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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Snow Angels, by James Thompson ($14)(c2009)

James Thompson is an ex-American who married a Finnish woman and has lived in Finland for a decade. His character, Kari Vaara, is a Finnish policeman married to an American woman, Kate. Not surprisingly, then, Kate's voice is clear and touching. Her frustration with an alien environment and difficult language vies with her determination to succeed and her love for Kari. Whether it's Thompson's story, too, is not relevant because he gets Kate's character just right. But her story is a sidebar to the grim and gruesome main plot.

An immigrant Somali actress is found butchered in a snowfield on a reindeer farm in the small community in the Arctic Circle where Kari and Kate live. There is an obvious suspect, Kari's first wife's boyfriend, the man for whom she left Kari. However, he refuses to recuse himself from the case and the complications multiply when other people Kari knows, including his father, might be involved. The plot was fine, the characters were interesting, and even the present tense writing didn't jar me as much as I thought it would, but there was something missing for me. I thought there were several occasions when it was unnecessarily gruesome. It didn't advance the plot, it wasn't an essential element of the murderer's character, it was distracting. Thompson's writing was fine, but it didn't elevate Kari's character to the next level. (I know, easy for a non-writer to say!)

The true gem to be found in this book is Thompson's presentation of the Finnish people. Although this mostly takes a look at the dark side of human nature, which is certainly not limited to Finland alone, Thompson does a great job giving us insight into what it must be like living in almost total darkness for a great swatch of the year. What cultural and psychological adjustments must people have to make to get along?

Peter Hoeg, author of Smilla's Sense of Snow, is quoted as saying that Snow Angels is "fast, brutal," and that about sums it up. (I can hear the movie cameras charging up right now.)

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Shadow Walker, by Michael Walters ($7.99)(c2006)

This is a practically perfect first novel. It has an interesting setting (Mongolia), an enigmatic and intelligent hero (the single-named Nergui); and an intriguing, albeit gruesome, mystery.

Mongolia's population is partly nomadic. It is the second largest land-locked country, but one of the least densely populated. The Gobi Desert, the windswept steppes, and the harsh weather make it difficult for the country to sustain itself and its people. However, it does have considerable mineral resources, and Mongolia must enter into a devil's pact with other countries to mine these resources in order to survive. Now let's drop a mystery into this setting.

Nergui was once Head of the Serious Crimes Team of the Ulan Baatar police department. His competence and incorruptibility forced him out of that job and into a position with "The Ministry," a secretive security and intelligence organization. Although he has acquired more prestige, Nergui's head and heart are still with Serious Crimes. Nergui has the excuse he needs to become involved with the police again when a disturbing headless and handless corpse is discovered. Soon bodies are dropping like wingless flies, and one of them is a Brit.

Drew Macleish is sent from the UK, more in a pro forma capacity than in an investigative one, he thinks, to assist Nergui and Doripalam, the young man who took over Nergui's position with Serious Crimes. We see a lot of the events through Macleish's innocent eyes. He also provides the vehicle through which Nergui explains the culture and political workings of his country.

Together Nergui, Doripalam, and Macleish investigate the bizarre crimes, scouring the scenes for clues, and coming up empty-handed. When some of the corpses can't even be identified, it is hard to locate the killer or the motive. Then a police officer becomes a victim. In tracing his itinerary, the three men find a trail to a resort in the Gobi Desert. Apparently Mongolians like to escape to the Gobi to rest and relax, its vast emptiness soothing to them. Now foreign tourists also have discovered the attraction. Perhaps a killer, too, can be found in the unusual mix.

What I liked best about Michael Walters' writing is that he put in the human details that authors so often fail to include in their stories. It's these details that give us a sense that the characters could be real people. Even though it doesn't advance the story, people huff and puff as they walk the icy streets, they have to pee, their cups of coffee don't magically appear. But these details are not distracting or so numerous that they overwhelm the pacing of the story.

Although The Shadow Walker has the pacing of a thriller, Michael Walters makes it a story about people first and a howdunnit second. Nergui is accessible but mysterious at the same time. Macleish is humble and very real.

The ending aside (semi-spoiler issues listed below), I thought this was a wonderful and entertaining book.

**** Semi-spoiler****
This story is almost perfect. I have no quibble with the ending per se, but my dissatisfaction has to do with two of the characters who have a role in the resolution. One is a caricature, and Walters assiduously avoided the caricature throughout the preceding 99% of the story, so it was jarring. The other is the deus ex machina thumper of a rescue. That, too, was jarring because Walters did a great job explaining everything else. I know we're just supposed to say, "Oh, of course, that's really cool and mysterious, how James Bond-ish, that's what comes from having politically strange bedfellows." But Walters changed the rules in midstream and, as with horses, one can't really do that. Nevertheless, big stamp of approval!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Something From the Nightside, by Simon R. Green ($7.99)(c2003)

I'm a big fan of Jim Butcher's wizard/private-eye-in-Chicago series, so I thought I'd give Simon R. Green's Nightside series a try. It seemed to have a similar premise: a man solves clients' cases with a hard-boiled approach and a soupcon of woo-woo powers. Something From the Nightside is the first in the series, and I think I'd have to read more to give Green a fair evaluation. The first one was a little shaky. Green had too many "best if you don't ask/know/think about it" references. My imagination is not all that great that I could fill in the blanks myself about what I didn't want to know/etc. The love interest, Joanna, didn't seem all that appealing, but John Taylor (love this hiding-in-plain-sight name, no Sebastian Ignatius Spellcaster moniker for him!) is sunk up to his thyroid before you can say "blimey."

There were some great fantasy ideas, including the concept of "Nightside," an alternate dimension hiding behind the London we know. John Taylor is a man-with-some-mysterious-powerful-potential who chose to flee his home in Nightside and live in our dull but safe world. He has a talent for finding things, and that's what he does for a living. There are about 11 books in the series currently available in the U.S.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Eyes of the Innocent, by Brad Parks (hardcover, $24.99)(due 2/1/11)

Eyes of the Innocent gives us interesting characters, some witty dialogue, an intriguing plot, and a look behind the scenes of a troubled metropolitan newspaper -- but then which metropolitan newspaper isn't troubled?

In Newark, New Jersey, a house fire unfortunately has killed two young children. Carter Ross, investigative reporter for The Newark Eagle-Examiner, is assigned the story. He is reluctantly partnered with a bubbly, blonde, squeaky-clean intern, Lauren McMillan (aka "Sweet Thang"). Together they try to unravel why someone would want to torch this middle-class home. Despite a rocky start, sunny, optimistic Sweet Thang takes Akilah Harris, the boys' mother, under her wing. When Akilah steals Sweet Thang's jewelry and disappears, Carter figures that all is not what it seems.

About the same time a city councilman disappears. (As far as this subject seems to be from the arson storyline, you just KNOW that somehow it's related! The fun is watching Brad Parks bring it all together.) Newark is suffering from the ills that plague cities big and small: financial scams, loss of jobs, abandoned homes, tenements under siege. Something is fishy in Newark.

Along with Carter Ross' first-person narrative, an italicized story follows the exploits of a nasty character named Primo. Somehow he is mixed up in everything. Parks tells a great tale that speaks to the problems of the individual and the community. Carter Ross is funny and clever. Sweet Thang is a bubbly surprise. There are editors, relatives, and people on the street who enliven the book. Savor each character's individuality (and, in some cases, nuttiness).

Here are some quotes from the book:

"Szanto [an editor] had this look on his face I couldn't quite place. Just like Eskimos have fifty different words for snow, Szanto has at least that many pained expressions."

"General rule of thumb in journalism: if one of your key sources vanishes suspiciously, you're going to be busier than a paisley top with plaid pants."

Talking about a gay cop: "At work, he's so far in the closet you'd think he survives by eating hangers...."

Can you see why I enjoyed it?

Agent X, by Noah Boyd ($24.99)(c2011) due 2/11

Love may not necessarily be lovelier the second time around, and Steve Vail may not be more intriguing in this, his second outing as an ex-FBI-agent-then-bricklayer-now-pseudo-FBI-agent.

The Bricklayer, Noah Boyd's slam-bang first novel, was relentlessly paced, with clever puzzles and funny dialogue for maximum entertainment. The pacing dips in this one -- how could it possibly equal the first book in surprise and whoopee? -- and Vail is a little more macho, or his macho-ness is more noticeable (not a good thing). But, yes, I still found enjoyable moments in Agent X.

