‘Out of the Ruins,’ by Sally Wright

Out of the Ruins

Book four in the Ben Reese mystery series by Sally Wright is Out of the Ruins, a venture into Southern Gothic. In this episode, archivist Ben has returned to his university in Ohio from Scotland, but is taking some sabbatical time to travel to the South, to evaluate a collection of art being donated to his school. While there he gets a call from an old friend named Hannah Hill, who owns a large estate on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Hannah suffers from MS, and is confined to her bed. She is concerned about local attempts to acquire her estate for development, or for a national park. Also, she has had “dreams” about a masked figure coming into her room at night and spraying things with a spray gun.

By the time Ben arrives, Hannah Hill is dead, apparently of pneumonia. Most suspicious. He enters a world of old family feuds, greed, and hypocrisy, in which Hannah’s heir – a young female opera singer – is the target of long-simmering, murderous hate.

Out of the Ruins was not my favorite book in this series. I found the action of the climax kind of hard to follow. And author Wright, though generally a good writer, has one bad habit that annoys me. When writing telephone conversations, she employs what I call “TV phone call writing.” You know how it goes on TV – you only hear one side of the conversation, so they have to have the character on screen repeat everything the character on the other end says, even though people don’t do that in real life (Bob Newhart did some great comedy routines in that format back in the ‘60s). There are only two ways to handle phone conversations in a novel, in my opinion. Either leave the reader uncertain about what the unheard party is saying (this could be useful in a mystery), or just give us both sides of the conversation.

But Out of the Ruins was generally entertaining, and I enjoyed reading it. Recommended.

‘The Last Witness,’ by Denzil Meyrick

The Last Witness

I relished the first Detective Daley mystery by Denzil Meyrick, Whisky from Small Glasses, which I reviewed not far south of this post. I got just as much pleasure from the second book in the series, The Last Witness.

This outing finds DCI Jim Daley relocated from Glasgow to the location of the first novel, the fictional town of Kinloch on the Kintyre peninsula. He’s grown to like the town and its easy sense of community. Even his marriage seems to be improving.

Meanwhile, in Australia, a former criminal now in the British equivalent of witness protection is brutally murdered, along with his wife. What raises red flags in Glasgow is that the killer’s face is clearly seen on closed circuit TV – and he is plainly a man who’s supposed to be dead. James Machie was the godfather of Glasgow organized crime, and the dead man had testified against him, before Machie was sentenced to prison and then murdered.

Another witness, also under protection, lives near Kinloch. On top of that, Daley’s friend and subordinate, DS Scott, participated in Machie’s arrest – and Machie vowed vengeance on him as well.

People are going to die, seemingly murdered by a ghost, and a network of lies and betrayals will be brought to light. The Last Witness works up to a thundering climax at sea, and when you think all the mysteries have been solved, new twists appear.

Above the basic plot, an overarching meta-plot is winding its way through these stories. I’m eager to learn what comes next. Cautions for language and mature themes. Christianity, though not a major element in the book, seems to be handled with respect.

Probably the only feminist post you’ll ever see from me

All of a sudden, it seems old cases of sexual abuse are being dragged out into the light. Almost all at once. As if there’s been a massive sea change in our society. Perhaps that’s true. There comes a moment when the dam breaks, when the worm turns, when the last straw sends the camel off to the chiropractor.

But I’m inclined to think of it as chickens coming home to roost.

I’m fairly sure there’s lots of political maneuvering going on at the moment. I’m certain there are plenty of slimy things still hiding under a lot of rocks. Both sides are firing warning shots, to remind their opponents that this is a game any number can play.

That’s because of the place we’re at in history.

Any man (and yeah, we’re talking mostly about men here) who’s alpha enough to have achieved political power (or Hollywood power, for that matter) by our present decade was probably coming into sexual maturity in the 1970s, or at least in the 1980s which were the residue of the ‘70s. And that was the age of the Sexual Revolution. We had at last shucked off the carapace of Puritanism (or Victorianism) and discovered the Prime Truth: Sex Is Good.

I remember the propaganda. Sex is Good. Always good. Morally good. Good for you. Good for society. Sex good. Experimentation good. Marriage bad.

What nobody mentioned was the tremendous pressure this put on young women. “Come on baby, I know you want to. Hey, you’re not repressed, are you? You’re not one of those hung-up bourgeois, are you? You want to smash capitalism, don’t you? You want to end the Vietnam War? Then get with the program, girl! Here, ingest this.”

And of course they couldn’t complain. Didn’t want to be square. Didn’t want to be one of those God Squadders.

Today, at long last, women are starting to feel free to tell the stories. And alpha males everywhere are suddenly very worried.

‘Whisky from Small Glasses,’ by Denzil Meyrick

Whisky from Small Glasses

As he adjusted his belt he heard a stream of expletives issuing from two youths who were seated in front of him. The young men were not being intentionally offensive; in the west of Scotland punctuation was gradually being replaced by curses. He and Liz had recently spent a weekend in York, and he remembered being surprised by the absence of swearing.

Detective Inspector Jim Daly works for the Strathclyde Police in Glasgow, under a superior who used to be his friend but has now become a perfect political animal. When a woman’s body washes up near the scenic small town of Kinloch on the Kintyre peninsula, Jim is sent to lead the investigation. The woman had been tortured before being strangled, and when another woman is found also tortured to death, it looks as if a serial killer is at large. But the two women had ties to the local drug trade as well, and that proves to be a bigger operation the closer they look.

That’s the premise of Whisky from Small Glasses, an impressive first novel by Denzil Meyrick. The book has many virtues – an obvious love for the Kintyre scenery, lively, often humorous, dialogue (though much of it is in dialect which some Americans will find it hard following), and very interesting, layered characters. Jim Daly is mostly a good man and a good cop, though he has trouble with his temper and is insecure about his weight and his relationship with his beautiful wife, whom he adores in spite of known unfaithfulness. His friend and colleague Scott is a drunken, profane man raised on the streets, but a good cop and a loyal friend. His superior, Donald, seems fairly slimy, but sometimes shows moments of genuine wisdom. However, he also gives us glimpses of something far darker.

The minor characters also bubble to life. I was particularly pleased with the genuine affection for small town life that’s on view – it’s an easy, cheap shot for writers to condescend to village folk, but author Meyrick is having none of that. The townspeople are a canny lot, and infuriating in their ability to know everybody’s business almost immediately, whether the police want it kept quiet or not. There’s also an amusing old fisherman with the second sight, to make cryptic predictions.

Serious, funny, and occasionally touching, Whisky from Small Glasses is a superior, rewarding crime novel. Cautions for language (as the excerpt above suggests) and mature, often gory, subject matter.

Post-dental thoughts

I’m late to blogging tonight. I had my semi-annual dental exam and cleaning after work. Alas, my customer rating will have to be only a C, because I didn’t draw the beautiful young dental hygienist tonight. My dentist did the job himself. Let’s hope they up their game next spring.

From Futurism.com: “Eight ‘Facts’ About the Human Body Debunked by Science.”

“It’s impossible to prove that no two [fingerprints] are the same,” Mike Silverman, a forensic science regulator in the United Kingdom, told The Telegraph. “It’s improbable, but so is winning the lottery, and people do that every week.”

I remember seeing the tongue-rolling thing used as an example in one of my school textbooks (high school or college; I forget), no earlier than the 1960s. Even though, according to this article, it was debunked around 1952.

Tip: Books, Inq.

Remember, trust no one. Except Brandywine Books. Oh, and the Bible.

‘Pursuit and Persuasion,’ by Sally Wright

Pursuit and Persuasion

This is more like it. I was a little disappointed in the previous novel in Sally Wright’s Ben Reese series, thinking it overly complex and hard to follow. Pursuit and Persuasion is much better, as my personal taste runs.

Georgina Fletcher, a Scottish scholar and heiress, has died suddenly of a stomach ailment. No one expected her to leave her entire estate to her student assistant, an American named Ellen Winter. Equally unexpectedly, she left a letter behind for Ellen, telling her that if she (Georgina) should die suddenly, for any reason, she was to engage a private investigator to look for evidence of murder.

Ellen turns to her former college advisor, Ben Reese, who is still in Scotland in the wake of his previous murder investigation. Ben finds that, although Georgina was a well-liked person, she did have enemies – an accountant who disapproved of her (generous) business practices, and neighbors who object to the changes she’s made in the family estate, among others. Before he’s done he’ll learn of an old family crime, hidden obsessions, and an attempt to right a very old wrong. He’ll also come into imminent peril of death.

I had fun with Pursuit and Persuasion. The plot wasn’t as complex as in the last book, and the cast of characters was less confusing. Most importantly, the focus was mostly on our hero, Ben himself, who is an interesting figure. A couple romantic possibilities turn up to raise the human interest of the exercise. And the Christianity of the story is never in doubt (although the book opens outside the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, author Wright resists the temptation to give either C. S. Lewis or Tolkien cameo roles).

Highly recommended. Suitable for most readers.

Dennett’s Dizzying Intellect

While he may not repeat a word the meaning of which he is uncertain, Daniel Dennett does exhibit a dizzying intellect. David Bentley Hart reviews his latest book.

