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

Monday, March 2, 2015

Life or Death by Michael Robotham

Mulholland Books, 432 pages, $26 (release date - 3/10/2015)

“Life or Death” automatically had a big plus going for it before I even turned the first page; it was written by Michael Robotham, an Australian author who writes the superior Ruiz/O’Loughlin series, set in England. “Life and Death” is not part of the series, but is a standalone thriller set in Texas.

This is why Robotham is one of my favorite authors: He can write the all-get-out of a character. Vincent Ruiz and Joe O’Loughlin are two very different characters, each of whom receives that most difficult of authorly treatments: different voices. (I can’t begin to tell you how many books I’ve read in which all the characters sound alike.)

For the most part Audie Palmer, the main character, is blank and humorless. (Insert sad face icon here. Where are Ruiz and O’Loughlin when you need them?) Of course you don’t really learn who he is until the very end. FBI Special Agent Desiree Furness has the best scripting by far, and she is known mostly for being short. Moss Webster, Audie’s best friend (sort of), has the next best showing.

The basic story: Audie Palmer is scheduled to be released from prison after serving ten years for a bank robbery and murder. (I know, I know. You find out why the sentence is so short much later in the book.) The day before his scheduled release, he breaks out of prison. (What!?) We slowly learn Audie’s backstory in installments throughout the book, including why he broke out early.

Everyone is after him, including the FBI, the local police, and the police from Dreyfus County, the jurisdiction in which he was arrested ten years earlier. Audie is on a mission to return to Dreyfus.

There are close calls, shootouts, innocent bystanders being victimized. It’s cinematic and follows a standard thriller format. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lamentation by C. J. Sansom

Mulholland Books, 656 pages, $27

Egad! C. J. Sansom continues to perform writer’s magic. With each new volume in the Matthew Shardlake series, he bests his previous efforts. He presents English history — the mind-numbing political convolutions and grand and petty intrigues — with verve and fluency.

Matthew Shardlake is an unlikely series hero. He is a hunchbacked lawyer from a humble background who has risen to a position of some regard and substance, despite his initial work for the discredited and executed Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII in dissolving the monasteries around England in the wake of Henry’s break with the Catholic Church.

In “Lamentation,” the sixth in the series, Shardlake must provide Queen Catherine Parr with a discreet service. A manuscript, with expressed Reformist sympathies, has been stolen. It was written by the Queen and she had intended to destroy it, in light of the frenzied hunt for heretics going on. Although the manuscript was not per se heretical, it could give ammunition to the Queen’s political enemies. With very few clues to help him, Shardlake is charged with its return.

The make-up of the King’s council reflects the divisiveness of both the King’s religious meddling and vacillation; it is composed of both religious traditionalists and reformers. It is to Sansom’s credit that he has created an intricate plot that brings into doubt the motives of both sides. Could the Queen actually be the victim of her allies? Could there be protectors among her enemies?

“Lamentation” begins with the dramatic burning of indicted heretic Anne Askew in 1546. Shardlake is made to witness this horrific public execution by his Inn of Court. Thus Sansom sets the stage for this fearful and revolutionary time. People of all stations could be charged with heresy. Because of Henry’s shifting beliefs, it is politic, as Shardlake says, “‘to worship as King Henry decrees.’” Shardlake, who has moderate religious beliefs — if, indeed, he is not an atheist at this point — is immersed in two cases for which he must tip-toe through the doctrinal debates.

It is Sansom’s great strength that he can place his story in an England of the past that lives and breathes by his penstroke. No more can be asked of an historical mystery than that it be both an excellent literary picture and a suspenseful tale.

Here’s an MBTB star for “Lamentation.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbøl

Atria Books, 304 pages, $26, translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard

Despite being set in 1894, “Doctor Death” is in many ways a very modern mystery. Maddie Karno, the twenty-year-old daughter of the coroner of a border province in France, has a lively, scientific mind and passionately wishes to follow in her father’s footsteps. But, alas, she is a female, and women of that time were expected to be wives and mothers.

When an unfortunate accident befalls Doctor Karno and temporarily puts him out of commission, his daughter, to her delight, must play a more active investigative role in determining what or who killed several people.

The first vicim is a young girl who has run away from her boarding school. There are mysterious “mites” found in her nose, but it is uncertain that they had anything to do with the girl’s death. The priest who prayed over her is the second victim. He, too, has mites in his nose. But his death was clearly at the hands of the human being who struck him dead.

It is a puzzle that Maddie and her father try to solve. With the addition of a professor of parasitology to their team, they use the most modern of methods to determine if there is a potential epidemic. Danish author Lene Kaaberbøl has a compelling modern-day series that she co-authors with Agnete Friis. Their heroine is a nurse, and Kaaberbøl seems at home with putting medical science to use here as well.

But don’t let the presence of a plucky young girl mislead you into thinking that this is some kind of Nancy Drew-ish mystery. Kaaberbøl has crafted a dark tale, and that tale begins to twist down into daunting psychological depths about halfway through. No one is "normal," it seems. (Not even the maids.)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

Dell, 464 pages, $9.99

By placing “Cop Town” in 1974 Atlanta, Karin Slaughter has given herself some complex issues to play with that are tied to that time and place.

At the start of the book, Kate Murphy is a rookie cop at a time when women cops were rare and beleaguered creatures. When she arrives at the precinct, she has to run the gauntlet of macho male cops grabbing and jostling her. She gets no warm, sisterly welcome from the other female officers either. If anything, their gauntlet is emotionally tougher.

She is partnered with Jimmy Lawson whose partner has just been killed. Although he should be sidelined and in therapy, there he is driving his partner through the bad streets of Atlanta. His first act is to scare and intimidate her when he introduces her to a pimp. I use the word “introduce” with great irony.

Why would Kate, a smart, rich, Buckhead, Jewish apple of her parents’ (and oma’s) eyes, want to be a cop? That is exactly what Kate repeats to herself over and over throughout that first, miserable day.

Eventually Jimmy palms Kate off on his sister, Maggie, also a cop. It’s not that Maggie takes pity on Kate — she doesn’t hold out hope for Kate still being a cop by the end of the week — but she gives Kate streetwise lessons; it’s just something to do as they ride around. And Maggie, despite the strongly-worded adjurations of her uncle, also a cop, and Jimmy not to do anything besides write traffic tickets, she is determined to find “The Shooter,” the maniac killing cops. Jimmy said The Shooter’s gun jammed, or he would have been another victim. 

Slaughter’s novel is a finalist for the 2015 Edgar Award for best book. It’s because her story is so rich with Kate’s history, the dysfunctional interactions of the Lawson family, and the shooter’s creepiness. In what seems like a scant 400+ pages, besides her characters’ stories, Slaughter depicts an Atlanta with deeply divided lines of race, religion, and economic status. And she has crafted a page-turner on top of that.