Category Archives: Reviews

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.

The Door to December, by Dean Koontz

I’m becoming a fan of Dean Koontz, almost against my will. As I familiarize myself with his body of work, I’ve developed a theory about him, which I’ll share at the end of this incisive review.

The Door to December is one of Koontz’ earlier works, first published under a pseudonym. It exhibits the usual weaknesses you expect from early Koontz. And yet… I loved it.

As the story begins, Laura McCaffrey, a psychologist, is summoned by the police to a house where her ex-husband has been found horribly murdered, along with two other men. Her concern is not with her ex, but with her daughter Melanie, whom he kidnapped six years ago. Besides the bloody corpses in the house, beaten beyond recognition, a room is found containing a sensory deprivation chamber and an electro-shock aversion therapy chair. Of Melanie there is no sign at first, but the little girl is soon discovered wandering naked on a nearby street. She is physically unharmed, but appears to be autistic.

At the crime scene Laura meets police detective Dan Haldane, who immediately takes an interest in the attractive doctor and her vulnerable child. As they look at the evidence, it becomes clear that Melanie has been the subject of a heartless, long-term psychological experiment.

And the horror isn’t over, because whatever killed the men in the house is killing others connected with the project. And Melanie, in her rare lucid moments, expresses her certainty that when the Thing is done killing the experimenters, it will kill her too.

I found lots of things to complain about in the writing here. The dialogue in particular was clunky. There’s one scene where Det. Haldane has a long argument with his greatest enemy in the world, his police superior. At one point he starts explaining himself to the man, sharing his deepest fears and motivations. This is ridiculous. Men hate to bare their souls to their closest friends. They don’t voluntarily point out their own weak spots to people who are likely to use the information against them. I know why Koontz did it. It’s a temptation for an author—you need to insert some exposition, explaining why your character acts the way he does. You’ve got a passionate dialogue scene; your character’s emotions are up. It seems to be just the place to throw the exposition in. You willingly ignore the fact that your character is expositing to the wrong person.

It’s easy to do. I’ve been tempted to do it myself (and have probably succumbed). But it’s bush league, and it damages credibility. (I’m reading the more recent The Good Guy now, and Koontz’ craftsmanship seems to have improved a lot.)

In spite of my criticisms, I liked this book exceedingly. And I think I know why (here comes my theory). Koontz is different from the average thriller writer. The average thriller writer is interested in examining the Problem of Evil. That’s an important question, and well worth looking at.

But Koontz prefers to examine the Problem of Good. When you consider it, the problem of good is just as puzzling, and certainly as important, as the other problem. And there’s the added advantage that there’s a whole lot less being written on the subject.

From that point of view—the point of view of looking at why people do good things, why they love and sacrifice and care for one another—I found The Door to December very moving. The climax, in particular, surprised me completely (it would probably not surprise a more virtuous reader as much).

I won’t say I like Koontz as well as Andrew Klavan, even now. But I’m liking him better and better. And he has a lot more books out there for me to find and read.

Chistmas report, and The Husband by Koontz

Hope you had a good Christmas. I’ll be celebrating (if anything I do can properly be described by that word) with my family here on Saturday.

So how did I spend the holiday? Mostly shoveling snow, as best I recall. We got another couple inches on Christmas Eve night, and my renter and I cleared that out. Christmas Day snow was predicted to be light, but Mother Nature was in a giving mood, so we got a couple more inches on Christmas Day and overnight. My renter being at work today, I shoveled all that by myself. My neighbor, who generally does our shared driveway with his snowblower, continued his tradition of perfect timing by being out of town. (Traditions mean so much at Christmas, after all.)

But I found time to stretch out on the couch with a book too. (Actually I had little choice after all that snow shoveling.) I read Dean Koontz’ The Husband. Good book. I won’t make this reading report an actual review. I think most of you know (and I’m figuring out by now) what to expect of a Dean Koontz book. He appears to be improving as a writer with the years, from what I can tell, but I wouldn’t rate him as a great novelist. But I’ve discovered that he’s an author I can go to and pretty much count on for a good experience—even a moving experience. The Husband is about a man who’s a husband in two senses. He’s married to a woman he loves, and he also runs a lawn service (which makes him a “husbandman” in the traditional English parlance). He lives a conventional middle class life and is happy in it. So it makes no sense when he gets a call telling him the caller has kidnapped his wife, and wants two million dollars in ransom.

