‘Deep Water,’ by Jeff Shelby

I really like Jeff Shelby’s Noah Braddock mystery series, and am delighted that he’s revived it after a brief hiatus. Deep Water is the second book in the new “season,” so to speak, and I think it’s my favorite to date.

I would have never thought I’d warm up to a series about a surfer detective, but author Shelby makes it work with Noah Braddock. Noah went into a tailspin a while back, after a personal loss. He avenged the loss, and then went back to work because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. In the previous book he found a new girlfriend, and step by step he’s coming back to life.

In Deep Water, he gets an offer from San Diego State University to investigate a student death. A young woman, Emma Kershaw, died as a result of falling down some stairs at a fraternity party. It looks like a clear-cut accident, with the only culpability being Emma’s own for being extremely drunk. But the university wants to be sure they won’t be surprised by any unguessed liability. Noah is to ask questions and find out about Emma and her world.

It’s quite a world. It turns out Emma was almost universally disliked. As an officer in her sorority, she was bullying and tyrannical. Her romantic relationships were volatile. Lots of people wished her harm, but did anyone hate her enough to push her down those stairs?

This book was a nice change in literature for me. There was precious little violence; just systematic questioning and analytical thought (not really what you’d expect from a surfer, but preconceptions exist to be punctured). Noah is a sympathetic person, and his final resolution of the mystery was an empathetic one that made me want to stand up and cheer.

Also, the book contained a plot element that mirrored (at least for me) a similar element in the overarching plot line of several of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books. I didn’t like the way Parker handled it (one of the main reasons I stopped reading him), but I loved the way Jeff Shelby dealt with it here.

So Deep Water gets my unreserved endorsement. Minor cautions for language and adult themes.

‘On Target, by Mark Greaney

I’m grateful to my friend Mark for recommending Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series of thrillers. Thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea, but these are very satisfying.

In the first book, The Gray Man, the hero, Court Gentry, was kind of a force of nature. Single-minded, relentless, highly skilled, this legendary assassin will let nothing stop him from completing a job – so long as he thinks the job is justified. No odds deter him, no setback dismays him, no injury stops him. It was very exciting, but a little fantastic. On Target, the second book in the series, mixes the formula up a little.

This time, Court has weaknesses. Still feeling some pain from the horrific injuries he suffered in The Gray Man, he’s gotten hooked on pain killers. He’s been reduced to taking work from a man he distrusts – a Russian who idolizes assassins. But the target is a “worthy” kill – the president of Somalia, a venal monster with the blood of thousands on his hands.

Only the game changes when one of his old CIA comrades contacts him. They know about the deal, and want Court to alter it somewhat. If he helps them kidnap the president, bring him out for trial, Court will be reinstated. The “Shoot On Sight” order that now stands against him will be revoked. He’ll be part of the team again.

How can Court say no?

In the days that follow, everything will go wrong. Court will be diverted on a quixotic detour to save a lady in distress. Friends will become enemies, and vice versa. Never has Court been so alone, in so much danger, so far from any help.

This book almost defines the phrase, “page-turner.”

The tension never lets up. This new, slightly vulnerable Court is more interesting than the earlier one. There’s considerable pathos in his constant fight, not only to survive, but to do what’s right – if he can just identify it among all the lies.

Highly recommended. Cautions for violence and language.

‘Murder at Shake Holes,’ by Bruce Beckham

Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series continues to deliver. Rather old-fashioned, like their hero, they’re heavy on character and puzzles.

Murder at Shake Holes is the 13th in the series (you don’t have to read them in order). I believe they’ve done a “desert island” mystery once before, but it happens again here. Skelgill and his trusty sidekicks, female detective Jones and male detective Leyton, who work in Cumbria, have all been down to London for the presentation of an award for valor. On the train home, a freak blizzard blows up, and the train gets halted by snow drifts in the mountains. Carbon monoxide build-up forces them to abandon the train. Fortunately Skelgill, an experienced mountain rescue team member, knows they’re not far from the Shake Holes Inn, named for the numerous, dangerous potholes in the limestone terrain.

