‘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.

The Fanciful History of Greensleeves

Greensleeves was all my joy,
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
and who but Lady Greensleeves

“Greensleeves” is a 400-year-old tune you may know as “What Child Is This?” Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” a marvelous piece made all the more so by starting with this melody.

Many people tell fanciful stories about the origin of this song. Was it written by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn, who “cast [him] off discourteously” without losing her head for the moment? Was it an old Irish song, as we all know every good song is? Was it first sung by dog-headed men surrounded by rats? The rumors abound. The Early Music Muse drills into this musical history and reveals the truth, as is so often the case, rather boring. In short, a musician wrote a hit tune that many people used for their own songs, and everyone loved it–they still do. It’s the feature song in the K-drama I just blogged about, Mr. Sunshine. While Savina & Drones have a good composition based on Greensleeves, what Vaughan Williams did with it can’t be outdone for sublimity.

The Personal History of Mr. Sunshine

We recently finished a 24-episode historical drama created for South Korean television in 2018 and distributed this year through Netflix. Set at the end of the Joseon kingdom, while Korea tried to move into the 20th century as subjects of a king, Mr. Sunshine is essentially a fiercely patriotic story. It begins with loyalists attempting to defend their peninsula from colonialists, despite obviously being outgunned. It ends with rebels raging against the rising tide of Japanese occupation.

We first see Choi Yoo-jin (Lee Byung-hun) as the son of slaves, who runs to avoid being killed and makes it to New York City. He grows up to become U.S. Marine Captain Eugene Choi, deployed to the American embassy in Joseon. He’s an American soldier with Korean skin; most people don’t know what to make of him. But he’s glad to be back in Joseon so he can find the people who murdered his parents and take his revenge.

On a risky American assignment, he encounters the beautiful Lady Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) doing something distinctly unladylike. He won’t know about her family until long after his interest in her has grown. But two other men are interested in her too: a Korean samurai, who is thought to have sold his soul to Japan, and the son of the second richest family in the country, who happens to be Lady Go’s fiancé. The three men are drawn together by their proximity and held by various mutual interests.

It’s a beautifully filmed drama told reservedly and works as personal story of love and duty as well as a historical tribute to Korean independence. Americans will find many things to love about it.

‘Joker Poker,’ by Richard Helms

Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and Philip Marlowe notwithstanding, you don’t ship one off to that undiscovered land from whose bourne no traveler returns without paying the freight in sleepless nights.

Pat Gallegher is a big Irishman who plays jazz cornet in a seedy New Orleans bar. Once, long ago, he studied for the priesthood, until he lost his faith. Then he got his doctorate in psychology and became a forensic psychologist and then a college professor. Those jobs didn’t work out for him. Eventually he floated into the Big Easy and gave free exercise to his gambling addiction, until he joined Gamblers Anonymous. But a local loan shark still holds his note. To pay it off (which isn’t likely to happen in this lifetime) the shark sends him out now and then as a collector.

Pat doesn’t like being a collector, and so he does the occasional “favor” for friends. These favors generally involve recovering lost property or scaring off dangerous people. Pat feels these actions help balance out his karma.

All the above is not the plot of Richard Helms’s Joker Poker, just the back story. We’re talking dense back story here. Which all adds to a solid quality I appreciated in this book.

Doing a favor is how Pat’s lawyer comes to bring Clancey Vancouer, a wealthy society lady, to see him. Clancey has been having an affair, and her lover has disappeared. She wants to know that he’s alive and all right. Pat warns her that the guy was probably just a gigolo, but she doesn’t care.

Pat agrees to look into it, but has trouble seeing the point. His interest acquires fresh urgency, however, when he is set up for a murder, and has to figure out who among a large group of suspects (including a leggy redhead, a friend of Clancey’s, with whom he has an affair) is the real culprit. The climax will be explosive, shattering for some, and deadly for others.

I loved this book. I read it with a sense of homecoming, of old comforts. It occurred to me that this book (first published just before the turn of the millennium) represents a lost style of writing. In today’s books, even in the hard-boiled genre, political correctness has infected everything. The characters in Joker Poker use offensive language. There isn’t a kick-butt female sidekick in sight. And men are permitted to protect women.

