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 19, 2009

The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith (hardcover, $24.99)

Tom Rob Smith has taken a historical fact -- in the 1950s Nikita Krushchev denounced Stalin in a radical speech before a closed session of the Soviet government -- and has spun a suspenseful and moving tale around it.

Leo Demidov of Child 44, Smith's award-winning debut novel, is now a homicide inspector in Moscow. He is no longer a part of the secret police, no longer sends people off to miserable lives in the gulags or to their deaths, if they are luckier.

He and his wife, Raisa, are raising two children, sisters who are orphans because of Leo. Zoya, 14 years old, hides her hatred of Demidov for the sake of her younger sister, who has come to care for Leo and his wife. But at night Zoya sometimes stands over a sleeping Leo with a kitchen knife in her hand, willing herself to plunge it into him to avenge her parents' deaths. Leo and Raisa, on the other hand, love the sisters unequivocally and with great passion. If Leo can patchwork this unlikely family together, then maybe he can begin to atone for the years he spent as an agent.

Copies of Krushchev’s “secret speech” are being copied and distributed all over the country, and people responsible for advancing and participating in Stalin’s regime of terror are being murdered. This becomes clear to Leo when he is asked to investigate the deaths. Everything Leo holds dear is threatened when he discovers he, too, is a target. His atonement has come too late.

Whether Smith is developing the big picture (the Soviet Union in turmoil) or the small picture (Leo’s agony as he tries to save each member of his disintegrating family), he wraps pathos and tension around a core story of a nation and individuals seeking redemption.

A minor quibble: Smith resorts to employing a larger-than-life character, a female terrorist named “Fraera,” who probably would be better suited to a Terminator movie. A person would be hard put to find a comparable character in a Le CarrĂ© or Martin Cruz Smith book, for instance. Complaints of mythic abilities aside, Fraera brings the action forward, melding Leo’s past life and its atrocities and his current life as detective and father. As the Soviet Union questions its foundations and political precepts, Leo must navigate the political hierarchy for help without knowing in whom he can really trust. Alliances and allegiances are many-layered and made of shifting sands.

In the end, the book is about hope and trust. It is about freefalling in dangerous situations and trusting that there will be a safety net at the end, that moral ambiguity will be resolved, that family will stand united in the end. Whether it really ends that way is irrelevant; to move through life, to put one foot in front of the other, it is necessary to hope.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Likeness, by Tana French (trade, $15.00)

SPOILER ALERT: This review of Tana French’s second book discusses Tana French’s first book, In the Woods, and some of its plot turns, so if you haven’t read the first book, don’t read this review.

Tana French is the mistress of ambiguity. In her follow-up to the critically acclaimed In the Woods, French again has created a story in which the reader might be left to wonder what really happened.

In the Woods famously ended with its major mystery still unsolved, and the symbiotic and charismatic relationship that Cassie Maddox had with her Murder Squad partner Rob Ryan in tatters. The Likeness picks up about six months later. Cassie now has formed a romantic relationship with Sam O'Neill, the third partner in the doomed Murder Squad team. She has shipped out of the Murder Squad and works in the domestic violence unit. Even though she has a companion and a job, Cassie has lost the life in which she was happy and sure of her direction, and she still has not come to terms with who she is now. Hovering in a state of ambivalence, she is waiting.

Sam, who is still with the Murder Squad, calls Cassie in a panic. He has pulled a case involving the death of a woman who is a dead ringer for Cassie. Her name, it turns out, is Lexie Madison. How is that possible, Cassie wonders, because that is the alias she used when she was working undercover as a young police officer. She and Frank Mackey, her supervisor at the time, created Lexie. Lexie is a figment of their imagination. How could Cassie’s invention and doppelganger be lying dead in a little town outside Dublin?

At first reluctant to become involved in another murder case, Cassie finally agrees to pose as Lexie, infiltrate Lexie’s life, walk in Lexie’s shoes, find Lexie’s murderer.

Lexie was a postgrad student in college. She shared a home with four other postgrads. If those last two sentences lead you to anticipate a college girl gone wild story or “Animal House Goes Irish,” then you’ve underestimated Tana French. Lexie and her friends were grown-ups, it appears. They worked on renovating their generations-old home, while studying esoteric literary topics. They were rarely apart and vibrated to the same note. In a world in which their age-mates are made of lighter, more transient stuff, Lexie and her housemates were serious about and committed to their communal living.

Cassie slides into Lexie’s life with surprising ease. She finds balm for her own problems among Lexie’s fey friends. Could one of them be responsible for murdering Lexie? Or is it one of the villagers who inexplicably holds the occupants of the house in high dudgeon? What if the killer was actually after Cassie and mistakenly found Lexie?

French’s lengthy book (466 pages) builds the tension slowly. Maybe too slowly. After the revelatory scene at the end, I thought that it was amazing the guilty party/parties hadn’t cracked sooner. In any event, I enjoyed the book. I love Cassie and wish her well.

For those of us who were shocked (simply shocked) that French had left us hanging at the end of In the Woods, there is some solace. French is kind enough to toss us a few references to what happened after the events of the first book, so we can have a modicum of closure. I’m still hoping her third book will return to Rob’s story.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson

For those of who lament that “they don’t write ‘em like they used to,” this is a charming update of the classic British cozy, appropriately set in the ‘30’s and with one of the queens of the classic British cozy as heroine: Josephine Tey.

The story is set early in Tey’s career, when she is more famous as a playwright under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot than as a mystery author writing as Josephine Tey. On her way to London to see her latest production, she makes the acquaintance of an avid fan – who is later found dead amid props that suggest a connection to Tey’s play. Happily, Tey is good friends with the detective assigned to the case, the suave but troubled Archie Penrose, and agrees to use her insider knowledge of the production to help him investigate.

Upson, who has worked in and written about theater much of her life, uses her own insider knowledge to create a vivid glimpse into London’s West End at a time when England was still reeling from the last Great War and beginning to brace for the next one. Her research included interviews with John Guilgud, who starred in the actual production of Richard of Bordeaux and knew Tey well, and upon whom she has based her portrait of her show’s star.

Appropriately for a classic cozy, if a bit tiresomely for a modern reader, the mechanics of the mystery are a bit creaky, and the resolution a bit melodramatic. But this hardly distracts from the warm and fuzzy glow that envelopes readers as they sink into Upson’s elegant prose and are surrounded by her engaging and eccentric cast of characters.

The second in this series, An Angel with Two Faces, will be out in hardcover next month.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Darkness Under Heaven, by F. J. Chase ($7.99)

This is a movie in book form. That is to say, there is no actual movie, but the book is eighty percent dialogue and twenty percent short, declarative sentences with not much style, and it begs to be turned into an action movie.

Too much dialogue. Too much clever bantering between the male and female main characters. No style. Kill or be killed philosophy. All signs that usually point to my slamming the book shut as soon as possible. So why did I read every page?

Imagine a Bruce Willis action character who looks like Telly Savalas. Imagine an Angelina Jolie action character who looks like Christine Lahti (at least that’s how I picture her). Imagine China at war with Taiwan. Imagine our main characters are trapped in China. Imagine neither one can speak Chinese. If you can imagine this, you have the basic elements of the book and they may or may not appeal to you, but the interest for me, and why I am favorably reviewing this book, is in the details.

F. J. Chase is a pseudonym of “a former military officer and national security commentator.” (Endearingly, he dedicates his book to his mother.) I found his depiction of Chinese military and political propriety fascinating and his insight into the Chinese mind authentic, if not flattering. Chase instructs the reader on how to make bombs, camouflage, and break-in tools, and how to survive in catastrophic circumstances -- even those of your own making. Not that I know how to do any of the above, but Chase writes with authority and I have no reason to doubt that his do-it-yourself scenarios are possible.

That’s it in a nutshell. Caucasian man and woman try to escape an Asian country at war using their wits.

Got an airplane you need to ride for a long time? Take this book. If it puts you to sleep, hey, what’s wrong with that? If it keeps your heart pumping, that’s good, too!