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

Monday, March 31, 2008

At the City's Edge (hardcover, $24.95), by Marcus Sakey

This is the second book I’ve read in a week that takes place in Chicago. It’s a good thing the authors have such different takes on the city. Sean Chercover’s book had to do with organized crime and was written in a hard-boiled style. Marcus Sakey’s is the TV series "The Wire" moves to Chicago. It’s an intense, tough-talking, action-packed look at gangs and possible corruption in public figures.

Jason Palmer has returned home after being discharged from the military. He has not emotionally dealt with what happened to him in Iraq, an experience that haunts and paralyzes him. When Jason must take care of his young nephew while dodging bad guys who are inexplicably out to harm the child, he has an opportunity to see if he can shake off his self-flagellation and rise to the occasion. He is assisted by a Chicago detective who, in standard fictionland fashion, is also a beautiful woman. We meet a series of interesting characters along the way, most notably Washington Matthews, a black man who mentored the white Jason when he was young and who now tries to channel the violence in Jason without compromising his own ethics.

Sakey writes about Chicago and its gang areas with authenticity. I was intrigued by his main characters, people who accept their responsibilities and struggle to make their world right again. At the City’s Edge is plot-driven and Sakey’s writing is more than competent, but I do wish he had leaned less on the “aha” moments (“I know how to beat them,” “an idea hit Jason square and center,” “I know what we need to do,” “and then the idea hit”) and tried for a smoother transition, a technique which he shows himself capable of doing well elsewhere in his book. All in all, an energetic novel and one that is capable of holding your attention.

Sakey’s first novel, The Blade Itself, won many accolades. At the City’s Edge is a standalone work, however, so for those of you who like to read your series books in order, it’s not necessary to have read the first one.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Big City, Bad Blood ($7.99), by Sean Chercover

When I hear the word “outfit,” I think of an outdoor adventure store or a hip, urban clothing empire. Apparently I should be thinking of organized crime. Although I have been to Chicago many times, I didn’t know that this was the sobriquet for the Midwest version of the Mafia/La Cosa Nostra/The Mob. It wasn’t printed in my guidebook.

Sean Chercover -- whose author photo on the back cover makes him look like a “made man” himself -- is a former private investigator. In keeping with the advice handed down to many a budding writer, Chercover has written about what he knows. Ray Dudgeon, star of Chercover’s first novel, is a Chicago private investigator.

Dudgeon is also a former journalist and a man whose self-professed high principles have cost him an easy life. I qualify the ranking of his principles, because Dudgeon wanders down the road not taken several times through the course of the story, and one of the judgments the reader is expected to make is whether he has gone too far.

At first Dudgeon’s assignment seems fairly straightforward. He must guard a film location manager who is scheduled to testify at the trial of an Outfit member. Working at odds sometimes with the film’s producer who wants publicity for his film, Dudgeon manages to keep his client alive as attempts are made on his life. Ray soon realizes, however, that there is more to what his client saw than he originally thought. Dudgeon’s involvement with The Outfit becomes increasingly more involved, as secrets involving people whose jobs ostensibly are to serve and protect the public are dredged up.

In what is mostly an entertaining story in a hard-boiled detective style, Chercover combines the graphic with the tender and provides an authentic-sounding Chicago background.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Slip of the Knife (hardcover, $24.99), by Denise Mina

Grade: A

It's an embarrassment of riches to have read two wonderful books in a row. Benjamin Black's was Irish and this one is Scottish with an Irish twang. However, there was a wee problem this time.

I have to watch The Wire with the captioning on. I admire and savor George Pelecanos's books but find myself says, as I puzzle over the vernacular of the D.C. streets, "What does that mean?" When I called the Lake District in England from Portland to book hotel reservations a few years ago, instead of a confirmation of the room I had just booked, I heard, "Da, da, da, da, da, da, da...yeh?" Come again? "Da, da, da, da, da, da, da...yeh?" Embarrassed to admit I had no idea what the person had just said in English, I said, "Yes, right," and hoped a room would be waiting for me when I arrived in a few weeks.

Which brings me to my review of Denise Mina's newest novel in the Paddy Meehan series, Slip of the Knife.

My introduction to Mina was through her award-winning trilogy -- Garnethill, Exile, and Resolution -- which is a fascinating, dark journey into a seedy, dysfunctional Glasgow that won't be on my tourist list anytime soon, and I was hooked on her edgy writing and characterizations. But as with The Wire, Pelecanos's books, and my Lake District reservations clerk, I was occasionally slowed down by the unfamiliar slang and accent, distracted by thinking I should understand what she is saying -- after all, it is English. But we know that's a misconception.

Boot, flat, biscuit are words that provide a mutual source of confusion, since they mean one thing in America, another in Great Britain. Wendy house and kipper, however, are just plain meaningless here. For those of us who love the outstanding mystery authors exported to us from England, Scotland, and Ireland, we've stuttered through our introduction to these words and eventually added them and the like to our lexicon. We now think we can read books from over The Pond with dispatch. And then comes Mina.

Actually, Slip of the Knife is much more accessible than the trilogy...or I'm getting used to it, ye wee nutter. It's not just the strange words and cultural references that make me stumble. What I appreciate about Mina is also what slows me at the start of her books until I get the hang of it; there is definitely an alien rhythm to her writing. My ear must become accustomed not just to words like "wee" and "ye" and phrases like "I'm just after telling him that," but to a poetry in her words. For example, when talking about a police officer who has the unenviable job of telling people their loved ones have died, Mina says, "She...hadn't yet developed the cold skill of looking heartbreak in the face." I love it. I want to savor it.

Patricia "Paddy" Meehan is a columnist for a Scottish newspaper. An ex-boyfriend and fellow journalist is murdered, and Paddy becomes involved when she believes the authorities are haring off in the wrong direction. In the process of investigating, she unwittingly brings danger into her life and into the lives of those she loves. That's the short of it.

Mina also offers up complex relationships, humor, a gritty Glasgow, love, and sacrifice. In addition, Paddy has a large Catholic family, and they are very much a part of the story. One sister is a Sister, two of her brothers are surely up to mischief in London, her mother makes soup, her five-year-old son has her heart, and her son's father is a failing comic. That cast list isn't the half of it. There are also the gentle roommate, the editor and Monkey, his assistant, and another ex-boyfriend and his cousin who is soon to be released from prison where he has been held since he was a child for murdering a toddler. Mina gives her characters depth without bloating the book. All their stories come together, and Mina has time to take a look into the world of Irish politics.

The essence of this work is what the characters will sacrifice and do for each other, and who these characters are reaches our eyes in slowly escaping bits, as Mina plants surprises and revelations about them. It is also obvious that Paddy is a maverick, and her unexpected behavior in the face of crisis certainly kept me turning the pages. And that's the long of it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Silver Swan (hardcover, $25), by Benjamin Black

Grade: A

Black’s second novel, a followup to Christine Falls, reads like a play: The narrative proceeds in the third person, so we see the play through the eyes of many of the players, and the scenery is artfully and evocatively described. There is a vivid, three-dimensional quality to Black’s writing. Although each character inhabits his or her own skin, there is a common lethargy that embraces most of them and, unfortunately for my play analogy, most of the characters share a laconic, minimalist approach to their dialogue.

We find Quirke, Phoebe, Mal, and Rose – whose relationship to each other I will decline to expand upon for those of you who have not read the prior book -- two years after the events of Christine Falls. It seems they have spent the two years struggling with what to say to each other, how to account for their tangled relationships. The recent death of a young woman challenges their tentative community.

Quirke is a pathologist in 1950s Dublin. An old college acquaintance calls him out of the blue and asks that he intercede to prevent the autopsy of his recently deceased wife, Deirdre Hunt, aka Laura Swan. After reluctantly acceding to the man’s request, Quirke discovers that the wife’s death was not accidental. It is upon Quirke’s decision to keep this information quiet that the real story begins.

Quirke undertakes an unofficial investigation and finds his private life blending unaccountably into Deirdre’s mystery, as he meets Deirdre’s lover and partner, the lover’s wife, and a back-door abortionist, and hears tales of a mysterious Sufi “doctor.”

Black layers his novel with the investigation in one chapter followed by a chapter in which a portion of Deirdre’s life is brought to light. The author handles beautifully the transition between these alternating narratives.

Throughout the book a few of the characters remark on how “fate” seems to stand almost as a physical entity at points in their lives. When Quirke receives the initial phone call, he strongly feels a presentiment. Later when Phoebe is at a crucial point, she, too, strongly feels that there are some things out of her control. But in the end, the author seems to say, it is what we do for ourselves and to each other that determines our course.

There is a sedate, lugubrious quality to the writing, but it never becomes tiresome, mostly because of the quality of Black’s prose. It should be no surprise to discover that Black is really John Banville, a noted, award-winning Irish writer, who has unashamedly ventured into the mystery genre.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Little Trouble With the Facts (trade, $13.95), by Nina Siegal

Siegal’s descriptions of the world of graffiti writing and behind-the-scenes of the obits department of “The Paper” (an unstated The New York Times) are worthy of mentioning. What in the world would one have to do with the other, you ask?

Valerie Vane, girl reporter and gossip queen, made her way into the chicest nightclubs and playrooms around town, effectively burying her alter ego, Sunburst Rhapsody Miller, the naïve, provincial child of hippies -- who grew up in Eugene and graduated from Reed College, no less. She had the power of the pen and the arrogance to think she was unstoppable. So, of course, she fell, herself a victim of the tabloid justice she used to dispense with asperity. Banished from the ultra-cool “Style” section of the paper to do penance in the obituary department, Val now bides her time in the hope that all will be forgiven.

While in obits, Val makes an error on a biography, listing the cause of death as suicide when no official designation had yet been issued, thus angering the family and friends of the deceased, one of the original graffiti artists in New York. Val’s only thought is to save her reputation, so in a cowardly way she declines to make a correction.

Sunburst and her long-dead father had shared a love of old-fashioned movies, and in a rather bizarre scene, Val channels Mary Astor from The Maltese Falcon when confronted by a friend of the dead artist who wants Val to investigate what he believes to have been the murder of his friend. Suddenly Val is no longer satisfied to simply rest in limbo awaiting another chance at life among the beautiful people. She must now muster enough evidence to bring the killer to light and maybe become a “real” reporter in the process.

Overall I enjoyed this book, even though I didn’t think it really hit its stride until the last sixty pages. In addition, it was hard to determine what sort of tone the author was trying to establish. There was the sassy, chick-lit, beautiful people insider stuff mixed up with the tough, contemporary female reporter stuff mixed with the B-movie tough guy and gal stuff. That’s a lot of stuff.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mistress of the Art of Death (trade, $15), by Ariana Franklin

From the beauty of its wide-open spaces to the rankness of its life-in-the-town smells, Cambridge, England, 1171 AD, comes alive in Franklin’s writing. If the reader can get past the gruesome, graphically described murders of children, the reward is a medieval feast.

There are multiple characters and Franklin brings them to life. Adelia Aguilar, the equivalent of a modern-day coroner from Salerno, Spain, and the title’s “mistress of the art of death,” along with Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor, are sent on a mission by the King of Sicily to rescue the Jews of Cambridge who have been implicated and persecuted in the murder of several children in the area. The trio is aided by a prior whose ailment they cure, a mysterious tax collector for King Henry II, a rough-mannered but fair-thinking woman of the fens, her nine-year-old grandson, and a mangy, malodorous dog.

The flow and eloquence of Franklin’s language lies in counterpoint to the brutality of the murders and the harshness of the times. Unlike many novels of historical fiction whose heroines are preternaturally independent and therefore damningly anachronistic, Adelia’s obdurate self-reliance seems very much in place. Although the scope of what the author covers -- compact lessons about life in a medieval English town, the Crusades, the contretemps between Henry and Thomas à Beckett -- is vast, the reader does not feel the weight of being lectured and the book is not annoyingly padded.

The reader must heed this repeated warning, however, the book is violent in a very contemporary way. The climactic scene is bloodily descriptive and a subordinate plot’s resolution is grim.

Monday, March 17, 2008

God’s Spy (trade, $14), by Juan Gómez-Jurado

This novel was translated from Spanish, so I made allowances for that as I read. Even so, the work is uneven. Additionally, the characters emotionally veer all over the place. On the positive side, Gómez-Jurado was a journalist and his story presents an interesting picture of Vatican City and is framed well in the time right after the death of Pope John Paul II and before the election of his successor.

Whether an author can write convincingly from the viewpoint of the opposite sex has been a long-standing topic of discussion at the bookstore. In this case, (male) Gómez-Jurado’s main protagonist is (female) Paola Dicanti, a young police detective in Rome, who is assigned to find the murderer of a cardinal. She is short-tempered, lives with her mother, had a brief fling with her married superior officer, and solves her problems with violence – all qualities you’d want in your police officer, wouldn’t you? Apparently she has the Quantico-approved mind of a profiler, but that must belong to one of her other schizophrenic identities, because the reader sees the profiles she generates but is not shown the calculating mind that produces it. Some male authors believe, I think, that if their female character is a super-tough super-woman who doesn’t take bull from any man, that is somehow a compliment to women. It merely means the author is clueless about how to create a full-dimensional woman character. Interestingly, a more minor female character, a Spanish journalist, comes across in a much better way. The author understands her motivations and gives her story a more natural touch.

The story in brief: A serial killer, who is a priest and whose identity is known from the start, begins to kill cardinals who have gathered for the conclave to choose the new pope. An American priest/CIA agent – an original gimmick – comes to Dicanti’s aid because he knows the killer personally. The novel is chock-a-block with Catholic storylines, any one of which has provided the sole motivation for a single novel in the past by other authors: a hidden agenda by a shadowy Vatican organization, à la The Da Vinci Code; pederastic priests; loss of faith versus renewal of faith; and liberalization of the Vatican’s stands -- well, maybe this last hasn’t influenced too many mystery novels. The murders are fairly gruesomely described with much symbolism involved.

The characters pinball between extremes: I love the church/I hate the church, I hate you and here’s a slap to prove it/I love you and I want to kiss you even if you are a priest, I will do anything to help fellow Catholics/except you. This became wearisome after a while.

So, why didn’t I give up, close the book and walk off into the sunset? I thought about it many times, but the plot was unique and so I kept going. I actually found the resolution of the main story line quite good, implausible but good. The subsidiary storylines – eh.

As I slogged through the book, it was a puzzle to me why it had been so popular and received so much hype. After I finished, I thought I could see that it might be very popular in cultures with a strong historical base in the Catholic Church; there would be an emotional rather than just an intellectual connection to the issues. Or maybe readers don’t need “real” characters, just a galloping, corpse-filled storyline and a twist-filled ending.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Faithful Spy ($9.99), by Alex Berenson

It’s harder to find a good spy novel these days. I certainly don’t wish for the Cold War to re-surface, but novelists like John Le Carré, Graham Greene, and Adam Hall created sophisticated and challenging tales for their readers from this fertile ground. Recently, the international intrigue genre has been overrun by tales of religious, Nazi, technological, or financial conspiracies.

John Wells is an old fashioned CIA spy. He has gone deep into the world of al-Qaeda. He was not able to stop 9/11 or the London or Madrid bombings, and he and his agency begin to ask, what good is he then. His moment comes when al-Qaeda sends him back to the United States with an unknown mission that has the feel of something big.

The strength of Berenson’s writing is in the detail. His superb description of Wells in Afghanistan and Pakistan, living with the Taliban and pretending to be a faithful Muslim warrior in thrall to bin Laden, seems so realistic. His portrayal of Wells’s return after a decade underground to the United States and the culture shock he weathers to reenter American society, which seems, in comparison, to wallow in material and moral excess, violence, and waste, is thought-provoking. Lastly, Berenson’s depiction of how al-Qaeda could exist in this country in disguise is downright scary in its potential authenticity.

The main question throughout is: What has become of John Wells? We learn, along with Wells himself, how much he is a synthesis of two cultures, how he must redefine his motivation to continue as a spy, and what he has given up to remain a faithful spy.

The Ghost War (hardcover, $24.95) is the follow-up novel just released.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Spellman Files (trade, $14) by Lisa Lutz

The task of a first novel, especially one that the author hopes will burgeon into a series, is large. The author must establish all the main characters, enough of their back story (but not too much) that we become engaged, find a quirk or gimmick (not mandatory, but highly recommended), and throw in a plot or two. The cast of Lutz’s first novel is large, and ergo, there is a lot of back story to cover and not a single main character goes un-quirked.

The charm of the Spellmans (perhaps a title the author might think about for a future book), which refers to both a private investigation firm and a family, is mighty. In a benignly dysfunctional way, Mr. and Mrs. Spellman, accomplished lawyer son John-Boy -- I mean, David – Spellman, incorrigible and manipulating youngster Rae Spellman, wastrel uncle Ray Spellman, and narrator 28-year-old Isabel Spellman investigate cases…and each other. They can’t help the latter. Although I must admit to finding it a bit tedious at times, having ma and pa tailing big sis, wastrel uncle tailing big sis, big sis tailing little sis, everyone tailing wastrel uncle is a cute idea, but a little goes a long way. And let’s not get into the illegal use of computer database information to find each other.

After a lengthy introductory process, the reader gets to see Isabel handle a meatier case for the firm, an unsolved one involving a missing teenager. Usually I don’t even try to solve the mystery, or sometimes I guess that it might be the disorder du jour – for instance, “I bet it’s Munchausen by proxy disease,” or “The solution’s in the religious painting in the Louve.” I unintentionally guessed the solution to the case of the missing teenager very early on. However, I never hold it against the author when I can solve the mystery if it’s an interesting story. And this one is worthy.

If it sounds like I’m being too negative about this book, I need to correct that impression right now. I really enjoyed The Spellman Files. I enjoyed Isabel and her ex-boyfriends, past, present, and future. I enjoyed the footnotes. Seriously, when was the last time you read a mystery with footnotes that wasn’t about Sherlock Holmes. I have a thing about (against) precocious children in books, but I love Rae Spellman.

I am looking forward to reading the next in the series, Curse of the Spellmans (hardcover, $25), which just arrived at the store.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Color of Blood ($7.99), by Declan Hughes

Will you think less of me if I tell you I skipped part of the middle section and went straight to the last fifty pages to see how the book was resolved? I do that sometimes if I can’t figure out if I want to finish a book or not. If the ending salvages a rocky start, I’ll continue reading. If not, hasta la vista, baby.

In my defense – if I need one – I did read all the way to page 126 before my attention flagged. And it wasn’t for the author’s want of trying. There were dead bodies, dysfunctional characters galore, sex, and the glorious underbelly of Dublin on display, but somehow it just wasn’t enough.

The Chicago Tribune called it “Irish noir” -- I’m trying to think of something clever to say about the “Black Irish” and “Irish noir,” but it’s not coming to me, especially since red hair is a notable attribute of some of the characters – and the book certainly is dark and headed, the reader feels early on, for a whiz-bang of an ending in which no one gets his or her heart’s deepest desire, unless the desire is death.

For the last hundred or so pages of what I read before I cried “uncle,” I also cried, “Why would Ed take these stupid, stupid people as clients?” Ed is Ed Loy, the private investigator who initially just has to find the missing daughter of a wealthy and well-known dentist. Having successfully completed his mission, Ed is further hired to save the girl’s extended family from itself. That might take a little longer. Before Ed saves them, or not, I lost interest. There was no one I wanted to cheer on to the finish line of redemption.

Redemption to me is a crucial component in the best of the contemporary noir books I’ve read lately. It gives heart to a novel, whether the protagonist succeeds in redeeming himself or not. As I read the last fifty pages for the resolution, I was reminded of one of my favorite movies that dealt with a similar subject and how that movie treated it with much more poignancy and strength. I think Hughes has the capacity to do something similar because he is a capable writer, just one whose present novel hasn’t the heart to touch us.

Kindness Goes Unpunished (trade, $14), by Craig Johnson

The third entry in Johnson's sterling series finds main character Sheriff Walt Longmire in Philadelphia, far from his home in Absaroka County, Wyoming, to accompany his great and good friend Bear, who has accepted an invitation to lecture at a museum, and to visit his daughter Cady, "The Greatest Legal Mind of Our Time," as Walt has nicknamed her, who lives there.

Soon after he arrives in Philadelphia, his daughter is injured and lies silently in a coma from which she may never recover. She had been eager for him to meet her current love interest, the same love interest who may have caused her injury or may actually have been her savior or may not have been there at all.

Longmire and Bear stride in straightforward Wyoming fashion to “interview” suspects and track down potential reasons why Cady had been targeted. Absaroka County Deputy Victoria “Vic” Moretti’s large and unruly family, most of whom are Philly police officers, mostly aid Longmire in his quest, but far too frequently his life is merely complicated by them, especially by Vic’s mother, a femme fatale whose motives remain mostly ulterior.

Throw in a dog named “Dog,” a white Indian on a spiritual quest, gun-toting lawyers who socialize over target practice, and yee-haw, we got ourselves a fine mystery.

Johnson’s deft touches of humor and ability to sketch warmth into his characters and their relationships with each other anchor a book whose plot sometimes becomes overly convoluted. That has not stopped me from declaring that this is one of the best books I’ve read since … Johnson’s last book. He has a fine sense of pacing and an ear for snappy dialogue. He can also tug at a heartstring along with the best of them.

I met Craig Johnson when he came to Murder By the Book for a signing, and what a joy it was. He and his wife are a great comedy act. Johnson is expansive, a great storyteller, and answers every question as if he had never heard it so well asked by anyone else ever. Even the new design of his book covers became an interesting aside. His books don’t sell as well on the East Coast; readers there apparently aren’t attracted to a picture of a mountain man with a shotgun silhouetted against a Technicolor rising or setting sun. I’m not certain why we readers on the western side of the country would find it any more attractive, but perhaps we view him as a symbol of our go-west-young-man thinking, girly sunset notwithstanding.