Kate Bannon, dedicated and proper FBI agent, and Vail sparked a tail-end romance in the first book. This book begins with the sizzle having mostly suffocated under a heavy load of expectations. Bannon is by-the-book and Vail threw the book away a long time ago. The only thing that could possibly bring Vail out of his second "retirement" from the Bureau is if Kate's life were threatened ... and a super-brainy villain called "Calculus" threatened to out some American moles in the Russian apparatus. So, voila! Kate is threatened and Vail is the only one who can discover the identity of Calculus.

Don't take it too seriously. Don't look for holes in the logic. Accept it for what it is.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Short Squeeze, by Chris Knopf (hardcover, $24.99)(c2009)

The meaning of the title isn't apparent until the end, at which time the reader can fully appreciate the double-entendre. And it's worthwhile getting to the end. This was a meaty story with a quirky, engaging character. However, Hamptons lawyer and young widow Jacquelyn Swaitkowski (née O'Dwyer) is definitely not cute and perky, so if that assumption was worming its way into your head, get it out. She smokes, lives in a pig sty, tokes a joint every now and then, and is pig-headedly stubborn. (Are you sensing a pig-related theme?)

When one thinks of the Hamptons, perhaps even if one lives there, one thinks of money, old money, mansions and leisure. And, sniff, the riff-raff should be quietly cutting grass or polishing cars. Or working as a real estate/criminal defense attorney. Having grown up and lived most of her adult life in the Hamptons, Jackie knows that there's more than the rich who inhabit Long Island's most exclusive area and that money certainly doesn't guarantee a classy attitude or philosophy. All this helps Jackie make a living.

Sergey Pontecello brings more than his real estate problem to Jackie's doorstep one day, but neither of them realizes it at the time. To Jackie, Sergey is someone who is trying to evict the annoying sister of his late wife from his home. Sister-in-law Eunice is claiming the home is hers and that Sergey is the interloper. Probably a simple enough case, Jackie thinks, until Sergey is murdered later that night.

Jackie's aforementioned pig-headedness steers her into the thick of things with visits to Eunice, Eunice's adult daughter and adopted son, undertakers, pathologists, police, and an ex- and maybe future boyfriend.

Chris Knopf, a man, dares to take on the persona of a woman and receives a standing-o from this reader. Jackie's not helpless but knows when to call for help. She's both book smart and people smart, which is what she needs to be to figure out who killed Sergey. While the main story is not light and fluffy, Knopf's humorous touches balance the ultimate sadness of this tale. Short Squeeze is a spin-off of Knopf's series with Hamptons carpenter Sam Aquillo, who lends a very occasional hand here.

It was also Knopf's snappy writing that kept me going after I read a few pages and was on the verge of putting the book down. Within the first few pages, Jackie is called to Sergey's crime scene to identify the body, which has no identification and only Jackie's business card in his pocket. Jackie views the body, throws up, and is sent home by her friendly police detective, all without apparently identifying the body. I get distracted by that sort of lack of internal consistency. How hard would it be to write, "I croaked, 'Sergey Pontecello,' before throwing up in the bushes." There were a couple of other things that seemed improbable, but after I got into the story, I didn't care and went with the flow.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Foreigner, by Francie Lin ($14) (c2008)

This book won the Edgar award for Best First Novel by an American Author. I agree with this choice.

Francie Lin's writing exceeds expectations. She could have just made her book about an American-Chinese adrift in Taiwan, lost between cultures, which it is. But Lin also contributes ethereal writing and a Kafka-esque sensibility.

Lin's strange names -- Emerson, Little P, Atticus, Grace, Angel, A -- indicate both what you should and should not expect from that character.

Emerson Chang is the narrator. He was born in the United States to immigrants from Taiwan. After his younger brother moved to Taipei and was seldom heard from again, Emerson became his mother's crutch and victim. At the age of forty, he is suspended in life, neither at rock bottom nor at the top. Unmarried, in fact a virgin, uninterested in breaking out of his cocoon, seeking an unfulfilled vision of "purity," and full of a passive-aggressive pity for himself, he first is shaken out of his stupor when his meddling mother dies of a stroke. His father, definitely for the worse, died a long time ago. His mission is to return his mother's ashes for burial in Taipei. His second burden is to divest himself of the repressed anger he feels when he finds his mother has left the family business, a motel, to his long-lost brother. He has lived his life in expectation of achieving freedom through being the best: the best son, the best lover, the best worker, but each expectation thuds to earth as the book reveals Emerson's metamorphosis during his Chinese journey.

What does it mean to be the American-born son of a Chinese immigrant? It means Emerson is caught between cultures, neither one of which is truly his. What does it mean when such a man goes back to the "homeland," whose language and culture he does not understand? It means Emerson's journey is odyssean with an unclear picture of what will emerge in the end.

Emerson easily finds Little P, his younger brother, who seems caught up in a criminal enterprise, the nature of which is not immediately clear. Is Little P victim or malefactor? When Emerson first finds him, Little P is sporting impressive injuries and asks repeatedly for money. As Emerson shadows him or openly travels with him, Little P seems to be in thrall to their uncle, their mother's brother. It is hard to believe Emerson's mother's rectitude could have fallen out of the same genetic stew that produced his unsavory uncle, whose sons are nicknamed "Poison" and "Big One" and who are equally as suspicious.

With the death of his mother, Emerson is no longer defined and he seeks Little P to help redefine himself, to redefine the notion of family, at the very least. Little P is dismissive and angry about Emerson's attempts. It is in seeking to learn what happened to Little P that Emerson meets and is aided by Atticus, an employee of his uncle. Atticus is over-qualified for his job as the uncle's bookkeeper. With discretion, the mysterious Atticus, who seems the model of integrity, tries to steer Emerson to a better understanding of the situation in Taipei. Angel is another Chinese-American, a young woman who has come to work in Taiwan. She is Emerson's angel and helps him out of precarious situations. Grace is a young Chinese woman who wants to learn better English to convince her American boyfriend, A, that she is worthy of his love. Of course, she is unobtainable to Emerson and he transforms her into his Beatrice.

The ultimate question is who is the foreigner? The over-wrought answer is that each of the main characters is in his or her own way. But I've already over-analyzed this book, so we're not going there. Emerson is truly a man without a country, a point pounded home when he loses his passport, or a culture. He doesn't understand his mother, his brother, Angel, Grace, Atticus, or his uncle in any sort of meaningful context. Lin brings us deeper into the muddle with a somnambulant protagonist until almost the very end, the very last pages, when she reveals so many interesting things that tie together what we have been reading. Emerson's journey, in the end, must truly free him or destroy him.

P.S. This book also has one of the best covers and overall design I've seen. MBTB has sold more copies of this book on looks alone. It's a good thing there's substance within!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On the Line, by S. J. Rozan, hardcover, $24.99 (c2010)

S. J. Rozan does the unusual: She has a series that alternates between the viewpoints of her two main characters. Both are usually done in first person narrative. I look forward to the Lydia Chin stories more than the Bill Smith ones, and this book is an example of why.

Lydia has been kidnapped by Kevin Cavanaugh, a psychotic killer whom Bill sent to prison years ago. Kevin devises a convoluted, devilish series of clues as part of a "game" for Bill to get Lydia back. Remember, why Kevin wants to torture Bill doesn't have to make sense because Kevin is psychotic. Each new challenge has Bill repetitively cursing up a blue streak. Lydia's narrative power is stronger and her vocabulary more varied. Another reason to like her stories better. Nevertheless, Bill bulls his way through the puzzles, each time narrowly missing arrest. Of course, one of the "rules" of Kevin's game is "no cops," but they become hard to avoid after the first dead body shows up. Mary Kee, Lydia's best friend (besides Bill) and police detective, becomes involved and walks a hair's breadth line between legal and extra-legal help. Lydia's young nephew, Linus (as in Pauling, not "Peanuts"), and his friend, Trella, are the technical whizzes. A Chinese pimp and his strongarms sometimes help and sometimes hurt (a lot).

On the face of it, this is very much the kind of book I find entertaining. It's fast-paced, brain-teasing, and with interesting characters. But Bill was too much of a one-note this time, and it was distracting. Also, towards the end Linus uses Twitter and other social media as part of his investigation. One minute he's being pinged like crazy with info, then suddenly it stops (at a convenient story point). In real life, dontcha know, it's hard to stop the media flood once the gates are opened. There still should have been excessive pinging, but fictionally, all we get is silence and the silence was deafening. (I've already admitted many times that I'm too easily overcome by internal inconsistencies in author's fictional worlds. My bad.)

Rozan is still one of the best creators of interesting characters with solid voices. I loved nerdy Linus and Trella, a more socialized version of Lizbeth Salander of "Girl Who" fame, and, Dude (Linus' favorite word), they tipped the balance in favor of this book.