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

Friday, June 24, 2022

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

W. W. Norton, 288 pages, $27.95

This is not a mystery.

It is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read. Richard Powers, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Overstory,” has created another wonderment that embraces the entire world (and beyond). “The Overstory” and “Bewilderment” bring us closer to the wonders of nature, but also closer to the certainty we will lose them if we continue on our carbon dioxide-spewing path.

It’s a story for our times, written in order to avoid what is around the corner. It is also a story of love and bewilderment.

Friday, June 17, 2022

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

Harper Voyager, 576 pages, $17.99 (c2017)

This is not a mystery.

I admit a weakness for stories with genies. A recent favorite genie book didn’t even have an actual genie in it! “The City of Brass” is based on middle eastern tales of the djinn, or Daeva, as they are known in this book, 

Eighteenth-century Cairo is pretty much our eighteenth-century Cairo. Where it veers into the fanciful begins with the supernatural healing powers of a young ragamuffin girl who tells “healing” fortunes. She is about eighteen or nineteen, does not remember her family, and lives by her (sometimes criminal) wits. One day the girl, Nahri, accidentallyconjures something bigger than she can handle. The menace she conjures is an “ifrit,” or evil spirit. What also is conjured -- but to help her this time -- is an unexpected and equally menacing Daeva, Dara, who saves Nahri’s life.

From that point on Nahri’s story alternates with (Prince) Ali’s. Ali Qahtani belongs to the magical realm that exists behind a veil regular people cannot cross. His tribe members are the peacekeepers between the “superior” Daevas and the shafit, the descendants of Daeva-human couplings. There are other Daeva tribes and other magical beings, some of whom are hostile to everyone else.

Dara is a Daeva who was exiled from the main Daeva city of Daevabad about a thousand years back. His sad story is slowly revealed. His family are the ancestral guardians of Nahri’s ancestral family; in other words, Dara is Nahri’s guardian. Although Dara has been exiled from Daevabad, he risks re-entering the city as an escort for Nahri, to return her to her rightful place as the last of her once-powerful family.

S. A. Chakraborty has created a complex history of the magical world and its inhabitants. The main characters are trying to reshape the magical world to accommodate their interests and beliefs. It makes for a story that is very “human” at its base. 

“The City of Brass” is the first in a trilogy. The other titles are “The Kingdom of Copper” and “The Empire of Gold.”

P.S. There is a flying carpet.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Bobby March Will Live Forever by Alan Parks

World Noir, 320 pages, $17 (c2021)

“Bobby March Will Live Forever” is the third in the Harry McCoy books by Scottish writer Alan Parks. I guiltily admit I did not read the first two but just jumped right into the third. I don’t think my comprehension suffered for that. Alan Parks is a good writer who can paint a large swathe of pertinent information efficiently and cohesively.

The story is set in the 1970s and is soaked in the music and dark vibe of a very noirish Glasgow.

Harry McCoy is a cop, a rare honest cop, with asterisks. *He knows the Glasgow criminal underworld very well. *Some of his best buddies are bad guys who sell drugs, have girlfriends who are prostitutes, and, yes, kill people. Mostly Harry cannot be bought. And that’s good enough to make him an exceedingly honest cop in a very corrupt section of the criminal affairs department of the Glasgow police.

As the story begins, Harry has been sidelined by his mortal enemy Bernie Raeburn, who has unfortunately become his boss. Even though he is the brightest bulb by far, Harry has to poke around with minor pencil-pushing cases instead of the higher profile ones he is usually gets. The big case of the moment involves the abduction of Laura Kelly, the teenage daughter of a working class couple. Despite a massive search, there are no clues. Is the girl dead? There hasn’t been a ransom demand. Even if there had been, Laura’s parents wouldn’t be able to pay it. Raeburn won’t let Harry anywhere near the case. 

Harry’s usual partner, Wattie, has been drafted by Raeburn to assist him with the case. Most of the department has been drafted to help with the case. Wattie drops crumbs Harry’s way, so Harry can appreciate the incompetence of his nemesis.

Meanwhile …

There are several story threads involving Harry’s criminal and near-criminal friends. His ex-girlfriend, Angela, is a little morally wavy and is heavily involved in the music scene. A minor celebrity, Bobby March, has returned for a gig in his hometown of Glasgow. Then he is found dead of a drug overdose. How does Angela figure into that scenario?

Then a friend, Stevie Cooper, a crime boss, has managed to get hooked on heroin. It imperils his stake in the criminal world by emphasizing his weakness. It is up to Harry to help wean him from his drug of choice. What else does Harry have to do since he has been sidelined?

Then Raeburn catches a young man, Laura Kelly’s boyfriend, and locks him up for abducting Laura, despite there being no body and no evidence. The public is baying for justice, and Raeburn is determined to cover himself in glory with a quick resolution.

All of these threads result in Harry being concussed, beaten, knifed, and kidnapped. It is a wonder Harry is still crawling by the end of the book. This is the thing about series books: The hero must survive. Harry survives. In the process the Glasgow underworld is thrown into upheaval.

For the record, there are some moments of lightness and romance, too, although I wouldn’t quite label what Harry experiences with the fancy name of “romance.”

“Bobby March” is impressive in what it accomplishes with its many storylines. It is easy to cheer for the increasingly battered Harry McCoy as the book erupts in the drama of the last third of the book.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Deer Season by Erin Flanagan

University of Nebraska Press, 320 pages, $21.95 (c2021)

This is a special book and it is a mystery, but the emphasis is on character development. And on setting. And on plot. It’s everything done well.

It won the 2022 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

If you have grown up in a small town, maybe this book will strike a particular resonance with you. Everybody is up in everybody else’s business. Everybody, it seems, gossips, even the most saintly sometimes. Not that Alma Costagan is saintly and she hates gossip.

Alma still sees herself as a Chicago girl. So what is this middle-aged woman with wrecked dreams of a large family doing in rural Nebraska, helping to run a farm? She married Clyle — that’s not a typo of “Clyde” — who wooed Alma at college and worked for IBM in Chicago. When Clyle’s widowed mother became ill, he and Alma shut down their lives in Chicago, temporarily they thought, to help with the family farm in Nebraska. Even after his mother died, Clyle was still drawn to the small-town life he had always treasured and the hard farm work in which he found satisfaction. Alma thought she could adjust. Fifteen years later, she is pretty tired of trying to adjust. Alma speaks her mind and, as an ex-social worker, tries to help others. Blunt and in-your-face.

Hal is the person Alma has silently chosen for her project. Because of a swimming accident that occurred when he was two — due to the negligence of his careless mother — Hal has a diminished intellect. Clyle and Alma have taken him under their wing. He helps with chores around their farm and when he was younger he slept in their house. They’ve been helping him mainstream, but that has its limits. On the outside, Hal seems normal, even somewhat attractive. Many a woman has flirted with him, only to be dismayed at his inability to maintain a social interaction. 

Peggy Ahern is a 17-year-old next-door neighbor of the Costagans. She is smart, pretty, popular, and testing life on the wild side in Gunthrum, Nebraska, the latter on the sly, of course. Her 12-year-old brother Milo, also smart, knows she sometimes disappears late at night to meet up with her friends to party. In contrast, Milo follows the rules, is a good friend, tries to fly beneath the radar. He is the quiet to his sister’s loud. Surprisingly, they are mostly friends. Here’s a snippet about them:

For a twelve-year-old nerd and a volleyball-playing cheerleader, they had more in common than others might expect, and a lot of their time was spent talking about the days they’d leave for college, their Podunk years in Gunthrum behind them.

We mostly view the book by hanging out with Alma and Milo, although sometimes we follow Clyle. it is through their interactions with each other and the town that we view the disappearance of teenage Peggy one cold night.

At first, no one can find Peggy. Her parents pretend she has run away in a youthful escapade. Milo half believes she has done just that, to begin her life in the bigger world, but she wouldn’t have left without telling him. It is Milo who first reckons with the fact that she is probably dead. To her family, other people mouth platitudes and wildly optimistic predictions for Peggy’s return.

Sheriff Peck Randolph has never had to deal with this kind of case before. He is a big and stolid presence in Gunthrum, and knows when to pull back and when to push the locals with their wrongdoing. It doesn’t help that Peggy’s family doesn’t alert his office until she has been gone awhile. 

Mistaking a flirty move by Peggy one day at a picnic, Hal develops a crush on Peggy. He is twenty but does not understand adult interactions. He is besotted, and this is what eventually gets him into trouble. Peggy is gone; Hal must be responsible. The town’s focus has almost unanimously focused on Hal. Big, hot-tempered (because he can’t understand some situations), and with a dimming bulb, Hal cannot understand why people suspect him. He doesn’t even understand that people suspect him! It doesn’t help that when asked what he was doing the night of Peggy’s disappearance, it turns out he was in the vicinity of where she was last seen. When Alma and Clyle ask if he hit Peggy with his truck, Hal hems and haws and says he doesn’t think so.

That is the mystery in a nutshell. But the book is about so much more.

Using Peggy’s disappearance as a vehicle, author Erin Flanagan explores the dynamics of small town justice. People are guilty until proven innocent. Past behavior haunts families for generations. Alma now despises the people she once fraternized with when she first arrived. She no longer wants to bake “the best” brownies, drink herself into a lost weekend at other people’s homes, play kissy-face with other men, or attend their sanctimonious churches. Everything would be more tolerable if she had been able to bring any one of her miscarried babies to birth. As we meet her, she is filling in this void with driving the school bus and mother-henning Hal. But her sharp tongue has turned people away from her and even her husband, once loyal, kind, and loving to her, has gone silent around her. What has she lost and does she want it back? Here’s a bit about their disintegrating marriage, “The list of what one person would never understand about another went on and on.” As Alma becomes more frantic in her desire to protect Hal, and then Milo, she draws her emotions in tight and trusts no one.

Poor Milo, who has not done anything wrong, is caught up in his family’s storm. With difficult parents and unwanted sympathy from the community, Milo feels under siege. Another kid says, 

‘You don’t know-know because you’re twelve.’

Milo hated when people used that as an excuse. it was like people saying you’re a boy or from rural Nebraska. What did that have to do with anything?

Peggy’s disappearance coincides with the important family event of Milo’s confirmation at the Lutheran Church:

[Milo] thought about all the words he’d memorized for his confirmation, the oath he’d taken to God. Was that just another lie everyone told so they could get up in the morning? Were all these people who thought nothing bad could happen just fooling themselves?

What a fraught picture Flanagan paints of a community in crisis! There is a lot of finger-pointing and ill-based anger as the community fractures. Flanagan paints this so well. She tackles the thoughts of a 12-year-old and a middle-aged woman equally well. I almost thought Flanagan wasn’t going to solve the mystery. Other books have left things hanging, because, well, sometimes that’s real life.

MBTB star!