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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Back Bay Books, 352 books, $15.99 (c2012)

This is not a murder mystery, but one of the characters manages to disappear. (Could it be Bernadette? Hmm?)

I’m not immune to the allure of lighter summer fare. Murder doesn’t always hold up well under a bright sun with bees buzzing the multi-hued flowers. I pushed this ahead in the queue thinking it was a “summer read.” That is to say, iced skinny latte, heavy on the froth. Add a lot of sugar.

Nopey, nope, nope.

The delightful teenage Bee (short for Balakrishna — what was her mother thinking!) and her mother, the eponymous missing person, Bernadette Fox, are the central characters. Bee’s father, Elgin Branch, may take up a lot of paper space, but he is such a literary tool, designed to move the plot along without much development. Also present is a major citizen of Wackyland, neighbor Audrey Griffin, mother to one of Bee’s schoolmates. Never seen but indisputably there is virtual assistant Manjula Kapoor of Delhi.

Bernadette and family live in a decaying former school for wayward girls in Seattle. It was to have been a project to distract Bernadette. At the time she and her husband bought it, she had been an architect fleeing an unknown disaster in L.A. But the renovation project stalled before it began. Bee was born and is now in the eighth grade. That’s how long Bernadette has had to fix their home.

Never mind. There are other crazy things coming down the pike to occupy Bernadette's scattershot thinking. It starts with all the (sometimes hilarious) reasons Bernadette can think of — and they are many — not to live in Seattle. It moves on to Audrey’s foot, blackberry vines, mudslides, Antarctica, and loss. Misunderstandings, deceit, psychological fragility, and the burden of simple family stuff add to the mix.

This is a wonderful book, wonderfully written, wonderfully humorous and eccentric. Wonderful.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 496 pages, $27.99 (and worth every penny)

If I ever stop raving about this book, it will be because I’m dead.

Anthony Horowitz has mastered the art of writing a mystery so much so that he can even be full-blown meta about it. Yes, this is a mystery within a mystery. And each one is superb.

I don’t want to give too much away, so here are the bare bones.

Right from the start you find out that an editor at a publishing company in present-day London has as her main client a dislikable, but immensely popular, mystery writer. The publishing company has received his latest manuscript, but it is missing the crucial whodunnit pages at the end.

Horowitz actually presents this manuscript, set in 1955, in a small village in the English countryside. (Can you say "cozy"?) He writes in the mystery writer’s voice. Then he places that story within another mystery eggshell. The present-day editor must find the missing pages. It should simply be a matter of asking the author for those pages, except the author has died by falling off the tower of his eccentric home in the English countryside.

Was it murder? Ohmygosh, was the author murdered for what his book revealed? Or, Occam’s razor, was it suicide?

Horowitz makes every character appear suspicious. He drops legitimate clues throughout the two stories. There are red herrings. There are two remarkable detectives, meta-fictional Atticus Pünd and simply fictional Susan Ryeland. Hats are offed to myriad other mystery novelists, especially Dame Agatha. It is clear that Horowitz is a fan and a scholar of the genre. Fair play to you, Mr. Horowitz!

Most definitely an MBTB star!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Scribner, 336 pages, $26

Although “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” starts off forced and a little bumpy, the tone soon smoothes out and the story moves along. Especially noteworthy is the story of Lydia as a young girl and the trauma that becomes her “defining moment.”

Lydia is the star of this book, mostly as a young woman, a bookseller who cares about the books and the people who buy books. She even finds a space in her heart for the “BookFrogs,” a set of lost, sometimes perplexed, uniformly odd men who haunt the bookstore in lieu of a wider experience in the outside world. When one young BookFrog commits suicide in the bookstore, it is to Lydia that he leaves his worldly belongings. That consists mostly of books with holes cut in them, sometimes lots of holes. Thus the mysteries are set: What happened to Lydia when she was young and what sort of message, if any, was the young BookFrog sending to Lydia?

The story is a little heavy on coincidence, but there’s a definite charm to it. Lydia, her friend Raj, and Lydia’s father have interesting parts and quirks. As a matter of fact, every character, minor or major, has quirks. And, of course, in a setting close to my heart, Lydia does work in a bookstore. (And that is where the dead body is discovered.) 

I wish for Raj and Lydia, who spend the book looking for their true stories, what the anonymous delivery man (brief, quirky appearance) said when delivering life-changing papers, “May your news bring peace.”

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Putnam, 320 pages, $26

At one point I was racing through the book so fast, I lost track of the story’s timeline. I had to go back and reread a couple of pages. I resented that. I didn’t want to waste an extra minute getting to the end. That’s the kind of book “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is.

Here is some basic information. Helena Pelletier is 28 years old in the main story. She was 12 years old when she and her mother ran away from her father, Jacob Holbrook. I can’t be certain — I made no note — but I don’t think Helena’s mother’s name is mentioned once. She was 16 years old when Jacob kidnapped her. She gave birth to Helena a couple of years into her captivity. Helena now has a husband and two daughters, Iris and Mari. 

