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 27, 2020

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life, by Lulu Miller

Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $26

When I first chose to read “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” I assumed it would not fit in the mystery category. In fact, the book doesn’t, but about halfway through the book, one appeared anyway.

“Why Fish Don’t Exist” is a biography of David Starr Jordan, a famous taxonomist in his day and the first president of Stanford University. It is also a memoir by Lulu Miller. The book is a fabulous jumble of then (early 1900s) and now; discursions on stars, fish, love, meaning, being, and chaos; and a coming of age of a person long past her teenage years. Lulu Miller slices-and-dices various stories. All that means is that you will have several intriguing storylines to follow.

The writerly thing that Lulu Miller does is she draws her story forward from a gentle rural beginning to a cosmological ending. Will the poor, farm-bound, intelligent but awkward lad manage to escape his destiny among cows and fields to sing with the stars he so admires? Will the boy who grew up so far inland that his first glimpse of the sea does not come until he is a man become the unlikely cataloguer of the creatures of the sea? Will the boy who once was open to everything become a man who despotically ruled what would become one of the premier educational institutions in the country? Will you love him or hate him, admire him or loathe him?

Will Lulu Miller move past her obsession with the boy with the curly hair? Will she make her peace with chaos or will the darkness wrap tightly around her?

“Why Fish Don’t Exist,” and I hope you are convinced that the title is true by the time the book ends, is about a poetic yearning by both subject and author. There are wondrous asides, crafted by a person who is embedded in a science background. The part about Anna and Mary  sorry, no hints allowed  almost made me cry. 

And there is a brief but crucial murder mystery.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Strike Me Down by Mindy Mejia

Atria, 352 pages, $27

An accounting mystery. With accounting jibber-jabber. Big company, lots of money, rich people with no boundaries. Not my jam, I thought.

I actually like numbers. Numbers and science are my friends. I like $$ but have no deep desire to turn that into $$$$$. (I don’t even know any people with $$$$$.) I don’t watch all those money-grubbing shows on television. “Strike Me Down” didn’t sound like a book in which I’d find many sympathetic characters. These days, it’s all about the characters. And sympathy.

I read the book anyway.

The main character, a forensic accountant named Nora Trier, turned out to be fascinating. She has a pivotal backstory but it was on the book’s back burner. Nora is humorless and calculating, perhaps a bit of a stereotype for an accountant, but the characteristics serve her well in turning up malfeasance in the financial affairs of her clients.

The book, contrary to expectations, starts off with a bang. Fifty thousand people are chasing Nora Trier in a sports arena in downtown Minneapolis. What in all heck has she done to deserve that? The rest of the book is spent explaining how she got to that point.

Logan Russo may be fifty years old, but she is a super-star athlete. She has won kickboxing matches all over the world, co-owns a premier sporting brand, has opened a large number of gyms, and is slavishly followed by a massive number of people. She and her husband called their enterprise Strike. They are just about to hold a tournament to end all tournaments. At stake is twenty million dollars in prize money and the honor for one of the contestants to be the new face shown on all of Strike’s product packaging.

The only problem is the prize money is missing in action. Gregg Abbott, Logan’s husband, hires Nora’s forensic accounting company to track it down. Nora immediately recognizes Gregg as the man she slept with on an out-of-town trip. She did not know he was Logan’s husband, and she never saw him again. In a separate coincidence, Nora turns out to be one of Logan’s slavish followers. She takes classes from her at Strike’s flagship gym, just down the walkway from her office. (As a place of much snow and cold, downtown Minneapolis has eleven miles of walkways so people can navigate the inhospitable winter climate.) Awkward. In a real life situation, that would be enough to preclude an accountant from doing forensic work for a business. But this is fiction, so have at it!

Gregg thinks Logan has taken the money. Double awkward.

On the surface all the primary characters keep much too cool. I mean alabaster. Inside, apparently volcanic activity. There’s a lot of smoldering, jealousy, anger, and frustration, albeit you can’t see it. For a seething, sweaty, sexy book, there’s very little sex. There’s seething and sweat, though. It’s intense.

I finished the book because I was captivated by Nora’s character and backstory. As the primary on the case, she provided the outline for the investigation. But her minions did the backbreaking paper-shuffling and tracing, so the story wouldn’t be slowed down. I can’t say I feel the same sort of fascination for Logan. I was not ready to bow and scrape before her. Gregg? He was a sad man. Author Mindy Mejia is the mistress of innuendo and provocation, but mostly her characters were fleshless. On second thought, I mostly did like one of the secondary characters, Nora’s best friend at her agency, Corbett MacDermott. (In horror movies it doesn’t pay to be the best friend of the main character!)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

Knopf, 400 pages, $27.95

Just in case actually living through a pandemic isn’t enough suspense for you, Lawrence Wright, usually a writer of nonfiction, has issued a companion piece to our actual COVID-19 crisis. Yes, you can sit at home while isolating and read about a fictional pandemic that eerily mirrors our own … up to a certain point. With luck, most of his book will prove to be just fiction.

In “The End of October,” a virus has gotten loose in the world. The people in the book wonder about its origin. The world governments, too, think devious thoughts about each other. Was the virus concocted in a laboratory and either maliciously or accidentally let loose? The virus seems to be especially virulent. Good old Asia seems to be implicated. But Russians are mysteriously not falling victim to the virus as much as other countries, like the U.S., for example. Hmm.

