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

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Last Whisper in the Dark by Tom Piccirilli (hardcover, $26) (release date-7/9/13)

"The Last Whisper in the Dark" is the extraordinary follow-up to the extraordinary "The Last Kind Words," one of MBTB's best books of 2012.

This is a modern-day version of Dante's "Inferno." Terry Rand, the narrator of both stories, must make his way through the harrowing levels of the hell that his life has become. Are there any safe havens for him? Not likely, not in this lifetime, but that doesn't stop Terry from trying to find one.

In "The Last Kind Words," we were introduced to the Rand family: grandfather Shepherd and his sons, Pinscher, Malamute, and Greyhound. Mal and Grey don't have legitimate children, so Pinscher has carried on the family ritual (or curse) of naming offspring after dogs. His children are Collier, Terrier (or Terry), and Airedale. Another family tradition is thieving. Whether it's second story work, grifting, cheating, or lying, confidence, trust, valuables, and money are stolen artfully and professionally.

If you haven't read the first book, stop reading right here because there are major spoilers to the first book coming right along.


For those of you who have read the first book, here is a reminder of what happened to bring us to the beginning of the current book. Collier was on death row for a killing spree. He insisted, however, that one of the murders attributed to him was not his. He sought the help of his estranged brother, Terry, to help uncover the real killer. Terry had moved out of state and was working on a ranch, trying to forget his warped little family. His sister, Dale, calls him for help with the turmoil surrounding Collier's impending execution. Terry, in fact, finds the true killer of the extra victim. In the process, Terry's uncles Mal and Grey are killed.

As we begin "Last Whisper," Pinscher is a retired thief, still collecting Toby mugs, and stealthily disappearing at night. Sixteen-year-old Dale acts in school plays and dreams of being an actress. Grandpa Shep is still shrouded in the mists of Alzheimer's. Terry still longs for his teenage love, Kimmy, who has married his former best friend, Chubb. They have a daughter that Terry nicknames "Scooter" in his daydreams.

"Last Whisper" mostly belongs to Ellie, Terry's mother. After thirty years of silence and exile by her family because she married Pinscher, Ellie's brother, Will, has called because their father, Perry, is dying. Will, Perry, and Will's son, John, are all in the movie business and for most of that time have lived just twenty minutes away from Ellie in New York.

"I didn't even know her maiden name," Terry thinks. It is Crowe. And the collective noun, murder of crows, seems somehow to apply, because who and what they are trigger murder or thoughts of murder.

Terry also has been summoned to Perry's deathbed. Perry wants him to kill someone. Why do people assume I am a killer, he thinks throughout the book. "You look like you want to kill everybody all the time," another character finally answers.

Although Terry goes out of his way not to kill anyone, even going so far as to craft convoluted alternative solutions, violence and death dog his steps.

In addition to dodging around his newly found family members, his ex-friend Chubb has gotten himself mixed up in a bank robbery scheme gone haywire. Chubb is in hiding, and a real killer -- a beautiful, charming, enigmatic, philosophical man named Walton Endicott -- has been hired to kill Chubb and the robbers. Endicott's weapon -- a needle. (Acupuncture, knitting, sewing? Terry muses.) The ultimate conflict arises. Does Terry really want to save Chubb, because if Chubb dies, he could claim the affections of Kimmy and Scooter.

"Last Whisper" has the feel of a tale set within the mythology of our collective unconscious. There are a moral conflict, a hero, devil incarnates, obstacles, temptations, debaucheries, and what Terry calls "the underneath."

One of the glowing examples of that ethereal feel to Tom Piccirilli's book is Terry's first meeting with Walton Endicott, the hit man. At a restaurant, Endicott offers his hand, almost a romantic gesture. Terry feels compelled to hold it across the table, like lovers or soulmates do, as he listens to a degenerate man discourse on what has caused the degeneration of our society.

What keeps Terry from running away again, abandoning his near or dear to their levels of hell? Why does he feel compelled to be their conduit for redemption? There's no logical answer, because in mythology, the hero in the end always decides to stay the course. The comfortless conclusion Terry draws is, "Even if you could save them they'd just turn on you and set fire to you in the end."

