‘Long Gone,’ by Paul Pilkington

A good race with a poor finish. That’s my reaction to Paul Pilkington’s Long Gone, the first in a series of mysteries about Chief Inspector Paul Cullen of the London Transport Police. (People tend not to take the Transport Police seriously, which is a running theme in the book. But lots of serious crime goes on on the buses and in the Underground.)

Inspector Cullen is riding the Underground on his way to work when he notices a young man apparently assaulting a young woman. He follows (pausing on the way to get the girl’s assurance that there was an assault), and chases the young man through the streets – until the fugitive comes to a sudden, ugly end.

Paul is placed on administrative leave, as is standard procedure when an officer is involved in a death. He’s heading home when he gets diverted by a call from his daughter Amy. Amy is his only family since the recent death of his wife, and she suffers from anxiety attacks, so he’s protective of her. She tells him she’s worried about her friend Natalie. Natalie had been selected for a major job opportunity – a reality show-style competition between six candidates for a job with a high profile new company. But she sent Amy a disturbing text message on her way home from the event, and then vanished completely.

Paul isn’t supposed to be doing any investigation while he’s on leave, but he’s willing to bend the rules for Amy. As we follow his inquiries, we also follow in flashbacks Natalie’s course through a very bizarre experience in corporate culture, one where she soon realizes that something is very wrong.

Long Gone engaged me and kept my interest all the way through. I was interested in the characters and curious what would happen to them. Unfortunately the plot lost all credibility at the climax. The final action was highly contrived and extremely implausible.

The theme of the book was “Me Too,” which might have put me off a little. However, the main offender was a hypocritical male feminist, so I didn’t mind. But that final “showdown” lost me completely.

‘Strange Tales of Scotland,’ by Jack Strange

Broichan may have been put out by this blatant display of Christian power in his own back yard, so he predicted that a storm would batter the saint on his return to his west. The prediction was proved correct, but as Columba lived on a Hebridean island he was used to foul weather and returned home safely. Anyway it was a pretty safe bet to predict stormy weather in western Scotland; it would have been more impressive had Broichan said there would be a lasting spell of fair weather.

There are ancient ties between Scotland and Norway, which are next-door neighbors in maritime terms. That may explain why I’ve always had an interest in old Albion. Or not. In any case, Jack Strange’s book Strange Tales of Scotland caught my eye. I remember reading books of legend and folklore with great interest in my younger years.

Broadly speaking (though other kinds of tales pop up) the stories in this book deal with monsters like the Loch Ness monster (which is not the only one of its kind), supernatural beings like various kinds of elves or fairies, and ghosts. Ghosts are often associated with the histories of ancient castles, so you get the stories of the castles too.

I didn’t enjoy Strange Tales of Scotland as much as I hoped to. That may be partly the author’s part – I thought the book could have been organized better; it’s kind of a hodgepodge, jumping around the map at random. But more than that, all the stories seemed sadly familiar to me – folk tales tend to be repetitive. You have an infinite loop of abused and cast-off mistresses, innocent women convicted of witchcraft and guilty witches who escaped punishment, murdered babies, and bloodthirsty local Bluebeards. It all kind of depressed me after a while.

However, if you’re not familiar with the field, and appreciate the glamour of Scotland, you might enjoy this book more than I did. One could do worse.

Oh yes, he mentions the Fairy Flag of the McLeods (reputed to be Harald Hardrada’s banner). I appreciated that.

‘An Obvious Fact,’ by Craig Johnson

I read the first Longmire novel, The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson, and reviewed it a while back. I wasn’t overwhelmed, partly because outdoorsy mysteries aren’t my favorite fare, and (probably) partly because it was so different from the TV series. But I’m borrowing more books from the library these days, and I figured I’d take a chance on another volume. This one is An Obvious Fact, a much more recent entry in the series. And it was pretty good.

In An Obvious Fact (the title is a reference to Sherlock Holmes, and there are Holmes references all through it), Sheriff Walt Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear are off to Sturgis, South Dakota and environs for the annual biker rally. Henry is a biker, and has been going back every year since his youth, trying to break a record he set in a dirt bike hill climbing competition.

