The ‘Titus’ series by John D. Patten

I had a fair amount of time to read over my long weekend out of town, and in that time I polished off the three books (to date) of John D. Patten’s Titus series of mystery/thrillers. I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say about them. They’re strange. But fun.

Titus (he never tells us his last name) is a former Boston police detective who did some time in prison, though he was exonerated and released. Recently he went to Miami, with the sole intention of killing a man. That man, he believes, killed the only woman he ever loved.

But his first night in town, his car was stopped on a bridge by a beautiful policewoman. For some reason, after that encounter, he lost some of his fire. He’s delaying killing his target, instead renting a room and working in a bar, waiting for… something.

One night, a very rich woman approaches him in the bar’s parking lot. Titus was referred to her, she says, by a friend. Her daughter has disappeared. The girl has had some trouble with drugs, but was straightening her life out. Can Titus look for her?

Titus has an intuition that something’s hinky about the woman’s story, but he takes the case, having nothing better to do. He enters a world of Miami nightclubs, drugs, excess, human trafficking, lies and betrayal. That’s the premise of the first book, Miami Burn.

In the second book, Miami Chill, Titus takes a bodyguard job which leads him to deal, again, with human traffickers. He also discovers some secrets about his personal and family history.

The third book, Miami Storm, starts with Titus in a hospital bed, recovering from a gunshot wound he can’t remember sustaining. A surprising friend rescues him (he was being held by people who wanted him to remember valuable information), helps him regain his physical strength, and turns him loose to run down some international criminals and to discover shocking truths about his own past.

What can I say about the Titus books? Back when I was young, before Robert B. Parker raised Spenser’s (another one-name detective from Boston) consciousness, there used to be a lot of mysteries aimed at the male market. Prominent representatives were Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott. Aside from action and mystery, these books featured a whole lot of sex. Improbably gorgeous women constantly threw themselves at these heroes, and the heroes took ample advantage of their opportunities.

Titus is kind of like that – women are always jumping on him, sometimes going to the trouble of disrobing before propositioning him. Titus is a little more reluctant than the old school private eyes – he generally tries to resist, especially when (as is often the case) the women are much younger than he. But he gives in a lot, too, especially when he’s had too much to drink. The sex isn’t explicit, but there’s a lot of it.

On the other hand, there’s the character of “The Reverend.” Like Spenser, Titus has a big, muscled, dangerous black friend. But this friend is a preacher, a reformed thug who runs an inner city mission and often preaches to Titus. But he’s also a good man to have at your back in a fight. And he gradually influences Titus’s thinking.

So what we’ve got here is kind of a Crossway Books story by way of Mickey Spillane. An odd concoction.

But I have to admit – I had more fun with these books than I’ve had with many books in a long time.

So I recommend them conditionally – if you can handle the sexual situations, the violence, and the profanity, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had here. And even a little inspiration. The writing isn’t bad either.

Festival postmortem

There and back again. Since we spoke last, I’ve been up to Moorhead, Minnesota (which is just to the right of Fargo, North Dakota if you don’t know the neighborhood) for the Midwest Viking Festival at the Hjemkomst Museum.

The theme this year was rain and mud. I worried about rain driving up, I worried about rain when I slept, and I spent the days sitting under my awning, worrying about rain. The usual drill is to arrive Thursday afternoon and set up, to be ready for the opening on Friday morning. But it was raining Thursday, and Friday looked to be a little better, so I went straight to the motel for the night and drove to the museum the next morning to set up then. And indeed it wasn’t raining Friday morning. It didn’t rain at all on Friday, though the skies were cloudy all day (as “Home On the Range” doesn’t say).

But it rained overnight, and it rained off and on all Saturday. The heathens were doing their weather magic, which benefited them not at all. And that’s some comfort. I prayed about the weather myself, of course, but always with the tragic understanding that God has greater concerns than my comfort.

The rain did let up for a while in the afternoon, though, so although we had to pack up our tents wet, we didn’t have to do it in the rain (mostly). Which was something.

But the festival itself actually went better than I’d have thought, considering the precipitation. Attendance wasn’t bad, and I sold out my supply of Viking Legacy, plus a fair number of West Oversea. Also, Blood and Judgment achieved a surprising popularity.

One cheerful woman wanted two Viking Legacys and one West Oversea. Then she changed her mind and asked for a third Viking Legacy.

An example to us all.

A blonde young woman came by and didn’t buy anything, but she was amazingly beautiful, and the smile she gave me packed enough wattage to dry my tent out.

