Category Archives: Reviews

The Wheat Field, by Stephen Thayer

I require a rare, peculiar combination of factors in order to be able write a negative review. The book can’t be just bad. If it’s just bad, I’ll dump it in the re-sell bag or return it to the library. It’s got to be good enough to keep me wanting to read it, with the same sort of fascination that prevents a person from turning his eyes away from a train wreck.

The Wheat Field finds that sweet spot. It was fairly well written (though not as well, I think, as the review blurbs suggested). I opted not to give up on it even when it offended me, not because I was compelled by the narrative, but because I wanted to see whether the author was actually going to take the story where I figured it was going, and actually say what I figured he would say.

Well, it did and he said it.

The narrator and main character is Deputy Pennington (I don’t think we’re ever told his first name), a law officer in Kickapoo Falls, Wisconsin, in the beautiful Dells country, a location the author uses effectively in some action scenes. Pennington, speaking in the present as an old man reminiscing on his law enforcement career back in 1960, tells how he was called one beautiful summer’s day to a farmer’s wheat field, where two naked people, murdered with a shotgun, had been found in a flattened crop circle

I think Thayer means us to like Detective Pennington. I think we’re supposed to like him because he’s so honest (he admits to being a voyeur, and murdering more than one criminal he couldn’t touch through legal means. In his first scene he takes pleasure in threatening the farmer who discovered the bodies because a) he’s short, b) he didn’t serve in the war, and c) he’s a Republican).

Oh yes, Pennington is a Democrat in a Republican county, as well as a Catholic in a Protestant community. I think we’re supposed to like him for that too. Especially when he reminds us how really evil the Republicans are.

There’s nothing so horrendous, you see, that the Republicans won’t do it. While hypocritically talking about morality, the Republicans practice group sex, make pornographic films (even a snuff film), and they’re planning to assassinate presidential candidate John Kennedy. (It’s never entirely clear why they want to kill Kennedy. Maybe it’s that he wants to lower taxes. Or beef up the military. Or get rid of Castro. Or “pay any price, bear any burden” to defend democracy.)

One of the murder victims is identified as Maggie Butler, a woman Pennington grew up with and has been in love with all his life. Her husband, the other victim, was a leader in the local Republican power structure, centered at “The Kickapoo Gunn [sic] Club,” and as Pennington pokes into that den of vipers he faces not only the locked-arm opposition of the party structure, but the suspicion of his own fellow officers. Eventually he is framed for the murder, but gets freed by another policeman (I’m still not sure why), after which he sets off on a trip to Nantucket, Massachusetts, to find the real murderer. At this point the plot rapidly sheds all pretense of plausibility and descends into pure Gothic melodrama.

I saw the big surprise ending a mile away, too.

The writing was good in places, but I thought the dialogue wooden. In one place a young boy, describing a local recluse, calls him “a hideous monster.” Has any American kid used the adjective “hideous” spontaneously since 1919?

Thayer’s earlier books earned glowing reviews from the New York Times (which put him on the bestseller list) and Stephen King, so I think of this book much the same as I think of the recent spate of lame anti-war movies, which anti-war news outlets feel compelled to praise to the skies, just because they push the right lessons. This wasn’t really a very good novel.

No doubt the movie is already in the works.

Everglades, by Randy Wayne White

I’m going to write a piece one of these days about The Static Problem of the Series Hero. The problem is this—the heart of any story is to produce some change in the main character. In its classic form, a story is a drama in which a character employs a series of strategems to overcome a problem, failing time after time until he succeeds at last. The reason he has to go through so many failures and disappointments is because a good story needs to tell how that character learns something and grows. And the solution that involves learning and growing is usually the solution each of us leaves for last.

But series characters make that method difficult or impossible. How many life-changing, existential choices can one character believably make, in one book after another?

The mystery format helps solve (or at least cover over) that problem. Mysteries are generally not stories about transformation through personal change. They’re stories about solving puzzles external to the main character’s personal life. So Sherlock Holmes, for instance, can go on for story after story (long after his author is tired of him), changing little if at all. The faithful reader looks on the detective as a dear old friend. He doesn’t even want him to change. If someone needs to learn something in the story, let it be a secondary character. (Conan Doyle had Dr. Watson fall in love and marry in “The Sign of the Four.” But Watson’s marriage became such a nuisance from a storytelling point of view that Doyle killed her off, in so negligent and confusing a manner that fans argue to this day about how many wives the doctor actually had.)

