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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Death Will Have Your Eyes by James Sallis

Mulholland Books, $15 (c1997, re-release date 7/29/14)

Some of the best-written crime fiction is contained in James Sallis’s Lew Griffin series. Sadly, that series is out of print, but we have the consolation that he continues to write new works.  It is also gratifying that Death Will Have Your Eyes, one of his older works, is being re-issued by Mulholland Books.

Death Will Have Your Eyes is purportedly about a retired spy re-entering his long-deserted field. “Dave” has been re-activated as an assassin, on the trail of a fellow assassin, someone he obviously has known quite well. Sallis doesn’t give a lot of detail; his readers must be grown-ups and search between the lines.

What I think Sallis really has created is a story of Dave’s odyssey to reclaim his humanity, to reclaim his right to sit and enjoy a glass of wine with his beloved, Gabrielle, to not have to bear the burden of what he did as an assassin for many years. On the other hand, it is an act of kindness he did as an agent that has, in his words, “spiraled” to bring him to the point of life or death.

While Dave tracks an assassin, others track him. And try to kill him. Only they don’t. Most step aside, as if acknowledging the greater task that lies ahead of Dave. They are layers Dave must shed before confronting the final choice.

Whether Dave is successful or not in becoming human again, he has learned that old agents never die, they live on in myth. And their song is sung by Sallis.

On the moment Dave gave it up: “But then one day in Salvador as I stood watching a red Fiat burn, I realized that it was over for me — as though I’d stepped through an unseen door, looked up and found the world transformed in ways I could not fathom, or had blundered over borders into a foreign country where familiar words meant inexplicable things.”




Friday, July 4, 2014

Present Darkness by Malla Nunn

Atria, 352 pages, $16

Apartheid should never have happened, and yet it did. It is Malla Nunn’s duty to remind us of its horrors through her dark and solemn books. Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper and Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala live in the world of South Africa after segregation has been institutionalized. In Present Darkness, it is 1953 and Cooper and Shabalala walk a fine line with their friendship. For all intents and purposes Cooper is white and Shabalala is black, making them separate and unequal under the eyes of the law. But they are friends, brothers under the skin, and there is no doubt they would die for each other.

In Nunn’s fourth book in her series, Cooper and Shabalala must deal with police corruption, a preternaturally cunning police lieutenant, the beating and robbery of a liberal white couple, the arrest of Shabalala’s son for that attack, the kidnapping of a prostitute, and a basketful of lies from practically everyone they meet.

Cooper is trying to find a way to live with his black common-law wife and their baby daughter without tripping over laws that would strip him of his job and toss him in prison. He must balance endangering their well-being by nosing into a criminal enterprise that involves the shantytown where Cooper grew up, shoulder to shoulder with black families. Fix and Fatty Mabela are brother and sister criminal “entrepreneurs” and Cooper’s childhood companions. Cooper has left Sophiatown but Sophiatown apparently still firmly holds a piece of him. Cooper must return there to unwind the tangle of cases in order to free Shabalala’s son.

Nunn presents an exciting crime series, but her stories are richer than normal because of their historical context. Her heroes don’t just battle the criminals; they fight against legislated injustice. How wrong is it, Nunn asks, for honorable men to have to scurry in the shadows?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Atria, 624 pages, $26.99

I Am Pilgrim is the sort of book I wasn’t sure of for the first few chapters. The plot layering was so thick, I didn’t think the author ever would come up for air. Within a few chapters, the story had changed from a gruesome and brilliant murder of a young woman in a dingy walk-up in New York to a kid in Saudi Arabia rushing to his father’s very public execution. I didn’t know whether I’d like it a lot or be annoyed at the writerly shenanigans. If you read this book — and you should — this is where I tell you to keep the faith. The big-city American crime is just the current focus of an intriguing character whose background is international, covert, and deadly. In the end, I came to admire tremendously Terry Hayes’s ability to weave in and out of past events.

There are three interwoven and interlinked stories. The first is the murder of that young woman in New York. The-man-with-many-names — let’s call him Scott for the sake of convenience — is helping his friend Ben, a homicide detective, solve the case. That case has a connection to Turkey, as does a prior event in Scott’s mysterious past life.

The second story is of Scott’s past life as a covert agent of an ultra-secret organization and his current (that is, contemporaneous to the most recent storyline) re-call to arms. Although he “retired” from that covert life, he has been reactivated because of a worldwide terrorist threat. The terrorist threat consists of one man from Saudia Arabia. That man was the boy who witnessed his father’s execution and has been motivated to seek revenge in a devastating way. How can Scott find a man who is brilliant and has covered his tracks almost flawlessly. “Almost” is the key word. There is a slim chance derived from a tiny piece of information that may not even be related to the terrorist. That information drives Scott to Turkey.

Finally, in Turkey, a billionaire has fallen off a cliff and died. It is Scott’s cover story that he is an FBI agent sent to investigate that there was no monkey business involved. Lo and behold, as he actually investigates the crime, there is some monkey business.

Small wonder that this plot-driven book is 624 pages long.

Hayes employs the trick of having Scott exclaim at many points that he had missed something which would come back to bite him later. In this first-person book we get the strong feeling of Scott’s future presence, that he survived his travails and is narrating this book from a distant perspective. When he writes his will — one of the best scenes in the book — we know he does so unnecessarily. Does this diminish the pathos? A little. But at the same time, there’s no assurance that future Scott is whole and healthy. The first-person narrative is my favorite but is, no doubt, tricky. To confuse the issue, in the ARC I read, Hayes also switches tenses which made me lose the timeline.

This is a good summer read.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

William Morrow, 800 pages, $27.99

Natchez Burning is an 800-page book that doesn’t feel like an 800-page book. That is because Greg Iles is a master of pacing. He can give that to you, with substance (and with one hand tied behind his back, blindfolded). He has honed this skill in thirteen other thrillers. Natchez Burning is only the first in a projected trilogy of books featuring Penn Cage, the star of several other books by Iles.

Natchez Burning is two books, one set in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other parts of the South, and one set in the 1960s South during the polarizing events of the civil rights movement.

Penn Cage has gone from a hard-hitting assistant district attorney in Houston to a best-selling author to the mayor of the town of Natchez, Mississippi — author Iles’s real hometown, by the way. Penn moved back to Natchez with his young daughter, Annie, after the death of his wife. Now it’s a few years later, and he has moved on. In fact, he is scheduled to marry newspaper publisher Caitlin Masters in a few days, when his part of the story opens.

Penn’s world suddenly gets seriously more dangerous when his venerated father, Dr. Tom Cage, is accused of murdering his former nurse, Viola Revels Turner. While trying to save his father — who appears not to want to be saved — he finds his father’s fate linked to events that happened in 1964. Then, two black men involved in civil rights disappeared, and a beloved music teacher and store owner was set afire with a WWII flamethrower. Penn’s investigation — apparently mayoring at this point doesn’t take too much time or brain power — uncovers a link to the infamous Double Eagles, “an ultrasecret splinter cell of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Also, Tom might have had an illegitimate son with nurse Viola, a woman he may have killed. That “son” is in town to make sure Dr. Tom is found guilty of his mother’s murder. There’s a smorgasbord of pain and maybes on Tom's plate.

The book is divided between Penn’s first-person narration and third-person accounts mostly of events in the 1960s and the life of Henry Sexton in 2005. Henry is the crusading editor of the weekly newspaper, The Concordia Beacon. He is determined to unearth the Double Eagles and the killer(s) of Albert Norris, his beloved mentor. Although Henry is white, he has doggedly pursued justice on behalf of Albert Norris, the music teacher, and the two men who disappeared, one of whom was Viola’s brother.

Throw in the drug trade, 1960s conspiracy theory, stone-cold killers (perhaps the products of the military-industrial complex), and good-old-boy racism, and suddenly 800 pages doesn’t seem so much. Then it’s understandable why Iles has projected two more books to tie off all the plot lines he has created. Although Iles gives us closure on some issues, sadly, some of the important explanations will have to wait until a later book.

There are a lot of characters, but Iles directs his readers’ attention to a few main characters: good guys Penn Cage, Tom Cage, Henry Sexton, and Caitlin Masters; and bad guys Brody Royal and members of the Knox clan. Iles makes a complex story simpler by doing this. Thank you, Greg Iles.

In a work so immense, it is perhaps not surprising that at least one thing might feel off-kilter. Dr. Tom Cage is seventy-something years old. Yet there he is, going rogue with an old (in several senses of the word)Texas Ranger buddy, trying to find his own form of justice. There’s an APB out on him for jumping bail. He is recovering from a recent heart attack — also having had several other health problems over the years — and somewhere along the line he is shot. His ticker keeps on ticking, however, when even 66-year-old Ahnold Schwarzenegger might be compromised under similar circumstances. 

Penn asks Caitlin to compromise her journalistic standards. Or would she be compromising her ambitions? She publishes a daily newspaper, in competition with Henry's weekly. Investigating FBI agent Kaiser brings his wife, superstar photojournalist Jordan Glass (star of another Iles book), with him to Natchez. Kaiser and Glass act as the slightly-older role models for how to separate a relationship from work. Neither Penn nor Caitlin seems to have the hang of asking the other to “compromise.” What is clear from both relationships is there are a whole lot of secrets going on. This would probably break a real couple, but in this fictional world love will probably conquer all.

In an afterword, Iles talks about his inspiration for this work. Unfortunately, there are a lot of real incidents on which to base this fictional work. The crimes are not pretty, the racism underlying the crimes uglier still. And that part was and is real. Iles has taken an awful time in our history and made it into a very good story that will remind us that the problem existed and still exists. Only brave people march forward and keep trying to eradicate it. Iles’ book is a paean to them.

Not surprisingly, there are cliffhangers at the end. The other two books in the trilogy are scheduled for 2015 and 2016.