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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Himself by Jess Kidd

Washington Square Press, 384 pages, $16 (c2016, U.S. Ed. 2017, Atria Books)

“Himself” is a very unusual murder mystery. For one thing, there are tons of ghosts drifting by in the background of this story set in 1950 and 1976 in the Irish village of Mulderrig, County Mayo. The central murder happened in 1950, and in 1976, the son of the murder victim comes back to the town of his birth to find out what happened.

Orla Sweeney was 16 years old when she gave birth to Francis Sweeney. She was murdered soon afterwards, perhaps by the father of her child. Francis was spirited away from the scene of the crime.

Twenty-six years later, Mahony — just Mahony — purposefully drifts into Mulderrig on an unnaturally hot day in April. Nothing that happens after his arrival can be said to be natural. Mahony can see dead spirits. He has learned to operate as a “normal” through their often inopportune appearances. Besides that, his appearance has triggered some sort of seismic supernatural activity that builds to a cataclysmic crescendo. But before that, “Himself” is bracingly charming, poetically musical, wittily Irish, decorously lusty, wonderfully drawn.

Women fall for Mahony in a big way. Men are charmed by him and forget to envy him. The first two people he meets are barkeeper Tadhg (as far as I can tell, it’s pronounced “Tig,” like the first part of “tiger”) and garda Jack Brophy. They direct him to a place to stay: Rathmore House, the run-down mansion of Shauna Burke and her father, Desmond. Another “guest,” Mrs. Merle Cauley, is a faded actress with a commanding presence. Soon Mrs. Cauley and Shauna are drawn into helping Mahony with his task of locating his mother’s killer. Indeed, there is no need for suspense, Mahony is Francis Sweeney, come back to life in Mulderrig.

Orla’s body was never discovered and the primary fable is that Orla got her just desserts for her slutty teenage ways and was chased out of town, infant son (father unknown) in tow. Mahony knows that’s baloney, because he grew up in an orphanage, having been put there as a baby. Why would his mother, were she alive, put the baby she fought to keep into an orphanage? Plus, there is a “secret message” that suddenly shows up to push Mahony home.

Add the following characters: pinched-face widow and ex-nurse Annie Farelly; Bridget Doosey, a woman of many useful talents; Tom Bogey, the creepy forest bogeyman; Father Quinn, the tight-arsed priest who replaced the beloved Father Jim; and the oracular Mrs. Lavelle, the village crazy (or is she?). These characters and more are half-way between real people and over-drawn eccentrics. Jess Kidd’s talent is the fine tone she takes and balances throughout her novel of half-way between realistic and way-out-there eccentric, until, of course, it is full-blown weird. Magical realism on steroids?

Let’s hear from Kidd herself.

On the name Francis Sweeney: “After all, it’s a dead name, a name never taken, a life never lived. This town took it from him. He won’t forget that.”

Here’s Mrs. Cauley after the team (she, Mahony, Shauna, Bridget) has done some investigation: Orla “was seen leaving town walking in five different directions while simultaneously boarding the bus to Ennismore, with and without a suitcase, a vanity case, a baby, and a pram. All in a day when there was no bus to Ennismore because Bridget Doosey was lancing a boil on the bus driver’s arse.”

Here’s Mrs. Cauley on the dead: “You underestimate the dead you know. They hang around the place, don’t they, watching, haunting? That makes them prime witnesses in my book.” And later, here’s Mahony on the dead: “The dead are just echoes of the stories of their own lives sung back in the wrong order…”

The dead are characters with their own ambiguous viewpoints, none of which seem particularly helpful to Mahony. But the dead never includes Orla. Could she still be alive, even though the book opens with her supposed death? Besides Mahony, Mrs. Cauley and Mrs. Lavelle also have strange abilities. Despite the marshaling of spirits and supernatural powers, the heart of the story is about love. But it is also about a vicious killer who hides in plain sight.

The ending was a little rich in comeuppance, but I treasured every word of this book. A most resounding MBTB star!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

Coffee House Press, 240 pages, $16.95

“In the Distance” is an artistic roller coaster of tension and release. Hernan Diaz has crafted a story about the lonely, meandering migration of a boy in the mid-1800s looking first for his older brother and then ultimately, as a man, for nothing he can name.

Håken Söderström was born and lived for a while in a rural part of Sweden. His family subsisted in dour conditions. As a last effort to cast a lifeline to good fortune, his father managed to obtain money to send Håken and his brother, Linus, on a ship bound for New York.

This is not, however, one of those many immigrant stories of making it in the big city. To the contrary, Håken becomes separated from his brother when they dock in England to transfer to another ship and winds up in South America. (Yikes!) But not for long. As we readers wring our hands over this young lad’s fate, the Brennans, a family sailing to San Francisco to participate in the gold rush, informally adopts him as their worker. (Phew!) He can make enough money and travel via land east to New York, he soon reasons, despite not understanding the geography of North America. Alas, if only it were that simple.