But there are authors who resist this time-honored mystery formula. One of them (as I’ve said before) is Robert Crais, whose adult adolescent detective Elvis Cole has been growing up before our eyes.

Another is Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford series. As I’ve said before, White manages better than anyone else (anyone I’ve read, at least) to revive the spirit of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee.

But Doc Ford is not McGee. Ford has a darker history, a past career as a top-secret commando and assassin. In the early books, this past served to give the character a textured, somewhat guilty background, and to add credibility to his fighting ability when violence became necessary.

But Everglades appears to have been a pivotal entry in the series (I haven’t read them all). White made the decision in this book to force Ford to change his entire attitude to himself and his past, and to handle his present challenges in a different way.

The story begins when Ford comes home to his stilt house at Dinkin’s Bay Marina, Florida, to find Sally Carmel, a former lover, waiting for him outside. She’s worried and scared. She’s been married to a real estate developer, and he’s disappeared. Supposedly he fell off a boat in the night and was lost at sea, but she suspects it was stage-managed. And she believes someone has been breaking into her house, going through her things. She’s certain someone is following her.

Before his death, her husband had gotten involved with a New Age/Hindu cult leader called Bhagwan Shiva. Shiva’s religion has become extremely successful and profitable, and he’s been investing heavily in Florida real estate, with an eye to partnering with a Seminole tribe to build a casino. Shiva’s religion is extremely “advanced” in its sexual practices, and Sally found that part of it highly traumatic. She separated from her husband, and is now active in a Pentecostal church.

She doesn’t know it, but she’s become a pawn in a very big power game, a game planned by a brilliant man with grandiose plans and no conscience.

The issue of religion looms large in Everglades. As always, Doc’s friend Tomlinson is on hand, often high on pot or booze, spouting New Age “wisdom.” Doc, the narrator, is clear in telling us that he believes in none of it, and yet manages to convey the suggestion that Tomlinson and his psychic friends are actually in touch with legitimate spiritual forces.

This is troubling for the Christian reader.

On the other hand, Sally’s Christianity is treated with respect (although her theology appears a little weak). And a Christian character treated respectfully is something to be thankful for in any popular novel nowadays.

The center of the book, though, is Doc’s personal decision about his life. He starts the story in a bad condition. He’s sleeping badly. He’s drinking too much. He forgets appointments. He’s gotten fat.

His problem, he discovers, is that he’s been fighting his essential nature. Trying to live a quiet life as a marine biologist, working and partying and staying out of trouble, he has been denying his true gifts. If it’s not blasphemous to speak of it in Gene Edward Veith’s terms, he’s been neglecting his Vocation.

But a terrible turn of events shows him that he has a job to do in this world, and that he’ll never be satisfied—and others will suffer—if he neglects it.

The book was published in 2003. Which suggests it was written in 2002.

I wonder if the events of September 11, 2001 didn’t have something to do with Doc Ford’s epiphany.

I found the book very satisfying (with reservations for theological issues and some uncomfortable sexual scenes).

Recommended, as long as you heed the warnings.

The Forgotten Man, by Robert Crais

Today I voted. In my little corner of the republic, we were faced with only two decisions, both of them education related. One was the election of school board members. I voted for none of them, since their bios in the local giveaway newspaper made them all look indistinguishable to me. Margaret Sanger crossed with John Dewey.

The big question was whether we wanted to approve a property tax increase for education. According to our lords and masters, our school district will soon be reduced to teaching the kids in one-room schoolhouses with dirt floors and wooden benches.

Come to think of it, that might not be bad. The kids who went to those one-room schools generally learned to read and do their sums. Our present system can’t make the same boast.

Of course my true reason for voting “No” is my selfishness and bigotry. As a bloated member of the plutocracy, my true fear is that the brilliant plans of the National Educational Association will be brought to fruition. If that should happen, all our children will become geniuses and paragons of postmodern virtue. In short order they will end poverty, cure all diseases, stop global warming, abolish war, and prove scientifically that there is no God. This threatens my vested interests and entrenched power, so I’m fighting a vicious, yet futile, rear guard action against the tide of history.

The Forgotten Man is another Robert Crais novel. It really isn’t my intention to review a string of Crais novels all in a row. If I were following my inclinations alone, I’d be reviewing a string of Stephen Hunter novels all in a row, but just at this point in my life I’m cutting back on book buying. So I’m only reading stuff I can check out of the library or find at Half Price Books. My library carries no Hunter, and I’ve bought everything HPB has by him at this point. So I picked up some Crais, and that’s no form of suffering at all. The more Crais I read, the better I like him.

