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

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Ruling Passion by Reginald Hill

Felony & Mayhem, 304 pages, $14.95, c1973

“Ruling Passion” is the third book in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, which, by the time of Hill’s death in 2012, had reached twenty-three novels. The series roamed the hills and dales and towns of Yorkshire, England, and taught its American readers that mystery was deep and rich in Northern England, not just in jaunty London town.

Peter Pascoe at the beginning of the book is a Detective Sergeant but is promoted to Inspector by the end, although the book is full of his fumbling and wrong-concluding. His superior officer is Detective Superintendent “Fat” Andy Dalziel, a straightforward, sometimes vulgar, rough-hewn, gleaming intelligence. And although Dalziel plays a part in this book, it belongs to Pascoe.

Pascoe and girlfriend Ellie are on their way for a weekend reunion with four old friends in the small, quaint town of Thornton Lacey. When they arrive, silence greets them. And the dead bodies of three of their friends. In the initial ghastliness of the situation, Pascoe finds it difficult to be a policeman. He teeters between being a witness and being a professional.

Fortunately for his sanity, duty drags him back to Dalziel’s side to solve the mystery of a string of burglaries, one of which has turned deadly. Is the last deadly burglary really related to the others or were the burglaries a convenient opportunity for someone to extract revenge?

Reginald Hill does a great job see-sawing (or teeter-tottering, if you’re British) between the cases. Pascoe gains a maturity and humility through being at both ends of police procedure. Hill’s love of language and literature has always made the Dalziel/Pascoe books a standout series. When was the last time you read a crime novel that involved Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard”?

If you want to start at the beginning, “A Clubbable Woman,” written in 1970, is where you should begin. The publisher Felony & Mayhem has done a great job reissuing a good many of them.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Song for the Brokenhearted by William Shaw

Mulholland Books, 416 pages, $26

British author William Shaw ends his Breen/Tozer trilogy with “A Song for the Brokenhearted.” It is a grisly, bloody, heart-wrenching end to an outstanding series.

Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen and his ex-colleague, Helen Tozer, begin the book far from the bustle of a police station. At the end of the second series entry, “The Kings of London,” Paddy was wounded and Helen had quit the force to take care of her parents’ farm when they can’t. She has taken Paddy with her to recuperate. Helen’s mother feeds him barely edible food.

They are joined by teenaged Hibou, rescued by Helen from a drug house. Instead of healing and burgeoning with a connection to the earth, most of the inhabitants of the farmhouse are overcome with gloom. Hibou, full of ideas about organic farming and nurturing the land, is the exception. Buoyed by her enthusiasm, Helen’s father is coming out of his funk.

Why are people depressed? Paddy’s injury is slow to heal and he is bored. Helen’s sixteen-year-old sister, Alexandra, was tortured and murdered a few years ago. Helen’s father probably blames himself and he sits in front of the television, daring his farm not to fall apart in the meantime. Helen’s mother keeps the home fires burning in the kitchen, but no one seems particularly interested in her bit of nurturing. And the last place Helen wants to be is on a farm doing work she hates.

Helen sweet talks the local policeman into letting Paddy look at the police reports of Alex’s death, which brings him out of his doldrums. Alex’s killer was never caught, so Helen’s ulterior motive is to provoke another investigation into her death.

What brings this book to life is Shaw’s depiction of the interrelationships of the main characters. There are tensions, irritations, and incompatibilities. For instance, Helen and Paddy are sometime-lovers, frequent antagonists, and permanently not on the same page. Helen is especially prickly and Paddy is especially clueless. Helen also bristles at her father’s growing dependence on Hibou.

Here’s a little depiction of Helen and Paddy:

A fellow poiliceman: “‘…[Y]ou and her. She’s a bit nuts. And you’re…’”

Paddy: “‘Conventional.’”

Shaw masterfully turns what could be another good British mystery into a great one by adding an unexpected storyline. There are many victims, not all of whom show the scars of their torment.

Here is the first MBTB star of 2016!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Minotaur Books, 336 pages (hardcover release date - 2/16/16), translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

“Silence of the Sea” is the sixth book in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series set in Iceland. For the most part, the standing characters are described pretty well. The exception is the incompetent, belligerent secretary Bella. Throughout the book, if you don’t know what the background is, you will be wondering why attorney Thóra and her law partner don’t fire Bella. By my reckoning, she should have been fired at least eight times during the course of the book. So, as a favor to those of you who haven’t read her other books, here is a précis of Bella’s story. From “Last Rituals,” the first book in the series:

“When Thóra and her business partner, the older and more experienced Bragi, teamed up to open a legal firm together, they were so taken with the premises that they let the landlord add a proviso to the rental agreement: the firm would employ his daughter as a secretary. In their defense, they had no way of knowing what they were getting themselves into. The girl had a glowing recommendation from the estate agents who had rented there before them. Now, however, Thóra was convinced that the previous tenants had moved from the ideal location on Skólavördustígur solely to rid themselves of the secretary from hell.”

Now we can move forward.

Thóra is hired by the parents of a man presumed lost at sea. When a yacht is repossessed by a financial institution, its representative, Ægir*, takes advantage of the inability of one of the crew members to make the sailing from Lisbon, Portugal, to Reykjavík, Iceland, and signs on for the missing crew member. Because he was using the occasion to also take a family vacation, he has his wife Lára and two of his three daughters with him. Even though Ægir has no particular expertise in sailing a yacht, the captain and two bona fide crew members seem to be all that is really needed.

The yacht shows up in Reykjavík, but there is no one aboard. The three crew members and Ægir and his family have disappeared. The communications and emergency equipment have been disabled. Then the dead bodies start appearing.

Karítas, the wife of the man who lost the yacht to debt, haunts the book with a heavy presence in absentia. She was famous for being famous. Many of her expensive clothes and personal belongings are still aboard the boat.

Thóra has been asked to help obtain the life insurance benefits for his parents to help with raising the youngest daughter, who was left at home with them. So Thóra somehow has to provide substantive proof that, absent bodies, Ægir and Lára are dead.

In alternating stories, we follow both Thóra’s investigation and the events on board the boat during its final days. Spooky things are afoot in both stories, and there are shivers as Thóra and others are at a loss to explain sights and occurrences.

Are all on board dead? What does Karítas have to do with any of it? Yrsa gives the chills along with the requisite thrills. And what I like about Yrsa is that her stories also contain humor (especially vis-à-vis the not-so-bella Bella). She provides the counterpoint to her fellow Icelander Arnaldur Indriðasson’s dour mysteries.

*Ægir’s last name is never given. In Iceland, last names are patrynomics or matrynomics. Giving last names is generally not as important as in other Western cultures. His last name is probably Margeirsson, based on his father’s name.

The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan

Minotaur Books, 336 pages, $25.99 (release date - 2/2/2016)

“The Language of Secrets” is the follow-up to “The Unquiet Dead,” a moving portrayal of the atrocities visited on Muslims in Srebrenica. Inspector Esa Khattak returns as the tenuous head of the Toronto Community Policing Section. His assistant, Rachel Getty, is still as feisty and dedicated, dedicated to being the courageous and humane police officer her father was not, and dedicated to being a loyal and committed member of the CPS.

Although Khattak is on an occupational tightrope because of the circumstances of “The Unquiet Dead,” he is called in to work on the murder of an old friend in the cold winter woods of a Canadian park. What muddles the icy waters is a purported link to terrorist activities in his friend’s mosque. Surprisingly, his friend turns out to have been an undercover agent trying to prevent an attack. So who killed him? 

Rachel is the one who goes undercover in the same mosque, pretending to be interested in converting. Khattak, as a high-profile detective, is too well-known to the attendees to be a mole. His personal life becomes entangled in the case early on when it is revealed that his willful, beautiful sister is romantically involved with the suspected leader of the terrorist cell.

As with the first book, the strength of the second book lies in its depiction of the Muslim world struggling for identity in a non-Muslim country. As Ausma Zahanat Khan says in her afterword, “There is no inherent connection between Islam and terrorism, despite the rash of events that appear to link the two. Like all religions, Islam is multi-vocal, and there are different interpretations of Islam available to its practitioners….” This is certainly worth remembering in light of recent real terrorist activities done in the name of Allah. For people not knowledgeable about Islam, Khan serves as an educator.