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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl

Oneworld Publications, 480 pages, $24.99 (c2014, US Ed. 2016)
Translated by K. E. Semmel

The 480 pages of “The Hermit” by Danish author Thomas Rydahl are densely packed with storylines, characterizations, and tourist information on Spain’s Canary Islands. It felt more like 680 pages, but in a good way.

Erhard Jørgensen is in his 60s. He has lived on the island of Fuerteventura in the Canaries for almost two decades. It’s quite a contrast: a pale Dane in the tropical, Spanish-speaking Canary Islands. This is what we learn about Erhard in fairly short order. Erhard is a taxi driver and a good one. He left his wife and two daughters in Denmark but sends them money every month. He only has four fingers on one hand.

Rydahl has created one of the more idiosyncratic crime novel heroes in recent memory. Erhard reads books and seems smart, but he does really dumb things. Or maybe they are just things that come from alternative thinking by an individual with an incomplete personality. For instance, at the beginning of the book, a fellow resident of the island dies in a traffic accident. Erhard picks up one of the man’s fingers that has become detached. He takes it home, nurtures it, pets it, and places it on the hand with the missing finger. He proudly drives his cab with the new finger taped to his hand. Definitely alternative thinking.

Although he did live in a cave by the sea when he first arrived, Erhard is not a hermit any longer, but most people call him “Hermit” anyway. However, he does live in a remote part of the island, with two goats who sometimes eat the washed clothes he has hung on his line. Soon he is also joined by a young woman who has suffered traumatic brain injury. She is in a coma. Rather than take her to a hospital, a thin train of reasoning leads Erhard to try to take care of her himself. How did he manage to get himself into this situation?

Erhard had been relatively content — although a little lonely — to drive his cab, tune pianos occasionally, and drink beers or lumumbas (whatever those are) or other spirits with his young friend Raul and Raul’s girlfriend, Beatriz. How did he go from that to running from the police, taking care of a comatose woman, hiding a prostitute, and tracking down the mother of a dead infant found in a cardboard box in the backseat of a car stuck in the sand of a popular beach?

Part of Erhard’s problem is his soft heart. Another problem is his lack of clarity. Yet another is his inability to understand what other people mean. He worries that he cannot judge other people’s motives adequately. He wonders if he should be courting the much younger daughter of his hairdresser. He wonders whether the mute boy he drives to see his mother every week from his care facility is talking to him by telepathy. He wonders if the comatose woman has been another voice in his head saying, “Help me. Let me go.”

Even after the corrupt police department, anxious to solve crimes rapidly to assuage the tourist industry, declares they have found the mother of the abandoned infant and are charging her with a crime, Erhard figures out that they are lying and proceeds, against police advice, with his own investigation. Such as it is.

Throw in Raul’s demanding papa, a rich man whose funding is discreetly concealed; the tense mother of Erhard’s mute client; the ex-reporter who now runs a bookstore/jumble shop and many more odd and colorful characters, and you can glimpse why “The Hermit” was declared the winner of the Nordic Glass Key Award.

“The Hermit” is jammed full with novelty, eccentricity, humor, philosophy, dreaded ends, and unpredictable turns. Here is a sample of Rydahl’s writing:

He pushes his way through bodies, people, faces. They come like waves crashing over him: arms, legs, flowers pounding against him, knocking him around and around so that he doesn’t know which way is what. The sea, life, and the relentlessness of humanity, the eternal flow of energy. How does one ever get a chance to become whole?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016 MBTB's Year's Best Crime Novels

Yes, in fact Murder by the Book has been closed for three and a half years. But, yes, we still provide you with a list of the best mystery books released during the year (with a few exceptions, duly noted).

Here they are, in no rational order.


A Song for the Brokenhearted by William Shaw: This is the last volume in the Breen/Tozer trilogy, set (for the most part) in 1960s London. Policeman Paddy Breen was injured at the end of the second book, and ex-cop Helen Tozer has taken him to her family’s farm to recuperate. While he recovers, Paddy investigates the long-ago murder of Helen’s sixteen-year-old sister. This is a grisly, bloody, heart-wrenching end to an outstanding series.

The Verdict by Nick Stone: Celebrity businessman Vernon James (“VJ”) has been accused of strangling a woman in a London hotel. Terry Flynt is a clerk at the law firm which draws Vernon’s defense. The twists and turns start right at the beginning. Terry and VJ were childhood mates, but they have not met or spoken for twenty years. Stone has created a wonderfully complex drama about the men’s past, the current murder case, and the tangled web in which both are now caught.

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney (c2015): This is a captivating and intense novel about long-harbored grief. Oklahoma City provides the background and Wyatt Rivers, a private detective in Las Vegas, and Julianna Rosales, a nurse whose older sister disappeared years ago, provide the drama. This book was nominated for many awards and won many of them!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: Scott Burroughs is a little known painter living on Martha’s Vineyard and managing to make ends meet. It is Scott’s misfortune to be aboard the plane of fabulously wealthy media mogul David Bateman when it crashes into the ocean. This is not much of a spoiler alert: Scott survives. He then commits to finding out what happened. Hawley shows us that crafting a good book is not just about the techniques of plotting or the technical details to show authenticity; it’s most definitely about character and morality.

The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie: This is a thriller with a big heart. Lt. Peter Ash returned to the U.S. after several years in the Middle East. He has come back with problems, such that he initially lives like a hermit in the woods. When an old friend commits suicide, Peter puts aside his own problems to help his friend’s family. For some reason unknown to them, they are in danger. Petrie writes of veterans’ difficulties with passion and care.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan: Lt. Bill Warren is a mess. His wife left him, his seven-year-old son has been diagnosed with “the mental capacity of a three-year-old,” he’s lonely, his emotions come to a fast boil, and he is the temporary chief of the Barnstable, Masschusetts police force. Oh, and there’s a serial killer wandering around doing despicable things to young boys before killing them. Besides a great, shifting plot, Joe Flanagan’s writing often rises to a level above.


End of Watch by Stephen King: This book is the end of the road for the marvelous and touching Bill Hodges trilogy by a master storyteller. What started with “Mr. Mercedes” ends here. This is good versus pure evil in the form of sociopath Brady Hartsfield. King slowly builds his story and at the midpoint begins to unleash his thrilling revelations and clever resolutions that tumble down to a poignant ending. His attention to detail and ability to neatly pull everything together is legendary.

Willnot by James Sallis: What if James Sallis wrote a long poem (for he is a poet) and called it “Willnot." He did and this is it. This is one of the most beautiful crime stories we’ve ever read. To be honest, it isn’t a traditional crime story. Dr. Lamar Hale is a small-town doc in Willnot. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. What does the doctor know about the mass grave recently discovered? What does he know of a military assassin? When something of a violent nature does happen, it is secondary to the philosophical discursion and observations of other lives. Here’s to Sallis’ shining prose and the questions he never answers.

Ping Pong Heart by Martin Limón: This is the eleventh book in the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series set in South Korea in the 1970s. These CID agents are assigned to investigate when a major is robbed by a prostitute. Just what is the real story? Before they can figure it out, the major is murdered. In the end it is Limón’s compassion in the face of the clash of cultures that brings us back time and again. Besides it contains the best line written in 2016: “You slicky my ping-pong heart.”


The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock: If you forced us to pick one book as our favorite, it would have to be this one. Once again, here is an unconventional crime book. Set in 1917, in the U.S. South, Pollock writes with humor, compassion, and fierceness. He can put us within the impoverished world of the mostly illiterate southern tenant farmer and the middle class one of a college-educated military man. He can describe the daily humiliation of being black and poor. He can show us big and small examples of the devil’s work, demon rum, and godforsaken poverty.