Once again in this book, detective Elvis Cole is forced to deal with the shadows of his dysfunctional childhood. His mother, who was loving but psychotically delusional, always told him that his father (whose name he’s never known) was a human cannonball in a circus. In flashbacks we see how the young Cole ran away from home time after time, searching carnivals for the right daredevil, without any success.

But now, a possible father has come to him (sort of). An unidentified older man, bizarrely tattooed all over his body with religious pictures, has been murdered in an alley. The policewoman who heard his last words says he told her that he was Elvis Cole’s father, come to Los Angeles to find his son.

Cole has been elevated to public hero status by his last case, in which he rescued the kidnapped son of the woman he loves. But in the aftermath she moved away, deciding (and Cole knows she’s right) that being with him is too dangerous a life for a mother who has a child to protect. Since then Cole has been in a funk. He hasn’t even visited his office.

The one thing that could draw him out, though, is the chance to at last learn the identity of his father. He gets permission from the police to assist in the case. But the man is a ghost. He seems to have no name, no past. All Cole learns at first is that the man made several outcalls to prostitutes.

Not to sleep with them. To pray with them. To pray for forgiveness for sins he wouldn’t name.

The story also offers healthy helpings of familiar supporting characters like Joe Pike, Cole’s Psycho Killer Friend™, and Detective Carol Stark, the heroine of Demolition Angel (Crais fixed her up with an FBI agent at the end of that book, but apparently decided he could make better use of her if he had her shamelessly throwing herself at Cole, so he unattached her again).

I’ve been impressed, as I’ve read the Elvis Cole books, by the way in which Crais has deepened and enriched what started out as a fairly shallow, perpetually adolescent character, the kind of detective who wears Hawaiian shirts and decorates his office with Disney collectibles. But maybe I failed to recognize that this was Crais’ intention from the start. The clock on Cole’s wall is a Pinocchio clock, and the figurine on his desk is Jiminy Cricket. And what is Pinocchio but the puppet who needs to learn moral lessons in order to become a real boy?

The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks (JXIIH)

I agreed to review The Dark River, second in the Fourth Realm trilogy, in part because I had not read the first book. I thought I could give a unique perspective. Most reviewers would have read the first book, wouldn’t they? After I agreed, I thought I may have made a mistake. I read somewhere that the plot was so complex a reader should start with book one, and if I had picked up The Two Towers without any knowledge of the rest of The Lord of the Rings story, I’d be lost at the start. But I didn’t have any trouble following the story. There are many times the narrative recalls past events, all of which could be part of book one, but I don’t know and not knowing didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the story here.

The story begins exploring the black hats’ attempts to eliminate the white hats. The black hats in this story are The Brethren, a high-tech, international organization that wants to virtually imprison all free people through data networks, security checks, and surveillance cameras. They believe that once everyone in the world agrees to being watched or recorded for security reasons then everyone will become fairly controllable. The Brethren believe people are fundamentally products of their environment, so if the environment can be completely controlled, then everyone in it can be controlled. This belief earned the black hats the label Tabula by the white hats, who are Travelers and Harlequins. Continue reading The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks (JXIIH)

The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais

First of all, I have to thank our reader and occasional commenter Aitchmark. I chat with him on AIM now and then, and the other night he tentatively diagnosed (sight unseen) the malady that’s been bugging me for weeks. I’d been fading in the afternoons, just feeling leaden. He asked me if I’d been breathing anything that might be bad, and it suddenly occurred to me that the moldy old books I’ve been cataloging for the archive might not be the best thing for me. I took an antihistamine, bought some paper breathing masks, and I feel better already.

The title of Robert Crais’ The Two Minute Rule refers to a guideline well known to both policemen and bank robbers—if you want to knock off a bank, you need to be in and out in two minutes, or you’re likely to be caught.

Which was what happened to Max Holman ten years ago. Back then he was an alcoholic and a drug addict, addicted to the thrill of danger. In his time in prison he’s dried out, and he intends to make a genuine effort to live a straight life now that he’s being released. He also wants to make amends to his former girlfriend, and to the son they had together, whom he neglected even before his arrest.

But on the day of his release, he gets bad news. His son (who had become a policeman) has been murdered, along with three other officers.

