‘Sherlock’ and the Case of the Jumped Shark

I knew better. But I was seduced.

OK, let me rephrase that.

I had decided, at the end of the last season of BBC’s Sherlock, to stop watching it. I’d liked the first season very much. The second season I liked quite a lot. The third season alienated me. The production went from being a detective show (featuring lively riffs on the original Conan Doyle stories) into being a soap opera about the friendship of two men. I was particularly irritated by the condescending attitude I thought I detected toward the original material. As if Doyle had been waiting for the 21st Century for someone to inform him what he’d really been writing about.

But then they offered a Christmas special, which aired last night on PBS, and they did it in period, set about 1895, with Holmes smoking a pipe again and Watson sporting a handlebar mustache. I couldn’t resist that, could I?

Well, I couldn’t. And I guess it’s just as well. It was only 90 minutes, and that was long enough to put me off the series permanently. Continue reading ‘Sherlock’ and the Case of the Jumped Shark

Good Books of 2015

Many friends of The American Conservative offer their recommendations from their reading over the past year. Here are a just couple.

Bradley J. Birzer states, “Since Tolkien’s death in 1973, five books of his art have appeared, with Hammond and Scull having expertly editing three of them. This most recent, The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, is not only glorious but is also a vital corrective to the cinematic horrors and travesties created by Peter Jackson’s six films.”

Gene Callahan writes, “’Acedia’ is the Latin word for the deadly sin of ‘sloth.’ We often think of sloth as roughly synonymous with ‘laziness’ (thus the animal name), but in his powerful book Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, R.J. Snell explains that this is only one aspect of how it was traditionally characterized.”

Sin and Confession

Michael Kelley writes about the one person who can cast the first stone of condemnation against us.

On a related note, Trevin Wax says, “It is puzzling to see one of the defining marks of a Christian’s identity quietly disappear from a church’s worship.” He refers to confession of sin, and though a corporate confession can encourage us to view God as perpetually frowning at our inability to measure up to his standard, the lack of corporate confession can encourage the opposite error, the belief that sin doesn’t matter.

John Hendryx says he had to warm up to use of corporate confessions, but now he cherishes them. “For most it makes the time of worship more authentic and joyful for it strikes a blow against self-righteousness and humbles us before God as we say what we know to be true of ourselves and the only Lord who saves us. It reminds us that we are not better than others and that it is only grace (an alien righteousness) which makes us what we are.”

That mirrors my experience with corporate confession of sin. Reading with those around me how I have not done what I should have done and did what I should not have done opens me up to the wonderful announcement that Christ Jesus has given me his righteousness and set me free from the power of sin. It’s liberating to hear out loud and in public, because in private it’s easy to pick up stones to throw at myself.

Viking stuff on a winter night

Andrew Lawler, at National Geographic, writes what I consider a very fine article about slavery in the Viking Age. For years I’ve been arguing against the current fashion for portraying the Vikings as peaceable but misunderstood businessmen. That’s both historically obtuse and insulting to a culture that took pride in its prowess with arms. I’m particularly annoyed by the trope that says, “Well, you know, most of them weren’t warriors but peaceable tradesmen.” I suppose you could say that, if you consider the slave trade a peaceable occupation.

“This was a slave economy,” said Neil Price, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University who spoke at a recent meeting that brought together archaeologists who study slavery and colonization. “Slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.”

Of course the Vikings were hardly alone in trading and keeping slaves. Other cultures that did much the same thing were… pretty much everybody.

I just get annoyed by the “peaceable tradesmen” line.

In other Viking news, there’s new Russian film that looks very intriguing:

This is an epic about Vladimir the Great, who made the Russians Christian. Like all great historical epics it’s probably stuffed with baloney, but it sure looks good. I can find some fault with the costumes, but this trailer just sings. It could be the good Viking movie we’ve waited for so long. Hope it comes out soon with English subtitles.

Alton Brown: Memphis Is #1 Town

The Eater Upsell podcast talked to Alton Brown this month about his books, his road show, his Food Network shows, and his food philosophy. There are many highlights, but one that stands out to me is his big shout-out to Memphis, Tennessee.

Outside of Memphis proper is this doughnut place called Gibson’s, which makes not just the best doughnut in the United States but, as far as I’m concerned, if all the other doughnuts went away and I still had Gibson’s, I’d be okay. They’ve also got the best chicken, and maybe the best hamburger in the United States.

He also gives credit to Starbucks for being the “game changer” in American food culture. Now, many of us are willing to spend $4 on coffee and look forward to fancy third-wave brews.

What’s funny, though, is I think that we’re more sophisticated as eaters than cooks. You know, I know people that can detect the difference between whether we’ve made the bouillabaisse with, you know, Turkish saffron or Iranian saffron, but couldn’t cook the seafood in the bouillabaisse if you held a gun to their head, you know, so — we’ve become far more sophisticated as consumers. Whether we have as cooks or not, I don’t know.

‘Stateline,’ by Dave Stanton

Dan Reno (pronounced Renno) is a maintenance alcoholic who works for a detective agency whose penny-pinching owner he despises. But he gets along well enough with his ex-wife to be invited to a family wedding, that of one of her relations to the son of a business tycoon in Reno (the town). The wedding never happens though, because the groom is murdered the night before, during the bachelor party. His grieving father hires Dan on the spot to find out who’s responsible. $100,000 to identify the killer, then leave the rest to him.

Dan takes the job, and gradually learns that the dead man was not the person people thought he was. He had been involved with some very unsavory, dangerous people, and Dan is soon struggling to save his life – and that of his cop friend Cody, who comes to help him – in the dangerous mountain country around Reno. Organized crime and corrupt cops both want them to back off, and are willing to kill them if they don’t get the hint.

That’s the premise of Stateline, a throwback to classic hardboiled formulas in a contemporary setting. The book grew on me. Dan seems a little sleazy at the beginning of the story, but as we get to know him he displays some decent qualities, especially in his treatment of women. I grew to like him. The book, in spite of all the vice it describes, has a moral center.

The writing in Stateline is sometimes spotty. I was put off by some infelicities in the style. But it wasn’t bad enough to make me delete the book from my Kindle unfinished (it’s free for Kindle, at least this month). I might mention that I’m reading the sequel now, and the quality of the prose has improved.

Not a bad novel. Cautions are in order for language, drugs, sexual situations, and some serious violence.

‘Never Taste Death,’ by Hannah Rose Williams

Full disclosure: Hannah Rose Williams, the author of this book, is a former student at the school where I’m librarian. She sent me a free copy of her latest novel for review. I’m not sure we’ve ever actually met, but I need to be up front about the connection before offering this review.

Having finished Never Taste Death, I discovered that it’s the second book in a series. That explains a lot. Although the writing impressed me in many ways, much more than many self-published novels I’ve seen, I often felt like a spectator at a ball game without a score card. So although I’m reviewing the second book, I recommend getting the first one, A World Awaits, if you decide to get into this series.

The setting seems to be the future, where things have changed a lot but there are still many Christians. Some kind of interdimensional breach has occurred, and now humans inhabit various dimensions, sharing them with beings something like elves (they are short and have green skin, and can travel through earth). Various groups of humans and elves are at war with each other. Many humans are not Christians, and many elves are. The main character, Carver Winchester, is a genetic mix. When we meet him he is working in some kind of labor center, working off a debt. Then he gets a plea for help from an old acquaintance, and he deserts through an interdimensional portal. His family follows him, resulting in various adventures and a tangle of story lines that converge in the end.

I was impressed with the character development and dialogue in Never Taste Death, most of the time. There are a lot of discussions about religion, in which the author works out her essential arguments about God. The discussions are pretty well written (generally), but I thought there were probably too many of them for one book. You should be warned that the author has decided to employ realistic dialogue, including the occasional obscenity. There are also a couple minor characters who are homosexuals, and I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to approve of them or not.

The book’s chief weakness, in my view, is not enough description. I had trouble understanding what the various racial groups looked like, and what buildings looked like. I had some trouble keeping the many characters straight (though that’s not unusual for me in any book). Also (I never thought I’d say this) a couple information dumps would have been helpful. Some things that wouldn’t be secrets to someone who’d read the first book were opaque to me until the end.

Less than a fully professional work, Never Taste Death is nevertheless a better than average self-published novel, especially in the Christian fantasy genre. Cautions for language, adult themes, and violence. Not for kids.

Sin: Treating People as Things

Leah Libresco talks about the moral wonders of Discworld in “The Little Way of Terry Pratchett.” In these magical stories, sin is essentially treating people as things.

“It’s an insidious sort of error that harms me along with the person I’m rejecting. They’ll be hurt by the way I treat them, but I’m wounded by my self-inflicted blindness. I’ve robbed myself of the chance to see the other person as God does, and to love them in his way.”

Rudolph Isn’t Dangerous

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One Christmas Eve, a heavy fog covered the earth. From pole to equator, a blanket of cloud laid over everything. Santa stood on the four floor balcony of his Arctic mansion and said, “If I don’t find a piercing light to cut through this fog, I may give naughty children nice presents and nice children the coal.” He could think of only one solution.

Dr. Richard Mouw says the stories of Rudolph and Frosty “aren’t dangerous tales. To be sure, they can function as reinforcements of the commercialization of what should be seen as a holy season. But so can the perfectly orthodox carols that play over the speaker systems at Macy’s.”

These stories can be the type of fantasy that points us to the truth.

Kristin Lavransdatter

Eve Tushnet writes, “Kristin Lavransdatter is an epic tale of fourteenth-century Norway, a saga of marriage and motherhood, sin and penitence, suffering and acceptance. I read it for the first time at age thirty four, and that’s a good age to meet it. But I wish I’d read it earlier. I wish I’d devoured it as a teen, let its view of life sink into me and change me long before I could really understand it. I suspect this would be a good book to grow up with.”

‘Whispering Smith,’ by Frank H. Spearman

I grew curious about the character of Whispering Smith years back. I was reading a book about the Wild West, and the author mentioned, in an aside, that Smith was based – in part – on the real life lawman Joe Lefors. Lefors is best remembered nowadays as the faceless posseman in a straw boater who so spooks Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the movie. In real life, alas, Joe Lefors was less of… well, of a force. He didn’t catch Butch and Sundance, after all, and his greatest achievement was extracting the confession that sent Tom Horn to the gallows for murder in 1903. Historians ever since have disputed the validity of that confession.

The same writer mentioned that the vicious killer Harvey DuSang in the novel is based on another Wild Bunch member, Harvey Logan (Kid Curry).

I first heard of Whispering Smith in a short-lived 1961 TV series that starred Audie Murphy. That series is notorious for being cited in a Senate Juvenile Delinquency Committee hearing as an egregious example of TV violence. The series actually bore almost no resemblance to the book, retaining the hero’s name and pretty much nothing else.

The series was loosely based on a 1948 movie (actually the last of several film adaptations) that starred Alan Ladd and Robert Preston. That movie was based on the book, though they moved it back in time (the novel is set around 1900, and everybody has telephones), and omitted a rather charming romantic subplot.

Having established that, let’s talk about the actual book, Whispering Smith, by Frank H. Spearman. It’s free for Kindle, so I thought that after all these years I’d find out what it was about. I had a pleasant surprise in store.

The story starts with a railroad foreman, Murray Sinclair, arriving at a wreck site to clear the track. He’s a well-paid and competent employee of the company, popular and efficient. But, we also learn, he’s pretty much a man without a conscience. We’d call him a sociopath today. He considers it one of his perks to plunder the wrecks. He’s caught at it by a railroad supervisor, and fired on the spot.

Sinclair withdraws along with his work crew, and becomes an outlaw, dynamiting and wrecking the trains he used to salvage. This causes the railroad president to call in his best detective, Gordon “Whispering” Smith.

Smith has been keeping away from that particular area for some time, out of consideration for a resident of the town. Marion Sinclair is Smith’s old flame, but she married his childhood friend Murray Sinclair. She’s learned Murray’s true character by now and has separated from him, but (in one of those plot points that would be incomprehensible to today’s reader) they both respect the sanctity of marriage and wouldn’t dream of committing adultery together.

But Sinclair is too proud to run, and Smith has principles about doing his job, so their final showdown is inevitable.

When I started reading Whispering Smith, it seemed to me a pretty standard old-fashioned novel. The prose was a little more florid than what we prefer today, and the dialogue doubtlessly bowdlerized. But the more I read, the more I got caught up in the story. The characters are exceedingly well done, especially that of Smith himself. He’s one of those seemingly ordinary men who reveals increasingly intriguing depths.

Everything surprised Whispering Smith, even his salary; but an important consequence was that nothing excited him.

I truly enjoyed Whispering Smith, and I recommend it heartily.

Sharing Your Remarkable Story

You have a story of faith and God’s work in your life. “And if people don’t take us seriously,” says Aaron Armstrong, “that’s still good news worth sharing.” He briefly describes the struggle his wife has experienced and links to a couple versions of her remarkable story.

“For years, whenever she or both of us have told the story of how we came to faith, we’ve seen people stop speaking to us, back away slowly as if we were whacked, or (in one instance) convert to an entirely different religion.”

‘Calendar of Crime,’ by Ellery Queen

Miss Ypson had not always been dead; au contraire. She had lived for seventy-eight years, for most of them breathing hard. As her father used to remark, “She was a very active little verb.” Miss Ypson’s father was a professor of Greek at a small Midwestern university. He had conjugated his daughter with the rather bewildered assistance of one of his brawnier students, an Iowa poultry heiress.

I think I’ve intimated before that I’m adopting a policy of withdrawing – a bit – from contemporary fiction. We find ourselves in a new Victorian era, where quite a lot of things that are true can’t be said in polite company, and where every story is expected to genuflect, at least for a moment, toward the altar of the accepted pieties. It’s all very boring and annoying, and I need to stretch my legs on older, more gracious paths from time to time.

So I’m going to be checking out some literature of the past. As my tastes run to mysteries, that necessarily involves what’s called the stories of the Golden Age. Which will involve acquiring some new tastes. Golden Age mysteries are primarily puzzle stories, and that approach doesn’t excite me much. I like my stories character driven.

I downloaded Ellery Queen’s Calendar of Crime. Published in 1952, it’s not strictly a Golden Age book, but the approach is pretty much the same. It’s not a novel but a short story collection. The “calendar” of the title means that each of the twelve stories is set, chronologically and thematically, in a particular month of the year. The January story involves a New Year’s Eve party; the February story involves a legend about George Washington, etc. The main character, of course, is Ellery Queen, a sophisticated New York amateur detective whose father happens to be a police inspector.

It’s a good collection. The puzzles are clever, and the writing (by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who wrote under the Ellery Queen name) can be quite elegant, as witness the excerpt at the top of this review. These are puzzle stories, not character stories, but within the bounds of the form the authors did a good job of making them relatively plausible.

I’ll say this, though. Never hire Ellery Queen to protect either your life or your property. He will always fail, because if he succeeded there’d be no mystery for him to solve.

No cautions whatever are necessary for questionable content. As some mystery fan once said, “I like a good murder, without any immorality in it.”

Shirley Jackson’s Last Haunting Novel

Shirley Jackson, whose short story “The Lottery” has been retold too many times, left us a last, remarkable story in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and David Barnett loves it. “There isn’t a shred of the supernatural in Castle, though it feels like there is.” It feels like it because when one character goes to town, she’s greeted like this:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

 

Book Reviews, Creative Culture