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

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 soup├žon 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.