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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Slash and Burn, by Colin Cotterill (hardcover, $25)(due 12/6/11)

Colin Cotterill's books starring Dr. Siri Paiboun have been among our most recommended at the store. Dr. Siri is a coroner in 1970s Communist Laos. Actually, Dr. Siri is Laos' ONLY coroner. He gets into plenty of political and criminal hot water because of his irreverent attitude and acute observations, some of which are not of this world. It sometimes helps and sometimes hurts that he can see ghosts. One particular soul who haunts Siri is an ancient Hmong shaman. The books have humor and warmth, they speak about a time and locale that are beyond the personal knowledge of most of Cotterill's readers, and they also incorporate serious political and cultural issues that affected Southeast Asia at the time.

So it was with great sadness that I read the announcement that this would be the last Dr. Siri book.

Slash and Burn is not as brilliant as Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, its immediate predecessor, but it constitutes a fond enough farewell to Siri.

A MIA U.S. helicopter pilot who worked for Air America (now widely accepted as a CiA/drug-running outfit) is the subject of a search by a joint U.S./Lao group. Ten years after his helicopter crashed, there is evidence that he might still be alive. Dr. Siri is roped into being a member of the team. He, in turn, ropes his wife, morgue colleagues, and best friend into accompanying him. The flamboyant, psychic, and cross-dressing Auntie Bpoo sneaks aboard. She claims she's there to prevent Siri's death, which she has foreseen on her psychic channel.

After a helicopter trip into the remote area where the investigation will begin, after truck rides in which no rut or pothole is left unfelt, after figuring out how the U.S. and Laotian sides will communicate, and especially after a murder occurs, Siri and his gang realize this will be a real busman's holiday.

Goodbye to the intuitive and wise Dr. Siri. Goodbye to his gun-toting, ex-rebel, noodle-making wife Daeng. Goodbye to competent Nurse Dtui and her macho police officer husband Phosy. Goodbye to sweet, mentally challenged morgue attendent Geung. Goodbye to sarcastic former politico Civilai. Goodbye to Ugly, the dog Siri discovers and adopts in this book; we hardly knew ye. Goodbye, even, to weasley Judge Haeng, Siri's incompetent nemesis. But it's not goodbye to Colin Cotterill.

Recently released Killed at the Whim of a Hat was Cotterill's first non-Siri book. It, too, is a winner and has the same lovely blend of humor and seriousness. Nevertheless, we can all have a group hug and together shuffle over to the Kleenex box.*

* A pop culture reference to the last scene in the last episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," still one of the funniest sad scenes ever.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Murder in the 11th House, by Mitchell Scott Lewis ($14.95)

There are many interesting things about this book, including an unusual astrologer/detective and his crusading lawyer daughter. However, there's also a disconcerting mixture of mostly polite talk with a lot of incongruous heavy-duty swearing. David Lowell, the astrologer, is a beer connoisseur à la Nero Wolfe, prickly personality, gentleman, and aikido black belt. His daughter's client is quick-tempered Joanna "Johnny" Colbert, a foul-mouthed bartender accused of murdering a judge. 

Reasons to keep reading: Johnny has a gambling problem, so there's an interesting and sobering aside on the mechanics of gambling addiction. I quite enjoyed the fact that Lowell is wealthy, and he made his money in the stock market by using astrology. There are spots of humor, especially with Lowell's secretary, and they were good touches.

Things that make you close your eyes: Johnny develops a crush on the much older and more sophisticated Lowell, and there's an awkward moment or two as his daughter, Melinda, seems to sanction it. Although the book is written in the third person, the only character who is fleshed out is Lowell. It's classic amateur sleuthing meets political thriller meets My Fair Lady, and the mishmash is dizzying.

There's a lot of potential for turning this into an interesting series. Had Johnny's swearing not been so graphically portrayed, the story would have been smoother and better defined. Or, conversely, maybe everyone else should have been harder-boiled.

The Clairvoyant Countess, by Dorothy Gilman ($6.99) (c1975)

With books toppling over on my nightstand and bookshelves, why did I grab this book? I know I'd read it years ago, but I didn't remember anything about it. Dorothy Gilman and Rex Stout are my "comfort food" authors. Their stories raise my spirits and entertain me. It's a guilty pleasure to which I succumbed.

Dorothy Gilman is better known for her Mrs. Pollifax stories, but she's written quite a few stand-alones for adults and children. Mrs. P is the calm center in her stories, and in The Clairvoyant Countess, it's Madame Karitska, a psychic, who holds the center together.

The book contains a series of vignettes, starring Madame Karitska and her reluctant believer, Lt. Pruden of the Trafton, New Jersey, police. She can tell the future, see the dead, find missing objects and people, and always lands on her feet.

This work is a little dated, referring to hippies and modest gang activity in an urban setting. There's an innocence attached to how Lt. Pruden begins to rely on the psychic and in how Madame Karitska's flamboyant background is portrayed.

In the end, it's just good fun, with interesting characters in simpler times.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Interview of Gary McKinney at Murder by the Book - 11/19/11

Washington author Gary McKinney stopped by one rainy afternoon to talk about his new book, Darkness Bids the Dead Goodbye (Kearney Street Books, $14.95).

Before he uttered a word about his book, Gary strapped on a guitar and sang a Grateful Dead song.* This was a "grate" introduction to his series hero who is a Deadhead. Gavin Pruitt is also the sheriff of a small town, a soon-to-be grandfather, and a soon-to-be father. What in Gary's background could have produced such a meld of stories?

Gary has a Masters in Creative Writing and played music professionally for several years. That's the short answer.

The long answer involves much of Gary's background story. How is Pruitt like him? Gary, too, grew up in an area much like what Sheriff Pruitt patrols. Pruitt's Grateful Dead and sensory deprivation tank interests are Gary's as well, but Pruitt is more intense and has a temper. Gary "wouldn't personally be good at" what Pruitt does. And Pruitt is starting over with his life (e.g., his child-in-waiting), and Gary contentedly isn't.

Was Gary one of the bad boys in town while growing up? No, more of a "geek-wuss," he says, laughing. In fact, he found it difficult to write the part of the killer. It "creeped me out," he says. About his town while he was growing up, Gary says, "It wasn't art and literature; it was beer and fights." 

Gary's gentleness has infused Sheriff Pruitt with an optimism that is at odds with his job dealing with the evil that people can do to themselves and others. Pruitt "expects the worst but hopes for the best," Gary says.

Gary's evident sense of humor inserts itself into his books. He "wants the reader to get a few chuckles." It is a balance of humor and seriousness that he hopes will engage his audience. He says, "There should be a little bit of everything!"

That's why he may have brought back Angela, whom he had "fallen in love with as a character." Her outrageous behavior in Slipknot, the first book in his series, was too good to leave out of the second. Moving her next door to the sheriff lightened the more serious main story of a brutal murder.

How did Gary make his female characters believable? The rest of the members of his writer's group is all women. They have kept him on a realistic course. "He's a feminist-humanist," shouted a friend who had joined the get together. Good credentials.

The world of Sheriff Pruitt seems so far away from the life of Gary McKinney. How does he manage the technical details of his story? He has his stories vetted by a member of the Bellingham PD and by his friend, fellow author Robert Lopresti.

Gary works to keep his books real. He says that he has learned "what not to put in." Because the sheriff's town and the sheriff's character are so clear to him, it's "almost impossible" not to have the story be visual. (That will help if Hollywood ever comes knocking!) 

There are some funny things from Gary and his wife's lives that he can still draw from. If you spot a muscular red Mustang car in one of his books, it's because his wife's parents owned one. Both Gary and Karen gave credible impressions of teenage girls flirting with the machine, only to be eventually surprised (and disappointed) to see Karen's mother at the wheel!

Next up for Gary is some research into hunting, because that's what Sheriff Pruitt is going to have to know for his next adventure. Gary is working to keep Pruitt from becoming jaded. No chance of that.

