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

Monday, November 18, 2019

This Poison Will Remain by Fred Vargas

Penguin Books, 416 pages, $16
Translated by Siân Reynolds

Canadian author Louise Penny’s Three Pines series began in 2005 to much acclaim. Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series was begun in 1990 in its original French. It was not translated into English until 2009, according to stopyourekillingme.com. I had to check because there is much similarity in tone, character, and eccentricity between the two series.

I’ve read more Penny than Vargas books. Both series have grown since their inception into full-bodied works. Each series leans heavily on character and repetition. 

Adamsberg operates in Paris with his squad of quirky, sometimes emotionally volatile fellow detectives. It is strange that Adamsberg is the leader. He is vague, not organized, not articulate (speaking mostly in zen-like koans). He has bubbles that float around in his head, tantalizing him with what feel to be break-through thoughts, but they mostly avoid surfacing in a timely fashion. It is a wonder he solves anything at all. But that is his saving grace: He does solve the puzzles using intuition, experience, and bubbles.

In “This Poison Will Remain,” the seventh book in the series, Adamsberg first appears in Iceland. He is floating in an agreeable stupor. He has learned a few words in the native lingo, made a friend or two, solved a mystery — off camera, or rather in the last book — and has only vague plans about returning to work. An urgent message sent to him by his office about a woman who has been run over twice eventually gets to him and lifts his fog slightly, just enough to force his return.

This is an aside. The reason the message did not find Adamsberg quicker is because he lost his phone. “Lost” is the wrong word, because he knew exactly where his phone was:

His mobile phone had fallen into some sheep dung, and the ewe had trodden it firmly in with its hoof, no malice intended. That was a novel way to lose your phone, and Adamsberg had appreciated it as such.

After the brief appearance of Iceland in the story, we hear almost nothing more about that. Instead, Adamsberg goes about solving the riddle of who would run over the harmless wife of a lawyer. He is still in his fog, has only incompletely registered the information sent him by his office, and begins a wavy course of investigation. Once that case has been dispensed with, Adamsberg’s ship sails away on a course of its own. 

There is something peculiar about the recluse spider. The recluse is supposedly a shy creature and loathe to actually bite people. So why, all of a sudden, are people dropping dead from their bite, a rather painful process. Certainly, one or two deaths a year, maybe five, but several within only a couple of months? Is someone using the small arachnid to murder people? When Adamsberg probes the deaths and then obliquely brings the subject of murder to the attention of his team, there is muttering of how generally unsound such an accusation seems.

Danglard, a brilliant member of the team, is especially dour about the chances of proving a case of murder and questions his boss’ acuity, even threatening to take his qualms to a higher level. How odd! Danglard is usually a staunch comrade, even though Adamsberg’s methods leave him mystified.

Added to what seems like a hare-brained quest, Adamsberg is feeling strangely uneasy about this particular spider. It gives him the heebie-jeebies and he has a strong physical response when its name is mentioned. To the best of his knowledge, there is no basis for his uneasiness; he has never been bitten, never known anyone who has, and cannot place this particular spider anywhere in his life.

There is meandering. There is anguish. There is a slightly addled woman who keeps apologizing for swearing. There is a brother who is actually quite logical. There is a camp-out under the stars. There is a reckoning with the past. Victims of spider bites continue to pile up. But how on earth could they be murder victims? It would take a huge amount of venom or an unusual sensitivity on the part of the victim to actually kill someone. And now there are many someones.

Adamsberg plumbs his psyche, searches out experts, and takes advantage of a chance meeting with a stranger to sort it all out. I can’t say it was an ideal mystery. I can say it was a bit of far-fetching, but that is what I assume about Vargas’ books: Expect the unexpected and the extraordinary.

If you like having main characters who have a mission to straighten out the world, an unyielding responsibility, in fact, and a peculiar insight into human motivations, then you are welcome to Adamsberg’s world.

Should you read them in order? It wouldn’t hurt. I enjoyed “The Chalk Circle Man,” the first in the series. I confess the oddness of “This Poison Will Remain” charms me, but a small slice of odd-pie will last me a long time.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes

Pegasus Crime, 320 pages, $25.95

S. D. Sykes surprised me. After reading thousands of mystery books — or so it seems — I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that most of them recycle plot points. Now I read less for whodunnit* than whydunnit or wow! great writing or wow! unusual character. While S. D. Sykes’ “trick” is not original, it reminded me that we can be victims of our own assumptions.

