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 30, 2012

Broken Harbor, by Tana French (hardcover, $27.95)

Broken Harbor is Tana French's fourth novel. By now her readers have a feel for what she has in store: the unexpected. Nothing can be assumed. Nothing is as it seems. Besides, control is only an illusion because life is a chaotic package tied up with messy string.

Michael "Scorcher" Kennedy is our current police detective hero. It is French's wont to use a background character in one book as the major protagonist in the next book. Kennedy was a minor character in French's last outstanding book, "Faithful Place." Each main character in French's book not only has a crime to solve as a professional but also demons to exorcise from his or her personal life. Each character's strength may also be a weakness and his or her undoing. Knowing all this just ups the anticipation and tension for the reader from the start.

Broken Harbor begins with Kennedy saying, "Let's get one thing straight: I was the perfect man for the case." He is the perfect man, as it turns out. Scorcher has a high solution rate for crimes. He has been assigned a promising rookie to train, Richie Curran. He knows the area where the crime occurred. Broken -- a perversion of a word meaning dawn -- Harbor has been renamed "Brianstown," the bland, egotistical-sounding sobriquet for a shoddily-built, quickly-folded development. Back in the day, Broken Harbor was where many families, including Kennedy's, vacationed in summer. It provided some of the happiest memories and, we later learn, some of the saddest for Kennedy. Broken Harbor, indeed.

A frantic woman has called the police to investigate her sister's home in Broken Harbor (somehow the name Brianstown just doesn't have a menacing impact). The police find four bodies, including those of two young children. Did someone break in and attack them all or was it a case of murder/suicide?

Kennedy's personal life is complicated by his younger sister, Dina. Beset by the whirling mayhem of what appears to be a bipolar disorder, she is on a manic, uncontrollable ride when she appears at Scorcher's door. Beneath the jumble of thoughts and emotions, Dina is a reminder to Scorcher of how life can turn on a dime. He struggles to balance his responsibilities to right the world through his police work with his responsibility to family.

I'm not going to discuss the plot much more, because it is French's forte to open up many paths for the story to take, and it is your right to be kept on edge. What I will say is that French's writing can reach the poetic:

"This case was different. It was running backwards, dragging us with it on some ferocious ebb tide. Every step washed us deeper in black chaos, wrapped us tighter in tendrils of crazy and pulled us downwards."


"And the sea, high today, raising itself up at me green and muscled."

Kennedy is a crusader, a straight arrow at work, someone to depend on. it is French's job to poke at that edifice to see if there's something black and dangerous lurking inside. French masterfully manipulates the tension and shanghais her readers' emotions.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Last Kind Words by Tom Piccirilli (hardcover, $26)

All the people born into the Rand family of thieves are named after dog breeds. Our narrator is Terrier Rand, "Terry" for short. His father is Pinscher ("Pinsch"), his uncles are Malamute ("Mal") and Greyhound ("Grey"). His sister is Airedale ("Dale"). Various members of the family are creepers (cat burglars), card sharks, or pickpockets. Several members of the family suffer from dementia. Grandpa Shepherd drools and watches cartoons, but he still has a solid light-finger lift.

Five years ago, Terry abruptly abandoned his family and girlfriend after his older brother, "Collie," murdered complete strangers in a wild night of mayhem. Now Collie will be executed in a couple of weeks. A phone call from a strange woman brings Terry home from way out west, where he has been leading a straight life, back to Long Island. Collie wants to see him.

Terry returns to find his family in an emotional stasis. They are beset by reporters and visited frequently by a police detective, Gillmore, who may be more of a family friend than a cop at this point. Their natural defense is not to let any strong emotion show. How do Terry's father, uncles, and sister feel? Who knows? What does Terry feel? Who knows? They go about their everyday business, as an underlying tension hums in the background.

No family member has been to see Collie since his incarceration. Terry goes to see Collie more for himself than to see what Collie wants. If sinking into "the underneath" could happen to someone Terry thought he knew so well, could something similar happen to him? Why did Collie do what he did?

What Collie wants from Terry is the impossible. Collie claims that he did not murder one of the victims attributed to him. He wants Terry to find out who did.

The Last Kind Words is about family relationships in a family whose members are born keeping secrets. Is there a gene that suddenly turns on and tilts a life awry? Is Collie the sacrifice for a karmic burden that finally becomes payable after generations of a family devote themselves to the grift, the con, thieving?

It's a moment of "ahh" when Tom Piccirilli reveals the derivation of the title of his book. Sometimes it's a long time between ahhs, between the revelations of the mysteries that drive this book.

