Category Archives: Fiction

First-person eschatology

It’s raining. It’s gloomy and grim and chilly out, with a Seattlesque drizzle coming down.

I love it.

I fully expect to have a blizzard before the month is over, though. That’s just the kind of dame March is.

I’m reading a very good mystery right now (I’ll tell you about it when I’m done), and as I thought it over, driving home, I was hit with the question, “What exactly is supposed to be going on in a first-person-narrative novel?”

I’m not asking about what’s going on in the plot of the story. I’m asking, how am I supposed to understand the narrator in relation to me as a reader?

I mean, think about it. You’ve got this (imaginary) person, who usually makes no claims to being a writer, who is nevertheless pouring out this carefully constructed, professionally polished (or so one hopes) narrative. In the narrator’s own alternate universe, how did this manuscript come to be? Continue reading First-person eschatology

Last Act in Palmyra, by Lindsey Davis

The historical mystery is a challenging genre, calling for a lot of research, as well as a judicious balance between authenticity and audience sympathy (which can be difficult to sustain due to differences in societal attitudes).

Male heroes written by female authors are another kind of challenge. Lindsey Davis takes on both in her Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, set in the 1st Century Roman Empire.

My opinion, based on reading Last Act in Palmyra, is that she succeeds pretty well in the first challenge, not so well in the second. Continue reading Last Act in Palmyra, by Lindsey Davis

Cinema: the devil’s zoetrope

Tonight’s dyspeptic screed concerns the essential dishonesty of movies.

Which I mean in the most positive sense.

I’m not going to go off on a classic Christian Fundamentalist jeremiad against Hollywood as the Whore of Babylon, the cancer that is slowing destroying our culture.

(Although, when I read those old denunciations, I’m struck by two things: 1) they were in general factually correct, and 2) all the bad effects the critics predicted that movies would bring about have in fact come to pass. You can’t fault them as prophets.)

But my subject is the dishonesty that is inherent (it seems to me) in the medium.

Christians of a legalistic bent often complain that fiction is, by definition, “just lying stories.”

Without getting into that argument, I think I’m justified in saying that novels are scrupulously truthful when compared to movies. Continue reading Cinema: the devil’s zoetrope

Chasing Darkness, by Robert Crais

Robert Crais, in my opinion, is getting to be a better and deeper novelist with each book.

Chasing Darkness
is a departure from his recent novels in that he tones down the violence a bit. He’s been prone lately to having his main characters (private eye Elvis Cole and his associate Joe Pike) end up seriously wounded and hospitalized after a harrowing life-or-death battle, but this time it’s all about the mystery and the characters, with the final bloodletting somewhat less comprehensive. And I don’t think he loses anything by that.

The story begins in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles, during a wildfire evacuation. Policemen sent in to evacuate residents discover a dead man, an apparent suicide, sitting over a photo album containing photographs of female murder victims—photographs that could only have been taken before the police got to the scenes.

Suddenly Elvis Cole is the target of investigation by the police, and threats from one of the victims’ families. Because he worked for the dead man’s lawyer and helped get him acquitted on one of these murders.

Elvis doesn’t like being pushed, and he knows for a fact that the guy couldn’t have committed the murder. So he reopens his investigation. In this he is assisted (off the record) by his police detective friend Carol Starkey, and of course Joe Pike, the best guy in the world to have watching your back.

What he discovers is corruption, depravity and cover-up at the highest levels of city government. And then he gets a surprise, and the whole game changes.

I liked Chasing Darkness a lot. It’s a cerebral, tragic, character-driven story, concentrating on the costs of crime to those who care about the victims.

Recommended for grownups.


I think about this kind of thing too much. I can’t think of favorite moments from superhero movies or even the comics I used to read. I do love the part where Larryboy is careening toward the city water tower, out of control, and shouts accenting each word, “I am going to die!” And I like the scene where Darkwing Duck tells Megavolt he is not a well person, to which Megavolt responds, “What? And you’re normal? ‘I am the cold sore that stings your lips!’ We are definitely talking demented.”

But I can’t think of much else. Here are two lists of scenes from superhero movies.

The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is a superior mystery writer. He writes in the tradition of high craftsmanship and sensitivity that characterizes the best Southern literature. I found The Tin Roof Blowdown brilliant and moving.

And I probably won’t read any more by him.

But first, a synopsis.

The setting for The Tin Roof Blowdown is New Orleans and its environs, during and immediately following Hurricane Katrina. The conflict is set off by a group of young black men who steal a motorboat (thus dooming a number of trapped people to drowning), break into a rich man’s house, and discover a treasure trove of drugs, cash and diamonds. That same night one of them is killed and another paralyzed by a bullet fired by someone in the neighborhood. Suspicion falls on a neighbor, whose daughter (by a strange coincidence) was recently gang-raped by some of these same young men.

Although investigation of his death is technically a federal matter (under 1960s laws dealing with deprivation of civil rights by murder), the bulk of the investigation is elbowed off (due to heavy case loads) to Dave Robicheaux, a sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia Parish and hero of a number of mysteries by Burke. He is unofficially assisted in his investigation by his friend Clete Purcel, a former cop and present skip tracer. Continue reading The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke

The Man Who Invented Florida, by Randy Wayne White

I like Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford books, but I don’t love them. I think The Man Who Invented Florida is my favorite.

Marion “Doc” Ford is the hero of the series—a big, bespectacled marine biologist with a shadowy background in covert operations for the government. Periodically he finds himself investigating a mystery or carrying on his own private operation to rescue somebody. The Man Who Invented Florida, however, is barely a mystery at all. There is the puzzle of two government surveyors and a fishing show host who disappear in the Everglades, but it turns out (I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler) to be less than meets the eye.

This book is, in fact, a farce. The real center of the narrative is Ford’s uncle Tucker Gatrell, the kind of man for whom the word “colorful” was coined. A former cowboy, fishing guide, gun runner and moonshiner, he’s devoted to his nephew, but his nephew hates his guts (for reasons that become dimly apparent toward the end). Tucker’s best friend is the Indian (don’t get riled; that’s what he calls himself) Joseph Egret. Joseph is the last of the Calusa, the original Florida Indians, to whom the Seminoles and Creeks are newcomers. As such he’s an outsider both among the Indians and the Whites. But he likes Tucker, because Tucker despises everybody all the same. Continue reading The Man Who Invented Florida, by Randy Wayne White

“We Cannot Do Without Myths”

Professor James A. Herrick (I’m sorry. The academic title is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at Hope College), author of Scientific Mythologies: How science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs has written for Christianity Today on certain sci-fi authors’ tendency to spiritualize their materialist or secularist stories:

Science fiction is important to scientists interested in transcendent themes such as the design and purpose of the cosmos and the future of humanity. Dyson, a devoted reader of Stapledon, writes, “Science is my territory, but science fiction is the landscape of my dreams.” Ironically, the universe that science stripped of the supernatural is being resupplied with deities and redemptive purposes by science fiction writers and moviemakers. Apparently, we cannot do without myths.

… The church must attend more diligently to the presentation of her true myth in public settings. The biblical account of human origins and purpose, of our predicament as well as our redemption, and of the nature and purpose of the cosmos we inhabit, is emotionally, spiritually, and rationally more satisfying than modern myths featuring aliens, starships, divine evolution, hidden knowledge, and biomechanical post-humanity.

Short, short story: The Credit Counselor

(The following little scene occurred to me yesterday, and it amused me in my simpleminded way.)

Waldo Pfennig had just finished checking his e-mail, and was ready to start work when a man and a boy walked into his office. The man was tall and lean, his face dark and weathered. He looked like a cowboy in a movie, even to the coarse blue shirt, jeans, and flat-brimmed black hat, which he carried in red, cracked hands. Waldo couldn’t help checking to see if the man was wearing western boots. Nope. High top work shoes.

The boy was the man’s image, but shorter and less sharp at the edges. His fair hair stood up at one side, as if he’d slept on it badly. His face was hard to see, since his gaze was fixed on the floor.

“My name is Adonijah Fell. This is my son Jonas,” the man said. “This is… Credit Assistance Corporation?”

“That’s right, Mr. Fell,” said Waldo, getting up to reach across his desk and shake the man’s hand. “I’m Waldo Pfennig. Please have a seat, both of you. What can I do for you?” Fell had a grip like slamming your hand in a car door. He sat cautiously, as if it were an unfamiliar exercise. The boy slumped in the chair beside him, head down, elbows on his knees.

“You help people with debt problems, right, Mr. Pfennig?” asked Adonijah Fell.

“Yes sir. No matter who let the dogs out, we’ll pen ’em up again.” Waldo grinned. He was proud of that little joke. It always helped to relieve the tension.

Adonijah Fell just stared at him, puzzled. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I didn’t come about dogs.”

“No, no. It’s just a little joke. You know the song? ‘Who let the dogs out?’”

“Can’t say as I recall it.” Continue reading Short, short story: The Credit Counselor

Northfield, by Johnny D. Boggs

We’re experiencing a warm and rainy interval here right now, which is a blessed change.

Not changed is the climate in the library, where everybody wears a sweater or a jacket all the time (myself included, though my office is generally a little better than the circulation room).

So I called the maintenance guy and told him, “The thermostat says 70°, but no way this is 70°.”

He comes in with a fancy electronic thermometer, and gets 70° for a read-out. Everywhere he checked.

I don’t comprehend this. I keep my house at 68° when I’m in residence, and my house is far, far more comfortable than the library.

I blame trolls.

I’ve never been a big reader of western novels. I went through a very pleasant Louis L’Amour stage, in which I read pretty much his entire canon (and learned a lot of geography), but no other western writer ever earned my amour.

One kind of western that does tend to raise my interest, though, is the well-researched novel based on actual historical events. Loren Estleman’s Bloody Season is a good example, but I believe that Johnny D. Boggs’ Northfield is even better. Continue reading Northfield, by Johnny D. Boggs

The horror! The horror!

Our friend Loren Eaton writes about the horror genre today over at his blog, I Saw Lightning Fall. He argues that conservatives ought to embrace the genre, quoting Stephen King saying that horror is intrinsically conservative. He also embeds a trailer for a horror film that seems to have a pro-life message (it appears to have been out since August last. Has anyone heard of it? Did it go straight to DVD, as one would expect would happen to a conservative flick?).

Now, as you know, I don’t care for horror at all myself, largely because I’m a fraidy-cat. Life is already scarier than I like; why should I pay somebody to make me afraid?

But you folks out there; normal people–what do you think about horror?