s AD. But we know from the sagas how each of those names came to be (they started as nicknames), and that was in Iceland some time after the date of this book. Also he has a minor male character he calls Hjordis, which is a woman’s name. He also thinks people sat around belowdecks in Viking ships. They didn’t. (One reenactor has described Viking ships as “floating water tanks.”)

But these are nitpicks. The book grabbed me before long, and had me by the short hairs by the time it was done.

The hero-narrator is Bran Snorrison, the son of a Danish settler in Clontarf, Ireland. He falls in love with the sister of his chieftain, and goes on a Viking raid to England, in order to either win enough money to sue for her hand, or kill the Irish nobleman who is betrothed to her (and who is along on the raid), or both. He gets separated from the army, and finds himself traveling cross-country in the company of a strange young woman who attaches herself to him for no reason he can understand. She has a secret, which is revealed in a very effective climax.

The anticlimax pleased me less well, but that’s mostly because of my taste in music.

I was worried in the beginning by Barnitz’s flip attitude toward his Vikings, and I was afraid I’d be treated to another “dumb warriors” story, but the characters and the stakes got more serious as time went on.

I was also worried that there’d be a lot of Christian-bashing, but I was surprised to see Barnitz depict the monks of Lindisfarne (which makes a big part of the story) with considerable respect. This is not a Christian novel by any means, but it could have been much worse.

All in all I liked it a lot, and wish there were more.

But there aren’t. Barnitz hasn’t published a book since this one.

Not a good omen for our sub-genre.