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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Wolf Lake by John Verdon

Counterpoint, 375 pages, $25

I’ve been a fan of the Dave Gurney series from the get-go. Author John Verdon mixes standard detective work with wonky serial killer and borderline woo-woo stuff. Gurney has brains and good instinct (and apparently looks like Daniel Craig). “Think of a Number,” the first book in the Gurney series, was a great combination of puzzle, thrills, chills, and eerie characters. But Verdon has not sacrificed Gurney’s personal life story. Gurney’s wife, Madeleine, his upstate New York farm, his search for a peaceful life after the turmoil of big city police work are richly played as a backdrop to Gurney’s current case.

Gurney’s current case this time around is a semi-locked room mystery. At one point in the story, a howling, bodacious winter storm has trapped several people in an isolated resort area in upstate New York. Gurney and his wife become two of the trappees when Gurney agrees to investigate whether a hypnotist, who is a resident of the resort, has hypnotized several men into committing suicide, against their will. (As we know from reading other mystery books, it’s accepted fare that no one can do anything against his or her nature while hypnotized.)

Of course, it’s a tangled skein that prompts Gurney and his co-investigator Jack Hardwich to sink deeper into the stories of the dead men and deeper into the snows of the Wolf Lake resort grounds. In true “The Shining” fashion, everyone seems a little off-kilter, especially the wild-haired and wild-eyed resort handyman, Barlow Tarr, who erupts every so often with warnings of evil and gyring hawks. (And a hatchet makes an appearance. If Daniel Craig is Gurney, then Jack Nicholson is Tarr.)

Before the storm traps our hero and his wife, Gurney and Hardwich cast their inquiries out to sources developed over the years as legitimate lawmen, one of whom is with the CIA, albeit a comically secretive and code-happy one. In fact, high tech toys become a part of the mystery. What’s a seemingly low tech case doing with high tech equipment? Verdon rubs the two together in unexpected ways and springs forth with a surprising answer. (I never in a million, zillion years would have cracked this case.)

They also meet with people who knew the dead men. My favorite was a child-like woman who met Gurney in a doll shop. She was the girlfriend of one of the dead men, and her ethereal, air-headed comments and actions were priceless. If it had gone on much longer, it would have been of the Joan-Crawford-campy variety.

As a poignant counterpoint, Madeleine, too, has a story involving Wolf Lake. It takes a while to draw the story out of her, but in her youth, Madeleine had a connection to the area. There was a tragic death then, which Madeleine thought she had put to rest through therapy but which she clearly hasn’t. It, too, adds to the tension of the story.

Despite the a few vague “hanging chads” left at the end of the book, the resolution was immensely satisfying.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Another One Goes Tonight by Peter Lovesey

Soho Crime, 400 pages, $27.95

“Another One Goes Tonight” is the latest in the Peter Diamond series. I still find it strange that the author should choose to give his creation his own name, but I stubbornly refuse to Google why. Some mysteries, however small, are more interesting in the not knowing.

Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is the head of the CID in Bath, England. In this latest strange and twisted tale, he is assisted by Keith Halliwell and Ingeborg Smith, annoyingly querulous detectives but loyal when it counts. (I’m trying to remember if there were any vital elements they added to the story, so I can dismiss them summarily. I’m sure they were needed, so I retract the mean-spirited previous comment. But why is Halliwell so named, while Ingeborg is never Smith? Okay, I'm done complaining about them.)

A police officer is killed in an early morning traffic accident. Fortuitously as he investigates the accident site many hours later, Diamond finds the body of a man tossed on an embankment, along with his unusual tricycle. Diamond administers CPR and saves his life, at least for now.

In the process of finding out the identity of the man, now in a coma, Diamond stumbles upon what might be a series of murders. The basis for this belief is tenuous. The “victims” are mostly old and proceeded gently into that good night by seemingly natural events, at least according to the various doctors who signed the death certificates.

A few of the dead were aficionados of steam trains and their appurtenances. One of them was quite wealthy and it came to light that he suspected someone was stealing from him. Diamond ties it to some designer gowns he finds secreted in the comatose man’s locked workroom. Diamond cannot bring official notice to bear upon his mystery because all the evidence he initially obtains is obtained illegally.

Diamond himself is not a totally likable character. Technologically challenged and passive-aggressive about it, not always empathetic, blunt, eccentric, and adamant about doing things his way, Diamond is at war against the criminal element and his own administrative structure. Until his inevitable aha! moment, Diamond totters around throwing red herrings (and red whales) here and there.

The story was interesting and satisfyingly complicated, but I can’t forgive the miscreant for giving up the confessional ghost quite so quickly. On the one hand, of course, it fulfills a mystery reader’s ultimate ambition to understand the who-why-howdunnit. On the other, it should be like pulling especially cantankerous teeth to get someone to cough up all the pertinent details of the crime.

I enjoy the slightly sly British humor. For instance, 
Diamond urging any driver to put their foot down was as unlikely as him taking to the stage at Covent Garden in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire.
I enjoyed this Diamond as I have enjoyed the other Diamonds I’ve read; just had to whinge about the jarring notes.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Branson Beauty by Claire Booth

Minotaur, 320 pages, $25.99

Are you looking for a good, old-fashioned locked-room mystery? Claire Booth wrote one.

Hank Worth is the Sheriff of Branson, Missouri. Yes, the Branson of hillbillies, country-western music, water parks, and dinner theater. Hank is, however, a work of fiction. So, too, is the Branson Beauty, a paddle steamer plying a nearby lake in the Ozarks. Hank is called out in freezing temperatures to help rescue the passengers of the Branson Beauty when it runs aground. He finds a catatonic pilot, upset, mostly elderly passengers, and the dead body of a college student.

Mandy Bryson was a good girl, a star athlete, and friend to all. Why would anyone want to murder her? Perhaps it was her no-account ex-boyfriend who had summarily dismissed her for another. Perhaps it was the anonymous stalker who had been sending increasingly frantic love notes. Perhaps it was her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. The catch is that she was murdered in a section of the boat that had been locked off from most of the other passengers and crew. Only one of the people, mostly ones she knew, who were attending her ex-boyfriend’s grandmother’s birthday party in the private dining room or the boat’s staff piloting the boat or serving the private meal could have done it. The pilot was her old high school track coach. His assistant was the brother of one of her teammates. The actor hired to enliven the boat tour was well-known locally, and the cook comforted her as she cried about the cruelty of her ex-boyfriend. It is hard to imagine that any one of them could have had a motive.

Hank has only been on the job for a few months, hired to replace his predecessor who has gone on to the state legislature. He traded big city policing for the quiet, he thought, lifestyle of a small town. He and his wife have moved to Branson to take care of his acerbic father-in-law, Duncan. In fact, it is Duncan who takes care of Hank’s family as caregiver to Hank and his wife’s two young children.

From Sheila, the competent, no-nonsense deputy, to Sam, the eager deputy Hank has labeled, “The Pup,” Hank mostly has a competent staff. Apparently, the staff hasn’t ever been put to quite such a test as the current shipwreck, murder, political corruption, and traitorous acts of someone in Hank’s own department have provided.

The continuing catatonia of the pilot and seemingly impeccable behavior of Mandy give Hank nothing to grab onto. He is left with trying to figure out who Mandy’s stalker was. Then the incapacitated showboat burns up and sinks and adds to Hank’s woes. Was it caused by a fuel line that ruptured when the paddlewheel was removed or was it arson? If it was arson, why would that be connected to Mandy's death?