After the Brennans are run off their gold claim by a gang run by a toothless, evil woman (who, I swear, evokes Ursula from “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” in my mind), Håken becomes the woman’s captive in a surreal episode. (Yikes!) He eventually escapes (Phew!), only to come close to perishing in the punishing desert heat and dust (Yikes!). Then he is saved by an obsessed botanist and naturalist, roaming the desert looking for specimens. (Phew!) The botanist teaches him rudimentary medical skills. This pleasant interlude, of course, cannot last, so our hero is then put to the test again. And again. In and out of danger.

Each time, for better or worse, Håken learns new skills and more about human nature. Eventually he is a man, then an older man, but he does not totally lose his childlike nature. Even at the end, he has not managed to complete the puzzle of what the world looks like and determine how he can live as a normal human being. But there is hope.

Everything is complicated after Håken kills some people. That brings us to the start of the book, although that start is really the end of the story. Håken, or “The Hawk,” because no one can pronounce his Swedish name, is aboard a ship trapped in ice. His reputation as a killer is enhanced by his towering stature — regular people looked like children to him — withdrawn demeanor, and unsociable attitude. The others on the ship fear him or hold him in awe. That’s when he uncharacteristically sits down by a fire and tells his story to the few who would listen. So you know that Håken has not crashed and burned on the roller coaster, that he somehow has survived all the awful things that happened to him. Hold onto that thought as he recounts his tale.

I would give this an MBTB star, but despite the killings and crimes committed by others, it is not truly a crime or mystery story. It is a marvelous and peculiar story about human nature and what it needs to flourish.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


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Arrowood by Mick Finlay

Mira, 368 pages, $15.99

The setting for “Arrowood” is Sherlock Holmes’ England at the turn of the last century. That description could be the unkindest cut of all, because William Arrowood, the corpulent, irritable, irritating private detective at the heart of Mick Finlay’s novel, is arrogant about his superiority to Sherlock Holmes, whose fictional milieu Arrowood shares. Everywhere Arrowood turns, the police and press are lauding Holmes’ almost magic ability to sniff out crime. While he, Arrowood, unwept and unsung, is left with the common and cheap dregs. The front cover banner for this book says, “London society takes its problems to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else goes to Arrowood.”

Once a gentleman of means, Arrowood is now a pinch-penny by necessity. After an investigation went sideways, he lost his job as a newspaper reporter, his wife left him, he took to drink, and he easily falls prey to his unpredictable temper. Furthermore, he is physically unfit, his shoes pinch, and his private investigation employs exactly one-and-a-half men, Norman Barnett and ten-year-old Neddy. (A ten-year-old boy, one of the characters remonstrates. Holmes employs lots of boys is the irritable retort.)

Arrowood’s casebook seems so shabby compared to Holmes’. Arrowood plods, stumbles, and is puzzled while he chases errant husbands and other meager fare. Holmes suavely ponders, scientifically examines, and easily banters with aristocrats and the police.  At one point, Arrowood rails against a thousand-pound fee Holmes receives, claiming Holmes has scarcely earned it, given all the holes in his logic. And that is the hook Finlay uses to draw his readers in. Holmes, unseen and unmet, has a looming presence in Arrowood’s universe. Arrowood dissects some of Holmes’ cases and points out the flaws in reasoning, the luck he enjoys that allows him to solve his cases. And what of the cases not reported by the faithful Watson? Arrowood is certain those are rife with the stink of failure.

Caroline Cousture has a charming French accent and a sympathetic mission to find her sweet brother in villainous London. She says she cannot afford Holmes, so … Arrowood swallows his shame and takes the case, the coffers being more empty than full. He and Barnett then take us on a tour of the unsavory and vicious underbelly of London. It seems much more authentic than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s version, but the physical toll the case takes on our heroes is also more graphic.

Finlay places his fictional story within the real events of the time, including the Irish rebellion against English rule and the Ripper murders. He does a bang-up job of that.

Arrowood is more realistically drawn than Holmes, but do readers want that any more than clients want Arrowood over Holmes? There is despair around every corner. Even Barnett has a sorrowful secret. The investigators hang in the insalubrious parts of town, fight against stepping over the line into their own extreme poverty, and show us the flip-side of Holmes’ tidy London.

Are you ready to watch Holmes topple off his pedestal? Finlay is giving it his best shot, and has created a viewpoint and characters that make reading his work worthwhile.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

Mariner Books, 400 pages, $15.95 (paperback) (c2014)

The Marshalsea. It should be the name of a seaside resort, not the name of the most infamous debtors’ prison in England. Based on a real place and real people, Antonia Hodgson has crafted a compelling and gruesome book set in the early 1700s.