It’s meant to be a vacation, but they get drawn into the investigation of an accident that sent a young biker to the hospital. Police suspect that the young man was smuggling drugs, but no traces of drugs have been found. The situation is aggravated by the fact that they run into the biker’s mother, who was once Henry’s lover. And – just possibly – her son might be Henry’s. Walt’s suspicions – along with those of his undersheriff “Vic” Moretti, who also shows up – turn toward a reclusive local tycoon who lives in a fortified compound.

It takes some adjustment to get used to the original literary version of this series. Walt is fatter and less handsome than the actor on TV, and also funnier. He does not suffer from existential angst. In fact these books are quite lighthearted, until they get to the violence part (and even some of that is rendered comical by Vic’s gung-ho aggressiveness). The characters are very well drawn, making one wonder why the TV writers felt it necessary to alter them. I enjoyed An Obvious Fact, and recommend it with only the usual cautions.

The Marks of Gen-X

In years past when we spoke of “generations,” we meant a 30ish-year period of time, but in the last few decades we’ve defined each new batch of growing kids as a new generation, something closer to an 18-year period. Boomers and Millennials have gotten most of the media attention, perhaps because their conflicts have been high enough in profile. You hardly ever hear of Gen-X, the batch born in the 60s and 70s, which may leave you wondering how to handle them should you encounter them in the wild. What can you assume about a Gen-Xer? Having lived in this generation my entire life, allow me to enlighten you.

  1. We have no corporate identity. We don’t go around defining ourselves, because we never think of ourselves. We live as we are.
  2. We are the humble generation. Meekness, selflessness, quality service, and the spirit of Christmas–that’s what you’ll get from us. We excel in avoiding pride; we’re monsters of meekness.
  3. Voted most likely to be ignored. We are the people making the trains run on time while others are extending overlong meetings with questions they wouldn’t have to ask if they had been listening earlier. We’re the ones you rely on when you go to the Caymans on vacation.
  4. We hate meetings. Maybe you don’t want to send an email because you think your ideas will eventually make sense after you throw enough words at it, but they won’t and then we’ll have to have another meeting to explain what happened at the first one. Stop the madness.
  5. We have skills. We totally have the great skills girls/guys like. We are on track to be freaking awesome, except our skills aren’t good enough yet, because we’re losers.
  6. We don’t care that you hate our cargo pants, and we think it’s silly to care that much about it. I mean, we aren’t wearing parachute pants anymore, so give it a rest. (You love the flannels though; admit it, you sly dogs.)
  7. We didn’t ask for your achievement award. We’re here to earn our stripes. When did you start remembering our names, anyway?
  8. We don’t care. That’s not true; we do care. We want to make the world a better place. We want to have strong families and good jobs. But you were asking something about a team-building exercise or was it a retirement party, so, yeah.
  9. Pet rocks were better than Tamagotchi or Farmville crops.
  10. Breakdancing is better than walking it out or chicken noodle soup (!?), and moonwalking is way better than anything you kids think you’re doing in your little clubs.
  11. Some of us are still living on a prayer, and we won’t stop believin’ all night long, even though we may ask ourselves daily whether we should stay or go to Africa for Christmas.
  12. To be honest, we are the world. We are the frickin’ children.
  13. You don’t laugh at our jokes, because they’re too sophisticated for you. We are the most ironically funny generation ever; it’s hysterical just to think about the jokes we almost told.
  14. We’re raising a new generation to be just like us in all the best ways and to avoid all of your stupid mistakes.

These are just a few of the many marks of Generation X, the most selfless, kindhearted, loyal, and noble generation alive today. We don’t need your gratitude more than anyone else, so if you recognize us in the workplace or on the street, just give us a tip of the hat or a quiet smile.

Photo by psymily/Morguefile

‘Saga,’ by Jeff Janoda

“It is good that you have industry, son,” Gudrid said severely. “But do not lower yourself like that. Your men will lose respect for you.”

