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

Monday, July 25, 2011

Wahoo Rhapsody, by Shaun Morey ($13.95)

It's difficult to be a new author these days, and while Shaun Morey is not a "new" author, having written a nonfiction book about fishing, he and several other writers have had to be creative in getting their fiction published.

Amazon Encore, an imprint of mega-entity Amazon.com, is sending four authors to Murder by the Book on August 7. While their books are primarily being downloaded in digital format, the authors and Amazon Encore are committed to print versions as well. In another day and age -- actually, not too long ago -- Shaun and the others would have had no problem being published by one of the major book companies. In that not-so-long-ago age book publishers were many. Now they have all been joined into a small collection of super-corporations. Small imprints have popped up to handle the books the super-corps aren't looking at, but most of those imprints are struggling with name recognition and consistency of quality.

What Shaun has written is a goofy, clever, Carl Hiaasen-ish book. Francis Finch, a U.S. lawyer has sued God and won -- I won't spoil the surprise; you have to read the book to find out what that's about. To escape the faithful bent on revenge, Finch has moved to Mexico and changed his name to Atticus Fish. In order to save a friend, a fishing boat captain, and his crew from becoming victims of a drug lord, Atticus wends his way through various bizarre situations to save them. Even the bad guys are not without a sense of humor, or at least meet their end in darkly humorous ways.

Yay! to Amazon Encore for bringing "Wahoo Rhapsody" to our part of the print world, and yay! to Shaun for giving us a chuckle in a sometimes bleak and cloudy world.

My last words: If this review makes you want to read this book, do us a favor and order a print copy from Murder by the Book (books@mbtb.com). It is totally possible to support both MBTB and Amazon!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Bad Night's Sleep, by Michael Wiley (hardcover, $24.99)

Chicago P.I. Joe Kozmarski's story is a throwback to classic tough-guy private eye novels. Kozmarski is hard-drinking and hard-headed. It's him versus the world. With a little help from a couple of requisite women-who-love-the-bad-boys.

How low did Joe go? He was a police detective, and considering the number of corrupt cops in this book, he wasn't so bad. But he messed up because he had (and has) a problem with alcohol and drugs, so he was out of the police. He also feels responsible for the serious injury of a cop, one of his few friends from the old days.

Although he is innocent and, in fact, tried to prevent good cops from being shot by bad cops, Joe was held in isolation in jail for killing a cop and his name is mud. His only recourse is to play all sides against each other: the desperate police department, the gang using their credentials as police officers to commit illegal acts, and the warring neighborhood gangs.

Michael Wiley has won and been nominated for major awards, so it's astounding that his books have not been turned into paperbacks. As a matter of fact, his first two books in the series, "The Last Striptease" and "The Bad Kitty Lounge," are difficult to come by. Such is the puzzling state of publishing today.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Napoleon's Pyramid, by William Dietrich ($7.99)

William Dietrich will be a guest of Murder by the Book on Thursday, July 21. That prompted me to read the first book in his Ethan Gage series, Napoleon's Pyramids. The book wasn't just fun to read -- featuring an Indiana Jones-type caper -- but the underlying history seemed sound. The story was complex and the characters were charming. Even the villains and crazy despots -- yes, I mean you, Napoleon -- were intriguing.

Ethan Gage is an American in Paris. It's the 1790s, however, and has nothing to do with Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly. Ethan was an assistant to Benjamin Franklin, famous in France and much admired. Erroneously thinking Ethan must channel Franklin's genius somehow, Napoleon has drafted Ethan to find the mythical, mystical source of power of the ancient Egyptians. We're talking pyramids, masonic signs, hieroglyphics, cults of Isis and Horus, and secret passageways. Having gotten into plenty of it's-not-my-fault-I-was-just-doing-what-comes-naturally trouble in Paris, Ethan hastens to accept Napoleon's offer and protection.

Accompanying Napoleon are his savants, the scientific geniuses of France, including mathematicians, geologists, geographers, chemists, and engineers. Napoleon is on a mission to become the Alexander the Great of his time. He will move through Egypt and onward to Constantinople, the seat of the Ottoman Empire. Genius or nutcase? Dietrich inserts his fictional character into real events, including maritime battles between the English and the French, and desert battles between the French and the ruling Mamelukes.

Dietrich even comes up with a little sidelight on some of mathematics' most famous puzzles and makes it interesting and relevant to his story.

Although Dietrich's scope is wide, he is up to the task of creating an entertaining and well-written story, without losing his readers in the historic minutiae.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Killed at the Whim of a Hat, by Colin Cotterill ($24.99)(release date-7/19/11)

Here's another great book by Colin Cotterill, this one set in modern day Thailand. Cotterill keeps and expands upon the gentle humor he focused on 1970s Laos in his Siri Paiboun series. This time he aims it at the cultural eccentricities of rural Thailand.

Sounding more like a line from Mary Poppins' "Chim Chiminey" than the name of a former hotshot crime reporter for a Chiang Mai daily, Jimm Juree has relocated from the big city to a rural agricultural and seafaring backwater in southern Thailand. Her mother, Mair, supposedly diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, has sold their home and replanted daughter Juree, son Arny, and father Jah to the village of Maprao to run a resort on the beach. Which is not as exotic as it sounds. Run down is how it is, with carnivorous crabs, nosy neighbors, brown-outs, and dead bodies. Tired of gutting mackerel for the non-existent guests and her unappreciative family, Juree rejoices (quietly) at the dead bodies and the possibility of reporting these cases for her former employer.

By accident, palm tree farmer Old Mel has found a VW bus buried on his property. In the front seats are two skeletons. Since the local police force, with the exception of Lt. Chompu, an in-the-closet, nail-polish-wearing gay, is flummoxed and a more elaborate investigation is compromised by national political unrest, Juree becomes the best hope for a solution.

A fresher body is found at the local Buddhist monastery. A visiting investigating abbott is maliciously stabbed to death right on a highly visible part of the monastery's premises. The abbott was looking into a possible impropriety in the relationship between the monastery's abbott and a nun, a recent addition to the cloister. The murdered abbott was found wearing a strange orange hat.

No one is exempt from eccentricities. Even Sissi, Juree's sibling who stayed behind in Chiang Mai, has an odd story of her own. She began life as a he, found fame as a beauty queen, eloped with a suitor, returned to the bosom of her family a little older and wiser, and now is a first-class computer hacker.

Brother Arny is a buffed-up bodybuilder with a no tolerance for violence or confrontation. When Mair's dog is poisoned by someone in the village, Mair becomes suspiciously furtive, flitting around like a ninja in the night. Grandfather Jah used to be a traffic cop. He would have been more important, but his honesty doomed him to a minor position. He comes out of his stupor when Juree seeks his help to find and solve the clues.

It is this little family and the odd connections Juree makes in the course of following the two stories that provide the primary entertainment. In fact, the actual solution to one of the stories was a little shocking in contrast to the general tone of the rest of the book.

It's hard to give Cotterill his due without quoting some passages. His narrator is Juree:
We'd moved to a village surrounded by coconut groves called Maprao. That means 'coconut.' We're in the middle of a bay called Glang Ow, which means 'middle of the bay' and our nearest small town is at the mouth of a river. It's called Pak Nam. I probably don't need to translate that one for you.
And then:
'…I think it's good for [Mair] down here. She's crazy about her dogs and we've got the ocean right here and … you know.'
'I've got people dying down here.'
'No. Murder. …'
And lastly:
'Unbelievable,' [Chompu] said. 'You wouldn't believe how dull life was in Pak Nam before you lot arrived.'

I wondered at that moment whether he might be considering us suspects. Odd family turns up in town -- bodies everywhere. But I got the impression he wouldn't have minded that either.'
From start to unorthodox finish, this book was a joy.

P.S. Each chapter begins with a quote from a speech by George W. Bush. The title of the book derives from a "Bush-ism" in one of those speeches.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Think of a Number, by John Verdon ($7.99)

On the way to reading something else, I was waylaid by this book. I'll just read a few pages, was the last thing I remember thinking. Remember the puzzles that caught your attention in The Da Vinci Code? This book has them as well: puzzles and clues you can actually follow and solve.

First person narrative, too much dialogue, or too little dialogue and lots of chase scenes seem to be the norm these days. Think of a Number is refreshing in its retro use of third person ruminations.

Dave Gurney is an unsuccessfully retired police detective. He has moved from fast-paced NYC to bucolic rural upstate New York. He and his wife, Madeleine, are seeking nature, peace, and quiet. But Dave is still driven by an inner need to exercise his powers of observation and deduction. He was a star at what he did: putting away serial killers. His restlessness is rooted in unresolved personal issues, and Dave is mentally running away as fast as he can from thinking about them.

Through it all, Madeleine has stuck with him, but her motives and thinking are murky. I never quite got a handle on her saintly, patient presence, or on her passive-aggressive goading of her husband. Although Dave is the expert -- his logic is noted ad nauseam -- it is Madeleine who provides insight into some of the puzzles.

Dave is contacted by Mark Mellery, an acquaintance from college, when he receives strange and unsettling letters. The first letter asks Mark to think of a number. A note enclosed with the letter correctly predicts the number Mark has chosen. How is that possible? Further communications are more intrusive, claiming inside knowledge of wrongs Mark has committed. Mark does not want to go to the police because of his current high profile in the community, so he asks Dave to find the prospective blackmailer.

Since I want you to be surprised, I'll stop there with the actual plot description. Think outside the box is my helpful hint.

John Verdon has crafted a reasonably well written, thoughtful thriller, proving all those descriptive words can still belong together.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Random Violence, by Jassy Mackenzie ($14)

It's funny how books can still seem so foreign even when they are set in an English-speaking culture. Cultures have different rhythms to their speech, different shared understandings, different birth-of-the-nation stories. In this case it's modern day South Africa that's the setting, but the same could be said about the charming series by Louise Penny set in Quebec, Canada, or Denise Mina's black-as-noir Scotland. (And don't get me started on British mealtimes. What the heck is a "tiffen," anyway?)

British writing is more similar than different to our U.S. style, so those books are not so alien. Penny's Three Pines books move at a slower pace and refuse to be cowed by a "and then what happened" mentality, but it's still easy to relate to Penny's world. But South Africa is … different.

Beginning in the early 1970s, James McClure brought apartheid to our fictional doorstep while that extreme segregationist policy was still operating in South Africa. While his books were not banned there, they apparently were not beloved either. McClure's characters, Kramer and Zondi, were a black and white police partnership, with Kramer the putative leader of the pair. They were friends, or as friendly as they could be in an apartheid world.

Now a new generation of crime writers is trying to put apartheid and modern South Africa in focus. Malla Nunn wrote A Beautiful Place to Die, a wonderful and terrifying look at South Africa at the beginning of apartheid. Wessel Ebersohn's October Killings is from a young, modern black woman's point of view. And now we have Jassy Mackenzie's Random Violence.

Mackenzie's main character is Jade de Jong, a young white woman who exiled herself to England after the death of her police commissioner father. Now a decade later she has returned to Johannesburg. Unsuspected by her former friends and acquaintances, she has come to extract revenge on the man she holds responsible for her father's death. His prison sentence is up, and Jade wants to be there to welcome him.

While Jade is waiting, an old friend, David Patel, asks for her help on a case. He was an apprentice and admirer of her father, and is now a police detective. Jade is a private investigator in Great Britain, but I had to blink twice when she was so casually accepted by the police and public as an independent investigator. Are the Johannesburg police so understaffed? I also had difficulty with Jade's childhood/adult crush on David. It seemed vaguely juvenile. If you feel the same way, get over it, because there's so much to admire about this book.

The title, Random Violence, may be more ironic than actual. A woman is killed in what appears to be a random highjacking, a frequent occurrence in Johannesburg, which, from Mackenzie's point of view, has a wild west, frontier feel. Jade is assigned to figure out if the woman's husband had anything to do with it. Was her death at random or designed especially for her?

The tale moves to possible government corruption, a potential serial killer, and the changing mores of the new South Africa. Mackenzie handles the two plots well. She satisfactorily concludes the hijacking case and presents an astonishing resolution to Jade's father's case. I overcame my befuddlement with Jade's police involvement and her relationship with David, and the odd, un-American rhythm to Mackenzie’s writing, and found a thought-provoking book as a consequence.