‘A Bespoke Murder,’ by Edward Marston

A historical mystery set in an intriguing time and place. I figured I’d take a chance on A Bespoke Murder, by Edward Marston.

It’s 1915, and England is at war. In the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania, anti-German sentiment is boiling over in England. Even in London’s posh West End, Jacob Stein’s fashionable tailor shop is smashed up by a mob, and set on fire. Mr. Stein himself is left dead. And his daughter is raped.

But Stein’s death was not random violence. Someone stabbed him, and made away with the contents of his safe. That makes it look like premeditated murder. Particularly since Stein was not merely German, but Jewish.

Inspector Harvey Marmion and his assistant Sergeant Joe Keedy are assigned to investigate. From the beginning, their work is hindered by the meddling of Stein’s blustering brother, and by the fears of the traumatized daughter. They will have to descend into the dark world of antisemitic political groups to unmask the true villain.

In spite of an interesting mystery and an interesting setting, I found A Bespoke Murder a disappointment, for several reasons. First of all, the characters weren’t very vivid. The good characters acted and spoke very much as people do today – even sometimes using neologisms like “hassling” for “bothering.” A fair amount of research must have been done on this book – why not throw in some contemporary idioms in the dialogue? Not a lot, but a sprinkling would have added verisimilitude. And the “good people” were just so pleasant. Very little friction or conflict between them, and few attitudes expressed that would make 21st Century people uncomfortable. The book seemed to me overwritten, and aimed at an unsophisticated audience.

I finished the book to find out whodunnit, but although there are several sequels, I’m not interested enough in these characters to read them.

Willing to Fail: Adorning the Dark

Author and musician Andrew Peterson has written a book on artistic creativity for everyone, called Adorning the Dark. It will be released in four days. (Already Amazon’s #1 seller in Music Encyclopedias. What?)

On his promotional site (from which I pulled this graphic above), Peterson describes the book.

This isn’t a technical “this is how you write a song” kind of book. There are plenty of those, and I don’t happen to think they do much good. I wanted to write something that would be helpful to all manner of disciplines: songwriters, novelists, poets, painters and pastors—but also parents and teachers and accountants and carpenters. One of my soapboxes in the book is that everyone’s creative. Everyone. And my hope is that the principles I cover in “Adorning the Dark” can be helpful no matter what field you’re in.

‘Turpitude,’ by Pete Brassett

I’m always pleased by the appearance of a new Inspector Munro novel by Pete Brassett. The latest installment in the series, set in Ayrshire, Scotland, is Turpitude, and it was as enjoyable as its predecessors.

Inspector Munro is no longer a working police detective. He’s overage and recovering from a heart attack. But he can’t keep away from the office, and frankly his old team, led by female detective Charlie West, is happy to have him on this one.

First of all, a couple garbage workers find three severed fingers in a tin of dog food. Oddly, nobody seems to have been treated for the injury in a hospital, and when they find the victim he’s not much interested in preferring charges.

Then a man walks into a jewelry store and bashes the owner over the head with a hammer. CCTV and witness statements provide few clues to the police.

It’s only Munro’s experience and intelligence that gently lead the detectives down the right paths to finally identify the culprits, uncovering an improbable conspiracy with bizarre motives.

As I said already, any time spent with Munro & Co. is time well spent. I recommend Turpitude, in spite of a measure of political correctness.

We Can Read Anything, But Do We Read Well?

Imagine there’re no novels
No books for us to buy
No bargain basement deals
Just notes to apply
Imagine no one reading more than daily tweets

Sings the would-be profound poet in the corner coffeeshop.

Has the virtually infinite access to written resources improved or inhibited our reading? To put it another way, are we wiser as a society for having so much more information? Author Sven Birkerts doesn’t think we are, and he’s written a book that celebrates reading and warns us against forgetting how much fun it is.

We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. . . .

Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Photo by Perfecto Capucine from Pexels

‘Moorings,’ by David Blake

When a decorated World War II hero is found drowned in his bath – not by accident, according to the coroner – Detective Inspector John Tanner and his partner (both personal and professional) Jenny Evans are pulled from missing persons duty to look into it. There are two surviving sons, and a pair of adult twin grandchildren. None of them seems to need money enough to kill the old man for the value of the decaying boatyard he owns. That’s the premise of David Blake’s novel Moorings, third in his Norfolk Broads police procedural series.

People kill for motives other than money, however. The suspect pool gradually shrinks as one by one the heirs are murdered, and in the end Tanner and Jenny will face the irrational fury of someone who has suffered an old, unpunished crime.

Moorings was an enjoyable, fast-paced mystery with appealing characters. I thought the plot had some weaknesses – there are a whole lot of coincidences, and the police procedures seemed kind of loosely observed to me (though perhaps their rules of evidence are different from the American). Also, Tanner and Jenny witness a particularly harrowing death that seems (to me) to affect them rather less than it should.

As in all the books, there’s a Bible passage at the beginning. And we are told that Tanner is weakening in his agnosticism. Which is always nice.

Recommended, for entertainment purposes. Mild cautions for the usual stuff.

Brief Review of History Books

SOME TRADITIONAL Christian publishers don’t do much in history. After years of reading overstatements from both left and right concerning America’s founding, I enjoyed the calm and thorough analysis of Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? (Thomas Nelson, 2019). Those who read minds and extrapolate diaries may still fight over questions of sincerity and personal faithfulness, but Hall clearly shows what’s most important: that Christian ideas profoundly influenced the Founders, and through them all of us.

World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky offers many quick evaluations of new history books in this week’s issue, pointing out trends from select publishers like the above. He notes Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn, which we highlighted earlier this year.

‘St. Benet’s,’ by David Blake

Book 2 in David Blake’s Norfolk Broads police procedural series is St. Benet’s. As you might guess, this novel takes its name from a church, and the issue of religion gets touched on.

Detective John Tanner is now cohabiting, at least much of the time, with his partner, attractive DC Jenny Evans. This is against regulations, but nobody’s called them on it yet.

Jenny in particular is appalled when they’re called to the ruined abbey adjoining the Catholic church to which she (technically) belongs, though her practice has lapsed. A man has been found on the site of the old altar, his head nearly severed and a knife in his hand. It looks like suicide, but if so it’s an extreme one, and John isn’t certain about it. The dead man was the former priest of the parish. Years ago he was accused of the rape and murder of a teenaged girl. He was acquitted, but excommunicated. After that he became the head of his own Satanic cult, and wrote a bestselling book. In that book, he suggested that he might be able to kill himself and rise from the dead, through diabolical power.

And then his tomb is struck by lightning, and another young girl is murdered on the site. And the priest’s corpse disappears.

Tanner’s and Jenny’s working relationship is strained when he makes some disparaging remarks about religion, which offend her. But they have to keep their eyes on the puzzle, because more murders are coming, and they are very cruel murders. Of course they can’t have been committed by the dead priest… can they?

St. Benet’s was a fairly engaging mystery in which religious questions were handled more or less even-handedly (though some very poor theology gets expressed, but that may just be the individual characters’ voices). My biggest problem with the book was that I figured out the murderer fairly early on.

Still, it was entertaining.

Walking Back, Never to Return

Poet Jessica Hornik says she remembers January in her poem “Recuerdo, January,” but they sound like October words nonetheless.

Walking back to the ferry in the evening chill,

they knew they’d never have reason enough
to return to this place, which made the leaving
as sad as a paradise gained and lost

in the space of two hours.

This year has been one to remember. No paradise gained, only loss. I feel I’m reluctantly slipping into the autumn of my life; I don’t know if I can turn around somewhere.

Photo by Jairph on Unsplash

‘Broadland,’ by David Blake

The “local color” mystery seems to be an established literary tradition by now. David Blake kicks off this particular new series with Broadland, the first in a series featuring Detective Inspector John Tanner of the Norfolk police in England.

Tanner is newly arrived from London. Burned out after the murder of his daughter and his subsequent divorce, he hopes the quieter atmosphere of the “Norfolk Broads” country will bring him some peace. He moves onto a friend’s sailing yacht and reports for work.

His hopes for peace are frustrated, however, by the discovery of a young woman’s body, mutilated in an encounter with a boat’s motor. Everyone assumes she merely fell into the canal and drowned, but Tanner is unsatisfied with that explanation. On top of that, another detective, with less experience but more local knowledge, is put in charge of the investigation.

This will prove to be a tragic decision.

When another woman is found drowned and mutilated, Tanner gets his own case. Partnered with a young female detective (with whom he soon begins a not-entirely-appropriate relationship), he follows the clues to a shocking and nearly disastrous final showdown in an abandoned windmill.

The Norfolk Broads series (I’ll review the next two in the next couple days) is a competent, entertaining police procedural series. It’s not a standout at this point – the characters are a little shallow, I’d say, and Tanner has a suspicious habit of being right all the time – but I enjoyed the book.

One interesting point – which I’m not sure how to interpret – is that each book is prefaced by a Bible passage – not just a single verse, but a paragraph or so. The books are not particularly “religious” in the Christian publishing sense, but the verses are there. Make of them what you will.

Recommended, with the usual cautions.

Motel, Miracles May Be Likely to Occur

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a new documentary on the making and lasting influence of Fiddler on the Roof. It first appeared on Broadway in 1964, was released as a movie in 1971, and has been on stages around the world ever since.

Through cast, crew and luminaries’ commentary, [Max] Lewkowicz examines the play’s time-transcending magic as he wonders why “mainstream America is interested in a bunch of Jews living in a pale of Russia of 1905.”

“Tevye is from the shtetl, but his message is universal,” Lewkowicz told The Jerusalem Post from his New York home. “He could be a family man in Honduras, or anywhere in the world for that matter – a father whose children rebel and want to go a different way against his will. He is a man whose tradition is being seriously challenged.”

Motel may have believed marrying Tzeitel to be a miracle of miracles, but many smarter-than-thou philosophers have argued against miracles being a thing (FWIW, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is now playing on my Your Classical stream). Michael J. Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary has a post about a popular view on miracles, that “given how unlikely miracles are, it is always more likely that a miracle did not occur.”

But we must remember the context of every “miraculous” event. If God is living and active in our world, then miracles will occur. They may even be likely.

‘Threshold,’ by G.M. Ford

Fenene looked even bigger indoors than he had in that alley. Like being in a phone booth with a freezer.

Not a book that will make a fan out of me, Threshold by G.M. Ford is nevertheless a very well-written mystery novel, offering many pleasures. I’ve become pretty shameless at discarding books I disagreed strongly with in recent years, but I stuck with this one (perhaps because I’m tightening my belt these days), and I don’t really regret it.

Grace Pressman is a beautiful albino with a mystical gift. In some cases, she can bring people back to consciousness from deep comas. The problem is that she’s not always sure she did them a favor. On top of that, she dislikes the limelight, and so she keeps hidden. This is also advisable in that she assists her mother in running a shelter for battered women. Right now, they’re even conspiring to break the law – hiding a bipolar woman and her daughters from a powerful husband who is rich enough to get custody in spite of evidence that he’s been abusing the girls.

Meanwhile Detective Mickey Dolan, just returned to work after a divorce and temporary suspension, is assigned to find the fugitive mother and her children. When he meets Grace and learns the true story, he’ll be faced with a crisis of integrity, one that forces him to choose between his career and freedom, and his soul.

Threshold was a compelling mystery with a (possible) touch of the supernatural. It worked very well. The writing was classic hard-boiled of the highest quality. Author Ford did a good job, I thought, portraying his (mostly liberal) heroes as flawed human beings. He was less successful (I thought) with his villains, who are generally crude stereotypes of right-wingers.

I imagine Ford wouldn’t want someone like me for a fan anyway, so I won’t read more of his books. But I will say that Threshold was an extremely well-written novel. Cautions for language and disturbing themes.

‘Murdery Mystery Weekend,’ by Bruce Beckham

In the eleventh outing in Bruce Beckham’s enjoyable Inspector Skelgill series, the author once again plays with old detective story tropes. Murder Mystery Weekend has a setting right out of Agatha Christie – a castle in Cumberland, where a millionaire has gathered a group of friends to celebrate his birthday with a “murder mystery weekend” game. Only before the festivities can start, his young, beautiful wife is dead – hanging from a hook in the bathroom. It looks like suicide – but what reason did she have to kill herself? Inspector Skelgill is called in to investigate, and soon begins to suspect foul play.

These old friends, it turns out, have complicated relationships – including a tradition of mate-swapping. The millionaire host is not as beloved as initial reports said, and his deceased wife had a checkered history of her own.

It’s not Skelgill’s preferred kind of case – he much prefers something less psychological, set in the outdoors. But he’s up to the challenge, supported by his subordinates, female DS Jones and male DS Leyton. The secrets will come out, and Skelgill will fish deep to bring up the truth.

Very enjoyable, like all the books in the series. Recommended.

‘Murder at Dead Crags,’ by Bruce Beckham

Turns out I’d missed a couple books in the Inspector Skelgill series by Bruce Beckham. But no matter. The continuing characters and Cumberland setting remain much the same, barring Skelgill’s gradual retirement from his fell running hobby, which just leaves him more time for his fishing.

Murder at Dead Crags seems to be a sort of tribute to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Antonia Crow, co-owner of a wild animal zoo, has been found dead at the foot of Dead Crags, an ill-omened local landmark. Antonia is the descendent of Piet Crow, a big game hunter who long ago returned from South Africa to establish the zoo. He owned a terrifying large black dog, and local legend says the dog still walks the fells, seeking to waylay nighttime walkers.

When Antonia’s sister Vivienne is nearly killed by a high caliber rifle bullet, Inspector Skelgill looks for more prosaic motives and perpetrators. There are a couple bidders who’d love to get their hands on the Crows’ land, and an animal rights group has set up a camp to protest the zoo itself (Skelgill’s female subordinate, DS Jones, is working undercover among them). When the culprit is revealed, both their lives will be in peril.

The Skelgill books are a lot of fun, though Skelgill can be a tad annoying – especially in his denial of his mutual attraction to DS Jones. I would say the animal rights people don’t come off terribly well in this book, but on the other side of the balance there’s a predatory real estate developer who is clearly a caricature of Donald Trump. So we’re all even, more or less.

Recommended, and the author himself admits he edits his dialogue to soften bad language.

Everyone Loves Food

“While I was writing The Lost Family, I cooked a lot—to meditate on the day’s writing as well as to kitchen-test all the recipes I then featured on the book’s menu. Some of my favorite lines for the book would bubble up that way, as if from a Magic 8-Ball, and one of them was ‘vegetables have no language.’ I revised this slightly for the novel, but it means that food is universal. The produce and spices will vary from country to country and cuisine to cuisine, but if you love food, you have a vast family out there. We can all communicate about how our beloved dishes are different—and how they are the same.” – Jenna Blum, The Lost Family

Crystal King, whose book about Vatican chef Bartolomeo Scappi, The Chef’s Secret, came out this year, quotes eleven authors on including food in their writing.

“Writing, in a way, is an extension of my cooking, and vice versa. Cooking taught me how to create, that I needed to create.” – Phillip Kazan

Photo by Jonathan Borba from Pexels

Book Reviews, Creative Culture