Even the cops treat him with consideration at first, in spite of his ex-con status. But Holman is puzzled by the official story of the ambush that killed his son. The attack happened in the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River. How did anyone sneak up on them in such an open location? And why, when he visits his son’s widow, does he find a police file on a desk, concerning a recent series of robberies by two now-dead felons? What business was that case of a uniformed policeman’s? Was his son a corrupt cop? If so, was that Holman’s own fault?

When he asks more questions, the police become hostile, and finally they threaten him. That’s when Holman turns for help to the only law enforcement figure he knows he can trust.

Katherine Pollard, the FBI agent who put him away ten years ago.

Pollard is out of the agency now, trying to make it as a single mother. She joins Holman in investigating the matter mostly because she’s bored and misses police work. But as the questions get harder, and the violence escalates, she begins to alternate between frustration with the police, anger at Holman, and… other feelings for Holman. She begins to fear that she’s “going Indian”—getting too closely involved with a criminal and his world.

The Two Minute Rule
is notable for a remarkable risk (for popular fiction) taken by the author. He doesn’t make his main characters look like movie stars. Holman, we’re told, has put on weight in prison. He’s flabby and pale. Katherine too has put on weight since she left the FBI. She’s always worrying about the size of her bottom. This is a nice touch of realism that (for me) made the whole thing ring much truer.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it involves a genuine concern for maturity and responsibility that’s been sadly lacking, I believe, in books and movies for a long time. I was very pleased with the ending, and recommend The Two Minute Rule to most readers. The usual cautions about language and violence that generally go with mainstream novels nowadays apply here, it goes without saying.

I like the direction Robert Crais (author of the Elvis Cole books, in which the main character is also maturing) is taking in his novels. Kudos to him.

Pale Horse Coming, by Stephen Hunter

Perfect fall day today. The rains finally ceased, and Saturday was pretty nice, giving me the chance to do some maintenance jobs outside. Today was crisp and bright, with gumdrop colors in the foliage.

Which makes it all the sadder to hear about the fires in southern California. Our prayers go out to you folks in that area.

Stephen Hunter’s Pale Horse Coming is another thriller so good, so deeply satisfying on so many levels, that it makes me want to just hang up my laptop and give up telling stories. I’ll never be this good.

Pale Horse Coming
is set in 1951 and is a story about Earl Swagger, the father of Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of Point of Impact and other novels. Hunter is as canny at triangulating his market as he is at plotting and characterization. For the liberal reader he offers two of their favorite villains, southern racists and McCarthyites. But that’s not what the heart of the book is. The heart of the book is heroism, and endurance, and keeping promises, and knowing how to defend yourself, and the conviction that sometimes you just have to employ violence to deliver the oppressed.

The story begins with Sam Vincent of Blue Eye, Arksansas, Earl’s lawyer friend who will someday be Bob Lee’s mentor, getting an offer from a Chicago law firm to run what seems to be an unusual but innocuous errand. A black man who once worked for one of their clients has been mentioned in a will, but can’t be contacted. Would Sam go to his last known address, Thebes, Mississippi, to see if he can get legal verification of the man’s death? They prefer a southerner to make the trip, they say, because he’ll understand the local culture better.

The money’s good and Sam needs the work, so he makes the trip. What he finds is an insane and frightening situation. A tiny town stuck in the 1850s, almost cut off from the outside world, where the only local industry is a “colored”-only prison, and where the black residents, even outside the prison walls, are entirely dominated by the white guards.

When Sam’s conscience forces him to protest what he sees, he finds himself in big trouble. Without spoiling the rest of it for you, I’ll say that Sam’s big trouble becomes Earl’s big trouble. Then follows a tale of unspeakable cruelty and incredible endurance, capped by Earl’s retribution, which is epic in scope.

A delightful element toward the end is Earl’s assembly of a commando force made up almost entirely of “old-timers”—famous shooters of the 1920s, all of them based on real characters who will be familiar to any gun enthusiast, and some of whom even I could identify behind their fictionalized names. The name “Seven Against Thebes” is employed a couple times.

Could not put the book down. It grabbed me from the beginning, and Hunter timed his plot twists and setbacks expertly to keep me on the hook all the way.

And behind it all, I was never allowed to forget that Earl will not live long. All his resolve to care for his family and raise his boy will come to an untimely end, an end Hunter has already chronicled. So there’s irony and tragedy too as seasoning in the stew.

Hunter lifts the thriller form above the level of popular fiction. I suspect he’ll be read and loved for a long, long time.

