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

Friday, July 19, 2019

Metropolis by Philip Kerr

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, $28

British author Philip Kerr died last year, so “Metropolis” is the last Bernie Gunther book to be released. Maybe. There is an unfortunate tendency to resurrect characters by giving them to other authors to handle. Sometimes the results are terrific, but often, meh. Bernie will be a hard character for an author to adopt. Kerr has taken him through the horrors of World War II as a police detective in Berlin to the post-war world and all its disillusionment and falsity. It’s not just the unusual time and place, it’s not that Bernie is a German in Germany during WWII, it’s not that Bernie is a cynical optimist, it’s that Kerr has breathed startling life into Bernie and his time. It was heartbreaking to learn of Kerr’s death, because it also meant that Bernie, as Kerr wrote him, is also dead.

In “Metropolis,”* Bernie is a beat cop who gets a big break when he’s asked to join the murder squad. The year is 1928. Let Kerr provide the context for Berlin between wars. Morally and politically lost after WWI and with Hitler on the rise, this is Berlin through Bernie’s eyes:

...Berlin now had almost nothing in common with the rest of the country. Increasingly the capital city was like a large ship that had slipped its mooring and was slowly drifting father and father away from the coast of Germany; it seemed unlikely we were going to return its more conservative ways, even if we’d wanted to. It’s not just people who outgrow their parents and origins; it’s metropolises, too.

And

It’s never the cold that brings out the worst in people, it’s the heat. If you can call them people: the sick, venal, lowlife that lies oozing at the bottom of the strata we are wont to call Berlin society. Sometimes I had the strong idea that [artist] George Grosz was right and I was wrong; that he was only recording what was already there: the indifferent fat bankers, the cripple veterans, the mutilated beggars, and the dead prostitutes — that this was how we really were, ugly and obscene, hypocritical and callous.

Into this societal maelstrom, Bernie’s mission with the murder squad is to find out who is killing prostitutes. The killer is also scalping them, earning himself the nickname of “Winnetou,” a Native American character from German author Karl May’s wildly imagined American Westerns. One of the victims is the daughter of a criminal bigwig, Erich Angerstein. He puts pressure on Bernie to find his daughter’s murderer. He is willing to help, and the suspect might even survive his “help.”

Suddenly, the murder squad is pulled off the murder of the prostitutes to investigate another series of murders, that of handicapped ex-veterans. “Dr. Gnatenschuss,” which translates as coup de grĂ¢ce, is that murderer’s nickname. He has boasted in a letter to a newspaper that he will run rings around the stupid police. Dr. G’s m.o. is to walk up boldly to his victim and shoot him in the head. 

Bernie has many ideas and many orders from Herr Weiss, his boss, and Herr Gennat, a fellow detective with lots of experience. While Bernie still searches for the murderer of Eva Angerstein, Erich’s daughter, he must also don a disguise as an amputee beggar. His old army jacket and Iron Cross will see another day in the sun, as long as Bernie does not actually become a victim himself. And he still mulls over the first murder case he handled with the murder squad a year ago, before he was called up to audition to be a permanent member of the squad. That victim, too, was a young woman. She was dismembered and now has been mostly forgotten.

What else is happening in Bernie’s world? Let’s see. He’s a raging alcoholic. He finds a number of women interesting and, for better or worse, they reciprocate. He may be in over his head with the criminal underground. He knows far too much about the gruff and weird underbelly of Berlin’s nightlife, especially the “anything goes” motto of the sex industry. There is extreme poverty in the city. There has been way too much death and everyone is traumatized to some extent. Bernie suffers. Berlin suffers. Hitler marches forward to his future.

Kerr handles all the intricacies of this historical environment and spins a thrilling fictional narrative from it. And Kerr’s writing has humor. Granted, it’s a touch ironic and sarcastic — e.g., “I never yet saw a musical I didn’t think could be improved by a deeper pit for the orchestra, and a bottomless chasm for the cast.” — but it balances the grimness of the crimes and the blackness of Berlin’s soul.

MBTB star!


* Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is referenced a few times. It was screened in 1927. Lang’s wife appears as a character in the book.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Conviction by Denise Mina

Little, Brown & Co., 385 pages, $27

Denise Mina’s writing voice is jazzy, lippy, arresting, and Scottish. In her latest book, she presents a complicated, enigmatic, troubled protagonist, a character she writes so well.

Anna McDonald is the young mother of two wonderful daughters and the companion of a respectable lawyer, Hamish. She does the laundry, picks up dry cleaning, drops kids off at school, and executes other mundane household tasks. On the face of it, she is a normal housewifey-type character.

The first eccentric thing about Anna is she likes to awaken early and listen to podcasts. Before her husband wakes and their mutual stresses and demands begin to take their daily form, she sits with a cup of tea and listens to whatever happens her way. She is just about to begin a podcast by Trina Keany, a producer on the MisoNetwork. Trina’s podcast is entitled, “Death and the Dana.” But before Anna can get fully into it, Hamish announces he is leaving her. He is taking the children and he is going to Portugal for a vacation with Estelle. Estelle? Anna’s best friend Estelle? What?

Amid the flurry of the tossed contents of Hamish’s suitcase, Anna is left to grieve. At first she is only capable of lying on her hall floor. Eventually, a knock on the door intrudes on her catatonia. It’s Fin. Estelle’s husband Fin. He obnoxiously batters on the door and harasses her through the mail slot until she opens up.

It is hard for her to focus on Fin and his problems. While still stunned by events and before Fin arrived, Anna continued to listen to “Death and the Dana,” her podcast. She hears a name she has not heard in almost a decade: Leon Parker. According to the podcast, Leon and his two adult children drowned aboard Leon’s yacht not too long ago. He had just married Gretchen Teigler, a very, very wealthy and powerful woman. Gretchen was not there when the ship went down, and she says she has no idea why Leon would destroy his own boat and kill his own children. Trina, the podcaster, has many things to explore about the mysterious sinking in the next episodes of her show. But suddenly, Anna must carry on her own investigation into the sinking. She is convinced that Leon would never have killed himself, let alone other people, let alone his children.

Here are two more bits of information about Anna: She does not drive and she will not fly in an airplane. That’s because she is not Anna McDonald, and both driving and traveling abroad might expose her deceit. Mina reveals very early on that Anna is really “Sophie Bukaran.” In spits and spots throughout the book, Mina tells the story of what happened to Sophie/Anna and why Anna declares that Gretchen Teigler is trying to kill her.

Back to the story. So Anna tears out of her house with the keys to Hamish’s prized car. What? Anna can drive? Fin tags along. Anna can’t be bothered with a road trip companion, so she periodically tries to get rid of him. But he sticks like glue. He is a bonehead about the podcast, a bonehead about being dumped, a bonehead about what really is going on with Anna. And it turns out he’s a sticky, anorexic, persistent, famous bonehead. Fin was once a rock star. Then he was famous for the disaster that enwrapped his band and his life. One of the reasons he doesn’t want to be left behind is he’s broke. Anna, on the other hand, before lighting out, scooped up the pound notes Hamish had given Anna to resettle in a little apartment somewhere.

It’s a daunting road trip because someone is trying to kill Anna again, all because her nosy neighbor, Pretcha, has snapped and tweeted a photo of Fin and Anna leaving her house. Fin, if you will remember, is famous. The tweet builds viewership momentum until Anna’s life is an open book. That’s when people begin to express themselves in violent ways in her presence.

Besides the appeal generated by the quirky stories of why Anna is in disguise, why she is trying to find out about the sinking of the Dana and Leon’s death, and what she is going to do about losing her family, there is Mina’s ear-catching writing. For instance:

I lay in bed savouring the anticipation [of listening to podcast], watching light from the street ripple across the ceiling, listening as the heating kicked on and the grand old dame of a house groaned and cracked her bones.

and about meeting Leon:

Our stories weren’t disguised curriculum vitae. We didn’t tell them as a way of boasting or declaring our relative place in the social order. There was none of that crap. These were stories to entertain, told for the shape of them, for the sake of them, for the love of a tale.

and, finally:

It’s hard to be among vanilla bastards all the time. Normal people can get genuinely upset about a bad haircut, cross words, sick cats. It’s hard not to roll your eyes and say the wrong thing. I often said the wrong thing — wake up, shut up, grow up. These are the wrong things to say when people are sad about some minor cruelty or sentimental incident. But Adam Ross [who worked with Anna and is an addict] was as damaged as me. He didn’t need to be shielded or protected and he knew what not to pick at. A fellow traveller. You could say anything to him. That is rare and very precious.

