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

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kings of London by William Shaw

Mulholland Books, 400 pages, $26 (release date - 1/27/2015)

Set in 1968-69, “Kings of London” is a blast from the past. Thirty-two-year-old Marylebone CID Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen is just a one-half step over the line to the right of the music and pop revolution that encompassed London, and then a lot of the rest of the world, at that time. He’s square, doesn’t know the new pop music, is not sure he would recognize Donovan if he stepped on him, silently tut-tuts if a policeman has hair slightly longer than regulation.

Breen is also the square peg trying to fit in a round hole in his precinct office. Half the office seems to be corrupt or negligent, prisoners unexpectedly die in their cells, and women officers are objects of amusement. Breen tries to call the attention of higher ups to the nonsense he sees, but there are a lot of deaf ears.

Breen had spent the last few years caring for his invalid father, at the expense of being a young man enjoying living in London at a time of change. As Breen contemplates just what he should be feeling when his father dies, a new case is given to him. A man has been found burned beyond recognition. A few weeks later, another burn victim is found, but this time he is identified. He is the son of a Welsh government minister. Bizarrely, the son has been partly flayed and drained of blood. Besides the similarity of being burned, Breen cannot identify any connection between the two, and the first case begins to languish.

With the help of temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer, a young woman set to depart the police department for good in a few weeks to take care of her family’s farm, Breen runs down a few clues to the minister’s son’s death. It seems, however, that the more information Breen turns up, the more it twists to dead ends, pushed there, it seems, by people within the police hierarchy. What is Breen close to uncovering?

Author William Shaw’s writing style is very clever. His scenes are sometimes flash-cut in an abrupt cinematic fashion. Also, it is not obvious that a piece of narrative is missing until Shaw chooses to reveal that missing part. It is not until almost the end that Shaw first writes about the “kings of London,” just before it becomes obvious that the kings (metaphorically speaking) are dead; long live the kings. Very original and slyly slow-moving.

Shaw’s hero is an original, too. (At the same time, I should say that if you have seen the television series, “Endeavour,” you, too, may picture the young Morse as the not-so-young Breen.) Breen evinces an emotional flatness and is unsure exactly what he is feeling, what his motivations are. He can be obstinate and single-minded when trying to make others see things his way. He is aware of and embarrassed by his fears. He’s lonely but not willing to adjust his moral code to fit in with his colleagues. Tozer’s youth and embrace of pop culture confound him. Her world shows him what a fuddy-duddy he has become. 

And then there’s the slam-bang denouement, giving this book a lot to recommend it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

2015 Edgar Award Nominations

The Edgar Award nominations are out: http://www.theedgars.com/nominees.html.

I've read three of the five nominees for best novel, two of which got an MBTB star from me ("Saints of the Shadow Bible" and "Final Silence"). I wouldn't want to be a judge!

2/15/15 update: I've now read "Cop Town" as well. Karin Slaughter is a tough broad. I mean that in the nicest possible sense.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Before He Finds Her by Michael Kardos

Mysterious Press, 384 pages, $25 (release date - 2/3/2015)

In many ways “Before He Finds Her” is a standard thriller. However, Michael Kardos has done a good job creating a young heroine who is resilient and determined, and that makes all the difference.

On a September night in 1991, Ramsey Miller killed his wife, took his young daughter and drowned her, and then disappeared.

Fifteen years later, seventeen-year-old Melanie Denison is grappling with the restrictions placed on her by her caregivers, Uncle Wayne and Aunt Kendra. Although she has a job and is attending community college part-time, she has been sheltered and frightened for as long as she can remember. Frightened because Melanie Denison is really Meg Miller, the daughter everyone thinks is dead, and for as long as she can remember she has believed that her father will find her and finally kill her, too.

When a significant event occurs in her life, it becomes imperative for Melanie/Meg to journey from West Virginia to her old home town of Silver Bay, New Jersey, to see if she can find her father, to finally deal with her fear.

Ramsey Miller’s story, up to that fateful September night, is told in a narrative that alternates with Melanie’s. He was a wild boy who tried to tame himself for the love of Melanie’s mother, Alison. He succeeded until something unexpected makes him reassess his life, what he has attained and what he is still lacking.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Penguin Press, 304 pages, $26.95 (released 3/2014)

“Redeployment” won the National Book Award for fiction for 2014. It is a stunning collection of twelve stories told by narrators with very different viewpoints of the war in Iraq. Klay himself is a veteran Marine. He was in the military’s public affairs office in Iraq, but toured and saw enough of “real fighting” and talked to enough other military people that his stories ring with deeply felt emotion and truth.

However, this is not a mystery.

Unless war is a mystery to you.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Fear the Darkness by Becky Masterman

Minotaur Books, 336 pages, $25.99 (release date - 1/20/2015)

“Fear the Darkness” is the follow-up to Becky Masterman’s solid debut, “Rage Against the Dying.” That first book was successful because of Masterman’s quirky protagonist: slightly sociopathic, slightly crazy, definitely tough, ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn. Brigid took on tough assignments, until she unfortunately shot an unarmed suspect. She was sentenced to wait until retirement in a paper-pushing job in Tucson, Arizona, the FBI equivalent of the ass-end of nowhere. But Brigid wound up liking Tucson. After she retired, she found love, previously elusive, and settled down to happy suburban quiet. Until, of course, it wasn’t quiet anymore.

In Masterman’s second go at Brigid, Brigid’s Mini-Me is added to the mix. Brigid’s niece, seventeen-year-old Gemma-Kate, has just lost her mother. Gemma-Kate’s father is an alcoholic cop in Florida. He is more than happy to send his daughter off to be his sister’s problem. Gemma-Kate has odd interests. Then Brigid begins to suspect that Gemma-Kate is experimenting with poisons, beginning with the unfortunate poison toad incident with one of Brigid’s beloved pugs. 

Brigid confides in her best friend — yes, Brigid, who suffers from an attachment disorder, has both a best friend and a beloved husband — Mallory. Mallory is a saint. She is nursing her bedridden husband who is suffering from locked-in syndrome. There’s nothing wrong with Owen’s brain, but when a train hit the car he and Mallory were in, he was left with control over only his brain and his eyes.

Mallory is concerned because Brigid is becoming increasingly disabled. A limp here, a slur there, a zoning out further on. Brigid begins medical tests to figure out what is wrong with her. Eventually, however, suspicion clouds Brigid’s already strangely clouded mind that perhaps Gemma-Kate has moved on to target humans, beginning with her aunt.

Despite her growing impairments, Brigid takes on a case. (She finally succumbed to her true nature and became a private investigator.) The teenaged stepson of a local doctor — and maybe coincidentally Brigid’s doctor for the purpose of determining what is wrong with her — drowned. His disconsolate mother begs Brigid for help determining if her son died accidentally or was murdered, despite her husband’s antipathy towards the enterprise.

There are more poisonings and then another death. If only Brigid could focus, perhaps she could stop bad things from happening. If-only and $7 could get you a cup of coffee.

Despite the awkward prologue — which is repeated almost verbatim later on in an appropriate spot — Masterman’s second Brigid Quinn book is entertaining, mostly because of Brigid’s eccentric character, unfiltered statements, and her Mini-Me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages, $25 (released 5/2014)

The ARCs are stacking up, the library holds are shortly to be mine, there are unread books cascading onto the floor from my many bookcases, but when Carolyn told me about “Bellweather Rhapsody,” I put every other book aside. In many ways, this is a perfect book.

In an old hotel in the Catskills that Kate Racculia reminiscently patterns after the one in “The Shining,” seventeen-year-old twin musicians, their heavily burdened chaperone, a slightly crazy conductor, a heavyset young woman who has come to face her deepest fear, the sociopathic interim head of a high school music festival, the sociopath’s fourteen-year-old prodigy daughter, and a cast of mostly faceless hundreds converge for the yearly student music conference and festival for the best young musicians in New York state.

In 1982, fifteen years before the main events in the book, a young bride shot her husband and hanged herself in Room 712. A ten-year-old girl witnessed the event. Now strange events once again haunt Room 712.

Alice and Rabbit (Bertram) Hatmaker are the twins. Alice is outgoing and self-absorbed; Rabbit is anguished and shy. Alice sings and Rabbit plays the bassoon. Alice is placed in Room 712. Her roommate is Jill, the daughter of the sociopath.

On the first night, Jill gets drunk and goes a little nuts. Alice leaves the room briefly to find paper towels to sop up the spilled wine. When she returns, she finds her roommate hanging from a pipe in the ceiling. Alice does not know about the prior hanging, but some of the people she tells do remember. Hastings, the hotel’s concierge, is one of those people, and he hurries up to the room to help out. But, lo, there is no body. No Jill, no sign of foul play. Alice, a little melodramatic anyway, now periodically lapses into hysterical fits. Not even her twin, the loyal and steadfast Rabbit, believes her story.

In the meantime, the adults have their own little melodramas to deal with. Natalie, the chaperone, was once the disheartened student of Viola, the sociopath. Natalie has brought her gun with her, but not because of Viola, whom she did not expect to see. Viola and Fisher, the eccentric/crazy conductor, have a history of lust and dislike, as opposed to love and hate. The heavyset young woman who checked into the hotel, oblivious of the festival, has come to put some ghosts to rest.

Each student and adult has an issue. Each — except for the sociopath — hopes for a revelation and resolution. Each, whether they know it or not, works hard to break the curse of the Bellweather Hotel. Racculia creates a symphony with her novel. The characters play together, first in one group, then in another. They twine in little groups and in large ones. They play together in harmony and in dissonance. They play solos. Their storylines run contrapuntally.

Throughout the telling of the mysterious events played out over the course of one November weekend, there is never a graphically scary moment. Instead there is a build-up of little stories, little scenes into a larger story, a merging of moments and purposes, until a true revelatory crescendo is reached in the best mystery story fashion. Racculia puts forth a potentially horrible scenario, then pulls the story back to safety. She tiptoes into significant moments with a delicate hand, which makes the blam! moment very satisfying. Racculia has rejiggered the horror motif to her own artful end.

Here it is, just the 13th of January, and already here is my third MBTB star of the year. What is going on?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Iron Sickle by Martin Limón

Soho Crime, 320 pages, $26.95

“The Iron Sickle” is the tenth novel in the superior George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series, written by Washington state author Martin Limón. Limón spent many years in South Korea with the military. He became familiar with the culture, learned to speak Korean, and came back to the United States a changed man. His empathy for the Korean people and knowledge of their culture shows in every book he writes.

At this point in the series, Sueño and Bascom are CID detectives for the U.S. Army in 1970s South Korea. Sueño is the level-headed narrator, an American who has taken the time to learn Korean, and Bascom is his brash, hot-headed partner.

Unlike many soldiers, they have ventured out further than just the base and red light district. They have fragile connections with members of the Korean National Police, including the appropriately named Mr. Kill (a bastardization of his Korean name). Sueño knows what rituals and behaviors the Koreans value and is appalled at the callousness and ignorance of the Americans.

A mysterious Korean man has wielded an iron sickle and killed the head of the Army’s claims office. The claims office exists to make reparations to Koreans harmed by the American military. Soon there are more deaths, and Sueño and Bascom try to figure out the connection. It makes sense to them that someone is angry over an unpaid claim, rather than having a personal vendetta against the claims manager.

Their investigation leads to an American military psychiatrist, who gives them an insight into the way the Koreans handle mental illness. They also must find the meaning of a gruesome fetish set near a marketplace that Sueño is sure has been left for him as a clue.

Martin Limón is one of those rare authors whose writing has deepened with every book. “The Iron Sickle” is no exception. His appreciation of the culture and understanding of what the Koreans suffered after the Korean War come through with every book. (He also has a good understanding of the military mind.) For being able to balance thrills and sensitivity, for an exceptionally good story, here’s an MBTB star for Martin Limón.

P.S. One of the things I miss most about Murder by the Book, the actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore, is getting to meet the wonderful customers and authors who came through the doors. Martin Limón entertained us with the most incredible stories, made us laugh, and impressed us with his loyalty. (Anytime you want me to come down from Seattle, just let me know, he often told us. I ask you, how special is that?) But that’s not why he got the MBTB star; he got the star because “The Iron Sickle” is a superior book.

The Final Silence by Stuart Neville

Soho Crime, 352 pages, $26.95

Belfast, Ireland, is a creative cauldron for Stuart Neville. Some of the best, sublimely dark Irish noir has come from his pen. “The Final Silence” is the fourth in the Inspector Jack Lennon series. The first in the series, “The Ghosts of Belfast,” was nominated for just about every mystery award around.

As “The Final Silence” begins, Jack is recovering from injuries, has been sidelined as a police detective, and is ostracized by most of his colleagues because of events that occurred at the end of the prior book, “Stolen Souls.” He is also dependent on pain killers, and his romantic relationship is teetering on the brink of dissolution. What more misery could be heaped on one man?

There is no life without suffering, apparently, and Jack needs more to make him a better, stronger person. Or so the theory goes.

When he is not fighting the bureaucracy to get medical benefits should he retire, he is seriously spacing out, thanks to alcohol and the pain killers. Time passes and nothing is accomplished. He even forgets to pick up his beloved daughter from school. It doesn’t seem possible that any good will come from answering a request for help from an old girlfriend, Rea, especially since Jack winds up lying to his current girlfriend.

Rea has found a scrapbook in her recently deceased uncle’s house. It purports to memorialize the murders committed by the author, whom Rea assumes is her uncle. Included in the scrapbook are “souvenirs” of the murders. (Let me say here that for a book dealing with grisly serial murders, Neville doesn’t linger or layer on the graphic details. At any rate, less than one would expect by American standards.) Then the book disappears.

After meeting with Rea and agreeing to look into the crimes to humor her — since she has nothing but an innocuous photograph to show him — Jack is more depressed than ever. Rea is murdered shortly after Jack leaves her in her uncle’s home. Because of an eyewitness’s statement, Jack is suspected of the murder. He must solve all the murders, and then some, while on the run.

Neville takes his hero down as far as he can go. He crafts Jack’s descent masterfully. But it’s not just this storyline that Neville does so well. Jack’s whole life is on the line. Neville shows us how much Jack’s daughter means to him, how dysfunctional his romantic life has been, how empty his life is without police work to sustain him.

DCI Serena Flanagan, who gets Rea’s murder case, doesn’t show up until almost half way through the book, but “The Final Silence” is also her book. Neville makes her very human. She’s competent, incorruptible, and determined to track down Jack. She also has a personal burden that makes focussing on this case very difficult.

Neville balances everything without dropping anything. MBTB star.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pages, $26

“Lila” is a wonderful book, but it is not a mystery, although there is, however briefly, a murder in it. "Lila" is a wonderful book about being dirt poor in the same way "Grapes of Wrath" is a wonderful book about being dirt poor. They are hard to read, but you are not sorry you read them.

To my shame I have tried and not finished both “Housekeeping” and “Gilead," also by Marilynne Robinson. When I started “Lila,” I could not stop reading. Its beautiful story ebbs and flows. In the flows, we slowly learn Lila’s back story, before she wound up in the town of Gilead, the same Gilead and the same Lila from Robinson’s “Gilead.” “Gilead” was Lila’s husband’s story, and “Lila” is most certainly hers.

It has been a long time since I thought to myself, upon finishing a book, that I would like to re-read it. Someday I would like to re-read “Lila.”

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

Grand Central Publishing, 368 pages, $26 (released 6/14)

British author Tom Rob Smith wrote an interesting and compelling series set in 1950s USSR. “Child 44,” “The Secret Speech,” and “Agent 6” are daring works, melding historical events at a tumultuous time in USSR history and the police work of his fictional character, police detective Leo Demidov.

In “The Farm,” Smith ventures into calmer territory. Based on a real-life incident when his mother called him from Sweden for help, Smith begins his fictional story with that premise. Daniel, a young man living in London, receives first a frantic phone call from his father, saying Daniel’s mother has escaped from a psychiatric institution. An institution? Then comes an ice-cold phone call from his mother, Tilde, who has moved back to her native Sweden with Chris, her British-born husband and Daniel’s father. Everyone is lying about her, she says, and there is a conspiracy afoot in Sweden to discredit her because she knows a damning secret about some men, including Chris, in her village. She’s on her way to London.

About four-fifths of the book is slow going because it contains Tilde’s painstaking (and perhaps paranoid) presentation to Daniel of the conspiracy and the evidence she has acquired. At the crux of it is a missing 16-year-old girl, Mia, the daughter of the wealthiest and most influential man in Tilde’s neck of the Swedish woods. Tilde claims Mia has been murdered, and she wants Daniel to help her take her findings to the police in England.

In contrast, the last fifth of the book races along, because it is Daniel’s story of what he finds when he flies to Sweden. Needless to say, I enjoyed this part much more.

This is a well-written book. However. 

Apparently, from the accolades the book has received, most reviewers thought this was a wonderful book. I found Tilde irritating. Her paranoia, however well-based it may be, scraped annoyingly at me. At the same time I could see how well Smith built up Tilde’s story. Painstaking narration, however, is a device that should be used sparingly. If a reader (i.e., me) doesn’t fall for the character, then the four-fifths, or whatever, of a book the author devotes to it will pass slowly.