Dead Souls by J. Lincoln Fenn: This is a captivating, well-written novel of horror. Yes, horror. The Devil (old Red Suit himself) 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. Fenn’s writing is dark, modern, swift, quirky, twisted, creepy, grisly, heartless and heartfelt, romantic, and deadly.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: This book is almost Shakespearean in its coincidences and accidentally interrelated characters. It begins when Jimmy Phelan is tasked with disposing of the body of a man (who has been hit on the head with a holy stone, begorra). McInerney’s look is about the underclass of Cork (Ireland) society. There are alcoholics, drug dealers, prostitutes, fixers, and people out to find some comfort in a cold world that has mostly abandoned them. And the writing is glorious.


The Trespasser by Tana French: French is one of the most creative writers around. Her plots twist, her characters always have quirks and flaws, and her writing shines. Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran return (after “A Secret Place” told from Moran’s point of view) to solve the murder of a young woman. The catch — and there’s always a catch with French — is that the story is told from Conway’s view this time. French flawlessly switches tone, slang, and gender.

IQ by Joe Ide: Here’s another astonishingly creative book. IQ is set in the gang/drug/non-white scene of Long Beach, California. Although it deals with gangs, drugs, and non-white stuff, it is primarily a book about characters and universally understood motivations. “IQ” is Isaiah Quintabe, a brilliant young man who is also the neighborhood private investigator. His scammer friend, Juanell Dodson, is not brilliant, but he has connections and big ideas. Not quite Sherlock and Dr. Watson, they are just as interesting. This is a stunning combination of poignancy and absurdity.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters: Picture an alternate United States in which slavery is still legal in some states. What would people do to escape slavery? How brave would others need to be to help them? The underground airlines is the nickname given to a system that spirits slaves to Canada, where slavery is rightfully outlawed. “Victor” is a black man. On behalf of the government, it is his job to hunt down escaped slaves and return them to their owners. This is a thriller and a detective novel, but it is in no way typical. It is a social statement, an invective against racism, a plea for humanity. And it’s well-written.


The Cipher by Nick Slosser: If the name of the author rings a bell, it’s because Nick worked for Murder by the Book for many years. He is a fan of noir and dark, stylish tales, so we were surprised that his first novel was a play-fair, almost-cozy mystery set in 1955 Portland, Oregon. His characters are eccentric, colorful, and remind us of the heyday of Agatha Christie-type drawing room murders. Nick is smart and so is his book. (This book was released at the end of 2015 and did not make it on to our 2015 list.)

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller: Here’s another 2015 book that was released too late to make it on to our 2015 list. Freedom Oliver is unique, her persona like quicksilver, her flaws and strengths many, and her determination the backbone of this book. Someone is out to kill her and to harm people she loves. Fueled by guilt, alcohol, a kick-ass mentality, and nothing to lose, Freedom decides to get back at him/her/them. This book is a tear-jerker without being maudlin, sentimental without being mawkish, philosophical without being condescending.


After Atlas by Emma Newman: This is sci-fi but it’s also a murder mystery, set so far in the future it’s hard to tell just when. There are brain implants for almost everyone. Governments of the big societies are hybrids of what we have in the present time and big corporations. Big business rules. Indentured servitude exists in what used to be Great Britain. Carlos Moreno was captured when he was a teenager, brainwashed, and for the last twenty years has been a police detective. He has the misfortune to catch a big case. Alejandro Casales, the leader of a cult group in the United States, has been murdered in an upscale hotel in the English countryside. Casales was also a pseudo-father to Carlos when he was young and a member of Casales’ cult. What a coincidence! (Or is it?) Carlos doesn’t let the bad blood of their parting detract him from his job. Not that he would dare to refuse the case.

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta: Here is a true thriller with big space given to a clash of cultures. Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a detective chief inspector in England who has been suspended from his job. He is busy feeling sorry for himself when he gets the worst news possible for a parent: A bomb has gone off in his teenage daughter’s tour bus. Bish rushes to France, where the bombing occurred, and becomes the nexus of the bombing investigation. Is it terrorism or revenge, or is there a sociopath running loose?