Cornish’s Foundling

A while back I meant to link to a review Mr. Holtsberry did on his jolly good blog, which could only be improved by short, coffee-related posts, IMESHO. Since I’ve been making good on my thoughts lately (note the radio interview Dr. Bertrand landed after I thought about suggesting it. (I didn’t know he was a doctor. Did you know he had a doctorate?)) Anyway, I saw this review of Foundling, by D. M. Cornish, and having seen the book before, I have faith it’s a good one.

Kevin says the book is both Dickensesque and Tolkienesque. “The Dickens reference obviously comes from the orphan plot line and the semi-Victorian feel. But also from the strong characters,” he writes. “The Tolkienesque aspect comes from the complexity and detailed nature of Cornish’s creation. The world of the Half-Continent has a depth and level of detail that is rare in YA fantasy.” Very interesting, though the hardback has a scary cover. The website is Monster Blood Tattoo, which has a short excerpt from the book.

Review: Sissel concert, Oct. 13, 2007, Minot, ND

I had a wonderful time at the Sissel concert, and was completely satisfied personally, but it must have been a tough experience for her and her entourage. I also thought some improvements could have been made in view of the venue.

From what I hear, she and her crew only arrived at the hall an hour or two before the show was scheduled. Passport problems had delayed them. The festival canceled the usual noontime color ceremonies in order to allow them to set up and do sound tests.

Høstfest had decided to book Sissel for two concerts this year (I went to the early one at 1:00 p.m.). I applaud the sentiment of giving her two shows, but it was probably a mistake. Sissel deserves two concerts and more, but she’s just not a big name in America, and it’s the big names that the Høstfest attendees come to see. The first night was Ann-Margret and Tony Orlando. Also scheduled were Charlie Pride, Ronnie Milsap and Bill Cosby, among others. None of these are as talented as Sissel, in my opinion (except perhaps for Cosby, in his own way), but they are famous to the ordinary Midwesterners who come to the festival. Sissel they don’t know. As it turned out, the festival wasn’t able to move all the tickets, and ended up giving a lot of them away to servicepeople at the nearby Air Force base.

Whoever planned Sissel’s concert could have tailored it better to the crowd. The program began with three extremely sophisticated pieces in the classical vein (including a vocal arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At an Exhibition”). This would have been great in Chicago, or in Minneapolis. But in Minot, they would have done better to start with something like “Marry Me.” If they’d done that at the start, the crowd would have been eating out of her hand, and she could have done anything she liked afterward.

As it was, a few people walked out at the beginning (Philistines!).

Which was too bad, because the music got more popular as she went on. I can’t recall all the numbers, but I remember that she did her lullaby, “Sarah’s Song,” which I consider pretty saccharine, but which the crowd liked. She also sang “Bruremarsj” (Wedding March), which always goes over well in any language, since it has no actual words. She got a standing ovation in the end, and came back with “Koppången” (oddly enough in an English translation) and “Going Home,” which I’d never heard her do before. Lovely.

She was accompanied by a six-person ensemble of Norwegian musicians, all top-notch and worthy of their material.

Great concert, and I clapped my hands raw. But it was a rocky production.

Hunting Down Amanda, by Andrew Klavan

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Walker’s going to roll on his back and wriggle like a happy dachshund in delight over another Andrew Klavan masterpiece.

Well, you’re right.

Hunting Down Amanda is a masterful book. It’s fascinating in its own right, as a brilliantly crafted, smart, moving thriller.

It’s also fascinating to the Christian reader as an artifact of the conversion process. Because Klavan, who was not a Christian when he wrote it, was clearly on the way, and his growing interest in matters eternal informs the whole product.

The Amanda of the title is Amanda Dodson, a five-year-old girl who, when the story begins, witnesses a terrible air crash. She wanders to the crash site, and is carried out by a man. Her mother, who has been searching for her, sees this and says, “Oh God. Oh God. Now they’ll come after her.”

Because Amanda carries a secret, a secret that a powerful corporation will do anything to possess. And Amanda’s mother, Carol, has committed her life to one simple goal—protecting her from the men who are hunting her. To accomplish that, Carol will do anything, pay any price.

Her life gets entangled with that of Lonnie Blake, a jazz musician. Blake is a major talent who has gone downhill ever since the murder of his beloved wife. He becomes fixated on Carol, and through her gets involved in something more dangerous than he ever dreamed. But it’s also his chance for a kind of salvation.

And there’s Howard Roth, an old college professor who has terminal lung cancer. He’s more concerned about changes in the western civilization curriculum than in his own demise. But when he meets a little girl who wants to hear his stories of ancient myths, he finds a new reason for living.

But the hunters are closing in. And they are absolutely ruthless. For the little girl, they plan a short life of suffering. For her protectors, they plan no life at all.

The good guys aren’t helpless, though.

In fact, they have resources the hunters can’t imagine.

I loved this book. It wasn’t only that it was smartly plotted and fast-paced, and that the characters were textured and sympathetic. There were also biblical and theological allusions everywhere, and layers of mythological symbolism like deep soil in which a fruitful story can flourish.

I should warn you about strong language, and sexual references and violence. There are no Christian characters in this book, and none of them act like Christians.

But there is Christianity here, and it’s everywhere.

Hunting Down Amanda gets my highest recommendation.

Dirty White Boys, by Stephen Hunter

Well, as it turns out I’ll have a little time I didn’t expect tonight, after all. Let’s see if I can get this review composed and posted (composted?) before time’s winged chariot o’ertakes me, leaving tread marks on my back.

I think you’ll either love or hate Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys. I almost put it down a few pages in, because the story promised the murders of a whole lot of innocent bystanders before it was done, and I don’t have much stomach for that sort of thing anymore.

But Hunter surprised me. The story wasn’t what I expected, and I found it both compelling and complex.

A lot of people in our culture, I think, misunderstand what moral ambiguity in fiction means.

Sam Spade, for instance, in The Maltese Falcon, is a morally ambiguous character. He has major moral failings, especially in that he’s having an affair with his partner’s wife. But when that partner is killed, Sam knows his duty. He has to find the killer and turn them over to the police—even though it turns out to be someone he cares about. He’s not perfect, but he knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and he does his best to choose right.

That’s moral ambiguity.

Or there are situations where everything is so convoluted that one good has to be balanced against another good, or one evil against another. Sophie’s horrible Choice in that novel is an example of such a tragic moral ambiguity.

That’s another kind.

But modern writers aren’t usually willing to wrestle with moral ambiguity that way. They take the easy way out, flippantly declaring that there is no right and wrong, and that everyone’s choices are right for them. For all the theatrics of their characters, nobody really thinks anything important is at stake.

That’s not moral ambiguity. That’s moral nihilism.

Stephen Hunter presents here a classic exercise in real moral ambiguity. It’s a tour de force, in my opinion, with echoes of Greek tragedy.

Oklahoma Highway Trooper Bud Pewtie is Hunter’s tragic hero, the good man with the fatal flaw. He’s a little like Sam Spade, but he has more guilt. A family man with two teenage sons, he wants to be a good father and a good example. But he’s betraying his family, carrying on an affair with a younger woman. In yet another betrayal, the younger woman is the wife of his partner. Bud inhabits that moral no-man’s-land we all know so well, where you can’t make up your mind to end the thing, but can’t make up your mind to make a break the other way either. So you take the path of least resistance and hope things will work out somehow.

The antagonist in the book is Lamar Pye, a sort of mythic figure—the baddest white man in McAlester State Penitentiary. He is big and strong and fearless and smart, and when he breaks out of prison along with two other prisoners (murdering two innocent people along the way) he looks forward to blazing a path of robbery and death across the state.

And yet… in his own way, Lamar is a better man than Bud Pewtie. Because, as someone mentions, he knows how to be “true to his own kind.” “His own kind” being the people close to him, the ones he considers his family.

First of all there’s his cousin Odell. Odell is a huge, powerful man with a cleft palate and the mind of a small child. Essentially sweet by nature, he’d never have hurt anyone if he hadn’t been abused by his father (Lamar killed the father) and then become attached to a criminal.

Then there’s Richard, the other escaped prisoner. Richard is an artist, a soft and sensitive type who would have been easy meat for any rapist in the prison if he hadn’t drawn a picture of a lion that Lamar liked. Lamar became his protector then, leaving him no choice but to escape when Lamar escaped.

Later on there’s Ruta Beth, a not-quite-sane farm girl with a dark secret who hides the gang and becomes Lamar’s lover. She calls them all “the family” (Odell is “the baby”).

And Lamar surprises us. After the first two needless murders, he spares the lives of a couple people whom it would be safer for him to kill. We see him caring for his perverse little family in self-sacrificial ways, and we realize that under different circumstances he could have been a great man.

But he keeps running afoul of Bud Pewtie, and somehow he can’t manage to kill Bud. Bud becomes his obsession, his target, and that leads to a final showdown between two extremely complex, morally ambiguous men.

But for all the ambiguity, Hunter never forgets which side is the right side.

Aristotle said (if I remember correctly) that tragedy should rouse “pity and terror.”

There’s plenty of that in Dirty White Boys.

Cautions for offensive language, sex and violence. Not for the fainthearted. But an outstanding moral narrative, for my money.

Terror Town, by Stuart M. Kaminsky

It may have been “Dirty Harry” on Libertas blog, or it may have been someone else talking about the movies somewhere. But I’ve never forgotten the insight. Whoever it was pointed out that the great moviemakers did not transcend their genres by trying to turn them into other genres. They transcended them by doing the same old thing better—with better stories, more interesting characters, superior artistic techniques.

This, it seems to me, is a problem with many mystery writers today. Everybody (including some authors I like very much) tries to turn the mystery into a thriller. Big explosions. Big conspiracies. Big gunfights. Big, thick, heavy books.

Old pro Stuart M. Kaminsky resists this trend, and like the great movie directors, simply works the old routine, but he does it a little better.

In many ways Terror Town is a small book. It’s short compared to most of the novels you’ll buy these days. The characters are ordinary cops and ordinary citizens, living believable lives and caring for—or damaging—one another in the usual ways.

But there’s more beneath the surface.

Terror Town is one of Kaminsky’s Abe Lieberman novels. Abe Lieberman is a Chicago detective, getting old. He’s not a romantic figure. He looks like a shoe salesman, we’re informed, and he has to watch his cholesterol. He’s been married many years, and he and his wife are now raising the children of their daughter, who ran away to California and carries an unexplained grudge against her father.

His partner is Bill Hanrahan (they call each other “Rabbi” and “Father Murphy”). Hanrahan is a widower who has recently remarried, and his wife is expecting a baby.

The first of three strands of mystery in the book concerns the murder of Anita Mills, a pretty, black single mother who is on the way to building a good life when she is robbed and shot outside a bank. Abe knew her and is assigned to her case, which comes to involve a prominent politician with a very unusual secret.

Then there’s the problem of Carl Zwick, a former Chicago Cubs baseball player who’s trying to stage a comeback in the majors when he’s attacked for no apparent reason by a crazy man who knocks him out with a Coke bottle. What’s worse, the same crazy man seems to want to kill Bill Hanrahan and his wife.

And then there’s Richard Allen Smith, a religious con man who’s practicing extortion to finance (so he claims) a crusade to liberate Jerusalem. (Normally characters like this in books drive me away, but I thought Kaminsky handled it well.)

Meanwhile, Abe’s brother Maish suffers a heart attack. Maish is angry at God. He doesn’t deny God’s existence, he just doesn’t like him much. This plot element, combined with that of Abe’s rebellious daughter, adds an exquisite Job-like subtext to the whole business. In fact the theme of parents, children, and their complaints against one another recurs throughout.

It’s on the low side for sex, violence and bad language (by genre standards). I recommend Terror Town, and all Kaminsky’s books (well, I don’t much care for the Porfiry Rostnikov mysteries, but that’s just me).

The Vanished Man, by Jeffery Deaver

Does it really count as a book review when you explain why you tossed the book aside less than half way through? Because that’s what I did with Jeffery Deaver’s The Vanished Man.

I was not disappointed with the author’s skill. He writes a good story, creates a tight plot. His characters are well realized.

No, I just didn’t like the points he was trying to make, and I didn’t want to waste any more time on them.

The Vanished Man is a well-crafted thriller with a clever premise. What if a master magician became a serial killer? What if he felt compelled to re-create the feats of famous escape artists like Houdini, except that he stages them with innocent victims, leaving them no avenue of escape? And what if he were skilled in quick changes, illusion and lock-picking, so that even when the police have him surrounded, he can slip away from them?

That’s the promising scenario of The Vanished Man.

But Deaver lost me as a reader. I doubt if he cares. He clearly despises people like me, and wouldn’t want us for readers.

For instance, I’m a sexist pig. I don’t believe women (in general) make as good policemen as men. I believe men have both an obligation and a psychological need to protect women, and that putting women in harm’s way debases both them and the men.

