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 10, 2019

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

Dutton, 381 pages, $26

It’s a good thing it’s summer as I write this, because “Lock Every Door” is a summer read. It’s got Gothic thrills and chills, an intimation of a coven, and a harkening back to the claustrophobic apartment building of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Oh, my.

Jules (not a nickname, she points out) Larsen is twenty-five and poor as a churchmouse. She has just lost her job and found out her boyfriend was cheating on her. She is homeless in Manhattan and penniless, with no family and only one true friend, Chloe. It is with Chloe that Jules is staying while she looks to gather her wits and restart her life. Chloe is wonderful, but she has her own life to live and her apartment is small. When Jules spots an advertisement for an apartment sitter, it seems to answer a couple of her most urgent needs: money and a place to stay.

And what a place it is! The Bartholomew (along the lines of “The Dakota”) is a place out of Jules’ favorite book, “Heart of a Dreamer,” by Greta Manville. As teenagers in Pennsylvania coal country, Jules and her sister Jane read the book and dreamed of life in the big city, along the lines of the book’s heroine, Ginny, who lived in The Bartholomew. Now she is being shown around a fabulous apartment on the top floor of that very real building, with a fabulous view of Central Park and lurking gargoyles. And she gets paid $1000 once a week, in cash! Wowee wow wow! But you know the saying about if something is too good to be true ...

The caretaker job comes with some restrictions, very odd restrictions. No one can ever visit Jules. She may not spend a night away from the apartment. She may not post anything on social media. She may not initiate contact with anyone else in the building. Privacy concerns, you know. Most of the permanent residents are rich and famous and “vant to be alone.” Most of the ones she spots seem standoffish anyway. There’s the old man with his nurse toddling up and down the stairs for exercise. There’s the old woman with her yappy dog always going for walks. And then there’s the old woman who ... OMG, she’s Greta Manville, the author of Jules’ favorite book! Could that be why her book is placed in The Bartholomew? She herself is a resident! Jules longs to talk with her and risks breaking a rule to make contact.

The wonder of The Bartholomew is compromised when Jules hears a noise in the night. Is it coming from her fabulous and richly appointed living room? She slowly descends from her richly appointed bedroom, down her marvelously constructed spiral staircase only to find no one and nothing.

It is true that Jules has nightmares anyway. Her older sister Jane disappeared when they were teenagers. One day she stepped out of the shop where she worked part-time and into a mysterious car, and then she was gone, without a trace. In her dreams, Jules relives that. That story haunts Jules’ increasingly difficult experience at The Bartholomew.

Jules almost immediately makes a friend in the building, another young woman named Ingrid Gallagher. Ingrid’s cheeriness balances Jules’ recalcitrance. But their friendship ends abruptly when Ingrid disappears. Jules is told that Ingrid just dropped her keys on the lobby floor and vanished into the night. A large part of the book is given to Jules’ search for Ingrid.

Perhaps the sequel to “Lock Every Door” will be “The Phone Call Is Coming from Inside Your House,” because although the story takes place in Manhattan, the feeling is of a suburban horror movie.

The ending was a little goofy but that is appropriate for a summer read, don’t you think?

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

We Were Killers Once by Becky Masterman

Minotaur Books, 312 pages, $27.99

Brigid Quinn rides again! This is good news because Brigid is one of the most unusual private eyes in the biz. She’s ex-FBI. (Hold the applause; she was disgraced and banished to Arizona.) She’s the wife of an ex-priest, Carlo. (He looks for the good in people; she knows there’s evil out there.) Her niece, Gemma-Kate, is a bit of a psychopath, but a brilliant psychopath. (She may — or may not — have poisoned one of Brigid and Carlo’s lovable pugs.) Both Brigid and Carlo have almost been done in by murderers. (Can’t think of an aside. This is a — for the most part — mystery blog, so there are usually murders being discussed. PI-ing is a dangerous profession, fictionally speaking, and being married to such a person presents its own dangerous moments.)

