‘Brass in Pocket,’ by Stephen Puleston

Brass in Pocket

The idea of an obsessive-compulsive detective is not a new one. Most of us are familiar with the American TV series, “Monk.” The difference with Stephen Puleston’s North Wales detective, Inspector Ian Drake, is that Drake’s OCD isn’t played for laughs. His affliction puts a genuine strain on his relationships, his career, and his personal safety.

In Brass in Pocket, Inspector Drake is called to a crime scene where two policemen have been murdered – with a crossbow. An array of traffic cones has been arranged by their car, forming the number “4”. And then the killer sends the police a message, consisting of the lyrics of a 1970s rock song.

Struggling with lack of sleep and his need to carry out his personal, calming rituals, Inspector Drake, with his team, follows every lead they can find to stop a killer who’s constantly a jump ahead of them, as the numbers count down and the rock lyrics keep coming in. The solution, when they find it, is almost unthinkable.

The OCD element in the book is intriguing, but it wasn’t enough to make it work for me. Drake and the other characters just didn’t come alive. Physical descriptions were rare, and the players were hard to tell apart. The suspects completely blended into one another, for this reader.

My perceptions may be skewed, however. It’s possible that, since I have certain obsessive characteristics myself, I just found Drake’s character too close to home, and reacted against it. But I found the plot hard to keep track of, and the story undistinguished.

So I can’t recommend it. Your kilometerage may vary.

‘The Vikings: A New History,’ by Neil Oliver

The Vikings: A New History

Another history of the Vikings. This one, by Neil Oliver, a Scottish archaeologist and TV presenter, is more subjective than, say, The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth, which I reviewed recently. I don’t rate The Vikings: A New History as highly as Winroth’s book purely as a scholarly work, but I expect it might be just the gateway book for some readers.

The Vikings: A New History takes a generally chronological approach, which is a useful thing. Books on the Vikings, even histories, tend to separate various geographical spheres of interest into watertight sections. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there’s also a need for a work that displays the sweep of Viking activity overall, decade by decade. So author Oliver has done a service in that regard.

The execution is a little idiosyncratic. The book begins (apart from personal reminiscences by the author, telling how he came to be interested in the Vikings) with quite a long survey of Scandinavian history beginning in the Ice Age. In compensation, perhaps, it seemed to me the later stages of Viking history got treated in a somewhat perfunctory manner. As if the author was running out of pages and needed to compress. Continue reading ‘The Vikings: A New History,’ by Neil Oliver

Scandinavian crime

Scandinavian mystery novels are all the rage these days. I’ve reviewed a few here, though in general they’re not my cup of aquavit. But there’s a big murder case under way in Denmark right now. It doesn’t seem to be much of a mystery, though. But full points for bizarreness.

A Swedish journalist named Kim Wall, 30 years old (and quite attractive judging by her photograph), boarded a small private submarine in Copenhagen on August 10. She was there to interview its Danish inventor, Peter Madsen. Only the two of them were aboard. The submarine was reported missing the following day, and a search began. The sub was spotted returning to port the same morning, but it sank suddenly. Madsen was rescued by a private boat. He claimed Wall had been fine when he’d put her ashore the evening before.

Police raised the sub, and investigators began to examine it (they found blood). Madsen then changed his story, saying there’d been some kind of accident, and he’d “buried her at sea.”

(The old “buried at sea” defense. Works every time.)

On August 14, investigators announced that the sub had been sunk deliberately. On the 21st, a headless, limbless torso, weighed down with metal, was discovered in the area where the sinking had occurred. Police say it was “deliberately mutilated.” It has been identified by DNA analysis as Wall’s.

Innocent until proven guilty and all that, but this one looks open and shut. Not a novel’s worth of work for dour Danish detectives. Too bad sentencing is so light in Scandinavia.

The Party Line (non-political)

Rotary phone
Our original phone, as best as I recall, looked pretty much like this. Photo credit: Infrogmation (talk) of New Orleans.

It is a failing to which old men largely tend, to talk about “the way it was when I was a boy.” We like to imagine that younger people are interested in this information. As a not insignificant bonus, it gives us the opportunity to brag about the sufferings and deprivations of our youth. There’s a subtext that says, “I’m tougher than you, punk, and if you don’t think so, just try me.”

We call this “passing on tradition.”

Somebody on Facebook recently asked about things we did and used when we were young that kids today just wouldn’t understand.

My immediate response was, “Party Lines.” You may have even run across the term “party line” at some point, where it did not refer to the agendas of political parties. This denotes the party lines of my youth.

I shall speak to you now of Party Lines. Continue reading The Party Line (non-political)

‘A Fragile Thing,’ by Kevin Wignall

A Fragile Thing

“I worry about you, that’s all. And I want you to be happy.”

He smiled, but said no more because he didn’t want to lie to her again, not about something so unimportant.

There is a class of authors whose work just flies over my head. I don’t get them. I accept their greatness based on the testimony of readers smarter than I.

Kevin Wignall is an author I sometimes don’t understand, but I like him anyway.

A Fragile Thing is a challenging book presented in disarmingly simple form. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure how to evaluate it.

Max Emerson is an international money man, and fabulously rich, living in Italy. He invests money for some of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most evil people in the world – dictators, crime lords, drug kingpins, human traffickers. He tells people (frequently) that he never breaks the law. And that’s technically true. But he has facilitated and turned a blind eye to a number of crimes. Now he’s under pressure from the FBI, and hackers are threatening his records.

Max is alienated from his older brother and sister, and their families. His brother in particular is ashamed of Max’s reputation. This makes family events awkward, and Max generally visits his parents, in their Swiss mansion, only when his siblings aren’t around.

But when his parents are killed in an accident, and Max gets a posthumous letter from his mother, saying that if they die suddenly they’ve probably been murdered, Max is the one family member with the knowledge and resources to hunt down and punish the killer. Which he does, in a very surprising way. Continue reading ‘A Fragile Thing,’ by Kevin Wignall

‘Time and Tide,’ by Peter Grainger

Time and Tide

As you’ve probably noticed, I have a fondness for British police procedural mysteries. Of all the series I’ve sampled, I think I like Peter Grainger’s DC Smith mysteries best.

It’s probably mainly the central character I enjoy. Detective Sergeant D.C. Smith is a curmudgeon, an older cop who conceals an essentially kindly nature behind a crusty exterior. He uses his dry sense of humor as a tool to keep his opponents – both professional and criminal – off balance. He’s nearing retirement as Time and Tide begins. Police work is changing. He’s never warmed to the use of the computer (though he’s happy to have his underlings take advantage of them), and recent force reorganizations have played hob with his carefully trained and organized team. Although he’s only a sergeant (he rejected promotion; it would confine him behind a desk), he’s effectively the leader of that team.

In Time and Tide, a body is discovered floating in the sea off the Norfolk coast by a party of seal-watching tourists. The deceased was a large, tough-looking specimen dressed in an expensive suit, without any form of ID. In time he’s identified as a London businessman, once a gangster but now “legitimate.”

DC Smith is (or feels himself to be) as much hampered by the police bureaucracy as by the villains. He has a new detective inspector over his head, and he happens to be a man who once questioned Smith in connection with a murder. On the civilian side, he faces the challenge of a small community looking after its own – confident it can take care of its own problems, and resentful of official interference. And in the background, there’s a mysterious elderly woman of great natural beauty, a one-time pop star who has been living in obscurity on the coast for decades.

There’s a valedictory quality to Time and Tide. Smith has given his resignation and named the date of his retirement, and everything happens in the shade of that deadline. But there’s a couple months left, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if author Grainger doesn’t find a way to squeeze one or two more mysteries into that window of time.

