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

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Dark Remains: Laidlaw’s First Case, by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin

World Noir, 208 pages, $27

Years ago, I read the three Laidlaw books by William McIlvanney: “Laidlaw,” “The Papers of Tony Veitch,” and “Strange Loyalties.” I was very impressed at the time by those dark, dark tales of Glasgow’s criminal underbelly. There was a lot I didn’t understand, because I had never been to Scotland, hadn’t kept up with the news of Glasgow, couldn’t make out sometimes if people were saying something nice or cruel. And what the heck is a “bahookie” or a “bawbag”? (Never mind.) Now that the years have passed and I’ve read a tidy number of Scottish noir (Rankin, Denise Mina, Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid), I can truly say I only understand a wee bit more than I did at the start of my Scottish reading career. I do know this: Scotland is a dark, dark, dangerous, shadowy place. And William McIlvanney was the first to shine a light on the darkness.

Ian Rankin is one of the biggest names in Scottish crime writing for his John Rebus series. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was chosen by the estate of William McIlvanney to finish the novel he was writing just before his death in 2015. McIlvanney swore he wasn’t interested in writing another Laidlaw book, the last of which was published in 1991. But he changed his mind and had begun work on another book. In fact, there were two stories he had in mind, but only one of them was fleshed out enough for Ian Rankin to see the structure and get the flavor of McIlvanney’s writing.

Laidlaw was a warrior, a man with his own moral code and most definitely his own way of solving a case. Laidlaw and Rebus are of a feather, as described by their creators. They are two police detectives who spend a lot of time dodging superiors, including dodging dodgy superiors. They get the mysteries solved but the law might take a second seat to justice. Rankin has said he respected McIlvanney and that McIlvanney’s books inspired his own.

“The Dark Remains,” as the subtitle indicates, is a prequel. Laidlaw is a youngish detective in this book, but he already knows what he wants out of the job and what he doesn’t. (What he wants out of his personal life befuddles him more.) He knows a lot about the criminal gangs, their history, alliances, and weak points. Given that, Laidlaw insinuates himself into a case involving the murder of the consigliere of one of the crime bosses. Of course, everyone’s first thought is that the competition killed him. The second thought is that his beautiful wife — now widow — may have inspired some romantic murderous gesture.

Rankin and McIlvanney give their readers a long look at the underworld. There is action, deceit, conspiracy, and backstabbing. One of the crime guys, so the legend goes, actually survived a knife stab in the back.

When one transcendent writer takes on the task presented by another transcendent writer, the result could be cock-eyed. But not in this case. What a joy to see the return of Laidlaw!

I would comment more on one writing style versus the other, but it has been too many years since I read the Laidlaw books to remember anything other than I loved them. I remember a poetry to McIlvanney’s writing. His Laidlaw was haunted by the existential and transitory nature of man. Rankin’s Rebus is a sly dog of a philosopher, but an eminently practical romantic. Win-win.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Windsor Knot by S. J. Bennett

William Morrow, 288 pages, $27.99

Long live Queen Elizabeth II! (Especially if she solves mysteries.)

Did you love the television series “The Crown”? Under the influence of that series, by the end of this book, I was thinking, “Yeah, this could so happen. Lilibet would be a crackerjack detective. And, ooo, the palaces!”

Who is S. J. Bennett and how does she paint such a credible sounding description of the inner workings of The Palace? (Not that I would know what is credible palace behavior.) Other than an active imagination and having “once interviewed for a job working for the Queen,” it doesn’t look as though she has any secret source. Nevertheless, Bennett has crafted an entertaining novel, high on detail, low on silliness.

Imagine a day in the life of the queen. It is chock-a-block with rituals, advisory meetings, and social gatherings. It’s a good thing Bennett set this in the year 2016 when Elizabeth was on the verge of celebrating her 90th birthday. One could imagine the spry 90-year-old putting in a full day as The Queen and later burrowing in to solve a murder mystery.

Although Elizabeth would rather spend time with corgis and horses, she finds herself saddled with the disruption caused by the murder of a palace guest. He was a young pianist who played Rachmaninoff and danced beautifully at a party afterwards. The guests were enchanted. Except for the one who strangled him and made it look as though he had asphyxiated himself in an auto-erotic misadventure. But the murderer’s set-up was clumsily done, leading to a police investigation. Police start combing through the histories of the other guests and staff, thus upsetting the well-run palace apple cart. The last straw for Elizabeth is when two long-term members of the staff are put on leave while their bona fides are checked. Elizabeth can only imagine their embarrassment.

The victim was Russian, so there’s that whole thing. Was he another Russian murdered on British soil because he had displeased Putin? Will this be a diplomatic kerfuffle? 

The queen has only one recourse after she figures out what the murder ISN’T. With the help of her young Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi — who just began her job — she will use discreet means to ferret out the truth. Rozie cannot let her boss, the Private Secretary, know what she and the queen are up to. The plot seems ideal for a great deal of royal silliness, but Bennett deftly sidesteps that literary quagmire. If one ignores the unlikelihood that the Queen could be or would be an investigator, however private, everything hangs together. The queen, being the queen, has a lot of contacts who could help: academics, ex-police, specialists. Never underestimate The Queen!

Although the ending races through a mass of information to let us know whodunnit, I didn’t mind because I loved the leisurely inside look (however fictional) at royal shenanigans. The book wasn’t perfect, but it was the right book at the right time. Here’s my version of the OBE: an MBTB star!

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert

Doubleday, 368 pages, $27.95

Clementine. An ear-worm of a song about a tragic girl who wore “herring boxes without topses.” A delicious orangey, fruity thing. Winston’s wife. And apparently a marijuana strain.

In “The Perfume Thief,” author Timothy Schaffert introduces us to a 70-something-year-old named Clementine. He is an ex-pat in Paris, but maybe not by choice. He knows a lot about perfume. He was once — and maybe still is — a thief. When he was an active thief, he mostly did commission work for wealthy women who wanted what they couldn’t buy or beg, not that most of them would beg.

At this late stage of life, Clementine feels free to express himself more openly as a queer-and-dear lesbian who has a unique fashion style. At least, he was more forthcoming or outgoing until the incoming Nazis took over Paris in World War II. The Nazis attacked the Parisian life as louche, spoiled, and indulgent. But they are the first to keep the bordellos and cabarets going. They guzzle the wine, as Schaffert portrays them, without knowing anything about French wine. They suck up all that is French and fine for themselves.

Clem meets an older Nazi man, Oskar Voss, when he accepts one last commission to steal a perfume diary. It is not Voss who commissions him; rather, Voss is the mark from whom the journal must be stolen. Voss does not have the book, but he does know of its existence. He wants it. He thinks Clem, in exchange for goods and favors, will help him find it.

Clem’s commission is from the diarist’s daughter, Zoé, a cabaret singer. She is the darling of the Nazi night crowd. The Nazi night crowd does not know she is Jewish. She fears her father, the parfumier, may have written something in the diary to give away her identity. Zoé wants Clementine to steal it. A Nazi officer is besotted by Zoé, so she has access to many people, including Voss. Voss is living in the mansion that belonged to her father. Somewhere in that mansion, it is assumed, lies the diary. Perhaps Zoé has a clue. Perhaps the clue is clueless. Perhaps the perfume maker is an excellent code maker as well, so much so that the secret of his diary will remain hidden.

In getting to know Voss, Clem barters his back story — and part of his soul — to ingratiate himself. Clem tries to poison Voss (sort of, kind of, half-heartedly) and makes a haphazard attempt to locate the diary. He becomes, in the end, Voss’ assistant, companion, and confidante. But he is never Voss’ friend. Through his association with Voss, he gets to know how the treasures of France are being looted — mostly from Jewish families — and how the soul of occupied France is quickly being corrupted. 

For three-fourths of the book, Clem’s story meanders. Schaffert sets up Clem’s relationship with Voss, Clem's past love affair with M, and the cause of his exile in Paris. We meet Clem’s significant friends, most of whom are homosexual, gender fluid, LBGTQ+ before such a designation was a spark in some writer’s brain. They inhabit the demimonde social world. They pander to the Nazis. Some of them pander and also operate in the Resistance. The Resistance is just a whisper for the first three-fourths of the book, but the Resistance is everything in the end.

Voss’ moral dissolution becomes more odious as the story goes on. What exactly does he want from Clem? Is he a good Nazi or a pretentious one?

I read this book very, very slowly. It was Proust-like in its sensory descriptions of Paris, the world of perfume, the sotto voce world of prohibited entertainment. Schaffert’s descriptions should be savored. Here are a few examples:

It was M who gave me my copy of Odorographia, which eventually sent me packing to seek the world’s most impossible scents. The nests of the lost cinnamon birds of the Seychelles. The oil from the bergamot trees felled by the earthquakes of Calabria.


The doctored cardamom of a Lingayat priest. The magnolias of Himalaya. The star anise of Japanese temples. Orinoco sassafras.


I meet with [the] girls one by one, there in the parlor, to learn more about them, for the perfumes I’ll create. One is allergic to perfume — but somehow I can smell on her skin a late afternoon by the sea, the gentle rock of the boat on mostly still waters, the gin and ginger ale.

Oh, I could go on and on with the imaginative descriptions.

I can’t really call this a mystery, even though I am infamous for labelling books mysteries with lesser excuses. I could say this is a mystery because there are these questions: Where is the journal, and is there even a journal? Is someone murdered? Can one be both a good person and a good thief? Huh. Too many mysteries pile upon each other, but the sum of all that still does not a mystery make. And only the last fourth of the book is even a vague thriller. All of the book is magnificent.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Last Mona Lisa by Jonathan Santlofer

Sourcebooks Landmark, 400 pages, $16.99

Florence, Italy, is one of my favorite places. Its history, its poetry, its politics, its drama, its beauty! Florence has cried out to other authors to place their books in its heart. Santlofer also heard the cry. It takes his protagonist, Luke Perrone, an American artist and art history teacher, a while to succumb to Florence’s spell, because he has other things to do. He has come to Florence to find out more about his great-grandfather, a man who stole the Mona Lisa about a hundred years ago.

Italian Vincenzo Peruggia has settled in Paris with the love of his life, Simone, who is expecting their child. It is 1911 and Vincenzo is poor. Simone, also an artist, cannot work. Vincenzo has obtained an ill-paying position at the Louvre. One of his last tasks before he steals the Mona Lisa is to build a sneeze-box for it. I saw the modern version of that sneeze-box a few years ago in the Louvre, and it was a sad and sorry thing. We must protect our treasures from the people who would admire but also touch, deface, and diminish them.* (Stonehenge, too, has recently been imprisoned for its own protection.) 

Why did Vincenzo steal the Mona Lisa? Luke wants to know and that is why he is in Florence. Sidestepping a couple of dead bodies, he tracks down the journal belonging to his great-grandfather and begins the process of translating it. While in a small library working on his research, he meets the friendly Alex(andra) Greene. She is interested — far too interested — in his research. Luke no doubt thinks it’s his allure and suave intellectual mastery of Renaissance art history. Somewhere in there, Luke realizes he is being stalked by at least one shadowy figure. That figure turns out to be a rogue Interpol agent who wants to learn if there is an art theft ring and has decided Luke may be his best lead. The agent proves to be right: Luke may be a poor innocent, but he is a lightening rod for intrigue. Luke doesn’t even cotton to yet another shadowy figure who may be following him or one of the other people he has met in his investigation. Whatever, there are more dead bodies.

There were so many elements in Santlofer’s story I enjoyed: the setting (of course), touches reminiscent of the “Da Vinci Code” (but no true puzzles), a heist, a desperate Interpol agent, a ruthless henchman. But in the end, it didn’t quite gel for me. Luke was pretty pathetic and at times I questioned whether he really knew anything about art.**

Luke falls in love at first sight. Seriously, at first sight, because he doesn’t really get to talk to or know Alex before he is smitten. Alex takes a little longer, but not much. This sounds more like a book from the 1950s or 60s. The romance is fraught, tedious, and bereft of any intelligence.

I did love the heist, though. I mentally wept at the operatic story of Vincenzo Peruggia. Now there's a love story! Curses, you vile and venal rich people who don’t believe in sharing! 

“The Last Mona Lisa” was worth the read for the description (eventually) of Florence and its art and the heist. 

*That’s why we can’t have nice things.

**At one point, a police artist is doing a rendering using Luke’s description. “That’s him. How did you do that?” Luke asks. Um. He’s an artist. You’re an artist. Did you really need to ask that?