‘Fair Warning,’ by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is best known for his brilliant series of Harry Bosch police procedural novels. But he has other series. The most minor of these (only in terms of volume count) is his Jack McEvoy series. I have a personal fondness for Jack, because it was the first J.M. novel, The Poet, that introduced me to Connelly’s work.

Jack McEvoy is a journalist, occasionally a famous one. He broke a couple big serial killer stories, and parlayed them into bestselling books. But time moves on. There isn’t much work for journalists these days, and Jack’s books have settled back into publishers’ midlists; he can’t live on the royalties. So, as Fair Warning begins, he’s working as an online journalist, for a consumer web site called Fair Warning.

Jack gets a visit from the police. A woman with whom he once had a one-night stand has been murdered, and he’s briefly among the list of persons of interest. But she did a lot of dating, it turns out.

Still, Jack is curious and troubled by the murder. He does some research and discovers that this woman has one thing in common with several other recent female murder victims – she had contacted a popular DNA mapping site on the web, to make contact with relatives.

Jack’s beat isn’t homicide anymore, but he can’t let this go. He goes to the one person he knows who could really help make sense of this thing – Rachel Waller. Rachel used to be a top profiler for the FBI. Now – thanks to a mistake on Jack’s part – she’s doing research for an insurance company. Also, Rachel and Jack are in love, but Jack keeps messing up and spoiling their prospects. Still, she is intrigued by Jack’s theory and agrees to help him.

They will learn horrifying things, both about the potential for abuse in the field of genetic testing, and about the amoral world of Dark Web communities.

I enjoyed Fair Warning very much. It was nice to catch up with Jack and Rachel, and the story was satisfying. I was a little disappointed to see that a political message was inserted in a couple places, but it’s a message that’s perfectly natural for Jack as we know him.

Cautions for language and mature, sometimes troubling situations. Recommended.

Book notice: ‘Fifty Thousand Evangelists’

This is not a book review, but – what shall I call it? – a book notice. You may be surprised to know that there’s a book out there about an aspect of Lutheran history in America, which mentions me.

The book is Fifty Thousand Evangelists, by Jonathan D. Anderson (whom I have met and assisted a little with a different project). I’m sure it will be a surprise to many, in view of the state of Lutheranism today, but there was a time – not so awfully long ago – when an estimated more than 65,000 young college-age Lutherans, mostly from mainline church bodies, went out to preach the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance of having a personal encounter with Jesus. At least at the beginning, and for a long time.

It was part of the wider Jesus Movement, and I was there. And so my picture and name, along with that of the group I sang with, is in Fifty Thousand Evangelists, on page 83.

I was motivated to buy the book, but I won’t be reviewing it. I’m pretty sure reading it would be painful for me. Subsequent events have poisoned all my memories of what was, in the experience, the happiest time of my life.

Dumping a series: ‘The Driver,’ by Mark Dawson

I’ve been working my way through Mark Dawson’s John Milton series of thrillers. As you may recall, I was a little disappointed with the first one, and liked the second better.

I began the third, The Driver, and have now officially dumped the series.

In The Driver, John Milton is now living in San Francisco, drawn into a search for a young prostitute who has disappeared.

I quit reading where I got to the part (I should have seen it coming, but I was optimistic) where he gets into American politics, which for him are pretty simple. On the Left, the good guys, on the Right, the bigots.

Author Dawson appears to have learned his American politics from CNN, where he apparently also learned about guns. Defectively in both cases.

I do not need John Milton in my reading life. He is barely distinguishable from a half dozen other thriller heroes available. And most of the other heroes’ creators have the sense not to insult half their prospective readership.

Michael Connelly vs. Raymond Chandler

Below the title on the front cover of Michael Connelly’s new novel is a quote: “‘Connelly is the Raymond Chandler of this generation’—Associated Press.” This is unfair to Chandler and Connelly both. Chandler wrote like “a slumming angel,” as Ross Macdonald said. The  bravura style of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and the other titles on the Chandler shelf is one of the glories of American literature, influential worldwide. Connelly’s sentences are workmanlike, unremarkable. But Chandler couldn’t plot to save his life, whereas Connelly is a master of the art. Chandler was brilliant, undisciplined, alcoholic, demon-ridden, quick to take offense and quick to sneer; he wrote only a handful of novels. Connelly is disciplined and generous, and he excels at collaborative work (for instance, the Bosch TV series produced by Amazon) as well as solo writing; Fair Warning is his thirty-fourth novel. Chandler’s moral sense, in some ways acute, was often unreliable; Connelly’s is sounder.

John Wilson on Michael Connelly and Fair Warning

‘Saint Death,’ by Mark Dawson

Yesterday I left you in breathless suspense, waiting to learn whether the second John Milton book by Mark Dawson was more satisfying that the first one.

I’m pleased to say that I liked this one, Saint Death, better, though I still have quibbles.

As you may recall, John Milton is one of those thriller heroes (the field’s getting a little crowded) who used to be an elite operative for a super-secret government agency. But his conscience overcame him, and he dropped out of sight. His old bosses do not accept this – the only way out of Group Fifteen is feet first. John, for his part, is on a personal quest to atone for his sins.

As Saint Death begins, John has successfully fled England, and is now in Juarez, Mexico, working as a cook. One day, some cartel gangsters walk into the restaurant and open fire at a group of three young people. John intervenes, saving the life of one young woman, and also of a couple cops who happen to be present.

With the (somewhat skeptical) help of one of the policemen he saved, John takes on the job of protecting the woman survivor, a journalist who has been operating a blog devoted to exposing the cartels. She is being hunted by a legendary assassin known as Santa Muerta – Saint Death. He’s the best, and his drug dealing bosses are sparing no expense to eliminate this woman. John has his work cut out for him.

But that’s not all. John’s old bosses have picked up his trail again, and they’re on their way to Mexico to bring him in.

The thing I liked about Saint Death, in contrast to the last book, The Cleaner, is that John is allowed a little more success. Most of the good and innocent people around him aren’t injured or killed this time. And courage and generosity are rewarded a little more. The writing, as before, is professional and good.

My main complaint is that the author bought the Accepted Wisdom that it’s possible to walk into an American gun show and just buy a firearm without a background check. People who believe that should try it sometime.

Cautions for language and violence.

‘The Cleaner,’ by Mark Dawson

If you believe violence never solves anything, writing a thriller is probably not the best use of your time. You need to write a quiet, tragic story about the necessity of always submitting to bullies.

I’m not sure that’s author Mark Dawson’s actual problem. But it’s my only real objection to his The Cleaner, the first novel in his John Milton series.

John Milton is, like so many thriller heroes these days, a professional assassin, part of a super-secret British Government operation, this one called Group Fifteen. John is their Number One, their top operative. But he’s burned out. In his last assignment, he allowed mercy to outweigh professionalism, and so was suspended.

Instead of facing discipline, he simply disappears, something he’s very good at. One day in London, he saves a young woman, Sharon, from suicide on the Underground. She confides her story at last. She’s a single mother. She’s already lost her oldest son to drug addiction; now her younger boy, Elijah, is flirting with involvement in a street gang. She doesn’t know how she can face it all.

John is immediately fascinated. This, he thinks, is a situation he can do something about. He has (and he actually uses these words) “a particular set of skills.” If he can help to save this boy, he imagines, get the villains off his back, it might help to ease his own karmic debt, get him some peace from his nightmares.

But even for John, who has faced some of the most remorseless terrorists in the world, it will be a challenge to face off against the inhuman brutality of London gang leaders and drug dealers.

If that wasn’t challenge enough, Group Fifteen is close on his heels now. Once they pinpoint his location, they will apply their own ruthless coercive tactics to the task of silencing John Milton forever.

The Cleaner is a very competent entry in the expanding field of thrillers about benevolent ex-operatives. The writing is good, the characters engaging. My problem with it was that the story’s resolution involves so much collateral damage that it left this reader wondering whether the whole effort was worth the price.

Well, I’ll see how the next book works. I actually bought The Cleaner some time back, and didn’t finish it. But then I bought the next book in the series (on a bargain deal) and figured I’d better read The Cleaner first. I’ll read Saint Death now and let you know how it goes with that one.

Cautions for violence and crude language.

‘Before You Leap,’ by Keith Houghton

There’s a literary technique known as the “unreliable narrator.” Often the unreliable narrator is only revealed at the end, when the reader suddenly realizes he’s been lied to, and all sorts of mysteries suddenly become clear – “This character has been messing with us.”

More difficult is the consciously unreliable narrator – a narrator who knows he’s often mistaken or deluded. English author Keith Houghton attempts this difficult transaction – mostly successfully – in an American setting in his novel, Before You Leap.

The book opens with a flash-forward – we see our hero in a high-speed chase with the police, finally cornered at the top of a high bridge, yelling at the old friend who’s led him into this predicament.

Then we go back to the start. Greg Cole is a psychotherapist – a “talk therapist” – working in Bonita Springs, Florida. Like so many psychotherapists – at least in fiction – he has a full load of baggage of his own. Long ago in Michigan, his twin sister was murdered, and he fled to Florida to get away from the memories. He’s dating a woman police detective, separated from her husband, and contemplating taking the relationship to the next level, something that scares him.

Then word comes that the man convicted of his sister’s murder has been exonerated and released. Greg is certain of the man’s guilt – he himself was the star prosecution witness. If he was wrong, he did him a great injustice.

And then his oldest friend shows up unannounced – a man he hasn’t seen for 18 years. The friend tells him he’s in danger, but Greg doesn’t believe him. But then there’s a murder, and Greg becomes a suspect. He starts wondering about his old friend – but he also worries about what he himself may have done – he does have these blackouts from time to time…

Surprise twists are frequent here, and I figured out one of the most important fairly early. On the other hand, another twist I thought I figured out turned out to be no twist at all (that was clearly intentional). The plotting was fairly good.

My main problem with Before You Leap was that I didn’t always sympathize with the hero/narrator. Greg got on my nerves from time to time. I found the whole thing a little frenetic for my taste.

But your mileage may vary. Cautions for what you’d expect.

Infinite Avengers by Hickman and Yu

“I rescue the helpless. I raise up the hopeless.
“I don’t measure people’s lives. . . I save them.”

In this set of issues we reach the pivot point for the whole Infinity-Everything Dies series. The cover intends to remind readers of a scene I didn’t mention in my post New Avengers: Everything Dies, because a guy doesn’t want to give a whole story away. But I guess we have to go there now.

Captain America was one of the Illuminati faced with saving Earth from incursions from alternate Earths in other universes (see first post for more). He suggested using the Infinity Gauntlet, and when that didn’t work, he argued against considering necessarily evil options. “I know you,” he said. “You’ll create a doomsday weapon on the possibility of needing it, and then, one by one, you’ll talk yourselves into using it.”

At the other members’ consent, Dr. Strange wiped his memory and sent him away.

The timeline of these issues falls at the end of the middle of the fourth set of New Avengers issues, A Perfect World. There we see Tony Stark working with bruises and a bandaged nose. He tries to roll it off as wounds from the crisis they have just been through, but the truth is Hawkeye pummeled him for getting the everyone into this cosmic mess. That fight occurred as a result of Cap remembering everything he had been encouraged to forget and accusing Stark of working with Reed Richards and the others to destroy parallel Earths in order to save ours.

And they hash it out with their fists. Boy! These supers can’t resist flexing on each other. “You know I’m right! Look at my muscles!” I guess they know the fans are watching. It isn’t any better than the argument clichés that were used here and in other issues that escalate the tension without following an argument.

But maybe that flows with the sci-fi philosophical reasoning or leaping that abounds in this story. In the midst of Avengers flexing on Iron Man, the Time Gem reappears in Cap’s hand, and in blazing light they jump forward in time to meet new, future Avengers. They start talking about timelines, traveling between space and time, time as an organism not a measurable concept — it can make you ask questions. And everyone else seems to know all about it, but hey, this is just a comic book. You need to be moving on. [Flash!]

Now that I’m writing about it, I remember that I usually dislike stories with narrating characters who calmly explain what that freak of nature actually is and why it happened to you and maybe something about purpose; if they mention a prophecy, I’m out. It’s ugly, unnatural exposition. Am I reading or watching the annotated edition of this story? But with all of the exposition in these issues, I didn’t mind it. I wanted an explanation.

Pretty sure I didn’t get one.

What Cap gets is moral clarity of a sort. He remembers who he is now, and he’s going to take his righteous standard back to that shadowy group who think they can act alone.

Amazon Prime Film Review: ‘Kitchen Stories’

Among the responses to my Spectator article on the Lockdown earlier this week, someone suggested I should watch the Norwegian movie, Kitchen Stories. I viewed it today (note: it’s not free. I had to spring a couple bucks for rental). It’s an interesting and affecting comedy of very simple manners.

Director Bent Hamer had read about Swedish studies of the efficiency of housewives after World War II (efficiency studies were all the rage in those days). He wondered what would have happened if somebody had studied single males the same way. So he came up with this story about Swedish researchers going to Norway to test the gold standard of single males, Norwegian Bachelor Farmers. The idea is for each researcher to camp in a trailer next to his subject’s house, and sit all day in an elevated chair to chart how the man uses his kitchen. Researchers are supposed to have no personal interaction with the subjects in any way.

Researcher Folke Nilsson drives with a caravan of others (much is made of the fact that Swedes drove on the left side of the road in those days, while Norwegians drove on the right) to the rural village of Landstad in Norway.