Matters turn sinister when it’s discovered that one of the passengers, a famous economist, is suspiciously dead in his car. He had been carrying a manuscript rumored to carry bombshell evidence against certain international money men. That manuscript has now gone missing.

The group that holes up in the run-down inn is an elite one – a former international model, some Russian business people, a journalist, a young Englishman with clandestine operations experience named Bond. At least one of them is a murderer, and once the snow melts they will certainly scatter. Skelgill must identify the culprit, hopefully before he or she panics and strikes again.

Skelgill is an amusingly quirky and occasionally surprising hero. He seems to have mellowed a bit from the early books – he’s hardly empathetic, but he’s a little less insensitive to his co-workers these days. All the Skelgill books are enjoyable, and I got everything I expected from Murder at Shake Holes. I might note that the author goes to considerable effort to avoid profanity – at one point even mentioning that he’s edited what a character really said. An obligatory hat-tip to contemporary social mores was brief and quickly done with.

I’m less delighted with the present tense mode of narrative, but all the books have been in the present tense and after a while I admit I stop noticing it.

Recommended.

How Landing on the Moon Changed Us

We once thought nothing was in the heavens, at least nothing like what we saw around us. We didn’t see the moon as a destination of any kind. Joseph Bottum says that began to change after the Renaissance. Authors used the moon as a metaphor for their own commentary for a while; later sci-fi authors explored how we could get there and who might meet us. Before the moon landing, authors told new stories of an uninhabited moon.

But after the 1969 moon landing, the expectation shifted again—to the notion that now we would see a rapid expansion of human settlement out into the solar system. The moon would be a pawn in interplanetary politics, a hostage in the fight between such dominant powers as Mars and the moons of Saturn.  . . . That space mission 50 years ago—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moonwalking on July 20, 1969—felt to science-fiction writers mostly a precursor, a first step, to the planets beyond. 

Image by Ponciano from Pixabay

The Tale of Roe

I’m in the “thinking it up” stage of writing my next Erling book. In the course thereof, I’m reading the Flatey Book in the handsome Norwegian translation published by Saga Bok Publishers in Norway (they were kind enough to send me the first three volumes as a goodwill gesture – a generous one). In St. Olav’s Saga I discovered an interesting story, not much known even to Viking buffs, because so few people have read Flatey. It’s called “The Tale of Roe.” The original story has several plot threads, but I’ve reduced it to the one thread I liked best. I offer my re-telling below.

There was once a merchant named Roe, who came from Denmark. He was an easy man to recognize, as his eyes were of two different colors – one was blue, the other black. He traveled to many lands, and had mixed luck with his business dealings.

One day he was in Upsala, and he met a man walking down the street. The man’s name was Tore, and he had only one eye. He stopped when he saw Roe, and said, “I know you. I saw you once in Denmark.”

Roe did not remember him, but could not deny that was possible.

“Not only that,” said Tore. “You robbed me! You got a wizard to magic my eye out of my head, and put it into yours. And there it sits! Anyone can see the blue one isn’t yours! I’m going to bring a case against you before the king when he sits in judgment tomorrow – and you should know the king and I are good friends. He trusts my word.”

Roe went on his way, troubled. After a while he met a very pretty girl, who smiled at him. He smiled back, but his smile was sad.

“What’s the matter?” the girl asked. “Why so down in the mouth?”

Roe told her about the accusation Tore the One-Eyed had made against him.

“You should talk to my father,” the girl said. “My name is Sigbjørg, and my father is Torgny Torgnisson, the lawspeaker of the Upsala Thing. They call him the wisest man in Sweden.”

“Would he help me?” Roe asked.

“Well,” said Sigbjørg, “Father doesn’t usually have much time for Danes. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Come to my house at sundown tonight, and stand outside where I tell you. I’ll go to my father’s bedchamber and ask him about your problem. You can listen through the wall and hear what he has to say.”

Roe agreed to do this. That night he met Sigbjørg at her house, and she told him where to stand under the eaves. He listened as she told her father about his problem, and asked him what he’d do in his place.

“Ah,” said Torgny. “That’s an interesting problem. He’s dealing with a treacherous man here, and treachery must be met with treachery. Here is what I’d do if I were he…”

After Torgny lay down to sleep, Sigbjørg went out to Roe and asked if what he’d heard had helped him. Roe said it had indeed helped, and he thanked her.

The next day Roe met Tore the One-Eyed at the king’s judgment seat, and Tore laid down his accusation. He demanded that his eye be returned to him, plus Roe’s entire cargo as compensation.

“This is a serious charge,” said the king. “Roe, what do you have to say in your defense?”

“I’d not be afraid to go through the iron ordeal to prove my honesty,” Roe replied. “But I have a simpler way we can learn the truth of the matter. Tore says my blue eye belongs to him. I think we can all agree that no two things are more alike than a man’s two eyes. So I suggest each of us have his blue eye removed, and you can weigh them both in a balance scale. If both eyes weigh the same, then Tore’s case is proven. If not, then I demand compensation.”

The king asked Tore the One-Eyed what he thought of the proposition, and Tore was not keen on the plan. He confessed at last that he’d lied.

The king had Tore hanged on a gallows, and gave Roe some of his property. Later on, Roe met Sigbjørg again, and he went to her father to ask for her hand. They were married, and many prominent people in Sweden are descended from them.

‘The Gray Man,’ by Mark Greaney

As hard to criticize as a roller coaster, and just about as true to life. That’s The Gray Man, by Mark Greaney.

A friend recommended the series, so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a fun ride, and a nice time off for the critical brain.

Court Gentry is “The Gray Man,” a legendary contract assassin. Former US military, burned CIA operative, he now kills for hire – but never targets a man he doesn’t consider worthy of death (remember, this isn’t about realism). He never misses, and never gets caught. He is rarely even seen.

But now he’s a hunted man. A powerful African dictator wants him dead, and is offering both money and threats in exchange for his head (literally). A nefarious international security organization has pulled out all the stops, sending about twenty highly trained teams to hunt him down. If one can’t get him, another will. On top of that, they’ve kidnapped Court’s boss and his family, including his two granddaughters. To save his family, the boss will betray Court.

A sensible man would just go into hiding until it blows over – there’s a deadline. But Court isn’t like that. When the deadline passes, the granddaughters will be murdered. Court will not stand for that. He will traverse hundreds of miles, kill dozens of men, and sustain wounds that would stop or kill another man. But he will not fail in his rescue mission, even for the man who betrayed him.

As you can tell, this story is way over the top – the plot involves the kind of suspension of reason you usually find in action movies (I’m sure there’ll be a movie of this one). I didn’t believe the story for a second. But it was fun, like the aforementioned roller coaster. Pure entertainment, with rising tension and all the dramatic buttons pushed at precisely the right moments. For sheer action reading fun, it would be hard to beat The Gray Man.

I’ll probably read more. After all, my massive brain requires a rest now and then.

‘The Far Traveler,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The 1,000 square-foot sail, requiring almost a million feet of thread, took two women four and a half years to make. It used the wool of more than 200 sheep, each sheep the size of a large dog and yielding two to four pounds of wool.

I resisted reading Nancy Marie Brown’s The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, because I generally avoid the whole matter of Viking women. The field is too fraught with politics. But I’ve come to trust Nancy Marie Brown, who, even when I disagree with her, seems to be a solid (and, as we see in this book, highly industrious) scholar with a fair mind. And I’m glad I read this one. It was an enjoyable and informative work. I learned stuff.

Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir is a figure of particular interest in the Icelandic sagas. Widow of Leif Eriksson’s brother Thorstein and wife of Thorfinn Karlsefni, who led the most ambitious attempt to establish a Norse colony in Vinland, she outlived three husbands and ended up becoming a nun and making a pilgrimage to Rome. Thus she was best-traveled woman in the Viking world, and possibly in the world at large. Though she seems a subsidiary character in the sagas, author Brown believes, based on saga hints and a deep understanding of Norse culture, that she played a more decisive role than has been thought.

This book would be much shorter than it is if it had not been extended – or rather enriched – by the author’s thoroughgoing efforts to enter profoundly into Gudrid’s world. In that capacity she spends time in museums and archives, travels far in Gudrid’s footsteps, and does backbreaking labor on an archaeological dig in Iceland. It makes for fascinating reading, and the reader learns a whole lot at her expense.

I enjoyed The Far Traveler, and highly recommend it. I was particularly pleased when she demolished the judgment of Jared Diamond on the Greenlanders in one of his books, and when she explained positive reasons why Christianity appealed to so many Viking women, in spite of all the “superior” rights we’re always told they enjoyed under the old religion.

A good  book, which every Viking buff ought to read.

‘Stray Cat Blues,’ by Robert Bucchianeri

I was prepared to like Robert Bucchianeri’s Stray Cat Blues very much. I’m always on the lookout for a good Travis McGee clone, and this looked like it might be just the thing. But in the end, a couple problems turned me away.

Like Travis McGee, Max Plank, hero of this story, lives on a houseboat – in this case in San Francisco. His business model, though (unlike McGee’s “retirement in installments”), is never really explained. He’s just an unlicensed investigator who does whatever jobs he likes. (We’re also never given any hint what he looks like, except that he’s “big.” I find that lazy.) Instead of McGee’s large, genial friend Meyer, Plank has what most contemporary fictional detectives have – what I call a “psycho friend.” This friend is named Marsh, and he is an extremely wealthy lawyer and developer who also happens to be a master of the martial arts.

When Max gets a visit from a little girl named “Frankie,” who wants him to find her sister, he can’t refuse. The sister (cutely named “Johnnie”) had shadowy sources of income, and seems to have gotten on the wrong side of very dangerous people. Max’s investigations will lead him from ghetto dives to the heights of the San Francisco power structure. Johnnie was swimming in very perilous waters.

The writing was pretty good, and Max was an interesting – and sympathetic – character. Only two story elements put me off.

One, his friend Marsh is homosexual. I already follow one series with a steady homosexual character – Milo Sturgis in Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series. But Milo is a schlub and in a stable relationship. We don’t actually see him do much about his sexual orientation. In Stray Cat Blues, we observe Marsh actually putting the moves on a young man. And that creeped me out.

Also, I found Max Plank’s machismo kind of stereotyped and implausible. Once again, we see a detective sustain what is certainly a concussion, and he refuses treatment and is (apparently) all better the next day. I’m tired of that trope.

So, sadly, I decided not to follow up on the Max Plank series. Your mileage may vary. Considerd purely as a hard-boiled detective novel, it’s not bad at all.

‘Grift Sense,’ by James Swain

When it came to bad relationships, he had no equal, and Valentine couldn’t help but like him, even though he liked practically nothing about him.

James Swain writes novels about cheating in the gambling world, based on the expertise of a magician. I took a chance on Grift Sense, the first book in his Tony Valentine series, because I thought it might be interesting to peek into that world.

Tony Valentine is a former Atlantic City cop who knows just about everything there is to know about gambling cheats. He’s retired in Florida now, but casino owners still send him surveillance tapes, so he can study them and identify some particularly clever scam.

He gets a request from Nick Nicocropolis, who owns the Acropolis casino in Las Vegas, once a premiere venue, now aging and on its last legs. A guy has come in twice and won big. Too big for the odds. And the video offers no explanation for his “luck.” Tony doesn’t care for Nick much, but he accepts his offer to fly out to Sin City for two reasons – one is the challenge. The other is to avoid his estranged son Gerry, whom he wants to avoid just now.

Tony will learn, after a lot of looking, that Nick has a bigger problem than just a single card shark. Something major is being planned, a crime that will shake Vegas and destroy Nick – unless Tony can stop it.

There was a lot to like in Grift Sense. Author Swain plots with the instincts of a sleight-of-hand artist, equipped with big surprises up his sleeve. He’s also a good writer, capable of turning out a pretty good sentence. His characters are interesting and layered.

But I won’t be reading any more. I find that I just don’t like the world of gambling. It’s full of predators, and cynicism is the only sensible attitude. The nicest, most sympathetic people are either victims or con artists. I feel no desire to revisit that world.

You might have a different response. If so, this is a pretty good book.

‘The Damaged,’ by Brett Battles

In the latest installment in Brett Battles’s solid Jonathan Quinn thriller series, he takes us on a diversion back in time. The Damaged is a prequel, telling us what happened before Jonathan Quinn first appeared in The Cleaner.

Jonathan Quinn, if you’re not familiar with him, is a “cleaner.” That is, he’s one of the guys who cleans up the scene after a government agency assassinates or abducts somebody. In The Damaged, he’s still building his reputation. He’s efficient, honest, and thorough in his work. He owes his career –and his life – to his former mentor, Durrie.

But Durrie’s star is in decline. Always a gruff and surly type, recently he’s become erratic. He takes shortcuts at his work, and blames his mistakes on others. His narcissism is devouring his personality.

Quinn wants to help him, both for friendship’s sake, and for the sake of Durrie’s girlfriend, Orlando, with whom Quinn is silently in love. So when he gets an assignment and is asked to take Durrie along as his helper (a demotion for Durrie), he agrees, hoping to help him get his footing again and reinstate himself.

But Durrie has his own plans. In the classic style of bad characters, he’s incapable of believing in virtue in others. If Quinn is helping him, he must have ulterior motives. He must be planning to move in on Orlando.

Durrie is going to thwart this “plot.” And he doesn’t care who gets hurt along the way.

The Damaged was a pretty good story in a dependable series. Its chief defect is a somewhat anticlimactic ending, but that’s because it’s setting the scene for The Cleaner. New readers will find it a decent introduction to the series, and old fans will find it entertaining.

“Why didn’t anyone say anything?”

I wrote, some time back, about “discovering” Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” – years and years after the rest of the world did, of course. And I mourned the man’s death, having found some of his stuff both intriguing and moving. I didn’t know a lot about his personal life, though. Kyle Smith fills in the details in his article about a new documentary on Cohen’s romantic life, over at National Review:

Directed by Nick Broomfield, the new documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is intended as a tribute to the relationship that inspired one of Cohen’s best-known songs. It is actually more of an indictment. In nauseating detail, it documents the damage wrought by open relationships and other errors of the counterculture. Cohen, once he achieved success as a performer, discovered he was the Elvis of bookish depressives and indulged himself with the women who stampeded to his shows. He was living with Marianne while writing songs about hooking up with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel. A friend of Cohen from those years, Julie Felix, recalls, “Leonard was a great, uh, feminist. He said to me once, ‘I can’t wait till women take over.’” Ladies, when a man says this, listen carefully. What is he really saying? Cohen was giving himself a license to treat women badly.

And there it is again, the sour legacy of the ‘60s. And the ‘70s. When I reminisce about those anarchic decades, you must bear in mind (in fairness) that I was not a neutral observer. I didn’t envy the hippies their drugs – I’ve never understood why anyone would want to lose control of their mind – but I envied them the sex. Sex in the Age of Aquarius was a loud party in the next room, keeping me awake all night.

From Leonard Cohen to Charles Manson to Ira Einhorn (the founder of Earth Day who murdered his girlfriend and stored her body in a suitcase), the Sexual Revolution was an era of the manipulation of young women, justified by high-sounding philosophical and psychological claptrap. We’ll never know the cost in ruined lives, ruined health, and actual deaths. (The movie Forrest Gump is one of the few honest treatments in cinema.)

When we look back at that era from the perspective of contemporary sensibilities (which happens rarely, because the old hippies are still around and still determined to hush it up) it’s hard to comprehend. “How could people allow this to happen?” you might ask. “With so many victims, why didn’t anyone say anything?”

The answer is that some people were saying something. Preachers were saying something. Church people were saying something. Small town people were objecting, and farm people.

Uncool people. People nobody listened to. People they made fun of on TV.

Today, the victims are different. My friend Moira Greyland Peat, author of The Last Closet, one of the earliest “guinea pigs” in the Great Gay Experiment, has chronicled how children in “gay families” are subject to sexual abuse far out of proportion to their percentage of the population.

Again, people are sounding the alarm. But we’re not the cool people. The very fact that we don’t parrot the approved public narrative is proof that we’re bigots, and unworthy of a hearing.

We live in a new age of ignorance, I think. Through most of history, information was limited by physical unavailability. Most people knew what their neighbors knew and what their priests told them, nothing more.

Nowadays there’s so much information around, we depend on great information aggregators to choose for us what we’ll hear. We’re back to depending on the neighbors and the priests, only those neighbors and priests are wealthy strangers far away, with their own motivations.

You can’t operate on lies forever. Structures with flimsy foundations must inevitably fall. So the falsehoods won’t stand forever.

I just fear how many more innocent victims will be crushed in the collapse.

‘I Have Sinned,’ by Caimh McDonnell

He had always been a deceptively good athlete, in the sense that, to look at him, you wouldn’t have thought he was any kind of an athlete at all.

Bless me Father, I loved this book. Loved it to death. I’ve enjoyed all Caimh McDonnell’s novels, but this one was a special delight.

If you haven’t been following the series, fat old drunken Bunny McGarry, former Dublin policeman, is thought by his Irish friends to be dead. He is not. Instead, he’s in the United States on a personal mission. The love of his life is living in hiding, protected by a shadowy, renegade order of nuns called the Sisters of the Saint. He needs to contact her and warn her about something. As I Have Sinned begins, he has learned the name of a man who might be able to put him in touch with those women. But that’s another challenge. The man is Father Gabriel de Marcos, a priest in a New York ghetto neighborhood. Father Gabriel has no time for Irishmen on missions – he’s trying to save a few of the kids in his flock from the trap of gangster life – a girl who can box, a boy who can paint, a young man with a gift for words.

But Bunny stubbornly insists on sticking around until Father Gabriel can help him. Bunny can even help with coaching the kids in the church gym. Reluctantly, Father Gabriel lets him move in as a type of assistant priest –a tough gig for Bunny, devoted as he is to getting drunk and cursing. Gang leaders are threatening Father Gabriel, accusing him of stealing “their” people. But the priest insists he has no need of Bunny’s  protection.

And it’s almost true. Father Gabriel has secrets, and a history. A history that’s catching up with him.

It all comes together in a farcical explosion of improbable action, slapstick, and genuine heroism and grace.

What I loved most about I Have Sinned was that along with exciting fights and witty writing, there was genuine goodness and sweetness here. Father Gabriel is a tremendous hero, a sincere man of God, loving his neighbor and struggling to redeem his past (I could quibble that he has a poor understanding of grace, but what do you expect from a Catholic?). I was charmed even while I laughed. You’d have to go far to find a more positive portrayal of a man of God in any novel.

Nevertheless, you need to be prepared for lots of foul language. But other than that, I highly recommend I Have Sinned. You’ll probably want to read the rest of the books first, though.

‘Nowhither,’ by John C. Wright

I very much enjoyed John C. Wright’s wildly creative – and wildly fun – fantasy novel, Somewhither, which I reviewed a while back. There we met one of the strangest heroes in fiction – teenaged boy Ilya Muromets, who always knew he was adopted – after all, he looks like a Neanderthal, while the rest of his family is slender and blond. What he has learned since is that he is actually an alien from another universe, and pretty much invulnerable. If he gets wounded – even beheaded – his body just reassembles itself. So one day when he saw the girl he had a crush on – scientist’s daughter “Penny” Dreadful – pulled through an interdimensional portal into an alternate reality, he did what came naturally. He followed her, wearing a bathrobe and carrying his grandfather’s katana sword. After all, he’d always wanted to be a hero. Then followed the bizarre adventures of that book.

At the beginning of Nowhither, the second book in the series, Ilya finds himself trapped in a sort of interdimensional transit station, besieged by evil wizards who are slowly breaking down his own wizard’s defense spells. With him are some friends he’s made plus 150 pretty slave girls he’s rescued, all of whom look to him as a leader for some reason. At last he and his friends work out an escape plan, and they manage to escape to Penny’s home planet – an undersea world peopled entirely by something like mermaids. Here Ilya will be reunited with part of his family, and learn some hard truths about himself and the consequences of his actions.

Nowhither is an unabashedly Christian novel – though the Christianity is emphatically Roman Catholic, which will probably bother some Protestant readers. The theological implications all through are complex, and I generally didn’t bother worrying about them. The book is fun, and I wish I could say it was as fun as Somewhither was. But in fact I have some reservations.

One is complexity. Author Wright has created a richly imaginative world, full of characters, nationalities, religions, and even universes – all anchored in the Book of Genesis. But a by-product of that fecundity of invention is that lots of exposition is required. It seemed to me that about half of Nowhither consisted of people explaining stuff. There was some action, but a lot less than in the last book.

The second problem is one I hesitate to name, but can’t avoid. Nowhither is a very sexy book. Young Ilya gets subjected to a level of sexual temptation that’s hard to describe. His (successful) efforts to keep his chastity are admirable, exemplary, violent, and biblical. But lots and lots of time is spent describing the sensual delights of “the drowned world.” (The “mermaid” on the cover is dressed much more modestly than the ones in the book.) I fear that, for teenaged male readers, that may have… unintended results. This much “skin” in a book will not, I fear, contribute much to the Gross National Continence.

Maybe I’m just a prude.

Anyway, I do recommend Nowhither, but mainly so you can keep up with the series and be ready for the next book. And for the jokes, because it’s pretty funny.

‘Only the Dead,’ by Malcolm Hollingdrake

The formula for the British police procedural seems to be fairly well established. You have your stalwart Inspector, both wise and experienced (and always male for me, because I don’t read the other kind). You have his stalwart, younger partner – usually, but not always, male – who seems dumb but only in comparison to his boss. Underneath these, a scattering of team members of both genders – the females usually more gorgeous than is probable, but correspondingly smart, and one or two members of racial minorities. You pretty much need to resort to personal quirks to distinguish one series from another.

In the Harrogate Mystery series, set in English Yorkshire, the main character is Detective Chief Inspector Cyril Bennett. He distinguishes himself by being a good dresser, and somewhat OCD about organization. At least in this book, he’s unusual in suffering from Bell’s Palsy, which temporarily paralyzes half his face, leaving one eye constantly staring.

But that doesn’t keep him from working in Only the Dead. On the grounds of a teacher training college, workmen discover the buried bodies of two infants. At the same time, a vigilante is walking the streets of the city, using mustard gas recovered from unexploded World War I shells to attack and incapacitate (not kill) certain disgraced members of the elderly care industry. Investigation will lead to an insidious human trafficking operation.

I found Only the Dead a little hard to get into at first – the descriptions seemed kind of amorphous. But that got better. After that, the story moved right along and kept my attention.

My problem with the book stems from my personal beliefs and reactions. This book is not an apologia for the “gay” movement – the gay characters in the book are fairly unpleasant people. But we spend a fair amount of time with them, and the scenes get kind of… intimate. I find that icky.

So all in all, my verdict is “neutral.” Not a bad book; the writing was good. There seemed to be a strong moral sense undergirding all – whether it’s consistent with my own sense it’s too early to say. But the “ick” factor may keep me from going back.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture