[from the vaults, first posted February 11, 2004] So this is what we did last night. It’s about eleven-thirty, most of the ship has turned in for the night. I’m brushing my teeth and EO Tony Erickson knocks on the door to tell me we’ve caught a SAR case. I shoot up to the…

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[from the vaults, first posted February 10, 2004] A boarding at first light, of 123-foot longliner fishing for Pacific cod. “This is the only place in the world you’d call that a small boat,” says XO Phil Thorne. “In any other fishery it would be illegal.” The swells were only five feet and the…

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Flight Quarters

[from the vaults, first posted February 9, 2004] Man, I’m tired, and all I did was watch. More or less clear skies (what’s a little hail between friends?). We spent most of the day in the lee of St. George in the Pribilofs, waiting on weather. You should see the NOAA weather forecasts for…

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You must understand, whoever you are, that in those days Rome, mistress of half the world, was a place as savage as a village of Nile pygmies.

Thus providing employment for our narrator, one Decius Caecilius Metellus, young commander of what passes for local law enforcement in his district of the city of the seven hills, circa 70BC. As John Maddox Roberts’ The King’s Gambit begins, someone is committing arson and garroting manumitted gladiators and rich freedman in Rome. In a plot that moves from simple murder to outright treason and threatens his own life, Decius’ investigation takes him into a Senator’s sister’s bed, to a brushing acquaintance with pirates (those same pirates who betrayed Spartacus, and here we find out why) all the way up to the Senate, including its two Consuls, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus.

Yes, that Crassus and that Pompey. One of the most enjoyable things about this series (which now numbers thirteen) is the cameo appearances by characters right out of the history books, like Gaius Julius Caesar (yes, that Caesar), as in

The new calendar was one of Caesar’s better ideas. (At least, he called it his calendar. It was Cleopatra’s court astronomer, Sosigenes, who actually created it, and in truth it was Caesar’s own neglect of his duties when he was Pontifex Maximus that got the old calendar into such dreadful shape in the first place. That’s something you won’t find in the histories written later by his lackeys.)

Ouch. But Decius gives the devil his due, too, as here

Hortalus gave very florid speeches, in what was known as the Asiatic style. He wrote the same way...Such writing reads very strangely now, since Caesar’s bald and unornamented yet elegant style revolutionized Latin prose. Between them, Caesar’s books and Cicero’s speeches utterly changed the language as it was taught in my youth.

The period detail is great, too, as when Decius goes to Ostia to interview a witness

From each shop front and storehouse came the fragrances of the whole Mediterranean world. Incense and spices were stored here, and rare, fragrant woods. The odors of fresh-sawn cedar from the Levant and pulverized pepper from even farther east mingled with those of frankincense from Egypt and oranges from Spain. It smelled like Empire.

Decius is an engaging character, not the ambitious social climber you’d expect from a young Roman on his way up, but a good man whose motivation to solve these crimes, as he confesses to his vestal virgin aunt, comes from not wanting to see innocent slaves crucified in lieu of the actual murderer.

Yet another true detail of soon to be imperial Rome that will make you glad you’re enjoying this story in a comfortable chair in your living room two thousand years later, and not living through it yourself.

# Permanent link to The Senate and People of Rome

Box Ops

[from the vaults, first posted February 8, 2004] Today we are on holiday routine as we do what the Coast Guard calls “box ops”, essentially running a repetitive route inside a box we draw on the radar, to remain in the lee of St. George Island (one of the Pribilofs) which is protecting us…

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Semper Paratus

[from the vaults, first posted February 7, 2004] Turns out Ops officer Scott Littlefield wasn’t wrong about the weather, he was just a little previous. We got ours, 30 knot winds and fifteen foot seas, but I have to say, Petty Officer Frank Brown was right when he called the Alex Haley a Cadillac.…

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The setting is England. The first novel, River of Darkness, takes place soon after World War I, where a serial killer is charging into rural homes and slaughtering entire families. The second novel, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, takes place a decade later, in the depths of the Great Depression, and a homicidal maniac is targeting young girls for rape and murder. The third novel, The Dead of Winter (love that title), takes place in 1944, after D-Day but before the Battle of the Bulge, and an assassin for hire laying low in England during the war stumbles across a witness to one of his jobs who got away and leaves a trail of dead bodies behind him in a bloody search for the one person living who can testify against him.

The central figure of these novels is John Madden, first a detective inspector for Scotland Yard and then a farmer who in spite of himself is drawn back into the two subsequent cases. There are other great characters, too, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, John's boss, Billy Styles the boot constable, Helen Blackwell, the local doctor (love that name, too, Airth's done his homework) and many others, and part of the genius of these novels is that we get to see how things turn out for everyone because we are dropped into their lives at ten-year intervals.

Another reason I love these books is that Airth doesn't force us inside the minds of the killers (I am so sick of that). No, we learn about the villains one tiny piece of information at a time, just like the detectives do. These are police procedurals every bit as good as and maybe even better than Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, and I never ever thought I'd say that about any novels.

Instead, Airth takes us into the lives of the victims, fully fleshed characters who are practically neighbors by the time he's done with them, and by then you're so worried about whether the good guys are going to get there in time that you're on the edge of your seat.

The setting is a you-are-there trip back to England in the 20's, 30's and 40's, and again, because we get to drop in once a decade we get to see how things turn out. The first novel is all about the cost of war, to John and to the nation. If you teach a natural born killer how to kill in war, what do you think he's going to get up to when you declare peace? The second novel is about what the powers that be will do to maintain that peace, and you will be every bit as disgusted as Angus is when you find out what they are willing to sacrifice in the name of national security. (Fuckers.) The third novel makes full use of world war as a plot device (there is a harrowing scene where the cops are about to make a raid and get blown up by a doodlebug instead), with fascinating detail of what it was like to live in London as well as the countryside during that time.

I just made a friend with a new iPad download River of Darkness, so they're available as e-books, too. Go get 'em.

You know why I picked up the first of these books? Because many years ago, I stumbled across a paperback copy of another book Rennie Airth wrote, called Snatch.

It's sort of a modern day Ransom of Red Chief, and it is hilarious. It isn't on Kindle yet and you can't have my copy, but there are a bunch of used copies on

# Permanent link to The Return of Rennie Airth

Iliasik Pass

[from the vaults, first posted February 6, 2004] Hello again from sunny (so far) southwest Alaska. We started the day with snow on the deck and fog. In the middle of the Unga Strait we came across a fishing vessel pulling cod pots, guys out on deck working the gear. “That there?” I said…

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