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

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Prayer of the Bone by Paul Bryers

Bloomsbury, 256 pages, out of print (c2000)

“The Prayer of the Bone” is an atmospheric, Gothic novel set in Maine, written by a Brit. (John Connally has a series set in Maine. What is it about Brits and Maine?)

Maddie left the UK with her ten-year-old daughter to move to Maine. She got a job working on Dr. Wendicott’s archaeological dig, looking for the remains of an English settlement. Secondarily, the dig crew is trying to determine what happened to the Souriquois (Micmac) indigenous people. On the verge of a significant discovery, Maddie’s body is found near the cliffs of the coastal excavation site. She appears to have been mauled by a bear.

Calhoun is the detective assigned to the backwater where the death occurred. When Maddie’s sister, Jessica, flies in from England, he is immediately attracted to her (and Dr. Wendicott). (Pickings are slim, apparently.) It’s a story about sex. It’s story about myths. It’s a story about dysfunctional families. (Lots of dysfunctional families.) It’s a history lesson.

Mostly there is a lot of grey, snowy, rainy, muddy bleakness. Paul Bryers paints the gloom well. Here is a passage about the “cold, bleak border country between England and Scotland”:

“A land of sheep. Ugly rain-sodden sheep with shaggy grey coats that looked like bits of wall had broken off and been scattered across the hillside; and black crows that nested in the twisted beech trees of the churchyards and flew down to eat the eyes from new-born lambs…”

Even the child, Freya, comes in for her share of foreboding: “Jessica often used the word [elfin] to describe Freya to her friends in Rome, meaning ‘scamp-like, cute’, not thinking then of its more chthonic connotations, of furtiveness, secrecy, even slyness, of the dark creepiness of the forest. But Freya was half Celt, half native American; it had to be in the genes.”

Bryers holds the Gothic tone pretty well, except for a rhythmic change-up when dealing with Calhoun’s soaring testosterone. Bryers also presents a fascinating history lesson of the European insolence and expansionism in Maine, even though a lot of it is fictional.

For most of the book, Bryers keeps up the suspense of whether Maddie has been murdered. (Or maybe it's just tough to get an analysis done during a cold Maine winter in the middle of nowhere.) There's a rousing discussion of bear cults, people acting like animals, spirit animals, and weirdness.

Although “The Prayer of the Bone” is out of print, it is easy to find a used copy. It’s worth the effort.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Precipice by Paul Doiron

Minotaur Books, 336 pages, $25.99

I just heard Portland author Lori L. Lake mention at MBTB’s book group that she had heard two different authors refer to the power of book six in a series. Apparently it is the tipping point when people begin to notice authors; there’s an established track record and evidence that a publisher had faith in the books. Well, folks, “Precipice” is Paul Doiron’s book six in his Maine game warden Mike Bowditch series, and we need to take note of him.

I quietly admit that I had not read the previous five books, even though people whom I respect praised the series. I just hadn’t gotten around to it. Shame on me! I loved book six, and Doiron has tipped over to the side of must-read authors. Also, lucky me; I get to read five books without waiting a year for the next one to come out.

Without the knowledge of what came before, I only had this book to judge the recurring characters. Bowditch apparently overcame the difficult hurdle of being the son of a poacher — thus, the title of the first book in the series, “The Poacher’s Son”! — to become a game warden. Although he now appears responsible and wary, his prior behaviors were more spontaneous and reckless. (By the way, Bowditch’s first name isn’t even mentioned for about fifty pages!)

“Precipice” begins with the search for two missing female hikers on the Appalachian Trail. At first, Bowditch is paired with a hiking legend, “Nonstop” Nissen, who is more curmudgeon and showboater than partner, to search a piece of the trail for the women. As more clues appear, at times Bowditch searches with his girlfriend, impetuous wildlife biologist Stacey Stevens, the daughter of Bowditch’s mentor. Quite a number of wardens, investigators, police, and other officials appear, but they neatly take their places, advance the story, then pop back out for the most part.

As more is learned about the hikers, it is not even clear that they may be dead. If they are dead, there are a satisfying number (for us readers) of potential murderers. Doiron manipulates Bowditch down this road and that, chasing down suspects and theories. It’s great suspenseful reading.

I’ll end with examples of Doiron’s evocative writing:

“As I stepped through the door, my nose was treated to an amazing bouquet of aromas: wood smoke from the stove, floral shampoo (or maybe soap), burned coffee, the steamy smell of drying sleeping bags, muddy boots that stank from within and without, bug repellent, the distinctly sweet odor of consumed alcohol being exhaled, and some sort of freeze-dried curry dish being heated on a propane camp stove.”

“I have never suffered from a fear of heights, but there was something unnerving about the way my feet kept slipping, as if an invisible pair of hands had closed around my ankles and was trying to yank them over the drop-off. I imagined the gorge as a malevolent entity intent upon tossing me to my death in the churning water below.”

“His voice seemed to bubble up from the bottom of his throat like something viscous.”

Friday, July 24, 2015

Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $24.99 (c2012, US Ed. 2015), translated from German by Sorcha McDonagh

I never mind when Hercule Poirot cogitates with his little grey cells, murmurs a French phrase or two (“Mais oui, Hastings!”), and keeps mum. I never mind when Poirot doesn’t reveal his deductions and thoughts to Hastings or Miss Lemon and instead presents all with his impeccable reasoning at the end. Ah, yes, I think to myself, of course.

Jean-Luc Bannalec’s hero, the imperious Commissaire Georges Dupin, doesn’t have Poirot’s brio and doesn’t quite pull off the wait-and-see game as well as Poirot. Dupin abruptly hangs up on his assistants after demanding six impossible things before breakfast, goes for long, aimless walks in the woods or by the sea to think, often feels faint with hunger (or gasping for his third, fourth, fifth cup of coffee), turns off his phone to avoid his assistants and superiors, and is not good at sharing information. Despite (or perhaps because of) his recalcitrant protagonist, Bannalec does have a winner in his series set in Brittany. “Death in Brittany” is the only book by Bannalec, German author Jörg Bong’s pseudonym, to be translated into English so far. There are three more available only in German.

Dupin was declared persona non grata as a policeman in Paris and so he decamped to Brittany, where he has been based in Concarneau in the Finistère. Bannalec does descriptive justice to this ancient and beautiful land. The Breton-born regard anyone not born there as newcomers. Newcomer Dupin has only been in the area for three years and has a double-strike against him as well: “Parisians are the only people whom Bretons consider to be true outsiders.” Nevertheless, Dupin bears his shame well. He enjoys the food, the scenery, the sounds, the air, and, although he cannot pronounce their Breton names, the people.

When a respected hotelier is murdered in the nearby town of Pont-Aven and the local policeman is on vacation, the burden falls to Dupin to solve the case. Working in his private bubble, Dupin writes in his notebook, orders his underlings around, and avoids keeping everyone abreast of his theories. As annoying as everyone finds him, he has his moments of gestalt that keep others in brief abeyance while he figures out what is out-of-place at the crime scene or in his interviews with suspects.

Dupin is depicted fairly well, his associates less so. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference between policemen Le Ber and Labat, except that Dupin cannot easily tolerate Labat. In the beginning Labat is described as “small-minded, unbearably keen and syncophantic, yet also driven by ambition.” Le Ber is “precise, quick, intelligent.” However, for all intents and purposes in the rest of the book, they are interchangeable.

“Death in Brittany” also deals with the artists who were inspired by the area almost a century and a half earlier, most notably Paul Gauguin. Bannalec does a wonderful job of weaving that into the story.

Dupin is not a ball of lovable and fuzzy; he’s often terse, inarticulate, and rude, but it’s not necessary to love the protagonist to enjoy the story. Bring on the next book!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Badlands by C. J. Box

Minotaur Books, 288 pages, $26.99 (release date - 7/28/15)

What C. J. Box does so well is create characters with depth. Men, women, children — he understands the whole range of humanity and deftly drafts them for his stories.

In “Badlands,” it is a handicapped twelve-year-old boy who is inadvertently at the center of a drug war in his town. To help out his family -- consisting of a recovering addict mother and her no-account, layabout boyfriend -- Kyle has a job delivering newspapers early in the morning. In the middle of winter in Grimstad, North Dakota, that's not such a good thing: “The vinyl covering of his bicycle seat had actually shattered into shards that morning when he sat on it.”

One morning he sees a car accident. Something flies from the ruined car and Kyle picks it up. It is a bag of high-quality drugs slated for sale, primarily in the burgeoning population of oil workers in Grimstad. The frakking industry has brought jobs and inflation and violent crime to a once faltering, quiet community.

What Kyle doesn’t understand about the car accident is that there is another car involved, the one that caused the accident. Two men exit that car and look around the snow-covered ground. Obviously, they are looking for what Kyle has found. Strangely, a police car shows up, too, but instead of calling an ambulance or detaining the two men, the officer also searches the ground.

Into this potentially corrupt environment comes our heroine, Cassie Dewell. She has just left her job in Montana (see “The Highway” by C. J. Box) and taken on the job of Chief Investigator for the Bakken County Sheriff’s Department. Her welcome consists of a dead body, cut into pieces, and strewn all over Grimstad.

Cassie’s eleven-year-old son and hippie mother are slated to follow soon, so she’s anxious to ensure they won’t be moving into hell frozen over. She hasn’t even learned the names of all the other officers and she has to trudge through the frozen landscape looking for drug cartels and bent police. Because Grimstad is the backend of nowhere and boasts a hellacious winter season, and because of the sudden wealth and resulting inflation oil has brought to the area, Bakken County has paid Cassie a bigger salary than she could hope to earn elsewhere and has even included a three-bedroom apartment. She needs to make this job work.

Running in the background of “The Badlands” is a story arc from “The Highway.” The Lizard King, a notorious serial killer, has eluded the authorities for a long time. Cassie’s burning desire is to capture him and, if possible, witness his death. Authorities in North Carolina think they have him, but will they be able to keep him? And if they can’t, will he follow up his aborted attempt to kill Cassie and track her down?

Box can write the heck out of the "New Wild West.” Except for Craig Johnson, Box pits man against nature and man against man better than anyone. He can write believable female characters. He can write children without a precocious adult overtone. He could probably write the phone book and make it thrilling.