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

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lamentation by C. J. Sansom

Mulholland Books, 656 pages, $27

Egad! C. J. Sansom continues to perform writer’s magic. With each new volume in the Matthew Shardlake series, he bests his previous efforts. He presents English history — the mind-numbing political convolutions and grand and petty intrigues — with verve and fluency.

Matthew Shardlake is an unlikely series hero. He is a hunchbacked lawyer from a humble background who has risen to a position of some regard and substance, despite his initial work for the discredited and executed Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII in dissolving the monasteries around England in the wake of Henry’s break with the Catholic Church.

In “Lamentation,” the sixth in the series, Shardlake must provide Queen Catherine Parr with a discreet service. A manuscript, with expressed Reformist sympathies, has been stolen. It was written by the Queen and she had intended to destroy it, in light of the frenzied hunt for heretics going on. Although the manuscript was not per se heretical, it could give ammunition to the Queen’s political enemies. With very few clues to help him, Shardlake is charged with its return.

The make-up of the King’s council reflects the divisiveness of both the King’s religious meddling and vacillation; it is composed of both religious traditionalists and reformers. It is to Sansom’s credit that he has created an intricate plot that brings into doubt the motives of both sides. Could the Queen actually be the victim of her allies? Could there be protectors among her enemies?

“Lamentation” begins with the dramatic burning of indicted heretic Anne Askew in 1546. Shardlake is made to witness this horrific public execution by his Inn of Court. Thus Sansom sets the stage for this fearful and revolutionary time. People of all stations could be charged with heresy. Because of Henry’s shifting beliefs, it is politic, as Shardlake says, “‘to worship as King Henry decrees.’” Shardlake, who has moderate religious beliefs — if, indeed, he is not an atheist at this point — is immersed in two cases for which he must tip-toe through the doctrinal debates.

It is Sansom’s great strength that he can place his story in an England of the past that lives and breathes by his penstroke. No more can be asked of an historical mystery than that it be both an excellent literary picture and a suspenseful tale.

Here’s an MBTB star for “Lamentation.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbøl

Atria Books, 304 pages, $26, translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard

Despite being set in 1894, “Doctor Death” is in many ways a very modern mystery. Maddie Karno, the twenty-year-old daughter of the coroner of a border province in France, has a lively, scientific mind and passionately wishes to follow in her father’s footsteps. But, alas, she is a female, and women of that time were expected to be wives and mothers.

When an unfortunate accident befalls Doctor Karno and temporarily puts him out of commission, his daughter, to her delight, must play a more active investigative role in determining what or who killed several people.

The first vicim is a young girl who has run away from her boarding school. There are mysterious “mites” found in her nose, but it is uncertain that they had anything to do with the girl’s death. The priest who prayed over her is the second victim. He, too, has mites in his nose. But his death was clearly at the hands of the human being who struck him dead.

It is a puzzle that Maddie and her father try to solve. With the addition of a professor of parasitology to their team, they use the most modern of methods to determine if there is a potential epidemic. Danish author Lene Kaaberbøl has a compelling modern-day series that she co-authors with Agnete Friis. Their heroine is a nurse, and Kaaberbøl seems at home with putting medical science to use here as well.

But don’t let the presence of a plucky young girl mislead you into thinking that this is some kind of Nancy Drew-ish mystery. Kaaberbøl has crafted a dark tale, and that tale begins to twist down into daunting psychological depths about halfway through. No one is "normal," it seems. (Not even the maids.)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

Dell, 464 pages, $9.99

By placing “Cop Town” in 1974 Atlanta, Karin Slaughter has given herself some complex issues to play with that are tied to that time and place.

At the start of the book, Kate Murphy is a rookie cop at a time when women cops were rare and beleaguered creatures. When she arrives at the precinct, she has to run the gauntlet of macho male cops grabbing and jostling her. She gets no warm, sisterly welcome from the other female officers either. If anything, their gauntlet is emotionally tougher.

She is partnered with Jimmy Lawson whose partner has just been killed. Although he should be sidelined and in therapy, there he is driving his partner through the bad streets of Atlanta. His first act is to scare and intimidate her when he introduces her to a pimp. I use the word “introduce” with great irony.

Why would Kate, a smart, rich, Buckhead, Jewish apple of her parents’ (and oma’s) eyes, want to be a cop? That is exactly what Kate repeats to herself over and over throughout that first, miserable day.

Eventually Jimmy palms Kate off on his sister, Maggie, also a cop. It’s not that Maggie takes pity on Kate — she doesn’t hold out hope for Kate still being a cop by the end of the week — but she gives Kate streetwise lessons; it’s just something to do as they ride around. And Maggie, despite the strongly-worded adjurations of her uncle, also a cop, and Jimmy not to do anything besides write traffic tickets, she is determined to find “The Shooter,” the maniac killing cops. Jimmy said The Shooter’s gun jammed, or he would have been another victim. 

Slaughter’s novel is a finalist for the 2015 Edgar Award for best book. It’s because her story is so rich with Kate’s history, the dysfunctional interactions of the Lawson family, and the shooter’s creepiness. In what seems like a scant 400+ pages, besides her characters’ stories, Slaughter depicts an Atlanta with deeply divided lines of race, religion, and economic status. And she has crafted a page-turner on top of that.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Riverhead Hardcover, 336 pages, $26.95

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that this and probably every other review will mention the similarity between “The Girl on the Train” and “Gone Girl,” the mega-hit book of a few years ago. Each book has first-person narratives and surprises lying in wait.

The chapters in “The Girl on the Train” represent the voices of three women: Rachel Watson, the alcoholic ex-wife of Tom Watson; Anna Watson, Tom’s current wife; and Megan Hipwell, Anna’s neighbor.

Rachel is the woman (not girl) on the train, traveling daily from a suburb into London, who looks out the window as the train passes by her old home, the one currently occupied by her ex-husband and his new wife. She can barely tolerate seeing it, so she watches the house a few doors down. She often sees an attractive couple there. Jess and Jason, she calls them, not knowing who they really are. “Jess” is actually named Megan, and Megan disappears one night.

Rachel was in an alcoholic stupor in Megan’s neighborhood on the night Megan disappeared. She doesn’t know if she knows anything about Megan’s disappearance or not. Perhaps she even had something to do with it. One thing Rachel does know is that she saw Megan with another man at her home the day before as her train passed by.

Why is Rachel even in her old neighborhood? In her alcoholic slide, described in cringe-worthy detail by Hawkins, she compulsively contacts her ex-husband. She awakens in the morning with no remembrance of the emails and voicemails she left for him the night before. Then, of course, she has to contact him with apologies. It’s never-ending. And sometimes she visits. "Visit" sounds too polite. Sometimes she stalks her old home.

After Megan disappears, Rachel makes one bad decision after another, accelerating her involvement in what is now a police matter.

Paula Hawkins has crafted a pretty good tale of suspense. My recommendation is that you don’t try to guess what the ending is and you just let Hawkins pull you wherever she wants to go. It’s not that you couldn’t guess the plot, it’s just more fun to let Hawkins do the work.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Captured by Neil Cross

Open Road Media, 268 pages, $13.99

The creator of “Luther,” the amazing, morally ambiguous British detective show, has written this standalone thriller. “Captured” is fast-paced, surprising, and violent.

Kenny Drummond has received a death sentence. The tumor in his brain will kill him within a matter of weeks. He decides that with his remaining time he must settle some unfinished business.

Although it has been more than two decades since he last saw her as a little girl, Kenny is determined to locate the only friend he had as a kid, Callie Barton. When he finds out that she disappeared as a young woman, he is convinced that Jonathan Reese, her husband, is responsible. The police treated Jonathan as a suspect at the time, but there was no proof that he murdered her. With nothing to lose, Kenny seeks revenge on Callie’s behalf. Just so you know, Kenny has no proof either.

Although Kenny is the main character, Neil Cross also created an assortment of other intriguing people. Besides Jonathan, there’s Mary, Kenny’s ex-wife, and her husband, Stever; Kenny’s friend, Pat Maxwell, a former cop and current tough broad; and Paul Sugar, a dissolute private detective.

You have to buy into the premise that a man who has shown no violent or hostile tendencies before would suddenly be capable of perpetrating horrors. Kenny does have a brain tumor, so it’s possible it has changed his personality; he certainly feels it has given him back his long-ago memories with a startling clarity.

Kenny is a portrait artist, and so is Neil Cross.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, 544 pages, $27

[4/21/15 Note: Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, http://www.pulitzer.org/citation/2015-Fiction]

This is one of those must-read books people joyously pass around to their friends and family. This last Christmas season must have been good to Anthony Doerr and his publisher.

The bottom line is that “All the Light We Cannot See” is not a mystery, even though there is a strong spy element that runs through the novel. Set during the time just before and during World War II, the stories of a young boy and a young blind girl run parallel until they are fated to meet in Saint-Malo, France. The young boy, Werner Pfennig, is German and is being groomed to be a tactical member of the German army. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the daughter of the keeper of the keys at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Her father is a craftsman who makes a model of the area of Paris in which they live, so his daughter can memorize the streets, giving her more independence.

With sweetness and gravity, Anthony Doerr tells an extraordinary and sometimes fantastical tale of a serendipitous intersection of lives.

Highly, highly recommended, even if you are neither my family nor my friend.

The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan

Henry Holt & Co., 272 pages, $26

“The Ploughmen” combines old-fashioned noir and new-fashioned storytelling, twisting the story from present to past and back again. It is a Montana poem composed between stark dialogue. It is a novel about crime, but more about compassion.

Young Val Millimaki, a deputy sheriff for rural Copper County, meets his symbiotic mate, John Gload, a seventy-something-year-old lifelong killer and thief, when Gload is finally captured. Trying to mitigate the sadism shown by another deputy, Val often shows sympathy and kindness for the prisoners. While on interminable night shift guarding the prisoners, Val’s act of kindness to Gload is to listen to him in the strange and melancholy hours of the early morning, while Val battles fatigue and Gload battles insomnia. Soon these sessions become a confessional for Val, with Gload obscured by shadows and Val highlighted by sputtering fluorescent lights. Kim Zupan paints a dramatic setting.

These static, yet dynamic, scenes are broken up by scenes of Val performing his other duty: hunting for people missing in the vast rural territory. With Tom, his three-year-old Shepherd, Val searches with increasing despair to find someone still alive after disappearing into the elements. His unlucky streak has been going for a while. Sometimes the people have gotten lost, sometimes they are victims of foul play. All become official photographs in Val’s “dead book.”

No wonder Val’s personal life is disintegrating as well. When his wife leaves him, he is angry, inchoate, and mystified. Why can’t he and his wife simply be happy the way they were in the beginning of their relationship? “The Ploughmen” also depicts Val’s struggles to find his place in the wider world. As Val’s night shift duties continue, he also struggles with a growing insomnia and his personality becomes more fragmented.

The significance of the title, “The Ploughmen”? Val and Gload both come from farming families. For Gload those memories are a comfort. Val has run as fast as he could from his, including the indelible memory of his mother’s suicide in the family barn. Gload’s bodies are buried in the earth. The authorities would love to know where. Val is tasked with finding out. Ploughman, unearth everyone’s secrets. Ploughman, bury them deep.

At one point in the book, within a few pages, I had to look up the meanings of “mackarel snapper,” “pogue,” “innominate,” “bolide,” and “griseous.” In a slyly ironical contrast, Zupan has Val and Gload admitting that neither knows what “turpitude” means. Zupan finds exotic ways of putting words together. He provides an outside, complex rhythm to Val and Gload’s simply-worded give-and-take.

This is Zupan on Val and Gload:

What he’d said was she was gone and that was a different thing entirely. But from his innominate shadows he could read in the young man’s eyes - insomniacal and familiar, so much like those that regarded him in the scarred and untrue polished metal of his cell’s mirror — a need for the comfort bestowed by mutual anguish.

The sheriff to Val, acknowledging the deficiencies of Voyle Dobek, the sadistic deputy:

‘Voyle is just a guy who’s been around too long and somewhere or other took the other course….He is a burdensome man.’

I admire this novel.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Near Death by Glenn Cooper

Lascaux Media, 334 pages, $12.75

I find Glenn Cooper’s books entertaining as hell. From a theological standpoint, there’s a good chance that hell will enter into it, too. Cooper mixes regular people — well-drawn regular people — with the bizarre. There’s ordinary investigative work here and far-out, science-stretching stuff there. He rubs them together and makes it work. John Case (the pseudonym for husband-and-wife authors Jim and Carolyn Hougan) was another author who could do this well.

Alex Weller is a pediatric doctor who is treating FBI agent Cyrus O’Malley’s young daughter, Tara. Tara has a brain tumor and she doesn’t have long to live. Given that parents sometimes look to doctors to be the gods who somehow miraculously will save their children, it is stunning how quickly O’Malley suspects Weller of having something to do with a series of murders in the Boston area.

In fact, straight from the start, you know that Weller indeed does have something to do with the murders — he is committing them. (Still, O’Malley comes to that conclusion stunningly fast.) The why is the far-out, science-stretching stuff. Weller thinks he has found the bridge between life and death, and the other side is way-groovy. Too bad people have to die for him to achieve it.

Good escapist reading.