(Here’s a detail most English-speaking reviewers won’t know: “Landstad” is familiar to Norwegians as the last name of Magnus Brostrup Landstad, a pastor of the Norwegian-Danish state church. He is best remembered for compiling Landstad’s Hymnal (1869), which was the standard hymnbook used by Danish and Norwegian Lutherans for more than a hundred years [in America too]. The original Norwegian title of this film is Salmer Fra Kjøkkenet – Hymns from the Kitchen.)

Folke sets up at the farm of Isak Bjørvik, who has changed his mind about participating, and refuses to let him in the house at first (he’d been told he’d be given a horse, but it turns out to be one of those red-painted wooden Dala Horses they sell in Scandinavian gift shops). He finally relents and lets Folke in, but then stays out of kitchen as much as possible. Instead he bores a hole of his own in the ceiling so he can spy on Folke from upstairs.

However, humanity transcends science. Gradually, through small acts of kindness, the two men develop a grudging tolerance for one another, and then genuine friendship. Folke breaks all the rules of the study, finding himself in need of friendship in his own right. This angers the local postman, Grant, who up till now had been Isak’s only friend. Grant looks at first like a comic character, until we learn his background. Grant takes direct action to show his displeasure.

Kitchen Stories can be taken on many different levels. It could be seen spiritually, sociologically, or philosophically (the researchers are proud “positivists”). You could even approach it from a quantum physics perspective – the act of observing an object alters that object. It was a touching and amusing movie, and I recommend it, with cautions for language (in subtitles, of course – they’re not bad but I could have done better) and adult themes.

8 Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth

  1. God just wants you to be happy.
  2. You only live once.
  3. You need to live your truth.
  4. Your feelings are reality.

Sound familiar? That’s four of the eight statements that sound true enough but are actually lies that author Jared C. Wilson lays out in his latest book, The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth. The gospel-saturated author of many books explains the intent of each lie and how they undermine God’s will in our lives.

Kudos on the cover design that pushes me to turn the book on its face whenever I have it out. You could call that a drawback, but wouldn’t this be a great book to leave on top of the Gideon Bible in hotel room drawers?

Some of the points touched in the book:

  • Does God just want you to be happy or is your unhappiness a symptom of misplaced priorities or even a difficult calling? Could your happiness be the main thing drawing you away from him?
  • What do you justify with #YOLO? Is it godly living or self-indulgence?
  • What you call your truth may be relative, but the truth is not. Unfashionable? Sometimes. Reliable? Definitely.
  • Your feelings may not mean what you think they mean. They need biblical interpretation

Jared writes with light-hearted quips from our culture, quotes from contemporary and classic authors, and vulnerable illustrations from his own life.

When I’m not priding myself on being more whatever than others, I hate myself for not being whatever enough. The weird thing about humility is that the more you think about it, the more it goes away. That’s me.

The other lies he tackles:

  1. Your life is what you make it.
  2. You need to let go and let God.
  3. The Cross is not about wrath.
  4. God helps those who help themselves.

I found his exploration of problems with the clichic “let go and let God” eye-opening, and the next chapter on substitutionary atonement should be understood by everyone. Heartily recommended.

Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

Artist Scott McCloud writes of his friend Kurt Busiek and their enjoyment of comics as teenagers. He says they wrote a series together of an epic battle that destroyed their high school and many landmarks of their Lexington, Mass, hometown. He and Busiek had an agreement, he says, that he would write critically acclaimed comics and Busiek would write the popular stuff that made money, but with Marvels Busiek has produced an award-winning, fan-loving hit that has sold like lemonade on hot day in a freedom-loving town in these blessed states of America.

Marvels tells the human side of living in New York City with superheroes, aliens, and mutants emerging in the world. Photographer Phil Sheldon hopes to land a gig as a war correspondent, but when the offer comes, he declines because The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner have begun to fight through the skies of their city.

“… repeat the latest developments: The Human Torch had imprisoned The Sub-Mariner beneath a sheet of flame in an update reservoir, but the undersea dynamo freed himself — even as the Army bombed his fiery prison!”

Phil: “Blast them! Look at us — just sitting here waiting! There isn’t a thing we can do — and this is our city! Our world! Who gave them the right to just come in and take it away from us?!”

Over four collected issues, Phil works through varying emotions about the “Marvels,” his term: who or what they are, public reaction, and his own responsibilities. He doubts, he fears, he falls into public outrage at the mutant X-men and hurls a brick at Ice-Man. Then he rallies and writes a book about them that features his photography.