Brigid is Carlo’s second wife. His beloved, we assume, first wife, Jane, died a few years back. The personal understory of “We Were Killers Once” is about Brigid coming to terms with Carlo’s relationship with Jane. Before Carlo, Brigid had never been married, so Carlo doesn’t face the same potential anguish. In fact, most of Carlo’s anguish seems to be philosophical. It’s a good thing he’s a professor of philosophy. His thoughts and conversation are measured. Brigid is a person of deed, not word. It’s a wonder they have found each other. It’s a wonder they are still together after a couple of years of marriage. Neither is a blushing bride or groom, so there’s perhaps less dramatic romance and a steadier kind of love. Their relationship is about to be tested from all sorts of angles because of an obsession and an old sin. 

For as long as she can remember, Brigid has been fascinated with the killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. You might know them as the focal points of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” They were found guilty and subsequently executed for the murders of the Clutter family. Becky Masterman’s hypothesis here is: What if Capote got it wrong? His story is mostly from Perry’s point of view. What if Dick Hickock had his own tale to tell? What if there were another person involved?

For a number of years, Brigid has been intrigued by the murders of another family, the Walkers, in Florida. Hickock and Smith were known to have been in the area of those murders, but they were discounted as suspects by lack of evidence tying them to the crime. What if that “other person” was willing to do whatever to prevent the discovery of his involvement and his knowledge of Hickock and Smith?  What if that man’s name is Jeremiah Beaufort and Brigid and Carlo cross his path?

Mixing real life facts, Capote’s book, and Masterman’s imagination results in an intriguing book. From the start, Masterman divides her book into Brigid’s first person narration and a third person viewpoint of Beaufort’s search to eradicate whatever information may exist to link him to any killings. Beaufort is seventy years old when he gets out of prison for other crimes, and he doesn’t waste any time trying to track down potential threats. 

In favor of Brigid and Carlo surviving their encounter is Beaufort’s naïveté and his egotism. Also on the plus side are Brigid’s tough mind and practical planning based on her years as an agent and borderline sociopathic personality. Gemma-Kate is an apple that doesn’t fall far from the Quinn tree, so she is another plus. Carlo has deep sense of the value of humanity and loving kindness, but they probably are not really pluses here. So that’s the team trying to fend off the clammy fingers of Death grabbing one or more of them.

I’m leaving huge swathes of the story still under wraps. For instance, how specifically do Brigid and Carlo wind up on Beaufort’s radar? That’s part of the circle-tightening Masterman does to carry the story along, and I’m not going to be the one to muck up the deal!

This is a good one.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Love Story, with Murders by Harry Bingham

Delacorte Press, 400 ages, $27

When your popular novel features a protagonist so acutely different, what’s your next move? How do you continue to create interest when readers (presumably) already know the secret to your character’s eccentricities? We should all have this problem. Harry Bingham was born ready to write the sequel to “Talking to the Dead” (2012).

D.C. Fiona Griffiths of a Welsh CID unit is back. This twenty-six-year-old woman (in the fictional year of 2010) spent part of her youth thinking she was dead. She still isn’t quite sure she isn’t actually dead. But mostly now, she lives on what she terms “Planet Normal.” She has a loverly boyfriend, Buzz, and a job she hasn’t managed to lose, although there are a few of her colleagues who don’t like her.

“Love Story, with Murders” is a strange title, but at the end, perhaps you will agree, it is spot on. It first begins with a murder. The murder actually took place several years ago, but the body — or at least part of it, consisting of a leg — was only recently discovered. In someone’s garage freezer. Soon other pieces of Mary Jane Langton, a twenty-two-year-old student and sometime “exotic” dancer, begin to surface. 

The title contains the plural, “murders.” And so soon, another body, or parts thereof, makes itself known. This one is of recent vintage and is of a man, Ali el-Khalifi, a lecturer in engineering. His parts are not hidden in freezers or cans of oil the way Mary Jane’s are. His are merely strewn around the suburban-side.

This is Fiona’s reaction to the discovery, of which she was an integral part, of Mary Jane: “[T]his will be a CID case from here on. A sweet little murder. I feel a deep sigh of relaxation pass through me. Of pleasure.” An unusual reaction, wot?

How about when Buzz asks her about her case: “I tell him about my night, except not the bit about going down to Pontcanna or up to Whitchurch, or the bit about calling my dad, or the bit about going into the dead girl’s room, or the drizzle of body parts, or the joint which I thought about twice but didn’t have. Apart from that, I’m as open as sunshine.”

About Fiona’s dad: He’s a criminal. He has never been caught, so he’s either a smart criminal or a lucky one. It is with trepidation that the force has accepted Fiona as a cop. Also about Fiona’s dad: He isn’t her biological father. At about two-and-a-half, Fiona was discovered in her adoptive parents’ car, abandoned. By whom? Why? Fiona continues a desultory personal investigation into it, but there isn’t a lot to go on. And she wouldn’t want to stub her toe on the wrong rocks.

So these are the basic elements to Bingham’s second Fiona story. What makes this book so extraordinary is the same thing that made “Talking to the Dead” extraordinary. Bingham mixes the grisly with the humorous, the sweet with the macabre. He is excellent at keeping both the pacing and storyline off balance. Tra la la la la, boom! For example, at one point Fiona is in dire danger of losing her life. Well, you think, there is a good portion of the book to go and Fiona is the only first person narrator, so she must survive, right? But how? And the fun of it is how Bingham goes about resolving those “difficulties.” Tra la la la la, boom!

Fiona studied philosophy at Cambridge, so every once in awhile Bingham inserts a philosophical digression. Fun. She rarely can feel her feet. Fun? She grows her own weed. Fun? Pile the weirdness on, Bingham!

Here’s a lovely bit of Bingham:

For me, all corpses count the same. One dead body might lead to Barry Precision. Another to nothing more than a love poem lost down the back of a sofa. There is no eminence here, no lowliness. We are all equal under Death’s scythe.

I’ve left out the “love story” part of the title. It’s one of the quieter moments of the book and should be revealed in its own time and only to its reader.

MBTB star!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Crown, 336 pages, $27

“Groundhog Day” was cute, charming, romantic. “Recursion” is grim and scary. “Recursion” is about events that happen over and over again, with differences, sometimes with a phase of mere minutes and sometimes of years. It’s “Groundhog Day” on steroids. Blake Crouch’s story starts off small, if very dramatically. The insistent, repetitive nature of the central idea of the book could be dreary but Crouch makes it exciting and heart-breaking.

Barry Sutton is a detective who has caught an unusual case. A woman is teetering on the edge  of the top of a tall building, threatening to jump. Barry gets her to tell him her story as he awaits specialists to help him rescue her. She says she is Ann Voss Peters and her husband is married to another woman. But that woman died many years ago by jumping off the very roof Ann occupies. She was her husband’s first wife. Ann is his second wife. They have children. Suddenly, she says, she awoke with a different life. Her husband was not her husband any longer. She had no children. The first wife had not died. Ann fears she has FMS — false memory syndrome — a disorder that seems to be increasing in occurrence. She and others are convinced they lived lives that no longer “exist.”

Barry is a morose kind of guy, still smarting from his divorce from Julia ten years ago. That was a year after their teenage daughter died. His life has been spiraling downwards ever since. After Ann kills herself, Barry becomes intrigued by how convincing Ann was about her alternate life. The intrigue turns into an obsession, one that replaces his obsession over his daughter’s death.

Helena Smith has invented a “chair.” She is not a carpenter or a designer like Eames (although an Eames chair does appear in the latter stages of the book). She is a scientist driven by the advancing Alzheimer’s disease of her mother to find a device that will help her. Helena is interested in mapping memories and playing them back for someone with a memory disease. Helena is hoping her chair will be that device.

At this point, you have to be thinking, Aha, these events are related. It is true that when Barry meets Helena, hell on earth breaks loose. But Crouch’s book is not strictly a science-fiction thriller or even a horror novel. It is genuinely touching to read of Barry and Helena’s struggles and how they must deal with frustrations over the course of their lives. “Recursion” is the butterfly wing that beats and opens up an unpalatable look at the repulsive tendencies of humans but also a hopeful glance at their transcendent and self-sacrificial ones as well.

MBTB star!