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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child

Doubleday, 304 pages, $26

You get the feeling that author Lincoln Child knows a little about everything. What captivated readers about Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is what readers should like about Lincoln Child’s books: Each author presents a credible menace with esoteric embellishments. Let Child bedazzle with history, science, art, and just plain old weird stuff.

In the best gothic fashion, hero Dr. Jeremy Logan vrooms his Lotus Elan up to the gates of a dark and mysterious sprawling mansion, aptly nicknamed Dark Gables. Although this is a modern tale, there are ghostly sightings, hidden voices, and raving madmen. Eventually, computers and cellphones reluctantly make an appearance, but in many respects this could have been set a hundred years ago.

The giant mansion, built by a wealthy eccentric, is now home to an elite think tank, Lux. (The name is vaguely redolent of soap and bogus companies trying to make their businesses sound better than they are.) Lux sponsors geniuses of all stripes. In fact, years ago Jeremy had a spot there, until he was kicked out. (The story behind that is revealed, have no fear.) Jeremy terms himself an empath. He regularly grabs hands to sense a person’s character. That might be the weakest part of the story, since he only sort of senses anything immediately useful. His more official title is “enigmalogist,” a gem of a tongue-twister. 

Jeremy has been hired to discreetly determine why one of its scientists, Willard Strachey, a database management systems developer, exhibited odd, manic behavior and committed suicide. He had been mumbling about voices and swatting at the air. Right up Jeremy’s alley. (By the way, the book opens with Jeremy finishing off the task of determining if the Loch Ness monster is real.)

As “The Forgotten Room” veers giddily off through the mazes and labyrinths of the upper mansion and its subterranean layers, chasing evil shadows and Flash Gordon machinery, Child shows off his expert ability to engage a reader and build suspense. 

Thanks for the ride, Lincoln Child. It was a Lotus Elan of a story.



Friday, May 19, 2017

Exit Strategy by Steve Hamilton

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 304 pages, $26

The nature of a serial is that a story is told in episodes. In a crime series, there is usually an overarching storyline, usually a personal one. I’ve been captivated by several authors whose arc describes the death of a loved one. It explains protagonists’ personalities and obsessions. The nature of a crime series is that usually a crime is solved within the book and the back story arc — whose story has already been told or will be told in its own book —  is floating in the background. Steve Hamilton goes his own way, eschewing this convention. Be prepared at the end of “Exit Strategy” to be shouting, “No, no, no, no,” ad inifinitum.

Fantasy and sci-fi authors excel at creating continuing sagas. Think of Robert Jordan’s massive volumes in his Wheel of Time series. (RIP, Robert Jordan.) Think of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones missives. Think of all the trilogies that have been created and are being created. N. K. Jemisin has a fabulous opus that hasn’t concluded yet. How about “The Lord of the Rings”? In these cases, there are small wrap-ups and big surprises, but also an unresolved protagonist’s journey that, we hope, will end in a satisfying conclusion … someday. So it is with Steve Hamilton’s Nick Mason series.

The Second Life of Nick Mason,” the first in this series, was good reading but unfulfilling. That’s because Hamilton has a big story he is stretching over, Lord knows, how many books. Nick was a criminal. Somebody died. Nick got caught. He was sentenced to prison for a long, long time. Darius Cole, a big-time Chicago criminal, befriended him. In exchange for Nick’s freedom and the ability to see his former wife and young daughter, Nick would agree to be part of Darius’ crew and do his bidding. Also, it was clear, Darius could order a hit on Nick’s family at any time he chose.

At the cost of his soul — not to be overly dramatic or anything — Nick becomes Darius’ hitman. In “Exit Strategy,” Darius has a chance at a retrial. Yes, Darius is in prison. While he was able to get Nick freed, he himself is under more dire interdiction. There were two witnesses who put Darius away the first time. Now they will have to be pulled out of their new lives in WITSEC and brought to re-testify against Darius. It is Nick’s job to find the brief moments in time when the witnesses are vulnerable and kill them.

Nick’s ex-wife and daughter don’t realize he holds their lives in his sniper’s sight. In the few months he has been free, Nick also established a romantic relationship with Lauren. Now she is another weak point that Darius can manipulate. On Darius’ behalf, Marcus Quintero is Nick’s handler. He enables Nick’s missions, but he makes it clear he will kill Nick and those he loves if necessary. Diana is Darius’ girlfriend. She and Nick share a townhouse in an expensive part of Chicago. Her restaurant provides the legitimate cover for Nick. Diana is as much a prisoner of Darius’ threats as Nick is. They don’t live their lives; they exist in a half-world, as puppets of a cruel and devious puppetmaster. 

On the good guys’ side are U.S. Marshal Bruce Harper, Chicago Detective Frank Sandoval, and U.S. Assistant Attorney Rachel Greenwood. Harper has never lost a WITSEC person, until Nick kills Ken McLaren, Darius’ accountant who testified against him in the first case. Sandoval, a straight cop, has been gunning for Nick since he got out (read “The Second Life of Nick Mason”). Greenwood would have to retry Darius’ case, hopefully with at least one of the two witnesses kept safe in witness protection. Her prospects don’t look good.

Hamilton does caper stories very well. Nick’s hunt for and elimination of the witnesses are fine, albeit perverted, caper stories. Sean Burke, a psychopath, also provides fine caper moments. He was Darius’ hitman before Nick. He went rogue and was caught by the police. Guess who escapes custody. Now Nick has to hunt him down as well. Nick is not going that alone. Harper and Sandoval also are part of that chase. It’s not clear that catching Sean would be good for one’s health, however.

Both Darius and Nick have exit strategies. Their stories are intertwined. So if Nick succeeds in disentangling himself, then Darius fails. And if Darius succeeds, then the door to Nick’s independence slams shut. What is assured is that people will die. Many, many people, as it turns out.

There are a lot of characters involved in this book. Not all of them make it to the end of the book intact. (Sorry, this doesn’t rate a spoiler alert; you’ve got to have guessed this at the outset.) Nick does. (Once again, not a surprise.) And this is where the no, no, no, no, etc. comes in. In the tradition of old time serials, we must see the unfortunate writing on the wall, “To be continued…”

Think of it as a fantasy trilogy.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 323 pages, $26

It’s hard not to have thoughts that run parallel and in contrast to Jeff VanderMeer’s in his latest biological disaster book. You might also be able to hear an ironic soundtrack as the book spirals down into the pit of despair. Like: When Rachel met Wick. “It’s the end of the world as you know it.” “I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you. And I say to myself, What a wonderful world.”

There is strange life in the decaying, battered, dying world that contains Rachel and Wick. We meet them initially without much of a back story. They live in what appears to once have been an apartment building. The structure is disintegrating, much of the contents have been looted or torn apart. The same can be said for their immediate world: The City. 

The environment doesn’t seem too dissimilar to our world, but it is one ravaged by ecological and environmental disaster.

VanderMeer plays with words, as does his title creation, Borne. Who is Borne? He is some sort of entity. At first he appears to be a sea creature (a long way from any sea) or a plant. As he grows he resembles a vase with lots of eyes and tentacles. (Here is a link to a sketch VanderMeer drew of Borne. The rather fanciful picture on the book cover doesn't correlate with VanderMeer's description!) His only friend is Rachel. Rachel becomes his surrogate mother. She has plucked him off the fur of a giant flying golden bear and raised him. If it sounds like a fairy tale, it’s a gruesome and apocalyptic one.

Rachel and Wick scavenge food, water, and medicine. It is the only way to exist in a world that no longer appears to be capable of producing anything useful. Some creatures may be living in and/or escaping from a stew of biological experiments gone wrong and chemical waste. Although help does not appear to be forthcoming, they persist in surviving. The story is told from Rachel’s viewpoint, and she still has her humanity intact, for the most part. She sees other people, mostly young ones, trying to survive as well. But it has come to the point where humanity is being lost in the struggle for the limited resources left.

The struggle is made even more difficult by the angry, crazy, marauding flying bear, the strange woman they call The Magician who can wink in and out of existence, and the smaller bears who are acolytes of the giant bear.

The Company, an anonymous, ominous sounding organization, whose headquarters has been mutilated by the giant bear, is somehow linked to the disaster. Animals who are familiar in face, but not especially in habits, flit in and out of sight. Other creatures are dreadful amalgams of human and biotech twisting.

Back to the word twisting by VanderMeer and Borne. The giant bear is called “Mord.” Using Google to translate the word from several different languages, “mord” can mean bite, snout, murder. That about describes insatiable giant Mord. Borne (yes, he can talk) and Rachel joke that Borne was born somehow but that Rachel has borne him (like a burden, perhaps) home from the fur of the bear. As Borne’s linguistic skills increase, he plays with word sounds and stretches them into a jangle of far-flung words.

VanderMeer’s popular Southern Reach trilogy also had lifeforms evolving, combining in a terrifying, fascinating way. He uses the same theme here, once again in a terrifying, fascinating way. Some of his visions are creepy and hard to shake off. But evolution has been sped up by man and the world is heading towards either oblivion or balance.

Lots of science fiction/fantasy books are difficult to read quickly until the jargon, landscape, and hierarchies are understood. “Borne” is always off-balance and redefining what the story is about, so often the going is slow. “Borne” is a cautionary tale, undoubtedly, as were his Southern Reach books. Are we listening?


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Little, Brown and Company, 240 pages, $26 (release date - 5/23/17)

What do you do after you’ve written a bunch of much-praised, dark crime novels? You don’t go to Disneyland; you write a dark non-fiction crime book. And you write it with style.

“The Long Drop” is only non-fiction in the sense that it is based on actual crimes in 1950s Glasgow and the actual trial of the accused perpetrator, Peter Manuel. At his trial, during which he fired his lawyers, Manuel talked for six hours on the witness stand, providing rich material for author Denise Mina.

One of the crimes for which Manuel was convicted was the murder of three women in William Watt’s home. Watt’s wife, sister-in-law, and teenage daughter were the victims. Although Watt was out of town at the time, he was arrested for their murders. Manuel was a resident of the local prison when he claimed he knew who had really killed the women and could even produce the gun that murdered them. Manuel provided a detailed description of Watt’s home and what the killer had done there. This is Mina’s starting point for her story.

There is no dispute that Watt met with Manuel before Manuel was arrested for the Watt and other murders. In Mina’s story they spend many hours together one long night. Did Watt suspect Manuel of having been the murderer at the time? Was Watt the actual murderer? (It is clear that Manuel accused Watt of being the murderer of his family during Manuel’s trial.) In the book, Watt is an alcoholic who goes on a night-long drinking spree with Manuel. Manuel is portrayed as someone who is not capable of empathy, cannot “read” people’s emotions, and has unpredictable bursts of anger. Watt is portrayed as someone who has a mistress and maybe found it inconvenient to be married, has criminal connections, and fancies himself one of the city’s elite.

Denise Mina turns fact into fiction by supplying her version of what went on during that long night of drinking, including meeting with Glasgow criminals, like crime boss Dandy McKay. Here is Mina’s description of McKay:

Dandy wears a suit, double-breasted with a broad stripe in blue and pink. He looks like a settee. He has a red carnation in his buttonhole, wilted, denoting the hour. His tie is purple and green.

The story of that night alternates with scenes from Manuel’s trial a few months later. Mina's perspective of the case presents intriguing possibilities about guilt and innocence, and presents some issues as ambiguous.

Glasgow in the 1950s has never gleamed with such a dark and shiny luster as it does in Mina’s book. She flexes her Glaswegian muscle to present the characters behind one of Glasgow’s most infamous stories. Even when Mina sets a scene, she does so with choice and evocative words. For instance, “The grate is chrome, long and pinched, a prissy kiss of a grate.” She packs more in her 240 pages than most authors would in 420. 

MBTB star!

P.S. The British cover to this book gives a graphic hint to what "the long drop" is.