Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Spook, by Bill Pronzini

There are a million injustices in the mean streets of Publishing Town. The greatest of all, it goes without saying, is my own failure to find a new publisher. But not far behind is the tragic fact that Bill Pronzini is not a major, bestselling mystery writer.

He’s published and respected and he wins awards, but he’s never broken out as I think he should. He has everything I want in a mystery writer. He sets out a good puzzle, but he also paints a good character, which is what I really want.

I realized years ago, reading Science Fiction, why I don’t care for most Science Fiction. It’s because the authors treat their characters like specimens on a dissection tray. “Let’s poke the subject here, and see what its reaction is.” They had no compassion for their characters, and I put down their books with relief.

There are mystery writers like that too, but Bill Pronzini isn’t one of them. His characters are 98.6 F warm. They act like real people, for real motives, and Pronzini has compassion on them—even the bad ones.

His continuing character is known as “The Nameless Detective,” not because he’s a man of mystery, but because Pronzini started writing about him in short stories without giving him a name, and once he’d established him that way it would detract from the stories to suddenly drop a name on him (although he did let us know, some years back, that Nameless’ first name is Bill).

Nameless has grown over the years. He started out as a young San Francisco private eye who consciously modeled himself on the hard-boiled sleuths of the old pulp magazines, of which he is a collector. He was also a heavy smoker at the start, which gave Pronzini the chance to kill him off from cancer in one memorable short story. But (like Conan Doyle) he succumbed to the temptation to bring his detective back. Nameless had a remission, and has taken care of himself since then.

He’s middle-aged now, and married to a woman named Kerry. They’ve adopted a little girl. He’s planning to semi-retire soon, and has taken on a partner, a young black woman named Tamara whom he mentored. In this book they also hire an operative, a former cop named Jake Runyon. Runyon has many personal demons, which helps him fit right in.

In Spook, the agency is hired by a San Francisco film company to discover the identity of a homeless man whom everyone called “Spook,” a gentle, mentally disturbed man who was shot to death in an alley behind their studio. It’s not supposed to be a Whodunnit. It’s just that the filmmakers liked the man, and would like to notify his family, or arrange for burial themselves.

Following the clues they turn up, the detectives send their new operative, Runyon, out to a small town in the Sierras to discover the tragic story behind “Spook’s” decline. Runyon doesn’t mind. He has absolutely nothing in his life anymore except for his work, and he provides an empathetic eye as he turns over the old log he finds, to see what worms writhe underneath.

But there’s more than just worms there. There’s a wasp—someone very angry and very crazy, with a brainful of hate and resentment. And a gun.

Pronzini is a fine, professional storyteller who draws you in and makes you care. Profanity and sexual situations are on the low side for the genre. I recommend Spook, and all Pronzini’s novels.

The Chess Machine, by Robert Löhr

For his first novel, accomplished German author and playwright Robert Löhr spins a remarkable yarn from an obscure historical incident. In 1770, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen revealed a clockwork device called the Mechanical Turk. It was a chess-playing automaton or at least was presented as such. In reality, it was a clever bit of gears and controls beneath the wooden façade of a stern Turkish chess master (about which Edgar Allen Poe writes in this essay, having witnessed the Turk many years later).

In The Chess Machine, Löhr uses that stone to produce a 300-page soup of deception, ambition, lust, loyalty, prejudice, and faith—with a touch of murder. The lead character is the man within the machine, the brilliant Tibor Scardanelli. Tibor’s religious worldview frames most the drama. When he is first offered a job as the automaton’s mind, he refuses it, citing the commandment to avoid false witness. Within a day his circumstances become so desperate that he runs to find Kempelen to accept the offer. From that point on, Tibor, a dwarf who had lived as an outcast of society, has to become non-existent, because no one can know that Kempelen has been associating with a man who could fit inside his new chess machine.

When he arrives at the workshop which is to be his entire world for several months, Tibor meets another outcast working with Kempelen, a Jew named Jakob whose woodcarving gives the Turk its mystic aura. The three men are a wild success everywhere they perform, which stirs up envy among the mechanicians who know it can’t be done and fear from priests and parishioners who believe it’s of the devil. The deception grows dangerous when a beautiful woman dies while alone with the machine. That’s more of a teaser than you’ll get from the video created by the book’s Dutch publisher.

Tibor causes the most trouble for himself when he sneaks away from Kempelen’s in-house arrest to breathe the wild air of the world. One time he gets caught up in a Viennese masquerade party. Another time he takes refuge with a somewhat deranged sculptor. In both cases, he is carried away by the lust of the flesh and deeply troubled by his sin. This is the most realistic conflict Löhr describes. Tibor is powerless over his sin, and he pleads for God’s absolution. Yet even while he prays, one time, his thoughts turn salacious. Horrified at himself, he stabs his legs with carving tools, hoping to pay for God’s forgiveness. I wish I could say he learned that forgiveness was already bought for him through Jesus Christ, but the story ends ambivalent on this point—perhaps leaving his faith at an altar, perhaps only leaving one faith tradition for another.

The Chess Machine winds up slowly and spins a dramatic finish. It isn’t a safe book (thinking of Association of Christian Retailer guidelines), but it is enjoyable and smart. Translator Anthea Bell did an excellent job bringing this work to English.

Dead Simple, by Peter James

I’ve just got to share this post from Junkyard Blog. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words, but that one is.

I picked up Dead Simple by accident. I’d intended to check a book by J. J. Jance out of the library, having not tried her work yet, and through inattention I went home with the book that had been shelved right next to the volume I meant to take. Once I got it home and discovered my mistake, I figured I might as well give it a shot.

I’m not sorry I did. It was an interesting and well-plotted book. I can’t give it the highest accolades, for reasons I’ll explain, but it kept me turning the pages.

The set-up is tremendous. Michael Harrison is a young English entrepreneur. He makes a lot of money and lives in style. He’s about to marry a gorgeous woman whom he loves very much.

When the book begins, Harrison is half-unconscious in the back of a van, pub-crawling with his buddies as part of his bachelor party. Michael has been a ruthless and rather cruel practical joker, especially in relation to his friends’ bachelor parties, and they have a dandy revenge in store for him.

They put him in a coffin (one of the friends works at a mortuary) and bury him in a shallow grave with a bottle of whiskey, a dirty magazine, a flashlight and a walkie-talkie. There’s an air tube to keep him from suffocating. The plan is to leave him there for a few hours, then dig him up again.

Except that there’s an accident, and his friends end up either dead or in a coma.

And when Michael’s partner, who missed the party because of a delayed flight, comes home and hears the news… he does nothing at all. In spite of the fact that he knows Michael is buried out there somewhere.

I love a neat set-up like that. And James keeps the tension rising, revealing information to the reader in careful, cruel doses. When you think things can’t get any worse, they do.

The hero of the book is Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police (I wish James had chosen another name. Whenever I read “Grace said…” I think of a woman). He’s the most interesting character in the book. A man alone (his beloved wife simply disappeared a few years back), he lives mainly for his work. The big handicap in his career seems to be his advocacy of the use of psychic evidence in his investigations.

Needless to say, that’s a problem for me. I consider most (perhaps all) psychics frauds. If any are not frauds, then they are in contact with dangerous spiritual forces, and anyone who contacts them is putting himself in severe peril. The author’s bio on the flyleaf says that Peter James has a “deep interest” in the paranormal.

This is not quite “playing the game,” by the rules of traditional detective fiction. Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “Problem Picture” in The Mind of the Maker, quotes the following question asked of applicants to the Detection Club:

PRESIDENT: Do you promise that your Detectives shall well and truly detect the Crimes presented to them, using those Wits which it shall please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance upon, nor making use of, Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?


Of course times have changed, and Miss Sayers wouldn’t have cared for a whole lot of what goes on in mysteries today. But I can’t help thinking that appealing to the supernatural in what is presented as a standard mystery is a bit of a deus ex machina. I think I’d feel the same if prayer were used similarly in a Christian mystery (but who knows? Maybe I’m deluding myself).

Detective Grace’s tentative attempts to begin dating again, in his rare free moments, provide an appealing subplot, helping to flesh out what is really the only fully-rounded character in a plot-driven book.

But the plot is driven very well indeed.

All in all an entertaining novel, but I have no great desire to read more by the author.

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin is one of those slow novelists who brings out a moving, life-altering book every decade or so, like a geological fault spawning earthquakes.

This is probably good, for two reasons. First of all, it’s really depressing for an ordinary author like me to read something as perfect as a Helprin book. It makes me feel like a junior higher who’s just discovered The Lord of the Rings and sets out to pen his own epic on his laptop, in a really neat font he downloaded off the web.

Also, it’s a fact, too often overlooked in the publishing industry, that you can’t produce a superior book like one of Helprin’s in a year. Or two. Even three.

It’s worth the wait.

My favorite Helprin novel (the same as pretty much everybody else’s) has got to be Winter’s Tale. My second favorite is probably Memoir From Antproof Case. A Soldier of the Great War is tremendous, but the tragic elements were too much for me. I haven’t read Refiner’s Fire (got to look for that).

But I think Freddy and Fredericka has supplanted MFAC as my second favorite. Briefly put, it was a delight from beginning to end.

Think of an Evelyn Waugh novel, written by P. G. Wodehouse. That’s the British part.

Think of a Tom Wolf or Mark Twain novel, also written by Wodehouse. That’s the American part.

The final segment, back in England, is merely sublime and moving.

It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed out loud, again and again, over a novel. But Freddy and Fredericka did that for me.

Here’s the (ridiculous) premise: Freddy and Fredericka are a fictionalized version of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but it’s impossible not to recognize the royal family here as the one we know in our own, slightly inferior world.

Freddy seems, perhaps, a bit more solid than Prince Charles. He is strongly traditional and conservative in his opinions. Sound fellow. However, he has a problem. He is prone, sometimes because of irresistible impulses, and sometimes because of what Jeeves used to call “a concatenation of circumstances” to do ridiculous things in public that get him onto the front pages of the tabloids, such as (for instance,) trying to get back in through the gate of Buckingham Palace, stark naked, tarred and feathered, with a takeout chicken box on his head.

Fredericka, on the other hand, seems even more vapid and photogenic than her real world prototype. (At one point she asks Freddy, seriously, “What is a raw egg?”) On the other hand, she seems to be something of an airhead savant. She has bizarre flashes of brilliance, doing complex algebra problems in her head, for example.

My favorite line of her dialogue: “Lord Louey sent me a book on compassion that I have to read because he wants me to be the author.”

Because of the bad press, and because he has failed an occult family test to determine his worthiness to rule, Freddy and Fredericka are sent on a quest.

They are to parachute into New Jersey, incognito, clad only in rabbit skin bikinis, to win the United States back for the Commonwealth.

Piece of cake.

What follows is a satiric and affectionate odyssey through America, in which F & F (totally unrecognized by people who’ve been looking at their pictures all their lives) take odd jobs, ride the rails, serve as forest rangers, impersonate dentists, and Freddy becomes a speech writer for a presidential candidate (who bears no discernible resemblance to Bob Dole, despite the fact that Helprin himself was chief writer for his campaign, something I suspect even he would admit is not the highlight of his résumé). Like all good travelers, they learn not only to love the new country, but to love their own country better through it.

And the final chapters, when they go home, are deeply moving, filled with hope for the world.

One only wishes Prince Charles really were Freddy. And that Di had been Fredericka, of course.

I don’t award stars to books, but if I did I’d add a star for this one. Get it. Read it. Laugh. Be touched. Thank me later.

Weekend reading

The word from Our Beloved Supervisors in the Twin Cities today is, “Stay inside. Do not attempt any strenuous work out of doors. The temperature is too high; the ozone level up in the Oh! Zone.”

I defied that advice, rebel that I am. In the first place the temperature was lower than expected, only a little over 80. Also my walking schedule has finally gotten me to the level where my body (like a dog) actually expects and wants its daily walk, and is disappointed if it misses it.

The humidity level was in Jacques Cousteau territory. I thought breathing was a little difficult too, but that was likely psychosomatic. Is ozone really dangerous to breathe, like cigarette smoke or something? Am I going to die now? Maybe I should just take up tobacco.

It says much about my psychological disorder(s) that, although I’m essentially very lazy, I judge a good or bad weekend by what I’ve accomplished. By that standard, it was a pretty good weekend. I mowed the lawn. I mopped the bathroom. I waxed Mrs. Hermanson, my car. And that was all on Saturday. On Sunday I did precisely nothing, as is my preference, except for church and reading. I shall now tell you about my reading.

No full reviews on these, just observations.

I finished Michael Connelly’s Echo Park. It’s another Harry Bosch novel, and a strong book in a dynasty of strong books. Harry is back with the L.A. police department now, working the Cold Case unit. A serial killer is arrested with human body parts in his van, and he confesses to a series of murders, including one that Harry worked on back in 1993, when it was new, and has been revisiting from time to time ever since. The problem is that Harry has been certain from the first that somebody else murdered that particular victim. And Harry is told that he missed a vital clue back in ’93, one that could have saved a number of lives if he’d followed it up. There’s an escape, cops are murdered, and Harry works two puzzles at once.

There’s nothing cheerful in a Harry Bosch book. Harry lives in a dark, confused world, where doing right (and Harry always tries to do right—that’s part of his problem) isn’t always the same thing as following the rules. Harry gets the job done, but there’s always a cost.

I also read an oldie, Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. I like Crais better with each book of his I read. In this story, L.A. private eye Elvis Cole is hired by Peter Alan Nelson, a powerful Hollywood producer (whose characterization is deftly kept just this side of parody) to locate his ex-wife and son, who left him years before and simply dropped out of sight.

Elvis has to travel far from home to find the two, and when he does he discovers a desperate situation that calls for swift and forceful action. Needless to say, he brings in his dangerous partner, Joe Pike, but the real delight of Lullaby Town is the character arc traced by Nelson, the movie producer, as his family’s danger gradually forces him into a strange new territory known as The Real World, and how he begins to grow up as a man.

I think we lose a lot in contemporary storytelling through the abandonment of belief in objective truth. When you believe that there is an actual “thing” out there called Truth (or Goodness), then you can believe that everyone has an obligation to it, and you can root for them as they approach it, or sorrow for them as they move away from it.

When you believe that everybody makes his own truth, your rooting for a character is only a function of your personal taste (and his). It’s a game without a fixed goal. It’s pointless.

I don’t know if Crais had that kind of lesson in mind, but that’s what I drew from Lullaby Town, and it was very satisfactory to me.

Point of Impact, by Stephen Hunter

I said a little about Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact a few posts back, and I told you I was enjoying it quite a lot.

That was an understatement.

Now, I suppose that’s old news to many of you. I expect I’m far behind the curve (as is so often the case), since this book and its sequels and collaterals have been out for a while. So this review would probably better be called an appreciation. I just want to babble a little about how much I enjoyed Point of Impact, and to share my priceless insights on why I think it’s so great.

The chief beauty here is that the book is centered on a strong, well-rounded, sympathetic hero. If you’ve been reading this blog for any time at all you know I think character is king, and Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of this book, is a hero and a half. I don’t think there’s been a straight-ahead, singleminded, admirable main guy like this since Louis L’Amour died, and L’Amour wasn’t as good a writer as Hunter (I speak as an admirer of L’Amour).

Bob Lee Swagger of Blue Eye, Arkansas is everything books and movies and television have been teaching us to despise for most of my lifetime. He’s a white southerner. His formal education is limited. He’s ex-military, and he loves his guns. He also loves his country, to the point where he destroys evidence that might clear him of a capital accusation, because its release might make America look bad.

Swagger is approached by a mysterious pair of strangers, obviously former soldiers, who offer him a short-term job. They want him to test some new ammunition, they say. His testimonial would be valuable to them, as he was a legendary Marine sniper in Vietnam.

He does the job, and the ammunition is good. But something isn’t right. Bob Lee is not only a shooter, he’s a hunter of men. His hunter’s sense tells him they’re not telling him the full truth, but they entice him with a lure he can’t resist—there’s a plot to kill the president, they say, and the shooter coming in to do the job is a Russian, a famous sniper whom the Vietnamese brought in to take out Bob Lee himself during the war. That sniper crippled Bob Lee and killed his spotter. Bob Lee’s job will be to figure out where the attack will come, and to help them prevent it.

Of course it all goes south from there. Before long Bob Lee is on the run, wounded and the target of a nationwide manhunt.

Another great character is Nick Memphis, an FBI agent who first hunts Bob Lee, and then forms an alliance with him. Nick was a sniper too, years back. He tried to take out a criminal who was holding several women hostage. But he missed the shot and paralyzed a hostage. He married the woman and nursed her for the rest of her life. It doesn’t seem to have ever occurred to him to do anything else.

Even the villains are entirely believable and realistically motivated.

And the women—the women in this book are solid gold, Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man,” grand ladies. They may have moments of envy for the easier lives enjoyed by women who chose lesser men, but they know that they could have had that kind of man if they’d wanted one. (I suppose these women are as much fantasy characters as Bond Girls in the movies. But it’s a whole ‘nother kind of fantasy.)

The plotting is flawless. Tension grows and grows as Bob Lee’s enemies’ plans unfold, and he finds the whole world more and more against him. Yet he never loses his nerve. He never gives up—even with a bullet hole in his chest.

I couldn’t help thinking of James Bond as I read Point of Impact. Like a Bond movie (the books not so much), this novel presents a vision of manhood that most of us can only dream of.

The difference is that, after reading Point of Impact, I wanted to be a better man than I am.

As you’d expect, there’s mature subject matter and harsh language. But I recommend Point of Impact for every grownup man. I have no idea what women think of it.

The Ritual Bath, by Faye Kellerman

Will this work? I have my doubts. I’ve had the kind of afternoon where every time I reach for something I knock something over, and every time I pick something up I drop it (I’m exaggerating, but it feels like that). So I figure either my computer will crash or Bloo will go down just about the time I’m ready to post. But I shall make the effort.

I bought Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath (first in a series of mysteries involving Det. Peter Decker and widow Rina Lazarus) on the strength of my fondness for her husband Jonathan’s Alex Delaware novels. I had misgivings. Generally I don’t care for mysteries written by women (I’m not weighing in on our discussion, some time back, of whether men write the best mysteries or not. I find men usually write the best mysteries for me, which is a very different matter).

I was very pleasantly surprised. The Ritual Bath is both a satisfying crime story and a sensitive examination of the conflicts and stresses involved in being seriously religious in a secular society.

Rina Lazarus lives at an orthodox yeshiva (Torah school) in a run-down section of Los Angeles. Ordinarily an unmarried woman wouldn’t live at an all-male yeshiva, but her late husband was a student, and the school gave her a job and a home so that she could take care of her two young sons. Her job involves cleaning and caring for the mikvah (ritual bath), used monthly by students’ wives.

The night the novel begins, a young woman is attacked and raped outside the mikvah. Detective Peter Decker and his partner arrive to investigate.

There is immediate chemistry between the tall, red-haired detective and the tiny Jewish widow. But though Decker pursues her singlemindedly throughout the book, Rina has to explain, again and again, that there is no way she could possibly date a goy. As the likelihood grows that the rapist (who keeps coming back) may be someone inside the yeshiva, there are numerous opportunities for personal and professional missteps and misunderstandings.

The picture of life in an Orthodox community appears (so far as I can tell) to be pretty accurate. At least it’s credible. The constant nuisance of concern for ritual cleanliness is not glossed over, but neither are the joys of deep belief and genuine community life. (As a sideline, it made me more aware than ever of Paul’s statement that “the letter of the law kills,” and reminded me how grateful I ought to be that Christians are free of such.)

Another pleasure was Kellerman’s portrayal of Detective Decker. I suspect that one reason so many female writers have a hard time with male characters is that they find it both difficult and repellant to try to get into our heads. I found no false notes in Peter Decker. He struck me as a very believable decent guy, at once strongly aroused by Rina and making an honest effort to keep his hormones suppressed.

Another thing that made the book interesting (and problematic) from a Christian point of view was the fact that Det. Decker is increasingly attracted to the Jewish religion itself, as well as to a particular Jew, as the story goes on. We are told that he was raised a Baptist but is nothing in particular now. Question: If a secular person is drawn to Judaism, does that bring him closer to, or farther away from, Jesus Christ?

Another thing that struck me was how similar the book was to a lot of Christian Booksellers Association fiction. The tall, strong, unbeliever is drawn to the beautiful believer, and as love grows he is attracted to her faith as well.

Only Kellerman does it better. Her writing is on a higher level (not perfect, but far superior to most CBA, so far as I’ve read any), her characters more rounded and believable. Also the book is earthier. There are intense situations. There is bad language. Those things might disqualify a book from CBA, but they also increase realism, giving the story greater credibility.

I’ll read more of these.

Counterplay, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

I’ll be taking a blog break till Monday, probably, unless I get a wireless connection in Moorhead and find the time. I’m going up with the Vikings for the Hjemkomst festival. Drop by if you’re in the area, but I won’t be there Sunday.

On Sunday I shoot back south, overshoot my home, and come to rest in Kenyon, Minnesota, my original home town. I’ve been asked to give a short historical talk for a special service. My home church (Hauge Lutheran) has an old stone church, the congregation’s original building (it was built in 1875 and is on the National Register of Historic Places). A service is held there once a year (it used to be in Norwegian, but that’s kind of pointless nowadays). Anyway, I’ll be helping out with that Sunday morning.

I always look forward to Robert K. Tanenbaum’s Karp/Ciampi books, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Counterplay. But I see problems in this old, dependable franchise.

Our friend Aitchmark reviewed it here. He thinks Tanenbaum has succumbed to the temptation to try to make every book “bigger” than the last. I see that, and I agree to an extent. But I think I discern a deeper problem.

First, a synopsis: The last couple books have featured Butch Karp’s great nemesis—former New York City District Attorney Andrew Kane, a rich and corrupt man who nearly became mayor of New York. We thought Kane was beaten at the end of the previous book, when his plot to destroy the Catholic Church was unmasked and foiled.

But Kane has escaped from the police, and has made it clear that he is going to a) kill everyone Karp (now District Attorney himself) cares about, and b) perform a major act of terrorism. Security people believe he’s planning to target Russian president Yeltsin on an upcoming visit to the U.S.

You get your money’s worth in entertainment with any Tanenbaum book. He rolls out the beloved stock company of funny, eccentric, well-developed regulars we’ve come to love. The most interesting part of the story for me, actually, was a sub-plot—the cold-case against a millionaire for the murder of his wife, prosecuted by good ol’ Ray Guma, on the basis of a memory recovered by the couple’s son under hypnosis.

But there really is a problem, and I think Tanenbaum needs to do something about it. I think he’s fallen into the Superman Dilemma.

The Superman Dilemma is simple. Once you’ve created a hero who is faster than a speeding bullet, bulletproof himself, inhumanly strong and incredibly smart, what do you do to give him a challenge? Yeah, you’ve got kryptonite, but you can only use that stuff so often before people get bored.

The answer is the Super-Villain. You’ve got to come up with an adversary worthy of his steel skin. Someone who matches him in at least one category, and who is as bad as he is good.

Tanenbaum, over the course of this long series, has gradually loaded the Karp family with a pantheon of super friends. Tran, the former Viet Cong, was the first, I think. He’s a leader of the Asian mob, and will do anything to protect Butch’s wife Marlene, on whom he’s been nursing a crush for years. Then there’s John Jojola, the Taos Indian/Special Forces veteran, who walks unseen and has strange mystical powers. And there’s David Grale, the psychotic who leads and army of the homeless, fighting evil in the city sewers. And there’s daughter Lucy’s new boyfriend, the cowboy Ned, who is (of course) a crack shot and a quick-draw artist. Lucy herself is a language prodigy, which helps in a lot of situations. And Marlene is the Top Gun in Manhattan. She also trains huge attack dogs.

Which means that in real life, a family like the Karps would be safer than the president in the presidential bunker, just giving folks a tour. Thus, for a challenge, we need a super-villain capable of working past all these layers of security.

Andrew Kane has been the super-villain in the last few books, and is again here. And frankly it’s getting to the point where he’s straining credibility. The man is so insane—so filled with hate and yet so omnicompetent, that it’s hard to take him seriously.

Tanenbaum has produced a comic book. A superior comic book, one well worth reading, but a comic book nevertheless.

He needs to drop the end-of-the-world scenarios, kill off some of the family’s protectors, and get back to writing stories about people we recognize. There’s plenty of ordinary evil in the world for a big-city D.A. to fight.

Even Superman shouldn’t fly out of sight.