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

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Snakes Can't Run, by Ed Lin (hardcover, $24.99)

The underlying stories are serious and grim, but the tone is deceptively light, even humorous, in Ed Lin's second book set in the 1970s. There's a lot of dialogue and you learn the voice of Chinese-American Robert Chow pretty well. Chow is a police detective-in-training in New York City, with an emphasis on being the Chinatown liaison.

We learn many things throughout the book about the Chinese community. There are distinct groups within this community: anti-Communist, pro-Communist, American-raised without an active opinion, Taiwanese, Shanghai, Fukienese, and on and on. Not all Chinese speak each other's language. There are illegal immigrants and then there are really illegal immigrants, shadow visitors who scuttle from "safe houses" to work and back to their hovels again, abused slave laborers without recourse.

Robert Chow, despite his very grim background as a Vietnam War vet and non-drinking alcoholic, is quietly funny, often as a way of warding off more serious questions or having to give more serious answers. Lin gives simple descriptions of the action that serve to emphasize the strong and complex emotions that lie beneath. Lin plays yin and yang very well.

Chow and his detective partner are assigned the task of finding the killers of two Asian men found under an overpass. Chow suspects they are illegals. In investigating the murders and searching for the elusive "Brother Five," who may be a criminal mastermind, he runs afoul of the various factions, any one of which could be the "snakehandler" running snakes – the Chinese indentured servants.

Along the way we meet Robert's girlfriend, his young ward, a childhood friend deeply disturbed by his war experience, and the wise and mysterious midget who runs the neighborhood toy store. We also hear bits and pieces about his Vietnam experience. Also, his dead father's life haunts him. After losing his money at gambling, Robert's father deserted his wife and child, leaving them to a life of poverty.

The mix of light and heavy, jokiness and anger, Chinese and Chinese-American cultures works well and provides an entertaining and thoughtful book.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The House Without a Key, by Earl Derr Biggers ($14.95) (c1925)

I grew up in Hawaii, many (many, many, many!) years after this book was written, but a nostalgia for the "old days" was instilled in all of us who grew up in an era when Waikiki Beach was obscured by towering hotels, and the smell of the lovely flowers was overlaid by diesel and gasoline fumes.

My grandmother talked about sailing to the mainland on the luxurious "Lurline," one of Matson's ocean liners that plied the waters between California and Hawaii. Nowadays, if I want to get to Hawaii, I sit strapped and cramped in an airplane seat that doesn't even have enough leg room for my 5'3". Pardon me while I sigh and say those were the days.

But they weren't really the days, because paradise is mostly just an illusion in Hawaii. In 1925 there was racism, abuse, labor wars, and yawning class divides. But let's pretend there weren't all these things and just enjoy The House Without a Key for what it is: a grand tootin' mystery with an intriguing character and a nod to a lovely and more pristine Hawaii shared by the kama'ainas and malihinis.

Charlie Chan is a Chinese police detective in Honolulu, a very unusual occupation for a non-white. Earl Derr Biggers does all right by Charlie. He makes Charlie smart and dedicated and not too obsequious. Characters who are just arrived from the mainland are shocked to discover a murder, but they are just as shocked to discover an inscrutable Oriental in charge. Biggers has them overcoming their overt racism within a few pages and then all is well.

A rich man is murdered in his house – to which there is no key, because why would you need to lock your doors in paradise? – thus giving the book its title. His daughter is just returning to the islands. When her boat docks, she is given the news by an older female cousin visiting from Boston. Also on the boat is another cousin who is there to drag the older woman back to Boston, where she will be safe once again in the bosom of the morally upright Boston branch of the family. But Aunt Minerva doesn't want to go back, and John Quincy soon succumbs to the island charms. After all, young Barbara needs their support, doesn't she?

Throwing police protocol to the winds, the police invite young John Quincy, an investment banker by trade, to help them solve the murder. He accompanies Charlie to hither and yon, gets in a fight in nefarious Chinatown, is shot at, and manages to find romance, all within the first week. It is the most fun he has had … ever. And it's lots of fun for the reader, too.

I haven't read most of the Charlie Chan books, but it seems to me that most of them take place in San Francisco or elsewhere on the mainland. That makes this first Charlie Chan book very special.

My favorite part of the story was when one of the characters makes a dashing drive from his house to the piers. These days the drive would take about 40 minutes, but the hero makes it in three. Maybe those really were the days!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Samaritan's Secret, by Matt Beynon Rees ($13.95)

Politics seems an unavoidable subject, since Matt Beynon Rees sets his series in the nexus of Israel and Palestine. Omar Yussef Sirhan is Muslim, but he speaks English and maintains a liberal, conciliatory attitude towards the abundance of conflicting cultures that make up his world. Jewish and Christian and now Samaritan are observed by his open and tolerant eye. In his world, Hamas and Fatah and the Israelis simmer in the cultural stew, which sometimes erupts into violence. And Omar Yussef often finds himself plopped right in the middle. However, Rees's stories are much more about what makes an individual tick (within a cultural context) than it is about tribal, regional, or national conflict. These are human stories with a political base.

Omar Yussef and his family have received permission to journey to Nablus to witness the marriage of a friend. Khamis Zeydan is the police chief in Bethlehem and he, too, has come to witness the ceremony. Before they know it, they are embroiled in trying to solve the murder of the son of a Samaritan priest. They must investigate despite the heating up of tensions between the Hamas and Fatah factions, and the impending withdrawal of World Bank funds to help an ailing Palestine.

Sometimes action is forsaken for a slow look into a ritual or traditional exchange, and this makes Rees's book move along in fits and starts. Rees is cognizant of how little we in the west know about the structure and traditions of that part of the world. Reading his books is an educational experience as well as entertainment.

Omar Yussef is a difficult character to peg. He is as old as his years and in bad physical shape. Although he is a teacher and respectable member of his community, the eccentricities and abuses of his youth have caught up with him. He is open-minded but easily gets angry with others. He cares for his family but he views them critically. He is smart and intuitive but sometimes doesn't stop to think before he speaks. There is an attempt on his life in this book, and it is a wonder there weren't more.

I greatly admire Rees for bringing us this series. It puts names and faces, however fictional, to a foreign way of life and thinking. It is good to look past the headlines to the culture and people behind them.

(While looking up Rees online, I came across a review written in England. I don't read other reviews until after I've completed mine, but I started to read this one. The reviewer gave away the ending; I couldn't believe it! It was a mean-spirited review that unnecessarily included what should have been a surprising revelation to the reader. Just had to vent here!)

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths (hardcover, $25)

Imagine Barbara Havers (the awkward, overweight, dogged police detective created by Elizabeth George) as an archaeology professor, and you've got the main character of The Crossing Places. Author Elly Griffiths has created a fictional English coastal town with a saltmarsh, ancient burial and ritual sites, and bones popping out of the peat.

Ten years apart, two young girls have disappeared from under their families' noses in the town, and DI Harry Nelson has prematurely aged trying to find them. He asks Ruth Galloway, the Barbara Havers-like character, to help identify whether some bones a hiker discovered in the saltmarsh are recent or ancient. They turn out to be about two thousand years old, but Ruth becomes involved in the ongoing investigation anyway. That's because Harry has received a slew of letters purporting to be from the kidnapper, giving teasing hints, laden with mythological and literary references, about where the bodies of the two girls are buried. Given her background, Ruth is asked to see if she can figure out the meaning of the letters.

Griffiths fleshes out Ruth by referring to the idyllic summer when Ruth first came to the saltmarsh as a young archaeology student on a dig. She found love, friendship, and intellectual challenge then. It is many years later and love has fled, her university job is beset by political maneuvering and personal ennui, and her family is a curse not a blessing. But the saltmarsh has not deserted or disappointed her. It is literally at her doorstep, because she's moved into one of the lonely cottages that abut it.

Okay, at this point, I am screaming, move to another town, don't open the door, don't walk on the marsh at night, and all the things you yell at the foolish heroines in the scream-fest movies. She doesn't hear me any better than the others did. Ruth does not move, and she does open the door, walk on the marsh at night, and let her cat wander around outside after she has been given ample reason not to do this. Perhaps the cat is the least of her worries, as it seems that the kidnapper and potential killer knows about her involvement and disapproves … strongly.

