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

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blue Heaven, by C. J. Box ($7.99)

C. J. Box is better known for his series about Joe Pickett, a game warden in Wyoming. Blue Heaven is a standalone but shares many qualities with his Pickett series.

Annie and William, a 12-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother, witness the murder of one stranger by several other strangers. On the run, they soon learn that the people they thought they could trust are their enemies. Roaming rural Idaho, they look for someone to help them, and luckily for them (and us) they stumble across Jess Rawlins.

Think Gary Cooper. Strong and silent. Not one to gossip or gander. Jess is very similar to Joe Pickett in that regard, but Jess is an older, maybe not so much wiser version of Joe. It takes almost until the end of the book to learn about Jess, his isolation, and his grief. Jess shows himself to be a man of integrity and grit as he meets each challenge to help the children survive.

Add to the cast a retired police detective, Eduardo Villatoro, from a town near L.A., who has flown into Jess, Annie, and William's small town in Idaho to follow a lead on his one unsolved case as a detective, a robbery of immense proportions at the local race track.

Box works hard to make his characters three-dimensional. Even some of the bad guys have their moments of illumination. One of the aspects of the Pickett books I find endearing is the way Box depicts children. Some authors either tend to make children too precocious or they are nothing more than stage props. Annie and William are real children. Jess is someone you might have as your neighbor -- if you raised cattle in Idaho. Villatoro is defined in small and large ways: He is disgusted that people cannot pronounce his last name correctly, he loves his wife, he is excited as a schoolboy when the trail heats up.

Box is great at creating the sympathetic, but not melodramatic, situation. Jess is on the verge of losing the ranch that has been in his family for generations because of issues facing real cattle ranchers. Villatoro is an L.A. fish out of Idaho water and flounders a little before he gets his bearings. In a beautiful passage, Villatoro asks about a mountain in the distance. Jess goes on about the history of the mountain and events he remembers taking place there, putting the mountain in perspective to the community. Villatoro says that's his problem in Idaho: When he looks at the mountain, all he sees is the mountain; Jess sees a part of his life.

It is because of those big and small touches that I love C. J. Box's books. I am a bigger fan of the Pickett books, but Blue Heaven was a nice change of pace.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hush My Mouth, by Cathy Pickens ($6.99)

I have been waiting for a charming, well-written, well-paced book with a contemporary female character who is intelligent, funny, and lives in a small town in South Carolina. I think I found it.

Avery Andrews stars in this fourth book in Pickens's series. Avery is an attorney who has given up life in the big city with a big law office for the familiar terra firma of her childhood. She is struggling to establish a general practice with what she fears are the dregs that other lawyers in town refuse to handle. To extend what little money she has, she has taken to renting both home and office in a former mortuary. As part of her rental agreement, she is also the handy(wo)man for the rambling ex-mortuary/mansion.

The main story may be about a woman trying to locate her missing foster sister, but the really interesting stuff is about Avery's new secretary, her imperturbable investigator, her debonair older landlord (a la Kinsey Millhone), and the fix-it tips related to her home repair. As a bonus, Pickens interprets the South for us non-southerners without creating a parody.

Friday, December 5, 2008

12 Best for 2008 -- The rest of them . . .

The rest of the titles picked were reviewed previously in this blog. They are: Big City, Bad Blood, by Sean Chercover; The Chicago Way, by Michael Harvey; The Night Ferry, by Michael Robotham; Calumet City, by Charlie Newton; The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz; In the Woods, by Tana French; and Heartsick, by Chelsea Cain.

12 Best for 2008 - The Song Is You, by Megan Abbott (trade, $14)

[This is Nick's second pick.]

Two years ago, Hollywood starlet Jean Spangler disappeared, leaving only her purse and a mysterious note addressed to "Kirk" as evidence. Two years ago, Gil "Hop" Hopkins helped cover up the trails stemming from Jean Spangler's disappearance, including the hint that "Kirk" was none other than leading man Kirk Douglas, and turned Jean Spangler into a sexy, jaded young woman who sought out danger and found more than she could handle that night. For his efforts Hopkins was promoted. End of story? Not on your life.

Hop was there that night and knows more than most about what could have happened to Jean Spangler. And so was Iolene -- beautiful, black, and acutely aware of how vulnerable a combination that is in 1940s Hollywood. Iolene had asked Hop to stick around that night, sensing the danger she and Jean were in. And now she's asking questions, which force Hop to uncover old trails he himself had covered up and he doesn't even know why. Is he trying to solve a murder he's not certain was committed? Or is he trying to keep a murder hidden in order to satisfy his job description? And when Hop confesses in a drunken pity party to pretty, petite, freshman reporter Frannie Adair, he realizes he's not the only one who's going to be digging in the past. With Frannie Adair sniffing around, how can Hopkins learn the truth while keeping her in the dark, and more importantly, what will it mean if he succeeds?

In the vein of "The Black Dahlia" and "Hollywoodland," This Song Is You lays bare the 1940s Hollywood movie star machine as it grinds out its victims -- both physical and moral. And like the others, it is based on the true Hollywood scandal -- the disappearance of Jean Spangler. Written with impeccable style, The Song Is You is one of three noir masterpieces propelling Megan Abbott to the top of the heap. Fans of James Ellroy, James Cain, Jim Thompson -- but definitely not James Michener -- will adore Megan Abbott and her cast of Hollywood wannabe stars and cynical studio hatchetmen.

12 Best for 2008 - The Snitch Jacket, by Christopher Goffard (trade, $14.95)

[This is one of Nick's two picks for 2008.]

Benny Bunt is a low-life. He deals and uses drugs; he drives a Schwinn to work where he washes dishes ... or used to before the hairy Greek man who runs the high-end Mexican restaurant caught him slipping Ex-Lax into a customer's chorizo and fired him; he's a confidential informant (rat, fink, snitch) for a cop named Munoz who busted him trying to sell weed at a Little League game; and his eyes are set too close together. Benny rats on his friends because they are even lower than he is, and the one universal truth, according to Benny, is that everyone despises anyone who is lower than he is.

Enter Gus "Mad Dog" Miller -- ex-con, ex-black-ops, with the tattoos and lack of impulse control to prove it -- and his half-blind, psychic dog Jesse James. Mad Dog is now the bouncer at Benny's favorite hangout, the Greasy Tuesday, and Benny wants despeartely to be his friend. This professional low-life snitch wants to be trusted by a guy who has no problem sticking a guy with the jagged end of a broken pool cue simply for being disrespectful. What could possibly go wrong? Well, Mad Dog could ask Benny to help him with a contract killing ... for starters.

Written skillfully and humorously and with a fearless attitude toward the English language, Snitch Jacket will appeal to those who like their fiction to have that truthful stink, that unwashed, serrated edge that makes every line of every page cut that much deeper.

12 Best of 2008 - An Ice Cold Grave, by Charlaine Harris ($7.99)

[This is one of Jean's picks for the year. Here is her review.]

The prolific Charlaine Harris has long been a favorite. I started with her series about small town Southern librarian-turned-realtor Aurora Teagarden and enjoyed them all. I stuck a toe in the Lily Bard series (set in Shakespeare, Arkansas) and thought they were just fine. When she introduced Sookie Stackhouse, the mind-reading, vampire-loving heroine of her best known series (and the inspiration for the HBO series �True Blood), I was hesitant at first but they grew on me. In her latest series with Harper Connelly, she combines some of my favorite elements found in the other books (quirky main character, Southern setting and just enough of the supernatural thrown in to be intriguing) and gets the mix just right.

Harper Connelly -- first introduced in Grave Sight -- has what you might call a strange job: She finds dead people. Ever since she was struck by lightning as a child, she has been able to not only locate dead bodies but discover how they died. Hired to find a missing teenager in Doraville, North Carolina, Harper soon realizes that she has discovered the fate of not one boy, but of several who have disappeared over the course of five years. Harper is stunned by her discovery and is reluctantly drawn into investigating the most painful case she has encountered. I do recommend that readers start with the first book in the series, so you can get to know Harper right from the beginning.

12 Best for 2008 - What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman ($7.99)

[This is the second of Carolyn's picks for the year. Here is her review.]

Lippman's stand-alone novels, for example, To the Power of Three, have often been more powerful than her always enjoyable Tess Monaghan series. This novel, however, is in a league all its own, a cagey impostor story that keeps the reader guessing until the very end of the book. Of course, when the revelation comes, it makes perfect sense and has been hiding all the time in plain sight.

When a woman involved in a highway accident is questioned, she eventually claims to be Heather Bethany, one of two teenage sisters last seen at a mall in 1975. OK, but where's she been and why did they disappear? Her story is layered and indistinct, told in several different time periods and always with exceptional detail. We find out what happened to their parents in their grief following the sisters� disappearance, what the girls� own history and relationship were like, how they spent their last known day together, and how furiously their case was investigated � all are seamlessly presented without a wasted word. All of the characters, from their mother to the retired policeman who tried heroically to find them, are fully formed and believable. This exceptional work also easily earned Carolyn's gold star. (For another book with similar qualities, try Carol O'Connells The Judas Child.)

12 Best of 2008 - The Black Path, by Asa Larsson (trade, $12)

[This is one of Carolyn's three picks for the year. Here is her review.]

This remarkable book, easily winning my gold star, is third in a projected series of six, the first of which was Sun Storm, all featuring Swedish police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and Attorney Rebecka Martinsson. Mella is a well-adjusted family woman, while Martinsson is rather alone in the world and is recovering from an attack on her life.

The story picks up with the discovery of a dead woman, eventually found to be a key employee in a mining company with interests world wide, on a frozen lake in northern Sweden. Who would want her dead? Her boss, set to expand operations in Africa? Her brother, always needing her affection and his employer�s money? And why has a brilliant artist packed away her oils to live in her magnate step-brother�s attic? As the book heads to a stunning conclusion, Larsson�s genius emerges while the reader grasps � of course! of course! � the implications of all that is by now known. Still not content, Larsson goes on, in a brief epilogue, to satisfy all those who both long for respite after such suspense and all those who hunger for a taste of the future.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Trigger City, by Sean Chercover (hardcover, $23.95)

I love the Chicago boys! Authors Marcus Sakey, Charlie Newton, Michael Harvey, and Sean Chercover have different styles, so although their stories are all set in Chicago, their takes on the city are varied. They all hit the scene about the same time. This year Sakey released his third book, Harvey and Chercover their second. Newton trails the pack with just one release so far.

Sean Chercover's second book, Trigger City, is a follow-up to his tough-talking Big City, Bad Blood. Ray Dudgeon is back as the hard-boiled PI with issues. Ray used to be a reporter, but he's better off on his own with no one to answer to but himself. Keeping his own counsel had serious results in Big City, and Trigger City opens with Ray finally returning to Chicago to recoup his life.

The "trigger" of the title refers to what triggers Ray's anxiety and flashbacks related to his last case, and the triggers are many. He medicates himself with illegal Percocet, beer and vodka, and immersion in hopeless cases.

The current hopeless case involves a middle-aged woman who was killed by a mentally unbalanced co-worker. Her father hires Ray to find out why. Why? The guy was crazy, that's why. But her father insists that Ray investigate and find out the "truth" of his daughter's death. People say they want the truth, but Ray feels they seldom really do want the truth. Ray begrudgingly takes the case because he needs the money.

It seems so open and shut. Crazy guy tracks down co-worker. Kills her. Kills himself. It isn't until Ray talks to the killer's widow that he realizes there may be more to the story. Soon the FBI, a journalist friend, and Ray's assistant are involved in what becomes an increasingly tangled mystery. In the end Ray discovers, as he always suspected, that truth is malleable.

This is one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time. It's a page-turner with thoughtful pauses. I had assumed by the end of Big City, Bad Blood that we had seen all there was to see about Ray. His life and personality needed work. But Chercover has shown what good writing is all about. In Trigger City, he follows up on the strands of character development and fleshes them out. Another character calls Ray to task for what he sees as Ray's sanctimonious attitude. To Ray's -- and Chercover's -- credit, he examines his motives and cops to his problem. Chercover has wound up creating a character whose heart and hopes are now open for the reader to see.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Fatal Fixer-Upper, by Jennie Bentley ($6.99)

Cute, romantic story with improbably hunky handyman. Good diversion as the days grow shorter and the nights longer.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Flight of the Hornbill (hardcover, $24.95; trade, $14.95), by Eric Stone

This isn't so much about Flight of the Hornbill as it is about Eric Stone.

Stone and Portlander Bill Cameron appeared at Murder by the Book last night to talk about their books. Stone is also a professional photographer (among his many talents) and Cameron is also a graphic designer, so they decided to put on a slide show. It was not your shaky home movie of relatives' feet (oh, wait, there was the one shot of Cameron's daughter's feet as she posed for a "corpse shot"); it was a spectacular production.

Stone's slides were of Indonesia. His book is bursting with descriptions of life in Indonesia, a place for which he obviously has a great deal of affection. The good, the bad, the funky, the weird aspects of life in the humid, hopping, geographically diverse island-country were made alive with Stone's photographs. [Insert terms of great technical difficulty here] Stone did with ease. His photos teemed with color. His portraits brought his subjects to life. We know what his next book should be.

Stone's protagonist, Ray Sharp, ventures about Asia as an investigator for a "due diligence" firm, an organization that susses out feasibility for business investment. He is in Indonesia on a job when his wife, whom he'd like to tag an "ex" on, asks him to locate her boyfriend. He has gone missing while looking for gold.

While Sharp works, we readers are tourists. We meet people who sound like real people. We see sights that must be real. Sharp is patient and open wide to the experience of being in a different culture, unlike some of the other characters portrayed. In fact, a vast company compound has transplanted suburban America to the jungles of Indonesia. This, Stone says, is not far from the truth. Too bad. That's a long way to go to never leave home.

Cameron's slides were of Portland. He showed them to a room of Portlanders. Not so crazy, actually. We were thrilled to learn where in our backyard Cameron was tossing his bodies. Cameron showed us the inspiration for "Uncommon Ground," the coffee shop of his books. He showed us the lovely parks in which victims reposed. If his books become as famous as "The Sopranos," maybe there will be a tour of Portland similar to the ones that showcase mob hangouts in Jersey. This might be one step closer to fact, as one of his non-resident fans took his book, came to Portland, and tracked down various locations.

The tone of the evening was a surprise. Both Stone's and Cameron's books are hard-boiled, with Cameron's definitely leaning in the noir camp, if not outright collapsed there. But their presentations were humorous and beautiful, and a little quirky with the rock gamelon music providing the prelude.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Dark Star (trade, $14.95), by Alan Furst (c1991)

Alan Furst hit a literary goldmine when he began to write his books set in Europe during World War II. He combines a comprehensive historical sense with the ability to create characters that are thoughtful and complex.

The United States is not the center of World War II in Furst's books. Instead, Furst looks primarily at the conflicting interests -- sometimes in public, but often in private -- of Nazi Germany versus Stalin's Soviet Union. Communism is a vital ideology used to marshal forces to combat Hitler's march across Europe. Caught in the middle of the territorial grab-and-snatch are the rest of the countries of Europe, and especially of Eastern Europe. Furst's books reference events from 1934 through 1945.

Most of Furst's protagonists are not citizens of the big power countries. They come from places like beleaguered Poland and Hungary; but they travel widely, using various devices, to France, the Soviet Union, Spain. At the center of each character's motivation lies something personal -- love, a search for safety and security, family. From the big concern to the little thought, Furst tosses it all ingeniously into the mix.

André Szara of Dark Star has survived the twists and turns of the volatile and evolving politics of Poland and the Soviet Union. Ostensibly working as an international journalist for Pravda, Szara is gradually and unwillingly drawn into spying for the Soviet Union … or maybe just a faction within the Soviet Union … or maybe a couple of factions. Who knows? Changing allegiances and shifting power move his handlers in and out (sometimes forever out) of the scene. Szara experiences fear, then resignation, and finally a guarded moral ambiguity about what he is asked to do.

Szara clings to the thought of love as his salvation. Before his life becomes extremely complicated, he meets a woman in Germany and falls rapidly in love. She becomes a Madonna to light his way, but it is only in his thoughts because he is moved further and further away from the possibility of seeing her again.

Furst's narrative is convoluted. Thoughts jump around, mirroring the uneven path of historical events. I would even suggest a second reading once you finish the book and understand who the viable players are. It's easier the second time to admire the path Furst lays out for his (in this case) hapless protagonist.

It's often like watching a jerky documentary with no hand-holding narrative to accompany it. The reader is rewarded by a sense of having glimpsed a world that really existed. How hard it is sometimes just to survive!

[Furst has a two-book series with Jean Casson, a film producer who becomes a member of the Resistance in occupied France: The World at Night (1996) and Red Gold (1999). His other books are Night Soldiers (1988), The Polish Officer (1995), Kingdom of Shadows (2000), Blood of Victory (2002), Dark Voyage (2005), The Foreign Correspondent (2006), and The Spies of Warsaw (2008). -- We have copies of several of these works and you are invited to email us at books@mbtb.com if you are interested in purchasing a title.]

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Last Good Kiss (trade, $12.95), by James Crumley (c1978)

James Crumley died recently. I decided to re-read The Last Good Kiss as my own memorial to him. It had been a couple of decades since I'd last read it. Some books are disappointing when re-examined, never quite living up to the wonderful memory. What I found is that The Last Good Kiss could never be a disappointment.

First of all, Crumley's language is beyond compare. He is in turns humorous, poetic, and philosophical. His writing is challenging, teasing, and unpredictable. Secondly, his plot is surprising; even now years later I still think Crumley's resolution rocks. Lastly, his characters are complex. C. W. Sughrue, his intelligent, sardonic, alcoholic, dysfunctional private eye and alter ego, defines classic hard-boiled. The layers peel back throughout the book to reveal the heart that beats within. And there is Abraham Trahearne, the alcoholic, dysfunctional author whom Sughrue is hired to find -- and, one suspects, also a Crumley alter ego. Crumley raises the genius of Trahearne's talent and then skewers him with a portrayal of his weakness.

It is not a surprise that this book is praised for its famous first line* and is an inspiration for some of today's best writers. What more could a mystery reader want?

*"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Deadly Slipper (trade, $13.95), by Michelle Wan (c2005)

This is a romance. Not in the Fabio-on-the-cover sense, but in how the author sensually describes the food, geography, and botany of the Dordogne, a southern region of France. She loves the food. She loves the plants. She loves the people. Never mind the murder mystery!

In fact, there is a mystery. Almost twenty years ago, Mara’s sister disappeared while camping in the Dordogne region. Mara has moved from Quebec and intermittently pursues the trail. When she discovers a camera she is sure belonged to her sister, she develops the pictures. The smudged and faded photos show wild orchids. Could an orchid expert trace her sister’s path? Enter Julian, a reluctant participant in the search. Julian, too, is an ex-pat and has found his way from Great Britain to settle in the little town of Grissac. He is a landscaper and amateur orchidologist. (You can paste a little picture of Fabio here.)

This is a good book to give an armchair traveler. It’s not a toothless bit of fluff, but it also doesn’t bite hard – it’s a nice middle-of-the-road journey to Dordogne.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Chasing Smoke (hardcover, $24.95, & trade, $14.95), by Bill Cameron

Portland author Bill Cameron has a couple of interesting gimmicks in his latest book. His protagonist is nicknamed "Skin" because of a disfiguring birthmark on the side of his neck. As a middle-aged police detective who is used to handling whatever situation comes along, Skin Kadash finds himself helplessly facing bladder cancer and all its attendant indignities. Cameron gives his character a bite and portrays Skin's struggles with cancer in an open and graphic manner.

Skin is on disability leave but is called in by his former partner to review the apparent suicide of a man who, as it turns out, also has cancer. Soon there are a couple more cases that may be related, all involving men who have cancer. Is it what it appears to be at first tragic glance: men with terminal cancer who have taken the quick way out? Or is someone helping them?

If Chasing Smoke were a hard-boiled egg, it would be petrified. Graphic language, scatological metaphors, Skin's agony likened to a rat gnawing at him assail you in almost every paragraph. But Cameron's best written stuff is elegiac rather than gruff: "…[D]eath is a thing owned by the living more than an event that happens to the dead. It's fraught with expectation, drenched in ritual, rife with uncertainty. We each own a piece of it when someone dies."

Cameron places his book vividly in a Portland that would be very recognizable to its residents. (Some of the action takes place not too far from Murder by the Book!)

Cameron's plot takes a sensitive subject, gives it the requisite mystery twist, peppers it with excretory invective, and pops out an entertaining and solid read.

(Murder by the Book is pleased to host a signing with authors Bill Cameron and Eric Stone on Wednesday, November 12, at 6:30 p.m., 3210 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland.)

The Draining Lake (hardcover, $24.95), by Arnaldur Indridason

How strange to have read two books in less than a week that use disappearing lakes as the vehicle to begin the mystery! The Labyrinth Makers, written by Anthony Price and published in 1970, begins with the appearance of a WWII plane as lake water recedes. And this is also how Icelandic author Indridason's novel begins.

Kleifarvatn, the lake of Indridason's title, mysteriously begins to lower. A hydrologist monitoring the drop discovers a human skeleton buried in the muck. Perhaps that would be bizarre enough in and of itself, but it is also tethered to a broken covert monitoring apparatus once used by Eastern Bloc countries at the height of the Cold War. The reader can make the assumption that the victim belonged to the shadowy world of spies. But in Iceland?

Although Iceland declared neutrality during WWII, it eventually hosted a NATO military base, which the United States helped construct and which it then used as a naval post. Despite the end of the war and a request by the Icelandic government that the military base be dismantled, the United States continued to maintain a presence off and on through the years. However, throughout the Cold War, Iceland also allowed some Eastern Bloc countries to establish embassies. Furthermore, many of Iceland's citizens were committed socialists and were schooled in Communist East Germany. It is this background that provides the kernel of Indridason's tale.

This is the fourth book in the series featuring Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. Indridason's first book in the series, Jar City, won the Gold Dagger, the premier British mystery award.

Alternating with the story of the current investigation are the reminiscences of an unknown man. We learn as his story continues that he is one of the young socialists who went to Leipzig to study. We are not sure whether he became a spy on behalf of the East Germans, turned against socialism when faced with the reality of its implementation in East Germany, or just shrugged all politics off when he returned to Iceland. We can only assume that in some way he is related to the skeleton in the lakebed.

The tale of Erlendur's investigation is mixed with the continuing back story of his attempts to re-ignite his relationship with his estranged adult children. His daughter is a drug addict and his son is angry and alienated. Erlendur's awkwardness in parenting his children so late in their lives is written with a depth of realism that makes the reader want to write a letter to him that begins, "Now see here, this is what you should do." But we know he will struggle on in future tales and it will provide a fascinating aside to the main story.

Indridason has thrown another tasty bone to the reader in the form of Erlendur's former boss, Marion Briem. Joining the genderless figures of Saturday Night Live's "Pat" and mystery author Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar, Marion is an enigmatic character who lacks a pronoun. In the current tale, Marion seems to be on death's door. He/she is confined by illness to an apartment and tethered to an oxygen machine a good deal of the time. In what appears to tip the scale in one direction, Marion requests that Erlendur obtain a John Wayne movie for him/her to watch. We imagine Indridason sitting in his book-strewn study, smiling as he wrote that. (Fire up that Wikipedia entry on John Wayne, pilgrims!)

Indridason's books are compelling because of his complex characters and the evocative depiction of Iceland as more than our stereotyped assumption that it is an arctic wasteland where the sun either is shining too much or not at all. Finally, kudos to a smooth translation by Bernard Scudder, who makes it seem as though the book must have been written originally in English.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Labyrinth Makers ($14,85), by Anthony Price (c1970)

Yay! for Felony & Mayhem. Many of mystery's great novels would have fallen by the wayside were it not for this extraordinary small press. One of the store's favorite authors is Reginald Hill whose earliest Dalziel and Pascoe books were unavailable in the United States for a long time. F&M has slowly begun to release them to the American reading public. May I reiterate: Yay!

The Labyrinth Makers is one of the classics of spy fiction that wouldn't even be generating dust mites in a dark corner were it not for its re-issue by F&M. This is a spy book in the grand intellectual fashion of le Carré. It is spy vs. spy in a grey world where a country's behind-the-scenes persona may not match its public face.

David Audley, Price's incomparable hero, is not very heroic. He hesitates, fearful, when he is called out from the safe cocoon of his office where he analyzes trends in the Middle East -- where nothing much is happening, relatively speaking, in the late 1960s -- to do field work. A WWII plane and its pilot have been uncovered when the lake in which it was hidden is accidentally drained. All of a sudden there is international interest in it. What does a British war plane have to do with Germany and Russia? What was the mysterious cargo it was carrying? Of course, and luckily for the reader, there are no simple answers. Audley is both prized and castigated for his out-of-the-box thinking, and he is assigned the task of determining the provenance of the airplane.

The only false note to the 21st century ear is Audley's whirlwind romantic relationship with the daughter of the long dead pilot and its awkward progress. Mired in James Bond/60s sensibilities, the cold, older, self-contained Audley manages to rather quickly charm young, mini-skirted, attractive Faith. Only in fiction!

Along with Graham Greene and John le Carré, Anthony Price can rightly lay claim to being one of the best crafters of the elegant spy drama.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Various Haunts of Men (trade, $13.95), by Susan Hill

So I was told a long time ago that this was a pretty good series. It just took me a while to get to it. I wish I hadn't waited so long, because I enjoyed this first book tremendously.

Brit Susan Hill is perhaps better known for having written The Woman in Black, which was turned into a successful play on the London stage. As was obvious from the play and is reiterated in this book, she certainly can deal out the atmosphere like no one else.

Hill is also very good at keeping all the juggling pins up in the air. There are several intriguing storylines and potential red herrings.

Freya Graffham has moved from the intense and alienating London police world to the quiet and comforting town of Lafferton. Sergeant Graffham has found her voice again, literally. She has joined a choir, through which she has made new friends and found the happiness that had eluded her during a disastrous marriage. Her new boss, Simon Serrailler, presents the ultimate challenge, both as the head of her detective unit and as a sophisticated, intelligent, attractive man.

Too bad there's a serial killer on the loose.

With the aid of goofy-faced and loyal DC Nathan Coates and Simon's sister, Dr. Cat Deerbon, Freya first has to prove that there is a serial killer, then tenaciously pursues him.

The characters are well-defined and very human in their failings. Freya has a tender heart, a clear direction, and her future seems limitless. Cat, who shares a large portion of the stage, is a do-it-all mom, village doctor, and functional human being from a slightly dysfunctional family. This book belongs to them more than to the other characters, but the others are fleshed out admirably.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Anathem (hardcover, $29.95), by Neal Stephenson

Not a mystery.

There are 935 pages.

Fan is derived from fanatic.

Let's link these thoughts together.

Although Anathem turned out not to be a mystery, I may have liked the book. Then again, I may not have. Let's keep talking about it. There was a murder half way through the book. We eventually discover (sort of) who did it, but it was a political murder and the solution was dismissed in a couple of lines.

The book began in a monastery for scientists/philosophers and wandered off to outer space, and I wandered with it. Only a fanatic would read the parts that wandered off on philosophical tangents. I did not understand said parts, but I must be a Stephenson fan(atic) because I read them.

I think in a parallel world I really liked the story. In another parallel world I really didn't like the story. In this world I mostly liked it.

If it had been a mystery, there would be more to this review. But now I must turn out the light on a book that has been a part of my life -- part of my family, even, for it sat at my breakfast and dinner tables -- for many weeks now. Somnus in pacis.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Brass Verdict (hardcover, $26.99), by Michael Connelly

Connelly is one of the best writers around because he knows how to engage his audience, play out the tension, and present a bang-up ending. He also rewards his faithful readers by having a character from one series pop up in another. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, and we are in on the joke. In this case, the main storyline belongs to Mickey Haller, rehabbed addict and attorney-in-a-car of Connelly’s book The Lincoln Lawyer. Making a background appearance is Harry Bosch. The reader never hears Bosch’s internal dialogue, nor is it obvious what his strategy is. This is a little disconcerting for those of us who have come to claim Harry for our own, fondly accepting his obsessions and his sense of right and wrong. We are definitely on the outside looking in along with Mickey Haller. Another “alumnus” in a very minor role is reporter Jack McEvoy of The Poet.

Mickey has spent a long time getting back on his feet after battling an OxyContin addiction. He is suddenly thrust back into a full work schedule when he inherits the cases of a murdered criminal defense attorney with whom he had a loose business relationship. The major and most lucrative case involves a Hollywood producer who is charged with the murders of his wife and her lover. It becomes clear to Mickey that the dead attorney had found a “magic bullet” that would turn the case in favor of the defendant, and it is a race to the wire to figure out what it is before the trial begins. Complicating Mickey’s return to law is the possibility that the killer either of the producer’s wife and lover or of the dead attorney is now after him.

Mickey’s relationships with his ex-wives and daughter are both quirky and touching. At the same time that he is trying to battle his way back into the world of lawyer games he once knew very well, he is desperately attempting to bring his personal life into focus. What we have learned of his past in The Lincoln Lawyer ties into what becomes clear at the end of this tale, and it is a gift from Connelly to his readers. Bedecked with authentic insights into the machinations of criminal defense work and clever twists and turns, this is a very entertaining story.

Murder on page 560 of 960 pages ...

At last, a murder in Anathem.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to weather the discourse on parallel universes long enough to discover who did the murder. But I'm now on page 684.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Anathem: page 400, and counting ...

The going is getting easier on Anathem, but there is still no murder.

Stephenson's fantasy world is intriguing. There is a Lord-of-the-Rings quality to it. Erasmus (like Frodo) is at the center of the story, but it takes a group effort to solve the puzzles.

The world of Arbre contains monastery-like communities that are closed off to the rest of the world for one year, ten years, a hundred years, and a thousand years. Erasmus is part of a ten-year community. That means once every ten years a gate opens and the inhabitants can wander about in the outside world and the outside world can enter the walled community.

The latest character to be introduced (yes, they are still being introduced half-way through!) is a (potentially) mystical "millennarian." Because of extraordinary circumstances, the likes of which I still have to discover, he leaves his thousand-year community a long time before its gate is set to open.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm on page 103 ...

After much stopping and starting and referring to the glossary, I'm reading Anathem much quicker.

Do you read books if they are this much work?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Taking a Neal Stephenson break ...

I am a big Neal Stephenson fan, starting with Snow Crash, a sci-fi classic. With Cryptonomicon, the author stepped into the world of historical fiction, using real people to help purely fictional ones break codes during World War II and hunt treasure in the present time. His "System of the World" series advanced that gimmick even further (and into many more pages).

Stephenson's new book, Anathem, is 960 pages long. I will be reading it for awhile. It is full of strange words that I must look up in its glossary -- yes, it has a multiple-page glossary and mathematical addendum.

So, I'll be gone for a while, immersed in a strange world of Stephenson's imagination.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Night Kill (hardcover, $24.95), by Ann Littlewood

Portland author Ann Littlewood used to be Portland zookeeper Ann Littlewood. That's why her debut novel has so many great behind-the-scenes details about zookeeping. Just as Nevada Barr makes you appreciate man-in-nature, Littlewood makes you appreciate nature-in-captivity. They both say that we should be here on earth as keepers or preservers, not users. But that is merely the underlying theme. Both deal primarily with man-versus-man themes, culminating in murder.

Littlewood's murder begins in a dramatic fashion. "Big cat" zookeeper Iris Oakley's estranged husband is found dead in the tiger cage one morning. (Although Littlewood was a zookeeper in Portland, she sets her fictional zoo in Vancouver, Washington.)

Iris was on the point of reconciliation with Rick when he died. Mourning his death, Iris soon is mourning the loss of her job as well. During routine maintenance of a tiger exhibit, Iris suddenly finds herself face to face with the tiger. Did a preoccupied Iris forget to properly close his door, or did someone let him out of his pen? Distracted and emotionally off kilter, Iris is moved out of Big Cats and placed with crotchety Calvin to learn how to take care of his beloved birds. She is soon mixing and mashing fish and various smelly emulsions to feed penguins and other winged critters, but that doesn't stop strange things from happening.

Littlewood solidly grounds her story in the little details that could be jarring if absent or not done well. Her characters bloom off the page and their lives have substance. Her story doesn't have subterranean creatures or Vatican conspiracies, but it does have very human failings and aspirations.

The tigers did not murder Rich even if they did cause his death. The only animal capable of premeditated murder is the human kind.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Still Waters (hardcover, $23.95), by Nigel McCrery

Oh, boy, oh, boy! Another creepy, dark, British serial killer mystery!

I've been reading a lot of these lately. Okay, so one was actually set in Canada (The Calling, by Inger Ash Wolfe). And another wasn't a serial killer (In the Woods, by Tana French). And another took place in Slovakia and France (Siren of the Waters, by Michael Genelin). But they were all dark and creepy.

Moving right along.

This U.S. debut novel is satisfying on so many levels. The writing is energized and well-paced. The main character, DCI Mark Lapslie, has an interesting gimmick going for him: He is disabled by synaesthesia, a confusion of the senses. In his case, he can taste sounds. Because his disorder has intensified, he is semi-permanently off the job when the story opens. The serial killer, who is introduced very early, has a back story that unwinds in a twisty way, even though the reader can make a basic assumption from the prologue. Put these elements together and it makes for a magnificently chilly read.

When Lapslie is dragged back into the fray -- and the ultimate reason for having him dragged back in may be the only weak point in the book, but IMO, it doesn't detract from the storyline -- he acquires interesting work companions, including his new assistant, DS Emma Bradbury. Upon learning he has synaesthesia, she asks if she tastes like anything. Oh, you know what I mean, she says, blushing. He says her voice tastes like lemon and grapefruit if she's in a good mood, lemon and lime if she's not. Mostly, however, his disorder is crippling, not charming. For instance, the cacophony of his workplace tastes like blood.

McCrery doesn't drown the reader in synaesthesia anecdotes, so the book clips along at a good pace. It's hard to forget that center stage belongs to an elderly woman stalking and killing lonely, elderly women. Her madness gives her the clarity, which she combines with a brilliant tactical ability, to pursue and bag her targets undetected. It is only the accidental uncovering of one of her victims that jeopardizes her plan.

It is the balanced mix of quirky characters, an interesting storyline, and the author's fine descriptive capability that makes this a great tale to read as the nights grow longer.

More, Mr. McCreary, I say.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

When Will There Be Good News? (hardcover, $24.99), by Kate Atkinson

Even though I’ve read Atkinson’s other books featuring Jackson Brodie, erstwhile Edinburgh police inspector, I’m still amazed and surprised by the gimmick she has used in each: intertwining seemingly unrelated stories. Coincidence should be the subtitle of each, and Atkinson is the master of creating coincidences that stretch the reader’s imagination but don’t expose his gullibility.

Beginning with Case Histories and continuing on to One Good Turn, Jackson Brodie appears almost as a subsidiary character. He ties all the internal stories together, but he is not the main focus. There is always a heart-tugging tale of loss and renewal at the center, and this is what I treasure about Atkinson’s works.

When Will There Be Good News? is an appropriate title because the various stories must spiral down before we can even hope for good news. Dr. Joanna (“call me Jo”) Hunter and her mother’s helper, resourceful 16-year-old Reggie, become victims of other people in their lives. When she was a child, most of Hunter’s family was slain by a serial killer. Now his jail term is up and release is imminent. In addition, her husband seems vague and unworthy. Reggie’s mother has died recently, leaving Reggie an orphan, with only a miscreant of a brother for family. When Reggie cannot contact Dr. Hunter, she enlists the help of Brodie, who is unwittingly on his own downward spiral of bad news.

It is difficult to write about this novel without giving away any of the twists and turns it takes. The reader certainly will take joy at how the convoluted lines unwind at the end. Let me simply add that the writing shines, the humor is subtle, and Dickens couldn’t have done better by Reggie.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Beautiful Blue Death (trade, $13.95), by Charles Finch

There's a comforting, sitting-by-the-fireside-with-a-good-cup-of-tea feeling that reading this book might give the reader. As a matter of fact, the main character, Charles Lenox, does a lot of sitting by the fireside while he sips his restorative cup of tea. I'd use the word "cuppa," but the story is also about the delineation of Victorian class lines, and Lenox would no more use that word than he would sit companionably with his butler, no matter how faithful, brave, and ingenious he may be. Oh, wait, he does sit companionably with his butler, although the reader senses that the faithful, brave, and ingenious Graham is sitting gingerly on the edge of his chair, back straight, and with the proper note of deference still in his tone. And Lenox still wouldn't say "cuppa."

Although financially and emotionally comfortable, Lenox is the second son in his family and, thus, did not inherit the family estate, but neither is he required to shoulder the family's obligations, e.g., sitting in Parliament. Lenox must make his own way in the world and chooses to become a private detective. He is ably assisted by his butler; his neighbor and childhood friend, Lady Jane, sophisticated widow-about-town; and his older brother, Edmund, who is eager to share the adventure of investigation.

My favorite character is the conflicted Edmund. On the one hand he apparently is one of the guiding lights of his age, but he is also the gawky, eager amateur dying to help his little brother with his exciting cases.

Lady Jane is upset because a former maid has died after moving to her new situation. Scotland Yard is not yet the formidable and principled organization that we have come to know and love through authors like P.D. James, so Lady Jane asks Lenox to look into it. Lenox has the cachet of his family name to open doors and give him access to (almost) everywhere, not to mention membership in an impressive number of clubs. Inevitably, the story works its way to another murder and a larger, complicating issue.

Finch has created a cozy story of an impossibly genteel time. Most of the time I enjoyed the leisurely pace with which Lenox moves through his life, time enough to drink tea, take naps, choose the proper cravat, and politely corner a murderer. However, I often felt the aristocratic characters were much too polite, even when they were being dismissive. Even Agatha Christie, grand dame of the British cozy puzzler, put some sass in her melodrama. Crime shouldn't be played by the rules, eh, wot?

Finch attempts to show that the tragedy of classism works both ways, that as hard as it is to cry a river for an upper crust Victorian, the need to remain upstairs, rather than downstairs, is a mighty powerful and human motive.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Calling (hardcover, $24.00), by Inger Ash Wolfe

Colonel Kilgore loves the smell of napalm in the morning. I love the smell of a good book, with a great character and an interesting story that moves at a steady pace. I think I have the better deal, smellwise. And this smells like a good book.

Hazel Micallef is a 61-year-old temporary -- with no replacement in sight -- commanding officer of a police detachment in a small community north of Toronto. Her back hurts, she takes too many pain pills, and she likes her whiskey a little too much. She is divorced from a man to whom she was wed for thirty-something years when he finally got tired of waiting for her to straighten out her life. Her daughters are a mystery to her, one being newly married and the other newly abandoned. In turnabout roles, Hazel suspects it is her ex-husband who supplies what should be the maternal succor to their daughters, while she stands at a distance, failing to find the empathy they need.

To replace these losses, Hazel has moved her mother out of her retirement community to live with her. Oil and water come to mind. Emily Micallef is the former mayor of their community. She is full of piss and vinegar and delights in it. Their relationship sparkles under Wolfe's touch. The whole of Hazel's life sparkles under Wolfe's touch. Hazel is crusty, ornery, touchy, funny, tough and vulnerable, and I defy you not to like her.

Into their rural little world, in which most everybody knows everybody else, comes the death of one of their own in circumstances so strange that this provoked a little "X-Files" thrill running down my back. An elderly woman is found dead in her immaculate house, dressed in her Sunday best. She has been poisoned, her throat has been cut, and the murderer has removed her blood. In case exsanguination is not bizarre enough, there are other strange findings that come to light later. In her typical bull-headed way, Hazel plows ahead to determine if there is a serial killer on the loose and, if so, who could be the next victim.

The plot does not race forward because Wolfe gradually develops the reader's understanding of both the killer and the ensemble police force. All the other characters Wolfe brings in are interesting. Some may not share the stage for any length of time, but in a sentence or a paragraph, the reader will know them. It's a small town picture that is outgrowing its frame, and Wolfe describes it with wit and care.

Apparently Wolfe is a pseudonym. Apparently the writer is a man. The www is available to all who choose to pursue this thread. I do think it is difficult for a male to write a resonant three-dimensional female character, as is the reverse. In this case I say, point-of-view, schmoint-of-view, Wolfe has done an exceedingly excellent job of creating both a fine story and a fine set of characters.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Cleaner ($6.99), by Brett Battles

What it is not: It is not related to the A&E TV show; it is not The Faithful Spy, by Alex Berenson. The former is about someone helping to clean up addicts. The latter is an astonishing and thought-provoking modern day spy thriller.

Now for what it is. It is very visual. I think Hollywood is just a couple steps behind with a movie contract. There are car chases, explosions, and gunshots galore. There are all the modern spy threats: high tech, terrorist, and biological. There's a stalwart pro, a true love, and a tag-along "intern." And, of course, everyone's loyalty is questioned.

"Jonathan Quinn" is a "cleaner" for "The Office." If there were a picture of me accompanying this review, I'd be doing a Monty Python nudge, nudge, wink, wink. The freelance operative known as "Quinn" hires out to clean up after assignments. He doesn't normally kill anyone; he just figures out what to do with the bodies. He can also manage operations and skulk and shadow with the best of them. Speaking of shadows, The Office is a shadowy operation that may or may not be government related. Quinn likes to believe it is a deep level operation that helps the good guys.

One day everything goes wrong and Quinn and many other similar operatives are themselves targeted for disposal. Gathering together the aforementioned true love and intern, Quinn sets out to find out what the hell is going on. Car chases, explosions, gunshots, high tech threats, terrorist threats, and biological threats ensue. The end.

The final what it is: It is a movie script that is entertaining without being deep or demanding.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Heartsick ($7.99), by Chelsea Cain


Although the author writes a humorous, personal, quirky, and charming column for The Oregonian newspaper, this is no polite, girly chitchat kind of novel. Her book is over the edge -- and it’s a hard edge -- and graphically gory. However, Cain’s trademark humor is present in the character of Susan Ward, tough-but-vulnerable girl reporter.

First, let me say it is creepy in extremis to live in the city (Portland) that Cain details without much disguise as the setting for her gore-fest. She names actual high schools, drives down actual streets, and plants her bodies where I’ve heretofore happily walked. The only element safely pseudonym-ed is The Oregonian, as “The Herald.”

Punky Susan, with her pink pigtails, ratty jeans, and grab-‘em-by-the-fleshy-parts style of journalism launches into a story about a police detective, Archie Sheridan, who is returning from an extended medical leave to catch the serial killer of teenage girls.

Archie was on medical leave because he was tortured by the last serial killer he tried to catch. In that case the beautiful Gretchen Lowell defeated the police task force’s attempts to define and capture her. Instead she caught one of the catchers. She claimed to have killed 200 people, and Archie was to be her pièce de resistance: the filet mignon in her gourmet spread, the electric jolt that sent Frankenstein’s monster reeling into the night, her Oprah “aha” moment, the … oh, you get the idea.

The how of Archie’s survival, if I may use that word, slowly unfolds. What Archie learned during his ordeal about the dark side of human nature he applies to his present hunt. Someone is stealing young girls from the streets of Portland, raping and murdering them, then carelessly tossing them back.

With the permission of Archie and the police department, Susan is interviewing people to tell the story of Archie’s torture and weaving it into his hunt for the new serial killer. She brings her own baggage to the assignment, and Cain excels in creating this feisty, eccentric, and very human character.

The payoff for the reader is that there are twists and there are TWISTS in the plot. There is even a twist on the title. It is excruciating to wait for each revelation and surprise. Even when the plot finally takes a vaguely conventional turn, Cain torques it up even then.

Not surprisingly, Heartsick has earned Carolyn’s gold star. It is heartrendingly good.

Be forearmed and forewarned: If you come into the store and exclaim, “Oh, a novel by that cute and funny Chelsea Cain,” don’t be surprised if I give you the graphic warning alert before I “allow you” to buy it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Night Ferry ($7.99), by Michael Robotham

This is the third book in a loosely connected series written by Robotham. This time the point of view is that of Alisha Barba, a police detective in London. She is Sikh, a female, unmarried -- much to her mother's consternation -- and recovering from severe injuries incurred in Lost, Robotham's last book.

Ali's best friend from her teenage years, Cate, contacts her after years of estrangement. Unfortunately, soon after their reunion, Cate is killed. Ali suspects that her death is not accidental. Although Ali is still recovering from her injuries and is in limbo at the police department, she doesn't hesitate to become involved in figuring out why Cate has asked her for help. We gradually learn the reason for the estrangement and it is part of the personal mix that drives Ali.

This is the second book I've read within the last week dealing with human trafficking. The first one was Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin, set in Slovakia. The Night Ferry is set in England and Amsterdam. Both deal with people, especially young women, from countries under siege whose limited options in their own countries force them to take chances to better their lives. Sometimes it is not even a choice that they make, sometimes they are just stolen away from right under the noses of a careless, uncaring, or corrupt government.

Ali eventually meets a young woman from Afghanistan, Samira, who holds the key to why Cate is dead. Ali is assisted by "New Boy" Dave, her earnest non-Sikh boyfriend, and Ruiz, her former mentor. The very serious, and sometimes brutal, story gains shape and velocity. The occasional humorous and warm glimpse into Sikh family life adds to the tale without slowing it down. Robotham creates a thrilling and surprising story with this international mish-mash of characters.

Robotham does especially well in creating the character of Ali Barba. She is tough because a police detective has to be and because an Indian Sikh growing up in a British public school must be. She is vulnerable to her family and to the possibility of a solid, lasting relationship with the importunate Dave. She is a stubborn, abrupt, loyal, intriguing character whom you would want on your side in a fight.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Another Man's Moccasins (hardcover, $24.95), by Craig Johnson

Johnson is a teaser. He drops tantalizing little bits into his narrative and doesn’t explain them until way later. What’s an FBI? What is Virgil White Buffalo’s story? What is the rest of Virgil White Buffalo’s story? Thankfully, he doesn’t forget to reel in all the strings of thought he drops.

Walt Longmire is sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. I’d vote for him. He’s the kind of sheriff who could track a killer on the one hand and rescue a cat on the other. His sidekick is artist/Cheyenne/lifelong friend/fellow Vietnam vet Henry Standing Bear, aka “Cheyenne Nation,” “Bear,” “the big guy.” His daughter Cady suffered a serious injury in the last book, Kindness Goes Unpunished, and has come home temporarily from Philadelphia to recuperate. Vic, Longmire’s unrepentant and foul-mouthed deputy, challenges Walt to face squarely a continuation of the interesting romantic relationship that began in Philadelphia. Or not.

Insert into this already busy mix of living people the dead body of a young Vietnamese woman, a prostitute and petty criminal, found along a long, lonesome stretch of Wyoming road, far from her life in Vietnam and Orange County, California. The ultimate teaser, of course, is what the heck is she doing in Wyoming with a picture of Walt, taken thirty years ago in Vietnam, in her purse. Part of Another Man’s Moccasins is the story of another murder Marine Inspector Walt Longmire dealt with a lifetime ago in Vietnam. The narrative goes back and forth between then and now. Johnson has said that the Vietnam story is one that has been bubbling in his head for a long time.

The element in Johnson’s writing that has us, his diehard fans, eagerly awaiting the next book is his ability to form an emotional connection between us and his characters. His heroes and heroines know sacrifice and honor and courage, and he lets us ride along vicariously as they consciously choose the difficult path. With each bittersweet ending, we are wrapped that much tighter to his world. Not to mention he’s funny.

Dying is easy, comedy is hard, as the saying goes. The humor in Johnson’s books is not slapstick, broad, satirical, or farcical, but benevolent. A bewildered Longmire often finds himself the subject of affectionate humor from his near and dear. In turn, Longmire sings selections from his repertoire of “Ruby” songs to his dispatcher, Ruby, over the police band. Longmire’s dog has been given the placeholder name of “Dog,” while Walt waits to be inspired with a better name. Unfortunately, Walt fears, the time for a real name has come and gone, as “Dog” now answers quite readily to his placeholder name. Oh, well.

The first book in this series, A Cold Dish, is on Murder by the Book’s list of favorite books of the last 25 years.

Thistle and Twigg ($6.99), by Mary Saums

I am a big fan of Mrs. Pollifax (Dorothy Gilman's wonderful creation -- an older woman who yearns for excitement and winds up working for the CIA) and have been sad that there hasn't been a Mrs. P book in a long time. To fill the void is, I hope, a new series by Mary Saums.

Mrs. Thistle is a 67-year-old widow with a surprising background which is slowly revealed to us. She retires to a little town in Alabama, where she meets Mrs. Twigg, a 65-year-old widow who is sassily southern.

A lazy author will say the protagonist is good at something, while a worthy author will show us why. Ms. Saums shows us why. Her characters surprised me more than once with their unexpected wit and wisdom.

Mix together southern sass, a cozy small-town atmosphere, two very different ladies of a certain age, ghosts, Native American spiritualism, big guns, a Molotov cocktail, and Thistle and Twigg makes a pretty entertaining and unpredictable read!

[Mighty Old Bones, the newest Thistle & Twigg mystery, is now available in hardcover ($23.95).]

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Siren of the Waters (hardcover, $24), by Michael Genelin

Slovakia. Very few of us know anything about this country that emerged from the dissolution of the Communist government of Czechoslovakia. Jana Matinova is a police officer who began her job under Communist rule and who has emerged with her job intact after the political change to a more overtly capitalist state. She is our tour guide and her story, both present and past, illuminates the difficulty of life in this part of the world. The capital city of Bratislava, still recovering from decades of a bleak and impoverished existence, is the host to the murder of a group of people suspected of being involved in human trafficking. According to this novel, Bratislava is at the crossroads for international illegal activity. As the bodies begin to pile up in several countries, Inspector Matinova must assiduously unravel the structure of the organizations struggling for dominance in the lucrative business of prostitutes and black market goods.

I assume from the dust jacket information that Genelin is an American and a native English speaker. I mention this because I think there is a difference in books about foreign cultures written by an English speaker versus a translated book written by someone born to that culture. Genelin writes for an audience that needs to be tutored in the impact Communism has had on ordinary lives. He points out things that a Slovakian wouldn't need to mention to his audience, but that an American would need to know. The bantering one-ups-manship between Matinova and her fellow investigator Levitin, a Russian, is humorous and made accessible to us.

Through the tale of a young Matinova, Genelin gives us the drama of what must be personally sacrificed in order to survive. Matinova's husband is an agitator against the Communists. Matinova, as a police officer, is a de jure representative of the state. Their young daughter Katka is caught in the situation her parents have regrettably created. Their tale, an out-of-control spiraling away from each other, is moving and powerful.

The present-day Matinova serendipitously runs into the man who has married her long-estranged daughter. There is a granddaughter and Matinova longs to see her. Thus, concurrent tales run about Matinova's murder cases and about what caused Matinova's estrangement from her daughter.

Jana Matinova is an attractive character. She is a passionate young wife, a devoted mother, an intelligent and hardworking police officer, and a person whose years of seeing the worst of her society has not undermined her ability to hope and care. Genelin has allowed his readers to understand an area of the world hidden from Western eyes for a long time.

Because I liked the book so much, I requested Michael Genelin for a signing. He will be at Murder by the Book (3210 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, 503-232-9995) on October 23, 2008, at 6:30 p.m.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Chicago Way (trade, $13.95), by Michael Harvey

There must be something in the Chicago water. Something that would cause the recent proliferation of good mystery novels set in Chicago: Calumet City by Charlie Newton; Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover; At the City's Edge by Marcus Sakey, to mention a few I've read lately. The Chicago Way joins this interesting list. Each is stylish in its own way. Chercover adopts a traditional hard-boiled attitude. Newton has a female cop with past issues. Sakey has a hard-edged thriller novel.

Michael Harvey's character, private detective Michael Kelly, is very much a denizen of Chicago. Recognizable local areas and landmarks are inserted at every possible opportunity and lend authenticity to the story. If I had to compare him to some other writer, I would choose Lehane in how Harvey's story has heart and a history between its characters that is only slowly revealed.

The talk is snappy; the backtalk is snappy. The writing is stylish and solid. For instance: "I grew up in a hard sort of Irish way. On the city's west side. My mother drank tea, ironed a lot of clothes, and tried to stay out of the way. My father worked three jobs and dragged home $8,500 a year, kicking and screaming. He drank enough to hover between black silence and pure rage. "

Former police officer Kelly is hired by his ex-partner to investigate the long-ago stabbing of a young woman by a serial killer. Kelly's ex-partner had been the police officer who caught the case. He was astounded to find the woman had survived and was now asking him for help in finding her attacker. When Kelly's ex-partner dies, the mystery deepens. Was his death related to the old case? What does the convicted serial killer, who was incarcerated at the time of his death, have to do with the crime? Memories from Kelly's own buried past involving his best friend, Nicole, a state forensics evidence examiner, resurface as he pursues the cold case. Harvey ties all the threads together in a surprise-filled plot. Whenever I think I've seen all the possible plot angles, along comes a book like this.

There is comedy and there is tragedy, both served up The Chicago Way.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Ghost ($7.99), by Robert Harris

Contrary to the expectations created by the tantalizing title, it is not a tale of the supernatural. It refers to a ghostwriter. In a juicy peek into the world of celebrity memoirs, Harris's protagonist is one of the best British ghostwriters and, thus, is chosen to write the autobiography (giving new meaning to that word) of an ex-prime minister. The heady realization that he will be meeting and getting to intimately know the controversial ex-prime minister, not to mention the hefty paycheck, gives the acerbic, unnamed (appropriately so, don't you think) narrator a cause for celebration … until things start to go wrong.

Imagine Tony Blair charged with crimes against humanity in a world court for aiding and abetting the capture of alleged terrorists in Pakistan, who are then shipped to a U.S. military compound where they are tortured. Substitute "Adam Lang" for Tony Blair, and you have yourself the inspiration for this Robert Harris novel.

At first I was excited: the narrator was witty, sarcastic, sophisticated. The narrative flowed with verve and seemed full of insider looks at publishing. Because a book cannot exist with just the fun stuff showing, we had to eventually meet "the conspiracy." The narrator's ghostwriter predecessor supposedly committed suicide during a ferry ride to Martha's Vineyard, leading, of course, to all sorts of double entendres involving the word "ghost." In continuing his research, the new ghost stumbles across his predecessor's research that indicates the prime minister's rise to power and term in office may not have been all it seemed. Which leads to a frightening assumption that perhaps his predecessor's death may not have been all it seemed. It is after the narrator adjourns into incipient paranoia that the book ceases to fulfill the promise of its beginning. But as well as Harris is capable of creating a chilling scenario and as probable as the ending may eventually turn out to be, I nevertheless found the resolution to be ludicrous.

It may surprise you that I suggest you read it: for the humor, for the wit, for the promise of what could have been.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Redemption Street (trade, $13.00), by Reed Farrel Coleman

Author James Sallis has a wonderful series -- a favorite to hand-sell, but mostly out of print -- set in New Orleans. The stories he tells of Lew Griffin -- professor, criminal, father, drunk -- are not linear. A novel set in the present time might be followed up by one set 30 years before. In a disjointed way we might know what comes after the current tale because of a prior book, for all the good that does us. Coleman's series is similar. In the first book in this series, Walking the Perfect Square, we begin close to the present time, but the book is really about what happened twenty years before. Redemption Street is the second book in the series. It never alludes to what happens in the future, it is firmly grounded in 1981, a few years after the main story of Walking the Perfect Square. There are five books altogether so far, and in passing or in toto, they all refer to the first main story, the disappearance of a young college student in New York City. This is a difficult gimmick to sustain, this hopping around in time, but Coleman does it well enough to have garnered both critical praise and awards.

Moe Prager is an ex-cop, out of the force because of a dumb accident. He has a P.I. license but works instead with his brother in a wine store. Arthur, the bipolar brother of a high school crush, finds Moe and tries to hire him to find his sister. Moe knows that Arthur's sister died sixteen years ago in a fire at the Jewish summer resort where she had been working. It had been a major disaster at the time, claiming several lives. Suspecting Arthur is mad with grief, or just plain mad, Moe vehemently declines the job. After Arthur commits suicide, Moe finally ventures to the Catskill town where Arthur's sister died, which in its heyday supported many Jewish resorts and was the stomping ground of all the best talent in the Borscht Belt. Moe now finds it in sad decline and disrepair. As he delves deeper into the circumstances of the fire and deaths, he is encouraged, rather severely and punitively at times, to discontinue his investigation. But there wouldn't be much of a story if he stopped, would there?

Coleman's strength is in the way he deals with angst. His characters feel deeply, they're conflicted; resolution and redemption are always just out of reach. For everyone's own good, everyone else often keeps some dark secrets. Or maybe it's just a matter of self-preservation. A lot of no-goodniks are running around out there. Moe is Jewish but it's not a major part of his identity. Coleman makes Moe's Jewishness, or lack thereof, an integral part of Redemption Street, and this lent depth to the story.

The bottom line is Redemption Street is the proud bearer of the hard-boiled detective standard.

(Unfortunately, some of the books in this series are out of print, but we remain optimistic that David Thompson of Busted Flush Press will eventually have all the missing titles back in print.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Fidelity (hardcover, $25), by Thomas Perry

Perry’s latest book has two elements I really enjoy: a good female character and a character who is quirkily meticulous. Perry is the creator of the wonderful Jane Whitefield* series and is the uncommon male author who can write an authentic female character. In Fidelity, Emily Kramer, widow of a private detective murdered under mysterious circumstances, appears with the right balance of vulnerability and strength. Point of Impact, by Stephen Hunter, against all odds, is one of my favorite books, its protagonist a Vietnam-era sniper. I enjoy a strange satisfaction from the detailed way Bob Lee Swagger, Hunter’s protagonist, narrates the art of sniping. Jerry Hobart, one of Perry’s many main characters, is a career criminal and a killer for hire. Perry’s careful detailing of Hobart’s planning and execution of his tasks echoes Hunter’s writing.

In the proverbial nutshell: Phil Kramer is murdered. His widow and the remaining detectives in his agency try to find his killer. It rapidly becomes obvious to them that Phil had an unusually secretive streak. They posit that Phil was murdered because of one of his cases and that somewhere he has hidden the evidence to unmask his killer. They learn that someone else has also figured the same thing when Emily is terrorized by Jerry Hobart, who wants that evidence on behalf of his client. It is a race to find the evidence, if it exists.

While I enjoyed the characterizations, the writing seemed too plain for the complicated emotions running through the story. With exceptions, the writing seemed terse and uncomplicated, belying the twisty path of the plot. I often grumble about how authors fail to put enough detail into their stories, the reader’s need for underlying coherence taking second place to advancing the thrill-a-thon. Perry, if I may grumble in the opposite direction, suffers from TMI. Too much information. For example, chosen (mostly) at random:

“Ted Forrest awoke knowing it was late. He could see that the level of the sun was high, that it must be at least ten. He also knew that something had come to him during the night while he was asleep, some idea, some decision. He got up and went into the bathroom. He had not brought any of his toiletries into the guest suite, but the guest bathrooms were always stocked with toothbrushes and razors and combs. He showered and wore the bathrobe from the suite to walk down the hall to the master suite.”

On the other hand, Emily has duct tape placed over her eyes as a blindfold. When the duct tape is removed, although it is painful, the implication is that she keeps her eyelashes and eyebrow hair. I am unwilling to actually test it, but my belief is that duct tape placed over one’s eyes would in fact undoubtedly whip a fair number of those lashes right out. (I hope I’m wrong and Perry is right.) I am a charter member in The Capricious Reader Society, so I want to know why doesn’t the author detail the duct tape issue and ignore where Forrest got his toothbrush.

Contrary to what you are probably thinking right now, I am actually quite easy to please and ignore, at no peril, all sorts of inconsistencies. For example, why doesn’t Hobart hare off and torture some of the people who wind up helping Emily? He certainly knows about them. He could easily go from A to C without stopping at B. But if he had, the book would have been a hundred pages shorter and certainly not as interesting.

The bottom line is I felt Perry had too many main characters -- however well done -- and too much detail about inconsequential things. On the third hand, many of Perry’s scenes -- most notably with Hobart and his on-again-off-again girlfriend -- were splendid and some of the twists provided OMG (oh, my God) moments.

* Jane Whitefield runs an unofficial witness protection program. She helps people “disappear” when their lives are in danger and they have no other recourse. Rumor has it that, after a lengthy absence, Perry is in the process of writing another Whitefield book.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

In the Woods (trade, $14), by Tana French

French is an American-born actor who has traveled widely and has lived in Dublin since 1990. I mention this because her story seems to draw from all levels of her prior experience. Although she is American-born, In the Woods seems very Irish to me, steeped in mythology and blended with a sense of a very modern struggle to establish the country as a viable economy. I don’t know how long she lived in the United States before beginning her peregrinations, but I felt she purposely made her work accessible to non-Irish readers. (In contrast, Roddy Doyle, whom I love, takes for granted the reader knows the ins and outs of Ireland.) French, the actor, has written a drama that centers on the inner turmoil of the narrator, although several other characters receive an excellent 3-D treatment at her hands as well.

The woods border a 1980s housing development that was supposed to have been emblematic of a rising economy, but instead represents more of a failure to thrive. Three adolescents from the estate disappear into the woods one afternoon, and only one eventually emerges, traumatized and unable to remember what happened.

Twenty years later a young girl from the same estate is found murdered and left in a spot next to what remains of the woods. Rob Ryan, the young boy who emerged from the woods long ago, has grown up to become a police detective. Since in French’s world there are no coincidences, he is assigned to the case with his partner, Cassie Maddox, a rare female in the “Murder Squad.”

Just as he once had joined in an idyllic friendship with the two missing children, so now Ryan joins with Cassie and Sam, another detective, to form both work partnerships and personal friendships to solve the young girl’s murder, which in turn may have an impact on Ryan’s own mystery.

French’s glimpse into Ryan’s psychological trauma is suspenseful and compelling. The fact that he is the narrator initially hides his gradual mental breakdown, as he sees shadows flitting at the edge of his vision and he becomes increasingly more “fidgety” with his re-introduction to the village where he lived until his friends disappeared. Can we continue to trust his perception of the current case? He himself says that if there is no darkness in what he sees, he will create darkness. It is not even clear after a certain point that he actually wants his own mystery to be solved because then he may have to face his own instability, and perhaps culpability.

French doesn’t present the reader with a neat and tidy, follow-the-clues mystery. It delves deep into the woods and the psyche, and the solution to Ryan's personal mystery is ambiguous and unsettling. It is to French’s credit and skill as a writer that, nevertheless, the reader is satisfied.

In the Woods
is the 2008 winner of the Edgar Mystery Award for Best First Novel by an American and is also the recipient of an MBTB star from Jean.

P.S. French has indicated she is working on a sequel done from the viewpoint of Ryan’s partner, Cassie Maddox.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

A Death in Vienna (trade, $12.95), by Frank Tallis

It was Portland author Phil Margolin who recommended this book. Phil loves to pass on good reads, and he often blurts out a title before he remembers to say hello.

I had seen this come through when it first came out but gave it a pass. I had just read or skimmed two other Freud/Jung-inspired novels that left me blah. Oh, no, not more birth-pangs-of-psychoanalysis b.s., I thought when I saw A Death in Vienna. I should have read it. And I’m glad Phil stopped by.

Vienna. 1902. The murder of a medium (the oo-we-oo kind, not a Ted Turner corporate entity). A Freud disciple, Dr. Max Liebermann, and his friend, Detective Oskar Rheinhardt, attempt to separate the supernatural from the deviously human. Liebermann tosses in a lesson in repressed memories to boot.

Vienna’s old world charm is on the verge of change, and Tallis does a nicely subtle job of hinting at what is to come with the two world wars on its horizon. He also presents an intriguing female character who, against popular practice, is interested in a scientific education. When a not-so-happy medium is dispatched by a bullet that cannot be found, in a locked room whose only key is on the inside, with a statue of the Egyptian god Seth enclosed in a locked box, with the key, naturally, found on the inside, the reader should be rubbing his or her hands with glee at these intimations of a good old-fashioned mystery. I have to say I was not disappointed.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Executive Privilege ($25.59), by Phillip Margolin

I know why Phil Margolin is so popular. I started to read his latest work and had to keep turning the pages to see what would happen next. He is not the master of allegory or metaphor and a sunset is mostly just a sunset. It is his storytelling skills that really have matured in this book.

Margolin asks the absurd (we hope) question: What if the president of the United States was suspected of being a serial killer? What would an overworked associate in the largest law firm in Portland and a mentally and physically scarred ex-cop do if they suddenly came into some knowledge that would cast aspersions on the president’s character? They’d get into a whole lot of trouble.

There are many significant characters in this story, and Margolin intertwines them very well. I really enjoyed his depictions of a strong female private eye and a sensitive male lawyer, turnabout without banging the reader over the head with a politically correct hammer. His bad guys are boo, hiss bad. His good guys are dressed in white down to their undies, metaphorically speaking. And a good time was had by all.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Devil You Know ($6.99), by Mike Carey

Mike Carey is a writer of comics (or graphic novels, if you must), and received no small amount of fame for them. The Devil You Know reflects that in its visual and action-oriented nature, all to the good. I’ve read books that were way too visual, a virtual audition by the author for a movie, and gimmicky as a result. I don’t feel that way about Carey’s book. His background, I feel, lends his writing a great sense of pacing and an ability to play with tension and release very well.

I actually read Vicious Circle first. This is Carey’s second book in his series starring Felix “Fix” Castor, a London exorcist. It’s due out in hardcover this month. It was an exciting, funny, serious, engaging, charming romp with succubi, were-critters, demons, ghosts, and zombies. As a result of that book, I am a fan for life.

I salivated when the first book arrived at the bookstore in paperback. It, too, is funny, exciting, engaging, and serious. But it is also disturbing and has a higher gag factor. The central murder mystery is indeed serious and, despite the fantasy setting of the book’s world, takes its story from the real-life horror of young women from poor countries being shanghaied to be prostitutes in our oh-so-civilized Western society.

Suspend your belief for maximum enjoyment. Imagine a world where ghosts are becoming commonplace, so much so that Parliament is considering a bill that would give the not-so-dead civil rights. Zombies walk among us, the smartest of whom consider refrigeration as mandatory to healthful living as plastic surgery is to aging actors, in both cases to keep the bits and pieces in their proper places.

Fix Castor has known from an early age that he is able to “hear” the supernatural music that brings ghosts and other inhuman creatures under his control. When he plays his tin whistle, he can send a ghost away. Away to where is unknown, but many clients pay to have noisome specters dismissed. It would be too easy for an author to write this sort of story with a broad stroke, but Carey tempers his outrageously fantastic scenes with nuance and shades his characters with accessible human qualities.

When Fix is offered an investigation of a haunting at an archival institution, he comes out of retirement -- a great back story that is covered in better detail in Vicious Circle -- in order to pay rent he owes his landlady and friend, Pen. In the process of discovering who the ghost is, he becomes intertwined with office politics (the mundane) and an enslaved succubus (the exotic). He meets the possessed and dispossessed, is involved in brotherly conflict and brotherly guilt, and travels the roads of the world we know that have gone supernaturally crazy.