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

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

Minotaur Books, 416 pages, $26.99

I was almost finished with A Cairo Affair when I read something in a newspaper that mentioned a negative review of this book in The New York Times. Although I usually avoid reading reviews of books I’m reading until my review is written, I knew I had to take a peek. I was enjoying this book very much and unless the last quarter of the book was totally gonzo, I couldn’t imagine someone lambasting it. (And this is from a reader who read Olen Steinhauer’s first book, Bridge of Sighs, and decided I didn’t need to read any more books by him, despite pretty uniform praise for his works.)

I read the review. It was by James McBride, whose book, The Good Lord Bird, I found well-written, entertaining, and clever. Mr. McBride really didn’t like The Cairo Affair. He made it sound shallow and chaotic. That must take place in the last quarter of the book, I decided, because nothing I had read to that point warranted that denunciation. I read on until the end and decided that Mr. McBride coincidentally must have been reading a different book by an author with the same name and with the same characters. I liked this book and found nothing objectionable.

Unlike Steinhauer’s The Bridge of Sighs, which featured an unnamed Balkan country with a main character so dour that I had to turn all the lights on for a better atmosphere in which to read the book, The Cairo Affair mainly takes place in Cairo, Egypt. There still wasn’t any lightness but there was more warmth, especially with Egyptian spy Omar Halawi and his wife, Fouada.

Basically, Steinhauer does something very clever. He takes four of his characters and tells the story from their alternating perspectives. Sometimes Steinhauer would show a certain incident from two different viewpoints, and the story was enhanced and advanced just a little further in an unexpected direction. So much better than most of the now-popular slash-and-dash of interspersing flashbacks and current narrative.

Although some of the story is defined by an event in 1991, most of the story takes place in 2011 in Cairo. Having said that, the triggering event takes place in Budapest. Emmett Kohl, a functionary with the U.S. Embassy in Hungary, is murdered while he is having dinner with his wife, Sophie. Unfortunately, after twenty years of an amicable marriage, Emmett had chosen to accuse his wife of infidelity at the dinner. Yes, Sophie says, it’s true. Then, bang, Emmett is summarily dismissed from the conversation by his killer.

Why was he killed? Sophie knew that his previous assignment in Cairo was some sort of turning point, but she never knew why. It certainly was a turning point for her. Steinhauer enigmatically says close to the start that she “had built a new life for herself, constructed of lies.”

Steinhauer also reveals early on that Jibril Aziz, a CIA analyst in D.C., was concerned about a plan he had developed, code named Stumbler, to consolidate anti-Gadhafi forces in Libya. He anxiously travels to Cairo, unofficially. Although he remains initially in the background, his story is pivotal. 

The other characters whom Steinhauer follows in Cairo are Stan Bertolli, Sophie’s lover; John Calhoun, a security contractor to the CIA; and Omar Halawi, an Egyptian spy. They may not necessarily be important to the narrative in and of themselves, but they are present at significant events. It is through them that Steinhauer gradually builds his story.

This book was clever and well-written. I found that my focus wasn’t on Sophie, however. Was she the intended sympathetic character? No sympathy from this corner. Instead, I was taken by Omar and Fouada, the moral center of this piece.

The bonus was Steinhauer’s description of Cairo and Egyptian politics.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Accident by Chris Pavone

Crown, 400 pages, $26

An incendiary manuscript finds its way to the desk of literary agent Isabel Reed. It is by Anonymous and claims to detail the many wrongdoings of media mogul Charlie Wolfe. Soon everyone who has a copy of the manuscript — quaintly in hard copy only — begins to die. Isabel begins a helter-skelter run to save her life.

The Accident is a thriller that mostly held my interest. There was too much splicing of storylines and juggling of timelines to allow the story to be genuinely riveting. The best part was the insider’s look at the book publishing business. Chris Pavone was once part of that book world, so it’s not surprising it sounds so authentic.

There are many twists that are revealed at the end.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Plaster City by Johnny Shaw

Thomas & Mercer, 352 pages, $14.95 (release date - 5/1/14)

When Dove Season, the first of the Jimmy Veeder Fiasco books, came out, I decided that it was my favorite in the series — even though there was only one book at that point in the series. Now that Plaster City, the second in the series, has come out, I know that this is my favorite in the series. (Sorry, Dove Season.) In other words, each one of Johnny Shaw’s books has left me a happy camper, with the conviction that the next book couldn’t possibly be better. That includes Shaw’s Big Maria, not a Jimmy Veeder Fiasco book, which had me busting a gut with laughter.

Plaster City is a wonderfully plotted, humor-filled book, with masterfully drawn eccentric characters up the yin-yang.

I would say that the Jimmy Veeder books are guy books, except that I’m not a guy and I love them. The strong personal ties in both books are between men, and yes, I’ll use that over-used, Hollywood, gossip-column word here, they’re “bromances.” Jimmy’s lifelong friend is Bobby Maves. At one point in Plaster City another character marvels that Bobby actually went to college, that’s how senseless some of his actions are. The safety valve in his brain took a hike a long time ago. One of them even coined a term for Bobby’s misadventures: Mavescapades. Indeed.

Both Jimmy and Bobby are farmers in the Calexico, California, area, on the border with Mexico. They are also boozers and brawlers and boisterous bromancers and brothers from another mother … and father. Only time is slowing them down. Time and the realization that they both have families now. Jimmy’s young son, Juan, discovered in Dove Season, and his girlfriend Angie provide Jimmy with a reason to grow up.

Julie is Bobby’s sixteen-year-old daughter with ex-wife Becky. Now she’s missing, and Bobby calls in his pal Jimmy to help him find her. He was never much of a father; he never let responsibility get in the way of a good time. But now he wants to own up to how he may have set the model for wasting one’s youth and inadvertently gotten his daughter into trouble. Despite Jimmy’s misgivings about leaving his family for this road warrior trip, he feels he owes Bobby for all the times Bobby had his back. (Of course, Bobby often wouldn’t have had to have Jimmy’s back if Bobby hadn’t gotten Jimmy into trouble in the first place.)

Shaw has a way with words when describing the hot, arid, isolated area where most of the action takes place, and in describing the people, both law-abiding and criminal (and those who are a little of both), who live in those areas as well.

There is a lot of action — hey, it’s a Johnny Shaw book — but some of the best moments are the quiet ones, especially the last few pages of the book. It is the path down which Shaw takes his characters that reveals his true writer’s mettle, and it is awesome.

Here’s a pretend conversation between me and Johnny Shaw:
Shaw: What? No.
Me: Yes.
Here is an MBTB star for a book that shows genuine heart.

2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bark by Lorrie Moore

Knopf, 208 pages, $24.95

I hoped against hope that one of Lorrie Moore’s eight shining short stories would have a murder in it so I could award it an MBTB star, but alas, no such luck. Thus, here’s my alert: No fictional characters were murdered in the making of this book.

Lorrie Moore captures her eccentric characters and wraps them in humor and regret. The paired people in most of her stories whiz by each other instead of connecting. This is love — and not just romantic love — on a different plane.

If you have a chance to read these eight short stories, do so. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dominion by C. J. Sansom

Mulholland Books, 640 pages, $28

Dominion is quite an accomplishment for British author C. J. Sansom. He is known for his Matthew Shardlake 16th-century series, which is well-done and well-received, but Dominion is not part of that series.

Dominion is a what-if story, part of a genre called alternate history. The premise is simply this: What if on May 9, 1940, at 5:00 p.m., Winston Churchill had not succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime minister of Great Britain. What if Lord Halifax had emerged the victor instead. Great Britain had been at war with Hitler’s Germany for about a year at that point. How would that war have been affected?

In Sansom’s world Britain settled for peace with Germany, ending the war after about a year. Britain was allowed to keep its empire and Germany plays the big brother. There are advisors from and generous trade accommodations for Germany. The U.S. never had cause to intervene and, as a result, Adlai Stevenson is poised to become the next president in 1953.

And what of merry old England? By 1952, the blackshirts have become more predominant. The inexorable take-over of the British government by Nazi sympathizers has been slow but steady. British Jews finally are being rounded up to be sent away to camps. Enough time has passed that citizens are too cowed to voice dissent. The SS has a foothold in Britain and there are spies, both for and against the government. That is where David Fitzgerald comes in.

David is a minor civil servant, but he can surreptitiously gain access to secret files to pass on to the Resistance, an organization headed by Winston Churchill, a man in failing health but whose unflaggingly strong personality has held the diverse anti-government forces together. Fitzgerald was recruited by an old Oxford chum, Geoff Drax.

One day it becomes more than just about shuffling secret papers. Frank Muncaster, one of David and Geoff’s old Oxford mates, finds himself in a pickle. He’s locked up in an insane asylum for having tried to kill his brother. Before the pro-Nazi British government can realize that Frank knows a world-changing deep dark secret that the brother he tried to kill imparted to him before being thrown out a window — and is actually the reason he was thrown out the window — David and Geoff must spirit him away to keep the secret safe.

Sansom has crafted a good, old-fashioned spy thriller. Even though Dominion often holds tight to the formula for wartimes spy stories, it is still immensely enjoyable. Besides Geoff and Frank, David’s spy team has the requisite lower-class tough guy and a mysterious, pretty woman who speaks with an accent. Also, there are two wronged women: one David semi-seduces to gain access to top secret papers and one is David’s wife. Almost everyone has a tragic backstory. (For instance, David and his wife lost a young son to an accident.) Although a lot of the elements may seem familiar, Dominion is unique.

Sansom is an excellent and sophisticated storyteller. He compellingly draws portraits of people who are involved in the struggle against their own government, whether they got to that point after considerable thought or whether they simply stumbled into it. Their reasons are many, as are the dangers. Most are good, moral people with heavy burdens to bear, and Sansom is good at depicting that weight.

Kudos to Sansom for the amount of research he did to present a credible alternate history for Great Britain. At times it is scary how authentic the alternate world seems. And all it took was one moment that never was in a cabinet meeting in a room far away in time.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Edgar Award Nominees for Best Novel - 2014

The Edgar Award for Best Novel will be presented by the Mystery Writers of America at their banquet in New York City on May 1, 2014.

The nominees are:

     Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook

     The Humans by Matt Haig

     Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

     How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

     Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin

     Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy

This is the first year that I’ve read all the nominated books BEFORE the award has been presented. I don’t know what it represents in additional sales of books, but it’s the summa cum laude acknowledgement of the mystery world.

I don’t envy the judges their task, because the books were all good and they were all different. It’s comparing apples and oranges. Or apples and orangutans. That’s why MBTB always had so many year’s best picks at the end of the year. These are good books that represent different styles, so how do you pick JUST ONE.

But here’s the bottom line: I have to consider what I personally respond to. Given that and based on the poetry of his words, his sense of humor and the great plot, my pick today is Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave.

Tomorrow my pick might be one of the others.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Atria Books, $16, 336 pages

Ordinary Grace has been nominated for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel. It has already won the Dilys Award, presented by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA).

Kent Krueger visited MBTB several times. The last time he appeared, he was excited to pass out advanced reading copies (ARC) of his latest book, Ordinary Grace. It is not part of his award-winning Cork O’Connor series but one that he joyfully developed over the space of a few years. It is a book from his heart, he said. Krueger is a deeply religious man, so not surprisingly it represents Krueger’s spirituality, his own gift of grace.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old boy, Frank Drum, and concerns events during the hot summer of 1961, in New Bremen, Minnesota, a fictional town supposedly just west of Mankato. Frank, 11-year-old brother Jake, and 18-year-old sister Ariel are children of a Methodist minister and his wife, Nathan and Ruth Drum.

The summer begins with the death of a young, mentally handicapped boy who was hit by a train. And so begins Frank’s summer when death challenges him to understand his own morality, mortality, and spirituality. Then a hobo dies on the banks of the Minnesota River. There is nothing suspicious about either death, but Frank and Jake are of an age when they wonder about the darkness that lurks on the edges of some psyches.

The Drum family is surrounded by family and friends, and in Ruth’s case, there's a history with many of the people in the town of her youth. When a tragedy hits closer to home, the Drum family is devastated. It is especially wrenching when this time it is obviously a case of murder. Everything and everyone seems sinister then to Frank.

Ordinary Grace is a coming-of-age story written by a master. Krueger contrasts death and intolerance with idyllic glimpses of a Norman Rockwell America. Doors aren’t locked, Little League baseball is played and cheered on in the heat of summer, root beer sloshes in frosted glasses, Main Street prospers with an Andy Hardy/Andy Taylor essence. “Be back home before dark,” Frank and Jake’s father says to them, in a time-long-gone admonition.

It’s not totally or even that everyone of that time was more virtuous, it’s that sometimes the darkness had no public name or its danger was willfully unrecognized.

Surely Frank matures more than ordinarily possible in those three months of summer. Krueger gives us a luminous lesson in love, grief, forgiveness, and kindness. He also hands us a treat when he finally explains what the title of his book means.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95

It has been so much the recent passion for authors to take real-life people and build mysteries around them. The unlikeliest historical figures have become nosy private eyes. Freud, Jung, Dickens, Austen, to name a few. Unlike the liberal imaginings and jiggerings of those characters, An Officer and a Spy is fictional only in how author Robert Harris has roundly visualized an actual occurrence. Many of us may not know what The Dreyfus Affair was, but it probably rings a vague bell somewhere. Harris has captured the real individuals involved, given them life and dimension, and dramatized a very remarkable time in French history.

Many sources can provide information about The Dreyfus Affair. Wikipedia, for instance, provides a synopsis and biographies of the major characters, so it’s possible to see how closely Harris adhered to accepted accounts.

The hero of the story is not Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish man accused of passing French military secrets to the Germans, but Colonel Picquart, the head of the “Statistical Section,” the spy department of France’s army. He was anti-Semitic and a loyal 25-year Army man when he took over as head of the spies. But in the course of getting to know his job, he examined the material accumulated against Dreyfus and was shocked to realize how flimsy the evidence really was. Then, of course, there was the matter of the evidence that indicated the traitor was really someone else.

Oooooh, myyyyy, as George Takei would say.

Even if you know the course of events, Robert Harris is still capable of capturing his readers’ steady attention and making his work into a page-turner. He presents Picquart’s moral and personal dilemmas with a depth and feeling that bring Picquart to life. Furthermore, Harris brings forth the Paris of the time (1894-1906) and the political turmoil that allowed Dreyfus to be wrongly convicted.

This is truly an excellent spy story (with a couple of murders thrown in), well-written and attention-holding.

What could I do but give it an MBTB star?