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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Spark by John Twelve Hawks

Doubleday, 320 pages, $25.95

John Twelve Hawks is a pseudonym. There have been many guesses, including Stephen King and James Patterson, about his identity. Whoever he may be, and more power to him if he wants to remain anonymous, he writes an eminently readable story.

Although I enjoyed “The Traveler,” the first book Twelve Hawks wrote in his “Fourth Realm” trilogy, I never remembered to hunt down the other two books (“The Dark River” and “The Golden City”). I stumbled upon Twelve Hawks’s “Spark” serendipitously and remembered I enjoyed reading him. He has great pacing and the ability to create memorable characters.

Jacob Underwood (enforcer) is a much more fascinating character than his alter ego, Jacob Davis (computer programmer). That’s because Jacob Underwood is what was born after Jacob Davis had a permanently disabling motorcycle accident. His traumatized brain discarded vital elements of Jacob Davis’s personality.

Davis was one of the guys, had a dim-witted model girlfriend, and played the game. Underwood has synesthesia and aspects of Asperger’s. He often “sees” colors when he smells or hears. He cannot differentiate emotional states in other people. He has no emotional states himself. He doesn’t enjoy food, music, or the company of people. He cannot bear to be touched. He has to follow “rules” to remember to eat and maintain a modicum of personal hygiene. All of which makes him not only a very interesting character to read about but a great hired assassin for an unscrupulous international banking concern.

Underwood places everything at an equal level. A “human unit” is the same as a dustpan is the same as a tomato is the same as an umbrella. Killing a person has no relevance to his life except as a way of making money, something he is unable to do in any normal way. Only dogs, mysteriously, have an elevated status.

Underwood is assigned targets in Paris. He must kill the son-in-law of an Indian magnate because the son-in-law has amassed information on his father-in-law’s wrongdoing. The father-in-law is a customer in good standing of the secret and nefarious departments of the international bank, Underwood’s employer. Out of spite, the magnate indicates his daughter and her child must be killed, too.

If everything and everyone is on the same level of value, then killing a child should be no more difficult than throwing out a banana peel. In Underwood’s world view, a human unit’s “spark” would be extinguished. Big deal.

This is where the story turns for Underwood, because he balks at killing the child. Is his brain slowly repairing itself, giving him more of a conscience, returning his morality? Is it an anomaly? What will this mean for carrying on with his livelihood?

Running behind the scenes but at an equal level of interest is Twelve Hawks’s take on technology in the not-too-distant future. Triggered by a 9-11-type of disaster (“The Day of Rage”), most governments have authorized comprehensive intrusion into the private lives of their citizens. Cameras are everywhere, personal data is mined, government ID is required. There’s an underground movement to hold the government and its citizens accountable for replacing human workers with robots and inviting Big Brother into the world (think WikiLeaks, Assange, Snowden).

Although other authors have used synesthesia and Asperger’s before, Underwood’s character’s quirkiness and charm combine with the disorders to make “Spark” a truly interesting read.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Death at the Château Bremont by M. L. Longworth

Penguin Books, 311 pages, $15 (c2011)

Our MBTB book group will be talking about “Death at the Château Bremont” at our May meeting. We almost always split in our opinions on the books we read, and welcome all sides to our lively discussion! The May 2015 meeting is scheduled for the fourth Tuesday of the month at the Belmont Branch of the Multnomah County Library. If you are in the Portland area, please drop by and join us!

I have never been to Aix-en-Provence in France, but I would like to, especially after reading M. L. Longworth’s loving depiction of the area. Although Longworth was born in Canada and lived in the U.S. for some of her adult years, pretty early on she and her husband and daughter moved to an area close to Aix. She has been there for over fifteen years. She is perfectly situated to know what we unfortunate souls who do not live in Aix need to hear about this beautiful, delicious area.

Longworth’s main protagonist is a “juge,” less a judge than a detective in this case. Antoine Verlaque has the ability and responsibility to investigate suspicious deaths, often working companionably with Commissioner Bruno Paulik of the police. Verlaque is an aesthete, so it’s a good thing he lives where he does. Can the wine be more delicious, the food tastier, the scenery more grand, and the clothing more à la mode than in Aix? Of course the flip side is he is sometimes pompous, snobbish, and dictatorial, without quite meaning to be.

Perhaps the love of Verlaque’s life is Professor Martine Bonnet, a teacher of law at the local university. They have parted ways, but each longs for certain qualities in the other. When one of Bonnet’s childhood friends dies in a suspicious manner, Verlaque is happy to enfold her within the investigation.

Longworth touches on the ins and outs of Aix society, French culture, and other aspects of la belle vie as a sensual background to a touching mystery.

“Death at the Château Bremont” is the first of four Verlaque books so far by Longworth.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Death is Now My Neighbor by Colin Dexter

Ivy Books, 336 pages, $7.99

Yes, I read Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books out of order. Yes, I did not read “Death Is Now My Neighbor,” the penultimate Morse book, until just a few days ago, although I did cheat some years ago and looked at the last page for Morse’s first name. Now, of course, everyone who cares about Morse knows what his first name is since it is splashed across the title screen for the newest PBS Mystery series about Dexter’s iconic character. And if you care about Morse, you will have read this book anyway.

For those of you who have never picked up a Morse book, or for those of you who have only a desultory experience with Morse-reading, this review is for you.

The Inspector Morse books are erudite, monstrously witty, good-humored, play-fair mysteries. In terms of the balance of literary power, Great Britain has given us P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Reginald Hill, and Colin Dexter. We have given them revised and dumbed-down versions of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.* 

Towards the end of the small series (thirteen novels over almost twenty-five years), Morse is a changed and changing man. In “Death is Now My Neighbor,” Morse’s vulnerability is laid bare. He is the best and laziest inspector (that’s “chief” inspector, please) in the Thames Valley force, situated in Oxford, England. Sergeant Lewis is the best and most compassionate assistant in said force. Morse delights in working the Azed crossword puzzles and crowing his superiority over Lewis’ practical and educationally scant knowledge. Oxford-educated Morse may know his culture, but Lewis knows his people. It is one of the most perfect “buddy” pairings in detective history, in my opinion.

There are two stories at work in this book: the basic mystery and Morse’s personal story. For the sake of people who have not read other Morse books, I will forgo any description of Morse’s personal story. It will have more of an impact if you first read the other stories. It will make the revelations in this book more poignant.

Morse and Lewis are assigned the murder of a young woman who has been shot in the head while standing in her kitchen early one morning. The shot came from outside, through her window and a partially-obscuring shade. As her past is investigated, it comes to light that one or more of her neighbors are potential suspects. It also is discovered that her lover is one of the two candidates for Master of Lonsdale College, a significant position. Her boyfriend, it turns out, is married and he would shudder at the thought that a peccadillo might unseat his chances of becoming Master. The list of suspects has now grown.

After a second murder occurs, the story wends its way over to Lonsdale and the Master competition and a behind-the-scenes look at the delightfully devious and diabolical politics of academia.

To solve the mystery, Morse is his usual dictatorial self and Lewis plods along in his efficient and effulgent way.

I’m glad to have finally read this.

P.S. If you have seen the televised version of this book, it does change the tenor of the book considerably. Morse's personal story has been eliminated, and for brevity's sake, some characters have been conflated.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Fox Is Framed by Lachlan Smith

Mysterious Press, 256 pages, $24 (release date - 4/7/15)

“Fox Is Framed” is the third in the Leo Maxwell series written by Lachlan Smith, a civil rights lawyer in Alabama. Wouldn’t you think that that would be a better scenario for a book than the life of a civil trial lawyer in San Francisco? Not if the civil litigation lawyer has a father in prison, an older brother whose brain is impaired from having been shot by the man he suspects killed his mother, and the prospect of an offer he may not be able to refuse from the criminal world.

I haven’t read the first two books (“Bear Is Broken” and “Lion Plays Rough”) which detail Teddy Maxwell’s shooting and Leo Maxwell’s legal practice. Thankfully, Smith does a good job of introducing his characters, explaining the relationships among the people, and summarizing the plot thus far without making it sound forced.

The year is 2004 (or thereabouts) and I’m not quite sure why this series is set in the past. Maybe it’s explained in one of the other books. Nevertheless, it doesn’t appear significant in “Fox Is Framed.” There’s some DNA talk, and maybe the story had to be shifted back that far so there wouldn’t be any DNA testing available for the original trial in 1983 (or thereabouts).

For twenty-one-years Lawrence Maxwell has proclaimed his innocence while imprisoned for killing his wife, mother of Leo and Teddy. Leo was ten years old when he returned home from school and discovered his mother’s body.

As “Fox Is Framed” opens, Leo has finally come around to believing in his father’s innocence. Teddy, also a lawyer, has been helping Lawrence since he was able. The burden rests on Leo now, however, because Teddy’s brain injury means he no longer can swim with the sharks as a defense attorney. He can shuffle papers but can’t do trial work. Smith touchingly describes Teddy’s life now, with his brain-damaged wife (they met in a support group for people with brain damage) and their infant daughter.

The family scenes are good, but the strength of this book lies in the courtroom scenes. Defense lawyer Nina Schuyler grabbed the short straw and was assigned Lawrence’s defense. Fortuitously, it turns out she’s a keeper. Smith gives Nina and her nemesis ADA Angela Crowder some great speeches.

If Nina is the brains in this case, Leo is the brawn and gets to do the action scenes. In investigating some leads, he is led back to an old acquaintance and to some dark and criminal connections his father may have.

Leo gets to scramble around some more when an ex-con is murdered, virtually on the eve of his anticipated testimony that Lawrence confessed to him that he killed his wife. Why would he do that when Lawrence, acting as a jailhouse lawyer, helped to free him? It’s part of the nice, thick plot.

This is a tiny bit of a spoiler, so alert, alert, alert! Read no further if you don’t want to know this tiny bit of information. 

One of the intriguing parts of this book is that there are plot lines left unfinished. There is a cliffhanger at the end in the best serial tradition.