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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Dead Souls by J. Lincoln Fenn

Gallery Books, 352 pages, $16

“Dead Souls” is a captivating, well-written novel of horror. “The” Devil, minus horns and red suit, insinuates himself into our modern world and reels in needy souls. J. Lincoln Fenn’s premise is simple, but her handling of it is complex and stylish.

Fiona Dunn, a master of public relations, is a force to be contended with at work. In her personal life, she is closed off, insecure, and given to expecting the worse. As a child of drug-addled parents, she had to grow up quickly and learn to trust no one. That being said, she has let Justin into her life. Justin is normal. She marvels at the fact that she is in a serious relationship with a man who has no family issues. One could say that this is the ultimate novel of a woman who feels she doesn’t deserve happiness doing everything she can to undermine it.

The Devil finds Fiona getting drunk in a bar after suspecting her boyfriend of stepping out on her. Other than trying to persuade her of the virtues of Guinness beer, The Devil (or “Scratch,” as he prefers) seems content to ply her with mojito royales until the night becomes a blur and she wakes up naked in her apartment the next morning. She vaguely remembers telling The Devil something about how she thought of herself as an invisible girl. She vaguely remembers Scratch asking her for her soul. Ha ha ha. But, seriously, where are her clothes?

Long story short: Fiona can turn invisible at will. This is loads of help with her job, snooping out secrets to benefit the selling of chichi backpacks. The drawback: The Devil requires “a favor” in exchange for the power. No refunds, no give-backs, no saying “no.”

A small group of “dead souls" (other of Scratch's victims) bands together once in a while in an old converted church to share drinks and stories. Dead souls easily recognize each other by the smoky miasma that covers them, visible only to each other. Of course, the horror show begins when The Devil claims his due among the group. Fiona, ever the wheeler-dealer, is convinced she can find a way out of her contract.

There isn’t much humor in the story, and what there is is dark. I thought a nice touch was having one of the characters reading John Grisham’s “The Firm,” another book about what a character is willing to sell in order to be a success.

I cannot say enough about J. Lincoln Fenn’s writing. It is dark, modern, swift, quirky, twisted, creepy, grisly, heartless and heartfelt, romantic and deadly. Oy vey, Fiona is in deep, deep trouble, but she has a good writer to tell her tale.

MBTB star!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Dutton, 304 pages, $26

“The Dollhouse” is not a country girl goes to New York City and makes good kind of story. It’s a country girl goes to New York City and finds an alternative way of living kind of story. And it’s a good one.

The reader gets two stories for the price of one. In the contemporary story, Rose Lewin was dumped by a major television network as a journalist. She now works in New York City for a startup with a boy-man ten years younger than she for a boss. The intent of her web-based news organization is to produce in-depth, well-written stories, à la old-time journalism, only with high-tech visuals. Rose is working for a fraction of her previous salary but is satisfied. She lives with her boyfriend, a handsome, well-to-do, well-placed city politico, and is hoping for an imminent proposal for a relationship of a permanent nature. Things are looking good.

When everything goes south, as it must in fictionland, Rose becomes interested in a resident of the Barbizon, once the famous Barbizon Hotel for Women and now a condominium. The mysterious old woman, Darcy McLaughlin, has a story to tell, and Rose is determined to unearth it. While the Barbizon had its famous (Sylvia Plath, most notably) inhabitants, it also was known for some infamous events. A maid at the hotel, Esme Castillo, fell to her death right around the time Darcy was a resident. But Darcy is proving elusive and reclusive, so Rose does a lot of research on her own to find out what happened to Esme.

Rose’s contemporary story alternates with Darcy’s story set in 1952. When young women needed a safe place to stay in the big city, they were situated in the Barbizon Hotel for Women. Darcy has come — at great expense to her mother — to learn to be a secretary, get a good job and, by her mother’s unexpressed hope, to find a husband. Darcy finds she has another agenda. Through her friendship with Esme, she is introduced to the world of jazz, usually played in seedy, smoky clubs.

As an old woman living in the converted Barbizon, Darcy wears a heavy veil and shuns interactions with the persistent Rose. In a convoluted, contrived manner, Rose manages to discover some personal things about Darcy, giving a sinister and romantic air to Darcy’s story. Fiona Davis does a good job toggling between the two stories, validating and amplifying the contemporary research with the story set in 1952.

While insisting that the heroines, Darcy and Rose, are independent women who don’t need men, Davis crafts a story full of romance and men happening along at the “right” time. Otherwise, the women in the story are determined and become stronger as the story goes along.

I really enjoyed the book, but there was one element of the story that made me shake my head. It requires a strong SPOILER ALERT, so

SPOILER ALERT (Seriously, don’t read past this point if you haven’t read the book.)

If Rose thought Darcy was really Esme, wouldn’t she have been able to tell because Esme would still have had a pretty strong accent? It’s very hard to shake all vestiges of an accent. Just asking.

Marked for Life by Emelie Schepp

Mira, 384 pages, $26.99
[There is no translator listed for this work.]

The writing is plain and often clipped, but the characters and storyline of “Marked for Life,” a Swedish import by Emelie Schepp, are intriguing. If you like strong but eccentric women characters, then Jana Berzelius is for you.

Jana is a prosecutor in a big city in Sweden. Her father was Chief Public Prosecutor before he retired. She is driven to please him, but she has tiny, little quirks that mark her as a horse of a different color. Unlike U.S. prosecutors, Jana appears at crime scenes, interviews, autopsies, CID meetings, and the like. She doesn’t get to just sit at a desk and sharpen her writing skills.

As such, she catches the case of the murder of Hans Juhlén, the man “in charge of asylum issues at the Migration Board.” He seems like such a milquetoast of a guy, but no one can be that clean, can they? It is up to Jana, DCI Henrik Levin, and DI Mia Bolander to discover his secrets, if there are any. Mia is both irritable and irritating. She has taken a dislike to Jana, and while Jana doesn’t show it as obviously as Mia, the feeling is requited. They are both strong women with very different approaches to their personal and professional lives. Jana is organized, dispassionate, and smart. Mia is smart, too, but she is disorganized, hot-tempered, broke most of the time, and doesn’t let scruples get in her way. They are on the same team with the same goal: find who killed Hans Juhlén. Let the contest begin.

The story of the murder alternates with the story of a young girl, an immigrant being smuggled into Sweden, who is caught, imprisoned, tortured, and driven to commit evil acts. But by whom? 

It is clear that something in Jana’s past caused her significant trauma, but she does not remember it. The only souvenir she bears is a striking scar on her neck. Somehow (because otherwise it would be a very disjointed book) her life is related to some of the people the investigating team runs across. It will not come as a surprise that the crime will answer some of Jana’s long-standing questions.

This was a page-turner of a book. Jana is a tough cookie with an interesting attitude. Mia is pathetic but a good counterpoint to Jana. No one is without flaws in this book. It’s probably a cliché that main characters must have defects. Hercule Poirot had an eccentricity but not a defect. Ditto, Sherlock. (In the canon, cocaine was not a true defect.) Ditto, Nero Wolfe. Gone are their ilk. But this is the organic nature of writing.

Also, if you are looking for another Karl Ove Knausgård (Norwegian), this ain’t it. If you are looking for a captivating police procedural, this IS it.

WARNING: This does contain graphic scenes of violence to children.

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Penguin Books, 240 pages, $16

"Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train" were successful books, thus paving the way for more books with an unreliable narrator at their core. "Under the Harrow" joins them with unreliability to spare.

It's not apparent whether Flynn Berry is a British or American author, but since she is a graduate of Brown, I'm popping for the latter. Berry's story is set in England, mostly in the the town of Marlow, "on the edge of Oxford." Berry, unlike some American authors who write "British" books, doesn't ladle on the cozy and/or charming British-isms. There are no vine-covered cottages, no fairy cakes, no rectors with dead bodies, no canny villagers whose accents make them unintelligible. Berry gives us a woman, a dead sister, a past tragedy, a current tragedy, and many suspects.

