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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Dead Souls by J. Lincoln Fenn

Gallery Books, 352 pages, $16

“Dead Souls” is a captivating, well-written novel of horror. “The” Devil, minus horns and red suit, insinuates himself into our modern world and reels in needy souls. J. Lincoln Fenn’s premise is simple, but her handling of it is complex and stylish.

Fiona Dunn, a master of public relations, is a force to be contended with at work. In her personal life, she is closed off, insecure, and given to expecting the worse. As a child of drug-addled parents, she had to grow up quickly and learn to trust no one. That being said, she has let Justin into her life. Justin is normal. She marvels at the fact that she is in a serious relationship with a man who has no family issues. One could say that this is the ultimate novel of a woman who feels she doesn’t deserve happiness doing everything she can to undermine it.

The Devil finds Fiona getting drunk in a bar after suspecting her boyfriend of stepping out on her. Other than trying to persuade her of the virtues of Guinness beer, The Devil (or “Scratch,” as he prefers) seems content to ply her with mojito royales until the night becomes a blur and she wakes up naked in her apartment the next morning. She vaguely remembers telling The Devil something about how she thought of herself as an invisible girl. She vaguely remembers Scratch asking her for her soul. Ha ha ha. But, seriously, where are her clothes?

Long story short: Fiona can turn invisible at will. This is loads of help with her job, snooping out secrets to benefit the selling of chichi backpacks. The drawback: The Devil requires “a favor” in exchange for the power. No refunds, no give-backs, no saying “no.”

A small group of “dead souls" (other of Scratch's victims) bands together once in a while in an old converted church to share drinks and stories. Dead souls easily recognize each other by the smoky miasma that covers them, visible only to each other. Of course, the horror show begins when The Devil claims his due among the group. Fiona, ever the wheeler-dealer, is convinced she can find a way out of her contract.

There isn’t much humor in the story, and what there is is dark. I thought a nice touch was having one of the characters reading John Grisham’s “The Firm,” another book about what a character is willing to sell in order to be a success.

I cannot say enough about J. Lincoln Fenn’s writing. It is dark, modern, swift, quirky, twisted, creepy, grisly, heartless and heartfelt, romantic and deadly. Oy vey, Fiona is in deep, deep trouble, but she has a good writer to tell her tale.

MBTB star!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Dutton, 304 pages, $26

“The Dollhouse” is not a country girl goes to New York City and makes good kind of story. It’s a country girl goes to New York City and finds an alternative way of living kind of story. And it’s a good one.

The reader gets two stories for the price of one. In the contemporary story, Rose Lewin was dumped by a major television network as a journalist. She now works in New York City for a startup with a boy-man ten years younger than she for a boss. The intent of her web-based news organization is to produce in-depth, well-written stories, à la old-time journalism, only with high-tech visuals. Rose is working for a fraction of her previous salary but is satisfied. She lives with her boyfriend, a handsome, well-to-do, well-placed city politico, and is hoping for an imminent proposal for a relationship of a permanent nature. Things are looking good.

When everything goes south, as it must in fictionland, Rose becomes interested in a resident of the Barbizon, once the famous Barbizon Hotel for Women and now a condominium. The mysterious old woman, Darcy McLaughlin, has a story to tell, and Rose is determined to unearth it. While the Barbizon had its famous (Sylvia Plath, most notably) inhabitants, it also was known for some infamous events. A maid at the hotel, Esme Castillo, fell to her death right around the time Darcy was a resident. But Darcy is proving elusive and reclusive, so Rose does a lot of research on her own to find out what happened to Esme.

Rose’s contemporary story alternates with Darcy’s story set in 1952. When young women needed a safe place to stay in the big city, they were situated in the Barbizon Hotel for Women. Darcy has come — at great expense to her mother — to learn to be a secretary, get a good job and, by her mother’s unexpressed hope, to find a husband. Darcy finds she has another agenda. Through her friendship with Esme, she is introduced to the world of jazz, usually played in seedy, smoky clubs.

As an old woman living in the converted Barbizon, Darcy wears a heavy veil and shuns interactions with the persistent Rose. In a convoluted, contrived manner, Rose manages to discover some personal things about Darcy, giving a sinister and romantic air to Darcy’s story. Fiona Davis does a good job toggling between the two stories, validating and amplifying the contemporary research with the story set in 1952.

While insisting that the heroines, Darcy and Rose, are independent women who don’t need men, Davis crafts a story full of romance and men happening along at the “right” time. Otherwise, the women in the story are determined and become stronger as the story goes along.

I really enjoyed the book, but there was one element of the story that made me shake my head. It requires a strong SPOILER ALERT, so

SPOILER ALERT (Seriously, don’t read past this point if you haven’t read the book.)

