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

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Dry by Jane Harper

Flatiron, 336 pages, $15.99 (c2016)

Australian author Jane Harper has written one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a long time. She combines a great, human story with evocative writing. “The Dry” depicts drought-ridden Kiewarra, a small town a few hours outside of Melbourne, so well that you would be advised to have a big, cold glass of water nearby as you read.

Federal police officer Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra after an absence of twenty years to attend the funeral of his former best friend, Luke Hadler. Everyone is saying that Luke shot his wife and young son, then killed himself, but Luke’s parents believe in their hearts that their son could not possibly have done that. The fact that Aaron is with the feds’ financial investigation unit doeesn’t dissuade the parents from asking Aaron for his help. In payment of past kindnesses, Aaron unofficially agrees to “look into” the deaths.

Some of the story is told in flashbacks to when Aaron still lived in Kiewarra as a teenager. What Harper does so well is delineate the complex relationships that teenagers can have with one another, given the wild hormones, self-consciousness, and secrecy of that age. Aaron and Luke grew up together. Their twosome is joined in their teens by Gretchen Schoner and Ellie Deacon, first friends and then potential girlfriends. When sixteen-year-old Ellie, Aaron’s crush, is found drowned in the nearby river, already bad relations with her family become worse. Both Aaron and his father are accused in turn of having murdered her when their last name, “Falk,” is found written on a piece of paper in Ellie’s possession. Soon the Falks leave town.

Harper draws her characters with minimum fuss but with great impact. Although various people represent town stereotypes, they feel real, not cartoonish. Working from nothing, Aaron and Sergeant Greg Raco, newly appointed to what was supposed to have been the quiet post of Kiewarra, try to piece together Luke’s last day and what might have driven him to the massacre. They find some vague inconsistencies at the death scene, including the fact that baby Charlotte’s life was spared.

Gretchen still lives in town and Aaron glimpses the changes that have come to Kiewarra through her eyes. Not least of the changes is the disappearance of the river, a victim of the drought. Kiewarra is a dying town. The remaining residents are hoping somehow to struggle through until the drought breaks, but no one can assure them that it will break in time.

Hate follows Aaron, who is still blamed for Ellie’s death, even by people who do not know him. There is a simmering lynch mob whose attitude is not helped by the deadly hot weather. Even with the backing of Raco, Gretchen, and a couple of other worthwhile citizens, Aaron needs to tread carefully, which makes it hard to investigate the deaths. Inexplicably, too, Aaron finds he needs to consider if the Hadlers’ deaths are somehow related to Ellie’s long ago.

Harper doesn’t veer from her clear storytelling style. There is a strong sense of you-are-there that comes across in her writing. And when she resolves all the storylines, you can hear all the “aha”s echoing around the world.

In honor of the recent release of the paperback version of "The Dry," this is my first 2018 MBTB star!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Minotaur, 400 pages, $28.99

Louise Penny torments her readers with tender grace. She not only plots a mystery, she also tells the ongoing stories of many of the residents of the tiny village of Three Pines*, Québec. It all takes a mighty fistful of pages. She draaaaws out the mysteries in “Glass Houses,” then suddenly swishes a piece of jagged glass cleanly through with a surprise twist. It’s a merciful killing after a long, exquisite torture.

Penny is known for her slow buildup of the who-what-when-where-whydunnit of her story. In this case, there are several stories, one the continuation of main character Armand Gamache’s continuing fight against corruption in the police force. Now he is the Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec and in a position to really do something about it. Also, opiate use has run amok in Canada, as it has in the United States. There is a line of no return that might already have gone by, with no chance of curbing the illegal import and export of the increasingly strong drugs being manufactured.

Closer to home, Gamache’s quiet village is suddenly haunted by a death-costumed character who stands on the village green. It makes no sound, rarely moves, appears to have no agenda. It simply stands in mute criticism. Of what or whom is unknown. A pall descends on village life. Armand and his village confidantes — his wife, the bookseller, the artist, the daughter, the son-in-law, the B&B and bistro couple, and the cranky poet with a duck — discuss what is to be done about the unwanted visitor. It has broken no law, and although the villagers want it gone, there is nothing Gamache, powerful as he is, can do about it. (How about loitering?)

I am always reminded of the epithets of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” whenever I read Penny — e.g., rosy-fingered dawn, gray-eyed Athena. Each of Penny's serial characters has repeated attributes, especially the cranky poet, Ruth, and her expletive-spewing duck. Her readers must get into the leisurely rhythm and repetition of her style of storytelling. “Glass Houses” is the lucky thirteenth book in Penny’s Gamache series, and there has been ample time to study the continuing characters.

On a more poignant note, her recent books have also allowed her readers to follow her real life a bit.  In her acknowledgements, Penny has referred to her husband, Michael. She mentioned his Alzheimer’s diagnosis at the end of one book. And at the end of “Glass Houses,” she talks about his death. Her work is imbued with the kindness and compassion of the kind that must infuse her real life.

(*Haha. I originally posted "Lone Pine," which is a town in California, instead of the fictional "Three Pines." Mea culpa.)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit, 464 pages, $16.99

This is not a mystery.

The Broken Earth trilogy has been a terrific series! “The Stone Sky” completes N. K. Jemisin’s outstanding fantasy work, following “The Fifth Season” and “The Obelisk Gate.” I also applaud Jemisin’s commitment to getting the books in the series out to her readers in a timely fashion. I have been waiting for YEARS for some sequels from other authors.

Essun and her daughter, ten-year-old Nassun, are the special people upon whom human survival depends. In this last book, Jemisin reveals the genesis of how people like Essun and Nassun are able to affect geological events, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which they can cause or quell.

There are many timely issues: ecology, misuse of natural resources, biospheres, biotic interconnectedness, the complex definitions of who or what is human and non-human, and the moral cost of subjugation.

Essun and Nassun have spent most of the books separated. A tragic cataclysm drove them apart and an even greater one threatens to destroy all life on the surface. It is only when the end is near that they might manage to meet again.

Finally, Jemisin solves one of the predominant mysteries of the series: Who is the books’ narrator? The narrator has slowly come into focus. The narrator has a surprising role to play and an intriguing final story to tell. The narrator is the only one who can tie what caused the beginning of the disruptive fifth seasons with the current stories of Essun and Nassun.

Life in a chaotic fifth season is not easy and the myriad problems never have black or white answers. That is what makes this book so riveting. And that is what makes this final book so satisfying.