Too many books, too little time ...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

W.W. Norton & Co., 464 pages, $26.95

This is not a mystery. Well, it is a mystery, but there’s no crime. Well, there is a crime, sort of. Stretch your definitions for this gem of a book.

Twelve-year-old Ada lives with her dad, David, in Boston. It is the 1980s and Ada is a precocious child who is being raised in her dad’s computer lab. David believes he can teach her just as well as a school, so Ada is more like a grown-up than a child when the story opens. In fact, the story opens with Ada mixing cocktails for her father’s party for the new crop of graduate students interning in the lab. Life is merry and challenging for Ada and David.

There’s not much tension in a happy story, so into this idyllic world a little rain must fall. There is something wrong with David. At first, he appears a little fuzzy at times, staring into the distance at other times. Ada is uncertain about what is happening, but she turns around and becomes the caregiver and assistant to her father.

Ada’s mother was a surrogate, and she is long gone. The closest Ada has to a nurturing female is one of her father’s lab colleagues, Diana Liston, or just “Liston” to all. Liston has four children of her own and even a grandchild. She and her brood live just a few doors down from Ada and David. Liston becomes the shoulder Ada leans on when David weakens further.

It is a by-product of her growing reliance on Liston that results in a startling revelation. There is something wrong with the bona fides of David Sibelius. After years as a graduate student at a Boston college and then as the director of a specialized computer lab there, David’s background suddenly appears murky.

Ada is frantic to find out who her father is. He has given her a floppy disk (remember those) with a clue to his past. But she cannot crack the encryption. Thus begins a long search to give meaning to David’s life. 

Liz Moore has created a story that mostly switches back and forth from the 1980s Boston and its life-changing events, and Ada in 2009 as a no-longer-young coder in the competitive world of technology. The revelations in the end extend past 2009 and neatly tie-up the story.

Moore has created a very likable young girl who awkwardly seeks her place in the world. Moore has also created the Listons, Ada’s vision of what a normal family is like, but they are anything but normal. The adults in the lab are geekily endearing and provide a loving, if helpless, support for Ada. Moore’s mystery reveals a heart-breaking story hidden within a truly creative puzzle.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Hogarth, 208 pages, $15 (c2007, US ed. 2016)
Translated by Deborah Smith

This is not a mystery.

Occasionally I read books that aren’t mysteries! I’m especially fascinated by what wins awards. “The Vegetarian” won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

“The Vegetarian” was interesting for many reasons. It begins with a woman giving up eating meat because of a nightmare and ends in a flurry of symbols. In between is a contemplation on the cultural role of Korean women. Although the book is about the madness/enlightenment of one particular Korean woman, Han’s cultural context is South Korea.

Let me say a few words about the translation. When a translated book is a little clunky or awkward, it’s hard to know if that’s what the original sounds like. Sometimes mystery books are translated because they have good plots or interesting characters, and not especially because they are great literature. Translated books always come with a caveat. Deborah Smith, the translator, is remarkable for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that “The Vegetarian” reads elegantly and powerfully in English. It is easy to make the assumption that it directly mirrors the elegance and power of the book written in Korean. The second reason is that Smith learned how to read (and speak?) Korean about seven years ago. Now that’s crazy good. I don’t know if Smith has actually been to Korea (I haven't), but her translation presents the flavor and atmosphere of a different world.

This is not a happy book. Its three parts become bleak, bleaker, and bleakest. Kim Yeong-hye is a relatively young woman in a loveless marriage. She is on automatic pilot when she has her dream. Her family, especially a menacing father, is less than supportive. The narrative is told in the first person, but by three different first persons. First, by her deadwood of a husband, then by her deadwood of a brother-in-law, and finally by her sympathetic, but not empathetic, sister, Kim In-hye. It is at the end that In-hye glimpses what Yeong-hye sees, and we have an insight into Yeong-hye’s behavior.

This is well worth reading, but it is not for everyone.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

Mulholland Books, 416 pages, $26

There are many ordinary teenage characters in Australian author Melina Marchetta’s new book, “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,” and she makes their voices crystal clear, not an easy task. (But maybe easier for someone who has up until now written young adult books.) Before I mislead you further, here’s some pertinent information: This book is set mostly in England and Calais, France, and it is an adult crime novel. But Marchetta’s ability to juggle a lot of characters, half of whom are teenagers, is a literary feat worth noting.

Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a detective chief inspector who is under some sort of cloud at work and has been suspended. He is drinking copious quantities of whisky and feeling quite sorry for himself as his ex-wife prepares to give birth to her current husband’s child. His beloved 17-year-old daughter, Bee (short for Sabina), treats him with disdain and provides the least amount of information possible in their “conversations.” In the middle of Bish’s existential morass, the unthinkable happens.

Bee has been on a bus trip through Normandy with other British teens, and the summer holidays and the tour are about to end. Then a bomb rips through her bus, killing several people. Bish races to the campground where it occurred and is relieved to find Bee is alive. There are other buses from other countries at the campground, and a teenager from the Spanish bus has also died. Coincidentally, the father of one of the girls on the French bus is a police detective, Capitaine Olivier Attal. With his atrocious English and Bish’s toddler’s grasp of French, Bish learns more about the investigation and becomes a liaison between Britain and France.

As one of the first adults on site and because he is used to calming people, Bish becomes the de facto spokesperson and information hub for the British group. The incompetent chaperones who survived the blast are unable to provide any organization or support, so Bish takes over corralling and comforting their charges. That’s when he finds out that one of the teenage girls has been locked in a cupboard in a meeting room on the campgrounds. She is Violette LeBrac Zidane from Australia. One of the chaperones has decided that she is the reason the bomb went off.

About twelve or thirteen years earlier, a supermarket was bombed. The bomber, Louis Sarraf, died in the attack. Several members of his family were also jailed, some of whom were later released but continue to live under a cloud. One family member, Noor LeBrac, Louis’ daughter, confessed to building the bomb, an easy task for a woman on the verge of completing a PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge. Violette is her daughter.

Over twenty people died in the supermarket bombing. Could one of their relatives be responsible as revenge for what Violette’s grandfather and mother did? Or is Violette simply carrying on the family trade?

As a disenfranchised detective, Bish doesn’t have any official standing or recourse to investigative tools. That’s when a lucky break happens to assuage his frustration. An old school mate, who Bish thought was in charge of making sure Britain’s trains ran on time, turns out to work for the Home Office, and he provides the tools on a quid pro quo basis. Bish will interview and locate certain people for them and for himself.

After people begin to disperse from the campground, it is discovered that Violette and another teen, 13-year-old Eddie Conlon, have disappeared. Since Violette is a person of interest, an intensive manhunt begins, sometimes resulting in violence when vigilantes mistake innocent people for the missing teens. In an inadvertent tie-in to current events in our part of world, racial unrest and targeting plays an important role in the background of this novel. Violette and her family are the descendants of Algerian immigrants, their dark and golden features marking them as “different.” Bish can sympathize because one of his grandparents was Egyptian. Both he and Bee carry a vague remembrance of that genetic heritage.

It is also uncovered that Violette is in France without the knowledge of her grandparents in Australia, her legal guardians, who think she is on a student tour in their country. In the course of trying to locate Violette and Eddie, Bish interviews Noor LeBrac, a permanent resident it seems in an English prison. Although she has not seen her daughter for many years, it is possible that she knows why Violette secretly entered Europe.

Marchetta’s plot is intricate and satisfying. Her characterizations are stellar. The resolution is a cascade of tidiness. Although it is not dipped into at any political or sociological length or depth, immigrant discrimination, racial profiling, and the indignities suffered by innocent people because of their heritage provide the foundation of her story. A humanity shared by all is the hope.

MBTB star!