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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell (hardcover, $25.95)

Chinese ideology aside, this is a very interesting standalone novel for Mankell. And despite the title, some of the action takes place in Mozambique, where Mankell resides part of the year. It's certainly the most peripatetic novel I can remember Mankell writing, with scenes taking place in Sweden, England, China, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. If Mankell had deleted the overly long explanation of current Chinese backroom politics, the novel would have been far less than the 363 pages, and the story would have been tighter. I read far more about Chinese affairs -- probable or improbable -- than was good for me. I'm not saying that what Mankell said wasn't important and worthy of discussion; it just was too long for a crime novel.

Why the civics lesson? Hatred can go back a long way. Inequity can be institutionalized. Revenge can simmer for generations. It wasn't right how Chinese immigrants were treated when working on American railroads 150 years ago. It wasn't right that Chinese peasants were treated as disposable labor for centuries. It wasn't right that students died in Tiananmen Square. It isn't right that poor people have starved, that families have been separated in order to survive. Mankell has emblazoned all these wrongs in the pages of The Man from Beijing. Almost lost in the process is a pretty good story.

At the center of the story is a Swedish judge, Birgitta Roslin. When a tiny Swedish village is massacred in the night, Roslin discovers she is related to a few of the victims. Using a great deal of literary shenanigans, Roslin accidentally discovers a connection to a man from Beijing. When she coincidentally travels to China with a friend, she continues to investigate, although the Swedish police have declared the case closed. When she coincidentally shows a picture of a man to one of the few people who could identify him -- just how many people live in China? -- she shines the spotlight on herself. Now the assassin could be after her. Actually, it's not hard to swallow the coincidences. Even Roslin's arrogant character ("Just tell her the judge is calling. That's all you need to know.") and bumbling interviews, don't interfere with how interesting the tale is.

Mankell's book begins with a horrible crime, elements of which seem fantastic or supernatural, but Mankell brings the crime back down to the very human emotion that drives the perpetrator. The little tales, in this case compared to the history of modern China, that he tells tug at your heart.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Master of the Delta, by Thomas H. Cook ($13.95)

Jean picked this book as one of last year's top books, but it took me this long to get around to reading it.

Cook gets me every time. Pulls the wool over my eyes, the chair out from under me, and the rug out from under my feet. As I read it, I think I know where Thomas H. Cook is taking his story, but it never goes there. Even when I know he will twist away from what I think the story is about -- even when I KNOW that -- it turns even further away, and I'm fooled once again.

Cook is the Master of the Southern Tragedy. Ominous notes ring throughout the book, sounding louder as he slowly reveals the victim and the perpetrator. He is the master of using the present to look at the past. We know right from the start that the narrator, Jack Branch, testified at a trial in the 1950s. Is he testifying as the accused? The layers must slowly peel away before Jack's part is revealed. Perhaps Cook is the Master of the Southern Onion.

Jack is the youngest member of one of the old aristocratic families of the Louisiana Delta. There are privileges accorded to such members. They are beyond reproach and sometimes beyond the law. His aristocracy notwithstanding, Jack has chosen to become a teacher at the local public high school. He teaches students who come from "The Bridges," the white trash area of town. One of his students, Eddie Miller, is the son of a convicted murderer. In Jack's class, Eddie uses a class assignment to write about his own father.

As much as Jack is a product of a sheltered, privileged upbringing, he believes himself to be without class prejudice. His dream is to save a student, to open up a world of possibilities to the poor young man, in the best Dickensian way. Eddie is that poor young man. And if he isn't a "poor young man" when Jack starts to mentor him, he soon will be, thanks to Jack. Eventually, Jack's family's history becomes entangled in Eddie's tale, and Eddie becomes involved with Jack's fragile father.

Things go downhill, then uphill, then downhill again. Roller coaster, Cook style. A well-written roller coaster.

And for the longest time, Cook doesn't even tell us what the crime is. We just listen to the ominous bell tolling for someone.

Cook is the master of the southern onion and suspense.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Rather Curious Engagement, by C. A. Belmond ($14)

It's a little too sweet at times, but for the most part, it's a charming, disarming story of a poor girl who meets a boy AND gets a boatload of money, not by getting the boy but by using her smarts.

A Rather Curious Engagement is the second book in a so-far three-book series. In the first book, A Rather Lovely Inheritance, heroine Penny Nichols discovered the boy, Jeremy Laidley, right under her own nose -- he's a relation through marriage -- and the money was pretty much found under the same nose. So in this book, Penny and Jeremy must decide how to spend the money, and it's serious money, folks. Get the brain cells which deal with vicarious pleasure fired up, because we readers get to cruise along with P&J as they deliberate life's big and little choices.

First item: fix decaying but interesting London domicile. Second item: fix decaying but interesting inherited French villa. Third item: buy yacht.

P&J's financial advisor solemnly advises them to buy something frivolous. (Can I get an advisor like that?) Penny thinks more along the lines of a new pair of shoes, but Jeremy goes for the gusto. Apparently he has always wanted to sail around the Mediterranean. And, of course, you need a yacht to do that. Nothing ostentatious, just your run-of-the-mill sloop with rare wood inlays and crew of four. And antiques curio cabinet. And hidden drawers. And a secret aquamanile called "Beethoven's Lion."

It wouldn't be as much fun if P&J didn't do something "worthwhile" while showing us how to live the good life, so they accept a commission to find "Beethoven's Lion," an antique that the previous owner of the yacht somehow lost. P&J turn out to be pretty down-to-earth and nice. They revel in their fortune but don't go overboard, literally or figuratively. C.A. Belmond takes great pains -- too many pains, if you ask me -- to point out that P&J are related only by marriage. Got that -- they can be romantically involved because they are not related by blood. Once you get that, you can settle somewhere cozy to read this cozy. It's The Shell Seekers with less drama and a teensy bit more mystery.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

Did del Toro and Hogan sit down and think, "Hmmm, what two currently popular themes could I combine into one blockbuster novel that would easily translate into a blockbuster movie?"

Their answer: obsessive step-by-step crime forensics (à la "C.S.I." and "Law and Order") and vampires.

Del Toro is better known in the film-making world. (I guess that's why established author Chuck Hogan is riding along on this book.) He was involved in one of the "Blade" movies, the "Hellboy" franchise, and the fantastical "Pan's Labyrinth." Chuck Hogan wrote one of my favorite books of 2004, The Prince of Thieves. So they both know how to tell a good story. And del Toro certainly understands weird.

What they have produced, against all odds, is a well-written page-turner of a book about a parasitic disease which turns people into vampires AND which incorporates the vampire lore as well. Double-bam. And they are planning two more books in the series. Double-bam times three.

(Why are trilogies so popular? Is there some sort of innate attraction that odd-numbered groupings have for us humans? Garden plantings are in threes and fives, three strikes and you're out, three-dog night, lucky seven, and "Etc., etc., etc.," as the King of Siam would say.)

Dr. Eph Goodweather is a CDC investigator, a father involved in a custody battle, and a reluctant warrior. He has the requisite beautiful CDC assistant and 11-year-old son. His "van Helsing" is Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor and, more importantly, a survivor of a duel with the head honcho vampire (called "The Master," naturally). Much later they are joined by a rat catcher. Because it is also a Chuck Hogan novel, there is a young street-smart punk who is inexplicably -- until a later novel in the trilogy, no doubt -- called upon to join the vampire battle.

This first book assembles the cast for battle, brings the foe out into the light, so to speak, and gives the reader a taste of war.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple (Picador, $14)

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oy, oy, oy!

True or false: An Australian book should be easy to read because we speak the same language. Bwap! False. There's even a glossary in the back so you know what "spaggy bol" and "ute" are. (Spaghetti bolognese and utility truck, if you must know.) Those are some milder terms used in this police procedural. Needless to say a lot of the terms are profane rather than profound. Despite needing a translator, bite my jolly jumbuck, I really liked this book!

Peter Temple slowly, agonizingly reveals what happened to his main character, police detective Joe Cashin. Cashin has been re-assigned from the big city of Melbourne to the backwater area, Port Monro, where he grew up. The story begins with Cashin assessing the aches and pains, physical and psychological that beset him, but the reader doesn't find out who, what, when, where, and why until the book is almost over.

What we do learn from the beginning is that Joe is the head of the police department, such as it is, in Port Monro, a place where he knows everyone and how they are kith and kin to each other. One of his cousins may operate on the shady side, but he's family. His mother is crazy as a loon, but she, too, is family. His brother is a young professional in Melbourne and we don't really learn a lot about him initially, but, hey, he's family as well. Anyway, the story's not really about them, but it is very much about Joe and his relationship to Port Monro and the memories the place stirs up for him, including those involving his family. The past is very much alive for Joe. Perhaps it's because the present holds only horrors for him, and he'd rather not think about it.

The book, of course, is about Joe's coming to terms with his past and his present.

Temple ties together wonderful elements of rural life, big city and small town corruption, and the unspeakably dark things of which humans are capable.

There is such richness of material, that I could go on and on with a synopsis, so I'll merely do the bare bones. A local rich and important man is murdered and apparently robbed. To investigate this event, Cashin must deal with the police force in the next town over and his old buddies in Melbourne. When a few kids from the local slum are implicated, race becomes an issue. There are the requisite deep, dark secrets, evasive personalities, racists, and love interest. Also, Cashin meets a swaggie (wandering hobo), Rebb, who helps Cashin fulfill his dream of rehabilitating his grandfather's ruined mansion. Plus Cashin's poodles (!) really like Rebb. What more could you want?

