Colin Dexter, 1930-2017

Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter, the author of the Inspector Morse novels, has passed away at the age of 86. Born in 1930, he didn’t become a full-time writer until 1966. Success came to him fairly late in life, but it came big. BBC News quotes him as saying:

“I think Morse, if he had really existed and was still alive, would probably say to me, ‘Well, you didn’t do me too bad a service in your writing’.

“He might say, ‘I wish you’d made me a slightly less miserable blighter and slightly more generous, and you could have painted me in a little bit of a better light’.

“If he had bought me a drink, a large Glenfiddich or something, that would have been very nice, but knowing him I doubt he would have done – Lewis always bought all the drinks.”

Dexter took a shrewd tack with the TV series based on his books. Some authors hate to see their precious works disfigured on film – John D. MacDonald famously hated every movie or TV show adapted from any of his works, including the original “Cape Fear,” which is considered a classic. But Dexter embraced the BBC series and deliberately accommodated it. For instance, Sergeant Lewis is actually two policemen in the first book, Last Bus to Woodstock. But seeing how well the pairing of actors John Thaw and Kevin Whately worked onscreen, he quietly blended the two characters and carried on without missing a step.

I enjoyed the Inspector Morse books, and the TV series perhaps even more. And I think I like the new prequel, Endeavor, even more. RIP Colin Dexter.

A Fanciful Underground Railroad

Railroad tunnel“Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.”

This is how Kirkus summarizes Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize. The novel is not historical fiction, because the central idea is existence of a slave-rescuing railway that runs through tunnels beneath the states.

Betsy Child Howard says it isn’t a fun book, but “sometimes we must look with open eyes at the evil humans can perpetrate themselves or countenance in others.”

In 21st-century America, we too often assume that those born into privilege are the deserving, without taking into account the generational effects of enslavement and Jim Crow on those we label “undeserving.” Whitehead is too good at his craft to spell out modern-day implications of our country’s dark history, but they reveal themselves.

Milton, Our Contemporary

Milton, as much as Shakespeare, remains our contemporary. As Wordsworth put it in a sonnet from 1802, ‘Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee.’ One half of a nation almost as bitterly — if not as bloodily — divided as in his day needs to understand how the blind, scorned radical, ‘though fallen on evil days… In darkness, and with dangers compassed round’, channelled his dismay at the failure of England’s revolution and the restoration of monarchy into a masterpiece that finds salvation through despair. In 1660, Milton was arrested, imprisoned and might have gone to his death as an impenitent regicide without a few well-placed admirers. His epic, with its aim to ‘assert eternal providence/ And justify the ways of God to men’, climbs from his pit of disillusion to find meaning and hope in calamity. A hero for Remainers, then.

Boyd Tonkin urges us to read Milton today, because he will speak to us if we will listen. April is the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost‘s publication. (via Prufrock News)

‘The Program,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Program

Before I say anything else, I think I should mention that all guys named Tim owe Gregg Hurwitz a debt of gratitude. The name “Tim” is not often found attached to tough-guy heroes, at least in our time. But Hurwitz has hung that neglected moniker on one of the most hard-core, two-fisted heroes since Clint Eastwood mothballed his serape.

In The Program, former Deputy US Marshal Tim Rackley is asked to extract the young-but-adult stepdaughter of a Hollywood producer from a secretive mind-control cult. It’s a tricky job, because the cult leader, though under suspicion, is not actually being investigated for any crime. Strongly mindful of his own murdered daughter, Tim takes up the challenge. He assumes a false identity and goes undercover, relying on his military training in resisting brainwashing to keep his head on straight. It turns out to be a bigger challenge than he expected – “TD,” the leader of the cult, is a brilliant and manipulative man who latches on to Tim in particular as a potential collaborator in empire building. Repeated escalating setbacks for the good guys set up, first of all, a hilarious scene where Tim and some allies disrupt an informational meeting, and then a heart-in-your throat rescue attempt. Tim also finds plenty of opportunity to exercise his high pain threshold.

I’m always most impressed by the character portrayals in stories, and The Program excelled in this area too. One character in particular, who started out looking like a stereotype, displayed hidden depths once the chips were down.

The Program is another home run for Gregg Hurwitz, in my opinion. Cautions for language, sexual situations, and violence. Certain clues suggest that the author leans left politically, but he doesn’t rub it in our faces, which is all I ask. Highly recommended.

‘Be Thou My Vision’ (martial version)

Here’s the best-loved Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” done by… I don’t know whom. A male group. I chose this version because it includes the often-skipped third verse, beginning, “Be Thou my battle-shield…”

The original could well have been known by Father Ailill, the narrator of my Erling novels. It’s often attributed to the sixth-century Saint Dallan, though some scholars date it to the eighth century. Pre-Viking in either case.

It was first translated into English in 1905, but the singable verse version was done by Eleanor Hull in 1912. The tune would not have been used by medieval monks, but is an Irish folk tune called “Slane.”

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

Longing of Two Kinds

I’ve let other things crowd out St. Patrick’s Day for me. My days have plodded steadily this year. I haven’t given much thought to future plans, but remained within the day.

Still, out of respect for the day, here are two poems with kinds of longing.

Patrick Pearse, “On the Strand of Howth” : (Entire poem)

Speaking in the night;
Of the voice of the birds
In Glenasmole

Happily, with melody,
Chanting music.

Seamus Heaney, “Mid-Term Break”

I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest
Read more through the links.

‘The Kill Clause,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Kill Clause

A book about vigilantes is no novelty. And the broad story arc of Gregg Hurwitz’s The Kill Clause is entirely predictable. The magic is in the… execution.

Tim Rackley is a decorated Deputy US Marshall, former military. When his only child, a little girl, is kidnapped, raped, and murdered, and the killer gets let off on a technicality, something dies inside him. He is approached by a representative of a secret group, “The Commission.” Their high-sounding mission is to find people clearly guilty of terrible crimes, who have been released by the courts. They will “execute” them in a fair, just manner. Tim’s job is to carry out the executions.

But his integrity and compassion are too great to work long that way. As the Commission comes apart and two dangerous members go rogue, Tim learns terrible secrets about his own tragedy. He finds himself racing against time to protect the very men he had planned to kill – including the killer of his daughter.

The conclusion of the book is a masterpiece of irony.

Gregg Hurwitz is a big writer, with a screenwriter’s sensibilities. That means high drama, high tension – and a certain level of improbability in the plot. What makes The Kill Clause work so well is the treatment of the characters – even the most repellant of them have their private stories, which are treated with empathy and respect. And the depiction of Tim’s grieving process (and his wife’s) is moving.

Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes. Otherwise, highly recommended.

6-Second Classics, Litbait, and Commas

If you’re familiar with the classic novels featured in these six second videos, you’ll get the joke. Ad agencies have produced several of these quick takes by YouTube’s request in pursuit of a new, flash ad format to be displayed before other videos. At six seconds each, the ads can’t be skipped past.

In a similar vein, The Wild Detectives bookstore in Dallas is trying to “troll people into reading classic books through clickbait.” They call them “litbaits.” Headlines read, “British guy dies after selfie gone wrong” for The Picture of Dorian Grey. The links led to blog posts with the all of the book’s content included. That wouldn’t turn anyone away, would it?

And chalk another one up for the Oxford comma under reasons it is saving the world. A group of Maine dairy drivers took their company to court to win overtime pay. The law defining exactly what was excluded from overtime lists many things, but it lacks one thing: an Oxford comma.

The law states, “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”

The drivers argued that while they do distribute food, they don’t pack it, so the exemption applies to “packing for shipment or distribution” and not to the distribution. The Circuit Court judge began his decision, writing, “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

The faith of LCR

Conservatives are often accused by liberals of having a “civil religion,” of getting our Christianity confused with our patriotism.

It’s a fair cop. I’m sure I do that, and I’m pretty sure I do it more than I’m aware.

But liberals have a civil religion too, and I have an idea very few of them recognize it at all.

Like the conservative kind, Liberal Civil Religion (LCR) is a denatured form of Christianity. It goes like this:

There’s Original Sin. In LCR, original sin is privilege. “White Privilege” is the fashionable variety right now, but liberals have always been ashamed of privilege of one kind or another. Being a citizen of a prosperous, free country is the pretty much the worst kind of privilege. Since liberals believe in a zero-sum world (if you have $2.00 and I have $1.00, you must have stolen fifty cents from me), all our freedom and all our wealth must have been torn from the poor. We are thieves and parasites.

There’s Penance. Penance takes the form of voting for Democrats (or Socialists, if you’re really a saint) and supporting policies which we suspect will hurt ourselves and our families. We deserve it.

There are Indulgences. Indulgences are paid in the form of high taxes. We may know that government programs are by nature inefficient and even counterproductive ways to help the less fortunate. But helping them isn’t the point. The point is making ourselves suffer. The pain provides a momentary, fleeting sense of expiation.

And what about grace?

There is no grace in LCR. The guilt goes on and on forever.

If grace were offered, how would people be persuaded to do perpetual penance?

‘The Nowhere Man,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

The Nowhere Man

Evan struggled to find the words. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been out in the cold, nose up to the glass, looking in. I may not get to come inside…. But I’m sure as h*ll not gonna let the wolves in at everyone else. No. That’s one thing I’m good for.”

