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Bookends: Reaching Back into Jack’s Past March 10, 2017

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Bookends: Reaching Back into Jack’s Past

By Dan Davidson

Night SchoolJanuary 23, 2017

– 843 words –

 

Night School: A Jack Reacher Novel

By Lee Child

Delacorte Press

385 pages

$15.99

 

“In the morning they gave Reacher a medal and in the afternoon they sent him back to school.”

It was a Legion of Merit – his second. It was nice, “But he figured the real reason he was getting it was the same reason he had gotten it before. It was a transaction. A contractual token. Take the bauble and keep your mouth shut about what we asked you to do for it.”

What they had asked him to do was kill a couple of bad men, not exactly the sort of detail you expect to be handed to a Military MP. It wasn’t a chase and capture scenario, but a very clinical execution.

We get a précis of this operation later in the book, during one of several intimate interludes with Dr. Marian Sinclair, who is technically Reacher’s superior in the current operation.

You see, Major Reacher has not been sent to school, but to a very high level assignment involving interagency cooperation between the military, the FBI and the CIA.

Wait a minute, you say. Where’s the former MP who travels with nothing but a bankcard and a toothbrush?

Well, Child has been giving us the Reacher saga in no particular order ever since Killing Floor. It’s rare that one novel follows right after another, though there was a pair of them a few books ago. There have also been short stories dating back to his army days, and even some from when he was an army brat, living in various exotic locales around the world.

In this book it’s 1996, just about three years since that first group of terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Centre with some bombs in the parking garage, and Reacher is still a Major.

The Reacher books also swing back and forth between first and third person narratives, depending on the needs of the story. In this one Child decided we needed to hear some of the interplay among the bad guys, so it’s a third person story, with interludes away from Reacher’s central viewpoint.

In Hamburg, Germany, the CIA have a mole planted in the group of unfriendly Arabs, and from that mole they have learned this: there is an American, probably a service man, who is willing to sell something to a bunch of potential jihadists. More importantly, he wants $100 million for whatever it is.

What the McGuffin (an object or device in a movie or a book that serves as a trigger for the plot) might be, no one has any idea. This is also pre-internet and e-mail time, and the jihadists are using the old school method of human couriers who have nothing written down. All transactions are oral, and all the folks at code name Night School know is that the communications all come back to Hamburg eventually. After a few false starts most of the action moves there.

Hamburg also seems to be home to a group of extreme German nationalists, who occupy a number of positions of power, have some intelligence expertise of their own, and very much want whatever the weapons or information might be to further their own goals with regards to the recently reunified Fatherland.

Most of the fight scenes (because this is a Reacher novel) involve Reacher versus these skinheads and neo-Natzis.

Each of the three agencies bring their own teams to work on the case. Reacher’s picks come from the MP group that he used to head up back in the States. One of them, Sgt. Frances Neagley, is a woman we first met later in the series (confusing, isn’t it?) Several others also arrive to play their parts.

The American, who remains nameless for much of the book until the police procedural sort of work ferrets out his name, has been planning his operation for some time, and has been taking care to leave very few clues. However, part of his leaving no tracks involves the murder of a sex-trade worker, who happens to be a favorite of a Hamburg Chief of Detectives named Griezman. This means that Griezman, who is a good homicide policeman in spite of that little indiscretion, has a personal and professional stake in pursuing this case. When Reacher suggests a connection with his own assignment, Griezman becomes a valuable asset.

There are quite a few twists and turns in this case, and once they finally determine who the American is and what he is willing to sell, the pace picks up dramatically. Where there had been a little too much “talking heads” exposition, things suddenly get very active. For me it was the last third of the book that really made it feel more like a Reacher story.

I enjoy these adventures and, in spite of Tom Cruise, I am looking forward to the second Reacher movie. He’s too short, but he plays the part well.

 

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Bookends: LeCarré performs true to form February 17, 2017

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Bookends: LeCarré performs true to form

By Dan Davidson

December 7, 2016

our-kind– 780 words –

 

Our Kind of Traitor

By John LeCarré

Penguin Books

429 pages

$13.50

 

I admit to being a few books behind on the work of David John Moore Cornwell, better known as John LeCarré. When I was using The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in my English classes, I made a point of always reading his latest novel as soon as it came out in paperback. As a result, I’ve actually had this one for a few years and, for some reason, just wasn’t getting to it. In this case, a review of the book that I read somewhere, put me off. I should have known better.

I was motivated to pluck it off the shelf by the news that there was a movie with a rather impressive cast that seems to have preserved all the most important characters. I can see Ewan McGregor as Perry, the disillusioned Oxford don, and Damian Lewis and Mark Gatiss as the British agents who play games with his life.

Not unlike The Spy, and several other novels, this book involves an attempt by someone, a Russian mafia oligarch named Dima, to break away from a personal situation that has become intolerable. He approaches Perry and Gail, an unmarried couple who are on vacation in Antigua (changed to Morocco in the movie for some reason) and strikes up an acquaintance with them. This eventually leads to him proposing that they assist him and his extended family in escaping to England.

Dima is a gifted money launderer, a financial wizard and, after the murder of his protégé and his wife, he is convince that he is marked for death as part of the schemes of another mob boss known as the Prince. His offer is to turn over everything he knows about the Russian mob’s finances in return for sanctuary.

Perry and Gail take his offer back to London, where they meet with agents Hector, Luke and Ollie, and it is during the scenes where they are being questioned by British agents, where the narrative flits back and forth between these Q&A sessions and the original events, that the book begins to get good.

The basic idea of the plot is thin, but the meat of the book is all about relationships. Just when I thought we were going to spend most of the story with Perry, Gail, Dima and his family, playing tennis and dancing around spy-like intrigue, the focus shifted and I found myself charting relationships within the agency that LeCarré has called the Circus in the half dozen books that feature George Smiley.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s an agency under severe scrutiny by both its political masters and other agencies. Indeed, this is a rather small group; it almost seems to be something that has gone rogue and is struggling to justify its own existence.

Relationships are everything in this story, Perry and Gail are working out the dynamics of their commitment to each other. Both of them have bonded to a certain extent to their Russian “friends”, Perry to Dima, and Gail to his teenaged daughter, who has gotten herself into “trouble”.

Luke has a roving eye, which has him in trouble on the home front. We never meet his family, but he thinks about them a lot, and we know he suffers from the fear of losing them. Hector has been in and out of the agency, and while he was out he managed to save his family’s fortune against a corporate raid instigated by the man he now must report to as his superior. Tricky.

The narrative style is an odd mixture of things. Sometimes we seem to be within the viewpoint of a particular character, but then the author’s voice steps out to deliver a commentary and let you know who’s in charge.

LeCarre’s escape novels generally work one of two ways. In The Spy (1963) the liberated Alec Lemas is killed trying to escape East Germany. In the The Russia House (1989), nearly 30 years later, “Barley” Blair manages to get a woman named Katya out of Moscow to safety at some personal cost, but he survives the adventure.

I’m not going to tell you how this one works out.

LeCarré has a knack for misdirection, perhaps an inheritance from his con man father, or perhaps a hold over from some of his years as an actual intelligence officer, and can manage to tell stories that have certain similarities without being boring or exactly repeating himself. This book is an excellent read. The other reviewer must have been having a bad day.

LeCarré has recently published a memoir. The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, under his real name. I look forward to finding a copy.

 

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Bookends: Living with the Curse of Total Recall January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Living with the Curse of Total Recall

By Dan Davidson

October 5, 2016memory-man-audio

– 828 words –

 

Memory Man

By David Baldacci

Narrated by Ron McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy

13 hrs ad 17 mins

Hachette Audio

$12.99

Paperback edition

Vision

560 pages

$10.79

 

“Amos Decker would forever remember all three of their violent deaths in the most paralyzing shade of blue.”

Quirky detectives are all the rage on television these days. Bones, Castle and Elementary have all carried on the pattern that you could find in earlier shows like Monk, Pretender and Profiler.

The Amos Decker series, of which this is the first book, has a similar idea behind its central character. Decker, who had been a pretty good high school and college football player, made it to the NFL and was sidelined by a critical brain injury in his first game.

It did two obvious things to his brain and a third thing that is less obvious. The obvious things are revealed in that opening sentence and in the book’s title. Decker has perfect total recall. His memory is described as being like a DVD that he can access by date at any time he likes.

The other effect is that events in the real world, and in his recorded memories, often take on colours. Some emotional states are also coloured and his sense of impending danger comes with some nasty black shadows.

The less obvious change is in his emotional life. He has trouble dealing with empathy, doesn’t play well with others, and is very much a loner, Even people who value the edge that he seems to have as an investigator have trouble dealing with him as a person.

He managed to cope with the world pretty well, even got married, and fathered a daughter. Within his family unit he managed to function as an almost normal person with a range of emotional responses that, though muted, were still far beyond what he could manage with other people.

Then someone broke into his house, killed his wife and daughter and his brother-in-law, planted clues that seemed to point to him, and left him to discover the horrible mess when he returned from a police stakeout. While investigation proved him innocent, there was no clue as to who had actually done the deed. Amos’ life fell apart without his family foundation.

A year later, the former athletic police detective is off the force, grossly overweight, and, after a time living homeless on the streets, is barely able to support himself as a private eye, doing piecemeal work and living in a cheap residential hotel.

Two things happen to shake up his life again. First, a man walks into the police station where he used to work and confesses to the Decker murders. While it can absolutely be proven that he did not do them, he insists that he did and that it was all because Decker had once insulted him in a local 7/11 store. Decker, who literally can’t forget anything, has no memory of this man.

Second, there is a horrible massacre at the local high school – the one Decker once attended. There seem to be no clues. Decker’s former boss, knowing that this is the kind of case his old colleague used to excel at, brings him onto the case as a consultant and pairs him with the woman who used to be his partner when he was on the force.

Baldacci, who is the keyboard behind six different ongoing series, totaling 24 novels at present, along with a string of 11 standalone thrillers, and five children’s books, is really good at taking what starts out as a simple enough sounding initial case and complicating it beyond anything that the reader might expect at the beginning.

The first half of this book comes across as a very detailed police procedural, enhanced only by Decker’s strange brain and his ability to see things that others don’t. In painstaking, and yet interesting, detail he builds up the geography of the school, reveals how the killer got in, did what he did and managed to stay completely hidden the entire time, except by those he killed.

Then he turns up the heat.

The other thing I really like about Baldacci’s work is his ability to write strong female characters and really make them matter. In the King and Maxwell books, as well as the John Puller series, he has done such as good job at this that the people producing his audio books feel the need to have male and female voices.

Ron McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy are teamed up again for this one. McLarty gets the male voices and the narration, but Cassidy voices two strong female characters and a number of others.

The Decker and Puller series seem to be the most recent books Baldacci is working on, based on their publication dates. They make great audio books, using the same team of narrators.

 

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Bookends: Desperate People Hide out in the Yukon January 31, 2017

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Bookends: Desperate People Hide out in the Yukon

By Dan Davidson

August 29, 2016

city-of-thr-lost– 767 words –

 

City of the Lost

By Kelly Armstrong

Random House of Canada

412
pages

$19.95

 

Every so often a writer will reach back into Charles Dickens’ bag of tricks and issue a novel in serial format. Stephen King did it with The Green Mile back in 1996, bringing it out in six thin paperbacks that were eventually republished in collected form about a year later.

It’s become easier to do this now that there’s a market for e-books. Canada’s Kelly Armstrong is best known for her novels featuring werewolves and witches, books with strong female characters. Even though there’s no supernatural element to this book, the latter description remains true.

Our narrator is Casey Duncan, a veteran detective with the special victims unit in a city that remains unnamed. Casey has a deep secret. 12 years earlier she was attacked while out walking with her boyfriend. He fled and she was both raped and badly injured. When she comes to, several weeks later, she seeks out Blaine, wanting an explanation for why he had abandoned her. She questions him at gunpoint, and at some point in the argument she kills him.

She gets away with it, but does penance by joining the police force.

During the ensuing twelve years she has become the protector of a young woman named Diana, who seems to have terminally bad judgement when it comes to men. Di is the only person who knows what Casey did, but Di has her own problems in the person of an abusive ex-husband who keeps coming back for more, and has nearly killed her at least once. Casey tried to scare him off, but it seems she only made him become more devious.

Recently Casey has been stepping out with a bartender named Kurt and one evening they are attacked and he is shot. The gunman gets away but his parting words tell her he was sent by Blaine’s father, a known gangster. Casey has been playing a weird sort of psychological Russian Roulette for some years, going to various therapists and confessing her murder to them, counting on the patient/doctor relationship to protect her. Apparently one of them finally talked.

That’s the set up for what follows. Di has learned of a place where people can go when they need to hide, and at this point they both need to. The interview to go to the City of the Lost doesn’t go well to begin with, but it emerges that this bush town, somewhere north of Dawson City, has need of a detective. It has a sheriff, Eric Dalton, but he’s no expert on murder, and there has been one. So despite his reservations about Casey, (he seems to know her secret) he agrees to take them both.

The town of Rockton is a full service bush community with an indeterminate number of residents. It is accessible only by air, from the Dawson airport. It is controlled by something called the Council, and the set-up is somewhat mysterious, but it is a hideaway for people who need to disappear, some for good reasons, some for bad.

The first murder, the one Casey was brought in to solve, was weird. There were body parts, and whole thing looks like it was done by an intelligent animal. Having read some of Armstrong’s other books that was sort of where I expected this to go, and subsequent murders have a touch of ritualism to them that increased this misleading impression.

The eventual solutions and motives are much more mundane than that, but there are more than enough twists and turns in the plot to keep up the interest and the suspense.

I picked up this series last year while travelling, mainly because the promotional material mentioned Dawson and the Yukon. There are a few scenes in the town itself, with a decent sense of the place without being too specific. The wilderness town of Rockton is a bit too manicured to be a really acceptable depiction of the Yukon wilderness, but then this story takes place in the summer, so Armstrong can get away with a lot.

