Sunday, June 25, 2017

THE MOUNTAINS HAVE A SECRET by Arthur W. Upfield






A QUOTE FROM THE BOOK--

A transformation of himself was going on, and it was not the first time in his life nor the first time he had noted it with incurious interest. It was similar to the transformation of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, although the opposing influences where not good and evil, but rather the complex and the primitive in man. The highly-civillised Inspector Bonaparte was retreating before the incoming primitive hunter.

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Arthur W. Upfield’s The Mountains Have a Secret (1948) is one of his best in the series so far.

Australia’s Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) relies on the aboriginal side of his nature to solve the crime. He started on the civilized side and made no progress.

As almost always in these books, the story revolves around an Australian geographical landmark, this time the Grampian Mountains in central Western Victoria. Two young women disappeared in the mountains. To all appearances, someone kidnapped and killed them.

To cover the crime, the murderer kills the yardman at a nearby resort.

Bony tries to break the mystery open by going to the resort disguised as a wealthy nature tourist. He gets nowhere. For the first half of the book, he makes no progress. He almost gets himself beaten to a pulp.

Then he leaves the resort, reverts to his aboriginal self, his mother’s part of his heritage, and taps into a dark part of Australian history.

Bony gets an ally, a young man who loves one of the missing women and wants to learn what happened to her. Along the way Bony watches someone exhume the buried body of the yardman, cremate it, and then become part of the bazaar ritual which gives the book its power.

Bony’s single greatest fault keeps him from bringing the crime to a close, though he is hailed as a hero at the end. He says of himself, “I am a vain fool. If only I had not attempted to grab all the glory.” And that sums up Bony’s abiding weakness. He is too prideful. He always solves the crime, but often his pride gets in the way.

What I have said is intentionally vague. I wanted there to be no spoilers in these comments if I could help it. But I would say this--If you want to read one of the best of the Bony books, read The Mountains Have a Secret.

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P.S. I have said elsewhere that my favorite of these books in the series so far is The Bone Is Pointed.  That remains the case. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

BLOOD HOLLOW by William Kent Krueger






A QUOTATION FROM BLOOD HOLLOW--

“Cork didn’t believe anyone was purely and simply anything. All human beings, it seemed to him, were a collection of conflicting impulses stuffed into one skin, trying somehow to find peace. Death was certainly one way.”
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William Kent Krueger’s Blood Hollow involves religion--murderous religion and healing religion.

Someone kills a teenaged girl who leaves a New Year’s Eve party on her snowmobile. She ends up unconscious in the snow as the murderer sits and watches her freeze to death. All the while, the murderer gorges on snacks and sandwiches.

Cork O'Connor’s wife Jo agrees to defend the prime suspect Solemn Winter Moon. Cork, the former Tamarack County, Minnesota, sheriff, will investigate the murder for the defense.

Solemn is the young woman’s ex-boyfriend. She broke up with him when she took up with another (perhaps married) man. The people of Tamarack County know Solemn as a troublemaker who broke into the local Catholic church, urinated in the baptismal font, and left angry graffiti.

But when Cork puts Solemn in touch with Henry Meloux, one of the Midewiwin, a member of the Grand Council of the Medicine Society of Ojibwe tribe, things change.

Solemn has a startling vision. He talks to Jesus. Though he ends up in jail awaiting charges, Solemn becomes known as a miracle worker, a healer. That reputation almost destroys him.

Solemn’s connection with Henry and his earlier time with the now dead Sam Winter Moon helped heal the young man.

Cork purses the killer, uncovers strange facts about the victim and her family, and struggles with his own painful feelings about the Roman Catholic church. He also uncovers an insane distortion of religion, a distortion that has led to serial murder.


As is often the case with the Cork O’Connor books, Blood Hollow has a tragic but fulfilling close.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

THE CHALK PIT by Elly Griffiths






Elly Griffiths’ The Chalk Pit is an ensemble production. Many of the characters play major parts, and many have their lives changed. The book ends with a full obituary for Bilbo, a homeless man murdered in the story.

When a car full of drunk teenagers narrowly avoids driving into an opening hole in the highway, they see a strange Jesus-like man. He seems to have come up from the pit.

Norwich DCI Harry Nelson enlists his former lover Ruth Galloway to analyze bones found at the bottom of the pit.

Someone kills two homeless men and kidnaps three women including a homeless woman named Babs. Babs turns out to be a strong, important character.

Why would someone kidnap the women and kill the two men? Would it have anything to do with homeless people living underground in the abandoned mining tunnels beneath Norwich?

Griffiths' whole ensemble cast plays a part. Many have their lives changed. Major things occur to people like Nelson’s wife Michelle, Ruth herself, the major investigators in the story, and others. All have well-developed stories. Harry and Michelle’s story involves a startling irony.

Griffiths introduces an interesting new character, Superintendent Jo Archer. She is different from what she first seems to be.

For me, reading a new Ruth Galloway story is like coming upon another good episode of a favorite TV series. Griffiths’ stories entertain me. I enjoy the characters. And I find the plots interesting.

If you like reading ensemble mystery stories in which many characters play important parts, you should enjoy reading Elly Griffiths’ The Chalk Pit.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

WINGS OF FIRE by Charles Todd






Charles Todd’s Wings of Fire sneaks up on you.

Scotland Yard's Inspector Ian Rutledge plods along following people’s stories. Then, all of a sudden, the book turns into an excellent horror story.

Rutledge struggles with his WWI PTSD. He can’t escape the haunting voice of Hamish MacLeod who died beside him in the trenches.

Superintendent Bowles exiles Rutledge to the village of Borcombe in Cornwall to investigate what seem to be routine suicides. And Rutledge uncovers family murder.

The two main suspects are already dead. Rutledge may gain nothing but trouble by unmasking the serial killer. Many of the major clues are in a famous book of poetry, Wings of Fire.

While Rutledge solves the murders in Borcombe in Cornwall, his major nemesis, Bowles, fails to unmask a serial murderer in London.

As always with Charles Todd, the storytelling is straightforward and clear. For me, the book was compelling.


One of my major tasks in the next year or so will be to read my way through all of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge books. 

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I checked this out as a Kindle book from my local library. Your library might offer similar e-book services. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017






William Kent Krueger’s Purgatory Ridge is a good book with two surprises.

One surprise involves an action which goes against human nature. The other has to do with the solution to the murder.

Aurora, Minnesota, former sheriff Cork O'Connor investigates an explosion at a local lumber mill. The explosion killed a well-known leader of the Anishinaabe tribe.

Some people believe the old Indian accidentally blew himself up in a failed attempt to set a bomb at the lumberyard. The owner of the lumberyard is about to harvest a sacred grove of White Pine trees called Minishoomisag or Our Grandfathers.

In the midst of all this, wildfires rage.

Cork’s wife Jo represents the Anishinaabe tribe, further complicating the situation for Cork.

Along the way, Cork grows even farther from his virtually estranged wife and then reconciles with her. But the heart of the story comes with a kidnapping and the violent struggles that involves.

As always with Krueger’s stories, Purgatory Ridge keeps you reading.

Purgatory Ridge was not my favorite Kent Krueger book (of those I’ve read so far), but like all the Cork O’Conner books, it keeps you reading. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A HISTORY OF GOD by Karen Armstrong







Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is what it says it is--a detailed historical survey of the various shades of belief in three of the world’s major monotheistic religions.

Armstrong discusses at least four ways of coming at God--theophany, philosophy, science, and mysticism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had shades of all four.

Theophany is God’s decision to intrude into the world in ways like the burning bush.

All three religions have a God who makes Godself visible in signs, actions, a savior (in the case of Christianity), the scriptures, or in other ways.

For me, Armstrong’s book was heavy reading, especially when it came to Islam with which I am unfamiliar.
       
She spends a long time on the Mystics in all three faiths.

So what interested me? I was struck by how quickly religious thought drifts from what the founder teaches. To give one example, Armstrong writes about Basil, Bishop of Caesarea’s comments on the Trinity. Basil lived ca. 329-79.

Armstrong writes, “Basil also warned us against imagining that we could work out the way in which the Trinity operated, so to speak: it was no good, for example, attempting to puzzle out how the three hypostases of the Godhead were at one and the same time identical and distinct. This lay beyond words, concepts and human powers of analysis.”

So within just a few hundred years Christianity had gone from teachings like the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Jesus’ parables to esoteric discussions about the nature of the Trinity.

As I see it, starting with Paul, Christianity moved away from the teachings of Jesus to speculation about Jesus.  And similar moves away from what the founders taught occurred in the other two religions.

Armstrong taught me a lot. She helped me understand why I like the Old Testament prophets so much. They relate to God in a concrete way, seeing God speaking to them and believing they can see God acting in the world. To me, that makes more sense than seeing Christianity (or any of the three religions) from a Platonic point of view.

A History of God discusses whether God exists, and, if so, all the many ways we try to perceive God. It left me thinking what I thought before. If I choose to believe in God, all I can do is trust in God’s goodness, and leave the rest to God. As a follower of Jesus, to the small extent that I can know what Jesus teaches, he guides me as to how to live today.

One warning. This book is heavy reading.

Hopefully, for me A History of God was a stop along the way to learning more, especially about Islam.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

BOUNDARY WATERS by William Kent Krueger






William Kent Krueger’s Boundary Waters describes the evolution of an Anishinaabe hero story.

The book opens with a psychopathic killer torturing and murdering Wendell Two Knives. Two Knives refuses to reveal where he hid Shiloh, a famous singer running from an enemy who wants to kill her.

Already two people, Shiloh’s mother and Shiloh’s psychiatrist, have been murdered. As a child, Shiloh saw her mother’s murder. Her psychiatrist may have helped her remember the episode and name the murderer.

A search party sets off into the Boundary Waters wilderness to find Shiloh. Along the way, they find out about Wendell’s murder.

Wendell’s ten-year-old grand nephew Louis guides the party. The party includes Aurora, Minnesota, former sheriff Cork O'Connor; two supposed FBI agents; Shiloh’s stepfather; and Wendell’s nephew (Louis' father) Stormy Two Knives.

Two men claim to be Shiloh’s father, a dying mobster and a well-known politician who is on his way to becoming governor.

All nature gathers to help save Shiloh. Amidst a series of brutal killings (including the murder of two innocent fishermen who cross paths with Shiloh), a gray timber wolf shadows Shiloh and protects her.

Cork O’Connor’s estranged wife Jo plays a crucial part in the story. She is the first one to figure out who is paying for the killing.

But at the heart of the story is the wolf and the idea of Wendell’s walk on The Path of Souls. The book portrays the evolution of Wendell’s hero story. It tells how heroes touch lives and save people in ways some cultures remember forever.

Boundary Waters ends with a moving scene where the youngest member of the search party, Louis Two Knives, tells Wendell’s hero story.


Thursday, April 27, 2017






William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake is a violent, powerfully written novel with a Native American religious subtheme.

Anishinaabe legend says that when the Windigo calls your name, you are bound to die.

Disgraced Aurora, Minnesota, former sheriff Cork O'Connor investigates the apparent suicide of a corrupt local judge. The judge was a powerful figure. His son has been elected to the U.S. Senate. O’Conner believes someone murdered the judge.

At the same time, O’Connor looks for a teenager who has disappeared. The former sheriff believes his disappearance ties in to the judge’s murder.

And all of this happens as O’Conner tries to put his shattered family back together. He struggles with his love for a woman other than his wife.

These details only hint at the power and tragedy in the story. But for me, one of the major interests was in the Anishinabee legends themselves. Cork, who is half Irish and half Anishinaabe has two Native American mentors. One is Sam Winter Moon with whom he hunted “the big bear.”

Sam Winter Moon and the big bear changed the fourteen-year-old hunter’s life.

Cork’s other mentor is Henry Meloux.

Meloux tells Cork about the Windigo, “... you got to be careful, because even if you kill the Windigo, you’re still in danger.” And when Cork asks, “What danger?” Henry replies, “Of staying a Windigo forever. Of being the ogre you killed.”

The Windigo calls several other names including Cork’s.

As each of those people dies or is murdered, the question remains if Cork will be next. But Cork’s destruction is not physical. It is much more terrible than that.

So this book does more than keep you reading. It reminds you that often in life, we cannot separate the terrible and the beautiful.


Iron Lake is the well known first novel in what is now an extensive series. I hardly need to write about it for you to have heard of it. I am glad I ran across a mention of it in Friday’s Forgotten Books, and I’m glad I read Iron Lake

Friday, April 21, 2017






Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging (1935) is a cozy locked room mystery.
              
The story involves three “locked rooms.” Someone kills the president of St. Anthony’s College in his locked apartment in a locked orchard compound in the walled and locked college.

The doors to all the locked areas have the same key. Ten keys exist, nine accounted for. The president changed all the locks the day before.

Scotland Yard Inspector John Appleby identifies seven suspects (accounting for the alternative title of the book, Seven Suspects).

Most of the suspects lie, either to protect themselves or to try to throw suspicion on another colleague. (So much for collegiality at St. Anthony’s.)

To say that Death at the President’s Lodging is complex makes it sound too simple.

Innes writes the book in a humorous, but academic, style. One short sample sentence--“I would remind you, Mr. Appleby, that the horror of these events was exacerbated by the inspissated gloom in which they were enveloped.” And Innes’ descriptions are longer and more complex.

So Death at the President’s Lodging is a particular kind of book. If you like complex, “where were the suspects at 9:30 p.m. and 22 and one-half seconds”-type cozy, clue-driven stories, you should love this book.

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I learned about this author from the listing of another of his books in Patricia Abbott’s weekly “Friday’s Forgotten Books” listing. I find a lot of interesting books in the “Friday’s Forgotten Books” weekly lists. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS by Karen Armstrong






Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness is a testament to the power of literature and poetry.

This second volume of Armstrong’s spiritual autobiography takes its central conceit and title from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.”  Armstrong compares her climb out of darkness to hesitantly climbing a spiral staircase, moving up and dropping back.

Along the way, Armstrong quotes Coleridge, Pope, Tennyson (with whom she has a strong affinity), Wordsworth, and others. She takes the words, “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind,” as her mantra.  Those words come from Wordsworth’s “Ode to Immortality.”

At one point, Armstrong writes  “...the religious quest is not about discovering ‘the truth’ or ‘the meaning of life’ but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to ‘get to heaven’ but to discover how to be fully human....”

Later she writes: "Here again, the religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion."

And later yet,  "Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads. In killing Muslims and Jews in the name of God, the Crusaders had simply projected their own fear and loathing onto a deity which they had created in their own image and likeness, thereby giving this hatred a seal of absolute approval. A personalized God can easily lead to this type of idolatry..."

And finally, she comes back to the role of literature in her salvation. “Indeed, studying English literature at university may have been a fruitful preparation, because increasingly I was coming to see theology, like religion itself, was really an art form. In every tradition, I was discovering, people turned to art when they tried to express or evoke a religious experience: to painting, music, architecture, dance, or poetry. They rarely attempted to define their apprehension of the divine in logical discourse or in the scientific language of hard fact. Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible.”

So, after she left the convent, Karen Armstrong's love of literature helped her deal with her mental depression and physical illness. It brought her to a place where she could write The New York Times’ bestseller A History of God and many other books.

I came to know Karen Armstrong from her writings about Islam, some of which I read following 9-11. I wanted to know more about the Muslim faith. The jingoistic slogans I heard everywhere back then (and still hear now) seemed inane to me.  

I plan to read more. Right now, I have Armstrong’s Buddha on my reading list, and her most well-known book, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Also, I plan to read her Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. The City of Jerusalem and her visits to the Holy Land played a large part in Armstrong’s healing.

Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase is a moving book. If you are interested in spiritual biographies and in how one woman worked through her darkness to find light, you might want to read this book.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

A TEST OF WILLS by Charles Todd






A quotation from the book--

“Ye’ll not triumph over me!” Hamish said. “I’m a scar on your bludy soul.”

“That may be,” Rutledge told him harshly. “But I’ll find out before It’s finished what we’re both made of.”

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Charles Todd fills A Test of Wills with tragic (and maybe sometimes hopeful) stories.

Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge remembers his bitter decision that caused Hamish MacLeod to be forever in Rutledge’s mind.

A little girl loses her doll and witnesses a murder.

Some people remember a tragic automobile accident years ago.

A well-known artist continues to mourn the death of her German prisoner of war lover.

A young woman lives with a tragic hidden love.

Several characters struggle with terrible shell shock from the recent war, WWI.

 And the final climax of the book reveals a violent on-going tragedy which almost takes another life.

Inspector Rutledge’s superior Superintendent Bowles sends Rutledge to Warwickshire knowing Rutledge will fail. Bowles hates Rutledge because Rutledge is upper class. Bowles is from the working class.

And Rutledge does almost fail. Hamish’s inner voice and Rutledge’s shellshock rob Rutledge of his intuition, the insight which made him a brilliant detective before the war.

But Rutledge is as persistent as always. He continues to pursue thread after thread of all the tragic stories, not knowing where any of them are leading him. And when he succeeds, Bowles gets the credit.

This is the first-written book in a wonderfully written and well-known series. For me, the joy is that I have so many left to read.

I very much enjoy reading the history and police procedure in the Ian Rutledge books.  


Sunday, March 26, 2017

A FINE SUMMER'S DAY by Charles Todd






Charles Todd’s A Fine Summer’s Day opens on Sunday, June 28, 1914. This was the same day terrorists assassinated Austrian archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, the event which set off World War I.

On that day, Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge proposed to Jean Gordon. Another man, far away, proposed to his beloved. And still a third man made plans to bury his mother and start off on a cross-country murder rampage.

Most of the murderer's victims would drink a glass of milk laced with a deadly dose of Laudanum. Coroners would rule several of the deaths suicides. In at least two cases local police would accuse innocent people of murder even going so far as to take one to trial.

But Ian Rutledge would think all the deaths were murders. He would believe another seemingly unrelated case is connected to the murders. He would believe the presently accused are innocent. And he would work against time to prove their innocence.

What did the victims have in common? 

Rutledge uses his intuition and his penchant to see things others overlook. He plods along, struggles with a hardheaded superior who wants a quick solution, follows the facts, and tries desperately to find the thread to break the case.

At one point Rutledge says, “Even though I myself don’t know what the man looks like, I’ve got only a general description to be going on with. But I think it can be done with time and perseverance.”

And that is one key to Inspector Ian Rutledge--perseverance. Following up on every detail until he finds the thread that breaks the case.

This time he is almost too late. The war is closing in, and he will end up going.

Rutledge’s fiancĂ© Jean becomes impatient with him. At first she is taken with the pageant of war. Her father is a decorated soldier. She wants a pageant-filled wedding with all the trappings of military service. But then the war turns ugly. Many come home in coffins or badly maimed, and many don’t come home at all. All of a sudden, reality sets in.

It is hard for me to overstate how much I like the Ian Rutledge books. (Believe it or not, I’ve just run across them.) Charles Todd’s writing is clear and interesting. The characters fascinate. And the history resonates with what is happening in the story.

When I first read about this book, I thought this was the first book in the series, and in a way, it is. It is a “prequel” written later to tell about Rutledge’s early history.

So now, my task is to keep reading. 

Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge books have caught my fancy.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

COLIN DEXTER


Sometimes good books are like pebbles thrown in the water. They send ripples outward.

I have not read many of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morris books, but I loved watching Inspector Lewis on PBS. Lewis, of course, came out of the Morris books. 

My wife and I streamed the Inspector Lewis episodes and have seen almost all of them.

Colin Dexter died March 21, 2017, at the age of 86. May he rest in peace. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017






Judith Flanders’ A Cast of Vultures has interesting characters and a complicated plot.

Samantha Clair lets a friend talk her into looking for a missing neighbor. They even break into the neighbor’s house to find clues.

The neighbor turns up dead, caught in an arson fire in an abandoned building filled with squatters. Sam and her friend Vi set out to prove that someone murdered him.

The squatters turn out to be Sam’s allies in her search.

Sam’s live-in Scotland Yard boyfriend struggles with Sam’s detective propensities making for some humorous scenes.

Both Sam and her boyfriend come close to being murdered thesmselves.


Sam is a book editor. A Cast of Vultures gives considerable detail about her job and the pitfalls that go with it. 

For me, reading A Cast of Vultures was like watching one episode of a TV comedy-mystery.