I looked up this series collection after listening to a Stitcher podcast based on it. Marvels reads a bit like the story of a Frenchman who survives WWII rolling overtop of him. It doesn’t tell much of the many stories it references. We just see something blow up down the street and empowered people we may or may not recognize rushing toward it.

In one conflict between Galactus and The Fantastic Four that appears to spell the end of the world, Phil runs home to spend whatever minutes he has left with his wife and kids. But the world doesn’t end, because the Marvels save it with every ounce of skill and luck they have.

The book doesn’t end on that note, because not every hero’s story moves from victory to victory, and Phil’s emotional turns flow naturally as he and the world react to many fantastic events. Fans of golden age comic book superheroes will love this gorgeously produced tale of a photographer who fights to see to wonder in the age of supers.

‘Insidious,’ by Brett Battles

Brett Battles is the author of a successful series of thrillers about a covert operations “cleaner” named Jonathan Quinn. I like that series very much. Insidious is the second book in a spin-off series about Quinn’s former assistant, Nate (have we ever been told his last name? I can’t recall). Quinn and Nate have kept their distance from one another to an extent since the death of Liz, Nate’s girlfriend and Quinn’s sister. So Nate is operating on his own more often now.

In Insidious, Nate is out jogging in the Hollywood Hills one morning when he spots a backpack discarded beside the path. Investigating, he finds the dead body of a young woman at the bottom of a hill. After helping the police with their investigation, Nate figures that’s that.

But his Thai friend Jar feels differently. Jar is a young woman, a computer genius with autistic traits who has been slowly coming out of her shell and growing closer to Nate. Jar shows a surprising interest in the case. This girl, she discovers, was living under a false identity. She was actually the central character in a sensational police case some years back. She had been kidnapped and held prisoner for months, then had miraculously escaped, though her captors were never identified. Now she has been murdered. For very personal reasons, Jar grows obsessed with discovering who killed her, and making sure they face justice.

What can Nate do but help her? Along the way he will not only learn the shocking motive behind the girl’s kidnapping and murder, but also some painful secrets from Jar’s own past.

I found Insidious totally engaging, and moving in parts. I recommend it highly. Cautions for the sort of things you’d expect.

‘Inheritance,’ by Allie Ray

A friend suggested I read Allie Ray’s novel Inheritance, because its main character is a Swedish immigrant named Lars. It displays a promising talent.

Lars Gustafson is an undertakers’ assistant in the small town of Osceola, Nebraska in the early 1930s. When a prosperous local farmer named Harold Eklund is found shot to death, his bloody head frozen to the dining room table in his freezing house, Lars is expected to thaw the head loose with warm water so the body can be removed. This gives him time to examine the crime scene, and he notices some curious details.

Lars is no detective. But he’s smarter than people think, and for some reason – perhaps it’s his large size and quiet manner, or perhaps his difficulty speaking English which makes people assume he doesn’t understand them – he hears a lot of secrets, and some people even confide in him unbidden. And so, over a period of time, he begins to put together the story of events 15 years before that resulted in the shooting of Harold Eklund. Possible motives center around Harold’s predatory business practices, and his manipulation of family members, including his handsome Southern son-in-law and his beautiful daughter. There are a lot of secrets surrounding that family, and nobody involved is an angel.

I give author Allie Ray high marks as a wordsmith. Her prose is generally superior, especially for a young writer. Her characters are well drawn. She knows a lot of local history, which adds to the verisimilitude of the story. (She should, however, have studied firearms a little more. Her assumptions about the power of a .22 caliber rifle will make gun owners laugh.)

The greatest weakness of the book, for me, was in its ending. It didn’t wrap things up properly, at least for this reader. The final resolution was unclear to me, and I wasn’t certain whether that was intentional. Or why it would be.

Still, as a second novel by a young writer, Inheritance was quite impressive. Cautions for rough language and adult themes.

For your Spectation

I have a new piece up at The American Spectator Online today. I was worried it was a little too personal for the venue, but the editor told me it was “the best piece I’ve read in a long time.” Which is always nice to hear.

Anyway, it’s about the Lockdown and living in fear. Because fear is a subject I know all about.

I hope I’m open-minded enough to listen to experts. However, when an “expert” starts telling me the only way to prevent Gotterdammerung is to increase the size and power of government, I start reaching for my skeptic’s hat. I wear that hat a lot nowadays.

I’m not an epidemiologist, as you’ve probably guessed.

But I do know about fear.

And what troubles me most about our current predicament is that we’re being governed on the basis of fear.

Read it all here.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture