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

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Snow by John Banville

Hanover Square Press, 304 pages, $27.99 (c2020)

John Banville is known by another, more familiar name to the mystery world: Benjamin Black. Under this pseudonym, he created the character of a forensic pathologist named Quirke. In “Snow,” Quirke is on his honeymoon, and that brief mention is his only contribution to the story. Apparently, Banville has decided to dispense with his alter ego and just write as John Banville henceforth.

“Snow” begins in the best, albeit very bleak, Agatha Christie way and ends with a very Vladimir Nabokov touch, no double entendre intended. Beware, those who seek a cozy winter novel set in an idyllic village in Ireland in 1957, you will get a nasty twist for all your trouble. Not that I’m giving away anything; a garden gnome could see what was coming. But could a garden gnome write the way Benjamin Black/John Banville does? Not even the finest pointy-headed of the lot could.

Let’s look at the title, “Snow.” In Banville’s story, snow falls heavily, covers everything, damages some things, obfuscates that which should be plainly visible. The clues from the murder – body in the library of a proper crumbling British manor house – the victim, the perpetrator(s), the huffy housekeeper, the sulky stableboy, the petulant, haughty children, the damaged wife, the colonel in the library with the candlestick are all mystifyingly unhelpful.

St. John (“Sinjun”) Strafford (“with an ‘r’”) is the awkwardly inappropriate detective assigned to the case. He wanders around befuddled, befogged, and bemused in the snow, although he is smart. He comes from an old aristocratic background, he is Protestant, and he was maybe promoted too soon.

Och, did I mention the action takes place in Ireland, near Dublin? Strafford is outnumbered by Catholics. Now to introduce the murder victim. He was a Catholic priest, Father Tom. Because of the heavy snowfall, he was kept from returning to his home and was staying the night in the manor owned by Colonel Osborne, Protestant. Father Tom died in a rather dramatic way: his throat was slashed and he was castrated.

Osborne recognizes at once one of his own when he meets Strafford. Strafford’s equally ancient family lives a few counties over. He has disappointed said ancient family in his choice of livelihoods. Imagine, a common policeman. Strafford’s lineage opens doors for him with the family, for all the good it does him. The family members effortlessly turn away direct questions, especially the colonel’s young second wife whose multiple personalities confuse everyone. 

Strafford seems very obtuse and naive about following the clues to their logical conclusion. Maybe because it’s 1957? That doesn’t seem to be a complete excuse. Nevertheless, the murder and its solution are not the point. Banville explores the psychology of the times. He is most excellent at letting his characters define themselves in little sweeps of dialogue or action.

Poor Strafford can barely consider the facts of a case because his own life is in such a muddle. What exactly does he want? What is important to him? He loves no one and no one loves him. He is attracted to the daughter of the house, the colonel’s wife, the rosy-cheeked, plump maid in his inn. He is untethered, as lost in his life as he sometimes gets in the deep snow and woods surrounding the manor.

Banville (and Strafford) does solve the mystery. He provides background in a very well-written, shocking prelude to the murder, which appears towards the end of the book. Banville is a literary force.

To give you a sense of Banville’s mix of subtlety, humor, and gristle, here are some excerpts:

“Thinking of these things, Strafford was once more struck by the strangeness of this killing How could it possibly have come about that a Catholic priest, ‘a friend of the house,’ should be lying here dead in his own blood, in Ballyglass House, hereditary seat of the Osbornes, of the ancient barony of Scarawalsh, in the County of Wexford? What, indeed, would the neighbors say.”


“They were, all three of them, bored and cold and eager to get the hell out of this big chilly gloomy bloody place and head back as fast as their black van would carry them, and the snow would permit, to their cozy quarters in Pearse Street. They were Dubliners — being in the country gave them the jitters.”

and finally,

“When there was a lapse [in conversation] like this on the line, if Strafford listened hard he could hear, behind the electronic crackles, a sort of distant warbling. It always fascinated him, this eerie, cacophonous music, and gave him a shiver, too. It was as if the hosts of the dead were singing to him out of the ether.”

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda

Bitter Lemon Press, 346 pages, $14.95 (c2005, UK ed. 2020)

Translated by Alison Watts

I’d like to label this yet another postmodernist book about which I cannot write a review. But here’s a review anyway.

Should you read this book, read it twice or take notes. Author Riku Onda defies convention whenever possible.

In an unnamed Japanese city, the Aosawa family is throwing a party to celebrate some family birthdays. Friends and neighbors are invited. It should be a Big Event. Hours later ambulances and police arrive to find seventeen people dead of cyanide poisoning. There are two survivors: a housekeeper who drank some of the poison but managed to pull through in the hospital and the family's blind teenage daughter who did not drink the poison-laced beverages. 

Whodunnit? Why?

Although they are not main characters, two police detectives appear off and on in the story, mainly to express their bafflement. The family appears to have had no enmity or rancor directed toward them. The father was a doctor in a long line of doctors who served the community; the mother was a doer of good deeds at the local orphanage. The blind daughter was an exemplary student and role model to other children.

Shortly after, a young man killed himself and left a suicide note confessing to the killings. Almost no one involved in the case believed he actually was the primary party.

Ten years later, Makiko Saiga, a neighbor of the family, who was eleven or twelve at the time, wrote a book, “The Forgotten Festival,” about the murders. She meticulously researched it and interviewed many people involved in the case. 

Thirty years after the murders, someone – an unnamed narrator – is poking around in the case again. 

“The Aosawa Murders” jumps around in time, from narrator to narrator, first person to third person. It seems to have no structure. But, aha! There are hints and insights each chapter adds to the Big Picture. In the end, is it all enough to present a coherent story? And often, it turns out, the narrator is unreliable or has an underlying motive or prejudice.

How can one trust a detective who immediately knows, without evidence, who the killer is? How can a person who is envious or one in thrall or one lost in innocence provide an impartial presentation of the murders?

There are lots of sensory descriptions. There is Weather. The city is humid, the air is heavy, the torrents of rain startle and menace the people. It is hot. (If you seek immersion, read this book in the summer!)

When you are done piecing together the testimonies and judging which are reliable, will you have an answer to who the murderer is or why the people had to die? Also, you are not reading solely to solve the murders but also to understand the narrators.

This was very much worth reading, but I would not like to read many more of this type in a row, although I inadvertently seem to have done so three times now.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Two Books But No Review

I read “Red Pill” by Hari Kunzru and “Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri. I have no reviews to share, not only because they are not mysteries -- I often have reviewed non-mysteries before — but also because they are of a philosophical, existentialist bent and defy neat explanations. I read mystery books, for goodness sake, because whodunnit becomes AllIsExplainedInTheEnd. It’s not that I am beneath (or above) reading a good postmodernist novel. I can go with the flow of the angst protagonists suffer over their what-is-life-why-am-I-here quandaries. It is simply this: I cannot explain in a front-to-back manner what these books are about without massive amounts of wordage. This, then, is what is left:


Red Pill (Knopf, 304 pages, $27.95, c2020)— Someone or something is lurking just out of sight — but not physical sight, rather inner sight — of the protagonist. It is a dread, the understanding of which cannot be explicated by the narrator until the end. Then the dread becomes manifest. (And it’s so much worse than one could imagine, in my opinion.)

Tokyo Ueno Station (Riverhead Books, 192 pages, $25, c2020) — Despite all the reviewers and the author proclaiming the protagonist is dead, that's not the way I read it. Kazu is a man who had to leave his family in a village far away in order to earn enough money to support them. He works hard but feels no joy. He does not know his family, and before he knows it, his adult son is dead. Embracing but not understanding his existential problem, he eventually becomes homeless and lives in Ueno Park. He ponders his past, his losses, his hut and day-to-day living in the park. He ponders all this, if you would believe everybody else who read this book, while he is dead. Of course, the only part that lends credence to him being dead is at the end when you may (or may not) discover how he died and the vision he “sees.”

Why don't I acknowledge the protagonist is dead? I saw the storytelling as more important than the physical state of the main character. It's a device, not a state of being.

Both books are melancholy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner

Dutton, 400 pages, $27

Frankie Elkin is a great character. Because author Lisa Gardner knows her way around a book, she has created a memorable private investigator, not that that is the designation Frankie gives herself.

Frankie is haunted by events that are slowly revealed, but don't necessarily have anything to do with the book's central mystery. Right away Gardner tells you Frankie is an alcoholic. If you have read Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, alcoholism is a big part of who Scudder is. We read one of the Scudder books for MBTB’s Other Book Group, and many people felt as though they had attended an AA meeting afterwards. There is definitely an authenticity about alcoholism in both the Scudder series and “Before She Disappeared” that cannot be denied. While it is not intrinsic to the plot of Gardner’s book, it defines top, bottom, and sideways who Frankie is.

As if on a mission — and who can argue with her — Frankie seeks to discover missing people. Up until she recently moved to Boston to look for teenage Angelique Lovelie Badeau, she had found fourteen missing people. None of them found alive. Frankie is looking to break that demoralizing record by finding Angelique alive if possible.

Frankie, a slight, forty- or fifty-something white woman, moves into Angelique’s neighborhood. It is very Black and in many places evidence of the big part poverty and drugs play in the neighborhood culture. So Frankie stands out painfully. It is a foregone conclusion that Frankie will find it difficult to get Angelique’s family and community to talk with her. But Frankie has learned a trick or two in the ten years she has been wandering the country looking to save souls. (And maybe her soul while she’s at it.)

Despite the suspicion that greets her and long odds, Frankie digs out a toehold both in the case and within the community. Although she occasionally/frequently takes shortcuts to meet people and gain information, she invariably lets the police know what she is up to. Not that they approve. Especially Detective Lotham whose case it is. Not that he has had many breakthroughs in the year since Angelique has been missing. Not that he can afford to turn down Frankie’s help. Even if she is a civilian.

Frankie establishes an uneasy truce with the neighborhood. Despite the fact that she is an alcoholic, she is by trade a bartender. So she gets a job in Stoney’s bar, with a rentable room above, complete with an ill-tempered, sharp-clawed cat. Making acquaintances one wary person at a time, she manages to learn who she needs to interview.

Frankie has heart. She’s forthright, compassionate but clear-eyed, and street smart based on years of experience. Slowly, she chips away at the mystery of what happened when Angelique walked out of her high school one day a year ago and disappeared.

Do I think, realistically speaking, a strange, small white woman could engage with neighbors — friendly and not — in a Black neighborhood in Boston and break open a long-standing mystery? No. But it doesn’t matter what might be realistic, because Lisa Gardner has a page-turning, relatable, emotional story to tell, and I enjoyed the journey.