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

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Deadly Slipper (trade, $13.95), by Michelle Wan (c2005)

This is a romance. Not in the Fabio-on-the-cover sense, but in how the author sensually describes the food, geography, and botany of the Dordogne, a southern region of France. She loves the food. She loves the plants. She loves the people. Never mind the murder mystery!

In fact, there is a mystery. Almost twenty years ago, Mara’s sister disappeared while camping in the Dordogne region. Mara has moved from Quebec and intermittently pursues the trail. When she discovers a camera she is sure belonged to her sister, she develops the pictures. The smudged and faded photos show wild orchids. Could an orchid expert trace her sister’s path? Enter Julian, a reluctant participant in the search. Julian, too, is an ex-pat and has found his way from Great Britain to settle in the little town of Grissac. He is a landscaper and amateur orchidologist. (You can paste a little picture of Fabio here.)

This is a good book to give an armchair traveler. It’s not a toothless bit of fluff, but it also doesn’t bite hard – it’s a nice middle-of-the-road journey to Dordogne.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Chasing Smoke (hardcover, $24.95, & trade, $14.95), by Bill Cameron

Portland author Bill Cameron has a couple of interesting gimmicks in his latest book. His protagonist is nicknamed "Skin" because of a disfiguring birthmark on the side of his neck. As a middle-aged police detective who is used to handling whatever situation comes along, Skin Kadash finds himself helplessly facing bladder cancer and all its attendant indignities. Cameron gives his character a bite and portrays Skin's struggles with cancer in an open and graphic manner.

Skin is on disability leave but is called in by his former partner to review the apparent suicide of a man who, as it turns out, also has cancer. Soon there are a couple more cases that may be related, all involving men who have cancer. Is it what it appears to be at first tragic glance: men with terminal cancer who have taken the quick way out? Or is someone helping them?

If Chasing Smoke were a hard-boiled egg, it would be petrified. Graphic language, scatological metaphors, Skin's agony likened to a rat gnawing at him assail you in almost every paragraph. But Cameron's best written stuff is elegiac rather than gruff: "…[D]eath is a thing owned by the living more than an event that happens to the dead. It's fraught with expectation, drenched in ritual, rife with uncertainty. We each own a piece of it when someone dies."

Cameron places his book vividly in a Portland that would be very recognizable to its residents. (Some of the action takes place not too far from Murder by the Book!)

Cameron's plot takes a sensitive subject, gives it the requisite mystery twist, peppers it with excretory invective, and pops out an entertaining and solid read.

(Murder by the Book is pleased to host a signing with authors Bill Cameron and Eric Stone on Wednesday, November 12, at 6:30 p.m., 3210 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland.)

The Draining Lake (hardcover, $24.95), by Arnaldur Indridason

How strange to have read two books in less than a week that use disappearing lakes as the vehicle to begin the mystery! The Labyrinth Makers, written by Anthony Price and published in 1970, begins with the appearance of a WWII plane as lake water recedes. And this is also how Icelandic author Indridason's novel begins.

Kleifarvatn, the lake of Indridason's title, mysteriously begins to lower. A hydrologist monitoring the drop discovers a human skeleton buried in the muck. Perhaps that would be bizarre enough in and of itself, but it is also tethered to a broken covert monitoring apparatus once used by Eastern Bloc countries at the height of the Cold War. The reader can make the assumption that the victim belonged to the shadowy world of spies. But in Iceland?

Although Iceland declared neutrality during WWII, it eventually hosted a NATO military base, which the United States helped construct and which it then used as a naval post. Despite the end of the war and a request by the Icelandic government that the military base be dismantled, the United States continued to maintain a presence off and on through the years. However, throughout the Cold War, Iceland also allowed some Eastern Bloc countries to establish embassies. Furthermore, many of Iceland's citizens were committed socialists and were schooled in Communist East Germany. It is this background that provides the kernel of Indridason's tale.

This is the fourth book in the series featuring Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. Indridason's first book in the series, Jar City, won the Gold Dagger, the premier British mystery award.

Alternating with the story of the current investigation are the reminiscences of an unknown man. We learn as his story continues that he is one of the young socialists who went to Leipzig to study. We are not sure whether he became a spy on behalf of the East Germans, turned against socialism when faced with the reality of its implementation in East Germany, or just shrugged all politics off when he returned to Iceland. We can only assume that in some way he is related to the skeleton in the lakebed.

The tale of Erlendur's investigation is mixed with the continuing back story of his attempts to re-ignite his relationship with his estranged adult children. His daughter is a drug addict and his son is angry and alienated. Erlendur's awkwardness in parenting his children so late in their lives is written with a depth of realism that makes the reader want to write a letter to him that begins, "Now see here, this is what you should do." But we know he will struggle on in future tales and it will provide a fascinating aside to the main story.

Indridason has thrown another tasty bone to the reader in the form of Erlendur's former boss, Marion Briem. Joining the genderless figures of Saturday Night Live's "Pat" and mystery author Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar, Marion is an enigmatic character who lacks a pronoun. In the current tale, Marion seems to be on death's door. He/she is confined by illness to an apartment and tethered to an oxygen machine a good deal of the time. In what appears to tip the scale in one direction, Marion requests that Erlendur obtain a John Wayne movie for him/her to watch. We imagine Indridason sitting in his book-strewn study, smiling as he wrote that. (Fire up that Wikipedia entry on John Wayne, pilgrims!)

Indridason's books are compelling because of his complex characters and the evocative depiction of Iceland as more than our stereotyped assumption that it is an arctic wasteland where the sun either is shining too much or not at all. Finally, kudos to a smooth translation by Bernard Scudder, who makes it seem as though the book must have been written originally in English.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Labyrinth Makers ($14,85), by Anthony Price (c1970)

Yay! for Felony & Mayhem. Many of mystery's great novels would have fallen by the wayside were it not for this extraordinary small press. One of the store's favorite authors is Reginald Hill whose earliest Dalziel and Pascoe books were unavailable in the United States for a long time. F&M has slowly begun to release them to the American reading public. May I reiterate: Yay!

The Labyrinth Makers is one of the classics of spy fiction that wouldn't even be generating dust mites in a dark corner were it not for its re-issue by F&M. This is a spy book in the grand intellectual fashion of le Carré. It is spy vs. spy in a grey world where a country's behind-the-scenes persona may not match its public face.

David Audley, Price's incomparable hero, is not very heroic. He hesitates, fearful, when he is called out from the safe cocoon of his office where he analyzes trends in the Middle East -- where nothing much is happening, relatively speaking, in the late 1960s -- to do field work. A WWII plane and its pilot have been uncovered when the lake in which it was hidden is accidentally drained. All of a sudden there is international interest in it. What does a British war plane have to do with Germany and Russia? What was the mysterious cargo it was carrying? Of course, and luckily for the reader, there are no simple answers. Audley is both prized and castigated for his out-of-the-box thinking, and he is assigned the task of determining the provenance of the airplane.

The only false note to the 21st century ear is Audley's whirlwind romantic relationship with the daughter of the long dead pilot and its awkward progress. Mired in James Bond/60s sensibilities, the cold, older, self-contained Audley manages to rather quickly charm young, mini-skirted, attractive Faith. Only in fiction!

Along with Graham Greene and John le Carré, Anthony Price can rightly lay claim to being one of the best crafters of the elegant spy drama.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Various Haunts of Men (trade, $13.95), by Susan Hill

So I was told a long time ago that this was a pretty good series. It just took me a while to get to it. I wish I hadn't waited so long, because I enjoyed this first book tremendously.

Brit Susan Hill is perhaps better known for having written The Woman in Black, which was turned into a successful play on the London stage. As was obvious from the play and is reiterated in this book, she certainly can deal out the atmosphere like no one else.

Hill is also very good at keeping all the juggling pins up in the air. There are several intriguing storylines and potential red herrings.

Freya Graffham has moved from the intense and alienating London police world to the quiet and comforting town of Lafferton. Sergeant Graffham has found her voice again, literally. She has joined a choir, through which she has made new friends and found the happiness that had eluded her during a disastrous marriage. Her new boss, Simon Serrailler, presents the ultimate challenge, both as the head of her detective unit and as a sophisticated, intelligent, attractive man.

Too bad there's a serial killer on the loose.

With the aid of goofy-faced and loyal DC Nathan Coates and Simon's sister, Dr. Cat Deerbon, Freya first has to prove that there is a serial killer, then tenaciously pursues him.

The characters are well-defined and very human in their failings. Freya has a tender heart, a clear direction, and her future seems limitless. Cat, who shares a large portion of the stage, is a do-it-all mom, village doctor, and functional human being from a slightly dysfunctional family. This book belongs to them more than to the other characters, but the others are fleshed out admirably.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Anathem (hardcover, $29.95), by Neal Stephenson

Not a mystery.

There are 935 pages.

Fan is derived from fanatic.

Let's link these thoughts together.

Although Anathem turned out not to be a mystery, I may have liked the book. Then again, I may not have. Let's keep talking about it. There was a murder half way through the book. We eventually discover (sort of) who did it, but it was a political murder and the solution was dismissed in a couple of lines.

The book began in a monastery for scientists/philosophers and wandered off to outer space, and I wandered with it. Only a fanatic would read the parts that wandered off on philosophical tangents. I did not understand said parts, but I must be a Stephenson fan(atic) because I read them.

I think in a parallel world I really liked the story. In another parallel world I really didn't like the story. In this world I mostly liked it.

If it had been a mystery, there would be more to this review. But now I must turn out the light on a book that has been a part of my life -- part of my family, even, for it sat at my breakfast and dinner tables -- for many weeks now. Somnus in pacis.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Brass Verdict (hardcover, $26.99), by Michael Connelly

Connelly is one of the best writers around because he knows how to engage his audience, play out the tension, and present a bang-up ending. He also rewards his faithful readers by having a character from one series pop up in another. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, and we are in on the joke. In this case, the main storyline belongs to Mickey Haller, rehabbed addict and attorney-in-a-car of Connelly’s book The Lincoln Lawyer. Making a background appearance is Harry Bosch. The reader never hears Bosch’s internal dialogue, nor is it obvious what his strategy is. This is a little disconcerting for those of us who have come to claim Harry for our own, fondly accepting his obsessions and his sense of right and wrong. We are definitely on the outside looking in along with Mickey Haller. Another “alumnus” in a very minor role is reporter Jack McEvoy of The Poet.

Mickey has spent a long time getting back on his feet after battling an OxyContin addiction. He is suddenly thrust back into a full work schedule when he inherits the cases of a murdered criminal defense attorney with whom he had a loose business relationship. The major and most lucrative case involves a Hollywood producer who is charged with the murders of his wife and her lover. It becomes clear to Mickey that the dead attorney had found a “magic bullet” that would turn the case in favor of the defendant, and it is a race to the wire to figure out what it is before the trial begins. Complicating Mickey’s return to law is the possibility that the killer either of the producer’s wife and lover or of the dead attorney is now after him.

Mickey’s relationships with his ex-wives and daughter are both quirky and touching. At the same time that he is trying to battle his way back into the world of lawyer games he once knew very well, he is desperately attempting to bring his personal life into focus. What we have learned of his past in The Lincoln Lawyer ties into what becomes clear at the end of this tale, and it is a gift from Connelly to his readers. Bedecked with authentic insights into the machinations of criminal defense work and clever twists and turns, this is a very entertaining story.

Murder on page 560 of 960 pages ...

At last, a murder in Anathem.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to weather the discourse on parallel universes long enough to discover who did the murder. But I'm now on page 684.