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

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Atria Books, 512 pages, $28 (release date - 10/20/15)

The gothic novel never really died, but if it had, Kate Morton would single-handedly be responsible for its resurrection. In “The Lake House,” there are tragic heroes and heroines, an old mansion, wickedness, and secrets that go boo! in the night. There are also a couple of intertwining story lines, one contemporary (2003) and the other hidden in the 1930s and 40s.

The contemporary heroine, Sadie Sparrow, has been “ten years on the police force, five as a detective” in London, and she’s in trouble. Teased out in bits to the end of the book is why Sadie is “vacationing” at her grandfather’s home in Cornwall. Initially, we find out that Sadie has talked with a reporter about a case, leaking details condemnatory of the police actions.

To while away the time and avoid thinking about how much trouble she is in, she runs with her grandfather’s dogs. They stumble across a crumbling estate, with a mansion worthy of a true gothic tale. Curious about why the interior of the mansion seems intact, with personal effects still scattered as if the occupants had meant to return in a minute, Sadie investigates what turns out to be the sad story behind the estate of Loeanneth, Cornish for “The Lake House.”

In 1933, the youngest child of a well-to-do family, 11-month-old Theo, disappears on Midsummers Eve. A few days later the body of a family friend and treasured house guest is found in the river. Disconsolate and grieving, the family moves to London, leaving Loeanneth to crumble into its surroundings.

In 2003, eighty-six-year-old Alice Edevane and her older sister, Deborah, are what remain of the household at the time of the disappearance. Alice is now a famous writer of detective novels: “Alice’s books were English mysteries, but there was nothing cosy about them. They were the sort of crime novels reviewers liked to describe as ‘psychologically taut’ and ‘morally ambiguous’, whydunits as much as they were whos or hows.” (Personally, I envisioned Ruth Rendell.) She harbors a secret concerning the night her brother disappeared. Most of the book is the slow unveiling of what she and others in her family knew of that night.

Sadie doggedly pursues, unofficially, this case that ended with no conclusion or suspects. Had Theo been kidnapped? There was no ransom note. Had he been murdered? A body was never found. There were too many people on the grounds of Loeanneth to be of any help in narrowing down suspects. Was Daffyd Llewellyn, the unfortunate man who died the same night, involved?

There are many possibilities and Morton throws them all up in the air, along with the story of Sadie’s personal travails with the police and her life. So many people have voices in this book that it felt too crowded at times. Since much was revealed in other ways, some of the characters could have done without personal surveillance. There are stories set during World Wars I and II, and while nothing new was revealed, Morton did an good, atmospheric job of incorporating the horrors of war. (Just an aside for you to ponder after you finish the book: Was the name "Sophie" chosen for a character on purpose or was there a subconscious agent working?)

In the end, “The Lake House” is a novel more of romance than mystery. Morton is a great storyteller and can sweep a family epic convincingly. And speaking of sweeping, thank goodness, I say, for a tidy ending!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol

Bitter Lemon Press, 224 pages, $14.95 (c2001, English ed. c2011), translated by Ruth Whitehouse

Esmahan Aykol is an İstanbullu, someone from Istanbul, Turkey, but she has connections to Germany as well. It is understandable, then, that her heroine, Kati Hirschel, is an Istanbul-born German who returned to Istanbul when she was an adult. “Hotel Bosphorus” was written in Turkish but exhales in Turkish, German, and English. As is so true of most of us Americans, we are out of step with a good deal of the European and Asian worlds. Besides their native language, they know English and probably other languages as well, and we know English. We are the world’s perpetual tourists, especially in regard to books written in other languages.

Aykol stops to explain certain differences in how things are set up in Istanbul and how difficult it is to render certain expressions into Turkish. I think her foreign reference point is the German reader, but it applies to us English readers as well. Kati is soliciting help from a French lawyer in German:

“‘If there’s no objection to you giving me the information I want, I’d rather not say,’ I said. I have to admit that, even after so many years [in Turkey], I would have found it difficult to construct that sentence in Turkish.”

There are many languages floating around in this book and many characters from countries other than Turkey, and they all lend an international sheen to Aykol’s work. For example, Kati says to her Turkish friend Lale:

“‘If you spoke German as well as my Turkish … Well, not German, because that’s a difficult language. But if you learn to speak any language as well as I speak Turkish, I’ll kiss your forehead in admiration.’”

It is Aykol’s stew of foreign sensibilities, the depiction of walls breaking down between countries, and her description, however brief, of the economic frustrations and breakdowns in Turkey at that time that gives this book an interesting underlying layer.

Kati is the owner of a crime-centric bookstore — although goodness knows how she manages to keep her store afloat since she’s seldom there to pay bills and do orders. Perhaps that mundane aspect of bookstore arcana is not worth mentioning. Her complicated world is complicated further when an acquaintance from Germany comes to town.

That acquaintance is Petra, a popular German actress, who is in town with a German crew to film an adaptation of a famous Italian book. Production hasn’t even started when their two-bit film director is murdered. Since Kati is so familiar with crime (where’s that irony emoticon when you need it), she decides to investigate the murder. Her desire to exonerate her friend is a weak motivation.

In the process, Kati, a woman in her forties who is constantly worried about her appearance, meets several eligible men, not all of whom are on the right side of the law. There are a few steamy sequences worthy of a comical version of “Shades of Grey-Lite.”

I enjoyed the book for its glimpse of life in Istanbul, but I had trouble with the sometimes abrupt transitions and undulating tone — was it about political criticism, elitism, sex-in-the-city girl-gone-wild, rom-com, the sensitive handling of relationships? Perhaps it was more about my Western expectations and sensibilities. The murder mystery itself played second fiddle to life in Istanbul and Kati’s love life.

My familiarity with authors who set their series in Turkey is limited. I have read one Mehmet Murat Somer and there is a tonal similarity with Aykol. I’ve also read Orhan Pamuk, and Pamuk (Western-influenced, I’d say) and Aykol live in two different worlds. I’ve read several of Barbara Nadel’s books in the Çetin İkmen series, but she’s British and writes in English. I don’t know enough to say whether Aykol's style is “Turkish,” but it is an interesting glimpse into a different world, even if it is an indifferent look at murder.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Woman of the Dead by Bernhard Aichner

Scribner, 288 pages, $26, translated by Anthea Bell (release date - 8/25/15)

Brünhilde Blum prefers to go by just Blum. She loathes the name given her by her adoptive parents, just as she loathes those same parents. They owned a mortuary and her father trained her at a very, very young age to process the dead. Needless to say, Blum has a very practical, albeit skewed, view of death. In this way “Woman of the Dead” by Austrian author Bernhard Aichner is like no other, although there are homages paid to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter and Steig Larsen’s Lisbeth Salander.

At the heart of the story is how the losses Blum experiences affect her view of the world. Instead of drawing inward, although she does do that for a time, she reaches out to help someone even more troubled than she. With her family’s love and support — and virtual ignorance of the real situation — Blum attempts to bring some evil men to justice. 

Aichner’s pacing is very different and off-kilter in a fascinating way. The violent acts and deaths are portrayed rather vividly. Blum is a provocative character. Her thought processes and resulting actions are impulsive and calculating at the same time. “Woman of the Dead” is an exemplary thriller.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Vanishing Games by Roger Hobbs

Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95

I don’t know how Roger Hobbs does it. From the very first page, he is able to hit his readers with fast-paced action, technical legerdemain, and a gripping plot. He even addresses the little things that drive me batty sometimes in books.

Before I talk about the rest of the book, let me explain what I mean by that last sentence. If I notice it, it bothers me if characters miss out on what real people would do. I recently read Sue Grafton’s “X,” and her stalwart P.I., Kinsey Millhone, had to uncomfortably deal with the lack of bathroom facilities while on a stakeout. It didn’t have anything to do with the plot, but it lent a painful authenticity to Kinsey’s character. No matter how farfetched the plot gets, if a character is human, you have got to take that into account. Jordan Foster, an editor at “The Life Sentence”, mentioned a “Wired” article about the latest season of “True Detective” and how characters would travel long distances (between actual places in California) in impossibly short times. That bothered her. That bothers me. Internal consistency.

At one point, “Jack” (Hobbs’ ghostman from “Ghostman,” his first book) gets dunked in a sewage-filled ocean, is run ragged while getting away from bad(der) guys, and suffers slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to the extent that he is dripping and oozing blood. He merely changes clothes and keeps going for several more chapters. I thought to myself, eww, he must smell really bad and have a wide personal zone in crowds, making it easy for a sniper to get him. I fretted about how unreal (hah!) that little piece of the narrative appeared. But I should have trusted the author more. Eventually Jack connects with a shower, while acknowledging his fundamental odiferous nature. Everything was all better for me and I could continue to read. The fact that Jack eventually cleans himself up speaks to the meticulous way Hobbs crafts the world his characters inhabit.

In “Vanishing Games,” the world consists mostly of Macau, the incongruous high-flying, big-stakes gambling mecca for the rich of China and beyond. To be sure, there’s a seedy side to Macau. (And an even seedier side.) The poor inhabitants co-exist with the rich tourists on this geographical appendage to mainland China.

After not having heard from her for six years, Angela, Jack’s mentor. friend, and fellow con artist, surfaces and contacts him. Jack has missed her terribly. She is one of the few people capable of assuaging his loneliness. It’s not easy being no one and everyone, as the criminal term “ghostman” signifies. A ghost is someone who can assume different identities and can craft them for others as well, a necessary job for someone working in a criminal crew that needs to disappear after a job.

Angela is in trouble. An attempt to swindle the swindlers has backfired big time. She put together a crew to pirate away some sapphires from a ship of smugglers in the waters near Hong Kong and Macau. Somehow a stranger has found out about Angela’s scheme and wants what’s his. Since he already has the sapphires, Angela has no idea what he really wants. She just knows, after she receives a box containing the head of her last crew member, that she needs help, and Jack is whose help she needs to pull off the ultimate con game.

When Roger Hobbs appeared at MBTB a few years ago after “Ghostman” hit the market, I had a chance to ask him a bunch of nosy questions. It was then I learned that some of his “facts” were made up. Fabricated. Out of thin air, whole cloth, nada. He made it sound so authentic. I’m sure some of the stuff in “Vanishing Games” is of the same ilk, but it doesn’t matter. It sounds good.

“Vanishing Games” is every bit as nervy, compelling, and dramatic as “Ghostman” was. With the addition of the mysterious Angela, mentioned several times in “Ghostman” but never seen except in flashbacks, it becomes even more intriguing.