‘Vanish Without a Trace,’ by Bill Kitson

The adventures of Yorkshire Detective Inspector Mike Nash continue in Vanish Without a Trace, the second book in the series by Bill Kitson.

When a young woman named Sarah Kelly fails to return home after heading out to a nightclub one evening, her mother contacts the police. Although such missing persons reports usually come to nothing, Mike Nash is impressed with the mother’s story. But as time passes, no trace of the girl is found, except for her purse, lying in an alley.

A chance comment gets Mike thinking about other disappearances. Some research reveals that there has been a string of similar disappearances all across the north of England – and in each case, the missing girl looks like a sister to all the others. Is it even possible to identify and stop a killer who leaves no clues, leaves no bodies, and moves all over the map? Mike and his team will try, but the threat will come very close to home.

Vanish Without a Trace was a little less high-tension than the previous volume, What Lies Beneath. That’s OK with me; I prefer mysteries to thrillers. My problem with this series is an element I’d hoped would be a one-off with the first volume – Inspector Nash gets clues from prophetic dreams. To my mind, this moves the books into the realm of Paranormal Fiction, against which I’m prejudiced. So I won’t be reading any more of the Mike Nash books, though they are fascinating and highly readable.

Your mileage may vary. Cautions for the sort of thing you’d expect.

R.I.P. ‘Threedonia’

For the past 12 years (nearly), one of my constant resorts on the internet has been the Threedonia blog (no point linking to it; it would do you no good).

Threedonia began as a spin-off of the old Dirty Harry’s Place movie blog, run by John Nolte. Three guys originally ran Threedonia, though after a while the roll was reduced to one, or one-and-a-half. Like so many blogs, the years had reduced its readership, but it remained a pleasant, cantankerous Christian entertainment blog, frequented by a small group of regular commenters, of whom I was one.

That’s all over now. Last week malicious Japanese hackers broke in and destroyed it. The administrator tells me he doesn’t have the time or the money to rebuild it.

Farewell, “Floyd” and “Rufus” and all Threedonians. It was fun while it lasted.

May the hackers’ evil rebound onto their own heads.

‘Serenity,’ by Craig A. Hart

This book is not to be confused with the science fiction TV series, “Serenity.” However, you could plausibly cast Nathan Fillion as the hero.

Shelby Alexander, hero of Serenity, is a former prizefighter. After that he became what he calls a “fixer,” solving people’s problems through the application of violence. Finally, in his ‘60s, he has returned to his home town of Serenity, Michigan (northern Lower Peninsula) for a more peaceful life.

Not going to happen.

One night Shelby looks out his window and sees a human figure huddled in the snow by his barn. He finds a woman there, a local character named Jenny Ellis, mentally retarded and the only well-liked member of her family. The Ellises are local outlaws, known to be involved in the drug trade. Jenny dies before help can come.

Then, to his surprise, Shelby gets a visit from Jenny’s brother Harper, the head of the family. He wants Shelby to investigate Jenny’s death. Bigger criminals from Detroit are moving into the area, trying to take over the Ellis drug operations. Shelby has no desire to work for the Ellises, but he did like Jenny, so he agrees to look into it.

Before long he’s got people shooting at him, and the new sheriff – very possibly corrupt – is trying to frame Shelby for murder. But Shelby has handled worse.

What you’ve got here is a pretty simple story. This is not a cerebral mystery. In fact, Shelby Alexander never once deduces anything – he reacts to events and generally solves problems with his fists. Action is the watchword here, and in those terms the book is pretty good. There were also moments when Shelby expressed opinions on the social conservatism side, so I liked that.

Serenity is pure entertainment, probably aimed at male readers, and I recommend it after its kind. Cautions for the usual.

What Environmentalism Can Teach Us About Loving the Body

I didn’t notice Nancy Pearcey’s latest book when it was released in 2018, but I heard an interview today in which she described one of the explanations she makes that has caught the attention of many readers. Her book is Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, and it offers biblical reasons for accepting, even loving, the body God has given you.

She says we can take something from environmentalism.

The Nature Conservatory’s states, “Our mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Our vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.”

