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 31, 2012

Blessed Are the Dead, by Malla Nunn ($14)

 This is the third in Malla Nunn's series set in South Africa, featuring police detectives Emmanuel Cooper and Samuel Shabalala.

Cooper’s mother was Afrikaner and his father British. Shabalala is Zulu. This story takes place in 1953, a few years after apartheid was legislated. There are several authors who have placed their stories within the context of apartheid. Set in the past or the present, all the stories have been moving, including this one.

Malla Nunn weaves great character texture throughout her books. Of course Cooper is flawed: He's stubborn, societally adrift, and marred by his past. Book two, Let the Dead Lie, showed that effusively. It chronicled his journey through the hell created by the racial stratification. Blessed Are the Dead tells the story of his road to social redemption, if not philosophical clarity and inner peace.

Serving a sentence in police purgatory, Cooper and Shabalala get sent to all the unimportant cases. Finally, with the “help” of Colonel van Niekerk, alternately Cooper's mentor and nemesis, they draw a murder in a small village at the foot of the imposing Drakensberg Mountains, about four hours outside of Durban. The body of a young Zulu woman has been found. She was the daughter of a local chieftain and a maid in a white household. The suspect pool is wide and the investigative footing is dangerous.

No one is happy to see the detectives. The Zulus would prefer their own form of justice, but the white man's law rules. The police constable in the closest village to the killing is unhelpful and strangely absent during critical periods of time. The village doctor, a white woman, is likewise reluctant and unwelcoming. The rich, white family for whom the young woman worked would just as soon run the detectives off the range and back to Durban. Nunn does a wonderful job peeling away the obfuscation to reveal everyone's secrets. Some, of course, have nothing to do with the murder and everything to do with the nature of what it means to be human.

I was not totally sold on the second book, but it proved to be a necessary passage in Nunn's fascinating overarching script of how a corrupt state policy has an impact on people and how some of them find extraordinary strength to do what's right.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Black Box, by Michael Connelly (hardcover, $27.99) (due 11/27/12)

This is the latest episode in the life of Harry "My-Way-or-the-Highway" Bosch, LAPD cold case consultant.

This book is one chapter after another of Harry trying to sabotage his life. Things going too well with his teenage daughter, Maddy? Say something stupid, then run off and leave her with the strange girlfriend. Things going well with the aforementioned strange girlfriend? Visit her incarcerated son and monkeywrench the relationship. Higher-ups ask you to hold off for just a little while on solving a two-decades-old case so there's no repeat of the L.A. riots of 1992? Flare up and declare nothing is more important than solving the cold case right now -- yesterday, even.

Harry, I say this with love, you're a diva.

Danish journalist Anneke Jespersen's body was found in an alleyway in the midst of rubble and chaos during the riots in L.A. Because LAPD was stretched beyond the beyond, the case was not given the time and energy it deserved. Twenty years later, the case lands on Harry's desk. Here is a chance to redeem himself and avenge Anneke, because Harry was the homicide detective who was first on the scene. She was dubbed "Snow White" by Harry's partner. A white woman murdered in the middle of black, riot-torn Watts. Now he romantically (in a platonic way) vows to find her murderer, even though there are scant clues.

What IS admirable about "The Black Box" is what is always admirable about Michael Connelly's books. His mysteries are good, solid stories with clever touches. He is readable even if Bosch is bosh. How does he do that?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Salvation of a Saint, by Keigo Higashino ($11.99)

This is the follow-up to The Devotion of Suspect X, a Japanese mystery nominated for several mystery awards last year. Manabu Yukawa, nicknamed “Galileo” for his scientific perspicacity by the police force he helps on occasion, returns, as do his police force liaisons, Kusanagi and Utsumi.

This time it is the murder of Yoshitaka Mashiba, the CEO of a company, that brings the team together. Although there is a strong hint at the beginning of the book that his wife, Ayane, murdered him, there are enough fingers pointing at other solutions. Besides, Ayane was miles away visiting her parents when the murder occurred. 

 More a traditional mystery than most “mystery” books put out in the U.S., Yukawa represents the best homage to heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. He is eccentric and brilliant like those detectives and in addition, as we saw in Devotion, vulnerable. Although Yukawa’s character and the plotting of the book are nods to British and American creations, Salvation is very Japanese. The societal differences in the story will give an American reader pause, especially when contemplating the solution which seems rooted in Asian culture. 

I thought this book was unusual, clever, and entertaining. While Devotion was Yukawa’s story, Salvation is Kusanagi and Utsumi’s. Yukawa was the protagonist and antagonist of Devotion. In Salvation, he is the wise man on the mountain, while Kusanagi and Utsumi do the heavy climbing.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt ($14.99)

This book's drowsy and almost formal tone is misleading. Violence, anger, death have a matter-of-fact feel to them. There's a touch of the deadpan, à la "Deadwood," the HBO Shakespearean-inflected western series, only without the swearing. It masks the action, often violent, sometimes gruesome, that gallops through the book.

Eli Sisters, the narrator of the story, has a temper but it's mitigated by an off-kilter moral compass. Is it a product of the frontier days of 1851 Oregon and California during the gold rush? Eli and his brother, Charlie -- the Sisters brothers of the title -- make their living, such as it is, by being hit men for a blackhearted and ambitious 1850s version of a mob boss, "The Commodore." Charlie seems to relish his role, while Eli tries to find some of life's important lessons as he performs his duties.

The Commodore has sent the brothers down to California to kill a gold prospector who has stolen something from him. Theirs not to reason why, they set out from Oregon City on mismatched horses, Charlie's a normal one and Eli's a swaybacked, lump of a horse who may be Virgil to Eli's Dante.

The brothers wield an impersonal scythe of death as they journey to San Francisco to meet The Commodore's investigator, Morris, who will lead them to Hermann Kermit Warm (what a fine Muppet name or maybe it's a singing group from the 60s), the prospector.

Although this book was shortlisted for the British Man Booker prize, a reader will probably determine within the first ten pages if the tone and pacing is attractive or irritating, thus avidly finishing the book or tossing it away with a puzzled frown. Is the humor too black? Is the moral quest too ambiguous? Is Eli a slippery character or a product of his times and genetics? Who is to blame for the atrocities? Is "That's life!" the moral of the story?

What a difficult task DeWitt set before himself to carry the book's tone and feel through to the end. I think he was successful. The book's dark humor was perversely engaging. The brothers' task, a mutated knight's quest, begs a conclusion, and that's the hook that carries the reader along. The "River of Light" at the end lived up to its name in that it illuminated both the physical and the metaphysical. Or you could just enjoy it as a eccentric adventure story.

This will be on my list of recommended books at the end of the year.

Here's a taste of DeWitt's prose:

I do not like to argue and especially not with Charlie, who can be uncommonly cruel with his tongue. Later that night I could hear him exchanging words in the road with a group of men, and I listened to make sure he was not in danger, and he was not -- the men asked him his name and he told them and they left him alone.


Charlie and I had an unspoken agreement not to throw ourselves into speedy travel just after a meal. There were many hardships to our type of life and we took these small comforts as they came; I found they added up to something decent enough to carry on.


'He describes his inaction and cowardice as laziness.' Charlie said.
'And with five men dead,' I said, 'he describes our overtaking his riches as easy.'
'He has a describing problem,' said Charlie.

and finally:

There was a warm wind pushing down through the valley and off the surface of the water; it kissed my face and caused my hair to dance over my eyes. This moment, this one position in time, was the happiest I will ever be as long as I am living. I have since felt it was too happy, that men are not meant to have access to this kind of satisfaction…

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell ($15) (c2004)

This is a brilliantly unlikely book: six stories that build to a crescendo and then a revelatory diminuendo. The first half of five stories appear in the first half of the book. The first, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," ends mid-sentence. Only "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" in the middle remains whole. What is the purpose of all this? the reader wonders for half the book. There are hints, brief references in each story to the prior one, a shared mysterious comet-shaped birthmark, but it isn't until "Sloosha's" and the descending appearance of the second halves of each of the other stories that David Mitchell's thesis becomes clear.

Mitchell plays a writerly game that is both creative in its conception and astounding in its execution. He writes in various styles, including a journal by a lawyer from San Francisco on board a miserable schooner crossing the Pacific in 1850; a series of letters written by a self-indulgent, roguish, penniless composer in 1931 Belgium; a seemingly straightforward, third-person mystery set in a 1970s coastal community in California; a memoir by a British conman set in what may be the present; an interview of a soon-to-be-executed slave-clone in a Korean prison set about 120 years in the future; and finally, a first-person, slang-laden narrative by a boy from a post-apocalyptic community, set a few generations after its preceding story. Whew!

I've watched some of the ads for the movie version which has just come out. It gives away too much. Silence the television, don't read the witty or gossipy interviews of any of the movie people. Read the book first. If you want to be truly surprised, don't read this review any further.


The true genius of this work is how each story is intriguing in its own right. Each voice is spot on. Each resolution touching and illuminative. Perhaps Mitchell intends this to be a cautionary tale. It is even hinted that perhaps the various futures are malleable, that each story may not necessarily cascade to produce or affect the next in line.

Here are some quite lovely quotes from the book.

From "Letters of Zedelghem," in which an older composer is interviewing a younger one, 1931 Belgium:

'I wished to prove I'm a serious applicant.'
'Serious applicant for what?'
'The post of your amanuensis."
'Are you mad?'
Always a tricker question than it looks. 'I doubt it.'


One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn't, the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner.

From "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," 1970s California:

The editor-in-chief of Spyglass magazine declares the Monday A.M. features meeting open by stabbing a stubby digit at Roland Jakes, a grizzled, prunelike man in an aloha shirt, flared Wranglers, and dying sandals.

From "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," probably present time:

I got sloshed. Guy the Guy introduced me to a cocktail called 'Ground Control to Major Tom.' Time's Arrow became Time's Boomerang, and I lost count of all my majors. A jazz sextet kicked off a rumba.


Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

From "An Orison of Sonmi-451," about 120 years in the future:

If, by happiness, you mean the absence of adversity, I and all fabricants are the happiest stratum in corpocracy, as genomicists insist. However, if happiness means the conquest of adversity, or a sense of purpose, or the xercise of one's will to power, then of all Nea So Copros's slaves we surely are the most miserable.

From "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," generations after "Orison":

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o' that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o'clouds.

(Count the number of times the number six or the word "sextet" comes up. Count how many times clouds roam through the picture. However, you probably should do this on your second or third reading of the book.)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Say You're Sorry, by Michael Robotham (hardcover, $24.99)

I've been a fan of Michael Robotham since I read Night Ferry with the unique character of Ali Barba, the Sikh female detective. Unfortunately, Ali has not returned to play, so we're left with Joe O'Loughlin, psychologist, and Victor Ruiz, formerly Ali's mentor and current retiree. The books in the series are sometimes from Joe's viewpoint and sometimes from Victor's. I'm less enamored of Joe, who has whined about his estranged perfect wife in one book too many, but he's the one with the mad skills. He's observant, obsessive, and intuitive. Victor has experience and determination going for him. So which one would you send out to locate a teenage girl who has been missing three years?

Oxford isn't the dignified and scholarly town portrayed by Colin Dexter or, most recently, S. J. Bolton. In Robotham's latest book, non-academic people have their problems, too. Three years ago 15-year-old Piper and Tash disappeared. Tash has suddenly turned up, frozen to death in an iced-over river. Where is Piper and where have they been all these years? Part of the book is Piper's narrative, so we begin with the assumption that she's still alive.

Joe was in town to give a speech and he gets co-opted into helping the local police. Joe calls in Victor. Joe's character is similar to Val McDermid's Tony Hill, but without as many of the tics and autism. Joe's tics, as it were, are related to his Parkinson's disease, which is slowly but relentlessly consuming him. In fact, Robotham and McDermid are peas in a pod, with McDermid having slightly bigger and darker peas. In Joe's stories, psychology trumps brute force.

That's not to say there isn't action. After about 350 slow-moving but meticulously crafted pages, it was hard to turn the last 80 pages fast enough.

I hope the next book is Victor's. He's gruff, tough, bright, direct, loyal. He's a Rottweiler of a man. (Actually, I hope Robotham brings back Ali Barba.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

William Kent Krueger -- an interview (9/24/12)

William Kent Krueger was in town to publicize his latest Cork O'Connor book, "Trickster's Point." He talked engagingly about many things, some of which were very surprising. Read his interview on our website: