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

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Secret of the Seventh Son, by Glenn Cooper ($7.99)

I am a sucker for a good doomsday book. I admit it. There have been a runaway number of doomsday books lately. Blame the success of The Da Vinci Code. So, let me emphasize that I am a sucker for a GOOD doomsday book.

For instance, I love John Case's (aka Carolyn and Jim Hougan, great authors in their own right) thrillers about worldwide threats that a normal Joe (or Jane) is able to thwart. I am hooked on Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's Pendergast (who is anything but an ordinary Joe) series. Glenn Cooper's book lies somewhere in between, and it is a winner.

FBI agent Will Piper is marking time until his retirement. He is an alcoholic womanizer, a brilliant profiler, and a distant, bumbling parent. After he has been demoted from a manager to an ordinary agent, he is saddled with apprehending a serial killer. And rookie agent Nancy Lipinski is saddled with him. Together they find that the case is a swirling confusion of clues, methods, and suspects. There doesn't appear to be any characteristic linking all the deaths.

Will must fight his way out of his torpor, engage himself long enough not to get himself or his new partner killed, and somehow also manage to reestablish his relationship with his adult daughter.

Ah, you say, what does this have to do with the seventh son? Willie Dixon's famous song talks about a seventh son who can "look in the sky, predict the rain, tell when a woman's got another man." In Cooper's book, the story of the seventh son, born on the seventh day of the seventh month in the year 777, is interleaved with Piper's story, and he bears no resemblance to Dixon's fey and roguish seventh son. Eventually the modern-day story and the medieval one intersect in an unpredictable and clever way.

What can I say? The modern and ancient characters were interesting and the story was well paced, and the combination kept me turning those pages.

Dead Men's Boots, by Mike Carey (hardcover, $25.99)

This is the third in the Fix Castor series. Fix is an exorcist, but not in a William Blatty kind of way. No long priestly skirts for Fix. No holy water or twisting heads, either. Well, maybe one or two twisty heads.

Set in a version of London in which the dead have risen – as ghosts, as loup-garous, and as zombies – Mike Carey plays with the concept of human rights and entitlements applied to the undead. Demons, however, are another story. One of Fix’s best “friends” is Juliet, a succubus, but he trusts her only as far as he can throw her … or she can throw him. Fix gets beaten up a lot in this episode, not just by Juliet but by practically everyone else as well.

Jim Butcher, creater of the fabulous Harry Dresden series, has a similar “take.” He has a world in which regular folk co-exist with supernatural beings. Butcher is the master of the hard-boiled demon hunter genre. (Of course, there are very few others who could contend in this category!) Mike Carey’s books are a little raunchier and more visual. Quite a few more people (human) violently bite the bullet in his books than in Butcher’s.

In the latest book, Fix has what appear to be two problems: a fellow exorcist whose ghost will not rest easy, and an ordinary guy who suddenly beats another man to death. On behalf of their spouses, Fix must help the ghost to rest and find out why the ordinary guy would suddenly turn violent.

The talk is still snappy, albeit a little rough sometimes, and Fix is still beguiling. Read it for fun and to see Fix take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.

Waterloo Sunset, by Martin Edwards (hardcover, $22.95)

Although we have the privilege of being able to read Martin Edwards' Lake District mysteries, his Harry Devlin books, of which there are eight, are largely unavailable in the United States. I know I can't be the first to say how unfortunate we are. Poisoned Pen Press has this ninth Harry Devlin available in hardcover and large print paperback. And that's it.

Harry is a magnet for lost causes. He does criminal defense and divorce work as a solicitor in Liverpool. His clients are sometimes unhappy with the result of his work, so it's no surprise when Harry receives the cryptic message, "In Memory, Harry Devlin, Died suddenly, Liverpool, Midsummer's Eve." Midsummer's Eve is only a few days away, and even though Harry pooh-poohs the note as a prank, the author of the note isn't done with him.

Not that it takes Harry's mind off the upcoming deadline, but a serial killer is attacking women in Liverpool. Through his many connections, Harry learns more than he wants to about the cases. When one of the women is someone Harry knows and likes, someone whom he is trying to help when she is murdered, and when Harry's law partner is attacked and lies on the brink of death, Harry's involvement becomes personal. With the help of a female coroner, whom he hopes will become more than a friend, and a former lover, the ex-wife of a powerful criminal lord, Harry seeks unconventional ways to find both the killer and the person who is taunting him.

Martin Edwards is himself a solicitor in Liverpool, but his book is not about the legal system. It is very much about human frailty and about a man who is seeking to re-anchor himself in life. While I was entertained by Waterloo Sunset, I admit that I enjoy the Lake District series more. Edwards writes it with a kinder touch. Liverpool is a big city and life there is nastier. Edwards' language and plot reflect that.

Stalking Susan, by Julie Kramer ($7.99)

Julie Kramer stopped by the store the other day and regaled us with stories about TV reporting. That is what makes her novel so engaging: Kramer knows her business. As a busy freelance journalist/producer for local and national newscasts, she has seen a lot of interesting stories pass across the landscape. Naturally, her main character, Riley Spartz, is a TV journalist. Kramer lives in Minnesota, and Riley lives in Minnesota. We have to hope the parallels end there, because Riley Spartz gets herself into a whole lot of trouble, first by determining that a serial killer has been targeting women named Susan, then by trapping an unsavory veterinarian for another story.

Kramer's plot is interesting and she's not afraid of using humor. Riley has hidden depths and Kramer depicts her with a sympathetic touch. This equals an unequivocal recommendation for this award-nominated debut novel.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Shatter, by Michael Robotham (hardcover, $24.95)

Michael Robotham usually just boggles my mind; this time he has twisted and mashed it up as well. That's probably fitting, since psychologist Joe O'Loughlin's nemesis in this fourth book in Robotham's series is a person who clearly understands how to manipulate minds. Let me start with this quote from near the end of the book – don't worry, it doesn't give the game away. Joe's nemesis is speaking:

"[T]here is a moment when all hope disappears, all pride is gone, all expectation, all faith, all desire. I own that moment....And that's when I hear the sound....The sound of a mind breaking. It's not a loud crack like when bones shatter or a spine fractures or a skull collapses. And it's not something soft and wet like a broken heart. It's a sound that makes you wonder how much hurt can be visited upon one person; a sound that shatters the strongest of wills and makes the past leak into the present; a sound so high only the hounds of hell can hear it."

Wowie, zowie!

I wouldn't consider Robotham to be a writer of thrillers, that cinematic, race-to-the-end sort of book that starts your pulse pounding and the midnight oil burning. Even though that's what this book is. He is an intelligent, literate writer, who can write character and plot, and begin and end a book properly. To be certain, he does that in this book, but there is a higher than normal "yuck" factor as well. Is there a Thomas Harris/Patricia Cornwell/Chelsea Cain contest I don't know anything about? Here's the trick: most of the disturbing stuff is mental. Robotham exquisitely leads the reader into the psychology of terror.

To summarize Robotham's series so far: Suspect is from the point of view of psychologist Joe O'Loughlin; Lost is from the viewpoint of Vincent Ruiz, a police inspector; and The Night Ferry stars Ali Barba, a young police detective. How is that a series? They are all characters in Robotham's London world; they pop in and out of each other's series. Shatter returns to the first-person, present-tense narrative of Joe O'Loughlin.

Joe has moved to the countryside to give his family a better place to live, to give his Parkinson's disease a rest, to change from a consulting psychologist to a psychology professor at the local college. As in all good thrillers, all seems remarkably placid and well at the beginning. Hell breaks loose when Joe is asked to help talk down a woman who is threatening to jump from a bridge. He is unsuccessful in saving her but is convinced the woman did not want to jump, that she was "made" to jump. With a push from the woman's teenage daughter and the assistance of retired detective Ruiz, Joe persists in convincing the police that her jump was really murder.

I think Robotham is a genius. In O'Loughlin, Robotham has not created a lovable, sympathetic character. Joe is self-absorbed and arrogant sometimes, and I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to kick him in the pants. He is a complex and inviting character, as are Ruiz and Barba. Because of the subject matter (children are involved) and intensity, this book is not for the faint of heart. I can't wait for the next one.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe (hardcover, $25.99)

I thought I had found another Alice Hoffman as I began Katherine Howe’s debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, perhaps a little practical magic overlaying a story of romance. Yes and no. It has definite Hoffman vibes, but with a little Da Vinci Code, Stephen King, and academic discourse thrown in to create a charming and different mix.

Connie Goodwin is a doctoral candidate at Harvard. Her specialty is early American colonialism. Although it is only a minor part of her specialty, she is drawn into a retrospection of witchcraft and the famous Salem witch trials. Coincidentally (or is it?), Grace, her mother with whom she has a strained relationship, asks Connie to clean up and get ready to sell Grace’s mother’s home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a town near the more famous town of Salem. The house has been abandoned for twenty years and appears derelict, and Connie reluctantly agrees to spend her summer cleaning the house, while doing research on her dissertation in Salem.

Almost immediately upon fighting her way past the abundant and tangled vegetation obscuring the house and entering the dusty but solid 200-year-old home, Connie opens a family Bible and a key falls out. The hollow stem of the key contains a piece of paper with the faint words, "Deliverance Dane," written on it. And so the adventure begins. In her quest for an important thesis topic, Connie has hopes that Deliverance Dane, whoever or whatever it is, will fill the need. In an alternating story set in the 1700s, the reader sees the answers Connie seeks unfolding slowly throughout the book.

What distinguishes this book from a light supernatural romance – a genre that abounds these days – is the historic detail and academic sheen Katherine Howe brings to the story. There is the requisite romance – after all, what is Samantha without her Darren – but even it has its teaching moments, since Connie’s love interest is a restorer of colonial buildings and art. Howe is masterful at bringing into realistic and ordinary surroundings the story of “cunning women,” whose natural talents were mistaken for magic, yet raising the possibility of “vernacular magic,” an extraordinary explanation for those talents. Her depiction of the Salem witch trials is moving and explores human frailties. Even the Da Vinci Code/Stephen King moments are forgiveable, despite the tip towards the sensational away from the quotidian, because of the very human level Howe maintains in her character of Connie Goodwin.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Landscape of Lies, by Peter Watson (trade, $14.95)

Before there was The Da Vinci Code, there was Landscape of Lies. A more intelligent, less sensational, less riddled with religious quackery version of the famous best-seller, Landscape also seeks a hidden treasure, its hiding place to be discovered by deciphering the clues in a painting.

Art dealer Michael Whiting and farmer (!) Isobel Sadler, whose family owns the painting, combine forces in modern times to find religious relics hidden during Henry VIII’s purge of the monasteries of England. While Watson peppers his story with chase scenes and a thoroughly blackguardly villain, the better part of the story is spent in quiet contemplation in libraries, churches, and restoration workshops and over dinner in a little country village. Strangely, although there are scenes, especially the romantic ones, that seem a little dated – the book was written in 1989 – it is easy to become fascinated by the history around which the author spins his story.

I loved the detail, and I’m not just talking about the academic hoo-hah. For instance, when the characters drive down a road, the author inserts little comments (such as, the characters must be getting near a town because of the approaching “electricity cables”) that bring the drive to life. However, I think the story would have benefited if the two main characters both had been men or women, dispensing with the blah romantic comings and goings.