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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer

MacLehose Press, 320 pages, $14.99 (c2006) (US ed. 2014)
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

It all comes down to the punchline. If you can wait, the denouement of “The Sweetness of Life” hits you between your eyes like a hammer.

“The Sweetness of Life” is a difficult book to read. There are four characters whose viewpoints are followed and alternated. If you don’t want to have even the teeniest, tiniest of spoilers, then stop here.

Two characters are fairly obvious right off. One is a psychiatrist, Raffael Horn, and the other is a police detective, Kovacs — if he has a first name, I never noticed it. It takes a while to absorb who the other two are. One is a young boy whose abusive older brother has just gotten home from prison/detention. The other is a young friar whose fragile personality is in danger of fragmenting. At first I was certain that this would ultimately be Horn’s book, since so much had to do with the inner workings of the mind, motivations for misdeeds, or how victims’ traumas can bind their humanity, but much of Horn’s musings are on his own life and hospital politics. Every main character’s psychological underpinnings is splayed for our view, but not in its totality, so the mystery of whodunnit remains. Each main character expresses angry, violent thoughts and wishes. 

And this is what was done. Eighty-six-year-old Sebastian Wilfert was found by his young granddaughter dead in the snow, with his head mashed in, with his throat slit. He is carefully posed on his barn’s ramp like an upside-down, crucified Jesus. Shortly after, small animals are found killed and mutilated. Another young girl has had her legs broken and there is something suspicious about that.  As one of the police detectives rhetorically asks as atrocity after atrocity reveals itself, “Who would do such a thing?”

Initially, Detective Kovacs brings psychiatrist Horn to view Wilfert’s murder site, but they rarely communicate after that. Horn is treating the granddaughter who has been mute since the incident. It is not even clear that she saw who killed her grandfather anyway. Peering over Horn’s shoulder, we also meet other troubled souls in a small town close to Vienna, Austria, one of whom may be the murderer of the old man. Through Kovacs, we meet other residents, one of whom may be the murderer. There are a lot of characters, some of whom exist merely to enhance an understanding of Kovacs or Horn.

The narrative strains alternate and by the time a thread appears again four or five chapters hence, it is hard to remember what came before. Take notes. Or reread the book by reading a thread straight through.

In general, this book was fascinating because of the various psychological ailments, frailties, and faults on display. It was less successful as a mystery because of the obfuscating nature of the storylines. After thinking about the book for a while, maybe it was meant to be less a mystery than a way to delve into the varied ways people suffer and cause suffering.

P.S. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that author Hochgatterer is also an Austrian psychiatrist.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Cipher by Nick Slosser

CreateSpace, 422 pages, $14.99

When Nick Slosser and I worked together at Murder by the Book in Portland, his preferred reading material was very hard-boiled and noir. I was surprised to read a very early draft of this book and see that it was an old-fashioned mystery. Now that I have read the final work, I can say that there are no drug cartels, piles of dead bodies, swear words, or heavy violence. In fact, one of the two scenes of violence is funny and polite. The other scene is incredibly brief, no hanging of lurid description upon lurid description.

In 1955 Portland, Oregon, Professor Leland Truffault and his assistant, Jo Johnson, are minding their academic business in linguistics and mathematics when, in the best amateur detective fashion, their peculiar talents are required by the Portland police to solve a murder.

Della Van Croft, gossip maven and society wannabe, was poisoned at her own wine tasting party. Each of the five guests brought a bottle of wine, which was then disguised and assigned a color code for a blind tasting. Van Croft died from arsenic introduced into one of the wines. One of the puzzles for Leland and Jo to solve is which bottle had it and who brought it. Unfortunately, the efficient maid has cleaned up the evidence. Only logic can provide the answer now.

Initially, however, Leland was brought in to unravel a ciphered message found clutched in Van Croft’s hand. The captain of police is an old mentor from World War II, the colonel to Leland’s cryptologist at Bletchley. Because of Leland’s experiences during the war, he is hesitant to become involved in what may contribute to the punishment of a fellow human. The war had a profound effect on the people who lived through it, and Nick provides moving examples throughout his book.

During the investigation the academic duo meet a smarmy restauranteur, a society wild child, an heiress and her husband, and a nosy neighbor. And who was the mysterious man who crashed the wine tasting? All the known guests claimed not to have recognized him.

Nick has created a clever mystery, with a fair-play plot and charming main characters. I hope you believe me when I say that I’m not inflating this review for the sake of a friendship. Nick showed his talent in the short stories he wrote while he was at the bookstore, and it was a pleasure to receive his long-awaited novel and find out it was worthy of his talent.

You can purchase a copy of his book through one of these ways:


Nick is now a private investigator in Portland and, I hope, working on his next novel In the Leland/Jo series.

Of course, here’s an MBTB star!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

Flatiron Books, 304 pages, $25.99

This is not a mystery. But it is the perfect winter’s tale: “All Creatures Great and Small” with just sheep.

If you chance upon Lake District (England) shepherd James Rebanks’ Twitter feed (@herdyshepherd1), it is rife with snowy scenes of and comments about winter. His book, “The Shepherd’s Life,” takes an autobiographical journey through a year in the intricacies of raising sheep in the fells (mostly steep, rocky hills).

I hiked through the Lake District and its fells many years ago and saw more sheep (and sheep pies) than I cared to see again. I probably would not have felt that way had I been able to read this book first.

This book has charmed even the toughest of critics and it has charmed me (a much easier sell).

P.S. Newborn lambs really are irresistibly cute.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Billy Boyle by James R. Benn

Soho Crime, 384 pages, $14 (c2006)

Yes, I am late to this party. Hooray for James R. Benn and his wise-cracking/heartbreaking style of storytelling! Although I have just finished the first book, Benn has already published his tenth entry in the Billy Boyle series.

There are many authors who have claimed World War II as their backdrop, but Benn adds a grace note of humor in his American Irish, Boston cop main character. What’s an American Irish family without strings to pull? In this case, a distant relative has been called on to keep Billy safe from harm behind a desk. “Uncle Ike,” General Dwight D. Eisenhower to the rest of us, has decided to make use of his nephew-by-marriage’s talents as a newly minted homicide detective by making him a special investigator in the European Theater of Operations. Although the events in “Billy Boyle” are based on an actual program undertaken in Great Britain, Benn does a great job of using it to showcase Lt. Billy Boyle’s down-home, regular-guy techniques. It turns out that Billy is a natural. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Norway has been compromised by the Germans, and King Haakon and a large number of Norwegians are ex-pats living in Great Britain, scheming to get their country back. The Allies have begun a program to make this happen. Billy becomes involved when Uncle Ike (who actually doesn’t appear very much) tells him there is a spy in their midst. Billy is engaged to find him. It seems hopeless. Throw in the suicide/murder of one of King Haakon’s trusted advisors, and Billy has a full plate.

Benn moves between a crackerjack police procedural and the bigger story of a war with many victims and sacrifices. It is both amusing and moving. Sometimes “Billy Boyle” seemed like two different books because of that.

If you, too, have not dipped into this series, 2016 seems like a good time to start.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Portland's Friends of Mystery

Portland, Oregon, mystery fans, this info is for YOU!

From John Walsdorf of the Friends of Mystery group:

The Friends Of Mystery is moving our 'Bloody Thursday' event location come January to The Old Church at 1422 SW 11th Avenue, Portland 97201. 
Our first event at the new location is January 28th with Chelsea Cain accepting her Spotted Owl Award for 'One Kick'. The night kicks off at 7 pm with a half hour social and runs until 9 pm.

For further info on their activities:

http://www.friendsofmystery.org

I love FOM for their support of local authors. Their Spotted Owl Award is given annually to the best Northwest mystery. I have been a personal member for many years and before that through the Murder by the Book bookstore.

If you can, join them on this special night to meet the very entertaining Chelsea Cain.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Vintage Contemporaries, 192 pages, $15 (c2014)

This is not a mystery.

Dept. of What-Was-I-Thinking: I mistakenly picked up a copy of “Book of Speculation” from the library, and while it was okay (for the few pages I read), it wasn’t what I expected and I was confused for a while. Duh. “Dept. of Speculation” was one of the top ten books picked by The New York Times for 2014 and I’ve been meaning to read it (but obviously couldn’t retain the proper information to find it). I eventually located the real thing and am glad I did.

Although the book is not very big, each of Jenny Offill’s paragraphs is weighty. The paragraphs don’t necessarily present a linear storyline, but eventually the underlying concern is revealed. Offill cleverly displays her primary character (a professor, wife, and mother) and her increasing disassociation with her life by using different points of view.

Offill’s narrow world is concerned with love, marriage, motherhood, friendship, expectations, delineations, disappointment, anger, and sorrow. While her subject matter may not be unique, her style is unusual and provocative. While it is easy to read this book quickly, lingering over Offill’s words will be rewarded.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller

Crown, 320 pages, $25

“Freedom’s Child” is a wild ride by debut author Jax Miller. Her main character, Freedom Oliver, is unique, her persona like quicksilver, her flaws and strengths many, her determination the backbone of this book.

Although Freedom made the choices that eventually led to her dead-end job in a biker bar in Nowheresville, Oregon, her dreams are haunted and her mind disheveled by the repercussions. 

It’s hard to know how much to reveal about Freedom’s back story. I guess it should be a revelation to you as it was to me, so let me talk obliquely about the book.

Someone is out to kill Freedom. Someone is out to harm people Freedom loves. Fueled by guilt, alcohol, a kick-ass mentality, and nothing to lose, Freedom decides to get back at him/her/them. If you are used to reading about protagonists who are decent, chill and proficient dudes and dudettes, Freedom mostly lives outside those boundaries. But she has a soft side. It is seen, for instance, in her relationship with Mimi, her neighbor with Alzheimer’s, over whom she watches when she can, including keeping Mimi from burning down their apartment building when she forgets a pot on the stove.

Eventually, Freedom takes to the road (thus, the relevancy of the picture of a motorcycle on the book’s jacket cover) to regain her life and redeem her decisions.

“Freedom’s Child” is a tear-jerker without being maudlin, sentimental without being mawkish, philosophical without being condescending.

Is it too late for another 2015 MBTB star? 

Friday, December 4, 2015

2015 Best Mysteries: A Sparkling Collection of MBTB Stars

Apparently during 2015 I liked eleven books really well. You can click on the titles for the full reviews. 





Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia (actually released in 2014)

Is Room 712 in a Catskills hotel haunted? Teenage musicians and eccentric adults haul their luggage and psychological burdens to a music festival in that hotel.



The Iron Sickle by Martin Limón

The latest in the series set in 1970s South Korea starring military investigators Sueño and Bascom. The series just gets better. This time a Korean man wields an iron sickle and kills a military administrator. Why, why, why, why, why?


The Final Silence by Stuart Neville

Irish author Neville has the knack of exploring and exploding the dark psychological recesses of the human mind. Inspector Jack Lennon is a suspect in the murder of a woman who asked Lennon to look into older murders. Run, Jack, run!






Lamentation by C. J. Sansom

In the troubled time of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, hunchback attorney Matthew Shardlake is a beacon of integrity and intelligence. This time heresy is the topic du jour.


A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

What could warrant murder in the publishing industry? What couldn't? A great debut.


Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill

Although Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun stories are couched in his trademark good humor, he almost always teaches his readers a serious lesson about Southeast Asia in the 1970s. In this book, the Chinese are invading Vietnam. Laos, where Cotterill's series is mostly set, is in the way. Uh, oh.





All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

An elegant two-character play about spy versus spy.


The Truth and Other Lies by Sacha Arango

A masterful story by German author Arango about a sociopath who tries to keep his life from tumbling into the abyss.


X by Sue Grafton

It's by Sue Grafton. Read it.





Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

A twisty thriller with great heart.


Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Based on a true story, heroine Constance Kopp was an extraordinary woman for her time. Protectively raised, oddly educated, and now facing the world alone, Constance and her sisters are thrust into a world of crime. Girl gotta get a gun.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pages, $27

Happily, Amy Stewart has taken a true story and magnified and embroidered it into a wonderful tale of women in a changing society in Paterson, New Jersey, around the turn of the last century. Without making her heroines, three sisters on a farm in New Jersey, appear to be preternaturally emancipated, Stewart presents three people who just did what they had to do with intelligence, grit, and courage.

The tale is told in the voice of Constance Kopp, the oldest — she is in her early thirties at the beginning of the story — of three women living on their own. It is 1914 and, not unusual for the time, they do not own an automobile. When they want to go to town, they hitch their horse up to a buggy. In high spirits one day, they arrive in downtown Paterson to do some shopping, only to be hit broadside by an auto driven by the odious owner of a cloth-dying factory, Henry Kaufman.

A harrowing tale of right versus wrong and weak versus strong begins that day. Constance and her sisters, Norma and young Fleurette, request that Henry pay for the damage done to their buggy. It is only fifty dollars, an insignificant sum for a factory owner, but Henry refuses. Instead, he and his disreputable drinking buddies begin to harass the sisters. It escalates into brick-throwing, attempted arson, and horrid threats to teenage Fleurette.

With the help of Sheriff Robert Heath, Constance attempts to make Henry pay for his crimes. Along the way, Constance meets a young woman who claims Henry is the (unwanted) father of her baby, a baby who was sent away during the time she and other workers in the factory were on strike. The baby subsequently has disappeared and the mother, Lucy, is frantic. Constance, for reasons of her own, is very sympathetic and is drawn into helping the young mother.

Stewart’s rounding out of the womens’ personalities and hard-working rural lifestyle is well done. They become real people dealing with hardships and daunting adversities. From the realities of taking care of a farm — repairing a roof, unclogging ice-bound pipes, growing carrots, chopping wood, making do — to facing an uncertain future because of their dwindling savings, the Kopp sisters are shown to be resilient and idiosyncratically clever.

MBTB star!

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

Picador, 320 pages, $16 (c2006)

British author Jason Goodwin is fascinated by Turkey, Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire. He wrote a nonfiction book of its history and a travel book of his journey to Istanbul. Then he created a memorable mystery series set in mid-1830s Istanbul with a eunuch for his hero.

At this point, Goodwin is up to the fifth book in the Investigator Yashim series, but this is a review of his first award-winning entry.

Istanbul stands (geographically and historically) at the junction of Europe and Asia and their varied cultures. As modern-day Turkey’s seat of power, it is fascinating for its continuous adoption and melding of Western and Eastern politics, religions, and rituals. Its history is one of the oldest; its obeisance to and conquest of the major empires of the time give it a rich texture. It has been the seat of power for a world-arching empire.

At the time “The Janissary Tree” opens, the sultan in residence in Istanbul is westernizing his army. Adopting the military tactics of the French (having first relieved itself of Napoleon), the British, and the Russians, Istanbul is attempting to enter the modern world. (As one character memorably points out, to anchor us in time, the Declaration of Independence is only sixty years old.) Ten years earlier, a rout was carried out against the Janissaries, the former military component of the Turkish empire. They were far too independent, cultish, and morally corrupt. (That is not to say that the Byzantine turnings of the Sultan’s retainers, advisors, and family do not stem from the same flaws.)

Investigator Yashim is a palace employee, as it were, as were most of the eunuchs of the time. As is stereotypically portrayed, quite a few are guards of the sultan’s harem, but others are administrators and trusted servants. Eunuchs, perforce, do not suffer from the same desires and failings as other men — or so the thought goes — and are more reliable and trustworthy.

As Goodwin depicts Yashim — and as Wikipedia will describe to you, if you care to visit it — not having sexual desires depends on when a eunuch is castrated. Too much information, you say? Then turn away from this series, because Goodwin gracefully deals with this issue. And having a eunuch as a central character, Goodwin is obligated to deal with Yashim’s most obvious and curious issue.

To the book. Four outstanding cadets of the new army have disappeared. The head of the military wants Yashim to find them. Rather, three of them are missing; one has been found in a large cooking pot, dead. Also, the sultan’s mother is missing some jewels given to her by Napoleon. Then strange rumors of a Janissary resurgence are heard and mysterious fires are set in the city. All fall on Yashim’s shoulders to solve. He is the appointed center of the maelstrom.

Along with his old friends Palewski, the devalued Polish ambassador, and Preen, a transsexual entertainer, and his new friend, Eslek, an open market worker and handy-to-know person, Yashim begins to unravel the obscure threads of the various problems.

I loved the hardworking historical perspective. Goodwin knows a lot and attempts to recreate the very bricks and plaster of the time. He gives us a chance to replace Disney’s “Aladdin” (I know that’s not Istanbul, don’t write me; you know what I mean) with the fervor and exotica of a dying culture attempting to recreate itself.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

Houghton Mifflin, 341 pages, $25

I have enjoyed Elly Griffiths’ series featuring Ruth Galloway, a contemporary forensic archaeologist situated in Norfolk, England. Griffiths’ stories and character portrayals have grown stronger over the years. Not part of this series, “The Zig Zag Girl” concentrates on a story set a few years after the end of World War II.

Edgar Stephens is a police inspector in Brighton, England. His most recent case is the gruesome death of a woman, made to look like the magic trick of sawing a girl into pieces has gone awry. But, surprise, the woman was formerly the assistant to famous stage magician Max Mephisto. And, surprise again, Edgar knows Max very well from their time spent in “The Magic Men” special unit during the war.

Some of Edgar’s memories of The Magic Men are fond, but others are brutal. Not every comrade in the unique corps was fondly embraced, but neither were there strong animosities, as far as Edgar knew. There were several stage magicians in the group; Edgar was a strong puzzle solver. Together they were tasked with manufacturing a strong military presence to fool the German fly-overs. With stage magic and strong carpentry skills, they tried their best to create the look of a heavily-armed base.

Now back in civilian life, the former members have moved on and apart. What, then, is haunting the group, drawing them back into communication as someone appears to be targeting them and those associated with them? Edgar reconnects with his old buddy, Max Mephisto, to solve the mystery.

It’s hard to shake comparisons with the Ruth Galloway series. Ruth has an fascinating job, although the number of recently deceased bodies, as opposed to ancient ones, complicates her life. Ruth is an interesting, quirky, and modern character. Edgar is more one-note in comparison, although the tension between him and his mother is interestingly presented. “The Zig Zag Girl” is more reliant on story than character at this point, assuming Griffiths intends to create a series. (Oh, wait, I see that her second Edgar/Max mystery has been released in England.) It's worth a look because Griffiths is a good storyteller.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

Minotaur Books, 352 pages, $15.99 (trade paperback release date - 12/15)

Quite a while back I read about eighty pages of this book, then stopped. I actually stopped before the “good” part, the tough look at the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims that Ausma Zehanat Khan portrays so movingly. I lost the rhythm of the story early on. Khan’s psychological scrutiny and depiction of the interplay between her main characters, Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, detectives in the Toronto Community Policing Section, was obscure. There were oblique references to losses and traumas and they swirled in an obfuscatory way. Had I hung in there, I would have been mesmerized by Khan’s telling of the tragedies that befell Muslims in Srebrenica, for Khan bases her story on actual experiences. But her crime story is fictional.

“The Language of Secrets,” Khan’s second story in what is now a series, is due to be released in early 2016, so I took another stab at “The Unquiet Dead,” when the vague set-up of characters in the second book proved too confusing. I am happy that I did give “The Unquiet Dead” another try. 

Christopher Drayton was rich. He fell off a cliff near his house and died. Was it an accident, suicide, or was someone else responsible for his demise? Why would someone want to kill the kind old man? To a person, his neighbors said he was nice and generous, although a little vain. In fact, he wanted to donate a large sum to a new museum in the neighborhood devoted to Andalusian history and art. Drayton shared his life with a pneumatically-enhanced girlfriend and her two daughters. Everything seemed to be peachy keen.

Why would Esa Khattak, who was usually called in for problems in the Muslim community, be asked to look into Drayton’s death? Rachel Getty is our surrogate; she is as clueless as we are as she follows Khattak through the first stages of investigation. Khattak is purposely keeping Getty in the dark so he can get her unbiased view. Getty is no wiser for a long time, until certain aspects of Drayton’s life are actually spilled out onto her lap. It appears that Drayton might not have been who he claimed to be.

It is a politically precarious investigation for Khattak and Getty. There are both too many suspects — if Drayton was murdered — and too few, depending on who Drayton really was or was perceived to be. How does the Srebrenica horror work its way into the story? When a lot of the murkiness, both personal and professional, is pushed aside, Khan’s story shines.

In many favorable ways, Khan’s pacing and storytelling are reminiscent of another Canadian writer, Louise Penny. Each author likes to slowly unveil her story, with a lot of asides for her large cast of peripheral characters, and the motives behind the churned-up emotions that the dead create.

My review of “The Language of Secrets” will follow closer to its publication in 2016. I did enjoy it more because the writing is much more straightforward and Khan’s main characters are steadier and more clearly defined, having hoisted off some personal issues in “The Unquiet Dead.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

Tor Books, 240 pages, $24.99 (release date - 11/15/15)

If Raymond Chandler wrote about a robot. If a book contained as many similes as there are feet on a milipede. If a one-ton robot walked into a bar. These are the suppositions that guide Adam Christopher’s “Made to Kill,” subtitled “The LA Trilogy, volume 1.”

It is 1965 in L.A. Raymond Electromatic is the last robot on earth because all the other robots have been disabled. He is a public private eye and a secret assassin. His able assistant (or handler) is a room-sized computer named Ada. Raymond (too) frequently imagines he can hear “her” smoking, moving a squeaky chair, rifling through papers, even though she is a massive, boxy, stationary computer. One of Raymond and Ada’s prime directives appears to be “stay solvent.” In order to do so, Ada figured out that Raymond must offer his services as a hitman for big pay.

So, a blonde walks into the office with a million dollars in unmarked gold bars and wants Raymond to kill a movie star. Ada and Raymond don’t seem particularly fazed by the morality of the request. They must stay solvent, after all.

It takes a while to locate the target, and during the search, Raymond stumbles across some fishy circumstances. If only he could remember things for more than just 24 hours it would be helpful. The magnetic tape that comprises his memory expires after 24 hours. Ada must provide a synopsis every morning of what came before. The blonde and the target are part of something big, weird … and campy. Does Raymond carry over enough knowledge to figure out what it is?

Will Raymond and Ada somehow wind up as forces for good? Will Raymond remember enough to prevent the ominous disaster lurking on the horizon like a cloud as dark as a smoker’s lung?

Although "Made to Kill" has more similes than a leopard has useful spots, its comic-book style is entertaining. Some pieces of Raymond and Ada's story certainly will deserve further explication in the next two volumes.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Mulholland Books, 512 pages, $28

Thank goodness we all know that Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of J. K. Rowling. After having read “Career of Evil,” I would be hard pressed to believe it was written by a “former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry.” At this point in the so-far three-book Cormoran Strike series, the romantic by-play between Cormoran and his partner in the detective agency, Robin Ellacott, is a big part of the story. Although elements of the murders are indeed gruesome, it would be difficult to imagine a hard-nosed ex-cop writing this book.

Before I knew Galbraith was Rowling, I enjoyed and praised “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” the first book in the series. Even then the ex-cop author persona was hard to accept, but it wasn’t beyond the realm of reason.

Cormoran and Robin have had their professional ups and downs. Their agency takes a turn for the worse when a human leg is sent in the mail to Robin. When word reaches the public, the public runs away from hiring a detective who might attract the vengeance (for whatever reason) of a serial killer. The duo logically concludes that the perpetrator needs to be caught, and since the police don’t seem to have a lot of clues, Cormoran and Robin need to step up.

Cormoran decides it is one of three people from the past of his strange and wayward life. Top of the list is his stepfather, a wastrel, misogynist, and pathetic leech whom Cormoran suspects of having murdered his mother years earlier. Robin grapples with her own past issues that the current investigation has dredged up. Also, her upcoming wedding to manipulative weasel Matthew needs her attention. She alternates discussing floral arrangements with tailing miscreants.

As with the other two books in the series, this book has charm to spare. Toss in a moving look back into both Cormoran and Robin’s pasts and lots of adventures for heretofore second banana Robin, and you have a winner.

(This is a personal aside. I've lately become fascinated by singer and poet Patti Smith. Her autobiography "Just Kids" was compelling. She was an iconic punk presence in 1970s New York City. She was involved romantically and musically with Alan Lanier of The Blue Öyster Cult. Lyrics from the band's songs, including some penned by Smith, begin each chapter.)

The Blackhouse by Peter May

Quercus, 501 pages, $14.99 (c2011, Amer. ed. 2014)

I’m late to the party. Scotsman Peter May has been publishing since 1978. “The Blackhouse” is the first of the Fin Macleod trilogy, set in the Isle of Lewis, the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, and it is the first of May’s books that I have read. He obviously mastered the dark matter of psychological crime fiction while he was waiting for me to read him.

“The Blackhouse” had an inauspicious beginning. No English-language publisher would print it. It was finally accepted by a French publisher, and in a twist worthy of Dickens, it was a hit at the Frankfurt Book Fair, garnering excitement and bidding wars. Of course, better late than never, a British publisher (Quercus) picked it up. Quercus was a new company at the time, although it had already scored hits with the translated books of … wait for it, wait for it … Stieg Larsson.

Dept. of Just Wondering: Was an English translation made of the French translation of May’s book written in English? (Have you ever used a translation app to turn something from English into another language, then back into English? It’s hilarious sometimes.) Just being facetious.

Back to the book.

Fin Macleod left the cloistered, claustrophobic town of Crobost on the wild and dark tip of the Isle of Lewis to become a big city police detective. It has been eighteen years since he left Crobost and he has not returned, except for his aunt’s funeral. He has a high-profile murder to solve in Edinburgh and, as the Fates would have it, a similar-enough murder victim is found on the Isle of Lewis. Talk about a welcome home!

Actually, Fin is not welcomed home. The police, territorial beings that they are, don’t want him sticking his big-city nose in their murder. He hasn’t kept in touch with childhood friends, and his presence sets off startling storylines. They don’t necessarily want him home either.

“The Blackhouse” has an unusual structure. It is thoroughly Fin’s story, but the murder narrative is told in third-person, while the back story gradually revealing the traumas that drove Fin away from the Isle of Lewis is told in Fin’s first-person voice. Mysteries abound and for a good while all we know is that “something” awful happened to Fin. Then it is revealed there are several “somethings.” One by one, Fin’s life is laid bare. In the end, it is less about the murder victim — by the way, a childhood acquaintance of Fin — and much, much more about the person Fin has become.

“The Blackhouse” is atmospheric, dark, rewarding, and a literary archaeological dig. The scenes set on the lonely island to which the village men journey to kill two thousand gugas (gannet chicks) each year is particularly chilling and riveting. That the trip serves as a rite of passage for older boys, including Fin when he was of age, gives the story a horrifying anticipation when it is finally told.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Styx by Bavo Dhooge

Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $25, c2014, translated from Dutch by Bavo Dhooge and Josh Pachter (U.S. ed. release date - 11/3/15)

Raphael Styx is one of the most unusual police detectives around. Once he becomes a zombie, his hellish last name fits him better, even though it makes the detecting more difficult. As a blood-coursing human, he was a poor excuse for a man: a gambler, an adulterer, a cop on the take. As a zombie, he has a noble goal and higher purpose: to catch the serial killer who murdered him before he kills again. Styx’s poignant journey also becomes a way to help him admit what an awful person he had been to his colleagues and family.

“The Stuffer” is so called because he eviscerates his victims and plumps up the bodies with sand or some other substance. He then poses his victims artistically — after all he is from Ostend, an area that has served as inspiration for generations of artists.

Styx is one of the detectives assigned to find the killer, but he has made little headway during the six months he has had the case. Just his bad luck to catch the killer, only to be killed himself — initially — by the killer.

Although the resolution of “Styx” is based on pure, dumb luck rather than stellar detecting, it was hard not to be captivated by Styx’s thought processes and Dhooge’s ability to paint a vivid picture of a dead man walking — and dropping putrescent bits of himself along the way. Despite the grotesqueries, there is an inspirational quality to Styx’s newly discovered humility and desire for redemption.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Promise by Robert Crais

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 416 pages, $27.95 (release date - 11/10/15)


In 1987, Robert Crais entered the mystery field with “The Monkey’s Raincoat,” a marvelous book that introduced us to Los Angeles private investigator Elvis Cole. After fifteen books Elvis has his fan club. His sidekick, Joe Pike, may have had his own book or two along the way, but this series is Elvis’ show. K-9 cop Scott James may have had a book of his own (“The Suspect”), but Elvis is the top dog. Here, in “The Promise,” the world is righted once again with cool, tough guy Pike and nice, emotionally vulnerable James playing second fiddles.

What distinguishes Elvis is his humor with attitude and equanimity without attitude. Also, Elvis is stylish. After all, he has a Pinocchio clock on his wall. He is the world’s greatest detective. How do we know that? Because Elvis says he is. All the time. He is astute and a good judge of character. When his newest client, Meryl Lawrence, hires him to find a co-worker, he suspects something is not quite on the up-and-up, especially when a dead body turns up.

Throw in explosives manufacturing and terrorist cells, and Elvis has a lot to figure out. It additionally complicates his life when the police peg him as a prime suspect in the murder of a man Elvis stumbles across while looking for his client’s co-worker. In the process he is almost killed by a police officer. Fortunately, that officer was Scott James, an ex-soldier who is smart enough not to overreact. He and Maggie, his German Shepherd partner, begin a strange and surreptitious relationship with Elvis to find out who really killed the man. It becomes especially vital when the killer next targets James, the only person who saw his face.

“The Promise” is a mishmash of first-person and third-person narration. Elvis, Pike, and James are joined by Jon Stone, an intermittent member of Elvis’ team. This gives us a bunch of points of view, including Maggie’s doggy perspective. The best parts are, of course, Elvis’ first-person storytelling. It is a little messy to have to juggle such different voices, but Crais has put together a great story. His twists are clever and the resolution quite unexpectedly moving.

Monday, October 5, 2015

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 160 pages, $24, translated from French by Euan Cameron

French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Would I have read this author if he had not won the award? Well, no, because his books were hard to find in an English translation prior to receiving the Nobel, and I didn’t even know who he was. Some of his books are hyped as atmospheric mysteries. Hmmm. Big yes for atmosphere. Little yes for mystery. I recently mentioned that one of the reasons I like mysteries is because the villain gets his/her just desserts in the end. Modiano deals in ambiguity, and that is what I had at the end.

“So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood” tells a story of a crime in brief pieces, moving back and forth in time. And, were I to read it a second time, I would then (hopefully) have the whole story. Modiano does not pile-drive home his plot points, such as they are. He does have a recurring theme that comprises the bulk of “Neighborhood,” however, and it is the nebulous state of memory.

Aging author Jean Daragane lives alone. It appears he does most things alone.

When you have been too long on your own — he had not spoken to anyone since the beginning of the summer — you become suspicious and touchy towards your fellow men and you risk assessing them incorrectly.

The mysterious Gilles Ottolini telephones Daragane (in a voice “dreary and threatening”) one day. He has found Daragane’s address book and wants to return it. Has Daragane been alone too long? Has he created Ottolini and his equally mysterious companion, Chantal Grippay, just to have company? Ottolini wants to know about a name in Daragane’s address book, but Daragane doesn’t recognize it. Who is Guy Torstel? Ottolini reminds Daragane that Torstel’s name appears in his first book. Not only does Daragane not remember Torstel, he only vaguely remembers his first book.

There are repressed childhood memories that Daragane struggles alternately to let rise up and to bury further down. They may have to do with the murder of a young woman in 1951 who may have known another young woman who may have been his caregiver (or kidnapper?). Perhaps Ottolini and Grippay are imaginary contrivances his subconscious mind is using to bring those memories into the light of day.

[H]e saw this period of his life through a frosted window. It allowed a vague clarity to filter through, but you could not make out the faces or even the figures. A glazed window, a sort of protective screen. Perhaps, thanks to deliberate forgetfulness, he had managed to protect himself from this past for good.

“Neighborhood” is littered with references to forgetting, amnesia, blankness. When Daragane is confronted with material which may contain important clues to the childhood trauma:

But no sooner had he started his reading than he experienced an unpleasant sensation: the sentences became muddled and other sentences suddenly appeared that overlaid the previous ones and disappeared without giving him time to decipher them. He was confronted with a palimpsest in which all the various writings were jumbled together and superimposed, and moved about like bacilli seen through a microscope.

If you read Modiano with the hope of a cracking detective story, put that hope aside. “Neighborhood” is a deeply moving psychological riddle with a purposely muddled punchline. Its dark, noirish atmosphere will wrap you in a soft, foggy cocoon. Perhaps you will like it, perhaps not. Perhaps you won’t remember it at all.


Friday, October 2, 2015

When it crosses the line ...

All of us at Murder by the Book at one time or another answered the question, "Why do you like/read mysteries?" Most of us primarily read fictional crime stories. In fiction, an author can create motivation, puzzles, and an ending in which the culprit is named and usually made to pay for his or her crime. The fictional murders, assaults, and violence run the gamut from gently abraded (Agatha Christie) to viciously masticated ("Silence of the Lambs"). None of us ever mistook fiction for fact, nor did any of us desire to ever find even the coziest of crimes on our doorstep.

It is appalling to think that Umpqua Community College in Roseburg -- a three-hour drive south of Portland -- is the latest (and probably not the last) setting for someone to arm himself to the teeth and willfully murder strangers as part of a sick fantasy.

For one week every summer for fifteen years, I've driven from Portland to Roseburg to volunteer at Camp Millennium, a primarily Douglas County-supported charity that provides summer camp for children dealing with cancer. For several years, students at UCC have provided an afternoon of entertainment for the campers on their beautiful campus. How dare someone take the serenity and beauty of that campus away from everyone for even one second!

To my Camp family from Roseburg, I wish it hadn't happened to your community. The murderer crossed the line. He put thought into action. To those of us who are avid mystery/thriller/suspense readers, that would be the furthest thing from our minds.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Ecco, 320 pages, $16 (c2010)

Before heading back into the mystery world, I read "Just Kids," the memoir that won poet/singer/artist Patti Smith the National Book Award a few years ago. I put on "Horses," "Easter," and "Dream of Life" while I read. Her new memoir, "M Train," has just been released, with good reviews in its wake.

"Just Kids" is a powerful, sincere, poetic, touching, and slyly humorous book, mostly about her relationship with controversial artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The backdrop to their years together was the underground/beat/folk/hippie/punk scene in New York City in the 1960s and 70s. Smith is still exerting her influence on the music scene today.

It was an exhilarating experience to view her life secondhand.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

DAW, 384 pages, $7.99 (c2012)

“Throne of the Crescent Moon” is a fantasy adventure. It is not a mystery, but I wish it were so I could give it a star for how much fun it was to read. The cover says, optimistically, that this is “Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms.” Saladin Ahmed’s website says the next book is due in 2016. I hope so.

Set in a fantasy version of the Middle East with an Arabian Nights inflection, there are magicians, alchemists, spell casters, ghuls (ghouls?) and ghul hunters, Dervishes, and shape shifters. Ghul hunter Adoulla Makslood, his apprentice, his beloved neighbors, and a desert tribeswoman are all that stand before a mysterious force of evil intent on taking over Dhamsawaat, the ruling city of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. Detroit author Ahmed has created his characters with reverence to the actual mythology and culture of the Middle East.

Can’t wait for the next volume.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $15.99 (c2014)

There was a fleeting thought at the beginning of “Invisible City” that, ho hum, here was simply another book about an edgy, feisty young woman, trying to make her way in New York City. However, as the story unfolds, more unusual elements arise, and they make the story very different and very much worth reading.

Rebekah Roberts has been a stringer for a NYC tabloid newspaper for a few months. As the story opens, she is freezing outdoors as she waits for the body of a naked, bald woman to be lowered from a hoist in a scrapyard. The scrapyard is owned by a Hasidic Jew, and the dead woman is known to the owner. Special Hasidic attendants remove her body. As time passes, however, Rebekah wonders why there is no police investigation or autopsy. Eventually, a man named Saul Katz, who presents himself as a rogue cop possibly investigating corruption in the police department, wants to help Rebekah with her story if she will help him with his subrosa investigation.

Rebekah is a stranger to the Hasidic way of life, but nevertheless, a connection is revealed. Her mother, Aviva, came from the same community that apparently has made a murder (and murderer) disappear. Rebekah has not seen her mother since she was six months old. She has harbored anger towards both her absent mother and her forgiving father, and it manifests itself in a clinical case of anxiety.

What Julia Dahl does so well is give her readers a multi-layered look at a Hasidic community. Her depiction reveals the genesis of this tightly controlled Orthodox Jewish community, and the modern-day repercussions of traditions and orthodoxy rooted in an ancient past. Dahl also has created a complex character who is given an opportunity to perhaps forgive the woman who deserted her by understanding the forces that shaped her.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Armada by Ernest Cline

Crown, 368 pages, $26

Ernest Cline’s first book, “ Ready Player One,” was on MBTB’s best books of the year list. Its characters were engaging, the story had real heart to it, and its vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth was grim but not hopeless. It’s disappointing that none of that applies to Cline’s second book, “Armada.”

The main character is a short-tempered, whiny eighteen-year-old gamer. The plot of “Armada” was done better in “The Last Starfighter.”

Bah, humbug!


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

Riverbed Books, 464 pages, $28.95

This is not a mystery. But it is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Ivan Doig recently died and it is fortunate that we have this fine book as his coda. He is a writer with a western sensibility. He was raised in Montana and has written often of the area. “The Last Bus to Wisdom” celebrates the wandering, adventurous spirit of an eleven-year-old boy, cast adrift by accident and mishap to ride the “dog bus” (Greyhound, if you haven’t already guessed) between Montana and Wisconsin one summer.

Although his books often are celebratory of the new Old West, he said: “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Western’ writer. To me, language — the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose — is the ultimate ‘region,’ the true home, for a writer.”

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages, $24

What does an autistic man have to do with a coma patient in a care facility? "Rubbernecker" begins when eighteen-year-old Patrick Fort, a university student with Asperger’s Syndrome, briefly and unknowingly passes by Samuel Galen just after Galen’s car plunges off a cliff, rendering him alive but comatose.

Patrick (not Pat, not Paddy) marches to his own drummer; there’s little else he can do. He doesn’t like to be touched, finds serenity in cleaning and scrubbing, and is fascinated by dead things because of his father. Patrick’s father had been in the street reaching for his young son when he was hit by a car and died. His mother is an alcoholic who cleaned up her act to care for Patrick after that.

At university Patrick is intent on becoming an anatomist in line with his childhood fascination with all manner of dead things. (Patrick’s mother memorably found a dead critter under Patrick’s pillow.) Patrick’s part of “Rubbernecker” follows him mostly in his anatomist’s class, dissecting a body. We are also privy to his awkward relationships (if that word is appropriate) with his classmates and roommates. He puzzles over what emotions people are expressing as they interact with him. Belinda Bauer’s depiction of this is funny, sad, and touching.

Samuel Galen’s part of the story is the more frightening by far. He is a coma patient who is aware of what’s going on around him but has no way to communicate. He anguishes over the fact that neither his wife nor his young daughter have been to visit him. Who is the old woman whose voice he hears murmuring endearments to him? And did he hallucinate opening his eyes and witnessing the murder of another patient?

There are several times when Bauer wickedly and expertly deals out a surprise. (This review is a bit circumspect because I don’t want to spoil some great aha! moments.) I’ve read a lot of mystery books, and I’ve come across my share of seen-that-before points while reading them. I was caught off guard by Bauer’s originality, creativity, and sensitivity. Although there have been memorable books with both autistic people (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) and aware-but-helpless coma patients (“Locked In”), Bauer manages a unique take with her characters.

Bauer deftly presents her tricky story while also paying homage to the extraordinary setting of Wales. For the great setting, intriguing characters, marvelous plot, great heart, and the best last line I’ve read in a long time, here is an MBTB star for “Rubbernecker.”