Nora Lawrence is the woman. She has been coasting along in life and is currently a landscaping apprentice. She is close enough to Rachel, a nurse in the Oxford area, to visit her frequently from her place in London. Rachel is, of course, the dead sister. It is Nora's ill fortune to arrive for a visit with Rachel, only to find her sister and her sister's dog slaughtered.

Nora has an idea about who might have murdered her sister. When Rachel was seventeen, she was brutally attacked by a man. By a man who was never caught. For years the sisters checked news items to see if any other girl had suffered the same fate, but there was no answer waiting for them. And that would be the past tragedy. Find that man or boy and the police might find Rachel's killer.

Soon Nora remembers: "Rachel said there was something wrong with the town." Slowly Rachel pieces together information that Rachel was taking steps to leave Marlow and move to the Cornwall region. There's so much about Rachel that Nora didn't know. Nothing is apparent any more. And that is what makes Berry's book so intriguing. In the process of learning about Rachel's secrets, we learn about Nora's as well.

In her first-person narrative, Nora seems distraught enough at times that the only evidence of her thought process and subsequent actions is when physical evidence appears to tell the story rather than her narrative. We see evidence of her temper and almost psychotic insistence on considering one man after another as suspicious. Berry presents enough that soon Nora herself may be tainted.

Berry does a great job moving the slider from sane to questionably bonkers. It's enough to keep the story and the pulse racing along.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Brighton by Michael Harvey

Ecco, 366 pages, $27.99

Michael Harvey wrote a series set in Chicago that began with "The Chicago Way." That book knocked my socks off. Now "Brighton," which may be a story closer to Harvey's heart (he might live in Chicago now but he was born in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston), has done the same thing. Harvey has a way with creating at least one character who is real enough to touch. In "Brighton" that person is Kevin Pearce.

Harvey's story begins in 1971 and 1975, when Kevin and Bobby Seales meet as children. Bobby is slightly older and treats Kevin like a little brother. It's a good thing that Kevin has Bobby for "family" because his real family is no great shakes. His father creates an evil atmosphere at home. Psychopaths can do that. His mother is pretty hopeless. Kevin's two younger sisters are only a couple of years apart in age, but Bridget is definitely the boss of Colleen. Yes, it's a Boston Irish family. There's booze, drugs, gambling, corruption, and fighting. In that sense it's a stereotype, but Harvey works it in his own special way. That takes up about a fifth of the book. Then the action moves to 2002.

In 2002, Kevin is a reporter for the Boston Globe. He is on the verge of winning a Pulitzer Prize for a story he did about an innocent man who had been charged with murder. The man is from Kevin's old neighborhood, so Kevin returns to follow up the story. There's also a secret (which the reader learns fairly early, but which I won't reveal here) that binds Kevin to Bobby, now the neighborhood bookie, even though they haven't seen each other for years.

Bridget and Colleen are still tied to the neighborhood by marriage or ambition. They, too, have not seen Kevin in a while. It's a shock to Kevin when he finds out what his family and friends have been up to. And he will soon be embroiled in situations that ripple from that childhood secret that he and Bobby shared, including a potential serial killer.

Harvey provides a lot of twists. His hero suffers and schemes. His villains are Scorsese material. "Brighton" is a nutshell history of a broken family trying to find a way to survive, with or without each other.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Night Bell by Inger Ash Wolfe

Pegasus Books, 400 pages, $25.95

Pseudonymous author Inger Ash Wolfe* is caught in the timeline she established in “The Calling,” the first Hazel Micallef book. In “The Night Bell,” part of the story deals with events in 1957 and its close temporal environs, and the rest in the “current” time of 2007, although the book is a 2016 release. That’s because Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef has moved forward only slightly in time from the debut novel. She was the acting commander of the Port Dundas, Ontario, police station in that book. She was recently replaced by her one-time protégé, Ray Greene, as the permanent commander. That’s okay, she thinks, after bouts with jealousy and resentment, she wasn’t the leader type. She continues to support this conclusion by her out-of-the-box, go-her-own-way thinking when dealing with the current case.

The current case is unearthed when bones are found in a former corn field — “…a rain of bone fallen on nearby fields. Calcium for corn.” — in a recent housing development. They are rapidly followed by the murders of two residents of the development. There are all sorts of shady shenanigans anyway involved with the development, which had stalled even before the discovery of the bones. All of a sudden, Hazel’s case is “stolen” by the Mounties. Maybe because they have nicer uniforms? (And are apparently more polite than Hazel.) Hazel is left with a corner of the case, however. In the process of unearthing the bones, all hands were called on deck to scour the field, and one of Port Dundas’ own disappeared while walking the field. Hazel irritatedly notes that it’s difficult to investigate the case if she has been barred from the scene of the crime.

Hazel’s irritation isn’t just reserved for the Mounties. She’s irritated because her department is facing an “amalgamation” with the departments of other nearby small towns into a big office in a soon-to-be-constructed mall. In a similar fashion, throughout the fifty years since Hazel was a teenager in Port Dundas, little towns have been affected by brand name stores establishing close to highways, drawing needed traffic away from the towns. Life has changed and is set to change even further for citizens of those towns.

One thing that has changed is how orphans are treated. That is part of the story set in the 1950s. Set near the land where the bones were found is the decaying building that housed the Dublin Home for Boys. The book begins with the story of one of the orphans. He speaks of boys disappearing in the night whenever a bell was rung. Later another witness says, “If you heard the night bell, it meant Old Father Crumb had come in the night.” Hazel and her friend and colleague, DS James Wingate, work to find a connection between the missing boys and the bones, but the case, if it IS a case, is fifty years old. Because Wolfe loves subplots, James is recovering, but not nicely, from an injury received in another case. Hazel’s loyalty to James and his steadfast desire to still be of service provides a tense and poignant part of the story.

Also part of this big story is the mental and physical decline of Hazel’s 90-year-old mother, Emily, former mayor of Port Dundas. We see her both in a 1950s story about the disappearance of a local teenage girl, an acquaintance of Hazel, and in 2007 as a distraction for Hazel. 

Wolfe has a lot to juggle, but it all comes together at the end. As usual, she provides enough creepy and gory stuff that you would never mix up Hazel Micallef with Jessica Fletcher or Port Dundas with Cabot Cove, Maine, even though, for such a small place, there are an awful (and I do mean awful) lot of deaths.

The Micallef series is compelling reading. I avidly wait for the next installment. Hazel is odd enough, broken enough, strong enough, stubborn enough, and oblivious enough to be one of the great mystery creations. Wolfe writes with dark humor and sly style that it pays not to rush through her works. Here are a few bon mots:
Jack Deacon [the pathologist] was bloodlessly professional. Hazel liked that about him, but she doubted outside of work that he was a barrel of monkeys either.
Hazel’s mother to her father: “[I]f you didn’t want a wild streak in your children, you shouldn’t have married me.”

* Somewhere along the line revealed as Canadian author Michael Redhill

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

Tim Duggan Books, 400 pages, $27

In “The Glorious Heresies,” a story full of accidentally interrelated characters, the one you should pay particular attention to is Maureen. She joins the story in a dramatic fashion when Jimmy Phelan, her adult son, is tasked with disposing of the body of the man she has just killed. (By hitting him on the head with a holy stone, no less!) Jimmy has only recently been reunited with the mother who was unceremoniously excised from his life just after his birth. And so goes life in Cork, in an Ireland still recovering from the banking and concomitant housing disasters of only a few years ago.

Author Lisa McInerney’s story spans six years, especially noted in the character of Ryan Cusack who begins the book as an almost fifteen-year-old and ends as an almost twenty-one-year-old. Although Maureen is the dancing light in the dark tunnel, Ryan is the one who must take the Herculean journey through the tunnel. Ryan strives to do the right thing by his abusive father, Tony, and his girlfriend, Karine, and instead keeps losing his way. Robbie’s descent begins after another one of his father’s beatings. No one takes the young boy aside to help him, no one except a predatory neighbor, Tara Duane, who has no filter, sense, or scruples. A young guy has no chance.

McInerney’s book is about the underclass of Cork society. They are alcoholics, drug dealers, prostitutes, fixers, and people out to find some comfort in a cold world that has mostly abandoned them. 

Getting back to the original scenario I described, the question might be asked: Why didn’t Jimmy or Maureen call the police (gardaí)? Jimmy is a criminal boss and calling the police would never be at the top of the list for him. Maureen seems to live in an alternate reality and wouldn’t they think she had murdered the man on purpose? So Jimmy calls an old friend, Tony Cusack (Ryan’s alcoholic, abusive father), and intimidates him into helping get rid of the body.

The story tangles as each character’s weakness leads to unexpected consequences … and coincidences in best Shakespearean fashion.

The final question left at the end is what would have happened if a few of the main characters had never been born? What if some of the subsequent pregnancies had never occurred? How mundane and untroubled the story would then have been. The various lives would have been unnoticed, unwritten, unsung. Were the miseries attached to each life worth any joy they might also have had?

McInerney is a lyrical writer. Her writing is also joyous and darkly comic, despite the often bleak and tragic subject matter. She joins my other favorite Irish (mixing Ireland and Northern Ireland here) crime writers (Tana French, John Brady, Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville, Benjamin Black) in being able to write the heck out of a sentence.

Here are little pieces of McInerney’s writing.

About Jimmy: “… [I]t was better to run alongside Jimmy Phelan than have him run over you.”

About Tony: “The charming laziness that had once defined Tony Cusack had morphed into dusty apathy…”

About Tara: “Coincidences followed Duane like rats after the piper.”

MBTB star!

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit, 448 pages, $15.99

This is not a mystery.

“The Obelisk Gate” is the second in the Broken Earth sci-fi trilogy by award-winning writer N. K. Jemisin. It would be futile to read this book without having read "The Fifth Season," the first in the series, because the plot is complex and winding, and Jemisin just starts right in where she left off in the first book. Even having read the first and second books fairly close together, it was hard to remember some of the characters. Perhaps you should wait until the third book comes out and read all three in quick succession.


I am amazed at the intricacy of the world that Jemisin has created. It has some science and some scientific magic behind it. It is an Earth gone wacky tens of thousands of years in the future, so far in the future that they have forgotten about us lowly humans in the 21st century. Father Earth, as the inhabitants call the world, has gone to war against the cruel invaders: the human descendants and post-humans. Presumably the world is rebelling against indignities suffered upon it by humans by sending devastating earthquakes, volcanoes, and deadly ash seasons that blot out the sun. Oh, and the moon has disappeared from the sky.

Mysterious giant jeweled minerals float high in the air. Roggas, deviant humans with psychokinetic abilities,  are sometimes hunted for being different and dangerous, and sometimes trained in the hope of controlling the deadly natural calamities that occur. Guardians are created to both help and destroy the roggas. In the first book, a giant rift in the earth caused apocalyptic earthquakes and seismic activity. Ash will soon blot out the sky for thousands of years, probably destroying all life on earth. Those people who survived The Rift are scrambling to figure out how to survive.

Into this foreboding mix Jemisin tosses a mother and daughter set of orogenes (the polite name for roggas). They have been estranged and separated from each other, each landing in a community that seeks to shield and/or control them. Essun, the mother, is one of the most powerful orogenes ever. She lives in an underground crystal cave system. Ten-year-old Nassun may surpass her mother in unconventional ways. She has stumbled into a community with Guardians who tell her they will help develop her powers. Essun's and Nassun's journeys are primarily what comprise the second volume.

Second volumes of trilogies are tricky. They must begin by resolving a cliffhanger from the first book and then must set up a cliffhanger for the last book. By necessity they rarely resolve the major issues and characters. Jemisin plays this tricky work very well. She encourages hope, while sowing despair. She resolves some issues, while blowing the story up with others.

What is most provocative about Jemisin’s world are the groups of people who have been developed out of necessity and birth, how segregated some of the society has become, how elitist and unforgiving, how bigoted and afraid.

The stage is set for either Essun or Nassun, or both, to use whatever abilities they can muster to turn back the everlasting darkness of ash and restore the world to a more accommodating place for humans, or the next generation of humans, whatever that might be.

This series is a great diversion and a presumptive cautionary tale for us in the 21st century, as we gobble up our natural resources and destroy our environment.