If Rose thought Darcy was really Esme, wouldn’t she have been able to tell because Esme would still have had a pretty strong accent? It’s very hard to shake all vestiges of an accent. Just asking.

Marked for Life by Emelie Schepp

Mira, 384 pages, $26.99
[There is no translator listed for this work.]

The writing is plain and often clipped, but the characters and storyline of “Marked for Life,” a Swedish import by Emelie Schepp, are intriguing. If you like strong but eccentric women characters, then Jana Berzelius is for you.

Jana is a prosecutor in a big city in Sweden. Her father was Chief Public Prosecutor before he retired. She is driven to please him, but she has tiny, little quirks that mark her as a horse of a different color. Unlike U.S. prosecutors, Jana appears at crime scenes, interviews, autopsies, CID meetings, and the like. She doesn’t get to just sit at a desk and sharpen her writing skills.

As such, she catches the case of the murder of Hans Juhlén, the man “in charge of asylum issues at the Migration Board.” He seems like such a milquetoast of a guy, but no one can be that clean, can they? It is up to Jana, DCI Henrik Levin, and DI Mia Bolander to discover his secrets, if there are any. Mia is both irritable and irritating. She has taken a dislike to Jana, and while Jana doesn’t show it as obviously as Mia, the feeling is requited. They are both strong women with very different approaches to their personal and professional lives. Jana is organized, dispassionate, and smart. Mia is smart, too, but she is disorganized, hot-tempered, broke most of the time, and doesn’t let scruples get in her way. They are on the same team with the same goal: find who killed Hans Juhlén. Let the contest begin.

The story of the murder alternates with the story of a young girl, an immigrant being smuggled into Sweden, who is caught, imprisoned, tortured, and driven to commit evil acts. But by whom? 

It is clear that something in Jana’s past caused her significant trauma, but she does not remember it. The only souvenir she bears is a striking scar on her neck. Somehow (because otherwise it would be a very disjointed book) her life is related to some of the people the investigating team runs across. It will not come as a surprise that the crime will answer some of Jana’s long-standing questions.

This was a page-turner of a book. Jana is a tough cookie with an interesting attitude. Mia is pathetic but a good counterpoint to Jana. No one is without flaws in this book. It’s probably a cliché that main characters must have defects. Hercule Poirot had an eccentricity but not a defect. Ditto, Sherlock. (In the canon, cocaine was not a true defect.) Ditto, Nero Wolfe. Gone are their ilk. But this is the organic nature of writing.

Also, if you are looking for another Karl Ove Knausgård (Norwegian), this ain’t it. If you are looking for a captivating police procedural, this IS it.

WARNING: This does contain graphic scenes of violence to children.

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Penguin Books, 240 pages, $16

"Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train" were successful books, thus paving the way for more books with an unreliable narrator at their core. "Under the Harrow" joins them with unreliability to spare.

It's not apparent whether Flynn Berry is a British or American author, but since she is a graduate of Brown, I'm popping for the latter. Berry's story is set in England, mostly in the the town of Marlow, "on the edge of Oxford." Berry, unlike some American authors who write "British" books, doesn't ladle on the cozy and/or charming British-isms. There are no vine-covered cottages, no fairy cakes, no rectors with dead bodies, no canny villagers whose accents make them unintelligible. Berry gives us a woman, a dead sister, a past tragedy, a current tragedy, and many suspects.

Nora Lawrence is the woman. She has been coasting along in life and is currently a landscaping apprentice. She is close enough to Rachel, a nurse in the Oxford area, to visit her frequently from her place in London. Rachel is, of course, the dead sister. It is Nora's ill fortune to arrive for a visit with Rachel, only to find her sister and her sister's dog slaughtered.

Nora has an idea about who might have murdered her sister. When Rachel was seventeen, she was brutally attacked by a man. By a man who was never caught. For years the sisters checked news items to see if any other girl had suffered the same fate, but there was no answer waiting for them. And that would be the past tragedy. Find that man or boy and the police might find Rachel's killer.

Soon Nora remembers: "Rachel said there was something wrong with the town." Slowly Rachel pieces together information that Rachel was taking steps to leave Marlow and move to the Cornwall region. There's so much about Rachel that Nora didn't know. Nothing is apparent any more. And that is what makes Berry's book so intriguing. In the process of learning about Rachel's secrets, we learn about Nora's as well.

In her first-person narrative, Nora seems distraught enough at times that the only evidence of her thought process and subsequent actions is when physical evidence appears to tell the story rather than her narrative. We see evidence of her temper and almost psychotic insistence on considering one man after another as suspicious. Berry presents enough that soon Nora herself may be tainted.

Berry does a great job moving the slider from sane to questionably bonkers. It's enough to keep the story and the pulse racing along.