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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Soho Crime, 368 pages, $26.95

Natasha and her young daughter Katerina are immigrants to Denmark from the Ukraine. Natasha is running from something. After someone breaks into the Coal-House Camp for immigrants, where Natasha and Katerina were staying, the situation suddenly involves Nina Borg, a nurse who works there and the OCD heroine of two other books by Danish writers Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis.

In Death of a Nightingale, Kaaberbøl and Friis have created a compelling, intricate, and very human drama. It’s wonderfully translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard, although both Kaaberbøl and Friis are fluent in English. I can’t help but think that that served the story well.

Nina Borg’s back story is compelling but wisely only touches of it enter Death of a Nightingale. This story belongs to Natasha and Katerina. Interspersed with the present-day story is a tale set in 1934-35 Ukraine. Two young girls, Oxana and Olga, and their mother have been deserted by the man of the house. The Communist Party holds sway there, although many people in the village are not sympathizers. Oxana is primed by the Party teacher to be the shining example of the young Communist worker. Despite Oxana’s prominence, the family suffers from extreme poverty and deprivation. Intriguingly, the reader doesn’t find out what the two stories have to do with each other until the very end.

Natasha’s husband, a journalist, was murdered in the Ukraine a while ago. Her Danish boyfriend was recently murdered. Natasha is being hunted by two different countries, but is she guilty?

Søren Kirkegard, a detective with the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, is assigned to work with Symon Babko of the Ukrainian criminal police. He accompanied a high-level secret police officer, Jurij Savchuk, who is intent on finding Natasha. Savchuk seems to have his own agenda, which adds to the mystery surrounding Natasha.

Nina Borg’s personal life is crap. Her compulsions, including the one that makes her want to save everyone but herself, trip her up and have robbed her of what she holds dear. Although Katerina is not her child, she feels compelled to protect her. And that’s part of the problem: “Rina” is NOT her daughter.

What are people willing to do under stress? How will they live their lives afterward? The characters in the story must ask what shackles them and what they are willing to do to break free.

It’s hard for an author to create one worthy story; Kaaberbøl and Friis have concocted two.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith

Simon & Schuster, 306 pages, $25.99 (release date 11/12/13)

Give the man an Edgar, already! Okay?

Martin Cruz Smith has written many books, been nominated a bucketful of times for an Edgar, won a Gold Dagger, won a couple of Hammetts. He is one of the best crime story writers around, innovative and provocative.

Gorky Park was Smith's first Arkady Renko book, released in 1981, at a time when Russia was still the Soviet Union and American tourists had not yet begun to pour into Moscow. How the heck did American author Martin Cruz Smith know enough about what went on behind the Soviet veil to write a book starring a Moscow police detective? It was a fabulous, intriguing book.

Tatiana is the eighth Renko book and it is a fabulous, intriguing book as well.

Russia has changed considerably in the 30+ years since maverick investigator Renko first made his appearance. The Renko books reflect the changes in time, even if Renko himself does not appear to be 30 years older. He is described like this: "Arkady was a thin man with lank dark hair who looked incomplete without a cigarette." Now he works for a special prosecutor who dislikes him. His job is dark but his job title is whimsical: Senior Investigator for Very Important Cases.

Renko is joined by two other regulars: Victor Orlov, his alcoholic partner, and Zhenya, Renko's 17-year-old, chess-wizard ward.

Renko and Orlov primarily are following the reshuffling of power within the underworld after one of the most notorious crime lords is murdered. Will Alexi Grigorenko succeed his father in the "business"? Renko's neighbor/lover Anya Rudenko, a reporter, is also following the events and, more specifically, Alexi, possibly in a more personal way than Renko would like.

In addition, Renko has assigned himself a case that seems simple and underwhelming: locate the misplaced body of investigative reporter Tatiana Petrovna in the morgue. Although Tatiana has been declared a suicide victim, Renko's interest is piqued by a witness' statement that she could hear Tatiana scream as she fell from her balcony. In Renko's experience, suicides who leap from buildings die silently.

