Category Archives: Reviews

Mother of Kings by Poul Anderson

I approached the late Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings with some trepidation. I wanted to read it because a) it’s a Viking historical fantasy, and b) I’m thinking out a book of my own in which one of the main characters in this one plays a part. But in a book about Gunnhild, wife of Norway’s King Eirik Bloodax and mother of King Harald Greyfell (and his brothers—they ruled jointly) I imagined I’d be dealing with a Marion Zimmer Bradley-esque feminist fantasy, all about what oppressors men are, how smothering Christianity is, and how real freedom is found in the worship of some Mother-goddess or other. I expected visceral, existential feminine rage.

Having read the book, I almost wish it had been like that. It would at least have had some fire to it.

Gunnhild is a character of mystery in Viking history and lore. Historians believe she was probably a Danish princess, conventionally married to Eirik Bloodax, son and heir of Harald Fairhair, who is remembered as the uniter of Norway. (Anderson seems unaware—or doesn’t care—that historians today doubt that Harald was really more than a regional overlord in the west, who may have begun the process of unification. For the purposes of this story he treats the account found in Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, as literally true. I’ll admit I do the same thing in The Year Of the Warrior, but I claim in my own defense that the theory was new back then, and I hadn’t heard of it).

In the sagas and legends, though, Gunnhild is a very different character—the daughter of a Finnish (“Lapp” or Sami) wizard, a witch of fearsome power, terrible in her hatreds, lascivious in her morals, and bloody in her vengeances.

Anderson splits the difference. He imagines her as the daughter of a Norse chieftain, a girl who chooses to learn magic at the feet of two Finn wizards, whom she manages to kill off at the same time that she magically summons Eirik to sail in and sweep her off her feet. This is a promising beginning from the dramatic point of view, but sadly Anderson doesn’t sustain it. Once married to her prince, Gunnhild becomes a fairly conventional wife and queen, devoted to her husband and children. She assists them all through their lives by the use of her magical powers, but is thwarted more often than not. Her successes, when they happen, aren’t terribly impressive or lasting.

The result is that it’s hard to root for Gunnhild. She’s not good enough to sympathize with much, and not powerful or evil enough to be very entertaining. She becomes an almost passive center around which the drama of 10th Century Norwegian politics plays itself out. This is a great drama, but in this work it lacks (it seems to me) the rich hues and symphonic music of real epic. Anderson does some moments of pathos well, particularly concerning the deaths of Kings Haakon the Good and Harald Greyfell, but overall I found it pretty dry.

This is a problem I’ve always had with Anderson, and with Science Fiction writers as a group (no doubt there are exceptions). Science Fiction writers by and large (and that’s what Anderson primarily was), it seems to me, have a hard time handling human emotions, dreams and aspirations. They’re more oriented toward machines and machine-like people.

I always comment on books’ theological implications and treatments of Christianity in these reviews. Mother Of Kings provides unusual problems. Anderson is neither friendly nor hostile to Christianity, so it could be worse. Historically Eirik Bloodax ruled Norway as a heathen, but converted, along with his family, to Christianity when he fled to England and became King of York. Some of his sons seem to have been genuinely zealous in their missionary work (a point that’s largely ignored in Heimskringla). Gunnhild is portrayed here (quite reasonably) as a nominal Christian, uncertain as to what religion (Norse heathendom, Christianity or Finnish pantheism) offers the most useful magic for her exploitation. Clearly she’s a heathen at heart, but her deepest inclinations seem to be pantheistic. This can’t exactly be viewed as an argument for pantheism, though, because Gunnhild isn’t admirable enough to provide one.

Perhaps I’d have found the whole thing more exciting if I hadn’t already known the basic story. But I doubt it. I can’t really recommend Mother Of Kings very highly.

Honor’s Kingdom, by Owen Parry

Honor’s Kingdom opens in the summer of 1862 in a London morgue, where a diverse group including Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams and ambassador to the Court of St. James), his son Henry, an English Foreign Office official, a London policeman and a surgeon are gathered, along with the hero and narrator of the book, Abel Jones. Jones is a native of Wales and a veteran of the East India Company’s wars, but he’s now a major in the U.S. army and a secret agent of the American government.

He and the Adamses are there because the deceased, a Rev. Campbell (whose body was discovered in a basket of live eels), was an American. He was also (though they’re not mentioning this) another secret agent, and he had been investigating rumors that some British ship builder is building a warship for the Confederacy, in spite of the official neutrality of the government.

Ambassador Adams assigns Major Jones to find out who killed Campbell, and what it was he’d learned that got him (and two previous agents) killed.

Jones, in his methodical way, sets about an investigation which takes him from the halls of Parliament and the finest homes of West End London to the most miserable, soul-grinding slums of the city. He meets the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, as well as a colorful variety of thieves, pimps, con men, music hall entertainers and prostitutes. Eventually his investigation extends to Glasgow, which is (amazing to tell) an even more miserable place to be poor in than London. His life is threatened by (among others) footpads, East Indian assassins and a mysterious man in a red silk mask. He chances to encounter Anthony Trollope, James McNeil Whistler, Karl Marx and William Booth along the way.

It’s jolly fun—exciting, engaging and sometimes moving. Educational, too. Continue reading Honor’s Kingdom, by Owen Parry

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (Except Maybe Aliens)

I watched Expelled: No Intellengence Allowed tonight. Kudos to The Rave in Chattanooga for playing it, though I guess they won’t get tenure now. Before I tell you about it, let me say I can see why some liberals will hate it. Not only does it argue that Darwinian Evolution has flaws, it criticizes abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, atheism, and closes with images of Ronald Reagan. That’ll boil the blood.

Expelled appears to be a solid, well argued movie. It’s premise is clearly communicated in the long trailer. I’m amazed in part by the effort the producers put into giving credible scientists deserved credibility. They spend no time arguing specific scientific findings, which would go over our heads probably. Instead they explain that Darwinian Evolution may be mostly correct, but Darwin’s theory is unclear and cloudy—to use one scientist’s words—and for a scholar to suggest Intelligent Design over random mutation as a cause for evolved life should not be unacceptable. The fact that good scientists and teachers have lost their jobs for either discussing or advocating an Intelligent Design theory argues for a clash of worldviews, not a clash over hard evidence.

Sidenote: Scientists, like journalists, want to appear objective. Some of them are; I assume most believe they are. And scientists, unlike many journalists, are highly educated, intelligent people, so when they draw a hard conclusion, they will naturally believe it is the rock solid truth. That’s why they argue about certain things as if anyone who could see all the tangible evidence clearly would draw the same conclusion they did. But piles of scientific evidence do not draw conclusions on their own; interpretation of that evidence does. And when researching the origin of species, one’s philosophy of science and origin plays a large part in one’s interpretation.

But Expelled is not content to argue against freedom in philosophy of science debates. Continue reading Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (Except Maybe Aliens)

From the Corner of His Eye, by Dean Koontz

Be easy in your ceaseless care for me. I got my walk in tonight. It looks to be the only one I’ll get this week, but it’s something. The temperature was tolerable, if I bundled up, and enough sun filtered through the light clouds to give me a diaphanous shadow.

Tomorrow night it’s supposed to rain. In any case, I’ll be running to the airport to pick up Moloch and his wife, back from China.

Which means that it’s just possible, if I hear that traffic’s bad, that I’ll skip posting altogether.

Steel yourselves. I know you can survive it.

I promise I’m not going to review every Dean Koontz novel I read, as I go through them alphabetically.

But I’m going to review the really outstanding ones. And From the Corner of His Eye definitely qualifies.

I suppose it’s possible that Koontz could produce a better novel than this. I haven’t read them all yet. But at this point I can’t imagine a better one.

This is a big, sprawling book that covers a long period of time, kind of like those Victorian novels I’ve never read, by Thackeray and Trollope.

And it’s populated by a remarkable cast of quirky, fascinating characters worthy of Charles Dickens.

And it’s built on a Sci Fi/Supernatural premise, like… well, like a Dean Koontz book.

The blurb on the inside page of the paperback is misleading. It makes it sound as if this is the story of Bartholomew Lampion. Bartholomew is certainly a central character, but he’s a baby for half the book. The story is actually about a whole network of people, all bound together by the strange effects of a radio sermon called, “This Momentous Day.”

The story begins in January, 1965. First of all (though not first in the narrative), in Oregon, a narcissistic sociopath named Enoch Cain murders his beautiful, loving wife. The next day, in two places in California, two babies are born—a boy and a girl—in circumstances of extreme family tragedy. Nevertheless each child finds a loving home and shows early signs of being a prodigy.

But Enoch Cain is out there, and he has become aware that there’s a child who he believes is a danger to him. He grows obsessed with finding that child and killing him.

Cain is an interesting character. He’s evil and does horrible things that cause great pain to people the reader has come to care for. Nevertheless, Koontz treats him to a large degree as a comic figure (he explains his rationale for this through one of his characters in the course of the book). Cain thinks he’s a genius, a connoisseur, and God’s gift to women, but in fact he’s not particularly bright, likes only the things critics tell him to like, and most people who meet him find him rather creepy. He’s blissfully unaware of this. Also his suppressed conscience expresses itself forcefully in some painful and embarrassing physical reaction, every time he commits a murder.

As the plot works itself out, and all the characters come to know one another, we observe the working out of Koontz’ premise, that just as quantum physics and string theory tell us that every point in the universe is connected, so all people are connected, and all our actions have infinite consequences—and not only in our own universe.

I loved every page of this book. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel this long (over 700 pages) before and wanted it to be longer. As the saying goes, I laughed; I cried.

There are strong Christian elements (along with some speculation which could serve as fodder for late night discussions).

From the Corner of His Eye gets my highest recommendation.

Update: Scratch tomorrow’s rain. We’re going to get snow.

If Nature is our Mother, our family is dysfunctional.

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

The funniest thing I read today was Mitch Berg’s dramatic memoir about one unforgettable day in Bosnia. He “misspeaks” over at Shot In the Dark.

We’ve been talking about classic hard-boiled detectives in the Comments section lately, so I might as well review Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which I re-read last week. So I still have some vague memory of it, in spite of my advancing age. (I also read The High Window, but I have more to say bout this one.)

It’s my understanding that The Long Goodbye is generally considered the last “good” Philip Marlowe novel. It was written in 1953. Chandler finished another one, Playback, a little later, but it’s not much liked. When he died in 1959, he was working on Poodle Springs, which was finished by Robert B. Parker and published just a few years ago. I’ve never read Parker’s extension. I used to be a big fan of Parker’s Spenser mysteries, until Spenser became utterly wussified, the perfect Brother Tom. I figure any Chandler story finished by Parker would have to include a scene where Marlowe gets all weepy and apologizes to Linda Loring for his male insensitivity.

Anyway, The Long Goodbye centers on Marlowe’s on-and-off friendship with a burned out case named Terry Lennox, a scarred veteran of World War II. When Marlowe first meets him he’s the drunken, kept husband of a rich woman named Sylvia. When he next meets him the marriage has broken up, but later they get together again. Occasionally Marlowe and Terry meet for drinks. One day Terry asks him to drive him to Mexico, no questions asked. Marlowe does this, and finds himself in trouble when he returns home. Sylvia Lennox has been murdered, and Marlowe is charged with aiding and abetting. He endures the third degree at the hands of a bad cop, and spends a few days in jail before being suddenly released. Terry Lennox, he is told, has committed suicide in Mexico. The case is closed.

Marlowe is unsatisfied by the whole business, but there’s little to be done about it. His connection with Lennox, however, gets him an offer of work from the wife of one of Lennox’s neighbors, a successful author of historical romances named Roger Wade. At the wife’s request, Marlowe locates Wade, an alcoholic, who has put himself into the care of a shady doctor. Marlowe gets the man home. He’s offered a job as a sort of muscle-nanny, but turns it down. Nevertheless, he and Roger become friends after a fashion.

Wade is an interesting character, in part because he’s clearly autobiographical. Like Wade, Chandler himself was a successful genre writer with a drinking problem, on his way down personally and professionally, unable to get a handle on his life. Although Wade is a generally sympathetic character, Chandler doesn’t cut him any slack. The man’s self-pity, self-destructiveness and occasional cruelty to those who care about him are painted in uncompromising colors.

Eventually there is more murder (of course) and secrets connected to Terry Lennox come to light.

Chandler isn’t the kind of writer who simply sets up a problem and then leads you through to the solution. (A famous example is The Big Sleep, where the chauffeur is murdered, and Chandler himself was unable to say who killed him.) His mysteries are about human passions and moral dilemmas, competing loyalties and the tension between law and morality. Marlowe picks his way through the bodies, trying to keep his integrity as clean as possible under the circumstances, often paying a high price for doing what he considers right. The endings of the books are never entirely satisfying from a puzzle-solving perspective, or from the perspective of abstract justice. Chandler’s message seems to be that pure justice is unattainable in this world, but that a decent man like Marlowe can make some small difference, and try to come out of it all with his soul as unpolluted as possible.

The Philip Marlowe books aren’t as much fun as many mysteries, but they’re right at the top of the genre in terms of craftsmanship and character depiction. If you’re interested in hard-boiled mysteries, you need to read Chandler.

Tags: , , , ,

The Trapdoor, by Keith Peterson

Christopher Hitchens had a great line on Hugh Hewitt’s show a few minutes ago. He said (I’m quoting from memory), regarding Barack Obama’s religion speech yesterday, “I’d often heard of a politician selling his grandmother. This was the first time I ever actually saw one do it.”

I’m re-reading some old books just now, simply because my energy’s too low to run to the used bookstore. Tonight I want to review The Trapdoor by Keith Peterson, and record a general appreciation of the entire John Wells series.

Keith Peterson, as I’ve mentioned before (but you probably forgot. Pay attention!) is a pseudonym for Andrew Klavan. I was a Keith Peterson fan before I ever was aware of Klavan. His John Wells books, written under the Peterson name, plus an excellent one-off called The Scarred Man (which I reviewed on the old site), were published in the late ’80s, and did pretty well as far as I can tell. However, Klavan chose, for some reason, to round out the John Wells series at four books. I wish it had gone further, but on the other hand the tetralogy is pretty complete in terms of its hero’s character arc. Here you see an early exercise in which Klavan allows us to see his hero grow over a series of books (as in the Weiss and Bishop novels). And that hero, in many ways, is a precursor to Steve Everett, the obsessive reporter hero of True Crime.

John Wells, the hero of The Trapdoor (and of its sequels, There Fell a Shadow, The Rain, and Rough Justice) is a crime reporter for the New York Star, a tabloid paper. He’s a reporter’s reporter. When he finds a real story he’ll work any hours and go to any lengths to get it. He has no life outside the job. His apartment, as a lady friend comments, looks like a place where nobody lives.

What he won’t write is fluff. This puts him in conflict with his managing editor, in the first three books. The managing editor was hired by the owners to give the paper what he calls “relatability.” This means sex and sleeze. John ignores the managing editor, not because of his high moral standards, but because fluff demeans his profession, and his profession is all he has. He’s able to get away with this (most of the time) because he’s the best crime reporter in the city.

The managing editor gets petty revenge one day by assigning Wells to cover a series of teenage suicides in a town upstate.

This assignment shocks even Wells’ most cynical colleagues. Because everyone knows the reason why he’s cut himself off from life. Five years ago, his own teenaged daughter hanged herself.

Wells accepts the assignment, though. He won’t be intimidated.

It’s not easy, but he’s a pro. He does the job. He interviews the grieving families and writes a sensitive series on the tragedies. Then he faxes the stories back to the paper.

And the hot-shot managing editor re-writes the stories (still under Wells’ name) to make them “relatable.”

Suddenly John Wells is the most hated man in the town.

And that’s not good, because Wells needs to go back there. He’s starting to suspect that at least some of the suicides were murders.

I loved the John Wells series because Peterson/Klavan focused it on a complex, deeply sympathetic main character, and surrounded him with an equally believable supporting cast.

The world-weary, cynical detective is a staple of hard-boiled crime fiction. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade weren’t stereotypes in their own time, but they’ve become stereotypes. We take them for granted, and rarely ask ourselves what made them the loners they are.

John Wells’ alienation is the central problem of the series. He’s been hurt so badly in the past, first by the failure of his marriage, then by the suicide of his daughter, that he’s walled himself off from humanity. Most of his co-workers like him, but he keeps his distance. His protégé, a beautiful young reporter named Lansing, is crazy in love with him, but he treats her like a kid sister—not really because of the age difference, but because she’s alive, and he doesn’t dare get too close to life. In The Trapdoor, he does get involved with a woman, a suicide counselor (remarkably, one of the few instances I’ve ever seen in a detective novel where the hero connects with a woman specifically described as not beautiful), but they’re both so damaged that they know nothing can come of it.

As each book in the series progresses, however, Wells is forced to deal with one of his personal devils, to break down another of his psychological walls. The last book, Rough Justice, has the earmarks of an attempt to re-launch the series on a new level. But it also serves as a satisfactory climax. John Wells at the end of Rough Justice is a very different man from the John Wells we started out with in The Trapdoor.

This is early, pre-Christian Klavan, but many of the themes that inform his later work are already there. The books are out of print, but you can get them second hand. I recommend them highly.