In Deaver’s world, about half the cops are women, and any suggestion that a guy thinks even for a moment that women don’t make equally effective cops proves that he’s a Neanderthal.

There’s a conservative Protestant pastor in the novel, and at the beginning he seems to be portrayed pretty sympathetically. This immediately made me suspicious, and I was right to be. A little further in, we learn that the pastor is a child molester, and that he’s in New York City to perform a political assassination on behalf of a right-wing militia group.

That was when I lost interest.

Nobody pays me to read these books, and I don’t have unlimited time left in my life. I’m not going to spend that time reading fiction that insults me.

No doubt some people feel the same about my books.

Fair enough.

Shark River, by Randy Wayne White

Today I gave my classic Orientation-time PowerPoint on library procedures to the students at the Bible school. As usual it was a hit, and it ought to earn me some tolerance from the students, right up until they actually have to deal with me in person.

I learned yesterday morning, as I lay in bed luxuriating in the Labor Day holiday, that I was supposed to be at school, delivering the thing. The implication was that I’d been informed about this. I have no memory of that (as unindicted co-conspirators like to say). So it was arranged for me to do it today, but I went in and put in a few hours work yesterday anyway. Had to update the PowerPoint, for one thing. New rules on fines, in general more forgiving ones. Naturally, as a Christian conservative, I hate that. All the money we spent on the new pillory and refurbishing the ducking stool, down the drain. There’s just no standards anymore.

I am strongly conflicted about Randy Wayne White’s Shark River. I liked it and disliked it, in about equal proportions. No, I guess I liked it a little more than I disliked it. I shall elucidate.

White’s Doc Ford character is widely considered an heir to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, and I have to say I haven’t read anything in the field that meets the qualifications better. Like McGee, Ford lives a laid-back life on the water in Florida (though Ford lives on the other coast, and works pretty hard as a marine biologist, while McGee purposely lived as a beach bum between cases). They are both actively involved in the social scenes in their marinas, though Ford’s neighbors are more important to the plot than McGee’s usually were.

But Ford has a dark past. He was formerly a member of an ultra-secret government assassination squad. He came to Sanibel Island, his present home, with the intention of killing a man named Tomlinson, who had been involved in a fatal anti-war bombing plot back in the Vietnam years. For reasons of his own, Ford decided to let Tomlinson live, became his best friend, and hung up his spurs, so to speak.

Shark River begins with the attempt of a Colombian drug lord to kidnap the daughter of an influential American bureaucrat. Ford, in the right place at the right time, prevents it. In the fight he paralyzes a man who turns out to be the drug lord’s son, making himself a target. At the same time he meets Ransom Ebanks, a Bahamian woman who claims to be his long-lost half-sister, but is in fact the daughter of his reprobate uncle, whom Ford never liked much. She has a letter from her father and a sort of treasure map promising to lead to her “inheritance,” and she is relentless in trying to get Ford to help her. But of course the Colombians are waiting over the horizon, planning to strike back at the man who crippled one of their own.

In his casual courage and human tolerance, Doc Ford pleases me in the same way Travis McGee used to. But there are elements in the story that please me less. I can’t help it, but I’m just intolerant of drug use. Ford doesn’t use marijuana, but his friend Tomlinson and his “sister” Ransom are both users.

Tomlinson is presented as a burnt-out case, a little flaky (he is a Buddhist and a teacher of Transcendental Meditation, which also doesn’t win any points with me), but I have trouble with his history as an anti-war radical, as well as his religion. I think his friendship with Doc Ford is meant to be a metaphor for American reconciliation, and that’s nice, but I’m still pretty bitter about the whole thing, so I found Tomlinson kind of hard to take. Especially when he was smoking pot.

The attitude toward sexual morality all around in the book was pretty heedless too, in my opinion. (Yes, even more heedless than Travis McGee’s.)

But I liked Shark River enough that I expect I’ll give White another read.

Melton L. Duncan on Tolkien’s Work

Melton Duncan has a lengthy review of The Children of Hurin which he closes with an “Abridged Guide to Evangelicalism as Middle Earth.”

No Tolkien work ever gets published without a fascinating appendix. So why shouldn’t a review about Tolkien. For those of you who have been struggling to “contextualize” this review into postmodern applications the following is for you. Tolkien detested allegory of all kinds, so please keep in mind this is just a hyper technical, completely accurate application of Tolkien’s world to the modern evangelical scene.

Could be a long inside joke, but you may want to scan it anyway. No potshots are Lutheranism that I see.

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.