Tatiana "attacked corruption among politicians and police. Her favorite targets were the former KGB who dwelled like bats in the Kremlin." Needless to say, she had many enemies.

A mysterious notebook appears among Tatiana's effects. It is filled with symbols and seems incomprehensible. We know from the prologue that the notebook belongs to a murdered translator who was working at a business deal between people who are Russian and Chinese. The notebook makes its way from Tatiana to her editor, from the editor to Anya, from Anya to Renko, and finally from Renko to Zhenya, who has stolen it to hold as a bargaining chip to make Renko give his permission for Zhenya to join the army.

Everything eventually and intricately swirls together. At least one person is not surprised at the complexity of events. Orlov says about his partner, "'That will be on your tombstone, "Things Got Complicated."'"

Despite the introduction of many characters and the unlikely twining of the cases, Smith masterfully conducts his symphony of crime, including some devilish twists in the plot. Smith also shows us a depressing vision of Russia, most searingly exemplified by something Renko sees in his travels, a "Frankenstein's monster of a building," a decaying government office building that has never been occupied because of engineering errors. This is Russia now: half-built, unstable, not functioning, open to corruption.

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Little, Brown & Company, 288 pages, $25 (release date 11/5/13)

This is a most unusual book. Let me start with a quote from early in the book: "The water fell bathing gently all in its domain, the trees and the fields and the stone sill and the still seeping blood, rivulets running crimson towards the maw of the welcoming earth."

Paul Lynch is Irish, but the first thing I heard was Welshman Dylan Thomas's cadence. The grit and bleak portrayal of Ireland sometime in the 1800s reminded me of "There Will Be Blood," and the play of words reminded me of "Deadwood," each exulting in a language of its own. The recent death of poet Seamus Heaney was a reminder of the great poetical tradition of Irish works. Red Sky in Morning seems mythical, with a song-like telling.

The storyline is fairly straightforward. Coll Coyle is a young man, a husband and a father. He is a tenant on an estate. Inexplicably his family is evicted from the land they have lived on for generations. Young Hamilton, who inherited the land from his father, and his manager, John Faller, are inflexible in their stand.

Coll's anger builds and he goes after Hamilton, whom he accidentally kills. Suddenly he must flee; there is no court of next resort. He must leave his young family without a word of goodbye. One of his last sights is of his brother being tortured by Faller to learn Coll's whereabouts. Like the horrors in a grim fairy tale, Coll then encounters strange and dangerous people and situations. 

In an almost supernatural way, Faller tracks Coll. Coll hopes his new acquaintance, The Cutter, will help him escape. All Coll wants to do is eventually earn a little money, settle somewhere, and send for his beloved family. Coll and The Cutter traverse many levels of hell in search of this goal.

It's almost distracting how lovely Lynch's words are compared to the bleakness they often describe. For example, Lynch's description of the Irish landscape hits like a hammer: "Sedge scrunched under horse weight and the land opened to the bog, the encroached horizon of slumping dun hills and then they were riding upon the moss."

Coll is running away not only from the hand of justice in the form of Faller but also from a perceived cowardice on his part. He runs not to freedom but to encounters with death time and again, especially on a harrowing trip in the hold of a boat headed to America. On the other hand, Faller willingly brings death with him. He has a rather somber view of life: "The price of life is the burden of your own weight and some people are better off without it."

Each page is a revelation but Lynch reserves the last few pages for a final twist, his exclamation point to his story on the waywardness of life. This is a book rich with thoughtful and lyrical language, a grim and poignant story, and a reward for the reader who perseveres.

Moonlight Downs by Adrian Hyland

Soho Crime, 330 pages, $14

Emily Tempest, half white, half Aboriginal, has returned to her childhood home at Moonlight Downs in Australia. It has been ten years since she left in disgrace when she was a teenager. After having seen much of the outside world, she has returned for … what? It’s possible that Emily herself isn’t sure why she has returned to the dry, lonely desert that her “mob,” the Watlpuju tribe, inhabits.

