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

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Real Tigers by Mick Herron

Soho Crime, 400 pages, $15.95 (c2016)

The “Slow Horses” books have brought Mick Herron acclaim. They are certainly an acquired taste, with their wry, arch, bright, and brittle dialogue and narrative. There are classical allusions, including a mild wash (or a wild mash) of epithets to describe the main characters, especially Jackson Lamb, the slug-like chief of Slough House, where inept British operatives languish.

Some of the denizens have been in the books since “Slow Horses,” the debut of the series. River Cartwright is smart but rash. Catherine Standish is still fighting personal demons not too long ago put at bay. Roderick Ho is the classic, clichéd computer nerd and awkward personality. Along with a couple of others, they all work together in a little crooked house, pounding out useless data, monitoring useless information, and biding their time and checking their souls until … what? Do they still hold out hope that they will be returned to a normal life within the walls of the sanctum sanctorum of the intelligence agency? Or do they acknowledge that penance must be paid for the sins that landed them at Slough House in the first place and stoically accept it. They are termed the “slow horses,” not fast runners out of the gate certainly. Maybe they are a step behind analytically as well. Whatever, there they sit, in all their trenchant gloom and bitterness.

Catherine Standish is kidnapped one day. She is allowed to call one person she trusts with her life. The choices are cringe-worthy, but she chooses River. In captivity she is treated rather well, even with an en suite facility, with a kindly young guard she nicknames “Bailey.” What is going on? River, meanwhile, hares off on the task that will (perhaps) save Catherine. The task, while not simple, is relatively straightforward. When does everything go wrong? Is it when River is captured? No. Perhaps it is when a couple of the slow horses are fired. No. Perhaps it is when a VW’s worth of clownish security people start piling out, guns and tasers blasting. Perhaps. Perhaps it would help to learn the real story behind Catherine’s kidnapping. But that takes all of the rest of the 400 pages.

The wit will keep you awake, and the story will perplex until all is revealed. And that is what you want, isn’t it? A+ for style.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Every Night I Dream of Hell by Malcolm Mackay

Mulholland Books, 304 pages, $26

What’s the difference between a corporation and a crime gang? Not much. There’s bureaucracy, protocol, board meetings, equipment theft, spies and double-dealers, and sudden employee termination. And security services.

Nate Colgan is a single father and beats people up for a living. He’s “security” for one of the factions under the umbrella of gang boss Peter Jamieson. Unfortunately, Jamieson is in jail, and there is a quiet reorganization going on that threatens to be not so quiet in the end. In aid of understanding this organizational hierarchy, author Malcolm Mackay has included a cast of characters list at the beginning of the book. It does help assuage the anxiety over who is doing what to whom, as the characters relentlessly roll through the story for a while.

In the end, it boils down to Nate and his new trainee, Ronnie Malone, a young man in love, with a need to belong to the toughest organization in Glasgow, Scotland. Didn’t I mention that you have to read this book with a Scottish accent? Joining a long line of dark, moody, noirish, Scottish writers, Malcolm Mackay has been producing a fistful of dark, moody, noirish, Scottish books.

Nate’s long-gone girlfriend and mother of his nine-year-old daughter, Zara Cope, contacts him. She wants to talk. As a by-product of his job, Nate has learned to shut down most of his emotions. Zara, however, can still prick at his shell a little. He learns she’s in town with a new flame, and the new flame is out for a toehold in the now unstable criminal world of Glasgow. Normally, Nate would punch out the competition and send them running back to where they belong, but Zara is his daughter’s mother, however meaningless and inaccurate that title may be.

Nate senses the possibility of some double-dealing going on, but who would be behind it? (Remember, Mackay has provided a long list of possibilities.) Eighty percent of the chapters are first-person narratives by Nate. The few that aren’t focus on DI Michael Fisher, an honest cop, and Zara.

Near the end of Mackay’s story, which had progressed in a fairly straightforward manner, I couldn’t help but think that there surely had to be another brogue ready to drop, such is the nature of crime storytelling these days. So, yes, there were a few brogues tossed about.

In the end, it really is Nate’s story. It is his part in the complex unravelling of the loyalties. It is his life and what he and others have made of it. It is his love for another human being, his daughter, that taps at the hard carapace he has constructed. The title, “Every Night I Dream of Hell,” is ironic in a way, because Nate has a hard time sleeping. He operates almost mechanically at times, even when he should be on high alert. “Every Night I Dream of Hell” should be subtitled, “And Every Day I Live in Hell.”

Actually, “Every Night I Dream of Hell” is a great short story jacketed by a compendium of what it takes to run a criminal organization. It can be fascinating if you take it that way, and I often found it interesting.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Devil’s Feast by M. J. Carter

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 432 pages, $26

“The Devil’s Feast” is the third book in the Blake and Avery series, channeling Holmes and Watson. Set in India in the early 1800s, the first book in the series, “The Strangler Vine,” was exotic and inventive. Unfortunately, M. J. Carter then brought her heroes back to England, and the series lost its color, literally. Grey, clanking, smog-bitten, clamoring, intolerant Victorian England sucked the life out of the series, and it became merely a Holmes/Watson wannabe. I know my opinion is too harsh on the second book, but it is because I enjoyed the first one so much. The elements that made it so attractive had been left far behind. So “The Devil’s Feast” had to fight an uphill battle.

Mostly the battle was successful.

Jeremiah Blake is a man with a reticent nature. To his friends, he has only parsimoniously revealed elements of his peripatetic childhood and the immediate years after. There is no doubt that he is a brilliant man. He is also a cynic, an independent thinker, a recluse, and blunt. He met Captain William Avery when both were working for the East India Company in less than ideal circumstances. Their boss, Sir Theophilus Collinson, also returned to England, to a position of power within a shadowy government organization, and he has been using unprincipled means to get Blake to work for him. As a matter of fact, when this story opens, he has had Blake put into Marshalsea Prison, the infamous debtors’ prison, to coerce him into investigating a case.

Captain William Avery, on the other hand, has settled down to life on a gentleman’s farm in Devon with his young wife and newborn son. In the first book, William pined for Helen and somehow managed to woo her into marriage. “Be careful what you wish for” should be pinned on his lapel. Their rural life and demands of their new infant do not suit Helen’s temperament. It was with a mixture of reluctance and relief that Avery traveled to London to try to convince Blake to accede to Collinson’s demands.

Unsuccessful at convincing Blake, Avery is on the point of returning to his family when he meets the famous French chef, Alexis Soyer, and is invited to dine with him. Although the dinner is more fabulous than anything Avery has ever tasted, it is the last dinner for one of the other guests. He expires from arsenic poisoning. 

Without Blake, Avery is barely up to the task of doing preliminary investigation. He is at sea. He pleads for Blake’s help, but is devastated to learn that Blake might have been injured or murdered by a ruffian sent to kill him in the prison. Whichever Blake’s fate, he has disappeared. Unable to turn down Soyer’s appeals, Avery attempts to out the poisoner by himself.

Soyer works in one of the many gentlemen’s clubs that proliferated then. Many of them were based around a common interest. In the case of the Reform Club, the members are Radicals and Whigs who are attempting to join forces to overturn rule by the conservative Tory party. Avery is a Tory. Nevertheless, the causes of justice and honor override political affiliation. Avery’s client is the club council. So if Soyer is the poisoner, then Soyer must be caught.

Carter has the knack of wrapping a good story within an interesting historical context. Could the poisoner have a grudge against the political aim of the club? Or is it a rival chef? Is it a disgruntled kitchen employee? A club member who had it in for the dead man? Someone who didn’t like Soyer’s dessert marzipan trickily shaped like a lamb chop?

Although I do not understand the art of cooking, I certainly admire those who do. Who among you has not watched even a sliver of one of the multitudinous cooking or eating shows available? Haven’t you watched Gordon Ramsey or Ina Garten or Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali rhapsodize about a dish? You don’t have to be a foodie to become entranced by Carter’s description of Soyer’s kitchen, so modern for that time. You don’t have to be a fan of “Upstairs Downstairs” to appreciate the class system at work in the great Reform Club. But you would be the ideal reader if you were.

From the splendor of decadent, multi-course banquets to the ordure and miasma of Spitalfields Market, Carter’s characters embark on a journey via the food of London, while they also navigate the politics of the times. This was a journey I enjoyed. Even though it redeemed the series, I would so welcome an excuse for Carter’s characters to return to India, an environment she describes so well.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Twist of the Knife by Becky Masterman

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99

It is always a pleasant surprise when an author’s storytelling prowess grows as she goes along. I liked “Rage Against the Dying,” Becky Masterman’s first Brigid Quinn book. The second book, “Fear the Darkness,” not so much. The third, “A Twist of the Knife,” is an energetic and throughtful return for ex-FBI agent Brigid Quinn.

Leaving the dry heat of her home near Tucson and the loving embrace of her husband, Carlo, Brigid returns to her humid home state of Florida, with a chance to solve a fifteen-year-old mystery and perhaps save a man waiting on Florida’s death row.

What initially propels Brigid out of her comfort zone, such as it is, is the word that her father is gravely ill. Although the Quinn family dynamic is chaotic and fractured, Brigid dutifully returns to comfort the mother who holds her at arm’s length and the ex-cop father with the violent temper. Her brother, Todd, is a police detective there and unencumbered by any obligation to their parents. Her sister, Ariel, is with the CIA and who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long. Thus the burden of patronizing the parental units falls mostly on Brigid. On prickly, cold-eyed, independent Brigid. Carlo has provided a healing bridge for Brigid to return to a fairly normal life from what she witnessed as an FBI agent and from the moral depths to which she plunged in her quest to obtain justice for the victims she saw in her many years. At the age of sixty, she has taken up being a private investigator, so she still steps over to the dark side and risks inky glimpses of the depravity of the human soul. But Carlo isn’t in Florida, is he?

The woman who recently saved Brigid’s life at the risk of her own personal well-being, former FBI agent Laura Coleman, has asked for Brigid’s help. Now mostly recovered physically from the injuries she acquired while saving Brigid, Laura now works in Florida. In a case of turnabout, she works for a defense attorney. After years of putting criminals in jail, she is now desperately working to get someone off of death row.

