‘The Missing Nurse,’ by Roger Silverwood

The Inspector Morse template seems to be a big success in the world of publishing. You have your older Inspector, supervising one or more younger subordinates. He is grumpy and occasionally insulting, but his heart is of gold, and once his co-workers get used to him, they learn to appreciate that he’s partly joking, partly pushing them to improved effectiveness.

Roger Silverwood’s Yorkshire Mystery Series appears to be constructed on that template, judging by the first book in the series, The Missing Nurse.

The setting is the town of Bromersley. Inspector Michael Angel of the Bromersley police is tall and fat and irascible. He is married without children, and fond of cats. He hates hot weather. Which is unfortunate, because it’s August in the hottest year on record, and on top of that his wife has gone away to visit her sick mother. This leaves him to run the house alone, a challenge that seems beyond him (he delegates much of the work to a rookie subordinate). Also, his favorite sergeant is out of town taking a course.

When Miriam Thomas, a middle-aged nurse from Wales, comes to his office to report her sister missing, Angel is not greatly concerned. The woman had been visiting in town, and such disappearances usually turn out to be simple failures of communication. He tells Miriam not to worry.

But he realizes there’s reason to worry, when a body shows up in a park and matches the sister’s description. Even more sinister, Miriam herself has now disappeared. Angel puts his team on the hunt for her, for her own protection and to try to find an explanation for the murder. The explanation, as it turns out, will take them to an old unsolved case.

Meanwhile a couple thugs hold up a service station and pistol whip the young girl who was working there. Such behavior offends Angel deeply, and he puts his team on the hunt for them too.

I think we’re intended to find Inspector Michael Angel amusing, in the Morse manner. It didn’t really work that way for me. Being intentionally unpleasant to people under your authority is a game to be played with a light hand, in my opinion. Angel lays it on thick. He has his virtues – he cares deeply about crime victims – but he annoyed me.

Such things are subjective. The book might work better for you. The usual cautions apply.

‘In the Bleak Midwinter’

The nice thing about December is that if I can’t think of anything to blog, I can post a Christmas music video. In my case, that usually means something from Sissel.

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is in keeping with the weather, in my neighborhood. Poem by Christina Rossetti, music by Gustav Holst. Orchestration by a bunch of heretics in Salt Lake City.

‘Depth of Winter,’ by Craig Johnson

Sometimes titles are misleading. When you pick up a book called Depth of Winter, starring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, you assume you’ll get a story set in the Wyoming winter.

That’s not what this entry in Craig Johnson’s Longmire saga is, at all (the title’s from a quotation from Camus). It’s a quest story, in which old Walt heads down to Mexico (where it’s hot), all alone, to rescue his daughter Cady, who’s been kidnapped by a vengeful Mexican cartel boss. Instead of his usual cast of supporting characters, we have here a new group of people to help him out, and they’re pretty bizarre – a blind, legless humpback called “The Seer,” a young man with a pink Cadillac, a rancher, a mute Indian sniper. When a fictional series brings in a previously unknown supporting cast, you can be fairly sure those characters will suffer a high mortality rate, and that’s true in this case.

If I remember the first Longmire novel correctly (it’s been a while since I read it), Longmire was originally an overweight county sheriff who made a lot of jokes and was smarter than he appeared when it came to solving crimes. Now (probably under the influence of the TV series), he’s become a larger than life action hero, enduring and inflicting suffering beyond what’s plausible for a guy his age.

Depth of Winter was readable and rousing, with lots of action. But I had trouble believing in it. The final showdown was cinematic and completely unbelievable.

I bridled at a slighting comment on religious faith, though that comment was made in the context of Longmire giving thanks to… Somebody.

I want to read some of the earlier books, to verify my impressions about the evolution of the character, but for some reason I’ve only been able to find the more recent books available from my public library for KIndle. I find the Longmire books readable, but I’m not in love with them. This book struck me as uncharacteristic enough to qualify as extra-canonical.

Cautions for language and intense violence.

‘Depraved Difference,’ by J. Robert Kennedy

If you like your thrillers equipped with major plot twists, Depraved Difference by J. Robert Kennedy may be just what you’re looking for.

Me, I’m still thinking it over.

