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

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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