Marcus Creighton has been on death row for fifteen years. He was convicted of murdering his wife. Their three young children disappeared at the same time. Although the bodies of his children have not been recovered, they are presumed dead, murdered by their father. If they are alive, perhaps it would be better if they were dead. Alison Samuels, an advocate for missing children with a local organization, thinks one of the children may have been sold as a sex slave. Sold by Creighton, perhaps to cover a huge debt he owed to a criminal moneylender.

Up until his wife’s murder, Marcus Creighton appeared to be a prosperous businessman with a beautiful wife and three sweet children. The unappealing underbelly of his life was burst open when authorities learned about his debt, his mistress, and his unhappy home life. Marcus claimed his mistress, Shayna Murry, was his alibi for the time of the murder. But, surprise, she doesn't back him up. So, bingo, bango, bongo. Slap the cuffs on and do not pass Go.

Brigid owes Laura her life. She would be a cur if she refused Laura’s request to join the investigation on Marcus’ behalf. However, with a lifetime spent putting miscreants in jail, helping someone to get out of jail seems a bit antithetical. Nevertheless, Brigid agrees and jumps right in.

Shortly after Brigid joins the team, word comes down that Marcus’ execution has been set for five days down the road. Laura is frantic. Brigid tries to pull off some miracles. It is possible that there may be fingerprints on the murder weapon, a hairdryer, that will be visible using newer scientific techniques. It is possible that the mistress’ testimony may be “corrected.” It is possible that the real murderer, if one exists, can be found. All of this serves as a handy excuse to avoid hanging out at the hospital watching her father gasp and her mother grow an ever stonier visage.

Becky Masterman has pulled one out of her writer’s hat, for sure. The story, which could be just a straight-ahead thriller, stops on many occasions to ponder the morality of catching perpetrators at all costs. It stops to examine the lives of people traumatized by the past and asked to make choices that have no good endings. It makes us wonder at the humaneness of execution. Not just of death by injection or the electric chair, but the inhumanity of caging people for years while awaiting their appointment with death.

Brigid is a tough cookie. I like tough cookies. Brigid has a professional lifetime of awful truths but also a resilience and secret optimism about life. Her narrator’s voice is directed strongly at the reader, much more so than other first-person narrators in crime series. She is confessing to her readers. Personally, I absolve her.

MBTB star!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas

Penguin Books, 416 pages, $16 (c2015, U.S. ed. 2017)
Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds

“A Climate of Fear” is the eighth novel in the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series. It is a most peculiar series, by Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, an idiosyncratic and mesmerizing French author.

Adamsberg doesn’t precisely solve a crime. He intuits, metaphorizes, fabulizes, insinuates, and puts one foot in front of the other. How he rose to the elevated title of commissaire is the true mystery. He often does not have the support of his team, who are befuddled by his techniques. His true confidante is a Spanish neighbor with whom Adamsberg shares an occasional beer and who urinates against the tree in their shared courtyard, much to Adamsberg’s consternation.

“The Chalk Circle Man,” Vargas’ first book in the series, came out in 1990. It predates Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries by fifteen years, but these series share a sensibility that crosses the ocean from France to Quebec. The vulnerability of the characters is as important in the stories as the plot. Repetition of phrases and personal characteristics — in Vargas’ case, the formidable physical presence of Lieutenante Retancourt; in Penny’s, pseudo-misanthropic poet Ruth Zardo and her duck — and quirky side characters are also shared. This is not to say, however, that if you like one you will like the other. For the most part, the answer is yes. But in this case, the answer is no. In “A Climate of Fear,” there is a significant plot point which is not for tender eyes. Read with caution and an open mind. But even this difficulty is muted because of Vargas’ odd style and pacing.

Google Robespierre before you embark on this latest Adamsberg journey, unless you studied and remember him and the French Revolution. He has a lot to do with the story. This adds to the element of unreality Vargas brings to her books. There is a secretive Robespierre society for which many of its 700 members reenact many of the personages who brought about the Revolution and then finally the downfall of Robespierre. The many murder victims were all members of the society.

At first, Adamsberg and his team are waylaid by the fact that the first two victims met on a trip to a remote island off of Iceland ten years previously. A tragedy occurred then when two of the members of an impromptu expedition died. Even when the Robespierre connection comes to light, Adamsberg’s fascination with Iceland does not falter.

Having recently read a couple of books set in Iceland and being fond of authors such as Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, it was a pleasant surprise to see Iceland pop up as a plot point in Vargas’ book. As my immediate world emerges from a wet and cold winter, I unwarrantedly felt a patronizing attitude to the fictional characters living with the majesty/burden of cold, wet, snowy Iceland.

Vargas is an acquired taste, especially if you stop at her gate with the anticipation of a more conventional crime novel. I find her wry sensibilities, her unexpected characters, and her obfuscatorily meandering plots very refreshing.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99
Translated from Icelandic by Quentin Bates

There’s nothing like reading a book about a cold, cold place while your own locale is still plunged in the tail-end of winter. In a glass is half-full kind of way, a reader could say, “At least I’m not living in a white-out blizzard.”

Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson’s main character is a newly minted police officer, Ari Thór. (As an aside, last names, which are usually patronymics, often are not used in everyday life.) During 2008, when this book is set, the Icelandic banks were failing, a recession was hitting the land hard, and jobs were few and far between. Ari Thór must leave the security of the life he has built with his girlfriend in Rekyavik to travel to the far, cold, isolated north of Siglufjördur in order to work as a policeman. There, like in the bar Cheers, everyone knows your name. And your business. Before he knows it, Ari Thór has acquired a nickname, The Priest, in honor of his curtailed education in theology. (How did everyone know that?)

Nothing ever happens, he is told by his boss, Tómas. Fender-benders, accidental deaths, drunk-and-disorderlys. Nothing much. Until someone is sort-of-kind-of murdered.

Hrólfur Kristjánsson is arguably Iceland’s most famous author, but, like Harper Lee, he has only written one book. But it’s a darned good one. He is also famous in Siglufjördur for being grumpy and imperious. He has managed to make friends over the years, however, and his latest is Ugla, a young woman who rented the basement of his house for a time. She is a music teacher — with only one pupil, Ari Thór.

Hrólfur is producing a play for the local dramatic society. Ugla takes part, as do old acquaintances of Hrólfur, director Úlfur and playwright Pálmi. There are dramatic tensions and loud arguments over how the play should be done. There are personal relationships among the cast and crew that also affect the drama. When Hrólfur’s body is found at the bottom of the theater’s stairs, it looks like an accident. After all, Hrólfur was known to tipple quite a bit and he was getting on in years. Were it not for some secret sleuthing by Ari Thór, an accidental death would have been an easy conclusion.

Even with Ari Thór’s involvement — and rookie mistakes — Hrólfur’s death still may be an accident, but, too late, emotions and secrets already have been stirred.

And, oh yes, in this heavily unsuspicious and heretofore placid piece of Iceland, there is another suspicious death. What has Ari Thór stirred up?

The most impressively detailed part of “Snowblind” is the winter. Deep, claustrophobic snow. Dark, unrelenting early nightfalls. Isolation. Not surprisingly, Ari Thór has a visceral reaction to his new posting. He experiences sleep disturbances, claustrophobia, nightmares, and loneliness. He doesn’t know where his relationship stands with Kristin, his girlfriend in Reykjavik. He feels an unwanted attraction towards Ugla. His boss is mostly genial, except when he’s not. He has been warned off creating a case where none exists. These combine to create a very interesting (in a good way) work.

“Snowblind” has the advantage of being set in a fascinating part (Siglufjördur) of a fascinating part of the world (Iceland). Jónasson reveals the culture not just of a part of Iceland but also the universality of the small-town experience. Although “Snowblind” is not the first novel by Jónasson, it is the first translated into English. A prior untranslated novel, “Fölsk nóta,” deals with Ari Thór’s search for his missing father. There are several other untranslated novels after “Snowblind” as well. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Other Press, 512 pages, $25.95 (c2016, U.S. Ed. 2017)
Translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

What a riveting book this was! And the translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles was terrific. Willson-Broyles’ work conveys a sense of a different culture while reading smoothly as though it had been written originally in English. Malin Persson Giolito has written a book with a full quota of suspense, overlaid by the social commentary for which Swedish writers are known.

When the story begins, eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is awaiting her trial in jail. She is accused of participating in a school shooting with her boyfriend Sebastian Fagerman. Both Sebastian and Maja come from well-off families, especially Sebastian, whose father Claes Fagerman is a celebrity and fabulously wealthy. Was the shooting a thrill kill launched by two apathetic and disengaged young people? The answer slowly reveals itself in Maja’s first-person narrative.

Ah, but is Maja an unreliable narrator? Can we believe what she tells us? Maja’s dream-like life in jail contrasts with her sharp recollection of how events and introductions coalesced into the teenaged angst that led to the murders. During the trial, she sits removed and quiet on the outside, while suffering from inner turmoil. Her celebrity lawyer has winnowed her involvement down to only the useful parts, so Maja’s narrative adds substance and color to the trial testimony and statements.

One day Sebastian stopped by to see Maja at her summer job. Maja had no idea he even knew she existed. He is on a different plane and travels with a raucous crowd. Maja’s friend Amanda hooks up with Sebastian’s friend, Labbe, and the four of them head off to have a good time. Lavish parties, first-class travel, and excessive drug use are contrasted with Maja’s fairly normal home life, Amanda and Labbe’s good manners, and discussions with adults about Sweden’s political and social systems. Also present as the “good conscience” is classmate Samir Said, an immigrant with working-class parents. He is smart and motivated to move ahead. He and Maja, before Sebastian, were friends.

It’s not an aside when the students at Maja’s school attend a lecture by an American economist, but a display of the national philosophy that Swedes like to discuss. The economist’s trip was sponsored by Sebastian’s father as a treat for the students. Sebastian uses the occasion to petulantly and dismissively demean progressive societal goals. In what resonates within the current political situation here in the United States, the fictional economist (who never appears again) says:

“But I think you were trying to make a different point, Samir. To say that there is a limit to how unequal a society can become and continue to remain a stable democracy. And you’re right.”

Later, she adds:

“It’s no crazy conspiracy to say that there are those who benefit when social ills can be blamed on a minority. To pretend those problems are due to … ‘the blacks’ or, as in the 1930s, ‘the Jews’ or, as you call them in Europe today, ‘the immigrants.’”