In fact, during her absence, the tribe was driven off when white ownership of the land changed hands and they were not needed to work the land. They moved to the town of Bluebush, where they languished and were in danger of losing their sense of place in the world: 

And what a mob they were themselves. A bigger collection of dickheads and drop-kicks you’d have to travel a long way to find: boozers, bruisers and substance-abusers, rockjaw Germans and lockjaw Yorkshiremen, grease monkeys and gamblers, meat-workers, meat-heads, missionaries, maniacs, men on the run, men on the dole, men on the Witness Protection Program. Peddlers, pushers, whores and bores, desperadoes of every denomination. You name it, they were there, drawn to the town like flies to a carcass.

A successful land claim recently returned the mob to Moonlight Downs, as owners this time.

Emily returns to find a depleted tribe, but they are still led by Lincoln Finders, a man attuned to his natural world, comfortable with the mythology of his land. Adrian Hyland explains:

The Dreaming — the Jukurrpa — is everything to the Warlpuju: a map, a mythology, a memory bank, a song cycle, but also a code of conduct, out of which you step at your peril.

Lincoln’s daughter, Hazel, was Emily’s best friend. Will she still talk to Emily? They are adults now but Hazel left without a goodbye or explanation. Can a childhood friendship be redefined? Their relationship is really tested when someone murders Lincoln, and the white authorities don’t seem able to solve the crime. Emily’s stubbornness, the same trait that led to many troubles along her life’s path, won’t let her dismiss the death of a man who was like a father to her, especially not so soon after being reunited with him.

Hyland has created memorable characters, both black and white. He imparts the rhythm and sense of the various jargons very well. Fortunately, there’s a small glossary added for some of the strange Aussie terms. (I will tell you that “spaggy bol” (spaghetti bolognese) and “ute” (utility truck) aren’t included, however.) While Americans may have to fight initially for understanding, it’s well worth the effort. This is an example of the reward awaiting those who try. Speaking of a government official’s collection of books:

His Collected Works had more windows of opportunity than a Hamburg whorehouse, more cutting edges than a combine harvester, more benchmarks than a drunk’s forehead.

Also, and equally as important, Hyland lets you into a culture in which the spiritual world and physical world are not separate. The earth sings a song that its inhabitants can hear if only they would listen.

Moonlight Downs won Australia’s Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

Dennis Lehane Books, 320 pages, $25.99

Ivy Pochoda re-creates the spit of land that is Red Hook, Brooklyn, by her own lights, in the same way John Steinbeck could bring a neighborhood to life, with all its tragedies and comedies, odd characters, interwoven relationships, and grace. She brings a playwright's sensibility to her book; her characters enter stage right, play their hour upon the stage, and exit left. Her present tense telling serves to intensify the characters' (and reader's) anxiety and need for resolution.

Val and June are 15-year-olds from the neighborhood. One hot summer night ("It's a hot night in a calendar of hot weeks."), they float away on a pink raft. Val is discovered on the shore early the next morning, barely alive. A massive hunt begins for June. Jonathan, a music teacher, is the person who found Val and brought her to the safety of the nearby convenience store run by Fadi, a Lebanese immigrant. Two of the last people to see Val and June the night before are Cree and Monique, former classmates. Val says she doesn't remember what happened. Because of what Val and June did, the lives of these characters will change.

As the hunt for June dwindles with the passing of the summer days, these characters are inhibited by their torpor, their sense of waiting for something to happen. Everyone has secrets and hopes that are heightened by June's continued absence. Although the pacing doesn't feel slow, Pochoda thoughtfully reveals her characters' stories drop by drop until the last few pages move rapidly along.

There's a sweetness and underlying optimism to most of the characters, despite the sorrows that they bear. Does the "visitation" of the title indicate a punishment for the sins, real or perceived, of the residents of Visitation Street, will they be touched by a divine hand and find their hearts' desire, are the ghosts of their past too stubborn to throw off, or is it their fate to finally mourn the dead?

This is the neighborhood the night of the disappearance:

Late summer smells hang in the air -- ripe sewers, cookouts, and the scent of stagnant water that lingers in Red Hook no matter the season. The night echoes with other people's noise, laughter falling from windows and the call-and-response of competing boom boxes.

Ivy Pochoda's book is sublime.

I am awarding this an MBTB star!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Bride Wore Size 12 by Meg Cabot

William Morrow, 392 pages, $14.99

Meg Cabot is most famously known for The Princess Diaries. She has juggled many series for both adults and children, including her Heather Wells series for adults, of which The Bride Wore Size 12 is book six. 

Heather Wells is a dormitory assistant manager at a large New York university. She has to deal with everything from lost keys to murder. Too much murder, in fact. Her dorm has the not-so-secret nickname of The Death Dorm.

Heather used to be a teenage pop star, a past she is happy to have shed, although there are occasional squeals as people recognize her. She also shed Jordan, her pop star boyfriend, a grinning horse's patootie. She can't be too critical of him because he will soon be her brother-in-law. Cooper Cartwright, Heather's fiancé, is a private investigator and Jordan's brother. (It's a wonder Cooper has time for regular cases because Heather's plights keep him plenty busy.) They first met because of Jordan. Years later, after Heather's mother and her manager absconded with her fortune and left her directionless, Cooper offered her work as his bookkeeper and gave her a place to stay.

True love was not initially apparent and its course was certainly not smooth, but now Heather and Cooper are ready to marry. If only there weren't a dead body in Heather's dorm, and if only Heather's unrepentant mother weren't in town, expecting to be welcomed with open arms.

Meg Cabot has her pleasing formula down pat. She has created a funny and warm character in Heather Wells. Please don't call this "chick lit," it's Fun Lit.

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris by R. L. LaFevers

Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 387 pages, $7.99 (such a deal!) (c2008)

This is the second book in the Theodosia series by R. L. LaFevers. I rarely tell people to read a series in order, but you really should read the first book, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, before reading this one.

Theodosia is an 11-year-old girl in turn-of-the-last-century London. She is unusually independent for her age and the receptacle of arcane knowledge of ancient Egypt, both of which are the result of haphazard parental involvement, Mr. and Mrs. Throckmorton being preoccupied archaeologists and museum keepers, and access to a museum. Theodosia has more-or-less grown up in her parents' Museum of Legends and Antiquities, which has a large selection of artifacts, including mummies, of ancient Egypt.

Theodosia also has a talent for magic.

She can feel when something, magic-wise, isn't right. She can dispel and repel curses. With the help of her cat, Isis, she secretly keeps the museum, her parents, and the staff safe from harm.

While cleaning up a storeroom (full of mummies and cobwebby stuff), she chances upon a crooked staff. She straightens it and places an orb in it. Things -- strange things -- begin to happen. For instance, when the museum is opened the next morning, every mummy within walking distance is found in the main room of the Museum of Legends and Antiquities. Needless to say, the mummies' owners are peeved. Mr. Throckmorton is under suspicion of theft. The evil Serpents of Chaos are sniffing around. Young Theodosia is the best bet for restoring balance to the world.

Aided by the secret organization, The Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers, and Will, a street urchin, Theodosia fights for good against evil, while keeping ferocious Grandmother Throckmorton and her legion of unsuitable governesses at bay.

Love, love, love, love, love this series.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

University of Minnesota, 344 pages, $24.95
Translated by Tiina Nunnally

Lance Hansen is a "forest cop." He's a real policeman but his normal beat is the woods of northern Minnesota, chasing illegal campers, for instance, like a park ranger. His personal passion is the historical material of the area's Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish population. Sometimes it appears that he knows more about everyone's ancestral past than their present.

It is Lance who discovers the body of a naked man, murdered in the woods. It turns out that he was a Norwegian tourist. He and his friend had been canoeing and camping in the woods on vacation.

In a slow-moving fashion, Norwegian author Vidar Sundstøl lets Lance wander between past and present, drawing comparisons between the current murder and one he concludes happened during his great-grandmother's time. Drawing on slim information, Lance tries to solve the disappearance about a hundred and fifty years ago of an Ojibway medicine man. And although he's not directly involved in the Norwegian man's murder case, Lance nevertheless provokes others in the investigation to consider his involvement.

One of the men who definitely is involved in the murder case is a Norwegian detective, Eirik Nyland, flown over to help interrogate the remaining camper. He intuits Lance's basic goodness. Lance recognizes he must seem provincial to Nyland, whom he respects. The two form a firm but distant bond. What, thinks Nyland, is Lance hiding?

And that's the main question of the book. What is Lance hiding? What has Lance discovered in the past that would shed light on the crime in the present? What is Lance's moral dilemma?

Sundstøl has won an award in Norway for his "Minnesota trilogy," of which The Land of Dreams is the first volume. Maybe because this is the first book of a trilogy, I felt there was an unfinished edge to it. Lance's reluctance, vulnerability, and tenuous conclusions swallow up the story. I was left with a sense of anticipation and hope that there's something with a more concrete conclusion to come.

In many ways, The Land of Dreams reminds me of Craig Johnson's and William Kent Krueger's stories because of their use of Indian legend and mysticism. Many years ago, Lance had a dream of standing at the bottom of ice-cold Lake Superior and has not had a remembered dream since. He feels it's as though a dreamcatcher has bound up his dreams, dammed them, and he's waiting for the day they will be released. Perhaps the other books will be about those dreams.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes; The Dead Run by Adam Mansbach; Outlaw by Mark Sullivan

Here's today's bonus pack.

I moderated a panel at Portland's Wordstock (www.wordstockfestival.com) festival on Saturday. Chelsea Cain, A. M. Homes, Adam Mansbach (pronounced man's-back), and Mark Sullivan discussed "The Dark Side." I was called in at the last minute to replace the scheduled moderator, so I spent an intense week trying to read everyone's latest novel. It was a pleasant revelation to have such disparate takes on "the dark side."

Let Me Go by Chelsea Cain
Minotaur, 368 pages, $25.99

I'll review Chelsea Cain's book Let Me Go later. For now, what you should know is that I am a big fan of her work. I enjoy hearing her speak. I think she is the cat's pajamas, and (almost) everyone should read her Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series, beginning, of course, with the first book, Heartsick. Her books are hysterically funny and hysterically gory and sexy. Chelsea is a lovely person who is known for her signing antics. At Wordstock, she threw (plastic) hands and noses into the audience, and gave said parts to her fellow panelists to use as talismans while they spoke.

May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
Penguin, 496 pages, $16

A. M. Homes won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction for this book, now out in paperback. She told me she was surprised to win it, because at that point Hilary Mantel was winning all the awards for Bring Up the Bodies. Besides Mantel, the other authors whose works were shortlisted were Zadie Smith, Kate Atkinson, and Barbara Kingsolver. A. M. Homes is obviously no slouch.

May We Be Forgiven starts off describing regular, but colorless, people. Harry Silver is a professor of "Nixonology." He knows all things common and arcane about the 37th president. He is married to a smart, rigid Chinese woman who travels a lot. They share an apartment in NYC. They are stuck in their ruts and don't know enough to be actively discouraged.

When Harry's sister-in-law Jane makes a pass at him at a family Thanksgiving dinner, it throws Harry off his well-worn life's path. Harry's brother (and Jane's husband) is George. Although George is younger, he insists on telling people that he is Harry's older brother. George is a bully and has anger management problems. That becomes evident when he crashes into an SUV, kills the adults in the car, and orphans the surviving child. Then George murders his wife after he finds her in bed with Harry.

It's downhill for George and Harry for quite a while after that. Homes visits Job-like torments onto Harry's head: Harry's wife leaves him, he has to take care of George and Jane's two children, and strangers with dementia settle into his house, with the notion that Harry will take care of them. In his growing lunacy, Harry tries online sex hook-ups, editing some newly discovered Nixon short stories, fostering the orphaned boy from George's accident, and finding his lost Jewish religion.

Strangely, as the catastrophes and challenges mount, Harry becomes less colorless and more interesting. Harry struggles to find his heart and passion again and to do the right thing for everyone. (Even if that means learning to fake a special recipe for chocolate chip cookies to catch an Israeli arms dealer.)

Side note: Instead of simply mentioning the Nixon short stories, Homes actually manufactured one. Surprisingly, it has a Raymond Carver sensibility. Homes said that she enjoyed doing the research on Nixon and especially enjoyed crafting the story.

The Dead Run by Adam Mansbach
Harper Voyager, 304 pages, $25.99

Adam Mansbach plays with conventions.

In The Dead Run, U. S. citizen Jess Galvan must cross the desert at the border of Mexico and the United States like an illegal immigrant. He struggles with heat and thirst and aching muscles. He also struggles with the still-beating heart recently torn out of the body of a young virgin, given to him by an Aztec god incarnate to take to his demi-god son in Texas, thus igniting the end of the world as we know it.

Meanwhile …

Sheriff Bob Nichols is ill-equipped to help a sixteen-year-old girl that the demi-god in Texas needs as part of his cult.

The scene gets wilder and wilder. Galvan has a moral dilemma and a physical threat hanging over his head. The emphasis in the title is on the word "run."

Mansbach must have had a good time combining these over-the-top elements!

Side note: Mansbach jokingly said that he heard Bruce Willis doing a voice-over to the action in the desert.

Outlaw by Mark Sullivan
Minotaur, 336 pages, $25.99

Outlaw was a page-turner. Mark Sullivan does a good job of speeding his international intrigue thriller along.

Robin Monarch is a thief, an ex-black ops, ex-CIA operative, and currently a man for hire. The U.S. President wants him to find the U.S. Secretary of State and the foreign ministers of China and India, all of whom have been kidnapped. In addition to kidnapping, a heretofore unknown, well-organized, well-funded terrorist organization is creating havoc around the globe. Monarch and his well-chosen team have mere days to locate the dignitaries before they are killed.

Long Chan-Juan is the head of the most powerful Chinese triad. He is somehow involved in creating the chaos. His wife is a fortuneteller. She casts his fortune, but Long does not know if the fortune bodes well for him or not. Is he the good guy or the bad guy in the cryptic I-Ching messages?

The first book in this series is Rogue.

Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 336 pages, $24.95 (release date 10/8/13)

Ye, Gods! (To borrow Zaneeta Shinn's favorite saying in "The Music Man" and one that this Doom's heroine echoes.) Chuck Palahniuk is an innovative, excrementally lyrical, warped son-of-a-gun.

Doomed is the follow-up to Damned and continues the story of Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer, who died at the age of 13. Her hip-to-the-tip parents, Antonio and Camille, soon after her death make it their life's mission to proselytize the gospel according to Madison. According to Madison (contacted psychically in the hereafter), they say, you will only get to heaven if you slough off conventional civility and swear a lot, fart a lot, and make rude gestures. Their many followers gleefully do just that. Everyone is happy to know that heaven does exist and that the key to the pearly gates is so easily obtained.

It's a world gone mad. Or a world gone Maddy, actually.

Most of Doomed is told in blog form by the ghost of Madison Spencer, interrupted occasionally by the oracular pronouncements of someone else blogging from hell. Madison reminisces mostly about the significant events that occurred when she was 11, especially the unsavory death of her mother's father, Papadaddy Ben, who is presented as a rural hayseed, in contrast to his daughter, a famous actress and serial adopter of cultural trends.

Madison refers to the living as predead, future dead, predecomposed. She, of course, is postlife. Although she is the object of adoration and the putative key to heaven, she actually has gone to hell. (It's an updated version of Dante's inferno, with contemporary cultural references.) Now she has been exiled to wander as a ghost in the world of the living. Her afterlife digestion of the world is this: "My thoughts occur as flavorful burps or acrid barf. The indigestible gristle and bone of my memories are expelled as these words."

She is doomed to helplessly experience a world she inadvertently created among the "Boors," the acolytes of the new Madison-based religion. The contradictory side-effect of all this boorishness and rising methane level is that there is no longer hate. "'You created world peace!'" ecstatically shouts Crescent City, a physically vile, drug-addled medium, who is sworn to bring Maddy to her predead parents for more postdead heavenly revelations. On the other hand, the Devil, mostly depicted as a limousine chauffeur, is counting on her to "trigger the end of days."

There's no easy way to explain this book. It's an absurdist's mythological romp through our pop culture. It's a far-out, far-flung satirization of both the right and the left. It's the beginning of the end of the world that certainly is determined to go out with a bang, not a whimper.

Palahniuk deals out both these sentences with equal zest: "Hydrolysis causes the scission of polymer chains," and "'Did we bury you … not wearing underpants?'" He grabs every cause, religion, fad, agitprop, god (musical or otherwise) and flays them open, offers them at the altar of Ctrl+Alt+In-Your-Face, and tears the universe a new hole. (Also, he probably owes about $3 in royalties to Joss Whedon for a Buffy Summers-type ending.)

And what's the next book going to be called? Destiny? Deviled? Ditsy?

The Double by George Pelecanos

Little, Brown and Company, 304 pages, $26 (release date 10/8/13)

George Pelecanos doesn't want you to make any mistakes about the scenes he sets. His characters are defined in detail: what clothes they wear, what food they eat, and especially what sports they watch and music they hear. Pelecanos describes where his characters sit, meet, and confront if it will give your mind's eye a three-dimensional sense of his story. (Also, he's helpfully blocking out his story in case someone wants to film it.)

The Double is a follow-up to The Cut, in which we first met Spero Lucas, a private investigator in D.C.  Spero comes from a colorful family. He was adopted, as were two of his three siblings, by a Greek couple. One of his brothers-by-another-mother is black. Another brother is a criminal. His only sister, and the sole biological child of the Greek couple, has moved far away and doesn't relate to anyone in the family. Spero is 31 years old, ex-military, and finds a lot of women to keep him warm but hasn't had a steady relationship with any of them.

Tom Petersen is a criminal defense attorney who routinely hires Lucas. He is trying to get a client free of a charge of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Lucas must find some sort of hole in the prosecution's story.  But this is not Pelecanos's main storyline. On the side, Lucas has taken on the recovery of a stolen painting.

For a 40% recovery fee, Lucas will find what is lost. This is how he supplements his income from Peterson. Grace Kincaid's ex-lover left her and took a valuable painting with him. Lucas soon learns that her boyfriend, Billy Hunter, was really a man named Billy King and he was part of a gang of hustlers. Lucas has his own gang of ex-military men he uses when he needs an assist.

Pelecanos's books are very much "man books." Women show up, sometimes in major parts, as does Charlotte Rivers, Lucas's love/lust interest in this book, but Pelecanos's brush doesn't paint them with the same depth of understanding as his male characters.

Pelecanos also has a "manly style." This passage, written about how Spero Lucas gives his used books to injured vets, applies to Pelecanos's writing as well:

…recovering vets enjoyed a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to. Today Lucas had crime novels by Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, and James Crumley…

Although Pelecanos's books are gritty and tough, he takes time for a little humor. The man Lucas finds who might cast doubt on Petersen's client's guilt is an auto mechanic who is also a killer for hire. A mechanic, get it, "'As in The Mechanic, with Charles Bronson,'" a character says.

The Double is the name of the painting that Grace has lost. Not to be a spoilsport or anything, but Grace eventually explains that The Double is two pictures of the same man, portraying "man's complex nature." Lucas's complex nature is the real subject of The Double. He has his own code of honor, his own morality. War has taught him how to kill. Men come away from war fractured in different ways. Has Lucas come away fairly intact, or are the cracks finally starting to show? That's the take-away from The Double.

As with most of George Pelecanos's books, the reward for the reader is in how he tells his story. He has Style. He asks big questions, hidden among the scenes of realistic bang-bang, blood, and ka-pow. It's also about seeing the grit of men who want to "stay in the game, " who have enough "steel." In The Double, Pelecanos has distilled his story to its essence.*

* At the same time, let me quietly give a hand clap to what appears to be an extraneous detail. Various characters in The Double ask the people they are interviewing how to spell names. Yay! It bugs me to no end when a TV or movie detective takes notes and never asks for the spelling of a name. How does he or she know whether it's Chumley, Chomley, or Cholmondeley? Right?