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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, 317 pages, $26.95

This is not a mystery.

At first glance “The Buried Giant” is a fantasy elaboration of the legend of King Arthur and his knights. When the book begins, Arthur has been dead for a number of years, and a strange “mist” has grown over a wide part of England. Tribes that Arthur had defeated or diplomatically brought under his charge have been at peace for some years. But the mist has made people forgetful, not only of their own lives but of their area’s history.

Figuratively rubbing the mist from their eyes, Axl and his wife, Beatrice, venture forth on a journey. They are old and their journey is to visit their son who lives in another village, somewhere vaguely “over there.” They have only partially shaken off the forgetfulness that has settled over their cave-dwelling community; they know that they have forgotten significant events in their lives. Their journey, it turns out, is also to reclaim those memories.

On the way they meet other victims of the mist, some kindly and some traitorous. They join forces at various times with Sir Gawain of the Round Table, nephew of King Arthur, and Wistan and Edwin, displaced Saxons, normally enemies of Britons like Axl and Beatrice.

The mist, it appears, is the result of the breath of the great and fearful dragon, Querig. To conquer the dragon would defeat the mist, and memories would return. Surely that would be a good thing. Sir Gawain and Wistan are each on quests to find the dragon.

Axl and Gawain ruminate throughout the book about what the future holds. Each looks back in his own way and sees sadness. Their hope for the future, however, diverges. Should either wake the sleeping giant of the past? Is what the future holds worth more pain and suffering?

Mythological tales underlie “The Buried Giant,” but tales turned to make Kazuo Ishiguro's point about what mankind values or should value. The writing is restrained, the infrequent violent action sudden and brief and often only found in subsequent discussion, and the moral lesson subtly stated and shaded. Although it is slow-moving and sometimes tedious in its descriptions, this is a quietly effective book and a treasure.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves

Pan, 448 pages, £7.99 (UK only) (c2005)

“Telling Tales” is the second book in the series starring DI Vera Stanhope. In the first book, “Crow Trap,” Vera was just one of a group of women whose stories were told in turn. It took seven years for Cleeves to write the second book. Perhaps it took her a while to see the value of the character she had created. Set in Yorkshire, that fecund area of England for crime novels, this (so far) six-book series features Vera, a curmudgeonly, independent, abrasive, plain-looking and plain-talking, but intuitive, inspector.

Like “Crow Trap,” there are a few characters whose trails we follow, but “Telling Tales” is most definitely Vera’s book. Emma Winter Bennett is a young mother. As a fourteen-year-old, ten years ago, she discovered the body of her best friend, Abigail Mantel, in a ditch by Abigail’s home. Abigail’s father’s much younger girlfriend, Jeanie Long, was charged with the murder. It was assumed at the time that Jeanie killed her out of jealousy. Now, however, a witness has appeared, giving Jeanie an ironclad alibi for the time of the murder. Unfortunately, Jeanie has just committed suicide in prison, having despaired of convincing anyone of her innocence.

Vera is assigned the task of reviewing the Mantel case with “fresh eyes” in a neighboring village precinct. She’s an outsider and resented by the local detectives. She and DS Joe Ashworth, her young assistant, uncover a variety of secrets nevertheless.

Ann Cleeves is good at writing about secrets. She seems to reveal a lot about her main characters, while at the same time hinting that something is hiding in the closet. Her characters seem real, vulnerable, burdened. She also writes with rich detail about the culture and scenery. It is worthwhile tracking down a UK copy of this book. Try www.abebooks.com for a good used copy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves

Pan, 552 pages, UK edition (c1999)

I hate to recommend “The Crow Trap” because it is hard to find in the U.S., but it’s worth scrounging around for a copy of this British import (and the others in the Vera Stanhope series). What has made it to the U.S. is the ITV version of Ann Cleeve’s series, starring Brenda Blethyn. Both the book and TV series are highly recommended.

In this first book in the series, the alternating viewpoints are all of women. Rachael, Anne, and Grace are doing an environmental impact evaluation of a Northumberland site for a proposed quarry. During the first half of the book, Cleeves presents the same period of time as seen very differently by the three women. Vera’s point of view doesn’t come into play until the last part.

The three scientists are billeted in a cottage on the farm owned by Bella and Dougie. Rachael has been to the cottage before for various studies and has come to appreciate her friendship with Bella. Her shock is exacerbated, therefore, when she discovers Bella’s lifeless body swinging from a rafter in the barn. It seems to be suicide — there’s even a note — but Bella hasn’t really left an adequate explanation as far as Rachael is concerned. As she takes it upon herself to investigate, she wonders if Bella’s death doesn’t have something to do with the proposed quarry.

As Anne’s and Grace’s stories are added, it’s apparent there is an abundance of intertwining relationships. There are connections, for instance, to the local landed gentry, the Fulwells, a horse riding academy, and a sanitorium. And each woman’s past also muddies the water. Soon there are other deaths, and finally — finally — Vera is called in.

What a brilliant, independent, quirky, soul-burdened spirit Vera is! Even something from her past, when she was a lowly constable, affects the current problem. She is a curmudgeonly joy to watch in action. From her imperious dealings with underlings to her sad musings over her unusual relationship with her father, she is always interesting.

Cleeves has created a complex storyline, but it is told clearly and with excellent pacing. She differentiates her characters brilliantly and makes them whole, especially Vera.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

Minotaur Books, 288 pages, $24.99

Engaging character (a book editor). Check. Great location (London). Check. Witty dialogue. Check. Funny bits. Check. 

Sam(antha) Clair is a “middle-aged, middling-ly successful editor.” Breda, Sam’s most famous author, writes “women’s books.” After regularly producing a predictable book (and bestseller) each year, she offers something different. And Sam hates it. Her assistant, Miranda, hates it. How do you tell your bread-and-butter that her book sucks?

While Sam is pondering the imponderable, she is cheered by her friend (and client), Kit Lovell. Kit is a fashion journalist and he has brought her a book alleging the murder of a famous couturier, Rodgrigo Alemán, and criminal activity at Alemán’s company. Since Alemán’s death was ruled accidental, Sam is concerned that Kit’s evidence adequately supports his charges. Kit says it’s in the bag. Unfortunately, the bag disappears with Kit.

When Sam tries to interest CID Inspector Jacob Field, who has come to see Sam on an entirely different matter, in the (perhaps) disappearance of her friend, he blows her off. By the time Sam manages to convince Jake (yes, he soon becomes “Jake”) that something may be amiss in fashionland, other people have become involved in what might be an international scandal.

Helena Clair, Sam’s powerhouse attorney mother, however maternal she may not be, is willing to put her mighty brains and knowledge of corporate shenanigans at Sam’s disposal. With the help of other acquaintances, Sam slowly gathers information about Kit and about the fashion scandal. But will it help her find Kit?

And what is she going to do about Breda?

Knowledgeable about the publishing business and gossipy about what goes on behind-the-scenes. Articulate and funny. A touch convoluted in the plot but satisfying, nevertheless. Happy to love Sam Clair. Hope she survives to wield her pen another day.

MBTB star!