Category Archives: Fiction

The Second Saladin, by Stephen Hunter

It’s late in the day, but to all you veterans, thank you for your service. Slackers like me owe you big.

The Second Saladin, it appears to me, marks a milepost on author Stephen Hunter’s journey toward finding his niche as a novelist. Some of the elements that will make his Bob/Earl Swagger books so compelling are already there, but he hasn’t yet shaken off a tendency to demonstrate his realism through grim pessimism.

Nevertheless, I found it a compelling book. Though published in 1982 and set in that same time period, the centrality of Kurdistan to the plot makes the whole business remarkably relevant more than two decades later. Continue reading The Second Saladin, by Stephen Hunter


Tonight, a snippet from a scene I’ve had in my mind for a long time. It’s basically my memory of a conversation I listened to while working in a shipping and mailing room, years ago. Someday I may work it into a book, if I find a place where it will be of some use.

“People think I don’t know nothin’, but I know a few things,” said Ray as he used the slide to cut a length of corrugated cardboard from a roll at the left of his workbench. He quickly cut the length into short sections, then piled them on top of one another to fill space at the top of the box he was packing. His motions were sure and practiced, though his hands trembled a little.

“They didn’t believe you?” asked Bill, a thinner, younger man. Bill was working at the bench behind Ray, unfolding a fresh carton as he reached for the sealing tape.

“They said it was nothin’. They wouldn’t listen to me. These young snots, they think I’m all old war stories, don’t know what’s goin’ on around me. So what if I like to have a few drinks now and then, fall down sometimes? It don’t mean I’m ignorant.”

“That’s sure enough,” said Bill.

“The apartment was right next to mine. I noticed it before anybody else, but pretty soon everybody could smell it. I went to the manager and told him. He said, no, you’re wrong. He said the guy’d gone on vacation, left some garbage in there.”

“Huh,” said Bill.

Their workbenches were gray. The box conveyer to the left of the benches was gray, too. So were the steel supply shelves, and some genius from the Facilities Office had recently brought in painters to give the walls two tones of fresh gray.

“I told him, I said, ‘I was in the war. I’ve smelled dead bodies before. You listen to me. There’s a dead body in there.’”

The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz

I feel the need to say something political on this last evening before the election.

But I can’t think of anything that hasn’t already been said. And since I know for a fact that our readers are a smart, erudite segment of the population, I’m pretty sure you’ve already made up your own minds.

So I’ll do a book review. It must be days since I’ve reviewed a Dean Koontz novel.

Koontz’ latest in paperback is The Darkest Evening of the Year. On a purely technical level I can make a lot of criticisms.

Since the death of his beloved Golden Retriever, Trixie, Koontz seems to be writing out his grief, with occasionally uneven results. The dogs in his books have gotten wiser and more mystical. In this book he cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of transcendence completely, coming close to caninolatry (if there is such a word. Of course there is! I just made it up!). That “Dog is God spelled backwards” palindrome that so impressed Annie Hall is almost (almost) at work here. Continue reading The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz

A.M.Smith Novel Online in Twenty Weeks

Alexander McCall Smith is delivering a novel through The Telegraph Online, day by day in twenty weeks. Corduroy Mansions is on chapter 33 today, and you can read it at The Telegraph site or get them in your email or rss feed. It begins “in the bathroom.

Passing off, thought William. Spanish sparkling wine – filthy stuff, he thought, filthy – passed itself off as champagne. Japanese whisky – Glen Yakomoto! – was served as Scotch. Inferior hard cheese – from Mafia-run factories in Catania – was sold to the unsuspecting as Parmesan. Lots of things were passed off in one way or another, and now, as he stood before the bathroom mirror, he wondered if he could be passed off too.

Of outlaws and deconstructionists

The weekend went fine. Tiring but fine. My presentation to the Sverdrup Society in Fargo was well received (though I think I ran over my time). It did snow on us for the Viking exhibit in Bloomington, but we set up inside the museum, so it didn’t bother us much.

I’m not a great re-reader. I do re-read books that I especially like, but I usually wait at least a couple years before doing it, to give myself time to forget plot elements.

So I was surprised that a little voice in my head kept nagging me to re-read Andrew Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop trilogy. “It’s still got things to teach you,” it told me.

So I started the three books again, Dynamite Road, Shotgun Alley and Damnation Street.

I’m glad I did.

What Klavan is doing here, I think, is unprecedented. I don’t think there’s ever been a detective epic before—a trilogy of free-standing books that are nevertheless bound together by a single overarching theme.

I can’t summarize the theme—or if I can, I think it would give too much away for those of you who haven’t enjoyed the books yet.

But it has to do with love. Not just love as romance and a plot device, but love as the clue to the meaning of everything in our lives. The whole complicated nexus of love and sex and maleness and femaleness and idealism and disillusionment.

Klavan himself has said, in an NRO interview (this link is to the first in the series; I’m not sure which of the five contains the anecdote) that his journey to faith began with an act of voyeurism. He and his girlfriend (now his wife) lived in an apartment that looked directly into the windows of a neighboring apartment. A couple moved in who were exhibitionists, performing their private acts in full light, with the shades open. As Klavan discussed the situation with his girlfriend, it occurred to him that there’s a difference between the simple, physical act of sex (as when, for instance, one observes other people doing it) and the experience of sex when enjoyed with someone you love. He began to wonder what made the difference, and that led him into a spiritual search that culminated in his conversion. Continue reading Of outlaws and deconstructionists

Auralia’s C. from William D.

Overstreet’s Auralia’s Colors gains a review from Mr. D.

There are two ways to write fantasy, which I’ll call the realistic way, and the fabulous way. The Lord of the Rings is an example of the first, as is George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels. . . . The fabulous way is less often attempted, and seems to be much harder to do. Examples would include Tolkien’s own Smith of Wooton Major, and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

Auralia’s C. would be . . .

Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

I’ve been a fan of John Sandford’s for a few years now. He writes a gripping, fast-moving story, with interesting characters and lots of verisimilitude. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a Minnesotan (he’s really the journalist John Camp) and sets most of his stories in our (his and my) state. (I have this odd delusion that places aren’t really important until there are stories about them. The places I enjoy visiting, or want to visit, are generally places where stories I like took place.)

But I’d gotten a little disillusioned with Sandford’s recent work. Lucas Davenport, hero of the Prey series, started out as a fascinating madman, a borderline psychopath cop (who also happened to be a video game millionaire) so passionate about hunting down serial killers that he often crossed the line into “judge, jury and executioner” territory.

The problem was, it was clear Davenport couldn’t go on like that indefinitely. If he kept doing his police work in that manner, eventually he’d either get caught or lose his mind entirely. So Sandford, discovering he had a hit series on his hands, took the rational course of finding Davenport a good woman, getting him married, and settling him down.

The downside of that was that Davenport got a little dull. Sandford appears to have compensated for that by making the crimes more appalling; adding an increased level of horror to his stories. It works to an extent, but I don’t like the series as much as I used to.

So I’m happy to report that Dark of the Moon, starring the spin-off character Virgil Flowers, is much less edgy. Its main appeal comes from fully realized characters and an intriguing mystery. Continue reading Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

The Ugly Duchess

New research indicates that “The Ugly Duchess,” a famous painting in England’s National Gallery, and the inspiration for some of John Tenniell’s illustrations in Alice in Wonderland, is probably an accurate portrait of its subject, according to this report in The Guardian. The unidentified woman in the painting apparently suffered from a rare form of Paget’s Disease.

Hat tip: Mirabilis.

The Writing Life or Lack Thereof

Mr. Ravenhill suggests artists are essentially setup by the time they are thirty; afterwards they refine their vision or prove their inability. “Great artists such as Bacon and Beckett distil; lesser artists become self-referential and self-conscious as their work goes on. A personally defined landscape can easily become an enclosed and introverted prison, referring only to itself.” When he picks up a novel that begins with a writer struggling over his novel, he pitches it. (via ArtsJournal)

Havana, by Stephen Hunter

Stephen Hunter’s most popular books are the two series about Earl and Bob Lee Swagger, father and son. It started with Point of Impact, in which he introduced Bob Lee Swagger, a decorated sniper from the Vietnam War whose highway patrolman daddy had been murdered in his childhood. Then Hunter started giving Daddy Earl stories of his own. This creates continuity problems, as Hunter attempts to shoehorn incredible adventures (I suspect he may like Earl as a character even better than Bob Lee) into the short lifespan decreed by the first book. Sometimes continuity breaks down, and a new book contradicts a previous one. Hunter cheerfully admits this fact in the Acknowledgements, but he makes no apologies. Each book, it would appear, exists in its own alternate universe.

Hunter is very canny in writing his thrillers. His politics (or so I heard him say in a radio interview) are libertarian/conservative, but he makes sure to be evenhanded with his heroes and villains. The Swaggers seem to be pretty conservative (they’re certainly NRA members), but the villains of this book are the thuggish police of Batista’s Cuba, and cynical CIA agents.

Havana begins in the year 1953. The CIA is looking for a sniper to assassinate a dangerous revolutionary in Cuba. (Several U.S. corporations and the mob are also concerned.) At the suggestion of a young agent named Walter “Frenchy” Short (whom we know from the novel Hot Springs), they select Marine veteran and Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger, persuading him to travel to Cuba as a bodyguard for a goatish Arkansas Congressman.

This is Batista’s Havana, a year-round Carnivale for Americans with money to spend, and there’s plenty of opportunity for humor as the upright Earl, a solidly reformed alcoholic and relentlessly faithful husband, observes it all but keeps his distance. Continue reading Havana, by Stephen Hunter