This sets the underlying conflict between Samir and Sebastian. But this is just one of the threads Giolito weaves into her story. It is also about teenage anxiety, about parent-child relationships, about friendships, about expectations, about powerlessness and love and abuse. Giolito does her weaving so well that her story sticks around long after the last page has been turned. I started the book thinking that Maja would prove to be a conniving, spoiled brat who was startled to find herself caught. Giolito pulls out other possibilities, until Maja’s truth is revealed.

MBTB star!

Monday, March 20, 2017

What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $27

“What You Break” is the second entry in the Gus Murphy series by Reed Farrel Coleman, a veteran of hard-boiled crime novels.

Gus is a retired police officer from Long Island, New York. When his twenty-year-old son died, Gus and his family imploded. Although it took almost the whole of the first book to understand what had happened to John Jr. (Gus’s name is John Augustus Murphy), it is soon touched upon in the second book. Gus is slowly healing both himself and his breaches with his ex-wife and daughter. Things are quietly looking up.

Gus works for a second-rate hotel. (He defends it against slander that it is a third-rate one.) He picks up passengers from Long Island’s small airport and its train station and drives them to the hotel. He also serves as the hotel detective and its nightclub’s bouncer, neither of which to this point has produced too much excitement, if you don’t count the dead body that had more to do with Gus than the hotel. In return he receives a small income and lives in one of the hotel’s rooms. It is a meager existence but one that suits the penance Gus feels he has to pay. In the Things Are Looking Up category, however, he has met a woman, Maggie, with whom he is compatible and, dare he say it, in love. Of course, in “What You Break,” things go sideways in virtually all aspects of his life.

One of Gus’s true friends is Slava, a fellow employee at the hotel. Slava saved his life in the first book. He has a mysterious past which, of course, he refuses to discuss. It is something to do with Russians and, as Gus finds out in the course of this book, Chechens. Slava, too, is paying penance for things he will not discuss with Gus. One day, as he knew it might, someone with a Russian accent has come looking for Slava, and not in a good way. Whoever is hunting Slava is cold and determined.

Just because Gus doesn’t have enough to do, his old friend, Father Bill (actually, ex-Father Bill), has asked him for a favor. He knows someone, Micah Spears, who could use Gus’s investigative skills. Micah’s granddaughter was murdered. The police caught her murderer, and he is currently neatly and tidily in prison. What more is left? Micah wants to know why she was murdered, since her killer won’t say. Asking why will bring you only heartache, thinks Gus, but takes on the case because of his friendship with Bill. But Micah has cold eyes and he, too, is as determined in his own way as the man hunting Slava.

Gus is crossing the paths of a lot of cold-eyed people, and he is under a moral obligation to keep putting himself into worlds where he is not welcome.

Coleman is a great storyteller, and it was refreshing to read a book with a linear plot, with a single narrator. (Call me old-school.) “What You Break” is in line with the fine hard-boiled tradition. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the inevitable twists. I enjoyed the moral ambiguity.

The only criticism I would levy is about the character of Maggie. She has been used, tossed aside, and used again. She and Gus have brought baggage to their relationship. Gus brings more hurt in terms of still trying to deal with the death of his son and its aftermath. He is a warm bag of self-pity. When Maggie gets her dream fulfilled of working as an actor again, Gus gets angry because her job will take her away from him (melodramatically, maybe forever). Maggie tells Gus she will turn the job down to stay with him.

Whoa. I get Maggie’s offer. I get Gus is still hurting. I get Coleman is creating tension here. But there’s too much me-me-me to Gus’s anger. Even when he relents, I think he feels more pride in himself for HIS sacrifice than pride for her accomplishment. If this was Coleman’s intent, then, congratulations, he succeeded in how that scenario made me squirm.

That took much too much space, because I really like Coleman’s books, and that should be the emphasis. I love that he took over the Jesse Stone series after Robert B. Parker’s death. I love his Moe Prager series.

Here’s an MBTB star for “What You Break” and the overall quality of his life’s work.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

Penguin Press, 400 pages, $27

First I thought “The Night Ocean” was about a missing man. Then I thought the book was about H. P. Lovecraft. Then I thought it was about a man who, as a teenager, was Lovecraft’s lover. Then I thought it was about a man hiding from the world. Then I thought it was about a world being crafted by words. Then I thought it was about a woman looking for her husband and waving the world of words into being with her arms. It’s a Russian nesting doll of stories.

It’s not necessary to have Lovecraftiness, but it helps if you’ve read a story or two and done a Google search on the cult phenomenon Lovecraft has become. Then you will go into the book with the knowledge of how deeply weird and inventive Lovecraft was. Then you can sit back and let Paul La Farge spin you a tale.

“The Night Ocean” contains facts among the fiction. Many of the characters breathed real air and croaked real sentences and typed fiction or screeds or dreams. La Farge takes a basic mystery about the elusive Lovecraft and nails one literary face after another on him, until it’s impossible to tell which story is coming or when it’s going.

Charlie Willett is the present-day investigator of Lovecraft and a purported erotic diary written by him. He meets Robert Barlow, Lovecraft’s literary executor and perhaps the young lover in the diary. Then Charlie investigates L. C. Spinks, an appliance repairman in Canada, who may have the answers to the most intriguing questions. Then Marina, Charlie’s wife, follows in Charlie’s footsteps when he disappears. This paragraph is misleading because the book begins with Charlie’s disappearance. He is never a current character, only one visible in flashback.

“The Night Ocean” is a jumble of viewpoints and time frames. There are not always clear demarcations when one narrator gives way to another. Time slips sneakily into another decade. Characters exist then and now, but which are real and which are fabrications or enhanced versions of reality? There’s a definite charm to the way La Farge intertwines his tales and reveals his “facts.”

Everyone, even the mostly normal Marina, is running from something. Marina is a psychotherapist but can’t see her own forest for the trees. Barlow is always on the brink of friendship, of knowledge, of duplicity, of happiness, of disaster. Spinks is the mystery of the Sphinx, as is mentioned more than once, in character form. He asks and answers riddles, but perhaps nothing is made clearer when he does.

This is a happy convolution if you are in the mood for it. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Borrowed by Chan Ho-kei

Black Cat/Grove Press, 496 pages, $15, c2014 (U.S. Ed. 2016)
Translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang

“The Borrowed” is an extraordinary collection of novellas with common characters. The six stories are all set in Hong Kong and go backwards from 2013 to 1967. They cover modern Hong Kong, the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, and the unrest under British rule. Chan Ho-kei has given us an historical perspective along with some cracking good detective stories.

The first story, “The Truth Between Black and White (2013),” introduces the character of Inspector Sonny Lok, twenty-seven years with the Hong Kong police and now head of Kowloon East Crime Unit. The first case is presented at the bedside of his mentor, retired Superintendent Kwan Chun-dok. Kwan is in a coma and dying. Lok has to solve the murder of Yuen Man-bun, the head of an extensive family business. One of Yuen’s close companions or family members has done it, and they are all in Kwan’s hospital room. Lok has a device, he tells the family and friends, that can be hooked up to the brain of the legendary detective Kwan, and it will allow Kwan to determine the killer via a computer. Under the questioning of Lok, the family and friends repeat their alibis and stories before Kwan.

This and the subsequent stories are clever, old-fashioned detective stories. They fade from Lok as the predominant character to Lok and Kwan together to Kwan as the main man to just Kwan. I kept thinking, “Clever, clever, clever,” throughout the stories. And Chan ends his book with a bang, just to show he can.

Chan cleverly (there’s that word again) presents the stories backwards in time so you can notice how the future of the characters is affected by occurrences in the past. I don’t know why the title of the book is “The Borrowed.” Does it refer to some of the characters borrowing experiences from the past to inform the present? The book is certainly about choices. Are they living on borrowed time, because they certainly could have been killed at certain points? 

Here is Chan in the afterword to his book:

“I’d started out planning to write a classic detective novel, but now I’d pivoted towards writing a social one. These two varieties aren’t necessarily at odds with each other, but it wouldn’t be easy to mix them together — the flavour of one would easily overpower the other. In order to solve (or avoid) this problem, I chose the structure of six standalone novellas, each one fuelled by mysteries and clues, but all six fitting together to form a complete portrait of society.”

And here is Kwan giving advice to Lok:

“[D]on’t forget the basic duty and mission of the police … make the right decision ….”

This book was published in 2014 but here’s an MBTB star!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

Seventh Street Books, 315 pages, $15.95 (c2016)

Is Adrian McKinty Ireland’s poet laureate? He should be, although he is a fiction writer and there probably is fierce competition in the land where words rule. Even though McKinty lives in Australia now, his Irish voice is strong and melodic. It’s also funny, ironic, resigned, feisty, and tantalizingly evocative of Belfast in the time of The Troubles. “Rain Dogs” is McKinty’s fifth book featuring Detective Sean Duffy of the Carrickfergus CID.

McKinty plays with history and place names a little, but it’s all for a worthy cause. At the start of “Rain Dogs,” it is 1987 and Muhammad Ali has just paid a visit to Belfast. (In real life, Ali visited but not in 1987 and not ever in Belfast.) Sean has had a chance to meet his idol while on guard detail. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there, as murders and murky dealings soon follow.

A Finnish delegation is in town to eyeball an old industrial building as a possible location for their electronics plant. In war-torn Belfast, partially eviscerated by violence and economic bad times, that could mean hundreds of new jobs. How unfortunate, then, that Sean is rolled out on his day off to investigate a crime at the delegation’s hotel. The head delegate’s wallet has been stolen. The smallness of the crime irritates Sean, who is even more irritated to find most of his bosses already involved. But the buck stops with Sean. He soon makes short work of the theft and in the process meets a young, pretty journalist, Lily Emma Bigelow of “The Financial Times” of London.

Saddened by the recent departure of a young woman with whom Sean thought he might settle down and reflecting on his unconventional life — wake up, eat breakfast, check under car for bombs, drive to office, do the crossword puzzle in under five minutes, fuss about which record to listen to at work, put on riot gear (or not), rescue boss’ wife’s cat (or not), try to catch a bad person, drink to the edge of oblivion (but with impeccable taste in single malts), smoke a blunt in a storage shed, hope to sleep until morning (or not) — Sean is ready for something challenging to come his way. And a pretty face wouldn't be unwelcome either.

His challenge comes in the form of a locked room mystery. Or rather, in this case, a locked castle mystery. That pesky Finnish delegation is at it again. This time, however, it looks like the pretty journalist has leapt off the highest tower to her death in the courtyard below. Despite the caretaker’s assurance that he had checked the grounds for wayward tourists at closing time, he must have missed Lily Bigelow, a tagalong with the Finns on a tourist visit there. He finds her body during his morning rounds before the castle opens to the public. 

Sean catches the suicide case and determines that there is no way she or anyone could have snuck in after hours. The castle walls and portcullis were impregnable. Lily had come in the previous day, but CCTV did not catch her leaving. Where had she been hiding? It soon becomes obvious that she had not voluntarily leapt but had been pushed or dropped by someone else. Aged Mr. Underhill, the caretaker, must be the villain, because no one left the castle before the police arrived and no additional person was found in an extensive search of the grounds. Q.E.D.

Although it isn’t obvious if there is a connection to the murder or the Finnish delegation, Sean is suspicious of the car-bombing death of one of his superiors. He just couldn’t get his old knees to bend enough to look under his car before setting off after a mysterious phone call, his widow says. Even if it is not related, the death is a reminder of how vigilant all police must be.

I enjoyed the slow uncovering and linking of clues. I loved how McKinty gave Sean a love of esoteric classical music and single malt Scotches. I love how Sean used words in fun, to spite, to cajole, to spar. Sean Duffy is a great character.

And McKinty is a wonderful writer. Here he has Sean describing another character with a “broad, camp West Belfast accent so grating that it could be banned under several of the Geneva Protocols.”

Despite the fact that this book was released in 2016, here is an MBTB star in 2017!

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $25.99 (c2015, US Ed. 2016)

I remember when it was hard to get British author Ann Cleeves’ books in the United States. Some of her books were out of print, others were just not available in a U.S. edition. The only series we could get with any certainty was the one starring Jimmy Perez of the Shetland Islands police. MBTB store manager Jean had to order the Vera Stanhope books from our British distributor. Of course, that meant the price was stratospheric. With the popularity in the U.S. of the Vera series, occasionally carried on PBS and now on Acorn paid streaming service, Minotaur has begun releasing the Vera Stanhope series. In the inexplicable fashion of publishing, however, it is easier to get the seventh book in the series than the sixth in the U.S.

“The Moth Catcher” is the seventh DI Vera Stanhope book. The first, “The Crow Trap,” was issued in 1998 (and recently released in a U.S. edition). Once again, she is joined by the faithful Joe Ashworth and ambitious Holly Clarke to investigate murder in Northumberland, England.

A studious young man, clearly disturbed by something, has cut ties with his fiancée and barely communicates with his parents. Although he had been working steadily on a doctorate, he seemingly abandons it to housesit in a manor house near a little town. The locals haven’t really gotten to know him before his body is discovered in a ditch. Who would want to murder him in a place where he is a stranger? Furthermore, when Vera’s investigative team searches the young man’s apartment in the attic of the manor house, the body of another man is found, also murdered. After much searching a link is found between the two. They both were interested in moths. They were both moth catchers. But what about moth catching would be enough to get them murdered?

It wouldn’t be a Vera Stanhope investigation if the psychological underpinnings of the characters weren’t plumbed inquisitively and thoroughly. In earlier times, Vera would have been Miss Marple, without the knitting. There are nearby suspects or suspicious persons aplenty. The manor estate has been mostly sold off and high-end homes created out of the estate’s former farmhouse and barns. Each home has a retired (“the retired hedonists,” they gleefully tell Vera) couple who has moved to the country to escape their former busy lives. It is delicious vintage Vera when she and her team explore their backgrounds and find, of course, many questionable activities. On the face of it, one of the least significant but most interesting background facts has to do with the daughter of one of the couples. She has been in jail for the last few months for GBH of a fellow bar patron one night and is soon to be released. What could that possibly have to do with the murders?

Vera does well in this country environment. After all, she is the daughter of the infamous poacher Hector Stanhope. She assisted her father in his nefarious nighttime outings when she was a child. In fact, her home is just over the hill from the site of the murder. For a city detective, she knows the ins and outs of the country and its denizens.

Like Nero Wolfe, the famous housebound detective created by Rex Stout, Vera is rotund, a characteristic that Cleeves harps on throughout the book — just in case we were inclined to forget. If I were Vera, I’d demand that Cleeves give her a break. Just how many adjectives can Cleeves come up with. (Like a Buddha was probably the low point.) Nevertheless, Vera is spry when the occasion warrants. Having been a hiker in that area of England, I know it requires a stout pair of boots (and a tolerance for mud and sheep pies) and strong ankles to traverse the rural trails.

Vera is my favorite of Cleeves’ characters. She is cerebral without an annoying intellectualism; tart and blunt but capable of grace; and pigheaded and secretive but willing to share any accolades with her team. Vera, Joe and Holly play their established roles very well. The resolution of the murders is more moving than I thought it was going to be. “The Moth Catcher” can be read without reference to earlier novels or the television series, but how wonderful that Minotaur is releasing the earlier books in the U.S.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press, 224 pages, $25

“The Refugees” is NOT a mystery but rather a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees, set mostly in the 1970s to 1990s is my guess. Viet Thanh Nguyen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel, “The Sympathizer.”

Nguyen inhabits the characters of old to young, men and women, all touched at some point by either being a refugee from Vietnam after the war or being the descendant of a refugee, with graceful and deft writing. How do they all cope with the trauma of leaving their country for a place so different, culturally and linguistically? How do they cope with memories of the war that tore them from home? How do they cope with the manner in which they escaped Vietnam? And sometimes their return to their country many years later? Actually, a couple of notable characters are not even Vietnamese.

There is very little humor, but there is some. On the other hand, there are no grisly or graphic scenes, although a crime is committed in one story. Rather, Nguyen’s stories are vignettes of daily life, the slow accommodation to aging, the unpeeling of secrets once left far behind or buried. There is even a gentleness to the most horrid of revelations.

My favorite story is of an old couple. He was an oceanographer in Vietnam but must settle for teaching Vietnamese at a local community college. She happily works in the public library, in their Vietnamese collection. His life is fading, a victim of dementia. She is hanging on to what independence she can for them, as their children press her to give up her job, take care of their father, even hire a gardener for the outside chores she cherishes.

As the husband progresses deeper into his senility, he begins to call his wife “Yen.” Her name is Sa. Nguyen’s handling of this is touching. The wife’s journey from jealousy to a passive-aggressive resentment to an acceptance within a few pages of writing is an example of how powerful short stories can be.

Perhaps you are in need right now of another perspective, seeing the United States from the viewpoint of people granted sanctuary here. In fact, after all, we find that they are just people, simply people, just trying to live.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The 2017 Edgar Award Nominations for Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Paperback Original

The Edgar Awards will be handed out on April 27, 2017, in Manhattan.

I've read almost all the Best Novel and Best First Novel nominees. Usually I try to read the Best Paperback Originals as well, but I've fallen way short of that mark. I have read other books by Tyler Dilts, Robert Dugoni, and Adrian McKinty, and I can see why they were nominated. I'll keep trying. (Last year the book I most enjoyed was a paperback original!) I'll add links as I read more. 

Click on the title for my review.

Best Novel

  • The Ex by Alafair Burke (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper) 
  • Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (Hachette Book Group – Grand Central Publishing)

Best First Novel

  • Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry (Penguin Random House – Penguin Books)
  • Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown Publishing Group)
  • IQ by Joe Ide (Little, Brown & Company – Mulholland Books)
  • The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright (Penguin Random House –Marian Wood Book/Putnam)
  • The Lost Girls by Heather Young (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)

Best Paperback Original

  • Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott (Polis Books)
  • Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer) 
  • The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer)
  • Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  • A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  • Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)

Dodgers by Bill Beverly

Broadway Books, 304 pages, $15 (2016)

I’m not sure what Bill Beverly’s background is other than the information contained in the blurb on the back cover: He grew up in Michigan, attended Oberlin and the University of Florida, has a Ph.D., and teaches at Trinity University in Washington, D.C. The story lies in what is NOT said. In a nutshell, “Dodgers” is about four young black boys traveling across the country to kill a judge who is scheduled to testify against their gang boss in Los Angeles. What research, life experience, or attentive ear qualified Beverly to write this book? I have no personal experience or knowledge of gangs in L.A. (other than being a loyal fan of “The Wire,” set in Baltimore) and wouldn’t know if Beverly’s portrayal of gang activity is accurate. For instance, if there is a lot of street cant that gang members use in normal conversation, it’s mostly absent from the dialogue in this book, to the benefit of the reader — I had to have the captioning turned on while I watched “The Wire” — but it still sounds authentic.

Perhaps authenticity is not the main goal anyway. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age kind of story, a what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong kind of story, a touching story of a boy without a sense of normal who must learn to inhabit the alien environment of the Midwest.

But it begins this way.

“East” is fifteen years old. He stands guard on a drug house in “The Boxes” housing section of L.A.  a designation I Googled and could not find in the real world  and is in charge of a number of other boys who are also guards. It’s the kind of world in which a young child, let alone a teenager, cannot show fear. East’s home situation is frangible with a zoned-out mother and a sociopathic younger half-brother. He would rather sleep in a box in an abandoned basement than spend time at home. (Yes, boxes big and small inhabit the book.)

A judge scheduled to testify against East’s gang boss is hiding out in Wisconsin. East is chosen by the gang boss (also purported to be his uncle) to be part of a crew comprised of his younger half-brother, Ty; a former college student, Michael Wilson; and the smartest person on the trip by far, Walter. In order to not leave a paper trail, they must journey to Wisconsin in an old van, obtain guns, and kill the judge. Michael Wilson, always referred to as such, is by far the oldest at twenty but not necessarily the best planner.

None of the boys has killed anyone, except, maybe, for Ty. At thirteen, he has the stone-cold stare, the attitude, and a touch of craziness to make anything possible. There is no doubt who the triggerman will be, but all must be willing to participate.

East is a sensitive teenager. He tries to take care of his mother, such as she is. He tries not to let kindness trip him up. He is still capable of being horrified at some of the things he sees. He sounds like absolutely the wrong kind of person to send on a hit run, but he is the right kind of fictional hero to acquire an odyssey.

The poetry and power of Beverly’s book lies in the observations East makes of the country he travels through and the people he meets. What is the toll on East's psyche caused by his and others’ actions? He suffers traumatic blow-back from what he witnesses and what he himself has done. "Dodgers" is a heart-wrenching book about survival and belonging.

"Dodgers" has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

MBTB star!