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

Monday, February 22, 2010

Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane ($7.99)

I love Dennis Lehane's Patrick and Angie series. That's why when Shutter Island first came out in 2003, I tried to read this book and failed. It was so … melodramatic … compared to his other books. And from viewing the copyright page, it appears that Lehane wrote elements of it as early as 1994. Perhaps "Shudder Island" would be more appropriate.

Other readers felt this book was "beneath" Lehane, and that kept me away even longer. It wasn't until promos for the movie version started a few weeks ago that I decided to take another look at it.

I still feel it's melodramatic and lacks Lehane's earlier (or later, depending on how much of it he wrote pre-Patrick and Angie) contemporary sizzle. But now I can value a little more the suspense and the twist Lehane labored so hard to achieve. I can see why this might be an actor's dream to play Teddy Daniels, the cool and cunning investigator sent to find a patient missing from an institution for the criminally insane on Shutter Island.

There are a few books I think make better movies than books. Perhaps this will be one of them.

Monster, by A. Lee Martinez ($7.99)

This was a cryptobiological fun ride!

Monster Dionysus is a human, albeit a strangely hued one. (He wakes up with a new body color, signifying a different attribute – abnormal strength, invisibility, and the like.) He does freelance work for Animal Control, the organization that usually catches wayward dogs, cats and an occasional alligator or two. Monster, however, captures cryptobiological units running amok. Say what?

Magic exists at a subliminal level for most of us in author A. Lee Martinez's world. When a cryptobiological unit – a creature like your run-of-the-mill yeti or phoenix or manticore – escapes into the "normal" world, someone has to contain it before it ruins the day for us "incogs," that is, people who are genetically predisposed to ignore magic. That's what Monster does. He writes a rune or two and transmogrifies the critter into a rock. (It's easier to transport that way.)

The number of unwanted critters has suddenly increased and seems to be centered on an unusually unlucky young woman, Judy Hines. She stocks shelves at a supermarket on the nightshift. She wasn't expecting the ice cream-eating yeti in her store's freezer, nor the other yetis who began tearing apart the rest of the store. After smoking a cigarette or two and thinking things over, she called Animal Control, and they sent over Monster. And so begins the involuntary collusion of Judy and Monster to find out why the world is suddenly off-kilter. Unfortunately, Judy has to be constantly reminded about what happened, because "light cognizants" like Judy almost immediately forget their magical experiences.

I would have been satisfied with just this premise, but at the end Martinez actually elevates the story to a more interesting philosophical level, but not enough to interfere with the light, amusing tone. :)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Skeleton Lake, by Mike Doogan ($7.99)

This is the continuing story of Nikiski "Nik" Kane, a former Anchorage police detective, former jailbird, former father and husband, current lost soul. He was injured badly at the end of Capitol Offense and is struggling to recover at the start of Skeleton Lake. In the best cliff-hanger style, his survival and that of his son were left to our imagination at the end of Capitol Offense.

While recuperating, Nik has "dreams." He relives the time when his father abandoned his family when Nik was about 13. He also relives his first detective case, the murder of a fellow police officer. As Nik gets better he seriously begins to try to solve these most important mysteries of his life.

We meet Nik's alcoholic and despondent mother and Nik's brothers and sisters, especially his sister Cee Cee, who eventually becomes a nun. We see young Nik struggle to help support his family. We see Nik and his first partner struggle to solve the murder, and fail. What can Nik do 45 years after his father disappeared and 22 years after the murder? As if his life depends on it, Nik struggles with his current physical and mental pain to bring clarity to those issues from long ago. What relief or complication will their resolution bring him?

Mike Doogan does a wonderful job bringing Nik to life. His story has heart and redemption. He struggles to relearn how to be connected to the rest of the world. He had been so used to compartmentalizing his world that it is difficult to share his grief and need. These are the ingredients that can make a story great. And I liked everything … but the resolution of the murder, which seemed a little weak. Why would the victim meet with his murderer, given the murderer's reputation?

Nevertheless, this was a darned good story and worthy of Carolyn's nomination as one of 2009's best paperback releases.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Serpent Pool, by Martin Edwards (trade, $14.95)

This is the fifth installment by Martin Edwards of his series set in the Lake District of England and starring DCI Hannah Scarlett and historian Daniel Kind. In England, Edwards is also famous for his Harry Devlin series, which has not yet appeared in the U.S.

After having read a couple of the books in the Lake District series, I thought this series was kinder and gentler than it now appears to be. That doesn't mean I don't like it, although this one had a plot that was a little far-fetched and gloomy and I had trouble digesting it.

Hannah Scarlett, she suspects because of misdeeds in a prior case, has been "demoted" to the Cold Case Squad. She picks up the case of a young woman drowned six years ago in one of the many lakes. Was it suicide or murder? Hannah's now-deceased mentor, Ben Kind, thought it was murder, but he could never prove it. The young woman's death may be linked to a couple of present-day murders. Unfortunately, the links also point to her boyfriend, Marc Amos, from whom she is growing more and more distant. This is in inverse proportion to how she feels about Daniel Kind, the son of her mentor. Ah, love's bright confusion.

The tangled loves won and lost are more interesting than the murder story. Edwards handles his characters well, but the dark, twisted, Thomas De Quincy-fueled aggro stretches credulity.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Silent Man, by Alex Berenson ($9.99)

Alex Berenson's main character, CIA agent John Wells, has one of the most compelling stories in contemporary spy fiction. He was a deep undercover agent with el-Qaeda in Afghanistan for many years and stopped a war with China once he was repatriated. That should be enough for any one man, wouldn't you think? But in the best tradition of heroes, John bounces back for another adventure.

Although John is settled into suburban life with the woman he loves, there's an unease he won't define or tame. He was too long out of the United States, too long without the comfort and materialism of the West, forced into too much introspection, first in Afghanistan, then back in the United States. Where is his place in the world now? This is where we find our conflicted hero when the present story begins: with guilt, a rage, and the tatters of his Muslim faith, and nowhere to go with them.

Berenson describes the theft of nuclear bombs in Russia, a description realistic enough to chill me. Whoa. The bombs must make their way to a jihadist, a very smart jihadist who doesn't need the codes to arm the bomb. He's intent on fashioning his own bomb – a process excruciatingly detailed by Berenson – and taking out a piece of the hated U.S. with it. Double whoa. (And shades of the television show "24"!)

Twisted into this plot is a story left over from The Ghost War. In that story, John had extricated information from an arms dealer, Kowalski, and humiliated him in the process. A theme running throughout the books is John's realization that he sometimes uses unnecessary force to get what he wants. In some way it assuages how powerless he feels about solving the world's problems, especially the wrong-minded clash of cultures in the Middle East. Now Kowalski wants revenge. Unfortunately, Kowalski misses his target and instead harms Jennifer Exley, John's true love. That puts John on the rampage until he realizes Kowalski might be the solution to a bigger problem: finding the bomb and bomb-maker. Strange bed-fellows.

Berenson brings the strands together in an exciting, exacting, and terrifying way. His story rings true, his characters seem so real. Berenson dashes off a back story for most of them, and this gives his characters an exquisite dimension. He even provides a side story of the woman who sells one of the terrorists a house in the U.S. She herself is not important, but her story gives a realness and luster to Berenson's world.

Here are the bottom lines: Love stinks; the East and West will never understand each other; revenge ain't all it's cracked up to be. But what a tremendous ride Berenson gives us in the process of finding all that out.