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

Monday, December 10, 2018

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown & Co., 352 pages, $28

Oof! Kate Atkinson does it again. There’s a metaphorical punch to the solar plexus at the end. And before and including the final punctuation, she leads us on a marvelous journey. Atkinson’s dry humor, sly characterizations, quirky storyline, and acerbic asides are worth every penny of what I hope you are paying for her book, if you are able. (Authors need more than kind regard to live on.)

Juliet Armstrong, an earnest innocent, enters government work as an eighteen-year-old, after her mother dies and she is left rudderless. The UK has not yet entered World War II, but it is only a matter of time, she knows. She is catapulted — maybe that is too strong a word, since the work is tedious — into being a transcriber of recordings of an MI5 operation. In the apartment next to her small apartment/office, an MI5 operative is pretending to be a spy for the Gestapo. He meets with Nazi sympathizers. They tell “Godfrey Toby” all they have discovered about potential British maneuvering, and he passes the information along to … well, British intelligence.

Then one of Juliet’s superiors asks her to pose as a sympathizer and infiltrate a group led by Mrs. Scaife, the nasty wife of a naval admiral. She is dogmatically related to all the ordinary but intolerant people who meet with Toby, but Mrs. Scaife’s social status is a step up. She is the link to all the other upper crust British fascists and to their misguided plots.

Much later, as an aside, Atkinson follows up on one of the lesser lights in the conspiracy, Trude. She is dying, alone, in a hospital. A nurse importunes Juliet to sit with Trude, mistaking her for a friend.

It would have taken the hardest heart — harder even than Juliet’s — not to feel a little sorry for Trude, but then Juliet thought of Fräulein Rosenfeld, who had lost all her prettier sisters to the camps. She stood up and said, ‘Well, this is goodbye, Trude,’ and left her to die on her own.

That’s how Kate Atkinson rolls.

Atkinson moves among stories set in 1940, 1950, and 1981. Even within their individual time frames, Atkinson bounces the story back and forth some. Juliet travels a long way in both time and experience from when she first joins the Service to the point when she watches a dying Trude. In between are many spy moments, even some moments of suspense and violence. Here is Atkinson describing the body of a murder victim:

Beatrice looked as though she had been modeled from clay, rather badly, and the clay had begun to deliquesce slightly. Someone had washed her, but the coal dust was ingrained in her skin, and her mousy hair was sooty. Something had already started nibbling at her and Juliet wondered what kind of creatures lived in coal holes waiting for this dreadful food.

But the majority of Atkinson’s book is quiet. We follow Juliet, her obsessions and confusions. She is so idealistic that the only thing that can happen, novelistically speaking, is disillusionment. Even that happens quietly.

That eager-to-please, academic sixth-former, who played on the left wing in hockey, who was the leading light of the drama club and practiced piano almost every day at school (because there was no room for a piano at home), that girl who was a keen Girl Guide and who loved drama and music and art, that girl, transmuted by bereavement, had gone. And, as far as Juliet could tell, she had never really come back.

In 1950, circumstances take a turn to the sinister. She is sure she is being followed. Someone has sent her a threatening note. Whom can she trust? She is working for the BBC as a children’s program producer. There is nothing more benign. Then why does she feel she is still at war? She ruminates on the agents of her destiny: 

Her war (and her peace too, she supposed) had been shaped by the men she knew. Oliver Alleyne, Peregrine Gibbons, Godfrey Toby, Rupert Hartley, Miles Merton. She thought they sounded like characters in a novel by Henry James. One of the later, more opaque ones, perhaps. Who, she wondered, was the most opaque of them all?

As an example of Atkinson’s quirky humor she bestows upon Juliet a quiet abhorance of hideous metaphors: 

‘You have an eye,’ Miss Gillies told her. I have two, she thought.


She cast her eye around the room (dreadful phrase) …

The book begins in 1981. Juliet has just been hit by a car. She sees the tunnel heading into the light. The rest of the book is the flashback of her life, a transcription, if you will, of her life. Imagine what could have been, instead of what was. Does she have regrets? Yes, she (and Frank Sinatra) has a few, including a major one that isn’t revealed until the end of the book. But then, in the shadowy world of espionage, everyone probably has a few.

Kate Atkinson is a master of the hidden story. Her characters quietly hide in plain sight. Her story is defined as much by what she doesn’t say as what she does say. 

MBTB star!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Depth of Winter by Craig Johnson

Viking, 304 pages, $28

For the most part, the Mexican sun blazes unsparingly throughout “Depth of Winter,” the fourteenth full-length Walt Longmire mystery by Craig Johnson. It is easy to feel how parched various characters feel, how desolate the desert hillside is. In the midst of Dia de los Muertos festivities, Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, has journeyed to the holdout of butchers and madmen in an almost inaccessible part of Mexico to make sure those dear to him do not join the spirits on the other side.

Psychopath Bidarte has been a long-time foe of Walt. Walt suspects Bidarte has been behind the recent spate of evils that has befallen his family: the death of his son-in-law, the kidnapping of his daughter, Cady. Bidarte has left a trail for Walt to follow, a trail that ends in Walt’s death, Bidarte hopes.

There is more action in this book than in all the previous thirteen books combined. It begins with Walt meeting “The Seer,” a blind man with no legs. Walt hopes he is the start he needs to find Cady. Walt must put his trust in this stranger. Then he must trust more strangers and even some bad people who are not strangers.

Will the ghosts of the First Nation who have led and aided Walt in dire moments clear a path for him now? Will all the people waiting around the bend who want to kill Walt finally have the odds in their favor? Will the mules or donkeys help or hinder? There’s no telling with mules, or donkeys.

Despite the surfeit of action, Craig Johnson capably tends to his characters. He shows us their stories. He prods their better natures and tests their mettle. He also gives his long-time readers what they have come for: humor and heart.

There is a lot of bang, bang. There are a lot of rat-a-tats. There are even some moments of ka-boom. There are cough, coughs. There are eeeeeeees, aaaaaaas, oh shits, and a clothesline. Good times.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Red, White, Blue by Lea Carpenter

Knopf, 320 pages, $26.95

Two stories are braided together in this poetic and beguiling spy/father-daughter novel by Lea Carpenter. 

Much to her surprise, a young American woman, Anna, discovers her father, Noel, was a spy, mostly working in Asia. From that revelation flows a re-examination about their relationship: It wasn’t her, it was him. Her mother, Lulu, moved on to another life, abandoning her daughter and husband early on. Again, maybe it wasn’t her, maybe it was him. Still, revelations only beget more questions, and in the midst of that turmoil, Anna discovers she has married one kind of man and has gotten another.

Anna is set to marry Jake (whose name doesn’t appear for quite some time, although he is important in moving events forward) in Switzerland, when Noel’s body is found buried by an avalanche just before the wedding. Noel had been visited by strangers just shortly before he headed up for a ski. Is there a connection? Anna doesn’t think about this for quite some time.

On Anna’s long-delayed honeymoon, a man begins a conversation with her in a bar. He takes her to a beach where he invites her to swim far beyond the buoyed boundary. He reveals in a shadowy way his connection to Noel, who was his mentor at the shadowy CIA.

Anna learns about a young Chinese woman who spies for her father and the unnamed colleague. Veritas is her code name. Who was she and what was she to both men? Is she why her father died in circumstances, come to think of it, that seem more sinister by the minute? Why has the colleague contacted her? He does not romance her but he acts with familiarity towards her. She responds with trust, although he has done nothing to warrant it.

“Red, White, Blue” moves between the first-person narration by the unnamed colleague and Anna’s story told in the third-person. Noel’s career and obsession unfolds before us and before Anna. His still waters ran deep and with compassion.

There’s a lot of talk about polygraphs and Wonder Woman’s golden lasso, both items that purportedly determine if someone is lying. Being fiction, the lasso is infallible, but the polygraph machine apparently is subject to interpretation and fiddling. The question that runs through the book is what is truth, what is truth-telling, and what is holding to the truth. In truth, veritas

As Anna’s story progresses, we see her husband, a golden boy with a golden touch, go from being an impressario in the pop music world to being a contender for U.S. Senator from New York. Anna’s own accomplishments begin to wane in the harsh beauty of his light, until she is no longer truly herself. The colleague’s intrigue draws her back into her own light long enough to assess what she wants to do to honor herself and her father.

Although the spy bits had substance, they weren’t overly meaty, and that’s good. Anna’s story showed her fading out. She was Phi Beta Kappa, worked for the prestigious Ford Foundation, and had a mission and an independent life before marrying Jake. What is she now if she is not Mrs. Jake? The novel is about Anna, and that’s good, too.

Here is an example of the writing that captivated me:

“For years, whenever she thought about Switzerland, she thought less about prayers and more about that breakfast, what they’d discussed, this idea that people tell you who they are. As of people, so of things: A thing can elicit emotion, too, can tell you what it is, and you should believe it when it tells you. Sometimes a thing looks like a riddle when it’s a clue. That thing that arrived in Anna’s mail after her father died, after the burial and the honeymoon, looked like a riddle but was actually a clue. It was trying to tell her something. You might say it was shouting.”

For the odd mix of spycraft and inner reflection, for an underlying story that touches the heart, for saving Anna, here is an MBTB star for Lea Carpenter!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Swift Vengeance by T. Jefferson Parker

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $27

I’ve always liked T. Jefferson Parker’s straight-ahead storytelling. He has usually set his stories in a place he knows well, Southern California. His characters are strongly delineated. There are no unreliable narrators, clowns in the gutter, or apocalyptic zombie terrorists.

Speaking of terrorists. Roland Ford, a private investigator last seen in “The Room of White Fire,” is trying to lift himself out of mourning the death of his wife in a plane crash. His current outstanding client wants him to find her missing giganto kittycat. Other than that, he sits on his rural homestead, which he shares with his “renters” — they’d be renters with no quotation marks if they actually paid on time, or at all — and plays ping pong and watches the day come along.

Then a former renter, Lindsey Rakes, returns. She was a lieutenant in the USAF and worked as a drone operator, a drone operator tasked with searching for terrorist targets in the Middle East and remotely sending death screaming down onto their heads. Someone has taken a strong dislike to Lindsey and other drone operators on her team. There was an unfortunate incident they were involved in, and the assumption is that the person threatening the team members is somehow related to that incident. In any event, Lindsey’s letter from “Caliphornia” says he or she would like to decapitate Lindsey. “The thunder is coming for you,” Caliphornia says.

Although Lindsey is successfully rebuilding her life and putting her drone work in the past and the subsequent PTSD in abeyance in order to regain custody rights to her young son, the threat has thrown her back to her old landlord for help.

Roland is not just a landlord and seeker of missing cats; he was once a cop in San Diego and a soldier in the Middle East. He is smart, tough, and protective of his friends. Lindsey is a friend, so he takes her case. (And won’t even charge her rent as she returns to one of the cabins on his land.)

There are not a lot of twists in this book. Books nowadays have too many twists sometimes, and it creates a false expectation that all books will have twists. There are gotcha! moments in “Swift Vengeance,” but that is not the attraction here. Roland’s loyalty, intelligence and judgment, and Parker’s portrayal of these qualities, are what should draw readers in. Parker is one of those good storytellers who doesn’t have to rely on tricks to satisfy readers.