*Gary played three songs, each of which told a story. Ergo, Gary is a storyteller no matter what his venue.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley ($15)

Although Alan Bradley has just released #4 in the series, here I am just finishing #2. On the one hand, I am pleased to have two more to look forward to; and on the other hand, I'm anxious to get caught up. Especially since the two remaining have such cool names: A Red Herring Without Mustard and I Am Half-Sick of Shadows.

Speaking of cool names, the 11-year-old heroine is named Flavia de Luce. Her family is blue-blooded, her home is a mansion in rural England, and she is for all intents and purposes alone in the world. Yes, she has a father, but he's distant, shell-shocked, on the verge of losing his holdings. Yes, Flavia has two older sisters, but they take every opportunity to let her know that she's a pest, not wanted, and being shipped off to a Home at the earliest opportunity. Flavia's hobby is creating poisons in her home laboratory.

It is 1950, which the author lets the reader figure out from a couple of hints in the first few pages. (Sorry if I've spoiled your fun.) Flavia meets a famous puppeteer and his assistant when their van breaks down in her small village of Bishop's Lacey. When Rupert Porson, the puppeteer, dies, Flavia succeeds in figuring out, à la Sherlock Holmes, that it was murder. Flavia tracks down Rupert's connection to the little village, which then opens up the field as far as murder suspects go.

Flavia is charming, eccentric, and knowledgeable beyond her years. Yet she is still an 11-year-old child, and her heart yearns for her dead mother, kindness from others, and a grace that is missing from her life.

Although it's a grown-up murder with grown-up reasons and repercussions, the narrator is refreshingly young. She deals with the difficulties in her life as best she can.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An interview of Dana Haynes - 11/17/11

Portland author Dana Haynes stopped by Murder by the Book to discuss himself and his new book, Breaking Point, the follow-up to the successful Crashers.

The downside of becoming better known and in demand by the media is that one's name isn't always spelled right. Dana Haynes has morphed into "Dana Hayes" in Connecticut and the dreaded "Donna Hines" in Italy. It turns out he is all for getting his name out there, no matter what the form.

Speaking of the Italian language release of his book, when Haynes first received a copy, he didn't realize what it was and thought he had suffered a stroke because he couldn't read the words. He has since become relaxed enough to enjoy the Italian trailer for his book, despite being a little disconcerted by the Italian villain's maniacal laugh sounding strangely like Kermit the Frog's.

It's easy to be entertained by Haynes' easy-going demeanor and self-deprecating humor. In fact, he jumped up and unabashedly re-created the "happy dance" he did when he heard his publisher wanted two further books about Daria Gibron, his Lisbeth Salander-like character in his series. But humor is not what his books are about.

Both Crashers and Breaking Point are stories about the laborious and detailed forensic work done by National Transportation Safety Board crash teams – "CSI" for airplanes. Haynes' background as a journalist gave him the discipline to do the required research to factually represent what goes on at an airplane crash site investigation. He takes great pains to point out, however, that real crash investigations go on for months, even years, whereas his stories are resolved within days.

Humor does manage to sneak in sometimes as a way to segue between the complicated technical scenes, the crazy killer scenes, and the human interplay. Tommy Tomzak especially is a good old Texas boy with a wry sense of the absurd.

Haynes acknowledges that creating the huge number of protagonists and antagonists in his books was a "dumb way to write." He says, "No one would have done it intentionally," but that's what these over-the-top disaster books needed. There are many people with their own little area of expertise who comprise a real-life crash team, and Haynes' fictional team mirrors that. The characters' names and curricula vitae written on butcher block paper taped to kitchen cabinets helps keep things straight, especially when viewed with a morning cup of coffee.

One of his more fascinating characters is Kiki Duvall. She has an acute sense of hearing and an uncanny intuition when things don't sound right. For instance, she notices nuances in accents and speech patterns that escape the rest of us, and can tell where someone is from, à la Henry Higgins. Haynes refers to Jonathan Harr's "The Crash Detectives," a 1996 The New Yorker article, the inspiration for Haynes' books. In the article, Harr mentions an investigator who could determine amazing details of a crash by listening to ticking sounds on a recording. Duvall is modeled after that investigator.