Great story. Not (I think) a typical Dean Koontz thriller in that the supernatural element is almost entirely absent. But the tension never lets up, and the morality is excellent. There’s also some insightful social commentary. Enjoyed it very much.

Book review: Vengeance, by Stuart M. Kaminsky

I picked up Vengeance at a used book store, thinking that it was one of the few Lew Fonesca novels I haven’t read yet. Turns out I’d done this one already, but I read it again anyway, just because Lew is a guy I like to hang out with.

Lew Fonesca is a Florida detective, but (aside from courage and personal integrity) that’s about all he has in common with Travis McGee or Doc Ford. Lew came to Florida a couple years back, ending up on the seedy side of Sarasota because that’s where his car broke down when he drove south after the death of his wife. He’s not technically a private detective. He makes a marginal living as a process server. He lives in one half of his two-room office next to a Dairy Queen. He doesn’t own a car anymore, and usually travels by bicycle. He’s short and skinny and bald, and has a large nose. People frequently comment that he “looks sad.”

But sometimes a problem comes up, and he looks into it for someone. More than once he puts himself into insanely dangerous situations, and he isn’t sure why, though his psychiatrist has theories.

In this first book in the series, Lew is approached by a woman from Kansas who has come looking for her fourteen-year-old daughter, who ran away to join her father in Sarasota. There’s good reason to think the father has been molesting the daughter. Lew agrees to look into it for a small retainer.

Immediately afterward he meets with a very different client, a big-time real estate developer, an aging man whose beautiful young wife has disappeared. He can’t live without her, he says. He’s confident she still loves him, and doesn’t know why she went away. He wants Lew to just deliver a message, to ask her to talk to him. Lew agrees to search for her too.

The investigations very quickly put him in danger, and he has to call on his friend Ames McKinney for help. Ames is a tall Texan who was once a millionaire and now makes his living sweeping out a bar (you may recall my theory of the Psycho Killer Friend™ in mystery fiction. Ames isn’t really a psycho, but he fulfills the function). Ames is a good man to have along in a tight place, but Lew doesn’t always call on him when he needs him. Lew also meets a compassionate female social worker with whom he begins a tentative, cautious relationship. In the end the two mysteries intertwine in a heartbreaking fashion.

The plot seemed to me far-fetched at times, but contained such believable proportions of tragedy and hope that it never lost my sympathy. I suppose you could call the Lew Fonesca books “soft-boiled mysteries.” Kaminsky writes with his characteristic concern for basic right and wrong, and compassion for the human condition. He’s one of my favorite writers and I enjoyed this book almost as much on the second reading.

Book review: Hot Springs, by Stephen Hunter

Sorry about my silence last night. Wednesday is the day one of my assistants comes in to work at noon, so I took that opportunity to drag myself home and lie down in bed. Later on, for a change of pace, I lay down on the sofa. It seemed such a good program that I chose not to mess it up with blogging or Christmas card writing.

I think I’m a little better today, sort of. Perhaps. I seemed to have more steam to get me through the afternoon, but I think I’ve been spewing toxic aerosol more today than yesterday. Still, I think I’m making my way toward the end of Kubler-Ross’s Seven Stages of the Cold:

1. Tickle.

2. A little sore, but it was probably that hot soup I ate.

3. Oh man, this is serious. What’s in the medicine cabinet?

4. I really feel like staying home from work. Am I sick enough to take a day off?

5. I’m not well enough to go to work, but I’m well enough to drive to the drug store for Sudafed and Ibuprofen. And chocolate, of course (got to keep my strength up).