This is the second book in the Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz. In The Nowhere Man, Evan Smoak, former secret government assassin, present-day free-lance rescuer, continues his strange career. He saves people’s lives pro bono, generally by killing someone who can be stopped in no other way. But this book takes the story in a new direction. Someone very, very good at surveillance and special ops manages to capture him. It’s just business, as his captor has noticed Evan’s elaborate, high-security online financial activities. He wants Evan to transfer a large amount of money to him, on pain of torture. But he gradually realizes that Evan is a different kind of target than any he’s ever dealt with, and he decides to put his very life on auction.

I found the tension almost unbearably high in this one, as I’ve always found stories about imprisonment and escape emotionally difficult. Evan’s challenges rise to the level of the existential, as he comes to the end of his (considerable) personal resources, and reaches the point where he needs the help of others, something very hard for him to accept.

Once again, I found this Orphan X book riveting, and I highly admired the author’s skill at cranking up the tension while turning out superior prose. The depth of the characterization gives the book substantial weight. The plot is sometimes a little implausible, but we’re treading the borderline between novel and comic book here, so I just went with the ride. And an exciting one it was.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult situations. I also ought to mention that Evan practices transcendental meditation, which I don’t care for. But all in all, this is about as much quality entertainment for your book-buying dollar as you’re going to find anywhere.

‘Orphan X,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Orphan X

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book.

Evan Smoak, hero of Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz, does not officially exist. As a young boy he was taken (voluntarily) from a group home for orphans, to join a secretive US intelligence team. Members of the Orphan Program are highly skilled agents and assassins, entirely deniable and expendable in case of capture. Evan was raised in near-isolation by his handler, Jake Johns, a good man who taught him not only tradecraft, but human values as well. He instilled in Evan his own Ten Commandments, rules of operation by which he has lived ever since.

But around the time he was thirty, Evan decided to come in from the cold. He left the program, at great personal cost. Now he’s a kind of freelance hero. When he helps someone out of a life-and-death situation, he tells them to give his phone number to one other person, and only one. This keeps his work from becoming overwhelming.

But when he gets a call from a woman in debt to the Las Vegas mob, whose father is being held hostage until she pays up, and then shortly after is contacted by another “client,” he knows his system has been compromised. Someone with skills similar to his own is hunting him. Who should he trust? How can he be sure who really needs his help?

And what should he do about his neighbor, a single mother, to whom he’s attracted? Particularly considering the fact that she works in the District Attorney’s office?

Gradually, he starts to break Jack’s Ten Commandments, one after another.

One can’t help thinking of a cross between Jason Bourne and Batman here. But Orphan X digs deeper, uncovering layers of dysfunction and contradiction in the personality of a man who lives to do good, but doesn’t know how to relate to other human beings. When I was a kid, I used to watch TV Westerns, in which the heroes often seemed to travel from place to place with no other occupation than Righting Wrongs. When I got older, I began to wonder how they paid the bills (for the record, The Lone Ranger, at least, owned a silver mine). But there’s a deeper question – where does the hero go to meet his own emotional needs? Is he really a good man if he doesn’t dare – or know how – to love?

Orphan X is the first book of a series that I eagerly anticipate following. There’s one sequel to date, which I’ll review soon. Aside from the exciting (sometimes improbable) plot and vivid characters, the writing here is top notch. Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes. Highly recommended otherwise.

Cling to Jesus As If Your Life Depends on It

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is being released tomorrow. Collin Hansen reviews it here.

My main fear with Dreher’s book is that the people who need it most won’t read it. How do you convince Americans that replacing fast food and cable news with fasting and hard labor will be good for their souls?

Overwhelming evangelical support for Trump suggests not many conservative Christians would agree with Dreher that “losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.” Rather, they seem to believe the American Empire needs our partisan politics in service of God’s kingdom.

Dreher will have many interviews this week. This one with Russell Moore is bound to be one of the better ones.

Linkage

Marcus Selmer photograph

The wonderful Mirabilis.ca shares a link to information on the Dano-Norwegian photographer Marcus Selmer, who left remarkable images of 19th Century Norwegian peasants.

And Dave Lull passes on news about a planned TV series based on Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis books.

I expect they’ll ruin it by making Milo a militant gay, but the news is interesting anyway.

When God Passes By

And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but… (Mark 6:47-49)

Here’s a somewhat academic analysis of the last clause from the quotation above from Derek Rishmawy. Jesus walked out to this disciples while they floated in the sea, and “he meant to pass by them.” Does this aside refer to something in the Old Testament as so many Gospel references do? How about Job 9:4-13 and Exodus 33:17-23?

It’s subtle but beautiful.

 

Book Reviews, Creative Culture