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

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Door in the River, by Inger Ash Wolfe (hardcover, $25.95)

Inger Ash Wolfe's three books are such an odd mixture of charming and gruesome.

In The Calling, the first book in the series, we met the headstrong, awkward, and intuitive Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef of the Port Dundas, Canada, police force. Although she was the interim commanding officer of the force in that book, by the time of A Door in the River, the town of Port Dundas is changing and a past subordinate has returned to be her boss. The outside world is invading small-town Port Dundas with a vengeance, and none of it is good.

Hazel's mother and housemate, the peremptory and equally strong-willed Emily Micallef, the former mayor of Port Dundas, is fading. The new detective constable, James Wingate, needs a vacation after the events of the past few months. (Although the novels appeared over a space of three years, the events in the books take place within about a year.) All is in flux when this story begins.

As Wolfe has similarly begun in the prior books, an impossibly strange series of crimes has occurred. It begins when an autopsy shows that Henry Wiest, a resident of Port Dundas, died of a bee sting. But he died late at night in the parking lot of a First Nation reservation smoke shop. Henry didn't even smoke and bees are not nocturnal. Hazel bulls her way through the investigation, never mind the niceties of notifying higher-ups, acquiring warrants, or following the law. It's hard not to like Hazel.

It's a book I'd like to recommend to people who enjoy good characters, but the queasy psychopathic element is limiting. Nevertheless, there is something compelling about Hazel and her gang. I chose The Calling as a year's best pick in 2009, and I continue to be a fan.

This is why Wolfe's writing exceeds expectations:
Her instinct every time she reached this juncture, when the temperature of an investigation went up beyond her comfort zone, when she knew time was flowing through her hands like water dashed from a bucket, was to push. Something seemingly immovable would have to be moved.
P.S. There were a lot of people happily guessing away at the real identity of Inger Ash Wolfe, an admitted pseudonym. Wolfe is really Canadian author Michael Redhill. He said that his books written under his real name are about elements that are missing or have disappeared, so "Pseudonymity would turn out to be a theme in The Calling, and it spoke directly to my obsession with the possibilities of the hidden life."

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Absent One, by Jussi Adler-Olsen (hardcover, $26.95)

I loved The Keeper of Lost Causes. It introduced two eccentric characters, Carl Mørck, the head of and sole officer assigned to Department Q of the Copenhagen police, and Hafez el-Assad, his civilian assistant, who comes complete with prayer rug and thick, sweet coffee. Department Q is the newly formed cold case section. Carl has been assigned to it because he's a good detective but a difficult, caustic, antisocial human being. He does not play well in the sandbox, so why not give him his own sandbox?

Carl and Assad achieved a measure of success in their first case, so the powers-that-be must tolerate them, while not moving them out of their basement dungeon or giving them any actual benefits. To "help" with his duties, Carl has been assigned an additional person, Rose, a woman who washed out of the police academy but qualified to hold a civilian job with the department. And, yes, she's very odd. "Q" apparently stands for qnot-qwanted-qanywhere-qelse. It would have been fine had the book been mostly about them, but it's mostly not.

Adler-Olsen takes us into the minds of a group of psychologically stunted, high-achieving individuals, a group of men and one woman who have known each other since a sick bond was forged in prep school. Kirsten-Marie Lassen, "Kimmie," has not had direct contact with the men for quite a while when the story starts. She's living on the streets but seems to have a lot of money. She's afraid, yet she's also a stalker.

Right from the start, Adler-Olsen takes most of the mystery out of the story. The case Carl and Assad decide to investigate is the murder of a brother and sister about twenty years earlier. One of the group confessed to the crime nine years later, and he currently languishes in prison. Carl and Assad become convinced that there is more to the story, and that's how they discover the group. As teenagers they were emotional and physical bullies. The key to unlocking the group dynamic seems to rest with Kimmie, so the book is really about finding Kimmie and discovering what makes her run.

The story is too long.