Plus, there is a ghostly element. When Mina first introduced it, I got "ghost bumps" and turned on all the lights.

As for the title, Amila Fabricase, the yacht's chef, was accused of murder in the yacht deaths and convicted. It is as much for this stranger as for herself that Anna stubbornly traces the fate of the Dana. The dual meaning of "conviction" is a smile from Mina's pen. Also, I laughed when I read the last paragraph. I can't remember the last time I laughed at the end of a mystery book! That, too, comes from Mina's smiling pen.

MBTB star!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $28

Warning: I will be using the words “love,” “genius,” “unexpected,” “spectacular,” and “genuflecting” many times during this review.

Jackson Brodie has been resurrected* to appear in “Big Sky, “ the fifth novel in Kate Atkinson’s adept series. Atkinson has a writing style that is designed to keep readers off balance. She inserts humor in subtle ways in unexpected places. She has a protagonist who appears only sporadically and sometimes just whimsically in her series. She probably sits at her writing desk and says the word “traditional,” then laughs uncontrollably.

In broad strokes, Atkinson plays with fate and coincidence. (I say it is coincidence if it is non-fiction and fate if it is fiction.) “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen,” says Jackson Brodie. Thus it is that a diverse and idiosyncratic lot are tossed into the area where the sun first rises in Yorkshire. Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay, Scarborough, the Cleveland Way, picturesque areas I know from having hiked the Coast-to-Coast route years ago.

Jackson settles into his new abode near Whitby, having made the decision that investigation can be done from anywhere. Down the road is The Seashell hotel, run by the formidable Rhoda and her meekly acquiescent husband Andy Bragg. Not too far away are the offices of Steven Mellors, a lawyer for whom Brodie has done some work. Jackson’s new client is Crystal Holroyd, wife of Tommy. One evening, Jackson happens across Vincent Ives who fears he will be charged with the death of his wife, Wendy. Jackson takes pity on Vince and gives him a business card. Call if I can help, he says to Vince. Ha!

DC Ronnie Dibicki and DC Reggie Chase are young police officers set to check out any current connections to an old case of corruption and a pedophile ring run by Antonio Bassani and Michael Carmody, now in jail or dead. Oh, you Kate Atkinson fans, does the name Reggie Chase sound familiar? Toss your remembering muscle back to “When Will There Be Good News” (c2008). She was sixteen years old in that book, and now she is twenty-six. It is a delight to witness Reggie and Jackson’s subdued reunion, haunted as it is by a murder and odious men. At one point Jackson says to Reggie, “Truth is absolute, but the consequences of it aren’t.” “Sounds like a specious argument to me, Mr. B,” shoots back Reggie. It’s a wonderful if brief connection.

Here is where Atkinson draws the strings up and hauls her characters into the same bag. Tommy, Andy, and Vince are golfing buddies. (“Golfing friends,” Vince thinks, not “friend friends.”) Right off the bat, we learn Tommy, Andy and Steven are involved in something shady. Ronnie and Reggie are trying to interview … Tommy, Andy, and Vince in conjunction with the old case. As a matter of fact, they are in Vince’s apartment when he learns someone has murdered his soon-to-be-ex-wife. (Did Vince?) At one point Reggie spies Jackson in the distance, the first time she has seen him in a long while. It is then that she recalls Jackson’s comment on coincidence just waiting for an explanation. Coincidence (or fate) is the life-blood of “Big Sky.”

The main characters are Jackson, Reggie, Crystal, Harry [Crystal’s stepson], and Vince. Atkinson sometimes writes a scene several times so we can see it from the viewpoint of different characters. These characters are plopped into circumstances mostly not of their creation and left to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. These people are unusually nuanced, engaging oddballs, victims of fate (or coincidence).

Will Ronnie and Reggie find connections to their old case? Who killed Wendy? What’s the story about Tommy, Andy, and Steven? (Okay, you learn right off the bat that it is sex trafficking. Slimy, grody, reprehensible, inexcusable sex trafficking. But in Atkinson’s understated way, there are almost no graphic scenes, but there often is a view of the black-and-blue aftermath.) Crystal wants Jackson to determine who has been tailing her, so … Who is tailing Crystal? Why have anonymous notes panicked Crystal and has-been comic Barclay Jack? What about Vince? What will happen to sweet sixteen-year-old Harry, a summer employee of Transylvania World, a volunteer assistant to Barclay Jack, and the son of the odious Tommy?

There are invisible threads everywhere, and it is our delight to see Atkinson roll them out and unravel them. As Atkinson writes, “Worlds were colliding all over the place. Jackson thought he might actually have gone mad.”

This is not a whodunnit. You are not given clues per se and asked to solve the murder along with the detective. This is a look at some good-hearted people trying to wade through life’s many miseries, mysteries, and mayhem and not lose their humanity. The big sky covers us all.

A huge MBTB star for this one!




* As Jackson ponders his past, he reminisces: “He’d fallen off a cliff, been attacked by a mad dog, almost died in a train crash, nearly drowned, been crushed in a garbage truck, blown up — his house had been, anyway — and that wasn’t counting  a couple of near misses when serving in the police and the Army. His life had been a litany of disasters. What if he was already on his ninth life? The last go-round. Perhaps he should be more cautious.”

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Dark Site by Patrick Lee

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $27.99

I’ve noticed something some writers do, and I’ve done the same something myself when writing but without any conscious effort. It’s worth pondering why this is so in our hyper-aware and stressful times. It is this. When a male protagonist is referred to, it is by his last name. A female character, on the other hand, is mentioned by her first name. In “Dark Site,” Sam Dryden is “Dryden,” and Danica Ellis is “Danica.” Even more telling, one of the characters is named Jack Grace, and he is referred to as “Grace.” Hmm.

I suppose I fell into a rhythm based on the stereotypes with which I grew up. The male prep school and adult male enclaves of business and the military foster males calling each other by their last names. Women are chatty, friendly, and nurturing, so they receive motherly recognition encapsuled in their chatty, friendly, and nurturing first names. The protective one receives the tougher name and the person who needs protecting receives the friendlier one.

I’ve been trying to break myself of this bias.

“Dark Site” hardly breaks the mold with tough guy “Dryden protecting the more helpless Danica (i.e., she doesn’t know how to shoot a gun). However, in the sections of the story dealing with events in 1989, he is “Sam” and she is “Danica," and she is the more adventurous and daring of the two. Of course, they are both twelve years old, so they are allowed their first names.

Back to the story.

Author Patrick Lee has already written a couple of other Sam Dryden books, both fast-paced thrillers. But “Dark Site” can very well stand on its own outside of the series playbook.

In 2018, Danica is in fairly desperate financial straits in Gold Beach, Oregon, when two people attempt to kidnap her. Her background is innocuous and her life certainly has held only minimal drama, of interest to almost no one, including herself. Danica flees her perilous situation in Oregon to visit her estranged stepfather in California.

In 2018, Sam is pondering purchasing and renovating an old house in Malibu. When someone tries to attack Sam, he dodges the bullet meant for him and realizes the trail leads to where Danica’s stepfather is. He does not know Danica or her stepfather, however, so the journey is a strange and puzzling one for him. He arrives just in time to save Danica from yet another attempt to capture or kill her.

After some distrust and disquiet, Sam and Danica unite to uncover who is behind the attacks and why. Bring in the military and FBI? What if it is the military or FBI trying to kill them for nefarious reasons? They realize that they have to eventually trust someone who can provide a clue. And that is how Patrick Lee leads his readers on a merry chase, following clues obtained in heart-pounding fashion to advance the plot. He’s very good at that!

The plot of the last third of the book is a little hare-brained, but Lee presses the accelerator and zooms on at breakneck speed. Events in 1989 and 2018 toggle back and forth. We realize early on that Sam and Danica did know each other as twelve year olds. But why can’t they remember each other, especially since the events that took place when they were twelve seem to be extraordinary.

The only comfort I can give you while reading this book is to remind you that Sam and Danica somehow survive the events of 1989. They are functioning adults in 2018. Now if only they can survive the events of 2018, they will have quite a tale to tell.

Great page turner, even though the ending was a little too fantastical.