“This is not Norway, mother,” he had said, patting her face gently. “All men must work here.”

Eyrbyggja Saga is not one of the very best Icelandic sagas, in the eyes of critics, but it’s definitely one of the top second-rankers. Aside from other points of interest, it intersects in several ways with Laxdaela Saga, helping to paint one of the broader narrative panoramas in the genre. It largely concerns itself with a long-running conflict between the two chieftain-priests (called gothis here), Snorri and Arnkel. You may recall Snorri the Chieftain as a character in my novel West Oversea.

Author Jeff Janoda has done a creditable job of turning one portion of Eyrbyggja Saga into a modern novel in Saga. By and large I’d say he’s made an artistic success of it, though he messes up his historical details now and then.

The story begins with Ulfar, a freedman (former slave) under the protection of the sons of Thorbrand, who are rather hostile neighbors to the gothi Arnkel (they are Thingmen of Snorri’s). Ulfar’s best friend Thorgils is one of Arnkel’s chief men (author Janoda does a good job showing how relationships and loyalties get entangled). It is Ulfar’s misfortune to own a farm that Arnkel wants, and to have a wife that every man wants.

After Ulfar goes out of the story (as the saga would say), the focus moves to his friend Thorgils, whose relationship with Arnkel is threatened by his own conscience – though trying to transfer his loyalty to Snorri only makes things worse.

It’s all quite tragic, in the saga style. The characters are complex and hard to categorize morally. I was particularly impressed with the way author Janoda made the heathens’ belief in the elves comprehensible – the supernatural saga elements are presented in a modern way, but with plausibility and no condescension.

Nitpicker that I am, I was annoyed by some failures in research. The author has trouble spelling Norse names – Hauk becomes Hawk, Haflidi becomes Hafildi. He speaks of Iceland as the Island – which is right but wrong. It’s spelled Island in Scandinavian languages, but that still means Ice-Land.

I suspect the author has read Daniel Serra’s An Early Meal (I’ve met Serra, by the way, though I’ve never sprung for his book, which I do want). But he doesn’t know much about Viking fighting – he thinks swords were stabbing weapons. And he makes the common movie mistake of giving them lots of leather clothing. With pockets, which (I say it sadly as a reenactor) they never had. He also doesn’t know how a Viking tent was constructed.

Still l found Saga a successful novel, all in all, though grim. It started a little slow but had me riveted by the end.

Recommended, with cautions for language and disturbing scenes.

For Black Friday, The Raven as a Christmas Tale

The English-speaking world has a long history of knocking off EAP’s “The Raven,” the poetic gift that gives evermore. Here is a list of ten examples and this book on the poem has an excerpt of several verses from a 1856 parody called “The Parrot”:

“‘Beg your pardon, sir!’ I muttered, as I rose up, hurt and sore;
But the sailor only swore.”

The comedy troupe Studio C put together this Christmas version, which I share as a warning about what you request this year.

‘Bloody Christmas,’ by Caimh McDonnell

Caimh McDonnell’s series of comic Irish mysteries, most featuring big, drunken detective Bunny McGarry, has been one of the delights of my recent reading life. Bloody Christmas, which fits into the series, is a special edition novella, available only until Christmas. Its sales support an Irish charity for the homeless.

Bloody Christmas is set way back near the start, just after the end of A Man With One of Those Faces. Bunny has been undergoing psychological evaluation after throwing a senior officer off a building, something he finds annoying and unreasonable. But now he’s managed to get his sanity officially verified, and is celebrating in his favorite pub, when a man tries to assassinate him in the men’s room.

Instead of beating the man bloody, however, Bunny listens to his tale of woe. The man (who’s there with his pregnant wife, named Mary [very subtle]), is the victim of criminals who’ve kidnapped their son. Well, it’s Christmas, a time for good works. Bunny has a few ideas on how to find the boy, and he puts a plan into motion.

