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

Friday, September 21, 2018

Don’t Eat Me by Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, 304 pages, $26.95

Revenge is a dish best served in the thirteenth book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Author Colin Cotterill has had a winner since “The Coroner’s Lunch” was released in 2004. The series began in 1970s Laos and Cotterill has worked his way up to 1980 in “Don’t Eat Me.” It is a time in which: “Life sped by in Vientiane like a Volkswagen van on blocks.”

The sterling cast of characters include Siri, his wife Daeng, Siri’s ex-morgue nurse Dtui and her husband Phosy (now Chief Inspector Phosy), Siri’s ex-morgue assistant Geung and his girlfriend Tukta, and Siri’s old pal and former Communist Party bigwig Civilai. Transvestite fortune-teller Auntie Bpoo has been around a while and she certainly was a character when she was alive, but she is possibly more irritating dead. She is Siri’s spirit guide, as the ghostly world tries to throw Siri a bone to help him in the real world. Sometimes the bone lands with a clunk, however.

Although I rarely insist on reading a series in order, I think this series needs to be one of those exceptions, especially for “Don’t Eat Me.” One of the standing villainous characters has a big part in this. Because Soho Press is fabulous, all of Cotterill’s books are available.

Siri and Daeng have settled back into the rhythm of the noodle shop as the story opens, after having had quite a bit of excitement attending the Olympics in Moscow. But since Siri and Civilai are like two naughty boys, despite their 70+ years, they are challenged by Phosy when they are caught smuggling something large and bulky over the Mekong from Thailand. A nuclear weapon? A dead body? A priceless artifact? Nah. This is a Dr. Siri book, remember.

What they smuggle in becomes the centerpiece for the comic relief in the book. The bureaucratic humbuggery stutters to life when Siri and Civilai decide to film a movie, a Laotian “War and Peace.” Humor and cleverness ensue. This proves just the counterbalance to the very serious issue discussed in the rest of the book: wild animal trafficking.

Phosy cannot stand to be a paper-shuffling administrator. Even though he is the chief inspector, he begins a hands-on investigation of a skeleton found discarded on a main road. It appears to be that of a young woman, only recently deceased. Dtui, an informal coroner for her husband, determines that there are animal marks on the bones. From there, Phosy journeys deeper into the dark heart of Laos to find those animals, ably assisted by only a few well-chosen police officers. Phosy has been cleaning house and many former officers, including his predecessor, now languish in prison, charged with corruption.

I’ve tried to be circumspect about what I reveal about the storyline. Cotterill writes his story as if he were deconstructing an onion. The layers fall off and in the center there are surprises a-plenty for the denouement.

It’s hard to combine both tragedy and comedy, but Cotterill does it well. His love for his adopted home of Southeast Asia comes through, as well as his desire to highlight various problems the countries have.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Tin House Books, 272 pages, $15.95 

“Who Is Vera Kelly?” lives beyond the expectations created by the misleading cover picture. It is not yet another book with an unreliable female narrator. It is not a plucky young woman goes to the big city book, although this perhaps comes closer than the other to describing Vera.

Toggling between stories set in the late 50s and 1966, the book does not display a distracting and dizzying juggle. Rather, the earlier story lends direct coherence to the 1966 story. So refreshing.

Vera is fifteen or sixteen when the earlier story begins. She does not fit in with her “peers” in high school. She accidentally overdoses on one of her mother’s medications. That leads to her mother sending her to juvenile detention, removing Vera from the few things and people she loves. It turns out Vera is tough. Lonely but tough.

The 1966 story takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s one of those times in Argentina’s turbulent history when the balance of political power seems fated to tilt in favor of an outlier. The communists, sponsored by the U.S.S.R., are fomenting rebellion in Argentina and other South American countries. Vera, who speaks Spanish and French, is an American spy for the C.I.A. She presents herself as a Canadian student seeking an advanced degree at the local university.

Using her cover story, Vera meets some student radicals, gets a hint of a terrorist conspiracy, and operates a sophisticated technical listening outpost to eavesdrop on the current government and the student radicals. She gives information to her handler that indicates the political pot is about to boil over. But this is not a James Bond tale, and that makes all the difference.

Vera is smart, wily, and intrepid but not foolhardy. She would never go unarmed down those basement steps in the dark to investigate the serial killer. She seems so real and human and vulnerable. She is willing to make sacrifices and practical decisions for her mission. She romances an male ex-pat to cement her cover, even though she is a lesbian. As hard as it is, she tamps down her desire to frequent one of “those” bars to find companionship. As I said, Vera is lonely but tough.

The grown-up Vera is very much a product of the tribulations she had to overcome and the independence she had to foster at a young age. (Thank you, Mom, she may someday say, for being such a bitch.) Author Rosalie Knecht brings in so many layers of character and plot in ingenious ways. I was transfixed. 

At random — not that I could lose by doing this — I picked a page to find a quote, and this is what I found:

I had found the apartment in San Telmo with the help of a motherly rental agent in a pink suit who had tried to cheat me on her percentage not once but twice, and reacted with a broad and charming laugh both times I pointed it out, as if we were flirting on a date and I was removing her hand from my thigh.

High calibre all the way! MBTB star!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Fear in Yesterday’s Rings by George C. Chesbro

Mysterious Press Books, 215 pages, c1991

Carolyn Lane, one of MBTB’s owners, enjoyed the Mongo series by George C. Chesbro. “The Fear in Yesterday’s Rings” was my first foray into the series, and I probably should have picked another title. Although the premise of the series — a former circus dwarf becomes a private investigator — has a lot of points going for it in originality, this book, which had me rooting for the villainous lobox on occasion, lacked discipline.

Mongo the Magnificent, otherwise known as Robert Frederickson, may have left the circus, but his heart still belongs to the big top and its residents, including African elephant Mabel. People, including his brother, still call him “Mongo.” As shown towards the end of the book, Mongo still has some of the athletic skills he developed as an acrobat and animal trainer in the circus years earlier.

Phil Statler, the former owner of Mongo’s circus, is now a bum, found in dire straits on the streets of New York. Mongo owes him a great deal, so he decides to form a consortium of buyers among former circus folks to buy back Phil’s circus. That leads to Mongo’s reunion with Harper Rhys-Whitney, also formerly of the circus. Quite a lot of the book deals with their energetic reunion activities, a lot of which seems gratuitous considering some of the stressful situations they find themselves in as they track down the circus and its new owners.

Hmm, Mongo thinks, as he examines information about vicious animal attacks across the Great Plains, mysteriously mirroring the pathway of the circus. The first thing that springs to mind: werewolves. Why? Because.

It’s a tangled path of discovery, escape, more discovery, more escape. Call the cops, I kept shouting. But nobody listened to me. 

The best scene was of Mongo attempting to tame the lobox (the creature causing the damage — sorry for the spoiler). That was genuinely entertaining.


Friday, September 7, 2018

99 Ways to Die by Ed Lin

Soho Crime, 288 pages, $26.95 (release date - 10/9/18)

I’d like my history and political commentary wrapped up in a tale full of humor and exotic Taiwanese meat, please. Luckily, Ed Lin is currently serving that right up.

Set on the island of Taiwan (Republic of China), and featuring the Shilin Night Market, Lin has created a series that captures an authentic look at a community of many different cultures, rooted in how they perceive themselves not as Chinese but with their own unique identity. The political situation between China and Taiwan has many of Taiwan’s citizens precariously walking the line of correct behavior and speech. Don’t know much about Taiwan? Ed Lin will school you, and entertain you as a bonus.

Chen Jing-nan has an alter ego, “Johnny,” pitchman for his food stand at the night market. Johnny speaks English, knows American idioms, flirts with the women, cajoles the men, jokes with everyone. Everyone is his friend, at least until about a minute after they buy food from him, then he’s on to the next customer. Jing-nan, on the other hand, is shy. He's open-minded and anxious to avoid conflict. 

Nancy, Jing-nan’s girlfriend, is a brainy Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry. Dwayne and Frankie are his night stall workers, whom he inherited from his parents after they unexpectedly died while Jing-nan was still in college in the U.S. Peggy is a former childhood classmate. Peggy also happens to be rich, rich, rich and connected to mainland Chinese interests. (Lin explains why this is an unseemly link in Taiwan.) Jing-nan also has an uncle, Big Eye, who is a bigshot in the crime syndicate on Taiwan. These are the standard characters in the Shilin Night Market series, of which “99 Ways to Die” is the third.

One night, in full view of a police contingent, Peggy’s father, the notorious businessman Tong-tong, is kidnapped. The kidnappers don’t want money; they want a low-power chip one of Tong-tong’s companies supposedly has. Peggy doesn’t know how to find the chip, so she commandeers — and not very politely — her former classmate. Jing-nan doesn’t exactly like the foul-mouthed and insulting Peggy but he doesn’t exactly dislike her either, but maybe leaning more towards the latter. Plus, Tong-tong is his landlord in the night market. So, Jing-nan says yes. Which means Frankie, Dwayne, Uncle Big Eye, and Nancy also are involved.

Jing-nan’s Taiwan (mostly Taipei) is not the tourist’s Taiwan. Lin exposes the false walls and dark alleys of the area — without venturing into noir territory. He brings up Taiwan’s racism against immigrants, government corruption, venal criminal organizations, and the political pressure from China. But Jing-nan’s boyish and almost-innocent demeanor and his outward acquiescence balance the grim forces eddying around the populous island state. There is steel underlying Lin’s humor-filled crime novel.

As a connoisseur of great last lines/paragraphs, I think Lin has a pretty good one to conclude “99 Ways to Die.” Now pass the grilled intestines.