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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sink Trap, by Christy Evans ($6.99)

Local girl makes good! Oregon coast author Christy Evans has a new series, which starts off with Sink Trap. Georgiana Neverall has unwillingly traded a high-flying dot-com life in Silicon Valley for a life as a plumber's apprentice back in her small hometown of Pine Ridge, Oregon. While Evans only hints at Georgiana's dot-com background and the mysterious scandal that drove her back to Oregon in this book, there's still plenty of story left.

Lots of people have Georgiana's back, whether she wants their help or not. Her boss, Barry or "Bear," is a genuine good guy and willing to give a girl a break in a man's business. His wife, Paula, is Pine Ridge's librarian and a good storyteller. Wade, her high school sweetheart, is trying to re-establish a romantic relationship with her. Sue, her best friend, is a dog groomer. (Georgiana's interaction with her dogs is a nice, humorous sidelight.) And Sandra is her mother and oil to Georgiana's water. Sandra has gone from a homebody doctor's wife to a glamorous real estate agent.

Besides being about the mystery Georgiana must solve – that of a missing retired librarian – Sink Trap is a story of Georgiana's personal quest to redefine herself, and that is the real charm of this book. As attractive as it is to read about a young woman enthusiastically eating pizza, hamburgers, fondue, and other heart-stopping fare, so I can live vicariously through her, the addition of plumbing details is the unexpectedly compelling touch. (To those of us who are fans of Mike Holmes on HGTV, this is bread and butter talk.)

No sex. No swearing. Just good old-fashioned plumbing common sense.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves ($13.95) (c2006)

Reading Raven Black is like taking a ride in a car that's speeding up and hitting hairpin turns at the end before it comes to a 180-degree spinning halt.

British author Ann Cleeves has been writing for a long time. American audiences first met her through her George and Molly Palmer-Jones, bird-watching mystery series. Since then, Cleeves has journeyed into darker waters with tougher themes and main characters. We in the U.S. have not seen most of her books, but St. Martin's Press has brought her latest endeavor to our shores.

Jimmy Perez is a police inspector in a very moody and atmospheric version of the Shetland Islands. Although Cleeves has released four books in this series, the U.S. has only seen three of them. Raven Black is the first book, and it won the 2006 Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award, a prestigious British award for crime fiction.

Jimmy has been called in to solve the murder of a teenage girl found strangled in the woods. The villagers are convinced that Magnus Tait, a mentally impaired old man who lives nearby, is responsible. Years ago he was arrested for the murder of a young girl but got off because no conclusive evidence could be found. Jimmy and Roy Taylor, the lead investigator of an off-island contingent of policemen, are reluctant to just assume Magnus is guilty, especially given the lack of conclusive evidence pointing in his direction, and begin to interview the girl's family, friends, and neighbors.

As the ravens relentlessly circle a carcass, so do the villagers circle tighter and tighter around Magnus, forcing Jimmy and Roy to press themselves harder to either condemn or acquit him. Then more information teasingly surfaces about what Catherine, the victim, had been doing prior to her death. And there may also be a connection to the death of the young girl years ago. Some of that points towards Magnus, but there are other suspects and suspicious circumstances a-plenty, and Cleeves does a great job presenting a small community of eccentric characters in crisis.

Friday, March 26, 2010

False Mermaid, by Erin Hart (hardcover, $26)

Mermaids, other Irish folklore, and American crime meet in this long-awaited follow-up to Lake of Sorrows and Haunted Ground. Pathologist Nora Gavin has spent a few years in Ireland examining bodies buried and preserved in Ireland's peat. Now the time has come for her to return home to Minnesota to examine the murder of her sister, Triona.

Nora left St. Paul in frustration after not being able to prove that her sister's husband, Peter, killed Triona. What she feels in her soul cannot be proven in a court of law. She returns also to Frank Cordova, the lead police investigator for the crime. Frank hopes she wants to continue the relationship with him that she abandoned when she fled to Ireland, but Nora's heart lies with Cormac, an archaeologist and musician she met in Ireland. What Nora wants from Frank is to continue to track Triona's final days in the hope that new evidence can be uncovered. Time is running out because Peter is slated to marry Miranda, the sister of another of Nora's old boyfriends. Nora fears that Miranda will share Triona's fate. Complicating the mix is Elizabeth, Triona and Peter's daughter. She is eleven now and her future is looking grim. Nora is desperate to help her as well.

What Erin Hart also does is to call forth the mystery of nature. In this case the mystery may lie beyond the ken of human science. Throughout the book, Hart refers to the selkie mythology: a seal who is forced to live as a human until she can break the spell of the man who binds her. Could that old tale be true, and what bearing does it have on Triona's life or death? In poetic fashion, Hart weaves Irish myth and music with the grim practicalities of tracking down a cold-blooded killer. Nora lays her heart open to save Elizabeth and honor Triona's memory.

In Michael Connelly's best book, The Concrete Blonde, police detective Harry Bosch takes on the decades old case of who murdered his mother. I admire how Connelly built up to this story with hints about Harry's troubled past in prior books. Then, wham! – The Concrete Blonde. In a similar fashion, Hart's prior books built up to this denouement of Nora's sister's story. Other than Nora's unnecessary, cinematic forays into spooky places alone (sheesh, without telling anyone, even), she is canny and intuitive in her search for clues. This was a very satisfactory ending to Nora's torment. I also enjoyed Hart's well-developed peripheral characters and the red herrings thrown the reader's way.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson (hardcover, $25.95)

Alex Berenson deals with the issue of torturing political prisoners in his latest book in the John Wells series. Berenson, as usual, is masterful at imbuing his stories with such realism that our collective moral compass should whirl upon reading his books.

What came before this book: CIA agent John Wells was deep undercover with al Qaeda, was sent to the U.S. by al Qaeda to perform an act of sabotage, and managed to thwart a major incident. After having been embedded in Afghanistan for a long time and then returning to live in the U.S., Wells was thrown off balance by the difference in the cultures. He struggled to determine his identity. He began and ended a relationship with a fellow CIA agent, Jennifer Exley.

The Midnight House finds Wells alone, still confused about his country's involvement in the Middle East, and confused about his role in maintaining that involvement. He is a recognized war hero and still a CIA agent, but he's allocated to a fringe department and his hero status is fading.

The "Midnight House" is the nickname given to the deepest of the deep undercover holding pens for terrorist detainees. Before they are routed to Guantánamo, before Abu Ghraib, before Florida, this is where the most important captives are taken for initial "information gathering." Set apart from other prisons by the military's "don't-look-don't-tell" policy, freed from encumbering Geneva conventions and moral accountability, this is where prisoners go to be tortured. They leave without scars or physical residue of their experiences, but they are taken to the brink of tolerance and back many times. Until they break.

An anonymous letter is received by the CIA, alleging that there were 12 detainees at the Midnight House but that the information on two of them has been deleted. It's as though they had never been in custody. Soon members of the elite squad who maintained the house, and who have subsequently left the military or been given other duty, have begun to die, some obviously murdered and others dead under questionable circumstances. Wells and Ellis Shafer, his immediate superior, have been asked to determine who is killing the squad members and if it has anything to do with the missing two detainees. Because they have no jurisdiction in the U.S., they must circumnavigate the FBI, the NSA, and their own organization to determine what really happened.

A Faithful Spy, the first Wells book, was thoughtfully written and deeply thought-provoking. Wells had converted to Islam while undercover, and he had grown used to living as an al Qaeda fighter in the desert. Although we still can see the psychic pain that his affection for both the Eastern and Western cultures causes Wells in the subsequent books, The Ghost War and The Silent Man, Berenson is unable to attain the same high level of tension. In A Faithful Spy, we didn't know whether Wells would turn rogue or turn his back on his adopted comrades and fulfill his CIA mission, and that is what separated and elevated A Faithful Spy. The other books are good as spy books – tutorials in the politics of war – but they are not A Faithful Spy. The Midnight House, too, is not at the same level, but it's good to have Berenson keeping us mindful of what is going on in the Middle East.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tooth and Claw, by Nigel McCrery (hardcover, $24.95)

Nigel McCrery's first book about DCI Mark Lapslie, Still Waters, was a pleasant – if somewhat gruesome – surprise. McCrery created an unusual and charismatic police detective who suffers from synaesthesia, the mis-wiring of sensory input in his brain. Lapslie tastes sounds. He hears them as well, but they also configure themselves as tastes, sometimes in a revolting combination. The cacophony of the police station, for example, tastes like blood. The thundering of a train passing by results in such an overwhelming mixture of salt and peaches in his mouth that Lapslie is driven to his knees, vomiting over the side of the train station platform.

In Tooth and Claw, we pick up Lapslie's story about a year after Still Waters. He lives and works in isolation, his synaesthesia having worsened. In what he fears is his department's move to "retire" him because of his disability, he is assigned the torture-murder of a young TV newsreader. He must come out of hiding and actively investigate the case. At the crime site, he notices an unsual drumming sound, which no one else admits to hearing. Later he is assigned to a bombing at a train station. A double duty of very public cases sends Lapslie a definite message that people are just waiting for him to fail. When he faints at a news conference, it seems to signal the end. Between the drumming and the worsening of his symptoms, Lapslie wonders if he is finally going mad.

This would be fairly standard British detective fare, except for the twist McCrery throws in. We learn pretty much from the start who did it. We learn that the Who is the same Who in both cases. We learn that the Who is a young man, Carl, who is taking care of his invalid father. We learn that Carl has been trying to vary his murders – in this case meaning more than two – to confound the police profiler. Despite knowing a great deal right from the start, we only gradually learn the full pathetic nature of his derangement at the end.

All the elements taken separately are intriguing, but put together they strike too even a tone of intensity. If I could taste this book, it would be one big creamy peanutbutter sandwich. There's enough to satisfy, but not enough variety. McCrery has a few lighter moments, but he could have used a few more, especially since there was one note of doom after another. Actually, he could have used a few more "normal" moments for his characters, who always seemed to be either averting or participating in a moment of jeopardy. But there's a good interplay between the various investigating people – I especially liked the pathologist. And I was interested in the second "odd" disease McCrery introduces: porphyria. Let me leave you with this: There were many parts of the book I liked and found reading it worthwhile.

P.S. The murder descriptions are very graphic and gory.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson ($15.95)

Comparatively speaking, Stieg Larsson writes phonebook-sized mystery novels, but in The Girl Who Played with Fire, he packs each page with only essentials. He gives his readers a sense of place, a sense of motivation, a sense of urgency. His main characters are true to their natures, and he is great at keeping them separate.

We met Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009's "it" book. Her dysfunctional life was compelling, and Larsson excelled at dropping teasing hints of what lay behind the immobile mask. I would have liked "Dragon Tattoo" more, but I disliked Mikael Blomqvist, the egocentric, sophisticated/knuckle-headed journalist whose troubles were at the heart of "Dragon Tattoo." On the other hand, I loved punk, cyber-goddess Salander. Blomqvist's part is large in "Fire," but thankfully, he is more subdued. "Fire" is all about Salander, and Larsson doesn't just drop teasing hints anymore, he drops the bomb.

I have to review "Fire" obliquely because it wouldn't be fair to burden you with prior knowledge. Some of the revelations Larsson makes are ooh-ahh moments, and I wouldn't want to spoil that. I will just say that I was thoroughly satisfied with the story of what made Salander tick.

Larsson's action sequences are well interspersed with more thoughtful, intelligence-gathering moments; it isn't just one Quentin Tarantino scene after another. But there are stomach-dropping action moments that will make you want to board that roller coaster again and again.

I rarely say that books need to be read in order, but it is crucial to the pyramid that Larsson is building that you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first. And this is why: There are three main murder victims in "Fire," and one of them is Bjurman, the nasty guardian Salander acquires when her kind and just guardian, Palmgren, suffers a stroke. Although Larsson does a good job summarizing his story from the prior book, Bjurman's despicable character needs to be seen in all its glory in "Dragon Tattoo." Larsson is soooo good at creating very, very bad characters, ones readers love to hate. And half the intrigue is wondering if and how Larsson will give them their comeuppance.

Blomkvist and Erica Berger, the editor of their exposé-style magazine, are getting ready to publish a book and companion magazine articles that will knock the underpinnings out of the burgeoning Swedish sex trade. Young women and girls are being brought over from eastern European countries to work as prostitutes against their will. The book and magazine stories will identify both the men who set up the trade and the men who pay for the women and girls. Among their number are several "respectable" members of Swedish society.

The young journalist and his fiancée who have brought the story to "Millennium," Berger and Blomqvist's magazine, are certain that there is a powerful person behind the system, despite so far encountering mostly dopes and men who couldn't organize their way out of a paper bag. What is Lisbeth Salander's connection to it all? Was she a sex slave? Was she an organizer? Larsson will make you quiver with anticipation to find out the answer.

Although the book has many cinematic moments, it doesn't read as so many books do these days – it doesn't grovel for a Hollywood treatment. I have no doubt that eventually indeed it will be a movie*, but that is incidental. From the Ikea moment when Salander buys her furniture for her new apartment to the nuts and bolts of the consistency of dirt to solving Fermat's famous equation, Larsson has many little moments that also contribute to the large, breath-taking adventure.

I want the third book now!

(*Yes, there is a Swedish movie and it's managed to make its way to Portland, but don't you think some Hollywood type is aching to turn it into an American blockbuster?)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth (hardcover, $26)

Barry Unsworth captures the world on the cusp of momentous change. World War I has not yet started, but the major Western nations already have begun to ally themselves around economic concerns. Further, England has felt the pulse of the future, and it lies not in steam or coal, but in oil. One of the richest untapped oilfields in the world is in the Mesopotamian region of the Middle East. Home to the ancient civilizations whose story is largely hidden below layers and layers of obscuring sand, dirt and rubble, this land holds the key to the world's past and its future. Before Iraq, before oil cartels, when Shell was just a wisp of a company, the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers was the home to many foreigners, but they were mostly there to dig up the artifacts of the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Akkadians, and the Assyrians, not to drill for oil. Unsworth puts us in front row seats to witness the turning point.

Unsworth's story starts quietly and simply. Somerville is a British archaeologist. He doesn't have fancy academic credentials, but he has staked his life's savings on the excavation of a mound in the desert. His assistant, Palmer, has more credentials but not as much field experience. In this their third season, with nothing extraordinary to show for their efforts, their belief in the importance of the mound is waning. Further bad news hovers on the horizon. The Germans are building a railroad that Somerville believes will run straight through his mound, destroying all his work and any potential to make a name for himself. He becomes more obsessed and uncommunicative as he perceives the railroad getting closer, but even his taciturnity is hiding churning emotions and frantic thoughts.

Although Somerville is the center around which the other characters play, there are intrigues and plots aplenty of which he remains ignorant. His wife, Edith, and their young guest, Patricia, do not bond despite being the only females at the excavation. Their philosophies and temperaments are quite different. Well-educated and opinionated, Patricia is heading towards a modern world of universal suffrage, while Edith believes her place is behind a strong and forceful man. If only Edith were married to a strong and forceful man, she thinks! Perhaps one of the many male characters that shuttle in and out of the story would do instead. There's Major Manning, a harrumphing, the sun-never-sets-on-the-empire proper British soldier. There's Elliot, an American geologist sent by the British, or maybe the Germans, or maybe the Americans to ascertain where the oil lies. There's Jehar, a member of a local tribe, who is the messenger of doom, bringing Somerville periodic reports of the railroad's inexorable progress towards him.

It is actually Jehar's story that takes second place. He is a young man in a difficult world. It is hard to keep himself alive, let alone raise the exorbitant bride price he needs to marry a beautiful local girl. Jehar is a fabulist, and he concocts stories to keep his beloved enthralled and stories to keep Somerville dependent on him. Unsworth draws Jehar and Somerville closer to the point of intersection, where their tragedies will meet.

We are drawn to the same theme throughout time. Each of the ancient civilizations rose and fell. Even the violent and proud Assyrian nation, the one of most interest to Somerville, was eventually defeated by allied neighbors. The ebb and flow of cultures, civilizations, nations is also reflected around the dinner table at the homesite. Major Manning represents the British Empire, whose sun is setting. Fahir Bey, a Turkish government representative sent to check on Somerville, will see the Ottoman Empire fade into history. Edith's view of what a woman and wife should be clashes with the modern views of Patricia, and it will be Edith's views consigned to the political dustbin. And finally, Somerville, whose passion lies in the past, must deal with the looming war and the irrevocable place oil will play in the world's economy. He tries to save the past, but winds up a victim of the future.

Unsworth is a marvel himself. He manages to create a compelling novel humming with tension, but without needing to show much action. He takes a place relevant to us today and shows us the genesis of our current conflict. He describes a big story by showing us a lot of little ones. In Unsworth's coda, even as he describes what happens to his characters after the main events of the book, we know that their new world is bound to change yet again.