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

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Honestly Dearest, You're Dead, by Jack Fredrickson (hardcover, $24.95)

With all due respect for how difficult it is to title a book and design a cover, and as clever as both of the above are in this case, they are mismatched to the content. Both indicate a cutesy type of soft-boiled mystery. Wrong.

Dek Elstrom is a dysfunctional tough-but-tender guy in the best private eye tradition, and he stars in a compelling and thoughtful book. Dek is very human: stubborn, fallible, loyal to a fault, with a thorough knowledge of his shortcomings but without the wherewithal to do anything about them.

In the first book in the series, A Safe Place for Dying (which I haven't yet read -- soon to be remedied), Dek apparently suffered a fall from grace. He has gone from a successful job to unemployment, celebrity to disgrace, and marriage to divorce. He has been exiled to the dying industrial town of his youth, to a turret (yes, as in what you find in a castle) an eccentric progenitor created with the thought that the rest of the castle couldn't be far behind. When hard times hit, all that was left was the turret and a sense of loss.

On the perpetual brink of poverty and depression these days, Dek receives a call from a lawyer. A mysterious client has named Dek to be the executor of her estate. The problem? Dek has never heard of her, has never set foot in the tiny town she lived in, and foul play is suspected in her disappearance and presumed death. This is like the horror movies where the unwitting (as in "no wits") heroine opens the door, walks up or down the stairs in the dark, and ignores the spooky music pouring from the soundtrack, despite having several indications that a serial killer lies in wait. Run, Dek. Say no, Dek.

I tried.

Instead, Dek drives to the town, pokes around, and discovers first to his amusement and then to his puzzlement that Louise Thomas, the presumptive deceased, was the advice columnist "Honestly, Dearest." She was also, as far as he can determine, a recluse with no past and a dismal future. Her house (not a home) is spare and utilitarian, with the exception of an old-fashioned doorstopper of a typewriter. The typewriter triggers memories from Dek's past, so part of the book proceeds to deal with the unresolved loss of Dek's first great love when he was a teenager.

Dek tries to unravel why Louise Thomas was on the run and to deal for the first time with feelings he has long repressed. The combination closes Dek off to those closest to him: his ex-wife Amanda and his best friend Leo. I love how Fredrickson deals with their convoluted relationships. (And I especially love "Ma," Leo's mother. She appears off-stage, but notably so.)

I also love Fredrickson's similes. Here's one: "I was up on the ladder, swaying like long johns on a clothesline…" The humor speckles the story, but mostly in the beginning, as the story progressively gets darker and deeper and there's not much room for humor in the end.

Run (to get the book), people. Say yes, people. You've been warned.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Suspect, by Michael Robotham ($7.99) (c2005)

I enjoyed The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham so much that I picked it for one of the best books of 2008. I hadn't read any other books by him so I'm trying to remedy that. Now I'm working my way forwards from the beginning. Suspect is the first book in his (so far) three-book series in which a different --but related -- character narrates each book.

Psychologist Joseph O'Loughlin is curious when he crosses paths with Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz who is trying to identify a murder victim. The detective rubs him the wrong way, but still Joe takes the opportunity to show himself off as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes when he's invited to view the body.

Much later Joe realizes that he knows the victim. Then the coincidences begin to pile up and other people in Joe's life, whom he would swear had nothing to do with each other, appear strangely connected to the murder. Because Joe is caught off-guard, he hesitates to tell Ruiz about the victim, hesitates just long enough for Ruiz to become suspicious and begin to consider Joe his best suspect. And on and on it goes. Joe finds that more evidence points nasty little fingers in his direction and he can't understand why.

To complicate matters, Joe has just been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Still partly in denial and largely angry over his bad luck, Joe is separated from the ones he needs and loves the best, his wife and young daughter, during his time of need because he soon finds he must run. If he is to divert suspicion away from himself, Joe must find out who is behind the master plan to frame him.

Robotham masterfully builds the suspense. He is quite good at presenting one jaw-dropping revelation after another. There was more than one occasion when I thought I knew what was going on, only to be fooled.

Joe is not your typical heroic protagonist. He is flawed and strangely uncommunicative for a psychologist. His arrogance surfaces more than once to undermine his desperate drive to reclaim his good name. Which makes for good reading. This is primo page-turning stuff. I read 80 percent of it within a day. (Then the Australian Open -- that's tennis, mates -- happened, and it took me three days to read the rest.)

Highly recommended.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Fifth Floor, by Michael Harvey (hardcover, $23.95)

Stylish and spare, Harvey is probably my favorite of the recent spate of Chicago writers to hit the scene. Perhaps I wouldn't have used the word "spare" had I gone directly to writing this review after finishing the book. Instead I plunged right into reading Michael Robotham's Suspect, and Robotham is like James Lee Burke, lush and generous with his prose.