You could want style, and, if so, you've got it by the "ute"-full here. Temple must believe less is more, because his writing is poetically spare: each word counts. However, there are 350 pages, so he doesn't stint on the story. He doesn't overdo telling his readers what people are thinking; he'd much rather sketch and imply. His dialogue is sometimes vague or abrupt. Like so:
She left. Cashin put his head back, heard the messages from his tired places.
And again:
'Fin, looking at you,' said Cashin, 'I'm giving you a nine-point-six on the over-worked, under-slept, generally-[expletive]-over scale.'

Finucane smiled the small modest smile of a man whose efforts had been recognized. 'Thanks, boss,' he said.

'Want a transfer to Port Monro?' said Cashin. 'Just pub fights and sheep-shagging, the odd [expletive] nicks his neighbour's hydroponic gear officially used to grow vine-ripened tomatoes. It's a nice place to bring up kids.'

'Too exciting,' said Finucane. 'I've got six blokes to see on Pollard. This one in Footscray, he says he goes back a long way. Probably turn out he rang from his deaf and dumb auntie's house, where he isn't and doesn't live.'
One for the road:
A thin, lined woman wearing a dark tracksuit answered his knocks. Cashin said the words, offered the ID.

'Round the back,' she said, 'In the shed.'
Temple takes a difficult subject (not telling what it is, you have to read the book, sorry) and gives it a sort of elegiac grace, even as it moves towards a violent and grotesque resolution.

Temple has written a bunch of novels, but this is the only one we are able to get with any regularity. What a pity!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, by Colin Cotterill (hardcover, $25)

Each year we search for books on which to stick our "I loved it" star. For me, a starred book has to have at least some humor, a story with heart, and great writing. Whoopee! I've found my first MBTB star of 2010.

Colin Cotterill's creation, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is the only coroner in 1970s Laos. The Communist government often gives him and his morgue assistants, nurse Dtui and Geung, conniptions, but they still manage to find their way to the truth behind the murders they're asked to investigate. Siri's wife, Daeng; his best friend, retired politician Civilai; and Dtui's husband, police officer Phosy, are often woven into the plot as well.

In this seventh book in the series, Cotterill presents us with a split narrative. The main story finds Siri contemplating the strange murders of three women who have been skewered by épées -- fencing swords. Most Laotians wouldn't know an épée from a teepee, so eventually the trail leads out of Laos to Soviet bloc countries. Each of the young women had studied in another country, but the clues don't point to an outsider. Rather, the noose may tighten on a member of an elite community of Communist politicos who reside in a former American compound. Dr. Siri and his crew must tread with light toes on rice paper.

The other tale, scattered in pieces throughout the main story, is the inner musings of a prisoner being held in Cambodia in wretched conditions. The reign of terror of the infamous Khmer Rouge has caught someone near and dear to us readers: Dr. Siri. The tale of how Siri wound up in Cambodia and why he is in captivity slowly becomes apparent, and it is a tale that will make the stoutest heart quail. So, as the fencing tale unfolds into clarity, the Cambodian tale sinks into darker and more fetid waters.

Cotterill has begun our re-education. Decades after the atrocities of the "Killing Fields" and conflagrations begun by the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he does not want us to forget what has happened. Underlying his often humorous, often light-hearted tale, is a serious look at the cultures whose worlds were turned upside-down.

The important part of the story, however, is this: family. After the birth of their baby girl, Nurse Dtui and police officer Phosy's relationship appears to be a little rocky. Civilai's wife has left her home; Civilai claims it is to visit her sister, but he has been looking seedier and seedier as the days drag on. Geung has discovered another Downs Syndrome worker in the hospital complex that houses the morgue, and he feels threatened. Rajid watched most of his family drown as they tried to escape across the muddy waters of Mekong into Laos. Now he sits across the street from Daeng's noodle shop beneath his umbrella day after day in the torrential rains that pour mercilessly down upon Laos. They are all members of Siri's "family," and he and Daeng must try to help them all. These stories glue the main narratives together.

Have I mentioned the ghosts yet? They don't play a huge part in this story, but it is Dr. Siri's singular ability to see the spirits of the departed that sets Cotterill's series apart from the rest. You might think – erroneously – that if Siri can see the spirit of the murder victim, it would be a cinch to catch the murderer. But, alas, that isn't how it works. Often the connection to the spirit world is like talking on an iPhone with your hand over the antenna; it's a little iffy. He has no control over whom he sees. His spirit guide, an ancestral shaman, gets a little lost and "speaks" metaphorically, and doesn't appear at all in this book. An apparition, who may or may not be Siri's mother, sits silently, chewing on betel leaves and dribbling red juice down her chin. The spirits are more buzzing gnats than helpmates.

What's there not to like?