Although the town and ritual site are make-believe, the archaeology behind it is real. A seahenge made of up-turned trees (unlike the henge made of stone that is way more famous in England) was found in a saltmarsh in England. Griffiths has set her imagination loose on this real discovery to bring us a pretty good thriller with an interestingly eccentric main character. I liked Ruth, even though she was a little too whiny at times. That doesn’t stop me from looking forward to more of her adventures. And, hey, nobody's perfect!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sick Like That, by Norman Green (hardcover, $25.99)

Norman Green is probably the best author you've never heard of. Until this book, his novels have been standalones. How to classify his work? Noir-ish perhaps, with a big nod to redemption as a theme. It's never too late in Green's world for his characters to salvage some grace before they bite the big one.

With Sick Like That, Green takes a walk down the bumpy road of series work. This is the follow-up to 2009's The Last Gig. Alessandra Martillo is the amazing character whose story Green continues. ("MAR-TEE-YO," her incapacitated boss hollers down the hall of his care facility after she has done her best to irritate him.) "Al" does a great job following in the footsteps of other ornery, pathologically antisocial female characters – like Stieg Larsson's memorable Lisbeth Salander, Carol O'Connell's Mallory, Charlie Newton's Patti Black. It's easy to overdo this sort of characterization, but I think Green is spot on. There's enough show-stopping martial arts and brainpower on display, but she's not infallible and perfect. (Well, maybe just a little infallible. Is that like being a little bit pregnant?)

Marty Stiles, P.I., is the incapacitated boss, and while the boss is away, the cats will … carry on the business. Al and Sarah Waters, the woman Marty hired to replace Al in "The Last Gig," have been become de facto partners, an uneasy relationship at first because Al just isn't the warm, confiding type, but it grows into a mutual respect. Legally, they shouldn't be in the P.I. business, because neither one has a license, but their ingenuity allows them to skate by that issue. A lot of the charm of Green's book is in showing us how Al and Sarah solve their everyday problems.

A well-to-do woman who is dying of cancer wants to reconcile with her stepson. He has been missing for a few years, having fled home after being suspected of killing his father. If Al and Sarah can find him, it would go a long way towards paying their bills. In the meantime, however, Sarah's ex-husband, Frank, goes missing. He's a jerk, but he's Sarah's jerk, and she hasn't quite resolved their love-hate relationship. Al and her boyfriend are in attendance the night Frank disappears. There's definitely something rotten in the state of New York with Frank's new job working for a wine importer, whose credentials may be spotless but whose actions are a whole lot of suspicious. It falls to Al to take this more dangerous gratis assignment and find the father of Sarah's young son. There's definitely more than meets the eye in both cases.

Green has some great characters with which to establish a long-running series, but I hope he will occasionally write more of the powerful dark stories he has mastered.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Third Rail, by Michael Harvey (hardcover, $24.95)

It's unusual for an author to share the same name as his character, but Michael Kelly, private investigator and former Chicago cop, is the compelling creation of author Michael Harvey.

I loved the first book in the series, the sad and surprising The Chicago Way. The second book, The Fifth Floor, I thought was less gripping, the center of the story a "huh?" to us non-Chicagoans, but I liked it. The Third Rail is both a page-turner and another history lesson of Chicago. There are quite a few Chicago writers (Sean Chercover, Marcus Sakey, Charlie Newton, Sara Paretsky) and they strive to incorporate the essence of their city in their stories. (Another favorite, Jim Butcher, doesn't live in Chicago, but the city is an essential ingredient in his Dresden books.)

In an adrenalin-popping start, a man goes up to a woman who is waiting for the "L," the elevated railway thousands of Chicago commuters use, and shoots her dead. Then a sniper shoots a commuter on another L train. Michael Kelly witnesses the first shooting and is soon involved in the second. It becomes obvious that Michael Kelly has something to do with what is motivating the shooter or shooters. But what? It is a convoluted path that leads to the convoluted and fantastic ending – maybe a little too fantastic, eh? – but the journey is fascinating. Like Michael Connelly, Michael Harvey is a great storyteller. Connelly's Scarecrow was very far-fetched, as is The Third Rail, but that's okay, I say, because I found myself nodding along with every strange turn the story took. Lethal lightbulbs? Sure. Decades-old grudges? Sure. Catholic church misdeeds? Absolutely.

What I loved about the first book was the very human story at the heart of The Chicago Way. There is a very human story about Kelly's father at the base of this work as well, but it is buried under special effects. Reader, when you learn what it is, pause and give it its due before heading back into the fray.