The simple truth of the matter is that Dennett is a fanatic: He believes so fiercely in the unique authority and absolutely comprehensive competency of the third-person scientific perspective that he is willing to deny not only the analytic authority, but also the actual existence, of the first-person vantage. At the very least, though, he is an intellectually consistent fanatic, inasmuch as he correctly grasps (as many other physical reductionists do not) that consciousness really is irreconcilable with a coherent metaphysical naturalism. Since, however, the position he champions is inherently ridiculous, the only way that he can argue on its behalf is by relentlessly, and in as many ways as possible, changing the subject whenever the obvious objections are raised.

For what it is worth, Dennett often exhibits considerable ingenuity in his evasions — so much ingenuity, in fact, that he sometimes seems to have succeeded in baffling even himself.

Contemporary Buildings Actually Hate You

Let’s be really honest with ourselves: a brief glance at any structure designed in the last 50 years should be enough to persuade anyone that something has gone deeply, terribly wrong with us. Some unseen person or force seems committed to replacing literally every attractive and appealing thing with an ugly and unpleasant thing. The architecture produced by contemporary global capitalism is possibly the most obvious visible evidence that it has some kind of perverse effect on the human soul.

Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson explain why you dislike contemporary architecture and, if you don’t, why you should, with some truly stunning examples. (via Hunter Baker)

‘Cast Iron,’ by Peter May

Cast Iron

Here we have the final novel in Peter May’s Enzo Macleod mystery series. Years ago, Enzo, a forensic scientist, made a bet that he could solve a series of famous French cold cases described in a book written by a friend. Two cases are left, but they’ll both be unraveled by the end of Cast Iron.

In 1989, 20-year-old Lucie Martin was murdered, her body hidden in a lake. In 2003, due to a drought, the body was uncovered and examined. The skeleton had a broken hyoid bone, a sign of strangulation. Suspicion settled on a pimp named Regis Blanc, who had been convicted of strangling three prostitutes, and who had been dating Lucie. But he had a “cast iron” alibi.

In 2011, Enzo Macleod turns his attention to the Lucie Martin case. He thinks there’s more to the matter than earlier investigators guessed. And – intriguingly – he discovers a link to a previous murder he solved, though he wasn’t able to identify the person who paid for that murder for hire. This he will learn in Cast Iron. And clearly he’s getting too close to the truth for somebody, because a threat of violence is directed at someone near and dear to him.

As I mentioned in my last review, Enzo has grown in character through the series. I still don’t entirely like him, and I don’t think he’s ever really taken responsibility for some of his sins against others. But he’s better than he was, and this book brings the series to a satisfying conclusion. Three narrative threads are actually tied up at the end. Two I saw coming, but one came right out of left field and was an entertaining surprise.

Recommended, with cautions for language and mature themes.

The joys of home ownership

In my mind, it’s a great big crisis; high drama.

What it is, is that I agreed long ago to go along with my neighbor on a mutually beneficial property improvement project. And yesterday I signed the contract and cut a check, and the work will probably start this weekend.

My neighbor has been as amiable as he could be. I’ll be slightly in debt for a few months, but I saved a big chunk of money by scheduling at this time of year, so that’s OK.

Everything’s fine. And I feel like retiring to my fainting couch.

Is this what it’s like to be a grown-up?

And now, this:

Gene Edward Veith shared this “open letter” today, taken from a comment on his blog. It’s a letter to the next church shooter, inviting him to consider the writer’s own church.

And the whole “death” thing raises a very important point. Ours is a Christian church and death is a particular interest of ours. We think we have it figured out. As you enter our sanctuary, you won’t be able to help noticing that the most prominent feature displayed there is a large cross – an ancient Roman instrument of execution. It’s our teaching that it was a death, the death of God’s Son on a cross like that, that frees us from the fear of our own death. Don’t misunderstand – we’re not seeking death, but we’re not fearing it, either. Jesus demonstrated that if we followed Him through our own death, we would then follow Him into resurrection and eternal life. He demonstrated this for us and that demonstration was remarkably well-documented both in the Book He left for us and in the lives of His closest friends and followers, most of whom died rather than deny that Jesus’ resurrection had happened. Which to our way of thinking is a very strong endorsement.

Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2017/11/dear-next-mass-church-murderer/#Mu5vrWCFBfEv2QZ3.99

‘The Girl Who Lived,’ by Christopher Greyson

The Girl Who Lived

I’ll just start by saying that I really enjoyed this book. Christopher Greyson has shown great promise in producing his series of “Jack” thrillers, all of which I’ve reviewed. But he’s knocked it out of the park with The Girl Who Lived, a stand-alone novel.

Faith Winter’s thirteenth birthday party turned into a life-altering nightmare. At her family’s vacation cabin, her father, her sister, her best friend, and the friend’s mother were slaughtered, and Faith barely escaped. She told the police the killer was a “rat-faced man” who chased her through the woods, but they don’t believe her. They call it a murder-suicide, and blame her father as the culprit.

Faith’s life spiraled into a maelstrom of dysfunction after that. She became an alcoholic and spent time in mental hospitals and prison. Now, ten years later, she is being released on parole, required to attend AA and survivors’ group meetings, and to look for a job. Continue reading ‘The Girl Who Lived,’ by Christopher Greyson

It’s also worth doing well

I have very few fond memories of the time – decades ago – when I used to watch the 60 Minutes TV program. But one of them is (I think, it might possibly have been a different show) a segment on the Portsmouth Sinfonia, “the worst orchestra in the world.” Atlas Obscura has an article about it:

The original Sinfonia consisted of 13 members, mostly students who had little to no musical experience. The “scratch” orchestra was meant as a one-off joke, part of a larger collection of silly acts. And they didn’t win the contest. Still, their playful irreverence hit a nerve. Spurred on by an outpouring of enthusiasm for their initial performance, the Sinfonia continued to play, growing in size over the next several years. Their policy was that anyone, of any skill level, could join, with the exception being that skilled musicians could not join and simply play poorly on purpose. Another rule was that all members had to show up for practice.

For a while they attracted large crowds, and they even cut a couple albums. People (like me) were charmed by the blatant effrontery of the thing. It was a sort of an embodiment of Chesterton’s maxim, in his essay on amateurism, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

The concept is fun, but it seems to me there’s a serious side too. The pleasures of bad music, like other pleasures of the flesh, are fleeting. In the end, quality counts. There’s a difference between enthusiasm and virtuosity, and virtuosity has staying power. It’s worth preserving.

Which brings me to this link, from Legal Insurrection, about protests at very liberal Reed College, Portland, Oregon. A number of students are angry that the school’s Humanities 110 course, a core course in the freshman curriculum, concentrates on western civilization.

I’m gonna go ahead and say it. Western civilization is the best civilization the world has ever seen. The very anger of the course’s opponents is a symptom of their cognitive dissonance, a refusal to accept the evidence of history, science, and their own senses.

Miłosz: “All I Wanted Was to Get Out”

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died. (from “Campo dei Fiori“)

His biographer notes his depression, even at least one moment of despair.

Half a deadpan paragraph treats as more or less normal the moment when Miłosz swallowed a quantity of vodka, loaded a revolver with a single bullet, and played Russian roulette. Graham Greene, a not-so-dissimilar character, also gave way to this particular form of nihilism—or is it vanity? . . .

The Sovietization of Poland was bound to be fraught with moral choices that would lead either to reward or to punishment, possibly a concentration camp and death. . . . Once he was in the West, Miłosz himself was to observe, “All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen next,” accepting that this amounted to making “a pact with the devil.”

‘Pride and Predator,’ by Sally Wright

Pride and Predator

Sally Wright’s second Ben Reese novel, Pride and Predator, takes our American archivist hero to Scotland, where he gets involved in a classic “cozy” mystery.

Jonathan MacLean, a minister of the Kirk of Scotland, is found dead on the island of Lindisfarne (famous in Viking lore, though that’s not mentioned here), killed by an allergic reaction to a bee sting. The fact that he was carrying a picnic basket, in which dead bees were found, is suspicious, as he had never before carried a basket on his walking trips. And it’s hard to imagine who would have wanted him dead. He was a popular pastor, beloved by his wife, friends and family. He possessed no great riches, though he had inherited a title. A few people disliked him, but not murderously. As he uncovers the truth, Ben will find himself working against time to stop a killer before he kills again.

I liked the first book in the series, Publish and Perish, very much. I have to say I was less taken with this one. The cast of characters seemed to me huge, and almost all of them had Scottish names. I had a lot of trouble keeping them straight. There also seemed to be a lot more talking than strictly necessary, and the plot was convoluted.

Still, cozy fans will probably enjoy it (I myself like cozies if they’re well done), and the language is decent and the values Christian. Moderately recommended.

‘Two Kinds of Truth,’ by Michael Connelly

Two Kinds of Truth

“Look, I’m sorry. But I wanted to catch these guys. What that kid did, the son, it was noble. When this all comes out, people will probably say he was stupid and naïve and didn’t know what he was doing. But they won’t know the truth. He was being noble. And there isn’t a lot of that out there in the world anymore….”

It’s amazing how Michael Connelly manages to keep the stakes high in his long series of Harry Bosch detective novels. At the beginning of Two Kinds of Truth I was thinking that the formula was getting a little old, but before long I was fully invested. Harry Bosch is a driven character, a man with a near-Christian sense of vocation, and you can’t help starting to care as much as he does.

Harry used to be a police detective in Los Angeles, but he’s past retirement, and now he works on a semi-volunteer basis for the police department in San Fernando, a small, autonomous enclave within greater LA. His official task is cold cases, which he loves, but because he’s the most experienced detective available, he ends up working current cases as well. Continue reading ‘Two Kinds of Truth,’ by Michael Connelly

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