What if we applied that logic to our own bodies? We are not spirits or souls trapped in a temporal, worthless vessel. We are unique body and soul beings, and our physical form is a major part of our lives. Our physical health is a big part of a thriving life. What if we treated it as a kind of natural good, something to love partly for its own sake, not something to fight against?

There are some who say we can and should remake ourselves into whatever image we imagine ourselves to be, but that’s not how we treat nature. We want to preserve the natural world around us. How about we preserve the natural form closest to us?

This is what I took from the interview. You’ll find more good reasoning in Pearcey’s Love Thy Body.

Pushing Back on a Recommended Reading Selection

A parent who is also a writer (one of the more dangerous kinds) wrote a long letter to his daughter’s teacher about a book on the recommended reading list for ninth-graders to read on their own. This comes from his response to the teacher’s reply.

The idea that Green and his novel Paper Towns is a good example of “the way the world operates” and “is the world we live in today” and that not reading them insinuates “ignorance as a remedy” is not defensible on any level. One of the things every generation does throughout history, especially the last 100 years of American popular culture, is maintain the erroneous belief that they invented sex, cuss words, drugs, and whatever sort of rebellious behavior that angers one’s parents. They always think they are the first to crack open a “modern world” to the stuffy, naive elders around them. We are still of the age that just can’t stop giggling about Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

S.J. Dahlstrom, “Coarsening is not education”

‘West Oversea’ reviewed

Blogger Mary J. Moerbe continues her series of reviews of my work. This one is West Oversea:

The thing that makes me so enamored with Erling Skjalgsson is that he is a man with a real chance of being honorable and lordly. His pagan setting and background highlight how difficult it isto do the right thing and cut through expectations in pursuit of a higher wisdom and trust. All of which makes him a really powerful Christian figure!

Read it all here.

‘Clearinghouse,’ by Randall Schanze

Full disclosure – Randall Schanze is a Facebook friend, whom I met through blog-crawling quite a few years back. We’re not close, but I read his previous book Ice Cream and Venom, and liked it pretty well. So I tried his new story collection, Clearinghouse.

Clearinghouse is a collection of stories Schanze has written since the start of his career. The backbone of the assemblage is a series of stories set in an alternate history where the NASA Moon and Mars projects are not cancelled in the 1970s. Tragic, heroic, and funny events happen. Science ain’t my long suit, but the technical details seemed authentic and plausible.

Not all the stories relate to that cycle. There are far future stories, fantasies, and even farces. The majority of the far future stories are tied together and involve a radically altered human situation. But each NASA story is followed by a “Frame” sequence, in which author Schanze communicates with a fan (implied to be his only fan), who keeps urging him to write more while he himself hangs back, discouraged by his lack of publishing success. Such a device might be expected to come off as self-indulgent, but it worked for me, and added a certain piquancy and unity to the whole exercise.

I’m not a Science Fiction fan myself, but I enjoyed Clearinghouse and recommend it.

‘what Lies Beneath,’ by Bill Kitson

In a Yorkshire tarn (a mountain lake), a fisherman snags a human skull. When divers are sent in, they find two skeletons, both of young girls. Skeletal abnormalities indicate that they were sexually abused for a long time.

Detective Inspector Mike Nash, who recently relocated from London to Yorkshire, is on the case, though distracted by concern over his girlfriend, who is hospitalized and paralyzed. It’s soon apparent that they’re dealing with international human traffickers, which brings a visit from Russian police, including a very attractive – and ruthless – woman. Their Anglo-Russian alliance will be up against a criminal conspiracy led by well-financed and very dangerous men. Men for whom human life is meaningless, and no atrocity out of the question.

That’s the premise of What Lies Beneath, first in a series of novels I’ll be following up with. Author Bill Kitson sets a good scene and does good prose. I liked his characters and got caught up in the suspense. The plot had some holes, it seemed to me, but (as in a movie) things moved along so quickly that this reader just went along with it.

Mike Nash is unusual as a fictional detective in that he has prophetic dreams. He doesn’t always understand them, and he insists he’s not psychic. I am prejudiced against this sort of thing, but it does add to narrative interest.

