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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Terrorist, by Peter Steiner (hardcover, $23.99)

This review contains spoilers for Le Crime and L'Assassin, Steiner's first two books in his series.

Peter Steiner has taken a darker turn since his days of drawing cartoons for The New Yorker. He is probably most famous for the cartoon depicting a dog typing at a computer. The dog says to his canine friend, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

The Terrorist deepens the tale begun in the almost-whimsical Le Crime, followed by the darker L'Assassin. Ex-patriate Louis Morgon has lived in a small French village for decades, ever since he was disgraced and driven from his job with the CIA. He has since been exonerated and his arch-nemesis, the man who framed him, is gone.

Louis paints, gardens, eats good food, and has good friends. He has established cordial relationships with his once-estranged son and daughter who live in the States. He has become involved in the life of Zaharia Lefort, the young Algerian boy from L'Assassin whose life Louis saved. Zaharia, now 16, has been accepted into a private school in the U.S. He will stay with Louis' daughter. All is well.

But all is not well. Louis still misses Solesme, his lover who died four years earlier. At the beginning of the book, Louis learns he may have cancer. Then the buried falsified "evidence" against Louis resurfaces. An over-eager CIA agent comes after Louis. And the whole thing starts over. Again. And, by golly, the right hand of the CIA doesn't know what the left hand is doing. While the over-eager agent is on the prowl, another agent, who knows Louis is innocent, wants Louis to help him gain access to al-Qaeda through Louis' old contacts. Louis does not want to resurrect that part of his life and declines. Then Zaharia is grabbed in the U.S. and tossed into a prison for suspected terrorists. Do you know the terrorist Louis Morgon? they ask. Yes, I know Louis, he answers, but not Louis Morgon, the terrorist. That is not the answer they want apparently, so they ask him the same question over and over and over.

In the middle of the muddle, Louis finds love again. Pauline is a Parisian doctor with a grown daughter who lives near Louis. She brings a future back into his life, and she becomes a good enough friend to provide aid and solace.

Plan A: It is up to Louis to figure out how to find an al-Qaeda "sleeper" to trade for Zaharia. Plan B: There is no Plan B.

Steiner takes us graphically into the world of political prisoners. The physical and mental games are excruciatingly described. And you know that Steiner has actually taken it easy on his readers. Zaharia is a charming character. He won readers over in L'Assassin. It's very hard to bear what happens to him in this book. But that's the point, and it's a point other authors make as well. What are we Americans willing to sacrifice of our humanity in this war against terror? Steiner takes a very definite political point of view. You may not agree with it, but you may still find The Terrorist compelling reading.

I enjoyed the buoyant Le Crime best of all. Once I got used the more serious direction of L'Assassin, I liked that as well. I had mixed feelings about this third book. Had I read this first, I probably would have enjoyed it more, because I wouldn't have had expectations. It certainly is more thought-provoking, and Steiner's slow-paced and deliberate writing style is still in evidence. It's almost as though he is writing a children's book. Sentences are short. Power is packed into brief descriptions. Action hinges on the turn of a single sentence. (If you dropped a paragraph from one of Tom Clancy's books in here, it would stick out like a New Jersey "guido" in a ballet.) Here's a "for instance." CIA spies are taught not to leave any evidence behind, so old habits die hard when Louis stays at a hotel:
When the maid at the Grand Alger came to clean Mr. Coburn's [his alias] room, she was surprised to find that he had not left anything in the room. No wrappers, no newspapers, no bus tickets, no papers of any kind. Nothing. Even the wastebasket was empty.
The whole book is deceptively plain. The iceberg, however, lurks below. You see it just before it smacks you between the eyes.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst (hardcover, $26)

Alan Furst is known for his sophisticated, knowledgeable World War II spy novels. His latest is this gem of a story set in 1940-41 Salonika, Macedonia, Greece. When the story begins, the Nazis have begun to invade parts of Europe, but Greece remains free ... for the moment. Police detective Costa Zannis has a good life in Salonika. He is a "special" detective; his intelligence has earned him those cases requiring delicacy and diplomacy. He is protected by the police commissioner to whom he is like a son. His British girlfriend and he have fun in a beautiful city that sparkles with life and good food. His colleagues are loyal and honest. He even has the world's smartest dog, Melissa.

Then Costa's girlfriend, who turns out to be a British spy, hastily departs, a beautiful German woman begs him to help her form a pipeline to help Jews escaping from Berlin, and the guns of war pull closer to Salonika. Despite the sudden disruption and danger brought into his life, Costa never hesitates. He knows what is right and, although it may be difficult, he never waivers from his mission to fight the Nazis. In a clever fashion, he builds the pipeline from Berlin to neutral Turkey. In just a few months, his whole life is re-fashioned.

Furst takes his readers through the Balkan countries and shows us the confusion, tension, and bravery of its doomed inhabitants. The author is able to infuse his writing with the thoughts and ethos of a country. We are there. And we are there not as Americans but as the Greeks, the French, the Germans, the Yugoslavians, the Albanians. Reading this book is almost like watching a black and white film from the 1940s: the stylish setup, the dramatic breaks, the dialogue that sounds just right.

Although the book as a whole is somber and the period of time is one of the darkest, this is one example of the lightly amusing touches Furst adds to his book. In a ham-fisted way Costa has managed to do it, but it is Sibylla, Costa's secretary, who has just the right touch with an iron to bring out the "invisible" ink in secret messages without burning them.

My confession is that I had to bone up on some Wikipedia history and geography as I read this book. Furst is not here to be a history professor, so his plot jumps right into the action. Geographic demarcations, as we know from recent Balkan unrest, change. National alliances made during WWII have changed. Furst lets us follow a dangerous part of history that is becoming increasingly alien to us from a safe vantage point.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Last Secret of the Temple, by Paul Sussman ($14) (c2005)

Well, this was a nice surprise! The Last Secret of the Temple was touted as a Da Vinci Code-type adventure. There were some similar elements, including a mystical religious element, but that's not what the book was really about.

Paul Sussman -- an archaeologist, among other things -- talks about the cultures of the Middle East. He takes three characters: an Egyptian policeman; an dissolute, hair-trigger-tempered Israeli policeman; and an English-educated Palestinian journalist. He takes their separate storylines and brings them together as their quests overlap. In the process, he writes about Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian enclave near Jersusalem, and breathes life into the difficulties of how these cultures shakily co-exist.

It is the "uneasy" feeling that Yusuf Khalifa, the Egyptian police detective, has when the dead body of a long-time ex-German resident of Luxor turns up at a dig site. The dead man had an apocalyptic secret, it seems, but Khalifa cannot suss out what it might be. Khalifa suspects the latest death relates to a death many years ago of an Israeli Jew in Luxor. He had been assigned to the case at the time and a man was convicted of that murder, but Khalifa had always suspected that the suspect had been innocent. Now Khalifa has a chance to find out what really happened with that long-ago mystery. When he is abruptly pulled off the current murder, incredibly, Khalifa's way is smoothed over by his old boss, now retired and dying. In pursuing one of the leads, Khalifa must contact the Israeli detective, Arieh Ben-Roi.

Ben-Roi used to be a good policeman. Now he's a drunk who doesn't feel much, except a red-hot hatred for the Palestinians whose bomb killed his fiancee. When he is contacted by Khalifa, he is annoyed. But that part of him that used to be a good policeman is intrigued. Who was the Jewish woman killed many years ago in Luxor? What had she been doing there? As his investigation determines that there is indeed something fishy, he reluctantly enters into a wary partnership with Khalifa.

Layla al-Madani is a journalist with international credentials. Her background as a British-educated Palestinian gives her access to different political circles. She is sent a mysterious anonymous note. A friend de-codes the letter, and it leads her in the same direction as Khalifa and Ben-Roi: World War II and the Nazis.

What did a German archaeologist discover that the Nazis were so excited about, that they claimed could bring about the end of the Jewish state?

This is an intelligently written novel, more a story of international intrigue than mystic relic-hunting adventure. What the archaeolgist did or didn't discover has less to do with the story than the continuing cultural, political, and religious conflict among the Jews and Muslims. That part was fascinating, moving and very human. Sussman's background in Egyptian archaeology was evident in how academic -- but not in a dull way -- the historical descriptions were. This book was fast-moving and well done.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Taken, by Inger Ash Wolfe (hardcover, $25)

Hazel Micallef is a curmudgeon. She is the commanding officer of a small police force in a small Canadian community, but she makes a big splash. She pisses people off, even important people who hold her fate in their pen nibs. She is recovering from injuries sustained when she captured a serial killer (The Calling). Her nursemaids are her former (and beloved) husband and his new wife, and her mother, the town's ex-mayor who left office in disgrace. Normal is as welcome as an ant at a picnic.

Despite being awash in asides, the plot moves along well, primarily because Inger Ash Wolfe is such a good writer. She provides stories for her many characters without breaking her stride. In The Taken, the plot revolves around the kidnapping and torture of a mysterious stranger, first glimpsed only slightly in a streaming computer video. Wolfe slowly reveals the pieces of the puzzle, even though we meet the victim and the kidnapper fairly early on. So, where's the suspense? It partly lies in discovering why the victim is a victim. Information is doled out sparingly, which is as it should be, and the depth of this engaging story grows.

A large part of the story has nothing to do with the kidnapping. It is about the functional and dysfunctional relationships Hazel has with others, but they provide a solid backdrop for the main police story. Interestingly, it is Hazel's life experiences which often provide insight into what motivates the criminal mind. Hazel connects on a deep level with one of the characters who alienated and then lost a child, because one of Hazel's daughters is prickly, depressed, difficult to please, and constantly looking for subtext in her conversations with her mother.

It's a complex and engaging package which Wolfe gives her readers. Despite some gory elements in both books, I have wholeheartedly recommended them to all kinds of readers. It's hard to find this combination of interesting characters and good writing.

Inger Ash Wolfe is a pseudonym for "a well-known and well-regarded North American literary novelist," and there has been a lot of speculation about who she is. At one point, Hazel has someone analyze the writing of a newspaper series to see if the same person wrote all the chapters. There are probably people right now analyzing the works of all the well-known and well-regarded female North American writers – excuse me, literary novelists – to find a similar style to Wolfe's. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me who she is. Margaret Atwood? Okay. Barbara Kingsolver? Sure. Catalina Magdalena Hobelsteiner Wobelsteiner? Excellent. Doesn't matter. It's a great series by whomever.

Friday, July 16, 2010

As Husbands Go, by Susan Isaacs (hardcover, $25)

Summer = iced tea + Susan Isaacs' latest book. Ahhh…

Isaacs has created an irresistible character. Susie B Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten is a funny, warm, upwardly mobile wife, mother, and small business owner with an eagle-eye for fashion. Her safe and satisfying Long Island world disintegrates when her husband is found murdered in the apartment of a prostitute ("I'm not a prostitute, I'm an 'escort.'").

Susie struggles with four-year-old triplets, twin Norwegian au pairs, cold fish in-laws, socially dysfunctional parents, and a recently discovered grandmother whose picture appears in the dictionary next to the word "eccentric." And now her husband, Jonah, whose love she never doubted, apparently had a nasty secret world. How was that possible?

That quest to find out how it was possible is what drives this novel. Susie is convinced, evidence to the contrary, that her husband was not seeing a prostitute for the obvious reason. Then she's convinced that the prostitute did not kill her husband. Driven by "ethics," a heretofore under-experienced concept, to see her convictions through to a conclusion, she enlists the help of her colorful grandmother (whose appearance makes the price of the book worth every penny) and "Fat Boy," her business partner's brilliant husband.

It would be a sadder, less colorful world if Susan Isaacs were not writing. She gives her readers flash but with substance, a pretty picture with a crack running through it (and to stretch this a little further: the picture is hung askew).

Although the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying, and I really thought Susie was much too nice to her in-laws, there were 327 pages of interesting characters and lively writing.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Cold Light of Mourning, by Elizabeth J. Duncan ($7.99)

Elizabeth J. Duncan's debut novel is set in Llanelen, a bucolic village in Wales. That is to say, it could be just about any small village in Wales. (Having once traveled through Wales, I must say that the small villages of Wales define the word "bucolic.") Within view of the shining Conwy River, Llanelen's beauty captured the heart of a young Canadian backpacker, who decided to stay and become the village manicurist.

Many years later, Penny Brannigan, the young backpacker, is now a fifty-year-old woman whose best friend, Emma, has just died. Emma was the first person to welcome Penny to the village. While Penny mourns, others are celebrating the imminent marriage of the local scion to a sophisticated woman – with humble origins – from London.

On the day of her wedding, right after Penny gives her a manicure, the bride disappears. A police inspector and his assistant do more than try to solve the case; they become Penny's friends. And, with great intuitive leaps and eagle-eye observation, Penny helps them find the bride.

Don't shake your head. It could happen …

This book reminds me so much of Louise Penny's series set in Quebec. They both have a slow pace, and give you a definite sense of place and neatness of character. We watch the main characters deliberately and carefully go about their day's work and play.

It's not deep stuff and I think there's a loose thread dangling at the end, but it's charming and I really, really liked Penny.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Bad Day for Sorry, by Sophie Littlefield ($13.99)

Here's an endorsement for a book in which a 50-something woman takes vigilante action, beats up and tortures men – avoiding the nasty civil rights humbuggery that sworn law officers have to follow – and generally runs amok in Missouri. Okay, so I'm glad no one does this for real, but it makes a spitfire read.

Stella Hardesty, whom even the vilest of Southern bad guys calls "Miz Hardesty," was accused of killing her abusive husband. Acquitted, Stella feels it is her mission to help other women in abusive relationships. Most of the time this involves tackling (literally) the sonofagun and beating him until he cries. Sometimes it involves blackmail. Whatever it takes.

Alienated from her own daughter, Stella takes her latest client under her wing. Chrissy is a young woman whose abusive relationship Stella helped "mediate." Now Chrissy's young son is missing, and Stella agrees to help find him. Unfortunately, it soon becomes obvious that there are some scary mobster guys involved, and they are not interested in politely calling Stella "Miz Hardesty."

Sophie Littlefield beats up on Stella a little too much. Stella's face has a lot of "zipperwork" to patch up the results of her violent encounters, and she should buy stock in Johnson&Johnson. She's overweight but muscled, is still gunshy (an unfortunate term here) when it comes to relationships, and isn't a beauty even on a good day. She drags a lot of baggage with her, but most of the time Littlefield lightens the load with humor. As for Stella's vigilante actions … harebrained at best. Potential romantic interest Sheriff Goat Jones remarkably, wink-wink, looks the other way. Still, an entertaining first effort with characters you will want to revisit.

This was an Edgar Award finalist for Best First Novel.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Crashers, by Dana Haynes (hardcover, $24.99)

Dana Haynes has set his thriller in Oregon. It's CSI meets the A-Team, or at least McGyver. What if a plane with state-of-the-art technology to help it stay afloat doesn't – stay afloat, that is? What if it crashes soon after take-off from the Portland International Airport? This is the story that gives us a blow-by-blow look at what "crashers," or members of the National Transportation and Safety Board investigative team, do to determine what causes a crash. Even though that would make a fascinating book all by itself, of course we need more. Let's throw in a terrorist or two, and that will give us Crashers, a big page-turner of a book.

The NTSB team has the usual blend of disparate and talented folk who joke and irritate each other in the best TV-show-ensemble fashion. Tommy Tomzak is a pathologist, not a pilot, who fortuitously is attending a conference in Portland and has prior ties with the NTSB, and he is picked to head the investigation. We mostly follow in his footsteps, but his story alternates with that of skulking Irish terrorists who are in the United States and planning some atrocity. (If this book is ever made into a movie, the forensic plane-ologist, FBI, and terrorist characters will provide parts a-plenty.)

To satisfy the most demanding and rabid CSI fan, there are details and detailed procedures galore. No expense is spared. The shattered plane must be reconstructed. A facsimile plane is brought in to test various theories. An entire motel and empty hangar are requisitioned for the cast of engineers, carpenters, black box specialists, punky teenage girl computer genius, nerdy electronics expert, grouchy should-have-been-boss, and general dogsbodies that are assembled to assist and be part of the A-Team.

This is a very visual book, sometimes grimly so. Haynes hardly spares us when describing the crash site. The main characters have back stories, but only sketchily so. The reader knows enough to categorize each player and understand the team dynamics.

Let me say it again: It's a page-turner.

Pardonable Lies, by Jacqueline Winspear ($15)

This is the third novel in the Maisie Dobbs series. Jacqueline Winspear has created a unique look at England after World War I through the eyes of a young woman. Maisie was born to a costermonger and his wife. When Maisie's mother died, her father put her into the service of a well-to-do household. Lady Compton realized the potential in young Maisie and sponsored her education and leap into higher society. Now a psychologist, Maisie's thoughtful approach means she helps people through their crises and then with accepting the resolutions.

The pardonable lies of the title involve secrets held long and close by people torn from their families by the war. Secret #1: A lawyer whose son was killed during the war seeks confirmation of his son's death because of a deathbed request by his wife. He doesn't really want to know about his son, and Maisie must learn why. Secret #2: One of Maisie's college friends, now a mother of three, wants to know what really happened to her brother, another casualty of the war. Secret #3: Maisie's beloved mentor Maurice Blanche is somehow tangled up in the whole shebang. Can he no longer be trusted?

There is a modicum of woo-woo shenanigans in the current tale. A while ago, Maisie and Maurice had investigated mediums and other scam artists who parasitically lived off the tragedy of others. In her search for the lawyer's son, Maisie encounters another medium, one whose powers seem eerily genuine, and Maisie's own "intuitive" powers are brought up. This storyline seems dubious and a little gratuitous to me. Maisie is such a strong character that her tale would be just fine without reverting to supernatural interjections.

Maybe I'm suffering from Maisie-fatigue, but the stories seemed too improbable. Woo-woo and spies. I think not.

Nevertheless, I am still a fan of the series, despite this weak entry, and will continue to make my way through it.