In an interesting aside, Haynes says that he has read of examiners being able to determine what was showing on the flight deck monitors at the time of the crash by what the break pattern is on the light bulbs. Hot bulbs break differently than cold bulbs. That's an example of the material yet to be mined for his future books. Not that Haynes has trouble writing. His years as a journalist taught him how to write copiously under pressure. As any reporter knows, there's "no writer's block, just unemployment."

Of course, Haynes vets his books before they're published, but there is inevitable scrutiny by people who know about crashes – and some who think they know about crashes. The kind of plane that crashes in Breaking Point is a figment of Haynes' imagination. Nevertheless, one reader insisted that Haynes did not depict the plane accurately. "But I invented the damn thing," he says, shaking his head. He acknowledges that he does use literary license in some cases – not the least of which is the aforementioned foreshortening of the investigative timeframe.

Haynes was published by Bantam when he was 21-year-old, along with literary contemporaries Sue Grafton and Robert Crais. Unlike Grafton and Crais, he was dropped after a run of three books. A lengthy dryspell followed, although Haynes wrote the entire time. He got his hopes up when a publisher showed interest in an older rendition of Crashers, that book about terrorists in New York and a plane crash. His timing was awful, however, as this was shortly before 9/11. Obscurity followed again. After knowing the ups and downs of being an author, Haynes is enjoying each minute now. He works at tweeting, blogging, and whatever else his publisher wants. "If they wanted me to do sock puppets, I'd do it," he says.

Breaking Point, by Dana Haynes (hardcover, $24.99)

Dana Haynes' first book, Crashers -- the nickname used for the National Transportation Safety Board's team of investigators of airplane crashes -- brought a quirky but brilliant group of individuals together for an investigation in Portland. We met pathologist Tommy Tomzak, sharp-eared Kiki Duvall, and pilot Isaiah Grey, the core of that crash team. This time around, they are passengers in the plane that crashes in a forest in Montana. Turnabout is not fair play.

Haynes informs us that it is not unusual for real-life crash teams to have different configurations each time. Members are drawn from experts all over the country, depending on who is closest and available, and Haynes' fictional team is no exception. New faces with new talents pop up to help. However, Peter Kim, the pain-in-the-heinie from Crashers, is the Investigator in Charge this time. Gulp.

Further hindering the dream team is the fact that tiny-but-tough Susan Tanaka is on a rare vacation, so she isn't in charge of enabling the investigation either on-site or in D.C. By-the-book Peter as the IIC is missing the elusive creative factor needed to solve the mystery of the crash. It's a good thing the NTSB survivors -- ostracized by Kim -- form an unauthorized shadow team.

FBI agent Ray Calabrese and mysterious ex-Israeli agent Daria Gibron are also back and join our heroes. 

A silver-haired mercenary, nicknamed Calendar, caused the crash. One can only think that his benign-sounding name represents the clock ticking and time running out. Will the forest fire started by the plane crash destroy all the evidence? Why was Calendar hired to destroy the plane? Will the primary go-team stumble on the truth? Will the shadow go-team find Calendar before he kills them? Are Calendar's days numbered?

The combination of main team, shadow team, double-crossers, and double-double-crossers puts a lot of players up front, but Haynes does an outstanding job sorting them out.

This is a page-turner that will put a blister on your finger.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Buyer's Remorse, by Lori L. Lake (paperback, $19.95)

Lori Lake is a seasoned writer and teacher, and her ability to create an interesting story is apparent in Buyer's Remorse. Her writing shows impeccable plotting and research.

Leona "Leo" Reese is a 33-year-old police patrol sergeant who has been sidelined temporarily, at least she hopes it's temporary. She's failed a shooting qualification test and has been reassigned as an investigator to the Department of Human Services, the state's watchdog many institutions, including independent living facilities. When an older woman suffering from Alzheimer's is murdered in such a facility, Leo finds herself back in the police business.

At the same time, other aspects of Leo's life are in a whirl. Her partner Daria is a criminal defense attorney. With Leo's unwanted work reassignment and Daria's long hours preparing for an important trial, there's a lot of stress at home. Add to the mix the blinding headaches that Leo has been getting, the reason, it turns out, that Leo has failed her shooting test. It's almost a blessing that Leo can focus on the murder and less on what has been happening to her personally. "'Welcome to the International House of Zombies,'" Daria says at one point.

Eleanor Sinclair doesn't see the blessing in the situation, however. It is her partner, Callie, who has been murdered. Although Eleanor is capable of living independently outside of a facility, she retired from teaching high school and took a room at the Rivers' Edge Apartments, which "is nowhere near any rivers or edges," to be close to her companion of 40 years. Who would want to kill a retired high school cook with no money to speak of? 

It is easy to be drawn to the characters of Leo and Eleanor as they struggle through both their personal problems and catching Callie's killer. They are both independent women with a large capacity for empathy, no doubt the reason both were good at and satisfied with their jobs.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny ($14.99) (c2010)

Louise Penny gets better and better. Bury Your Dead still is infused with Penny's signature quiet style and subtle movements, but she again has added more depth to her characters and plot. Only one of her three storylines takes place in the quirky village of Three Pines, although there is some intertwining.

At the end of her prior novel, The Brutal Telling, one of the resident eccentric characters of Three Pines has been imprisoned for murder. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, our thoughtful and cast-against-type hero -- he is often described as resembling a professor more than a police chief -- has reconsidered whether the prisoner (pardon my cagey reluctance to name the prisoner in case some of you may not have read the book) in fact is guilty. He sends Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second-in-command, to surreptitiously investigate. Since Three Pines is a small village, there's not much that can occur surreptitiously, but Beauvoir attempts to stick out less like a sort thumb than a numb pinkie as he revisits the residents he not-so-secretly considers irritating and provocative. Once again, he looks over the life, such as it was, of "The Hermit," the murder victim, and what relationships he may have had with the townspeople.

Why isn't Gamache himself reviewing the case? He is in Quebec City visiting his mentor, retired detective Émile Comeau, and recovering from physical and psychological wounds received in a police action gone wrong. (Jean-Guy also was a victim of the same action and he uses his recovery as an excuse to visit Three Pines.) The mysterious case that devastated Gamache is slowly revealed throughout the book. One of his young detectives, Paul Morin, had been kidnapped and his captors were threatening to kill him if Gamache and his remaining team could not locate his whereabouts. This story slips in and out of the other narratives without warning. One minute you are reading about the Three Pines investigation, then suddenly you realize you are listening to the inner ruminations of Beauvoir about that case.

The third story is about the death of Augustin Renaud in Quebec City. Although Gamache is on leave and Comeau is retired, they both become involved in helping to solve his murder. Renaud was a true eccentric, a Quixote trying to find the burial site of Quebec's founder and leading light, Samuel de Champlain. (It is a true story that Champlain's final resting place is unknown.) In Penny's fictional universe, Renaud, a Francophone (French-speaking Quebec resident), is found dead in the sub-basement of the Historical and Literary Society's Library, the bastion of the Anglophones (English-speaking) in the tight inner world of Quebec City. This allows Penny to give us an interesting aside on separatist issues. It competes satisfyingly with Penny's interesting asides on Quebec's history and community activities. Mystery and travelogue in one!

We meet many new characters who are associated with the Lit and His, as it is known. It is run by the English -- so-called because they speak English, even though they may also speak French fluently and have families who've resided in Quebec for generations. During his leave, Gamache has been using the library to research a historical question that has interested him, so he is virtually on-site when the murder occurs. His familiarity with the Lit and His people gives him a special insight into the difficult relationship they had with Renaud.

The resolutions to all three cases are stunning. Penny eases us into her story and gradually steps up the tension, until she ties up the ends with a bang and whump.

MBTB has awarded a star to Bury Your Dead.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis (hardcover, $24)

Yes, this book is about a boy in a suitcase.

Denmark has entered the race for the next golden book to come out of Scandinavia. There's not a dysfunctional detective in sight in this thriller. Rather, our heroine is a dysfunctional nurse. She wants to save the world -- the reason becomes a little clearer as the book progresses -- and fate gives her the opportunity to include one little boy stuffed in a suitcase.

As is so prevalent these days, the book begins with several storylines which, we hope, will eventually untangle into one story. Sigita, a young mother in Lithuania, awakens in a hospital with a broken arm. She is told that she was massively drunk and fell down the stairs, and her little boy is with her ex-husband. But, wait! Sigita is a sober, responsible person and her son is not with her ex-husband. Back in Copenhagen, Nina Borg, the dysfunctional nurse, is currently working in a Red Cross center with illegal immigrants. She gets a desperate call from an old friend, who eventually asks Nina to retrieve a suitcase from a locker.

So we assume that the boy Nina finds in the suitcase in Copenhagen  is probably the little boy Sigita is missing in Lithuania. But why is he in Denmark? Nina does not call the police for help. It was hard to swallow her reasoning. (The boy is an illegal immigrant and he might be put into "the system" and never heard from again.) Nevertheless, she soldiers on and tries to find out the child's identity herself. Beginning with her friend Karin, the woman who sent her on the quest, seems like the best place to start. It puts the problem at a different level when Nina finds Karin murdered.

Sigita is having her own problem in getting people to believe that her son is really missing. It's her background story that is the most touching and interesting in the book.

In order to enjoy the book and find the ending clever, you must accept that one of the characters is capable of extreme heartlessness. However, if you've accepted that it was okay that Nina didn't call the police, then, hey, you'll have no problem with this. In the end, I did find the book enjoyable and the ending clever. A big part of why I found the book readable was the competent translation. The story was smooth without awkward phrasing. So here's to one of the authors who translated her own story, Lene Kaaberbøl.

1222, by Anne Holt (hardcover, $25) (due 12/11)

I knew I would like this book when our at-first anonymous narrator, confined to a wheelchair and injured in a train accident, is attended by a dwarf physician. Anne Holt writes, "His voice was surprisingly deep. I had expected some kind of helium voice, as if he were an entertainer at a children's party."

This is the eighth Hanne Wilhelmsen story but the first to be translated into English from Norwegian. It really doesn't matter that we haven't read the other seven, a statement I don't make too often because usually, especially this far into a series, our understanding is contingent on some preceding adventure. Holt slowly introduces Hanne, a retired police detective, and this teasing introduction actually serves the story well.

A once-in-a-hundred-years snowstorm derails a train and traps 268 people, including Hanne, in an out-of-the-way hotel, Finse 1222. They are rats in a maze with no foreseeable reward. Although the snow does its best to quickly bury the hotel, it is not quite quick enough to totally bury the body of a murdered "guest" before it is discovered. The victim is a "televangelist," who is well known to many of the other detainees.

Holt's selection of unorthodox characters to populate the hotel is captivating. Each one of the highlighted people encapsulates a mini-mystery.

Kari Thue, "the woman with a voice as sharp as the parting in her thin hair," is an aggressive television personality, one who has some deep-seated racial prejudices, currently aimed like laser beams at two putative Muslims trapped with everyone else. In a display of pack mentality, she draws similarly narrow-minded people to her, and they stridently demand the impossible.

Adrian, a fifteen-year-old boy, is someone Hanne wants to protect, but he falls under the sway of black-clad, Goth-visaged Veronica.

Magnus Treng, the dwarf physician, Berit Tverre, the hotel manager who must rise to the occasion and organize the storm's hostages, and Geir Rugholmen, the man who appears to be a backwoodsman but is actually a lawyer, are the people upon whom Hanne relies.

Hanne is less a movable character than a stationary narrator. Her handicap limits her to the lobby of the hotel. Although she is still familiar with police procedure, she is reluctant to investigate. The police are coming soon; they will solve the crime easily, she thinks. As the storm rages on far longer than expected, we watch death after death occur, with no discernible movement on Hanne's part to figure out why. Holt builds this tension to an excruciating point. Several times I silently willed Hanne to metaphorically leap up and frisk people, search rooms, haul them in one by one to be interrogated. So "Law and Order"-ish of me, so American, so wrong. Even though we see things through Hanne's first-person narrative, we are never privy to her real thoughts, a clever device, as it turns out.

In the end we learn that this reluctance is what now defines Hanne. After she was shot and paralyzed, she entered some sort of purgatorial waiting room:
I thought I had swapped one life for another. After these days at Finse, it struck me that I had actually swapped a vital, ambitious life for an existence in waiting.
Clever Holt serves up a little existential drama along with a murder mystery.

There's a subplot that swirls around occasionally. A mysterious extra car was added onto the train. Rumor has it that it is a royal carriage. Indeed, the occupants of the last car are surreptitiously bundled into the hotel and hidden from sight. There are armed bodyguards, even. 

If you need a reference point, then Lord of the Flies meets And Then There Were None, perhaps. Holt and translator Marlaine Delargy present an interesting and well-written book, one that truly can stand alone, despite being the eighth in a series.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Call Me Princess, by Sara Blaedel (hardcover, $25)

This is the second book in Sara Blaedel's series starring Assistant Detective Louise Rick of the Copenhagen police but the first one to be translated into English.

It's a plainly written book, heavy on police procedures. "Law and Order," Danish style, with swearing. Louise is a pretty smart cookie about everything except her personal life. She is on the trail of a particularly nasty serial rapist. We meet her team of detectives, and they fill the requisite spots: sympathetic, collegial, brutish, alpha dog, confused. Her clueless boyfriend and self-absorbed best friend round out the main characters.

The plot is okay and I like how Blaedel worked the title into the story, but the writing and/or translation is a little stilted. I always want to love the Scandinavians, but sometimes it's hard to feel the love.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Edinburgh Dead, by Brian Ruckley ($14.99)

Caution: Although I don't truly give anything away -- until the section marked "Spoiler" -- if you want to be surprised by Edinburgh Dead, don't read this review until after you've read the book.

One advantage to reading advanced reading copies is that there's no dustjacket summary to give away the plot. There were suspicions of what the book would eventually turn out to emphasize, but until the first full-blown genre-defining scene a third of the way through the book, I thought it would be a tiger of another stripe.

Brian Ruckley does an impressive job creating both suspenseful literary atmosphere and a historical sense of what Edinburgh was like during the early 1800s. He describes the violence of the times as well as transmits a subtle sense of the underlying menace that is the eventual subject of the book.

It isn't until a third way into the book that what has been hinted at finally is voiced, and not until half-way through the book that we get a real scene. To Ruckley's credit, he doesn't make it campy but keeps his voice relatively restrained and historical, not hysterical or histrionic.

Our hero Quire, an Edinburgh police officer, is interesting because he is bendable but not bent. He tries to stay away from his prostitute girlfriend. He tries to play the game at work. He doesn't manage either very successfully.

What Quire does do is get involved with the "resurrectionists," grave robbers who supply dead bodies to the medical schools and anatomists. Soon he spots anomalies, people who aren't what they should be, people who aren't where they should be.

If you've read this review so far but haven't actually read the book, here is a second chance to stop. Following this are some real spoilers. Really, read the book (but not the dustjacket). It's good.

So. Zombies. In many ways this book set in 1800s Edinburgh was scarier and more thrilling than a book set in contemporary times with its flamethrowers, ninja sticks, cellphones, nuclear weapons, and stainless steel swords. Shades of Boris Karloff, the zombie gravedigger and zombie dogs were chilling.

Despite several close calls, Quire manages to evade true peril. Even when he confronts the various villains, he has the upper hand and is never captured. One part of me said, "Whew," and another said, why not? Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this "speculative fiction," as Ruckley has branded it. To me, it was less speculative fiction than a supernatural period piece.