‘You Can’t Make Old Friends,’ by Tom Trott

He looked like a bullet standing on its end. And yet he was very calm, and came across altogether more thoughtful than the other two. That is to say, he came across as though he had thoughts.

In some ways, I’d have to say that Tom Trott’s private eye Joe Grabarz channels Philip Marlowe pretty well. He’s got the patter down, and a lot of the character. If the first Joe Grabarz novel, You Can’t Make Old Friends, didn’t entirely work for me, that’s very likely my own fault.

Joe Grabarz walks the mean streets of Brighton, the beach-front holiday town in England. As he describes it, it’s a little like a smaller New York City, where only the rich and the poor live. Joe definitely comes from the poor side, and he makes no secret of his grudge.

As the book starts, his private investigation business is in a slump. He used to help the police out; now he’s been blackballed. One of his clients is not only refusing to pay him, but suing him.

And then he’s asked to look at a body that’s washed up on the beach, and it’s a friend of his, Rory. Rory was his best friend in childhood, but they’ve been alienated since Rory became a drug addict and pusher. Still, he was a good guy once, and Joe’s going to get justice. On his own, if the law won’t do it.

His inquiries lead him to meet Rory’s sexy sister, whom he takes under his protection. And a beautiful woman cop who sparks off him like flint on steel. Respectable businessmen with lots of skeletons in their closets. And various thugs for beating up and getting beaten up by. In the end he’ll get a measure of justice, and a little redemption for Rory’s memory.

The writing in You Can’t Make Old Friends was good. Joe is an interesting character with a compelling voice. (He’s also very much opposed to drugs, even pot. I liked that.) What rubbed me the wrong way was the resentment in his voice, a persistent class envy. Class envy is understandable and forgivable, but it doesn’t make for pleasant company. So, regretfully, I don’t think I’ll continue this series.

You may like it better. Cautions for language, violence, and fairly graphic sex.

‘Broad Reach,’ by Rob Avery

Overall, however, I concluded that if she were Terrence Well’s trophy wife, he hadn’t won first prize.

I liked the writing and the characters in Rob Avery’s first Sim Greene novel, Close-Hauled, but I didn’t like how it ended. The promise, however, was enough to persuade me to try the second book, Broad Reach. This one was more to my liking, and the author even did a little retcon work to soften the hard landing in the last book.

Sim Greene, former Navy CPO, has left his career in California. He’s steering his sailboat, Figaro, to the British Virgin Islands by way of the Panama Canal. Doing it solo is a challenge, but not an overwhelming one. When he gets to BVI, he plans to use some cash he and his buddy Al acquired in their last adventure, and open a dive shop and salvage business.

But when he arrives, he finds a message from Al. He’s been arrested on suspicion of murder, and is being held without bail. Sim hastens to hire him a lawyer.

Al says he was approached by a beautiful woman, who gave him a plastic bag containing someone’s pocket contents, including a passport, which she found. She asked him to turn it in to the police for her. When he did so, he was arrested for the murder of the passport’s owner. The police seem satisfied they have their man, and are not investigating further. Al has an alibi, but it’s in the form of a woman whom he doesn’t wish to name.

Sim starts asking questions around the islands, discovering that the dead man was involved with drug smugglers, and that the police have been compromised. He also meets a beautiful woman who might just be able to lure him away from life on a boat.

Rob Avery is a good writer, and has done a fine job with characters and plotting here. This is a series I could get to like. I’m waiting for the next book, not yet published.

‘Under Cover of Daylight,’ by James W. Hall

She was tall with wide shoulders and thin limbs. She had a gawky gracefulness to her movements, like a fashion model slightly out of practice.

Another day, another boat-bum detective. I’ve been trawling through them, looking for that ever-elusive successor to Travis McGee. The hero of James W. Hall’s Under Cover of Daylight, Thorn (no other name is used), hangs out in Key Largo, Florida. There’s much to like in this book, though it didn’t please me in the end.

Thorn is an orphan – his parents died in a car accident the day he was born. He was raised by a loving couple, Doc and Kate. Kate is still living, and is leading the fight to save an endangered species called the Key Largo Water Rat from encroaching development.

Thorn himself lives in a shack and makes a marginal living tying the best bonefish lures in the Keys. His needs are simple. Only recently he’s met a beautiful woman, Sarah, who’s drawing him out of himself. But he has an old secret, and he can’t move forward until he’s dealt with it.  Thorn’s secret isn’t the only secret in the mix. He will learn he’s surrounded by secrets – they counter one another and entangle themselves. Those secrets are beginning to get people killed – Thorn will have to face some hard truths before he can set things straight.

James W. Hall is a very good wordsmith – he writes poetry as well, and it shows. This style of writing, however, didn’t always work for this reader, especially at the end. The climax has a dream-like quality that made it implausible to me – kind of like a story you’d hear from a stoner – and marijuana smuggling plays a large role in the story.

There were many Christian references and images, mostly pretty respectful. The “evangelical” church one of Thorn’s friends attends sounded pretty weird, though, especially in terms of sexual practices. Of course, there’s all kinds nowadays, and this is the Keys.

Under Cover of Daylight didn’t work for me, but it had many virtues. You might like it. Cautions for language and sexual situations.

‘Devil King Kun,’ by Dr. H. Albertus Boli

“Well!” said Weyland, “this is a rara avis indeed. The Amazonian strockbroker parrot has been seen only by a priviliged few explorers…. This species is a perfect demonstration of Darwin’s principles of sexual selection,” Weyland explained. “The male with the best-performing stock portfolio is naturally preferred by the females.”

It’s unusual to get good news in these times, but I recently discovered that the web’s greatest blog, Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine, had somehow managed to be revived outside my notice. Of course it has become, once again, a daily resort for me. I also noticed that Dr. Boli had a brand new book out, Devil King Kun. It was for me the work of but a moment to download it onto my Kindle.

Seriously, I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard at a book since the last time I read P. G. Wodehouse. (You may notice, if you are a close observer, that this review is very close to the single review the book has attracted so far on Amazon. That’s because I wrote that review.) Think of the great old, mostly English, adventure novels, by H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, and others – then blend them into a heaping bowlful of Lewis Carroll. That’s Devil King Kun.

Our intrepid hero, Norbert Weyland, is on the trail of the archfiend Devil King Kun, king of Andorra (a microstate on the Iberian Peninsula). In his ruthless quest for world domination he has already taken over the local Archdiocese in Pittsburgh, the key to control of parish festivals throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. And tomorrow, the world.

We follow Weyland and his faithful chronicler, Peevish, on a madcap chase through North America, South America, and across the Atlantic to the Pyrenees by airship, ornithopter, ski, and other means of transport, pursued by Devil King Kun’s beautiful, cat-suited daughter Princess Kun – who has plans for “having fun” with Weyland before killing him. They acquire a pet tiger and a friendly South American native girl as companions, and face pretty much any cliched, melodramatic peril you would expect to find in an adventure novel, escaping again and again by the skin of their teeth through Weyland’s quick thinking and the reader’s heavily strained suspension of disbelief. Realism is a distant dream, and non-sequiturs flourish in verdant abundance.

Devil King Kun was the book I didn’t know I needed in these insane times – at last, something too bizarre to believe, even in 2020! I loved Devil King Kun. I highly recommend it.

He is without doubt the most devious tactical accordionist in the world.

‘Close-Hauled,’ by Rob Avery

I started thinking about my current situation. No girl to share my time with, no boat to sail on the ocean, a commanding officer wanting to pin my hide to his wall, local cops trying to stick me with a couple murders, and a bunch of bad guys trying to kill me. You could say it was a low point.

I’m a sucker for boat-based mystery series, though I haven’t found many that earned my loyalty for long. Sim Greene is the hero of Rob Avery’s series in that sub-genre. Sim lives on board a small sailboat in Channel Islands Harbor in California. He’s a Navy CPO in his day job, hoping to make it up into NCIS someday. He has a rich, beautiful girlfriend (he’s a little astonished at this turn of events), and loves to surf. He likes his life, and is not looking to change it much. But change is coming to him.

When Sim discovers a dead body while diving, at the beginning of Close-Hauled, his commanding officer calls him in and tells him to investigate the death on his own – reporting only to him. He wants some papers the victim left behind. Sim is excited to take the case on, but soon realizes he’s in over his head. Not only is he forced to operate without official credentials, but more people get killed, and the police have him tagged as the culprit. He’ll have to do some fast thinking – and enlist his best friend, a former SEAL – to figure what really happened and get through it all with his life, let alone his career.

I generally liked Close-Hauled. I thought it well-written and the characters were mostly pretty good (though the hero’s slacker lifestyle annoyed me at times). But I found the downbeat ending deeply unsatisfying. I think I’ll try the second book in the series, but if it ends as unhappily as this one, I won’t go on.

Herod Heard John the Baptist Gladly

What should Christians do with power?

Years ago, I heard Cal Thomas talk about a book he co-authored with the late Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might. He said Jerry Falwell and others like him believed they were influencing the president and political leaders to take Christian approaches to civil problems, but what Thomas and Dobson saw first-hand was a willingness to compromise any issue for the privilege of remaining in the inner circle.

“Whenever the church cozies up to political power, it loses sight of its all important mission to change the world from the inside out,” Thomas writes in the book.

I thought of that Saturday while listening to the Gospel of Mark. In chapter 6 we read that John the Baptist had been put to death by King Herod, but verse 20 states, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.”

How often had John preached or spoken to Herod? What did he say? Did John think he could be in a relationship with Herod that would be similar to Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar? He was in prison because he angered Herod’s wife, but while in prison he had the king’s ear on occasion. And the king heard him gladly.

But then Herod made a vow in front of his peers, “the leading men of Galilee,” to give his wife’s daughter anything she asked for, and she asked John’s head. Where did his gladness go then? He was sorry to do it, but he would not admit to a mistake by implying, if not actually stating, that this prisoner’s life was more valuable than his oath. Nothing was more valuable than the king.

How many believers think they are making progress with political leaders because they seem to listen to them gladly, never suspecting that Christ’s call to put God’s kingdom first will never work for them. To them, God must serve their political kingdom, and humility would be great if earned votes.

While the king is in power, he may hear a preacher gladly, but when his power is threatened, then his priorities will become clear.

‘Bad News Travels,’ by James Swain

The bar was busy, as were all the bars in Key West, the town a drunk tank sitting atop a giant sponge.

James Swain is the author of several mystery series. Bad News Travels is the latest of his Lancaster-Daniels books. I liked it quite a lot.

Jon Lancaster is a former Navy Seal and retired cop. Beth Daniels is a working FBI agent. Their occasional partnership is unofficial, but they complement each other. Jon is more of a seat-of-the-pants detective, and he sometimes crosses lines when he feels justice demands it. Beth is more logical and by the book. Getting help from Jon might lose her her job one day.

In Bad News Travels, they go to Saint Augustine, Florida together, for her father’s funeral. Dr. Martin Daniels had been a respected physician. But one day he shot himself, leaving no suicide note. When they examine his house, both are immediately suspicious. They find paper towels soaked with blood in the garbage. Dr. Daniels had installed a panic room in his house, as well as a a hidden safe. And there are hints that he had had some kind of shameful, secret life, leading to his suicide.

Jon and Beth’s investigation will bring them up against Russian gangsters, human traffickers, corrupt cops, and a blackmail ring. Plus a final, shocking revelation about her father’s death.

Bad News Travels was a well-done, enjoyable mystery. I especially liked the ending – others might see it coming, but it blindsided me fair and square.

Minor cautions for language and mature themes.

New Viking book by Neil Price

Via our friend Dave Lull, a London Review of Books review of Neil Price’s new book on the Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm.

In one of several vignettes, Price imagines a younger son on the impoverished west coast of Norway, whose childhood sweetheart has a new brooch: a present from a boy who spent a successful summer raiding. What is young Orm or Gunnar going to do? Not only does he need money for the bride-price paid to her family, he needs a reputation: ‘The act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself.’ And if he went raiding he might in any case acquire a woman for free. DNA has shown that ‘a very large proportion – even the majority – of female settlers in Iceland were of Scottish or Irish heritage.’

Looks like the kind of book a man of my pretensions needs to read. It’s coming August 25th.

‘Low End of Nowhere,’ by Michael Stone

Michael Stone has the Hardboiled voice down. In Low End of Nowhere, first of his series starring a Denver bounty hunter who goes by the name of Streeter, he gives us gems like this:

His face had the warmth of age, like an old wooden desktop.

There was a strange menace to his entire being, like barbed wire covered with pale skin.

He had the scarred complexion of a public golf fairway but wore an impeccable herringbone suit.

When Streeter busts a beautiful female insurance scammer, frustrating her bogus injury claim, the last thing he expects is for her to turn around and hire him. But Story Moffat (that’s her name) was impressed with his efficient work and apparent integrity. She is the sole heir of her boyfriend, a murdered drug dealer. She knows he had money squirrelled away somewhere, but she can’t locate it. She wants Streeter to find it for her, for a generous fee. The job appears to be legal, and the woman’s interesting, so Streeter takes the job. This will put him in competition with a sleazy lawyer and his two semi-human thugs, as well as a corrupt cop. People will get killed in unpleasant ways.

I loved the prose in Low End of Nowhere. This is extremely good gumshoe writing, harkening back to Chandler and Hammett. My reservations come from… what shall I call it? The ambience. It’s a sad story about a group of people who aren’t very sympathetic (except for our hero himself and a couple friends). Although I enjoyed reading the book, I’m not eager to go down these mean streets again.

You might like it better than I do. Cautions for language and mature themes.

‘Bitter Legacy,’ by H. Terrell Griffin

I’ve made it to Book Number 5 in H. Terrell Griffin’s Matt Royal mystery series, set in Longboat Key, Florida. Matt is a retired lawyer with all kinds of fighting skills left over from his days as a Green Beret.

The plot of Bitter Legacy – which is fairly complicated – centers around an acquaintance of Matt’s, Abraham Osceola, an elderly member of a small Caribbean tribe known as the Bahamian Seminoles. Abraham travels to see Matt, wanting his advice on a document he’s discovered, which could mean a lot of money to his tribe. But Matt is out of town, and Abraham is attacked and hospitalized.

When Matt comes home from his vacation, he finds that somebody has been shooting at his friend Logan (which shouldn’t really surprise him; it seems no friend of Matt’s can turn around without getting shot at). Trying to discover the source of the threat, Matt meets J. D. Duncan, a new female cop in town who’s smart and sexy (surprise!) and sparks fly. Before long his friend Jock, the mysterious secret agent, shows up too and they follow clues that seem to lead to one of the richest men in Florida.

I think I’ve had enough of Matt Royal for a while. The books are fast and fun, but if you’ve read one, you’ve kind of read them all. The author employs the same tricks and tactics again and again, relying just a little too much on lucky breaks to keep his heroes alive.

There’s another issue too, which may just be nitpicking on my part. Our hero Matt talks a lot about his war experiences in Vietnam, and the PTSD symptoms he and his friends suffer after killing anyone. I don’t dispute that this is realistic – I hate to think how I’d respond if I ever killed anyone, Heaven forbid. But this psychological agonizing doesn’t (for me) fit in well with the rather cinematic improbability of the violence portrayed in the stories.

Your mileage may vary. I recommend reading the Matt Royal books one at a time, with other reading in between.

Ratings Distort Content: How the News Isn’t Just News

Television producer Ariana Pekary left her job at MSNBC recently, saying it’s a bad time to leave, but she can no longer stay. Her criticism touches more than this particular network.

It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would “rate.” The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.

But behind closed doors, industry leaders will admit the damage that’s being done. “We are a cancer and there is no cure” . . .

I’ve even heard producers deny their role as journalists. A very capable senior producer once said: “Our viewers don’t really consider us the news. They come to us for comfort.”

Heir to the Raven, by J. Wesley Bush

She approached the gate. God must be on the other side. She pushed it open, but did not find paradise, but rather a void filled only with noise and shifting colors that made her mind hurt. Amid the tumult, she felt something moving. No moving, really, but coming.

What pact are you seeking, child?

Larissa knew about pacts. They were dangerous if you used the wrong kind of faie. Whoever this was didn’t have a body, but she could feel it close by, as if it filled her very bones. It sounded like a woman.

“Vyr are trying to kill us all. We need to kill them instead.”

Heir to the Raven by J. Wesley Bush is a thrilling read, an original story well told.

The story begins with young Larissa, one of the few magical characters in this fantasy of kingdom politics. She stumbles into saving her village in the scene quoted above, but that raises everyone’s fears that she’s a witch. They summon the duke’s men to take her away to be examined by the king’s magician. She eventually learns she has taken the greatest risk of her life.

Heir to the Raven by J. Wesley Bush

Next we meet Selwyn, the duke’s fourth son who wants very much to kill a wild boar-like animal so that he can become a scholastic knight. If his hopes pan out (meaning he doesn’t die), the hunt will be the most warfare he ever sees. His father won’t like it, but he hasn’t liked anything about him for years. As a knight, he can escape his family and do something interesting, if not worthwhile.

All of that comes to an end when Selwyn suddenly becomes the new duke of the Jandarian savanna, moving this novel into the coming-of-age category. That would be true for both Selwyn and Larissa, but with so many characters, political mysteries, suspicions and deceit, the young stars don’t get much time to stand around and watch their feet grow.

In this light-handed fantasy we hear of a few unusual beasts and a bit about greater and lesser faie, both light and dark. Securing an agreement with an outer faie is called pactmaking. The uses and dangers of it color most of Larissa’s story. But most of what we see of it comes from the bad guys, shamans ushering barbarous throngs into battle as an act of worship to a dark faie. At times I wondered if someone could throw out some good magic, but that probably doesn’t fit the scope of the story.

Somewhere I read Bush describing his tale as a strong PG-13; it definitely is that. There are some nasty deaths, plenty of natural vulgarity, and some sexual subject matter only lightly described.

The meat of it is in realistic characters with many diverse perspectives. A conniving villain doesn’t stare out a window, twirling his mustache; instead he professes loyalty to the king as he works quietly to undermine him. The brash soldier is not a bumbling rebel, but a loyal subject. Even the petulant king, which is a character type I dislike, is handled skillfully.

And this being book one of a series, it wraps up nicely while leaving many ends loose. You really should go buy this book, if only to support the creation of the sequels. I look forward seeing what happens next.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture