‘Escape Clause,’ by John Sandford

Escape Clause

Eleven years: Peck would give everything to have had those eleven years back. For one thing, he wouldn’t have messed around with those women in Indianapolis. If he’d gotten a regular doctor job, he’d be driving the big bucks now, fixing everything from Aarskog syndrome to Zika virus.

I’m fond of cop humor. Cop humor is black humor, often profane humor, the humor of people who’ve seen the worst things life can dish up, and have found ways of coping. John Sandford’s novels about Minnesota cops are full of cop humor, which is one of their charms. In comparison to his Prey novels, starring Lucas Davenport, his Virgil Flowers novels tend to lean more heavily toward slapstick. Escape Clause is perhaps the most comic of his novels to date, though there are several murders along the way.

In Escape Clause, we begin with the theft (kidnapping?) of two rare tigers from the Minnesota Zoo. There’s no mystery in this story – it’s a thriller. We know who the bad guys are (an eastern medicines doctor and a few thugs), and the suspense is in how fast the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, in the person of Virgil Flowers (the only guy they can spare because of security demands at the Minnesota State Fair during visits by presidential candidates) can figure out what’s going on and stop it.

Virgil is a good cop, though not a very good shot, and generally reluctant to even carry a gun. He also tends to take a lot of pratfalls in this outing. Simultaneous with this job, he gets involved with stopping some thugs, hired by a sweatshop owner to beat up his girlfriend’s sister, who’s doing sociology research on the illegal alien workers.

It’s all a lot of fun, and it’s mostly dirtbags who get killed. The climax is obvious a mile away, but no less enjoyable for that, on a visceral level.

An interesting new element in this story is the character of “Father Bill,” a Catholic priest who leads an odd life. He works as a supply pastor for the Minneapolis-St. Paul diocese nine months of the year, and is celibate then. During the summers he works at a resort and has a girlfriend. This is kind of jaw-dropping, but I suppose it’s not unthinkable in today’s church. Virgil, whose father is a Lutheran pastor, makes some small effort to talk him over to the Protestant side.

Anyway, I had a good time with Escape Clause. Cautions for lots of bad language and adult situations, also the death of an animal (almost always more traumatic than human death in a novel).

‘Dresses’ in ‘That Hideous Strength’

That Hideous Strength

The esteemed Dr. Bruce Charlton at Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers re-posts a review of That Hideous Strength. This post, from the Toast blog, is by a woman named Felix Kent. I found it delightful, for two reasons. First, I’ve come to assume that all modern women will hate THS (which remains one of my favorite novels). Secondly, Ms. Kent gets it precisely right.

“Don’t read That Hideous Strength,” my mother said. My mother is a great C.S. Lewis fan, also a believer, in the religious sense. One of my best sources for what to read. And a woman who grew up in the Fifties and became an academic. Became, like Ransom, the trilogy’s main character, a philologist.

“Why not?” I said.

I don’t think my mother used the word “yucky” in her reply, but that was more or less what she meant. I went ahead and read the book anyway.

‘Scoop,’ by Evelyn Waugh


It was a morning of ethereal splendor – such a morning as Noah knew as he gazed from his pitchy bulwarks over limitless, sunlit waters while the dove circled and mounted and became lost in the shining heavens; such a morning as only the angels saw on the first day of that rash cosmic experiment that had resulted, at the moment, in landing Corker and Pigge here in the mud, stiff and unshaven and disconsolate.

I mentioned Evelyn Waugh on Facebook, and in the ensuing discussion was forced to admit the shameful fact that I hadn’t actually ever read any of his novels. Someone suggested Scoop, his treatment of foreign newspaper correspondence. Thus this review.

William Boot is a member of a large but declining “country” family in England. He writes a column on rural nature for a London paper, The Daily Beast. Due to a series of misunderstandings on the part of Lord Copper, owner of the paper, and his editors and sub-editors, William finds himself dispatched, much against his inclination, to report on a civil war in Ishmaelia, an African republic.

Along the way he gets acquainted with members of the real foreign press corps, all serious drinkers and savage exploiters of expense accounts, who vie with one another (mostly within the confines of the hotel bar) to discover the merest hint of news of the war (which does not exist; it was all a misunderstanding from the start) and then build those hints into fanciful news stories which they all crib from one another and send back to London by radiogram. He has to deal with the cheerfully venal family that runs the country, he rubs shoulders with foreign agents, and he gets romantically involved with a semi-German gold-digger.

The whole story is a ridiculous construction of misinformation, misperception, prejudice, lazy thinking, and cutthroat but genial competition. It could have been called “Much Ado About Nothing.” There are some elements reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse here (there’s even passing mention of a fellow named Bertie Wodehouse-Bonner), but the humor is more acerbic than “Plum’s.” It might be judged closer to Saki’s humor – but I think Saki would have taken the opportunity of a story like this to kill off a lot of people.

Scoop is a highly amusing novel that will give you a whole new (and lower) view of journalism. No problems with language or subject matter here, except for dated racial slurs. There are contemporary 1930s references that will confuse a lot of modern readers (including me sometimes).

A Sci-Fi Cuba as Earth Under New Management

For rent, one planet that’s lost its way in the race for development, that showed up at the stadium after all the medals had been handed out, when all that was left was the consolation prize of survival.

For rent, one planet that learned to play the economics game according to one set of rules but discovered once it started playing that the rules had been changed.

That planet in Yoss’ novel A Planet for Rent is a stand-in for 1990s Cuba. Emily A. Maguire describes the story of an unmanageable Earth. “In the interests of ‘saving Earth from itself,’ [aliens] have turned the planet, now a ‘Galactic Protectorate,’ into a vacation destination: Earth and its inhabitants exist solely to satisfy the desires of its alien visitors.” (via Prufrock News)

Should Moby-Dick Be Hyphenated?

Ahab reloaded
“When this interlude was over, Captain Mayhew began a dark story concerning Moby Dick; not, however, without frequent interruptions from Gabriel, whenever his name was mentioned, and the crazy sea that seemed leagued with him.”

Why do we occasionally see Moby Dick with a hyphen? Because that’s how the original title ran. Erin Blakemore of the Smithsonian calls it a Victorian convention, but that doesn’t satisfy many readers.

“Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale” was published in the United States on this day in 1851, having been previously released in the United Kingdom. It didn’t sell well compared to his other books, and critics took a dim view:

The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.

In Praise of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has become a significant artifact of North American postmodern culture. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the myriad of shelves dedicated to young-adult fiction at your local Barnes and Noble without the influence—however indirect or incorrect—of The Handmaid’s Tale. After all, in our age of intellectual stagnation, who better to destroy patriarchal oppression than a noble and brave teenage girl, a postmodern Joan of Arc?

But this is a most superficial reading of the novel. In reality, the story is as complicated as anything Huxley or Orwell wrote.

Bradley J. Birzer of Hillsdale College writes about the virtues of Margaret Atwood’s most-loved novel. (via Prufrock News)

“Literature,” writes Caleb Griego, an editor for The Heights, the student newspaper of Boston College, “seems to soothe the discontents of the mind. Reading allows for us to come away from our own loneliness and relish in the solidarity of it with another. Our alienation is both the cause of anguish and the remedy to it.”

God at Work in Our Universities

We may have read about some of the nutty things happening at colleges these days, things that rival The Babylon Bee for loony satire, and we’ve seen student ministries oppressed by acolytes of the spirit of the age. But Owen Strachan talks about some of the inspiring work God is still doing in American schools.

I read Adira’s testimony with lightning running down my back. At my alma mater, a college I warmly remember, God is at work. Through diverse means, including the heroic efforts of Rob Gregory and the McKeen Study Center, he’s moving. I can scarcely say how encouraging this is. We sometimes approach secular schools as if they are fortresses, but they are not. They are filled with people–flesh-and-blood people made in God’s image. The university is filled with humanity, teeming with purpose, loaded with promise. No person on campus is without worth. No resident is without value. And it must be said: no one is beyond the reach of God.

Extension granted

Today a musician who visits the school from time to time dropped into my office, and we talked for a couple hours. At no point did we mention the election, or politics.

It was bliss.

I hope more bliss is to come. One of principles of conservatism is that we should be able to live our lives as much as possible without reference to politics. One of the monstrosities of Progressivism is that each citizen is expected to think politically at all times, down to a painstaking ideological analysis of pronoun choice every time we frame a sentence.

I haven’t made any secret of my lack of faith in Donald Trump. I supported him, as I’ve explained on this blog, simply on utilitarian grounds. If he appoints Supreme Court justices in the manner he’s promised, we ought to retain speech and conscience liberties for the foreseeable future.

I should be more elated than I feel. The cavalry, after all, came over the hill in the nick of time. At this hour yesterday I was steeling myself for a Democrat victory, and all that would entail – especially in the curtailment of constitutional liberties. I was trying to figure out the best ways for a middle-aged, sedentary man to prepare for the purges. (I couldn’t really come up with anything. If the secret police come, I expect I’ll just go quietly. Can’t think of an effective countermeasure.)

But now – it appears – things should be OK. At least for the remainder of my expected lifespan. Like Hezekiah in one of his less admirable moments, I can say, “At least there will be peace in my time.”

Of course there is something to do about all this. I need to work at my ministry, sowing the seed of the Word. Running a library for a seminary and a Bible school. Writing novels.

Prayerfully. With thanks for an extended day of grace.

Your Other Brothers

“When I started to realize that I was attracted to Yoko as more than just a friend, I freaked out. Seriously.

This is how Kevin Frye begins his frank story of the first year or two of his marriage on a new website focused on helping and connecting Christians who resist the pull into same-sex attraction. The founders of Your Other Brothers say:

Beyond our fellow same-sex attracted believers, we also share our stories for our heterosexual brothers and sisters. We are here to say that this “issue” of homosexuality exists as people here in your midst, and like anyone else in your pews, we are yearning to be heard, known, and loved.

We never chose our sexuality, but we aren’t content to pursue it either. We are locking arms with each other in the belief that our Father has something better intended for His children.

Frye’s story is a hopeful one, but not one that spells out how all of the pain is behind him. It’s the kind of raw testimony I hope every church family has provided a place for, stories of current addiction, recent failure, and dimming hope for recovery. In present-day America, this feels radical, but our society has been sex-crazed for years now. We can’t wish away ugly subjects like pervasive racism, the idolatry of wealth, and homosexuality. We must face them in the beautiful light of the gospel.

‘The Wrong Side of Goodbye,’ by Michael Connelly

The Wrong Side of Goodbye

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch cop novels are a long-running series. They’re bestsellers for good reason. Connelly writes tight, well-crafted novels with engaging characters. The Wrong Side of Goodbye is a sterling entry in a saga that shows no sign of flagging.

Aging detective Harry Bosch is no longer with the Los Angeles Police Department. He was terminated at the end of the last book (he’s suing them for it). But he’s got a private investigator’s license. He’s also working part-time, on a volunteer basis, for the financially strapped police department of the suburb of San Fernando.

For the San Fernando job, he’s working on a series of rapes by a creep who cuts through screen windows in women’s homes. A recent victim got away from him, coming away with fresh clues Harry and the other detectives can use to get closer to a solution. Their main handicap is simply lack of manpower, something that will put a member of the team in genuine peril.

Meanwhile, in a scene right out of Raymond Chandler, Harry (wearing his private eye hat) is called to the home of a steel and aeronautics magnate. The old man is dying, and he knows it. He has no heir. But long ago he fathered a child with a Mexican girlfriend. He wants Harry to find out if his child is alive – if he or she is, they’re in a position to inherit billions.

It’s a pleasure to follow Harry as he does his job. Connelly is especially good at layered characters – people who turn out to be more (or less) than they appear on first glance. There are lots of surprises here, and a plot that snaps together cleanly in the end.

Author Connelly’s politics would appear to be liberal, but his views on various issues are incorporated seamlessly into the story, without hammering the points home (though Harry seems to have had more lesbian partners than statistically likely). But if I disagreed with some passing political riffs, I appreciated the respect with which Vietnam veterans were treated.

Highly recommended. Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘The Critic,’ by Peter May

The Critic

This the second book in the Peter May mystery series starring Enzo MacLeod, who debuted as a character in Extraordinary People, which I reviewed earlier. I don’t think I like this series as much as I like May’s Hebrides novels, but he’s a good storyteller, and there’s plenty to enjoy in The Critic.

The critic of the title is Gil Petty, a prestigious American wine critic who disappeared on a working trip to the vineyards of the Gaillac region in France. His fate was unknown for a couple years, until one day his body appeared staked up like a scarecrow in a vineyard at harvest time. It had clearly been preserved in wine since his death.

Our hero, Enzo MacLeod, makes Gil Petty the next challenge in his missing persons bet. A friend has written a book about unsolved disappearances in France, and Enzo has made a bet with him that he can solve several of them. Enzo is a half-Italian Scotsman, but has lived in France for years, teaching his specialty, forensic science.

Enzo moves into a small cottage near a chalet, and in semi-comic fashion nearly his whole circle of amateur assistants gather around him uninvited – his daughter and her body-builder boyfriend, his young, sexy assistant, and his on-and-off girlfriend. Another drop-in is the estranged, beautiful daughter of the late Mr. Petty, from America.

Enzo is hampered by the suspicion of some of the growers, and by constant sexual tension with almost every female (except his daughter) with whom he comes into contact. Enzo’s attractiveness to women is played mostly for laughs, and it causes him more problems than any satisfaction he gets.

But the mystery is serious, and Gil Petty is not the last victim of a ruthless serial killer.

Like all Peter May mysteries, The Critic is pretty good entertainment. Cautions for language and adult situations. There are some hints of political views, but only in passing.

If My People… Will Humble Themselves

I have often chafed at appeals to 2 Chronicles 7:14 for American health, but I have wanted to believe them too.

The context is Solomon’s dedication of the temple. The Lord comes to him at night, saying, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:13-14).

Many Evangelical voices tell us that if we, the church, will humble ourselves and pray, then our Lord will heal, bless, rebuke, correct the American people, but as Dr. Moore explains, interpretation like that is corrupt.

When God said to [the original readers], “If my people who are called by name,” he was specifically pointing them back to the covenant that he made with their forefather Abraham. At a specific point in their history, God had told Abraham about his descendants, saying “I will be their God” and “They will be my people.” That’s what “My people” means. God reminded a people who had been exiled, enslaved, and defeated that a rebuilt temple or a displaced nation cannot change who they were. They were God’s people, and would see the future God has for them.

We can’t blur the line on who God is talking about here and attempt to claim divine blessing that isn’t offered. The straightest line to draw from this verse to us will not lead to America, but to Christ.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture