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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The First Rule, by Robert Crais (hardcover, $26.95)

L.A. private eye Elvis Cole once again takes a backseat as his silent but deadly associate, Joe Pike, takes center stage. I liked this novel much better than the first book to star Joe Pike, The Watchman. That first Pike book destroyed the mysterious, inaccessible, Clint Eastwood-in-a-spaghetti-western image I had of him. He had been in and out of the Elvis Cole novels on silent panther feet up until then. Author Robert Crais never really let the panther out of the bag in terms of Pike's background and inner thoughts, so it was a shock to find out that Joe Pike had feelings and parents and a job and wasn't from Planet Zybx or Area 59. Say it ain't so, Joe!

But time marches on and I've gotten used to a Joe Pike with free will, someone who doesn't just appear whenever Elvis thinks him into existence. Okay, that sentence sounded nutty, because Crais does think him into existence. Anyhow…

Joe Pike was a mercenary. His teammates and buddies were tough guys like Joe. They all had been trained in multiple ways of killing people, of viewing a contract in a dispassionate fashion, of always being a few steps ahead of the opposition. It was a sad/happy day when one of his buddies decided to quit the mercenary lifestyle to settle down, marry, and have children. Joe had not had contact with that buddy, Frank Meyer, in years. Not until the police cornered Joe and demanded to know what he knew of the mass killing in Frank's house. Then the contact was limited to Joe's view of Frank's dead body.

Joe decides to avenge Frank. Of course. He begins his own investigation, and discovers in rapid order that this is the latest in a series of home invasions in which the residents have been killed, a Serbian nanny was also killed, there were diapers in her room and no baby in the house, and the nanny's sister carries a gun in her purse.

All of a sudden there are Serbian gangsters, Serbian prostitutes, and various Serbian underworld characters popping out of the woodwork. Where Eastern European gangsters go, the police and FBI are not far behind. It's not so simple to figure out who killed Frank and why. There are also crosses and double-crosses which enliven the plot.

I'm not so shocked anymore by hearing Joe's inner thoughts, because Crais still preserves most of Joe's mystique and terrifying presence. But we now get to see the price Joe has to pay to be what he is.

I love the touches of sassiness that the Elvis Cole books have. On the other hand, there is nothing sassy or funny about Pike or the gruesome situations in which he finds himself. It's a good thing, then, that Crais has brought Elvis in to help Joe. I still prefer more Elvis and less Joe, but I enjoyed this book.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Nine Dragons, by Michael Connelly (hardcover, $27.99)

Maybe I'm just suffering from Bosch-fatigue, but Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's bread-and-butter character, seemed too somber, whiny and imperious this time around. I didn’t start to enjoy the book until about the last third. On the other hand, I enjoyed Connelly's last book, The Scarecrow, the fantastical novel that featured the return of reporter Jack McEvoy, very much and was looking forward to this new Bosch book.

Harry catches a case with his gun-shy partner of two years, Ignacio Ferras: the shooting death of a Chinese convenience store owner, a man whom Harry had met briefly in Angels Flight. (This is typically and charmingly Connelly-esque: inserting characters from other stories into the current novel.) Harry carefully traces the clues and uses the most modern of forensic techniques (detailed à la "CSI") to help him find the killer. His conclusions lead him to the Chinese triads, alive and well in California. He believes they have killed the shopkeeper because he could not pay his protection money. Before Harry can put the nail in the coffin of a Chinese muscleman for the murder, he receives a disturbing video showing his 13-year-old daughter, Maddie, kidnapped and being held somewhere in Hong Kong, where she lives with her mother, Harry's ex-wife Eleanor Wish. After he receives a threatening phone call, Harry concludes Maddie has been kidnapped because of his involvement with the triad killing in California.

In a section entitled, "The 39-Hour Day," we follow Harry, Eleanor, and Eleanor's boyfriend, Sun, throughout Hong Kong. Since the Hong Kong police have declined to take the case, believing Maddie is playing a prank on her mother, it is up to the three to venture into areas of Hong Kong where two laowai like Harry and Eleanor stand out like big white sore thumbs. Improbable adventure follows upon improbable adventure, and Harry becomes more like "Dirty Harry," racking up the body count. He won't work as a team member, he bulls and bullies his way through the fragile opportunities to discover Maddie's whereabouts, he calls and abuses his U.S. contacts to get information.

I get that Harry's anxious and frantic to think that unspeakable things are happening to Maddie. I get the need for visual action drama in an action drama book. I get that there's a time restraint on finding Maddie and acquiring information to force the U.S. triad to its knees. But this is an extreme case of Harry gets what Harry needs when Harry wants it. I got tired of Harry.

At the same time I really enjoyed the meticulous nailing down of the clues to figure out where Maddie was being held when the video was shot and the unfolding of why the shopkeeper was killed and who did it. So, plot "A+," Harry "C-."

Now for a little spoiler talk . . . SPOILER ALERT
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Good riddance, I say, to Eleanor Wish. With the choice of some wonderful female characters over the years, Harry chose unwisely and unwell when he chose Eleanor. I also realize she was the perfect choice for a person as burdened and moody as Harry. She is what he thought he deserved, is my analysis. Her death will provide Harry with more guilt-ridden angst over the next few books, I'm sure. Oh, lordy.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Trace of Smoke, by Rebecca Cantrell (trade, $14.99)

Hannah Vogel discovers her brother's picture in the eerily named Hall of the Unnamed Dead. She cannot claim him, however, because both he and she loaned their identification papers to a Jewish friend and her son to travel from 1931 Berlin to the U.S., to get away from the growing threat of the anti-Semitism that Adolf Hitler's supporters espouse. To be without identification papers in those dangerous times was verboten. People have been executed for less.

Hobbled by not being able to investigate openly and properly, Hannah tries the best she can. She uses her position as a crime columnist to find out the meager facts of her brother's case from the police. She talks to her brother's acquaintances and, as a result, enters the world of post-WWI Berlin decadence. Her brother was a homosexual and transvestite, who sang at one of the popular "Cabaret"-style nightspots.

Her investigation comes to a screeching halt when she opens her door one day to find a five-year-old boy who addresses her as "Mother." He carries a birth certificate that lists her as his mother and her brother as his father. Hannah's life becomes immensely more complicated. (When I first read this description in the jacket summary, I thought, "Ewwww." But Hannah is not the boy's mother, and it is part of the clever – if somewhat fantastical – plot about who the boy actually is.)

Rebecca Cantrell's evocative descriptions of the poverty and soul-torturing compromises the people of Berlin must make are moving. In addition to the exotic erotic other world Hannah's brother surreptitiously moved in, Cantrell shows us a little of all the social classes and brings us face-to-face with the growing resentment against Jews. All in all, a thought-provoking book with a poignant underlying story of the changing mores of Nazi Berlin.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Curse of the Pogo Stick, by Colin Cotterill (trade, $13)

This is the fifth book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series set in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri is a reluctant coroner, placed in his current position by an imperious Communist government. In his 70s, Dr. Siri still has all his wits about him – plus the wits that should have been allocated to his superior, Judge Haeng – and the energy of a much younger man. He also has a spiritual advisor, the normally dormant Yeh Ming, a long-deceased village shaman. Late in life, besides his association with Yeh Ming, Dr. Siri has developed the ability to see spirits from The Otherworld. They lead him into and out of danger, with unpredictability as their hallmark.

Within the purview of entertainment, not academic disquisition, Colin Cotterill does a good job of representing the Hmong culture, which has survived turmoil, war, and displacement throughout the years. Dr. Siri comes face to face with the hidden and disenfranchised Hmong when his vehicle is attacked and he is taken hostage. His captors are generous, kind, and need his spiritual help. This is in stark contrast to the obligatory party mission he was on when he was captured. It was, ironically, to show how safe travel in Laos had become under the new regime, and it was in the company of sullen and disagreeable Party members.

While Dr. Siri is attempting to restore spiritual balance to the war-reduced population of one Hmong community, his loyal friends and assistants (Nurse Dtui, fiancée Daeng, policeman Phossy, retired Party power player Civilai, and morgue worker Geung) are fighting a terrorist plot in Vientiane.

Cotterill writes with humor and respect for the culture that was and with insight about the unsettled politics of the time. Despite the slightly fantastical terrorist plot (as if seeing spirits weren't fantastical!) in this book, I have found that time has not diminished Cotterill's ability to entrance and illuminate. This is still one of the best mystery series, and one I love to recommend.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Four Courts Murder, by Andrew Nugent (c2005)

I wish this book were more readily available. Unfortunately, in the U.S., we must scrounge up the few used St. Martin's hardcovers floating around.

Andrew Nugent was an Irish lawyer and he is now an Irish monk. This is a terrific, well-written book that mostly deals with law, but also has a monk peripherally thrown in for good measure. That's an author using what he knows!

Denis Lennon and Molly Powers are police detectives in Dublin. They are charged with figuring out who murdered Judge Piggott in his chambers in the Four Courts. The honorable judge, they discover, was not always on the right side of the law, nor was he particularly honorable. They slowly uncover the layers of Piggott's life and meet the unsavory and confused characters who populate the judge's world.

It is not so much the plot that charms, although it is quite absorbing, but the writing, the characters, and the human sensibility that underlies the story. These transcend what is usually offered in the mystery genre.

Here is an excerpt, which was chosen at random and that's possible because he's that good:

"Irish people love going to law. In some parts of the country, one routinely sues one's neighbor every few years. At appropriate intervals, one's neighbor sues one back. It is the done thing."

And again:

"Unfortunately, so to speak, the infant plaintiff herself had suffered no ill effects [of cockroaches in baby food] whatsoever. Indeed, on the evidence of a bugs-and-beetles professor produced by the manufacturers of the baby food, cockroaches are perfectly harmless, full of protein, and probably quite palatable. The professor [who was testifying], who looked strangely like a beetle himself, even suggested that mothers could do worse than to feed their babies on cockroaches all the time."

Finally:

"The local farmers were anything but enthusiastic about the Holy Family Halting Site [for Gypsy encampments], and were nothing comforted when legitimate complaints were received with homiletic references to the hard-hearted innkeepers of Bethlehem. The scriptural allusion was not only insulting it was also counterproductive, reminding the stout farmers of the midlands that, if they did not particularly relish seeing 'tinkers' in their local pubs by day, they absolutely hated like hell finding them in their stables in the middle of the night."

Not bad for random picks.

Scrounge and scour to find a copy!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Capitol Offense, by Mike Doogan ($7.99)

Carolyn picked Skeleton Lake by Mike Doogan as one of her best of the year picks. She was adamant that his Nik Kane books, of which Skeleton Lake is the third, needed to be read in order. Unfortunately, Lost Angel, the first in the series, is out of print -- what was his publisher thinking? After having read Capitol Offense, second in the series, I understand Carolyn's caveat. Doogan builds so much on what happened before that it would be nice to be able to read the series in sequence. I have to say, though, that it appears that Doogan does an admirable job bringing the reader up to date, so no serious plot elements are lost. But also, Doogan, if this book is any indication, likes cliff-hangers. Woe betide the reader if the answer appears before the question! (Author Don Winslow was very good at the cliff-hanger ending in his Neal Carey series, a series I miss very much because it, too, is out of print!)

Nik Kane is an ex-cop, ex-con (exonerated, of course) and tough guy P.I. in Alaska. Because of character defects (wonderfully delineated by Doogan towards the end of Capitol Offense) and absence on the homefront when he was in prison, Kane's personal life has fallen apart. When Kane is hired to investigate the arrest of a state senator for murdering a legislative aide, he takes the opportunity of being sent to Juneau from his home in Anchorage to tentatively re-establish his relationship with his near-adult son, who has been working in Juneau.

There are all sorts of hot political issues brought to the fore, including oil taxes and official imprimatur of gay unions, and they are presented with authority. That is not surprising, since author Doogan is also a state representative in Alaska. His fictional analysis of Alaskan politics is fascinating.

There are all sorts of characters involved in helping to solve the murder. We meet a mysterious young widow of an influential old guy, her massive Inupiat assistant/bodyguard, a power-behind-the-scenes Anchorage police chief, a weaselly governor, an ex-wife, an alienated son, a Native cab driver who is Kane's all-P.I.-mysteries-have-to-have-one sidekick, some bad guys, some "badder" guys, a caricature of a defense lawyer, a silent client, a talkative and attractive young legislative aide, and millions of other characters I've left out. Everyone Kane meets has a story, and we hear at least a soupçon of it, or she has a tic, which we get to see. Sometimes it seems overwhelming to keep the players straight, but it's all good in the end.

At the end, Doogan waxes his most philosophical and lyrical. That's where he shows his readers the money. There are times at the beginning when his writing seems trite, incorporating wisecracks or P.I. quirks already worked by other authors. But the action and writing ratchet up as the book goes along, and in the end I loved it. Including the cliff-hanger.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

This Is Not a Game, by Walter Jon Williams ($7.99)

For a 462-page book, this is a pretty fast read, because Walter Jon Williams does a great job of moving this action-based thriller along. One of the underlying concepts is complex, but Williams doesn't let that stand in his way of writing a good tale. He distills what readers need to know into digestible packets and lets it rip.

Gamers writing gaming thrillers sometimes lose the essence of what makes a story readable and instead create an RPG (role playing game) script. (If you didn't grok that last sentence, then, tautologically speaking, that showcases my point.) Williams proves that a good writer can make obscure subjects understandable.

Dagmar Shaw has been working for a long time as an event producer for Charlie, one of her Caltech college buddies who hit it big as a software mogul. Another friend, Austin, is a venture capitalist and is involved in the same computer world. Dagmar creates scripts that allow people from all over the world to follow on-line adventures and interactively solve puzzles.

In a heart-thumping start to the novel, Dagmar finds herself stranded in Indonesia on her way back to her home in L.A. from India, after staging the denouement of one of her adventures. Indonesia is destabilizing because the government has had financial difficulties, and transportation out of the country is difficult. When more traditional methods of escape fail, Dagmar surprisingly is helped by the effective and efficient on-line gamers who have been fans of her adventures.

Upon her return to the U.S., Dagmar launches another adventure, but it is complicated by more intrusions from the real world. Austin is murdered by what appears to be a hired assassin. Then Charlie begins to make odd requests for modifying the adventure. In combination with personal complications, including the appearance of two of her ex-suitors, Dagmar reluctantly becomes involved in figuring out how to clear up real world problems through the use of her game.

I'm going to use that word again: surprise. It was a pleasant surprise to find a realistic female character who didn't feel it necessary to be a superwoman or to compete with the big boys, but who turned out to be brave and resourceful despite her self-doubts. (I don't mean this to be an insult to Mr. Williams, but rather, I think that it's always a surprise when a good female character pops up.)

This book provided a great balance to the books I'm currently (and slowly) reading: 2666 by Robert Bolano and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem.