A story that twists like the Rio Grande



Review of Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III

One of the most satisfying literary discoveries is a truly unique story. This is particularly rare in the mystery-thriller genre. Many thrillers seem to be emulating another derivative book, trying to ride a bandwagon to market success. Far too many read as if the author were trying to write an episode of his or her favourite TV show.

So when I opened Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III, I was prepared for disappointment. But what I found were realistic characters, solid writing and a satisfying, completely original story.

The plot twists and turns, but holds the road.

Place of Skulls is the fourth in Pirtle’s Ambrose Lincoln series, a spy-thriller set during the Second World War. A lot of authors give their main characters a huge character flaw—alcoholism, a history of abuse, a physical disability—and Lincoln has what seems to me to be the most debilitating for a spy: amnesia. Ambrose Lincoln has no memory of his past, and cannot remember why he knows the things he does and cannot account for certain skills he has, such as the ability to pick a lock with a hair pin.

But he does have ghosts—at least one. He’s followed by a dead man only he can see, and only at night, the ghost of a man he killed in a military engagement that he cannot remember.

A rich Dallas oilman named Eliot Bergner hires Lincoln to find whoever killed his brother, Danny. “Danny B.” is a DEA officer who was investigating the smuggling of drugs from Mexico into the U.S., carried by poor, desperate migrant workers. One night, his mutilated body arrives in Texas in an empty boxcar. But not before he sends a message to his brother, Eliot—an observant Jew—that he has found incontrovertible proof of Christ’s appearance in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest in 1492.

Drugs and religion: that would seem to be enough for one book, but then the author adds the idea that Nazi Germany is lacing the cocaine and heroine the migrants are smuggling with Thallium, a potent and undetectable poison. Their idea is to addict as many Americans as possible, and then kill them.

As if that’s not complex enough, shady U.S. government operatives are about to launch an invasion of Mexico to stop the influx of addictive poison, but because Mexico is a sovereign nation that, at the time the story is set, has not yet declared which side of the war it’s on (which would have to make it between December 7, 1941 and May 22, 1942, when Mexico declared war on Germany), they have to keep it secret, even from the President.

No, it’s not impossible to make this story plausible.

If any author had come to a publisher with an idea for a novel about a detective finding incontestable proof that Jesus Christ came to Mexico before 1492, and getting caught up in a US government plot to invade Mexico to throttle the drug trade, mixing in Nazi spies, he probably would have been advised to pick an easier mystery to pen. But Pirtle handles the challenge well, giving the readers just enough information as the plot builds to keep us readers turning pages.

There were a few places where I was afraid the novel would become excessively Christian, where a plot point could only be explained by a miracle or an answer to true faith, but thankfully, Pirtle avoided that. Everything made sense, and while there is a definite religious motif to this book, it makes sense.

The characters ring true.

Author Caleb Pirtle III

Pirtle gives us a wide range of believable characters, all with strengths, weaknesses and flaws. I loved some of them, and detested others, but I reacted to each one. All their actions and reactions logically proceeded from their situations and personalities, with no unbelievable transformations. Eliot Bergner’s agonized family relationships add some surprising depth to the story. I suspected the femme fatale at first, but Pirtle’s iron-tight plot made her completely believable.

The author  gives us a satisfying closing.

Pirtle also avoids a facile story arc. Lincoln struggles against drug cartels, traitors, cowards and ghosts, all of whom leave scars. At no point do we know for sure who’s going to survive the next battle, and it’s never certain who’s going to win.

Pirtle doesn’t cut corners. The book has been produced professionally, meeting or exceeding the standards of commercial fiction. In fact, this book was much better than the commercially published stuff I have read lately.

5*

Visit Caleb Pirtle III’s website for links to buy this and other books.

Cleaning off winter’s dust



Spring is coming to Ottawa — I can tell because the snow is getting dirty and the birds are starting to chirp (“Hey! We’re freezing out here!”)


Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson, licensed under Wikipedia Creative Commons.
A change of season always inspires me to take on new projects, and to resolve to complete those half-done tasks like organizing the basement and cleaning the garage. Time to take the skis and skates, shovels and snowblower, and stack them away neatly until next November (if we’re lucky; January if we’re not); time to pull out garden hoses, rakes, gardening tools and rubber boots. Time to take out the bikes, re-inflate the tires, tighten the seat, oil the chain and adjust the brakes. Time to gather up all those little things that I just put down wherever was handy through the winter and put them in their proper places.


Whenever I do things like this, I find so many things that I had thought were lost or that I had forgotten completely. The same is true of my writing: whenever I straighten up the papers scattered around my study (“Not often enough,” my long-suffering, lovely wife adds from offstage.” I’m doing it now!) I find little notes, longer notes, outlines and partial drafts from months or years ago — ideas for stories or novels that I wrote down and forgot about since.

The messy office. Photo by allysa/Creative Commons.

Now that spring is here and my second novel is (mostly) wrapped — at least, the creative part —I feel energized again to move forward and finish my third novel, tentatively titled Walking from the Soviet Union. And the next one, where I’ll be completing Dark Clouds, the first book in an imagined series about the Witch Queen’s Son.

The advantage of finding notes after I’ve forgotten about them is that they lose their baggage in the process. My notes are short forms for my ideas, a few words or phrases to trigger the thoughts I had. But after a number of months, a lot of those ideas are forgotten, lost under the dark waves of what passes for my mind.

But that frees me. Unlike my bicycle or the kids’ basketball net, the passage of time does not leave a thick layer of dust and grime and god-knows-what-its-source-is goo on ideas. They’re more like driftwood, cleansed of clinging assumptions, associations, emotions, stripped down to the true essence of an idea.

I’m expanding Dark Clouds
from a short story to
a novel eventually.

Like this one for Dark Clouds, the novel I seem to be writing in installments timed with special events. I had almost forgotten this little nuance to the back-story: “Matt is immune to magic; he can break or absorb the Witch Queen’s spells, but every time he does so, he must give her a piece of his life-string.”

See? I had thought of a deeper dimension to the story, the idea of a price that the hero has to pay for every favour; every victory he earns furthers his ultimate defeat.

Wow. That sounds great, and looks better on the page. Now, it’s time to buckle down and write!

Your turn: does springtime inspire you to start something new? Or to finish an incomplete project, artistic or otherwise? Tell us all in the comments block below.