Malice, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

I write this review in deep sorrow. I’ve been a fan and booster of Robert K. Tanenbaum for some years now. But that’s all done, now that I’ve read Malice. Tanenbaum has lost my imprimatur. He’s become an author I can no longer support.

What hurts most is that I’m certain it’s my own fault.

If you’re an old timer here, you may recall my history with Tanenbaum. I discovered his Butch Karp/Marlene Ciampi books back in the ’80s, and enjoyed them for their vivid characters and Rabelaisian humor. But then I felt his books were getting a little raunchy for my taste, especially in terms of language, and I dropped him.

In the late ’90s I picked him up again, and it seemed to me he’d grown a great deal as an author and thinker. By this time Butch and Marlene (he’s a New York District Attorney; she’s a former lawyer, later a personal security specialist, now an independently wealthy hobby artist and dog breeder) had gotten married and were raising a family. Of particular interest was their daughter Lucie, who was both a language prodigy and a devout, practicing Catholic. Tanenbaum (like Butch Karp) is clearly Jewish himself, but he showed unusual sensitivity to Christianity in his portrayal of Lucie.

I was especially impressed with the novel True Justice, in which Karp dealt with the issues of abortion and infanticide. Although it understandably attempted to square the circle and present all sides, it depicted (through Lucie) an understanding of the pro-life position, without caricature, hard to find in contemporary literature. I was so pleased that I wrote a fan letter to Tanenbaum, telling him how much I valued his effort.

This, I’m confident, spoiled everything.

Tanenbaum, no doubt, checked out my web page, discovered what sort of a right-wing yahoo I am, and vowed on the spot to drive me, and everyone like me, away.

Not immediately. Not right off. But gradually. By stages.

First of all, he gave Lucie a boyfriend, an Arizona cowboy. And sent her happily to bed with him, without benefit of clergy. Without even any Catholic guilt.

Secondly, he introduced the character of John Jojola, a Taos Navajo reservation policeman and Native American shaman. He has led Lucie into a “deeper” spiritual understanding through his Ancient Wisdom.

And now, for the coup de grace, the first time we see Lucie in Malice, she’s taking a trip on peyote, under John Jojola’s supervision.

OK, Mr. Tanenbaum. I get the message.

The plot of this book centers on a sort of busman’s holiday for Butch Karp. On medical leave from the DA’s office (he got shot at the end of the last book), Butch is asked to help out the brother of an old teammate from his basketball playing days, a college baseball coach who’s been wrongly suspended by his college and the league.

But that’s tied to the action back in New York, where Butch’s colleagues and friends are discovering evidence of massive, world-wide criminal conspiracy. An Ancient Secret Society, a Shadow Government, an Unseen Hand behind world events.

A rip-off of The DaVinci Code, to be honest. Tanenbaum has apparently figured out that paranoia fiction is where the money is these days. Gone are the days when Butch Karp hunted down ordinary criminals and corrupt politicians. Now he’s pulling back the veil that covers the True, Occult History of the World.

You think our biggest danger today is Islamic terrorism? Ha! You’re a dupe!

The real danger is… wait for it… MANXMEN! That is, guys from the Isle of Man. (Because, I suppose, God forbid there should be any evil in the world that doesn’t spring from white males.) Islamic terrorism is just a sideshow that the Manxmen have orchestrated, to allow their puppets in the government to trample on our civil rights through the Patriot Act. (There are many references to “the loss of our civil rights” under the Patriot Act. Oddly, what rights we’ve lost is never explained.)

In other words, Tanenbaum has completely buckled to contemporary liberal dogma. Oh, he concedes, in a talky and poorly written epilogue, that the war on terror is a serious matter, but the plot as a whole gives no support to that view.

I’d probably be willing to forgive all that, because it’s still a Tanenbaum book and therefore a lot of fun.

But putting peyote into Our Lucie’s mouth?

That, sir, I cannot forgive.

Old movie review: “Algiers”

Watched a few more of my renter’s crime movies this weekend, and I want to comment briefly on a couple of them.

I watched “They Made Me a Criminal,” with John Garfield. I had the idea this was considered some kind of classic, and maybe it is. But it did not impress me.

The acting was consistently over the top. The character arcs (Busby Berkeley directed it, and it bears all the psychological insight of his average musical) follow plot points, but don’t seem to proceed from any actual change in the characters. In other words, the characters change their behavior because “it’s time for them to change,” but it’s hard to say why they do that from their own perspective. Also present are The Dead End Kids, who fill the sort of place in the film that a rap artist would fill in a movie today (and about as effectively), and even Claude Raines, as the Inspector Jauvert-like detective, nearly mugs his teeth out.

I hated it.

Raines gave a much more subdued, and effective, performance in his most famous role, that of Capt. Renault in “Casablanca.” We all know “Casablanca.” A perfect, small, jewel of a film that tells a tight, heartfelt story that somehow seems inevitable, inescapable, unforgettable. It sits in your memory and colors all your experience forever after.

But are you familiar with the film that inspired the makers of “Casablanca?” A film that also inspired a thousand bad French dialect imitations, chief among which was “Pepe le Pew” in the Warner Brothers cartoons?

That movie was “Algiers,” with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamar. I’d seen it in bits and pieces on TV years ago, but this was the first time I watched it from beginning to end, and I was completely enthralled.

Charles Boyer plays Pepe le Moko, a Parisian gangster who has fled to Algiers and is hiding in the native quarter called the Casbah, where the police dare not follow. He has made himself, for all practical purposes, king of the Casbah. He controls crime there, deals out justice, and enjoys the favors of a beautiful mistress (who seems to be a gypsy or something, though she was played by Sigrid Gurie, a Norwegian).

The French authorities are frustrated by their inability to lay hands on Pepe. Only Inspector Slimane (wonderfully played by Joseph Calleia), apparently a despised “half-caste,” understands Pepe’s essential weakness. Slimane is a patient man, and knows that he will catch Pepe, and even how he will do it.

Because he understands that Pepe cannot stay forever in the Casbah. That tortuous tangle of streets and stairways, where even the roads have walls, is in itself a kind of prison. Pepe’s confinement there is slowly, insidiously, driving him out of his mind. Driving him to forget his own safety. He looks out over the sea and dreams of Paris.

And it all comes to a head when he meets Gaby (Hedy Lamar), a gorgeous young woman from home who has come on holiday with her fiancé, a fat, unpleasant, but rich man whom she is marrying purely for his money. Pepe and Gaby see in each other the fulfillment of their mutual forbidden dreams.

There’s a scene at the end, when Pepe looks through a barred gate in the harbor and gets just a glimpse of Gaby on the ship’s deck, sailing away to her loveless marriage, and you see her through his eyes and it goes through your heart like a knife.

Old movies and old movie techniques can be ridiculous and dated, or sublime and timeless, depending on the skill and vision of the moviemakers. “Algiers” is a classic by any definition.

And no, he never says, “Come with me to the Casbah!”

Here’s a bit of trivia. Sigrid Gurie (refenced above), who played Pepe’s mistress, was the twin sister of Knut Haukelid, one of the leaders of the Norwegian resistance group that blew up the German heavy water operation at Vermork, Norway, thus denying important nuclear technology to the Nazis. Richard Harris’ character in the movie “Heroes of Telemark,” seems to have been based in part on Knut Haukelid.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

Do the really good detectives ever retire? I doubt it. They’re always pulled back into a crime case by circumstances or fans of their past work. That’s what happened with Nick Charles, who had managed to marry a gorgeous woman with tons of money. He didn’t need detective work to pay the bills. He had a few accounts to manage, some stocks to buy, and some martinis to drink. So he didn’t want to get involved with the murder of the secretary of a man for whom he once worked. But I doubt he could turn off his curiosity or sense of justice any more than he could stop observing the world like a detective. Even when he was sharing a cheap champagne at a speakeasy with a man he had sent up the river several years ago and a small fight broke out, he couldn’t help notice that the more-or-less-former thug still led with his right. It was that mistake which the two men had agree allowed Nick to bag the thug back when they were on opposite sides of the law.

The Thin Man is a great crime novel. It’s very funny in parts, and if you have seen the movie series based on Nick and Nora Charles, both movie and book characters are alike in the sexy wit that has appealed to many readers and viewers for decades. This is Hammett’s last novel, and it’s recommended.

Old film review: “Impact”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent Joe, by T. Jefferson Parker

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

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

So much holy

So divine

Yours and so much mine….

Our God reigns

Over the heavens

Over the earth

Our God reigns

Praise His name

All still standing

All that was

All that remains

Our God reigns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember, you read it here first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I feel vindicated!

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

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

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

Winter Haven, by Athol Dickson

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

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

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

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

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

Trouble, by Jesse Kellerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then it gets worse.

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

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

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

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

The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz

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

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

And I’d be like, “No.”

And he’d say, “Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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