Monday, September 16, 2019

"The Long Call" by Ann Cleeves

I’ve been looking forward to the publication of The Long Call by Ann Cleeves for months. Cleeves, the author of two popular mystery series – Vera Stanhope, set in Northumberland, and Jimmy Perez, set in the Shetland Islands – was bringing forth a new detective in a new series. 

The promotions for the new Two Rivers series kept to bareboned information – the series would be set in North Devon, the English county that runs from Bristol Bay to the English Channel and separates Cornwall form the rest of England. There was a reference to the police detective – Matthew Venn – having left a religiously conservative family. Other than that, little else was said.

The story begins with a man found stabbed to death on the beach. The body has no identification, so Venn and his team have to find out who the man is before they can move forward. Venn has just come from his own father’s funeral, not as an attendee but as an observer. He is something of a persona non grata with his mother and the members of her church, the so-called Brethren, but it will be some time before we find out why. 

Gradually, we come to learn that the victim worked as a volunteer at the Woodyard, a factory converted to spaces for the arts, community groups, the elderly, and the disabled. The investigation keeps coming back to the Woodyard, the lists of potential suspects keeps growing, and a conflict of interest is mounting for Venn.

Ann Cleeves
The novel has a short introduction by the author, expressing some nervousness with introducing a new character and a new series. Cleeves is one of the best mystery novelists writing today, in the same league as Louise Penny, and it’s a bit odd to begin a new series with what sounds almost like an apology. 

The first two chapters seemed off. The character of Matthew Venn seemed almost one-dimensional, as if Cleeves wasn’t quite sure what kind of character he was. She describes a police detective who, at 40, is tentative, lacks self-confidence, and is still trying to escape his religious upbringing. 

Two supporting characters – Venn’s constable Ross and his sergeant Jen – seem more real. One of the suspects, the Brethren’s retired minister, also seems more real, if played a bit to the stereotyped rigid believer. The third chapter explains more – Venn is married to a man, who happens to be the founder and manager of the Woodyard (and thus the conflict of interest). It’s a surprise, landing without a hint. And the back story has to be worked in, or at least enough of it so that the reader understands. I’m not sure if she’s included enough back story yet, which may be coming in future entries in the series.

Cleeves has published eight mysteries in the Jimmy Perez / Shetland series, including Raven Black (2008), Red Bones (2009), White Nights (2010), Blue Lightning (2011), Dead Water (2014), Thin Air (2015), and Cold Earth (2017), with Wild Fire published in September. She’s also published eight mystery novels in the Vera Stanhope series (also a television series), six Inspector Stephen Ramsay mysteries, and several others works and short stories. The Jimmy Perez novels are the basis for the BBC television series “Shetland.” Cleeves lives in northeastern England.

It takes some gumption even for an established, popular author to step outside her comfort zone and create a new series. The Long Call is an interesting story, solidly based in the police procedural sub-genre like the Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez novels. Cleeves is still finding her sea legs with this new detective, but she is experienced enough and a good-enough writer to get there.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

The guard speaks

After Philippians 1:12-18

You call this a gospel,
good news, do you?
You say you find peace
even here, do you?
I’m not the one 
In the cell and even
I find this place a pit,
a dread, I would rather
be anywhere but here,
even fighting barbarians
in those forests forsaken
by the gods. And yet
you say you find
contentment here, that
your soul, your spirit,
your mind is at peace.
So, tell me more, prisoner,
tell me how you find
contentment in this place,
how you find peace
in this earthly hell. 

Photograph by Carlos Rabada via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Saturday Good Reads

Can anyone explain what is happening in California? In recent days, the state legislature has upended the gig economy upon which Silicon Valley depends, approved a statewide form of rent control, and eliminated the use of student suspensions by public and charter schools. Then a court hearing was held on the trial of the two people who recorded Planned Parenthood representatives negotiating the sale of body parts from abortions. And what comes out at the hearing but Planned Parenthood being allowed to edit the original search warrant, hide part of the law from the judge, and circumvent the police by pulling political connections and going directly through Loretta Lynch and Kamala Harris. Is California deliberately trying to scare the rest of us into voting to reelect Donald Trump?

The first sexual revolution, Kevin DeYoung reminds us at The Gospel Coalition, was not the 1960s. It’s actually a bit older than that – when Christian morality triumphed over culture in the Roman Empire.

He’d been dead for 16 years when I was born, but Huey Long cast a long shadow over the politics of my home state of Louisiana, well into the 1960s. My New Orleanian maternal grandmother considered him a saint; my relatives in north Louisiana considered him the spawn of Satan. Ellen Carmichael at National Review has an interesting look at the man – the truth about Huey Long, if such a thing is possible to be told.

One way to consider the election of Donald Trump is as a failure of American elites to steward their responsibilities. Derek Thompson atThe Atlantic sees a more profound failure – one that has brought America right to the brink of an existential crisis.

More Good Reads Music 

Rich Mullins: Chestertonian Troubadour – David Deavel at The Imaginative Conservative. 


1619, Slavery, the Founding, and All That – Bradley Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative. 

Ursula Le Guin, Huckleberry Finn, and Monument Controversies - Chris Mackowski at Emerging Civil War. 

History Will Mapping Ancient Rome Save Western Urbanism—and Civilization? – Theo Mackey Pollack at American Conservative. 

The Communist Plot to Assassinate George Orwell – Duncan White at Literary Hub. 

Faith Bavinck: No, Individualism and Autonomy Did Not Come from the Reformation – Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition.

Engaging Culture from Ahead, Not Behind – Samuel D. James at Letters & Liturgy. 

Kearsarge Cemetery – Chris Yokel. 

Dance Floored – Jerry Barrett at Gerald the Writer. 

Timeless – Rod Walford at the Society of Classical Poets. 

This House – Rhina Espaillat at Verse Daily. 

A Bell in the Word Barn – Kelly Belmonte at All Nine. 

9/11 – Martha Orlando at Meditations of My Heart. 

Essay: On Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ and the Power of Poetry – T.M. Moore at the Society of Classical Poets. 

Writing and Literature 

The Crime Novels of WWII – James Benn at CrimeReads. 


The Necessary Talent: Berthe Morisot Exhibition at the Musee D’Orsay – Julian Barnes at The Literary Review of Books

Katy – A Single Mother’s Story

Painting: Woman Reading on a bench, oil on canvas by Edouard Vuillard (1898)

Friday, September 13, 2019

Even the bad stuff

After Philippians 1:12-18

I didn’t expect to end up
like this, chains on my arms
and legs, and a dank, dark cell;
it’s not exactly what we’d call
entering the city in triumph. 
I must have missed 
the commemorative arch. And
the waiting – a prison cell
of its own, day by day,
waiting to be called and
heard. There is no king
but Caesar; indeed? 
Suffering becomes self-pity
becomes anger, until the day
the guard asks me to explain,
and I do. Then another guard
asks, and the prisoner 
in the next cell as well, 
silencing his own chains
to listen. Then I understand,
only then, that I am here
in this place, even this forgotten,
condemned place, to serve
a purpose, the help fulfill
a plan, and I am struck with
wonder that even the bad stuff
is the good stuff. 

Photograph by R. Martinez via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sedleigh Hall Murder" by Roy Lewis

Eric Ward is what’s called an “articled clerk,” in training to become an attorney and working at a notable law firm in Newcastle. He’s also 40, when most articled clerks are half his age. Eric had been a policeman, and a good one, until pensioned out because he developed glaucoma. 

At the law firm, Eric does all the hard work for the principal partner’s son. The father suspects as much, and he begins to include Eric in visits to clients. Eric has also been handed an administrative case – disposition of an estate of a deceased client with no known survivors. He recognizes the client’s name – a man who went to prison years before for the murder of a local colonel. It looked like an open-and-shut case, until Eric begins to see anomalies, years after the man had been released from prison, took up a new life, and then died. And the anomalies are attached to a legal matter the firm is handling for a lord, a major landowner in Northumberland. Eric may be in the process of becoming an attorney, but he still has a lot of the policeman in him.

Roy Lewis
The Sedleigh Hall Murder by British author Roy Lewis tells the story of Eric ward and what he uncovers. It’s set about 1980, so there are no mobile phones, no computers, and no DNA analyses. It’s a top-notch mystery story, with a sympathetic hero struggling with the pain of glaucoma, a fascinating case to unravel, and even a slight touch of romance.

Lewis is the author of some 60 other mysteries, novels, and short story collections. His Inspector Crow series includes A Lover Too ManyMurder in the Mine,The Woods MurderError of Judgment, and Murder for Money, among others. The Eric Ward series, of which The Sedleigh Hall Murder is the first (and originally published as A Certain Blindness in 1981), includes 17 novels. The Arnold Landon series is comprised of 22 novels. Lewis lives in northern England. 

The Sedleigh Hall Murder is a classic British mystery, as good as any I’ve read. Many of the Lewis mysteries were published 30 and 40 years ago, and kudos to Joffe Books for bringing them back.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019


He sits, stares at a single painting 
in the afternoon, rather abstract,
neo-abstract, perhaps neo-realist 
or post something, he doesn’t know
but it doesn’t matter, the painting
and its moment, the painting
in its moment is what matters
to him, speaks to him, he doesn’t
understand why but he’s beyond 
understanding, beyond veneration,
having arrived at veneration,
the painting is an icon, he thinks, 
the painting should be carried
properly by priests in cassocks
and belts of rope, priests
with long beards, as they carry
the icon flanked by acolytes
with candles down the steps
to Fifth Avenue and turn south. 

Painting: September, oil on canvas by Gerhard Richter (2005), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This poem is a repost from Sept. 11, 2014.

"Better with You" by Rachel John

Shaun Randall, six feet four and with bright red hair, is a young man with no interest in settling down. He keeps relationships with girls superficial, but he can find a way to talk to just about any girl. Just don’t get too close. He’s at dinner by himself, when he sees a couple obviously having a bad date. They guy is watching sports games on television, while the girl is saying nothing and only fiddling with the straw in her drink.

He rides to the rescue, posing as the girl’s cousin, and then waits with her outside while her sister comes to pick her up. The girl is Paige Parker, talked into a bad date by her mother. Paige is one self-sufficient young woman, staging homes for sale, flipping houses herself, and determined to be a success. She’s also lonely, but she keeps shoving her feelings to the back of her emotional closet. She has work to do and worlds to conquer.

Rachel John
While they wait for her ride to show up, they get along so well that Paige impulsively kisses him before dashing to her sister’s car. It looks like this relationship has ended before it began, but Shaun and Paige keep running into each other, and then find themselves competing for the same house. Shaun helps her move furniture from a house she sold. At some point, the lives of Shaun and Paige will converge – but will it be a clash or, perhaps, something else?

Better with You by Rachel John is the second novel in the “A Change of Plans” series by writer Rachel John. It’s also one of 12 romance novels written by the author, along with two quiz books, a children’s book of bedtime stories, and an audio romance book. John lives with her family in Arizona. 

The story keeps the reader guessing, although we know it won’t end badly. But we don’t know how it will end, and whether Shaun will overcome the baggage from his childhood and whether Paige will understand that life isn’t all about work. But there's always hope.