I wonder what it’s like to live like that – to be so beautiful that almost everyone’s happy to see you show up. It must be like having a free pass everywhere.

Also got a chance to meet a Facebook friend and fellow reenactor I’d never met before. Nice to meet you, Einar Severinson. Not as nice as meeting the blonde, I’ll admit, but nice enough.

I had a strange encounter with an old guy who informed me that he was a “historian.” When I gave him my spiel about Viking Legacy, he interrupted me. “I always get mad when people talk about Viking democracy,” he said.

I asked him why.

“Because they weren’t all equal.”

I said, “I didn’t’ say egalitarian democracy.”

He said, “Well, that’s what most people understand by democracy.”

I said, “The Athenian democracy wasn’t egalitarian either.”

He wandered off mumbling about how I was deceiving people.

Historian, my eye.

Anyway, when all was done I got my car loaded up with wet canvas and gear (thanks to the invaluable help of the Patton boys and some of their friends. I don’t know what I’d do without the Patton boys. If they can’t attend some year, I may have to bow out myself).

And now I’m home at last, beginning to recover. I’ve got my tent drying in the basement, and some money to count.

Could have been worse.

Joy Harjo Named Poet Laureate

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.

from “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo has appointed the next U.S. poet laureate. She is of the Muscogee Creek nation, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the first Oklahoman to be named poet laureate.

She told Tulsa World, “I know a lot of young people were turned off from poetry when the teacher would ask us to ‘tell what the poem means.’ But sometimes, it’s better just to listen. I mean, we all listen to something like ‘Hotel California,’ but could we really explain what it means? What is so amazing about poetry is that it’s a way to speak beyond words.”

Many outlets are reporting that Harjo is the first Native American to be appointed to this position, but poet William Jay Smith, who was part Choctaw, held the position in 1968-70. (This detail was pointed out by A.M. Juster, which I learned through Prufrock)

Eating Seasonally, Feasting Locally

We don’t plant a backyard garden every year and have grown a good crop only two or three times. You may have had more zucchini than you could eat time and again, but we’ve only begun to approach that level once. Usually our squash grows leaves and flowers but no fruit. Once I grew some nice turnip greens; at least the first batch was nice. The second was to bitter. I put only tomatoes and basil out this year, because I didn’t get around to clearing the other bed and trying beans.

Gracy Olmstead has a good piece on feasting, the church calendar, and seasonal eating, noting the self-control and humility it takes to live closer to the land around you.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re incredibly fortunate to get avocados and bananas year-round, and to have refrigerators and freezers in our houses. But I think we’ve also lost some of the joy of food, the ability to treasure the flavors of the seasons, because we no longer understand these patterns of waiting and feasting.

This concern became especially real for me two summers ago, after my husband and I moved to the Virginia countryside. As we were unpacking our books and clothes, I transplanted our fledgling tomato plants into a garden plot the previous homeowners had left behind. Those plants seemed to shoot upward overnight, spreading with fervent glee. . . .

Soon we were picking giant bowls full of tomatoes every day, and the toddler and dog would sit next to each other in the garden and eat them to their hearts’ content. 

Midwest Viking Festival

If I don’t post tomorrow, it will be because I’m in Moorhead, Minnesota, gracing the Midwest Viking Festival with my presence. The festival is Friday and Saturday. It’s supposed to rain starting Thursday (when we’ll be setting up) and through Saturday (when I’ll be bundling my wet tent canvas up and stuffing it back into my car).

But don’t let that discourage you. If you’re in the area, stop to see us.

Read about it here.

And pray for drought.

‘A Litter of Bones,’ by J. D. Kirk

The office was small, but fastidiously neat to the point it didn’t look like a functioning workplace at all. Rather, it was like something IKEA might use as a showpiece for its new office range designed for the deeply unimaginative.

I dislike calling books “un-put-down-able.” A book can always be put down. Just let your house catch fire and you’ll see. But there are books that keep you turning pages, that you have trouble putting aside. It’s a quality I find rarer as I grow older. But that’s how I found A Litter of Bones. And when I note that it’s a first novel, I’m deeply impressed.

Jack Logan is a police detective in Glasgow, Scotland. He made his reputation solving the “Mister Whisper” serial abduction-murder case years ago, finding a man who tortured and murdered several little boys. One boy’s body was never found, and that haunts him. The trauma of the whole case marked him, destroying his marriage.