More character descriptions would have been welcome. There’s one character named “Viv” who is only revealed to be a man after some pages, and only revealed to be black toward the end of the book.

Imperfect but cinematically engaging, I enjoyed What Lies Beneath. I was also horrified by some of the details of the human trafficking industry, which the author claims are genuine. Cautions for shocking content, plus the usual.

‘Until the Debt Is Paid,’ by Alexander Hartung

When Berlin police detective Jan Tommen wakes up in bed with his girlfriend, to discover he’s completely forgotten the last two days, that’s annoying. But when he’s arrested for the torture murder of a judge with whom he clashed in the past, it becomes terrifying. His worst fear is that he might have done the crime – he can’t recall a thing.

But (in the great tradition of improbable detective heroics) he makes a plan to escape from custody with the help of a friend who lives on the margins of Berlin’s underworld. He recruits two more friends, a (gorgeous, of course) female medical examiner and a computer geek (obligatory in every thriller) to figure out what happened. There are further murders from the same culprit, so he knows he’s not guilty – but his police colleagues don’t.

That’s the premise of Until the Debt Is Paid, first in a series by Alexander Hartung, translated from German by Steve Anderson.

First, I’ll say what I liked about it. Until the Debt Is Paid was not what I expected. When I pick up a European mystery, I pretty much assume dark, nihilistic stuff in the tradition of Scandinavian Noir. This book was nothing like that. Jan Tommen is a throwback to older German stereotypes – he’s cheery and optimistic and enjoys life. He has his dark moments, but he snaps back. This was refreshing, especially since the story involves some extremely shocking elements. And the final solution was a surprise (at least for this dull reader).

What I disliked was that the police procedures seemed (to me) more 1970s TV than real life. I don’t believe the German police are this loose in their disciplines and security. I don’t think Jan Tommen would have remained free for more than a few hours in the real world. Also, at one point he foolishly plays around with a gun in a way no professional ever would.

And (without dropping a spoiler) one plot element that pleased me in terms of my values went horribly bad.

As for the translation, I’d call it good. It starts out excellent – I was impressed as a translator myself – but it lost some luster as it proceeded, slipping at times into dull literalism. But I can’t really fault that. I know from experience that translating a whole manuscript is a lot of work, and you sometimes run out of time, so you make sure the first few chapters are polished up nice, hoping you’ll have won the readers’ good will by then.

My takeaway: Not bad, and distinctive as a departure in tone from genre tropes. But poorly researched and lacking in plausibility.

‘Not George Washington,’ by P. G. Wodehouse

Before I had been in Walpole Street a week I could tell by ear the difference between a rejected manuscript and an ordinary letter. There is a certain solid plop about the fall of the former which not even a long envelope full of proofs can imitate successfully.

P. G. Wodehouse began his very long writing career more than a century ago, in the first decade of the 20th Century. It follows that a number of his earlier works have fallen into the public domain. Among them is his novel Not George Washington, which I read in one of the several collections of his out-of-copyright works available for Kindle.

One can detect the nascent signs of later genius in this book, but if he’d been hit by a bus in 1908, we probably wouldn’t remember him on the basis of this work (which was written in collaboration with one Herbert Westbrook).

The story, narrated by several point of view characters, starts on the Channel island of Guernsey, where a young woman named Margaret Goodwin, an island resident, meets James Orlebar Cloyster. The couple fall in love, and though her mother approves, they agree he needs to go to London to pursue his career as a writer before they can marry. He can’t hope to support a wife without achieving some success.

We then follow James to London, where he makes his fortune fairly quickly (his career follows Wodehouse’s own – Wodehouse wrote the “On the Way” column for the Globe newspaper, while Cloyster writes a column of the same name for a paper called the Orb).

At this point Cloyster finds himself in a quandary. He realizes he doesn’t really desire married life. Even his feelings for Margaret have faded. He wants to continue as a footloose London writer, but his growing fame will surely be noticed in Guernsey.

He then hits on a scheme. He pays three friends a ten percent commission each to submit literary works written by him, but under their names. Thus he can pretend to Margaret that he’s still struggling.

All of this eventually blows back in his face, as anyone but a fathead would have expected (channeling the spirit of one of Wodehouse’s later aunt characters).

As I said, there are foreshadowings of later genius in this work – especially in the employment of impostership in the plot. Otherwise, Not George Washington is a pretty minor work.

But Wodehouse fans (like me) will want to add it to their list of works read.

‘On Eden Street,’ by Peter Grainger

I pulled out all the stops and actually paid full price for the latest Peter Grainger mystery novel, On Eden Street. The DC Smith books hold a special place in my regard. Alas, this novel marks the point in the saga where Smith himself – now retired and recovering from injuries – has only a small part to play, though he does show up.

It takes a pair of new officers, DCI Kara Freeman and an organizational genius named DI Greene, to replace Smith at the head of a new team, the Kings Lake Central Murder Squad. Most of Smith’s own team are still on hand, along with some new officers. DCI Freeman is planning to spend their first day as an operational unit doing team-building exercises and reviewing cold cases. But then a body is discovered. One of the local homeless has been found dead in the doorway of a Chinese restaurant. On examination, the man proves to have been stabbed to death.

Although the narrative point of view shifts between various characters, the main protagonist in this one is DS Christopher Waters. Waters’s investigation brings him into contact with a blind woman who runs a florist shop, and romance… blossoms. Meanwhile, the dead man, who claimed to have been a war veteran, turns out to have been an impostor. So was he the murderer’s actual target, or was it a case of mistaken identity? If so, where is the real veteran, who seems to have fallen off the grid?

Peter Grainger is a solid and rewarding writer, and I enjoyed reading On Eden Street. My only complaint is that Smith is mostly out of the picture. Nobody can replace Smith.

Amazon Plus Video Review: ‘Blandings’

I didn’t have high hopes for the BBC miniseries Blandings (2 seasons available on Amazon Prime). Comments from members of the Wodehouse group on Facebook were unenthusiastic or downright hostile. I myself found it wanting in certain areas, but better than I feared.

Deep background: Most people have heard of Jeeves and Wooster, but P. G. Wodehouse had other story cycles, notably Blandings Castle (which now and then intersected with J&W). Blandings is an idyllic stately British home in the county of Hampshire. The theoretical master of Blandings is Clarence Threepwood, Lord Emsworth. Emsworth, however, is an amiable idiot, barely sentient, obsessed with gardening and his prize pig. So actual power is wielded by his formidable sister Constance – one of Wodehouse’s legendary “Scaly Aunts.” Constance dominates both Emsworth and his son Freddie, who is as mutton-headed as his father, but more active. A man about town (member of the immortal Drones Club), Freddie divides his activities between losing money gambling and falling in love with girls whom Constance finds unsuitable.

The two seasons of Blandings consist of six and seven episodes respectively. All are based on actual Wodehouse stories. I didn’t follow them line for line, but going by my memory they kept fairly close to the original plots. (The main differences between the two seasons are that George Cyril Wellbeloved, the pigkeeper, is unaccountably dropped in Season Two, and Beach the Butler is recast.)

The adaptations were funny; I’ll grant that. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, as they should be. However, they seemed to me to be differently funny from the original stories. The colors are louder, the comedy broader, more slapstick. Perhaps that’s a good way to compensate for Wodehouse’s essential authorial voice, but it sometimes seemed a tad over the top. The old Jeeves and Wooster series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie handled things better.

Young Freddie Threepwood is a case in point. Jack Farthing plays him pretty broadly, and his garish wardrobe and exaggerated quiff of hair are perhaps what Bertie Wooster would have exhibited, had Jeeves not put his foot down.

The big problem in the casting is with Clarence, Lord Emsworth (Timothy Spall). I think I speak for all Wodehousians when I declare that this is some Imposter (of course, Imposters are an important element of many Wodehouse plots). Clarence in the books is usually described as tall and thin, sporting pince-nez glasses. He prefers to dress shabbily, having no sense of personal dignity. However, the Emsworth we encounter here looks like a madman. His hair stands on end. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man who’d wear pince-nez at all. And he’s fat. He’s funny enough, but he’s wrong.

I was happy, in Season Two, to see the arrival of Uncle Galahad Threepwood, (played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, a name almost worthy of Wodehouse himself). “Gally” is an elderly roué, as at home in the city as his brother Clarence is in the country. He’s much smarter than Clarence, though, and an inveterate schemer. He’s written and acted well, and he sports the requisite monocle. However, Julian Rhind-Tutt, though elderly on close examination, has bright red hair which makes him look too young from a distance. Gally’s hair should be white, though his eye is not dimmed nor his natural force abated.

The most faithful performance, I think, is that of legendary comedienne Jennifer Saunders as Aunt Julia. She perfectly portrays a woman of Strong Opinions who takes no nonsense from the idiot men around her. Without her firm guidance, the whole estate would fall to pieces, and she knows it. Saunders is able to convey, however, that Constance loves her family deep down, and wishes the best for them – though her idea of “the best” is looking respectable and marrying the Right Sort of People.

Blandings is worth watching, and will give you some laughs. But go to the original stories afterward, and see it done properly.

‘Escape,’ by John W. Mefford

Now and then I start reading a book I can’t finish, because it annoys or offends me in some way. Most of the time when that happens, I do not review it. I figure being a bad writer is punishment in itself for the authors of those books.

But sometimes a book really annoys me, and I have to register a protest. I worked my way through about 2/3 of John W. Mefford’s Escape (which I got through a Kindle deal), and I need to vent.

First of all, I doubt that author Mefford cares about my opinion. He seems to be doing very well in book sales. It’s for him to look down on me, as far as pleasing the reader is concerned.

But I found Escape impossible to finish.

Escape is Book 7 in the “Ball and Chain” series. Judging by this particular specimen, it’s about a man and a woman, Cooper Chain and Willow Ball, who are involved in an endless search for Willow’s father. For some reason, which wasn’t apparent in this book. She doesn’t even like him much. Yet they put their lives at risk over and over to follow the obscure clues the old man leaves behind.

Obscure clues. This is the main thing that bothered me. You’re familiar with Hitchcock’s concept of “the Macguffin,” the object, worthless in itself, which becomes the center of the plot because all the characters are after it. (I’ll admit I’ve never entirely understood this. Nothing in a fictional story, including the characters, is of any worth in the real world, because they’re all imaginary). This book is a multiple macguffin story. In which the object of the hunt leaves convoluted puzzle clues that have to be figured out by the heroes. Like the National Treasure movies, which also annoyed me. I raise my barbaric yawp to the world – This never happens in real life. Never. And certainly not repeated times. It’s just a trick by the author to jack the suspense up.

What is worse, the beginning of the book finds our hero in a position in which he obviously was left in a cliff-hanger at the end of the previous book. Which means this book will most likely also end with a cliff-hanger.

I am not going to plow through this implausible plot to be left with a cliff-hanger. That’s an incivility to the reader.

The story starts somewhere in the South (I forget where; numerous insults are slung at southerners as a group), and then follows Ball and Chain to New York City, where a character who used to be their enemy suddenly becomes their friend and they get involved in a side job helping him. It doesn’t make much sense, but this series’ numerous fans seem to like that sort of thing. Bless their hearts, as they say in the South.

I’m out of it. I’ve Escaped.

Another Review: ‘Blood and Judgment’

Mary J. Moerbe continues reviewing my novels with a glowing review of Blood and Judgment:

But then Blood and Judgment adds a few more layers, as weak men must choose between courage and complacency,  humanity and survival. A few Norse Old Ones pop up. Doors between worlds are opened and closed. Viking Hamlet, Amlodd, cannot feign madness and so agrees to gain a feigning mind, effectively switching bodies with one of the actors! Oh, it was delightful!

I think she liked it. Read it all here.

‘The Year of the Warrior’ Review

Lutheran writer Mary J. Moerbe (who happens to be the daughter of Dr. Gene Edward Veith) has reviewed my novel, The Year of the Warrior at her blog, Meet, Write, & Salutary:

The descriptions hit me very powerfully. I mean, normally we would talk about world-building in a piece of fantasy, but this book may have made me even more engaged into my own world, allowing me to see it through re-opened eyes and a broadened perspective.

Read it all here. Thanks, Mary.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture