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

Friday, October 31, 2014

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pages, $24

This is a psychological mystery, not a criminal one. And it blew my socks off! Apparently it blew the socks off the nominating members of the National Book Award committee as well. It has been longlisted for this year’s fiction award.

Sean Phillips suffered a debilitating injury at the age of 17. “Wolf in White Van” flicks between flashbacks of the time surrounding the disabling event and Sean’s life many years later. John Darnielle slowly teases out the story of Sean’s second chance. Was Sean haunted by a darkness, a nervousness, an apathy, an ambiguous vision of his life? In the end, is he satisfied, maybe even happy, with who he is and what he does?

Sean has developed a role-playing game. He began it before computers were the sine qua non of gaming. With typewritten instructions, Sean sends his players on a gigantic choose-your-own-adventure. Even when computers begin to produce similar games, people still write him from all around the world. They do not meet in real life but are mutually dependent. Ah, but for some the line blurs between Trace Italian, Sean’s post-apocalyptic survival game, and real life.

Everyone — his high school friends, the players of the game, his family — has an affect on Sean’s life, but they cannot help him answer the ultimate question he doesn’t even know he has asked. As with his choose-your-own-adventure game, Sean ponders what it means to answer one way and then, after seeing where that path led, to answer in yet another.

The title comes from a garbling of lyrics on a record. Sometimes people hear what they want to hear. And in Sean’s world, they sometimes believe what they want to believe.

It’s difficult to describe this book without tripping over the surprises Darnielle craftily offers when they are least expected. The review I read, the one that made me want to read this book, pretty much blasted the main surprises right out in the first paragraph. Not fair, I say.

It’s not just the snaking plot that is compelling; the writing is grade-A-quirky. For instance, Sean imagines what it took to produce one of his medicines:

Explorers on distant South American mountainsides retrieving flowers from rock cliffs whose petals alone could yield the essence that would make the nauseating syrup in the tinted bottle: but you couldn’t get the essence directly from the petals; it was far too potent for human beings, it’d kill you; first you had to feed it to sparrows, whose livers filtered out the toxins, then cut out the livers and boil all the remaining organs in water.

If Sean can imagine sparrow livers, then I can imagine this book is a mystery and award it an MBTB star.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey

Soho Crime, 368 pages, $26.95

Because I reveal a vital piece of the plot, I'm labeling this whole review as a spoiler, so …


There’s a good reason, I guess, why I don’t read two books in a row (or in near proximity) by the same author, especially two books far apart in a long series. One or the other is bound to suffer in comparison.

I read the second book in Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series, “Diamond Solitaire,” and okay-liked the whole book and crazy-liked some parts of that book (the 300-pound sumo wrestler, for instance). That was only a few weeks ago. “Stone Wife” is the latest in the Diamond series; #14, if you’re counting. Twenty-two years separates the two books.

This is the plot in short: A professor and Chaucerian scholar is about to seal the winning bid on an old sculpture supposedly depicting The Wife of Bath, one of Chaucer’s bawdier tales, when he is shot and killed by masked men who invade the auction. Diamond and his police cohorts set out to find which of many trails should be followed to find the man’s killer. Not being able to narrow down the choices, the police follow them all!

Whatever set up this particular piece of the plot and whatever came after was completely overshadowed when about halfway through the book DS Ingeborg Smith finds a gun cache in a suspect’s house, makes a hurried getaway, and then ... nothing. Instead of bolting for the nearest police station/phone box/box of flares/all-night diner to alert the police, she goes home, refreshes herself, then almost casually drops by her office. By the way, she says, there also may have been a dead body falling from a tree in the front yard. But since that was hours ago, good luck on finding any evidence!!!

Yes, Diamond cleverly ties everything up. Yes, the solution was a byproduct of one of the many theories the detective team thought up. In the best Perry Mason fashion, the culprit coughs up a confession despite lawyerly warnings. Once again, enjoyed parts (the professor’s naughty widow) and not others (Ingeborg’s hare-brained undercover assignment).

Despite Ingeborg's misadventure, kudos always have to be extended to Lovesey on doing well by his creation, Peter Diamond, and the charming and historically intriguing city of Bath.

As the naughty Wife herself might say in advice to Diamond, not just about marriage but life in general: Experience, thou noon auctoritee / Were in this world, were right ynogh to me/  To speke of wo that is in mariage.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Drop by Dennis Lehane

William Morrow Paperbacks, 224 pages, $14.99

It has taken me a while to figure out what I wanted to say about this book. My respect for Dennis Lehane as a writer and storyteller borders on adoration, especially for his Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie series. He taps deep and tender emotions in his main characters, while also depicting a violent and often unforgiving world. “The Drop” succeeds in doing that, too, but only to a certain extent. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t wholeheartedly clasp this book to my bosom until Jean told me that it had originally been a short story. Now that it has been made into a movie, we have this short book/novella version.

Every word and movement counts in a short story. By necessity, given the needs of certain genres, like crime writing, characters and descriptions are more concise because there’s a lot of plot to get through. “The Drop” seems stretched. (I know many books begin as short stories and many authors work from a small idea that expands to become a long book. I wouldn’t necessarily have the same reaction to them, so I’m not complaining about the process.) “Animal Rescue” was the precursor to “The Drop,” and it contains the best parts of “The Drop.”

Bob is a bartender in his cousin Marv’s bar. He is lonely and there’s a heaviness that hangs over his life. He plods from day to day. He is quiet and it’s not a stretch to imagine that he is the flickering dim bulb in the sign. Then he finds a dog in the trash.

“Cassius” changes everything. Bob’s dog needs and loves him. With the help of Nadia, the woman who saw Bob pull Cassius out of the trash, he learns how to take care of a dog. Also, as Bob’s neighborhood Catholic church is scheduled for closure, his life veers even further away from the tedium and routine he had accepted.

Lehane has added more about what gives the book its title: Marv’s little bar is a drop for the Chechen mafia. He has enlarged the part of Eric, Nadia’s psycho ex-boyfriend. He’s added an NYC detective. There’s a little more about Bob’s life, and maybe that’s the problem. It’s both too much and not enough. A lot depends on Bob’s character. The resolutions of the short story and the novel are mostly the same, but the hit from the short story has more punch because we’ve only had a short time to process what’s happening to Bob.

Those bang-up twists at the end are stellar. That part is pure Lehane. The story of “Cassius” is intact from the short story and it, too, is wonderfully rendered. Even though I felt the book’s rhythm was a little bumpy, I would and could never NOT recommend a Lehane book. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Voices by Arnaldur Indridason

Picador, 336 pages, $16 (c2002)

Icelanders are only concerned with first names, I’ve discovered by reading Arnaldur’s books. The last names, for the most part, are patronymic, reflecting a person’s father’s or, more unusually, mother’s name, so carrying on family surnames is rare. Unusual first names are also rare, since all first names must be vetted by the Icelandic Naming Committee.

“Voices” is the fifth book in Arnaldur’s series featuring police detective Erlendur, but the first two books have never been translated into English. Not all of Iceland, despite an insistent assumption on our part, is uniformly icebound and cold. In “Voices,” the setting is Reykjavik near Christmas, and the streets are bare until just before Christmas when the snow begins to fall.

Icelandic food sounds very exotic; there’s a lot of talk about ox tongue and boiling various animal parts for Christmas. Erlendur is thinking about traditionally boiling roast lamb for his dinner. There’s a memorable scene in the movie version of “Jar City,” Arnaldur’s first book translated into English, involving a sheep’s head.

Apparently foreigners love to travel to Reykjavik to celebrate Christmas. The murder in “Voices” takes place in a swanky hotel that offers a holiday buffet laden with Icelandic food. The only parts of the hotel that aren’t swanky, it seems, are the basement where the dead body is found in a cubbyhole of a room in which the victim was living and the heatless room Erlendur takes while he investigates the case.

Gudlaugur was the hotel’s doorman, handyman, and Santa Claus. No one knows anything about him, except that he had been at the hotel a long time. He was found partially clad in his Santa suit, in a compromising position. Erlendur and his mainstay cohorts must tease out facts about the doorman. They finally discover something amazing about Gudlaugur’s past, but does it have anything to do with his death?

Arnaldur presents such a tantalizing picture of Reykjavik and the culture there in his books. He adds to that an intense thread that runs throughout the series: Something from Erlendur’s own past is haunting him as he works on this case. As his personal life is befuddled by his past, his drug-addicted daughter, and a budding romance with a forensic scientist, Erlendur’s tangled story becomes just as much the focus as the murder.

Although I’ve bounced around in reading this series, I’ve enjoyed each one. The food may be unusual, but the emotions that engender murder are not.