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

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Open and Shut, by David Rosenfelt ($7.99) (c 2003)

I was racing through a preview copy of Mike Carey's latest in his Fix Castor series, Dead Men's Boots (sorry, not out until July), when I screeched to a halt. It wasn't because Carey's book had lost steam – to the contrary, his books (including The Devil You Know and The Vicious Circle) pitch headlong down the literary demon-filled path. I stopped because I stumbled across a used book for sale, one that had been out of print and hard to get for far too long, one I had never had a chance to read.

David Rosenfelt's Open and Shut begins his great Andy Carpenter series. Andy is a lawyer with a sense of humor, sometimes with too developed a sense of humor for judges, fellow attorneys, his estranged wife, and investigator girlfriend -- but not for Rosenfelt's readers!

Andy is a criminal defense attorney. His father, Nelson, was a legendary prosecutor. Nelson has urged Andy to represent on appeal a man Nelson had completely and competently sent to death row. Andy accepts what seems to be a lost cause to please his father. Before long, Andy truly believes his client is an innocent man, a belief that flies in the face of the massive evidence, however circumstantial, to the contrary.

Andy's life apparently has not been complicated enough by this case; three startling and life-changing events also occur. Nelson dies. Andy's estranged wife returns for a reconciliation, putting Andy's girlfriend/investigator in the intolerable position of having to work for her now ex-boyfriend. Nelson has left Andy $22 million. Surprise!

Rosenfelt writes with energy, humor, and an insider's knowledge – although Rosenfelt is not a lawyer -- of the vagaries and variances of the legal system.

The good news is Warner Books has recently re-released Open and Shut. And, lucky you, you don't have to scrounge around for a mangy dog-eared copy like I did.

(Speaking of dogs … one of the unforgettable characters is Andy's golden retriever, Tara. Rosenfelt had the real Tara, and he has started the Tara Foundation to rescue golden retrievers, 4000 of them to date.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick (hc, $23.95)

From the first paragraph of The Reliable Wife, I heard music. Robert Goolrick has a poet's rhythm with his words. His writing sounds like water moving towards high tide. He uses repetition, adding a few more words or another thought each time to finally build to the climactic revelation or pronouncement. Goolrick also has an artist's eye with presentation. The story starts with simplicity and builds to opulence and decadence. It starts with inhibition and ends with a tempest.

Within the first few paragraphs we meet Ralph Truitt. He is waiting on a snow-laden platform for a woman to arrive by train. We learn he carries sorrow, humiliation, and hope. But just as Ralph patiently waits for the woman to arrive, the reader must wait to learn about these burdens. Does it seem strange that hope would be a burden? Ralph has spent half of his life without needing hope and the other half bringing his hope to the painful climax that led him to the platform, waiting for a train.

A "simple honest woman," Catherine Land, steps off the train. She has sent Ralph a letter with this declaration, and he has sent for her to become his wife.

It is 1907 and Catherine has come to a Wisconsin town dark and heavy with the beginning of the winter snow. Within hours, in the heavy, fast-falling snow, she has lost the last tangible reminders of her old life. Just as the landscape and houses are buried under the snow, Catherine and Ralph's prior lives are buried deep within themselves. Goolrick dots his story with tales of people driven mad by winter and isolation, and what they must face about themselves when there is nothing else to distract them.

The tale accelerates when Ralph asks Catherine to travel to St. Louis to find his runaway son and bring him home. It is at this point that the layers begin to tear away, that we discover the story that has only been hinted at so far.

What begins with starkness and distance and rectitude becomes a tale of sensuality and an overflowing of emotion. The characters struggle to tear away their misery, and they begin by tearing away their layers of clothing. They stand naked before each other, but are terribly hidden otherwise. Goolrick masterfully shows us their pain and their passion.

This is a high-intensity tale of sex and repression and murderous thoughts, of people longing to forgive themselves and each other, of incredible pain. In describing what formed Ralph's character, Goolrick says: "That his mother had said, needle to the bone, that the way to goodness, the only way, was through pain and suffering. He could have said that grief had left him wholly good." There's enough pain and suffering to go around, but will they find redemption?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Collaborator of Bethlehem, by Matt Beynon Rees (trade, $13.95)

Matt Beynon Rees, a British ex-journalist, has given us a person-sized view of a globally transfixing political situation.

Omar Yussef is a middle-aged man, a husband, father, and grandfather, who teaches high school-aged girls in a U.N. sponsored school in Bethlehem. He is the neutral eyes through which we see ordinary Muslim citizens, violent Palestinian jihad movements, the dwindling Christian community, Westerners who have come to supply aid, and off-screen Israeli military forces. They mix together in Bethlehem, a town burdened by fights between the "Martyrs Brigade," a Palestinian militia group, and Israeli forces. The ordinary citizens, Muslims and Christians alike, are caught in the crossfire.

Yussef is not a radical. It is not obvious that he has a strong political viewpoint. Even though his family was relocated from its home village to make room for Jewish settlements, Yussef's father taught his family to make the best of it and not look back in anger. (Yussef cannot help, however, longing for the quiet, simpler times that life in his village represents.) Yussef, in turn, preaches tolerance to his students and practices it in his personal associations.

Rees has created a character who is our moral lynchpin. He accepts people as people, regardless of their religious or political affiliations. He presses on through his feelings of cowardice to perform acts of bravery. He is the irritating burr under the saddle that goads others into action. But he is not without his own shortcomings. Some are significant: he is an alcoholic and the disease has left him physically diminished before his time. Some are milder: he modestly lusts after a neighbor's wife, despite actually loving and treasuring his wife of many years. He misjudges people and is not afraid to admit his errors.

When two of his ex-students, both adults now, run afoul of the Martyrs Brigade, Yussef must seek justice for them. Despite their unofficial status, the Martyrs Brigade, it is hinted, really runs the government. Yussef will not receive much help from the official elements, including the police, in his quest. It is this Quixote-like quest that brings Yussef into shadowy places to find out who has been collaborating with the Israelis and has caused the deaths of people he loves.

While this novel is not a political polemic, it deals sensitively with divisive issues without making them the centerpiece. We yearn, with Yussef, for a time when different cultures could exist side by side and mutually celebrate a part of the world where history has written its mark for far longer than for most.

Despite the setting and violent incidents depicted in the book, this is not an action-filled thriller. It is a thought-provoking, very different look at a community in crisis. Don't read it for the mystery (a real "Yussef" would have been killed on page 100), but for what it might bring you in understanding.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

State of the Onion, by Julie Hyzy ($7.99)

This is the first in the series Julie Hyzy started about a fairly young female chef at the White House. (The White House.)

Olivia "Ollie" Paras is one of a small group of permanent kitchen staff for the White House. The staff must plan minutely and organize excessively to feed the fictional first family and assorted diplomats and high-mucky-mucks. The executive chef, her beloved mentor and boss, is scheduled to retire and Ollie is one of the candidates to be his replacement. But first she must dig herself out of the big, big hole she seems to have created, with the Secret Service, an assassin, and a TV food star helping to bury her.

If she knew then what she knows now … Ollie certainly wouldn't have played "hero." She would never have clunked the man running away from the Secret Service with the commemorative skillet. In addition, she thinks there's an assassin who's marked her as the next target because she can identify him. Then again, maybe there isn't an assassin. (And if there is an assassin, he's a remarkably inept one.) Suspicious characters lurk around every corner and under every saucepan.

However, this is a charming book with a charming lead character. It feels like an insider's look at the White House kitchen. The talk of creating fine cuisine to match the first lady's mood or visiting foreign dignitaries makes me wish more dishes had been described. State of the Onion is served up with dollops of romance and humor.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbø (trade, $14.99) (c2000, trans. from Norwegian)

This Norwegian novel has won a number of awards. Mr. Nesbø has created a dark Scandanavian police procedural to rival those of Sweden's Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Henning Mankell.

The setup is rather lengthy; it wasn't until page 200 that things got going. The whole book is a hefty 500+ pages, but there is no wasted motion after page 200. In fact, I found that first part rather tedious, as the author switches between a 1942 WWII story and one set in 1999 (the book came out in 2000), but I have no complaints about what comes after. And, I admit it, that first part is necessary to understand the murderer's psyche.

In brief, several Norwegian men fight on the side of Germany and Hitler in WWII. Some may have defected, or not. Some may have murdered each other, or not. Something heroic may have occurred, or not. A wounded soldier and a nurse fall in love. All these threads have repercussions for the contemporary stories. In 1999, an old man is facing his own imminent demise and decides that he must avenge old wrongs. Men and women, ones who have something to do with that WWII group, begin to die.

Harry Hole is a drunkard with emotional baggage from a prior case which is mentioned but never elucidated. He is a homicide inspector who, to correct an unfortunate mistake, is promoted to the POT, which I gather is an FBI-type organization and one which no longer exists in Norway. He is assigned the task of monitoring neo-Nazi activities. Nazism is the common thread tying together the WWII story and the contemporary storylines. Plural. There are a couple of cases Hole is either assigned or takes upon himself to handle. We assume in some mysterious way Nesbø will tie them all together, and it is his genius that he does.

In the great tradition of dysfunctional police inspectors, Hole must fight his own demons in order to rescue or avenge those he loves. Instead of closing in on himself, he expands to embrace love. Instead of becoming incapacitated by his losses, he stubbornly bullies his way through the system to find resolution.

The relationship between Hole and his former partner Ellen Gjelten exemplifies the very human nature of Nesbø's characterizations. Even most of the bad guys are so human in their failings. Even if they are over the top, they are not parodies. Not that that would stop a reader from hoping for a proper comeuppance!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Scoop, by Hannah Dennison ($6.99)

The blurb on the cover of this book really intrigued me: "A delightful heroine who would be right at home in a Jane Austen novel." Yes, I can see protagonist Vicky Hill perhaps as one of the daughters whom Mr. Bennet describes in Pride and Prejudice as "the silliest girls in England."

In Scoop, the second book in the series, Vicky is a news reporter for a small village in Devon who frequently Thinks! In! Grandiose! Headlines! The residents of this village are poorly stereotyped: the bullying do-gooder, the handsome love interest (?) who constantly addresses her as "doll," and the local waitress, Topaz, who is also the Lady of the Manor, plus many more.

The premise for the mystery itself was very simplistic and unrealistic. A farmer and champion hedge cutter (!) had been electrocuted while clipping a hedge near a power line. Vicky knew something was fishy because the town council had just placed a sign on the existing power pole saying, "Look Out! Look Up!" to warn people that there was an overhead power line. This seems like an incredibly implausible premise to me on which to launch an investigation, nor was it enough for this reader to continue the book. I thought the biggest mystery was why Vicky felt compelled to investigate this in the first place.

Just hedge your bets and clip on by!