Too much from the point of view of Ditlev Pram, a private hospital entrepreneur, Torsten Florin, a fashion designer, and Ulrick Dybbøl Jensen, a stock market analyst. Kristian Wolf, a shipping magnate, is dead. Bjarne Thøgersen is in jail. They're sick. Let's not dwell too long on their inner workings. They want to find Kimmie and Kimmie wants to find them. Bam. Move along to the hunt.

Let's get back to Carl and his dysfunctional department. A group of Norwegian police representatives want to visit Carl to talk about his spectacular police work. Carl's bosses want to limit access to him because he's grumpy and unpredictable. Carl has no interest in meeting the unintelligible Norwegians anyway, but the inevitable must happen. It's a humorous touch to lighten what is a heavy load.

The relationship between Carl and Assad is slowly evolving. Into what probably won't be seen until a future book. Here Adler-Olsen simply is establishing that there's more to Assad than meets the eye. This partnership is what makes the series, and it's enjoyable to watch them track down the group and discover just what crimes the members have committed.

Warning: There are many graphic scenes and the resolution is particularly gruesome. Just so you know.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Harry Lipkin, Private Eye (hardcover, $24)

If Dragnet's Joe Friday were Jewish, funny, 87, and a private eye in Florida, he would be Harry Lipkin.

Harry, the octogenarian, is hired by a Norma Weinberger, a rich septuagenarian, to find articles that have disappeared in her home. She suspects one of her staff. Harry meticulously investigates each in turn, discovering their secret lives. Here is Harry trying to get the taciturn chauffeur to talk to him:
I decided to give him one of those questions you have to answer. It wasn't hard. It wasn't, what is the ratio of a square root of the power of a minus ten multiplied by the angle of the circumference? Or, how can anyone eat chicken soup without matzo balls? 
It was this. "What's your name, bud? First name, second name, and any you can think of in the middle."

Harry calls on contacts he has developed over many years living in Florida to help him with pieces of the puzzle. In the process, we learn a little more about Harry. He frequently reminisces about his earlier life. For instance:

I thought about my life back then. Not a worry in the world. I drank a little. I shot craps. I met dames with big smiles and no plans for the future. Then came Hitler. I joined the Marines. Hitler's show closed they put me on a troop ship home. After a year looking for work I got a job with the Miami Police Department. After three years I'd had enough of shift work and routine. I quit being a cop and took out a Private Investigator's license. It's been one hell of a game.

Barry Fantoni does a wonderful job letting Harry Lipkin tell his own story. It's funny and poignant and unexpected.

Blackberry Winter, by Sarah Jio ($15)

There is a death. It probably was murder. But mostly it is a simple romance.

In May, 1933, a sudden snowstorm blanketed the city of Seattle. During that snowstorm, 3-year-old Daniel disappeared from the apartment he shared with his mother, Vera. They were a half step from starvation in a time when very few people had much. Vera was working as a maid in a hotel and had to leave him asleep at home, alone. When she returned after work, Daniel was gone.

In the present time, Claire Aldridge is a reporter for a paper owned by her husband's family. It is May and there is an unexpected snowstorm. Someone somewhere nicknamed this sort of late storm a "blackberry winter." Claire and her husband had lost their baby a year before when a pregnant Claire was hit by a car. Since then, she has lacked enthusiasm, direction, purpose. Her marriage is faltering.

Claire's editor gives her the assignment of finding a human interest story to tie the two blackberry winters together. That is when Claire discovers Vera and Daniel's story. Suddenly some of Claire's focus returns as she begins to track down what happened to Vera and Daniel.

The book goes back and forth between the two stories. It is easy to guess that somewhere along the line the stories will cross. It is easy to assume that Claire will find out what happened. This is a sweet, undemanding tale. Vera has to do something morally repugnant to get help in finding Daniel, but other than that, it's like a fairy tale.

Big Maria, by Johnny Shaw ($14.95)

Rollicking caper adventure, bad-ass fun, the power of friendship, burro enlightenment, what does a proving range have to prove, and gold. Shake yourself and these elements vigorously, and you've got Big Maria, Johnny Shaw's second book.

I laughed. I cried. I couldn't wait to read more. If a crazy man wrote a caper novel, this is what it would be. I'll describe the book in a few sentences, but in no way does it do justice to the jam-packed adventures that the three losers/heroes experience.

Young Ricky's life is just barely sustainable. His joy and motivation come from his wife and young daughter. Then an accident leaves him hopeless.

Middle-aged Harry has an unfortunate nickname (read the book if you want to know) that he has tried to live down to. He's a prison guard on disability leave. Disability leave = getting drunk and doing disgusting things to himself.

Frank is an old man. All his friends have died and he has one foot teetering over his grave. It doesn't help that his daughter and her two sons are either intolerable, crazy, or high. (P.S. And funny!)

An odd set of circumstances brings the three men together on a quest for hidden gold.

It is easy to like the three. They combine the few talents they have, reach into themselves for the courage to begin, and fall into an unlikely friendship. Sometimes Shaw uses slapstick comedy and sometimes ironic humor. Sometimes it's "The Three Musketeers," sometimes "The Three Stooges." Shaw conjures up pathos and sentimentality, catastrophe and catharsis, and does it well.

Think Dante's journey. Replace Virgil with a donkey. Now you've got it.

Note: OMG, I did this review soooo long ago. Because we get advanced copies pretty early on, I hold the reviews until around the actual release date. I put this review in a nice tidy corner of my computer folder...and forgot about it. What was I thinking? I loved this book!

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Very Public Eye, by Lori L. Lake ($18.95)

Although Lori L. Lake lives in Oregon now, her series is set in Minnesota where she used to live. Reading her book set during a cold, cold winter made me feel downright cozy in 44-degree Portland. Lori is great at setting the scene, so her descriptions of driving on icy and snowy streets and, in particular, an attempted murder by car, with a little help from a snowbank, made me shiver and reach for the ice scraper.

This is Lori's second Leona "Leo" Reese book, and it is filled with wonderful writing, humor, and thoughtful moments.

Leo was once a St. Paul police sergeant. Unfortunately, she could not qualify on the shooting range and was subsequently moved to the Human Services Investigative Unit to look into complaints in care facilities, including, in this case, a chemical dependency unit. Because she had ticked off a higher-up in St. Paul, she has been exiled to Duluth. And this is where our story opens.

It wasn't just a common vision problem that sidelined Leo. She had cancer and her affected eye has been removed. The most moving part of the story is about Leo's attempt to reconcile herself to her new situation. We see her go through denial, anger, embarrassment, and self-pity. Finally, however, she reaches outside her own woes to focus on the job at hand. How could you not root for her?

A 17-year-old boy in the dependency clinic has been murdered by a particularly vitriolic method. Then a disappearance and another murder occur. Leo is joined by police detectives, her HR compatriot -- wheelchair-bound, wisecracking Thom Thoreson -- and other investigators sent from St. Paul HR. At all stages, on the other hand, her attempts to investigate are thwarted by a loathsome and incompetent administrator. He's definitely someone you will love to hate.

What elevates Lori's writing is her ability to add human and realistic touches to her story. You'll know immediately what I mean when you get to one of the last scenes in the book. It wasn't really necessary to advance the story, but it was necessary to show kindness and a loving heart contrasted with a duplicitous, heartless, and psychopathic nature.

A Very Public Eye had all the elements that make a story engaging, and this one is highly recommended.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Twelve Drummers Drumming, by C. C. Benison ($15)

Maybe it was inevitable that someone named Benison would come up with a mystery whose main character is a C of E vicar, especially one named Tom Christmas.

Yes, there are the "Father Christmas" jokes and jabs, leading a reader to think initially that this is a far cozier mystery than it actually is. It's cozy with thoughtful substance.

For instance, right from the start, we learn that what brought Tom and his nine-year-old daughter, Miranda, to the little picturesque village of Thornford Regis is the murder of his wife, Lisbeth. Her body was left on a porch of his big church in the big city of Bristol. While visiting Lisbeth’s sister, Julia, in Thornton Regis while still in mourning, Tom began to hope that the small village would heal his and Miranda’s wounds.

