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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Trigger City, by Sean Chercover (hardcover, $23.95)

I love the Chicago boys! Authors Marcus Sakey, Charlie Newton, Michael Harvey, and Sean Chercover have different styles, so although their stories are all set in Chicago, their takes on the city are varied. They all hit the scene about the same time. This year Sakey released his third book, Harvey and Chercover their second. Newton trails the pack with just one release so far.

Sean Chercover's second book, Trigger City, is a follow-up to his tough-talking Big City, Bad Blood. Ray Dudgeon is back as the hard-boiled PI with issues. Ray used to be a reporter, but he's better off on his own with no one to answer to but himself. Keeping his own counsel had serious results in Big City, and Trigger City opens with Ray finally returning to Chicago to recoup his life.

The "trigger" of the title refers to what triggers Ray's anxiety and flashbacks related to his last case, and the triggers are many. He medicates himself with illegal Percocet, beer and vodka, and immersion in hopeless cases.

The current hopeless case involves a middle-aged woman who was killed by a mentally unbalanced co-worker. Her father hires Ray to find out why. Why? The guy was crazy, that's why. But her father insists that Ray investigate and find out the "truth" of his daughter's death. People say they want the truth, but Ray feels they seldom really do want the truth. Ray begrudgingly takes the case because he needs the money.

It seems so open and shut. Crazy guy tracks down co-worker. Kills her. Kills himself. It isn't until Ray talks to the killer's widow that he realizes there may be more to the story. Soon the FBI, a journalist friend, and Ray's assistant are involved in what becomes an increasingly tangled mystery. In the end Ray discovers, as he always suspected, that truth is malleable.

This is one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time. It's a page-turner with thoughtful pauses. I had assumed by the end of Big City, Bad Blood that we had seen all there was to see about Ray. His life and personality needed work. But Chercover has shown what good writing is all about. In Trigger City, he follows up on the strands of character development and fleshes them out. Another character calls Ray to task for what he sees as Ray's sanctimonious attitude. To Ray's -- and Chercover's -- credit, he examines his motives and cops to his problem. Chercover has wound up creating a character whose heart and hopes are now open for the reader to see.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Fatal Fixer-Upper, by Jennie Bentley ($6.99)

Cute, romantic story with improbably hunky handyman. Good diversion as the days grow shorter and the nights longer.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Flight of the Hornbill (hardcover, $24.95; trade, $14.95), by Eric Stone

This isn't so much about Flight of the Hornbill as it is about Eric Stone.

Stone and Portlander Bill Cameron appeared at Murder by the Book last night to talk about their books. Stone is also a professional photographer (among his many talents) and Cameron is also a graphic designer, so they decided to put on a slide show. It was not your shaky home movie of relatives' feet (oh, wait, there was the one shot of Cameron's daughter's feet as she posed for a "corpse shot"); it was a spectacular production.

Stone's slides were of Indonesia. His book is bursting with descriptions of life in Indonesia, a place for which he obviously has a great deal of affection. The good, the bad, the funky, the weird aspects of life in the humid, hopping, geographically diverse island-country were made alive with Stone's photographs. [Insert terms of great technical difficulty here] Stone did with ease. His photos teemed with color. His portraits brought his subjects to life. We know what his next book should be.

Stone's protagonist, Ray Sharp, ventures about Asia as an investigator for a "due diligence" firm, an organization that susses out feasibility for business investment. He is in Indonesia on a job when his wife, whom he'd like to tag an "ex" on, asks him to locate her boyfriend. He has gone missing while looking for gold.

While Sharp works, we readers are tourists. We meet people who sound like real people. We see sights that must be real. Sharp is patient and open wide to the experience of being in a different culture, unlike some of the other characters portrayed. In fact, a vast company compound has transplanted suburban America to the jungles of Indonesia. This, Stone says, is not far from the truth. Too bad. That's a long way to go to never leave home.

Cameron's slides were of Portland. He showed them to a room of Portlanders. Not so crazy, actually. We were thrilled to learn where in our backyard Cameron was tossing his bodies. Cameron showed us the inspiration for "Uncommon Ground," the coffee shop of his books. He showed us the lovely parks in which victims reposed. If his books become as famous as "The Sopranos," maybe there will be a tour of Portland similar to the ones that showcase mob hangouts in Jersey. This might be one step closer to fact, as one of his non-resident fans took his book, came to Portland, and tracked down various locations.

The tone of the evening was a surprise. Both Stone's and Cameron's books are hard-boiled, with Cameron's definitely leaning in the noir camp, if not outright collapsed there. But their presentations were humorous and beautiful, and a little quirky with the rock gamelon music providing the prelude.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Dark Star (trade, $14.95), by Alan Furst (c1991)

Alan Furst hit a literary goldmine when he began to write his books set in Europe during World War II. He combines a comprehensive historical sense with the ability to create characters that are thoughtful and complex.

The United States is not the center of World War II in Furst's books. Instead, Furst looks primarily at the conflicting interests -- sometimes in public, but often in private -- of Nazi Germany versus Stalin's Soviet Union. Communism is a vital ideology used to marshal forces to combat Hitler's march across Europe. Caught in the middle of the territorial grab-and-snatch are the rest of the countries of Europe, and especially of Eastern Europe. Furst's books reference events from 1934 through 1945.

Most of Furst's protagonists are not citizens of the big power countries. They come from places like beleaguered Poland and Hungary; but they travel widely, using various devices, to France, the Soviet Union, Spain. At the center of each character's motivation lies something personal -- love, a search for safety and security, family. From the big concern to the little thought, Furst tosses it all ingeniously into the mix.

André Szara of Dark Star has survived the twists and turns of the volatile and evolving politics of Poland and the Soviet Union. Ostensibly working as an international journalist for Pravda, Szara is gradually and unwillingly drawn into spying for the Soviet Union … or maybe just a faction within the Soviet Union … or maybe a couple of factions. Who knows? Changing allegiances and shifting power move his handlers in and out (sometimes forever out) of the scene. Szara experiences fear, then resignation, and finally a guarded moral ambiguity about what he is asked to do.

Szara clings to the thought of love as his salvation. Before his life becomes extremely complicated, he meets a woman in Germany and falls rapidly in love. She becomes a Madonna to light his way, but it is only in his thoughts because he is moved further and further away from the possibility of seeing her again.

Furst's narrative is convoluted. Thoughts jump around, mirroring the uneven path of historical events. I would even suggest a second reading once you finish the book and understand who the viable players are. It's easier the second time to admire the path Furst lays out for his (in this case) hapless protagonist.

It's often like watching a jerky documentary with no hand-holding narrative to accompany it. The reader is rewarded by a sense of having glimpsed a world that really existed. How hard it is sometimes just to survive!

[Furst has a two-book series with Jean Casson, a film producer who becomes a member of the Resistance in occupied France: The World at Night (1996) and Red Gold (1999). His other books are Night Soldiers (1988), The Polish Officer (1995), Kingdom of Shadows (2000), Blood of Victory (2002), Dark Voyage (2005), The Foreign Correspondent (2006), and The Spies of Warsaw (2008). -- We have copies of several of these works and you are invited to email us at books@mbtb.com if you are interested in purchasing a title.]

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Last Good Kiss (trade, $12.95), by James Crumley (c1978)

James Crumley died recently. I decided to re-read The Last Good Kiss as my own memorial to him. It had been a couple of decades since I'd last read it. Some books are disappointing when re-examined, never quite living up to the wonderful memory. What I found is that The Last Good Kiss could never be a disappointment.

First of all, Crumley's language is beyond compare. He is in turns humorous, poetic, and philosophical. His writing is challenging, teasing, and unpredictable. Secondly, his plot is surprising; even now years later I still think Crumley's resolution rocks. Lastly, his characters are complex. C. W. Sughrue, his intelligent, sardonic, alcoholic, dysfunctional private eye and alter ego, defines classic hard-boiled. The layers peel back throughout the book to reveal the heart that beats within. And there is Abraham Trahearne, the alcoholic, dysfunctional author whom Sughrue is hired to find -- and, one suspects, also a Crumley alter ego. Crumley raises the genius of Trahearne's talent and then skewers him with a portrayal of his weakness.

It is not a surprise that this book is praised for its famous first line* and is an inspiration for some of today's best writers. What more could a mystery reader want?

*"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."