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.