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

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

White Fire by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Grand Central Publishing, 384 pages, $27

It is a fine line in the Pendergast family whether a member will be a killer or a catcher. FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is a catcher. He specializes in catching serial killers. Other books in the Pendergast series deal with the other, not as salubrious aspect of the family. Authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created a mysterious, almost superhuman hero to deal with the sadness and sickness in the world.

White Fire features Corrie Swanson, Pendergast’s unofficial ward. She first appeared in Still Life With Crows. In White Fire she takes center stage as a 20-year-old student of forensic criminology at John Jay College. To win a prestigious award at school, she has developed a plan to examine the bones of miners who may have been killed in the 1870s by a grizzly bear in a silver mining community in Colorado. Since it’s a Preston/Child book, of course murder and mayhem (along with torture, grisliness, and don’t-go-down-into-the-dark-mine moments) ensue from this scholarly pursuit.

The genesis of Corrie’s thesis idea comes from a kindly archivist in criminal records who has espied an entry in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s diary about a conversation he had with Oscar Wilde. Unlikely as it seems, on a speaking tour of America, Wilde landed at one point in a isolated mining settlement in Roaring Forks, Colorado. It is Doyle who briefly outlines Wilde’s story of the murdered miners. That isn’t the only Doyle connection. Aside from the obvious homage that Preston and Child pay by patterning Pendergast after Sherlock Holmes, Doyle and Sherlock play a big role in White Fire. Preston and Childs’ books are an odd combination of thrill, humor, fantasy, grimness, and more serial killer information than is comfortable. The tone of the books bounces all over, but it isn’t annoying. Rather, it’s intriguing and challenging. In this book the authors’ ability to intrigue hits a high note with a Sherlock Holmes pastiche inserted towards the end of the book. It is a pitch-perfect counterfeit Holmes story, “The Adventure of Aspern Hall,” that provides Corrie and Pendergast with a crucial clue.

It isn’t just dry bones and winter weather that carries the story. There’s a current-day arsonist loose in Roaring Forks, which, by the way, is no longer a hayseed mining community but a fancy-schmancy resort for billionaires. Fancy-schmancy homes have been bursting into flames. The tortured bodies of the residents have been found in the wreckage.

The only unfortunate note in this entertaining story is the pigheaded nature of Corrie Swanson. She’s too intent on doing everything her way, and her arrogance betrays her. She is the ultimate dumb bunny (DB) who insists on going into the dark basement/haunted house/forest/beach when she hears noises. Don’t go, the audience screams, but the DB never listens. Warned by everyone and his uncle not to do this, go there, investigate that, Corrie still does, goes, and investigates. She’s always contrite and she always has to be rescued. Her hair-trigger temper doesn’t help. She’s always contrite about that as well. There wouldn’t have been much of story without her doing, going, and investigating, but she sacrificed some of her charm for her intransigence. Here she is in a nutshell:

…[I]t was vintage Corrie, with her temper and her long-standing inability to suffer jerks. That behavior might have worked in Medicine Creek, when she was still a rebellious high-school student. But there was no excusing it anymore — not here, and not now. She simply had to stop lashing out at people — especially when she knew all too well that it was counterproductive to her own best interests.

It’s a good thing that some of Corrie’s screw-loose activities have brought Pendergast into town, just in time to help the beleaguered small-town police chief with the arsonist. 

While I highly recommend this book, especially for the gem of a Holmes pastiche, here’s the warning label that should appear on the cover: Children and an animal are harmed in gruesome fashion.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Hunter and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett

Mysterious Press, 256 pages, $25

This is a fine collection of mostly unpublished, unedited short stories by Dashiell Hammett. (In his introduction, Richard Layman notes that some of the manuscripts seemed to have been lightly edited by Lillian Hellman!) Whether they were shoved in a drawer, were the basis for something larger, or were thoughts that drifted off into nothingness, each selection is a wonderful glimpse into the writerly workings of a master.

Some of the stories deal with crime, but mostly they are visits with people. Whether the people are chumps or champs, criminals or victims, rich or scrabbling to survive, Hammett makes the most of it, using meticulous language to build his characters and setting.

As a bonus, an unpublished, very incomplete Sam Spade story ends the book. Layman indicates that Hammett anticipated using the bones of the story to create another, longer work.

These stories, while remarkable for the insight they give us into Hammett’s creative process in addition to his published works, are often raw and trail off. It’s hard not to ache for closure of some of the stories he begins so splendidly. But, in a glass-half-full position, the abrupt endings are a form of art, too. 

Of special note is the shiny “The Diamond Wager,” from 1929. It is a complete, sophisticated caper novel and very clever.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson

Viking Adult, 160 pages, $20

As author Craig Johnson explains in the acknowledgements, Spirit of Steamboat was supposed to have been a short story, a gift that Craig usually gives his readers at Christmas. There was so much to tell, however, that the tale grew and, voilà, this novella appeared. Although it was only 160 pages — versus today’s average of 350 pages — it didn’t feel lacking in anything. Craig also mentions this story isn’t a mystery but an adventure. He says that it isn’t about someone who dies at the beginning but about how to keep people alive.

Spirit of Steamboat stars Sheriff Walt “Boy Howdy” Longmire. He is joined by his lawman predecessor, Lucian Connally, in this Christmas tale. The night before Christmas in 1988, two lawmen begin an impossible journey to help a young girl. Flying in a bucket of bolts, in a snowstorm, with a drunk pilot, a novice copilot, a doctor who adjures his diety in German, and a grandmother who doesn’t speak English isn’t Walt’s idea of a good time, especially when his wife and young daughter expect to spend Christmas Eve with him. But a cowboy’s got to do what a cowboy’s got to do.

The humor was scattered throughout and brought about the requisite titters and guffaws (e.g., “…fog so thick you could’a cut sheep out of it with shears”), but Craig was really aiming for the tear ducts this time. I was tearing up by page 66, quietly crying by page 116, and sobbing by page 151. Not bad for a 160-page book.

Although it’s not Christmas any longer, that shouldn’t stop you from reading a most excellent story about the power of positive thinking, and the usefulness of experience under fire and episodes of MacGyver.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $28

In recent years, I’ve gravitated more toward Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller (“Lincoln Lawyer”) series than that of his Los Angeles police detective, Harry Bosch. The Mickey Haller books have a less tragic feel to them — even though awful things happen to the characters — and there’s even occasional humor. Both Harry and Mickey have personal weaknesses —what good character doesn’t? — but Mickey seems more vulnerable and sympathetic while suffering from his. The cons that Mickey pulls as a criminal defense attorney are clever, even crossing over that sticky legal ethics line as they sometimes do. And, lastly, the pacing, the ebb and flow of the attorney books is well done, especially in Gods of Guilt.

When last we saw Mickey, he had gone from winner to loser. His bid to become the next Los Angeles District Attorney (a bizarre concept) crashed and burned. A defendant whose release Mickey had won proceeded in short order to kill two innocent people. The public punished Mickey. Mickey punished Mickey. Now his office is subsisting on foreclosure cases, and Mickey trolls the courthouse for likely clients.

It is to Connelly’s credit that he instantly has created a suspenseful situation, even without introducing what will become the major crime of the book. How low can Mickey go? His daughter won’t talk to him, his wife is in DA purgatory (for having supported his candidacy), he has an office to support (granted his “office” is in the vacant part of a building in foreclosure), and his staff of Lorna (his office manager and also an ex-wife), Cisco (investigator and Lorna’s husband), Earl (the driver of the famous Lincoln Town Car), and Jennifer (the hankering-to-get-going new associate) needs direction and paychecks.

Add a major crime and stir.

Giselle Dallinger has been murdered. The accused, Andre La Cosse, told Mickey that Giselle sang Mickey’s praises and told Andre if he ever needed a criminal attorney, Mickey was the bee’s knees. Who the heck, Mickey wonders, is Giselle Dallinger? The second thing Mickey wonders is if Andre can pay his fee. No problem, Andre says, and sends over a bar of gold as a retainer. Ladies and gents, Haller and Co. are in business.

The plot thickens when Mickey discovers that Giselle was really Gloria Dayton, an old client who became his friend. He thought she had escaped life as a prostitute and moved to Hawaii. It turns out, however, that she had been living nearby, plying her old trade. Andre turns out to have been her pimp, albeit an electronic one. Although Mickey discovers that Andre is not as mild-mannered as he originally appeared, Mickey believes in Andre’s innocence, especially after he sees video footage that shows a mysterious man in a hat following Gloria just hours before her death.

The plot gets positively tarry when tales from years ago resurface and reassemble into different stories.  Mickey, it turns out, was involved peripherally then and is at the center of the story now.

I loved the courtroom scenes and Mickey’s artful legal maneuvering. I loved the way Connelly laid the groundwork and built up the story of a complex crime with clarity and an ear for a layman's sensibilities. For instance, after a technical and wordy explanation about appealing cases, he ends his paragraph with the simple explanation, "Moya had struck out swinging." I loved how he put Mickey's new romantic relationship on a matter-of-fact basis, no dwelling on amorous adventures and taking the spotlight away (and pacing away) from the main story. Finally, I loved Connelly's last paragraph. I am a connoisseur of last paragraphs. (James Lee Burke is one of my all-time favorites.) The last paragraph of Gods of Guilt rates right up there.

I’m sure there will be a lot of awards and accolades coming Connelly’s way for this book. Here’s an MBTB star for the collection.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $25.95

This book is not a mystery, even though there are three murders in it.

Seven-year-old Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin’s name translates to Claire of the Sea Light, named after the phosphorescent sea her mother swam in one night.

Edwidge Danticat sets her restorative novel in a little seaside village in Haiti. Several stories spin off back in time from the initial view of Claire, her father, Nozias, and the woman to whom Nozias is giving Claire, Madame Gaëlle, the owner of the local fabric shop. Nozias is a poor fisherman and he wants more for Claire than he can offer. His wife, also named Claire, died in childbirth.

Danticat superlatively takes the stories of several villagers back to the time of a turning point in their lives and then brings them forward to a point of conjunction with Claire, Nozias, and Madame Gaëlle on the beach.

There’s a lot more action than I initially thought there would be, but it is primarily a story about the choices people make and then must live with, as well as how they deal with the dice rolls of fate.

A lovely story.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

Putnam, 320 pages, $26.95

This is not a mystery, except as a mystery of the human heart. It is written by Karen Joy Fowler, whose book, At Wit’s End, received Jill’s MBTB star. But, once again, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a mystery. I rarely read a non-mystery during the last five years of Murder by the Book’s life. One of the things I promised myself is that I would get caught up on the non-fiction and non-mystery fiction I had been stockpiling since the dawn of time. It shouldn’t surprise you, however, that 99.9% of my reading post-MBTB has been mystery. I love the genre, in all its many forms and variations.

I reserve the right, prefaced by cautionary statements, to tell you about any grand non-mysteries I’ve read. I wrote about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Dave Egger’s The Circle stretched the crime/mystery/suspense definition, but I wrote about them because I found them peripherally related to suspense, and they were certainly interesting.

This is one of those non-mysteries to which I gave a thumbs-up.

So, of course, having said that, there is a mystery. The narrator is Rosemary Cooke. She is at various times 5, 22 (in 1979), and 40+ years old, but the perspective is backward-looking from the 40+ viewpoint. When she was five, her sister Fern disappeared, she tells us. Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown as a result. Her father, a professor of psychology, took to excessive drink, and Rosemary and her older brother, Lowell, were left to fend for themselves for a while. Rosemary tells us that guilt haunts everyone. Then Lowell ran away from home and was eventually sought by the FBI.

The book mostly follows Rosemary while at UC Davis, at the age of 22. She is unaccountably awkward with people, disastrous in social situations, silent, and rummaging for the remnants of her family. At the age of five, she was “ebullient,” one of her precociously learned words, talkative, and different, especially in one famously significant instance, from other children. When Fern disappeared, the outgoing Rosemary, too, disappeared.

It isn’t just the surprising story that author Fowler does so well. Her language is fanciful, clever, and well-wrought. For instance:
The silence that followed was filled with pity for my mother, who could have married Will Barker if she hadn’t lost her mind and chosen my father, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fly-fishing atheist from Indianapolis, instead.
No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn’t agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery.
Is Rosemary an unusually unreliable narrator? This becomes a serious question with this book, more so than with other first-person narratives. Fowler says, “Language does this to our memories — simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies.”

The journey through Rosemary’s "clown car" (what her father calls her brain) is intriguing, moving, and illuminating. Fowler shows us that family is not just a case of genetics.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Fire Dance by Helen Tursten, translated by Laura Wideburg

Soho Press, 336 pages, $26.95, c2005 (U.S. release 1/7/14)

This is the sixth in the Detective Inspector Irene Huss series to be translated into English from the works by Swedish author Helen Tursten. Although it’s far down the line in the series, it’s fine to read it without having the prior books as background. Author Tursten does a good job of presenting the background of the relevant repeating characters, especially since part of the story is a flashback to right after Irene Huss joined the police department in 1989.

This is how her superintendent, Sven Andersson, thinks of Huss in 1989: “He had a hard time hiding his irritation that he’d gotten a female inspector, and one with two small kids to boot.” When the second part of the book moves forward to the present day of 2004 (the book was originally released in Sweden in 2005), Andersson is still her supervisor and how times have changed! Huss is now an accepted and valued member of the violent crimes team in Göteborg. (But Andersson is still a grumpy old warhorse.)

In 1989, greenhorn Huss happens to be in a more rural area when she catches a call to proceed to a house fire at a farm. The body of a man is found in the wreckage. Huss meets the man’s wife, Angelika; his son, 8-year-old Frej; and his stepdaughter, 11-year-old Sophie. Suspecting that the fire might have been caused by arson, Huss interviews witnesses. She finds out that there is something strange about Sophie. She will not speak to Huss or any authority figure. She might be traumatized by the event, or it might be something more intrinsic: “Irene became intensely aware of the temperature shift around the girl. It was hard to tell if it was warmer or colder, but something was there that Irene would later describe as an ‘energy field.’ The phenomenon was so unusual that Irene started to wonder if it was due to her own nervousness about the interrogation.” Eventually other investigations intrude and a verdict of accidental fire is found, but Huss finds it hard to forget Sophie.

In 2004, Detective Inspector Huss and her partner, Tommy Persson, investigate the disappearance of — wait for it, wait for it — Sophie Malmborg, the same Sophie from 15 years earlier. She had grown into a striking young woman with a passion and extraordinary talent for dance, but apparently still had difficulty communicating with people. Once again, Huss and Persson reacquaint themselves with Sophie’s family: sultry and libidinous Angelika, nervous Frej, and combative and demented Ingrid (Angelika’s ex-sister-in-law and the owner of the farm where the house burned down). This time, Huss has more experience and now knows what questions to ask about the incident 15 years ago, just in case that had something to do with Sophie’s disappearance. Huss has to ramp up her detecting skills as more untoward events occur as a result of poking her nose into old passions.

Helen Tursten does a great job presenting both the crime story and her character, Irene Huss. Huss is the rare fictional police detective who has a real family (husband, 18-year-old twin daughters), doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t listen to jazz, and isn’t obsessive about anything other than getting to the bottom of the crimes she is assigned. She’s even a jujitsu expert.

Tursten defines her major and minor characters well without bloating the word count, throws in decent atmosphere, tosses in a few red herrings (or barely pink herrings maybe), and offers up a decent crime novel with an engaging, competent main character.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, 336 pages, $24 (release date 1/14/14)

What a satisfying sixth book in the Flavia de Luce series this is! The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is a watershed in the series in many ways. For those of you who are already fans: We learn more about the past of 11-year-old Flavia’s parents. The series also transitions into a more YA vibe, with more fantastic elements promised on the horizon. Up until now, Flavia has been a precocious youngster with a dysfunctional family, whose hobby has been poisons and assisting the local police force with murders.

For those of you who are coming to Flavia for the first time: For heaven’s sake, don’t start with this book! (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first.)

However, here’s some background. In 1951 England, in the sleepy village of Bishop’s Lacy, where nothing ever happens, except when it does, lives a sad family, the de Luces, on their decaying estate, Buckshaw. The three daughters, of whom Flavia is the youngest, have little in common. Flavia feels herself subjected to outright hostility by her teenaged sisters, and she retaliates in unique and clever (but childish) ways. Papa de Luce has been depressed for years, ever since his return from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. It did not help him to learn that, during his absence, his wife, Harriet, had disappeared, and is presumed dead, in Tibet. Flavia was one year old when that happened and she has no memory of her mother. She envies her sister’s recollections, however patchy.

Characters flock into this book. There’s a lot going on, but Canadian author Alan Bradley does a masterful job of keeping the story on the straight and narrow. Even when I thought he had forgotten to deal with a plot line, there he was eventually cleaning it up satisfactorily.

Bradley ended his last book, Speaking From Among the Bones, with a cliffhanger. The long-lost Harriet had been found! Flavia’s hodgepodge of emotions narrows to just one, horror, when a strange man tries to talk to her at the train station where Flavia and her family have gone to meet Harriet.  “‘Tell your father that the Gamekeeper is in jeopardy…Tell him that the Nide is under…,’” he gasps before he is interrupted. Later it’s too late to find out what he means, as the stranger falls — or is pushed — into the path of the moving train.

Flavia receives the greatest puzzle of her young life. There are forces at work greater than are contained in her little village of Bishop’s Lacey. Among the onslaught of people who descend on Buckshaw are these interesting characters: Tristram Tallis, who had bought Harriet’s airplane years ago and is now returning it to Buckshaw (and how does Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper, know him?); Adam Sowerby, a florarchaeologist and private detective; cousins Lena and Undine de Luce, of the Cornwall de Luces, a strange mother-and-daughter pair; and Winston Churchill, who, in a cameo appearance, utters the strange phrase, “pheasant sandwiches,” to Flavia.

Bradley extends Flavia’s world to encompass World War II and its impact on Buckshaw. On the cusp of her twelfth birthday, Flavia puts away a lot of her childish ways and thinking — but not before a spectacular foray into Frankensteinian reanimation science (“a monumental injection of ATP combined with a similar dosage of carboxylase hydrochloride,” followed by Professor Kano’s knuckle blow to the second lumbar vertebra).

Bradley mixes pathos and humor, witty remarks and philosophical meditation, anger and forgiveness, and produces a genuinely touching and interesting work.

And, of course, there’s a cliffhanger at the end.