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

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

E.X. Ferrars

In a lull between new books that called my name, I checked an old E.X. Ferrars mystery out of the library. I thought I'd read everything available by her long ago, but had somehow missed Danger from the Dead, one of the last she wrote before her death in the mid 1990s.

She wrote almost as many novels as Agatha Christie and more than Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham combined, and was, in my opinion, as good or better than any of the three, but she's virtually unknown today and was never read by more than the devoted few even in her heyday. Perhaps this is because although she developed two delightful series -- one featuring therapist Virginia Freer and her ne'er-do-well ex-husband Felix, one with retired botany professor Andrew Bassnett -- they only appeared infrequently among far more non-series stories that were nonetheless equally charming.

We all have (or should have!) our "comfort reads" -- the authors we turn to when we're out of sorts or just want to curl up with something not too demanding, not too scary or intense, but not too mindless either. Something to gently engage our attention and emotions. E.X. Ferrars is just the ticket. And like the best comfort reads, she often throws in a little armchair travel as well, whisking the reader away to a quaint English village or exotic European locale. Best of all, for me, almost all her characters are both familiar and likable, with just enough of an edge to make them interesting. Just the people to gather round you on a gloomy December day.

Because she has had only a limited paperback publication and has been out of print for years, we have only a very limited stock of her books at the store. But we can special order three of her better books for you, $15.00 each, that you can pick up at the store or have mailed to you:




Friday, November 9, 2007

Latest Newsletter

For years we resisted any nod to Christmas until afterThanksgiving. But as we have seen more and more customers looking for gifts and holiday mysteries before that date, we have slowly inched our way forward with our holiday catalogue. So though you will still not see any decorations at MBTB till November 23, you can now browse our current newsletter for holiday inspiration.

If you are one of our newsletter subscribers who has been having trouble getting our mailing past your server's spam blockers, you may want to subscribe to this blog below, since I will start posting here whenever we upload a newsletter.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Andrew Nugent

Nugent has written two mysteries, published here only in hardback but available at MBTB in UK paperback editions. Both are wonderful, but in surprisingly different ways.

The Four Courts Murder is written in the wry, elegant style of Cyril Hare or Edmund Crispin. It is a classic cozy investigation into the murder of a distinctly unpleasant judge with some distinctly unseemly secrets. The characters are interesting, if not deep, the puzzle nicely drawn, and the plot moves along at a satisfying clip.

Second Burial of an African Prince is a much more serious and affecting work, exploring the murder of a member of London's Nigerian community with sensitivity and power. The characters are unforgettable, the insight into a little-known culture astonishing, and the plot development intense and sometimes terrifying or heart-breaking.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed some clever publisher will pick this series up for US paperback publication.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


Sandra Brown (Play Dirty), David Baldacci (Stone Cold) and Joseph Wambaugh (Hollywood Station) are among the slate of authors set to appear on MURDER BY THE BOOK, Court TV’s original series featuring best-selling authors who provide insight into true crime stories that have long captivated or had a personal impact on them. The series also features best-selling crime authors Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Harlan Coben , Linda Fairstein and Lisa Gardner.

The series returns for a second season with 13 episodes beginning Monday, Nov. 5, at 10 pm (ET/PT). Brown is set to be featured on MURDER BY THE BOOK Nov. 5 and will be followed by Baldacci on Nov. 12. Subsequent weeks will feature Wambaugh, Harlan Coben (The Woods), Lee Child (Bad Luck and Trouble), Lisa Gardner (Gone), Linda Fairstein (Bad Blood), Kathy Reichs (Break No Bones), Elizabeth George (What Came Before He Shot Her), and Nick Santora (Slip & Fall). Returning from last season are authors Lisa Scottoline (Daddy’s Girl), Faye Kellerman (Capital Crimes) and Jonathan Kellerman (Obsession).

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz

The Spellman Files is one very fun book. The Spellmans are a family of private eyes: the parents start the kids on background checks and simple surveillance at an early age. Naturally, they use the techniques at hand to handle family issues -- e.g when Mom wants to check out our heroine Izzy's new boyfriend or when Izzy wants to dodge said surveillance. The youngest child, Rae, the real star of the story, finds recreational surveillance a great game, and a new telephoto lens the perfect gift. The oldest, David, has managed to escape (more or less) to a career as a lawyer, but when he explains to a young Rae what he does ("negotiate"), he adds blackmail as another useful tool to the family's arsenal of dispute resolution techniques.

Only the thinness of the plot kept me from awarding a star to this very original and entertaining addition to the mystery field.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

ALL SUMMER, by Claire Kilroy

Better late than never, right? This book was published in 2003, but I didn’t stumble across it till it was remaindered earlier this year. I grabbed it because I had enjoyed Kilroy’s second book, Tenderwire, which I included as one of my picks for the best paperback of 2006. To my delight, I liked All Summer even better – indeed I’ve awarded it one of my rare stars.

Since I have been reading mysteries for more than 30 years, I have to admit to having become a bit jaded – it takes something pretty special to thrill me the way this book did. It’s hard to say too much about the plot without giving too much away, because figuring who’s who and what’s what, rather than whodunit, is what generates the suspense, but this much we learn fairly early on: our heroine, Anna Hunt, finds herself sleeping in a barn somewhere in Ireland with no memory of her identity or her past, and a suitcase stuffed with money. Later on chronologically (but early on in the narrative, which jumps back and forth in time) she remembers that she was somehow involved with someone she calls Kel in an art theft, and that he gave her the scar where a knife slashed under her eye, the shock of which apparently caused her memory loss.

I might as well also let you know now that some major questions about Anna’s past remain unanswered, which is part of what gives her narrative its compelling dreamlike quality. But the answers to these questions turn out to be not as important as the headlong rush of her present difficulties, as she runs, not always sure why, from threats, she’s not always sure from whom. Her narrative is written to a second person “you,” who remains, for the reader, a largely shadowy character in her story but, for Anna, the most important.

There are several sudden, satisfying, and, for the most part, surprising twists in the tale, including the one in the very last line that reveals this to be not so much a crime story as an excruciatingly complex and powerful love story.

John Kenny’s review in The Irish Times summed up the unsettling but unputdownable quality of this book well: “Kilroyhas strikingly combined a poetic sense of language with a commitment to the narrative thrills of good storytelling…We have here an unusual phenomenon: a novelist who knows the occult powers of descriptive language.” If you like your mysteries neat and tidy, you may want to give this one a miss, but if you enjoy the unexpected and unusual, this one will make you shiver.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Comic Mysteries

M wrote:
found your site via kimbooktu - i wonder if you can provide some recommendations. i review books of different genres from a comedy perspective. my favorite mystery series are by lindsey davis (falco) and elizabeth peters (peabody). they are both superb writers with meticulously researched settings and great comedic skill.can you recommend any other similar authors?

My suggestions:
Robin Paige has a nice gentle wit, in a well developed Victorian setting; Sarah Caudwell and Anthony Oliver are great for dry and broad British wit respectively (though neither, alas, are still writing, and are largely out of print). You might also want to browse titles in our off-beat humor section. I'll add more as they come to me, but in the meantime I hope other readers will weigh in.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

End Game, by Michael Dibdin

End Game is Michael Dibdin’s last book in his inspector Aurelio Zen series set in Italy. I don’t know if it was intended to be the end of the series, but with Dibdin’s recent death, this is the book that sees Zen off into the sunset, and one can see (sometimes only by squinting) notes of farewell scattered throughout the book.

Zen defies the police bureaucracy, a recurring note in the series, to solve the mystery of the death of an American man, supposedly in Calabria to scout for shooting locations for a movie. As Dibdin has done so many times in the past, he again gives his non-Italian audience a peek at the different cultures that make up the Italian population. Calabrians, if this tale is a true indication, keep their own counsel, speak their own language, and believe in the concept of legacy, both good and bad.

I enjoyed this bittersweet end game of Dibdin’s. I even forgive him the creation of a rather cartoonish multi-gazillionaire character whose “whim” propels the story. Thankfully, the author gives his readers a satisfying last look at Zen right through to the last few paragraphs.

Addio, Aurelio.

(Currently available in hard cover only.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott

Ghostwalk is an intriguing first novel by British historian Rebecca Stott. It is a compelling mixture of contemporary romance, ghost story, historical novel, and Da Vinci Code intrigue. I also was reminded of The Turn of the Screw’s play of psychological breakdown versus paranormal theme.

In essence, Lydia Brooke, an academic and author, is asked to finish a book started by the recently deceased mother of her former lover on Isaac Newton and his involvement in alchemy. Stott vividly describes, in brief bursts, life during Newton’s time in Cambridge. The old and new are constantly interwoven until the moment Stott reveals why murders in Newton’s time and contemporary murders might be related. For example, in what appears to be a deliberate counterpoint to the mother’s obsession with the crumbling papers of the 17th century, her son compulsively uses his cell phone to text message people, including Lydia.

I looked online for critiques and author interviews after reading this book. A common complaint is the number of genres Stott crosses to present her story. I, on the other hand, found the achievement masterful.

Finally, despite the scenes which seem to definitively state which way the author wants you to go in the breakdown v. paranormal decision, the reader must remember that the book is told in the first person.

(Currently available in hard cover only.)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why I Love Mysteries

I thought I'd kick off our new BOOK BLOG with a reprise from my personal blog of some notes on my talk at the Tigard Library in July. The books I chose were ones that show how mysteries can offer a special punch at the end. My thesis was that a really good “pow” is a descendent of the Greek idea of dramatic catharsis, and comes from the reader’s expectations being different from the protagonist’s -- due, in part, to the fact the reader knows the book will honor the mystery conventions (whether in the observance or the breach). Here are the books I discussed, and why:

TRENT’S LAST CASE, by E.C. Bentley was one of the first mysteries to try to astonish and not just surprise the reader. Also, by making a game of hoodwinking the reader, it indirectly introduced the idea that the author should play fair. To be reissued later this year.

GREEN FOR DANGER, by Christiana Brand is one of the best “fair play” mysteries of the golden age – no gimmicks, gadgets, or dramatic character changes, but a realistic and moving examination of a murder that still manages to astonish. The rules of Fair Play – limited number of possible suspects, the reader is given all the information needed to solve the crime – establish a set of reader expectations for at least the next 50 years of mysteries. MALICE AFORETHOUGHT, by Frances Iles has a terrific punch that comes entirely the first person narrative, which draws the reader into identifying with the narrator and which creates certain very specific expectations – in this case, one even more fundamental than that the narrator is not the murderer. The same story told word for word in the same way except for changing the first person to third would have an entirely different impact. Hitchcock tried to film this, as Suspicion, but couldn’t come up with a decent ending for this reason. [Sorry – out of print and unavailable]

MISS PYM DISPOSES, by Josephine Tey featured probably the most startling shock at the end of any mystery to that point. Any time there is a surprise ending there is what I call an “after book experience,” as the reader sifts back through the story to piece together the clues to what was really going on, as opposed to what seemed to be the case at first reading. Miss Pym took mystery’s “after book experience” to new heights, creating an extended dialogue with the reader after the book was closed.

THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED, by Sara Caudwell takes advantage of the gradual relaxation of the rules of fair play to astonish the reader by playing fair when we thought it was all just for fun. Caudwell takes a second healthy poke at the reader’s expectations by successfully concealing the narrator’s gender: how long did it take you before you realized that Professor Hilary Tamar was not necessarily the man or woman you had assumed him/her to be?

PRESUMED INNOCENT, by Scott Turow gets the better of the reader by lulling us into thinking we got the better of the author. The “after book experience” on this one includes reliving the final scene word for word from a different point of view.

PARK LANE SOUTH QUEENS, by Mary Ann Kelly snuck in because I love it, but also because it has unique gimmick for surprising the reader: the second book in the series reveals that the solution in the first one was wrong. Unfortunately, the tone of the sequel, Foxglove, is a little too dark to make this the laugh-out-loud punch it should be. [Sorry – out of print and unavailable]

A PLACE OF EXECUTION, by Val McDermid offers a surprise based not on whodunit (as the reader expects) but on what it was that was “dun”. The surprise in this one probably generated the most explosive reader reaction since Miss Pym.

DECEPTION, by Denise Mina turns the reader’s expectations and sympathies on their heads and uses a pretty nifty surprise solution to the murder itself as a sucker punch to lull the reader before the real surprise at the end.

THE USED WOMEN'S BOOK CLUB, by Paul Bryers is written in the present tense solely (I think) to set us up for the ambiguity of the very last word in the book, which invites an even more complicated and extended “after book experience” than the one in Miss Pym. Fittingly for such a cerebral book, the punch is more intellectual than emotional.

TENDERWIRE by Claire Kilroy, though not really a mystery, uses mystery techniques – an unreliable narrator who drops clues as to what’s really going on more by what she leaves out than what she says – to create a very satisfying punch at the finale.

PALE BLUE EYE by Louis Bayard is a straight fair play mystery with clever misdirection and a nice surprise at the end. What gives it a noteworthy “pow” is the elegance of the clues and the way the finale brings both a fulfillment and a reversal of our expectations about the developing relationship between the narrator, a retired policeman, and his Dr. Watson (who happens to be the young Edgar Allan Poe).

I have given “gold stars” to most of these books, and included almost all of them on lists of MBTB’s favorites for the year, or, in the case of the earlier ones, for the 20th century’s best. You can see many of MBTB's staff favorites over the years by clicking on the link below.