6. I could go back to work, but I’d be spreading germs to all my co-workers.

7. How come there’s nothing in the fridge?

I read another Swagger book from Stephen Hunter—Hot Springs. It’s a doozy. This is another Earl Swagger story (I think there are actually more Earl books than Bob Lee books, though I’m too lazy to tally them up). It begins in the aftermath of World War II, with Earl getting the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Truman, and then heading home with his new wife. In spite of his hero status, all that awaits him is a job in a sawmill (where, we are informed, everybody loses a hand or an arm eventually). He can’t understand why he’s so miserable, hitting the bottle so hard, but it becomes clear that in his deepest heart he misses the war. The war was his drug. He never expected, or intended, to come home at all.

Then he’s approached by two men. One is an ambitious politician, the newly elected District Attorney in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The other is a legendary former FBI agent, generally considered the greatest pistol shot in the country. They have a job offer for Earl, one more interesting than saw mill work.

The district attorney wants to clean up Hot Springs, which (we learn) is in that time what Las Vegas will be later on. In fact Bugsy Siegel, who will later establish the casino industry in Vegas, is in Hot Springs just at this time, checking out the possibilities.

The plan is to form a flying squad of young men, kind of like Eliot Ness’ Untouchables, but trained the Marine way by Earl Swagger. They will be turned into hard, keen fighting men, experts in all kinds of firearms. Using military tactics, they will shut down vice in the city.

In spite of his wife’s fears, Earl takes the job. What follows is a story of courage and betrayal, and a trip into Earl’s darkest heart.

Because he knows Hot Springs, though he won’t admit it to anyone. He knows Hot Springs because his father, a feared lawman, respected Baptist churchman and brutal, child-beating hypocrite (fortunately, Hunter provides a couple decent Christian characters for balance, so I wasn’t offended), had business in Hot Springs of his own, on a regular basis, before his death.

I hardly need say that in the end Earl Swagger does what has to be done, by thunder, and does it so nobly you just want to build a statue to him.

One of Hunter’s best, I think.

Book Review: Brother Odd, by Dean Koontz

Our commenter Aitchmark recommended Dean Koontz’ Odd Thomas books to me. I dragged my feet, because I’d read one Koontz and wasn’t terribly impressed. I didn’t think he used language very skillfully.

But I picked up Brother Odd last week, and frankly it turned my world upside down and gave it a good shake.

I still don’t think Koontz is a very good wordsmith. Time and again it seemed to me he was aiming for effects he wasn’t achieving.

But in Odd Thomas he has created a character who won my heart, and I’ll bet he’ll win yours too. You should not pick up this one first, though, but go back to the earlier books in the series to get the tragedies in sequence, because it does make a difference.

Odd Thomas (Odd is his first name. He explains it as a typo on his birth certificate, where it was supposed to say, “Todd.” Koontz doesn’t seem to be aware that Odd is an uncommon but not unknown Norwegian name, a variant of “Odin”) is a young man who makes his living as a fry cook. He is totally unremarkable (disregarding the pain he has suffered in his life) except for his unusual gift. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense and that girl on the TV show, he sees dead people.

But it’s harder for him than it is for them, because the dead don’t speak to him. The ghosts who linger in this world, in these stories, are mute. They are usually the victims of murder, and it’s Odd’s task to figure out their unspoken secrets and give them rest.

This all sounds very New Age, but it’s anything but that. Odd is a devout, practicing Roman Catholic.

In Brother Odd, in fact, he has left his California home and entered a Colorado monastery, overwhelmed by the personal losses he experienced in earlier adventures. It’s fairly quiet there for him—the only resident ghost is a monk who hanged himself in the bell tower and appears only occasionally.

But it doesn’t stay quiet. Besides ghosts, Odd is able to see spirits he calls “bodachs,” dark, shadowy figures that always gather in advance of acts of massive death and violence.

At the beginning of the story, Odd sees three of them. And they head straight for the monastery’s associated school, where the nuns care for retarded and handicapped children.

In his efforts to prevent whatever unknown horror is threatening the children, Odd must uncover the secrets of the monastery residents.

But these aren’t the kind of secrets you expect in a contemporary thriller. The monks and nuns are not practicing secret sexual rituals, or abusing the children, or plotting the overthrow of democracy. They are, by and large, sweet souls, the kind of people you can believe have given their lives in service to God and their fellow man. (I have to give Koontz tremendous props for these characterizations. As C.S. Lewis noted [I think] in The Four Loves, good characters are “the very devil” for an author.)

No, the secrets are deeper than that, and the evil resides in a place Dan Brown would have never imagined.

Koontz got completely past my reservations about his style, and grabbed me with the characters and the story. I don’t often cry over a book, but Brother Odd got to me.

Highly recommended. I’ve got to read the earlier installments, Odd Thomas and Forever Odd.

Book review: Web of Evil, by J. A. Jance

I’d read one J. A. Jance novel before, I think, and hadn’t been terribly impressed (I thought I’d reviewed it, but can’t find it in the archives, so I guess I didn’t). If I remember correctly, it had a male protagonist and, like so many female authors (in my opinion) she didn’t write a guy very well. No doubt we male writers have the same trouble with female characters.

But Web of Evil is one of Jance’s Ali Reynolds books, stories about a woman amateur detective, and I found it a lot of fun.

Ali Reynolds is a former Los Angeles news anchor. Today she lives in a double-wide mobile home (though a nice one) in Sedona, Arizona, where her parents run a diner. She’s in the midst of a bitter divorce from her husband, Paul, a network executive, and also an unfair dismissal suit against her old TV station (the two facts are not unrelated).

One day she gets in her car to drive to L.A., where she’s going to sign her final divorce papers. But there will be no signing. Her husband turns up dead, locked in the trunk of a car which was then left on the railroad tracks to wait for the next train.

As it happened, the murder occurred near the highway Ali was driving, just about the time that, by her own account, she was passing through the area. Suddenly the police are looking very closely at her movements and personal affairs.

This mystery was one of the most tech-savvy I’ve read. Ali is a blogger, and her blog, as well as her cell phone, are important parts of the plot.

I especially liked Ali’s parents, who bear the fine Scandinavian name of Larson. They are decent, caring people and unabashedly conservative (how often do you see that in a novel these days?).

Ali herself is a classic female detective. She’s smart, beautiful and spunky. Like all amateur detectives, she goes where the police say she shouldn’t go, and does what the police say she shouldn’t do, and yet doesn’t get locked up long enough to keep her out of the action. When you sit down to analyze the plot, the whole thing is a little far-fetched, and Ali’s close involvement with the investigation improbable, but Jance keeps the story moving so skillfully that you don’t notice. She kept me turning the pages, and I found it a very entertaining read.

Not great literature, but a lot of fun. Worth the price.

Short movie review: No Country For Old Men

Thanksgiving went just fine. My turkey was once again a success, and nobody got food poisoning (or if they did, they’re thoughtfully keeping the fact from me).

At the end of the day my brother Baal and I found ourselves alone here, and we decided to see a movie. So we went to see “No Country For Old Men.”

Brilliant writing, brilliant dialog, brilliant acting. And an ending designed to make ordinary people want their money back, while critics at Cannes applaud their manicures loose.

My one-line review goes like this: “No Country For Old Men” is an elegant, three-hour shaggy dog story.

And do you think Tommy Lee Jones will ever get tired of being the Texan Steppin Fetchitt? I’m sure there’s a lot of money in being the go-to guy whenever Hollywood wants to show how bigoted, hateful or irrelevant (irrelevant in this case) white Texan males are (Billy Green Bush made a good living in the same gig back in the 70s. Maybe you’re required to have three names to get the job), but do you think he ever feels a little embarrassed about it?

Review: Viking Warrior, by Judson Roberts

If you want to read a good Viking novel, your choices are pretty few. There’s me, of course, but I’m out of print. Bernard Cornwell is doing a series about Vikings and Saxons in Alfred’s England (I’m avoiding them, though, because, from what I read, he’s trashing Christianity again. I wish he wouldn’t do that. I really like Cornwell otherwise). There’s Tim Severin’s new series, which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet, mea culpa. You can sometimes find a copy of the English translation of Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships here or there.

But the field is pretty sparse. Which is why I’m delighted to welcome Judson Roberts to our small but elite club.

Viking Warrior
is a Young Adult novel which will be enjoyed by older readers as well. It begins the story of Halfdan, who, as the story opens, is a young slave on a large farm in Denmark. He is actually the natural son of the chieftain who owns the farm, but his mother is a slave from Ireland. So all his life he has known only hard work and bitterness.

Everything changes when his master and the master’s son return from an abortive raid in England. His master is dying. On his deathbed, he makes a bargain with Halfdan’s mother—he will acknowledge Halfdan, free him, and make him an heir. But in return Halfdan’s mother must make a terrible sacrifice. She does this willingly, in a deeply moving but troubling segment of the story.

Suddenly Halfdan’s life is changed out of recognition. Harald, his master’s freeborn son and chief heir, befriends him and begins to teach Halfdan the skills of a warrior. Harald is extremely likeable, and Halfdan grows in character as he learns to set aside old angers, even as he is learning a whole new way of living.

One thing Harald does not need to teach Halfdan is the use of the bow. Halfdan has been learning the arts of the bowyer and the fletcher for years, and has been hunting in secret. His skill with a bow is already formidable, and it’s a skill he’ll come to need very much, very soon.

Because there is an enemy out there—a vicious and ruthless enemy who wants the whole family dead; one who cares nothing for honor or fair dealing, nor for how many murders it takes to achieve his goal.

I can hardly think of a way this book could have been better. If I’d written it, I’d have taken pains to anglicize the speech a little more—to avoid words with Latin roots, but that’s my own bugbear, and probably means little to the average reader. The prose was tight, the characters well-rounded, the emotions rang true, and the plot was compelling. I wished it were longer—but fortunately there’s a sequel for me to order.

References to Christianity were generally negative, but that was appropriate to the story. Although Halfdan’s mother is a Christian, she doesn’t seem to have conveyed much of it to her son, so Halfdan’s opinions are those of the average Scandinavian heathen of the time. There is a ceremonial matter toward the beginning of the story that was extremely conflicting for me to read, but it was in no way unreasonable in the time and place.

The only false note (in my opinion) was a scene later in the book, where Halfdan, having killed his first man, is troubled not to feel any guilt about it. I think that’s a projection of modern and Christian values. I don’t believe a Norse pagan in the 9th Century would have been bothered by that at all. I think he would have been pleased.

But that’s the sort of thing it’s almost impossible to avoid, when moderns write about the past. I’m sure I’ve done the same in my own books.

I strongly recommend Viking Warrior. Cautions for violence and sexual references (but no explicit sex scenes). It would make a much-valued Christmas gift for that Viking aficionado on your gift list (and who doesn’t have one of those?).

Book Review: Proof Positive, by Phillip Margolin

Another negative review for you today. I’ve found a reason in my old age to finish books I dislike. The pain of reading them is balanced (at least somewhat) by the pleasure of insulting the authors, at a safe distance. The petty vengeance of the failed novelist.

Proof Positive is a legal thriller written from viewpoint of the defense side.

It led this reader to root for prosecutors even more than a Robert K. Tanenbaum novel could.

It’s one in a series of novels starring a young female defense attorney in Portland, Oregon named Amanda Jaffe. She’s the daughter of a prominent criminal lawyer.

The story starts with the execution of a convicted murderer by lethal injection. His lawyer, Doug Weaver, observes the death of his gentle, not-too-bright client, consoling himself that the man must have been guilty, because a forensic expert found his fingerprint on the murder weapon.

Later, mobster Art Prochaska is arrested for the murder of a drug dealer. Amanda, whose father has often represented Prochaska’s boss, is retained to represent him.

There’s damning forensic evidence against Prochaska, but by now the author has revealed to us that the forensic investigator who documented the evidence is in fact in the practice of planting manufactured clues.

At the same time, Doug Weaver is retained to defend a psychotic young man accused of murder, also the victim of falsified forensics.

As the attorneys seek the truth, the crooked CSI begins to commit murders of his own, in order to protect himself.

If this synopsis seems a little dry, it’s because I DIDN’T CARE FOR ANY OF THESE CHARACTERS FOR ONE SINGLE MOMENT!

That’s an exaggeration. I found two human scenes in the book. One was where the young psychotic meets with his parents in the jail, and they finally make a connection after many years. The other involved a moment of sexual banter between two lovers.

Other than that, author Margolin took apparent pains to keep us eternally at an emotional distance from his characters. One of his irritating techniques was to always convey his characters’ thoughts at a remove, saying (for example), “He thought that he made a mistake…” rather than, “He thought, ‘I made a mistake.’”

And all the characters do this tedious thinking in the same way. Men and women. Cops and civilians. Professional criminals and solid citizens. There was nothing to distinguish them in their characterizations. They all thought and reacted (at least to my perception) in precisely identical ways.

This was especially annoying in regard to the gangsters in the book. Margolin didn’t seem to care at all that these were very bad guys who make their livelihoods off human suffering. They were targets of the rogue CSI, so they were treated as charming and slightly amusing tough guys.

Margolin obviously wants us to realize that police power can be abused, and that even forensic evidence isn’t always solid. True enough. There have been cases like this, where the system has been abused.

But he undercuts his argument by whitewashing the crooks and (especially) by BORING ME WITH A DULL NARRATIVE.

Margolin is apparently a very successful novelist. I have no idea why, on the basis of this book.

Movie Review: Beowulf

One line review: I didn’t hate it.

Long, long ago, when I was a small, unpromising child, my brother Moloch and I were given the gift of a ViewMaster for Christmas. If you’re one of our younger readers, you may never have seen a ViewMaster. It was a device for viewing stereoscopic images; pictures in 3-D. The pictures came on cardboard disks, and my favorite set of disks was the one portraying the story of Snow White.

This wasn’t the Disney version. Somebody had gone to great pains to carve and paint a number of posed character figures, and then to place them in dioramas and photograph them. Whoever did the job had a tremendous sense of composition and color, and I found the scenes fascinating and beautiful.

In a way, Beowulf is a lot like those ViewMaster scenes, with the added element of motion. I’ll confess right off the bat that I have a “gee-whiz,” little kid’s response to the novelty of watching a 3-D movie. Even when the effects take you out of the story (which, I must confess, they often do), I enjoy the ride.

The capture motion animation, in my opinion, is less successful. I think the response you’ll get from most people who come out of the film will be, “It was kind of weird.” I liked that the digital painting of the characters made them resemble the figures in my ViewMaster Snow White. And sometimes, particularly in the action scenes, I thought the animation was very effective.

But in the quieter scenes, especially, the ones that involved people interacting with each other, things were strangely off. Hands, facial expressions and body movements often seemed stilted, deformed or awkward, which is odd. If Disney was able to create elegant, naturalistic motions using drawings alone, how is it possible to make figures look less natural when you’re drawing right on top of actual filmed images?

I predict that this kind of animation will continue to be done, and will rapidly improve. Which means that Beowulf will not age well.

How did they treat the story? That’s also kind of weird, though it was far from reaching the low-end benchmark of the recent Canadian/Icelandic Beowulf and Grendel, which I reviewed here a while ago. That movie made the story a parable of European racism and imperialism, painting Grendel as the spotless hero and Beowulf as a Nazi, redeemed only by his profound self-doubts.

Beowulf treats the story with much more respect than that. The script, by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, follows the original poem in its general plot points, with the added bonus of including Beowulf’s last battle with the dragon, which most moviemakers would have omitted. In order to unify the theme, they make some major changes in the plot, though, mostly involving the character of Grendel’s mother, played (you must be aware by now) by Angelina Jolie without no clothes on. (I didn’t find this, actually, more pornographic, done in this kind of animation, than the skin-tight female uniforms so popular on recent versions of Star Trek. On top of that, Angelina J. has never been my idea of an appealing female. Unlike a dragon, she has not the least spot of vulnerability about her. Which, in a way, makes her perfect for the role. The stiletto heels, however, were a little too much; even if they were presumed to grow out of her feet.)

What intrigues me about the changes made in the story is that the authors have taken a Germanic heroic saga (in which the hero is bigger than life and essentially without fault, dying in the end merely because his fate-allotted time has run out) and changed it into a tragedy on the Greek model. The Greek tragedy centered on a hero with a fatal flaw—some weakness or appetite that compelled him to bring his own doom down upon himself. This plot pattern was eagerly taken up by Christian poets and playwrights, who recognized it as an ideal vehicle for expressing the Christian view of original sin.

This means that, in spite of the fact that most of the references to Christianity in the movie (anachronistic, by the way, as Christianity was hardly heard of in Denmark until at least a couple centuries later) are dismissive, and although the primary Christian spokesman in the movie is pictured as extremely brutal to his slaves, the writers have (probably without meaning to) essentially forced a Christian form and sensibility onto the pre-Christian story.

From a historical point of view, the costumes and sets were better than those in The Thirteenth Warrior (also based on “Beowulf,” and all in all a better film, but much debased by ridiculous, anachronistic armor), but not as good as those in Beowulf and Grendel (which tried to redeem its ruthless trashing of the whole saga by punctilious authenticity in its look). I saw some details, in helmets and swords and such things, that pleased me. But the designers, apparently, felt some compulsion to make a lot of the armor look sort of Greek or Roman (perhaps a subliminal nod to the Greek tragedy drift of the script).

I’ve never cared for bare-legged warriors. Real Vikings wear trousers (which leaves completely to one side Beowulf’s totally naked fight with Grendel).

Well, I could go on, but it all works out to the same thing. Beowulf is a bold and ambitious treatment of a classic epic. It’s entertaining and worth seeing (Leave the kids at home, though. It should have gotten a more restricted rating than PG-13).

If you’re not interested in this sort of thing, don’t bother. If you are, see it now before it becomes something we all look back at and laugh.

The C.M.E.P.

I enjoyed trashing Steve Thayer’s novel, The Wheat Field, so much last night that I thought I’d kick it a little more tonight.

One thing I started wondering as I re-read my review was, “How come Thayer didn’t finish the job?” There was one obvious conservative stereotype he could have included, but for some reason he left it out. Hard to understand, when he used all the others.

I can imagine him having lunch with his publisher. In between the salad and the entrée, the publisher says, “Look, Steve. We need to talk about the obvious omission in this manuscript.”

“Omission? What did I leave out?”

“The C.M.E.P., of course.”


“Yes. The Child-Molesting Evangelical Pastor. Every other novel set in the Midwest that we’ve published this year has included a C.M.E.P. Our readers expect a C.M.E.P. They’re going to be pretty disappointed if you don’t give them a C.M.E.P.”

“Well, gee. I’m not sure how I could make it germane to the plot…”

“Germane, shmermane. You threw in that subplot about the recluse couple. That didn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story.”

“Well, I felt like I needed to include at least two characters with a drop of recognizable humanity in them.”

“Recognizable humanity? What are you talking about? You’re writing about the Midwest. There’s no recognizable humanity in the Midwest. All those two-parent homes, people going to church. Gives me the willies. You’ve got to put something in there to show how oppressive traditional families are.”

“On top of the C.M.E.P.?”

“Put ‘em together. Make the abusive father a preacher. Our readers’ll eat it up.”

“You want a second irrelevant subplot? Isn’t the plot enough of a mess already?”

“OK. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll let it go for this book, but in the next one you’ve got to give us at least two C.M.E.P.s. Think you can do that?”

“Yeah, I’m sure I can do that.”

“Put Bush in too. Figure out a way to blame it all on Bush.”

(Thayer mutters to himself)
“Maybe I can blame Bush for my whole writing career.”

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.