"The Last Kind Words" and "The Last Whisper in the Dark" is a two-act tragedy. Piccirilli's words capture Terry's heroism and fluttering optimism and his family's sense of tragic destiny so well. The books are elegiac and provoking. They are a tiny dose of tender comedy and a large cold serving of revenge.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Safe House, by Chris Ewan (hardcover, $25.99)

[I wrote this review a long time ago, but because of the upheaval at Murder by the Book, I completely forgot about posting it at the appropriate time, i.e., near its release date in December 2012. It's always satisfying when someone I like writes a book I like, which makes me doubly sorry that I didn't post this in a more timely fashion. -- Barbara]

Author Chris Ewan lives on the Isle of Man, and he has made his hometown a big player in this story of intrigue and double-dealings. It's an island off the coast of Great Britain, with a population of about 80,000 and its own laws and culture.

Rob Hale fixes heating problems by trade and races motorcycles by talent and inclination. (In real life, the Isle of Man hosts one of the world's most famous motorcycle races, the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT).) One day Rob is called to a remote house on the island to fix a broken boiler. He meets Lena, a strange, beautiful woman, who lives in the house with two gruff-looking men. She tells him she wants to go for a ride on his motorcycle, but she can't tell the two men. Is she a prisoner? a conspirator? a criminal? The secret motorcycle ride ends in an accident and Lena's disappearance. Rob begins a hunt with Rebecca, the private investigator his mother hired to find out what happened to Rob's dead sister, Laura, that pits him against legal and criminal forces, both of whom want Rob's hide.

It's a big book (488 pages) because it's actually two stories in one. One follows Rob's course in the first-person, the other is a third-person narration of what happens to Lena. Ewan could have done a tighter book with minimal information on Lena, but Lena's convoluted story is full of pluck and ingenuity. Why would we want to miss that?

Despite the scenes of brutality (not too graphic, by today's standards), this book has a sweetness to it, in the characters of Rob Hale and his loving, normal family, in the descriptions of the Isle of Man. Ewan does a good job prolonging the suspense of who Lena is, what Rebecca's role really is, and how Rob's dead sister, Laura, is involved. It's sometimes a "who's the tougher chick" contest between Rebecca and Lena, who have a vague interchangeability, as they make their way through increasingly outrageous situations. The winner, however, is the reader.

A Serpent's Tooth by Craig Johnson (hardcover, $26.95)

It's a fine thing to wait all year for something gleefully special to happen: Christmas, Halloween, a birthday … the latest Walt Longmire adventure.

Craig Johnson continues to write about HIS characters -- Walt, Henry, Vic, Dog, The Basquo, and Ruby -- never mind what A&E is doing to them on "Longmire." A&E does a most excellent job of portraying these characters for television, but they are from an alternate universe, similar to Johnson's but not the same.

It is Johnson's characters who juggle humor and drama so well, and it is Johnson's Walt whose first-person voice sounds so clear and true that surely he must be real. There is no substitute for the original telling.

Absaroka County, Wyoming, has had more than its share of problems over the years, keeping Sheriff Walt Longmire pretty busy since "The Cold Dish" appeared in 2004. Time has not stood still for any of the characters, but most especially not for Walt and his nearest and dearest. Cady, his daughter, is expecting a baby any day. Walt and Victoria "Vic" Morelli, one of his deputies, are a couple. (A couple of what, Walt would ask.) An actual mystery storyline seems almost superfluous to the laughs and tears conjured by the continuing stories of the regular characters.

When Johnson isn't catching us up with the next episodes in the lives of the fine people of Durant, he does have a major story to tell. In the case of "Serpent's Tooth," it starts with the appearance of a teenager, a strange young man who says he was cast out of a Mormon group in South Dakota. That leads to the discovery of a related group right in Absaroka County.

Upon investigation, the Mormon group presents some peculiarities that lead Walt and his crew to a whole lot of people whose last name is Lynear, an old polygamist who builds spaceships, a 200-year-old man, some very un-Mormon-like people and behavior at the compounds, a Mexican "poet lariat," and a fistful of trouble.

The phrase, "a serpent's tooth," is from Shakespeare, and it is a reminder that Walt is more than he appears. Yes, he was raised in Wyoming. Yes, he has known Henry Standing Bear since they were both wee cubs. Yes, he was a tough Marine, a football star, a no-nonsense modern frontiersman. But it is also true that Walt has a degree in English literature from USC. He doesn't do it often, but he can quote The Bard, and his bretheren probably, with unconscious ease.