Wright’s story starts in Indonesia, in an HIV camp. The medical personnel sent to help the camp have fallen silent. Dr. Henry Parsons of the CDC in the U.S. is sent to investigate. He thinks he will be away a couple of days from his loving home in Atlanta. But this is what he finds: The medical personnel are dead. Transmission is fast, and the already vulnerable people in the camp have caught what appears to be a highly lethal virus. 

Unfortunately, before he can be caught, a carrier of the disease — Henry’s cab driver — travels to the hajj in Saudi Arabia. And — bammo! — thousands of pilgrims are infected. Now everyone can blame Asians, Muslims, homosexuals, the W.H.O., Russians … wait! A lot of this sounds familiar. Here’s something else familiar: Medical facilities are overflowing, there’s a shortage (but maybe not as bad as we have it in real life) of PPEs, grocery store shelves are empty, and people get their guns out.

And where is Henry? About half of the book is our world today, governments and health organizations struggling to contain and understand the virus. It’s full of realistic details, including appearances by real people doing their real jobs in a fictional setting. Real medical pioneers are honored in their mentioning. Henry navigates this real-world mirror, initially going from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia.

The second half of the book? Yikes! If you want to feel better about our current situation, Wright shows you how it could get so, so, so much worse. I don’t think Wright meant to release his book in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t think Wright means to make us feel worse or more helpless. If it’s of any consolation or interest, the fictional U.S. government seems to be almost as clueless and ineffective as our real one.

It is the second half of the book that takes us more into the personal lives of a couple of the main characters. This is where humanity lies. It is the heroic struggle of a few to survive. It is the bad of Henry’s past that drives him relentlessly to help mankind through the crisis. It is his love of the goodness in his present life that leads him to frame the philosophical question Why? and then to try to answer that. But make no mistake, the second half is not primarily about existential fumblings, it is about how the world, as individuals and as communities, answers a serious threat.

I found the crisis details absorbing, though mighty unsettling.

I read the book. I survived it. I even cautiously recommend it. We are a nation divided by people who read and listen to C-19 information and those who assiduously avoid it. I’m not certain this book qualifies as news you can use, but it is an insight into how difficult it is to dissect a virus and develop an effective fix. So maybe people of either inclination can read “End of October” with interest.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

Harper, 528 pages, $28.99 (c2019)
Translated from the Danish by Caroline Wright

Let’s see. Creepy nursery rhyme. Check. Man with eyes of different colors. Check. Copenhagen. Check. Bloody, grisly, grim, haunting murders. Um. Check, check, check. All the elements are there. Buckle up, buttercup!

Would "The Chestnut Man" be more appealing if you learned that the author, Søren Sveistrup, is the creator of the original version of “The Killing,” the Danish production that spawned the celebrated American version. According to Sofie Gråbøl, the star of the Danish series, there's an American version because Americans “for some reason cannot read subtitles, or they don’t want to.” I didn’t hear her say it, but I’m sure it was accompanied by a slyly humorous smile. Both series are worthy of bingeing, bingement, bingeitude, binge-watching. The television series is dark and grisly, and so is this book. Sveistrup has already shown us he can do heart-thumping and serious twisty-turny plot.

Naia Thulin is a smart detective. She is so smart she is angling for a way to move up from the Major Crimes Unit to NC3, the cyber crimes unit, after only nine months as a detective. She is especially eager to get out of the MCU when she is saddled with babysitting a bad boy, Mark Hess, who was kicked out of Europol as the Danish liaison and sent home to the Copenhagen squad to await review. Hess is the man with eyes of different colors. The rest of him, including his attitude, is equally as wonky. He is mostly uncommunicative, terse when he deigns to say something, and seems as though he is peering over the border into a parallel world, a better parallel world, because he sure as hell has no interest in the current one. 

It takes something big to get Hess’ interest. The murder of Laura Kjær fits the bill. She is a young mother who is tortured and left to die in an outdoor children’s playhouse near her home. A dangling “chestnut man” children’s toy is left at the scene. The prologue contains a grisly murder done several years in the past. In that, there are many chestnut creations populating a grim basement. What does the old incident have to do with the awful torture and murder of the young mother? Thulin and Hess are observant, intuitive, and smart, so they begin to tease out the clues and eliminate the dead-ends.

There are 500 pages in the English translation I read. Included is a lot of step-by-step scene setting. (“Their voices seep out under the door of the glass-partitioned room, and a few teenagers in slippers have stopped to watch.”) There are multiple victims, almost victims, and a victim-in-progress. There are red herrings, bad police practice, ambitious supervisors, and a taunting killer to waylay poor Thulin and Hess. Even after the killer is revealed, there is a lot of action and detection to do, probably constituting a novella all by itself. The novel’s heftiness is satisfying, even if there are some plot lines that are unnecessary but intriguing. I definitely got the feeling that Sveistrup was setting the groundwork for another television series. (“And in episodes nine and ten, the detectives chase down the real killer.”)

Spoiler alert: Hess is not an air-head. Another spoiler alert: As it is in so many Scandinavian mysteries, there is a social commentary element to “The Chestnut Man.” Third spoiler alert: Will we see a sequel? I hope so.