Aynslee Kai, an ambitious young TV journalist in Manhattan, starts receiving videos by e-mail, videos that might make her career. A year ago a couple thugs beat and kicked a young woman to death on the subway. Two more low-lifes videoed the murder and shared it on the net, where it went viral.

Now someone has started identifying the onlookers, the people caught on the video watching but doing nothing to help. Each onlooker is being hunted down and murdered, and each murder is filmed and sent to Aynslee. She is shocked, but also energized by this big career break.

She feels a little guilty, though, about not cooperating more with Detective Hayden Eldridge, a cop who’s asked to see the videos before they’re broadcast. She assists him to an extent, but her boss’s priorities come first. This bothers her a bit, because she’s developed a crush on the hunky Eldridge.

Author Kennedy is very good at surprising his readers, and there are several shockers in this story up until the very climax. There he blindsides you (unless you’re a lot smarter than me) with a twist so bizarre I’m still trying to decide whether he played fair with his readers or not.

Oddly, this book is labeled Number One in the “Detective Shakespeare” series. Justin Shakespeare is Eldridge’s partner, and he doesn’t even show up in the book until the 40% point (on my Kindle). Shakespeare is mentioned often before that, but only as a fat, lazy time-server just putting in his time until retirement. We will gradually learn that there’s more to him than that.

Depraved Difference was a compelling read, and one you won’t soon forget. I’m still not sure whether I approve of the final twist, though. I also thought the character psychology kind of implausible.

Cautions for lots of violence and disturbing situations, plus strong language.

‘Perilous Cove,’ by Rich Bullock

If you like Christian romances and Christian mysteries, Perilous Cove by Rich Bullock might be just your kind of book.

It’s not my kind of book, but I don’t know everything.

Natalie Clayton is a recent widow living in Missouri, contending with a hostile mother-in-law. When her house is torched by an arsonist and someone dies, she begins to suspect that somebody is out to get her. She doesn’t know the half of it.

Detective Addison Conner is a recent widower, trying to raise a teenaged daughter. When he investigates the arson at Natalie’s house, there’s a spark of electricity between them. Natalie has nowhere to go when her house is gone, so he takes her in to live with him and his daughter, temporarily. When a second murder attempt is made on Natalie, “temporarily” begins to look pretty brief.

Natalie knows what she has to do – disappear and relocate to California. But she and Addison are not out of each other’s lives yet.

Perilous Cove was an exciting read, and I’ll admit it caught my emotions.

But it was clumsily written, and heavy on romance novel stuff; the villains were over the top, the conflicts improbable (or so it seemed to me). I found the explosive climax less than credible.

If this is your kind of book, you’ve probably figured that out by now. You’ll probably love Perilous Cove. But I found it disappointing. Fortunately I got it on an Amazon deal.

No bad language, and no cautions except for garden-variety fictional violence.

Biographical stand-ins

I caught an old movie the other day. “Till the Clouds Roll By,” starring Robert Walker (no relation). It’s a biographical film, based on the life of Broadway composer Jerome Kern.

I like old movies in general, but this one interested me because I knew Kern wrote along with P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton in his early years, doing a lot to invent the American musical comedy as we know it. Up until their time, Broadway musical plays had been mostly adaptations of European ones. This team, plus a few others, invented more character-centric stories, where the songs always advanced the plot. I wondered how the movie would treat that collaboration.

They treated it, in typical Hollywood fashion, by replacing it entirely. In the movie, instead of working with various collaborators, the young Kern teams up with a fictional older lyricist named Jim Hessler (Van Heflin). The Hessler character comes fully equipped with a fictional family, including a young daughter who becomes a surrogate little sister to Kern, and adds dramatic conflict to the third act so that all can be resolved in the big musical climax.

That got me thinking about the subject of fictional characters. That is, fictional characters included in real life stories, in order to avoid using real people – who sometimes sue you (or their heirs do) if they don’t like the way they’ve been depicted. (Movies were made about Wyatt Earp before his widow died, but they had to change his name, because she refused to give approval.)

Perhaps the most famous case is Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, introduced in Henry V, Part 1. Falstaff was a stand-in for a genuine historical figure named Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle had a similar career to the fat man in the play, except that he joined the Lollards, the proto-Protestant followers of Wycliffe, and eventually died a martyr’s death, roasted over a fire. His descendants, who were influential, made it very clear that they did not want their ancestor belittled, so Will Shakespeare just wrote Oldcastle out, replacing him with Falstaff. Probably just as well.

In both versions of “Shadowlands,” the film about C.S. Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman (I prefer the original BBC version), we see Jack together with his friends, the Inklings, debating, laughing, smoking pipes, and drinking beer. Except for his brother Warnie, who plays a major role in the play, all these friends are fictional. There is no J. R. R. Tolkien there, nor any Hugo Dyson or Owen Barfield. Including them (especially Tolkien) would have been a distraction, I imagine. The audience would be trying to identify them rather than following the story.

And they all had living families, always potential complications.

It makes perfect prudential sense to fictionalize.

And yet I always feel a little cheated when it’s done.

‘Long Gone,’ by Paul Pilkington

A good race with a poor finish. That’s my reaction to Paul Pilkington’s Long Gone, the first in a series of mysteries about Chief Inspector Paul Cullen of the London Transport Police. (People tend not to take the Transport Police seriously, which is a running theme in the book. But lots of serious crime goes on on the buses and in the Underground.)

Inspector Cullen is riding the Underground on his way to work when he notices a young man apparently assaulting a young woman. He follows (pausing on the way to get the girl’s assurance that there was an assault), and chases the young man through the streets – until the fugitive comes to a sudden, ugly end.

Paul is placed on administrative leave, as is standard procedure when an officer is involved in a death. He’s heading home when he gets diverted by a call from his daughter Amy. Amy is his only family since the recent death of his wife, and she suffers from anxiety attacks, so he’s protective of her. She tells him she’s worried about her friend Natalie. Natalie had been selected for a major job opportunity – a reality show-style competition between six candidates for a job with a high profile new company. But she sent Amy a disturbing text message on her way home from the event, and then vanished completely.

Paul isn’t supposed to be doing any investigation while he’s on leave, but he’s willing to bend the rules for Amy. As we follow his inquiries, we also follow in flashbacks Natalie’s course through a very bizarre experience in corporate culture, one where she soon realizes that something is very wrong.

Long Gone engaged me and kept my interest all the way through. I was interested in the characters and curious what would happen to them. Unfortunately the plot lost all credibility at the climax. The final action was highly contrived and extremely implausible.

The theme of the book was “Me Too,” which might have put me off a little. However, the main offender was a hypocritical male feminist, so I didn’t mind. But that final “showdown” lost me completely.

‘Strange Tales of Scotland,’ by Jack Strange

Broichan may have been put out by this blatant display of Christian power in his own back yard, so he predicted that a storm would batter the saint on his return to his west. The prediction was proved correct, but as Columba lived on a Hebridean island he was used to foul weather and returned home safely. Anyway it was a pretty safe bet to predict stormy weather in western Scotland; it would have been more impressive had Broichan said there would be a lasting spell of fair weather.

There are ancient ties between Scotland and Norway, which are next-door neighbors in maritime terms. That may explain why I’ve always had an interest in old Albion. Or not. In any case, Jack Strange’s book Strange Tales of Scotland caught my eye. I remember reading books of legend and folklore with great interest in my younger years.

Broadly speaking (though other kinds of tales pop up) the stories in this book deal with monsters like the Loch Ness monster (which is not the only one of its kind), supernatural beings like various kinds of elves or fairies, and ghosts. Ghosts are often associated with the histories of ancient castles, so you get the stories of the castles too.

I didn’t enjoy Strange Tales of Scotland as much as I hoped to. That may be partly the author’s part – I thought the book could have been organized better; it’s kind of a hodgepodge, jumping around the map at random. But more than that, all the stories seemed sadly familiar to me – folk tales tend to be repetitive. You have an infinite loop of abused and cast-off mistresses, innocent women convicted of witchcraft and guilty witches who escaped punishment, murdered babies, and bloodthirsty local Bluebeards. It all kind of depressed me after a while.

However, if you’re not familiar with the field, and appreciate the glamour of Scotland, you might enjoy this book more than I did. One could do worse.

Oh yes, he mentions the Fairy Flag of the McLeods (reputed to be Harald Hardrada’s banner). I appreciated that.

‘An Obvious Fact,’ by Craig Johnson

I read the first Longmire novel, The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson, and reviewed it a while back. I wasn’t overwhelmed, partly because outdoorsy mysteries aren’t my favorite fare, and (probably) partly because it was so different from the TV series. But I’m borrowing more books from the library these days, and I figured I’d take a chance on another volume. This one is An Obvious Fact, a much more recent entry in the series. And it was pretty good.

In An Obvious Fact (the title is a reference to Sherlock Holmes, and there are Holmes references all through it), Sheriff Walt Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear are off to Sturgis, South Dakota and environs for the annual biker rally. Henry is a biker, and has been going back every year since his youth, trying to break a record he set in a dirt bike hill climbing competition.

It’s meant to be a vacation, but they get drawn into the investigation of an accident that sent a young biker to the hospital. Police suspect that the young man was smuggling drugs, but no traces of drugs have been found. The situation is aggravated by the fact that they run into the biker’s mother, who was once Henry’s lover. And – just possibly – her son might be Henry’s. Walt’s suspicions – along with those of his undersheriff “Vic” Moretti, who also shows up – turn toward a reclusive local tycoon who lives in a fortified compound.

It takes some adjustment to get used to the original literary version of this series. Walt is fatter and less handsome than the actor on TV, and also funnier. He does not suffer from existential angst. In fact these books are quite lighthearted, until they get to the violence part (and even some of that is rendered comical by Vic’s gung-ho aggressiveness). The characters are very well drawn, making one wonder why the TV writers felt it necessary to alter them. I enjoyed An Obvious Fact, and recommend it with only the usual cautions.

The Marks of Gen-X

In years past when we spoke of “generations,” we meant a 30ish-year period of time, but in the last few decades we’ve defined each new batch of growing kids as a new generation, something closer to an 18-year period. Boomers and Millennials have gotten most of the media attention, perhaps because their conflicts have been high enough in profile. You hardly ever hear of Gen-X, the batch born in the 60s and 70s, which may leave you wondering how to handle them should you encounter them in the wild. What can you assume about a Gen-Xer? Having lived in this generation my entire life, allow me to enlighten you.

  1. We have no corporate identity. We don’t go around defining ourselves, because we never think of ourselves. We live as we are.
  2. We are the humble generation. Meekness, selflessness, quality service, and the spirit of Christmas–that’s what you’ll get from us. We excel in avoiding pride; we’re monsters of meekness.
  3. Voted most likely to be ignored. We are the people making the trains run on time while others are extending overlong meetings with questions they wouldn’t have to ask if they had been listening earlier. We’re the ones you rely on when you go to the Caymans on vacation.
  4. We hate meetings. Maybe you don’t want to send an email because you think your ideas will eventually make sense after you throw enough words at it, but they won’t and then we’ll have to have another meeting to explain what happened at the first one. Stop the madness.
  5. We have skills. We totally have the great skills girls/guys like. We are on track to be freaking awesome, except our skills aren’t good enough yet, because we’re losers.
  6. We don’t care that you hate our cargo pants, and we think it’s silly to care that much about it. I mean, we aren’t wearing parachute pants anymore, so give it a rest. (You love the flannels though; admit it, you sly dogs.)
  7. We didn’t ask for your achievement award. We’re here to earn our stripes. When did you start remembering our names, anyway?
  8. We don’t care. That’s not true; we do care. We want to make the world a better place. We want to have strong families and good jobs. But you were asking something about a team-building exercise or was it a retirement party, so, yeah.
  9. Pet rocks were better than Tamagotchi or Farmville crops.
  10. Breakdancing is better than walking it out or chicken noodle soup (!?), and moonwalking is way better than anything you kids think you’re doing in your little clubs.
  11. Some of us are still living on a prayer, and we won’t stop believin’ all night long, even though we may ask ourselves daily whether we should stay or go to Africa for Christmas.
  12. To be honest, we are the world. We are the frickin’ children.
  13. You don’t laugh at our jokes, because they’re too sophisticated for you. We are the most ironically funny generation ever; it’s hysterical just to think about the jokes we almost told.
  14. We’re raising a new generation to be just like us in all the best ways and to avoid all of your stupid mistakes.

These are just a few of the many marks of Generation X, the most selfless, kindhearted, loyal, and noble generation alive today. We don’t need your gratitude more than anyone else, so if you recognize us in the workplace or on the street, just give us a tip of the hat or a quiet smile.

Photo by psymily/Morguefile

‘Saga,’ by Jeff Janoda

“It is good that you have industry, son,” Gudrid said severely. “But do not lower yourself like that. Your men will lose respect for you.”

“This is not Norway, mother,” he had said, patting her face gently. “All men must work here.”

Eyrbyggja Saga is not one of the very best Icelandic sagas, in the eyes of critics, but it’s definitely one of the top second-rankers. Aside from other points of interest, it intersects in several ways with Laxdaela Saga, helping to paint one of the broader narrative panoramas in the genre. It largely concerns itself with a long-running conflict between the two chieftain-priests (called gothis here), Snorri and Arnkel. You may recall Snorri the Chieftain as a character in my novel West Oversea.

Author Jeff Janoda has done a creditable job of turning one portion of Eyrbyggja Saga into a modern novel in Saga. By and large I’d say he’s made an artistic success of it, though he messes up his historical details now and then.

The story begins with Ulfar, a freedman (former slave) under the protection of the sons of Thorbrand, who are rather hostile neighbors to the gothi Arnkel (they are Thingmen of Snorri’s). Ulfar’s best friend Thorgils is one of Arnkel’s chief men (author Janoda does a good job showing how relationships and loyalties get entangled). It is Ulfar’s misfortune to own a farm that Arnkel wants, and to have a wife that every man wants.

After Ulfar goes out of the story (as the saga would say), the focus moves to his friend Thorgils, whose relationship with Arnkel is threatened by his own conscience – though trying to transfer his loyalty to Snorri only makes things worse.

It’s all quite tragic, in the saga style. The characters are complex and hard to categorize morally. I was particularly impressed with the way author Janoda made the heathens’ belief in the elves comprehensible – the supernatural saga elements are presented in a modern way, but with plausibility and no condescension.

Nitpicker that I am, I was annoyed by some failures in research. The author has trouble spelling Norse names – Hauk becomes Hawk, Haflidi becomes Hafildi. He speaks of Iceland as the Island – which is right but wrong. It’s spelled Island in Scandinavian languages, but that still means Ice-Land.

I suspect the author has read Daniel Serra’s An Early Meal (I’ve met Serra, by the way, though I’ve never sprung for his book, which I do want). But he doesn’t know much about Viking fighting – he thinks swords were stabbing weapons. And he makes the common movie mistake of giving them lots of leather clothing. With pockets, which (I say it sadly as a reenactor) they never had. He also doesn’t know how a Viking tent was constructed.

Still l found Saga a successful novel, all in all, though grim. It started a little slow but had me riveted by the end.

Recommended, with cautions for language and disturbing scenes.

For Black Friday, The Raven as a Christmas Tale

The English-speaking world has a long history of knocking off EAP’s “The Raven,” the poetic gift that gives evermore. Here is a list of ten examples and this book on the poem has an excerpt of several verses from a 1856 parody called “The Parrot”:

“‘Beg your pardon, sir!’ I muttered, as I rose up, hurt and sore;
But the sailor only swore.”

The comedy troupe Studio C put together this Christmas version, which I share as a warning about what you request this year.

‘Bloody Christmas,’ by Caimh McDonnell

Caimh McDonnell’s series of comic Irish mysteries, most featuring big, drunken detective Bunny McGarry, has been one of the delights of my recent reading life. Bloody Christmas, which fits into the series, is a special edition novella, available only until Christmas. Its sales support an Irish charity for the homeless.

Bloody Christmas is set way back near the start, just after the end of A Man With One of Those Faces. Bunny has been undergoing psychological evaluation after throwing a senior officer off a building, something he finds annoying and unreasonable. But now he’s managed to get his sanity officially verified, and is celebrating in his favorite pub, when a man tries to assassinate him in the men’s room.

Instead of beating the man bloody, however, Bunny listens to his tale of woe. The man (who’s there with his pregnant wife, named Mary [very subtle]), is the victim of criminals who’ve kidnapped their son. Well, it’s Christmas, a time for good works. Bunny has a few ideas on how to find the boy, and he puts a plan into motion.

It’s all completely implausible, and completely hilarious. Bunny is at his profane, selectively brutal best, and I laughed out loud more than once as he cuts a swathe through the underworld he understands so well. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that it all turns out more perfectly than anything has a right to in this naughty world.

Highly recommended, with cautions for adult themes and profanity.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture