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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Real Tigers by Mick Herron

Soho Crime, 400 pages, $15.95 (c2016)

The “Slow Horses” books have brought Mick Herron acclaim. They are certainly an acquired taste, with their wry, arch, bright, and brittle dialogue and narrative. There are classical allusions, including a mild wash (or a wild mash) of epithets to describe the main characters, especially Jackson Lamb, the slug-like chief of Slough House, where inept British operatives languish.

Some of the denizens have been in the books since “Slow Horses,” the debut of the series. River Cartwright is smart but rash. Catherine Standish is still fighting personal demons not too long ago put at bay. Roderick Ho is the classic, clich├ęd computer nerd and awkward personality. Along with a couple of others, they all work together in a little crooked house, pounding out useless data, monitoring useless information, and biding their time and checking their souls until … what? Do they still hold out hope that they will be returned to a normal life within the walls of the sanctum sanctorum of the intelligence agency? Or do they acknowledge that penance must be paid for the sins that landed them at Slough House in the first place and stoically accept it. They are termed the “slow horses,” not fast runners out of the gate certainly. Maybe they are a step behind analytically as well. Whatever, there they sit, in all their trenchant gloom and bitterness.

Catherine Standish is kidnapped one day. She is allowed to call one person she trusts with her life. The choices are cringe-worthy, but she chooses River. In captivity she is treated rather well, even with an en suite facility, with a kindly young guard she nicknames “Bailey.” What is going on? River, meanwhile, hares off on the task that will (perhaps) save Catherine. The task, while not simple, is relatively straightforward. When does everything go wrong? Is it when River is captured? No. Perhaps it is when a couple of the slow horses are fired. No. Perhaps it is when a VW’s worth of clownish security people start piling out, guns and tasers blasting. Perhaps. Perhaps it would help to learn the real story behind Catherine’s kidnapping. But that takes all of the rest of the 400 pages.

The wit will keep you awake, and the story will perplex until all is revealed. And that is what you want, isn’t it? A+ for style.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Every Night I Dream of Hell by Malcolm Mackay

Mulholland Books, 304 pages, $26

What’s the difference between a corporation and a crime gang? Not much. There’s bureaucracy, protocol, board meetings, equipment theft, spies and double-dealers, and sudden employee termination. And security services.

Nate Colgan is a single father and beats people up for a living. He’s “security” for one of the factions under the umbrella of gang boss Peter Jamieson. Unfortunately, Jamieson is in jail, and there is a quiet reorganization going on that threatens to be not so quiet in the end. In aid of understanding this organizational hierarchy, author Malcolm Mackay has included a cast of characters list at the beginning of the book. It does help assuage the anxiety over who is doing what to whom, as the characters relentlessly roll through the story for a while.

In the end, it boils down to Nate and his new trainee, Ronnie Malone, a young man in love, with a need to belong to the toughest organization in Glasgow, Scotland. Didn’t I mention that you have to read this book with a Scottish accent? Joining a long line of dark, moody, noirish, Scottish writers, Malcolm Mackay has been producing a fistful of dark, moody, noirish, Scottish books.

Nate’s long-gone girlfriend and mother of his nine-year-old daughter, Zara Cope, contacts him. She wants to talk. As a by-product of his job, Nate has learned to shut down most of his emotions. Zara, however, can still prick at his shell a little. He learns she’s in town with a new flame, and the new flame is out for a toehold in the now unstable criminal world of Glasgow. Normally, Nate would punch out the competition and send them running back to where they belong, but Zara is his daughter’s mother, however meaningless and inaccurate that title may be.

Nate senses the possibility of some double-dealing going on, but who would be behind it? (Remember, Mackay has provided a long list of possibilities.) Eighty percent of the chapters are first-person narratives by Nate. The few that aren’t focus on DI Michael Fisher, an honest cop, and Zara.

Near the end of Mackay’s story, which had progressed in a fairly straightforward manner, I couldn’t help but think that there surely had to be another brogue ready to drop, such is the nature of crime storytelling these days. So, yes, there were a few brogues tossed about.