Now a boy has been kidnapped in the Highlands, and Logan is dispatched to go and lead that investigation. The case mirrors the original case closely – including details never made public. So the question arises, did Logan get it wrong the first time? Logan is certain that can’t be true. He doesn’t know where the copycat got his information, but the original Mister Whisper is behind bars.

A Litter of Bones features some excellent character development. Jack Logan seems unsympathetic at first. He’s driven, obsessive, abrasive, certain of his own judgments.

But as we get to know him better, we see his motivations. He cares, perhaps too deeply. He has reasons for his certitude. And he will go to any lengths to save a victim – even at the expense of his career, his freedom, and his life.

The final solution was a blindside punch. Followed by a bittersweet anticlimax.

I’m really looking forward to the second book in the Jack Logan series, which I’ve pre-ordered.

Cautions – there is deeply disturbing material in this story, including the torture of animals (some people, for some reason, are more troubled by that than by the torture of children). So be warned that this is no feel-good story. But I recommend it highly, if you appreciate this sort of thing.

‘The Holy Island of Lindisfarne,’ by David Adam

[Bishop] Aidan was deeply moved by such generosity, and, taking hold of the open hand of [King] Oswald, said, ‘May this hand never wither with age.’

Not long afterwards, aged only 38, Oswald was killed in the battle of Maserfeld….

This is the book I mentioned reading the other day, about the island of Lindisfarne, renowned both in religious and secular history as a center of early English Christianity and the site of [supposedly] the first Scandinavian raid of the Viking Age.

The author, David Adam, is an English clergyman and for 13 years served as vicar of the church at Lindisfarne. As such, he brings a wealth of personal experience to this work, making The Holy Island of Lindisfarne rather a subjective book.

Beginning in the heroic age of British resistance (what we call the Arthurian Age, though Adam doesn’t mention that), we learn how the heathen Saxon invader, King Oswald, applied to the Irish church for a bishop. This led eventually to the establishment of an episcopal seat on the mystical island of Lindisfarne, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, but is fully an island twice a day. Author Adam goes on to tell of the community’s ups and downs through history, illuminating the historical facts with his own personal experience of the place. It’s quite a charming account.

As a pure work of history, I think The Holy Island of Lindisfarne probably falls short of the mark. But as a virtual tour, it’s excellent. You’ll want to visit the place. The author isn’t embarrassed to draw spiritual lessons now and then too.

Recommended.

Death Levels Us All

Matthew McCullough’s recent book on death was featured last week in World Magazine’s Saturday series. It’s not a subject I like to think about, perhaps because I like to imagine I’m above it just as he says here:

The reality of death is profoundly humbling. It tells me that I’m not indispensable. It assures me I will be forgotten. And so death boots me from my self-appointed place at the center of the universe. But learning to recognize death’s challenge to my subconscious narcissism also raises haunting questions about who I am. It isn’t just that death is humbling. It can also be profoundly disorienting.

Most of us would probably agree that a reality check is a generally a good thing. No one likes a narcissist. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if none of us saw himself as more important than everyone else? If death puts us in our place, that’s ultimately healthy, right?


Yes … but. Death’s challenge actually pushes even deeper. Death’s statement does more than put us in our place. It also raises questions about where our place actually is.

LIndisfarne

I’ve been reading a book about Lindisfarne, the English island where (according to received wisdom) the Viking Age began with a brutal raid on the renowned monastery there. The date of the raid is generally considered to be June 8, 793, so we just passed the anniversary (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a January date, but that’s unlikely. Vikings didn’t generally raid in the winter).

I’m reading the book because I’m scheduled to do a presentation on LIndisfarne later this summer. I have a lot to learn yet — I find some disagreement in sources. The video above says the original 793 raiders stole the Lindisfarne Gospels book, but the book I’m reading says no, the monks hid it. I do believe I’ve read that the book was taken by Vikings at some point though, so I’ll have to dig a little more into that.

Anders Winroth suggests that the Viking raids were a net good to Europe, as they took wealth that had been stockpiled in church institutions and injected it back into the economy.

I’m sure that was a great comfort to the enslaved monks and nuns.

PTSD in Greek Tragedy

Scott Beauchamp reviews a Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama production of Euripides’s Herakles. It’s being performed in ancient Greek with English projections, so — dang! And the music is no afterthought, evoking a unique, ancient feel.

Beauchamp says the story of the god-like Herakles, who returns home to save his family but is deceived by malicious gods, draws him in.

As a former soldier myself who spent years away from his family, it’s difficult for me not to read PTSD into the story of Herakles. Trauma never finds you where you expect it to. It’s never in the moment of combat itself, or triggered by toy guns or cars backfiring (at least not in my experience). PTSD sneaks in through the attic window when you least expect it. You might be driving along on a beautiful day, listening to the radio. Or grocery shopping. Or mowing the lawn. It’s never when you’re ready for it, when it’s obvious. Lyssa [the goddess of rage] comes in at the most anodyne times, or the most exalted ones. She comes right at the moment when your labors are done, you’ve returned home, and put your house back in order. She destroys your clichés from the inside out.

‘When We Were Lost,’ by Kevin Wignall

I probably wouldn’t have bought Kevin Wignall’s When We Were Lost if I’d noticed it was a young adult novel. (Young adult novels are too mature for me, emotionally speaking.) But it was Wignall so I snapped it up, and I’m not sorry I did. It was an enjoyable story, easily appreciable by an adult. Or even by me.

The setup is nice. Tom Calloway is a high school junior and an outsider. Orphaned young and raised by an eccentric, uninvolved aunt, he’s generally walled himself off from his peers. So when he gets maneuvered into taking a class “environmental” trip to Costa Rica, he’s not enthusiastic. He doesn’t expect anything good to happen.

What happens is far worse than he expects – and in surprising ways, better. Their plane goes far off course and crashes in the jungle, killing most of the passengers except for a few rows at the back of the plane – Tom and some classmates.

One of the other boys assumes leadership, and it gradually becomes apparent to Tom – and to some other social outcasts who happen to know about the real world – that the guy is way over his head and leading them into disaster. Through the challenges that will face them as they try to find their way back to civilization, Tom will make hard choices, grow as a person, discover his own leadership, and find relationships he never imagined he could have.

When We Were Lost is a pretty cool story, with a lot of good life lessons for young people (my only caution for Christian parents is that they take time at one point to make pitch for gay rights). Recommended.

Writing the range

One of the many interesting sidelights to doing script translation is becoming familiar – at one or two removes – with the scriptwriting process. (And I’d like to mention at this point that I am not working on a screenplay of my own. I think I’m possibly the only person involved in the industry who isn’t. I’m pretty sure all the gaffers, grips, insurance underwriters and caterers listed at the end of the credits are all working on their own screenplays.) One project I worked on recently provided an interesting case study.

I remember wondering, as a boy, “Why aren’t movies more like the books they’re based on? Why not just take the book as it is and film it?” I’ve heard other people asking the same question.

Well, this particular recent project appeared to be an attempt to do just that. It looked like the screenwriter (and I won’t even tell you if it was a he or a she, and I’ll change all the details, because of my non-disclosure obligations) was the novelist themselves, trying their hand at a screenplay for the first time. They had simply transcribed his/her/its book straight from page to screenplay. And it didn’t work at all.

Imagine a scene in a movie of any genre – we’ll make it a Western because you’ll know right off the script I was working on was not a western. A cowboy sits on his horse, in the rain, and the camera watches him sitting there. He’s just thinking. In the novel, we could go straight into his head and hear his thoughts. But this is a movie. If this cowboy is thinking about, oh, Miss Sally at the saloon, and whether he’s going to marry her, and what they’ll do about buying a ranch, and the social disease they now share, it would take a pretty outstanding actor to convey that particular information just through his facial expressions and body language.

No, you’ve got to take that interior monologue from the book and transform it into visual and audible information. You have several options for doing this.

  • Voiceover: This is closest to the original book, but it’s out of fashion. Audiences find it corny, unless employed for stylistic and ironic purposes.
  • Flashback: You can cut back to a scene between Ol’ Cowpoke and Miss Sally. This is a good option, but it’s a change from the book. A sub-option is to change the plot a little and add an earlier scene dramatizing this problem.
  • Invented dialogue: You can create a conversation which doesn’t occur in the scene in the book. You can have Ol’ Cowpoke confide in one of his buddies over coffee around the campfire. Or he could even talk to his horse, which would provide a challenge for the actor.

Offhand, those are the options I can think of for handling this problem.  And most of them involve altering the story.

Books and movies are different media, and they work in different ways. You can’t get away from it.

‘Occupied,’ by Kurt Blorstad

There are books you finish because you’re interested in the subject, not because of the writing. That was my response to Occupied by Kurt Blorstad, a novelization (apparently) of the author’s father’s reminiscences from his boyhood in Norway during World War II.