Michael Kelly -- how unusual to have a character who shares the same first name as the author -- returns as the framed ex-cop who now operates as a private investigator. This time Kelly butts heads against Mayor John Wilson, his minions, and the longstanding Chicago tradition of don’t-look-don’t-tell.

A personal case involving a former girlfriend morphs into a larger one involving murder and City Hall. The catastrophic Chicago fire of 1871, which leveled most of Chicago's buildings and killed hundreds of people, may be related to underhanded doings on the part of Mayor Wilson's ancestors. At the beginning, however, all Kelly knows is that his client and her daughter are being threatened by her husband who works for the mayor's office as a "fix-it" guy, and that the husband is a suspect in the murder of an amateur historian.

What I liked about Harvey's first book, The Chicago Way, were the characters and the way Harvey brings Chicago to life -- it's not just some huge anonymous city that is the backdrop to the plot. I remember seeing "Dracula" on Broadway, and Edward Gorey's stage was definitely as much a presence as any of the actors. That's the way I feel about Harvey's depiction of Chicago. The story would not be as interesting were it placed somewhere else.

In The Fifth Floor, the minor characters are charming, repellent, or quirky, and have their own lives. They are never there just so the main characters won't sound stupid talking to themselves. Look for Teen, Willie Dawson, and Hubert Russell to provide short yet memorable appearances. Also look for a Barack Obama sound-alike to dash in at the last minute to become part of the story.

The larger storyline wasn't as appealing to me as that of The Chicago Way, probably because it would have been hard to top Nicole's story in the first book, but I suspended belief enough to join in the speculation about why it would matter to the current mayor if it came to light that there was hanky-panky back in 1871. Nevertheless, it was a good read with what is becoming Harvey's trademark, an eye-raising twist at the end.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Borderlands, by Brian McGilloway (hardcover, $23.95)

The theme of this book is "men are dumb." The corollary is "even smart men are run by hormones, not brains." It's a good thing a man wrote this book.

These days it is rare to find the hero of a story who has an intact, functional family. Irish police inspector Ben Devlin is such a character. He has a wife and two young children, and lives a mostly quiet life on the border of North and South Ireland. He lives his life with a sturdy moral compass, and tries to defend and protect with restraint and a respect for his fellow citizen. So it is especially catastrophic when he finds himself in situations where he cannot control his emotions. This is not just a police procedural, but a glimpse of how one regular Joe faces one ethical dilemma after another. Am I giving something away by saying that Devlin does not always fall on the right side of the line? Of course, the book would not be as interesting were he to always choose the right door.

A teenage girl is found murdered on the border, and it will take cooperation between the two countries to decipher why she was murdered. The girl's stepfather is well known to the police as a drunk and disorderly troublemaker. The rest of her family and acquaintances are not without their problems. There is no lack of suspects. Then the story becomes more complicated, when a ring the girl was wearing leads to more stalwart members of the community. And this is also when the author provides several instances of men being dumb.

McGilloway does a good job of quietly depicting two countries in which cultural divisions still run deep. It is the subdued background against which Devlin and his team must understand what motivates the killer.

Friday, January 9, 2009

What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn (trade, $14)

This remarkable first book by British author O'Flynn has been short- and long-listed for several prestigious prizes. While I want you to read it, it's extremely hard to describe the plot without giving so much away. Each turn of the page brings a revelation or twist, each character is an essential element to the resolution.

So that's what I'll do. Rather than talk about the plot, I'll tell you about the main characters.

Central to the story is Kate Meany, a very bright ten-year-old. At this young and tender age Kate finds she doesn't fit in anywhere. Her best companion is a stuffed monkey, and her passion is to be a junior detective. Following the instructions of a how-to book, Kate searches for a crime to prevent or solve. Although Kate is precocious, the author doesn't swarm us with cutesy, precious detail. Kate is simply Kate, who is, in the end, a ten-year-old child.

Kate's best human friend is Adrian, the 22-year-old son of the nearby candy store owner. He, too, finds it hard to find his place in the world, so these two sensitive souls find each other and bond over the incomprehensibility of the world.

Kate finally finds a same-age companion in the new kid at school, a misfit named Teresa. If there is a way to get into trouble, Teresa will find it. Bright, uncontrollable and not well-liked, Teresa finds a sympathetic ear in Kate.

This may sound like the makings of a children's book, but it's not. Most of it is a grown-up story about grown-ups. For instance …

Lisa. Lisa is Adrian's sister. We meet her as an adult working in a mall music store. She once had aspirations that didn't involve the day-to-day drudgery of managing a corporation drone-clone. Step-by-unaware-step she finds herself marching towards respectability and increasing monotony.

In the same mall is Kurt, a security guard. The Green Oaks shopping mall was once the shining star in the mall firmament. Built on the former grounds of industries that collapsed in an economic downturn, the mall has gradually expanded to become a megalithic entity that now swamps the once small community and its small community nature. Kurt mostly patrols the after-hours mall, walking empty and ghostly corridors. He, too, has wandered off from his aspirations and, by inattention, has found himself years later still a security guard at the mall.

Every main character carries a piece of the puzzle, but it is not until Kurt and Lisa meet that the story tumbles into place.

O'Flynn is a master of drawing a story out slowly and elegantly. Do yourself a favor: Don't read the summary on the back cover -- just start right in reading.

Brandenburg Gate, by Henry Porter (trade, $13)

Not-quite-valid reasons to choose a book: The front cover is pretty; the author has the same first name as you; it has more than 300 pages; the main character sounds like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose TV series you miss; the author's name sounds like Harry Potter.

When Remembrance Day came out a few years ago, I picked it up because of the last reason and the title sounded intriguing. I had never heard of the author or the book. I found out that it was a novel of intrigue written with intelligence, and I hoped to read more by Porter. Unfortunately, I missed Brandenburg Gate (c2005) when it first came out, so this is a belated review.

According to the biography on the back cover, Porter is a journalist and the British editor of Vanity Fair. He also has a sense of history, which is a good thing because this is a novel about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even though we know what happened to the Berlin Wall, Porter builds up anticipation and suspense leading up to its physical and political fall.

Rudi Rosenharte -- ex-East German spy, current art scholar, twin -- must free his twin brother, Konrad, from a high security prison in Dresden. Konrad is being held to force Rudi once again to be a spy. Various East German interests need Rudi to make contact with a former lover, a NATO employee who has passed secrets to the East Germans in the past. What the East Germans don't realize is that Rudi had been a double agent.

With help from the British and -- could it be? -- the Russians, Rudi attempts to play the dangerous double game of bringing in a Trojan Horse to aid in the destruction of the GDR instead of the information about the West's technology the East Germans expect. He eventually meets a young woman, Ulrike Klaar, a dissident who courageously fans the public antipathy towards the Communist government. For her own reasons, she helps Rudi find a Middle East terrorist whose location Rudi can trade to the Westerners for aid in rescuing Konrad. After they join forces, to the reader's benefit, the plot increases in complexity. Done against the backdrop of the disintegration of the GDR, Porter weaves facts with his fiction and the result is compelling.

There are times when the mushy stuff detracts from the wonderful portrait of a society in chaos, but in general Porter captures the shadowy world of le Carré-style spy-versus-spy with great authenticity.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart (trade, $6.99)

The student of a customer insisted his teacher try this book. When she didn't read it soon enough to his satisfaction, he bought a copy with his own money and gave it to her. The teacher loved the book and brought the recommendation to Jean. Jean loved the book and waved it under the nose of anyone passing by. A large number of us who knew better than to pooh-pooh Jean's recommendation picked the book up and read it. So here it is in writing: I love the book. Thanks, Chris and Jean! And thank you to the anonymous student who wouldn't take no for an answer!

First of all, this is a "kid's" book. Whatever that means. There are a lot of us, ahem, older kids who enjoy Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Lemony Snicket and -- my favorite -- Brains Benton (a 1950s book club offering). Universal themes applied well will attract a wide range of readers. What Stewart does especially well is not talk down to his audience, young or old. There is no arch, snide, wink-wink to his narration. And he has the requisite punny touches. For example, the villain is named Ledroptha Curtain!

Four children, whose regular lives are tumultuous and lonely, find themselves attracted to an advertisement in the paper, "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" The narcoleptic Mr. Benedict administers a super-, ultra-, mega-difficult quiz to find just the right children to help him with an imperative mission to save the world. Reynie Muldoon, Kate Wetherall, Sticky Washington, and Constance Contraire exhibit just the right odd mixture of guts, intelligence, and creativity to qualify. The book is filled with neat little puzzles and problems the children must solve to proceed with the mission, and they tackle them with composure and resolution. Well, maybe Constance grumbles and whines just a little.

The story plays fair with the reader, too, who can wholeheartedly embrace the children without fear of a double-cross at the end. The book is gentle and kind and sticks to its moral guns.

The good news is there is a sequel, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Kiss Murder, by Mehmet Murat Somer (trade, $14)

Although this Turkish author wrote this book first, it is the second to be published here, following The Prophet Murder released late last year.

In a very nutty nutshell, the heroine is a transvestite who labors as a computer programmer by day (mostly appearing in a male persona) and by night as the owner and manager of a nightclub featuring transvestites as entertainers and companions.

One of her "girls" comes to our heroine (never named) for advice. Buse is afraid for her life when it comes to light that she holds materials implicating a famous and powerful person in a homosexual relationship. Our heroine, channeling a kick-boxing Audrey Hepburn, if Audrey ever kick-boxed, has no time to save the day before Buse is murdered. Buse's blind mother has disappeared and our heroine is being stalked as a potential threat to someone, perhaps the mysterious famous person. She must locate and save Buse's mother and must also save her own well-moisturized skin in the process.

Half-serious, half-comic, and half just plain strange, I have never read a book like this. And I don't know what to think about it. Fortunately, I will have many opportunities to decide, since Somer has produced six of these "Hop-Ciki-Yaya"books all together so far.

I have to digress and explain what I have learned of Hop-Ciki-Yaya, a term that was harder to learn about than I thought it would be. According to one of Somer's publishers, this is pronounced "Hope-Cheeky-Yah-Yah." Again, paraphrasing the publisher, it is a nonsensical chant from the 60s that was a whimsical way to refer to "over-the-top, screaming queens." In an addled way that makes no sense but fits in perfectly with the tenor of this book, it also refers to a cheer that high school girls would yell to support their school teams.

Okay, back to the review.

The tongue-in-cheek, flouncy parts I liked. The mystery, not so much. Every character was, well, a character. There are no straight parts, but not in a sexual sense. Everyone has a tangled, twisted story and there are lots of tics and aberrations to go around. The plot was anticlimactic but there were fun bits to that as well.

And, yes, I will read another. I think they're like potato chips. You don't need to know where they've been or where they're going; they're plain old yummy and undemanding.

Beat the Reaper (hardcover, $24.99), by Josh Bazell

Peter Brown is a doctor. He is clever. He isn't in awe of the institution of medicine. He gets things done.

The only thing is … he isn't really Peter Brown. Medicine is his second career. His first was as a hit man for the mob. He testified against the New Jersey mob and now has gone into hiding through a Witness Protection program. You could say he has gone from taking bodies apart to putting them together again.

All is well until a patient recognizes him. If he dies, he says, word will get back to the mob and the day of reckoning will arrive for Peter. Then the mob guy dies, through no fault of Peter's, but because the mob guy had chosen his surgeon unwisely.

That's the premise in a nutshell.

What is harder to convey is how quirky, stylish, and fun this book is. It's also tough, thoughtful, and charming at the same time. It's not all craziness and action, which is what it appears to be at the start, because author Bazell touches on the human core of his protagonist's heart. I can hardly wait until it's available in paperback, because this book is getting my star (for an MBTB favorite).

Beat the Reaper
first showed up on my horizon at the PNBA (Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association) fair when the publishing company rep said everyone at the company who read it couldn't put it down. So I read it … and couldn't put it down.

Did I mention he has footnotes? Funny footnotes for fictional fare? Bazell doesn't follow the rules and it is to the reader's benefit.

Grief Encounters, by Stuart Pawson (UK paperback ed., $16.95, c 2007)

Stuart Pawson is one of the great undiscovered British mystery writers. During a brief window, Jill was able to get copies of most of the books in his Charlie Priest series at a reasonable price, but no longer. It's a shame because Pawson is a witty writer, his character is charming and likable (with no visible addictions), and the plots are interesting. Now that I'm hooked, of course, I have no choice: I must have my Charlie Priest fix. Grief Encounters is the twelfth in the series.

Pawson's talent is for creating gritty tales without wallowing in horror or nastiness. His stories rise shining from the muck and can be read even by those with a slight case of faintness of the heart. But he is no Agatha Christie or John Mortimer; there is a thin edge of steel to his tales.

DI Priest and his band of goodniks keep the borders and byways of Yorkshire safe and sound (along with Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe and Peter Robinson's Alan Banks). In the present case, a former superior officer, Colin Swainby, has been forced to retire. Priest soon learns that Swainby is being blackmailed. With a leap of intuition, Priest suspects that there may be more of the same in other parts of Yorkshire, even to the extent of involving a suspicious death. As Charlie susses out and interviews the reluctant victims, he realizes that there is a mighty tangled web of lives and it's up to him and his team to untangle them.

Most of the villains are sociopathic and clever, but some have a tale or two whose pathos may wring a tiny tear from your eye. And this is Pawson's talent in a nutshell. He drives the reader's emotions, in this case from amusement to disgust to anticipation. For those of us who have followed the series, we get the bonus of learning the next installment in Charlie's woeful love life.

Beg, borrow, or buy a Pawson book. This best kept secret isn't just for anglophiles or people I've yakked into trying one.