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

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn ($15)

In the early 1970s, South African James McClure introduced the world to the day-to-day impact of apartheid in his series about an Afrikaner and Zulu police detective partnership and friendship. (After many years out of print, the first book in that series, The Steam Pig, is set to be re-released soon.) Apartheid, the legal separation of South Africa into racial classes, separate and unequal, became law in 1948. It was more than just a separation of non-whites and whites; there were gradations even within that. English and Afrikaners were both white groups, but the enmity between them went back to the time of the Zulu and Boer wars more than half a century earlier. Non-whites were blacks, coloreds, and Indians. Coloreds were of mixed heritage, some with dark skin and some with white. Blacks were mostly Zulus. There were social stigmas attached to each sub-group. Whatever the gradations, black and white did not mix, or else.

It is into this tangled brew of historical abomination that Malla Nunn, another South African writer, has plopped her intriguing mystery. It is 1952 and Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, registered as an English/Afrikaner, has been sent to the rural community of Jacob's Rest to investigate the death of Captain Pretorius, the local police chief, Afrikaner, and resident looming presence.

There are so many choices for motive: political – was he murdered by a Communist; racial – was he murdered by a black Communist; or familial – was it one of his three ox-necked, high-strung, hair trigger-tempered white supremacist sons or perhaps his "changeling" son, who bore little resemblance to his ox-necked, high-strung, etc. father and whose Zulu name translates to hangs-out-with-his-mother.

Cooper's progress is impeded by a delegation from the Security Branch, a ham-fisted detail determined to save South Africa from Communism, with the ultimate authority to acquire knowledge in any way they wish. They are determined to link the captain's death to a Communist insurgent, and relegate Cooper to finding the man who has been peeping on and then molesting some of the colored girls in the town.

Suspecting that there might be a relationship between the molestations and the captain's murder, it is worth Cooper's life to keep his investigation under the radar. He is helped by the cool and mysterious Shabalala, a Zulu police officer and childhood friend of the dead captain, and the equally cool and mysterious Zweigman, a Jewish doctor who has chosen to live in Jacob's Rest as a storekeeper in the colored community. There is a sense of deeper waters and future stories about both Shabalala and Zweigman.

With each startling revelation about Captain Pretorius and many of the other residents of Jacob's Rest, Nunn's story twists away from a simple solution to a more thoughtful tale of the inability of the law to negotiate and command human emotions. We can read this story with a growing numbness or we can appreciate that Nunn has fastened her grip on a basic flaw in our human makeup, and has created a fascinating and powerful tale.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Day One, by Bill Cameron (hardcover, $24.95, and paperback, $14.95)

Portland author Bill Cameron has invented a novel filled with complex plotting and writing that is both tough and lyrical. His story involves both first person present and third person points of view, and when his story turns to third person, freed from the confines of his character, his prose soars.

Cameron's main character is Skin Kadash, at this point a retired Portland police detective. Some Asian philosophies believe the center of the body is in the area of the stomach, where the "chi" or life force lives. If this were true, Skin would be in big, big trouble. Tormented by stomach cancer, gut-wrenching decisions, physical blows below the belt, and gutsy metaphors, Skin suffers. When we first meet him in Day One, his life is meaningless, and he is contemplating the end of his days. Then his neighbor across the street has a shoot-out with the police, and it is day one of his new life.

Day One bounces around in time. Cameron tells the stories of several characters, and the characters have their stories told in pieces, sometimes set in the present, sometimes in the past. The reader doesn't know how it will all relate, but there is an inevitability that they will all come together in the end. The author does a masterful job of juggling his storylines. (Take notes if you have to because you don't want to miss a point of the intricate plotting.)

Once again, Cameron does a lot of tough- and rough-talking, but for this, his third book, his style is more flowing and poetic. The fit of the two makes compelling reading.

What do these storylines have in common? A few years ago, a young girl in a small town in southern Oregon made an unsuitable marriage. It eventually led to violence and a wrenching parting of the ways. A few years ago, 13-year-old "Eager," a skateboarding punk, was found by Skin and other police huddled over the body of a young woman in Portland's Mt. Tabor Park. In the present time, the man who lives across the street from Skin is shot by the police, his young stepson is missing, and his wife and older son have fled the scene. Skin is drawn into the investigation by his former partner, who is now a lieutenant. Skin also saw Eager standing in the crowd watching his neighbor's drama and watched Eager shot in the head. But after being partially patched up by medics, Eager is now missing. There are a whole lot of people to locate.

Mitch, Skin's neighbor, was an annoying but nice guy. Skin liked Mitch's wife, Luellen, and babysat the young Danny on occasion. Having seen Eager, now several years older, on his block several times, Skin was wary that Eager was casing his place. Against the odds, a tentative relationship has built up between the two, mostly consisting of Eager telling Skin all about skateboarding. Skin knows that Eager comes from a dysfunctional family, with an estranged father who used to be a deputy in a rural community, so it may just be that Eager is looking for a father substitute. Babysitter? Substitute father? This is a new side of Skin, for sure.

This seems like a lot to take in, but Cameron does a good job anchoring his readers in the chapter's time frame. Also, he is one of the few authors who has chapter titles, and they are nice whimsical touches.

This is a novel that transcends Cameron's other works, both in complexity and fluidity of writing. Here's hoping that it is day one of a brilliant and shining time for the author!

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson (hardcover, $27.95)

All I have to say is why wasn't there a guard posted outside Salander's and Zalachenko's hospital rooms? Weren't they each accused of trying to murder the other. Why were they only two doors apart?

Actually, I guess that isn't all I have to say.

I understand the fascination with Stieg Larsson's series, because I have succumbed to the fascination myself. However – you knew there was going to be a "however," didn't you – there were times I was bored silly with the tedious side issues and setting up of the main storylines, even if in the end both the side issues and main storylines were interesting. Larsson also has trouble describing romantic relationships; it borders on the cartoonish. "I like you; do you like me?" might as well be the standard conversation between all the like-struck characters. Five hundred, sixty-three pages (not counting notes) later, this was both (almost) the best book and (almost) the worst book I've read this year.

These are the best parts: The stories are interesting; Lisbeth Salander, the "girl" in all the series titles, accomplishes Boadicean feats, and the courtroom scene at the end of the book built to a yahoo-inducing crescendo.

You've already listened to my rant about the worst parts.

You and all 990,000 of your closest friends are probably going to read this book, whether it's "your kind" of book or not. Sometimes a cultural phenomenon overtakes individual rights or reason, so it really doesn't matter what all the reviews say.

SPOILER ALERT (for the other two books)

I'm now going to talk about the plot of Hornet's Nest, so if you haven't read the other two yet (and what strong willpower you must have), stop and read no further.

At the end of the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander, who clawed her way out of a grave, was left more dead than alive, and it was a pseudo-cliffhanger whether she would survive. Mikael "Kalle" Blomqvist is still the relentless investigator who is determined to save Salander when she is about to be charged with attempted murder. His meticulous unearthing of the underlying political issues that have trapped Salander since she was twelve years old was engrossing. The work of the police detectives who defied the directives to leave Salander's case alone was just as interesting. It's impossible not to cheer for the good guys while they battle their own systems to bring about justice for Salander. There are other heroic characters introduced or brought more into the light, including Salander's surgeon and Blomqvist's sister, who becomes Salander's defense attorney.

Dragon Tattoo also suffered from an excess of detail. One of the major mercies of the Swedish movie version was that the director instructed the scriptwriters to wrap up the first hundred pages in ten minutes. He should get the Unsung Hero Award. I can only hope that when the movie version of this book – as sure as the sun will rise – surfaces, that director will also show as much temperate judgment.

So much good. So much schmegegge.