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

Thursday, February 28, 2008

New postings on MBTB.com

Our latest newsletter (Murder by the Bye) and monthly mystery list (Murder by the Month) have been posted on our website, www.mbtb.com.

If you have had trouble receiving either of these in the past but got our most recent mailings, it's because we're trying a new email program that seems to have better luck getting through.

Happy Leap Year!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Death Comes for the Fat Man ($7.99), by Reginald Hill

Soteriological means a branch of theology dealing with salvation through Jesus Christ. Remember that. You'll need it if you read this book.

I often point to Reginald Hill (one of Jill's favorite authors) as an example of someone who is able to write two very disparate voices convincingly. Exceedingly well, even. Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe represent the yin and yang of Yorkshire policing styles. One is bluster and blunt, the other is smooth and charm. What happens when bluster and blunt is suddenly out of commission, the victim of a bomb explosion, and in extended negotiations with Death, who has come for Fat Andy? Pascoe finds himself playing both roles, and I think Hill must have had a good old time leading Pascoe on a merry, schizophrenic chase.

Hill takes on a very contemporary topic in the latest paperback release in his famous series: terrorism. Vigilantes are besieging England, venting their own form of justice on suspected terrorists and sometimes catching the innocent, like Dalziel, in their plots. Pascoe's anger, sorrow, and frustration lead him to enter into an alliance with a national security agency, an organization he is not certain will help or hinder his efforts. Then Pascoe's wife, Ellie, is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and soon he has another reason to expend all his energy in hunting down the most dangerous of the groups.

But Hill's plot is the least of why this book is a good read.

Although you may need a dictionary close at hand, Hill doesn't set language as a stumbling block for the reader. Despite the length of the book -- 440 pages, a hefty size for an average mystery -- like a poet, Hill doesn't use any word unnecessarily. Twenty-two entries into this series, I still enjoy Hill's humor, delight to the interplay between Dalziel and Pascoe, chafe sometimes at Ellie's stubbornness, and thumb the Dickens out of my dictionary.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Zero, by Jess Walter (trade, $14.95)

The zero of the title refers to the ground zero of the World Trade Center of September 11. Is there anyone who wasn't able to grasp for a long time the enormity of what had occurred? Did it seem fantastical, surreal, overwhelming? Jess Walter's book is about the time immediately after the bombing, and his novel is fantastical, surreal, and overwhelming at times.

Police officers Brian Remy and his partner are survivors of the blast. Afterwards their lives careen out of control, but their paths take different courses. Brian's partner cannot stop talking, often inappropriately, about what happened. He suffers from survivor's guilt and grapples with his sudden fame by greedily grabbing every opportunity to present himself as the hero he is not.

Remy's story is told in jumbled patches because his awareness of what he is doing flashes in and out; he lives his life between the "gaps." This device sometimes wears thin at the end, but it creatively allows the main character to act as his own analyst. When he is aware (i.e., when we hear his story), his moral line is "normal." He is the concerned and faithful father, boyfriend, employee, police officer. What he learns is that in the gaps, he may be none of the above.

We can only guess that what he does in the gaps is rooted in the same psychological turmoil that affects his partner. He may have been a hero, but he does not remember. He survived, but his son's life revolves around mourning the death of his father, who sometimes stands in front of him and says, "But I'm alive." That's not the point, his son answers. There must be some bad guys to "get," some panacea he can apply to halt what has brought his world to its knees, even if he must become a bad guy himself to accomplish it.

For both this novel and Citizen Vince, his last much-praised book, Walter frames his story within the political context of the times. What are we as a nation, as a community, seeking? Are we able to define ourselves as part of a whole, or are we merely seeking individual gain? Can we make a change with a bigger picture in mind? The author addresses one of our most important current dilemmas: Is there such a thing as "going too far" to ensure our nation's security? Perhaps this high-falutin' philosophical quest sounds daunting, but Walter is able to create a captivating story without allowing it to become moribund.

There is no easy explanation for anything in The Zero. The reader must work hard to judge what reality is being served. The work is worth it, because Walter's writing often floats in a stratum of its own. Understandably, The Zero was a finalist in 2006 for the National Book Award in fiction.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Fifth Woman, by Henning Mankell (trade $13.95)

I sporadically pick up a Mankell book to read, but not necessarily in series order. (Gasp!) So, one fine winter day, I picked up The Fifth Woman, the sixth book in a (so far) eight book series about Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander. Although it was released in 1996 in Sweden, it was not translated into English until 2000. As a matter of fact, for a while there, the translated works did not follow the series order, but at this point all have been translated into English. For fans of Sjowall & Wahloo, Mankell is a worthy successor.

Although the weather of Skane in southern Sweden resembles Portland's, I invariably come away from reading a Swedish novel with the impression that all is dark, dreary, cold, and wet, wet, wet. Wait, how is that different from Portland? (Just joking -- can you tell I'm writing this on a dark, dreary, cold, wet Portland winter's day?)

Wallander has angst to spare, and some of the novels revolve around his fretting about past events and how he could have changed them. The novels are meaty, in a detailed, atmospheric way. Nevertheless, I confess to sometimes thinking of the word, "plodding," but only briefly and with great reverence for Mankell's writing skills. For those of us who do not live in Sweden, we can still experience the full flavor of Swedish life, albeit from a dark, murder-filled vantage point.

As a bonus, there is a supporting cast that is not comprised of mere throwaway characters. In many instances, they are smarter than our hero.

Here's a curious aside: On several occasions, a group of detectives sit around for hours at a time to discuss and mull over the case at headquarters. I can't believe that in the US of A our detectives do anything similar. It seems such a luxurious expenditure of time to do that.

Mankell begins his books with weird, otherworldly scenes of murder, and his criminals have such interesting psychological abnormalities. In contrast, Wallander and his colleagues have some normal, intimate concerns. We can apprehend their humanity and empathize with their personal problems.

Calumet City, by Charlie Newton

Due out in March is the trade edition of Calumet City by Charlie Newton ($14). For those of you who sense that Carol O'Connell's Find Me perhaps showcases the last appearance of her signal character, Mallory, and are stricken by that thought, here is a book for you.

Patti Black's bleak childhood as an orphan in a foster home and on the wild streets of Chicago will sound familiar to the readers of Carol O'Connell's Mallory series. As a grownup Patti has finagled her way into a job as a cop, one who deals with the neighborhoods in which she once ran as an almost feral child. After years of walking the thin line between her current legitimacy and her dubious past, several incidents occur to bring her past dangerously close to the light.

Newton's detailed depiction of the part of Chicago tourists don't see and his rapid pacing make this a genuine thriller. However, in my opinion, Newton sometimes commits the same "sin" as O'Connell: He overemphasizes what a misfit his character is, how she lacks basic social skills, how other people quake in her presence with just one (menacing) look from her. He is, thankfully, not at O'Connell's level. This is a small negative criticism of both authors whose otherwise solid storytelling takes the reader past the point of drowning in affectation.

A warning: one of the storylines deals with child abuse.

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, February 2, 2008

MBTB Email Subscriptions

As email servers become more and more vigilant about SPAM, it has become harder and harder to get our mailings through to all of our subscribers. If you have signed up for Murder by the Month, our monthly listing of new mysteries, or Murder by the Bye, our occasional newsletter, but have not been receiving them, you can try contacting your server (the name at the end of your email address, e.g. comcast, earthlink, msn, etc) for advice on how to specify that your would like to receive all messages from our email address. The other thing you can do is subscribe to this blog (see link below). This type of subscription does not get snagged by SPAM filters and has a 100% delivery rate. We will always post here when we post a new list or newsletter online, and when you get that email notice, you can follow the link to the online version. For example, we have just posted our February Murder by the Month and you can view it by clicking the link in this sentence.

We'll keep trying to find ways to increase the deliverability of our mailings, but in the meantime, hope these suggestions help.