Lots of cautions are in order for language and disturbing material, but I highly recommend Joker Poker to fans of the genre. I can’t understand why this series isn’t famous, and author Helms isn’t better known. The prose is vivid and original. The ambience is thick as New Orleans humidity. There are whiffs of all the old great hard-boiled writers in evidence, but I was particularly reminded of John D. MacDonald.

‘The Deep Dark Descending,’ by Allen Eskens

Allen Eskens is a mystery writer (and a Minnesota writer at that) with whom I hadn’t been familiar. But based on my reading of The Deep Dark Descending, I’m impressed with his work.

Max Rupert is a Minneapolis police detective, still mourning the death of his wife Jenni, who was killed by a car in a parking garage a few years ago. His sorrow has colored his life through the previous books in this series, but now it all comes to a head. He learns, in the course of one of his investigations, that Jenni’s death was a targeted hit. He’d always assumed she’d been collateral damage from one of his own cases, killed by some vengeful criminal to hurt him. But in fact someone very powerful and ruthless killed her for the sake of something she’d learned in her job as a social worker.

The book opens on a winter day in the Minnesota Boundary Waters, on the Canadian border. Max captures a man and ties him up, then forces him out onto a frozen lake. Methodically he begins boring with an auger, with the purpose of creating a hole large enough to drown a man.

In counterpoint with the scenes on the lake, we follow in flashbacks the course of Max’s investigation, as he follows information learned in a human trafficking case, slowly realizing that the man he’s chasing is the man who also killed his wife. All his life he’s been a man of the law, but the law can’t touch this killer. Could he live with himself if he were to take the law into his own hands? Could he live with himself if he didn’t?

That question is ever present in The Deep Dark Descending, and it will keep the reader riveted from start to finish, as it did for me. I’m not sure what I think about the final resolution, but there’s no question it was dramatic.

The writing was good – not outstanding, but very good. I might just read the earlier books in this series, based on this memorable novel. Cautions for the usual.

For your Spectation

I have a new column (as of Sunday) at The American Spectator Online. It’s the article on Hans Nielsen Hauge I’ve been warning you about.

I had the chance to meet a scholar recently, a woman from Norway. I went to hear her talk about a historical figure I’ve written about on this site before — Hans Nielsen Hauge (pronounced “HOW-geh”), the early 19th-century Norwegian lay revivalist.

In conversation after the lecture, someone brought up an undocumented but well-attested story — that it was a tradition at a nearby liberal seminary for some of the students to celebrate the anniversary of Hauge’s death with a drinking party where they would make fun of him.

The speaker said this surprised her. “In Norway,” she said, “Hauge is a hero to both sides. The conservatives admire him for his religious activities. The liberals admire him for being one of the founders of their movement.”

‘Birthday Girl,’ by Matthew Iden

There are books I approach knowing they’ll fascinate me, but also with a certain fear. Because I know they’ll push my personal buttons. Birthday Girl, by Matthew Iden, is that kind of book.

Amy Scowcroft is a woman with nothing in her life but a quest. A recovered drug addict, she lost custody of her daughter Lacey, who then – disappeared. Without a trace. People searched, the police investigated, but the girl had vanished.

One compassionate policeman gives her a suggestion… reluctantly. He knows a guy, a former forensic psychologist, who was pretty good at figuring out motives and identifying criminals. His name is Elliott Nash. The problem is, Elliott’s a homeless bum now. He too had had his child kidnapped. And murdered. But there’s a place he might be found.

Amy goes and finds him. At first he resists helping her. He can’t even help himself.

But then he changes his mind. This penniless woman and this homeless man, with no more resources than an unreliable car and a very few bucks between them, start tracing down a few facts. Old facts. Questionable facts. But they have nothing to lose, and are willing to go to whatever lengths they have to, to find Lacey.

Alternating with the plot thread of Amy and Elliott is the thread that tells us what’s happening to Lacey. Because she is alive. But she’s in the hands of a deeply troubled and dangerous person, one who keeps several children in a remote house. That person has a script and a plan for each of the children’s lives… and deaths.

Birthday Girl is compelling and heart-wrenching, with a ticking clock plot and a neat twist at the end. Also inspirational, in a spiritually generic way.

Birthday Girl grabbed me by the backbone and shook me up. It was painful to read, for personal reasons, but I couldn’t put it down.

Highly recommended, with cautions for intense material.

The Tale of Erling and Eindridi

A knarr, such as Eindridi would have sailed.

No book to review tonight. No great thoughts bubbling in my mind. What shall I post about?

Well, I’ve been reading the Flatey Book in the Norwegian translation, and I came on a little-known story about Erling Skjalgsson (it wasn’t new to me; I’d seen it before). To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only surviving story about Erling not also told in Heimskringla. I’ll be working it into a novel eventually, but there’s no harm telling it to you now. No doubt I’ll fiddle with it in my version, as is my wont.

It involves a young man named Eindridi, who was the son of Einar Tambarskjelvar (Gut-Shaker). Einar was a great chieftain in the Trondelag. If you’ve read The Elder King, you may recall him as a character in that timeless work. In TEK, he and Erling are good friends. In The Tale of Erling and Eindridi, things get a little touchy.

Erling had a daughter named Sigrid, whom he’d fostered out to the steward at Avaldsnes, the royal farm on Karmøy Island.

When (Saint) Olaf Haraldsson came in and started reorganizing the country, he took that stewardship away from Erling’s friend and gave it to a freedman named Tore the Seal (they also appear in TEK). He demoted Erling’s friend and sent him up to a less important farm further north. Sigrid went along with him, but chafed at being separated so far from her family.

One day a merchant ship docked near their farm, on its way south. Sigrid went to chat with the crew, and found that it was the ship of Eindridi, son of Einar Gut-Shaker. She asked him if she could hitch a ride south to her home at Sola. Eindridi was preoccupied, and let her join them without really registering whose daughter she was. Once they were under way, he realized he’d made a mistake (because she was supposed to be in her foster-father’s care, I think). But they had a fair wind, and there was nothing to do about it.

On the way south a storm blew up, and they had to run into an island, taking shelter in a fishermen’s shack. It was cold and wet, and the girl slept beside Eindridi, though they had no contact beyond a kiss. (At least that was their story.)

When they finally arrived at Sola, Erling was not at home. Eindridi was given a loft room to sleep in, and Sigrid came to join him, but he sent her away. Just then Erling Skjalgsson burst in, accusing Eindridi of dishonoring his daughter.

Eindridi fiercely denied touching the girl (beyond that kiss), and offered to go through the iron ordeal to prove his honor. Erling agreed to this, and Eindridi passed the trial with flying colors, carrying the glowing iron nine steps, and then having his burns examined after three days. Verdict: innocent. Erling then wished to be reconciled and offered him gifts, but Eindridi was deeply offended and prepared to sail home.

Erling’s son Skjalg went to him and told him he needed to make peace with Eindridi, because they couldn’t do without his father Einar’s support in their political struggle with Olaf. “What can I do?” Erling asked. “I’ve offered him gifts.”

“You need to offer a greater gift,” said Skjalg. “You need to offer him Sigrid as a wife.”

Erling hesitated at this. “A man of my rank,” he said, “does not offer his daughter to other men. Other men come and bid for his daughter.”

“And that’s why Eindridi will agree,” Skjalg answered. He did not say that it would be interpreted as an apology, something Erling couldn’t make in so many words. And – perhaps – he’d noticed that the two young people liked each other.

Erling sent Skjalg to make that offer, and Einar – realizing its significance – happily agreed. He was indeed taken with Sigrid, and she with him.

Sailing home, Eindridi met his father, who’d gotten word of events and was prepared to challenge Erling for his son’s honor. But when Eindridi explained the marriage offer, Einar immediately understood, and was pleased.

So Eindridi and Sigrid were married. (Though other sources name a different woman as Eindridi’s wife, so it’s not unlikely she died young.)

Not an exciting Viking story. But it is interesting in that it illustrates the kind of social limitations honor culture placed on even powerful men, and how they were able find ways of working around them.

‘Nightmare City,’ by Andrew Klavan

Though I am not least among Andrew Klavan’s fanboys, I’m not a huge fan of Young Adult fiction, being a serious grownup and stuff. So I skipped Nightmare City when it came out. Now I find it on sale on Kindle, so I gave it a shot. I’ve got to say, it’s some ride.

Tom Jordan is a high school student, a reporter on his school paper. Along with his mother he’s still mourning the death of his brother, who died in service in the Middle East.

Then one morning he awakens to a world right out of a horror movie. His home is empty, his mother has disappeared, and the house is surrounded by a strange white fog, in which malevolent, zombie-like creatures wander. They attack Tom when he goes outside, but seem to be restrained from entering his house – at first.

A message from Tom’s dead brother is broadcast from a television set. There’s something he’s supposed to do, but he doesn’t understand. Then his girlfriend appears, urging him to go to an old ruined monastery above the town. There’s also a voice he hears from time to time, which he learns – almost at the cost of his life – not to trust.

His searching will take him out into the fog, to his school, and to the old monastery. Along the way he’ll realize that he’s dreaming – but it’s a serious dream. The choices he makes here will have life and death consequences. There’s a story to be reported, and only Tom can report it.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Nightmare City at first. The beginning read like a standard teenagers vs. zombies movie script – lots of scares and chases and gore, not a lot of substance. But that was just the hook. The story got deeper and deeper as it proceeded, and in the end it was profound and deeply moving.

Reviewers compare Nightmare City to Stephen King, but I’d say it’s more like Dean Koontz. And that’s a good thing. I highly recommend Nightmare City, for teens and adults both.

‘The Innocent and the Dead,’ by Robert McNeill

There are two novels in the DI Jack Knox police procedural series to date. However, this first volume, The Innocent and the Dead, also includes a prequel novella, Labyrinth.

DI Jack Knox, the hero, is an Edinburgh, Scotland detective. He’s divorced, and his wife and daughter have emigrated to Australia. He is now dating a female subordinate, which is technically out of bounds but nobody seems very concerned about it.

The first story, Labyrinth, involves an attractive young woman found strangled near a tourist landmark. She is found to have been working as a prostitute, though she also seems to have been a practicing evangelical Christian. The investigation is complicated, but gets wrapped up relatively quickly.

In The Innocent and the Dead, a wealthy distiller’s college-age daughter has been kidnapped. After initially cooperating with the police, her father opts to follow the kidnapper’s instructions and keep the detectives in the dark about the ransom drop. This makes it hard for the cops, trying to keep tabs on the father as he attempts to avoid them – it appears at times they would have done better to let him alone. And when the payoff is missed, and a girl is found murdered, it all looks very bad….

This is a new mystery series, and the characters are still not entirely in focus. I found the stories competently written and entertaining, though not highly memorable. At a couple points, I thought the narrative was veering into church-bashing, but the author avoided that.

Moderately recommended. Cautions for mild adult stuff. I might read the second novel.

The power of paper

Photo credit: Annie Spratt @ anniesprat

Okay, I’ve got another thing to write about Hans Nielsen Hauge (look a few inches down for my first post on him. It’s the one with the Sissel song), the Norwegian lay revivalist of the early 19th Century. (I’m doing my article for the Spectator too, but this is extra.) As was noted by the lecturer I talked to last week, Hauge is a hero both to the right and to the left in Norway – to the right for his religious influence, and to the left for being one of the founders of their movement.

Because in those days of yore, liberalism had little or nothing to do with socialism. It had nothing to do with sexual practices or the size of government.

Liberalism was about whether the common people should be allowed to participate fully in society. To move out of the social classes they were born into, and aspire to higher ambitions. Even to politics.

One thing our speaker mentioned that I hadn’t appreciated before was Hauge’s sideline in manufacturing paper.

I’d known that he established a paper mill, called the Eker Paper Mill. In it he employed unemployables – the blind, the crippled, amputees – allowing them to live productive lives and contribute to the community. I thought that a very nice thing.

What I didn’t realize was the significance of the paper mill itself.

Cheap paper was a new thing in those days. Paper use had formerly been limited to the elite, and the paper they had was often of poor quality. But new manufacturing techniques involving paper pulp permitted a larger public to get hold of the stuff.

Hauge immediately recognized the wider significance of cheap paper.

It was usual in those days for the common people to be able to read. They had to be able to read to finish “Confirmation,” the Lutheran process that gave young men and women access to the Bible and the Catechism, in order to be full church members.

But those people generally could not write. (I’d never thought about this, but writing is a very different skill. Only the upper classes [and not all of them] could write in those days.)