So let me back up to the review now.

“The Bone Fire” is the fourth in the Plague Series. By 1361, when the events of this book take place, Oswald de Lacy has had more than his share of run-ins with the plague. This book finds him about eleven years after the events in the first book, “Plague Land.” I haven’t read Sykes’ other books, but I can attest that the author reveals enough of prior events to make it a smooth transition to “The Bone Fire.”

Here’s an aside. I always point to Sue Grafton as an expert in catching readers up with crucial backstory in a few deftly written sentences in her Kinsey Millhone series. But Grafton’s task was easier, because Kinsey often talks directly to her audience. Sykes chooses to explain background as the story progresses. So I laud Sykes for this part as well.

In “The Bone Fire,” de Lacy and his family are fleeing another sweep of the plague through the land. They have left their ancestral home and are bivouacking in a remote castle on a remote island on a remote hill. It appears that they have outrun the plague and are safe with Godfrey, Lord Eden.

There is some bickering among the castle’s now isolated residents: you know, “Titanic,” “Lifeboat,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Survivor,” “Mockingjay” stuff. Will the provisions last the several months of winter until spring brings the raising of the castle’s portcullis? Will the strange 14-year-old daughter of one of the other sequestered lords get on everyone’s nerves? Will the shiny knight have to poke away desperate villagers from the gate? Will Godfrey be murdered?

Never mind the rest, but yes, Godfrey is murdered. Lord Eden was murdered in his study with a heavy wine cup. (While Colonel Mustard got it in the billiard room with a lead pipe.) He was dutifully giving shelter to many people. Why would someone clobber the hand that fed him or her?

There are enough strange and suspicious characters among the guests and regular castle inhabitants to provide a good, old-fashioned round of he-did-it, no-she-did-it. Then another of the castle folk is murdered. And no one can blame the plague, which still rages outside the walls.

Here’s another thing I appreciate about how Sykes has structured the story: Hero de Lacy must muddle through the moral dilemma of choosing who shall live and who shall die in an excruciating way. The plague was capable of making moral villains of the pious, but could it also make heroes of the unworthy?

As I so often do after reading books set in this time period, I mentally thank my hot water heater, my HVAC unit, my washing machine, antibiotics, my refrigerator, and my machine-made, fuzzy wool socks.

This is a read-worthy but dour look at a time of extreme crisis. Jump right into the series here, or go back to “Plague Land,” “Butcher Bird,” or “City of Masks.”

* To be fair, I’m still shite at guessing who the killer is unless its identity is obvious from the beginning.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

Viking, 288 pages, $29

John le Carré began his auspicious writing career with “Call for the Dead,” in 1961. It starred George Smiley in the first of what was to become a long and honored series about the Cold War. In 1963, he released “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and in 1965, “The Looking Glass War,” two of his most popular novels. His books were erudite, articulate, readable, slyly humorous, authoritatively complex yet apprehensible, and the sine qua non of appreciating spy fiction. John le Carré, or David Cornwell as he was born, lived in the world of spy and counter-spy in real life. Although le Carré is now 88 years old, his works still illuminate, while ushering out the old order and bemusedly watching the younger generation work to build their own ideas of empire and republic.

Although this is 2019, three years after the surprising election of Donald Trump and the equally surprising Brexit vote in Britain, fictional works with references to these events and their effect are only now beginning to rapidly pile up in the book world. The non-fiction world was way ahead in that sense. “Agent Running in the Field” places the story squarely into post-Trump and Brexit chaos. Both forces affect the old alliances, and no treaty or promise is worth the paper it’s printed on.

Nat is a twenty-five year veteran of service in MI6. He is about to be put to pasture, by his own estimation. Instead, he is given the management of The Haven, a London substation of agents who don’t fit anywhere else. (See Mick Herron’s terrific “Slow Horses” series about the same topic.) Although nothing significant is expected to come out of the department, one of its brighter lights, young Florence, just may have a lead to uncovering a trail of nefarious financial misdeeds to the Russians through a London-based oligarch.

As Nat is trying to wrap his head around his latest assignment and what it might mean for his future — agents always have to see past the obvious — he meets a young man about twenty-five years his junior, at his athletic club. Ed appears to be serious about challenging Nat’s supremacy at club badminton. Nat is proud of having beaten most comers, including much younger men. Ed gives Nat a run for his money, and a strange and tentative acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, develops between the two.

This is where I get cagey because everything that develops from this point on is hush-hush, and you must have the proper clearance. I will give you le Carré’s opening lines, however:

Our meeting was not contrived. Not by me, not by Ed, not by any of the hidden hands supposedly pulling at his strings. I was not targeted. Ed was not put up to it. We were neither covertly nor aggressively observed….There was no contrivance, no conspiracy, no collusion.

That pretty much tells you that Nat and Ed will headline a book touching on Nat's world. If I may interject a telling remark here: It is difficult in this day and age to gauge the accuracy and meaning of accusations thrown about these days: “treason,” “leader,” “nationalism.” Definitions may need re-defining. The world has certainly been turned on its head. With this in mind, read le Carré’s relatively short novel. It is not so much about the political thunderstorms, but about how real people are buffeted about in them. It is about survival and personal belief. It is not le Carré’s deepest or most complex novel, but it is one of his most sincere.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sarah Jane by James Sallis

Soho Crime, 216 pages, $23.95

James Sallis wrote some of the best mystery novels I’ve ever read: his Lew Griffin series. His books are brought to life by his understanding of human nature and his poetic writing. Also, apparently Sallis can write from any point of view and sound credible. Lew Griffin was a black private investigator. The eponymous star of “Sarah Jane” is a white woman. He takes her from her teenage years to middle age.

“Sarah Jane” is told from Sarah Jane’s perspective. It is full of her pensive thoughts and softly evasive storytelling. Time goes back and forth but that allows the many revelations to occur in their appropriate places. It allows Sallis to meander us down his path.

This is what Sarah says at the beginning: “My real name is Sarah Jane Pullman.” Sarah also adds:

I grew up in a town called Selmer, down where Tennessee and Alabama get together and kind of become their own place, in a house that spent the first sixteen years of my life getting ready to slide down the hill, which it did right after I left.

Scenes in the Middle East appear and we begin to realize a significant part of Sarah’s history: She was in the military and saw action. So, later when she becomes a cop, it is not such a stretch to imagine that. Yes, I gave away something she does not reveal until maybe half way through the book. The hefty prelude to that part of her story has her meandering through various towns, all the way to, at least, New Mexico, where she took cooking jobs. There were diners and some fancier places, some places where she was bossed and some places where she was the boss. Men go in and out of her life, but it is a solitary journey she eventually takes to the point where she becomes a deputy.

It’s hard to say where Sarah eventually washes up, maybe in Tennessee, somewhere near the capital. She's not in a small small town — maybe a big small town. It’s rather vague but then specificity is not required.

It turns out Sarah is good at her job as a deputy. Part of it is having a good boss, Cal Phillips. Then one day, Cal disappears. All the interesting but tidy stories of life in town disappear. She becomes the acting chief of police, despite herself. Did she have something to do with Cal’s disappearance? Is her narrative disingenuous? Was Cal getting too close to fully discovering her past?

I have to say that if you are looking for a traditional mystery, this ain’t it. Maybe not all your questions will be answered. Come for the story, stay for the writing. For instance:

The ancient tree by the town square, given up for dead most every year before it pushed out delinquent sprigs of green, was filling with leaves.

And when Sarah and another deputy check out a bar fight:

[The men were] swearing and giving forth declarations of what they were going to do to each other, an entire bar fight waged in the future tense, as though they’d caught strains of some futuristic affliction from the toys and models [decorating the UFO-themed bar] surrounding them.


We can’t ever know how others see the world, can’t know what may be rattling around in their heads: loose change, grand ideas, resentments, pennies from the fountain, spiffed-up memories, codes and ciphers.

“Sarah Jane” is a beauty of a book. It is storytelling essence. It celebrates a joy of words and reminds us of the definition of strength.

Of course, MBTB star!