Some people may find this book slow, because it’s pretty realistic about the amount of time and effort paperwork and legwork take up in any investigation. But I enjoyed it immensely. Only mild cautions for language and mature themes.

They Weren’t Stories

Every published writer is the beneficiary of luck. Among my good fortune was the fact that editors began to treat me as if they were my aunts. They were all women, of course. There were no men in the fiction departments. On one of my visits to New York, three or four editors from different magazines sat me down in the Algonquin, plied me with manhattans, and discussed my career. It was now three years since my big resolution. I was selling stories regularly. One year I sold more stories to Redbook than anyone else ever had, using several pen names. It was the consensus of the group that I was ready for more. I needed an agent.

Ralph M. McInerny, author of the Father Dowling series, wrote about his career many years ago in First Things.

“What I thought were stories piled up on the workbench. With time I began to see why they were rejected: They weren’t stories.”


A Danish scholar, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, is considered one of the fathers of the modern field of archaeology. He was the first curator to arrange artifacts according to the materials from which they were made, helping to develop the concept of historical ages – Stone, Bronze, Iron.

Scandinavian archaeology suffered a serious blow recently, when thieves entered the University Museum of Bergen, Norway, by way of a repair scaffold. Inventory still has not determined the entire extent of losses, though I’ve seen pictures of missing items posted on Facebook, with alerts to watch out for them on the antiquities market. It appears a number of Viking Age items are among those missing.

More Evidence Facebook Is Evil

“An artificial intelligence system being developed at Facebook has created its own language,” reports Digital Journal. “It developed a system of code words to make communication more efficient. Researchers shut the system down when they realized the AI was no longer using English.”

Whether the AI agents were actually saying anything of consequence is another matter. If they weren’t, this is just an interesting story of robot slang, which is a natural way to use language. But it’s still evil, natch. Robots talking among themselves in a language they developed themselves? That’s the definition of evil.

Why Do People Defend Modern-Day Slavery?

A big story in the news this week is the return of an old story. People are rallying to remove monuments of Confederate soldiers, which remind them of our country’s disturbing history, a slave industry that continued to oppress long after its dismantling.

But slavery still exists in the sex industry and is defended by some of the very people calling for the removal of monuments (as well as some of those supporting the monuments). Brothels in Nevada, surrounded by barbed wire, imprison women, if not girls as well, who supposedly living free and fulfilled lives.

One of the most disturbing discoveries I made was that the loudest voices calling for legalisation and normalisation of prostitution are the people who profit from it: pimps, punters and brothel owners. They have succeeded in speaking for the women under their control. The people who know the real story about the sex trade have been gagged by a powerful lobby of deluded ‘liberal’ ideo-logues and sex-trade profiteers.

… why on earth do human rights campaigners and so many on the left support prostitution as a ‘job’ for women, and a ‘right’ of men? It all begins with the emergence of the campaign against HIV/Aids.

(via Prufrock News)

‘Dead Eyed’ by Matt Brolly

Dead Eyed

This one runs counter to the trend I observed (or thought I observed) a few days ago – that English mystery writing is tending toward rural and small town settings. Dead Eyed, by Matt Brolly, is a fully urban mystery, dividing its time between London and Bristol.

Michael Lambert is a London detective chief inspector. For several years he has been part of a secretive special division, but now he’s on compassionate leave following the death of his young daughter. He originally went into police work in the wake of the torture murder of a college friend, one of a series of such murders that remain unsolved.

Now, about 15 years later, another man is found murdered the same way – his eyes cut out of his head, and a Latin phrase meaning “The eyes are the windows of the soul” carved into his chest. Although he has no official standing, Michael pulls strings to be allowed to participate in the investigation. It’s not only a matter of closing a cold case; it’s perhaps an opportunity to exorcise some personal devils. The killer is extremely clever, always a step ahead of the investigators – and the murders are continuing.

