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

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cossé, $15 (c2009)

For the first hundred or so pages of this book, translated from French, I thought the story was unrealistic and off-putting, but there was something about it that kept me reading on. The enthusiasm of the two main characters, Van and Francesca, as they prepared to open their "perfect" bookstore in Paris was contagious. A bookstore with only the best books on offer. Best books, that is, as defined by some of the "best" authors in France. Each one would provide a list of several hundred of his or her favorite titles. The authors would remain anonymous to avoid criticism and hounding.

Why did I originally find this off-putting? Don't I own a mystery bookstore? Isn't it great that someone wants to open an independent specialty bookstore? It wasn't the concept per se, but how the bookstore was coming together. Financial backer and book lover Francesca tore into a vacant space she just happened to have and put in specially designed shelves, seating areas, and an office. Let me say that last thing again ... an office. My "office" consists of a tiny computer desk and chair (regular-sized) in the middle of the store. Customers have to walk around me, apologizing for scooting by. Francesca arranges publicity and advertising for opening day. Our advertising consists of a white board on the sidewalk with artwork done by whichever employee isn't fast enough to outrun me. Oh, fine, you're saying, "sour grapes," and it might be so. But it doesn't negate the impracticality of the bookstore's setup, considering their limited titles and limited number of copies of those titles. (Yes, Cossé tells you the number of copies.)

And what happened to the mystery? The book began just fine. A couple of the authors on the committee, ostensibly anonymous, are maliciously attacked. Although they survive, Van and Francesca worry that other committee members may be next. They wonder how the authors' identities were discovered. So far, so good for the mystery portion, but then "Part Two" begins and the only mystery is about who is telling the story. It appears at first glance that it's a normal third-person narrative, but a mysterious "I" pops up every now and then. This unidentified "I" tells the story of Van and Francesca telling their stories to a police detective, the mysterious (and not very French-sounding) Heffner. For most of the book they tell the patient Heffner the entire -- and I mean entire -- story of how they met, conceived of the bookstore, and began to implement their plan.

Although there was no mystery again until about two-thirds of the way through, I got caught up in the minutiae of bookstore life. Yes, I was finally hooked. What mural should they paint on their walls? (Ours is natural spiderweb.) Why did they leave their overstock in boxes in their storeroom? Didn't they ever want to be able to find anything? Intriguing.

Then there is that annoying romance Van has with Anis, a young woman with commitment phobia in the extreme. Why is that even in the book? What does it have to do with the injured authors? Maybe Anis is the culprit! I perked up again. But there is a passion in the book that is not merely book-related. Although I was amused in many respects by A Novel Bookstore -- a nicely double-entendred title -- it is not a funny book. All the characters are passionate or strangely dispassionate and determinedly serious. The mystery picks up again when the bookstore is accused in the press and on the internet as elitist. Suddenly, Van and Francesca go from being the darlings of Paris to defending their right to have an opinion about what constitutes a good book. Terms like proletariat and leftist are thrown around. How French!

In the end, I was very satisfied with the convoluted but tidy resolution. The narrator's voice gradually becomes stronger and there is a quiet unmasking. Reticences and passions are explained. C'est le livre!

Death and the Running Patterer, by Robin Adair, $15 (c2009)

Australia really is another country! I had difficulty getting into the rhythm of the writing. Was I putting the accent on the wrong word? I don't know. The book is subtitled: "A Curious Murder Mystery," and it is curious indeed.

I was initially entranced by the concept of a running patterer. The book starts off so well with the introduction of an ex-Bow Street Runner who is sent to 1828 Sydney as a punishment for an impolitic action in London. At that time the British Empire used Australia as one gigantic prison, and that is where Nicodemus Dunne is doing his time. His skills as an investigator are recognized by the superintendent of police, Francis de Rossi, so Dunne is released to be a semi-free man.

When he isn't assisting de Rossi, Dunne must earn his keep as a patterer. As you might guess from the word, it has something to do with talking. To inform both the illiterate and the literate-but-too-busy, Dunne gathers all the local newspapers and for a fee reads appropriate sections to his audience. He traverses the city bringing good news and bad, gossip and advertisements.

The current cases involve bizarre murders to soldiers or ex-soldiers of the 57th Regiment. The first man is found slashed to death in an alley next to a tavern. The slash marks indicate some sort of ritual to the killing. Soon there are others, and they are increasingly grotesque. The murderer helpfully also sends clues.

The premise is sound and interesting, but the execution was a little fuddled. There is a lightness in Dunne's demeanor and thinking when he is on stage. On the other hand, there is a grisly darkness when the murders are described. Because there are cultural and class details that need to be explicated, Robin Adair explicates, and explicates, and explicates. I was explicated to death. (Death by explication, hmmm.) I gave up about two-thirds of the way through.

I read the ending. I was not impressed.

There are lots of people who enjoy explication, learning history through mystery. Perhaps this book is for them.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters ($16)(c2009)

If you are in the mood for a ghost story and you are willing to read one that is 463 pages long, then this is the book for you. Mysterious things begin to happen in an English country manor house after WWII, but they happen with excruciating slowness.

Dr. Faraday, a country physician, is the narrator. In a very class-conscious society, he is a class "orphan." His mother was a maid in the manor house, but he has out-distanced his humble background by becoming a doctor. Faraday has a memory of attending a town fete on the manor's grounds when he was a child. The grand house impressed him, and he stole a piece of moulding from inside the house as a souvenir. Now as an adult, he once again has an opportunity to visit the house, but this time as a physician.

A good deal of the book details Faraday's growing association with and understanding of the various inhabitants of the manor, which has since become rundown and unmanageable. Mrs. Ayres remembers the glory of the manor. Her patrician manner does not desert her although her fortunes have turned down. Her son Rod is a casualty of the war. His injuries cause him constant pain and the management of a failing estate is a constant source of stress. Rod's sister, Caroline, has a plain face and a good heart. Her prospects of a financially lucrative marriage are dim. She's given up whatever life she might have had outside of the manor to help hold on to the estate. Despite what all three of the Ayres family might wish to do other than live at the manor, the manor is where they remain. It defines them, their class, their noblesse.

Faraday arrives to take care of a newly hired maid who appears to be ill. Instead, she says, she is scared of some "thing" in the house but is unable to be more descriptive. Faraday dismisses her fears as homesickness. Next, Faraday tries to lessen the pain of Rod's injuries and appears to be succeeding, lifting the humor in the household, when an unfortunate accident involving a visiting child occurs. Things go not-so-rapidly downhill from there. First Rod becomes manic about saving everyone else in the house from some malignancy. No one, it appears, is immune, as even the housekeeper and maid become victims of mischievous tinkering. Faraday remains convinced that what is occurring is not the result of anything supernatural but the result of pranks by a disturbed individual or malfunctioning equipment.

There is a twist at the end, worthy of Henry James. Before I go into a spoiler discussion of the ending, let me say that I felt compelled to stay through until the end because I wanted to know how Sarah Waters resolved the story, and I WAS happily surprised. Were the 463 pages worth it? Some might find the suspense exquisite, but I often felt the tedium. Nevertheless, I bet this would be a great read for someone of a more patient inclination.

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Sarah Waters did a great job making the narrator, Dr. Faraday, the ultimate villain. It is HIS growing obsession with the house that magnifies the tragedies that occur. Was he the "you" that Caroline spotted before her fall? I vote yes. Was it the spirit of the dead daughter that haunted the house? I vote for a more poltergeisty thing.
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Monday, December 13, 2010

Rogue Island, by Bruce DeSilva (hardcover, $24.99) (c2010)

Beginning with the title of this book, Bruce DeSilva has crafted a clever and captivating novel. "Rogue Island" is either a bastardization of or a prior name for Rhode Island. Whichever, there are rogues aplenty.

The good guy is Liam Mulligan, a reporter for a Providence newspaper.

Aside: This is the second newspaper-related mystery -- the first was Eyes of the Innocent by Brad Parks, which won't be out until next February -- I've read in just a few weeks, and they are both very good. Of course, they are both tangentially about the woeful news that the papers themselves are making: advertisers are dropping off at a swift rate, subscribers ditto, and lay-offs are inevitable, undermining the usefulness and vitality of this form of daily information. Both books are excellent cheerleaders for keeping the art of newspaper reporting alive and kicking.