In his typical endearing fashion, Johnson gives us a good story, something important to think about, and more poignant moments than Dog can shake a leg at.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns (hardcover, $26.95)

It's been a while since Stephen Dobyns released a novel. (Carolyn really likes his "Saratoga" series and gave one of them an MBTB star, if I remember correctly.) This (so far) standalone novel, "The Burn Palace," is a cross between "Our Town" and "The X-Files."

For about the first hundred pages, we meet the people of Brewster, Rhode Island, a small town that used to have only small town problems. It was hard to figure out who the alpha character was; Dobyns introduces many residents and each one has at least a paragraph attached. Actually, the next couple hundred pages does much the same thing: more characters and more little stories.

Woody Potter turns out to be a pivotal character. He is a state police detective. He is a veteran of Iraq. He is, unfortunately for his brand-new ex-girlfriend, also the strong, silent type and has difficulty expressing his emotions, which is directly responsible for making his girlfriend an ex.

Bobby Anderson, another state police detective, also bears watching.

Woody and Bobby have the unenviable task of joining forces with other law enforcement types, including the token buffoon in the barrel shape of the local "acting" chief of police in Brewster, to figure out what the heck is with all the woo-woo stuff going on in Brewster. First a newborn baby is stolen from the hospital and a snake left in his place. Then there are rumors and accusations of satanic rites and witchcraft. And there's an ominous and unprecedented gathering of coyotes in the area. Usually timid creatures, these coyotes are aggressive and wide-ranging.

"The Burn Palace" is biographies stitched together by a trickle of a sinister plot. In terms of action, the tension doesn't rev up until the last eighty or so pages, although there are a few jump-from-your-seat moments before that. There's also an awkward (or satiric, if you want to give the author the benefit of the doubt) sex scene. However, most of the bios are interesting, some of them clever (state police detective Beth Lajoie, for instance), some evoking pathos (e.g., Ernest Hartmann, the first murder victim, who was scalped to boot), and some just odd (e.g., young Baldo Bonaldo of fart machine fame). The most intriguing character is the narrator, a voice that sometimes has more shape than in most third-person novels, like the Stage Director in "Our Town."

Could Dobyns have done with fewer pages? Yes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Complaints by Ian Rankin ($14.99) (c2009)

[I've arrived a little late to this party. "The Complaints" was written in 2009.]

R.I.P. John Rebus and know that you are missed. Scottish author Ian Rankin retired his long-serving homicide detective John Rebus (19 novels since 1987, plus a recent sneak return in "Standing in Another Man's Grave"). However, as he stated in interview material in the back of the paperback edition of "The Complaints," Rankin stumbled across interesting material about the Scottish police version of Internal Affairs, the police department that investigates other police officers for misconduct, and couldn't pass it up. At the time he wouldn't resurrect Rebus -- although he changed his mind a couple of years later, as noted above -- so he created a new series.

"The Complaints" is very well constructed. I loved the complexity of plot points, the layering of storylines, and the way Rankin assembled all the pieces at the end. BUT. But the story didn't start moving along until nearly the end of the book.

Malcolm Fox, a sincere detective in Edinburgh police department's Complaints and Conduct, aka The Dark Side, aka Complaints, is the focal point of the book. He is rather plodding, although there are intermittent flashes of dry wit and a couple of notes of life's song humming about him. For the most part he is his job and his job is what he is.

A few other detectives in Complaints fill some of the pages: Tony Kaye is Fox's friend, Bob McEwan is his boss. After sealing and delivering evidence of inappropriate dealings by Detective Glen Heaton, Fox is suddenly assigned to help Annie Inglis in cornering another detective in Heaton's division, this time for child pornography. Jamie Breck appears pleasant, competent, and charismatic, which belies the accusation Fox is asked to investigate. Inglis says perpetrators often appear charming.

Vince Faulkner, the no-good boyfriend of Fox's sister, Jude, is murdered after injuring Jude in a domestic altercation. Suddenly Fox is on the other side of the fence. He is being eyed for the position of chief suspect. Fox teeters precariously between keeping to his job investigating Breck and having a back door look into who offed Vince, hoping all the while that it wasn't his sister.

One of the biggest strengths of "The Complaints" is Rankin's stark and intelligent look into the economics of Scotland at the time. Banks were failing, housing developments were in trouble, and jobs were scarce. Rankin weaves it all together with the smaller threads of individual human frailty and venality.

While Fox is no Rebus -- and who among us Rankin readers can avoid the comparison -- he is steadfast and true. Jamie Becker is the charismatic light and steals the show whenever he appears. Whether he is guilty or not of the pornography charge, he ends up as the strangely matched, unofficial partner to Fox in unraveling their concurrent miseries.

How could I not root for Becker to be innocent? It is to Rankin's credit that there are no assumptions that can be made about any of the characters, including Fox, since this is the first in the Complaints series. It went down to the wire.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller (hardcover, $26)

I was sad when this book was over. It had all the elements that I love: comedy, tragedy, quirkiness. They were mixed in impeccable proportions, solidified by solid pacing and lyrical writing.

Norwegian by Night is not a true mystery because you know who the victim is and who killed her. This is a story of people on the run from the bad guys, but it's not like any other on-the-run story you've ever read. One of the people on the run is dressed in a tin foil makeshift Viking outfit with a dust bunny tied up in a pillowcase.

After the recent death of Sheldon Horowitz's wife, he moved from New York to Oslo, Norway, to live with his granddaughter, Rhea, and her Norwegian husband, Lars. Mabel, Sheldon's wife, was convinced that Sheldon had dementia and that thought has passed to their granddaughter, who was raised by Sheldon and Mabel. "'What am I going to do there?'" Sheldon asks, "'I'm an American. I'm a Jew. I'm eighty-two. I'm a retired widower. A Marine. A watch repairman. It takes me an hour to pee. Is there a club there I'm unaware of?'" (He is also the modest author of a popular book of photographs entitled, "What?" In it are portraits of angry people. Sheldon reveals that he sometimes has done outrageous things to get his subjects angry.)

Sheldon's eccentricities or dementia are tied to a contradictory dwelling in the past and at the same time a stubborn avoidance of it. Sheldon fought in the Korean War. Events from that war, which are revealed slowly, have affected him profoundly, although he is unable to talk about what happened. When we first meet Sheldon, he is concerned about North Koreans following him: "They'd been tracking him since 1951 -- he was sure of it. You don't kill twelve men named Kim from the top of a seawall at Inchon and think they're going to forgive and forget…They have Chinese patience, but an Italian-style vendetta streak."

Sometimes his befuddlement is not of his own making. Lars says that two hunting rifles he owns are named Moses and Aaron. "'You have Jewish rifles?'" Sheldon asks. No, Lars explains, they are named after two Norwegian cannons that sank a German ship. Even more puzzled, Sheldon asks: "'Norway has Nazi-killing Jewish cannons?'"

In recent times, he has insisted to Rhea and Lars that he was a sniper in Korea, contradicting what he told Mabel and everyone else for years, that he was a file clerk during the war. Was he a sniper or was he a file clerk? Sheldon says to one of the imaginary companions -- dead people from his past whom he has mentally resurrected -- who occasionally accompany him, "[I]t's not just about what I remember. It's what I don't remember…I don't remember filing anything." Sheldon's logic and memory may be shaky at times, but something is surely rising from his past to help him in his present. "In this life," he thinks, "my memories are the smoke I choke on, burning my eyes."

Rhea and Lars's upstairs neighbors are a Serbian emigré and her young son. One day, while Rhea and Lars are out, Sheldon hears shouting, then the obvious sounds of the woman and her child on the run. Without a large preponderance of thinking, Sheldon opens his door and pulls in the woman and child. Before they can get out a back way, they hear the front door kicked in. At the urging of the mother, Sheldon and the child hide in a closet, so they do not see the intruder who murders the mother. The shouting, the imprecations, the explanations are all in a language Sheldon does not understand. The boy, about 7 or 8 years old, cannot communicate with him. Now what?

Using a sort of thickheaded logic and, worse yet, in the absence of substantiating evidence, Sheldon decides that if it is the boy's father who has murdered the mother, he does not want to let "Paul," as he has nicknamed his silent charge, fall into the hands of the authorities who then might possibly turn him over to his father, the murderer. It would be a different story if this reasoning were faulty, so in fact, the murderer is the boy's father, a Kosovar soldier who finally tracked down the woman and her son, and Sheldon and Paul are justified in running away.

Sheldon eventually comes up with a plan to get to Rhea and Lars's summer home in a remote wooded area. He figures the police will be looking for an elderly American man with a Serbian child, so he pretends to be a German man with his Viking-obsessed grandson -- thus the aforementioned disguise. He plans to lie low until he hears that the killer has been caught.

In implementing his plan, it becomes obvious that Sheldon knows things that ordinary people do not. He also hears things that ordinary people do not. His invisible companions challenge his decisions and force him to revisit his past. WWII and the Korean, Vietnam, and Serbian Wars are the moral backdrops to the current story. The atrocities done in the name of patriotism and ideology -- can they be excused, excised, laid to rest? Are all survivors of war doomed to carry a private burden that sways even their smallest thoughts?  It is not just Sheldon's physical journey to escape a killer but his psychological journey to forgive himself that keeps him moving. 

Sheldon and Mabel's only child, Saul, died in the Vietnam War. Sheldon had been so proud that his son was fighting to defend his country. Too young to fight in WWII, Sheldon wasn't able to personally defend the European Jews against the atrocities there, so he fought in Korea and left a moral example for Saul to follow. Consequently, Sheldon blames himself for sending his son to his death. There are some moving passages as Sheldon imagines what Saul's last few moments must have been like.

Everything coalesces in the end, all of Sheldon's memories, experiences, guilt, courage, and what he truly is as opposed to what he thought he was. There is the final showdown and, like so much of the rest of the book, it is unexpected.

What part of this book is NOT quotable? I had a forest of post-its marking passages.

At one point, Sheldon is overwhelmed with his undertaking: "History itself constantly threatens to take him over and leave him defenseless under its weight. It's not dementia. It's mortality."

When Sheldon and Paul find shelter by breaking into someone's summer home, Sheldon muses on how different homes can be: "And wait until you get to England and find they put carpets in the bathrooms, as if that isn't the grossest idea in Western civilization. One New Year's party over there and you'll never walk barefoot again."

I haven't even mentioned Sigrid Ødegård, the police detective trying to catch the murderer and find Sheldon and Paul. She, too, is a fine eccentric character. But the story is Sheldon's, no argument. Everyone else is there to provide Sheldon with the means to carry on his emotional journey.

Perhaps it's true that the best sort of book is not unlike the best sort of food: sweet and sour. The yin and yang, if balanced, yields a delight to the senses. Derek Miller balances humor and sadness so well.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Graveland by Alan Glynn ($16)

Graveland is apparently the third in a loosely related series by Irish author Alan Glynn. It's set in the U.S. and concerns the financial world. Did I miss something by not reading the other two books (Winterland and Bloodland) first? Probably. The book seemed disjointed as a standalone.

Ellen Dorsey is a prickly journalist of lengthy magazine articles. Craig Howley is the second-in-command of a private equity firm. Frank Bishop used to be an architect and now works as the manager of an electronics store. Their paths intertwine when the head of a big investment bank and the CEO of a hedge fund are murdered. Persons unknown apparently are making a statement on behalf of the other 98%.

It felt as though the book was at an end about halfway through. There's a stand-off with the people who committed the murders. Although their cause and beliefs are at the crux of the crimes, they are given short shrift as characters and their incoherent manifesto is a fair throwaway. The second half of the book finally brings to the forefront what the three main characters have to do with each other.

There were many plot twists that were quite clever, but there were a lot of financial terms thrown around to retard the narrative pace. Not that I wanted an explanation, truncated or extended, academic or prosaic. There were just a heck of a lot of terms, phrases, coughing up of business hairballs.

At one point, Ellen Dorsey thinks:

"In discussing stuff like fractional reserve banking, the creation of the Fed, the Glass-Steagall Act, Keynes, the Chicago School, subprime, securitization, the bailouts, there'll be an initial hint of reasonableness, a striving for clarity -- for the holy grail of a coherent point -- but sooner or later, and without fail, each contribution will descend into ambiguity, internal contradiction, and ultimately gibberish."

Ironically, at times I just wanted clarity, too.