Dead Eyed is an example of a book that was well done in many ways, but was clearly not for me – in the sense that the author doesn’t want people like me for readers. Author Brolly (what a perfect English name!) approaches the world from a very modern perspective. Abortion is morally neutral. Homosexuality is absolutely laudable. And religion is an aberration, a weird activity catering to a few weak-minded people, largely bigots.

The writing is good, the characters interesting, the dialogue professional. I thought the resolution of the book a little disappointing – the killer’s motivations are never really explained. But it’s a good novel, especially considered as a first novel. Recommended on its merits, but not really meant for Christians.

The strenuous life

It was quite a weekend. By an old bachelor’s standards, anyway. I take some pride in having got through it with my natural force unabated.

Saturday was the big event at Camp Ripley (believe it or not), Little Falls, Minn., for the 75th anniversary of the activation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the US Army’s Norwegian “foreign legion” in World War II. The festivities actually began the day before and continued through the evening, but I was only there Saturday afternoon. (That doesn’t mean I wasn’t invited to do more; I was. But I had to get home and unload my car for the following day’s exertions.)

Saturday afternoon was the public event. Besides us Vikings, there was an informational booth explaining about the unit’s history. There was also a small encampment of World War II reenactors:

[A photo belongs here, but our account doesn’t seem to allow posting from Photobucket anymore.]

Nice guys. Had some interesting conversations. These are history people, and Vikings were not outside their range of interest. Continue reading The strenuous life

‘Cold Land,’ by John Oakes

Cold Land

Another mystery set in Minnesota. I keep buying these things. Was John Oakes’s Cold Land more satisfying to me than the previous suspects? Read on and learn…

Jake Adler is a proud Texas Ranger. But he loves his wife, who left him, taking their two daughters, to go home to Minnesota. So Jake bit the bullet and drove north, lured by a job opening in Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

But this isn’t the elite, professional BCA so many of us know from John Sandford’s Prey novels. The BCA in this novel is a moribund organization, crippled by budget cuts. Just a few agents wander its empty office building, and those are mostly low achievers dumped by other agencies. This shocks Jake, but what’s worse is that he’s told his application (despite his credentials) will have to go in the queue with others, and he must wait a couple weeks for a decision.

But there’s a secretary in the center of the wreck of BCA, one of those indispensable, competent women who keep organizations afloat. She tells Jake, confidentially, that if he goes along to help Jerry Unger, a veteran agent, with a petty fraud case, she thinks she can find a way to get him hired. So Jake accompanies Jerry on that not-very-promising assignment. Only they discover a body, which makes it a murder investigation, and Jerry and Jake are now competing with other cops to thwart what gradually is revealed to be a major hijacking plot. Along the way, Jake will make shocking personal discovery.

I guess the portrayal of Minnesota is only fair. In so many novels, we see the south through northern eyes, and get an endless vista of gap-toothed, inbred rednecks. In this book, we have Minnesota viewed through southern (Texan) eyes, and the prospect is no more appealing. Minnesota seems to be full of trailer trash too. In fact we see little of the state here besides blighted neighborhoods, and the weather’s cold to boot.

I didn’t take these descriptions personally (though I wondered what Oakes has against Anoka, for which he reserves special derision. I always thought Anoka kind of a yuppy, arty place). I also found the plot a little hard to follow (which may be only a comment on me).

My real problem was with the tone of the thing. The book has a sort of a black humor voice, with serious crimes yoked to light dialogue. John Sandford finds a balance when he writes this kind of story, but Cold Land didn’t entirely gel for me. The various plot elements seemed to work against each other.

But author Oakes shows promise. I think he’ll improve with time. Cautions for the usual stuff. Some themes seemed conservative to me, but a couple shots were taken at Christians.

Catch me if you can

As previously announced, I’ll be at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota tomorrow, for the 75th anniversary of the activation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the special commando unit created by the US Army for the possible invasion of Norway in World War II. The event is at the Military History Museum, and is open to the public from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.

The address is 15000 Hwy 115, Little Falls, Minn. 56345.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture