‘Wipe Out,’ by Jeff Shelby

This will be a short review, but I’m giving you two posts today, and the other one is awesome.

I’m continuing reading Jeff Shelby’s Noah Braddock mystery series. This one is Wipe Out (cue background music – you’ll understand if you’re old enough). Noah, you’ll recall, is a California surfer/private eye, who’s spent many years overcoming his exceedingly dysfunctional upbringing to become a responsible and decent man. He’s still recovering from a personal tragedy that made him a fugitive for a while.

Mitch Henderson was the proprietor of a beach motel in San Diego, and served as a badly needed father figure for Noah in his youth. So when Mitch dies suspiciously, another friend, Anne Sullivan, who worked at the motel, asks Noah to investigate. Curiosity becomes something like desperation when Anne – instead of Mitch’s widow – is left the motel in Mitch’s will, and she becomes the target of threats and malicious vandalism.

This story looked at first like kind of a standard “surprised and threatened heir” story, a staple in the genre. But it worked out in surprising ways, and was resolved in a pretty satisfying manner.

I enjoyed Wipe Out, and recommend it, with mild cautions for language.

I have a Carl Martell moment*

The figure above, with the strange hair and the tree growing out of his head, is your humble servant. In my hand is a genuine, authentic 1,100-year-old Viking sword, from the Ewart Oakeshott collection.

As I announced, I was at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis on Sunday, as part of a Viking “encampment” in connection with their “The Vikings Begin” exhibition. Among the exhibitors was The Oakeshott Institute, also located in Minneapolis. They offered the unrefusable opportunity to actually hold a Viking sword — if you wore cotton gloves.

(Only the blade is original, by the way. Some collector in the 19th Century added the guard, hilt, and pommel. Which is why they don’t mind people picking it up. With proper protections.)

I talked to the Oakeshott representative, who told me that Oakeshott himself, an Englishman, gifted his entire collection to his friend Chris Poor, a noted swordsmith here in Minneapolis — mostly to spite the British Antiquities nazis. I need to learn more about this organization. Oakeshott was The Man when it came to medieval swords. (I’ve read his book.)

It was a good day, though a wintry rain kept us indoors. Sold a good number of books — and book sales are no longer gravy for me. They’re part of my bottom line.

But the sword is what I’ll remember.

*Obscure reference to a novel written by a forgotten author.

‘Impact Zone,’ by Jeff Shelby

Having finished Jeff Shelby’s “Thread” books, I moved on to his Noah Braddock series, which I’ve also enjoyed. Noah Braddock is an implausible private eye – a surfer who investigates in his spare time. But author Shelby does some interesting character development with him. Noah is the product of an especially dysfunctional background, fumbling his way to maturity. A few books ago he suffered a personal tragedy and had to flee his California home for a while. As Impact Zone begins, he’s back in San Diego, trying to rebuild his life.

A girl he once dated asks him to travel up to rural northeast San Diego County to talk to her father, who is a big avocado farmer. He’s installed closed circuit TV in various locations in his orchards, and one of the cameras took a picture that bothers him. It’s a young blonde girl who’s running, and looking scared. Can Noah see if he can find out who she is, and if she’s all right?

Noah feels intensely out of his element on a big farm, far from the ocean. But he hasn’t gotten far in his investigation when one of the farm workers disappears. There’s a ransom demand. Noah and his friend Carter find themselves facing a conspiracy involving surprising people, some of whom are playing for keeps.

The subject of illegal immigration is prominent in Impact Zone. Author Shelby obviously has strong opinions on the issue, because another book in the series, which I’m reading now, also deals with it. His is a pretty rose-colored view, in my opinion. In his world, there are no criminal “undocumented immigrants.” No drug cartel members, no gangsters, no human traffickers. Only hard-working, incredibly decent people, an example to us all. I think it hurts his storytelling a little, because we know from the beginning that certain possible scenarios just aren’t going to happen. If you have strong feelings about immigration, you may have trouble with these books.

The editing falls down occasionally, and at one point a firearm starts as a rifle and then somehow transforms into a shotgun.

But I like Noah Braddock, and I enjoyed the book anyway. Mild cautions for language.

Norwegian stuff

Today is Syttende Mai, Constitution Day, Norway’s foremost national celebration. I have my Norwegian flag flying at my house, as is my wont when the weather permits on this date. There are rumors of rain, but so far so good.

If you’re in the Twin Cities area, and longing for a chance to look on my kindly visage (now that Grumpy Cat has left us), there are a couple opportunities coming up.

This Sunday I’ll be at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis for the Vikings Family Day. It was supposed to be outside, but it’s looking like weather will drive us indoors. I’ll have books to sell, if you can find me. 12:00 to 5:00 p.m.

And on Saturday, May 25, I’ll be at Fort Snelling Cemetery for the dedication of the new memorial to the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate). The time will be 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

‘Thread of Truth,’ by Jeff Shelby

I’ve been going through Jeff Shelby’s “Thread Novels,” starring former cop and current lost kid locater, Joe Tyler. This is the last book published to date, as far as I can tell, so tomorrow I’ll have a review from a different Jeff Shelby series. His books aren’t without their flaws, but I like the writing and the damaged main characters.

In many ways, Thread of Truth is a riff on the same theme as the book I reviewed last night. Again a young man has disappeared, and Joe Tyler is asked to try to find him. Again the lost kid is a recovering drug user, who has been clean for a while, but may have been involved in something else dangerous.

Joe Tyler has given up teaching now, a career he never really liked much. So when Desmond Locker’s parents ask him to find their missing son, he takes the job. The boy’s girlfriend has just given birth to his baby, and he had lots of plans for the future. He had not gone back to drugs, everyone insists. He’d been working hard and saving his money.

But his boss says he hasn’t given him the overtime he’s been talking about. So where did his money come from?

There will be no easy answers, and little good news. Many people are hiding secrets.

These books are pretty low key for their genre, but I like that just fine. I enjoyed Thread of Truth as I have the rest of the series. Recommended, with minor cautions for language.

‘Thread of Doubt,’ by Jeff Shelby

Plowing through Jeff Shelby’s interesting “Thread” series of mystery/thrillers. The hero, Joe Tyler, as you know if you’ve been following these reviews, is a former cop in Coronado, California. His life changed when his little daughter was kidnapped, and he spent years single-mindedly chasing her down. In the end he did locate her, now a teenager, and brought her home. At the beginning of Thread of Doubt she’s just back from college for Christmas break. She wants to talk to Joe about something, but he has trouble making time. He’s been teaching high school, and is behind on his class work. On top of that, he’s got a new investigation to look at in his free time.

He hadn’t intended to look for another kid, but the request came from an old cop friend, Mike Lorenzo. Mike’s nephew, for whom he was a sort of father figure, has disappeared. The young man has a history with drugs, but had seemed to have cleaned up his act. He was a musician, and his band looked to be on the brink of a commercial breakthrough.

Joe talks to the young man’s friends and girlfriend. What he learns brings him to a grim discovery, and grim solution to the mystery.

Thread of Doubt was a fairly by-the-numbers effort, and the end surprisingly low-key. But I like the characters and have had a good time following Joe’s odyssey. I enjoyed Thread of Doubt, and recommend it, with only minor cautions.

‘Thread of Revenge,’ by Jeff Shelby

Somehow I’d gotten the idea that Jeff Shelby’s “Thread” series of mystery/thrillers had come to an end. I was even more surprised to find that I’d missed one. By which I mean that I’d missed the book before the last book I reviewed here, Thread of Danger. I have a vague idea that I noticed at the time that something big had changed. Turned out I’d skipped an episode.

Anyway, Thread of Revenge is the book I skipped, which I’ve now read. I almost think I might have bypassed it purposely, because some awful things happen and I enjoyed this one least of them all.

It’s always necessary to give you deep background, especially with this series. It started out with the hero, Joe Tyler, searching for his daughter Elizabeth, who was snatched from his front yard just before Christmas one year. After years of searching, he did locate her (with an unaware adoptive family in Minnesota), and now the family is almost back together. He and his wife Lauren, now divorced, have been reconciling.

But in his quest to find Elizabeth, Joe desperately asked a favor of a very bad man in Minnesota. The bad man asked him for a favor in return. Joe did not keep his part of the bargain, and lied to him about it.

Now the bad man knows. And he’s kidnapped Lauren. Jack must do the awful thing he promised to do, or Lauren will die.

That’s a pretty horrifying scenario. Joe has to do his best in a lose/lose situation, and things will get very nasty indeed.

I found this story unpleasant, and somewhat unsatisfying. Also, a major plot element didn’t make sense to me – though author Shelby is likely setting up a return visit to the situation in a future book.

But the writing’s good, and I like the characters. I’m continuing to read the series, as you’ll learn with tomorrow’s review.

But Thread of Revenge was a bit of a downer. Cautions for the usual stuff.

Copyediting Stereophile Magazine

Vintage editor Richard Lehnert tells something of his story in this three page web article on his years at Stereophile magazine. (via Prufrock News)

Larry would hand me endless accordion-pleated foldings of copy, printed in some knockoff of Palatino by a clacking daisy-wheel printer on a single endless roll of paper. I would take them home, mark them up in red pencil, and then, if delivering them after or before office hours, drive in my ’66 VW bug from my abuelita hovel on Alicia Street, in the Barrio, to Early Street, and leave them in the Stereophile mailbox—until one day four long articles bleeding red with my crabbed edits vanished from that mailbox, no doubt seized by an irate postperson, and I had to do them over from scratch.

‘A Cotswolds Murder,’ by Roy Lewis

When I bought Roy Lewis’s A Cotswolds Murder, I’d forgotten that I’d bought another volume in the Inspector Crow series (first published in the 1970s) and reviewed it some time back. I wasn’t terribly impressed with that one. I liked this one quite a lot better. I might even become a fan.

Chuck Lindop was a man on the margins of civil society. A con man, a charmer, a would-be burglar, he held down a respectable job as manager of a “caravan site” (what Americans would call a trailer park). But he dreamed of the big score that would make him rich – and he wasn’t above resorting to violence when charm wouldn’t do the job.

So it’s no great surprise when his body is found in front of his caravan, his skull bashed in by a crowbar. And there’s no shortage of suspects with motives to kill him – spurned lovers, jealous husbands, victims of his cons, and angry former associates. But the police have a hard time working out who had opportunity to kill him, based on the comings and goings at the site that night.

So they call in Inspector John Crow of Scotland Yard. (By the way, I read some time back that this never actually happens. Scotland Yard is a metropolitan police service, and does not provide consultation for departments in the provinces. But the visiting inspector is a hoary trope of English mysteries, so what are we to do?) Inspector Crow is tall and skeletally thin, with a bald head. He looks like a vulture, but he’s an empathetic man. His great advantage as an investigator is his sympathetic understanding of human nature.

Author Lewis does an excellent job of fooling the reader with red herrings in this story, and tops it all with a surprising – but dramatically satisfactory – final surprise.

I enjoyed A Cotswolds Murder quite a lot. I recommend it, and no cautions are necessary.

Sub-creators

A snippet from Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter.

This is from his account of the long night’s conversation among Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Hugo Dyson at Oxford in 1931, which bore fruit a few days later in Lewis’s conversion. It’s tremendously important.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil….

Lewis listened as Dyson affirmed in his own way what Tolkien had said. You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, he said, I begin to understand.

‘Tolkien: a Biography,’ by Humphrey Carpenter

During the war he had said to Christopher: ‘We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring’ and now he wrote: ‘The War is not over (and the one that is, or part of it, has largely been lost). But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on, and it is no good growing faint.’

The trailers for the new Tolkien movie looked kind of good, so I figured I might go to see it. It seemed to me it would be a good idea to read a Tolkien biography before I did that. And although I’m now hearing that the movie leaves out Tolkien’s Catholic faith – which means I probably won’t see it after all – I’m glad I bought Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien: A Biography.

The book is easy to read and not too long. It follows “Toller’s” life from his birth in South Africa to his death in England, and the author is clearly a sympathetic fan – though he is often amused by Tolkien’s eccentricities. Which were many.

This is, I believe, the classic Tolkien biography, and it’s fairly old now. I expect there are new things to be learned from more recent ones. I noted, for instance, that Carpenter speaks of “Jack” Lewis’s transfer to Cambridge University only in passing, as a step backwards in the two men’s friendship. While that’s true enough, it should have been noted that it was through the good offices of Tolkien himself that Jack got the job.

But, reading as a fan, I found Tolkien: A Biography fascinating. I recommend it highly.

‘The Saga of a Supercargo,’ by Fullerton Waldo

A little while ago Dale Nelson, a friend of mine, sent me a book he thought might interest me. It was an old work called The Saga of a Supercargo, by the now-forgotten author Fullerton Waldo, copyright 1926. It’s an account of a tramp steamer voyage from Philadelphia to Greenland, on which Waldo served as a “supercargo” (a representative of the ship’s owners with supervisory duties). Dale thought I might enjoy it for its descriptions of Greenland. I did – more than I expected, actually – though I wish I’d read it before I wrote West Oversea.

At the time, Greenland (a protectorate of Denmark) was embargoed to foreign trade – in order to protect the native Inuit (here called Eskimos, of course) from exploitation and disease. However, Greenland had one export product – the mineral cryolite (which Waldo spells kryolith), used in various industrial applications, mostly for cleaning. The Pennsylvania Salt Company had a license to receive part of the island’s cryolite production each year, to help defray the costs of the colony to the Danish crown. The P.S.C.’s ships were the only non-Danish ships permitted in Greenland, and Waldo, as a writer, was interested to document the voyage.

It’s a lively account. Waldo recounts the stormy voyages to and from Greenland (no wonder the Vikings didn’t do it more), and the frontier conditions in which a small colony of Danish officials, mining engineers, and laborers made a life in a frontier setting, often in dangerous conditions. Inuit life is described in amusing detail. Forecasts said that the cryolite deposit would run out in a few years, and then all this would end.

Waldo was a pretty good writer. He writes as an author of his time – his writing is a little more flowery than what we’re used to today, but unlike many older writers, he uses the flowery language well, and doesn’t overdo it. It illuminates his meaning. I found it an interesting study in style. I also enjoyed his sharp character sketches of his fellow crewmen – mostly Norwegians.

This book is, apparently, fairly rare, and the facsimile on sale at Amazon isn’t cheap. But if you run across it and find the subject interesting, it’s well worth reading.

‘Murder On the Run,’ by Bruce Beckham

I’ve been a fan of Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series for some time, but I think I may have been underestimating it. These are entertaining traditional mysteries set in remote English Cumberland. Inspector Dan Skelgill is a skilled investigator, curmudgeonly before his time. He amuses himself by being thoughtless with his subordinates, even DS Jones, an attractive woman who is openly interested in him, but whom he considers too young for him. He has been burned in love in the past, and so sublimates his feelings through his work and his hobbies – fishing, motorcycling, and fell (mountain) running.

It’s while he’s out on a run at the beginning of Murder On the Run that he discovers a fresh talent – Jess, a young woman with the makings of a record-breaker (he himself holds the current record). When he discovers that she’s part of his far-flung extended family, he takes her under his wing and becomes her coach. This despite the hostility of her negligent mother, who seems to be a prostitute and a drug addict.

Meanwhile DS Jones has been temporarily transferred to a task force investigating drug smuggling in the area, and a seductive female officer has been sent to replace her, causing much amusement. Skelgill mistrusts the officer running the operation, and fears for DS Jones’ safety – with good reason. His own family connections are at the edges of the criminal action, and Jess may be in mortal danger if Skelgill can’t run interference for her.

Tolkien was told by his friends that hobbits are only amusing when in “un-hobbit-like situations.” I like Skelgill best when he’s acting in an un-Skelgill-like manner. In Murder On the Run he breaks out of his alienation to show genuine care and concern for another human being, and that element made this book my favorite of the series to date. I also noted some very good prose, while foul language is pretty completely avoided.

Author Beckham does misuse the word “myriad,” but I guess everyone does that nowadays. Recommended.

Survivor’s report

Photo credit: Erik Patton

Above you see me this last week, at the Festival of Nations in St. Paul. The Festival of Nations is a celebration held annually to rejoice in the rich diversity of our community.

Can you speak the words “rich diversity” without that intonation that implies quotation marks? I know I can’t. I’ve tried.

It’s not a bad event, and my sales (more on those below) were pretty good. But it’s grueling. It just involves sitting around, but you sit around in a windowless, echoing concrete cavern, and Friday and Saturday are twelve-hour days – ten to ten. It wears on an old man.

We had an example of rich diversity at a nearby vendor’s stall, where a gentleman was selling “Ojibway Beadwork.” Another Native American came over and insisted he had no right to make or sell what he was making and selling. Wrong tribe or wrong designs or something. The offender packed up and left, saying he felt unsafe.

You may extract what moral you will from this story.

But I did pretty good business. Saturday in particular was excellent – at one point I had a line of three people waiting to buy Viking Legacy (the book I translated, if you’re new around here). This occurred – of course – just as I was sitting down to eat the Chinese meal I’d brought from the food section.

It’s not true that I’d rather eat than make money. I produce this anecdote as proof. My sesame chicken was cool by the time I got to it, but I made sales.

I really think we’ve got great possibilities in Viking Legacy. Again and again I had the experience of explaining the book’s theme (the influence of Viking democracy on our own democracy today) and a kind of light would go on in people’s eyes and they’d reach for their wallets.

My investment in stock was expensive, but I made it all back and took in a fair profit.

Capitalism is good, as every Viking will tell you.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture