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

Monday, March 30, 2009

Chasing Darkness, by Robert Crais ($9.99)

This is the twelfth book starring Elvis Cole, private eye. Sidekick Joe Pike is back in the box and only out for special occasions. Everything is as it should be.

The plot is very serious, weighted with potential police corruption and serial killings, but it is tempered by what Crais does very well, little touches of eccentricity. Elvis' quirkiness shines through, from his choice of a Pinnochio clock to his oddly temperamental cat.

Carol Starkey, resurrected after dying in an explosion and now late of the bomb squad (Demolition Angel), makes an appearance in Chasing Darkness as a homicide detective. She gives such a welcome and different perspective to the book, I looked ahead to read just her parts. She's got the woo-hoos for our boy, but Elvis is still carrying a gigantic Lucy torch. Let's chip in together and get a big bucket of water for that torch.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch … A case Elvis had a few years ago comes back to haunt him. The defendant Elvis helped exonerate of murder is found dead, with a scrapbook full of incriminating photographs of murder victims lying nearby, including one of the woman he was charged with murdering. If Elvis' original research was accurate, then the dead man, morally repugnant though he may be, is innocent. So the question is, who is the real killer? Unfortunately, a potential crack appears in his original theory, and the what-ifs begin. Two more women were murdered after the dead man was freed, and the thought that he might be responsible drives Elvis to desperate measures.

Elvis tries to reconstruct the stories of the serial killer's victims. He eventually finds that a high-ranking member of the police department has put the department's files in lockdown, with only select members of a task force authorized to access them. Is it to protect the files or to obscure misconduct?

Crais does a great job of creating interesting characters, a complex plot, and a thoughtful and lyrical last paragraph.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Betrayals by Carla Neggers ($7.99) (c1990)

In the romantic suspense genre, Carla Neggers' books are usually reliably well written and enjoyable, following the traditional romantic formula. Her characters are defined and "normal," so although the women and men are good-looking, they are also intelligent, ethical and independent minded. The storylines are fast-paced and the plots are credible. The characters are often related to characters in previous books, so there is a sense of revisiting someone you know and liked and being updated about their lives after the end of their stories. Neggers' books satisfy one's indulgence for a guilt-free romantic romp with substance.

That said, Betrayals fails hopelessly to come up to the standard I have expected in a Carla Neggers story. This book was originally released in 1990, and what a difference 19 years have made in honing Ms. Neggers' writing skills! The book spans approximately 30 years, revolving around two families that are linked by secrets and tragedy. The irritating central players all have various pieces of the puzzle, but are unwilling to share to bring a timely solution to this overlong, tedious story, preferring to "go it alone" to resolve the mystery. The only subplot missing from this story was the traditional meeting at midnight in the unlit tower on a dark, stormy night.

Not a book I would recommend.

Pushing Up Daisies, by Rosemary Harris ($6.99)

This is the first book in a new series about a New York City media producer, Paula, who gives up her lifestyle in New York to start over as a gardener in a small Connecticut town. The book is an easy, light read, with a credible mystery, humorous without being silly. There are a few "huh?" moments when the protagonist makes a leap in logic that are difficult to follow.

The mystery begins with an event that took place 50 years in the past that has a connection to a present day murder. Some leaps, some obvious clues, but she ties it all together nicely, along with lots of gardening references to a grand old estate (where the action takes place) that she has been hired to restore to its former glory.

There is a good cast of secondary characters/friends: Babe, café owner, ex-70s rocker chick, à la Stevie Nicks, lots of pithy advice and innuendo from her days on the road; Liz, her New York City media friend who brings her "Sex and the City" lifestyle advice to Paula when she comes for what she thinks is a "Ralph Lauren" spa weekend in the country! All in all, a good, quick, enjoyable read.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Silent on the Moor, by Deanna Raybourn (trade, $13.95)

Continuing the tale begun in Silent in the Grave and Silent in the Sanctuary, Raybourn takes her main character, enlightened widow Lady Julia Grey, and plops her in the Yorkshire moors in this latest episode. Set in the late 1800s, Julia has found that life is better if she can be with the man she loves, Nicholas Brisbane, and can solve mysteries by his side.

Half-Gypsy, half-aristocrat, Brisbane is the tortured, intense hero who came to Julia's rescue when her husband was murdered in the first book of the series. He and Julia subsequently began their courtship dance, which at times had them spinning rapidly away from each other. After one such separation, Julia decides that enough is enough. She will journey to the Yorkshire moors where Brisbane has ensconced himself in a derelict, forbidding estate, and demand a clarification of their relationship.

If only it were that simple.

What Julia, her eccentric sister Portia, and eccentric brother Valerius discover is an odd household composed primarily of the prior inhabitants. The Allenbys and their staff are still in residence, whereas Brisbane spends his time haunting the moors, looking for lost sheep, he says. The prior master of the house collapsed and died from complications of malaria, a disease caught in the course of his global explorations. He specialized in ancient Egyptian history, and his office is littered with all sorts of Egyptian artifacts. The family was plunged into poverty upon his death, and everything was bought by Brisbane, including the artifacts. All these elements weave their way into the story.

When Julia discovers that Brisbane's ties to the Allenbys and the land go back to childhood, she tries her best to work herself further into his life. Luckily for the reader this means we get to have some of the questions answered that cropped up in the prior books.

Julia is precociously a feminist, but the book is not about that. There are other "anachronistic" elements: Portia is involved in a romantic relationship with another woman; Valerius wants to be a doctor, which appalls his father because it is a "trade;" Brisbane is a private investigator who uses scientific methods. But they all work because it doesn't feel contrived.

There is something so satisfying about Raybourn's books. Her pacing is excellent, her characters are interesting, and she mixes the gothic with the practical to great effect.

P.S. This book and the re-issue of Silent in the Sanctuary have the WORST covers. They convey exactly the opposite of what the books actually are. The bodice ripper covers belie the intelligent and well-written prose that lies within. Read the books anyway!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale (trade, $16.00)

Just in case you think that our modern world with its modern technology ( e.g., Court TV) was responsible for creating the avid viewer of sordid legal proceedings (e.g., O. J. Simpson), or that somehow before modern media led us down the soiled path of voyeurism, we were virtuous and open-minded, it didn't and we weren't. Maybe we present-day people have elevated voyeurism to a "higher" level, but Kate Summerscale's reality-based book shows that humankind always has been right there, ready to participate in the hullabaloo surrounding a juicy scandal.

Summerscale has rummaged through a tower of books and other source materials to bring us the story of one of the first modern police detectives and his most spectacular and controversial case. She sets her stage well by adding an authentic background detail here and there, so her reader gets a real sense of the time, 1860s England. This is mystery as history.

Jack Whicher was one of the first Scotland Yard detectives. He followed clues (look for Summerscale's aside on the etymology of "clue"), looked to forensics and autopsies for information, and attempted to understand the psychology of motives. A long time after the fact, forensically speaking, Whicher is called in to help solve the murder of the three-year-old son of a middle-class couple. The case appears to be a locked room mystery, with one of the many inhabitants of the house certainly the murderer.

Alas, no suspect is found with the smoking gun in hand, the vial of poison in pocket, or the bloody knife in boot. Thus Whicher must rely merely on his suspicions. Suspicious detail after suspicious detail are laid out by the author as Whicher develops his circumstantial case, and his suspicions lead him to believe strongly that a specific person indeed did kill the child.

However, after Whicher presents his case before a judge, the citizenry -- alerted and aroused by the media, a surprisingly multitudinous bunch -- weighs in, "American Idol"-style. It seems as though for every individual suspect there is a vociferous group promoting his or her guilt. Whicher is alternately vilified and romanticized. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were influenced by the method and presence of Whicher, enough so that he is the model for some of their characters.

Summerscale presents us with an eminently readable tale. She draws us in slowly with increasingly dramatic revelations about the various characters. We are presented with everything from the mundane to the salacious, and all these details may have some bearing in the final analysis. Perhaps you, too, will be able to see why England went ga-ga over the case.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Last Gig, by Norman Green (hardcover, $25.95)

Norman Green is the author of the superb Shooting Dr. Jack and The Angel of Montague Street. I want to cry when one of his books ends, both because the book is ending and because Green is the Itzhak Perlman of noir and knows how to play a reader's emotional strings.

Green's other books have been darker, his protagonists on the edge or fully on the other side of respectability. In The Last Gig, Green has a female protagonist, Alessandra Matillo, who is as tough, as rough, as street-smart as Green's male protagonists have been. Al is a budding private eye and, one would thus expect, mostly on the respectable side of the line, and one would be mostly right. At the moment she practices on repos and catching restaurant staff waving sticky fingers over the restaurant owner's dough -- the green, inedible kind.

At last a break comes along, a smuggling case that Al takes over. However, Al doesn't know who is shadier, the client or the smuggler. Al's boss has a complex, long-standing relationship with Daniel Caughlan, whose transport company is threatened by a cocaine smuggling operation being run through his business. Soon Al is involved not only in determining which of Caughlan's employees helped set up the cocaine smuggling, but also in finding out who killed Caughlan's young son, a nascent Stevie Ray Vaughn, and what impact this all has on her boss.

Green juggles a mob story with an insider's look at the music industry, and mixes it up with Al's dysfunctional family history. Family, for better or worse, is at the heart of Green's books. It is the complicated relationships between parent and child, siblings, cousins that provide the emotional background. Sometimes family is all you can count on. And sometimes family counts you out.

In Al's case, her mother committed suicide when she was a child, her father deserted her, and she roamed the meaner-than-mean streets of Brooklyn until her uncle and his domestic partner (gay and proud of it) track her down and take her in. Now her beloved Tio Bobby is dying, and it provides the catalyst for Al to put aside her tough-Puerto-Rican-chick persona and find the revelation and redemption all of Green's best main characters seek.

Green believes in action, lots of it. He believes in twists. He believes in redemption. The combination so far has led to some very satisfying books.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Arsenic Labyrinth, by Martin Edwards (trade, $14.95) (c2007)

Poisoned Pen Press is famous for bringing American readers books they otherwise wouldn't be able to easily obtain. In this case, they have brought us Martin Edwards, a CWA-nominated British author who has written the popular (in England) Lake District mysteries.

These are top-notch mysteries in the British fashion without excessive gore, little swearing (at least in this book) and no graphic sex. That's not to say that they are cute and toothless. DCI Hannah Scarlett, the heroine of the series, is a modern, no-nonsense detective. In The Arsenic Labyrinth, the third in the series, she has been relegated to the Cold Case Squad. It is meant as a punishment, but in fact the assignment suits her talents admirably. Daniel Kind is an historian who has moved to the Lake District to escape the helter-skelter of Oxford and London. Together they have managed to disentangle mysteries set in the picturesque Lake District.

Although I have not read the other two books (The Coffin Trail and The Cipher Garden), Edwards is a good enough writer that I didn't feel asea. Relationships built in the other novels are completely explained and brought forward within this book.

The reader can understand the relationships and motives because they are written at a fundamentally human level. At the same time, the story is also a good mystery, complete with red herrings, and the writing is smooth and evocative of what makes the Lake District special.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer (trade $13.95) (c2003)

I'd like "The Volga Boatman" to be playing in the background as you read this review, please.

This is a novel rife with Eastern European despair. Another one. I think I've read more than my share within the last few months. It's time for you to take up the burden. I'm going to be re-reading Janet Evanovich for a while.

Burden. Repression. Devotion. Aaarrgh. Let's all run screaming from the room now, because there's no hope, there's no light at the end of the post-WWII fracturing Eastern European tunnel.

Now that I have that out of my system, I can return to the review.

Actually, this is an interesting book, an Edgar Award finalist, even.

The story takes place in 1948 in an unnamed Eastern European country, bitten off perhaps from Romania or Hungary. There was corruption and repression under the monarchy before WWII, and there is still corruption and repression now that the country has been "liberated" by the Communists. Emil Brod is a brand new detective with the People's Militia. Emil's family's history is tragic and probably representative of so many of the real stories from that era. War pushed his family apart: his parents were killed in separate battle incidents, and his grandparents took young Emil to the starving countryside where both Jews and non-Jews were fleeing. When Emil was a little older, he ran away from the fighting but wound up on a seal boat in the Arctic where life was perhaps even harsher, bleaker, and more treacherous than on the frontlines of the war. This is the history that Emil brings with him to the police station on his first day.

Inexplicably, Emil is met by hostile silence from his fellow officers. Then he is assigned a hot potato of a political homicide. As he ventures to solve the case, we see through Emil's eyes the decadence, resignation, and paranoia that have descended on his fellow citizens. Russian soldiers are everywhere and it is obvious his country is again captive. The murder merely serves as a vehicle so Steinhauer can give us a history lesson, which was fine with me. That part I found fascinating.

But Emil suffers. He suffers excessively. Too much. Enough already. And the romance? What was his attraction? What was hers? Explain. Is it the 9/11 phenomenon? In the face of death and despair, people choose life and love and do wacky things? Maybe don't explain. No romance would have done just as well and not interrupted a fine telling of a trying time.

This is the first in a five-book series by American author Olen Steinhauer that follows Emil and his fellow officers through the decades from just after World War II through to the 1980s.