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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

Penguin, 248 pages, $17 (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, c1998)

I have wanted to read “A Crime in the Neighborhood” ever since I saw it listed as one of Thomas H. Cook’s ten best mysteries in Publishers Weekly in 2013. This is what Cook had to say:

I have recommended this book many times to all kinds of readers. For me, it is a novel that uses suspense in the best possible way, not by having a character confront one contrived obstacle after another in a mindless stream of action, but by creating an atmosphere of deep moral peril in which the culminating tragedy seems as inevitable as it is, well…tragic. It is also one of those books in which the title become[s] completely apt, and very moving, after one has completed the book. In this case, the “crime in the neighborhood” turns out to be far more profound and long lasting than any single act of violence could be.

This was high praise because Thomas H. Cook’s books are lessons in good, evocative, psychologically tense writing. In many ways Suzanne Berne’s debut novel evokes many of the same feelings as do Cook’s. There is a strong narrative element. The first-person narrator usually is looking back after a separation of many years from the “incident” at the core of the book. You know there is a moral lesson the narrator has learned at his or her expense.

In “A Crime in the Neighborhood,” the initial crime is the murder of Boyd Ellison, a twelve-year-old neighborhood boy. He was not well-liked by his peers. He irritated them, bullied them, and eviscerated insects. Nevertheless, he was dead and it was a new experience for the kids on the block, one of whom is the narrator of the story.

Marsha was ten years old at the time. Her father had just left the family to run off with his wife’s youngest sister. There was a void. Anger could only fill it so far. Craziness filled it a little more. Marsha knew that her father had abandoned her. Her older twin siblings were scarcely any help. They believed in ignoring and belittling her. Marsha tells her story from the vantage point of adulthood. It is a voice strongly anchored in the present with an adult perspective overlying what happened twenty-five years ago. Berne does a masterful job of creating a story set in one time and being told in another.

In 1972, Marsha’s particular Washington D.C. suburban neighborhood was “Leave It to Beaver” country, as she recalls. When Boyd is murdered and molested, the innocence of the time is broken. That innocence has its own faults and frailties, and the bubble would have burst soon anyway, but the murder hastens it.

In Marsha’s perfect block, an anomaly has occurred. Mr. Green, an unattractive middle-aged bachelor has moved in next door, and Marsha takes an almost instant dislike to him. By then, her father has been gone for a couple of weeks. Shortly afterwards, Boyd is murdered. Lois, Marsha’s mother, is grappling with her own abandonment issues and whatever fault she carries for the death of her marriage. She has no solace to give her strange younger daughter. The twins are effete snobs. This mixture is added to the cauldron and brought to a boil.

This is Marsha describing her father:

He was a mostly mild man with a weakness for passion, a suburban father burdened with the heart of a Russian hero without any sort of balancing grand intellect or ironic world view.

and again,

He loved thick socks and the melancholy light of evenings in late summer. He loved to mow the grass because he said that mowing released the lawn’s tender smell.

“Crime” must be redefined by the end of the book. It bears similarities to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its young main character, but it’s like a photographic negative of that work. It’s the end of childhood for Scout as it is for Marsha. For each there is a moral to be learned, but it’s not the same one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $28.99

“A Great Reckoning” is the twelfth book in Canadian author Louise Penny’s emotionally dense series. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is no longer a chief inspector. This time around, following the explosive uncovering of corruption and venality in the police department, which put him in personal peril, Armand is the commander of the elite Sûreté academy. Although it is a position he purposely chose, it is not the soft, next-step-to-retirement job it appears to be. It is instead the next step in his attempt to rout out the last elements of corruption.

The book opens enigmatically with Armand reviewing dossiers, putting them in rejection and acceptance piles. One dossier especially makes him anxious. We don’t know what they represent for a while. In fact, it is a long time before we know what causes Armand such anguish. With this setup, Penny puts forth an overarching heavy cloud from the start.

Before the new term begins, Armand sets about firing and hiring professors for the academy. Among the new hires is Michel Brébeuf, once Armand’s best friend and now a disgraced ex-police administrator. Armand wants Michel to atone for his past sins by serving as a moral example to the academy’s cadets. Also onboard is Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Armand’s former second-in-command and now his beloved son-in-law.

Four cadets, two third-years and two new recruits, are highlighted. The previous administration at the academy was bent on producing vicious, bullying types to further carry out the reign of intimidation and back alley dealings with criminal elements. The only female in the group, 18-year-old Amelia Choquet, is prickly, armored, intelligent, and a loner. But she, more so than the others, is at the center of every puzzle Penny puts forth.

In an attempt to both protect and test the four cadets, Armand takes them to Three Pines, the almost magical little village where he and his wife, Reine-Marie, live. He gives them a puzzle to solve. While renovating the charming village bistro, a strange map was discovered. It seems both sophisticated and artless at the same time. There are tiny pictures of a pyramid, a snowman, and the iconic three pine trees that still exist on the village green. What was the purpose of the map? Why was it hidden in the wall? The four cadets begin their investigation but soon school studies shove the project aside.

One professor, the former second-in-command of the academy, has not been sacked. Serge Leduc, “The Duke,” is a little man with a Napoleonic attitude. He preens himself on the respect and fear he induces in the cadets. Gamache claims he is collecting more evidence of Leduc’s participation in the irregularities and problems concerning the academy before he tackles him. For instance, the new academy building was constructed a few years ago on land the enclosing town had earmarked for a community center for their children, creating ill will from the beginning, when another plot could have done as well.

If you are already a fan of Penny’s series, then rest assured that all the quirky and lovable characters from Three Pines make an appearance. They provide unconditional support and comfort to Armand and his schemes. Most significantly, grumpy poet Ruth is back with her foul-mouthed duck, Rosa.

Finally, there is a murder. The investigation is carried out by a former protégé, Inspector Isabelle Lacoste, with the help of Jean-Guy, and the outside oversight of a Mountie, Deputy Commissioner Gélinas. Why isn’t Armand helping? Because he’s a potential suspect.

What does the village map have to do with the murder? A copy is found in the victim’s room. Is it related to the victim or does it relate a cadet to the victim? Was the victim murdered because of his involvement with the police scandal? At least we know the killer wasn’t Ruth’s duck. She is the one of the few without a secret to conceal.

Penny holds each character in the palm of her hand, carefully examines all aspects of her or his personality, and lovingly (even with the villains) displays their strengths and flaws. This is why so many readers love her. Penny’s books move like molasses in comparison to the roller coaster thrillers that are popular today. But Penny gives you her heart. Can other writers claim the same?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Trespasser by Tana French

Viking, 464 pages, $27

“The Trespasser” — what proves to be a clever title — is the latest in an illuminating, mysterious, ever-changing “series,” set in Dublin, Ireland, by an author/actress who has lived in Ireland for a long time. Let’s unpack that information. Tana French has written five prior books. After the first book, “In the Woods,” each book featured a subsidiary character from one of the prior books. The connection is that the characters are all Dublin Murder Squad detectives. To the best of my memory, each book has a first-person narrative, so there is a variety of voices: men, women, younger, older, from different social, economic, and educational levels. I’m guessing her acting ear and eye acutely capture the nature of whatever form her central character takes.

Also, the tenor of her books varies. That’s a hard one to pull off, too. French’s focus isn’t necessarily just on who committed the murder, it is also about the mystery of life, nature, and the spiritual. Supernatural or mythical elements are sometimes hinted at, sometimes poetically envisioned. For instance, “The Secret Place” has some fantastical elements. However, “Faithful Place” has both feet in the everyday, but not ordinary, world. “The Trespasser” also is grounded, captured by French’s transcendent language. Her books range from depicting a world of the poor, betrayed by Ireland’s financial crisis, to the world of the elite in a boarding school. French seems at home in each.

I also found this quote an interesting insight into French’s writing. From an interview with the British newspaper, The Guardian, in 2014, French said: “I like writing about those big turning points in a character’s life, those crossroads where you know that whatever you choose, life is going to be defined by it.” It is remarkably apt for “The Trespasser.”

In “The Secret Place,” French’s last book, Murder Squad-wannabe Stephen Moran took the lead voice as he assisted detective Antoinette Conway. This time around, eight months after events of “The Secret Place,” detectives Moran (yes, he was promoted) and Conway catch what appears to be an open-and-shut domestic violence murder, and the action is seen through Conway’s eyes.

We quickly learn about the tight connection between Conway and Moran and also about Conway’s discomfort in the squad. Before Moran, she was the newest member and felt shunned. She has a hair-trigger temper, a loner mentality (breached sometimes only by Moran), a prickly nature, and a different view of the world. Stuck on the night shift, Conway and Moran catch a last-minute call-out. The body of Aislinn Murray, a young, attractive, single woman, has been found, her head apparently bashed in both by a strike to her face and a fall on her hearth.

Her nervous suitor, Rory Fallon, had been invited to Aislinn’s home for dinner the night before. He got no answer when he rang the doorbell and so he walked home, he says. Slam-dunk, says the seasoned Garda detective, Don Breslin, assigned to them as a watchdog/mentor. Book him, he urges. Conway and Moran are on the same wavelength, and there are enough little signs that they decide to provide a heartier investigation. Because the squad already views them disdainfully, they begin to carry on their inquiries surreptitiously.

Although they work well together, the cracks appear in Conway and Moran’s relationship and the detective partnership may not survive the stress of where Aislinn’s story may take them. Conway hates “what if” scenarios and Moran likes to speculate and follow those threads. Conway has her own personal demons, which are revealed in sometimes surprising fashion. (Love that about French’s plotting!)

French creates wonderful suspects and witnesses who bloom as the story goes along. None of them should be taken at face value. The early part of the book pretty much lulls us along on a standard plotting route, although French’s writing prevents it from slipping into the doldrums. Dead woman, suspicious suitor, crazy friend, dysfunctional family life, pressure to close the case. But wait, there’s much, much more. For a moment, assume that the suspicious suitor is not nervous because he murdered Aislinn. Assume the crazy friend is not crazy. Given her ordinary demeanor and attitude up until just a couple of years ago, what turned Aislinn into a beauty and femme fatale? Ah, now French is off and running.

Here are samples of French’s never-dull writing:

“Me and my partner are finishing up another night shift, the kind I used to think wouldn’t exist on the Murder Squad: a massive scoop of boring and a bigger one of stupid, topped off with an avalanche of paperwork.”


“I get a sudden nasty feeling like the trees behind us have snapped together and come down, with a silent roar and a smash of branches, onto the spot where we were parked.”


“The computers and the whiteboard and the floaters billow and shrink around the edges like thin fabric under water, drifting father away all the time.”

It’s a Tana French party and you are invited.

MBTB star!

P.S. So the game is to guess who the next lead character will be. I nominate Fleas, Conway’s former police academy mate who is now an undercover agent.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hell Fire by Karin Fossum

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages, $24
Translated by Kari Dickson

I am a terrible mystery reader. I usually don’t try to guess whodunnit. And if I do guess, it’s usually wrong. I was convinced three-fourths of the way through “Hell Fire” that I knew what was going to happen and why. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

What Norwegian writer Karin Fossum does is put all her strength and energy into creating her characters. They are nuanced and valid. They are happy and sad, mournful and joyful, anxious, idiotic, stubborn, selfish and selfless, quirky and straightforward. The first time I read one of her books, I thought the plot was rather plain but the characterizations were wondrous.

I convinced myself I knew what the plot was because I forgot Fossum’s strength. That is not to say the plot of “Hell Fire” is plain; I just tried to make it too convoluted. I was concerned with a false symmetry when I should have remembered human nature. If you are a reader who likes plot over all else, open your mind to character as well.

Inspector Konrad Sejer has starred in eleven other novels. He and his team are a smoothly working machine. Their personalities hardly make a dent in this book. The main focus is on two separate storylines, which, you may guess, eventually both become Sejer's remit.

The bodies of Bonnie Hayden and Simon, her almost five-year-old son, are found in a trailer on a farm. They were murdered. As Bonnie’s life is examined in one of the narratives, she appears almost angelic. She hates the fact that she has to put Simon in childcare, but she has to work. She’s a household assistant for medically disabled people. Mostly she cleans their houses. As a bonus, because she’s such a nice person, she talks with them, runs errands, and provides a respite from loneliness. She thinks the price she pays is that her son is anxious and suffers from separation anxiety. His father left the family for a much younger lover when Simon was very young, and that hasn’t helped. There’s never enough money for things they need, never mind things they want.

The second narrative also features a mother and son duo, although they are much older. Mass is in her fifties and Eddie is twenty-one. He has an emotional disability. Without his mother to act as buffer and housekeeper for him, his social ineptness would be overwhelming. Although it is not obvious what this has to do with the murder of Bonnie and Simon, their story is creepily moving. Mass tries her best and Eddie is very trying.

It seems that Sejer and his crew are slowly investigating the murders, but it seems slow only because there is so much storytelling in-between the investigative parts. As the police uncover various aspects of Bonnie and Simon’s lives, the story bounces back to when they were alive to substantiate whatever was discovered.

If this were a music piece, it would be played by melancholic violins. Perhaps Barber’s Adagio for Strings with its thrilling crescendo and diminuendo.