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

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Hogarth, 208 pages, $15 (c2007, US ed. 2016)
Translated by Deborah Smith

This is not a mystery.

Occasionally I read books that aren’t mysteries! I’m especially fascinated by what wins awards. “The Vegetarian” won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

“The Vegetarian” was interesting for many reasons. It begins with a woman giving up eating meat because of a nightmare and ends in a flurry of symbols. In between is a contemplation on the cultural role of Korean women. Although the book is about the madness/enlightenment of one particular Korean woman, Han’s cultural context is South Korea.

Let me say a few words about the translation. When a translated book is a little clunky or awkward, it’s hard to know if that’s what the original sounds like. Sometimes mystery books are translated because they have good plots or interesting characters, and not especially because they are great literature. Translated books always come with a caveat. Deborah Smith, the translator, is remarkable for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that “The Vegetarian” reads elegantly and powerfully in English. It is easy to make the assumption that it directly mirrors the elegance and power of the book written in Korean. The second reason is that Smith learned how to read (and speak?) Korean about seven years ago. Now that’s crazy good. I don’t know if Smith has actually been to Korea (I haven't), but her translation presents the flavor and atmosphere of a different world.

This is not a happy book. Its three parts become bleak, bleaker, and bleakest. Kim Yeong-hye is a relatively young woman in a loveless marriage. She is on automatic pilot when she has her dream. Her family, especially a menacing father, is less than supportive. The narrative is told in the first person, but by three different first persons. First, by her deadwood of a husband, then by her deadwood of a brother-in-law, and finally by her sympathetic, but not empathetic, sister, Kim In-hye. It is at the end that In-hye glimpses what Yeong-hye sees, and we have an insight into Yeong-hye’s behavior.

This is well worth reading, but it is not for everyone.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

Mulholland Books, 416 pages, $26

There are many ordinary teenage characters in Australian author Melina Marchetta’s new book, “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,” and she makes their voices crystal clear, not an easy task. (But maybe easier for someone who has up until now written young adult books.) Before I mislead you further, here’s some pertinent information: This book is set mostly in England and Calais, France, and it is an adult crime novel. But Marchetta’s ability to juggle a lot of characters, half of whom are teenagers, is a literary feat worth noting.

Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a detective chief inspector who is under some sort of cloud at work and has been suspended. He is drinking copious quantities of whisky and feeling quite sorry for himself as his ex-wife prepares to give birth to her current husband’s child. His beloved 17-year-old daughter, Bee (short for Sabina), treats him with disdain and provides the least amount of information possible in their “conversations.” In the middle of Bish’s existential morass, the unthinkable happens.

Bee has been on a bus trip through Normandy with other British teens, and the summer holidays and the tour are about to end. Then a bomb rips through her bus, killing several people. Bish races to the campground where it occurred and is relieved to find Bee is alive. There are other buses from other countries at the campground, and a teenager from the Spanish bus has also died. Coincidentally, the father of one of the girls on the French bus is a police detective, Capitaine Olivier Attal. With his atrocious English and Bish’s toddler’s grasp of French, Bish learns more about the investigation and becomes a liaison between Britain and France.

As one of the first adults on site and because he is used to calming people, Bish becomes the de facto spokesperson and information hub for the British group. The incompetent chaperones who survived the blast are unable to provide any organization or support, so Bish takes over corralling and comforting their charges. That’s when he finds out that one of the teenage girls has been locked in a cupboard in a meeting room on the campgrounds. She is Violette LeBrac Zidane from Australia. One of the chaperones has decided that she is the reason the bomb went off.

About twelve or thirteen years earlier, a supermarket was bombed. The bomber, Louis Sarraf, died in the attack. Several members of his family were also jailed, some of whom were later released but continue to live under a cloud. One family member, Noor LeBrac, Louis’ daughter, confessed to building the bomb, an easy task for a woman on the verge of completing a PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge. Violette is her daughter.

Over twenty people died in the supermarket bombing. Could one of their relatives be responsible as revenge for what Violette’s grandfather and mother did? Or is Violette simply carrying on the family trade?

As a disenfranchised detective, Bish doesn’t have any official standing or recourse to investigative tools. That’s when a lucky break happens to assuage his frustration. An old school mate, who Bish thought was in charge of making sure Britain’s trains ran on time, turns out to work for the Home Office, and he provides the tools on a quid pro quo basis. Bish will interview and locate certain people for them and for himself.

After people begin to disperse from the campground, it is discovered that Violette and another teen, 13-year-old Eddie Conlon, have disappeared. Since Violette is a person of interest, an intensive manhunt begins, sometimes resulting in violence when vigilantes mistake innocent people for the missing teens. In an inadvertent tie-in to current events in our part of world, racial unrest and targeting plays an important role in the background of this novel. Violette and her family are the descendants of Algerian immigrants, their dark and golden features marking them as “different.” Bish can sympathize because one of his grandparents was Egyptian. Both he and Bee carry a vague remembrance of that genetic heritage.

It is also uncovered that Violette is in France without the knowledge of her grandparents in Australia, her legal guardians, who think she is on a student tour in their country. In the course of trying to locate Violette and Eddie, Bish interviews Noor LeBrac, a permanent resident it seems in an English prison. Although she has not seen her daughter for many years, it is possible that she knows why Violette secretly entered Europe.

Marchetta’s plot is intricate and satisfying. Her characterizations are stellar. The resolution is a cascade of tidiness. Although it is not dipped into at any political or sociological length or depth, immigrant discrimination, racial profiling, and the indignities suffered by innocent people because of their heritage provide the foundation of her story. A humanity shared by all is the hope.

MBTB star!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

After Atlas by Emma Newman

Roc, 384 pages, $15

I recently read a sci-fi novel that got under my skin, in a good way, “Planetfall.” That was in preparation for reading the just-released “After Atlas,” a detective story set in the same future that contains “Planetfall.” While the two share the same universe, the characters are not the same. Some of the characters from “Planetfall” are mentioned in “After Atlas,” but none are shared between the books.

A brief background from "Planetfall": Forty years ago, a spaceship, the Atlas, left Earth for a secret planet where God lives. Lee Suh-Mi, aka “The Pathfinder,” was the charismatic leader of the thousand people who journeyed with her, and it is her vision that determined the location of the God-planet. You can read my review of that book.

One of the chosen followers on that spaceship was a young woman who left her husband and baby behind. The baby, Carlos “Carl” Moreno, has lived a life of misery ever since. His father also tried to join the pilgrimage but did not make the cut. He had a nervous breakdown and Carl was left to fend for himself at an appallingly early age. After leaving an American cult group, The Circle, at the age of sixteen, Carl managed to find himself in indentured servitude (i.e., slavery) in England for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as a police detective, a position he has held for twenty years as this book begins. The story of how Carl reached that point is something author Emma Newman gradually reveals throughout the book. That story, too, is appalling in what it signifies about the degradation of human rights in a corporate-led world.

Carl is sent by the MoJ to investigate the death of Alejandro Casales in an upscale hotel in Dartmoor. As one of the MoJ’s best detectives, his assignment makes sense, but there’s another reason. Casales was the leader of The Circle. He rehabilitated Carl’s father and was like a second father to Carl for many years, before he rebelled and ran away. What was Casales doing in England? Why was he hanged, drawn and quartered?

Casales’ appearance is suspiciously close to the scheduled opening of a capsule Lee Suh-Mi left behind forty years ago. That is the topic du jour and one that Carl is heartily sick of. Every year on the anniversary of the blast-off of the Atlas spaceship, newshounds seek an interview with the “baby left behind.” This anniversary, with the addition of the capsule brouhaha, has made Carl’s life ten times worse. He hates his mother, he hates his father, he hates Casales, and he hates that he is owned by the British government/corporation and will be until he is about eighty years old. He lives for the day when he is free of his contract and can grow his own vegetables in his own little patch of dirt, somewhere quiet and in some uneventful time. As the Casales investigation grows murkier and more complex, he fears that the day he has been longing for may never come.

I won’t risk doing anything less than the cleanest, deepest investigation I’m humanly capable of. I can’t risk anything less than that, as their property. I’m prepared to extend my contract in order to eat proper food and live in anything bigger than a broom cupboard but not for sloppy work.

Most food is synthesized from chemical glop in 3D printers. It is Carl’s pleasure to buy real food, not like the rich buy it in fancy stores, but from carts peddling cast-off veggies and other sullied foodstuffs. The catch is that even that food is ridiculously expensive. In order to buy them — and to rent his bigger apartment — he must pay for them with an extension of his slave’s contract.

Carl has been “trained,” i.e., brainwashed, to provide the most thorough and intelligent service possible. Obedience and doggedness are enhanced traits, but lurking within the manufactured detective beats the heart of a man who may be bent but not bowed.

Newman depicts a world in which the major governments we know today are corporations in the future. Slaves are legal. Carl is lucky that his contract is with the Ministry of Justice. Other fellow “trainees” were not so lucky. Almost everyone, slave or regular, has a chip installed on their person to receive the enhanced equivalent of today’s Internet, with a computerized APA (artificial personal assistant) and, more to the point, a way for the governments to track their citizens.

As with “Planetfall,” author Newman invigorates her story with compelling characters, realistic scientific detail, and a complex storyline. With the knowledge of how “Planetfall” turned out, and of what kind of person Carl’s mother is, it is easy to see the irony and hopelessness of what sent the Atlas into its journey forty years ago and what it left behind.

If you are interested in learning more about Emma Newman’s inspiration, Bart’s Bookshelf interviewed her last year, and you can read about it.

For a genuine futuristic thriller, here’s an MBTB star!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Blood Strand by Chris Ould

Titan, 448 pages, $14.95

Do you know where the Faroe Islands are? In the cold sea between Iceland and Norway. The Faroese speak their own language, but quite a few also know Danish and English. Denmark provides them with administrative benefits but, if you go by this book, the Faroese mind their own culture and manners.

Like series set in the Scottish Isles, the cold, rainy, isolated setting lends a lot of atmosphere to a murder mystery. British author Chris Ould has chosen his setting well. Most of the action takes place on the island of Streymoy. It is more than adequately cold and rainy.

British police detective Jan Reyna — who forgoes the proper Faroese pronunciation of his name, Yan Reyná, until he is in the Faroes — is visiting on a personal mission. Under some kind of cloud at work, he has a leave of absence, and decides this is the time to find out what happened between his mother and father to make his mother flee to Denmark. He would have asked his mother, but she committed suicide when he was young. He was raised by his aunt and uncle who had moved to England. And now he journeys to the Faroes to talk with the father he had last seen more than a decade ago. That meeting, when Jan was seventeen, did not go well. Actual blood was spilled and Jan returned to England no wiser.

Actually, Reyna has come because his father is in the hospital. He suffered a stroke under strange circumstances. He was found alone in an isolated area. There was blood spattered in the inside of his car. In his trunk was a case full of money. His shotgun had been discharged. Unfortunately, Signar Ravnsfjall is unable to communicate with anyone, thus putting paid, perhaps permanently, to gaining any knowledge of his mother from Signar. The mystery deepens when the police find that the blood in the car is not Signar’s.

Reyna has not come in his capacity as a cop, but he can’t help but ask questions. Questions of his half-brothers, Magnus and Kristian, and questions of the lead detective, Hjalti Hentze. Reyna is respectful of Hentze’s authority, so he is not inclined to interfere. But Hentze realizes Reyna’s potential usefulness, and so begins Reyna’s slow absorption into the investigation.

Then the body of a young man, Tummas Gramm, is found on a beach. Hentze plays his cards close to his chest, but Reyna soon intuits that Hentze thinks the man’s death has something to do with his father’s last activities. 

It might be considered a drawback that Reyna only speaks English, but most of the rest of the world is remarkably multilingual, and the Faroese are no exception. His lack of language does not prove to be an impediment. And a good thing, too, because there are many interviews to be carried out, including with some of his family members.

Ould packs a lot into the 448 pages of his book. He tells a straightforward story, but he infuses his narrative with scenic details and interesting characters, with a small history of some small islands thrown in. He has a great sense of pacing and the story flows easily. The only gimmick he uses — and while I didn’t mind it, I don’t think it was necessary — is Reyna’s portion of the story is told in the first person, and the scenes following the rest of the characters, primarily Hentze, are told in the third.

“The Blood Strand” is a solid story, carefully plotted and well-written.