Back to the main feature: Someone is burning parts of Mulligan's childhood. Arson is claiming apartment buildings, houses, and other structures well known to him in the Mount Hope neighborhood. And people, some of whom Mulligan knows, are dying: children, an old man, and fire fighters among them. Mulligan's best friend, Rosie Morelli, is the Batallion Chief of one fire-fighting unit, and she is tired, frustrated, and at a loss to stop it. Mulligan begins an investigation that leads him into contact with the local mob and gives him an uninviting look into government corruption.

Mulligan's life is complicated by the impending divorce from Dorcas, his unpleasant, shrewish wife, and a new relationship with a fellow reporter, Veronica. Toss in the requisite sidekick: in this case, the fresh-out-of-college son of the publisher, the eager Mason, nicknamed "Thanks-Dad" by Mulligan. The almost-as-eager would-be photographer Gloria rounds out the main crew.

Mulligan's humorous musings and the descriptions of a decaying Providence are two sides of Bruce DeSilva's writing coin. He can be both wry and wrenching. Parts of poor Providence are sagging, flaking, flimsy, and corroding. The government buildings don't fare any better, adjectivally speaking: drab, grimy, and shit green with padlocked johns that are "fragrant and toxic" at the best of times anyway. Furthermore, Providence apparently is the stolen car capital and the mob likes to rig games there. All this can be gleaned from the first few pages. Nevertheless, you sense DeSilva has a great affection for "Rogue Island."

As a reporter, Mulligan has cultivated sources both legal and extra-legal. He has also upset forces both legal and extra-legal, which gives the book a punch and dramatic uncertainty about which way the story will go. A dynamic debut.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indridason (hardcover, $24.99) (c2010)

Now that it's really cold outside, I suppose I should be reading books set in the tropics. Instead I'm reading Arnaldur Indridason's recent dark mystery set in Iceland. Double-brrr.

Series hero Erlendur Sveinsson -- or just plain Erlendur -- is a loner who, unfortunately for him, is surrounded by people who want him to be more outgoing. His colleagues, his children, his ex-wife, his girlfriend -- and it's amazing he has any of these, given his uncommunicative demeanor -- force Erlendur to confront difficult issues. But mostly, rules and regulations are for other folk.

Hypothermia results from over-exposure to cold. It often leads to death, and in a country with the name Iceland, one would expect a few cases of hypothermia. In fact, Iceland's climate is affected by the Gulf Stream, so the weather is considered temperate. Nevertheless, there are many lakes with incredibly cold water, a brief exposure to which could cause death. And Hypothermia details a slew of disappearances and deaths in the cold of day and night.

The main case is the suicide of a woman who has been depressed since the death of her mother. She chose to hang herself in the family cabin beside the lake in which her father died of hypothermia years before. A persistent friend insists that Maria would never commit suicide, and she goads Erlendur into investigating further. At the same time, an old man comes to see Erlendur, perhaps for the last time. He is the father of a college boy who has been missing for a long time, and he periodically checks to see if any progress has been made in his son's case. Another old missing person's case, that of a shy young woman, also catches Erlendur's attention. These three cases start him thinking again -- although it's never far from his thoughts -- about the disappearance in a blizzard of his own brother when they were both very young.

Indridason is very clever in developing the storylines. However, it is hard for the reader to find a connection with Erlendur, because he is so distant and lacks the ability to carry out the usual give-and-take in relationships. His daughter is trying to stay straight and both she and her brother, both young adults, have formed a tenuous relationship with their father. His daughter wants more from him than he feels comfortable giving. Does she want him to say he's sorry for having deserted his family years ago? He doesn't fully understand her. Hypothermia is about the cold places in the heart that the missing often occupy.

The flawed protagonist is often more interesting than the unblemished heroic character. Sometimes the pull is in wondering when the protagonist will fall flat on his or her face? Sometimes it's in wondering if he or she will overcome the flaws and find a modicum of happiness. We have yet to see in which direction Erlendur turns, but there is a serious attempt in this book to push him towards revelation.

I found the resolution inadequate, but Carolyn loved it and awarded it a star. You say po-tay-toe and I say po-tah-toe.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Resurrectionist, by Jack O'Connell ($13.95)(c2008)

I've liked Jack O'Connell's books since Box Nine (c2000) presented us with the bleak and ruined industrial community of Quinsigamond. O'Connell defined it as part of an "industrial rust belt." He also said: "God tends to fall asleep in Quinsigamond. And sometimes His dreams are perverse." This fictional city has rotted from the center outward. Its once "normal" constituency and lifestyle has engendered the likes of Bangkok Square, home to all things degenerate and demeaning. Gangs roam the town. Murder hangs its hat and suspicion colors the air there. Although O'Connell does not linger in "Q-town" in this book, he has written convulsively about his creation in his other four books. The only unifying thread among the books is this morally and physically corrupt city. Think "Blade Runner." Think Kafka's The Castle.*

In all of O'Connell's books it feels as though there's a lurking, looming, unexplained presence in the background. The books teeter on the verge of tumbling into techno sci-fi or fantasy. The Resurrectionist is the first book to fall face first into another world.

At the start, we meet Sweeney, a pharmacist, who has moved to the edge of Quinsigamond so Danny, his comatose seven-year-old son, can receive experimental treatment at "The Clinic" that might awaken him. He goes to work at his son's facility so he can be near Danny. He meets an odd assortment of co-workers. It goes sideways, reality-wise, from there. Are the doctors at The Clinic trying to help Danny or destroy him? Are Sweeney's real friends the people in The Clinic or the nasty bikers who terrorize him?

Alternating with Sweeney's story is a summarization of several issues of the comic book series Sweeney was reading to his son before his accident. It tells about the adventures of a traveling band of circus freaks in an area nicknamed Limbo. In fact, the story refers to many geographical areas in our world, but their definitions are stretched and remolded in Limbo. The main character is "Chicken Boy," a human who has a beak and is covered with feathers. Although Sweeney read it to his then six-year-old son, it is clearly a work with adult themes and situations, another hint that perhaps The Resurrectionist's world is tilted a few degrees south.

O'Connell tells us that his book is an exploration of consciousness. What is its nature? Which is the dream: the life the coma victim left behind or where he exists in his comatose state? Who are the freaks: the doctors and other inhabitants of our world or the circus travelers? Here is O'Connell describing his book: "So here is a book about loss and grief and rage. About coma and comic books and pharmaceuticals. About psychotic bikers and mad neurologists and wandering circus freaks." And so much more.

James Ellroy said O'Connell is "the future of the dark, literary suspense novel."

O'Connell's books are rich in imagination and style. He said about himself, "I have spent most of my adult life writing about the intersections between language and reality and identity." I rejoice every time a new book appears, which is far too seldom. It is exciting to see that O'Connell has finally fulfilled the promise of showing us another kind of reality.

*In talking about the comic book series he developed for this book, O'Connell said: "I like to think of it as what might have developed had Kafka snuck up on The Adventures of Tintin creator Hergé, stabbed the artist to death with his own charcoal pencil, and then highjacked the story."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, by Nancy Springer ($6.99) (c2008)

Enola Holmes, much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft, is as much fun in this her fourth adventure as she was in her first, The Case of the Missing Marquess.

It has just been a few months since 14-year-old Enola ran away from home, away from brothers intent on raising her to be a lady, wedded to some suitable gentleman when the time is right. She has established herself as the secretary to Dr. Ragostin, a private investigator, only "Dr. Ragostin" is a figment of Enola's imagination. She is single-handedly solving mysteries and managing to support herself. Now if Enola could only solve the biggest mystery of all: What happened to her mother? The reason Enola was left in the care of her brothers is that her mother suddenly disappeared, apparently traveling with a caravan of gypsies, looking for or hiding from goodness-knows-what.

London is a big city, but Enola is constantly in danger of being spotted by one or another of her brothers. In her latest case, she accidentally crosses paths with both of them, potentially hobbling her as she tries to rescue -- again -- Lady Cecily Alistair, the damsel-in-distress of the second Enola Holmes adventure, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady. In a modern public lavatory, Enola sees Cecily escorted by a pair of formidable dowagers. Cecily seems to be more a prisoner than a young woman being escorted to pick out her trousseau, but that is what the dowagers are talking about -- Cecily's trousseau. Using a flimsy pink fan, Cecily uses the secret fan signal system once popular among cultured young women to silently pass messages among themselves in public. "Rescue me," she signals before she disappears, trundled off by her captors.

The chase is on.

These books are written for children, but there are plenty of adult fans, too. I find them intelligently written, entertaining, and certainly complimentary of and complementary to the Sherlock Holmes myth. The next up, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, is due out soon in hardcover.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferraris (c2008) ($13.95)

Based on her experience living with Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins, American Zoe Ferraris tries to give us an inside look at one aspect of the complicated contemporary Muslim society in Saudi Arabia. There were too many qualifications in that last sentence. That's because Saudi Arabia, on the face of it, is one of the Middle East countries cordial to the United States and it's one of the most "western" in its appearance. Lest we forget, however, it is predominantly conservative Muslim. The vast majority of Saudi Arabian women appear in public in burkas, the head to toe shroud that masks their identity and femininity. It is difficult for a woman to hold power or affect the political structure, but there are exceptions. This is the complicated, conflicting structure that provides the background Ferraris uses for her tale of murder and propriety.

On the verge of marrying a suitable man chosen by her wealthy family, young Nouf disappears and is later found in the desert, drowned. One of the distraught members of her large, influential family asks Nayir ash-Sharqi, a desert guide who has worked for the family on several occasions, to first find her in the desert and then to find the murderer once her body is found. Nayir is a conservative Muslim who yearns to be married but finds it difficult to find a wife because he is a low-status (no one to broker his marriage) pious (can't look at women) Muslim. This seems like a fairly interesting conflict, but within the course of the book Nayir slips from a conservative point of view to a more liberal one without a satisfying point of liberation, in my opinion.

Katya is the fiancée of one of the family's sons. She is a modern woman because she has a job and is willing to be seen in certain settings without her veil. She risks being socially ostracized and losing her job to help find the killer. Her point of view is much more interesting. I would have enjoyed seeing more of her rather than Nayir, but the point of Ferraris' story is that Katya was very limited in what she could do.

The book was slow moving in parts, but it was mostly intriguing. It's good that I'm still thinking about the book, but it's probably not good that I found the resolution a little trite. I thought there could have been more depth and a grander motivation. I wanted it to be more about the Saudi Arabian culture and less about self-serving egotism, something we can get in the United States in abundance.

Friday, November 19, 2010

U Is for Undertow, by Sue Grafton ($7.99)

It's been awhile since I've read one of the alphabet books. After I thought Kinsey Millhone wussed out at the end of one of the books, I grew uninterested in her goings on. I managed to stay distant through a few more of the letters, but the premise of this book sounded so intriguing that I decided to renew my acquaintance with Santa Teresa's most famous P.I. This is the thing: Nobody does it better than Sue Grafton. She still does one of the best jobs opening and closing a book, setting up the scene, reintroducing us over and over to Kinsey, and putting us in a place and time.

The place is the fictional town of Santa Teresa and the time is 1988. A young man asks Kinsey to investigate a memory. He says that as a six-year-old he saw two men bury a bag in the woods next to a middle class subdivision. As an adult he realized that it was right around the time of the kidnapping and disappearance of a young girl in 1967. It was a sensation at the time, and over the years people assumed the young girl was dead, although her body was never found. (To accommodate all the reader needs to know, part of the book is first-person Kinsey and the rest is a third-person narrative that follows several people who lived in the area.) So Sutton, the grown-up little boy, is convinced that what the men were burying was the little girl, and he wants Kinsey to find the spot. Based on Sutton's scant memories, Kinsey works the clues step by elusive step.

Instead of telling you what Kinsey and Sutton find -- because if you read this book, you have every right to be as surprised as I was by the revelations -- let me just say that this was a very satisfying book. I learned what a wuss I was for having given up on Sue Grafton. This is why she is a good writer: She doesn't beat her readers over their heads with the clues. She lets the pieces fall in place for them, too. At the end, she doesn't say that this plus that plus this other thing equals the aha! moment. I was impressed by how she slowly and carefully unfolded the story, and how she created her moments of tension and sadness seemingly without effort.

Another part of the book deals with Kinsey's newfound family. Her wealthy grandmother and other relations have been trying to draw Kinsey into the family fold. After years of neglect by this family, she isn't buying into any warm, fuzzy feelings for them. Once again, Grafton's tremendous strength as a writer is on display with this side story. Real people, real feelings -- really, really well done.

I have awarded this book an MBTB star.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Dark Vineyard, by Martin Walker (hardcover, $23.95)

Now I, too, would like to run away to wine country in Périgord, France. What more could you want than foie gras, truffles, and the wines of the region, bergerac and monbazillac? And a little non-threatening mystery, perhaps.

This is the follow-up to Martin Walker's first book, Bruno, Chief of Police. (I love a title that plainly says it all.) Bruno Courrèges is in fact the chief of police of the little town of Saint-Denis. It is populated by good souls, some of whom are eccentric, all of whom seem to enjoy a good glass of un vin rouge simple.

Walker is a writer of mostly books and articles about global business concerns and other non-fiction topics. It is obvious, however, from reading The Dark Vineyard that his knowledge of this region of France runs deep enough to give his book an authentic-sounding twang. His business background gives the book its main storyline.

A mega-wine company from the U.S. is trying to buy large tracts of land in Saint-Denis to produce more of its uniform corporate wine. This would bring more jobs and money to the region, so Bruno and the mayor play host to the son of the current CEO. In the meantime, an arsonist sets fire to a field where experimental crops are being grown. It turns out the crops were genetically modified grape vines. Much, much, much later in the book, a dead body is discovered in a vat of wine. Are all or any of these things related? Of course they are. Walker does a credible job setting up the light mystery, but before the bad person(s) is discovered, every character is innocent and likable until proven guilty.

What a salad of characters Walker tosses at us: Albert, Cpt. Duros, Jules, Ahmed, Fabien, Gérard, Philippe, Stéphane, Dominique, the Baron, Pamela, Claire, J.J., Isabelle, Alphonse, Fauquet, Gustave, Hubert, Cresseil, Nathalie, Baptiste, M. d'Alambert, Hector, Jacqueline, Max, Rollo, Xavier, and on and on. I actually had to keep notes because there were so many names, and who knew which ones would prove to be important later. Then, too, I had not read the first book, which probably introduced many of the characters. Most authors know to reintroduce, however quickly, standing characters. Walker does it for some of the people but not all. It sometimes isn't until pages or chapters later that a character's place in Saint-Denis is explained. I strongly suggest you, too, take notes. (Note: I was reading an "ARC," an advanced reading copy. Sometimes editing corrects deficits, so perhaps the final version is a little clearer. If so, I apologize. But still, take notes.)

Bruno is quite likable. (But, as previously said, aren't they all?) I tremendously enjoyed the description of the food and wine of the region. I truly want to believe the French in Périgord are as good-hearted and community-minded as they are in Walker's book. This book is ... likable.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Bricklayer, by Noah Boyd, c2010 ($9.99)

I loved this book.

It was an adventure with puzzles, but then I wasn't reading this for its realistic portrayal or deep social commentary. So it was fun.

There's been a lot of comparison of Steve Vail, the "Bricklayer," to Lee Child's Jack Reacher. True, they are both masters of their own fate and they don't want no stinking bosses, but Vail is way more fun.

Steve Vail used to be an FBI agent. Before he was fired. For insubordination. A few years later the FBI needs him again. They send Deputy Assistant Director Kate Bannon to round him up from Chicago, where he is a bona fide bricklayer. In fact, she has to climb up onto a roof to talk with him while he's buttering up a chimney.

The group Rubaco Pentad is killing enemies and critics of the FBI. In a convoluted, unethical way, that might be a good thing, but the FBI is not amused. Rubaco Pentad wants millions of dollars to stop. The first agent who tried to deliver the money died. The second one disappeared. Uh, oh. Now what do we do? Think, think. Hey, let's use a very smart scapegoat who doesn't work for the FBI anymore. Surprisingly, Steve Vail says yes.

What follows is a clever, albeit overly complicated, series of cat and mouse moves. In its opening gambit with Vail, Rubaco Pentad has Vail in a dark tunnel wired with light-sensitive bombs, punji boards, and no way out. Since that happens in the first third of the book, I don't think I'm spilling too many garbanzos when I tell you that Vail, despite the odds, escapes. (Besides the best part is in how Noah Boyd -- an alias for a former real-life FBI agent -- shows us how.) Vail uses great intuitive and deductive skills to decipher the clues and find the perpetrator. Then another trap is set. Then Vail deciphers more clues. Rinse and repeat.

Great fun.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Day of Small Things, by Vicki Lane, c2010 ($7.99)

Vicki Lane has a way of giving Appalachia an other-worldly atmosphere. In The Day of Small Things, she mixes romance and Appalachian myth and magic in stories set in the 1930s and the present time. And, yes, it does eventually qualify as a mystery book; there are criminals.

The two stories, which each take up half the book, have very different tones.

In the 1930s, Fronie Gentry tells everyone that her daughter, Least, is simple. Between beating and belittling Least to keep her submissive, Fronie is determined to keep one of her children with her to help on the farm. Life is very hard, no doubt, in Appalachia in the best of times, but this is also the Depression. Mortality rates are high and it's not uncommon for children to die young. Going along to get along, however difficult, is the path of least resistance for Dark Holler families. Despite Fronie's oppressive thumb, Least manages to make a young friend and, before it's too late, to make the acquaintance of her grandmother. Granny Beck is a canny woman, full of Cherokee secrets, spells, and herbal knowledge, all of which she passes along to Least. Then a calamity pitches Least out on her own. Although she is an innocent afoot in the world, she actually makes it no further than a few miles down the road and becomes a semi-prisoner in a local dance hall/house of ill repute. The story gets darker and deeper from there. This part of the book is full of Appalachian cultural details that are intriguing. The chapters switch between various characters' points of view. They are written with an Appalachian voice that is endearing and catchy.

The second half of the book is about Birdie, a woman who has lived in Appalachia all her life. When Dorothy's grandson is kidnapped, she asks her friend Birdie to use her "powers" to help find the grandson. The problems and conveniences described in this part of the book are all too modern. From cell phones to meth to gated estates, the outside world has come to Dark Holler.

Lane has a way with tone and prose that sinks her story right to the heart. Small Things is about family and love and ancient hate. There is a strong mystical and spiritual element, so if that's not your bag, walk on by this book. However, Lane isn't preachy or silly with its use. She received an Anthony nomination for In a Dark Season several years ago. That's not surprising. Her writing is strong and evocative. This book reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's fabled series, beginning with The Wizard of Earthsea, in how it addresses balancing the forces of the natural world.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Locked In, by Marcia Muller, c2009 ($7.99)

This book will give you nightmares. It will make you want to put a phone in your coffin. You will want to take out oodles of disability insurance. Because what if ...

San Francisco P.I. Sharon McCone was shot in the head by an intruder in her office. When she groggily regains consciousness, she finds that she cannot move or talk, but she has perfect awareness, just no way to communicate that. Marcia Muller has been writing Sharon McCone stories since 1977, and this book represents a very different kind of story. With Sharon out of commission in the hospital, her team, relatives, and husband must solve the current caseload to see if one of the open cases brought the intruder to their doorstep.

Dizzingly told from various viewpoints, we follow her main investigators as they doggedly break their cases. We even have insight into Sharon's despair and determination, as her story is told in the first person. She is locked into her own mind, all decked out with nowhere to go.

I really liked Sharon's part of the story. It was told with a great depth of feeling. And, as I said before, it's a nightmare inducer. The rest of the intermingling tales were a little disconcerting. My co-worker John said that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been a mess. I will be happy to get back to just Sharon, all the time.

I will say this, however, it was a great gimmick. It got me to read my first Sharon McCone in a couple of years, and I can't wait to read the next up, currently in hardcover, Coming Back.

The Last Run, by Greg Rucka, c2010 (hardcover, $25)

Tara Chace rocks! Or she has a head hard as a rock. Or she has rocks rattling around in her head. Or all of the above.

Tara Chace is Greg Rucka's superspy chick creation. Throughout her adventures in two books and numerous comics, Tara has escaped in the nick of time over and over. If she were a cat, she would have used up her nine lives a long time ago. Now she's finally feeling the draw of home and hearth since the birth of her daughter, Tamsin. Facing the quandary of many modern mothers -- having a job that takes her away a lot -- she balks at having her child mostly raised by a nanny. Worse yet, the danger she often leaps into might leave her daughter parentless. She has tendered her resignation as a "minder," i.e., action-adventure heroine on behalf of Queen and country, and requested quieter office duty. On the verge of making this happen, a serious situation arises in Iran and the powers-that-be say that only Tara will do.

An informer from decades past, now inactive and all but forgotten, has requested that British Intelligence extricate him from Iran. (Oh, by the way, he just happens to be the Ayatollah's nephew.) Just as freedom is within reach and Tara's improbable plan to escape with the informer is succeeding, things go, as the British say, pear-shaped. Rucka does a tremendous job keeping the tension high and the story rolling along. It was hard to put the book down. And I don't say that lightly.

Luckily, Rucka does not sacrifice character development for cinematic extravagance. Telling comments about Tara and her daughter, about Tara's boss, about the other members of Tara's team bring the story to a very human level. For instance:

"She closed her eyes, mind wandering free, instantly finding Tamsin, so far away. The fever, had it broken yet? Was she all right? Then she was seeing Tom Wallace, perfect in memory, a flight of fancy as Tara held their daughter in her arms, showing her to him. Look what we made, look at this beautiful creature we created."

The story isn't everything; people are everything. And Rucka's creations can hold their heads up high.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville, c2009 ($14)

This book was nominated for just about every book award around. It's intense, grim, and sad.

Stuart Neville's premise is unique. Take a troubled youth, turn him into an assassin, smack him down into the turbulent times of "The Troubles" in Belfast, and have redemption as the theme. That's not the unique part. Have the young man, now considerably older, having done a long stint in prison for his crimes, haunted by the twelve ghosts of the people he killed. Have his only way back to sanity be through killing the people who set up the victims.

Gerry Fegan shuffles through his days after his release from prison. The Republicans owe him. Everyone knows what he did for the cause. He's a hero to some, a man to be avoided to most, and a drunk to all who see him these days. During the nights, he is haunted to the point of madness by the screams and wailings of the ghosts who climb out of the shadows to form gray, angry visions in front of him and in his dreams. The most poignant are the "civilians," a butcher and a young mother with her baby, who were killed during a bomb blast Gerry set off.

It is while Gerry is talking to a childhood friend that the plan forms. This childhood friend grew into a fellow activist, and it is this friend who gave the order to kill one of the victims, an informer to the police. If Gerry kills his friend, will the ghost leave him alone? Yes. And so begins the retribution.

In the uneven progress of Northern Ireland towards stability, another peacetime coalition is tentatively at hand in Belfast. Fragile prosperity and quiet have returned to the former war zones. When Gerry starts killing former key players in the dissident movement, some of whom are now prosperous politicians and businessmen, it threatens to unsettle the peace talks. There are no longer any heroes on either side, just a lot of people scratching backs or burying pasts, and there certainly isn't any excess of trust to go around.

While attending his friend's wake -- the friend he had just murdered -- Gerry meets his friend's niece, a woman who has been shunned by her family for taking up with, and having a child by, one of the hated policemen. It doesn't matter that she is no longer with him, Marie is a living ghost to her family. She and her young daughter become a beacon of hope to Gerry, that all need not end unhappily for him. Is he delusional for thinking anyone would want a man with murders on his conscience and the anticipation of more killings to come? Maybe not. It is Northern Ireland. Everyone has had to deal with the twins of death and disaster.

The imputed behind-the-scenes descriptions of the former dissidents -- how the former idealism has turned into graft and corruption and how the former organization has made way for a criminal gang -- are cynical and depressing. There's an especially brutal depiction of a dog fighting scene late in the book.

This is a page-turner, no doubt. Don't start this book lightly, because you will have to finish it. It becomes a compulsion to find out if Gerry succeeds in his plan. There is a hint throughout that maybe Gerry's ghosts aren't a figment of his imagination, and you'll want to know what that's about. There's an unsettling Saki-like twist at the end.

This book is NOT for everyone. Besides the violence that splatters every bloody page, there's a nagging worry that the book is becoming something it shouldn't be. In that regard, I have mixed feelings about the ending. (Sorry, can't discuss more than that without spoilers.) Beyond a doubt, however, Neville is a powerful writer whose pitbull-like narrative style grabs and shakes the reader, and commands attention.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Diamond Dogs, by Alan Watt, c2000 ($19.99)

This is the sort of book I can't read very often. It's the sort of story that goes from bleak to bleaker, then sinks lower than you think it has a right to sink. Along the way, there's a realization that the machinery that holds us all together is rather fragile, and that we humans aren't really meant to keep secrets, because we fear that if we were to release our secrets, then all would turn to dust.

Neil Garvin is a high school quarterback. He was named for Neil Diamond. He is a bully. His father is the sheriff in a small town near Las Vegas. His father, Chester, has a violent temper. Chester loves Neil Diamond and Midori liqueur. Neil's mother deserted his family when he was very young. Into this troubled background, a little more rain must fall. Neil accidentally kills another boy. He and his father silently conspire to hide the boy's death, which becomes increasingly difficult to do when the boy's uncle, an FBI agent, enters the picture.

More than a story about a death and its discovery, it's about Neil and his father and their strained relationship. How did they get to this point in their lives, in which football and, for his father, Neil Diamond are the only bright spots? What does each see flickering at the periphery of his life that needs to be addressed? Everyone is a victim in this story, but not every victim knows his story. Diamond Dogs is also about testing love and loyalty.

Alan Watt wrote this book from the perspective of Neil. Neil's voice seems so young, lost, and true. He goes through the motions to make each day bearable, because there is pain deep inside with which he cannot deal. Watt unrelentingly uncovers everyone's secrets and does a good job building up the tension, even though I often felt it was a short story on steroids.

It's a coming-of-age story. So, Neil, welcome to the bleak.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Liar, Liar, by K. J. Larsen ($14.95)

Move over, Stephanie Plum, Cat DeLuca is on the prowl!

Liar, Liar is the debut novel by three sisters, two of whom live in the Pacific Northwest. This book harkens back to the first few bad hair days of Janet Evanovich's iconic heroine, the aforementioned Stephanie Plum. Liar, Liar has zest and sass very similar to Evanovich's z&s, and Cat has her own eccentric smloving (a cross between smothering and loving) family. There's also flirting, backtalk, an over-the-top sidekick, and even a car disaster. The differences? With Liar, Liar, there's a little more plot focus, and Cat manages to anger way more people. I personally have no problem with imitation, especially if it's well done. This book made me laugh out loud, the way Evanovich's One for Money did many years ago.

Cat DeLuca runs Pants on Fire Detective Agency. She surreptitiously chases after allegedly cheating spouses and gives the wronged parties ammunition to kick the bums (or bumettes) out of their lives.

In the course of following a far-too-good-looking-for-his-own-good-and-he-drives-a-Porshe guy for a sobbing client, Cat becomes embroiled in something bigger and more explosive than anything she has ever run across before. Literally. A bomb explodes in a building as Cat nears her prey, and she is clunked unconscious by a falling sign. When she awakens in the hospital, she is told that the man she was tailing died in the explosion. After the "dead man" visits her in her hospital room, she tries to tell the police and anyone else who will listen that the dead man must be someone else, but no one pays any attention. And the woman who hired her may not be the not-dead-man's wife. Then she has another near-death experience. Is her concussion making her delusional, or is someone trying to kill her? So she tries to figure out what the FBI, diamonds, a cranky mechanic, a shady philantropist, and Max the bodyguard (who doesn't resemble Kevin Costner and isn't Italian) have in common? And, yes, someone is trying to kill her.

Toss in a mother who shouts, "Let's eat," as a coda to difficult situations, a family that tramples its way to the buffet table, a wild bunch of friends and relatives who are either Chicago cops or working for "the other side," and you have ...

Fun, fun, fun!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey, c2009 ($15)

Pardon me while I decry the abundance of comparisons of mystery books set in Africa to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I especially think it's misleading when the book's tone may be similar but the subject matter and intensity is radically different. (Having said that, I must admit to having recently used that comparison for my review of The Second Death of Good Luck Tinubu!)

Kwei Quartey's wonderful Wife of the Gods has a similar tone; that is, there is an underlying cultural civility expressed when people meet each other. Whether it is "Dumela, Mma" or "Woizo, woizo," as in this book set in Ghana, there is a shared ritual politeness and propriety that belies the very different nature of the books. Wife of the Gods is NOT The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, not by a long shot.

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson loves his family and enjoys his job in the big city of Accra. There was tragedy in his young life when his brother was injured in an accident and his mother disappeared. The grown-up Darko has anger management issues and an intolerance for the Ghanian equivalent of snake-oil salesmen, people who traffic in superstitions and ritualistic fetishism. He also enjoys a toke of the weed every so often, weed obtained from a man whom Darko arrested once upon a time. Darko is a contradictory mix of principles, but he vehemently adheres to those principles.

Darko is sent on a case to the village of Ketanu, a place with which he is familiar from his youth. Long ago he accompanied his mother and brother on a visit to his mother's sister, Osewa, who lives there, and he remembers Osewa fondly. However, Darko's mother disappeared after a visit to Osewa and was never found. It is with joy and trepidation, therefore, that Darko re-enters Ketanu.

A young woman, Gladys, has been found murdered, lying in a plantain grove. She was not just any young woman. She was the hope of Ketanu, a young medical student who was trying to stem the tide of AIDS and to save women bound into virtual slavery by an old-time system of oblation to the village fetish priest. Darko's own dander rises when he meets the drunken, abusive priest as part of his investigation. The village healer fares no better under Darko's glare when he learns the healer was one of the last people to see Gladys alive. Then there's the young infatuated man who allegedly stalked Gladys and the alleged village witch, who happens to be Gladys' aunt. What about Gladys' boss, a seemingly shifty person whom Darko senses is lying. And how does he sense the boss is lying? He has a mild form of synesthesia, a mixing up of the senses.

Synesthesia has been used, in my opinion, to good effect in The Fallen by T. Jefferson Parker and Still Waters by Nigel McCrery. In The Fallen, the hero sees colors and shapes when people talk. In Still Waters, the unfortunate hero tastes what people sound like. In this book, Darko feels the sound of voices. His aunt, for example, is dark velvet. This is an understated and clever addition to Darko's complex character.

Wife of the Gods deals with some very serious issues in a very serious manner. There was more violence than I had expected at first, lulled as I was initially by the "No. 1 Ladies" demeanor. And there's a whopper of a plotline resolution at the end that had me wincing. The best parts are the cultural perspective by a Ghanian writer who is now a doctor in the U.S., and Quartey's willingness to give us a flawed but principled hero.

Monday, October 18, 2010

In Search of Mercy, by Michael Ayoob ($24.99)

I think this book defines the direction of modern noir. With a nod to the old timey black-and-white "B" movies and a wink to the subculture of the young these days (and a sideways glance at "The X-Files"), Ayoob has constructed an interesting and sometimes bizarre story.

Mercy Carnahan is an actress who disappeared decades ago after a meltdown during her Broadway debut. She was the queen of the sassy 1940s "B" movie dames. In the process of becoming "La Devila," the nickname given to her naughty and not nice persona, she left behind Louis Kashon, her hometown boyfriend. In the present time, when Louis meets Dexter Bolzjak, a young, traumatized -- but, as is typical these days, the story of his unfortunate past is drawn out in scant inches throughout the book -- produce warehouse worker, Louis prevails on Dexter to find his long-lost love. As inducement, Louis shows Dexter a drawer full of $100 and $500 bills. Just find Mercy and all that would be his. It soon becomes obvious that this is not your reality-based detective story; there are too many odd-ball characters and way-out situations.

What Dexter first starts investigating is Louis. Who was he and where did he get the money? Then he investigates his new boss, Gen, a business diva who has deigned to work at Dexter's produce company. Dexter has dizzy spells -- no, he has whirlpool spells -- that occur whenever he has flashbacks to "the trauma." In the end he must also investigate and face what happened to him. And the elusive quarry of his search is Mercy, who is alternately good girl Agnes, her real name, and the flashy, trashy Hollywood dame, whom drag queens and S&M freaks have come to adore. So, it is not just the whereabouts of Mercy that Dexter needs to discover but who Mercy really was.

Told in the present tense, probably to distinguish the current narrative from the parts about Mercy and Louis in the past, it remains to be seen until the end whether Dexter survives his adventure intact.

This is an intense book, at times graphically violent. It won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Best First Private Eye Novel award. Ayoob's writing has punch and he gets an "A" for creativity. And those of us who've read this book are still talking about the ending!

Michael Ayoob is scheduled to appear at Murder by the Book on Tuesday, October 19.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke, c2009 ($14.99)

This is a primer for readers too young to remember the fight for Black Power in the 1960s and 70s. It is also an invective against the manipulation of the government by big oil companies. And, lastly, it's a sad tale about union strikes and the hovering shadow of mechanization just over the horizon. These are big issues for a debut novel to take on, and the result is a little uneven but captivating.

In 1981, Jay Porter is black and a lawyer in Houston. His wife is expecting their first child. Where once he was fire and revolution, he is now establishment and quiet. His former girlfriend is the new mayor of Houston, and her 70s rhetoric has led her in a different political direction. His father-in-law is involved, and gets Jay involved as a result, in a longshoremen's union strike.

The catalyst that propels the convergence of all the issues is the rescue of a white woman from a canal. Jay and his wife are happily celebrating her birthday while drifting down the canal on a rag-tag boat scrounged up through the connections Jay has made in his financially shaky practice. They hear a woman screaming, gunshots, and splashing.

If Jay had never jumped in the water, if Jay hadn't been curious about the woman's story, if he hadn't heard she was being arraigned for murder, if someone hadn't bribed him to stay out of it, if a young man hadn't been beaten up because of the impending strike, if the man he accuses of masterminding the beating weren't an officer in a fraternal union, if there weren't an oil crisis, perhaps Jay would have lived a long uneventful life.

Attica Locke's story is clever, but there are times when the long interludes in which she describes the student politics of the 60s and 70s seem to undermine the rhythm of her main story. Stokely Carmichael, the SDS, and black power schisms are a volatile mix, and they introduce the tale of Jay's felony arrest and trial when he was a young college student. Some elements are integral to the current story, but the lengthy background setup interrupts the otherwise fast-paced tale of the woman in the canal. Along with the strike storyline with all of its participants, there's a lot a reader has to go through to get to the end of Locke's book.

Then, too, this is the second story in a row for which I've guessed one of the main plot turns long before the end and wonder why the knucklehead of a protagonist can't tell the storyline from the asides. Having said that, this book gets high marks for bringing in interesting issues, cleverly interweaving the past and the present (including our 2010 present), and creating a complex and sympathetic protagonist. (I didn't really mean to call him a knucklehead.) I can see why Black Water Rising was nominated for an Edgar and chosen as one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. Locke's writing is clear and compelling. When she brings in the phrase "black water rising" towards the end of the book, its poetry and multiple meanings hit hard.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mr Peanut, by Adam Ross (Borzoi Books, $25.95)

If you're thinking of getting married, don't read this book: it will terrify you

If you're thinking of getting married, read this book: it will inspire you.


Paradox and duality are the heart of this stunningly weird book, whose leitmotif is the Escher picture of interlocking angels and devils that switch from one to the other depending on how you focus, and whose villain is named Mobius. It is the story of David Pepin's love for and resentment of his wife Alice, whom he may or or may not have killed, in “real life” and in the book he is writing about their life together. Interwoven with the tangled revelations of the facts and fantasies about their relationship is the story of Sam Sheppard, who may or may not have killed his wife in real “real life” and in the pages of this book – or is it in David's book? Also sprinkled into the unfolding is a riff on Hitchcock and how Rear Window's story of Jimmy Stewart's character's voyeuristic investigation of the man who may have killed his wife is an allegory for Stewart's character's desire to kill his own love interest; a fantasy on the part of the detective investigating Alice's death about the murder and dismemberment of his own wife; a description of how the living arrangements on Malaya promote non-violence; and much much more.


With precision and poetry, Ross captures life's big moments of passion; the small details of everyday existence; and the way marriage is lived along the complex interface between the two. Reading his book offers some of the same experience: tumbling around in a vortex of alternate histories while being riveted to page by a still moment of absolute clarity and simplicity.


If you're confused but intrigued by this review, you have a foretaste of what this brilliantly original book is like.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In the Shadow of Gotham, by Stefanie Pintoff, c2009 ($14.99)

This novel won the Edgar for best first novel by an American, a heady accomplishment for the author. Reviewers have given this book stars and high praise. It frequently has been compared to The Alienist, a novel written a few years ago about the beginnings of profiling at the turn of the last century. I wish I had liked it better. But then, I had the same problem with the very popular The Alienist. Maybe I just have a thing against turn-of-the-last-century profiling . . .

Although I do not actively try to figure out whodunnit while I'm reading, especially these days when mystery books are less about the intellectual process of solving a mystery and more about character, within 100 pages I guessed what the catch was. It disturbs me that there had to be a "catch." It probably would have been a crackling good story without it. Anyway . . .

Simon Ziele is a police detective who has been reassigned from Manhattan to a small town outside of New York City. He suffered a trauma, slowly unveiled, and the town is just about his speed these days. Unfortunately, a hideous murder in the town drives him back to Manhattan to search for a potential serial killer. Alistair Sinclair, a rich, uppercrust criminologist at Columbia University, declares he knows who is behind the murder. It is the subject of Sinclair's study on criminal psychopathology, Michael Fromley. Ziele teams with Sinclair and his research staff to track down Fromley.

There are many interesting and entertaining elements to the story, including Pintoff's description of the wary introduction of systematic scientific techniques that we consider indispensible today. Pintoff gives us lots of details of Manhattan in 1905. However, she falls prey to the same affectation some other historical novelists have; there's a wink and a nod from the future when there shouldn't be any reference to what is to come. Ziele says: "It wasn't that I was too old, though at thirty I was no longer young by the standards of the day." Maybe this book is done from the veiwpoint of an 100-year-old Ziele, reflecting back on his youth . . .

Some of the characters are engaging, the best two of which are a Manhattan madame and a dowager in the small town. The basic story -- my guessing the ending notwithstanding -- was fairly clever. I did like it better than The Alienist, however faint that praise might be. I think this has used up my quota for "birth of profiling" stories, and I can now move on.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Let the Dead Lie, by Malla Nunn ($15)

If you haven't read A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn's first book in her series set in South Africa, don't read this review.

I loved A Beautiful Place to Die. It introduced white police detective Emmanuel Cooper. Let the Dead Lie gives us the next great chapter in Cooper's roller coaster of a life. At the end of A Beautiful Place, Cooper had given up everything he had accomplished in order to stand by his principles. He had also sacrificed what other people had, people whom he had come to respect, including a black police constable, Shabalala, and a Jewish refugee doctor, Zweigman.

The time is the early 1950s, soon after apartheid has become the law. At the start of Let the Dead Lie, Cooper has moved to Durban from Johannesburg. He works in the shipyards as a manual laborer, having been stripped of his badge and his designation as "white," a serious change in circumstance in an extremely stratified, color-coded world in which anything other than white means something less than human.

Cooper accidentally stumbles across the body of a young white boy, a street hustler from the poor side of town. Then Cooper's landlady and her maid are found murdered in a similar fashion. Cooper is accused of the murders. Only the intercession of his mentor and protector, van Niekerk, saves him from immediate arrest. Van Niekerk has also moved to Durban and, although Cooper is no longer a police officer, hires Cooper to work as an independent investigator on the side.

The catch is this: Cooper must find the real murderer within 48 hours or he will be jailed and surely executed. Of course, there is more than meets the eye. When is the murder of three people not about the murder of three people? This is the question that propels the rest of the book, as Cooper struggles to figure out what the real issues are.

A shadow is cast over whether van Niekerk is really protecting Cooper or whether Cooper is merely a pawn in a larger game. Lana, a young woman to whom Cooper is attracted, turns out to be van Niekerk's girlfriend, complicating the nature of all the relationships. Nunn also gives us a glimpse of the Indian community and its place in the hierarchy. And so the story goes; every stone Cooper turns over only displays more stones.

I loved the complexity of the story, with Cooper as alternately pawn and provocateur. Shabalala and Dr. Zweigman are brought back in a surprising way to help Cooper (and to personally make me happy). This is an outstanding series and gives a nuanced look at the various avenues racial prejudice can travel down.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, by Michael Stanley ($14.99)

I have to commend Michael Stanley for daring to write a mystery novel set in Botswana, especially if it is a little like Alexander MacCall Smith's more famous series but not really. There is the same wonderful deliberate attention to daily life in Botswana. Batswana (Botswanians) abide by patience and politeness, according to MacCall Smith and Stanley. It sounds like a grand way to live, with high regard for other people and nature. But the comparison doesn't extend too much further. Stanley's Botswana has rougher language and more violence. Stanley's books acknowledge the reality of what is going on in neighboring countries and how that affects Botswana. It's not as pretty a picture as MacCall Smith's, but it's more clever.

The murder of two men who are guests at a lodge in the northern part of Botswana snowballs with plenty of subterfuge, suspects, and motives. Each time a suspect is tracked, we learn a little more about the real history of the southern part of Africa. Although atrocious acts are given play, they mostly happen offstage. The main heroic characters are gently developed and tenderly nurtured. Even the description of the murders is circumspect. The language is rougher than in MacCall Smith's books, but not by much; swearing is judiciously used.

Inspector Kubu is the hero. He is a larger-than-life character, literally. He loves food and drink, and has a large girth to show for it. His wife Joy is the joy of his life. She is a fairly modern woman with a respect for tradition. Kubu's boss, Mabaku, gives him lots of leeway and respect, but is no soft touch. Kubu's main assistant, Tatwa, is competent and eager. Mabaku complains that he is running a menagerie, because "Kubu" means hippo and "Tatwa" means giraffe, both nicknames that are descriptive of physical characteristics.

This is a story with both charm and punch. As the scope of the problem grows, so does the confusion, until all is resolved, for better or worse, at the end. I enjoyed this book so much, I'm going to have to back up and read the first in Stanley's series, A Carrion Death. By the way, Michael Stanley is the pseudonym for two writers, both South Africans, one of whom lives in South Africa and the other in the United States. A great pairing of people who know the culture and who also know how to interpret that for western readers.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Shadows in the Street, by Susan Hill (hardcover, $24.95)

The character of Dr. Cat Deering, sister to series hero Simon Serraillier, and the story of one of the accused murderers prevent this book from lapsing into cliché. Cat is a complex mixture of science and faith. She is dealing with an enormous tragedy in her life, and she is working hard to mend her fractured family. But at the start of the book, all is not going smoothly. The accused murderer, Leslie Blade, is just one of many characters Susan Hill juggles in this fifth book in her series. Set in a fictional medium-sized city in England, Hill brings us both the intimacy of small-town living and the violence and crime of a big city.

Police detective Simon Serrailler is on an extended leave at the beginning of the book. He is prematurely called back to duty because someone is murdering prostitutes. His sister, Cat, is involved through her church. The wife of the new minister is hell-bent on creating a center for the prostitutes, and Cat is called upon to be a part of the discussion committee. Then one of Cat's new patients is a likable young prostitute who is trying to care for her young son and daughter. This all comes together when, with a lot of foreboding, the young woman becomes one of the killer's victims and the minister's wife goes missing.

In investigating the cases, the police meet Leslie Blade, a middle-aged man who brings snacks and hot tea to the prostitutes. He has an ailing mother and a job with a university library to tie him down. If the story had concentrated just on him, it would have been worthy. However, we have several prostitutes, a bone-headed junkie boyfriend, a new minister and his steamrolling wife, the minister's assistant, Leslie's co-worker, and Leslie's mother's caregiver thrown into the mix with Simon's sister, her children, his father and new stepmother. Each one has a lot of face-time in the book. Normally, this level of complexity would have been enjoyable, but most of the stories were like soda without the fizz. I personally wanted to strangle the minister, and I'm sure that was Hill's intention.

This is still one of the series I can't wait to read, more for what is happening with the Serrailler family than for the latest serial killer haunting the city of Lafferton.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Reversal, by Michael Connelly (hardcover, $27.99) (release date-10/5/10)

Michael Connelly is a GREAT storyteller. Before you know it, you are turning page after page and are totally immersed in his tale. As with Nine Dragons and The Scarecrow, there are some moments in which a reader just had to suspend belief. At the same time I was saying, "Wow," I was also saying, "Say what?" That said, I really enjoyed this book.

Mickey Haller is the "Lincoln Lawyer." Instead of from an unnecessarily swanky office, he usually practices criminal defense from his car. His manager is one of his ex-wives. He has a young daughter with another ex-wife, and he tries desperately to balance the demands in his life. He is a quirky, brash, amusing character. His half-brother is Harry Bosch: sober, dark, intense. The mother of his daughter is one of the bright lights in the D.A.'s office, although at the moment she is exiled to a lesser satellite office. The last thing on Mickey's mind is becoming the enemy. But that is exactly what happens.

Inexplicably, although Connelly tries his best to rationalize it, Haller is talked into becoming a special prosecutor for a hot-topic case. A man who was accused of kidnapping and murdering a young girl has spent the last 24 years in prison. Using new DNA techniques, evidence is uncovered which requires that the case be remanded for trial. For some contrived reason, no current D.A. can prosecute this case. It would look sooooo much better if the accused were convicted by an attorney who normally bats for the defense. Ooookaaaaay.

It doesn't matter how contrived this sounds, it barely registers on the "nah" graph, because the story is everything. Mickey drafts Harry into being his investigator. He also gets his ex-wife, mother of his daughter and stalwart prosecutor, to be his second chair. Pretty cozy, eh? Once again, barely registers on the "oh-come-on" graph. Connelly races the story along: dredging up old witnesses, surveillance -- Did I mention that the accused is released on his own recognizance after 24 years in jail? Barely registers on the "you've-got-to-be-kidding" graph -- of the accused, and rethinking police procedures from all those years ago. Did I mention almost every important witness is dead? Hardly a hiccup on the "give-me-a-break" graph.

The courtroom proceedings are fascinating. Mickey has a few tricks up his sleeve. Ex-wife/prosecutor Maggie does an excellent job with empathy and courtroom panache. Harry trundles witness after witness up to the stand so Mickey can ask the penetrating questions everyone else forgot to ask years ago. I couldn't wait to find out what happened.

The ending was a little loopy, but I want more Mickey stories anyway.

Monday, September 13, 2010

To Fetch a Thief, by Spencer Quinn (hardcover, $25) (release date: 9/28/10)

Chet, a dog, is the narrator of this funny series. Actually, this third book is less funny than the others. There's more plot, and we get to see Bernie, Chet's master, kick some butt. Up until now Bernie has appeared as a laid-back, stammering, lovable goof. His reporter girlfriend described his walk as "shambling," and that summed up his persona as well until this book. In To Fetch a Thief, Spencer Quinn toughens up his creation. A Gulf War veteran and an ex-police officer, Bernie can walk the walk when he needs to. We actually meet some of his prior "acquaintances," including the tough-talking proprietor of a tough-looking biker bar and the madame of a house of ill repute. (Quinn missed his opportunity to call it a cathouse, with Chet wondering where the cats were. To boost the hilarity quotient, Quinn doesn't miss many opportunities to have Chet misunderstand Bernie's expressions.)

Once again we are privy to the simple thoughts of a simple dog. Which is not to say that Chet is dumb. Chet is very, very smart. Let's just not talk about why he didn't graduate from the doggie police academy.

Before I go on, let me just open up the book at random and quote you a bit of text. Remember, this is Chet speaking:
...Uh-oh. Mexico. We'd worked down there before, the Salazar kidnapping and another case I couldn't remember, except for part of a pork taco I'd scarfed up behind a cantina. My guys, not all but some, are different in Mexico -- real tough customers, red-eyed dudes, lean and mean. Got into some scraps down in Mexico, and so did Bernie. The Mexican vet had to stitch me up; she stitched up Bernie, too. She was nice, kind of fell for Bernie, which led to complications on account of she forgot to mention her husband. But he turned out to be a real bad shot, so it ended up okay.
There are lots of references to former cases, in which so-and-so is now in an orange jumpsuit breaking rocks in the hot sun. Chet also refers to Mexico as "south of the border, down Mexico way," because Bernie always hums that tune when they cross the border. These are doggy references that just crack me up.

In many ways, it doesn't really matter what this book is about. It's not about the plot, it's about Chet. Chet thinks like this: kidnapping, kids, napping, maybe he should lie down ... oh, where was he? Once again, let me reiterate that Chet is not a doofus. He has tracking, herding, leaping (for better or worse), and attacking skills, many of which he learned at the doggie police academy. (Let's not talk about why he didn't graduate.) At any rate, this is what the book is about: a circus elephant and her trainer disappear. The elephant's disappearance relates to a bigger whoop-de-do that takes Chet and Bernie to Mexico. There are muy loco bad guys. Chet would like them to be in orange jumpsuits breaking rocks in the hot sun.

Less hilarity than in the past ensues, but it ensues anyway. And readers get to spend time with Chet. That's better than breaking rocks in the hot sun, especially in an orange jumpsuit.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Faithful Place, by Tana French (hardcover, $25.95)

Like a set of nesting dolls, each book by Tana French contains the seed for the next book. Frank Mackey, the police detective/hero of Faithful Place, was a second banana in The Likeness. The heroine of The Likeness was similarly a secondary character in In the Woods, French's first book. Each book, however, has a very separate identity, tied together only by French's moody lighting and characteristic plot twists.

What makes Faithful Place very different from the other two is a realism grounded in French's characterization of a dysfunctional lower class Irish family. Her dialogue jumps at you with the tang of neighborhood slang. The brothers and sisters of the Mackey clan are like your own brothers and sisters -- for the most part. (They are dysfunctional, after all.) Their "da" is a raging alcoholic, their mother a hectoring victim who spreads guilt thickly among her children. There are ancient hurts that impinge upon the collective family nerve, some of which are raked back into the light by Frank Mackey's return to see his family after a 22-year absence.

That's right, Frank has not been back to see his family for 22 years. If he had lived far away, it would have been one thing, but Frank and his family all live in Dublin, Ireland. Frank has had contact with his younger sister, the ameliorative and sensitive Jacinta, nicknamed Jackie. She is the only one whom he will allow his daughter, nine-year-old Holly, to meet.

Frank and his girlfriend, Rose, were 19 and 20 and living with their families when they decided to run away to London. On the night they were to steal away from their houses set on the street called Faithful Place, Rose failed to meet Frank. Frank left by himself that night, but he didn't go to London. He moved to another section of Dublin and on to an eventual career with the police department. Frank returns because Rose's suitcase has been found, stuffed up a chimney in a deserted house on Faithful Place. Soon after, Frank is instrumental in finding a skeleton in the basement of the same house -- Rose's skeleton.

Faithful Place is a beautifully written story of a family in perpetual crisis. It's also the story of a tight-knit community pounded by an economic depression, straight-jacketed by religious strictures, bound by family rituals and obeisance to the family "da" who may rule, as in this case, with an iron fist and unholy temper. French's fine depiction of the family personalities draws the reader in, and her story of the underlying romance will break the reader's heart.

Both In the Woods and The Likeness were slightly fey and had a touch of malicious enchantment to them. What did happen to Rob Ryan in the woods in the first book? Why was Cassie Maddox so readily accepted in place of her doppelganger in the second? There is a surreality overlying the scientific and investigational elements. Faithful Place, on the other hand, feels real, as expressed by the family and in the crime and its poignant resolution.

P.S. My money is on Stephen Moran, a young detective Frank enlists as a "mole," as the star of the next novel.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Origin, by Diana Abu-Jaber ($13.95)

Is it part of our human design that we automatically try to categorize what we see? We don't have to spend energy re-creating the wheel every time if we can safely slot what we sense and experience into good-bad, funny-sad, rewarding-painful, for instance.

In Origin, this question of category has a fascinating answer: Who or what is Lena Dawson? The protagonist of Diana Abu-Jaber's 2007 novel is distant and befuddled by her senses. Abu-Jaber gives us abundant descriptions of what Lena sees and how that makes her feel. The descriptions are lush and complex. Abu-Jaber describes in hallucinogenic terms what thoughts the objects trigger in Lena. Lena has difficulty with social interactions. She stutters or her sentences trail away, and what seems clear in her head rarely translates smoothly when spoken. Is she autistic? Has she been abused and is now withdrawn? The answers are not definitive, because the questions are flawed. Nevertheless, we initially struggle to contain her personality.

Winter has a death grip on Syracuse, New York. Images of snow, ice, a blanketing whiteness fill most of the book. Lena herself is frozen in her own little world. She is a fingerprint analyst for the police. Her apartment is disintegrating and bare. Her social life is in similar straits. Her work world has definite boundaries and an on-off complexity: either the fingerprint belongs to "x," or it doesn't. Lena hides in plain sight in the dead of winter. Without a serious disturbance, it is likely she will remain this way, even were spring to come, until the day she dies.

This is the serious disturbance: babies are dying of SIDS in statistically awkward numbers. Intuitively, Lena feels that someone is murdering them. The babies belong to families from all areas of town, and from all levels of social and economic means. In a surprising revelation, Lena believes she is part of the equation, although she has had no children. She struggles, mentally and physically (wrapped in coats, hospital sheets, embracing arms, illusory vines, a gorilla mother's arms), to bring her subconscious feelings into a legally viable accusation.

Lena's background is intriguing right from the start. Her memories obsessively focus on how she survived a plane crash and was raised in a tropical rain forest by a mothering ape. When she was returned to "civilization," she was fostered by a couple in Syracuse. Her foster mother is prickly and fragile. Lena has gotten to the point in her life when she needs -- like food and water -- to know about her origin. It seems that the way to her own personal answers is to step out of her work cocoon into the real world.

Lena must venture into a real crime scene. She must battle a nosy, persistent reporter. She feels strangely aligned with a schizophrenic who lives in her building. Her knuckleheaded estranged husband, who left her for another woman -- actually, several other women -- wants to come back into her life. A detective is showing romantic interest in her. A co-worker is behaving suspiciously. Lena must overcome this stressful jumble to make herself whole.

Abu-Jaber, with her striking and poetic prose, uses the wintery motif well. As Lena proceeds with the case and an understanding of herself, the world around her begins to thaw and her ability to speak her thoughts improves. Lena goes from trying to be what everyone else wants her to be -- and not succeeding very well -- to allowing her real self to emerge. It takes her most of the book to finally say, "It's about me."

Here's a taste:
That evening after work, the moonlight is flat and silvery as fish bones; it floats in the darkness, a cage of ribs. There's something weird in the air, in that bone of a moon. The wind flashes through the fabric of my coat, freezing me. At the door to my apartment, it feels as if something is standing just on the other side of the door. I put my hand out and watch it turn the knob. There's nothing on the other side of the door, of course.
You will either really like this book, as I did, or it will annoy the heck out of you; Lena's character drives this book.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell (hardcover, $25.95)

Chinese ideology aside, this is a very interesting standalone novel for Mankell. And despite the title, some of the action takes place in Mozambique, where Mankell resides part of the year. It's certainly the most peripatetic novel I can remember Mankell writing, with scenes taking place in Sweden, England, China, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. If Mankell had deleted the overly long explanation of current Chinese backroom politics, the novel would have been far less than the 363 pages, and the story would have been tighter. I read far more about Chinese affairs -- probable or improbable -- than was good for me. I'm not saying that what Mankell said wasn't important and worthy of discussion; it just was too long for a crime novel.

Why the civics lesson? Hatred can go back a long way. Inequity can be institutionalized. Revenge can simmer for generations. It wasn't right how Chinese immigrants were treated when working on American railroads 150 years ago. It wasn't right that Chinese peasants were treated as disposable labor for centuries. It wasn't right that students died in Tiananmen Square. It isn't right that poor people have starved, that families have been separated in order to survive. Mankell has emblazoned all these wrongs in the pages of The Man from Beijing. Almost lost in the process is a pretty good story.

At the center of the story is a Swedish judge, Birgitta Roslin. When a tiny Swedish village is massacred in the night, Roslin discovers she is related to a few of the victims. Using a great deal of literary shenanigans, Roslin accidentally discovers a connection to a man from Beijing. When she coincidentally travels to China with a friend, she continues to investigate, although the Swedish police have declared the case closed. When she coincidentally shows a picture of a man to one of the few people who could identify him -- just how many people live in China? -- she shines the spotlight on herself. Now the assassin could be after her. Actually, it's not hard to swallow the coincidences. Even Roslin's arrogant character ("Just tell her the judge is calling. That's all you need to know.") and bumbling interviews, don't interfere with how interesting the tale is.

Mankell's book begins with a horrible crime, elements of which seem fantastic or supernatural, but Mankell brings the crime back down to the very human emotion that drives the perpetrator. The little tales, in this case compared to the history of modern China, that he tells tug at your heart.