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

Friday, February 17, 2017

The 2017 Edgar Award Nominations for Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Paperback Original

The Edgar Awards will be handed out on April 27, 2017, in Manhattan.

I've read almost all the Best Novel and Best First Novel nominees. Usually I try to read the Best Paperback Originals as well, but I've fallen way short of that mark. I have read other books by Tyler Dilts, Robert Dugoni, and Adrian McKinty, and I can see why they were nominated. I'll keep trying. (Last year the book I most enjoyed was a paperback original!) I'll add links as I read more. 

Click on the title for my review.

Best Novel

  • The Ex by Alafair Burke (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper) 
  • Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (Hachette Book Group – Grand Central Publishing)

Best First Novel

  • Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry (Penguin Random House – Penguin Books)
  • Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown Publishing Group)
  • IQ by Joe Ide (Little, Brown & Company – Mulholland Books)
  • The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright (Penguin Random House –Marian Wood Book/Putnam)
  • The Lost Girls by Heather Young (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)

Best Paperback Original

  • Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott (Polis Books)
  • Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer) 
  • The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer)
  • Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  • A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  • Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)

Dodgers by Bill Beverly

Broadway Books, 304 pages, $15 (2016)

I’m not sure what Bill Beverly’s background is other than the information contained in the blurb on the back cover: He grew up in Michigan, attended Oberlin and the University of Florida, has a Ph.D., and teaches at Trinity University in Washington, D.C. The story lies in what is NOT said. In a nutshell, “Dodgers” is about four young black boys traveling across the country to kill a judge who is scheduled to testify against their gang boss in Los Angeles. What research, life experience, or attentive ear qualified Beverly to write this book? I have no personal experience or knowledge of gangs in L.A. (other than being a loyal fan of “The Wire,” set in Baltimore) and wouldn’t know if Beverly’s portrayal of gang activity is accurate. For instance, if there is a lot of street cant that gang members use in normal conversation, it’s mostly absent from the dialogue in this book, to the benefit of the reader — I had to have the captioning turned on while I watched “The Wire” — but it still sounds authentic.

Perhaps authenticity is not the main goal anyway. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age kind of story, a what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong kind of story, a touching story of a boy without a sense of normal who must learn to inhabit the alien environment of the Midwest.

But it begins this way.

“East” is fifteen years old. He stands guard on a drug house in “The Boxes” housing section of L.A.  a designation I Googled and could not find in the real world  and is in charge of a number of other boys who are also guards. It’s the kind of world in which a young child, let alone a teenager, cannot show fear. East’s home situation is frangible with a zoned-out mother and a sociopathic younger half-brother. He would rather sleep in a box in an abandoned basement than spend time at home. (Yes, boxes big and small inhabit the book.)

A judge scheduled to testify against East’s gang boss is hiding out in Wisconsin. East is chosen by the gang boss (also purported to be his uncle) to be part of a crew comprised of his younger half-brother, Ty; a former college student, Michael Wilson; and the smartest person on the trip by far, Walter. In order to not leave a paper trail, they must journey to Wisconsin in an old van, obtain guns, and kill the judge. Michael Wilson, always referred to as such, is by far the oldest at twenty but not necessarily the best planner.

None of the boys has killed anyone, except, maybe, for Ty. At thirteen, he has the stone-cold stare, the attitude, and a touch of craziness to make anything possible. There is no doubt who the triggerman will be, but all must be willing to participate.

East is a sensitive teenager. He tries to take care of his mother, such as she is. He tries not to let kindness trip him up. He is still capable of being horrified at some of the things he sees. He sounds like absolutely the wrong kind of person to send on a hit run, but he is the right kind of fictional hero to acquire an odyssey.

The poetry and power of Beverly’s book lies in the observations East makes of the country he travels through and the people he meets. What is the toll on East's psyche caused by his and others’ actions? He suffers traumatic blow-back from what he witnesses and what he himself has done. "Dodgers" is a heart-wrenching book about survival and belonging.

"Dodgers" has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

MBTB star!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

Little, Brown and Co., 320 pages, $27

“Rather Be the Devil” is probably the twentieth novel in the DI John Rebus canon. I say “probably,” because some of you might count novellas, a confusing distinction from “novels” at times. Nevertheless, Scotsman Ian Rankin has been writing a long time, and John Rebus has popped up across the decades with one entertaining adventure after another.

There was a pall hanging over this work, just as there is a shadow hanging over the lung of John Rebus, retired detective inspector; former colleague of Siobhan Clarke, still with the ill-reformed Scottish police bureau; former adversary and now friend of Malcom Fox, late of internal affairs and the murder squad, and currently newboy at the Gartcosh amalgamated crime fighting headquarters. You are meant to wonder if this is Rebus’ last hurrah. If so, he is going out in style, with a gem of a cold case (reminiscent of his time on the cold case squad), a criminal gang matter (starring an old adversary/odd boon companion), and bringing in his old mates, Clarke and Fox. There is a sense of finality implicit in the rounding up of these elements.

There is also a satisfying complexity and roundness to the crimes: a mugged crime boss, a murdered ex-colleague, a disappeared financier, a strangled beauty, and the ever-popular combination of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.

Although Rebus is retired, working crimes is second nature to him. This old dog still wants to hunt. At first reluctant to work with each other, let alone with the buttinsky Rebus, Clarke and Fox join forces to find out who clobbered local mob boss Daryl Christie. Factoring in the reluctance of people on the wrong side of the law to help the law help them, it’s a long haul for Clarke and Fox to even come up with a list of suspects. Big Ger Cafferty is on that list. He has a love/hate relationship with Rebus, who simultaneously respects, tolerates, and vilifies Cafferty. But Rebus is never complacent where Cafferty is concerned.

Mostly the result of having too much time on his hands, Rebus begins a cold case investigation of the decades-old murder of Maria Turquand, a young, flighty, upper-class beauty, in a room at the iconic Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh. Many of the major players are still alive, including her reclusive husband, unfaithful lover, and former one-night stands. In a strange way very common in crime novels, a link pops up between the cold case and the current crimes and misdemeanors. Robert Chatham, the ex-cop who last reviewed Turquand’s case, is now a bouncer in the club owned by the crime boss who has been coshed. When ill tidings befall Chatham after he talked to Rebus, it’s a toss-up whether it is because of Turquand’s or Christie’s case.

Rebus, ever his own man, inserts himself into official investigations. His humor is wry, his charm is rough, his talk is mostly blunt, albeit often evasive. This proves to be a gem of a case for a man who might be walking into a sunset.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Ex by Alafair Burke

Harper Paperbacks, 304 pages, $15.99 (c2016)

It’s not always true that a book written by a lawyer will be a paragon of legal orthodoxy. If a novel is to be interesting it must step outside the bounds of the tedious legal wrangling and investigation that occurs in most real cases. And that sometimes results in stories that lie more in the realm of fantasy. There are gunfights, exploding cars, backdoor shenanigans, a robot shouting, “Danger, Will Robinson” … sorry, got carried away.

What I like about “The Ex” by ex-Portlander Alafair Burke is the nitty gritty of working a criminal case has not been wrapped in last year’s “Mission Impossible” script. Good twists, good characters, and a good story have not been buried.

Criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall has agreed to handle the defense of an old college boyfriend on charges of murdering three people. One of the people Jack Harris, now a well-regarded author, is accused of murdering is Malcolm Neeley, the man whose teenaged son went on a shooting rampage a few years earlier which killed thirteen people, including Jack’s wife. Although it has been about twenty years since Olivia has seen Jack, she knows that no matter the provocation, Jack could never kill anyone. She should know. She provided enough provocation during their time together to rile a saint, and Jack did not lash out at her.

Jack’s sixteen-year-old daughter is the one who found Olivia and begged her to take her father’s case. Despite the unhappy ending of their affair, Jack, too, begs Olivia to help him. Her guilt over their breakup two decades earlier guarantees that she will take his case.

People and memories from Olivia’s past pop back into play. For example, Charlotte, Jack’s childhood friend and the college schoolmate to both Jack and Olivia, has the money to pay Olivia’s fee. It is she who inadvertently set the murder scenario rolling by trying to find an intriguing woman Jack spotted on a morning jog. Charlotte posts a “missed moments” alert in her online publication and it goes sufficiently viral that the woman is found. It is while going to meet this woman face-to-face that Jack is put right in the vicinity where the odious Malcolm Neeley is fatally shot.

While it’s not a slam-dunk that Olivia will be able to extract Jack from the charges, there is yet no actual evidence that Jack murdered Neeley. With the help of her eccentric office assistant, Einer Wagner, and other more sedately portrayed characters, Olivia methodically picks through the evidence and innuendo. Then slowly, one revelation after another appears. And it is delicious.

Although the ending is a little far-fetched, here is an MBTB star for the page-turning enjoyableness of “The Ex,” another nominee for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel.