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

Friday, September 8, 2017

Raised in a bookstore ...

Tin House, Issue 73, Fall 2017, paperback, $15

Jordan Foster is the daughter of MBTB's store manager. I would say former store manager, but in our hearts MBTB still exists, although the doors were closed many years ago. (Sob!) Jordan spent many, many days in the store, reading, reading, always reading.

Beginning when she was four years old(!) to adulthood, Jordan has been surrounded by crime books. She was precocious then, and now she can run conversational rings around anyone on the subject of crime. She has written about crime, is writing about crime, and has met and mingled with the creators of both tragic and comic criminous stories.

This "Tin House" issue is subtitled, "True Crime." Jordan's article isn't about true crime, per se, but about being embedded in crime stories, quilted in crime stories, and swallowed whole by the atmosphere and grit of crime stories.

Congratulations, Jordan!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Under an Orange Sun …

Someone set off a firework. And now a beautiful forest is burning. It’s threatening Oregon’s iconic Multnomah Falls. The haze in the air makes the sun orange. It’s pretty. If you don’t think about why the sun is orange. There is ash falling on us from fifty miles away. The air smells like you want to get out your s’more makings. If you don’t think about why it smells like a campfire. It’s best to stay indoors, read, and occasionally rail against stupidity.

Here are two books that kept me company.

Mightier Than the Sword by K. J. Parker

Subterranean, 136 pages, $40 (a collectible edition only for now)

Fantasy fans probably discovered K. J. Parker decades ago. His first book appeared in 1998 (“Colours in the Steel”). After seventeen years, it was revealed that he is really British author Tom Holt. I’m sorry to say that I had to serendipitously stumble across K. J. Parker and have never heard of Tom Holt. But after I began reading his biography, I learned that Holt is the son of Hazel Holt, the author of the Mrs. Malory cozies that MBTB carried on its shelves forever.

“Mightier Than the Sword” is not a murder mystery in the traditional sense, but there is a bona fide mystery that lies at the heart of the story.

It’s the Middle Ages and a “game of thrones” is about to happen, as an emperor lies dying and the successor-aspirants are many. Wait, you say, “emperor”? Middle Ages? It’s fantasy. It’s comparable to the real Middle Ages in terms of clothes, food, castle construction, war, monasteries, monks bent over copy desks. But the geography is Parker's invention.

Worthy of note: There are no zombies, dragons, incest, magic, direwolves, or obvious dwarves.

An unnamed main character, a representative of his aunt and uncle, the empress and emperor of the realm, undertakes a mission on behalf of Their Highnesses. Pirates are raiding monasteries up and down the coast. They are killing everyone and burning the monasteries and attending villages to the ground. Some of them are poor establishments, so it’s not clear what the goal of the pirating is. That’s the mystery.

The tale is told with panache and humor. “Unnamed Hero” is gallant, brilliant, and flawed. Since this is a first-person tale, “Unnamed Hero”’s wry humor comes shining through. This was a short, enjoyable tale, albeit a little expensive at the moment.

P.S. It features one of the most briefly described major battles in the history of writing.

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli

Penguin Books, 224 pages, $16

Those in the know have known about Inspector Salvo Montalbano since 1994, if they read the series debut, “The Shape of Water,” in the original Italian, “La forma dell’acqua.” It’s been in English since 2002. Sicily has never been grittier.

Montalbano is one of the few honest cops, Camilleri would have you believe. So he is the one who is called when a potential political brouhaha emerges after the adventurous death of a politician. He was found with his pants down in a car in The Pasture, the local remote hangout for whores and their clients. The politician’s widow knows about her husband’s little l’amores, but she claims he would never be so indiscreet as to visit The Pasture.

Montalbano must determine why and how the politician died, and in the process we get a glimpse of Sicilian life, humor, compassion, and double-dealing.

There’s an eh-so-what? tone to some of the goings-on that a reader might not find in a book written by an non-Italian author. Or at least it would be presented differently. (Thank goodness, I am not being called to rigorously defend my lazy, presumptuous statements.)

There are currently twenty-two books in the Montalbano series, most of which have been translated into English.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Whiling away the days in a cow pasture with a couple of books ...

If you were lucky enough to view the recent total eclipse (hip or hype?), you may have journeyed far to get a prime viewing spot. I traveled to Eastern Oregon to said cow pasture. There were portable toilets dotting the landscape instead of cows. There were long lines for coffee at the one coffee cart. There were scientists and credentialed enthusiasts talking about science (yay!), and not just about the science of the eclipse. I was at Atlas Obscura's fabulous event. When I wasn't geeking out, I was reading. These perhaps were not entirely noteworthy for this blog, but at least one of them was a mystery.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Pamela Dorman Books, 336 pages, $26

I’m pretty sure I am too old to read “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” with the intended joie d’esprit. The book was cute, but I wondered in the end how the first part logically related to the second part. Was it possible for a person to change radically through the kindness of strangers? Was it possible for someone to stubbornly hang onto the hope that someone else would change? Was it possible to have a happily ever after given the premise? I guess that’s why this is fiction. The author obviously didn’t have my qualms and answered the questions to her satisfaction.

I guess if I had written this story, my version would have been a tragedy. Luckily for the world I didn’t.

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Harper Perennial, 270 pages, $15.99

Yes, this book was written eons ago. 1992, to be precise.

“Death at La Fenice” was the first in the now-plump series starring Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice, Italy. This introduced us to the astute and convivial Brunetti, his charming (and almost perfect) family, and the exigencies of life as a Venetian policeman. He knows both opera and what motivates the common man. He can find his way through the labyrinth created by Venetian alleys and streets. He is incorruptible but not hidebound. Donna Leon’s series is articulate and a tourist brochure for Venice without being fawning.

I re-read this book for MBTB’s Second Book Group. It was a pleasure to re-acquaint myself with this charming novel.

Y Is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton

Marian Wood Books/Putnam, 496 pages, $29

All of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books are blasts from the past, since Grafton has steadfastly refused to budge from the 80s (until the end of “Y Is for Yesterday”). This book is even more blastworthy as the story also wanders back to events in 1979.

The main story of “Y” concerns the release from prison of Fritz who, as a teenager, shot Sloan, a fellow student at an expensive private school. There were other teenagers involved, including the sadistic ringleader, Austin. Some of the other teens have had to pay for either their conspiracy or their silence at the time, except for Austin. He was gone, gone, gone before the debts were called in.

Fritz was dealt the most severe sentence. At the age of twenty-five, he is finally being released. Luckily, his family welcomes him back, but Fritz appears less than gracious. He merely wants to pick up with his high school friends again, doing things 17-year-olds like to do. But time and his friends have marched on.

The lowest blow comes almost immediately after Fritz' release when an extortionist demands $25,000 from his parents or he/she will send a certain videotape to the police. The tape contains scenes of Fritz and other boys in his group either raping or being complicit in the rape of a young girl. Who would know about the tape except for someone from the group of Fritz’ so-called friends? That’s when Fritz’ parents call in the services of Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator in Santa Theresa, California.

Although Kinsey accepts the case to find out who the blackmailer is, she is still dealing with fallout from one of her last cases. A deadly serial killer of young girls was never caught, and he is looking for the trophies he collected from his victims. One or another of his ex-wives holds the clue to this gruesome assortment, and it is Kinsey’s job to make sure the killer, Ned Lowe, doesn’t add his wives or her to his kill list. 

So there are three stories here. Besides the storylines of the blackmailer and the serial killer, Grafton has added a third-party narrative of the events in 1979 which resulted in Sloan’s murder. The story of the serial killer is riveting, especially for those who read “X.” (In her impeccable fashion, however, Grafton gives her readers enough information that it is almost unnecessary to have read the previous book. But why would you bypass “X”?) The story of tracking down the blackmailer is workmanlike. Grafton and Kinsey cross the t’s and dots the i’s. Still, to my mind, it’s not a particularly compelling teenage story. All the teens are dopes. Compared to the warmth and humor of Kinsey’s first-person telling, the 1979 story seems colorless, narrative for narrative’s sake.

Nevertheless, in keeping with my promise to star all Grafton’s remaining Kinsey Millhone books, here’s an MBTB star for “Y.” In fact, I tremendously enjoyed the roles of homeless Pearl and Killer, the dog. I continue to love landlord Henry and his eccentric family, Rosie and her awful offal, and the nasty-sounding peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches.

P.S. For all of Kinsey’s training in assertive self-defense, she still seems sort of helpless and reliant on the serendipitous proximity of others. I’ve resigned myself to her as an intellectual P.I., more brains and pathetically fewer brawn. (Too much Wonder Woman and Black Widow movies!)