The village is a wonderfully gossipy, your-business-is-my-business kind of place, in the best Marple-esque tradition and, more recently, also reminiscent of Louise Penny’s Three Pines. The inhabitants all have secrets, and none of these secrets are safe. An admonition of “don’t tell” immediately translates to “don’t tell too many people.” 

Among the mysteries is the disappearance of Tom’s predecessor, Peter Kinsey. It is because one day Peter failed to show up for work that Tom now has his job. But where did Peter Kinsey go? Tom and Miranda sometimes play the game, Where is Peter Kinsey? Lounging in the sun, schussing down a slope, fattening himself on gobstoppers perhaps. Wherever. It is a whimsical pastime for Tom and his daughter. Until, of course, Kinsey is found deader than dead. And that’s the SECOND murder victim found within a week. Pretty bad batting average for such a little town.

Pretty, sly, spoiled, 19-year-old Sybella Parry was the first victim. Her body was shoved in a slashed giant Japanese drum, temporarily derailing a performance of the Thornford Regis taiko drummers (presumably there are twelve of them) at the village fair.

The quirky and sometimes charming occurrences and characters hide the underlying sadness of some of the villagers’ stories, including Tom’s.  Colonel Northmore’s captivity in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II still haunts him. British-born Mitsuko Drewe, of Japanese ancestry, is married to Liam, a hot-tempered restaurant owner. Sebastian, Tom’s verger (a church assistant), is secretive and burdened.  Tom’s sister-in-law, Julia, and her husband, a local doctor, seem tense in each other’s company.

Madrun Prowse, Tom’s housekeeper, types a daily gossipy letter to her mother, which proves to be a great way for readers to learn the “real” goings-on of the village.

A wigged-out, washed-up model, a former rock star, belligerent teenagers, taciturn police detectives, a handyman with a small problem, and other necessary personages of village life also add color.

Tom’s faith and pastoral commitment are tried, and his self-adjurations are reminders that Tom spent some time as a civilian – as a professional magician, of all things – before taking up the collar.

With the exception of a couple of four-letter expletives towards the end of the book and with awareness that a couple of controversial issues are covered, this book is firmly polite. I happily recommend it to a wide swath of reading types.

By the way, despite the Christmas references, including the title, this book is not set at Christmas.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Talking to the Dead, by Harry Bingham (hardcover, $26)

Fiona Griffith is a bottom-of-the-ladder detective constable on the Welsh police force. You know there's something different about her from the get-go. The book begins with her interview to join the police. That section ends with, "And just five years ago, I was dead." Later she talks about being on "Planet Normal" when things go well. Hmm…

Obviously there is a gimmick to this book. Fiona has something psychologically off kilter, and we don't learn what it is for quite a while. Harry Bingham does a great job building up the tension until the big reveal.

Fiona, "Fi," is a more accessible Welsh version of the tough women heroes created by Carol O'Connell (Kathy Mallory) and Stieg Larsson (Lisbeth Salander). Fi is smart (philosophy degree from Cambridge), meticulous ("I like things orderly. I's dotted, T's crossed."), and has some hidden yee-haw attributes, which are revealed periodically.

Fi's bosses don't know what to make of her. Other detectives are obviously wary of partnering with her. She tries really hard to follow the rules. And sometimes doesn't succeed. It's just that when an idea strikes, she's carried away with it. It's not that she doesn't know she's going off base, because she concocts schemes to hide what she's doing. Since she is the narrator of the story, we get to hear the wobbly wheels turning in her head. And it's a treat.

After Fi manages to insert a toe in the doorway of a big case, the rest of her uncaged personality soon follows. A prostitute and her young daughter are found murdered. It would be a more mundane case, except a bank card bearing the name of a local magnate is found with the body. Too bad that man is also dead. Like a dental tool probing a cavity, Fi chips away to find the decay within the community.

Bingham achieves a great balance between character and plot. It's easy to be intrigued by Fiona's mysterious past and admire how she comes up with insights into the case. Bingham also has a great feel for describing her moments of revelation or emotional catharsis, and it's hard not to give a silent "whoo-hoo" or "aww" in support.

I want this to be a series. I want the next book in the series. I want it now.