Monday, August 25, 2014

ALL MORTAL FLESH by Julia Spencer-Fleming

I want to dislike the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne books, but I don’t. I like them a lot.

Some reasons I want to dislike them--

They seem manipulated. They are like episodic TV. Each episode ups the ante.

I can’t believe any bishop would keep a minister in a community where she has faced the situations Clare faces.

One of the quickest ways to fracture a congregation or a small community is for the minister to have what appears to be an “inappropriate” relationship. The bishop’s second in command knows about the connection between Clare and Russ.

Sometimes police make unlikely (and convenient for the story) mistakes.

I am almost offended by the ways Russ lets Clare take part in investigations. She goes places where no civilian should ever be.

I watch how everything that happens ratchets up the tension. The state investigator comes in predisposed to trash Russ and Clare. Russ finds out Linda’s secrets, and those secrets are devastating to Russ.

I find much of the premise fantastic (in the sense of unbelievable).

Yet, I like the stories. And my wife loves them. She has read the whole series.

In All Mortal Flesh Russ and his wife Linda separate. Then Linda’s best friend finds Linda murdered in the Van Alstyne house. (This is not a spoiler. The author’s blog mentions this.) 

Russ has made the choice to stay with Linda. He faces a perhaps-not-unusual dilemma. He loves two women--Linda and Clare. But he has decided between them. If his wife will let him, he will be faithful to his vows.

The bishop installs a new deacon in the parish. In the Episcopal church the role of deacon is that of an ordained person whose rank is below the clergy. The new deacon seems to Clare to be the bishop’s spy.

And clearly something terrible is happening in Millers Kill.

The story ends as usual, with intense action threatening one or more of the main characters.

You have to read these books to understand them. For me, one of the best things about them is that Clare Fergusson is a spiritual person. As human as she is, she is more loyal to God (as she sees God) than she is to Russ.

Clare is an intelligent, impulsive, strong, determined woman. She does hard things because she thinks God wants her do them.

The books have a liturgical basis. Most of them start with and are built around words from hymns, prayers or scripture. The titles come from prayers, songs, or scripture.

These are among the strangest books I read. But, as I said, I like them. I have two more to read to complete the series as it stands so far. I have already started on the next one.

P.S. One suggestion. If you have not read any of these books and want to read one, I suggest you start with 2002’s In the Bleak Midwinter. The books build on one another. Reading them from first to last would give continuity to the complete story.



“This just doesn’t strike me as being the church’s business,” Elizabeth said.

“Business? Mankind is our business,” Lois quoted, picking up her notepad and swiveling off her chair. “Mind if I use your phone, Deacon?”

         --The new church deacon argues that Clare should not minister to people outside her congregation.


“So I’m going there to check things out.”

“Why? Is he one of ours?”

A question designed to make Clare snatch out her hair. She fell back on St. Luke. “The Lawyer seeking to justify himself, asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’”

The deacon had the grace to look abashed.


“In the short time I’ve been here, I can see how much you care for your congregation. But don’t you think the members of St. Alban’s have a right to expect their rector to keep her focus on them?”

Thursday, August 21, 2014


It has been a long time.

Like most of us, I suppose, years ago I read and loved Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. When Amazon offered Murder by the Book (1951) on a daily Kindle special, I took them up on the offer.

A grieving father asks Wolfe to investigate what he thinks is the murder of his daughter. She worked for a book publisher. The murder appears to have been a hit-and-run automobile accident.

Wolfe might not have accepted the case except that weeks ago Inspector Cramer brought him a list of names found on a slip of paper in another murdered man’s book. The names were aliases. One of those names was the pen name on a manuscript the man’s daughter had rejected. That rejected author took the daughter to dinner the night she died.

This leads Wolfe and Archie to investigate three murders connected to the manuscript. They keep hitting dead ends until they pull a scam to shake up things, and that breaks the case open.

This is Archie’s story. Archie does most of the complicated legwork. He has some of the ideas. He earns at least three of Wolfe’s “satisfactories” and one “very satisfactory.”

Archie’s work is loathsome. He interviews ten (mostly younger) women and dates a couple of them.

These books are so deftly written. If there are facts the reader shouldn’t know, Saul Panzer, not the narrator Archie Goodwin, investigates them. Wolfe (and Stout) keep the facts from Archie.

Rex Stout’s plotting is intricate, and his characters (especially the brilliant, eccentric Nero Wolfe and the woman-loving Archie) make the rest work.

It was good to get back to reading about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Monday, August 18, 2014



Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley is an authentic small town police procedural.

I call the book authentic because Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, policeman Henry Farrell solves the crime the way a small town policeman would. He listens, he watches, and he knows the people.

Aub Dunigan shotguns Danny Stiobhard wounding Stiobhard and causing the local doctor to call Henry Farrell.

That leads Farrell to Aug’s small farm where he finds an unidentified body.

Someone killed the man months earlier. The murderer stuffed the body in a crevice to be covered by the winter snow.

Aub swears he didn’t kill the man. In the midst of the investigation, someone murders Farrel’s deputy. And the story goes from there.

Farrell is at the bottom of the law enforcement heap. When the sheriff, the state police, and finally the DEA become involved, Farrell is more shut out than included.

But he continues talking to this strange mix of people. Aub Dunigan is the most interesting of them all.

A declining recluse, Aub has his own secrets and tragedies. Those become clear in the course of the story.

Along the way, Farrell searches fracking sites around While Thyme. He hates fracking. His wife died of virulent cancer. He believes fracking chemicals caused the disease.

Also, Wild Thyme township harbors Meth labs run by druggies who have migrated from the city. Wild Thyme is a strange mix of its Gaelic heritage, isolated reclusive characters, and modern environmental abuse and crime.

The title Dry Bones in the Valley doesn’t refer to the bodies unearthed in the story. Those bodies have not yet been reduced to bones. Instead, I think Dry Bones in the Valley refers to the bones of ancient animals. Those animals and their decay makes this part of Pennsylvania rich in gas and oil.

At one point, Farrell describes his job as much like hunting. He quietly notices, watchs, waits, and when he is close enough, closes in to find the killer.

In this case, the killing comes from an unexpected source.

My only struggle with this book was in keeping up with the vast array of characters.

I spent most of my growing up and working years in small Missouri towns. (I’m talking about small towns, 10,000 or fewer, mostly a lot fewer.)

I am often skeptical of small town mysteries. Some authors don’t understand small towns. 

Dry Bones in the Valley is an excellent, authentic, small town mystery.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

FUN HOUSE by Chris Grabenstein

Chris Grabenstein's Fun House is more of the same.

The city fathers assign police officers John Ceepak and Danny Boyle to provide security for a reality TV show filming in the seaside tourist town of Sea Haven, New Jersey.

The show, like most of those shows (the book implies), is a cheesy operation. Someone scripts the reality. The staff selects the wildest stars possible. Every episode becomes more way out and ends in such a way as to bring people back next week.

Then apparently a drug dealer kills one of the stars. The crew films Ceepak and Boyle trying to stop the killing. The scene is chaotic and beyond belief. Ceepak and Boyle become reality TV celebrities.

Becoming a celebrity is the last thing the strait-laced John Ceepak wants. But the show's ratings go off the scale. Sea Haven's sleazy mayor insists that Sea Haven allow anything these people want.

Ceepak and Boyle pursue the killer. Someone kills their suspect, and they have to start again.

The story has three fun houses. “Fun House” is title of the TV show. It is the nickname of the rented house the reality TV show stars live in and trash. And The Fun House is the name of a Sea Haven carnival venue.

The carnival Fun House has distorting mirrors and other things we remember from our own time in fun houses. It even has a 1950's amenity, a grate which blows air to raise women's skirts.

The story ends with a chaotic showdown in the carnival Fun House.

These books are insider novels. Two other cops in Sea Haven are named Malloy and Reed. Grabernstein names another cop after a book blogger. And there are probably other “in” jokes I didn't recognize.

My favorite book in this series was Hell Hole. After that, the books seemed to become more scripted, more written around a pattern.

The Boy Scout-like Ceepak and the ordinary Boyle are still interesting. 

The books still make social points. Fun House shows how money corrupts Sea Haven and the TV business. And the books are funny.

In this book, TV ratings, promoting the town, making more money for everyone involved run everything. Cops with the values of Ceepak and Boyle bring ethical standards to an insane world.

I still enjoy reading the John Ceepak-Danny Boyle stories.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


A former student (40 or so years ago) sent me these pictures. I gave her my copy of the most useful book I ever owned. I have since had several other copies.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Ed Lin’s Ghost Month is the most setting-heavy book I’ve read in years.

The first third of the book describes Taipei’s night market and the surrounding areas. A night market owner, Jing-nan, learns of his girlfriend’s murder.

Jing-nan and his girlfriend had an agreement. They would both go to prominent colleges in America, get their degrees, and then marry when they were well off. Until then, they would not contact each other.

Both of them seemed to have failed. Jing-nan’s parents died so Jing-nan had to return from the U.S. to take over the family food stand in the night market. Jing-nan’s girlfriend ended up working as a Betel nut beauty, a prostitute, in another section of Taiwan. 

As in other countries, prostitution is mostly run by organized crime. Taiwan has at least three levels of organized crime--local thugs who run neighborhoods, the larger Black Sea group and its offshoots, and foreign elements including the CIA.

All along, it is Ghost Month, the month when the gates of the underworld open and the dead roam the streets. People put out food and light candles for the ghosts. They go to the temple (an open courtyard with statues of goddesses and gods) to burn money so the ghosts will have money for the things they need.

And Jing-nan fixates on his favorite band Joy Division.

I had never heard of Joy Division. I Goggled it, listened to some of the music, and learned they were a post-punk band. One major member suffered epileptic seizures during sets. They made few albums before that man committed suicide and the band continued under another name.

I felt unqualified to read this book. It dealt in such detail with a foreign place and a different way of thinking. The music was out of my realm. Some of the actions seemed unreal to me, though they might have been real in that setting.

Jing-nan receives a message written in lemon juice, the old childhood gimmick of invisible writing which shows under heat. He sends his new girlfriend into a very dangerous situation to find what happened to his old girl friend. And the story goes from there.

The book also has a religious element. Jing-nan does not believe in ghosts and the temple culture which surrounds them, but by the end of the book he becomes more tolerant. He says, “Was it really so wrong to have temples and superstitions, if, in the end, they allowed people to find some inner peace in this horrible world?”

At another point, he said, “I came to an understanding in Longshan Temple, Nancy. We’re all human. We break promises and screw up our lives, sometimes by design and sometimes through circumstances. It’s a good thing that we can find some comfort in goddesses and rituals.”

So what did I think of the book? I found it hard reading, too much setting. But once I got into the story, I kept moving on. I don’t think I’ve read any book that gives a better sense of setting and place. The place and culture inform every action in Ghost Month. Its cultural authenticity may be the best thing about Ghost Month.