Let’s flesh that out a bit.

Jacob held Helena’s mother prisoner in a marshy area, a naturally isolating environment, for 14 years. Jacob added the finishing touches by psychologically intimidating and physically abusing her. Jacob raised Helena to be his “Little Shadow.” She learned to hunt, fish, trap, track, and survive in the brutish environment of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She also learned to shoot and gut her prey. Jacob set severe challenges for Helena to meet, and the punishment for failure was a honking big serving of Jacob’s version of tough love. 

What Dionne does so well, besides present a refreshingly novel view of victimhood, is describe her protagonist from two different angles: Helena in one storyline is the child and in the current storyline the mostly socialized young mother of two young girls. Dionne reveals early on that Jacob was eventually captured and imprisoned for many things, not least of which is the mother’s kidnapping and rape. As the story begins, Jacob has somehow escaped from a maximum security prison. No one knows him as well as Helena, so she becomes his most effective and vigilant tracker.

The intensity level is high. Descriptions of survival in the U.P. seem authentic. But what do I know? I have electricity, a lot of salt, and neighborhood stores. 

I appreciate that Dionne answers all questions. What happened to Helena’s mother? How did Helena get from the “jungle girl” mentality of someone who lived in isolation from other people to a functioning wife and mother in a town setting? How does Helena feel about her father? (Hint: She has never visited him in prison.) (Actually, that may be less of a hint and more of a red herring. Sorry.) What does the name Rambo mean? Was Jacob just making stuff up? What is the Grimm fairytale of the Marsh King’s Daughter, anyway?

This most emphatically rates an MBTB star!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $25.99

Poor Jimmy Perez. His fiancée died. He is raising her young daughter. He is a police detective. And he lives in the bleak (but beautiful), windswept Shetland Islands, just north of the Orkney Islands and mainland Scotland. “Cold Earth” is the seventh in the series.

If you are an avid fan of the BBC Scotland television series “Shetland,” based on Ann Cleeves’ books, the books carry a different storyline for the main characters. Should you be coming backwards to the written series, I think you will be surprised how well the books capture the evocative Shetland isolation and how well the TV series captures the general nature of Cleeves’ characters. The main differences? Book Jimmy Perez is more angst-ridden than TV Jimmy Perez. Cleeves develops her book characters — both the permanent staff and the murder victims/suspects — way more. Now on to the book.

It is the hallmark of Ann Cleeves’ later books — she’s written quite a few of them — to tell her tale from many different angles. In at least one of her books, the protagonist doesn’t show up for almost half the book. She shadows characters through their days and in their thoughts, without giving away whether they are future victims or killers. Woe to you if you become attached to someone who later bites the Shetland dust.

The first victim* is found in the aftermath of a landslide during a particularly miserable spate of bad weather. At the time, Jimmy was graveside mourning the passing of a neighbor and friend, Magnus Tait**, when the hillside gave way, crashing down over a major road and upon an abandoned croft below. It turns out the croft was not quite abandoned. The body of a beautiful, well-dressed middle-aged woman was flushed out of the croft by the mud. She would have been killed by the slide had she been alive in the croft at the time, but she was already dead from strangulation.

Jimmy finds himself in an awkward position of having to professionally interview neighbors and friends. This situation cannot be avoided in the small community of the Shetlands, but some of these people are actually his nearby neighbors. The murder has occurred over the hill from his home.

The first problem is to identify the woman. It proves surprisingly difficult. Jimmy, his assistant DC Sandy Wilson, and their boss, flown over from the mainland, Chief Inspector Willow Reeves, follow all the traditional trails. The difference, as stated above, is that we are already following several of the characters and their reactions to what is happening. Cleeves sets a complicated task for herself.

As usual, I enjoyed the latest episode in the Shetland series. As usual, I enjoyed Cleeves’ complex characters and the setting.


* I can’t remember the last story I read in which there was only one victim.

** Magnus, some of you may recall, was a character prominently featured in the first Perez book, “Raven Black.”



Thursday, June 29, 2017

White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Knopf, 288 pages, $26.95

This is not a mystery but it is a crime story.

In fact, “White Tears” defies categorization. It’s well-written, provocative, antithetical, with multiple meanings. Hari Kunzru, British-born but now a New York resident, has traveled up and down the U.S. in search of this novel. It appears that his love of blues music, old blues, led to this fabulation of blues, cultural appropriation, and a contemplation of identity.

Seth, the identity-torn, lost-in-time main character, is a young white man. He is poor and without visible family connections. Reviewers, and perhaps even Kunzru, have defined him as a “hipster.” There’s nothing, except a hat, that has necessarily marked him as one. Seth’s aesthetic is perhaps of the “non-“ variety: non-specific, non-chic, non-aggrandizing, non-accreting. His one friend, and who can say why he has acquired that specific friend, is Carter, the scion of a rich, powerful family.

Seth’s true talent and compulsion is auditory. (Look for the point in the story in which he loses the hearing in one ear. Does it make him more of a normal person?) He is a techno-geek and builds auditory spyware out of junk. Through Carter he vastly improves his collection. Seth seeks the nature of humanity in its sound. Will he then be able to define his own humanity? Kunzru does in the end define Seth, but by that point Seth stands for much more than just himself.

One day Seth seems to record a man singing a blues song: “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own … Put me under a man they call Captain Jack.” There is something captivating and pure about the song. Carter, already obsessed by different styles of music in turn, becomes obsessed with it. Seth and Carter manufacture a record and add details to make it sound like an old 78. It causes a minor stir in the slice of the music world devoted to old-time blues. Seth and Carter named the singer Charlie Shaw. Then a mysterious collector claims there is actually an old record of that song by a singer named Charlie Shaw. It is the holy grail of collectors. But we made it up, declare Seth and Carter.

Ghosts, demons and death follow.

Kunzru twists reality and offers several storylines, which are not obvious at first, obscured as they are by similar narrative tones and a similar objective. Throughout the book, Kunzru draws his readers down to a distillation of what it means to sing the blues, what experiences authenticate the blues, what appropriation by people who do not understand the genesis takes away from it. It is more than racism or white privilege or benign misappropriation; it is the experience of a people because they are black. Not because they are good or bad or weak or strong or any of the other race-neutral attributes by which we judge and classify people, but because they are black. Kunzru takes us slowly through to the end with this thought in mind.

In the end, Elvis singing old-time blues songs is just Elvis mouthing words.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan

Hachette/Redhook, 320 pages, $15.99 (c2015)

This is the second of the Indian books I stumbled across recently. (Mustn’t fight karma!) And it IS a mystery.

Vaseem Khan is a London author who turned his decade-long work experience in Mumbai into the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series. “The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra” is the first. Khan has written two more so far.

The “unexpected inheritance” is Ganesh, a baby elephant. It was given to Inspector Chopra by his favorite uncle under somewhat mysterious circumstances. It comes at a time when the inspector must step down from his job as a police inspector because of health reasons. All Ashwin Chopra has known for thirty years is how to be a detective, an honest detective. He is respected by his underlings and mostly left alone by his superiors. He has even won an award for taking down one of the biggest criminal bosses, Kala Nayak, who died in a fire in his building as the police were closing in.

Chopra’s wife, Poppy, is happy with her husband’s retirement. She fusses over him and feeds him too much. She is proud of him but happy he is now out of harm’s way. They have never had children, much to their sorrow.

Just as Chopra is about to end his last day on the force, a case comes in. A young man has drowned in fetid water. It looks as though he was drunk and unable to pull himself out of the water. Chopra wants an autopsy, but that is countermanded by his superiors. The young man’s mother wails at the station about how her son’s death must be investigated. Intuition damns Chopra, as he agrees with her that something is fishy about Santosh Achrekar’s death.

Despite his lack of credentials Inspector Chopra (Retd) pokes his nose into the case, since the powers-that-be in the police department seem determined to bury (or cremate) the case as soon as possible, if not sooner.

Juggling Santosh’s supposed murder with what to do with the elephant bequeathed him by his uncle keeps Chopra busy, busy, busy. Ganesh, for that is what Chopra and Poppy call him, is a baby, but he is an elephant baby. When Ganesh almost drowns in the first monsoon rain, he takes up residence in their living room. (Fortunately for the purposes of this story, the elevators in their building are extra wide!) Obviously, Chopra cannot keep an elephant in the courtyard of his apartment building or in his living room. Or can he? It may be a moot point, since the elephant appears to be ailing. He is listless and thin. His uncle said in his brief note to Chopra that the elephant is “special.” So far nothing special has become apparent, and Chopra is running out of vets and specialists to read or contact.

As Chopra delves more into Santosh’s case, he realizes that the case is quite complex and may work down to dark elements in the criminal world and corrupt elements in the political and police worlds. This was exactly what his doctor wanted him to avoid: excitement!

Khan presents a picture of Mumbai that is mostly sanitized, but there is enough realistic detail so readers won't mistake Mumbai for Surrey, England. Most of the story is G-rated, but there are eventually elements that present a darker picture of some criminal enterprises. Nevertheless, this is a delightful first journey with Inspector Chopra as he tries to figure out his new place in the world. And Ganesh is a worthy sidekick!

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love by Per J. Andersson

Oneworld Publications,  272 pages, $19.99 (trade paperback) (c2015, Eng. ed., 2017)
Translated from Swedish by Anna Holmwood

This is not a mystery, except maybe as an example of the mystery of love and optimism.

Initially, “The Amazing Story, etc.” reads like a work of fiction. In fact, the bones of the story are true, and the underlying dialogue and feelings have been supplied to the best of PK & Charlotte Mahanandia’s memories, and converted into moving text by Per J. Andersson.

