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

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Murder...Suicide...Whatever..., by Gwen Freeman (trade, $14.95)

This is a book put out by a small company, Capital Crime Press, and it flew under the radar until a customer pointed it out to me.

I must say I found it quite entertaining. Not as rambunctious as Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series but with enough of Stephanie's sassiness to give it a "if you like..." recommendation. There is a clever resolution, a half-brother heroine Fifi Cutter should be awarded sainthood for tolerating, and teasing hints about Fifi's dysfunctional family tossed in periodically to spice the mix.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Lost, by Michael Robotham (trade, $13.95)

I've finished the trilogy! Lost is actually the second of the three, beginning with Suspect and ending with Night Ferry, but I started with Night Ferry. I don't think my enjoyment was diminished for reading out of order, but now I grok certain things better.

In Lost, Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz is the first-person narrator. He was an ancillary character in Suspect, which featured first-person narrator Joe O'Loughlin, a psychologist who appears as the second banana in Lost. Ali Barba is yet another second banana in Lost, and she is the star of Night Ferry. Are you Lost yet?

It's remarkable to me that Robotham is capable of inventing three very different voices and making them sound so real. O'Loughlin is a slightly arrogant, sophisticated (and intelligent) psychologist. Ruiz is a rough, abrupt, controlling (and intelligent) detective inspector. Ali Barba is a young, ambitious, complex (and intelligent) Sikh detective.

He is my new go-to author. His language is rich, his plots are complex, and I can't wait to turn the page. But I've now read all his books. [Insert mask of tragedy here.]

Lost begins with Ruiz being fished out of the river. One of his fingers is missing and there is a big hole in his leg where he has been shot. And to add insult to injury, he doesn't remember what happened. He suffers from transient global amnesia, and this means he has to backtrack through the last few weeks of his life to figure out how he wound up in the river. It doesn't take long to realize that whatever he was doing was not officially sanctioned and he is now anathema to the department. Without Her Majesty's government behind him, Ruiz must now rely on his (now) friend Joe, whose Parkinson's symptoms are steadily worsening, and Ali Barba, who has taken a leave to help her former partner.

In teasing Memento-like fashion, the story's layers are peeled back to reveal the gem at the center.

And now I must wait to see if Robotham has yet another trick or two up his sleeve.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Shanghai Moon (hardcover, $24.95), by S. J. Rozan

Rozan is the author of one of my favorite mystery series. Her two private investigators, Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, are as different as night and day, and Rozan masterfully gives them their own voices. Her books alternate between Chin's and Smith's points of view, so sometimes Rozan writes with the tone of a feminine iron butterfly and at other times with a masculine world-weary soul. They are partners whose partnership has seen better times. When The Shanghai Moon opens, they have been incommunicado for a month after their last case, trying to redefine for themselves their work and personal relationships.

In fact, it took Rozan seven years to return to her honored series. There were those of us who were fearful she never would return. However, it is far easier for fans to wait to see what happens than for an author to re-energize herself after eight novels in a series. The Shanghai Moon was worth waiting for.

Lydia Chin is a modern Chinese woman in New York City, but at the same time, she bows to many conventional Chinese traditions. She lives with her mother, a doting, nagging, interfering stereotypical Chinese mother. And there is great joy and laughter in listening in on their exchanges. With one foot in the tough p.i. world and the other in the Chinese community, Lydia is uniquely suited to working on certain cases. When a fellow p.i. asks for Lydia's assistance in finding some jewelry stolen from China, she is able to maneuver through Chinatown for information.

Eventually, Lydia needs Bill's help to find The Shanghai Moon, a legendary brooch that seems to have left a trail of dead bodies on its way to New York, and they effect a reconciliation of sorts.

Rozan gives us a little history lesson as she follows the path of the brooch that was created to commemorate the marriage of a Jewish woman, who escaped from Nazi Germany and resettled in Shanghai, and an aristocratic Chinese man. The tale is more about the past than the present, and it wasn't a past I knew anything about. Jews escaping to Shanghai? Without padding her book to excessive dimensions, Rozan eloquently gives us the sadness, alienation, and romance of the times.

I hope the way Rozan ends her book means that she intends to continue her Chin/Smith saga. I can only hope.

The Price of Butcher's Meat, by Reginald Hill (hardcover, $26.95)

Reginald Hill is mystery-writing royalty. His prose flows. His words excite. His characters madden and charm. But sometimes there is a thud or two along the way.

The Price of Butcher's Meat is a hefty (519 pages) addition to the Dalziel/Pascoe canon. It is broken up into six "volumes." The first volume consists of alternating voices. The first belongs to 22-year-old Charley Heywood, and her narrative consists of emails she sends to her sister of the events preceding the murder. The second voice is Yorkshire Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel's. He is recuperating at a fancy rest home by the sea, and his psychiatrist has given him an MP3 recorder to keep an account of his thoughts, in the hope that he will narrate away the trauma suffered when he was blown up by a bomb in the last book (Death Comes for the Fat Man).

I have to say that I found this section gimmicky, despite Hill's creation of a little bit of Yorkshire, replete with (mostly) interesting characters and interlocking stories, a veritable Agatha Christie-like cornucopia of potential suspects and suspicions. One of my favorite aspects of Hill's writing is his ability to give different voices to his characters. Of course, he gives Andy Dalziel his famously blustery and rude persona, and we are able to enjoy his thoughts for pages at a time as he speaks into "Mildred," his MP3 recorder. But perhaps it was a stretch to imagine he could do justice to a 22-year-old woman, whom I sometimes found to be more annoying than charming and whose intelligence was much vaunted by the other characters but comparatively absent in concrete example.

After this first section, the book (mostly) returns to third-person narrative. Thank goodness. Then we get to the meat of the matter -- literally. Odious Lady Denham (pardon me while I go whole hog and let the pig out of the blanket) is found roasting on a spit intended for the pig at a community hog roast. Cui bono? We already have met, at length, the characters who will be examined in the rest of the book for motives and opportunity: There are relatives, both blood and shirttail, business partners, and other characters who have run afoul of Lady Juggernaut.

In an homage to Jane Austen, Hill has tried to produce a novel of status and class structure. Charley Heywood is the plucky independent young heroine. Thud.

While it is obvious this is not my favorite of Hill's books because of the uneven presentation, a simplicity of some of the characters, and especially because it lacks the bite I've come to relish, Hill is a master. I would rather read this again and again than some of what is being published today.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Blood of the Wicked, by Leighton Gage (trade, $13)

This certainly is no tourist brochure for Brazil! Forget the sands of Ipanema. Forget sipping caparinhas on some leafy terrace. Forget samba-ing down the streets of São Paolo. Especially forget the last.

Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil’s federal police is our insider’s guide to what makes Brazil tick. Or not tick. Corruption is a fact of life at all levels of the political, judicial, and police organizations, says Gage through his stories. But in each arena there are a few virtuous souls who champion justice for all versus benefit to a few, and law over greed.

Silva is sent reluctantly from his home base in Brasilia to a remote community in the state of São Paolo. A bishop on his way to consecrate a new church has been murdered by a sniper. In Brazil, it seems, priests are not just priests. They are sometimes activists on behalf of the millions of poor against the few of the land-owning rich. So, could the bishop’s murder be politically driven? Was he one of the banner-carrying clergy advocating the liberation of arable lands from the clutches of the land-owning few to give to the “landless workers”? Silva knows a cow pasture when he sees it, and navigating the cow patties will take skill and diplomacy, the latter of which he struggles to find.

He is assisted by a couple of other federal agents, one of whom is his nephew. But they alone are not enough; they will need the assistance of a wide assortment of characters, including a couple of priests, wild children of the favelas, and a television journalist. Through their eyes we discover the underlying rot that shores up the class and race schisms that haunt Brazil.

This book is not for everyone. It is violent, profane, sad, and haunting. There is a lot of killing and inhumanity in the book, and while Gage does not linger over the detail, he does not shy away from explicit descriptions, either.

It will be interesting to hear what Gage has to say about how representational this is of Brazil as a whole. (If our country was totally the vision presented by Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, or Dennis Lehane, we might all have moved to Antarctica a long time ago.) Leighton Gage will be at Murder by the Book on February 21, at 1:00 p.m. His latest book is BURIED STRANGERS (hardcover, $24).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Mighty Old Bones, by Mary Saums ($6.99)

I really enjoyed Thistle and Twigg, the first book in this series. Saums has a lyrical touch to her writing, and in that book there was a great combination of funny, serious, spiritual, and practical. Phoebe Twigg is a good old Southern gal and Jane Thistle is a proper British woman with a touch of mysterious spy about her, and that's a potential goldmine of a combination.

I can't say that I enjoyed Mighty Old Bones as much. It was almost too much of every good thing I enjoyed in the first book. Every supernatural element touched on in the first book was hammered home in the second. Phoebe's scarily funny enthusiasm in learning how to shoot a gun was just plain scary this time. Added to the thickening plot were eccentric characters right and left, dogs, and romance.

It's true I obsess about the strangest things when I read a book. Practical things. For instance, Jane has her purse stolen but proceeds to her hair appointment anyway. How did she pay for the haircut? I realize that someone probably lent her the money, or in a small town like Tullulah, she might have just run up a bill. Small towns are wonderful like that. But a passing sentence would have put my unease to rest. I really want authors to help me visualize a consistent world, and I want it to be seamless.

Okay, here's another "whoa" complaint. Phoebe plops the two young children she is babysitting on her couch to watch a Schwarzenegger movie with her. And I don't think it was "Kindergarten Cop," either. Phoebe likes the ki-yah way Arnold deals with the world. But I'm not sure she should share that with young children.

All right. Enough. The bottom line is I still think Mary Saums is a good writer. I think her characters have the potential for many great adventures together. I even mostly liked Aunt Woo-woo. And I did finish the book. (For every book I read from beginning to end, there are at least 15 that bite the dust.)