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 21, 2018

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates

Picador, 352 pages, $26 (c2017)

Ah, success begets imitation. It’s only flattery if the imitation is successful, so say I, and this is successful on many levels. “Grist Mill Road” runs on the road paved by “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train.” This, along with the recent “The Woman in the Window,” deals with narrative sleight-of-hand. You think you know where the trick is leading, but you don’t even understand how the game is being played.

Middle school children made the news the summer of 1982 in a small town in New York. Fourteen-year-old Matthew tied thirteen-year-old Hannah to a tree and shot her thirty-nine times with a BB gun. Twelve-year-old Patch witnessed some of it but didn’t do anything to stop it. Patch later untied Hannah from the tree and Matthew, his best friend, was sent to wherever fourteen-year-olds go who break the law.

Twenty-six years later, in a way only books of fiction can ironically devise, Patrick is married to Hannah. Patrick has had many nicknames in his lifetime, including “Tricky,” a name given him by his best friend, and “Patch.” Yes, that Patch. Hannah, one-eyed Hannah, having lost an eye in a BB gun incident in 1982, is a crime reporter for a New York newspaper. She knows a lot of cops. Patrick, because this later story is set in 2008, has lost his job in the financial downturn of the time. A lot of the first part of the book is eavesdropping on Patrick’s thoughts as he tries to re-make his life in light of his sudden unemployment. Hannah tries to entertain him, and unburden herself in the process, by describing the lurid details of the stories she covers in The Naked City.

Hannah often wakes up screaming from the nightmares she has. Patrick drifts more and more into a fantasy cooking world he has developed: a virtual The Red Barn Restaurant, where his innovative and delicious recipes can come to life. Both have not seen Matthew in decades.

Soon Hannah has some sections of the book to herself. Her friend, Detective McCluskey, eventually reveals the details of a disturbance that bears directly on Hannah. The shocking revelation propels a lot of the secrets that have been stored inside people for twenty-six years to come pouring forth.

Finally — and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler, since if you look at the table of contents, you will see Matthew’s name heading a lot of the chapters — Matthew’s story is in the driver’s seat for much of the last part of the book.

Who do you, poor befuddled reader, trust? Suffice it to say there are no straightforward paths here. And while tragedy piles upon tragedy, you should know that Christopher J. Yates infuses his book with humor. If you can’t know the joy of life without also knowing pain and suffering, apparently you cannot know tragedy without comedy. Yates uses his humor sparingly and to great effect. For instance, when Patch is getting ready to shop at the market, Hannah will add some sort of punny farewell, like “Don’t forget the cabbage, Patch.”

Then when Patch is hit by the lightning bolt that is his parents’ divorce, “The information was all there being fed into me like data, only what came out the other end wasn’t just the wrong conclusion, it was a table lamp. A swordfish.”

In describing being bored by talks by the local naturalist, “… while glaciers left me cold and pine needles didn’t spike my interest, there was something about the topic of cement that lit me up like gunpowder.”

Yates writes well and has created an intriguing, if somewhat convoluted, storyline. I had trouble with the final reveal of Matthew’s story, and that is the main reason I am not giving it an MBTB star. But that’s just me. Bet this book is a major hit and you’ll see it on the big screen shortly.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Soho Crime, 400 pages, $26.95

Sujata Massey created the Rei Shimura series, beginning with 1997’s “The Salaryman’s Wife,” a novel nominated for most of the big mystery awards. Keeping to her mission to introduce us to other cultures, her latest book, “The Widows of Malabar Hill,” is set mostly in 1921 Bombay, India. Massey “was born in England to parents from India and Germany, and was raised mostly in St. Paul, Minnesota, although her home for more than a quarter century has been Baltimore, Maryland.” She brings a believable sensibility to what it means to live at the crossroads of different cultures. She also brings an American perspective to it, in that she knows what most of us don’t know. What exactly does it mean to be designated “Indian”? She guides us through the complexity of a little part of India at a time when British rule was still in place.

Perveen Mistry has had a long and rocky road to becoming the first female solicitor in Bombay. She is a Parsi and her family lives a progressive Parsi life. What does that mean? We find out as Perveen navigates the legal shoals of helping a Muslim family, befriending a British woman, and dealing with a religiously conservative Parsi family. 

Massey actually has given us two stories, beginning with a nineteen-year-old Perveen in 1916 struggling to take classes at a Bombay law school, and suffering the bullying and vicious pranks of her male classmates. Should she succeed in graduating, she will not be able to take the bar. Because she is a woman. But her progressive father, Jamshedji, has a law practice and wants her to join his firm, even without bar credentials. When the action shifts to 1921, we are missing some of the crucial pieces of the 1916 story. How did Perveen meet her British friend, Alice, at Oxford in England? Who is this Cyrus of whom she is so afraid? Massey believes in tension held for as long as possible, as she gradually reveals what happened in 1916.

The 1921 story has to do with one of Perveen’s father’s clients who recently died. He left three widows and four young children. The women are in mourning seclusion and only a woman can talk to them about settling the estate. Enter Perveen. There appear to be some problems with how the women want the estate to be handled. In dealing with the brutish, dismissive male house manager, Mukri, to resolve the financial concerns, Perveen's simple task becomes onerous.

After someone is murdered, Perveen then has to deal with the dismissive police, most of whom are white. She manages with the help of her friend Alice and, better yet, the influence of her father, Sir David Hobson-Jones, a councillor to Bombay’s governor. Alice and her father exist mostly to show how difficult it would be to deal with the colonizing authorities otherwise. In the end, Alice proves to be a delightful sidekick. (If you watched the Melissa McCarthy movie, “Spy,” think of the character of Nancy, played by actress Miranda Hart. Alice is a less goofy but just as exuberant Nancy.)

Perveen’s past story is heartbreaking and her present story is a triumph of stubbornness.

MBTB star!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Black Fall by Andrew Mayne

Harper Paperbacks, 384 pages, $15.99 (c2017)

Apparently “Black Fall” is the third “Jessica Blackwood” novel. I admit to missing the first two. Shame on me. “Black Fall” is entertaining with the strong, endearing first-person voice of Jessica Blackwood, a magician’s assistant — by way of her magician father and grandfather — and now FBI agent.

Jessica’s strength is her ability to see past the “illusion” high-level criminals create because of her background. When a village in Bolivia is flooded out and many lives are lost, Jessica works her logic to figure out why the flood occurred. Was it really because of the big storm that hunkered over the village? Or was it something far more nefarious? Here’s a hint: It was something far more nefarious.

Strangely, Jessica’s charm comes from her admitted awkwardness and bluntness. But she’s far less blunt than one of her FBI cohorts, Jennifer, a computer nerd. Other members of Jessica’s team are Gerald, another computer nerd, and Dr. Ailes, Jessica’s mentor. They comprise the “X-Files” wannabe team. Actually, this book reminded me somewhat of Preston and Child’s Aloysius Pendergast series. Over-the-top situations occur and peculiar FBI agents must save the world.

Jessica is much more vulnerable and human than her woo-woo FBI predecessors. She is affected by her trickster childhood and the valuable lessons she learned at her family’s collective knee, but it is that background that she now attempts to flee.

As an FBI agent, she has racked up impressive wins and acquired impressive enemies, one reminiscent of the creepy and brilliant Hannibal Lecter, star of several of Thomas Harris’ books. But he’s in prison. So Jessica visits another creepy and some say brilliant criminal, Ezra Winter, a radical environmentalist. He, too, is in prison. Apparently, “prison” might be a relative term.

Let me back up a bit. In the beginning was an attempt on her life by a stranger. Then an earthquake hit the East Coast. Then came an old videotape of an eight-years-dead physicist predicting the present day quake. Then came the flood and another old videotape of the dead guy predicting that. Jessica, because of her background, is more likely to sniff a con than her fellow agents. And that is what happens. But who or what is pulling the con? And why did that woman attack her?

The situation becomes pretty outlandish and will probably make a visually thrilling movie until it sort of abruptly thuds to earth at the end. But this appears to be a setup for the next book.

"Black Fall" has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Mystery.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Riverhead, 240 pages, $26 (c2017)

This is not a mystery, but it is one of the best books I’ve read within the last few years.

Mohsin Hamid has created a thoughtful, elegant book whose characters have intricate inner concerns and beliefs. “This is a book about immigration” is misleading and unnecessarily harsh, even though that is what it is at a basic level. It is a book about the challenge of moving into a different culture or creating a different culture, of being popped suddenly out of where you felt you knew how to deal with life, whether that life was fulfilling or not, into an environment where you have to rethink the basics, into an environment where almost no one wants you.

Saeed and Nadia grew up and, as the story begins, live in a city not unlike Lahore, Pakistan, where author Hamid grew up, but the city intentionally remains nameless. Hamid wants his readers to include in their imagining the many places under siege from which people are trying to flee. Militants are warring against the standing government in Saeed and Nadia’s city. The war finally comes close to their neighborhoods. First the power goes, then goods are scarce, then people are disappearing, either leaving or dying, then bombs are exploding much too close for comfort. The next bomb may have their names written on it.

War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.

This first section of “Exit West” — the political change in the anonymous city and the realization that Nadia and Saeed must leave — was excerpted in The New Yorker. It showcases the power of Hamid’s language in the slowly dawning desperation of his characters.

The rest of the book deals with their re-location to Mykonos, London, and San Francisco. It would be a much longer book if Hamid had to detail how his characters got to these places. Instead, because his focus is on what happens once immigrants arrive in a place that isn’t politically, economically, or charitably ready for them, Hamid uses a device to expedite the process: He has created a door through which people travel, aka wormholes. But this is where everyone reviewing this book must state that “Exit West” is not remotely science-fiction. This device allows Hamid to get to the heart of his story about the waves of migrants fleeing intolerable situations and what the rest of the world should do about them? Is there really a separation between “them” and “us”?

In an interview with The New Yorker, Hamid makes the point that we must look to a future in which climate change, migration waves, animal and plant extinction, and other horrible foreseeable events occur, and think about what we as a world need to do. Right now there is a “failure to imagine plausible desirable futures,” he says. That is what “Exit West” in the end tries to do, present us with a potential plausible desirable future.

But first it will probably begin with this:

Reading the news at that time one was tempted to conclude that the nation was like a person with multiple personalities, some insisting on union and some on disintegration, and that this person with multiple personalities was furthermore a person whose skin appeared to be dissolving as they swam in a soup full of other people whose skins were likewise dissolving.