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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One Man, One Murder, by Jakob Arjouni ($14.95)(c1991, re-released 2011)

This is a story with a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, dissolute, wise-ass, world-weary private eye, in the best American tradition à la Raymond Chandler. However, the author, Jakob Arjouni, is German. Kemal Kayankaya, the aforementioned dissolute p.i., is a German citizen of Turkish descent. Otherwise, not so different. There are the requisite dissipated denizens of the underworld: women of ill-repute, pugnacious mobsters, and cement block-shaped henchmen. Tossed in are corruption, betrayal, snappy dialogue, and a missing dame. See, not so different.

How colorful is this? Kemal Kayankaya must find Sri Dao Rakdee for his client, Manuel Weidenbusch. It's a veritable United Nations. Even the asides are multicultural. At one point, some of the characters are watching a tennis match with American John McEnroe playing a "taciturn Swede."

Here's a taste of the tough guy talk:

The joint was packed. Clouds of smoke hung under the ceiling, and the waiters' faces glistened with sweat. I made my way to the bar. Ignoring the instant angry chatter of the woman working the beer tap I opened the door marked Office and saw Schlumpi, the man I didn't know, and Slibulsky.

A plain man wants the woman of his dreams returned to him. She's apparently a Thai hooker, however, and disappears in the process of trying to extend her visa. While investigating at the brothel and engaging in badinage with some odd fellows, Kayankaya runs into an old friend who is working for a member of the mob. Does the mob have anything to do with the woman's disappearance? Or was she merely toying with Kayankaya's client and done a runner with his money? The various stories twist about but manage to be resolved all of a piece at the end.

Arjouni's writing is spritely, sarcastic, and funny. Kayankaya has Attitude to spare and a probable death-wish, a good combination.

I must give the translator, Anselm Hollo, a standing "o" for a wonderful, flowing narrative. (It wasn't originally written in English? Really?)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hell and Gone, by Duane Swierczynski ($14.99) (due 10/31/11)

This is the second in a projected three-book series about Charlie Hardie. I'm hoping there will in fact be a third book (Point and Shoot, projected release date 3/12), because there was a lot of hanging by the fingernails from a cliff at the end of this one.

Fun and Games was the first book. To my loss I have not read this, but Swierczynski encapsulates the first book's action very well, as in: therewasashootoutoverthepeoplehewassupposedtoprotectandanactressgotkilledbutCharliewasinnocent,gotshotandkidnappedoutofthehospital.

Charlie is a tough guy, apparently too tough to put under with an ordinary amount of anesthesia. He unexpectedly wakes up to bizarre scenes: in an ambulance after he's been shot or finding he’s stuck on a life-support system in the trunk of a car. The next thing he knows he has (mostly) recovered somehow and is now handcuffed to a chair. His arch-nemesis, a female assassin, is telling him he is the new "warden" of a facility where they keep "monsters."


You probably have the (correct) impression that this is not a normal book of crime fiction. It's very visual in a ka-bam, pow-y sort of way, but there are also a lot of nods to old-time pulp fiction. Swierczynski hits his readers between their eyes with his fast movements. For example, the book starts this way:

During the past fifteen minutes Charlie Hardie had been nearly drowned, shot in his left arm, shot in the side of his head, and almost shot in the face at point-blank range.

Now he was sprawled out on a damp suburban lawn handcuffed to a crazy secret-assassin lady who liked to sunbathe topless. He figured things could only go up from here.
The quotes Swierczynski adds before each chapter warrant a book report all by themselves. A lot of them are from incarceration fiction and movies: from "Papillon" to "Cool Hand Luke" to the campy "Shock Corridor." Toss in a sprinkling from cult classics, books and movies also featuring man vs. The Man.

Reference Kafka, Sarte (also quoted), or any other existential dude you want, add kick-ass action, gnarly and grotesque dudes and dudettes who could be good or bad or both or actors, and shake everything up thoroughly until you are verging on a headache, and serve.

My best advice is to stop saying "What?" every few minutes as you read the book. Go with the flow, enjoy the staccato ride, and wait in sweaty and grimy anticipation for Point and Shoot.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Revisionists, by Thomas Mullen (hardcover, $25.99)

This is an odd mixture of sinister world politics, sci-fi, and people grappling with their own personal tragedies. The personal tragedies impinge upon, however unlikely, world politics. The mixture was intriguing. But then Thomas Mullen, author of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, is an intriguing writer.

Also, anyone who can write, "spooged through the clump that had agglutinated around the spout," also wins my vote for the Gotta-Read-More-of-This award.

The time is now. Zed, aka Troy Jones, claims to be from the future, an agent sent back in time to ensure that the "hags," provocateurs from his time, don't tamper with events in the past. "The integrity of history must be preserved," is the mantra of his department. He is here to prevent interference with the forces that produce an apocalyptic world catastrophe. That's right. He's a government agent sent here to PREVENT anyone from stopping the catastrophe.

Leo Hastings is a former CIA-agent who is now working for a private information-gathering enterprise. He accidentally meets an Indonesian woman, Sari, who is working for a South Korean diplomat. His prior assignment was in Jakarta, so he understands Sari's language and culture. He discovers that through her he might learn some high-level nasty stuff about the South Koreans that will reinstate him in the graces of the Big Boys.

Tasha Wilson is a corporate attorney who is beginning to sour on her duties. She's also trying to unravel the truth behind the death of her brother, a soldier stationed in the Middle East. She is caught between governmental forces when she uncovers a moral atrocity committed by one of her firm's clients. She eventually meets the other main characters, and it is the story behind the confluence of their tribulations that is both odd and wonderful.

The main thoughts that this thoughtful book brings out are: Do the ends justify the means? How does one do "The Right Thing"? And, as Tasha wonders, "Where was the gray area between ignorance and obsession?" 

Zed tells us his cover identity is that of a real "contemp," Troy Jones, a man whose life closely approximates Zed's. Both have lost a wife and child. Both have something to hide and discover. Tasha and Leo also understand loss. The three of them stumble across each other's paths and wind up questioning  the underlying "truth" of their assignments and lives. Leo's mysterious client, Tasha's mysterious friend T.J., Zed's ambiguous future agency swirl the moral dilemma into a froth. 

Zed has been winking in and out of so many different times that he says, "Now. I barely know what the word means anymore." However, he remains the ultimate loyal, disciplined machine, killing hags to save the "perfect" time. Even though Leo has been cut loose by the Agency, he feels loyalty to his country. He asks of the people who would question it, "Didn't they realize how much better this was than any other country, any other system, any other way of life?" Tasha's two acts of rebellion are to leak to a newspaper that one of her firm's clients potentially sacrificed soldiers' lives to save some money and to question the military's explanation of her brother's death.

Although a lot of the book sounds like a spy story, with battling agencies and underground insurrectionists, it's ultimately a philosophical and political challenge to the reader. How much governmental bending of the rules in the name of (what may be a false) freedom are we willing to allow? How much is too much until we can't turn away any longer? Are we, the people, in charge of our government and our own destinies in name only? If we are paranoid, could there be a good reason for it?

Most people in Mullen's world are apathetic or ignorant at best. The governments in his world might be amoral, weak, and selfish, but we don't know whether they are or not for quite a while as we wait for his protagonists to sort out their lives and finally expose the answer.

The movie, "The Adjustment Bureau," and Orwell's 1984 are distant cousins of this book. There is a moral to this tale, and there is hope, as well.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Ranger, by Ace Atkins (hardcover, $25.95)

Ace Atkins has been around for a while. He wrote the Nick Travers series, about an ex-football player who knows about the blues. He also recently was picked to continue Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. A big high-five to him for that honor, and it is well-deserved because Atkins can keep an audience entertained.

The Ranger is neither a Travers nor a Spenser book. It feels like the start of a new series. In which case, I'd say Atkins' plate is falling-over-the-edges full.

Quinn Colson has returned to the small southern town where he grew up. His uncle, the sheriff, has died. Quinn is shocked to learn that his uncle's death has been declared a suicide. With prodding by deputy Lillie Virgil, a friend he hasn't seen for years, Quinn is determined to find out if he had been murdered instead.

Quinn has been in the Army since he was 18. He is 29 now, has seen quite a bit of action, is a member of the elite Ranger unit, and has many psychological skeletons buried in Tibbehah County, Mississippi. Although he is on a short leave from being an instructor at an Army base, he vows he will not leave town until he has unraveled what caused his uncle's death.

Former friends and acquaintances come out of the woodwork to either help or hinder his investigation. Old hurts are revisited; old lives mourned as new lives move on. What Quinn finds is that his sleepy valley has been hijacked by some unsavory characters. 

Quinn turned his back on the town years ago, so what right does he have to stir things up now, some people wonder. He makes people move way outside their comfort zones. His ultimate contradiction is that he is a trained killer who thinks of killing only as a last resort. It would have been a way shorter book if he just had taken care of the bad guys when he had the chance. But that's not what Quinn Colson and Ace Atkins are about.

There were times that I grunted in disgust as one of his characters did something really stupid. I had to remind myself that real people do stupid things, and, once again, it would have been a much shorter book had I been allowed to choose my own adventure, as it were. I weathered the attack on the cows, dog, barns, trailers, low-lifes, high-lifes, a pregnant woman, and assorted bozos and yahoos. The end result was that I would like to see another Quinn Colson adventure. (Maybe with fewer than the cast of thousands in this book.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Calling Mr. King, by Ronald De Feo ($14.95)

This book is somewhat of a one-trick pony. It would have made a fabulous short story with a Saki-like ending, but instead it's a 291-page novel. Against the odds, I liked much of it.

When the phone rings for "Peter Chilton" and the voice on the other end asks for "Mr. King," it means the man, who is neither Peter Chilton nor Mr. King, must go to work. He is a hitman and an excellent one to boot.

One day, Peter becomes distracted while waiting for his mark to arrive. He begins to notice buildings -- in fact, eventually becoming quite enamored with Georgian architecture in England. Horror of horrors, soon he messes up a hit. His employers place him on hiatus in New York. At first resentful, Peter soon begins to relax and haunts bookstores, picking up weighty works on architecture. He begins to notice people, other than the ones he has been hired to kill. His world begins to tilt and he dreams of retiring from the business. But how to extract himself. And, anyway, can he ever really be a normal guy?

It's not the story that fascinated me but the intensity of Peter's interest in architecture and art. De Feo gives us short lessons in what-is-what and it's fascinating, especially when he describes Gaudi's art when Peter is sent to Barcelona.

Art appreciation disguised as a mystery? Why not?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Daniel Woodrell: An Interview (10/9/11)

(This interview contains spoilers.)

Daniel Woodrell, the author of The Bayou Trilogy, Winter's Bone, and Tomato Red, among others, made a special trip to the store last night to sign books and to let us ask him questions. That was especially grand because he had been up since the wee hours of the morning to fly into Portland and appear at Portland's literary convention, Wordstock.

I didn't have a taping device going because it was an informal meeting, so his remarks are paraphrased for the most part. All his answers were considered, articulate, and courteous. (He hestitated to tell a mildly risqué joke, rephrasing it instead. When cajoled to tell the whole thing, he paused, looked at author Johnny Shaw, one of our guests, seemed to gain accord, and let it fly.)

Thanks to the movie version of Winter's Bone, released in 2010, he has become better known. Of course, he has been writing for 35 years, so commercial success has been a long time coming. He has always had critical success. Five of Woodrell's eight books have made the New York Times' best books of the year list.

I'm going to bypass an introduction to or summary of his works. I've reviewed the remarkable Winter's Bone elsewhere, and the Internet is full of reviews and comments about his works.

Reviewers often use the words bleak and dark to describe his books. What's up with that, he asks. He doesn't consider his works bleak. As a matter of fact, "Uncle," one of the short stories in his new book, The Outlaw Album, is downright hilarious, he says. But only to those who know Ozark folklore and humor, apparently. When he has read the story to audiences not familiar with that, he gets furrowed brows and grim faces. Woodrell was funny and good-humored last night, and it puts the lie to the thought that one is what one writes.

Eschewing genre classification of his works (noir, country noir, gothic, crime fiction, blah, blah), I asked him if he simply wrote about life and tragedy, with a focus on character. He has always said that character is his main consideration, and he reiterated it last night. On occasion, he has tried to write a different kind of book, lighter or more conventional in tone, for example, but in the end, he can't seem to do it. He has to be emotionally connected to his work, or the project bores him and remains unfinished.

What has made him the writer he is today? In his younger days, he read Mickey Spillane and John D. MacDonald. (Very impressive fact: John D. blurbed -- "Sly and powerful" -- Woodrell's first book!) "Chandler was too fancy when I was young," he said with a smile. He was a "library haunter" and rattled off a few of the books and authors he's liked over the years: Pissing in the Snow, by Vance Randolph; Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter; Charles Williams (Hell Hath No Fury); Swamp Sister, by Robert Edmund Alter.

He attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What did he learn there? It wasn't about learning technique. It was about gaining self-confidence in his ability to write and being around other writers. His choice of occupation has not always gone down well with the members of his family. His grandfather said it was too bad Daniel didn't have a "real" job. Nevertheless, Woodrell is happy doing exactly what he wants to do.

What does he do better now than he did earlier? He used to throw everything into his books, he said, getting it all out on the page. Now he edits better, he's more focused, and he is better able to keep his ego out of the picture.

Some of his books are heavy in patois. Does it matter that readers may not understand what he's saying? "I can't worry about that," he said. The story must be true to what the characters say and do. He loves folk words like "coggly" and "brassle," and will use them without explanation or a glossary. (If you're curious, coggly means uneven and brassle is the sound branches make rubbing against each other.) He surrounds his dialogue with poetic narrative that gives a "visual" rendering of the scene. Other writers, like David Milch ("Deadwood") and George Pelecanos, didn't hesitate to do something similar.

Woodrell talked briefly about the choices he made at an early age. Although he had the opportunity to get into trouble as a teenager and several less-than-legal scenarios may have "crossed my mind," he chose to go with book "pages instead of rap sheets." He carried the essence of his young experience into shaping his characters, giving them a "talk back quality" when up against authority figures. "Rude democracy," he has termed it.

Especially in Winter's Bone, most of his female characters are very strong. The story revolves around 16-year-old Ree Dolly and her distant relatives, Thump Milton's wife and her sisters. How has he managed to write female characters so well? He laughed and said he ran things past his wife, who "parses" his work for inauthentic portrayals. Besides, he added, his mother was a strong woman, his grandmother was a strong woman, and his other grandmother "was a REALLY strong woman." Ree, he said, could have been a 16-year-old boy just as easily.

The ending of Winter's Bone was almost even more tragic. True tragedy would have dictated that the family feud be continued by Ree and her brothers. He debated with himself but finally deleted the line, "We're with Teardrop now," as uttered by Ree.

Although Woodrell has received critical acclaim for his eight books, until Winter's Bone was made into a movie, he was a cult author with a small audience. Now at least he's a better known cult author. Although it has been a struggle to make ends meet at times, he has held true to his course. It is well-known that Woodrell lives in the Ozarks, in the area where he spent some of his childhood. After living in other places as an adult, he consciously chose to return home to the people and culture he loved, but it helped that houses were cheaper there. "I have a Ford Taurus, and I don't care who knows it," he declared.

His final thought: "If I weren't so lazy, I would have fourteen books, not eight."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell ($13.99)(c2006)

Daniel Woodrell is one of those authors who was laboring in the shadow of obscurity. Because of the nature of his books -- tragedy and an unblinking look into the eye of darkness -- his books have had a narrow appeal. Until one of his books, Winter's Bone, was made into a movie. That garnered him a lot of attention in a short amount of time. He went from being an obscure cult author to being a better known cult author.

In the past, his books, especially Tomato Red, three early novels re-released together as The Bayou Trilogy, and Woe to Live On (also made into a movie, "Ride with the Devil"), received critical praise from major publications, but popular acclaim eluded him. Perhaps it would be naive to think that he is crafting a book each time to satisfy himself and not the masses. In actuality, he probably thought how nice it would be to be able to make a comfortable living from writing. It would be nice to combine one's passion and one's livelihood. From everything I've read about Woodrell, it appears that he has consciously pulled away from what people have told him he should do and done things his own way.

Winter's Bone, then, is the book that pulled him out of the shadows, and it is a glorious celebration of the power of words. Woodrell has turned an ear for patois and an ability to tell a story to touch the heart into deeply unsettling, yet satisfying, books.

Ree Dolly is a 16-year-old girl living in the Ozarks. Her father cooks meth, has gotten into trouble with the law, and has disappeared. If she does not find him, her home, which was placed as collateral for his bond, will be taken from her. Ree is taking care of two younger brothers and her crazy mother. She is the man and woman of the house. Much of Woodrell's initial description covers what Ree has to do to help her family survive. Snow and ice cover the ground, but she must chop the wood, shoot the squirrels, wash her mother's hair, and feed the dwindling supply of oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Now she must add detective to her list. She walks over snow-covered hills and on rutted dirt roads to ask distant family members questions that they don't want to hear, much less answer. Everyone tells her to give it up, but she doggedly pursues the one item on her agenda: survival of her immediate family. Family has a rather loose meaning here. There's no warm, cozy sentiment attached to that word. One of the characters says that "scared's not a bad way to be about [Thump Milton], neither….He's my own granpaw, been around him all my life, but I still try'n make damn sure I don't ever piss him off none." Of course, Thump Milton, Ree's distant relation, is who Ree feels she has to see to answer the question of what happened to her father.

It's not just the story that is compelling; Woodrell's words are poetry. This is from the first page:
Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellowed dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs.
The artistry of Woodrell's words carries readers through some rather gruesome bits.

If you must see the movie, read the book first. If you've already seen the movie, don't think you won't gain anything from reading the book.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman (hardcover, $25)

If you strive to create order out of chaos, perhaps this book isn't for you. This is one of the quirkier books I've read this year, and it creates a polite version of chaos.

Y____ is a visible man; that is, he is human and you can see him. He chooses Victoria Vick (Vicki Vick?) to be his psychotherapist. He expects her to believe that he can put on a suit and become an invisible man.

Y____ claims that he cannot observe people as a visible man because that would change the actions and reactions of the person being observed. Heisenberg's principle. What better way to find out the true nature of man than by becoming a fly on the wall, or an invisible man?

Y____ claims to be a scientist whose eventual purpose was to "define reality … to make order out of chaos." Unfortunately, the goal becomes obscured as Y____ claims to have tampered with reality, with disastrous results. Does he feel guilty? Or is he worried because he doesn't feel guilt? Maybe it isn't guilt at all but Y___ knows that unless he tells somebody about his life, it doesn't exist.

The book is written from Victoria's viewpoint, with massive inserts of verbatim monologue by Y____. It's framed as a book Victoria is publishing about her unusual client. It's a psychological dialectic about whether observing people without their knowledge is blessed under the banner of science or morally wrong/criminal. Your mind needs to be open to enjoying 230 pages of that.

My jury is still out about this book. It's intriguing, unique, and vaguely unsatisfying at the end. There are no heroes; everyone is culpable. And that must be the lesson in reality.

Will Victoria become victorious? Will Y____ learn why?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

About David Housewright -- a post by Carolyn Lane, co-owner of MBTB

Because of how many mysteries I read, in thinking back over the past thirty years or so, I’ve been lucky to spot marvelous authors and their series debut books at the time they’ve first been published—Robert Crais and Monkey’s Raincoat come to mind, as well as Sue Grafton and that tatty book club hardcover of “A” Is for Alibi.

But on occasion I’ve missed a really good author until he or she is in full stride in their series—then, of course, I have to backtrack to the first book and work my way through to the end, generally enjoying each book as much as that first discovery. Years ago, it was John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee that I stumbled into around Pale Gray for Guilt; much to my chagrin, only a few years ago it was Lee Child and Reacher about five or six novels into their series.

Most times these have been private-eye series, a genre mainstay for decades, and their underlying attraction for me always has been innovative plotting. Yes, I love the characterizations of Elvis and Joe, Kinsey, Mallory, V.I., Spenser and Hawk, and all those Dick Francis characters who are really just one person under their camouflage. And, yes, setting can anchor a novel like no other element, even to the point of becoming a character itself in many a story.

Nevertheless, when I’m tired of schemes to blow up the world by next Tuesday or struggles to find yet one more monstrous serial killer—some themes are becoming so overused as to become trite—I love to read books by an writer with a refreshing take on crime and crime-fighting, up close and personal.

Such an author is David Housewright, whose Rushmore McKenzie series I’m currently enjoying. McKenzie is an ex-cop of now-independent means who lives in the St. Paul/Minneapolis metro area and occasionally does investigative favors for his friends. Housewright offers up plenty of information about McKenzie and his cohorts, and not only does he describe how the Twin Cities area looks and feels, but he also offers up enough social and political history to satisfy the inquiring reader.

Mostly, however, Housewright writes an interesting, impelling plot. Early in his series (and in paperback) are
Hard Ticket Home, about finding a possible bone marrow donor
Tin City, about a man whose bees are dying
Pretty Girl Gone, about an extortion attempt on a public official.
His more recent books have been published only in hardcover (but are available for rent at MBTB for only $5/week), and they are

Dead Boyfriends, about a woman whose boyfriends have short lives
Madman on a Drum, about a kidnapping aimed at McKenzie
Jelly’s Gold, about illicit gold maybe stashed away by an early 20th- century gangster
The Taking of Libbie, S.D., about a town taken to the cleaners by a charlatan
Highway 61, about a teenager who wants to help her no-good dad out of a jam.
Housewright also won an Edgar (Best First Novel) for Penance, the first of three Holland Taylor, P.I., books—those I had read as they were published, and they are very similar in tone to the McKenzie books. Housewright’s work also is featured in Twin Cities Noir.

Death of the Mantis ($14.99), by Michael Stanley; Children of the Street ($15), by Kwei Quartey

Africa is a large continent, and it's hard for someone who doesn't know the countries to keep them straight. Many new authors (joining old-timers James McClure and Elsbeth Huxley) have been bringing us outstanding series set in several of the countries, and that should help us individuate them.

Let me pause for a second to say that country and culture are not synonymous. The national borders are artificial constructs, mainly determined by colonizing Europeans. There may be several tribes who occupy a country, some of whom have tribal boundaries that pass through more than one country. There are places that have kept some of the ways and governmental structures of the colonizing countries, even after the colonizers have gone, in a synthesis of European and tribal traditions. All this is recognized in some of the most innovative writing around today.

South Africa, Botswana, and Ghana are brought to life by Alexander McCall Smith, Malla Nunn, Jassy Mackenzie, Wessel Ebersohn, Michael Stanley, and Kwei Quartey. Suzanne Arruda and Henning Mankell (when he's not writing bleak mysteries set in Sweden) also have books set in Africa.

Michael Stanley's series is set in Botswana, and Kwei Quartey's in Ghana. Both authors deal with serious issues that affect these countries. In Stanley's case, it is the plight of the nomadic Bushman tribes, and in Quartey's it is the homeless children who live in poverty and without protection in the slums of Accra.

Death of the Mantis is the third in the series by authors Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, writing under the pen name of Michael Stanley. Set in Botswana with a Batswana police detective, David "Kubu" -- which means hippopotamus, a reflection of his enormous girth -- Bengu, this series is not at all like McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe books. Although it is by no means a blood-and-guts series, there are dead bodies, coroner's reports, and police detection.

This time Bengu is asked by a Bushman friend from childhood, someone he hasn't seen in a while, to help two Bushman hunters who have been arrested for the murder of a park ranger. Stanley does a good job describing how endangered the wandering Bushman people are, with development and the concept of private property threatening to take away their rights to roam the Kalahari Desert at will. As with the Aboriginal people of Australia, the Bushman people are able to travel in what to us appears to be a featureless wasteland, without gadgets or maps. They, too, have sacred spots and rituals handed down from one generation to another.

It almost doesn't matter what the murder mystery is because the compelling story is about the Bushman people and their struggle to survive.

Kwei Quartey's Children of the Street may be hard for some people to read. Authors are often told, don't kill children or animals. But the unvarnished truth is that children die in unacceptable numbers in parts of Africa, and a lot of them live in squalor.

Darko Dawson is a police detective who loves his job and his family. He doesn't like to play the political games necessary to be in the police force, and he has a temper when he sees injustice. It takes all his ingenuity to help the Accra police focus on the right people when children from the slum areas are murdered. Could it be part of a ritual? Or is it business as usual in an area of town where the biggest bullies usually win?

Quartey's mystery is a vehicle for him to bring to our attention a difficult problem facing many poor nations. Children are homeless, starving, on their own, and living in filth. He gives them a small voice in his moving book.

We probably don't want to hear what either Stanley or Quartey tells us. It's hard to imagine the inequality that exists so far away. Although their books are works of fiction, they are based on real issues. Both authors tell their stories in different but equally compelling ways. They are well worth reading.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Murder of the Month ($12.95) and No Rest for the Wicked (hardcover, $25.95), by Elizabeth Main

In the midst of the fourteen-thrills-a-minute and darkly brooding mysteries that abound these days, here is a gentle series centered on a bookstore in Central Oregon. In Murder of the Month, Jane Serrano has decided to work part-time in a bookstore after her husband dies. She must also deal with her difficult daughter, Bianca. The perfect solution seems to be to have Bianca join the bookstore's reading club. Unfortunately, when dead bodies appear and Bianca disappears, Jane might want to rethink her strategy. In No Rest for the Wicked, Jane's little town must be vying with Cabot Cove, Maine (home of Jessica Fletcher), for having its residents drop like proverbial flies. No matter, it's all in good fun.

Elizabeth Main draws on her knowledge as a former bookseller in Central Oregon for this series. She will be appearing at Murder by the Book on October 8, at 1:00 p.m. to talk about her book in an informal setting.