Tom Hawkins could have been an English minister like his father. He could have led a righteous, pious, and respectable life somewhere in the Suffolk countryside. Instead, he throws away the figurative and literal riches bestowed upon him at birth: his educational opportunity at Oxford, his path to a religious sinecure, the possibility of a wife and chubby, rosy children who adore him.

Instead, he is a gambler and a drunk, and delights in the company of whores. For his libertine ways, he eventually finds himself heavily in debt. Forced to beg help from friends, Tom finally scrapes up enough to avoid being arrested. Then he is mugged, beaten, and then, lacking money, ignominiously tossed in the Marshalsea.

Tom’s one opportunity to avoid further degradation lies in being able to solve the murder of Captain John Roberts from within the prison. The captain was no better perhaps than Tom in his profligacy, but he had a wife and child who depended on him. After the captain’s death, his wife received an inheritance and was no longer required to reside in the prison. She has chosen to do so, however, to somehow discover who the murderer might be. She importunes Tom to help her. Furthermore, Tom’s great and dear friend, Charles, also begs him to discover the villain. Charles through his powerful sponsor can help Tom escape prison if the murderer is caught.

There are many obstacles in the way of Tom’s investigation, not the least of which is Samuel Fleet, Tom’s bloodthirsty and vicious roommate. The capricious prison governor also has it in for Tom, that is, when he is not feeding him and encouraging him to dance with his dainty wife. Then, of course, it is in the murderer’s best interest not to be discovered. In the vile hell of Marshalsea, one hand slaps Tom down and another raises him up. And sometimes it is the same hand doing the raising and slapping. Will Tom survive the Marshalsea?

Antonia Hodgson has done an incredible amount of research to present her tale of woe. She vividly presents the stench and gloom of the Marshalsea. There are scenes depicted that are not for those of delicate mind. It is also a shocking reminder of the cruelties of class snobbery and the offhanded way in which humans have mistreated other humans.

Tom Hawkins is not the brightest bulb in the drawer. Why anyone would think Tom could successfully solve a murder is puzzling. But, knowing that there are a couple of sequels, we know he survived and went on to other adventures. (Sorry, should that have been a spoiler alert?)

“The Devil in the Marshalsea” is well written, well researched, and an eye-opener. It is a cautionary tale as well, should we ever be tempted to disparage people simply because they are poor and without power.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Viking, 480 pages, $27 (c2016)

This book is not a mystery.

“A Gentleman in Moscow” is one of the best books I have read in a long time. It is quietly beautiful and effective the way Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” is. American author Amor Towles’ writing is delicious and vibrant about a topic that could be lugubrious and depressing.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov has been placed under house arrest as the Bolsheviks overthrow the aristocratic rule of Russia and establish the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The “house” in which Alexander must now live is the famous Metropole Hotel in Moscow. Not too bad a set-up, except he is banished from his luxurious suite to an attic room, once reserved for the maids.

“A Gentleman” covers about thirty years in Alexander’s life, from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s. Although many trying circumstances come his way, he remains a gentleman throughout, and that is the simple yet satisfying plot of the book. Alexander is clever, intelligent, thoughtful, observant, worldly, and unflappable.

Many other characters inhabit the hotel, and each one is wonderfully drawn.

Here is an examples of Towles’ writing. While watching a significant formative meeting of the USSR, Alexander notices that an administrative matter almost derails progress:

“Here, indeed, was a formidable sentence — one that was on intimate terms with the comma, and that held the period in healthy disregard. For its apparent purpose was to catalog without fear or hestitation every single virtue of the Union including but not limited to: its unwavering shoulders, its undaunted steps, the clanging of its hammers in summer, the shoveling of its coal in winter, and the hopeful sound of its whistles in the night.”

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Western Star by Craig Johnson

Viking, 304 pages, $28

Wait! What? I predict that is exactly what you will say upon finishing this book. Ingenious author or wicked tormentor? That Craig Johnson is some clever cowboy.

This is Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire’s upmteenth millionth adventure. Thank goodness they have all been embellished by Johnson’s humor! This time around, Johnson tells two and a half tales, resulting in two-and-a-half times the fun. 

Once in a while Walt travels to Cheyenne to appear at the parole hearing of a criminal he put in jail many years ago. It was his first case as the deputy sheriff of Absaroka County, under Sheriff Lucian Connelly. The case didn’t take place in Absaroka County, however, but on a train full of sheriffs having a rootin’, tootin’ time riding the rails through Wyoming, celebrating their good cases and finding a sympathetic ear for the cases that didn’t end as well. Surely nothing bad could happen on a train full of lawmen. But murder most foul, in the best tradition of Agatha Christie, does its best to derail the happy times. Dame Aggie even makes a cameo appearance in the form of a paperback copy of “Murder on the Orient Express” that Walt carries around like a talisman. In the end, Walt catches the villain, and it is his parole hearing Walt attends.

The present time story plays mostly as a backdrop to the telling of the old story in which the murderer was brought to justice. In that “origin” story set in 1972, Johnson gives us more of a sense of Walt’s mindset when he first left the military and felt unmoored in civilian life. He had just married Martha, the love of his life, and that relationship had hit a bump in the road as tall as the Rockies. Walt has always had a strong sense of justice and honor, as well as a good understanding of human nature, and those qualities were evident even way back when. Walt had also been whacked a couple of times on the head during the course of his investigation, so he was also a tad grouchy and temperamental.

The usual suspects also serve as backup in the present story: The Cheyenne Nation, The Greatest Legal Mind of Our Time, the undersheriff, the granddaughter, and the old man. They flit around as babysitters, house painters, and couch movers for most of the book, until they are required to haul out their firearms in a good cause.

Craig Johnson has always come through for his readers, but this one elicited more than one gasp. So two-three gasps equals one MBTB star!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur, 416 pages, $25.99

There are series and there are series. Even within Ann Cleeves’ ouevre there are series and there is Vera Stanhope.

Inspector Stanhope heads up a tightly-controlled murder investigation team based in Kimmerston, Northumberland, the northernmost county in England. Returning are Joe Ashworth, Holly Clarke, and Charlie, whose last name, if I ever knew it, is lost in the mists of time. They are Vera’s bright or cagey underlings. She alternately mothers them — except for Charlie who is her age — and irritatedly pushes them. The team's results are spectacular. As her “reward,” Vera’s boss wants her to give a talk to the prisoners in the Elderly and Disabled Unit of the local gaol.

Humph, Vera grumbles as she shambles towards the meeting area in prison. One of the prisoners she recognizes right away. It is her old boss, ex-superintendent John Brace. Vera had a part in putting him away for corruption. Also, John was an old friend of Vera’s father, Hector. They and two others formed the inhospitably-named “Gang of Four.” Their bond was based on the common interest of illegally harvesting birds’ eggs for personal display or, worse, for sale out of country.

While John has Vera as captive company, so to speak, he asks a favor. The cheeky bastard wants Vera to check on his adult daughter Patty and her “bairns.” In exchange, he will provide the whereabouts of Robbie Marshall, missing since 1995. Unfortunately, the information is the location of Robbie’s long-cold corpse. Vera has a vested interest because Robbie was another member of the Gang of Four. Could Vera’s long-dead father have had something to do with the murder?

The mysterious fourth member of the Gang was known to Vera only as “The Prof.” How has his identity managed to be so well hidden after all these years? And what did that posh-toned, shadowy man have to do with Robbie’s murder?

The last word anyone would ascribe to Vera is “warm.” However, she tries her best to help Patty, once she discovers that the poor single mom is overwhelmed and seriously depressed. Her children are left to their own devices. Here’s an example of Patty’s attempt at parenting. Patty made sandwiches for her childrens’ lunches. So proud of herself for getting something right, she hies her kids off to school. Then she realizes that the sandwiches are still at home. It is too much for her to think of taking the food to school, and she sinks into an torpor.

When the hole in the rocks where Robbie’s body is supposedly buried is uncovered, a surprise awaits. There are two skeletons. Is the other of Patty’s missing prostitute mother? So many missing people in the small, downwardly mobile town of Whitley Bay!

Ann Cleeves excels at creating a complex, intelligent character, whose life revolves around police work because her personal life is so sad. “The Seagull” capitalizes on her depressing past by weaving in her team’s current crime. I heart Vera.

Righteous by Joe Ide

Mulholland Books, 336 pages, $26

I’m going to imagine that if I were to ask how many of you liked “IQ,” author Joe Ide’s first book about Long Beach, California, eccentric private eye, Isaiah Quintabe, a heck of a lot of hands would be enthusiastically shooting up. If you were lucky enough to discover that first book in the series, you have bragging rights. Now here comes book two and it’s a mighty fine sophomore effort.

Isaiah Quintabe, or “IQ,” as he is known in the hood — the hood being a lower income, mostly non-white neighborhood in east Long Beach, California — has stunted social skills, a brilliant investigative mind, a business that sometimes pays off in vegetables instead of money, and a burning desire for revenge.

Ever since IQ’s brother Marcus was killed by a hit-and-run driver about ten years ago, he has obsessively focussed on whether Marcus had in fact been murdered. In “Righteous,” it becomes clear that Marcus was. Now IQ needs to find out the who and why.

Marcus was a few years older than IQ. He had a girlfriend, Sarita, a woman the nerdy teenaged Isaiah had an enormous crush on. He had no contact with Sarita after Marcus’ death, until she called him with a plea. Her younger half-sister, Janine, is in trouble. Janine is a gambling addict, and she and her boyfriend, Benny, have amassed a debt to a local gang. Because they cannot pay the vig, they are in danger and at various times on the run. Janine’s and Sarita’s father is Ken, a well-off financial investor. Ken will not fund Janine anymore, so she and her boyfriend hatch a scheme to steal Ken’s investment information. What is hammered home is that addicts’ brains do not fire on all cylinders. IQ must unravel their predicament and square things with Ken and the gang. 

And find Marcus’ killer.

That’s all.

It takes the whole book in alternating steps of each goal to resolve these issues. Ide’s storytelling is glorious. Some of his characters — like Deronda, the neighborhood tough-talker with a kind heart and a great fried chicken recipe — should are inspired secondary characters. Dodson, IQ’s childhood friend, was present in the first story and rocks out in this one as well. He is trying to turn over a new leaf, primarily because his girlfriend is pregnant. Dodson would really like to be a normal dude, something that’s hard to do given his criminal past and inclinations. “Helping” IQ doesn’t exactly solve his problems or endear him to the mother of his child, but he is vital to taking on the Las Vegas underworld, nasty gangs, and lots of people with guns.

Ide must delight in twisting his story onto an unexpected path. His writing is artful, manipulative, and surprising. He can wring pathos, draw out comedy, and has an ear for slang and cultural essences.

Want more. Please.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Party by Elizabeth Day

Little, Brown, 304 pages, $26

What a complex and fascinating plot author Elizabeth Day has set down. No, not set down, this is a throw-down. What do you think is happening, the author seems to say. Aha! It’s not that. Now what do you think? Aha! It’s not that either.

Bare bones, the story is told in three alternating pieces. Martin “Little Shadow” Gilmour and his wife, Lucy, attend a party thrown by his best friend, Ben Fitzmaurice, and Ben's wife, Serena. Martin and Lucy are puttering along in life, Ben and Serena are fabulous. The current tale takes place in the Tipworth Police Station, while Martin is being interrogated. Something obviously happened at the party, but what is not immediately ascertainable. Then we see Martin’s story, going back to when he and Ben first met. Finally, Lucy’s story goes back a long way but primarily is centered on what happened after she met Martin.

Elizabeth Day deftly forms each character’s outstanding characteristics. Then she shakes up your preconceptions and dumps you in another version of the tale. You think you know, but you don’t. Actually, there are things you think you can discern from the story, and you will be mostly right, but what you don’t understand is what ties these disparate people together. That is Day’s conjuring trick, the story that ties them all together.

I found the odd but appropriate ending only vaguely satisfying. It smacked a little of the ending of Harry Potter, in which J. R. Rowling jumped ahead to show you how all the characters turned out. I liked that too, but found it vaguely jarring.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz

Trans. from Swedish by Charles Goulding

Knopf, 368 pages, $27.95

This time around, following his commercially successful first effort, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” Swedish author David Lagercrantz totally channeled Stieg Larsson and his famous characters. In my opinion, although I liked it, the “Spider’s Web” was missing a key Larsson ingredient: at least one unexpected and jaw-dropping scene or character revelation. Larsson could be tedious at times, but he more than made up for it in his ability to make his readers gasp. Lagercrantz is a more polished writer and he caught Larsson’s tone the first time around, but he magnified it this time.

Lisbeth Salander, the reason we readers ravenously tear into each installment, is in prison. She doesn’t seem to mind; it’s a nice opportunity to delve into higher level mathematics and physics. Like a monk in a monastery, only God is a quantum agent.

What Salander does mind is the bullying by one of her fellow prisoners, Benito — a woman who has charmingly nicknamed herself after her favorite Italian dictator. Benito’s primary target is a young and beautiful woman, Faria, a Bangladeshi whose sad story slowly is revealed. The price for peace appears to be “mediating” the conflict between Benito and Faria. Benito may be finito.

At the same time, Salander’s past weighs more heavily on her mind. If you have read the other novels, you know about her abusive and deranged father, her abused and sad mother, and her abusive and deranged twin sister. What Lagercrantz gives us this time is the space in-between. What happened to Salander after her mother died and before she began to be abused by the odious guardian she was assigned in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Who knew her back then?

Instead of just blurting out the serious questions she has about her past, Salander challenges Holger Palmgren, her kind and courteous guardian — although as an adult she no longer needs one, and Mikael Blomkvist, a magazine owner and, as it turns out, a true friend, to uncover more about some people in her past. Maybe those people were kind and naive, maybe they were Machiavellian in the cause of science or personal gain. Palmgren and Blomkvist are sent in different directions but their investigations converge in the end.

Unlike the Larsson tales in which the stories gave more page space to Blomkvist's social concerns, this one is solidly Salander’s story. If you thought Salander had been through the mill in the other books, here are tales of her youth that will make you shudder at her long-winding path of pain.

Both Larsson’s and Lagercrantz’s works always have strong moral points of view. What’s wrong is really wrong and what it takes to cure those wrongs, no matter how violent, is very right. The takeaway always is don’t mess with Salander.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics by Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, 289 pages, $26.95

Ah, I do so love a faraway story told with humor, philosophy, ghosts, 1980s Laotian Communists, and rat catching.

Maybe some of you remember the 1980 Olympics, the one the United States shunned. The U.S.S.R. had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympics, which were being held in Moscow in 1980, to protest. It was also the first year Laos participated. In real life, no medals were awarded to Laos.

Colin Cotterill has used the 1980 Olympics and Laos’ first participation in Olympic sports as background for his twelfth Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery. Why would the Laotian team need its own doctor, the doctor’s wife (an ex-spy), a nurse, an old military man, and an even older military man, all of whom are non-participants in the sports? The U.S.S.R., in putting on a good public face, presented to the Olympic crowd the latest in technologies, bountiful presentations of food, stellar buildings for the events, and smiles upon their faces, despite being a country whose economy was hovering in the no-fly zone. And, presumably, they have a crack medical staff.

Siri used a devious and clever trick to include himself as a member of the team. (I will let you discover what he did.) He deviously and cleverly managed to include his wife, Daeng, the one with the tail that wiggles when she is excited. The mission was headed by his friend Civilai, who thought he could leave the country without Siri being the wiser. Like that would ever happen. Also included on the support team is Dtui, once Siri’s nurse/assistant when he was the country’s only coroner. Siri retired and Dtui went on to more important jobs, but their friendship remained strong. Inspector Phosy, Dtui’s husband, had to remain in Laos to take care of their young daughter and to, you know, do police things.

Siri has always, it seems, been able to see ghosts. Lately, the thin window between now and the hereafter has thinned even more. Now Siri has two “spirit guides,” a thousand-year-old shaman and Bpoo, a “fortune-teller transvestite.” * Siri even disappears into the hereafter every once in a while to converse with the spirits, who manage only to confuse him with metaphorical visions. Daeng used to be concerned with his disappearances, but now she considers it part of the joy of living with Siri.

What could go wrong in such a tightly controlled environment as the Olympics in the Soviet Union?

Civilai spotted an old acquaintance while waiting for the plane to Moscow. He appeared to be a member of the team, so Civilai was looking forward to reminiscing. However, his friend never made the trip. The mystery of what happened to his friend leads Civilai to involve Siri and Phosy, and the three of them seem to uncover a plot to assassinate someone in Moscow.

Siri and his friends must uncover the secrets that hover over their group, while maintaining Laotian solidarity in cheering for their Cinderella athletes. Will one of them magically place as a shooter, a boxer, a runner, or a race-walker? Unlikely. But the cheerleading gang is determined to celebrate their unexpected good fortune and Quixotic expectations by being the loudest people to celebrate not winning a medal.

Colin Cotterill twists and turns his characters throughout the Olympic venue and the politics of Laos and the U.S.S.R. Cotterill, as usual, presents a delightful story filled with quirkiness and heart. For the pleasure Cotterill brings his readers, an MBTB star, of course!

* Publishers’ Weekly

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Viking, 272 pages, $28

It’s one thing to wrap up loose threads, it’s a genius thing to fifty-four years later create loose threads that need fixing. Is there any spy book more iconic than “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”? John le Carré wrote that in 1963. George Smiley, spy master and grand marshal of the spy parade, made a quiet splash there. Main spy character Alec Leamas — spoiler alert — died at the end, along with his lover Liz Gold.

What made le Carré’s books different was the moral gray ground through which the characters waded. There is no suave James Bond with a license to kill. There are instead intellectuals playing a chess game with real people as pieces.

“A Legacy of Spies” takes place an indeterminate amount of time after “The Spy.” Peter Guillam, a second banana in many of the Smiley books, has been retired to his Brittany farm for many years. It is Guillam, not Smiley, who holds forth from center in the current novel.

Descendants of Leamas and Gold are threatening to file suit against the British government for the wrongful death of their relatives. It’s the ne plus ultra of our current way of resolving difficulties. This banal starting point opens a cascade of case files and memories. Rightly or wrongly, Guillam is held to account for what happened so long ago. Interrogated in the agency offices by the likes of a Bunny and a Tabby*, Guillam remains sanguine. Le Carré’s sly humor pops out more than in just funny character names. Guillam’s observations are often understated and wry.

