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

Friday, September 8, 2017

Raised in a bookstore ...

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

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

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

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

Congratulations, Jordan!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Under an Orange Sun …

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

Here are two books that kept me company.

Mightier Than the Sword by K. J. Parker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli

Penguin Books, 224 pages, $16

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Whiling away the days in a cow pasture with a couple of books ...

If you were lucky enough to view the recent total eclipse (hip or hype?), you may have journeyed far to get a prime viewing spot. I traveled to Eastern Oregon to said cow pasture. There were portable toilets dotting the landscape instead of cows. There were long lines for coffee at the one coffee cart. There were scientists and credentialed enthusiasts talking about science (yay!), and not just about the science of the eclipse. I was at Atlas Obscura's fabulous event. When I wasn't geeking out, I was reading. These perhaps were not entirely noteworthy for this blog, but at least one of them was a mystery.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Pamela Dorman Books, 336 pages, $26

I’m pretty sure I am too old to read “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” with the intended joie d’esprit. The book was cute, but I wondered in the end how the first part logically related to the second part. Was it possible for a person to change radically through the kindness of strangers? Was it possible for someone to stubbornly hang onto the hope that someone else would change? Was it possible to have a happily ever after given the premise? I guess that’s why this is fiction. The author obviously didn’t have my qualms and answered the questions to her satisfaction.

I guess if I had written this story, my version would have been a tragedy. Luckily for the world I didn’t.

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Harper Perennial, 270 pages, $15.99

Yes, this book was written eons ago. 1992, to be precise.

“Death at La Fenice” was the first in the now-plump series starring Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice, Italy. This introduced us to the astute and convivial Brunetti, his charming (and almost perfect) family, and the exigencies of life as a Venetian policeman. He knows both opera and what motivates the common man. He can find his way through the labyrinth created by Venetian alleys and streets. He is incorruptible but not hidebound. Donna Leon’s series is articulate and a tourist brochure for Venice without being fawning.

I re-read this book for MBTB’s Second Book Group. It was a pleasure to re-acquaint myself with this charming novel.

Y Is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton

Marian Wood Books/Putnam, 496 pages, $29

All of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books are blasts from the past, since Grafton has steadfastly refused to budge from the 80s (until the end of “Y Is for Yesterday”). This book is even more blastworthy as the story also wanders back to events in 1979.

The main story of “Y” concerns the release from prison of Fritz who, as a teenager, shot Sloan, a fellow student at an expensive private school. There were other teenagers involved, including the sadistic ringleader, Austin. Some of the other teens have had to pay for either their conspiracy or their silence at the time, except for Austin. He was gone, gone, gone before the debts were called in.

Fritz was dealt the most severe sentence. At the age of twenty-five, he is finally being released. Luckily, his family welcomes him back, but Fritz appears less than gracious. He merely wants to pick up with his high school friends again, doing things 17-year-olds like to do. But time and his friends have marched on.

The lowest blow comes almost immediately after Fritz' release when an extortionist demands $25,000 from his parents or he/she will send a certain videotape to the police. The tape contains scenes of Fritz and other boys in his group either raping or being complicit in the rape of a young girl. Who would know about the tape except for someone from the group of Fritz’ so-called friends? That’s when Fritz’ parents call in the services of Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator in Santa Theresa, California.

Although Kinsey accepts the case to find out who the blackmailer is, she is still dealing with fallout from one of her last cases. A deadly serial killer of young girls was never caught, and he is looking for the trophies he collected from his victims. One or another of his ex-wives holds the clue to this gruesome assortment, and it is Kinsey’s job to make sure the killer, Ned Lowe, doesn’t add his wives or her to his kill list. 

So there are three stories here. Besides the storylines of the blackmailer and the serial killer, Grafton has added a third-party narrative of the events in 1979 which resulted in Sloan’s murder. The story of the serial killer is riveting, especially for those who read “X.” (In her impeccable fashion, however, Grafton gives her readers enough information that it is almost unnecessary to have read the previous book. But why would you bypass “X”?) The story of tracking down the blackmailer is workmanlike. Grafton and Kinsey cross the t’s and dots the i’s. Still, to my mind, it’s not a particularly compelling teenage story. All the teens are dopes. Compared to the warmth and humor of Kinsey’s first-person telling, the 1979 story seems colorless, narrative for narrative’s sake.

Nevertheless, in keeping with my promise to star all Grafton’s remaining Kinsey Millhone books, here’s an MBTB star for “Y.” In fact, I tremendously enjoyed the roles of homeless Pearl and Killer, the dog. I continue to love landlord Henry and his eccentric family, Rosie and her awful offal, and the nasty-sounding peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches.

P.S. For all of Kinsey’s training in assertive self-defense, she still seems sort of helpless and reliant on the serendipitous proximity of others. I’ve resigned myself to her as an intellectual P.I., more brains and pathetically fewer brawn. (Too much Wonder Woman and Black Widow movies!)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

Soho Crime, 320 pages, $25.95

August Snow is the hero’s name. He grew up in “Mexicantown” in Detroit, the son of a cop and an artistic mother. They were loving parents who instilled principles of decency and honesty in their son. When he graduated from the police academy, it was a proud moment. Big cities being what they are, August soon found that there was police corruption. Big time. Also involving the mayor and other political peons. August helped to publicly heave-ho a lot of them, but he was persona non grata for “ratting” out his fellow officers. The force in blue brooks no excuses, even if the excuse is a good one. The event ended with August’s dismissal from the force, a successful lawsuit by him against the city, and a check for $16 million.

Now after a year of wandering around the world, mostly drinking himself silly, August has returned to Detroit. More specifically, now that his parents are dead, he has returned to the very house in which he was raised. At a loss for what direction to take, he begins with renovating his house and another few on the block. That leads to meeting some of his eccentric neighbors. They soon become more family than nodding acquaintances, and these relationships provide the hearty backbone to Stephen Mack Jones’ debut novel.

One of the last big cases Snow worked as a cop on was the murder-suicide of financial heiress Eleanor Paget’s husband and his sixteen-year-old “mistress.” More queenly than businesslike, Eleanor imperiously summons August to her well-guarded mansion when she discovers he has returned to town. She has a mission for him. “Something” is wrong with her investment institution. Nah, says August. Not my bailiwick or interest. And Eleanor is a bitch. He notes the disdainful way Eleanor treats Rose Mayfield, a long-time friend and assistant at her business.

Does heritage have anything to do with the skewed relationships in the book? Does gender? August is Mexican (mother) and African-American (father). Eleanor is white. Rose Mayfield is black. Other main characters spread themselves along the spectrum. Is Eleanor a bitch because that’s the way she rolls, or is she deeply prejudiced? Does her motivation have anything to do with why she was murdered?

Author Jones puts depth and conscience into his work. August is trying to reinvigorate his little part of Detroit. He is proud of his Mexican heritage (especially the food). Even though he is no longer a police detective, he is morally bound to defend the defenseless. Will solving Eleanor’s death give him freedom from his Catholic guilt at having refused her request for help? All signs point to Eleanor’s death being a suicide, but there is a soupçon of doubt, enough to push August to ask a series of questions bound to aggravate some touchy people.

There is a lot of bang-bang violence and also other terrible harm befalls many. But there is a thoughtfulness about what a community should do for themselves if they don’t want to sell their souls or become victims of “progress.” August is joined by one of Eleanor’s former guards, a street dealer who had the misfortune to be selling on August’s street, and an old friend who also worked for Eleanor. August is not dead to everyone on the force. There are a few still willing to help a little, including James Falconi, the medical examiner, and Captain Ray Danbury, an old crony. The cast is large but the by-play is interesting.

Jones talks food well enough to make your mouth water: a department store’s “Maurice salad and garlic mashed potatoes with meatloaf,” “Turkey Reuben ‘Extraordinaire’ with buffalo-seasoned sweet potato fries and a side order of cole slaw complete with chopped walnuts and McIntosh apples,” and so on and so on. Jones peppers his tough story with hometown asides, and that flavors his word salad splendidly.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

Random House, 320 pages, $27

Manon Bradshaw’s personal life is still a mess. There’s the bad, the worse, and the awful. Does it matter that she is a crackerjack police detective? No.

In this second outing for DI Bradshaw, her personal life again intrudes into her professional one. For one thing, Manon is walking like a beached battleship and can’t always get up if she is down. She’s six months pregnant. The how and why of that doesn’t come until way into the book.

It has been over a year since the events in the first book. Manon has returned to her little town of Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, leaving her big city London job behind. That is so she and her sister can create better lives for their children. In Manon’s case, it isn’t just for her unborn child. For those who read the first book, “Missing, Presumed,” it will warm the cockles of your heart to learn that her adopted son is twelve-year-old Fly Dent, the sweet and vulnerable child whose older brother was murdered. Her sister Ellie has a three-year-old, Solomon. They all live together in an unremarkable but large house.

However, all is not well in paradise. Although the move was made to take Fly away from the poverty, drugs, and grinding lifestyle of where he is from, he feels out of place as a black boy in a very white town. Also, he is in trouble at school, often asked to babysit his young cousin, and buries his head in a book at every opportunity. And let’s not get into his monosyllabic responses! Manon finds out that he has skipped school at least once to travel back to his old London neighborhood. Can she win Fly’s heart if their new life is already stacked against them?

Worst of all (actually, worse is yet to come!), she has been sidelined from active duty. When a murder case occupies the squad, she eavesdrops, offers unwanted suggestions, and inserts her nose where it doesn’t belong. Her old colleague and former underling, Davy Walker, is supervising the case, something Manon used to do with Davy’s assistance. Sigh.

A man has been found stabbed to death in a nearby stretch of woods. A woman was walking on the same trail when she saw the man fall. He whispered what sounded like, “Sass,” as he died. The murder weapon cannot be found. It is discovered that the man had just arrived by train, walked the short distance to the woods, and then died.

Susie Steiner’s plotting shows her genius. Why are there holes in the testimony of the woman who found the man? Is she his killer? Then she claims to have seen someone else in the woods. A black man with a hood? A black boy, perhaps? Fly? Is her testimony reliable? I want to be careful and respect Steiner’s meticulous layering of the story, including the revelation of who the dead man is, so this review is rather sparse in details. But Steiner presents a deliciously layered crime-cake.

Manon is hard to like as a character; she’s too needy and self-involved. She spent the first book whinging, crying, and being a mess. She does less of that in “Persons Unknown,” trying desperately to pull herself up to face her new responsibilities, but she still has to be rescued by her incredibly tolerant friends. Her saving grace is she is a tenacious and intelligent snooper. Despite not being on the official team investigating the murder, she has an advantage. Besides the above-mentioned qualities, she is not hampered by certain assumptions the team is making.

My favorite new character is Birdie Fielding, who headlines one of the many sections of “Persons Unknown.” She is an overweight convenience store owner in London. She accidentally becomes involved in the case. She loves Tony Blair, disgraced though he may be. She misses her grandmother. She watches reality shows in her apartment above the store. Then this heretofore lonely, complex, intelligent woman living an ordinary life falls headlong into a dangerous situation. Steiner wins five gold stars for this character and her part in the story.

Finally, finally, Manon moves slowly outside of her own needs. The promise and ending for “Missing, Presumed” is realized in this. 

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Pamela Dorman Books, 336 pages, $26

This is not a mystery, although a crime is revealed at the end.

Eleanor Oliphant is captivatingly odd. She appears robotic, autistic, compulsive, unsociable, judgmental. She is thirty years old, has been a bookkeeper at a design company ever since graduating from university, and has no friends. She talks to her mother every Wednesday. Those conversations are never pleasant. It’s clear that her mother is judgmental, too, but with a vicious undertone. Eleanor tells her mother that she is fine. Fine, fine, fine. The book gradually reveals how Eleanor Oliphant (Miss) is not fine.

Gail Honeyman has crafted a sweet, bittersweet, sad, and poignant novel.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Saga Press, 416 pages, $24.99

Isn’t Theodora Goss the perfect author’s name for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche? It is her real name. It appears that way on the Boston University website where she is a teacher. It is also the perfect author’s name for someone who has placed some formidable women at the center of her adventure set in Victorian England. And there’s not a steampunk invention in sight.

Holmes and Watson appear frequently, but Goss’ main cast is headed by Mary Jekyll, impecunious daughter of the mad scientist. Soon Mary discovers a sister, Diana Hyde, impecunious daughter of the mad scientist’s evil persona. Because “The Strange Case” is a book within a book, we know fairly soon that there are many female characters whose stories may eventually be told: Catherine, Beatrice, Justine, Alice, Mrs. Poole. I will not fully name them for you because half the fun is learning who they are.

Unlike Doyle’s dour and misogynistic Sherlock, Goss’ Sherlock is fine with having some of the female characters traipse along with him and Watson as murders begin to crop up in the Whitechapel area. (He might even have an itty-bitty crush on one of them.)

The story mostly follows Mary, but it is written by Catherine, who eventually makes her own appearance in the main narrative. When one of the female characters interrupts Catherine’s writing to make a comment (metatextually speaking), her name is helpfully capitalized.

There are initially several murders of working women. Pieces of them are apparently taken away by the murderer. The latest missing body part is a brain. Lestrade is beside himself and Holmes, et al., step in.

Within the context of Goss’ world, all things are possible, however improbable. Holmes himself said, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” The truth in this case means putting your own ideas of the Sacred Characters on a shelf and just enjoying the strange fun.

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.


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.