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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Risk of Darkness, by Susan Hill (hardcover, $24.95)

This is the third in the Simon Serrailler series, despite the fact that Simon was more of a secondary character to the heroine, Freya Graffham, in the first book, The Various Haunts of Men. With each subsequent book, we have seen more clearly both the warm heart and cold façade of Simon Serrailler. The complexity of his character is the compelling and attractive feature of Susan Hill's books. In fact, Hill does a superb job of presenting not just Simon, but members of his semi-dysfunctional family as well: his doctor-sister Cat, his aristocratic father Richard, his peace-maker mother Meriel.

It is in Hill's detail, some eventually related to the story and some not, that draws the reader into seeing Lafferton as a real town with real people with real psychological and physical hurts. It is also Hill's signature style that she never over-explains her story. It may not be until a book or two later that the reader will find a hint about an unresolved story. It is not surprising for the author of the play and book The Woman in Black, famous for its ambiguity, to carry that ambiguity over to her other works. In many ways, her stories are strung out like a soap opera. For the most part, she gives the reader closure on the main story, but it is now obvious that she will be stringing out her secondary stories. Way to get people anxiously awaiting the next book!

The main story in The Risk of Darkness involves the disappearance of children from many different places in England. Unlike quite a few of today's thrillers, scenes of the victims' deaths are done off-stage and the descriptions are understated, making, quite conversely, the story more chilling. The killer is apprehended fairly early in the book, and the search for why makes the tale so absorbing. Secondary stories are about newly arrived C of E priest Jane Fitzroy, and the newly widowed and desperate Max Jameson.

Nothing is certain. All is about change and how her characters handle it. Hill is thoroughly capable of keeping her readers on their collective toes.

Note: Read her other books first.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (hardcover, $26.95)

This book should be charming and worm its way into your consciousness. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, is an American Harry Potter who swears, has sex with his girlfriend, and gets drunk a lot. And that's why it's not so charming after all.

There are lots of things right with the book, including a fabulous magical world set in a Hogwarts-like institution. It also has an "Earthsea" (Ursula Le Guin's seminal work on using magic and its moral consequences) philosophical dilemma for its main characters. If the professors and students didn't swear so much and hide some odious human secrets, it would be perfect. And this is the problem: Lev Grossman (book critic for Time magazine) can't find quite the right tone to bring off his coming-of-age/wizard-in-training book. His readers are too well steeped in the more polite language and culture of J. K. Rowling's series to easily assimilate the R-rated private schoolboy rituals and angst. And it's hard to imagine The Dead Poets Society with magic bunnies and a "Cozy Pony."

I wish there were a do-over for this book. I know Grossman would get it right the next time around.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown (hardcover, $29.95)

Thirty dollars for a book? It must be gold-plated. Actually, it's Dan Brown who's probably gold-plated. Five million copies of The Lost Symbol have been printed. He sold 40 million copies of The Da Vinci Code, the second in his Robert Langdon trilogy. So, the big question is: Is The Lost Symbol worth it?

At 509 pages, that works out to approximately six cents a page. Quite a few of the pages are dense with information on symbols, rituals, and Mason history. Whether the information is accurate is another question, but for the purposes of Brown's storyline, it's good bang for the buck. Unbelievably, the whole story takes place over about a 12-hour period of time. That's 42 pages per hour, $2.52 per hour, in case you're curious. Again, pretty good bang for the buck. Parking your car in a downtown lot costs more than that. (And watching your car sit in its parking space isn't very entertaining.)

It would be hard to top the amusing and fantastic plot of The Da Vinci Code. In that book, Brown had his readers solving puzzles and invested in helping his hero, Harvard professor and symbologist Robert Langdon. It would be hard to top that, and Brown does not manage this feat in The Lost Symbol.

Langdon is again called to save the world from a plot to bring a mystical darkness down upon it. A tattooed man-monster has infiltrated the Masonic brotherhood in Washington, D.C., and tries to use its own secrets to transform himself into … what? A god, a devil, a politician? Peter Solomon, Langdon's friend, is the keeper of the Smithsonian's treasures and a Mason. Katherine, his sister, is a scientist who has been trying to quantify the soul. Together they trigger the events that result in Langdon's involvement.

Brown returns somewhat to the plodding and professorial tone of Angels and Demons, the first in the series. The Da Vinci Code had sparkle, the other two do not. Brown does have a few puzzles, but they demand that the reader come pre-loaded with esoteric knowledge in order to solve them. However, The Lost Symbol does not slip all the way back. Brown has learned the trick of pacing and interleaving back stories very well, and his book is a page-turner.