After protesting ignorance too much to the interrogating agents and not getting away with it, Guillam remembers it all, although, of course, only the tip of the story is revealed to the imperious Bunny and Tabby. We, as readers, get to experience the full force of what lies in Guillam’s cave of wonder. Le Carré is so good at peeling back the layers of a story. He aims not so much for a hit between the eyes as for a challenge to our moral center. He succeeded in “The Spy” and he succeeds here. Our sympathies lie almost everywhere (including with Bunny and Tabby, but only for their fluffy names) in this telling.

“A Legacy of Spies” is an old man’s story. As agelessly randy as Guillam may have been and currently may be, his spycraft and politics are from another era. The enemy had faces, not hardware. They were killers, not hackers. A couple of guys used to be capable of settling things, without an army or missiles, instead of an army or missiles. This spy’s legacy is tinged with complicated relationships and emotions. As the fifty-four-year-old story** emerges, the only thing that matters is what the spies did and will do for love.

MBTB star!

* Okay, you got me. Her name in the book is Tabitha, but who could resist.

** Fifty-four years is not quite accurate. As mentioned, the main story takes place an indeterminate amount of time from the original events in “The Spy.” Fifty-four is the number of years between then and 2017.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Language of the Dead by Stephen Kelly

Pegasus Books, 286 pages, $15.95 (c2015)

“The Language of the Dead” is subtitled, “A World War II Mystery.” The war is mostly a supporting character in this book, because the mystery comes down to base human nature, not national disagreements. But it doesn’t help that there are bombers flying overhead at night, with everyone on edge waiting for the bombs to fall.

Chief Inspector Lamb is a phlegmatic, upstanding member of the police. His biggest worry is that his eighteen-year-old daughter, Vera, is an air-raid warden in a small neighboring town. She is independent, spunky, and insistent on her right to be an adult. Even when a bizarre murder not related to her occurs, Vera still occupies Lamb’s thoughts.

A witch lies dead, his body perforated by a pitchfork and a scythe. At least Will Blackwell was rumored to have been a witch. Mostly, he was a recluse, with not much to his name. He was cared for by his niece and worked sometimes for a nearby neighboring farmer. There wasn’t much going on in his life and much too much going on in his death. What could he have done to incur such enmity?

Stephen Kelly’s book moves slowly through the process of uncovering the life of a small village to find what Blackwell’s connections were to other residents. Does his death have anything to do with the death of a young woman almost a hundred years ago, the subsequent disappearance of his niece, or a young, almost-mute boy who wanders freely and stealthily around the countryside?

More to the point, is there a current threat to young women? What about Vera? She has met a young man, Arthur Lear. He has lost an arm in the war and it has made him hesitant and too self-aware. Is there any reason why Vera can’t establish a relationship with him? Is she in jeopardy living alone in a small and somewhat isolated town.

Bombs are exploding all around, not all of them dropped by planes.

Kelly has developed some intriguing characters. Although Lamb is not on the frontline of this war, he has his own demons from the last war to end all wars. He loves his family and is more than competent at his job. Even after an old acquaintance is placed under his command under less than auspicious circumstances, Lamb perseveres. There is more at stake than discomfort caused by something that happened in the past.

A good read, even if the conclusion is a bit expected.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Little, Brown & Co., 448 pages, $28

Did the police cleverly nickname one of their shifts, or is the sobriquet, “The Late Show,” Michael Connelly’s invention? I know I could look it up on Google, but let’s pretend it’s the old (old, old, old) days before instant information gratification was possible. I’m going to say that in the past Connelly has shown a talent for meticulously grafting his fictional stories onto authentic police procedures and cases. So yes, my choice is that this is a clever nickname for the late shift wryly chosen by the police.

A new character jumps to the forefront in Connelly’s latest book. Renée Ballard takes her place alongside Harry Bosch and The Lincoln Lawyer as a quirky, by-her-own-rules, smart detective. Of course she has run afoul of higher ups, because this is Michael Connelly. Ballard has been “demoted” to the late shift, but she inadvertently begins to thrive.

It’s less about the crimes for me than about Ballard’s personality and backstory. The intriguing introduction to Connelly’s main character’s personal life begins on the beach after an intense shift. After paddling around in the ocean and playing with her dog, Ballard zips herself into a tent on the sand and snoozes. A friendly lifeguard keeps a watchful eye on her. Her dog, Lola, is trained to guard, and she remains vigilent while Ballard sleeps as well. From there, Connelly unveils even more unusual elements of Ballard’s life.