Booth handles her characters well. Hank is a good, down-to-earth, smart, family-oriented man. His wife, Maggie, is still a bit of a lightly sketched character, but their children, Maribel and Benny, are kid-like kids, a relief after reading many books in which children are preternaturally somber or traumatized. Sheila and Sam, the deputies, are competent and slowly allowed to come into their own personalities. Some of the bigger villains are one-dimensionally villainous, but that turns out to be okay. The better to really dislike them. The solutions to the various mysteries that crop up are tied up in a traditional Agatha Christie fashion with tidy confessions, but that, too, is okay. The better to sleep at night.

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

Doubleday, 384 pages, $27.95

There’s a lot to be said for having lived another life before taking up a pen and writing critically praised books. Donald Ray Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, Ohio. (Not so strange, then, is the title of his first book, a short story collection named “Knockemstiff.”) He worked as a laborer and truck driver until he was 45. He then received an MFA from Ohio State and began to write. Like Athena, born fully formed, Pollock’s books arrived fully formed. No fumbling around for him. For “The Heavenly Table,” a very different crime novel set in an impoverished part of the South in 1917, Pollock wrote what he knows: people and their miseries, and put it in an interesting time period, at the start of World War I.

“The Heavenly Table” contains the stories of many people from all walks of life. Some of those stories are longer than others, but even the vignettes are mighty worthy. The characters who stay the longest and whose peregrinations provide the thread that binds all the other characters are the Jewett brothers: Cain, Cob, and Chimney. At the start of the story, they and their pop, Pearl, are dirt-poor, starving tenant farmers.

When Pearl departs his mortal coil, the brothers leave to find their fortune in Canada. To finance their dream, they begin to rob banks and businesses in obeisance to their hero, Bloody Bill Bucket. Cain is the only one who learned to read. Over and over he read to his brothers the one book they had, a dime-novel about an adventurous scallawag, Bill Bucket. (When the book is finally lost, one of the brothers says that it doesn’t make any difference because they’ve all memorized it.)

Also running through the book are the stories of farmers Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, fiddled out of their life savings by a traveling con man; sanitation inspector Jasper Cone, a lonely soul who takes his job seriously; Sugar, a poor black boy who ran away from his southern home to make it rich in Detroit and is now a poor black man running back to his childhood home; Lt. Bovard, a young man escaping a “Dear John” situation (and an incipient awareness that he is a homosexual) by joining the army and hoping to get sent to the Front for a glorious death; various inhabitants of The Whore Barn; and Pollard, a creepy bartender. Most of their stories take place in Ohio where their paths cross, however briefly.

As the brothers become more worldly and much more notorious, their poignant loyalty to each other remains. As the number of those who hunt them grows, it is easy to envision the inevitability of a Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid ending, but hope springs eternal that the Canada of their dreams is only a whisper away.

Pollock combines the grittiness, despair, humor, craftiness, resilience, cruelty, and compassion of ordinary people to make a strangely wonderful novel. His strength lies in his ability to juggle the stories of so many disparate people in an artful but natural way and in his superior writing skills. Pollock says one of the tricks he used to learn how to write was to take a short work by a master writer and type it out. He learned structure and dialogue by doing this. Later he learned what voice suited him best.

Pollock can intimately put us within the impoverished world of the mostly illiterate southern tenant farmer and the middle class one of a college-educated military man. He can describe the daily humiliation of being black and poor. He can show us big and small examples of the devil’s work, demon rum, and godforsaken poverty.

Here's a little story within the grander one:
Cob didn’t say anything. In fact, it is doubtful that he heard a word that was being said, for he was now holding a ham the size of a newborn infant. It was like something he’d imagine you’d find on the heavenly table, in between the roast beef and the spare ribs, but instead it was right here, in his dirty hands. He had heard Pearl talk about sin and gluttony and false riches enough to know he should toss it to the ground and stomp it, but, shit, what would be the sense of doing that now? He had just killed a man. He was going to hell anyway. Raising it up to his mouth, he tore a big hunk off with his teeth and began to chew.

MBTB star!