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

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Last Enemy, by Grace Brophy (trade, $13) (c2007)

Ah, Umbria. Maybe there would be mouth-watering descriptions of food. Maybe it would be more a travelogue than mystery. Either way, I was good. IMHO, an author can't go wrong with a book set in Italy. Grace Brophy's book is not a tourist guide, however, but she does give us a peek into life among the Umbrians. She's not so long on food descriptions, but her readers can feel the satisfaction of a good cuppa joe, Italian style.

Although aristocratic ranks were abolished in a governmental leveling process, there are many people, descendants (or pretenders) of tribal families, who insist on their lordly due. One such is Count Casati. Although his wife is English born and raised, she insists on being addressed as Countess. Aristocratic lineage does not, however, immunize them from death, the "last enemy." Their niece, an American, is found murdered in the family crypt.

Enter Commissario Alessandro "Alex" Cenni, who also has foreign roots – his grandmother Hannah is from Sweden. And Rita Minelli, the niece, had a Canadian friend who is supposedly doing an academic study in Assisi and becomes a suspect. And one of the other suspects is a refugee from Croatia. Does anyone not have foreign connections?

Alex Cenni is also wealthy. His Swedish grandmother and Italian grandfather started a modest chocolate company, which is now a major chocolate company. And Rita sold her mother's house in America after the mother's death, so she has some lira, too. The wife of one of Cenni's colleagues is wealthy and connected. Does anyone not have rich connections?

Cenni's personal story is more interesting than the murder – and less convoluted. He is an atheist and has a twin brother who is a priest. It has been about fifteen years since the love of his life was kidnapped and never found, and he has never gotten over it. It is why he became a police officer, to find out what happened to her. His grandmother is more than the generic feisty oldster. Her few scenes in the book give the book a punch. He has a good, friendly relationship with his homicide team and his cat, Rachel. He's a character whose quirkiness covers a lot of bases.

Back to the murder. Rita irritated just about everyone, so there are a lot of suspects. But why was she found at the cemetery? Was she paying respects to her ancestors when she was murdered? Cenni and his team must interview the suspects, while tiptoeing around some of the haughtier ones. Every suspect is a character – as in eccentric – so it is a relief that a couple of the police officers seem relatively normal.

This debut novel held my interest despite having to juggle a multitude of plotlines, and I thought the resolution was clever. Bring on the next installment.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Midnight Fugue, by Reginald Hill (hardcover $25.99)

Get out your dictionary; Fat Andy AND Reginald Hill are back. No more if-Jane-Austen-could-email storylines. No more experimentation with first-person narrative for Andy Dalziel. Just good, solid writing, a plot with the requisite twists, characters with quirks and charm, and a lovely bit of Dalziel v. Pascoe alpha dogginess.

It has been six months since Andy was blown up by a terrorist bomb and put into a coma, and a couple of months since he tried to solve a mystery from his rehab facility (the aforementioned Jane Austen/first-person Andy book). Against doctor's orders, Andy has come back to work as a police inspector in Yorkshire just a wee bit too early. He tires easily and finds himself heading in to work on a Sunday because he's forgotten what day it is. Stubborn is as stubborn does, and Andy is as stubborn as they come. To prove that he still has what it takes, he endeavors to help the fiancée of an old police buddy by finding out if her seven-years-missing husband is still alive. Along the way he and his cohorts bump into a sly and violent criminal and his smooth politician son, a tenacious journalist, and a brother and sister who are killers for hire.

Pascoe has been getting along quite nicely without Andy, thank you very much, and Andy feels the conflict of being proud of Pascoe and irritated with him at the same time. Their relationship must reestablish itself in some form, and Hill takes us through the complexities of that.

This story arc with Dalziel injured, rehabilitated, and finally reinstated has been fascinating.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Havana Blue, by Leonardo Padura (Fuentes) (trade, $14.95) (c1991)

Leonardo Padura has provided a luscious look at an area of the world that has been cut off to most Americans since the late '50s: Cuba. Although the main character is a world-weary, disillusioned, heavy-drinking, angst-ridden, Hemingway-worshipping thwarted novelist and current police detective, Mario Conde, the novel is rich with odes to what we think of when we think of Cuba: cigars, rum, savory foods, earthy women.

The novel begins with a confusion of pronouns. "I" and "he," we eventually realize, refer to the same person, Mario Conde, nicknamed "Count." Why does the current story – set in 1989 Havana – have Mario's voice in the third person, and why is any reference to Mario's past voiced in the first? It is not for me to reveal, but it is part of the intricate texture the author weaves in his debut book in the Conde series.

In 1989, Mario is in his late 30s. It has been 17 years since he and his school friends were full of hopes and plans for the future. Among those former friends are Rafael, a current government economics minister, and Tamara, his wife and Conde's secret youthful desire. Rafael is reported missing by Tamara, and Conde is assigned the case.

At this point in his life, Conde is lonely, despairing of what the future holds for him. His de facto family is actually his high school friend Skinny and Skinny's mother, Josefina, a fine, fine cook. Padura describes in loving detail the meals Josefina cooks for Skinny. Want a taste? Listen to Josefina describe a meal Conde has to forego because of work:

…[M]alangas [a yam-like veggie] you bought in a sauce and added plenty of garlic and bitter orange; some pork fillets...marinated...; the black beans are getting nice and squashy, like you lot like them, they're getting real tasty, and now I'll add a spot of the Argentine olive oil I bought in the corner store; I've lowered the flame under the rice, and have added more garlic, as advised by that Nicaraguan pal of yours. And salad: lettuce, tomato and radishes. Oh, well, and coconut jam with grated cheese … You died on me, Condesito?

Listen to Conde's boss describe one of his treasured cigars:

I can't understand why you prefer to smoke two packets of cigarettes a day rather than one Havana. That transforms you. And I don't mean it has to be a Davidoff 5000 or another good Corona, a Romeo y Julieta Cedros No 2, for example, a Montecristo No 3 or a Rey del Mundo of whatever size but a good dark-skinned cigar that pulls gently and burns evenly: that's what one calls living, Mario, or the nearest one ever gets. Kipling said a woman is but a woman, but a good puro, as they call them in Europe, is much more. I can tell you the fellow was absolutely right, because I may not know much about women, but I know lots about Havanas. One is a fiesta for the senses, a riot of pleasure, my boy: it revives the sight, awakens taste, rekindles touch and creates the lovely taste that goes so well with an after-dinner cup of coffee.

Never mind the mystery!

But back to the mystery. After many years of not seeing her, Mario comes face to face with Tamara, whose ability to stun Mario has not lessened. Does Mario really want to find Rafael? There are many unresolved conflicts and emotions that Mario must finally face head on. Rafael was the golden boy in high school and is now the golden boy in the ministry, scheduled for bigger and better things. As Mario digs deeper, he uncovers potentially unsavory aspects of Rafael's life. Or has someone been intentionally maligning him, and later murdered him? Padura draws us along a crooked path to solve the mystery, but each twist examines some element of the nature of practical survival and government in Cuba.

Mario is too sensitive to be a genuine disillusioned, hard-boiled, noir anti-hero, but he does the requisite excessive drinking and has the requisite killer of a hangover. He is too tortured about things for which I have no empathy. He admits his lack of courage in situations that, had he stood tall, would have provided material for a different kind of book. I am glad Padura wrote the book he did. There are about five more in the series so far, but they have only recently begun to be translated into English.

I think this is a book that deserves a second reading for all the finer points to sink in. Woe is me that I don't have the time, but that is my advice to you. I am anxious to see what the other books in the series hold, in what direction Padura takes Mario.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Field of Darkness, by Cornelia Read (trade, $12.99) (c2006)

Cornelia Read chose to set her debut novel in 1988 Syracuse, New York, a time before cell phones, Googling, and widespread computerized databases. Had there been such things, half the story could not be told and perhaps the murderer would have been caught sooner. And we would have missed quite a tale.

Read's heroine, Madeline Dare, shares a great deal of the author's own history, including the impoverished but centuries-old blueblood line. In an extensive afterword, Read expands on what she's cribbed or distorted from her own past. She is careful to say that richer does not mean better. And you feel her sincerity when she says that.

Madeline is a reporter of green bean casseroles and household tips, not an intense investigative journalist, but that is what she finds herself becoming when her father-in-law shows her some military dog tags he plowed up on leased land. That long sentence should have set off a few dissonant bells. Plow? Green bean casseroles?

Although she is blueblood born and raised, without money Madeline must make her way in the world. She fell in love with Dean, the son of a upstate New York farmer, whose relatives include conservative, narrow-minded sons-of-a-gun with sobriquets like "Wimpy" and "Weasel." (Actually, not unlike Madeline's own conservative, narrow-minded sons-of-a-gun relatives with sobriquets that incorporate impolite four-letter words. But Madeline's relatives are richer and, relatively speaking (!), way more dysfunctional.) She followed love to Syracuse and acquired a job with the local newspaper, writing about green bean casseroles and the like.

The aforementioned dog tags that Madeline's father-in-law plowed up may or may not be related to the murders of two young women in that same field many years ago. Madeline was a young child and living far away in California at the time, but it is these unsolved murders she is compelled to follow. That is because the dog tags contain the name of Lapthorne Townsend. Madeline's favorite cousin. Her childhood crush. A blueblood living a privileged life in Manhattan and Oyster Bay, a world away from Syracuse.

Reluctant to believe that Lapthorne, named after a disgraceful ancestor who raped and pillaged the land, is guilty, she reluctantly plunges into investigating the murders. She enlists the help of Ellis, a former fellow debutante, and Kenny, a former cop-turned-bar/dive-owner. After another murder occurs, it is clear that Madeline has stirred up some dangerous waters. Her guilt over precipitating the murder drives her to travel from a down-home honkey-tonk, in which she interviews a scary "double vet" suspect, to the mansions of home with her eccentric relations.

One of the attractions of this book is the wild contrasts. Madeline is a former wild child and is still a sassy chick, but she (sort of) knows her silverware and (sort of) minds her manners. Kenny's bar/dive is contrasted with Oyster Bay's private bars and silver flasks, although everyone gets drunk just the same. Dean's brother, winner of the family farm by virtue of primogeniture, snipes at Dean, but it lacks the cutting edge of some of Madeline's relatives, for whom nastiness is a finely-honed art form.

A Field of Darkness is very entertaining, especially with the gossipy blueblood stuff, and smartly done.

Thereby Hangs a Tail, by Spencer Quinn (hardcover, $25) (due January, 2010)

This is the second tall "tail" by Spencer Quinn, a worthy follow-up to Dog On It. Told from Chet's point of view, Chet being a member of the nation within a nation – i.e., a dog – it's full of doggie fun and insight. Bernie Little, the putative owner of Chet, is a private investigator. He and Chet nose out crime, with Chet lending a helping paw.

When the first book came out, I fell for it hard. What was there not to love about Chet? Quinn was able to sustain a doggie tone without degenerating into cutesiness. He gave us a lightweight but credible mystery. And funny . . .

The mystery in Thereby Hangs a Tail is more serious and better developed than in the first book. The reader learns a little more about Bernie and his bona fides. But the centerpiece, as in the first, is hearing about Chet's doggie life. For instance:

…[T]he first thing I saw as we drove up to the Borgheses's ranch was a big white horse prancing in a corral with a white rail fence. Something about him made a bad impression on me right from the get-go. A ranch without horses – now that would be just about perf–

"Chet! Knock it off!"

Knock what off? The barking? That was me? I opened my mouth real wide, let my tongue flop out, tried to look innocent. My lip got caught on one of my teeth; it took some time to straighten all that out.

Chet's asides enhance rather than detract from the main story. Even when Chet's mind wanders, which is often, it's a nice side journey. And even if Chet could talk people talk, half the time he wouldn't remember what the salient points were. Which brings us to the point that Chet is very much a dog, not a human. In other animal tales, metaphorical or otherwise, animals are very human in their thoughts. Not Chet. (Yay, I say.)

Thereby Hangs a Tail involves the abductions of a showdog, Princess, and her owner, the Countess Adelina di Borghese (by way of Passaic, New Jersey). In the course of trying to find Princess, Chet meets some aging hippies in the desert, is sold to a ne'er-do-well heading to Alaska, and gets bombed while wandering on a military test field. While Bernie doesn't cover quite as much ground, we learn about his (Desert Storm?) wartime valor, get to see his fighting chops, and basically learn that he is no pussycat, excuse the expression. When Susie Sanchez, Bernie's loved-but-lost lady friend/reporter from the first book, disappears while covering the story of the abduction, it is extra incentive for Bernie to doggedly track down the clues.

I was caught by surprise by how good the doggie voice was in the first book. Although I knew what I was getting this time around and the novelty of hearing Chet talk had passed, I still appreciate that Quinn does a praiseworthy job of staying true to the tone all the way through his book. Even though I now expect many of Chet's sentences to go unfinished and I know his promises to finish some of his stories are buried like long-forgotten bones, I'm still hugely entertained and grateful for the respite – much as I love them – from dark Scandinavian tales, flashy film-ready action novels, and snappy, sassy women-in-love-with-vampire stories.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear (trade, $14) (c2003)

Maisie Dobbs is the first in Jacqueline Winspear's tender and insightful mystery series. The eponymous heroine is a female private investigator during the period after World War I.

It is a series about class: Maisie is born to a working class family, but manages to become educated and trained to be a zen-like observer of human nature. It is about the war and its aftermath: Maisie saw terrible things as a volunteer nurse virtually on the front lines in France. It is unexpectedly about hope: Winspear twists the traditional private eye formula in which the p.i. dusts off his hands after having solved the mystery; her heroine accepts a case only if she thinks her client will use the knowledge responsibly.

Winspear's characters – from Maisie's caring father to her unflappable mentor to her levelheaded nursing tent-mate – receive treatment as full-blown characters, no matter how brief their tenure. Maisie herself starts downstairs as a maid but, as a result of the war and increasing acknowledgment of class inequality, gains an opportunity to "better" herself. In the confusion of post-war Britain, Maisie must define herself in a society whose definitions are changing.

This is a highly recommended book for its thoughtful and unusual story.

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher ($7.99) (c2000)

This is the first in a tremendously innovative series by Jim Butcher. His hero is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, wizard and private investigator.

I recently re-read it – despite almost never having the time to re-read anything – and enjoyed it just as much this time around. There is something so charming – despite rather graphic descriptions of the damage done to the murder victims – and compelling about a hard-boiled private eye in Chicago who is also a wizard. Butcher catches the hard-boiled tone, adds humor and wizardly mumbo-jumbo, and boils up a detective tale with an ending worthy of any action-adventure movie.

Things I have learned from reading Jim Butcher books: 1) magic is to be treated with respect, and 2) never conjure a demon.

There are about ten books in the series so far, so if this concept appeals to you, you've got a lot of treats in store.

The Finder, by Colin Harrison (trade, $14)

Colin Harrison already has a few outstanding thrillers to his name: Manhattan Nocturne and The Havana Room, to name two. The Finder is another thriller which begins with a breath-holding scene in which young women office cleaners are murdered in an organized hit – by being suffocated with sewage. A young Chinese woman who escapes the murder, Jin Li, suspects she was the real intended victim but cannot fathom why.

Her recently ex-ed boyfriend, Ray Grant, is "the finder" and is the real focus of the book. (The reader slowly learns what he finds and why, and it is a moving tale.) He is unceremoniously commissioned to find Jin Li, who has gone into hiding, by her brother, a Chinese tycoon. Ray is assisted by his dying father, a former police detective, from his death bed. Harrison mixes together the mob, international financial deals, industrial sabotage, graphically detailed violence, and 9/11. Sometimes it seems just too much, especially when it detracts from Ray's and his father's stories, the true heart of the novel.

Despite the distractions, The Finder is a definite page-turner crafted by a writer who can capture many different voices and regional nuances. It has received many accolades and award nominations.