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

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Way Home, by George Pelecanos (hardcover, $24.99)

It doesn't matter if you know that George Pelecanos will be writing about a good guy who is or was a little bad. His protagonists usually are men who were boys in one of the tough neighborhoods in Baltimore/D.C., got into trouble as boys or men, and now seek redemption or forgiveness. It doesn't matter if you know what the book is going to be about, because Pelecanos does it like no other and the story touches your heart each time.

A lot of Pelecanos's stories are about the Greek and African-American communities, and the reader can feel Pelecanos's connection to them. But this time he focuses on middle class, white Christopher Flynn. As a troubled and aimless teenager, Chris beat up another kid, and when the police came for him, he also got caught holding drugs. He was sent away to juvenile detention, where all of his fellow inmates were non-whites. Chris's nickname was "White Boy." Despite this, Chris survived and even befriended some of the other inmates.

After an introduction in which all this is explained -- in a riveting and thought-provoking way, of course -- and we meet the main characters, the story jumps about five years. A grown-up Chris and one of his prison friends are working for Chris's dad in his carpet-laying business. They discover something buried beneath the floorboards of a house they are working on. It is at this point that everything they have gone through and the future they see for themselves converge to provide a turning point in their lives.

Pelecanos is capable of imbuing his stories with poignancy and realism as few other authors are. You know the real-life counterparts for his characters are alive and breathing somewhere in this world. They may not be as lucky as Pelecanos's characters in finding a resolution, but their backgrounds, their life's choices are depicted with care by the author.

Pelecanos's work has become more commercial -- in a good way -- over the years, but that is not to say he has compromised his literary vision in any way; it's just easier for us folks who don't come from any Baltimore/D.C. 'hood to understand the story. Too, watching Pelecanos's work on HBO's The Wire may have taught us all a little more of the lingo. Aw-ight.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dog On It, by Spencer Quinn (trade, $15, due out 9/29/09)

I loved Babe, Hank the Cowdog, the rabbits of Watership Down, and the animals in 1984. It didn't bother me that I was reading an insider's view of how animals think. I hesitated, however, when store manager Jean plopped this book in front of me, as she stifled a guffaw and said, "Here. Read." What's this? A book about a dog detective -- from the dog's point of view? An adult book about a dog detective from the dog's point of view. I thought maybe Jean was barking up the wrong tree.

As it turned out, this book combines the best of all possible mystery attributes: It has humor; a smart dog; a charming, if somewhat shambling, human; and a plausible mystery to solve. Chet, the dog, is a mongrel – and what's wrong with that? – with one black ear and one white one. He is loyal but easily distracted and, as far as doggie authors go, a heck of a good writer with an authentic doggie voice. To wit:

"Iggy had a high-pitched bark, an irritated-sounding yip-yip-yip. I barked back. There was a brief silence, and then he barked again. I barked back. He barked. I barked. He barked. I barked. He barked. We got a good rhythm going, faster and faster. I barked. He barked. I –

"A woman cried, 'Iggy, for God's sake, what the hell's wrong with you?' A door slammed. Iggy was silent…."

Now that's doggie writing at its best! I was rolling on the floor, laughing.

Bernie Little has a detective agency set in a nameless valley, but not unlike California's San Fernando Valley. He has an ex-wife he tolerates and a son he adores. He gained custody of Chet in the divorce, not a difficult accomplishment. As far as sidekicks go, Chet is head and shoulders over Sherlock Holmes's Watson. Could Watson sniff out the path to a bad guy's place? On the other hand, Watson wouldn't be distracted by a fire hydrant (presumably). Maybe we should call it a draw.

Bernie is called in to find a teenage girl who didn't return from school one day. Madison's frantic mother cannot get the police interested because her daughter has been missing for less than a day. Bernie reluctantly takes the case. Within a short time, Madison reappears, a lie on the tip of her tongue and very little remorse in her bearing. Case closed.

When Madison disappears for real a few days later, it's a bigger deal. Bernie and Chet again are called upon to research and sniff out what happened to her. Strangely, Madison's father seems less forthcoming with his help in locating the daughter he says he loves. And what's this phone call by Madison to her mom saying she just needs time to think; don't look for her anymore. Bernie and Chet both smell something rotten.

Then Chet is dognapped. Then Bernie is man-napped. And is Madison really kidnapped? How can a dog, even a really smart one like Chet, keep this all straight. Chet has to struggle to focus, especially with such exciting distractions as a female dog barking in the distance, a first-ever glimpse of a road runner, and a squawking bird who says, "Light my fire."

Spencer Quinn impressively maintains his doggie narrator's voice throughout the book but still manages to intelligibly describe the humans and their stories.

It's good enough. It's smart enough. And, doggone it, I liked it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Renegades, by T. Jefferson Parker (hardcover, $26.95)

Warning: Do yourself a favor and don't read this review if you haven't read L.A. Outlaws.

Note to self: Never read a T. Jefferson Parker book set in Southern California after reading a Michael Connelly book set in Southern California. (It's hard not to make comparisons, but it would be like comparing apples and oranges. There are certain similarities, but the taste is very different.)

T. Jefferson Parker brings back Charlie Hood of L.A. Outlaws. I really liked L.A. Outlaws and the vigilante character of Allison Murietta, but she is dead and gone by The Renegades, and more's the pity. Charlie was definitely the less interesting of the two characters, but he is the only one left standing at the end of L.A. Outlaws.

Charlie is a sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles County and has exiled himself to the desolate Antelope Valley, east of the city of Los Angeles. But however much he tries to turn from his past, there are still connections that won't let go. For instance, he is set to testify in L.A. against a fellow officer because of events related in L.A. Outlaws.

He also still wants to be a homicide detective with the sheriff's department in the city of Los Angeles, but not in the style of the old-time cops who bonded into groups complete with team identities, like "The Renegades," groups that eventually self-destructed through corruption and misuse of power. If Charlie stands against anything, it is against misuse of power. So Charlie is caught in limbo. He is still vilified by other officers because he turned against "one of his own," regardless of how corrupt the officer was. The homicide door is still shut to him.

When Charlie witnesses Terry Laws, his new partner, murdered while on duty, Charlie joins Internal Affairs to find out who killed Terry and why. It is not as simple as it appears, of course. The killer resembles a small-time gangsta Charlie has run across before. Was this a revenge killing because Laws lost the gangsta's dog during a bust when a good deed went wrong? As Charlie digs deeper into Laws's past, he discovers a possible connection to a Mexican cartel and money smuggling. Once again, Charlie is embroiled in another potential bad cop case.

Parker allows us to see both the inner turmoil and the inner quiet that Charlie juggles. He is at peace in the remote Antelope Valley, but he feels a responsibility to people from his past, including one of Allison's teenage sons, so a large part of his life is spent in the frenetic world of Southern California. When his current case also draws him back into the same world, he must decide if his search for justice is worth the risk to his career and his peace of mind.

The story had good pacing and interesting plotting, but sometimes Parker's poetic dialogue was a little jerky and the storyline suffered from the artificial juxtaposition of the first-person narrative of Coleman Draper, a reserve deputy and another of Terry Laws's partners, and the third-person story of Charlie Hood. (And personally, I think Draper's female companions were from outer space.) But, in the final analysis, it's a good story with a shocking insight into the uncontrollable world of drug and money smuggling between California and Mexico.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly (hardcover, $27.99)

Michael Connelly is a master storyteller. No, he is a Ph.D. storyteller. His pacing and plotting skills are still excellent in this, his twentieth novel -- alas, a too-rare accomplishment for a series writer.

In The Scarecrow, Jack McEvoy (of The Poet) reunites with Rachel Walling (also of The Poet, but who also has made a guest appearance in Connelly's Harry Bosch series). It has been about a dozen years since they last saw each other. Their personal relationship blew up FBI agent Walling's career, thus bringing to an end their personal relationship. McEvoy, on the other hand, has enjoyed success as an author – of a book on The Poet – and is currently a Los Angeles Times crime reporter. Hmmm, Michael Connelly was a Los Angeles Times crime reporter, and he wrote a book called The Poet. We can assume that Connelly's interest in portraying the deterioration of a great metropolitan newspaper has a more than passing interest for him.

When the story begins, Jack has just been fired. He is one of the highest paid journalists at The Times, and so his departure will save the latest corporation to own The Times beaucoup bucks. Bye, bye, Jack. Wait, would he train his replacement? She is Angela Cook: young, fresh-faced, and cheap – in a corporate-expenditure-kind-of-way, of course. Jack rises above his basest instinct for revenge and agrees.

As he forages for a last great story to allow him to leave on a note of triumph, Jack is assigned the murder of a young woman. She has been bound, raped, and suffocated. Because of some of the unusual features of the murder, Jack begins to dig a little further into the story. Soon Angela, without Jack's permission, begins to poke around as well. Just as he is accepting, based on Angela's research, that the story involves a serial killer, Angela disappears.

This is where Connelly 's story zooms off. There isn't a lengthy set-up, but what there is of it is very well done. He establishes characters and plotlines quickly. He gets to the action and we meet the killer very early on, but Connelly sets the tension at just the right level to string his readers along. It is hard for the reader to juggle savoring each page and rapidly turning it to see what happens next.

Each of Connelly's stories stand alone in the telling, but he rewards faithful readers by dropping names and bits of storyline relating to his other books. Harry Bosch, unnamed but recognizable in Walling's description, contributes a philosophical musing that threads itself throughout the book. It doesn't matter if you haven't read The Poet – but why haven't you? – because Connelly tells you what you need to know.

Connelly brings Rachel Walling back into Jack McEvoy's life, and Connelly writes about this relationship with tenderness and care. Jack may have a sorry excuse for a life at the point the story begins, but his heart is still capable of beating rapidly for the right reasons. This is yet another example of how well Connelly delineates his characters; even though we could never know a Walling or a McEvoy, we know they could exist somewhere.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Private Patient, by P. D. James (hardcover, $25.95, released 11/08)

It took me awhile to get around to reading this. I've lately come back to James's books, having taken a goodly time off from reading her. Beginning with The Lighthouse, I've come to re-appreciate her meticulous crafting and psychological depth more. What drove me away in the first place was her lack of humor and the bleakness of the human psyche as seen through her eyes. Even when a character rises in sacrifice, there is a stolidity that dampens the gesture.

James entertains us by presenting a story whose layers are slowly revealed. There is not much action (sacrificial burning notwithstanding), and this is very much an intellectual puzzle. However, the cool, calculating Commander Dalgleish exhorts his team – and the readers – not to forget the humanity behind the crime. Whether or not the victim deserved death, "'Every victim deserves the same commitment.'"

The victim in this case is a freelance investigative journalist who finally is having a childhood scar removed from her face. She enters a private clinic based in a renovated country manor house. Playing on the term "private," it appears little is known about Rhoda Gradwyn, in contrast to the exposure she gives the subjects of her articles. Private, too, are the lives of the individuals who reside at the manor house. Although eventually coincidences and serendipitous information is unearthed, allowing the solution of the crime, it seems hardly likely that the murderer will escape detection anyway. It is, in essence, a locked room mystery. There is an economy of words and plotting, but there also are red herrings that serve to give us insight into some of the characters, and these are well-crafted by Baroness James.

At 80 years of age, she still has "it."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Tehran Conviction, by Tom Gabbay (hardcover, $24.99)

You can poke and prod at things at random and suddenly find that the pieces fall together to form a whole. It's scary and humbling. Three of the most thought-provoking books I've read recently have turned out to be related in theme. Perhaps I didn't pick them at random from a pile of teetering books after all. Perhaps a word or phrase in the summary squirmed subconsciously to pull my interest towards this book or away from that book. All I know is, I picked these books with inattention rather than intention, but this is what I found.

The Secret Speech
, by Tom Robb Smith, is about the Soviet Union after Stalin's death. There is turmoil as Krushchev and his cohorts manipulate history to denounce Stalin's reign and begin another type of imperialistic advance for the Soviet Union.

The Dead of Winter
, the third book in Rennie Airth's trilogy stretching from World War I to World War II, deals with the waning days of World War II in England. A new Europe is on the verge of being born. The second book in Airth's trilogy is titled, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and refers to Yeats' famous poem, "The Second Coming," written after World War I:

Turning and turning in a widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely, some revelation is at hand . . .

The Tehran Conviction is one of the best novels I've read this year. It is a fictional spy story set in a palpably real Tehran of 1953 and 1979. At the end of the novel, Tom Gabbay, too, quotes this poem.

This is what brings all these books together.

• In 1953 the world was on the verge of the Cold War between two former allies of World War II.

• Krushchev's Soviet Union and Eisenhower's United States sought influence in the same critical spots around the world.

• The U.S. avidly developed the CIA as a Wizard of Oz, a behind-the-scenes manipulator of global events.

• The old world order had begun to change, as the sun finally set on the far-flung British Empire.

• Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and his backers had thrown out the British representatives who were controlling the large and lucrative petroleum business in Iran, hoping to return control of the enormous profits to the Iranians.

• In 1953, Operation Ajax was a real CIA-backed program to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mossadegh. The Americans were seeking to reinstate the West's interests in Iran's oil fields and supported the Iranian military in deposing Mossadegh.

• In 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was taken over by protesting students, leading to a hostage crisis that eventually involved unfriendly Iranian religious forces.

This is the background that brings us to The Tehran Conviction.

The fictional Jack Teller is a tough, legendary participant of prior covert government operations, but he is working as a bartender in New York when the story begins. He is enticed to travel to Tehran as a CIA agent to help run Operation Ajax. Gabbay's description of the 1953 Tehran is compelling. East and West cultures and ideologies collide, but the U.S. has not yet significantly added to the volatility of the country. The majority of the people of Iran sees Mossadegh as a progressive and enlightened leader. However, he tolerates the Soviets in Iran, and this provides the wedge the CIA will use to drive public opinion away from him. We see the country and its people through Jack's sympathetic eyes. He befriends Yari Fatemi, a powerful man in Mossadegh's cabinet, and must grapple with his conscience to use this friendship to dethrone Mossadegh.

In 1979, Yari's sister confronts Jack in New York to rescue her brother from an infamous Iranian prison. To rectify a wrong that the 1953 story slowly unfolds throughout the book, Jack agrees. Gabbay does a wonderful job of alternating these two stories, and history comes to life for his readers.

Gabbay's CIA characters describe American arrogance, idealism, and patriotism. His Iranian characters describe cultural confusion, religious conflict, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity in the face of chaos and terror. In many ways, The Tehran Conviction is the political child of Aird's and Smith's books.

And as for Yeats' apocalyptic vision: our involvement in the Soviet Union's incursion into Afghanistan, Western imperialism that left its mark on every continent of the world, and the Iranian deposition were part of the widening gyre of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and surely we can recognize that what the U.S. created in its innocence and naiveté did not hold.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Dead of Winter, by Rennie Airth (hardcover, $25.95)

Rennie Airth has brought us a deep and moving picture of England at war, first in World War I and now, in this third book in the series, in World War II. The first, River of Darkness, was a dark and superb portrait of a man wounded psychologically by the horrors of war and the vicissitudes of life. As a Scotland Yard inspector, he struggled to continue to put one foot in front of the other, to find some measure of healing in solving crimes.

Not quite meeting the standard of the intense first book, this slow-moving novel is a depiction of England at war first and a mystery second. John Madden, the agonized hero of River of Darkness, retired from police work in the second book, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and went to live the life of a country farmer. Twenty years after the first book and eight years after the second, another murder brings Madden back into the fray. Angus Sinclair and Billy Styles of Scotland Yard, holdovers from the previous books, are the primary movers, and they pay obsequious homage to Madden's legendary crime-solving abilities.

It is 1944 and World War II is still raging. A young Polish woman, on the way to visit an elderly aunt, is murdered in London. When it is revealed that she worked on Madden's farm in the country, Sinclair and Styles don't hesitate to involve him. The murder appears to be the work of a professional. How does a nice young woman, a refugee, a hard worker by all accounts, warrant the notice of such a killer? Then the next person killed is the only person who could identify the man seen following the woman. Madden and the police painstakingly learn the woman's history and follow the killer's tracks to find out what the killer's motivation could be.

Airth does a fine job of helping the reader visualize a London at war. Its citizens listen uneasily at night for the stuttering engine sounds of approaching drone missiles. Bombs land in department stores, warehouses, and streets killing civilians. The war has gone on for a long time, and everyone is weary and worried. Loved ones are fighting abroad, and those who are left behind must continue to shoulder the burden and a half of work at home.

The weakness of this third book lies in the fact that Madden is a peripheral character who dispenses intuitive and preternaturally wise advice to the police. He's simply not present enough in the storyline until the second half of the book tumbles towards a cinematic ending. The crime story is solid and interesting, but it just doesn't have the pacing it needs in the first half of the book. Despite this, I can still say that Airth is magic at showing how man's inhumanity to man continues unabated, whether it is the "blood-dimmed tide" in the trenches or the avaricious desires of an individual at home.