PK Mahanandia is a member of the untouchable class. As a child, he was humiliated, bullied, and ostracized, just because he was born into a certain caste. As PK himself laboriously (off screen) sometimes pointed out to non-Indians, there are four main castes, but there are thousands — thousands! — of subdivisions of those castes. A few of those subdivisions are untouchables. Their people work with leather, handle the dead, dispose of waste products, and other tasks “beneath” the purview of the rest of the Hindus in India. Yes, “The Amazing Story” is about romantic love but it is also about the complicated community of diverse ethnicities, religions, and communal identities in India. It is briefly about the politicization of discrimination by Indira Gandhi, who tried to legislate away discrimination against the untouchables, as did one of her predecessors, Mohandas Gandhi (no relation).

I kept waiting (not impatiently) for the cycling part of the story to begin. It doesn’t happen until about two-thirds of the way in. That’s because there is so much to say about PK’s life until he meets Charlotte. PK’s journey is bad luck, worse luck, then good luck, talent, and ultimately an ineffable optimism, despite three suicide attempts. In the same breath, metaphorically speaking, I’m going to say that the suicides are not representative of PK’s attitude, nor do they represent the tenor of the book. (Plus, they were obviously unsuccessful.) But what good story doesn’t have its travails?

When PK (Pradyumna Kumar) was quite young, a fortuneteller told him that he would marry a woman from far, far away. She would be a Taurus and own a jungle. Mysticism is part of the book, but not a huge part. For example, after PK’s mother dies, she occasionally advises him though visions. And PK’s love for Charlotte is the result of a love-at-first-sight meeting. There is spirituality but there is a naturalness to it. (And, by the way, Charlotte is a Taurus and her family owns a forest in Sweden.)

I guess I’ve gone on about this book because it is a sweet story, smoothly translated. PK learned to speak English in India, so I've watched an interview of him in English. He worked hard to learn Swedish. He has been living with Charlotte in Sweden for over forty years. They have two grown children. If this story had been told back in the 70s or 80s, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. Knowing that Charlotte and PK, the untouchable, have been successful in Sweden and in fact have provided education and infrastructure support to PK’s little village in India makes the story that much sweeter. It gives me hope that people can overcome extreme prejudice against them. PK used his talent and obvious capacity for learning to keep moving forward in life. That’s worth a book or two, surely.

India

By chance, I am reading four books about adventures that take place in India.

Two of them are not mysteries. The review for one of them follows this post.

One of the mysteries was written in the 1950s. It describes a fairytale place that the other contemporary books can only imagine. The 1950s book stars a white woman. Two of the other books are written by Indians with Indian protagonists. The last book, the one whose review immediately follows, was written by a Swedish journalist about an Indian who fell in love with a Swedish woman. It is the only non-fiction book of the bunch.

So, slowly over the next couple of weeks, I hope you will join me in reading four very different views of a very large country, with a very large population, and with a very significant history.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, 352 pages, $26

How old was Flavia de Luce in “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,” the first book in the wonderful series begun in 2009 by Alan Bradley? Eleven? Now she’s twelve. That’s a lot of living for Flavia in the course of one or two years, because “Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d” is the eighth book.

The title comes from the incantation uttered by Shakespeare’s wicked witches in Macbeth, more famous for the line, “Double, double toil and trouble.” There is indeed a cat in the book whose part is merely a walk-on but essential. There is a purported witch in the book. And that is where the similarity to Macbeth ends.

Flavia de Luce has a penchant, remarkable for a twelve-year-old, for discovering corpses. She has a scientific, investigative mind, so the times when she stumbles across a dead body are occasions for celebration. Discreetly, of course. It is not that Flavia is without compassion, but her eccentrically framed mind needs a challenge to keep ticking. And to keep her mind off her family’s troubles.

It is the 1950s. The setting is the Buckshaw estate, near Bishop’s Lacey, England. Flavia has returned from the wilds of Canada, having been tossed from the boarding school to which she was packed off. Her return has provoked no welcoming arms or cheery hallos. Instead, she returns to snippy, silent older sisters, a bothersome younger cousin now in residence, and a father hospitalized with pneumonia. Only Dogger, the estate’s manager/general dogsbody and resident mysterious personage, has some kind words and time for Flavia, but even he is stressed and gloomier than usual.

Luckily, a corpse appears. In the course of running an errand to the home of Roger Sambridge, an arthritic woodcarver, Flavia discovers the poor man hung upside-down on his bedroom door. Dead as a doornail. Instead of screaming or running to find the nearest phone to call the police, Flavia examines the room for clues of the man’s death. Was he the sacrifice in a strange witchy ritual? As she finally exits the house to find a phone, she notices the curtains twitch in the house across the street. That will bear investigation later.

While perusing Sambridge’s effects, Flavia comes across books by children’s author Oliver Inchbald. What is an old man doing with these children’s books? Did Sambridge have something to do with Inchbald’s death several years ago? As Flavia digs further into the two mysterious deaths, she calls on old friends to help her, Mrs. Bannerman. She was one of Flavia’s teachers in Canada She turned out to be a murderer and a member of the secret society of Nide, the organization Flavia’s mother was assisting when she died. (I know, that seems terribly complicated, doesn’t it?) Also, the strong and warming presence of Cynthia Richardson, the vicar’s wife, and the steadfast, intelligent one of Inspector Hewitt do not let her down.

Flavia is twelve and she essentially sees the world through a twelve-year-old’s eyes. She has determination and heart, but also a need to mean something to somebody. With a father broken by the horrors of an internment camp in World War II, the death of his wife, and the mounting bills for running Buckshaw, Flavia must mostly determine her own course.

This is a lovely series. Flavia is prickly, lonely, stubborn, inventive, surprising, and vulnerable. She is an unusual heroine for adult readers to embrace, but it turns out that we are here for her in droves.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Broken River by J. Robert Lennon

Graywolf Press, 240 pages, $16

This is a wow! of a book. J. Robert Lennon has created a perfect rendition of a complicated story. His slew of characters have distinct voices. His three main storylines converge and leave nothing wanting.

A man and a woman are murdered in an isolated place near their home in upstate New York. Their young daughter escapes. The killers are never caught. Twelve years later, an artist, a writer, and their twelve-year-old daughter move into the renovated house that once belonged to the doomed family. Stuff gets stirred up and suddenly there is a threat in the air once again. But not all of the menace is physical.

There is an unusual additional “character,” The Observer. Usually the voice of the unseen narrator simply burbles along unnoticed in a third-person story. The reader is not aware of a distinct presence, just of time and action moving forward. Sometimes, the presence has vague substance but is still not intrusive. Usually an author covers any third-party remarks by making it a thought process of one of the characters or a poetical description of the surroundings or a psychological discursion.

The Observer is given a substantive insubstance by Lennon. It does not take the place of the third-party narrator but is in addition to it. The Observer has some ghostly/spiritual attributes, but there is no judgment, curiosity, or religiosity involved. There is no sense that it was once human. Nor is it godlike. It is simply an amorphous, omniscient, omnipresent something. It does not affect the course of action. Or does it?

J. Robert Lennon is a clever, clever writer. The Observer is the storytelling itself. As The Observer grows in its abilities and “power,” such as it may be, so does the story strengthen and tumble towards its end. The Observer is a glorious construct by Lennon. It also provides a segue from one character to another.

Kurt is the sculptor-father. Eleanor is the writer (of “chick-lit”)-mother. Irina is the smart and imaginative twelve-year-old daughter. They have fled New York City to put their family back together and to stimulate their creative processes. (And to put distance between Kurt and his mistress, Rachel.) Lee Samuel “Sam” Fike is the nineteen-year-old daughter of a mentally ill woman and the sister of a imprisoned pot dealer. Irina thinks Sam is really the daughter of the murdered couple from years ago. Daniel is Sam’s brother. Once he gets out, he hooks up with Yetta, the girlfriend of another imprisoned pot dealer. All these people live in Broken River.

Broken River is the arse-end of nowhere. It has fallen apart, thus giving a second meaning to its name. The home the little family occupies may be renovated, but it is still plagued by “mold blossoms” that creep through from the damaged understructure. If people have gone there for a second chance at life, they must first fight through the rot. Metaphors may rain down, but it is a light misting, not a torrential downpour.

Joe and Louis are the bad guys. There is no subterfuge about their identities. They are the men who were involved in the murders.

At about the halfway point in the book, all the characters have been introduced and they are now free to wend their way towards each other. The reader and The Observer can now feel the thrill of forward movement.

Irina and Eleanor, unbeknownst to each other, have started to look into the murders. They have lurked, then joined a group, CyberSleuths, of people who sift through clues of old crimes, make reasonable or outrageous guesses, and have (mostly) fun being armchair sleuths. Without thinking about how it might play out, Irina has posted a picture of Sam and claimed that she is the surviving daughter of the murdered couple.

Lennon moves from character to character, sometimes lingering longer on one. He gives each one a separate tone through style and language. He can move from the angst/ennui of a twelve-year-old to the lunkish thoughts of a hard-boiled criminal to the anxiety of a sophisticated middle-aged woman to the neediness of a self-involved middle-aged man. This has earned “Broken River” an …

MBTB star!



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child

Doubleday, 304 pages, $26

You get the feeling that author Lincoln Child knows a little about everything. What captivated readers about Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is what readers should like about Lincoln Child’s books: Each author presents a credible menace with esoteric embellishments. Let Child bedazzle with history, science, art, and just plain old weird stuff.

In the best gothic fashion, hero Dr. Jeremy Logan vrooms his Lotus Elan up to the gates of a dark and mysterious sprawling mansion, aptly nicknamed Dark Gables. Although this is a modern tale, there are ghostly sightings, hidden voices, and raving madmen. Eventually, computers and cellphones reluctantly make an appearance, but in many respects this could have been set a hundred years ago.

The giant mansion, built by a wealthy eccentric, is now home to an elite think tank, Lux. (The name is vaguely redolent of soap and bogus companies trying to make their businesses sound better than they are.) Lux sponsors geniuses of all stripes. In fact, years ago Jeremy had a spot there, until he was kicked out. (The story behind that is revealed, have no fear.) Jeremy terms himself an empath. He regularly grabs hands to sense a person’s character. That might be the weakest part of the story, since he only sort of senses anything immediately useful. His more official title is “enigmalogist,” a gem of a tongue-twister. 

Jeremy has been hired to discreetly determine why one of its scientists, Willard Strachey, a database management systems developer, exhibited odd, manic behavior and committed suicide. He had been mumbling about voices and swatting at the air. Right up Jeremy’s alley. (By the way, the book opens with Jeremy finishing off the task of determining if the Loch Ness monster is real.)

As “The Forgotten Room” veers giddily off through the mazes and labyrinths of the upper mansion and its subterranean layers, chasing evil shadows and Flash Gordon machinery, Child shows off his expert ability to engage a reader and build suspense. 

Thanks for the ride, Lincoln Child. It was a Lotus Elan of a story.



Friday, May 19, 2017

Exit Strategy by Steve Hamilton

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 304 pages, $26

The nature of a serial is that a story is told in episodes. In a crime series, there is usually an overarching storyline, usually a personal one. I’ve been captivated by several authors whose arc describes the death of a loved one. It explains protagonists’ personalities and obsessions. The nature of a crime series is that usually a crime is solved within the book and the back story arc — whose story has already been told or will be told in its own book —  is floating in the background. Steve Hamilton goes his own way, eschewing this convention. Be prepared at the end of “Exit Strategy” to be shouting, “No, no, no, no,” ad inifinitum.

Fantasy and sci-fi authors excel at creating continuing sagas. Think of Robert Jordan’s massive volumes in his Wheel of Time series. (RIP, Robert Jordan.) Think of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones missives. Think of all the trilogies that have been created and are being created. N. K. Jemisin has a fabulous opus that hasn’t concluded yet. How about “The Lord of the Rings”? In these cases, there are small wrap-ups and big surprises, but also an unresolved protagonist’s journey that, we hope, will end in a satisfying conclusion … someday. So it is with Steve Hamilton’s Nick Mason series.

The Second Life of Nick Mason,” the first in this series, was good reading but unfulfilling. That’s because Hamilton has a big story he is stretching over, Lord knows, how many books. Nick was a criminal. Somebody died. Nick got caught. He was sentenced to prison for a long, long time. Darius Cole, a big-time Chicago criminal, befriended him. In exchange for Nick’s freedom and the ability to see his former wife and young daughter, Nick would agree to be part of Darius’ crew and do his bidding. Also, it was clear, Darius could order a hit on Nick’s family at any time he chose.

At the cost of his soul — not to be overly dramatic or anything — Nick becomes Darius’ hitman. In “Exit Strategy,” Darius has a chance at a retrial. Yes, Darius is in prison. While he was able to get Nick freed, he himself is under more dire interdiction. There were two witnesses who put Darius away the first time. Now they will have to be pulled out of their new lives in WITSEC and brought to re-testify against Darius. It is Nick’s job to find the brief moments in time when the witnesses are vulnerable and kill them.

Nick’s ex-wife and daughter don’t realize he holds their lives in his sniper’s sight. In the few months he has been free, Nick also established a romantic relationship with Lauren. Now she is another weak point that Darius can manipulate. On Darius’ behalf, Marcus Quintero is Nick’s handler. He enables Nick’s missions, but he makes it clear he will kill Nick and those he loves if necessary. Diana is Darius’ girlfriend. She and Nick share a townhouse in an expensive part of Chicago. Her restaurant provides the legitimate cover for Nick. Diana is as much a prisoner of Darius’ threats as Nick is. They don’t live their lives; they exist in a half-world, as puppets of a cruel and devious puppetmaster. 

On the good guys’ side are U.S. Marshal Bruce Harper, Chicago Detective Frank Sandoval, and U.S. Assistant Attorney Rachel Greenwood. Harper has never lost a WITSEC person, until Nick kills Ken McLaren, Darius’ accountant who testified against him in the first case. Sandoval, a straight cop, has been gunning for Nick since he got out (read “The Second Life of Nick Mason”). Greenwood would have to retry Darius’ case, hopefully with at least one of the two witnesses kept safe in witness protection. Her prospects don’t look good.

Hamilton does caper stories very well. Nick’s hunt for and elimination of the witnesses are fine, albeit perverted, caper stories. Sean Burke, a psychopath, also provides fine caper moments. He was Darius’ hitman before Nick. He went rogue and was caught by the police. Guess who escapes custody. Now Nick has to hunt him down as well. Nick is not going that alone. Harper and Sandoval also are part of that chase. It’s not clear that catching Sean would be good for one’s health, however.

Both Darius and Nick have exit strategies. Their stories are intertwined. So if Nick succeeds in disentangling himself, then Darius fails. And if Darius succeeds, then the door to Nick’s independence slams shut. What is assured is that people will die. Many, many people, as it turns out.

There are a lot of characters involved in this book. Not all of them make it to the end of the book intact. (Sorry, this doesn’t rate a spoiler alert; you’ve got to have guessed this at the outset.) Nick does. (Once again, not a surprise.) And this is where the no, no, no, no, etc. comes in. In the tradition of old time serials, we must see the unfortunate writing on the wall, “To be continued…”

Think of it as a fantasy trilogy.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 323 pages, $26

It’s hard not to have thoughts that run parallel and in contrast to Jeff VanderMeer’s in his latest biological disaster book. You might also be able to hear an ironic soundtrack as the book spirals down into the pit of despair. Like: When Rachel met Wick. “It’s the end of the world as you know it.” “I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you. And I say to myself, What a wonderful world.”

There is strange life in the decaying, battered, dying world that contains Rachel and Wick. We meet them initially without much of a back story. They live in what appears to once have been an apartment building. The structure is disintegrating, much of the contents have been looted or torn apart. The same can be said for their immediate world: The City. 

The environment doesn’t seem too dissimilar to our world, but it is one ravaged by ecological and environmental disaster.

VanderMeer plays with words, as does his title creation, Borne. Who is Borne? He is some sort of entity. At first he appears to be a sea creature (a long way from any sea) or a plant. As he grows he resembles a vase with lots of eyes and tentacles. (Here is a link to a sketch VanderMeer drew of Borne. The rather fanciful picture on the book cover doesn't correlate with VanderMeer's description!) His only friend is Rachel. Rachel becomes his surrogate mother. She has plucked him off the fur of a giant flying golden bear and raised him. If it sounds like a fairy tale, it’s a gruesome and apocalyptic one.

Rachel and Wick scavenge food, water, and medicine. It is the only way to exist in a world that no longer appears to be capable of producing anything useful. Some creatures may be living in and/or escaping from a stew of biological experiments gone wrong and chemical waste. Although help does not appear to be forthcoming, they persist in surviving. The story is told from Rachel’s viewpoint, and she still has her humanity intact, for the most part. She sees other people, mostly young ones, trying to survive as well. But it has come to the point where humanity is being lost in the struggle for the limited resources left.

The struggle is made even more difficult by the angry, crazy, marauding flying bear, the strange woman they call The Magician who can wink in and out of existence, and the smaller bears who are acolytes of the giant bear.

The Company, an anonymous, ominous sounding organization, whose headquarters has been mutilated by the giant bear, is somehow linked to the disaster. Animals who are familiar in face, but not especially in habits, flit in and out of sight. Other creatures are dreadful amalgams of human and biotech twisting.

Back to the word twisting by VanderMeer and Borne. The giant bear is called “Mord.” Using Google to translate the word from several different languages, “mord” can mean bite, snout, murder. That about describes insatiable giant Mord. Borne (yes, he can talk) and Rachel joke that Borne was born somehow but that Rachel has borne him (like a burden, perhaps) home from the fur of the bear. As Borne’s linguistic skills increase, he plays with word sounds and stretches them into a jangle of far-flung words.

VanderMeer’s popular Southern Reach trilogy also had lifeforms evolving, combining in a terrifying, fascinating way. He uses the same theme here, once again in a terrifying, fascinating way. Some of his visions are creepy and hard to shake off. But evolution has been sped up by man and the world is heading towards either oblivion or balance.

Lots of science fiction/fantasy books are difficult to read quickly until the jargon, landscape, and hierarchies are understood. “Borne” is always off-balance and redefining what the story is about, so often the going is slow. “Borne” is a cautionary tale, undoubtedly, as were his Southern Reach books. Are we listening?


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Little, Brown and Company, 240 pages, $26 (release date - 5/23/17)

What do you do after you’ve written a bunch of much-praised, dark crime novels? You don’t go to Disneyland; you write a dark non-fiction crime book. And you write it with style.

“The Long Drop” is only non-fiction in the sense that it is based on actual crimes in 1950s Glasgow and the actual trial of the accused perpetrator, Peter Manuel. At his trial, during which he fired his lawyers, Manuel talked for six hours on the witness stand, providing rich material for author Denise Mina.

One of the crimes for which Manuel was convicted was the murder of three women in William Watt’s home. Watt’s wife, sister-in-law, and teenage daughter were the victims. Although Watt was out of town at the time, he was arrested for their murders. Manuel was a resident of the local prison when he claimed he knew who had really killed the women and could even produce the gun that murdered them. Manuel provided a detailed description of Watt’s home and what the killer had done there. This is Mina’s starting point for her story.

There is no dispute that Watt met with Manuel before Manuel was arrested for the Watt and other murders. In Mina’s story they spend many hours together one long night. Did Watt suspect Manuel of having been the murderer at the time? Was Watt the actual murderer? (It is clear that Manuel accused Watt of being the murderer of his family during Manuel’s trial.) In the book, Watt is an alcoholic who goes on a night-long drinking spree with Manuel. Manuel is portrayed as someone who is not capable of empathy, cannot “read” people’s emotions, and has unpredictable bursts of anger. Watt is portrayed as someone who has a mistress and maybe found it inconvenient to be married, has criminal connections, and fancies himself one of the city’s elite.

Denise Mina turns fact into fiction by supplying her version of what went on during that long night of drinking, including meeting with Glasgow criminals, like crime boss Dandy McKay. Here is Mina’s description of McKay:

Dandy wears a suit, double-breasted with a broad stripe in blue and pink. He looks like a settee. He has a red carnation in his buttonhole, wilted, denoting the hour. His tie is purple and green.

The story of that night alternates with scenes from Manuel’s trial a few months later. Mina's perspective of the case presents intriguing possibilities about guilt and innocence, and presents some issues as ambiguous.

Glasgow in the 1950s has never gleamed with such a dark and shiny luster as it does in Mina’s book. She flexes her Glaswegian muscle to present the characters behind one of Glasgow’s most infamous stories. Even when Mina sets a scene, she does so with choice and evocative words. For instance, “The grate is chrome, long and pinched, a prissy kiss of a grate.” She packs more in her 240 pages than most authors would in 420. 

MBTB star!

P.S. The British cover to this book gives a graphic hint to what "the long drop" is.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Berkley, 384 pages, $26


Clare Mackintosh is the author of last year’s surprising debut, “I Let You Go.” She proved she could twist a plot with the best of them. “I See You,” of course, has a twist, but by now you, as a reader of her previous work or of women-in-jeopardy thrillers in general, are expecting that. Will it matter who the villain actually is, since suspecting every character in turn is the main preoccupation?

The subgenre of women-in-jeopardy books is based on the old formula of a woman meeting a man, the ensuing romance or conflict-then-romance, someone trying to do grievous harm to the woman, the romantic interest being suspected of being the villain, and then the man either being the villain (and the woman being saved by another romantic interest who is poor but honorable) or saving the woman from the villain. The end.

Quite a few recent women authors have turned this subgenre on its head. Perhaps the most famous is “Gone Girl.” “Girl on the Train” followed soon after. It no longer became de rigeur to have to like the woman in order to like the book. And the woman in jeopardy no longer was a predictable character.

In “I See You,” someone is assaulting women. Sometimes it is as serious as murder and rape, sometimes it is creepy stalking. Is it the same perpetrator? If not, why are a series of events even a series? What is the common ground?

There are two women who are the focus of Mackintosh’s book. Zoe Walker is a middle-aged woman, with two grown children, an ex-husband, and a boyfriend who lives with her and her children in a nice little house. She apparently is attractive but perhaps not wildly so. We discover she is between sizes 12 and 14, has a routine 9-to-5 job as an office manager/bookkeeper in London, and gets along with everybody pretty much.

The other main character is PC Kelly Swift. Kelly made a bad occupational mistake somewhere along the line and was demoted from DC to a uniformed PC. What was the mistake? Why would a lowly PC then become involved in a high-energy inquiry with the murder squad?

One day Zoe discovers what looks like a rather fuzzy picture of her fronting an ad for perhaps a dating service. As she shares the picture with her near and dear, they discourage her from thinking that it actually is a picture of her. But a bad feeling persists. Even worse, then a prickly feeling on the back of her neck warns Zoe that she is being watched. But by whom? She sees an unknown man staring at her on the subway she always takes to work. His look seems rather intense. But nothing happens other than Zoe's anxiety quotient ratcheting up.

Then Zoe sees another ad for the same dating service with another woman’s picture in it. Whoa. She recognizes the picture. The woman has been the victim of a crime. That’s when Zoe contacts the police and Kelly Swift stumbles onto the case. That's because Zoe’s event (or non-event) takes place on the subway and Kelly has just finished a stint nabbing subway pickpockets.

The story escalates and Kelly manages to insert herself into a bigger investigation. There are many ads and a couple of murder victims appear in them. Kelly likes Zoe and doesn’t want her to become the next victim of a serious crime. That’s a challenge because of Kelly’s limited scope, even when she worms her way into the big-time team.

What Clare Mackintosh does very well is write characters. Kelly and Zoe are strong women. They are capable but they have flaws. In Kelly’s case, she stubbornly goes her own way despite being officially sanctioned off. Zoe has a high degree of the Mama Bear Syndrome. She wants to protect her son and daughter, even though they might be better off without so much of her interference. Her anxiety hovers around Defcon 2.

It’s hard to completely like these women. They jump to conclusions, go off on their own, and have past issues that cloud their judgment. But they are smart and persistent. They don’t share the stage often, but they each narrate about half the book. A small segment of the book is reserved for the thoughts of the actual villain who is behind much of the badness.

The flawed characters express Mackintosh’s genius. We like them, but we don’t like everything about them. We want them to succeed but groan when they get in their own way. Mackintosh sets up a conflict of emotions in her readers, which leads to compulsory page-turning to see how she will resolve the story. She makes you care about these very human and interesting characters of hers.

Did I like Mackintosh’s resolution? Maybe not so much. Maybe it appeared to be rather violently odd. But I swallowed it. It fits in with the new suspense model for women-in-jeopardy: Never make assumptions and expect the unexpected.

By the way, Mackintosh has a rather brilliant way of working the title into the story.