It’s all completely implausible, and completely hilarious. Bunny is at his profane, selectively brutal best, and I laughed out loud more than once as he cuts a swathe through the underworld he understands so well. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that it all turns out more perfectly than anything has a right to in this naughty world.

Highly recommended, with cautions for adult themes and profanity.

‘The Rescue Artist,’ by Edward Dolnick

“The big-picture thefts are all motivated by bragging and stupidity. The crooks just move the things around until some sap gets landed with them, like the last guy with a chain letter. The paintings will always have great intrinsic value, so the saps will always dream on.”

In the early morning of February 12, 1994, while an excited Norway prepared for the opening of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, two burglars climbed a ladder to the second floor of the Munch Museum in Oslo, broke a window, crawled in and took Edvard Munch’s The Scream, one of most iconic paintings in the world, out into the night (falling off the ladder twice in the process). The window was not alarmed, and though the thieves were caught on a security camera, the sole guard on duty was engrossed in paperwork and didn’t notice.

It was a moment of national embarrassment. The Norwegian police searched for clues, but there was little they could do except wait for a ransom demand. Weeks passed and none came.

All this caught the attention of Charlie Hill, star detective on Scotland Yard’s art theft squad. Unfortunately the case was not in their jurisdiction. But Charlie Hill was not a man to be put off by technicalities like that. Half American, half English, a former seminarian and sniper in Vietnam, he’d been a loose cannon in the police service until he found his niche – doing undercover work for the art squad. A natural actor and thrill-seeker, he lived for challenges like this.

So he found a pretext, and the Norwegians requested help, and he plunged in, traveling to Oslo to pose as an American representative of the Getty Museum of Modern Art. What followed was, apparently, more Keystone Kops than Thomas Crown Affair. The great danger in retrieving stolen art, we learn, is not from sophisticated criminal masterminds, but from stupid thugs who are easily spooked and might break something. Abetted, sometimes, by equally stupid policemen.

That’s what The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is about. I have to admit I enjoyed it less than I hoped. It’s true crime, after all, and that’s always less entertaining than the fictional variety. And I’m afraid that (although there are hints that he might be some kind of Christian) I got kind of tired of Charlie Hill. Hyperactive and mercurial, a man who favors instinct over logic, he’s not my kind of detective.

But it’s an educational book for anyone interested in the (apparently) booming industry of art theft. And it has an ironic coda.

Moderately recommended for those inclined. Cautions for language.

Longing to Know and Be Known

Elizabeth Harwell says Wendell Berry wounded her be reminding her how often she has moved around. She feels temporary, and that’s not how she grew up.

Because when memory calls me back to my childhood, I know that land. I can feel that grass under my feet. I know its broad green blades: fat-bottomed and rising to a rounded point. In my mind, I can split the blades into two pieces and I can remember the way the hanging fibers felt on my lips. I know the yellow dandelion blooms—and not only as a whole, but also, more clearly even, in its parts. I know the feel of the dandelion’s soft petals on the tip of my nose and the mustard-yellow streaks it would leave when I rubbed it across my palm. I can see its hosts of aphids working their way up the stems in crowded lines.

In truth, we do not have homes here; Christ has gone to make a home for us somewhere else, but he has left a well-stocked table for us here to remember him and all of the church.

“Our place is coming,” she says, “our people are here.”

Photo by Valentina Locatelli on Unsplash

Cherokees in the Civil War

The Trail of Tears is a horrible stain on our country, but the story of the events and decisions that led to it is not straightforward. World has republished the introduction to Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation by John Sedgwick, a history of what the Cherokee did before, during, and after the war, distinguishing themselves above all other Native American tribes.

At first, virtually all the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy, identifying with the Southern plantation owners, and proud of the black slaves they themselves had bought to pick their cotton. And, complicit with the state of Georgia, the Union had been responsible for the land theft that had cost them their ancestral territory and packed them west in the forced migration known as the Trail of Tears three decades before.

But why did the Cherokee not stay united against a common enemy? How could they have divided against themselves? To answer this, we need go back three decades to the terrible winter of 1838 and the issue that would never go away. Removal—the cruel shorthand for the Trail of Tears—was to the Cherokee Nation what slavery was to America, an issue so profound as to be bottomless and unending.

The ‘Nameless’ series, by Dean Koontz

“…In this world of computers, satellite tracking, and so many other government surveillance tools, all of them accessible to hackers outside the government, the truth can be found with enough effort. If sometimes local law enforcement doesn’t want to find it or if the courts don’t want to hear it, or if those who expose it might be ruined or killed for their efforts . . . Well, it’s now possible for justice to be delivered nonetheless.” (In the Heart of the Fire)

The man called Nameless characteristically arrives in a community to find preparations made. There’s a vehicle waiting for him, with a suitcase inside. There’s a large amount of money and necessary equipment, plus a gun. If he requires helpers, they’re waiting. He listens to a digital recording explaining his assignment. It’s always a case of some person or persons doing evil beyond the reach of the law – a serial killer, a serial rapist, an entitled psychopath. Nameless takes them down, protecting the innocent, avenging the dead.

Nameless has no memory of his past up to a couple years ago. He suspects this amnesia has been induced, and that he volunteered for it. He comes in like a classic avenging angel, then proceeds to the next assignment. That is his life. He doesn’t know who he works for, whether it’s an individual or a group or some kind of artificial intelligence.

In his previous series of novels, the Jane Hawk books, author Dean Koontz imagined a high tech dystopia, something like Skynet, where surveillance satellites and cameras were linked to super-computers to buttress the greatest tyranny the world ever knew.

In the six novellas of this new Nobody series, he turns that idea on its head. What if unlimited surveillance and data processing power were turned to the purposes of good? That strikes this reader as hubristic on a cosmic scale, but here it’s just a backdrop for the action and the mystery. Our focus is not on the shot-caller, but on the hero, a driven man haunted by premonitions and – perhaps – by inchoate memories. The reader’s questions on that subject will be answered – in a satisfying way – in the final book.

The first novella in the Nobody series is In the Heart of the Fire. I’m not going to link to the rest of the series, because you’ll want to read them in order, but here are the titles: #2: Photographing the Dead; #3: The Praying Mantis Bride; #4: Red Rain; #5: The Mercy of Snakes; and #6: Memories of Tomorrow.

Each volume is cheap, although when you buy them all (and I suspect you will), you’ll end up paying about what you’d pay for a full novel by Koontz. I found the Nobody series extremely satisfying, though the basic concept did bother me. Recommended.

‘Wet Debt,’ by Richard Helms

Reynard had hired some old white-haired shill to stand out front of the bar in a tuxedo and drag in the out-of-town pigeons. He thought it gave the place some class, the same way some people try to dress up toilet lids with fuzzy covers.

New Orleans jazz cornet player and occasional detective Pat Gallegher rides again in Wet Debt (which is, I think, the last of the series). Wet Debt delves into one of my favorite sub-genres – the very cold case, resurfacing from long ago.

The bar where Pat plays and lives takes up half of a building. His boss, Shorty, is having the other half renovated. But work stops when workmen discover a desiccated mummy buried in the concrete floor. It’s a man, and judging by the clothing he’s been there since the 1930s. Those were the days of Prohibition and gangsters, high times for New Orleans’s bottom dwellers.

Shorty’s in a hurry to get the property ready for a new tenant, but the police are in no hurry to close such an old mystery. Could Pat do him a favor, and look into it? Pat agrees.

His investigation leads him to a place where the city’s upper crust and its dregs once crossed paths, in the speakeasies of old. An old newspaper photograph displays two criminals in the company of two beautiful young society girls. Pat knows one of the criminals, a recently deceased gang lord with whom he had an uneasy relationship. Now he’ll learn how that man came to New Orleans in the first place, and what he did to earn his power. The dead man in the concrete was never greatly missed, and nobody alive could possibly worry about his murderer being unmasked… Or could they?

Not quite as suspenseful as the previous books in the series (though not without suspense), Wet Debt is an enjoyable and atmospheric cold case story. Cautions for the usual. I’m going to miss Pat Gallegher.

‘Juicy Watusi,’ by Richard Helms

“People see too many movies. They expect the bad guy to be some kind of evil genius. You and I, though, we know better. Most of the bad guys we run across have all the brains of wallpaper paste. The blinder the violence, the more likely it’s some kind of stimulus-response event that, given the opportunity, the perp would refer to down the line as just one of those things. You take some of the most prolific killers of the last twenty years, and toss them in a room, and it would look like just a bunch of dumb losers in a room.”

And the saga of Pat Gallegher, New Orleans jazz cornetist and avocational detective, continues with Juicy Watusi, in which author Richard Helms, himself a forensic psychologist, tackles a subject he knows pretty well – serial killers.

Pat’s bar-owner boss gets a new girlfriend – a stripper. Pat withholds judgment and wishes them well. But it turns out even worse than you’d expect – the girlfriend is found murdered in an alley behind the club where she works. And she’s not the only one. Somebody’s carving up strippers all over the city.

The local police request that the FBI send in a profiler to help them, but none is available just now. However, a noted profiler happens to live right there in New Orleans, teaching at Tulane. The trouble is, he’s burned out – he refuses to do that work anymore.

The police offer a compromise – the profiler can work with them incognito, and another local man with profiling experience can operate as a “beard” – pretending to be the profiler in front of the news cameras.

That other profiler is Pat Gallegher. He too quit the job, years back, when it started messing with his head. He doesn’t like the deal, but it seems a small price to pay for stopping this guy.

It gets tougher, though, when Pat’s girlfriend is kidnapped by the killer. Now he’s on a deadline, and faced by an impossible moral choice.

Juicy Watusi is another cool hard-boiled from a solid writer who knows his stuff. I figured out the big plot twist ahead of time, but I enjoyed it anyway, and recommend it, with the usual cautions.

‘Voodoo That You Do,’ by Richard Helms

“It’s like this,” I said. “I’m not mad at the world. I just see things that stink, and I feel like hitting them with a little air freshener. Most poor suckers have too much to lose, or a lot more of them would do what I do…. The average guy on the street has a family or a mortgage, or he’s six months from a peachy promotion he doesn’t want to risk, so he sees a punk muscling some old lady and he turns his head. I guess I just don’t have that much to lose. I see that punk, and I don’t mind jamming him up a little.”

Pat Gallegher, hero of these novels by Richard Helms I’m following right now, is (as I mentioned yesterday) a former Catholic seminarian who lost his faith. But that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned Catholicism. He still goes to mass occasionally, and makes confession to his friend, Father “Dag” D’Agostino. He and Father Dag understand each other – Pat’s a recovering gambling addict, Dag a recovering alcoholic. It seems to me that Pat’s struggles with God allow him to talk more about faith than a Christian character could get away with.

Though his main spiritual belief seems to be in karma. Voodoo turns up in this one too.

In Voodoo That You Do, the second book in the series, Pat is strolling down a New Orleans alley with a friend, an old mobster named Hotshot Spano, when Hotshot is murdered by Haitian gang members. Pat feels an inarticulate obligation to do something about it. He learns that the hit was ordered by a Vietnamese gangster who controls a number of Haitian gangs.

Meanwhile Pat discovers a little girl rummaging in the dumpster behind the bar where he lives and plays jazz cornet. Patiently he gains her trust with gifts of food – like a wild animal – until he’s able to take her to a shelter recommended by Father Dag. There he meets a lovely social worker with whom he begins a flirtation.

Turns out that the little girl, Louise, is not just any little girl. She’s connected to the very gangs Pat’s trying to bring to justice. And if he isn’t very careful, Louise may suffer for his windmill-tilting.

Fascinating, masterfully written, atmospheric and intense, Voodoo That You Do is a cracker jack mystery in the old hard-boiled style. Highly recommended, with the usual cautions, plus an extra for questionable metaphysics.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture