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

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics by Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, 289 pages, $26.95

Ah, I do so love a faraway story told with humor, philosophy, ghosts, 1980s Laotian Communists, and rat catching.

Maybe some of you remember the 1980 Olympics, the one the United States shunned. The U.S.S.R. had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympics, which were being held in Moscow in 1980, to protest. It was also the first year Laos participated. In real life, no medals were awarded to Laos.

Colin Cotterill has used the 1980 Olympics and Laos’ first participation in Olympic sports as background for his twelfth Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery. Why would the Laotian team need its own doctor, the doctor’s wife (an ex-spy), a nurse, an old military man, and an even older military man, all of whom are non-participants in the sports? The U.S.S.R., in putting on a good public face, presented to the Olympic crowd the latest in technologies, bountiful presentations of food, stellar buildings for the events, and smiles upon their faces, despite being a country whose economy was hovering in the no-fly zone. And, presumably, they have a crack medical staff.

Siri used a devious and clever trick to include himself as a member of the team. (I will let you discover what he did.) He deviously and cleverly managed to include his wife, Daeng, the one with the tail that wiggles when she is excited. The mission was headed by his friend Civilai, who thought he could leave the country without Siri being the wiser. Like that would ever happen. Also included on the support team is Dtui, once Siri’s nurse/assistant when he was the country’s only coroner. Siri retired and Dtui went on to more important jobs, but their friendship remained strong. Inspector Phosy, Dtui’s husband, had to remain in Laos to take care of their young daughter and to, you know, do police things.

Siri has always, it seems, been able to see ghosts. Lately, the thin window between now and the hereafter has thinned even more. Now Siri has two “spirit guides,” a thousand-year-old shaman and Bpoo, a “fortune-teller transvestite.” * Siri even disappears into the hereafter every once in a while to converse with the spirits, who manage only to confuse him with metaphorical visions. Daeng used to be concerned with his disappearances, but now she considers it part of the joy of living with Siri.

What could go wrong in such a tightly controlled environment as the Olympics in the Soviet Union?

Civilai spotted an old acquaintance while waiting for the plane to Moscow. He appeared to be a member of the team, so Civilai was looking forward to reminiscing. However, his friend never made the trip. The mystery of what happened to his friend leads Civilai to involve Siri and Phosy, and the three of them seem to uncover a plot to assassinate someone in Moscow.

Siri and his friends must uncover the secrets that hover over their group, while maintaining Laotian solidarity in cheering for their Cinderella athletes. Will one of them magically place as a shooter, a boxer, a runner, or a race-walker? Unlikely. But the cheerleading gang is determined to celebrate their unexpected good fortune and Quixotic expectations by being the loudest people to celebrate not winning a medal.

Colin Cotterill twists and turns his characters throughout the Olympic venue and the politics of Laos and the U.S.S.R. Cotterill, as usual, presents a delightful story filled with quirkiness and heart. For the pleasure Cotterill brings his readers, an MBTB star, of course!

* Publishers’ Weekly

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Viking, 272 pages, $28

It’s one thing to wrap up loose threads, it’s a genius thing to fifty-four years later create loose threads that need fixing. Is there any spy book more iconic than “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”? John le Carré wrote that in 1963. George Smiley, spy master and grand marshal of the spy parade, made a quiet splash there. Main spy character Alec Leamas — spoiler alert — died at the end, along with his lover Liz Gold.

What made le Carré’s books different was the moral gray ground through which the characters waded. There is no suave James Bond with a license to kill. There are instead intellectuals playing a chess game with real people as pieces.

“A Legacy of Spies” takes place an indeterminate amount of time after “The Spy.” Peter Guillam, a second banana in many of the Smiley books, has been retired to his Brittany farm for many years. It is Guillam, not Smiley, who holds forth from center in the current novel.

Descendants of Leamas and Gold are threatening to file suit against the British government for the wrongful death of their relatives. It’s the ne plus ultra of our current way of resolving difficulties. This banal starting point opens a cascade of case files and memories. Rightly or wrongly, Guillam is held to account for what happened so long ago. Interrogated in the agency offices by the likes of a Bunny and a Tabby*, Guillam remains sanguine. Le Carré’s sly humor pops out more than in just funny character names. Guillam’s observations are often understated and wry.

After protesting ignorance too much to the interrogating agents and not getting away with it, Guillam remembers it all, although, of course, only the tip of the story is revealed to the imperious Bunny and Tabby. We, as readers, get to experience the full force of what lies in Guillam’s cave of wonder. Le Carré is so good at peeling back the layers of a story. He aims not so much for a hit between the eyes as for a challenge to our moral center. He succeeded in “The Spy” and he succeeds here. Our sympathies lie almost everywhere (including with Bunny and Tabby, but only for their fluffy names) in this telling.

“A Legacy of Spies” is an old man’s story. As agelessly randy as Guillam may have been and currently may be, his spycraft and politics are from another era. The enemy had faces, not hardware. They were killers, not hackers. A couple of guys used to be capable of settling things, without an army or missiles, instead of an army or missiles. This spy’s legacy is tinged with complicated relationships and emotions. As the fifty-four-year-old story** emerges, the only thing that matters is what the spies did and will do for love.

MBTB star!

* Okay, you got me. Her name in the book is Tabitha, but who could resist.

** Fifty-four years is not quite accurate. As mentioned, the main story takes place an indeterminate amount of time from the original events in “The Spy.” Fifty-four is the number of years between then and 2017.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Language of the Dead by Stephen Kelly

Pegasus Books, 286 pages, $15.95 (c2015)

“The Language of the Dead” is subtitled, “A World War II Mystery.” The war is mostly a supporting character in this book, because the mystery comes down to base human nature, not national disagreements. But it doesn’t help that there are bombers flying overhead at night, with everyone on edge waiting for the bombs to fall.

Chief Inspector Lamb is a phlegmatic, upstanding member of the police. His biggest worry is that his eighteen-year-old daughter, Vera, is an air-raid warden in a small neighboring town. She is independent, spunky, and insistent on her right to be an adult. Even when a bizarre murder not related to her occurs, Vera still occupies Lamb’s thoughts.

A witch lies dead, his body perforated by a pitchfork and a scythe. At least Will Blackwell was rumored to have been a witch. Mostly, he was a recluse, with not much to his name. He was cared for by his niece and worked sometimes for a nearby neighboring farmer. There wasn’t much going on in his life and much too much going on in his death. What could he have done to incur such enmity?

Stephen Kelly’s book moves slowly through the process of uncovering the life of a small village to find what Blackwell’s connections were to other residents. Does his death have anything to do with the death of a young woman almost a hundred years ago, the subsequent disappearance of his niece, or a young, almost-mute boy who wanders freely and stealthily around the countryside?

More to the point, is there a current threat to young women? What about Vera? She has met a young man, Arthur Lear. He has lost an arm in the war and it has made him hesitant and too self-aware. Is there any reason why Vera can’t establish a relationship with him? Is she in jeopardy living alone in a small and somewhat isolated town.

Bombs are exploding all around, not all of them dropped by planes.

Kelly has developed some intriguing characters. Although Lamb is not on the frontline of this war, he has his own demons from the last war to end all wars. He loves his family and is more than competent at his job. Even after an old acquaintance is placed under his command under less than auspicious circumstances, Lamb perseveres. There is more at stake than discomfort caused by something that happened in the past.

A good read, even if the conclusion is a bit expected.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Little, Brown & Co., 448 pages, $28

Did the police cleverly nickname one of their shifts, or is the sobriquet, “The Late Show,” Michael Connelly’s invention? I know I could look it up on Google, but let’s pretend it’s the old (old, old, old) days before instant information gratification was possible. I’m going to say that in the past Connelly has shown a talent for meticulously grafting his fictional stories onto authentic police procedures and cases. So yes, my choice is that this is a clever nickname for the late shift wryly chosen by the police.

A new character jumps to the forefront in Connelly’s latest book. Renée Ballard takes her place alongside Harry Bosch and The Lincoln Lawyer as a quirky, by-her-own-rules, smart detective. Of course she has run afoul of higher ups, because this is Michael Connelly. Ballard has been “demoted” to the late shift, but she inadvertently begins to thrive.

It’s less about the crimes for me than about Ballard’s personality and backstory. The intriguing introduction to Connelly’s main character’s personal life begins on the beach after an intense shift. After paddling around in the ocean and playing with her dog, Ballard zips herself into a tent on the sand and snoozes. A friendly lifeguard keeps a watchful eye on her. Her dog, Lola, is trained to guard, and she remains vigilent while Ballard sleeps as well. From there, Connelly unveils even more unusual elements of Ballard’s life.

The crimes are about a stolen bank card, a brutally beaten prostitute, and a nightclub shooting. Ballard and her partner are supposed to sign off on their nighttime incidents and pass the cases on to the appropriate day team. Ballard is no longer significant enough to be considered part of a high-profile crime team, but she manages to insert herself into all these cases nevertheless. It is her curiosity, experience, and intelligence that make her a valuable, if under-appreciated, member of the force.

Connelly’s machine gun style reaches a peak in this book. It’s the way he manages to deal with three crime stories and a personal tale, and not exceed a thousand pages. I often wished for a more poetic flow, a more writerly style, but Ballard is a great new character. The crime stories piled a lot of details onto readers’ plates. Keep notes.