In the end, it was a decent read. Some of the fans at Amazon are calling for a sequel, but, even though there are some loose ends in Casey’s life, I don’t really see where one would go. That said, Armstrong was signing books at Coles in Whitehorse on August 27, and her website says part of the trip was research for more books in this series

 

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Bookends: Celebrating the power of Words January 17, 2017

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the-typewriter

Bookends: Celebrating the power of Words

By Dan Davidson

March 9, 2016

– 801 words –

 

The Typewriter

By Bill Thomson

39 pages

Two Lions

$17.99 (more in Canada)

 

Long after I moved entirely to using desktop and laptop computers, I still had an old manual Brother machine at the back of my classroom and the junior high grades tended to be fascinated by it – the noise, the force required to work the keyboard, the sheer mechanicalness of it.

So when the three youngsters in this largely pantomimed story find an old typewriter sitting on top of a bee on an abandoned roundabout on a snow covered day at the end of a snow ploughed paved lane, I wasn’t surprised when they took it down, popped the cover off, and decided to take it for a test drive.

The girl whipped some paper out of her backpack, figured out where it went, and typed a word: beach. And suddenly the pavement was gone, the snow had vanished and the kids shed their puffy winter jackets to romp on a beach.

And while two of them are running in the water, the third decides to use the magic typewriter (because it is) to conjure up a ball. The other boy types for ice cream and that’s all going well until the girl types “crab” and the small crab we have already seen becomes a monster crab that can only be washed away by a “big wave”.

With that the adventure comes to “the end”. They put the Spelling Bee typewriter back where they found it, and leave their list of words taped to the sides of the bee. The world goes back to late winter or early spring, and they ride off on their bicycles.

Thomson has told a simple but magical story with an absolute minimum of words. His hyper-realistic paintings were created by hand. They borrow techniques of panel display and shot angles from both comic books and the movies, and do a fantastic job of putting the story across. The kids’ expressive faces and body language are just incredible.

From a parent’s point of view, there’s a lot that can be done while sharing this book with a young reader. Great job.

 

Storm Surge

storm-surgeBy “Richard Castle”

Narrated by Johnny Heller

Unabridged Audiobook

Hyperion

Length: 8 hrs and 4 mins

 

Richard Castle is, of course the imaginary mystery/thriller writer from the television series of that name, and Derrick Storm is the James Bondish character with whom he made his considerable fortune, before he was inspired to create the Nikki Heat series by his work with Kate Beckett.

Like Conan Doyle did with Holmes, he tired of Storm and bumped him off – or did he? Where there’s no body in fiction there’s always the chance of resurrection.

This book is what is sometimes called a “fix-up” novel, comprised of three shorter works linked by some characters and plot lines. The first two parts were short stories that ran to 25 pages as e-books only. The final segment needed 100 pages to tie everything up.

In Brewing Storm we enter the life of Derrick Storm four years after his “death”. He was badly hurt on assignment in Tangiers and given the option of vanishing. Since then he’s been living a quiet rural life in the Midwest, and he’s fishing in a mountain stream when Jedediah Jones calls in a marker to send him back to work. There’s been a high profile kidnapping and, though the CIA isn’t supposed to work in the domestic USA, Jones needs Storm’s talents (he started out as a private eye) to solve the case. He is paired with a young FBI agent with the very Bondish name of April Showers (her parents were hippies) and they soon find that nothing about this case is at all simple.

Raging Storm takes the pair to London, to try and solve the riddle of why an exiled Russian oligarch might have had anything to do with the kidnapping and death of a senators’ son and the assassination of the senator. At this point we start getting some chapters from the viewpoints of the megalomaniacal Russian president (not Putin) and his aides. The oligarch is killed, while Storm and Showers barely get away with their lives.

It turns out there’s a large and mysterious cache of gold involved, and Bloody Storm takes Storm with a hand picked trio of former agents, into the mountains of a state that used to be behind the Iron Curtain. Showers, who was badly wounded in part two, has been kidnapped by people who believe she knows the location of the gold.

The adventure becomes a blend of rescue mission, treasure hunt and something else, because when Jones assigns a mission there’s always something else.

I can’t say this was a fantastic novel, but Johnny Heller reads this kind of thing capably (he’s narrated the Heat novels as well) and it was good company on the road from Whitehorse to Dawson.

 

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Bookends: Jack Reacher Gets Personal January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Jack Reacher Gets Personal

By Dan Davidson

August 26, 2015

– 840 words –

 

PersonalPersonal

(with bonus short story “Not a Drill”)

By Lee Child

Dell Books

544 pages

$10.79

Kindle Edition: $11.90

 

The Jack Reacher novels defy the usual conventions of series’ story telling in that they are given to us in two distinctly different voices. If memory serves, most of the books are third person narratives, but some of them aren’t. Some are written in the first person, and with a title like Personal, I guess that fits for this, the nineteenth book in the series.

The other unusual thing about this series is that it jumps all over the place in terms of chronological sequence. The first book to appear was Killing Floor, back in 1997, but a suggested reading order (yet to be amended) on Wikipedia, tells us that the first novel in the series was The Enemy, published in 2004, and that Killing Floor is two books later in time.

On top of that disjunction, there are a number of short stories that predate the first novel, tales of Reacher’s military service and one reaching back to when he was a boy. These stories seem to appear mostly in the e-book editions of the novels, and perhaps their addition to these explains why the virtual version of Personal is more expensive than the physical paperback.

The story here is personal in a number of very important ways. General Tom O’Day wants Reacher to work for him on an international case. Reacher is a rootless wanderer, so O’Day uses a rather clever method of finding him, and the story begins with that.

Shortly, we discover that someone has taken a shot at the president of France, who was only saved by a special type of bulletproof glass. It was a very long range shot, which only an extreme marksman could have made. There are four possibilities, and one of them is John Kott, a military killer that Reacher had put away during his military police days, but who is now released.

We learn that Kott has an obsessive hatred of Reacher, which leaves our hero feeling he is being drawn into this case as potential bait, but he feels responsible, so he takes it on in spite of his distaste for O’Day and his methods.

His assigned CIA partner on this case is a young CIA agent with the improbable (and very Ian Flemingish) name of Casey Nice. Since there is usually a temporary romance in a Reacher novel, we expect one here, but instead Reacher treats her as a protégé, becoming a mentor to her ingénue role. This shows us a side of Reacher that we have seen before, but not very often.

The first person narrative style demands that the writer give us the internal workings of a man’s mind and heart, and not merely his actions. In the third person narratives, Reacher often comes across as a force of nature, his size, strength and endurance being key factors in his success. Analysis and the application of intelligence somehow seem to be secondary factors. In this book, as in the other first person narratives, the order is reversed, and we learn that he has thought through as many angles of a situation as he can before he acts, most of the time anyway.

Reacher and Nice are off to Paris first, where the sniper strikes again, this time missing Reacher by inches. They move on to England, where the intelligence analysts believe the shooter has been hired to kill someone at the next G8 Summit, which will be held in London.

In a very brief time the pair find themselves accosted by two different local criminal gangs who seem to have banded together to assist the sniper. They are sort of working with a British SAS agent named Bennett, as they are there unofficially and have to fly under the radar. As the story develops it becomes clear that Reacher has figured out that things are not what they have been portrayed to be, but I don’t think most readers will figure out exactly why that is until they hit the twist at the end of the story, long after we expect the tale to have been completed.

The bonus short story at the end of this e-book was “Not a Drill”. It’s set sometime before the novel and, as it is a third person narrative, really points up those differences I mentioned at the top of this review. Reacher is hiking near the New Brunswick border when he get involved with a trio of Canadian tourists and a mysterious military quarantine of the hiking trail they wanted to travel. Again, the title is pretty much a clue as to how the story will turn out. Things are not what they seem, and there’s another double twist in the very short plot. Lots of fun though.

This was great airplane reading. It almost let me ignore the rough spots in the ride to Calgary last week.

 

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Bookends: This caper depends on following the money January 28, 2016

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Bookends: This caper depends on following the money

By Dan Davidson

August 5, 2015

– 880 words –

 

King and Maxwell

By David BaldacciKing and Maxwell

576 pagesGrand Central Publishing

$9.90
Hachette Audio edition

Unabridged reading

Narrated By Ron McLarty and Orlagn Cassidy Orlagn Cassidy

12 hrs and 56 mins

$28.00

 

This is number six in Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series, yet it is, oddly enough, the first to have only that as the book title. Perhaps this is a result of the short-lived television series that put faces on the characters. In the introduction, the author says he felt those actors really captured the characters as he had imagined them.

Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are both former Secret Service agents who have set up a private detectives. King is the older of the two by a few years, has been married before and is a bit of a neatness freak.

Maxwell is messy. Her desk is a disaster and the back seat of her crew cab truck is a landfill. Frequent references are made to the disparity between the two of them. They the odd couple of the detective world.

King, who is also a former lawyer, is a meticulous planner, thinks on both sides of all issues and acts when he feels he has as much as possible figured out.

Maxwell is impetuous, acts before thinking, drives like a NASCAR racer. She’s also a former Olympian athlete and much more physical than her partner. She was gravely injured during their last case, and is still in recovery.

They are immensely fond of each other, in love probably, but they tiptoe around the line between business and friendship. They did cross it once, apparently, and have never felt right about it since.

And yet. Maxwell shows all the signs of being a jealous lover when this case causes them to cross paths with King’s ex-wife, Dana, who is a walking man trap. She just can’t believe that King’s only interest in her at this point in professional.

Perhaps it isn’t entirely. King feels a keen sense of personal responsibility when Dana is shot and nearly killed while using her connections in the military (her second husband is a general) to get some information for the detectives.

There are a couple of distinct narratives going on here. We actually start in the Middle East, where a soldier named Sam Wingo is hauling a very precious cargo to a carefully planned destination. His operation goes sideways when he is met by men claiming to work for the CIA, who tell him the plans have been changed. He escapes from them, but loses the cargo, which is a whole lot of money in Euro bills. Back home he is held responsible for it, and has to go to ground to try and find out what really happened. His adventures while getting back to the States form interludes in the main story.

When his high school age son, Tyler, is told that his father is dead, missing in action, he is devastated and runs off into the night, which is where our detectives almost run him over in the middle of a pounding rainstorm.

It turns out, just a bit later on, that Tyler has received a coded email message from his father with a time and date stamp well after the day he was supposed to have died. Tyler decides to hire King and Maxwell to find out what is really going on.

Almost as soon as they take the case, weird things start happening. Homeland Security comes down on them like a ton of bricks. The FBI suddenly takes an interest in their doings. They start spending time in interrogation rooms being questioned and threatened, but no charges are ever laid.

Aside from officialdom, they find themselves the targets of a hit squad made up of former military types who do not hesitate to unload on them in a mall food court, killing a mall cop, and wounding another, along with King’s ex, who was meeting with them at the time.

In a third strand of the narrative, we spend time with the mysterious mastermind behind all this, who has very personal reasons and goals what has nevertheless become an operation with international ramifications.

There are many twists and turns in this tale, a number of shoot-outs and no end of complex skullduggery.

The use of two readers is a nice touch. Ron McLarty handles the main narration and all the male voices, of course. There are a good half dozen of those, from older military types all the way back to Tyler Wingo. There is also a former client of theirs named Edgar Roy, whose computer and code breaking skills are instrumental in solving the case.

Orlagn Cassidy provides the voices for all the women. Again, this ranges from the hard edged Maxwell to lascivious Dana, several other wives, Tyler’s stepmother and his high school sweetheart.

As there is a lot of conversation in this book, having two readers was a good plan and both of them have a lot of work to do.

This was a great book to listen to on a recent road trip. I had read several of Baldacci’s Camel Club mysteries, but this series has a different flavour.

 

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Bookends: An Atheist grapples with matters of the spirit October 20, 2015

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Bookends: An Atheist grapples with matters of the spirit

By Dan Davidson

April 29, 2015

– 807 words –

The DemonologistDemonologist

By Andrew Pyper

Simon & Schuster

337 pages

$9.99

Andrew Pyper has accomplished something I didn’t think possible. He’s made me want to reread John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem I haven’t really cracked since I was in university. It is a famous work of literature of course, and between it and Dante’s Divine Comedy we can account for nearly all the tropes about heaven, hell, the afterlife and the names of angels and demons that are currently cluttering up the television channels.

Milton and Dante gave us way more demonic lore than anything you can find in the Bible, and it’s kind of sad that some people have taken what is essentially fiction for Biblical fact.

I think that’s a statement that Professor David Ullman would probably agree with when we meet him at the beginning of his story. He is a top Milton scholar and a devout (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) atheist. Like Houdini, who knew so much about the tricks of the trade that he could never believe in the paranormal, Ullman knows his literature so well that he is unable or unwilling, to believe in God.

As a scholar he is at the top of his game, and his studies have made him the master of all sorts of demonic lore and literature, so much so that some see him as an academic demonologist, even though he does not himself believe in such things.

Not at the beginning anyway.

Ullman suffers from what Churchill called the Black Dog, a nameless depression, that may spring from events in his childhood – the death of his brother and his father’s suicide. His daughter Tess, seems to have inherited the tendency from him, although some of what’s bothering her could be the state of her parent’s marriage.

As with many driven individuals, Ullman’s personal life is a mess (Pyper seems to like this sort of protagonist). His wife has been having an affair for some time now and wants a divorce. Ullman has been having what is almost an affair of his own with a colleague named Elaine O’Brien. It’s purely platonic. They get together to chat, have a beer and watch Rangers games. They have regular “dates”. And yet, while they are absolutely essential to each other, they have never crossed the line into sex.

When Ullman is approached by the Thin Woman to go to Venice to witness a “phenomenon” and interpret it in the light of his specialty, he decides to go and take his daughter along for the trip. What he sees there is absolutely terrifying, and seems to be nothing less than a case of demonic possession. The victim, he realizes later, is another Milton scholar, someone he has met.

That’s not all, however. Some force takes possession of Tess, takes her to the top of their hotel and drops her in the canal. They never find her body.

Eventually Ullman has to return, alone, to New York, haunted by the feeling that Tess is somehow still alive and that he has to find her. Various cryptic clues come his way, sending him on a road trip that moves him across half the United States and finally up into his native Canada. Accompanied by O’Brien, who joins him part way through the quest even though she is dying of cancer, he evades the pursuit of a hit man, encounters ghosts and demon possessed mortals and has his view of the world completely shaken.

Many of the clues relate to passages in Paradise Lost, and are references that only an expert could possibly recognize. The only other consistent references are to the Hitchcock film, North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant plays an innocent who is caught up in events against his will and has to rearrange his view of the world in order to survive.

The book’s ending is somewhat low key and I had to go back over that last chapter a couple of times to decide that it really was an ending. Ullman has a particular goal throughout his quest, and he achieves it, even though other things are left unresolved. Life’s like that a lot of the time.

Pyper, who was a Berton House writer-in-residence back in 1997, and a mentor author at the Young Authors Conference a few years later, has a backlist that includes a lot of haunted protagonists. His novels always have an element of the thriller/mystery in them. This was, I think, his first foray into the distinctly supernatural, though he has certainly borrowed some tricks of the horror trade in some of his earlier books.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning, he made me want to reread Paradise Lost.

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Bookends: The teenage years of an urban vigilante. October 12, 2015

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By Dan Davidson

February 25, 2015

– 950 words –

Repairman Jack (no last name) is the central character in a series of about 15 novels and a batch of short stories. He is a self-styled urban vigilante who uses his wits and considerable (but not unnatural) physical abilities to solve other peoples’ problems. He lives off the grid, having no regular employment, no social security number, no official presence in the world. He deals entirely in cash transactions, some of which he has accumulated as a result of his problem solving activities.

Many of his fixes deal with mundane issues, but there is an increasing supernatural ed
ge as the series moves on. Jack himself has no supernatural abilities.

Most of the books have been about the adult Jack, the full grown Repairman, but creator F. Paul Wilson has recently provided a couple of trilogies dealing with his back story and origins, while still avoiding any last name. The Jack trilogy takes us back to several months in the life of high school aged Jack, the summer and fall of his 14th year, where we meet some of the people who have been mentioned in the later stories.

The teenage Jack novels are less violent and less sexy, with a less harsh vocabulary than the adult books. These Tor Teen volumes are clearly aimed at teenage readers, but the stories are engaging enough that I wasn’t at all disappointed.

 

Jack: Secret HistoriesSecret Histories

By F. Paul Wilson

Tor Teen

320 pages

$9.49

The first book introduces the New Jersey town where Jack grew up, and we meet his friends Weezy (Louise) and her brother, Eddie, as well as the eerie vastness of the Pine Barrens on the edge of town. Exploring when they have been warned constantly not to go there, they find a rotting corpse, which eventually turns out to be a member of an influential fraternal group in the town called the Lodge. Soon several other people connected to this group die mysteriously and the kids have some digging to do.

Weezy is 14 year old Jack’s best friend and a girl with some strange tastes and abilities. She “knows things’ though it’s hard to say just how. She introduces Jack to the idea that there is a Secret History of the World, a theme that will run through his adventures for the rest of his life.

In trying to solve the mystery while at the same time helping his friend Steve, whose home situation has become ugly, Jack pioneers the kind of working behind the scenes technique that will become his trademark, causing things to happen without being seen to do so himself.

 

Jack: Secret CirclesSecret Circles

By F. Paul Wilson

Tor Teen

288 pages

$9.49

Weeks later Jack and his friends get involved in the mystery of a missing boy. Jack feels he may have been one of the last people to see his five year old neighbour, Cody, before he disappeared, and is therefor somehow responsible for finding him.

While searching in the Barrens he and his chums stumble across a mysterious pyramidal structure that looks as if it might have been a cage of some sort. What might it have held? And what does it have to do with the subterranean structures that they find underneath the Lodge when Jack finally finagles a way to break in and search the place.

More importantly, what does all this have to do with Cody and with the lost man who stumbled out of the Barrens after having been chased all night by … something. Could it be there really is a Jersey Devil?

Jack: Secret Vengeance

Secret Vengeance

By F. Paul Wilson

Tor Teen

304 pages

$9.99

Summer is over and school has begun again when Weezy, who has been immune to most of the obsessions of teenage girls, suddenly starts going all girly over Carson Toliver, the captain and quarterback of the football team, heartthrob of South Burlington County Regional High. This causes Jack’s world to take a spin in a weird direction. He himself has just begun to notice that Weezy is a girl, so there are some odd feelings involved.

But when Weezy comes to him to say that Carson has taken her on a date and tried to sexually assault her, and when the rumour mill at the school starts putting out an entirely reversed version of that incident, labeling her as “Easy Weezy”, Jack knows he has to figure out some way to expose the real Carson and clear his friend’s reputation. He needs to come up with a way to create the secret vengeance of the book’s title.

This book also introduces the reclusive local residents known as the Pineys, families that live near the Barrens and are generally looked down on by the rest of the people in Jack’s small city. They have secrets of their own and Jack ends up forging a tentative alliance with one of them named Levi in order to carry out his plans.

As it turns out, Levi is working on his own secret vengeance, on behalf of Marcie Kurek, a girl who had been murdered some time earlier. They solve that mystery as well.

Throughout the three books Wilson introduces a number of characters with strange abilities. There is the drugged Viet Name veteran who has the ability to heal others. There is the mysterious Mrs. C. who appears to know all sorts of strange things and seemingly has the power to appear out of thin air. She’s said to be a witch, but teenage Jack doesn’t believe in witches. He will come to revise that opinion as he gets older.

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Bookends: The book that launched the Travis McGee series is a great beginning November 27, 2014

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Bookends: The book that launched the Travis McGee series is a great beginning

By Dan Davidson

June 4, 2014

– 938 words –

 

The Deep Blue Good-ByDeep Blue Goodbye

By John D. MacDonald

Random House Trade Paperbacks

240 pages

$19.00

 

Brilliance Audio Unabridged reading

Narrated by Robert Petkoff

6 hrs

 

First published in 1964, The Deep Blue Good-by is the first of what would grow to be 21 novels telling the tales of Travis McGee. They would come to be known as the “colour novels”, as each one featured a colour in the title and in the garish, paperback covers of the original Fawcett editions. They span 20 years, the last one appearing in 1984, two years before MacDonald died at the age of 70.

MacDonald is revered by other writers as one of the greats. He is praised by writers of horror, science fiction, thriller and mystery fiction. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark, Jonathan Kellerman, Donald Westlake, Robert B. Parker, Spider Robinson, Karl Hiaasen, Ed McBain, and Kurt Vonnegut are among those who have sung his praises.

The McGee books are not exactly mysteries, though they sound like noir detective stories, with their somewhat cynical first person narration. They are more like thrillers. McGee would eventually come to call himself a salvage consultant, perhaps taking the idea from the fact that he lived on a 52 foot barge style houseboat which was usually to be found moored at Slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale.

He called his home The Busted Flush, because he won it in a poker game that featured that hand of cards. I knew this from the later books (I have eight of them) but I had never heard the story first hand.

McGee works when he needs money and when his attention is caught by a client’s story. His deal is that he will recover whatever it is the client has lost, will take his expenses off the top of the value and split the recovery 50/50 with the client. The price is steep because he is the agent of last resort for this sort of thing and the only hope the client has of every seeing any value.

When not on a case McGee says he is taking his retirement in installments. He is in the midst of one of those when a dancer (Chookie McCall) with whom he is friendly introduces him to one of her girls, Catherine Kerr, a woman who has been bilked by a man named Junior Allen. He has stolen all the illegally gotten gems that her father managed to accumulate during the Second World War while serving in the Far East.

A good portion of the story is the detective work of tracking down people connected to his client’s father and piecing together enough different stories to figure out just what it is he needs to find. While much of the book is set in Florida, there are side trips to New York and Texas.

Allen turns out to be the nastiest of individuals, one who will ruin good people just because he can. He has an uncanny animalistic power over women and uses it to degrade them. Once he has money he moves in on a wealthy divorcee, Lois Atkinson, and nearly destroys her. McGee learns of this during the latter stages of his initial investigation. He finds the woman in a pitiable state, physically, mentally and emotionally and nurses her back to health.

While he is absolutely the whitest of knights during this whole process, the pair of them do eventually fall for each other. It seems to be something more than transference and counter-transference.

By that time his original reason for getting involved in this affair is nearly forgotten, only to be rejuvenated when Allen happens upon his original client and puts her in the hospital.

From that point, McGee begins to develop a fairly complicated plot to insinuate himself into Allen’s latest circle of friends and seek an opportunity to find and recover the swag. While he intends to do this without having an actual physical confrontation with the villain, the plan goes awry and McGee ends up involved in a high seas battle off the Florida coast, with the lives of two women at stake and his own in peril.

McGee has an active and observant mind, and blesses us with all sorts of observations about the people he meets and the social settings in which he finds them. A lot of this has a sort of noir poetry to it. Some commentators don’t enjoy this aspect of McDonald’s style, but I like it.

McGee can be cruel and vicious in his pursuit of information, and there’s a detailed description of an interrogation using a nasty technique in a shower. While he is athletic and powerful, as is shown several times in the story, he is not unbeatable, and the gorilla-like power of Junior Allen defeats him more than once as the story moves to the climax.

There’s certainly no question that McGee is sexist by today’s standards, but this story takes place in 1964. He values women as individuals and they respond to that in him. When you compare him to the James Bond novels that were being written around the same time, he’s practically a feminist.

I listened to Robert Petkoff’s excellent reading of this book on my way to the recent North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway and found a few other MacDonald fans to discuss it with while I was there. I will definitely pick up the next in the series for some other long drive.

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