Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Willnot by James Sallis

Bloomsbury, 192 pages, $26 (and worth every penny)

What if James Sallis wrote a long poem (for he is a poet) and called it “Willnot”? I think he did, and then he did.

“Willnot” is one of the most beautiful crime stories I’ve read. To be fair, it isn’t a traditional crime story. “Willnot” follows the life of Dr. Lamar Hale in the town of Willnot. Through his small-town doctor eyes, we meet a variety of town folk, including his life partner, Richard, a high school teacher. Their stories are mostly gentle and interesting. Even Bobby, the mysterious military deserter? sniper? assassin? who shows up in the doctor’s office just to say hi, is gentle with the doctor. The doctor treated him as a child, and they shared a common experience: both of them had been in comas as children. Maybe both have seen what is on the other side of the mortal fabric while there, wherever “there” is. Certainly, the doctor believes he has seen prophetic visions of other lives and experiences since then.

But what of crimes and bodies? “Willnot” begins with the uncovering of a mass grave. Periodically, tidbits are dropped to show that the investigation is continuing. Then there is Bobby and the police alerts that appear in his wake, not to mention the appearance of a federal agent who gently haunts the town. There are bodies (not necessarily dead) we view because Lamar IS a doctor. Sallis gives us vignettes of Lamar’s patients’ lives. So what if most of the book is about Lamar’s practice and his relationship with Richard instead of the crimes.

When something of a violent nature does happen, it is secondary to the philosophical discursion and observant peeks into other lives that make up the book.

Here are some of Sallis’ poetic thoughts:

Richard doesn’t see things the way others do. He’s a teacher. ‘Yeah, that’s us,’ he said not long after we met, ‘a cliché from old Westerns. Doc and the schoolmarm. Well, except for the marm part.’

and

‘Some nights I can feel myself going away, hissing or leaking out of my own body, like gas. Hear my teeth rattling like dice in a cup.’

and

Our favorite time of day, light slowly fading but not yet forgone, time itself slowing, the moment like a held breath.

and, finally,

A recurrent fantasy from childhood, before the coma. I think: That the world was rebuilt each time I slept. Sure that if I listened hard in the darkness I’d be able to hear carpenters at work, masons grunting as they hoisted stone, the stage manager creaking up ladder steps to hang the moon or sun.

Do not go gentle into that good night, poet Dylan Thomas said. These characters of “Willnot” will not; they will stay for awhile, even after the story has ended.

For his shining prose and especially for the questions he never answers — contrary to what you desire in a traditional crime book — an MBTB star!


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Drowned Detective by Neil Jordan

Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $26

Jonathan doesn’t have a last name. He is English, as are his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Jenny. They currently live in an unnamed country (but much like Hungary) with lots of history of unrest and revolution. They are there because Sarah is an archaeologist and works at an important dig. Jonathan is a seeker of missing people and a follower of people who need to be followed. Sarah’s excavation has precipitated political unrest through misinformation. The country was an unacknowledged powder keg anyway. There are many references to the dissident Russian band Pussy Riot, and both angry women and men wear pastel balaclavas to protest. The police, of course wear black balaclavas. So all the combatants are masked, just as their country is masked in anonymity. This seethes in the background of the main story.

Jonathan suffers an emotional drowning, unless there is a plot twist and he has indeed drowned when he jumped off a bridge to save a young woman. Certainly his life takes stranger and stranger turns after his leap. When someone bumps into him, he silently rejoices because that means he is solid and real.

Jonathan and his wife are having marital difficulties. They are seeing a therapist. Sarah may or may not have had an affair with one of Jonathan’s employees. In any case, Jonathan believes she has and gives her the passive-aggressive treatment when she wants to reconcile. Yes, I will do what it takes to save our marriage, but I resent you and will not let you forget how much you hurt me, he thinks. Needless to say, things are not going well in the reconciliation department.

Then the cellist appears. She is the woman who jumped off the bridge, the one Jonathan rescued, the one Jonathan becomes obsessed with. Bach’s cello suites are the constant background music for the story. It becomes more difficult to see Jonathan truly meaning to heal the rift with his wife while at the same time emotionally detaching himself to be with the nameless woman.

The only complete case we see Jonathan “handle” as a detective is the case of a missing daughter. About twelve years ago, when she was a child, Petra Pavel disappeared. Her parents have begged Jonathan to give finding her one more try. Against the advice of his colleagues, he agrees. I put “handle” in quotes because it was difficult to see that Jonathan did any of the work on the case. He did visit a brothel to see if one of the prostitutes was Petra, stolen and kept in servitude there, but his employee, Istavan, leads him around the rest of the time. At one point Jonathan talks about all the work he did. The psychic Gertrude gets it right when she says, “‘You are a detective, of sorts.’”

Gertrude is the bridge between the first two-thirds of the book and the last third, when author Neil Jordan presents his big reveal. She and her Pomeranian are the two most real characters in the book. The rest are acting out their parts without knowing why. I kept thinking of “destiny” in relationship to them, the misfortune to be on destiny’s footpath. When Jonathan consults her — as he had on prior occasions — Gertrude sees Petra in a small room which she cannot leave. It drives one of the threads that eventually tangles with all the other threads.

The tone of this book is very similar to that of the only other Jordan book I have read, “Shade.” If the books were music, they would be a prolonged mournful cello note, rising to a rapid staccato, and ending with a sustained and fading high note. I could not warm to Jonathan, nor do I think I was meant to, but I did tire of his “victimhood.” On the positive side, Jordan tells a visual tale. Much could be made cinematically with the main reveals.



Monday, July 11, 2016

Never Missing, Never Found by Amanda Panitch

Random House for Young Readers, 320 pages, $17.99

“Never Missing, Never Found” is a YA book, if you are into categorization.

Scarlett, the heroine of the story, is seventeen years old. She lives with her sister, brother and father. When she was eight or so, she was taken from her home and held as a household servant/slave in a brothel until she was twelve. (The author makes it clear that Scarlett was just a maid, not a child prostitute, thus differentiating it from the more graphic adult versions of similar stories.)

After she was returned to her family, she tried hard to bury her sad past and to create new bonds with her siblings. Seven-year-old Matthew loves her and is no problem. Melody, now about fifteen, was distinctly cool and unwelcoming from the start. It has been an uphill battle to win her regard. But like Prometheus, the battle seems to roll uphill forever.

Scarlett has just begun a job with Five Banners amusement park (a Six Flags lookalike). For the first time since returning, she makes friends, belongs to a group of teenage coworkers and starts to have peer-appropriate fun. Then one of her coworkers, a teenager she barely knew, disappears. She’s become a member of the “club,” Scarlett sadly muses.

Melody becomes friendly with several of Scarlett’s coworkers, and one especially, Katharina, catches her attention. Is it just Scarlett’s heightened sensitivity to danger, or is Katharina a little too edgy? (Just because you think someone is after you doesn’t mean it’s not true.) Or is she slowly going crazy? (She stopped going to a therapist, even though many issues were unresolved.)

At a little past the halfway point in the book, if memory serves, the book begins a roller coaster ride (in honor, no doubt, of the thundering roller coaster that travels over the grounds where Scarlett works), building slowly to a sudden drop-off into Crazyville. Part of the emotional release is reliant on a concomitant storyline, that of Scarlett as the young victim in her new “home.”

“Stepmother” is what she called the woman who made her clean the house after the brothel’s business was done. Stepmother locked her in the basement when she was not working. Although she was fed and allowed to occasionally clean herself, Scarlett is desperately lonely. To remedy that, Stepmother acquires another little girl, Pixie. Scarlett and Pixie are in the same boat but are not made of the same stuff. Pixie seeks every opportunity to escape and endures the wicked punishment when she fails.

Of course, it is not until near the end of the book that we learn what happened to Pixie and Scarlett. It was truly unexpected, and perhaps not in a wholly satisfying way. Nevertheless, author Amanda Panitch’s slow progression in ratcheting up the tension was well done. Her characterization of the older Scarlett and her attempt and desire to be normal again is poignant. “Never Missing, Never Found” was a pretty good thriller, both for young adults and old adults.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ping-Pong Heart by Martin Limón

Soho Crime, 368 pages, $26.95

Martin Limón has steadily put forth intriguing, detail-filled, passionate books about Korea in the 1970s. His series, featuring Army CID agents George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, has done an exemplary job of combining story, character, and situation.

“Ping-Pong Heart,” the eleventh novel in the series, starts small and goes big. When the married, upstanding Maj. Frederick Schultz is robbed by a prostitute, he wants revenge, restitution, and respect. He gets none of the above when Sueño and Bascom hear quite a different story from the prostitute, Miss Jo. Then Maj. Schultz is murdered. And Miss Jo disappears.

The deeper the boys investigate Maj. Schultz’s background, the more they realize he had some potentially seriously bad juju. On behalf of the the 8th Army Provost Marshal’s office, he has been investigating military efficiency and fiscal waste throughout the country.

Captain Blood of the “Five-Oh-Worst” military intelligence batallion is not sorry to see the last of Schultz, who had investigated his outfit. He has built his little North-Korean-spy-sniffing kingdom, and his testosterone-filled heart brooks no interference, especially from Sueño and Bascom. So, to investigate Captain Blood, the boys call on Mr. Kill.

It sounds like a comic-book character convention, doesn’t it? Mr. Kill has appeared in several other books in the series. He is an enigmatic, English-speaking, martial arts-wielding heavyweight in the Korean national police force. His word carries the equivalent of imperial command, just what the boys need when they venture into non-U.S. military areas of the country.

Back on the homefront, there is something seriously amiss with Miss Kim, their CID secretary. She is being harassed by a twerp. As a Korean woman helping to support her family in an impoverished country, she already has a heavy load. That includes fending off an amorous Ernie Bascom, whose love-em-and-leave-em sensibility she doesn’t understand or tolerate. Evading a military stalker adds to her burden. Sueño and Bascom decide to teach the stalker a lesson. What they eventually find is a strange link back to their primary case.

This is what Limón has to say about Ernie in the voice of his narrator, George Sueño, obviously the brains part of the brains-and-brawn duo:
Ernie loved conflict. The only time I saw him grin from ear to ear was when people were butting heads or, better yet, swinging big roundhouse rights at one another.
Ernie plays his head-butting part well. But what of Sueño, the heart and soul of Limón’s series? He has reached the point in his relationship with Captain Leah Prevault, a military psychiatrist, at which he has to examine his feelings about Dr. Young, his previous lover and mother of his son, both of whom are currently fugitives from the Korean government. Limón does a good job of balancing the personal, ongoing stories of his main characters with the current murder investigation. Limón uses humor and humanity to depict a country he learned to love when he was a military reporter (count the references to the “Stars and Stripes”) at a turning point in its history.

In the end it is Limón’s compassion in the face of the clash of cultures that brings me back time and again. This is a superior series. This is a book with an MBTB star.

P.S. I laughed out loud at the line, “You slicky my ping-pong heart.”