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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbø (trade, $14.99) (due at the end of December)

This is a follow-up to Norwegian Jo ("Yo") Nesbø's Red Breast, an MBTB favorite last year. It continues the story of Harry Hole, maverick police detective and mostly-functional human being.

Of all the Scandanavian authors currently being translated, he is my favorite. (Kudos to Don Bartlett for a smooth translation, including colloquialisms and puns.) Both Red Breast and Nemesis move along well, seldom bogged down by angst-filled pauses. There's a good mixture of human relationships, technological flash, clue work, and twists to satisfy almost every mystery need.

Nesbø delves into his characters' pasts, sometimes in depth and sometimes just enough to whet the appetite. Harry Hole is struggling with alcoholism – now there's something new and unusual, she said facetiously – but he maintains some buoyancy in his life because of his loving relationship with Rakel and her young son, whom we met in the first book. He struggles with the death of a close colleague – also seen in the last book – and his doggedness to solve that mystery is a secondary storyline in Nemesis. (The reader knows what really happened, so it is fascinating to watch Harry try to figure it out.)

One of the main storylines concerns a bank robber. He threatens to kill a bank teller if the manager can't empty a cash container within 25 seconds. Although the manager empties the container, but not within the 25 seconds, the robber kills the teller. That murder brings Harry into the picture. He recruits young Beate Lønn, the daughter of a legendary detective, to use her extraordinary face recognition skills to locate the masked robber.

To complicate Harry's life, an ex-girlfriend, Anna, calls him to get together one last time. Say no, Harry; run! But, of course, Harry walks right into it. And now it gets messy. Anna is found dead. It could be suicide, or someone may have murdered her and made it look like suicide. Harry cannot remember arriving at her apartment, nor can he remember finding his way back to his apartment, where he wakes up the next morning with a massive hangover. Could he have murdered her or watched her kill herself? How can he investigate this incident without implicating himself? If he can't remember arriving or leaving, isn't it possible that someone may have seen him?

And what do gypsies have to do with anything?

All three storylines are fascinating. Unlike the more famous Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which also has several storylines, Nemesis doesn't take long to build up steam. Nemesis juggles its plots nimbly. The resolutions – or lack thereof – are clever and intriguing. The addition of Beate to the police team is a welcome one. Highly recommended, but read Red Breast first.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The City of the Sun, by David Levien ($7.99)

This critically praised and award-nominated book is a page turner, but it is immeasurably sad. There have been more books written lately with the subject of missing or murdered children. Some are fantastical like The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Some are dark and psychologically disturbing like a couple of Val McDermid's books, including Place of Execution. Levien's book is also about a missing child, and it is more realistic than a reader might want.

Frank Behr is the private investigator (and former cop) whom distraught parents hire to locate their 12-year-old son. It's been over a year since their son went out to deliver papers and never returned. The trail is cold but the parents' grief is fresh. Against all odds and his better judgment, Behr decides to take the case. It doesn't come out until much later that one of the reasons is because his own young son died, and he knows the heartache firsthand.

Clue by clue Frank uncovers a trail of bad people. He is eventually aided by Paul, the missing boy's father. This is contrary, again, to his better judgment, but Behr understands Paul's frustration and need to do something. The tension heightens with each unraveled clue. (It also should be noted that Behr is incredibly lucky with some of these breaks, but then it wouldn't be much of story without them.)

If you have difficulty reading books about children in jeopardy, pass this one by. If you read it, you will be rewarded by a compelling and intense work. You will meet characters who could be your very unlucky next-door neighbors. And Frank is the investigator you would hire if you had a problem, because he would take it to the ends of the earth, even if that proved to be the City of the Sun.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Illegal Action, by Stella Rimington (trade, $15) (c2004)

I've been meaning to read one of Stella Rimington's books for a long time. I chose Illegal Action, the third in her series featuring MI5 intelligence officer Liz Carlyle. Rimington's books have been on the edge of my vision because of one reason: She is the former Director General of MI5, with experience in counter terrorism and counter espionage.

She was "outed" by the press in England during her term as MI5's Director General, usually an unpublicized and anonymous position. According to information available on the internet, she has been unusually forthcoming about what MI5 does and what her position entailed, going so far as to write a memoir in which she described the organization.

Illegal Action is not weighted with spycraft lingo and indecipherable plots; rather, I found the writing clear and riveting. Carlyle is a work-driven woman in a male-dominated field. She has sacrificed having a family and engaging in normal social activities to retain her job and attain her status as an intelligent intelligence officer.

Rimington's plot revolves around the possible assassination of a Russian oligarch in England. Where have many of the rich Russians landed? In London. Who's watching them, Cold-War style? More Russian spies than ever before. So, who is watching the watchers becomes the final question. The answer, much to her disappointment, is Liz Carlyle.

Carlyle is transferred to counter espionage – a demotion as far as she is concerned – and imbedded as a student of Russian art in the home of one of the more flamboyant of the Russian tycoons. She is there primarily to assess if he is a potential target. Along the way she meets many suspicious characters, including the Russian's flashy English girlfriend, an emotional secretary, a garrulous Italian art dealer, and an attractive representative of The Hermitage.

The attraction of this book lies in the details. The agents from MI5 and other governmental agencies expose the fine balancing act of authority. We see their weaknesses and their strengths, and this adds to the movement of Rimington's tale. Well done, DG Rimington!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Fleet Street Murders, by Charles Finch (hardcover, $24.99)

It's nice to take an occasional break from serial killers, sexy vampires, somber Scandanavians, and rampant crime on the streets of (fill in the name of your city here). Charles Finch has written a charming and intelligent mystery series, of which The Fleet Street Murders is the third. Set in 1860s England, Finch effortlessly evokes a tone fitting the Victorian times, and that is a large part of his charm.

Charles Lenox is the younger son in an upper class family. Not excited to enter either rectory or regiment, the traditional venues for disenfranchised younger sons, Charles has become a private detective. This lower class undertaking would be more of a family disgrace except that Charles' older brother, Edmund, a staid and responsible member of Parliament, can't wait to assist him, and Charles' reputation and success rate is nonpareil. To further lend respectability, Charles is newly engaged to the lovely, wealthy, and (last, but not least) intelligent Lady Jane Grey. Along with Graham, Charles' worthy valet, and various high- and low-born assistants, Charles seeks to rectify nefarious deeds and dastardly doings.

Finch's gentle tone doesn't mask the critical look he takes of Great Britain's class system and its law-making apparatus, but he doesn't bludgeon us with a contemporary sensibility of these issues. For example, Graham is Charles' friend and assistant investigator, but he is Charles' servant first and foremost.

Although Charles' life is already full of his private investigations, upper-crust socializing, and wedding plans, Charles has always harbored a desire to be a member of Parliament. With the help of Liberal party connections, he runs for a seat representing an area of England that he has never seen, apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Charles must travel from his home in London to meet and greet the inhabitants of the rural community of Stirrington and convince them he would be a better candidate than his opponent, who was born and bred in the area. Through Charles we meet the "ordinary" folk of the time: farmers, bartenders, grain merchants, and assorted village odd ducks. Charles is illuminated and humbled by his travels.

So, where's the murder, you ask? It seems almost incidental after we have become so immersed in the story of the political campaign. Back in London, two journalists have been murdered. One is a respectable member of the newspaper establishment and the other is suspected of obliging and furthering the cause of the criminal element of London. Charles investigates between political engagements, but both politics and the investigation suffer as a result. Lady Jane, too, adds to the chaos by requesting a delay in their marriage plans. Egad! When an acquaintance of Charles is attacked, perhaps in conjunction with the murders, the mystery takes a personal turn.

To give us this tale, Finch never slips into farce or parody. He neither lectures nor hectors. This book, gentle reader, is very entertaining and comforting. At the end of the day, there's a cozy fire, a hot cup of tea, and friends and family to carry our hero through.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

G. I. Bones, by Martin Limón (hardcover, $24)

What most of us know about the Korean War has been garnered from "M*A*S*H" reruns. What Martin Limón gives us is a complicated and dark look at South Korea twenty years after that war officially ended. In 1970s Korea, the U.S. still maintains a heavy-handed presence. George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are Army CID officers charged with solving crimes by and against G.I.s.

In this sixth book in Limón's series, Sueño and Bascom are charged with finding two things: the bones of a soldier who has been missing for twenty years and the wayward daughter of an Army bigwig.

In an eerie start to the book, Sueño and Bascom are brought to the home of a local fortune-teller. She tells them that the spirit of the long-dead soldier will not rest until his bones have been returned home. Because Sueño has a long-standing crush on Dr. Yong, the woman who brought him to the fortune-teller, he agrees to investigate the case. Sueño and Bascom's lives are complicated when a colonel's teenaged daughter apparently steals money from her father and runs away with a private, and they are ordered to find her, the private, and the money. Strangely, everything eventually ties into the mysterious "Seven Dragons," underworld lords of Seoul.

Limón takes his readers behind closed doors to see the fragile world of a Seoul that is still struggling with post-war problems: poverty, black market stealing, orphaned children, and an extensive redlight district. There is tip-toeing by both the South Koreans and the U.S. military about jurisdiction over crimes. Itaewon, the redlight district of Seoul, is not officially condoned by the military, but the military often turns a blind eye to its activities. It is in Itaewon that most of the action, both past and present, occurs.

Limón's series still has the ability to shock me. His depiction of Korea during the 50s and 70s is bleak, even as he allows rays of humanity and kindness to peek through. It is that way with G.I. Bones. With the characters of Moretti and Cort, American G.I.s, Limón seeks to balance the oafish and generally imperialistic picture of Americans abroad. With the characters of Dr. Yong and Miss Kwon, a young prostitute, he puts sympathetic faces on the sad stories of survival.

Martin will join us at Murder by the Book on Sunday, November 8, 2009, at 4:00 p.m. The public is invited to this free event.