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

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Ballantine Books, 496 pages, $17 (c2017)

Dan Chaon uses 496 pages to depict the psychological disintegration of one of his characters. It’s like hearing nails on a chalkboard.

I’m posting “MAJOR SPOILER ALERT” here because I don’t see how I can discuss this book without giving away at least one of the big plot points.


“Ill Will” juggles various points of view, tenses, and time periods. It does seem like the reader will be playing whack-a-mole sometimes to get back to a character’s storyline.

The basic story at the beginning is that Dustin is a 41-year-old psychologist in Cleveland. He has a loving and supportive wife, Jill, and two teenage sons, Dennis and Aaron, with whom he gets along. He is motivated to help people because of his own background. When he was thirteen, his father, mother, aunt, and uncle were murdered, and he and his two older cousins, Kate and Wave, were sent to live with a grandmother. His adopted older brother Rusty was accused of the crime and found guilty. Rusty is a guest of a government hotel. Dustin was smart and managed to make something of himself despite his traumatic background. It is pure evil genius that Chaon starts from this premise.

THEN Dustin acquires a new patient, Aqil, who says he was a cop but now isn’t. Aqil immediately goes off on a pet theory he has. Young men have been drowning around Ohio. It usually is assumed they were drunk and drowned accidentally in various bodies of water. But Aqil says they were murdered by a fiend he calls “Jack Daniels.” He is now privately investigating the deaths, and he wants Dustin to help him.

THEN Rusty is released from prison when the Innocence Project shows he was innocent of murdering his family. Rusty was partly found guilty based on Dustin’s testimony about Rusty’s Satanic rituals, bullying, threats of killing their parents and burning their house down, and (look away) killing baby bunnies.

THEN Dustin’s wife’s health disintegrates, but she doesn’t want her sons to know she is dying. Meanwhile each of the sons has taken to drugs and prevarication.

Dustin becomes more and more detached as he tries to juggle secrets and deal with the stress of a dying wife, a brother who may want revenge, and a practice that seems to have been taken over Aqil and his “evidence.”

Slowly Chaon reveals the mutable story of when Dustin’s parents died. Dustin’s parents and his cousins’ parents are siblings married to siblings, just one of Chaon’s weird and wonderful dangling details. The two families are scheduled to go on a summer vacation drive to Yellowstone Park. Dustin and his cousins are sleeping in a trailer on the driveway while their parents party in the house. Rusty, who is six years older than Dustin, is off partying with his friends. Then the memories and stories diverge.

Kate and Wave are dangerously bored and Rusty adds hormonal fuel to that teenage fire. Just before the night of the murder Rusty holds a Satanic ritual at the local graveyard. It is the 1980s, a time of heavy metal, Satanic fascination, Goth style. He claims to be able to call up a demon — a minor demon he blithely says. Everyone is blitzed on drugs and alcohol.

The bad things in Dustin’s life don’t start with the graveyard ritual and the murders. The bad things started with Rusty's arrival. Chaon reveals more and more details of Dustin’s family life and the effect Rusty and his cousins had on him. If you have read “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, you will understand the sense of psychological dread Chaon creates. And he does that well.

Around the middle of the book, Chaon mercifully begins to answer some of the questions he has piled up in his wandering narrative.

Is Dustin a good psychologist, and what are the repercussions of his family tragedy?

As Dustin’s obsession with Aqil’s theory grows, his distance from his sons grows and he becomes more distracted. Is his voice in the book unreliable, or is he the one who will save everyone?

In regard to the night of the parental murders, who is telling the truth? There are certainly as many versions of what happened as there are people who were there.

Is there a demon silently running amok?

Good questions. Good answers. “Ill Will” is tense and foreboding as hell. I gave myself a good head-to-toe shiver after I finished this book.

And for those of you who like quotes to judge the flavor of the writing, here's Chaon on Dennis and Aaron's druggie friend, Rabbit:

He cogitated all the hope out of his life, which of course is the danger.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Speak, 384 pages, $10.99 (c2011)
Ages 12-up

If you were looking for the West African version of Harry Potter, look no further. “Akata Witch” is about a magical community mostly unknown to the Lamb (Muggle) people. Twelve-year-old Sunny discovers she is different. That is to say, she is even more different than her albino appearance has made her. Born in the United States, where she lived for her first nine years, she and her parents moved to Nigeria, her parents’ home country. She is Igbo, so she knows that language as well as English. What could make her stand out more? Ah, yes, her magic.

Sunny is academically strong, but she has made playground enemies of many children. Her albino looks automatically beget hostility. Still, she makes friends with Orlu, another smart kid in her class. Through him, Sunny meets the mysterious Chichi. Chichi may be another child or she may not. She eyes Sunny appraisingly and introduces her to her mother. Chichi’s mother lives in a simple hut. On the outside Chichi and her mother look poor, but there is something powerful about them. Sunny soon learns that Orlu and Chichi are the gateway to another world, one in which her latent powers begin to arise.

At the beginning of the book, Sunny has an apocalyptic vision. It’s easy to write it off as some sort of waking nightmare, until the magic community gives more credence to what she saw. Thus begins a quest for Sunny to discover and tame her powers, find her juju knife (magic wand), and receive a mentor-teacher, all while battling the strong force that is killing children and seeking to rip the outer world apart.

This first adventure — Nnedi Okorafor has written a follow-up book, “Akata Warrior” (c2017) — introduces the group of four children (Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha) who will stand as a force against evil.

What attracts children and adults to the Harry Potter series is its foundation of goodness, kindness, love, and acceptance of what is different. Those also hold for this book. Also, there is danger and a need for courage and independent thinking. Great elements, good book.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 336 pages, $25.99

“The Dry,” Jane Harper’s first book in her Federal Agent Aaron Falk series set in Australia, was stellar. Simply stellar. “Force of Nature” can’t compete with “The Dry.” In the first book, a death in Falk’s past, when he was a teenager, came back into play. That story wasn’t just about a death but also about Falk’s life in a very small town. “The Dry” had depth, well-rounded characters, and an exploration of the narrowness of small town life. It was deeply moving, especially by the depiction of a drought-devastated area. “Force of Nature” can’t compete with the range of that story, but Harper once again presents a well-written novel with evocative descriptions of a wild area of Australia and a fundamental understanding of human nature.

“Force of Nature” succeeds, although the originality of “The Dry” has been left behind. Now Falk is simply a cop with a case. Falk works for the financial investigation branch of the national police. His new partner is Carmen Cooper, late of Sydney. They work well together and are trying to close a case against a large company, BaileyTennants, for money laundering.

BaileyTennants employee Alice Russell has been co-opted by Falk and Cooper to obtain documents which would prove the company’s malfeasance. Before she can turn over the last of the crucial documents, she is chosen to participate in a company retreat for team building. Team building is grimly the wrong term. Somehow, during the sure-fire team building exercise — traverse a section of the mildly rugged Giralang Ranges on a multi-day hike without guides — Alice has disappeared.

The other women on Alice’s hiking team are her boss, Jill Bailey; Bree McKenzie, Alice’s beleaguered assistant; Lauren Shaw, a co-worker Alice has known since they were youngsters; and Beth McKenzie, Bree’s sister and company drudge. Somewhere along the line their train of thought derailed and they got lost. The remaining members of the team finally pop up far from where they should have been, tired, thirsty and hungry. And missing Alice.

The story of Falk and Cooper’s search for either Alice or any papers she left behind alternates chapters with the story of what happened to Alice’s hiking group. Jane Harper is so good at leaving the hiking group’s chapters at a cliffhanger. She is also good at slowly revealing the stories behind the tensions in the group. What haunts the McKenzie sisters’ past? What haunts Lauren and Alice’s past? What haunts Jill? And finally, does the ghostly presence of serial killer Martin Kovac haunt the group?

When Lauren and Alice were teenagers, Martin Kovac — now deceased — kidnapped and killed young women he found in the very area the group is hiking. Kovac had a son, Sam. Has Sam, who dropped off the police radar a while back, taken up where his father left off? Harper is also good at making all the trembling possibilities of that scenario come alive.

“Force of Nature” delivers a wonderful story, with flawed and human characters, especially that of Aaron Falk who is still trying to heal from the events of “The Dry.” On its own merits this book is strong and vibrant. The rains that spit, fall, and gust throughout the book play a malevolent background music. The tortured, dark, close woods the hikers must fight through mirror their personal voyages through tortured, flawed lives. The one cell phone that was smuggled on the hike is useless, a mockery of the group’s hope for rescue and a false conveyance for dealing with immediate problems in their real lives.

Also, because of a faint link to the Giralangs, Falk is finally forced to deal with the relationship he had with his father, now deceased. It’s a small part of the story, but it’s the one part that makes the heart strings resonate.

Of course, MBTB star!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Green Sun by Kent Anderson

Mulholland Books, 352 pages, $27

“Green Sun”'s combination of metaphor, poetry, grittiness, and exposition of human foible and grace are hard to beat. (Plus, I don't often come across a crime novel that pays homage to the “rosy-fingered dawn” of “The Iliad.”) I nominate this for next year's Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Green Sun follows 1987's “Sympathy for the Devil” and 1996's “Night Dogs.” The latter is set in Portland in 1975, in the gritty, bad-side of a mostly mellow city. But back then in real life there was a lot going on. A lot of it bad. Kent Anderson was a police officer in both Portland and Oakland, California. “Night Dogs” was Portland, and “Green Sun” is Oakland. Both are thoughtful and eye-widening police fiction with perhaps more than a soup├žon of truth.

Hanson — just Hanson — starred in “Sympathy for the Devil and “Night Dogs, and the trail picks up for him in Oakland after a period in which he was an English professor in Idaho. Yes, police officer to professor and back to police officer. Hanson’s latest goal is to bury his violent and traumatizing past as a soldier in Vietnam and police officer in the North Precinct of Portland and score a gig in a quiet backwater of California after qualifying for his law enforcement certification by serving in Oakland for a year. Throughout the book, Anderson tosses in reminders of how much time Hanson has left on his Oakland PD service before he qualifies for transfer. His four years on the Portland PD have counted for exactly nothing.

Underlying the episodic storytelling nature of “Green Sun” is the story of the community of Oakland: whites fleeing the expansion of black neighborhoods and the drug trade. If “Green Sun” were the only book one read set in Oakland, one’s takeaway would be that it is a war zone. Because Hanson marches to his own drummer, he is denigrated, ignored, and given the worst calls. If Hanson were paranoid, he might think someone wanted him dead, or at best wouldn’t care if he were dead.

Hanson has the dreaded night shift. Most of his colleagues ignore the “inconvenient” calls to which Hanson is drawn like a magnet. For instance. Two elderly gentlemen have called the police because they think their car has been stolen. The first answering officer blew them off, thinking they had merely forgotten where they parked. Hanson stops, politely listens to their tale, offers to drive them home, spots their car on the way out of the neighborhood, and respectfully helps them on their way. In many ways, this book reads like a fairy tale. The hero rises above the meanness of his fellow humans, his good nature and humor shining through.

However, this hero, Hanson, has a mean streak he struggles to suppress, a drinking problem, nightmares, and insomnia. He sublimates fear, perhaps in the hope that he will die and not have to worry about what he should do next in life. He may feel unworthy of love himself, but his actions express his optimism and hope for his fellow citizens. His first reaction may be to kill, but his first outward action usually is kindness. He is Mr. Complexity.

Hanson’s world is perhaps Oakland of 1984 or so. (I think Anderson dropped lots of hints, but I was too ignorant to grasp them.) In this world black/white tensions are tightly humming and police corruption is a given. Hanson meets many characters in the shadowy night world he patrols. He has no partner because of budget constraints, so his human conversations are pretty much solely with the denizens of the tough, poor sections of black Oakland. He tries to see past their crimes, complaints, and complicity, and instead sees the individual struggles and honors that. Plus, he really doesn’t like to do paperwork. (Although his one accolade from his hostile superiors is that he writes a good report.) He is the master of disarming ignitable situations by himself. He quiets drunk bar customers and a crowd of screaming people with equal finesse.

Throughout a large part of the book, a large black rabbit, first met in the grounds of a Buddhist temple, sporadically hops through scenes, sometimes as inspiration, sometimes as savior. It’s all part of Anderson’s quirky world view, and it’s a balance against the venality he also describes.

Here is Anderson describing Hanson’s “bravery” and indifference:

But he wasn’t brave, or even crazy, he just wasn’t afraid, only angry sometimes. He was supposed to have died over there in the war. He worried sometimes that he might fuck up, get somebody else killed, do something careless and look stupid when he died. He didn’t want that, and, of course, he hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much or take too long when it happened. It was that simple, and he kept it a secret.
Look for Anderson's scene in which the green sun of the title appears. It's a captivating piece of writing.

Periodically, Anderson tells us Hanson is sleeping. Then a scene follows that might be his dream/nightmare, or it might be what is continuing on in his world without him. Whichever, it has the feel of a dreamlike grim fairy tale. Anderson’s art is combining realism and dream into a book that is entertaining and fine. The short takes on Hanson’s call-outs are illuminative and humbling.

MBTB star!