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

Thursday, July 19, 2018

White River Burning by John Verdon

Counterpoint, 432 pages, $27

I love the dramatic title of this book, “White River Burning.” The fictional town of White River is set in upstate New York, and it is burning because of race riots. The situation may become even more combustible if the murders of two police officers and two African-Americans are not solved. Call in Dave Gurney because he’s, you know, Dave Gurney. I guess “Newark (No, Not the One in New Jersey; The One in New York) Burning” just doesn’t have the same ring.

John Verdon’s books are thorough, thought-provoking, intelligent, clue-laden, psychopath-laden, and entertaining. “White River Burning” is the sixth book in the Dave Gurney series. It is remarkable that Dave survives his cataclysmic adventures. I also tune in each time fully expecting the faithful and gentle Madeleine, his wife, to come a cropper or die. Surely, I think, in the course of these intense adventures, one or the other will not survive. Madeleine is mostly a spectator and solid shoulder for Dave to lean on. But it wasn’t always so. She’s had her share of close calls and been more of a cold shoulder occasionally. Their relationship is the solid base now from which Dave can travel into scary/crazyland.

After a police officer is shot by a sniper at a demonstration protesting the death of a black man at the hands of the police (#blackwhiledriving), Dave is called in by the nervous District Attorney, Sheridan Kline, to do some investigation. Dave has been retired from the NYPD for a while, mostly so he can give his obsessive nature a rest and save his marriage. He was a much lauded investigator and cleared a high percentage of his homicide cases. (To Verdon's credit, he shows Dave's method.) Having just put his most recent case to bed ten months earlier, he reluctantly agrees to help Kline.

It soon becomes obvious that Kline does not control the situation. White River Police Chief Dell Beckert is the man pulling the investigative strings. He calls many conferences of “his team” (Kline, Dave, Deputy Chief Judd Turlock, Mayor Dwayne Shucker, Sheriff Goodson Cloutz -- a blind, racist lawman used to doing things his way -- and out-of-his-depth CIO Mark Torres).

There are many, many names in this book. Here, you can use the following as a reference:

  • Laxton Jones - a black man shot after being stopped for a traffic violation
  • Blaze Lovely Jackson - his car companion. She survived the encounter and now is a co-founder of BDA, a black resistance group
  • Marcel Jordan and Virgil Tooker - two murdered black men, co-founders of BDA
  • Jack Hardwick - former NY state police investigator and Dave’s compadre
  • Cory Payne - young white founder of White Men for Black Justice
  • RAM TV - Fox News bizzaro
  • John Steele - white police officer shot by sniper
  • Rick Loomis - another white police officer who has information for Dave
  • Trish & Marv Gelter - rich white folk

There are more. Many more. Some of them have obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I think Verdon must have meticulous habits himself to create such a complex tale and draw all the skeins together. And it’s not just Verdon’s storytelling that is first-rate, but also his vision of why good people must exist and why they must persist to save humanity in whatever small or large ways they can. Dave is a person to follow to the ends of the earth.

So all Dave has to do in this novel is find out who is targeting cops, quench the rioting, determine if there is corruption in the police department, keep the case out of the feds’ jurisdiction, find out who killed two black men, maybe track down two crazy white men with a lot of dynamite, and check to see if all of these far-flung cases are related.

I loved it. (Even though I wondered what happened to Steele’s second phone that he apparently had hidden. And even though it was obvious one of the potential miscreants was trying to seduce Dave and he should have dragged Madeleine along to their meeting.)

Verdon once more reminds us that Dave looks like Daniel Craig. Yes, I hope Verdon gets a movie deal and Daniel Craig plays Dave. If not Craig, then the actor must evince a stone face and convincingly shoot from the hip, to pile on the cool-hand tropes. That’s not asking too much.

MBTB star.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Good Son by Jeong You-Jeong

Penguin Books, 320 pages, $16 (2016, U.S. ed. 2018)
Translated by Kim Chi-Young

Jeong You-Jeong (or Jung Yoo-jung) is a South Korean writer. “The Good Son” was translated from Korean and has Korea as a physical and cultural background. But Jeong has done a remarkable job of writing a book that crosses cultures. Yes, family rituals are different, the food is different, the names are different, but psychopathy is reassuringly cross-cultural.

One morning, Han Yu-jin wakes up with the smell of blood in his nose. That is because there are copious amounts of blood on him, on his bed, tracked on his floor, and smeared and puddled all over the home he shares with his mother and adopted brother. What has happened, he asks, as panicked thoughts flit around in his head. Did he have a seizure? Yes, he feels that he indeed did have a seizure. Where is the blood coming from? He has no injuries himself, so he warily backtracks the bloody footprints. And there is his mother lying on the floor, dead, murdered. Would he be dead, too, if it were not for his seizure? He can’t remember anything from the night before.

Yu-jin is twenty-five years old and trying to enter law school. He had been aimless, but working towards law school has given him purpose. Now he has a different purpose: He must find out what happened to his mother. His older brother, Kim Hae-jin, is working on a film shoot and won’t be home for awhile. Hae-jin has been living with Yu-jin and his mother since his adoption ten years ago.

Yu-jin’s father and biological older brother died from drowning sixteen years ago. Hae-jin has filled a hole in everyone’s heart. Auntie Hye-won rounds out the small family. She is a child psychologist and has been treating Yu-jin’s seizures with medication. Of course, Yu-jin rebels at taking the medicine. It makes him feel flat and dull. He occasionally stops taking it and, with heightened awareness and energy, he roams the town at night, mostly running up to a nearby observatory. But then a seizure levels him out and the treatment begins again.

That’s where things stand until the fateful morning when Yu-jin awakens with the smell of blood in his nose.

As author Jeong craftily reveals more of the stories of Yu-jin, Hae-jin, dead brother Yu-min, and Yu-jin’s past prowess as a high school swimmer, it is remarkable to see how she constructs the increasing tension. “I’m not crazy, you’re crazy” is what you think every character is saying. Well, someone is cuckoo for Cocoa-Puffs.

Shades of Renfield and Norman Bates, Jeong’s psychopath has a mind ready to peel like an onion.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 400 pages, $27.99

“The Word Is Murder” is about a writer named Anthony (definitely not “Tony”) who has just released “The House of Silk” (2011) and has written several kids’ books featuring a character called Alex Rider. Hey, ANTHONY Horowitz wrote a book called “The House of Silk” (2011) and writes a kids’ series starring a character named Alex Rider. "Anthony" wrote “Foyle’s War” for television. Anthony Horowitz wrote “Foyle’s War” for television. You get where I’m going. More importantly, you get where Anthony Horowitz is going. I had to check the front cover for the tiny words balanced between the pen and the sword (the pencil and the knife), “A Novel.” But nowhere in the book does Anthony divulge his last name. Plausible deniability.

So fictional Anthony meets Hawthorne, the disgraced ex-Met homicide detective. Hawthorne suggests Anthony write about a current case for which he is a consultant with the London police. Sort of like Sherlock Holmes is called upon to consult with the London police. You mean write about the step-by-step method Hawthorne uses to solve (it is hoped) the case? Like Watson wrote about Sherlock’s cases?

Indeed Hawthorne bears a strong resemblance to Sherlock: He is a keen observer, has a organized mind and an inability to communicate his “obvious” thought processes to his scrivener without making the scrivener appear to be an idiot. All the clues (sort of) are there should we wish to make the same deductions.

A woman, a camel, and a lump of Play-Doh walk into a mortuary. Now erase the camel and lump from that statement. It’s not a joke. The woman has come to discuss her own funeral service with the mortician. She has precise wishes involving a trumpet voluntary, Sylvia Plath, and “Eleanor Rigby.” A few hours after concluding her meeting, she is murdered in her home.

Diana Cowper’s wishes are carried out to the letter when she is buried about a week later. Her famous actor son, Damian, has flown in from America to mourn. He has brought his photogenic wife and baby daughter. The body has not completely settled into its new residence when a second murder is committed.

Digging into all aspects of Diana’s life uncovers that about ten years ago she hit two boys with her car. One of them died and the other is permanently disabled. The last text message Diana sends is to her son. In it she says she feels threatened by the “boy who was lacerated.” Could that be a reference to the surviving son, who would be about eighteen years old?

No doubt the unlucky Godwin family has suffered and not just because young Jeremy, the boy who survived the car accident, needs continual care. The parents eventually separated. The young nanny who witnessed the accident feels guilty and she has stayed on as Jeremy’s caregiver. Alan Godwin, the father, has written a threatening note to Diana and has demanded money.

Throw in a sneaky house cleaner, a smarmy theatrical producer, a melancholy daughter-in-law and her protective parents, an egotistical son and the resulting mix has suspects galore and a red herring or two. Yay! And, yes, third and fourth murders are clearly in the offing. Yay!!

Anthony, the fictional writer, plays his part of the smart — but not as smart as Hawthorne — guy very well. After all, he is a successful writer of mysteries. Why shouldn’t he make a good detective as well? In the language of mystery books, the mystery Boswells are always doomed to play second bananas, and ones rife with weak spots and less a-peeling logic. It’s the trope and it comes with the territory. I have to confess that I fell into thinking about the same scenarios that “Anthony” comes up with, ones that are disabused by the blunt and still-waters-run-deep Hawthorne.

Why is this book set in 2011? This is what I thought. “Anthony” is looking to break into the adult fiction world. Although “House of Silk” is being released, he must continue to come up with ideas for new books. That’s my thinking, at least until Hawthorne disabuses me of it.

This book was very enjoyable, albeit a little strange for Horowitz having inserted his avatar in the proceedings.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Still Lives by Maria Hummel

Counterpoint, 288 pages, $26

Like a dark, glittering magnet Los Angeles has drawn the attention of many a crime writer. We’ve seen versions of the city by Raymond Chandler, Michael Connolly, Robert Crais, James Ellroy, Erle Stanley Gardner, Timothy Hallinan, Joseph Hansen, the Kellermans, Ross MacDonald, Walter Mosley, T. Jefferson Parker, and a cast of thousands. Their stories are iconic. It's hard to envisage a compellingly different take on the "City of Angels." 

What can Maria Hummel’s museum copyeditor protagonist add to the mix? Maggie Richter, whose name is not revealed until a quarter of the book has passed, moved to Los Angeles with a man she met in Thailand. Although she is an East Coaster, something bad happened there. That is why she ran to Thailand, and that is why she is still running. But she is a copyeditor in a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, so how bad could it be? There presumably is no one chasing her.

Maggie has lots of friends who also work at the Rocque Museum. She does spin classes with some of them. She drowns her sorrows — especially after her boyfriend dumps her — with some of them. She gossips with some of them and comments on their clothing. Surely this is a chick lit book. Much of the book comes across that way. (And don’t get me started about the “dumb girl going down to the basement where the serial killer is hiding” scenario this book incorporates at the end.) However, author Hummel writes passages that transcend the ill-fitting chick lit label.

Maggie’s ex-boyfriend, Greg, is now the boyfriend of a former enfant terrible of the art world, Kim Lord. She is trying to make a comeback by exhibiting at the Rocque her newest venture, Still Lives, a series of provocative paintings of women who were murdered, women who were famous for being murdered. Then she disappears, right before the gala at the museum to celebrate the exhibition’s opening. Greg has been arrested and, of course, he wants Maggie to help him. Maggie, the broken-hearted idiot, agrees because she knows deep down he couldn’t have had anything to do with Kim’s disappearance. Yawn.

Hummel lifts us out of the been-there-seen-that doldrums by writing about the art world and behind-the-scenes of a museum with an authority. And her writing can leap from the prosaic to the elevating. Here Maggie talks about how the bad stuff in Vermont (her home state), her breakup with Greg, and the fall-out from Kim’s disappearance has depressed her:

Novels now bothered me — too much invention in the narrative felt like a meal with too much sweetness. In the Fitzgerald biography, I had to turn back to the spot where Scott meets Zelda and start all over, only this time their early fascination with each other — their late-night parties and jumping into fountains — didn’t seem giddy and romantic but vain and silly, as if they refused to see the disaster of their lives ahead.

Here’s a long passage from a conversation in a meeting of the Craft Club — a group of Rocque employees who occasionally meet in a conference room to craft and gossip. Jayme, Maggie’s boss, wonders how Kim could bear the gruesome subject matter of her paintings:

No one knows how to respond to this comment, not coming from Jayme, whom we all admire, and who is so private that she works out at a different gym from the rest of us and never stays at happy hour for more than one gin gimlet. Even trickier, we do know what Jayme means — what it must have cost Kim Lord to inhabit these murders — yet saying it aloud strips away the safe armor of our own intellectualization, the same armor that got us through the Jason Rains show on capital punishment, when we each allowed ourselves to sit in a lethal injection chair and watch the syringes come closer. Still Lives is art. Art should shock us. We work at the Rocque.

“Still Lives” is worth reading because Maria Hummel has potential.