In the end, it really is Nate’s story. It is his part in the complex unravelling of the loyalties. It is his life and what he and others have made of it. It is his love for another human being, his daughter, that taps at the hard carapace he has constructed. The title, “Every Night I Dream of Hell,” is ironic in a way, because Nate has a hard time sleeping. He operates almost mechanically at times, even when he should be on high alert. “Every Night I Dream of Hell” should be subtitled, “And Every Day I Live in Hell.”

Actually, “Every Night I Dream of Hell” is a great short story jacketed by a compendium of what it takes to run a criminal organization. It can be fascinating if you take it that way, and I often found it interesting.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Devil’s Feast by M. J. Carter

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 432 pages, $26

“The Devil’s Feast” is the third book in the Blake and Avery series, channeling Holmes and Watson. Set in India in the early 1800s, the first book in the series, “The Strangler Vine,” was exotic and inventive. Unfortunately, M. J. Carter then brought her heroes back to England, and the series lost its color, literally. Grey, clanking, smog-bitten, clamoring, intolerant Victorian England sucked the life out of the series, and it became merely a Holmes/Watson wannabe. I know my opinion is too harsh on the second book, but it is because I enjoyed the first one so much. The elements that made it so attractive had been left far behind. So “The Devil’s Feast” had to fight an uphill battle.

Mostly the battle was successful.

Jeremiah Blake is a man with a reticent nature. To his friends, he has only parsimoniously revealed elements of his peripatetic childhood and the immediate years after. There is no doubt that he is a brilliant man. He is also a cynic, an independent thinker, a recluse, and blunt. He met Captain William Avery when both were working for the East India Company in less than ideal circumstances. Their boss, Sir Theophilus Collinson, also returned to England, to a position of power within a shadowy government organization, and he has been using unprincipled means to get Blake to work for him. As a matter of fact, when this story opens, he has had Blake put into Marshalsea Prison, the infamous debtors’ prison, to coerce him into investigating a case.

Captain William Avery, on the other hand, has settled down to life on a gentleman’s farm in Devon with his young wife and newborn son. In the first book, William pined for Helen and somehow managed to woo her into marriage. “Be careful what you wish for” should be pinned on his lapel. Their rural life and demands of their new infant do not suit Helen’s temperament. It was with a mixture of reluctance and relief that Avery traveled to London to try to convince Blake to accede to Collinson’s demands.

Unsuccessful at convincing Blake, Avery is on the point of returning to his family when he meets the famous French chef, Alexis Soyer, and is invited to dine with him. Although the dinner is more fabulous than anything Avery has ever tasted, it is the last dinner for one of the other guests. He expires from arsenic poisoning. 

Without Blake, Avery is barely up to the task of doing preliminary investigation. He is at sea. He pleads for Blake’s help, but is devastated to learn that Blake might have been injured or murdered by a ruffian sent to kill him in the prison. Whichever Blake’s fate, he has disappeared. Unable to turn down Soyer’s appeals, Avery attempts to out the poisoner by himself.

Soyer works in one of the many gentlemen’s clubs that proliferated then. Many of them were based around a common interest. In the case of the Reform Club, the members are Radicals and Whigs who are attempting to join forces to overturn rule by the conservative Tory party. Avery is a Tory. Nevertheless, the causes of justice and honor override political affiliation. Avery’s client is the club council. So if Soyer is the poisoner, then Soyer must be caught.

Carter has the knack of wrapping a good story within an interesting historical context. Could the poisoner have a grudge against the political aim of the club? Or is it a rival chef? Is it a disgruntled kitchen employee? A club member who had it in for the dead man? Someone who didn’t like Soyer’s dessert marzipan trickily shaped like a lamb chop?

Although I do not understand the art of cooking, I certainly admire those who do. Who among you has not watched even a sliver of one of the multitudinous cooking or eating shows available? Haven’t you watched Gordon Ramsey or Ina Garten or Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali rhapsodize about a dish? You don’t have to be a foodie to become entranced by Carter’s description of Soyer’s kitchen, so modern for that time. You don’t have to be a fan of “Upstairs Downstairs” to appreciate the class system at work in the great Reform Club. But you would be the ideal reader if you were.

From the splendor of decadent, multi-course banquets to the ordure and miasma of Spitalfields Market, Carter’s characters embark on a journey via the food of London, while they also navigate the politics of the times. This was a journey I enjoyed. Even though it redeemed the series, I would so welcome an excuse for Carter’s characters to return to India, an environment she describes so well.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Twist of the Knife by Becky Masterman

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99


It is always a pleasant surprise when an author’s storytelling prowess grows as she goes along. I liked “Rage Against the Dying,” Becky Masterman’s first Brigid Quinn book. The second book, “Fear the Darkness,” not so much. The third, “A Twist of the Knife,” is an energetic and throughtful return for ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn.

Leaving the dry heat of her home near Tucson and the loving embrace of her husband, Carlo, Brigid returns to her humid home state of Florida, with a chance to solve a fifteen-year-old mystery and perhaps save a man waiting on Florida’s death row.

What initially propels Brigid out of her comfort zone, such as it is, is the word that her father is gravely ill. Although the Quinn family dynamic is chaotic and fractured, Brigid dutifully returns to comfort the mother who holds her at arm’s length and the ex-cop father with the violent temper. Her brother, Todd, is a police detective there and unencumbered by any obligation to their parents. Her sister, Ariel, is with the CIA and who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long. Thus the burden of patronizing the parental units falls mostly on Brigid. On prickly, cold-eyed, independent Brigid. Carlo has provided a healing bridge for Brigid to return to a fairly normal life from what she witnessed as an FBI agent and from the moral depths to which she plunged in her quest to obtain justice for the victims she saw in her many years. At the age of sixty, she has taken up being a private investigator, so she still steps over to the dark side and risks inky glimpses of the depravity of the human soul. But Carlo isn’t in Florida, is he?

The woman who recently saved Brigid’s life at the risk of her own personal well-being, former FBI agent Laura Coleman, has asked for Brigid’s help. Now mostly recovered physically from the injuries she acquired while saving Brigid, Laura now works in Florida. In a case of turnabout, she works for a defense attorney. After years of putting criminals in jail, she is now desperately working to get someone off of death row.

Marcus Creighton has been on death row for fifteen years. He was convicted of murdering his wife. Their three young children disappeared at the same time. Although the bodies of his children have not been recovered, they are presumed dead, murdered by their father. If they are alive, perhaps it would be better if they were dead. Alison Samuels, an advocate for missing children with a local organization, thinks one of the children may have been sold as a sex slave. Sold by Creighton, perhaps to cover a huge debt he owed to a criminal moneylender.

Up until his wife’s murder, Marcus Creighton appeared to be a prosperous businessman with a beautiful wife and three sweet children. The unappealing underbelly of his life was burst open when authorities learned about his debt, his mistress, and his unhappy home life. Marcus claimed his mistress, Shayna Murry, was his alibi for the time of the murder. But, surprise, she doesn't back him up. So, bingo, bango, bongo. Slap the cuffs on and do not pass Go.

Brigid owes Laura her life. She would be a cur if she refused Laura’s request to join the investigation on Marcus’ behalf. However, with a lifetime spent putting miscreants in jail, helping someone to get out of jail seems a bit antithetical. Nevertheless, Brigid agrees and jumps right in.

Shortly after Brigid joins the team, word comes down that Marcus’ execution has been set for five days down the road. Laura is frantic. Brigid tries to pull off some miracles. It is possible that there may be fingerprints on the murder weapon, a hairdryer, that will be visible using newer scientific techniques. It is possible that the mistress’ testimony may be “corrected.” It is possible that the real murderer, if one exists, can be found. All of this serves as a handy excuse to avoid hanging out at the hospital watching her father gasp and her mother grow an ever stonier visage.

Becky Masterman has pulled one out of her writer’s hat, for sure. The story, which could be just a straight-ahead thriller, stops on many occasions to ponder the morality of catching perpetrators at all costs. It stops to examine the lives of people traumatized by the past and asked to make choices that have no good endings. It makes us wonder at the humaneness of execution. Not just of death by injection or the electric chair, but the inhumanity of caging people for years while awaiting their appointment with death.

Brigid is a tough cookie. I like tough cookies. Brigid has a professional lifetime of awful truths but also a resilience and secret optimism about life. Her narrator’s voice is directed strongly at the reader, much more so than other first-person narrators in crime series. She is confessing to her readers. Personally, I absolve her.

MBTB star!