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

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Suffer the Little Children ($7.99), by Donna Leon

Donna Leon has produced another competent vignette of Venetian police detective Guido Brunetti. Leon’s deliberate writing style describes an elegant, emotional, and vulnerable hero. Also, almost an anomaly in mystery series, Brunetti has a stable family life and no addictions worthy of note.

It is because she is an American living in Venice, I think, that she does such a fine job of describing what we armchair travelers want to hear about: that hidden, colloquial Venice that a tourist would rarely see. She usually offers a side course in food and wine along with the main dish of murder as well. But make no mistake, there are no recipes tacked on to the end of the novel for us to re-create and her novels are not disquisitions on behalf of the Italian tourist board. Her subjects are serious and often very sad, as in the current book.

Brunetti is accidentally involved in a case involving what may be an illegally adopted child. Because he becomes emotionally invested in the case, Brunetti presumes to investigate beyond what the powers-that-be would wish. In what could be a “Law and Order” episode, he discovers that the original incident evolves into something larger altogether. The father of the adopted child is a pediatrician. Using this as a jumping off point, Brunetti and his team discover links to a potential medical blackmailing scheme and an infertility clinic scam. After many twists and turns, Leon brings us back to that at which she excels: helping us understand both the petty and grand motivations of the heart.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The King of Methlehem (trade, $13.00), by Mark Lindquist

Set in Tacoma, Washington, The King of Methlehem describes with realistic detail -- sometimes overly so -- the scientific, criminal, and legal aspects of methamphetamine.

You probably know that Tacoma has been the breeding ground of some of America’s most notorious serial killers. What you may not know is that Tacoma also serves as Kitchen Central for a large number of meth cooks to concoct their deadly product. It has been easy for me to brush aside this reputation, because in my frequent visits to Tacoma, I’ve only seen the leafy comfort of the Proctor neighborhood or the rejuvenated downtown area on my way to see Dale Chihuly’s glass art. Lindquist does describe what I saw and what he obviously loves: the revitalized and charming small town that is increasingly becoming a carburbia to neighboring Seattle. It’s the rest of his book, based on an insider’s view, that sends shivers up my spine, because it displays with such an authentic voice the seedier and more dangerous aspects of Tacoma. Lindquist is the chief prosecuting attorney for Pierce County’s drug unit.

Wyatt James is a law school graduate who has chosen to become a police officer. His friend, Mike Lawson, is a prosecuting attorney. Together they approach the tidal wave of meth-related problems. Lindquist skillfully portrays their frustration with a system that is too overwhelmed or plodding to even begin to deal with it. Wyatt James, like his namesake Wyatt Earp, aims to clean up the town, one meth cook at a time. In his obsessive sights is a criminal whose real name is unknown, but who assumes the names of real-life famous people. The name he currently is using? Howard Schultz. The real Schultz is the head of Starbucks. The book is not without humor.

Lindquist peppers his book with quirky touches, and it is quite enjoyable. For example, lawyer Lawson unwinds from his demanding job with Zen meditation. In another instance, the author uses a friendly poker game to give us a lovely insight into his characters and human nature. Also, his ear for “relationship dialogue,” something that has undone many an author, is well tuned. The difficulty James has with balancing his relationship with his girlfriend, Suki, and his commitment to his job is portrayed with understanding.

The story unfolds in 235 pages, short by modern mystery writing standards, and could probably have benefited from being fleshed out a bit more. Some potentially interesting characters make a fleeting appearance, one feels in order for the author to honor a colleague or denigrate an acquaintance more than to add substance to the story. And some story points are given short shrift, For example, the aforementioned Suki is threatened by the story’s villain. Other than an unsuccessful attempt to call her boyfriend, she doesn’t appear to suffer undue angst. In what amounts to a throwaway line later in the book, she recounts the incident to James and receives barely a ripple of response in return. I think we are meant to read between the lines, to understand there is concern by all parties and that consequences will follow later, but I’m betting Lindquist’s words would have been better than my imagination.

Ah, but I quibble, because Lindquist’s words are clear and strong, laced with humor and thoughtfulness. Bad guy Howard labels himself the “King of Methlehem,” but James and Lawson fight to change Methlehem back into Tacoma. Their tale is a very readable inside look at a scary place.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union (trade $15.95), by Michael Chabon

The Chabon-created world of the Federal District of Sitka, Alaska, is home to four million Jews, the Jews who would in our real world populate Israel. Such is the strength of Chabon’s writing that his bizarre, politically ambiguous entity seems quite real.

The author makes up words or superimposes his own meaning on real Yiddish words. For instance, "latkes" are not just for eating, they are also the police who wear a pancake-like headgear. (Chabon helpfully includes a glossary at the end of the book.) As the title indicates, this is the land of Yiddish-speaking people; Hebrew is a strange and little-used language. There are different sects, some of which are thinly veiled criminal gangs. Jewish traditions are more like law than mere convention. The rebbe or rabbi is still the main man, familial relationships are complex and important, and pilpul is standard operating procedure.

Furthermore, the Federal District of Sitka is set to revert back to the control of America in just a few weeks. Millions of Jews are threatened once again with diaspora. In this fictional world, Israel died a-borning as a Jewish state.

Into this self-contained world comes a murder. A man who lives in the same apartment building as Meyer Landsman, a hard-bitten and stubborn police detective, has been shot. Meyer takes the murder personally because of this propinquity. With the help of his partner/cousin Berko Shemetz, a Tlinget Indian/Jewish bear of a man, Meyer finds that he is not investigating the simple murder of a heroin addict. What he finds relates to a much larger picture.

The victim was the estranged son of a powerful rebbe, head of a ruthless criminal "black-hat" sect. Throughout his work, Chabon presents the reader with odd mixtures of inviolable religious ethics and dishonest activity. It is in attempting to solve this murder that Meyer expands from his narrow investigation to the wider consideration of how this fits into the upcoming "Reversion."

This is not just a homicide investigation, however; it is also a journey into the life of Meyer Landsman. All the disappointing and triumphal moments of Meyer’s life prove crucial to the resolution of the story. For example, in the stark room of the victim is a chessboard. On the chessboard is a game nearing its end. Meyer’s father was a master chess player and so, in the way of fathers and sons, Meyer has repudiated chess. But the thought of what the chessboard represents obsesses him, and so Meyer works at it and discovers the clue the end game provides.

The complexity of the characters and the plot are enough to reward the reader, but it is Chabon’s humor and beautiful use of language that makes this book extraordinary. Here are some examples:

In describing a mismatched chess game: "'I resign,' says Velvel. He takes off his glasses, slips them into his pocket, and stands up. He forgot an appointment. He’s late for work. His mother is calling him on the ultrasonic frequency reserved by the government for Jewish mothers in the event of lunch."

Landsman in a nutshell: "He is a dealer in entropy and a disbeliever by trade and inclination. To Landsman, heaven is kitsch, God a word, and the soul, at most, the charge on your battery."

Chabon’s wry humor: "He’s parked in a cul-de-sac some developer laid out, paved, then saddled with the name of Tikvah Street, the Hebrew word denoting hope and connoting to the Yiddish ear on this grim afternoon at the end of time seventeen flavors of irony. The hoped-for houses were never built."

This book crosses many genres (noir, international intrigue, hard-boiled police procedural) and works many ideas together, but Chabon handles the juggling act well. It was hard not to race to the end but to do so would have been a disservice to the richness of the Sitka of Chabon’s imagining. My advice to you: linger.

Friday, May 2, 2008

2008 Edgar Awards

[Jordan is the daughter of our store manager Jean May, and more or less grew up at the store.]
Death Becomes Them at the 2008 Edgar Awards
by Jordan Foster -- Publishers Weekly, 5/1/2008 3:32:00 PM
The 62nd Annual Edgar Awards held in New York last night saluted several of the genre’s stalwarts as well as recognizing an emerging group of talented newcomers. Outgoing Mystery Writers of America president Nelson DeMille passed the torch to the incoming president, Edgar winner Harlan Coben, who opened the evening by praising the wisdom of another of multiple award-winner, Lawrence Block. The original motto of the MWA, said Coben, was “crime doesn’t pay…enough,” but added a tidbit he learned from Block early on his career: “nobody has to fail so that I can succeed.”John Hart took home the Edgar for Best Novel for his sophomore effort, Down River, the story of a man wrongly convicted of murder. Presenter Lee Child quipped that the envelope was difficult to open then hinted it might just be a plot device on his part. “I’m a suspense writer,” Child said, “what do you expect?” The Edgar for Best First Novel By An American Author went to Tana French for In the Woods, whose debut featured a detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad struggling with a childhood trauma. Other winners included Megan Abbott’s Queenpin for Best Paperback Original; Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy for Best Fact Crime; Susan Straight’s “The Golden Gopher,” part of Los Angeles Noir, for Best Short Story; Tedd Arnold’s Rat Life for Best Young Adult; Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton for Best Motion Picture Screenplay; and Matt Nix’s pilot episode of Burn Notice for Best Television Episode Teleplay.With Raven Awards going to the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book in Washington D.C. and Kate Mattes, owner of Kate’s Mystery Books in Boston, the evening also paid tribute to the newest MWA Grand Master, Bill Prozini. In a Star Wars-inspired film introduction, the titles of the prolific Prozini scrolled upwards in familiar yellow script. In his introduction for Pronzini, Lawrence Block amended Coben’s earlier quote by adding that while no one has to fail for him to succeed, “it’s so much more gratifying when they do.” Pronzini, known for his long-running Nameless Detective series, thanked his wife, former Grand Master Marcia Muller, and entertained the crowd with his favorite worst lines in crime fiction.

Still as Death ($6.99), by Sarah Stewart Taylor

Still as Death, the fourth in Taylor’s Sweeney St. George series, was a surprise. I had not read the other books, so I had expected something along the lines of “Friends,” and what I got was “Everwood.” There was more depth to the characters and more poignancy to the story.

Sweeney is an art historian specializing in art that memorializes death. She is launching a museum exhibit on this topic, including Victorian post-mortem photographs and Egyptian funerary containers, when a cleaning woman is found murdered. It appears she has been killed while thwarting the theft of a prized Egyptian canopic container. What Sweeney intuitively finds is a trail leading back to the death almost 30 years earlier of a young museum intern during a successful museum robbery.

While the lesson on funeral art is fascinating and Taylor presents the information without lecturing, the heart of the book lies in the relationships Sweeney has with her boyfriend, suave Londoner Ian Ball, and Boston police detective Tim Quinn. Each character is revealed in all of his or her strengths and vulnerabilities. Emotions are rarely neat and tidy, and Taylor accords the story the respect of not trying to make it so.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Murder by the Month

We have posted upcoming May mysteries on our New this Month page.