Sometimes repetition is a soothing tide, providing a rhythmic backdrop to the rest of the story. Sometimes it's a klaxon sounding in a library. Most of the time, Piccirilli's reference to "the underneath" is the former, but towards the end, despite the dramatic ending, the underneath is less the whirlpool it should be than a mild undertow. But if that's the bad news, the good news is this is a creative, engaging, entertaining book, and I recommend it. Four stars instead of five.

The Paris Directive, by Gerald Jay (hardcover, $25)

This is pretty close to mystery nirvana: a sophisticated book set in France, populated by interesting characters, with descriptions of good food. Ahh.

Paul Mazarelle used to be a well-regarded detective in Paris, but he relocated to the Dordogne region because his wife was dying and she wanted to return home. It is 1999 and Mazarelle, now a widower, is still a flic in Taziac. (Taziac, by the way, is a fictional village created by the pseudonymous Gerald Jay.)

Here is Jay's description of Mazarelle:  "Once in Paris on the Métro he'd even helped a pregnant woman deliver her baby. Libération, reporting the story, called him the 'Swiss Army knife of detectives.'"

Into Mazarelle's lap falls a violent crime. Four tourists have been viciously murdered in their rental home in the countryside. Author Jay threads another story through this one, one more political and international in nature. Two former French agents have hired an assassin, Klaus Reiner. It is clear that his target is one or more of the tourists. But why? And is he really the murderer. A handyman at the rental home, Ali Sedak, has the misfortune of being a foreign national from Algeria and is being looked at for the crimes.

Although he has been away from senses-sharpening Paris for a while, Mazarelle's instincts are still attuned to what is out of place. His instincts tell him that Ali Sedak is not the killer. Echoing that thought is the American daughter of two of the victims, who has flown to Taziac to claim the bodies of her parents. She is determined to help catch whoever it really was and instead, of course, winds up on the wrong end of a cat-and-mouse game.

The mysterious Gerald Jay has written a very good debut novel. I suspect, however, that this is not his first book. He combines two serious storylines with a good sense of place, a sense of humor, and well-rounded characters.

Jay deftly describes characters:

"One day Mazarelle's father, Guy, a serious boozer and womanizer had walked out of their house to go to work and never came back. An actor -- a large, handsome man before all his drinking and whoring caught up with him -- Guy was a peacock who fancied himself a star but was really only a bit player. A good voice though, a big resonant stage voice that reminded one critic of the American performer Paul Robeson. He made a career out of that review, dining out on his part as the Fire Chief in Ionesco's 'Bald Soprano.'"

and gives a rich sense of place:

"A Lucullan feast to end a trying day. The duck rich as Midas and meltingly tender, the local cèpes plucked fresh from their bosky depths and ennobled by the bird's savory fat and garlic."

Whoever the author is, he appreciates art and good food, essentials for writing a book set in France, n'est-ce pas?

Endangered, by Ann Littlewood (hardcover $24.95, paperback $14.95)

Portland author Ann Littlewood has the right to feel proud about Endangered, the third book in her Iris Oakley series. Not only does it pass along an important message about the vicious trafficking in rare animals that goes on, but there's a great mystery story as well.

Iris Oakley has matured. She is still passionate about animals, which is a good thing for an assistant zoo keeper. Still quick to anger, still prone to dangling a foot out of her mouth -- actually, more like a toe these days -- but now she's more grounded because of her two-year-old son. (That job is harder because her husband, with whom she was just reuniting after an estrangement, was murdered. The pregnancy she subsequently discovered certainly was not planned.) Then she stumbles upon illegal animal sales and murder, and chaos moves in.

Iris' zoo sends her to pick up some exotic birds and tortoises after the arrest of the Tiptons, the people who were trying to sell them. The Tiptons were also growing marijuana, cooking meth, and burying lots of secrets.

During the course of saving the animals, Iris is attacked by the Tiptons, somehow recently released on bail. She's there when Pa Tipton dies during the course of the attack and hears his last words, which showed more regard for his pet macaws than his lumbering sons or invalid wife.

Iris accidentally triggers the interest of people who want what she has. But what exactly does she have? Why would they break into her house? How did they know where she lived? Why would someone try to break into the zoo? Is her son, Robby, in danger?

Ken, an animal control worker, sympathizes and tries to help. Craig, a reporter, sympathizes and tries to help. Her parents and fellow zoo workers sympathize and try to help. Neal, her cold and enigmatic boss, tries to help. On balance, however, the people who don't want to help her dangerously outweigh the people who do.

Littlewood has given us Iris' familiar passion and smart-alecky sense of humor, and added the compassion of a mother and loneliness of a widow. Iris faces more of her flaws and bravely continues to put one foot in front of the other. She seeks justice in her stubborn, one-track-minded way. This depth of character becomes Iris and lends power to an interesting and exciting story.