‘A Good Bunch of Men,’ by Danny R. Smith

A book that didn’t grab me at first, but pulled me in as it went on. That’s A Good Bunch of Men, by Danny R. Smith. Smith is a former police detective himself, so authenticity is his strong suit.

A Good Bunch of Men is the first book in the “Dickie Floyd” series. Dickie Floyd is not the name of the main character, but the corporate name of a near-legendary detective team in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. They are Richard “Dickie” Jones, and Matthew “Pretty Boy Floyd” Tyler. Although there’s a mystery to be solved, A Good Bunch of Men is more than anything else a book about a relationship, about how two guys relate as friends and partners in extreme circumstances.

When a transsexual prostitute is found murdered in an alley, the Dickie Floyd team catches the case. When another prostitute of the same sort is found murdered nearby, they begin looking for a serial killer. But the victims’ associates have secrets, and other cops on the case aren’t working very hard. The team will wreck a couple of cars and get into a couple gunfights before the case is closed – explosively.

It’s notable that, although the two detectives make plenty of cracks about the murder victim, “her” lifestyle and her job, that doesn’t affect their investigation at all. The victim was a human being who didn’t deserve to die, and they are determined to get her justice like anyone else. I think that’s precisely the proper attitude.

Also, Dickie wears a fedora hat, which always deserves respect.

I didn’t know what to make of A Good Bunch of Men at first. The trick was in understanding Dickie’s and Floyd’s relationship – the way they talked to each other at first, I thought they were mortal enemies. Turns out it was just cop banter. We know cop banter from any number of novels by Wambaugh, Connelly, etc. – but here it is (I think) more realistic and concentrated. We gradually realize that talking trash is a psychological mechanism cops use for survival. If you think of all those dark stories you’ve heard in your life – the kind that keep you awake and night and make you doubt your faith in God – these guys live those stories. They see that stuff in person. Strong measures are necessary to keep one’s sanity, and those methods look ugly to outsiders.

The cop banter here isn’t as witty as what we get in other books. It’s cruder and less witty. But as I got to know these guys better, I got interested in them. Danny R. Smith hasn’t mastered storytelling yet, and but he shows great promise, and I’ve bought the next book in the series.

Cautions for disturbing material and obscene language.

Series preview

Sofia Helin (Crown Princess Martha) tries to persuade Kyle MacLachlan (Pres. Franklin Roosevelt) to support the Norwegian government in exile, in a scene from Atlantic Crossing.

I happened to check the IMDb page for Atlantic Crossing, the coming miniseries I helped translate, yesterday. I found the above picture there, and thought it might interest you. I happen to know, through my high-level personal connections in the industry, that this scene was filmed in Czechoslovakia, last month. My boss, who’s one of the script writers, sent me a picture of herself sitting at that desk, in the set replica of the Oval Office.

Don’t rush to pencil in a viewing date, though. The thing apparently won’t be released until early 2021 — and that’s in Norway. Heaven knows when it’ll be available here.

Early Review of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

On this day in 1895, the great American orator and statesman Frederick Douglass passed away. To mark the day, Bookmarks has reproduced a review of Douglass’s 1845 autobiography that ran in The New York Tribune on June 10, 1845.

We wish that every one may read his book and see what a mind might have been stifled in bondage,—what a man may be subjected to the insults of spendthrift dandies, or the blows of mercenary brutes, in whom there is no whiteness except of the skin, no humanity except in the outward form, and of whom the Avenger will not fail yet to demand—’Where is thy brother?’

Narrative was well-received, selling close to 30,000 copies by 1860.

Translator’s notes

Oslo, where I work. OK, remotely. But this is how it looks while I’m working. Photo credit:
Håkon von Hirsch@hakonvh

Sorry about not posting yesterday. That will happen from time to time, under the new regime. My schedule is not my own.

Last week I got zero assignments. Null, as we say in Norwegian. In the resulting vacuum, I went a little nuts. I developed a sudden mania I’d never had before – I went out to lunch every day, sometimes to restaurants I’d never visited. I felt I needed to discover my options, up my dining game a little. It passed, thank goodness. I ain’t made of money.

Yesterday a job came in – and, not surprisingly, it was a big one with a tight deadline. I always get a little nervous when I take one of those on, because I’m still uncertain of my powers. I live in terror of not meeting a deadline – causing my boss to fail to deliver on a contract, bringing the whole business down in ignominy. In fact, I’m better than I think, and I don’t generally have much trouble. I got this job done before I expected to.

And today, another job and another tight deadline. But I finished the first draft before supper, and I’ll give it a polish this evening and send it off, so they’ll have it in Oslo when business starts tomorrow. No sweat.

But I did sweat, a little. I’m a worrier.

General observations on the Norwegian film industry from my perspective: I’d say 60 to 80% of my work is on scripts concerning spunky single mothers trying to make it in a man’s world. (Even the one I can tell you about, Atlantic Crossing, is about a woman raising her children alone – though she’s a princess without many career worries.) That scenario appears to be what they think people want to watch just now. I suppose it indicates that the bulk of the audience, both for movies and TV, is women. Which is probably true. But is it cause or effect?

Not to say that these scripts are heavy with radical feminism or man-hatred. They’re generally pretty good in that regard. It just seems that the production companies want to see stories through women’s eyes.

The need for Christian artists

Andrew Collins writes in his article, “How Art Moved Me Beyond the Cliché,” about overcoming a blasé familiarity with Scripture. “I recently read through the Psalms—one song every morning or evening. But when I got to Psalm 23, something happened. I read through it in a minute or two, and not a single substantive thought went through my head. When I reached the end, my mind was blank.

“Why? Because it’s Psalm 23! Everyone knows it. I’ve probably had it memorized since I was 7 years old. Over the years, the psalm has dissolved, for me, into a rote sequence of words. What a shame. Gratefully, I remember Jon Foreman’s song ‘House of God Forever.'” 

I’ve had a similar revitalizing through Michael Card’s songs from the Psalms in his album, The Way of Wisdom. His renderings of Psalm 23 and 139 have stuck with me for twenty years.

Godzilla 3: Dream of a Deadly Death

Today I watched Godzilla: The Planet Eater, the third part of the impressively animated Netflix series released last year. Whereas the second part was largely a UPS van stuffed with technobabble, this story swapped that out for a cathedral stuffed with religiobabble. I thought this part might have a slower build, because the characters must have exhausted themselves by this point, but having to listen to the priest of the deadly death for at least forty-five minutes was boring.

Viewers would be excused for thinking this was a screed against religion as a whole. Words are said to that effect, but the religion in question is the cult of the void, the enlightened understanding that nothing is everything, death is peace, and all struggle should be assisted into oblivion preferably by a physician or qualified government agent.

No, this story seems to come from the root of Godzilla mythology. Those nuclear bombs we made, all that E=MC2 stuff (written clearly on a chalkboard during one of the priest’s expositions), brought judgment on our heads. Godzilla rose from the earth because our civilization was too advanced, but he was only phase one. Ghidorah the Golden Demise is phase two.

I may not be smart enough to run with this, but this series may be an effectively illustration against atheism. Godzilla embodies the earth fighting for itself. Ghidorah is a nihilistic void. Mankind has only its own wits to use and cannot keep up. All of the talk here of gods and salvation only makes a kind of sense because of the echoes of actual sense found in the Bible and other major religions. Many atheists understand this implicitly. What they call the nonsense of Christianity is more of an argument against what they think God may actually be, an actual creator who has every right to hold his creation accountable for their actions. Far better to paint priests and believers as a death cult.

But Christians (and Jews, Muslims, and some others) aren’t the ones arguing for death in our civilization. We’re the ones saying the weapons of war must be used wisely. Nuking a city must be a last resort, because we want everyone to live in peace.

But nuclear bombs have been dropped. Maybe the idea of a god-like monster rising up to lay down the smack on our hubris appeals to some who have no knowledge of a far greater, far more terrifying judge.

Time Passes Hand in Hand with Seasons

Dylan Thomas wrote about the seasons washing over
the Welsh Glamorgan county–the summer so beautiful, the winter barren. Time repeatedly rides up from the coast, bringing nothing unusual, nothing but change. Here’s the sound of a winter thaw.

And now the horns of England, in the sound of shape,
Summon your snowy horsemen, and the four-stringed hill,
Over the sea-gut loudening, sets a rock alive;
Hurdles and guns and railings, as the boulders heave,
Crack like a spring in vice, bone breaking April,
Spill the lank folly’s hunter and the hard-held hope.

Read the whole thing here: “Hold Hard, These Ancient Minutes in the Cuckoo’s Mouth”

( Photo by Bit Cloud on Unsplash )

‘Deceptive Appearances,’ by P. F. Ford

I’ve been following P.F. Ford’s series of detective novels set in the fictional town of Tinton, in England. They started out as police procedurals – of a sort – and then became private eye stories when both the heroes, Dave Slater and Norman Norman (sic) went into that business.

In Deceptive Appearances, the thirteenth in the series, Dave and Norman get a visit from a young man who tells them his sister, Martha Dennis, is missing. Would they try to find her?

The two detectives are suspicious. The young man’s story seems improbably convoluted, and he just strikes them as shifty. But they’re not in a position to turn business down, and the fellow pays an advance, so why not check it out?

They will find that the sister isn’t a sister, but is an investigative journalist. Who has been using an assumed identity. And who may or may not be the same person as an unidentified body in the morgue. Their investigation will lead them to an elderly recluse, a millionaire pornographer, and the world of human trafficking. Also Dave will enter a tentative romance with a damaged woman.

I’m not sure why I enjoy the Slater/Norman books so much. They are, to be frank, not terribly well written. The steps of the investigation seemed a little improbable to me. The dialogue tends to be flaccid – it could use a lot of tightening up.

But I like the characters, and the generally upbeat tone of the books. And there’s little objectionable material in them. So I recommend them, as light reading, for the appropriate audience. Like me.

‘The Vikings on Film,’ by Kevin J. Harty

You know this film has a reputation of being a very bloody film, lots of blood, lots of fighting, and it’s just not true; there is in fact no blood shown in this picture except in this one shot where Kirk has his hand up holding the hawk and you see a small stream of blood trickling down between his fingers … but everybody talks about how bloody it was because of the impression you get. (Director Richard Fleischer on the 1958 film, “The Vikings.”)

The world of Viking reenactment is not without its controversies. I’ve seen many a dispute over subjects like acceptable levels of authenticity, whether heathenism should be compulsory, or the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone.

But one subject that almost always yields agreement is Viking movies.

We hate them all.

Some of them we hate fondly, and we enjoy watching them even as we scoff at them.

Some we consider insults to our intelligence.

But we pretty generally agree that we’re still waiting to see a good one.

So I was curious to read Kevin J. Harty’s collection of critical essays, The Vikings on Film.

My verdict: Not as enlightening as I hoped, and way too much Film Studies jargon.

There was a certain degree of the sort of thing I wanted most – stories about how the various films came to be, and evaluations of how they worked – or didn’t. As I should have expected, there were numerous critical lamentations over the levels of “problematic” masculinity in the stories.

I was surprised by some of the evaluations. The reviewer who writes on “The 13th Warrior,” doesn’t think it works very well. I think it works quite well as a story – it’s the costumes and armor that appall me. Another reviewer thought “Outlander” (the Sci-Fi version of Beowulf with Jim Caviezel) was generally successful – not my impression at all.

And some movies, like “Beowulf and Grendel” (which I hated, but which had good costumes), are barely touched on.

I didn’t read all the reviews, because they concerned movies I haven’t seen, or that don’t interest me – such as the animated “Asterix and the Vikings.”

All in all, I didn’t regret reading The Vikings on Film, but I wasn’t much enlightened by it either.

Dana Gioia on Catholic Writers

Poet Dana Gioia from a recent interview with Image Journal

Image: Do you consciously think of yourself as part of a tradition of Catholic writers?

DG: I am a Catholic, and I am a writer. I don’t think you can separate the two identities. But I have never wanted to be “a Catholic writer” in some narrow sense. Was Evelyn Waugh a Catholic writer? Was Flannery O’Connor or Muriel Spark? Well, yes and no. They were first and foremost writers who strived for expressive intensity and imaginative power. Their Catholicism entered into their work along with their humor, violence, sexuality, and imaginative verve. The few devotional works Waugh wrote are his worst books. His merciless early comic novels, which are Catholic only in their depiction of a hopelessly fallen world, are probably his best. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is a deeply Catholic novel about free will, but it is also a violent, dystopian science fiction novel about social collapse and political hypocrisy, all of which is written in an invented futuristic slang. There is something complicated going on here that cannot be simplified into faith-based writing.

A Conversation with Dana Gioia

‘A Deadly Lesson,’ by Paul Gitsham

There is no lack of British police procedural mystery series out there, so I tried A Deadly Lesson, a Scottish mystery by Paul Gitsham, more or less on a whim. I liked it better than I should have, considering the nature of the product.

Jillian Gwinnett, an instructor and administrator at a Catholic school, is found strangled to death at her desk. The murder weapon appears to have been a length of hemp rope. Detective Chief Inspector Warren Jones is assigned to investigate. He and his assistant begin looking into her fellow workers and her job history, and find old conflicts involving educational philosophy and career rivalries. Through systematic investigation, they identify the culprit at last.

And that’s pretty much it. This was one of the most straightforward mysteries I’ve read in a long time. There were very few distractions in this book – either in terms of action scenes or interesting characters. Inspector Jones, as a person, was almost entirely a closed book. We learned he was married, and almost nothing more about him. It’s almost mandatory these days for British detectives to have a slew of eccentricities, but there’s none of that here. Just a plain mystery, plainly solved.

I didn’t find a lot to love here, but on the other hand, the mystery was interesting in itself, and it kept me reading. So, although I didn’t love A Deadly Lesson, I didn’t dislike it either. Recommended for readers who prefer puzzles to characters. I don’t recall any objectionable elements.

‘The Wedding Guest,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Reading a new Alex Delaware novel by Jonathan Kellerman is like dropping in on an old friend, whose place is comfortable and nobody expects you to dress up or bring a bottle. It’s welcome and easy.

In The Wedding Guest, Detective Milo Sturgis invites his psychologist friend/consultant, Dr. Delaware, to help him interview witnesses at a murder scene. The scene is a former strip club repurposed as a party venue, where a wedding party had been going on. One of the bridesmaids went to use a washroom most of the other guests didn’t know about, and found a dead body inside. A young and beautiful woman dressed in red, drugged and strangled.

The bride’s family are Los Angeles nouveau-riche, beautiful people with rough edges. The groom’s parents run a veterinary practice and are more down-to-earth, but they have money too – and access to the drug that helped kill the victim. The chief problem at first is that the dead girl seems to be entirely off the grid – no identification, no police record, and nobody at the wedding will admit to knowing her.

Putting a name on her takes hard work, but when it’s done there’s still the question of discovering why she was there that night, and who among those present would have a reason to end her life.

I thought the climax was a little perfunctory, but it was all about the ride anyway. The Wedding Guest could have been three times as long and I’d have enjoyed it all the way through. I particularly liked the non-stereotyped characters. Cautions for language and adult themes. Recommended, as is the entire Alex Delaware series.

‘Blood Guilt,’ by Ben Cheetham

An interesting read, which I found, in the end, over the top and under the moral line. But definitely exciting and readable.

Ben Cheetham’s Blood Guilt tells the story of Harlan Miller, an English cop (in London, I assume, though I don’t think it’s ever specified) whose promising career ends when his young son dies in an accident. After that, Harlan slides into depression and alcohol, until one terrible night he kills a man in a bar fight.

Four years later, he’s out of prison. His wife would like to start over again, but Harlan just can’t find a way to care. His guilt consumes him.

Then a shocking thing happens. One of the sons of the man he killed is kidnapped. Ben takes hold of the hope that he can somehow redeem himself through using his investigative skills to find and rescue the boy. He has an advantage over the regular police in not being bound by rules of evidence – or limitations on the use of force.

The premise of Blood Guilt is intriguing, and I think it could have been, not only a good thriller, but an interesting moral experiment. However – for me – it didn’t entirely work on either plane. The action seemed to me excessive and improbable (in one instance, we’re treated to yet another hero who checks himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders and somehow manages to function in violent action). And the moral elements – though they seemed promising – collapsed entirely at the end, in a climax that satisfied me in no way.

Maybe I’m blinkered by my Christian theology, but this story didn’t work for me. Your mileage may vary. It’s definitely a page-turner, though. Cautions for language and violence.

‘The High Costs of Fantasy Sainthood’

It’s always nice — rare as it is — to be cited as an author. Jessica McAdams praises my novel, The Year of the Warrior in an article just published at Tor.com. My book even closes the show:

I love this book for its clear insistence that sainthood requires transformation. In order to follow the call, Aillil must change. He can’t stay the man he is: sort of bad, sort of good, mostly selfish and sorrowing. He has to be courageous—worse yet, he has to be charitable. If there is real evil in the world and real good, he has to pick a side, and then he has to let that choice manifest itself and become real in his own self—living it out in his own inclinations and actions and habits.

And that might be the most costly sacrifice of all.

Read it all here.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture