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:


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!