The crimes are about a stolen bank card, a brutally beaten prostitute, and a nightclub shooting. Ballard and her partner are supposed to sign off on their nighttime incidents and pass the cases on to the appropriate day team. Ballard is no longer significant enough to be considered part of a high-profile crime team, but she manages to insert herself into all these cases nevertheless. It is her curiosity, experience, and intelligence that make her a valuable, if under-appreciated, member of the force.

Connelly’s machine gun style reaches a peak in this book. It’s the way he manages to deal with three crime stories and a personal tale, and not exceed a thousand pages. I often wished for a more poetic flow, a more writerly style, but Ballard is a great new character. The crime stories piled a lot of details onto readers’ plates. Keep notes.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Raised in a bookstore ...

Tin House, Issue 73, Fall 2017, paperback, $15

Jordan Foster is the daughter of MBTB's store manager. I would say former store manager, but in our hearts MBTB still exists, although the doors were closed many years ago. (Sob!) Jordan spent many, many days in the store, reading, reading, always reading.

Beginning when she was four years old(!) to adulthood, Jordan has been surrounded by crime books. She was precocious then, and now she can run conversational rings around anyone on the subject of crime. She has written about crime, is writing about crime, and has met and mingled with the creators of both tragic and comic criminous stories.

This "Tin House" issue is subtitled, "True Crime." Jordan's article isn't about true crime, per se, but about being embedded in crime stories, quilted in crime stories, and swallowed whole by the atmosphere and grit of crime stories.

Congratulations, Jordan!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Under an Orange Sun …

Someone set off a firework. And now a beautiful forest is burning. It’s threatening Oregon’s iconic Multnomah Falls. The haze in the air makes the sun orange. It’s pretty. If you don’t think about why the sun is orange. There is ash falling on us from fifty miles away. The air smells like you want to get out your s’more makings. If you don’t think about why it smells like a campfire. It’s best to stay indoors, read, and occasionally rail against stupidity.

Here are two books that kept me company.

Mightier Than the Sword by K. J. Parker

Subterranean, 136 pages, $40 (a collectible edition only for now)

Fantasy fans probably discovered K. J. Parker decades ago. His first book appeared in 1998 (“Colours in the Steel”). After seventeen years, it was revealed that he is really British author Tom Holt. I’m sorry to say that I had to serendipitously stumble across K. J. Parker and have never heard of Tom Holt. But after I began reading his biography, I learned that Holt is the son of Hazel Holt, the author of the Mrs. Malory cozies that MBTB carried on its shelves forever.

“Mightier Than the Sword” is not a murder mystery in the traditional sense, but there is a bona fide mystery that lies at the heart of the story.

It’s the Middle Ages and a “game of thrones” is about to happen, as an emperor lies dying and the successor-aspirants are many. Wait, you say, “emperor”? Middle Ages? It’s fantasy. It’s comparable to the real Middle Ages in terms of clothes, food, castle construction, war, monasteries, monks bent over copy desks. But the geography is Parker's invention.

Worthy of note: There are no zombies, dragons, incest, magic, direwolves, or obvious dwarves.

An unnamed main character, a representative of his aunt and uncle, the empress and emperor of the realm, undertakes a mission on behalf of Their Highnesses. Pirates are raiding monasteries up and down the coast. They are killing everyone and burning the monasteries and attending villages to the ground. Some of them are poor establishments, so it’s not clear what the goal of the pirating is. That’s the mystery.

The tale is told with panache and humor. “Unnamed Hero” is gallant, brilliant, and flawed. Since this is a first-person tale, “Unnamed Hero”’s wry humor comes shining through. This was a short, enjoyable tale, albeit a little expensive at the moment.

P.S. It features one of the most briefly described major battles in the history of writing.

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli

Penguin Books, 224 pages, $16

Those in the know have known about Inspector Salvo Montalbano since 1994, if they read the series debut, “The Shape of Water,” in the original Italian, “La forma dell’acqua.” It’s been in English since 2002. Sicily has never been grittier.

Montalbano is one of the few honest cops, Camilleri would have you believe. So he is the one who is called when a potential political brouhaha emerges after the adventurous death of a politician. He was found with his pants down in a car in The Pasture, the local remote hangout for whores and their clients. The politician’s widow knows about her husband’s little l’amores, but she claims he would never be so indiscreet as to visit The Pasture.

Montalbano must determine why and how the politician died, and in the process we get a glimpse of Sicilian life, humor, compassion, and double-dealing.

There’s an eh-so-what? tone to some of the goings-on that a reader might not find in a book written by an non-Italian author. Or at least it would be presented differently. (Thank goodness, I am not being called to rigorously defend my lazy, presumptuous statements.)

There are currently twenty-two books in the Montalbano series, most of which have been translated into English.