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

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.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

The Dial Press, 400 pages, $27

Hannah Tinti is the much-lauded author of “The Good Thief.” In “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” she once again creates a story larger than life, laced with quiet passion and heart.

Bullets usually go through me, says Samuel Hawley, as he collects an egg carton’s worth of them. That is not to say he isn’t harmed by the bullets, but he manages to bleed, then heal. In an early part of the book, Hawley has to take off his shirt in public to race down a greased pole. (Tinti’s got you intrigued, hasn’t she?) People are stunned when the bullet scars are revealed.

Someone who was not stunned was Hawley’s daughter, Loo, twelve years old when the story begins. Actually, there are two stories: one set in a facsimile of the present time and one set mostly when Hawley meets Lily, Loo’s mother. I say “facsimile” because there are certain modern day elements missing: the ubiquitous Internet and the even more ubiquitous cellphone. Could the “present day” story actually be set pre-2000s? Yeeees. But. There is a reality television show about a man and his crew who ram into offending ships to protect the marine integrity of the area off the East Coast. When Loo is older and begins working on the wait staff of a local restaurant, one of her older co-workers sprouts a punk/goth look. I assume Tinti purposely makes the time period vague and she creates her own world (sans much technology) to benefit her story. Even the part set in the past has a haziness to it. One of the many firearms ever present in the book is a rifle which belonged to Loo’s grandfather who used it in a war. What war? Who would use a rifle (and then bring it home) in a war? Was he a sniper? Do snipers get to bring home their rifles? Was it the Civil War? You can see that there are hints about time, but they fog the window rather than let you see through it.

How does Hawley become the recipient of all those gunshot wounds? Not surprisingly, it turns out he is a criminal. The only other choice would have been law enforcement officer. Tinti soon lets on that Hawley and Loo have moved many times. Other families might have fire drills at home. Hawley has quick exit routines. Always on the run and always packing firearms: pistols, revolvers, shotguns, rifles. Loo learned to shoot all of the above very young.

Finally, father and daughter return to Olympus, Massachusetts, where Lily was raised. Lily died before Loo was one. What is left and worth returning to in Olympus is a crotchety old woman, Mabel Ridge, Loo’s maternal grandmother, who immediately slams her door on Hawley and Loo when they come knocking. So much for the tender reunion. Mabel’s story is gradually revealed as the book makes its way to Samuel Hawley’s twelfth life.

Each of Hawley's wounds has its own chapter. Hawley was the dickens when he was younger, and collected trouble and gunshot wounds with alacrity. Even after he met Lily, who was the dickens on her own, Hawley still kept his toe in the criminal waters. The pleasure of Tinti’s story is learning about the trials of the forging of the father-and-daughter bond. Hawley does not want Loo to follow in his footsteps, but he still teaches her how to hotwire a car. There’s a complicated and conflicted parental message there, for sure.

It was a pleasure to watch Loo’s growing friendship with a classmate, Marshall, whose mother is crazy in a terrifically eccentric and unanticipated way. When Loo first connects with Marshall, it is to break his finger for harassing her. It could only go uphill from there.

Tinti doesn’t just say Hawley and Loo shoot firearms. She describes the guns, shotguns, and rifles, and how to shoot them. Hawley and Loo don’t just sail, Tinti describes every roll, pitch, and yaw. The stories are imbued with facts and touches — just enough, never too much — that amplify each part of the story she tells. “Twelve Lives” is a master class in creating the three dimensions and five senses of a fictional world.

So this is “Twelve Lives” in a nutshell. How did Hawley come by all those scars? What was Lily like? Why is Hawley on the run? Why does he finally attempt to settle down in Olympus? How weird are all the people of Olympus? Is karma a bitch?


MBTB star!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Conviction by Julia Dahl

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99

Rebekah Roberts, the intrepid freelance reporter for the New York Tribune, and sometimes other more prestigious publications, stars in her third book. Author Julia Dahl’s first book, “Invisible City,” was nominated for every award under the sun, it seemed. 

Here is Rebekah, abandoned by her mother, anxiety-ridden, related only marginally to the Jewish community — although her big stories have been based within some of the stricter sects of the that community — and mentored in investigative techniques by an ex-policeman, Saul Katz. (What follows is somewhat of a spoiler alert.) After many years spent without knowing if her mother, Aviva, was dead or alive, Rebekah now has a tenuous relationship with Aviva. Furthermore, Saul and Aviva have a romantic relationship going. (That’s a bunch of back story to unpack, isn’t it?) And once again, the Jewish community comes into play through the back door. 

Rebekah meets a young mother who writes a blog for her Brooklyn neighborhood about crimes in the hood. Rather than being scandalous or intrusive, the blog seeks to honor the victims. As is often the case, even in the rather lurid pages of Rebekah’s own Tribune, crimes get a paragraph or two, the victims maybe a line or two, if that. Through the blogger, Rebekah picks up a letter written by a prisoner serving life for killing his foster parents and three-year-old foster sister. Of course, he claims he didn’t do it.

DeShawn Perkins was sixteen years old when his family was murdered. One foster sibling, Ontario, survived the slaughter. The neighborhood was crying for blood because the parents were model citizens, caring contributors to their African-American community, and upstanding foster parents for many children. It was also known that they were having problems with DeShawn. It was a hop, skip, and jump for the police to narrow their investigation down to DeShawn. Claiming they had a confession and an eyewitness, the police put DeShawn away.

Although fearing the case has a hopeless glaze to it, Rebekah nevertheless dutifully tracks down DeShawn’s girlfriend at the time, who flip-flopped on whether she was his alibi the night of the murder. Then she tracks down the eyewitness. Whoa, Nellie, now things are really getting interesting! To add to the mighty-small-world nature of the case, Saul Katz, who was a young detective at the time, was one of the original investigators. Saul was pretty much the token Jewish cop in his precinct. The Jewish and African-American neighborhoods abutted each other. There was tension, strife, and rioting to mark their territories. Deshawn’s parents were part of a movement to try to better their neighborhood and its relationship with the Jewish community. Although he had rejected his strict sect and their teachings, Saul was the point person for the police to communicate with the Jews.

Rebekah’s first-person story intertwines with Saul’s third-person story set in the 1990s. Thankfully, one does not obfuscate the other, as sometimes happens with interpolated stories. Dahl writes clearly and without rose-colored glasses about the prior time. It is that unsentimental look at the 1990s that is the highlight of “Conviction.”

Dahl has made Rebekah into a warm and human character. She has personal difficulties and works on facing them square on (with the help of her friend Iris). Dahl teaches her readers about the various Jewish sects, but even without that lesson, her stories and setting would be worthwhile.

Friday, April 28, 2017

2017 Edgar Award winners

Here is a link to the Mystery Writers of America's posting of the winners of their Edgar Awards.

http://www.theedgars.com/nominees.html


And, once again, here is a link to the reviews we have done of some of the books.

http://mbtb-books.blogspot.com/2017/02/the-2017-edgar-award-nominations-for.html


Here are some of the winners:

Noah Hawley, the writer and producer of the current "Fargo" season, won Best Novel for "Before the Fall," an intense and well-written work.

"Under the Harrow" won Flynn Berry the Best First Novel.

"Rain Dogs" won Adrian McKinty Best Paperback Original.



Congratulations to all the winners!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Real Tigers by Mick Herron

Soho Crime, 400 pages, $15.95 (c2016)

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Every Night I Dream of Hell by Malcolm Mackay

Mulholland Books, 304 pages, $26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Devil’s Feast by M. J. Carter

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

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

Mostly the battle was successful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Twist of the Knife by Becky Masterman

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MBTB star!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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