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

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Dry by Jane Harper

Flatiron, 336 pages, $15.99 (c2016)

Australian author Jane Harper has written one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a long time. She combines a great, human story with evocative writing. “The Dry” depicts drought-ridden Kiewarra, a small town a few hours outside of Melbourne, so well that you would be advised to have a big, cold glass of water nearby as you read.

Federal police officer Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra after an absence of twenty years to attend the funeral of his former best friend, Luke Hadler. Everyone is saying that Luke shot his wife and young son, then killed himself, but Luke’s parents believe in their hearts that their son could not possibly have done that. The fact that Aaron is with the feds’ financial investigation unit doeesn’t dissuade the parents from asking Aaron for his help. In payment of past kindnesses, Aaron unofficially agrees to “look into” the deaths.

Some of the story is told in flashbacks to when Aaron still lived in Kiewarra as a teenager. What Harper does so well is delineate the complex relationships that teenagers can have with one another, given the wild hormones, self-consciousness, and secrecy of that age. Aaron and Luke grew up together. Their twosome is joined in their teens by Gretchen Schoner and Ellie Deacon, first friends and then potential girlfriends. When sixteen-year-old Ellie, Aaron’s crush, is found drowned in the nearby river, already bad relations with her family become worse. Both Aaron and his father are accused in turn of having murdered her when their last name, “Falk,” is found written on a piece of paper in Ellie’s possession. Soon the Falks leave town.

Harper draws her characters with minimum fuss but with great impact. Although various people represent town stereotypes, they feel real, not cartoonish. Working from nothing, Aaron and Sergeant Greg Raco, newly appointed to what was supposed to have been the quiet post of Kiewarra, try to piece together Luke’s last day and what might have driven him to the massacre. They find some vague inconsistencies at the death scene, including the fact that baby Charlotte’s life was spared.

Gretchen still lives in town and Aaron glimpses the changes that have come to Kiewarra through her eyes. Not least of the changes is the disappearance of the river, a victim of the drought. Kiewarra is a dying town. The remaining residents are hoping somehow to struggle through until the drought breaks, but no one can assure them that it will break in time.

Hate follows Aaron, who is still blamed for Ellie’s death, even by people who do not know him. There is a simmering lynch mob whose attitude is not helped by the deadly hot weather. Even with the backing of Raco, Gretchen, and a couple of other worthwhile citizens, Aaron needs to tread carefully, which makes it hard to investigate the deaths. Inexplicably, too, Aaron finds he needs to consider if the Hadlers’ deaths are somehow related to Ellie’s long ago.

Harper doesn’t veer from her clear storytelling style. There is a strong sense of you-are-there that comes across in her writing. And when she resolves all the storylines, you can hear all the “aha”s echoing around the world.

In honor of the recent release of the paperback version of "The Dry," this is my first 2018 MBTB star!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Minotaur, 400 pages, $28.99

Louise Penny torments her readers with tender grace. She not only plots a mystery, she also tells the ongoing stories of many of the residents of the tiny village of Three Pines*, Québec. It all takes a mighty fistful of pages. She draaaaws out the mysteries in “Glass Houses,” then suddenly swishes a piece of jagged glass cleanly through with a surprise twist. It’s a merciful killing after a long, exquisite torture.

Penny is known for her slow buildup of the who-what-when-where-whydunnit of her story. In this case, there are several stories, one the continuation of main character Armand Gamache’s continuing fight against corruption in the police force. Now he is the Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec and in a position to really do something about it. Also, opiate use has run amok in Canada, as it has in the United States. There is a line of no return that might already have gone by, with no chance of curbing the illegal import and export of the increasingly strong drugs being manufactured.

Closer to home, Gamache’s quiet village is suddenly haunted by a death-costumed character who stands on the village green. It makes no sound, rarely moves, appears to have no agenda. It simply stands in mute criticism. Of what or whom is unknown. A pall descends on village life. Armand and his village confidantes — his wife, the bookseller, the artist, the daughter, the son-in-law, the B&B and bistro couple, and the cranky poet with a duck — discuss what is to be done about the unwanted visitor. It has broken no law, and although the villagers want it gone, there is nothing Gamache, powerful as he is, can do about it. (How about loitering?)

I am always reminded of the epithets of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” whenever I read Penny — e.g., rosy-fingered dawn, gray-eyed Athena. Each of Penny's serial characters has repeated attributes, especially the cranky poet, Ruth, and her expletive-spewing duck. Her readers must get into the leisurely rhythm and repetition of her style of storytelling. “Glass Houses” is the lucky thirteenth book in Penny’s Gamache series, and there has been ample time to study the continuing characters.

On a more poignant note, her recent books have also allowed her readers to follow her real life a bit.  In her acknowledgements, Penny has referred to her husband, Michael. She mentioned his Alzheimer’s diagnosis at the end of one book. And at the end of “Glass Houses,” she talks about his death. Her work is imbued with the kindness and compassion of the kind that must infuse her real life.

(*Haha. I originally posted "Lone Pine," which is a town in California, instead of the fictional "Three Pines." Mea culpa.)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit, 464 pages, $16.99

This is not a mystery.

The Broken Earth trilogy has been a terrific series! “The Stone Sky” completes N. K. Jemisin’s outstanding fantasy work, following “The Fifth Season” and “The Obelisk Gate.” I also applaud Jemisin’s commitment to getting the books in the series out to her readers in a timely fashion. I have been waiting for YEARS for some sequels from other authors.

Essun and her daughter, ten-year-old Nassun, are the special people upon whom human survival depends. In this last book, Jemisin reveals the genesis of how people like Essun and Nassun are able to affect geological events, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which they can cause or quell.

There are many timely issues: ecology, misuse of natural resources, biospheres, biotic interconnectedness, the complex definitions of who or what is human and non-human, and the moral cost of subjugation.

Essun and Nassun have spent most of the books separated. A tragic cataclysm drove them apart and an even greater one threatens to destroy all life on the surface. It is only when the end is near that they might manage to meet again.

Finally, Jemisin solves one of the predominant mysteries of the series: Who is the books’ narrator? The narrator has slowly come into focus. The narrator has a surprising role to play and an intriguing final story to tell. The narrator is the only one who can tie what caused the beginning of the disruptive fifth seasons with the current stories of Essun and Nassun.

Life in a chaotic fifth season is not easy and the myriad problems never have black or white answers. That is what makes this book so riveting. And that is what makes this final book so satisfying.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Flashmob by Christopher Farnsworth

Morrow, 368 pages, $26.99

John Smith. Now there’s a character name for you. Easy to remember and it immediately impresses upon you that here is a man with something to hide. And what he has to hide is that there is nothing you can hide from him. He can read minds.

Christopher Farnsworth has created an unusual protagonist, one he places here, in a world you would recognize. His story smacks of sci-fi, but it isn’t really. It’s about greed and human nature and the herd mentality. Very timely, rather.

At the core of Farnsworth’s story is a tale of a piece of computer code and the cyber world run amok. It's perilously close to our own media situation, with “fake news” and Russian interference. A virulent and vitriolic piece of code was written with the purpose of influencing people on social media. As a result, hate mobs are being instantly created. It is apparently a small step from writing hate to actually physically attacking a target.

A young woman from a tawdry reality show was the first big target. Behind the scenes the people from the show got along, although the scripted show portrayed her as the villain. The dark website Downvote created a mental frenzy among its subscribers, which resulted in the woman eventually being shot.

I saw on my own Facebook feed just yesterday a picture of a woman and the words plastered over the picture, “Get this woman,” because she had allegedly stolen something. There was no link to a regular news story or police website or anything to verify that the picture and what it represented were true. There were a lot of yeah-get-her comments and shares. After having just finished this book, I thought that post was scary and the book scarily prophetic.

John Smith was Special Forces, his special power used by our government to affect military conflicts. After tiring of that, Smith became a security consultant, a high-priced bodyguard. As a result of a prior case, he just happens to be attending the young woman’s wedding when the assailants attack the event. Smith disables the shooters, who proved to be ordinary schmucks with a lot of anger issues, driven by Downvote to become a deadly flashmob.

As a result of Smith’s unplanned involvement, he becomes acquainted with an FBI agent, a tech billionaire with federal legal problems, and the billionaire’s bodyguard. The FBI agent mostly puts impediments in Smith’s path. The tech guy, Aaric Stark, hires him to assuage the guilt he feels for having had an inadvertent role in getting the code developed. The bodyguard, a young woman named Sara Fitch, tags along with Smith to make sure her boss’ money is well spent.

There are a lot of bangs and booms, bombs and skullduggery, but not a lot of head-scratching computer blah-blah-blah, fortunately. It’s a pretty straight-ahead story about being a good guy trying to catch a bad guy. 

One of the things I liked about this book — which I liked very much — was something that I first encountered with Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series: the thought that morally there was a payment for every special power used. Every pain Smith visited on his opponents was given back to him psychically at some later point. It was the price he paid for his “gift.” That’s such an intriguing proposition in a fictional world where the author very well could have rigged it so his hero suffered no ill effects. Super man versus human man, and Farnsworth chose human man.

This book is very readable, relatable, and scary, especially in an age when a fake news story can lead an armed man to storm a pizza place to rescue the non-existent victims of a pedophile ring masterminded by a presidential candidate. For real.