Category Archives: Fiction

Insomniac thought of a mystery fan

Has anyone ever been smothered with a pillow in real life?

It happens all the time in fiction, but I’ve tried holding a pillow tight over my own face (as an experiment, not as a suicide attempt), and I’ve always been able to get sufficient air in.

But maybe that’s because I have a larger than average nose.

The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly

I gave blood again this afternoon. It was well worth it, not only because somebody with A+ blood won’t have to keep using a pint of his old hemoglobin past its expiration date, but because of the appreciation I got. Apparently after work on a summer Friday afternoon isn’t premium time for blood drives. Normal people have plans on such evenings. So it’s up to Avoidants, paranoids and old ladies who keep three dozen cats in their houses to keep those plasma levels up.

The girl who drained my vital fluids was bored enough to want to make conversation.

“What are you doing this evening?” she asked.

“Washing clothes.”

I am the master of the conversational thud.

She told me about the movie she’d rented on VHS, “Waterloo Bridge.” She’d broken the tape, she said, and had to buy it, and she hadn’t even watched it yet. She was planning to repair it.

“I walked across Waterloo Bridge a couple years ago,” I told her.

“Really? Where is it?”

Turned out she’d had the idea it had something to do with Waterloo, Iowa.

This was the most substantive conversation I’ve had with another human being in weeks, by the way.

The Lincoln Lawyer is a departure for Michael Connelly. Most of his novels to date (maybe all of them; I forget) have involved, at least tangentially, his continuing characters Terry McCaleb and/or Harry Bosch. But he killed off McCaleb a couple books ago, so perhaps this marks the beginning of a new series character. Or not.

In any case he’s a character who could carry a series. Mickey Haller is a hustling, high-priced defense attorney. This doesn’t mean he’s rich. He has two ex-wives, a daughter and a mortgage to support, and his overhead is high (although he uses one of his four Lincoln Continentals as an office).

When we first meet him he doesn’t appear admirable. He defends some extremely unsavory people, and cops and (most) prosecutors despise him. But as we spend time with him, we discover agreeable traits. Both his ex-wives (one of whom is a prosecutor) still like him. He’s making a serious effort to be a better father to his little girl. He spends time he can’t afford representing down-and-out clients who’ll never be able to pay him.

His attitude to the legal system appears be that he treats it as a game. He’ll trick his opponents, but he won’t break the rules. If he gets a case thrown out on a technicality, he feels righteous indignation against the police – they broke the rules. They betrayed the system.

The issues of genuine guilt or innocence are not on his radar screen. He doesn’t even care to hear his clients’ protestations of innocence.

The only exception is his single professional nightmare – he’s afraid he’ll someday have an innocent client, and not realize it. That he won’t go to the wall for a genuine innocent.

And one day he discovers that this has already happened. He learns that a man he pleaded down to a lesser charge years ago actually did not commit the murder he’s doing hard time for.

And he learns something more – he’s been afraid of the wrong thing. He was afraid of not recognizing innocence, when in fact he should have been worried about not recognizing evil. He encounters a genuinely evil man, one who gains control over him, murders one of his friends, and threatens him and his family. Haller must engage in a battle of wits with a man who may very well be smarter than he is, and the price of losing is unthinkable.

Connelly’s work is always solid and satisfying. It carries a flavor of authenticity, along with the complexity and sadness of real life. The Lincoln Lawyer is no different. I was a little surprised by the ending, because Connelly had dropped hints that something else would happen, but it leaves the door open for more Haller For the Defense books.

I’ll read them.

Fury, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

I’m beginning to wonder if Robert K. Tanenbaum isn’t pulling my leg.

It’s always a treat to find a new Tanenbaum in paperback. Tanenbaum is grand opera. Tanenbaum is a three-ring circus. Everything is big and broad and beautiful and terrifying, not to mention totally riveting. You want thrill-value for your money, with a plot driven by characters (and what characters!) rather than the assembly-line robotic action of, say, Clive Cussler, Tanenbaum is the author for you. To add to the appeal, Tanenbaum grapples fearlessly with serious contemporary issues (this book addresses racial hucksterism, for instance, a subject I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot keyboard).

And yet… when Fury was done I couldn’t help looking back over it all and realizing that the story as a whole was completely, outrageously over the top.

The triumph of the book is that, even as I understood this, I didn’t care. It may be a magic show, but it’s a spectacular magic show.

If you want bigger-than-life action in a story, you’ve got to start with bigger-than-life characters. Tanenbaum has them ready to hand, with his well-established stable of regular grotesques, plus a few new ones. Theoretically, most of the characters are maturing and slowing down. Marlene Ciampi seems to have quelled some of her personal demons through art therapy. Dirty old goat Ray Guma is a gray-haired cancer survivor now, missing a few feet of gut. Even the sexually predatory reporter Ariadne Stupenagle (honest, that’s her name!) appears to have settled down (after a fashion) through falling in love with Gilbert Murrow, Butch Karp’s diminutive, buttoned-down assistant (plenty of laughs there).

And yet, when it comes down to it, Marlene is still a dangerous woman to cross, Guma still tells dirty jokes and dates strippers, and Stupenagle is even more irritating than before, cooing and calling Murrow nauseating pet names in public.

And that summary leaves out such regulars as “Dirty Warren,” the Tourette’s Syndrome newpaper seller, and The Walking Booger (don’t ask).

(By the way, if you can’t handle rough language, better avoid Tanenbaum. Dirty Warren is only chief among the many foul-mouthed characters.)

As always, the quiet center of this hurricane is New York District Attorney Butch Karp, stolid, ethical and smart. Without his character, the rest of the farce wouldn’t work. Without the others, though, Butch might be a bore.

One or two mysteries would be enough for the average novel. Not for Tanenbaum. He offers us 1) a twelve-year old rape case that’s been overturned on DNA evidence. A race-baiting lawyer is suing the city on behalf of the convicted rapists, and Butch agrees to fight the suit, smelling a rat; 2) a plot by Muslim extremists to blow up Rockefeller Center on New Year’s Eve; 3) the mysterious beheadings of several Muslim terrorists by unknown attackers; 4) a false rape charge leveled against a college professor by a female student; and 5) the advancing Alzheimer’s of Marlene’s mother.

I’m probably forgetting some.

Also on hand are two new characters from the previous book, John Jojola, the Navajo policeman from New Mexico, and the cowboy, Ned Blanchet, daughter Lucy Karp’s new boyfriend. And we are introduced to some fairly unsavory family connections of Butch’s.

Like one of those juggling acts where the entertainer keeps twenty plates spinning on poles all at once, Tanenbaum makes all this work. Also like the juggling act, we know it wouldn’t go like that in real life. But in Tanenbaum’s Rabelaisian world, it doesn’t matter as long as you believe.

Speaking of belief, one thing that bothered me in Fury was a new development in Lucy Karp’s life. Up till now she’s been presented as a faithful, devout Roman Catholic. And she still is, judging by everything she says. But Tanenbaum has chosen to put her into bed with Ned, and she makes no apologies for it. Apparently Tanenbaum is operating on the principle that True Love always justifies sex, regardless of marital condition. I can understand Tanenbaum thinking like that, but Lucy should know better.

On the other hand… there’s a splendid scene early in the book that pleased me no end. Butch (who is Jewish) has agreed to teach a Bar Mitzvah class at the synagogue. He tells the class one evening that he’s going to tell them about a Jew who changed the world. The Jew he lectures on is Jesus of Nazareth.

What delighted me was that, in speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion, Karp/Tanenbaum completely rejected the standard contemporary line (which has risen to the level of orthodoxy in most mainline churches) that neither the Jews nor their leaders had anything at all to do with Jesus’ death (it was all the Romans’ fault, dirty imperialists that they were). As Karp tells it, Jesus died because His integrity was a threat to the power structure (Jewish and Roman), as integrity always is to any power structure (and as Butch would know better than most).

That was worth the price of the book in itself, as far as I was concerned.

Keep ‘em coming, Tanenbaum. You keep hiding the pea, I’ll keep laying my money down.

On John McGahern

Erin O’Connor is talking about John McGahern:

There were many other things I should have been doing in my little garret in my remote, undisclosed Irish location, and morning tends to be my best time for getting things I should be doing done. But this novel was too terrible to be deferred. It needed to be dispatched with as much speed as several cups of strong milky tea could make me read. By “terrible” I should clarify that I don’t refer in any way to the quality of McGahern’s writing–quite the opposite. McGahern has an awesome ability to conjure up the minute but powerful tensions and pleasures of daily life in mid-twentieth century rural Ireland. His fiction is quiet and unassuming . . .

Re: Sadhu Sundar Singh

I just received word that Artist Alec Stevens’ graphic novel on Sadhu Sundar Singh is in print and available through Calvary Comics.

Stevens sends this word because of a post Lars wrote in May which mentioned Singh. On our old blog, Lars wrote:

I’m a long-time member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. In January, 1991, the society’s Bulletin published an article by Lindskoog which appears to be an early version of the “Golden Chain” piece. It was titled, “C.S. Lewis and Sadhu Sundar Singh.” A comparative reading shows that the material is very similar, though much of it has been rearranged. A further difference is that this (apparent) early version features no mention of the Visions book in relation to The Great Divorce.

In response to that article, I wrote a letter to the Bulletin editor. That letter was published in the January 1992 issue (the delay in Bulletin releases in those days was something of an embarrassment). A portion of my letter is reproduced below:

I enjoyed the article [by Kathryn Lindskoog…] on Sadhu Sundar Singh as the original of Lewis’ “Sura” in That Hideous Strength.

I recently picked up a booklet I have owned for many years but never read before, Visions of Sadhu Sundar Singh of India. It was originally published in 1926, and contains a series of teachings on life after death which the Sadhu claimed were revealed to him during ecstatic experiences. He tells of conversations with angels and blessed spirits, and direct visions of heaven and hell and an “intermediate state” between them.

I was intrigued by some apparent similarities between the visions in this book and the scenes in The Great Divorce. The Sadhu pictures the intermediate state as a place where the majority of human souls are met by angels and spirits of saints [and] are given many opportunities and encouragements to believe in Christ and go on to higher and higher states of grace….

…I can’t help wondering whether there is any evidence of Lewis ever reading it. It could have been a spark for his artistic imagination….

I expressed my devout skepticism as regards “intermediate states,” and closed with publication information on the edition of the Visions I owned (which, as it happened, was published by Osterhus Publishing, a small press/bookstore within walking distance of my present home).