Category Archives: Reviews

Repost: The Scarred Man, by Keith Peterson (Andrew Klavan)

(My original plan was to repost all my previous Andrew Klavan reviews before addressing Empire of Lies, but I got carried away. So I’m picking up the reposts now. This is second in the series, and like the previous repost, comes from May 2006.)

Oh, by the way,
I forgot yesterday the first Andrew Klavan novel I read (actually it was written under the Keith Peterson pseudonym)–The Scarred Man. This is a psychological thriller with one of the best hooks I’ve ever read.

I love a great “book hook.” Perhaps my favorite is the beginning of The Man Who Wasn’t There by Roderick MacLeish (a much underappreciated novelist). That book (as I recall–I don’t have a copy) began with the main character, who was something of a celebrity, being recognized by a stranger sitting beside him on a plane. Instead of admitting to his identity, he played a trick he liked to play in such situations, claiming to be his own (non-existent) non-famous twin, whose story he made up on the spot.

The next morning he got up and read in the paper that this imaginary twin brother had been killed in a plane crash.

That’s a great book hook.

But the hook in The Scarred Man is almost as good.

Michael North is a young New York reporter who accepts an invitation to spend Christmas in Connecticut with his boss. There he meets the boss’s daughter, Susannah, and falls hopelessly in love in about a nanosecond.

To entertain themselves, the party members agree to tell ghost stories (I thought of you here, Phil). Michael makes up a story on the spur of the moment, telling a tale of a murderous, undead psychopath with a scar down the center of his face.

Susannah goes hysterical, shouting “Stop it! What are you trying to do to me!” She flees back to school before he can discuss it with her.

Later, when he drives up to Susannah’s college to talk to her, he pulls into the entrance and sees, in his headlights–the scarred man. When he finds Susannah, she tells him she’s been having nightmares about this man all her life.

The great thing is, this isn’t a supernatural novel.

Empire of Lies, by Andrew Klavan

I just finished reading Empire of Lies by Andrew Klavan, and I’m still decompressing.

I have a hard time imagining how this book can ever succeed commercially. But I sure hope it does.

As the story begins, the hero/narrator, Jason Harrow, a journalist turned realtor, is sitting in the back yard of his Midwestern home, watching his children play. He’s thinking about a girl who worked at his office, who’d made a pass at him. He didn’t take her up on it, but he can’t avoid a (purely hormonal) wistful feeling. Shortly thereafter he’s joined by his wife, and it’s obvious that they have an excellent relationship. She trusts him, and he deserves her trust.

Jason is being entirely honest with the reader. And that’s sort of the point of the whole book. He’s telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even to his cost.

From the very beginning, references and turns of phrase warn us that he’s going to go through a terrible test; that he’s going to become famous, and not necessarily in a good way.

Jason goes inside the house to answer the phone, and (as so often happens in stories of this sort) the caller is a voice from his past. It’s Lauren, the woman he lived with in another life, when he resided in Manhattan, thought he was an intellectual, and was part of a very kinky sex “scene.” Jason is a Christian today. He’s turned his back on all that.

But when he agrees to go to New York to help Lauren out with a problem with her daughter, he doesn’t tell his wife about it. He has to go anyway, because his mother recently died and he needs to empty out her house. He doesn’t plan to break his marital vows. But his motives aren’t entirely pure, and he can’t bring himself to bring it into the open.

When he sees Lauren, he’s somewhat relieved to find that she’s changed. He no longer finds her attractive. But she talks him into looking for her daughter Serena, who has disappeared.

He finds the girl, sick drunk, in a night club and takes her to his mother’s house when he finds that Lauren isn’t at home. The girl is raving, and one of the things she says is, “I didn’t know they were going to kill him.” Continue reading Empire of Lies, by Andrew Klavan

Weekend movie report

I know I should have gone to see The Dark Knight, and I really want to see Hellboy 2, too. But instead I watched DVD movies this weekend.

Two were silents from my new Douglas Fairbanks collection. The first was Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), which is notable for featuring Warner Oland (the Swedish actor who later became Charlie Chan) in a character role, and Mary Astor, who would later play the dame fatale in The Maltese Falcon. I always found her kind of brittle and uninteresting in TMF, but here, as an ingénue, she’s completely adorable.

Then there was Robin Hood (1922), an impressive epic-scale effort by Fairbanks which is completely sabotaged by some idiot’s decision to have the Merry Men actually skip and prance everywhere they go in Sherwood Forest. Now I know what Mel Brooks was lampooning in Men In Tights. It looks unbelievably silly and fey. Oddly enough, Little John is played by Alan Hale, who would reprise the role in the far superior Errol Flynn vehicle in 1938.

I capped it off with a viewing of Master and Commander / The Far Side of the World with Russell Crowe. I’d only seen it once, back when it first ran in theaters, and remembered that I liked it. But I’d forgotten how good it was. I’m crazy about that whole tall ships thing. Maybe it’s genetic. One of my great-great-grandfathers sailed on a merchant voyage to China around the turn of the 19th Century, and one of my great-grandfathers was a cook on a whaling ship.

Of course you can’t help wanting to scream, “What in the living color were they thinking of, putting those little boys in harms way?” But that’s the way it was. It’s still a rousing seafaring movie, maybe the best ever made.

Tomorrow, back to Andrew Klavan.

Hancock, A Human Story

My wife and I saw “Hancock” Saturday evening. The prelude to it was a delicious Roasted Sirloin Focaccia Sandwich at Outback Steakhouse. I want to try to work out something like that at home–sliced steak or roast beef, provolone, and herbs in garlic focaccia bread with French Onion soup for dipping. Good food.

But in the movie, Will Smith plays the down and out superpowered man who gets a grip on himself. He begins as a self-centered jerk and ends as a respectable hero. It’s the same story we’ve told a thousand times. Someone moves from self-destruction to productive citizen, overcoming alcohol, drugs, abusive behavior, doubt, fear, and anything keeping him from his full potential. “A life lived in fear is only half lived,” as the lead dancer’s father said in “Strictly Ballroom.” Hancock is the same story within a superhero fantasy. That’s why it’s a strong movie.

“Hancock” is essentially a comedy. That’s why it ends the way it does. Even in the serious tension of the final scenes, you can see comedy elements at play. They aren’t funny, but they are more lighthearted than the atmosphere and action call for. What themes are in the story are not heavy handed, so they could be missed, but I think it would be a good film for youth leaders and professors to watch with a group and talk through the messages afterward. Continue reading Hancock, A Human Story

Repost: Grand Klavan

(Note: Phil has suggested that, in honor of Andrew Klavan’s new release, Empire of Lies (which I’m reading now with great pleasure), I should repost my previous reviews on his work. That sounds like a very wise and thoughtful suggestion, but–more important–it means less work for me. So herewith, from my entry for May 16, 2006 on the old blog site, is my first Klavan review. This one concentrates on his blockbusters, True Crime and Don’t Say a Word.)

Back in the 90s I discovered an excellent mystery writer named Keith Peterson. His novels about reporter John Wells were exciting and smart, but the thing I really loved about them was that Peterson created characters I could really care about. I think I’ve said this before (and I’m sure I’ll say it again) but sympathetic characters are the thing I most require in a book.

Then Peterson just disappeared. (Actually there were a couple more Peterson books, but I missed them). I looked wistfully now and then at my John Wells novels, which I’d hung on to.

Recently I did a web search on Keith Peterson and made a wonderful discovery. Keith Peterson was a nom de plume for Andrew Klavan, the big thriller writer.

That took me to the used bookstore, and… wow. I mean, wow. Continue reading Repost: Grand Klavan

Dean Koontz’ full range

Tonight, another episode in my ongoing engagement with the works of Dean Koontz. Not a review, exactly, but an appreciation and evaluation.

I’m going through Koontz alphabetically, picking up his books left to right across the bookstore shelf. This results in some odd juxtapositions, such as when I read Night Chills (published 1976) immediately followed by One Door Away From Heaven (published 2001). Having made it more than half way through the corpus, I think I can say that those two books represent something like the full range of Koontz’ work—from the creppiest early stuff to the most sublime of the recent.

Night Chills is barely recognizable as a Koontz book, in the sense I’ve come to know them. It’s a pretty standard thriller with a cutting-edge (for the time) scientific premise. But the way Koontz handles the material seems to reveal an immature artist, unsure of himself and trying to emulate established writers.

Which is probably why there’s so much sex in the book, and why it’s so (relatively) explicit, and… frankly, creepy. Continue reading Dean Koontz’ full range

Mother of Kings by Poul Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honor’s Kingdom, by Owen Parry

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

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

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

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

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

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (Except Maybe Aliens)

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

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

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

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

From the Corner of His Eye, by Dean Koontz

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

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

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

Steel yourselves. I know you can survive it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Corner of His Eye gets my highest recommendation.

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

If Nature is our Mother, our family is dysfunctional.

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Trapdoor, by Keith Peterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malice, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

This, I’m confident, spoiled everything.

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

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

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

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

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

OK, Mr. Tanenbaum. I get the message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But putting peyote into Our Lucie’s mouth?

That, sir, I cannot forgive.

Old movie review: “Algiers”

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

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

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

I hated it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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