Whether the book is worth the money and the hype comes down to the resolution and how much the reader is willing to swallow. The über-villain is über-diabolical, and the CIA administrator who may or may not be trying to help Langdon is also über-diabolical. The purported Masonic secrets and rituals are revolting, although Brown does his best to periodically say that the Masons are really a great bunch of guys. One hand slaps and the other applies the balm. Maybe it's a guy thing.

I think what it boils down to is this: a book about a psychopath is a book about a psychopath. Is the hero valiant enough, is the villain villainous enough, and is the villain vanquished well enough? Yes, it was all enough, but it wasn't über-enough.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Outlander, by Gil Adamson (trade, $14.99)

There were parts of The Outlander that reminded me of Cormac McCarthy, not so much the writing as the spare and bleak picture it paints of the turn of the last century, and the spare and bleak emotions of the characters who populate it.

Mary Boulton is seldom referred to by her given name; rather she is given the sobriquet of "The Widow." We learn right off that she is a widow because she killed her husband and is now being chased by her husband's brothers: hulking, strikingly odd-looking, single-minded twin avengers.

In short bursts, we learn The Widow came from a fairly refined, if somewhat dysfunctional, background, and would be a "least likely to" nominee to commit a murder. Gil Adamson, a Canadian writer, skillfully draws out the suspense of why The Widow murdered her husband. In the meantime, we learn about her determination and wild flight to survive.

The Widow is nearly feral when we meet her: Her hair is matted, her clothes are fetid, horses shy away from her, and she has clawed her way through dense forests in high mountains of the Canadian wilderness. She does not survive on sheer will alone, however; she is discovered and taken in by a mountain man. She gains strength during this interlude, but soon is again on the run, this time to a mining camp that provides the background for the rest of Mary's story.

The strength of Adamson's story is in her writing, which can be both tense and lush at the same time. She tells the story of pioneer life that The Little House on the Prairie left out. Her detailed descriptions are never burdensome, and don't get in the way of her unwavering and measured march towards the end of The Widow's story.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Le Crime, by Peter Steiner (trade, $13.95) (apa A French Country Murder, c2003)

This is a magical book in which the main character, Louis Morgon, an American living in a small French village, circles and dances, both figuratively and physically, his way through the chaos of the universe toward the center of who he is.

If this sounds to you less like a mystery than a philosophical exploration, then you have it in one.

Louis has felt throughout most of his adult life that very little is within his control. In the 1960s, from the peak of an elite education, academic favor, and influential government posts, Louis is suddenly tossed aside, discredited, and alienated further from a family to which he's never felt connected.

As he bumbles around, trying to patch his life back together, he travels to France with the idea that he will make a pilgrimage from Paris to Spain. Walking directly from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, through little villages, and across streams and stopping at churches, not to pray but to wonder, Louis re-creates himself. He heads home to the U.S., jettisons his job, his wife, and his children and returns to the village of Saint Leon sur Dême.
"In his mind, time and space had merged. He walked across the changing face of France, as if his walking were the motion of time, as if time would stop if he were to stop. He was spinning out a silken cord as he walked further and further from equipoise. In his mind, this point of balance, this his own personal version of magnetic north, slowly consolidated and came to be located exactly on the square in the village of Saint Leon sur Dême on the night of the Festival of Music."
In a moment of perfect, inexplicable alignment of events, Louis finds joy at the Festival of Music, a night when cities, towns, and villages all over France dance the night away. With regret but without doubt, Louis leaves his past beind. In passages reminiscent of a travelogue, Louis's new life embraces good food, beautiful scenery, and an embracing albeit eccentric, community. He is living la bonne vie.

Until the dead body appears on his doorstep thirty years later.

Although it has been about thirty-five years since Louis worked for the CIA and had any contact with his former colleagues at the State Department, Louis is certain the body has something to do with his former life. In a leap of intuition that intentionally leaves the reader scratching la tête, Louis tells Renard, the local police officer and his friend, that the U.S. Secretary of State is out to get him. Then Louis proceeds to track down the proof. Renard (and we) think he is fou-fou. It isn't until much later that Louis himself questions his quest:
"And mightn't he be just as wrong? From the sparse facts of the matter – that a body had been left on his doorstop – he had spun out what must certainly appear to most rational minds to be a preposterous scenario …"
Louis had begun his self-exile in France because order could not be restored to the chaos his life had become in the U.S. Betrayed by someone in government and cuckolded by his wife, Louis can make no sense of his life and abandons all his responsibilities. In France, he learns how to paint and cook. He watches the seasons change from his patio.

Although his own life was in chaos, he suspects he was the victim of cosmic order and knew he must wait for cosmic chaos to free him. But in the meantime, in France, Louis hardly suffers from his existential dilemma. After he learns of yet another death, which he intuits is another piece in the puzzle, he must quietly persevere in the face of absurdity. The more absurd the answer to the murders, the more sense he makes of his past.

This book is not for everyone. Even though it is billed as a "thriller," it is not. But if you approach it with the right frame of mind – open – it is thoughtful and strange and quite beautiful.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (trade paperback, $14.95)

Surely … surely I can't be the only reader who had difficulty reading this book. I am? Rats.

The first time I tried to read the book was about a year ago, and I read almost three-fourths of it before I finally put it down. And promptly forgot about it. I swear I didn't remember a word of what I read … until I tried to read it yet again last month. Then I kept muttering as I read: I've read this part, I remember that. Remembrance came too late to save me re-reading it again … and bogging down again.

I'm going to announce a spoiler alert later on, because why I stopped deals with events pretty far (three-fourths of the way!) in the book. So, in the meantime, here's more of a traditional review.

I finally finished it and … it was okay. Not great, just okay. The plotting for the main story of Harriet Vanger's disappearance was good, but the characters were distant -- only one character was truly fabulous and fascinating -- and the pacing was uneven.

In contrast to The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, for example, which rapidly advanced the plot (see prior review), Dragon Tattoo took about half the book to set up the premise, and with a total of about 500 pages, that's some set-up. Is it about financial shenanigans, or is it about a waif who is a street-rat genius, or is it about a teenage girl who has been missing for over thirty years? Since we finally find out it is about ALL those things, Larsson must create magic to relate them, and he succeeds pretty well with his plotting. And that is why the book is so large: it is three stories in one.

Larsson's characters are eccentric and hard to fathom. Is it a cultural thing? Is Sweden such an alien spot on our planet that there are few points of correlation between their culture and ours? I love Mankell and Sjowall/Wahloo, so I don't think it's because the book is Swedish. I think it's because Larsson's characters are written without much warmth. The only character for whom this works is Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. She is not warm and fuzzy, and is missing the ability to provide social feedback and cues like other people. Her story is the most fascinating and could have easily been the only story told. Then I would have been happier.

The other main character, Mikael Blomqvist, is a journalist. He is found guilty of libel for being unable to substantiate a magazine article he wrote accusing a big financial mucky-muck of malfeasance. Mikael's reputation is muddied, his magazine is in jeopardy, and he is facing a prison sentence, when he is saved from going completely under by a rich old man with a mystery. Henrik Vanger's teenaged niece, Harriet, vanished more than thirty years ago. He desperately wants to find out what happened to her and wants Mikael to help. As Mikael explores the relationships in Vanger's dysfunctional family, he enlists the aid of Lisbeth, a private investigator and technology geek, to solve the puzzle.

Although Lisbeth has difficulty with simple human responses, the truly anti-social character turns out to be Mikael, whose flighty relationships with quite a few of the women he meets and Lothario mentality is disguised as an enlightened "no strings attached" attitude. He apparently pines for the unattainable Erika Berger, his married business partner and long-time paramour, but it is less pining than self-indulgence.

When Larsson sticks to Lisbeth's story or how Mikael finds fresh clues in a decades-old case, the book is a page-turner. I'm glad I read it. Now I know what the fuss is about, even if I wouldn't accord it quite the same veneration others do.

And, now, why I stopped reading it the first time around:

Hero Mikael Blomqvist is a cold, philandering frat boy in a middle-aged man's body. When he is trapped in the torture room by the murderer, all I could think was "yuck"! Not "yuck" with sympathy, just "yuck." When Silence of the Lambs reached the same point, I was enraptured by the story and writing and characters and had to read on. The "yuck" factor was outweighed by the "and then what happened" factor in Thomas Harris's book. Maybe it's the translation, but the tension in Dragon Tattoo just wasn't adequate to sustain the emotional ties to the story of Blomqvist and his antagonist. Sad to say, I didn't care what happened to Mikael, and the killer certainly was no Hannibal Lecter.

Also, who uses the word "anon" in contemporary writing?