The family is divided in 1936, when the story begins. Young Trygve and his brother Thoralf, along with their baby brother Odd and their mother, are in Norway, separated from “Pappa,” who is working in the United States, saving to bring them over. They move from living with father’s family to living with their maternal grandparents, and we learn about village life in Norway as a little sister is born and the boys start to grow up. In 1940, just when they finally have enough money saved to make the move, the Germans invade and travel becomes impossible.

The German occupiers, arrogant and acquisitive, confiscate whatever they want. They issue ration coupons for food and other goods which are useless because they themselves consume almost everything. The hardships are great, the rules many, the penalties for breaking the rules draconian. Eventually Trygve gets involved in the Resistance in a minor way, keeping it secret from his family.

The story was interesting if you’re interested in the subject and the period – which I am. But it’s low on drama, and written in a very amateur style. Exposition gets delivered like a history class lecture, and nobody uses any contractions in the dialogue.

Some of my readers are interested in the Norwegian Occupation period, and you’re likely to find Occupied interesting, as I did. Strictly as a work of fiction, I can’t recommend it. No cautions for offensive language or subject matter.

‘Songbird,’ by Peter Grainger

As he sat down again, Smith said, ‘I can’t remember the exact occasion when I first said this to you, but I know I’ll have said it before. The time will come when you’ll have to choose between being a high-ranking, well-paid and officially respected police detective, and being a good one. This shouldn’t ever happen, but in my experience it always does….’

Peter Grainger’s series of police procedurals starring Detective Sergeant D.C. Smith has been one of my reading pleasures for some time. They’re rather quiet books, short on action scenes and long on character and atmosphere. It’s been a delight to watch Smith carry on his eccentric career, defying his superiors when necessary, nurturing his investigative team.

Smith was badly wounded at the end of the last book, so when Songbird opens he’s out of the picture. He will show up, but he’ll be peripheral to this story. Now is the time to watch the young detectives he’s trained operating without training wheels.

The main character in Songbird is Detective Sergeant Chris Waters, who now occupies the exact position in the hierarchy where Smith used to be. Since he took the job on, things have been quiet in the fictional East Anglian town of Kings Lake. But now a body has been found.

It’s the body of an attractive woman, found strangled near a caravan (mobile home) park. The investigative machinery starts moving, and before long a suspect has been identified. DNA evidence seems incontrovertible. The big brass are ready to lock the suspect up and celebrate their win.

But Chris is pretty certain they’re wrong. He can’t explain away the evidence (yet), but this particular suspect seems to him incapable of such a crime – for several reasons.

In the tradition of D.C. Smith before him, Chris Waters will, very carefully, defy his superiors’ wishes and look for alternatives. Fortunately for him, he has allies he never expected.

I missed D.C. Smith himself in his usual role – though Smith does have a part to play in the story – but Songbird had all the usual pleasures of a Grainger novel. I fear (and this is a criticism I’ve made of a lot of police series) that the story is overpopulated with woman detectives. I think Phil once looked up the statistics, and women in the British police are not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in the fiction. Also, I figured out the big red herring right away. But all in all, I liked Songbird a lot. And there are hints that Smith himself may find a new role in the future.

No particular cautions are necessary, for adult readers. Recommended.

Of Normans and Normandy

I didn’t comment on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion yesterday. I’m kind of over my head with work right now (for which I thank the Lord), and I wanted to get the book review out of the way. But I don’t want to leave the day unmarked.

I wonder how much the planners of the invasion were influenced by historical symmetry. It must have appealed to Churchill, especially, to send troops back to the very beaches where ships had been launched by William the Conqueror in 1066. By all accounts it was a near-run thing, the conclusion by no means foregone. But there was certainly strategic sense in it. (There was also, as I’ve mentioned before, an alternate plan to invade by way of Norway. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Norway seems a poor platform for launching the liberation of continental Europe. Maybe cutting off Hitler’s iron ore supplies would have made it worth it, though.)

In any case, I couldn’t resist sharing the illustration above, which was on the cover of The New Yorker on July 15, 1944. The artist was Rea S. Irvin, and I love it to death. More information from the Norman Rockwell Museum here.

FYI, there is also an “Overlord Tapestry,” housed in a museum in Portsmouth, England. It was completed in 1974. You can read about it at the web page of Sandra Lawrence, the designer, here.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture