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

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.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

In a Dark Season ($6.99), by Vicki Lane

What if Minette Walters and Sharyn McCrumb wrote a book together. It would be In a Dark Season, I think. It is set in Appalachia and uses the mystery and culture of the area, like McCrumb’s Nora Bonesteel books, and is twisty, turny, and dark, like Minette Walters’ books. The main character, Elizabeth Goodweather, is a widow, “newcomer” (who has been in the area only a couple of decades), and owner of a plant-growing business in a rural area. Her boyfriend, Phillip Hawkins, is a teacher and has a background in law enforcement. She has a good relationship with two adult daughters and a nephew who works on her farm.

Nola Barrett, a woman who has been a neighbor for a long time, but whom Elizabeth has just recently gotten to know better, tries to commit suicide. A brusque niece shows up while her aunt is recuperating, dismantles Nola’s household, prepares to sell her property to an ambitious development company, and warehouses her aunt in a care facility. Elizabeth suspects ulterior motives.

Lane also tells the tale of a love gone wrong in 1860 in interspersed chapters, and it is told well and with elegance. The relationship to the story told in the present, of course, becomes clear in due time.

The pace of the main story is excruciatingly and unnecessarily slow sometimes. Elizabeth’s life is in a state of suspension while she still grapples with moving on after the death of her husband. Although she has a good relationship with her boyfriend, Phillip Hawkins, she seems to move through a haze of ambiguity and indecision, and the reader is trapped with her temporarily. When the story gets moving again, secondary plots about missing people, past wrongs, and intolerance complicate and enhance the main story. Although I couldn’t muster much empathy for Elizabeth, many of her other characters caught my attention. And even my ambivalence towards Elizabeth didn’t amount to a hill of beans when, in the end, I found I had enjoyed the story very much.