Hauge had a vision of “awakened” (his term) Christians corresponding with each other all over the country. They could share inspiration, news, and practical information, forming what we’d call today a Haugean “network.”

In order to make that happen, he did two things. One, he built a paper mill (perhaps more than one; I’m not sure), and he organized classes to teach people to write.

This, by the way, was alarming to the authorities. They saw no reason why people should have any regular contacts outside their home parishes. Revolution was abroad in Europe, after all; you never knew what those peasants might get up to. This accounts for some of the hostility Hauge encountered, leading to his ten year incarceration.

But his followers kept writing on Hauge’s paper. Eventually they started newspapers and publishing houses. And today he is a hero of literacy and liberal politics in Norway.

‘Jesus, I Long For Thy Blessed Communion’

I was surprised to find this hymn on YouTube. It’s a classic hymn for the Haugeans (the Lutheran “sect” I grew up in. Though we never actually sang this one much in my church), and it’s sung my none other than the divine Sissel Kyrkjebo. I didn’t even know she’d done it.

The two verses she sings are translated thus:

1 Jesus, I long for Thy blessed communion,
Yearning for Thee fills my heart and my mind;
Draw me from all that would hinder our union,
May I to Thee, my beginning, be joined;
Show me more clearly my hopeless condition;
Show me the depth of corruption in me,
So that my nature may die in contrition,
And that my spirit may live unto Thee!

7 Merciful Jesus, now hear how I bind Thee
To the sure pledge of Thy covenant word:
“Ask, and receive: when ye seek, ye shall find me;”
Thus have Thy lips, ever faithful, averred.
I with the woman of Canaan unresting,
Cry after Thee till my longing is stilled,
Till Thou shalt add, my petitions attesting,
“Amen, yea, amen: it be as thou wilt!”

Hans Nielsen Hauge, the Norwegian lay revivalist I’ve written about here before, was singing this song as he plowed his father’s field on a day in 1796. Suddenly, he said, he was overwhelmed with the glory of God, and felt himself filled with love for God and all his neighbors, and called to serve them with his whole life. After that he started preaching to small groups — which was illegal. Eventually he would spend ten years in prison for this activity. But by the time he died, he was a national hero, respected by nearly everyone, high and low.

I attended a meeting yesterday where we heard a lecture from a Norwegian scholar, a woman, who’s been studying Hauge’s life and work for years. Her subject was the effect of Hauge’s ministry on public literacy in Norway — because that was one of his many achievements — getting the common people reading (and even writing).

In the midst of this, I came to a new realization about the “liberal” origins of evangelicalism — a subject that fascinates me. As people are no doubt weary of me telling them, early liberalism (late 18th and early 19th Century liberalism) had nothing to do with socialism, or sexual identity, or the size of government. It was simply about whether the common people would be allowed to participate in governing themselves.

I’ll be writing more about this — but probably for the American Spectator Online. Because they pay me, after all.

‘The Bitter Fields,’ by Matthew Iden

Marty Singer, retired cop and occasional private detective, is invited down to Virginia’s horse and wine country, along with his girlfriend Julie Atwater, by her friend Ruth Colvin, who runs a boarding stable. They’re expecting a relaxing vacation. But Ruth has a reason for asking them. Her farm is in trouble. Someone has been sabotaging her operation – knocking down fences so the horses can get loose. In the competitive world of horse people, only a little doubt about the safety of her facilities could ruin her. That’s how The Bitter Fields begins.

Then murder intervenes. One of Ruth’s employees, a charming polo player named Freddie Farrar, is shot to death. Marty can’t help but suspect there’s a connection between the crimes. Who could hate Ruth so much? There are suspects – a bigoted old lady who wants some of her land for a burial plot, a rich young woman who’d been having an affair with Freddie, and that woman’s husband – who has been arrested, but whose guilt Marty doubts.

All this is played out against the backdrop of the changing south, where history is a living presence, opinions are in transition, and people often cover up their real thoughts. One thing I liked about this book was that although it seemed at first to involve a lot of tired southern stereotypes, those characters were treated sympathetically and allowed to have their say – and to change. It all got kind of heart-warming in the end. Except for the killing, of course.

Recommended. Cautions for the usual, particularly sexual matters, but not bad.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture