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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, by Michael Stanley ($14.99)

I have to commend Michael Stanley for daring to write a mystery novel set in Botswana, especially if it is a little like Alexander MacCall Smith's more famous series but not really. There is the same wonderful deliberate attention to daily life in Botswana. Batswana (Botswanians) abide by patience and politeness, according to MacCall Smith and Stanley. It sounds like a grand way to live, with high regard for other people and nature. But the comparison doesn't extend too much further. Stanley's Botswana has rougher language and more violence. Stanley's books acknowledge the reality of what is going on in neighboring countries and how that affects Botswana. It's not as pretty a picture as MacCall Smith's, but it's more clever.

The murder of two men who are guests at a lodge in the northern part of Botswana snowballs with plenty of subterfuge, suspects, and motives. Each time a suspect is tracked, we learn a little more about the real history of the southern part of Africa. Although atrocious acts are given play, they mostly happen offstage. The main heroic characters are gently developed and tenderly nurtured. Even the description of the murders is circumspect. The language is rougher than in MacCall Smith's books, but not by much; swearing is judiciously used.

Inspector Kubu is the hero. He is a larger-than-life character, literally. He loves food and drink, and has a large girth to show for it. His wife Joy is the joy of his life. She is a fairly modern woman with a respect for tradition. Kubu's boss, Mabaku, gives him lots of leeway and respect, but is no soft touch. Kubu's main assistant, Tatwa, is competent and eager. Mabaku complains that he is running a menagerie, because "Kubu" means hippo and "Tatwa" means giraffe, both nicknames that are descriptive of physical characteristics.

This is a story with both charm and punch. As the scope of the problem grows, so does the confusion, until all is resolved, for better or worse, at the end. I enjoyed this book so much, I'm going to have to back up and read the first in Stanley's series, A Carrion Death. By the way, Michael Stanley is the pseudonym for two writers, both South Africans, one of whom lives in South Africa and the other in the United States. A great pairing of people who know the culture and who also know how to interpret that for western readers.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Shadows in the Street, by Susan Hill (hardcover, $24.95)

The character of Dr. Cat Deering, sister to series hero Simon Serraillier, and the story of one of the accused murderers prevent this book from lapsing into cliché. Cat is a complex mixture of science and faith. She is dealing with an enormous tragedy in her life, and she is working hard to mend her fractured family. But at the start of the book, all is not going smoothly. The accused murderer, Leslie Blade, is just one of many characters Susan Hill juggles in this fifth book in her series. Set in a fictional medium-sized city in England, Hill brings us both the intimacy of small-town living and the violence and crime of a big city.

Police detective Simon Serrailler is on an extended leave at the beginning of the book. He is prematurely called back to duty because someone is murdering prostitutes. His sister, Cat, is involved through her church. The wife of the new minister is hell-bent on creating a center for the prostitutes, and Cat is called upon to be a part of the discussion committee. Then one of Cat's new patients is a likable young prostitute who is trying to care for her young son and daughter. This all comes together when, with a lot of foreboding, the young woman becomes one of the killer's victims and the minister's wife goes missing.

In investigating the cases, the police meet Leslie Blade, a middle-aged man who brings snacks and hot tea to the prostitutes. He has an ailing mother and a job with a university library to tie him down. If the story had concentrated just on him, it would have been worthy. However, we have several prostitutes, a bone-headed junkie boyfriend, a new minister and his steamrolling wife, the minister's assistant, Leslie's co-worker, and Leslie's mother's caregiver thrown into the mix with Simon's sister, her children, his father and new stepmother. Each one has a lot of face-time in the book. Normally, this level of complexity would have been enjoyable, but most of the stories were like soda without the fizz. I personally wanted to strangle the minister, and I'm sure that was Hill's intention.

This is still one of the series I can't wait to read, more for what is happening with the Serrailler family than for the latest serial killer haunting the city of Lafferton.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Reversal, by Michael Connelly (hardcover, $27.99) (release date-10/5/10)

Michael Connelly is a GREAT storyteller. Before you know it, you are turning page after page and are totally immersed in his tale. As with Nine Dragons and The Scarecrow, there are some moments in which a reader just had to suspend belief. At the same time I was saying, "Wow," I was also saying, "Say what?" That said, I really enjoyed this book.

Mickey Haller is the "Lincoln Lawyer." Instead of from an unnecessarily swanky office, he usually practices criminal defense from his car. His manager is one of his ex-wives. He has a young daughter with another ex-wife, and he tries desperately to balance the demands in his life. He is a quirky, brash, amusing character. His half-brother is Harry Bosch: sober, dark, intense. The mother of his daughter is one of the bright lights in the D.A.'s office, although at the moment she is exiled to a lesser satellite office. The last thing on Mickey's mind is becoming the enemy. But that is exactly what happens.

Inexplicably, although Connelly tries his best to rationalize it, Haller is talked into becoming a special prosecutor for a hot-topic case. A man who was accused of kidnapping and murdering a young girl has spent the last 24 years in prison. Using new DNA techniques, evidence is uncovered which requires that the case be remanded for trial. For some contrived reason, no current D.A. can prosecute this case. It would look sooooo much better if the accused were convicted by an attorney who normally bats for the defense. Ooookaaaaay.

It doesn't matter how contrived this sounds, it barely registers on the "nah" graph, because the story is everything. Mickey drafts Harry into being his investigator. He also gets his ex-wife, mother of his daughter and stalwart prosecutor, to be his second chair. Pretty cozy, eh? Once again, barely registers on the "oh-come-on" graph. Connelly races the story along: dredging up old witnesses, surveillance -- Did I mention that the accused is released on his own recognizance after 24 years in jail? Barely registers on the "you've-got-to-be-kidding" graph -- of the accused, and rethinking police procedures from all those years ago. Did I mention almost every important witness is dead? Hardly a hiccup on the "give-me-a-break" graph.

The courtroom proceedings are fascinating. Mickey has a few tricks up his sleeve. Ex-wife/prosecutor Maggie does an excellent job with empathy and courtroom panache. Harry trundles witness after witness up to the stand so Mickey can ask the penetrating questions everyone else forgot to ask years ago. I couldn't wait to find out what happened.

The ending was a little loopy, but I want more Mickey stories anyway.

Monday, September 13, 2010

To Fetch a Thief, by Spencer Quinn (hardcover, $25) (release date: 9/28/10)

Chet, a dog, is the narrator of this funny series. Actually, this third book is less funny than the others. There's more plot, and we get to see Bernie, Chet's master, kick some butt. Up until now Bernie has appeared as a laid-back, stammering, lovable goof. His reporter girlfriend described his walk as "shambling," and that summed up his persona as well until this book. In To Fetch a Thief, Spencer Quinn toughens up his creation. A Gulf War veteran and an ex-police officer, Bernie can walk the walk when he needs to. We actually meet some of his prior "acquaintances," including the tough-talking proprietor of a tough-looking biker bar and the madame of a house of ill repute. (Quinn missed his opportunity to call it a cathouse, with Chet wondering where the cats were. To boost the hilarity quotient, Quinn doesn't miss many opportunities to have Chet misunderstand Bernie's expressions.)

Once again we are privy to the simple thoughts of a simple dog. Which is not to say that Chet is dumb. Chet is very, very smart. Let's just not talk about why he didn't graduate from the doggie police academy.

Before I go on, let me just open up the book at random and quote you a bit of text. Remember, this is Chet speaking:
...Uh-oh. Mexico. We'd worked down there before, the Salazar kidnapping and another case I couldn't remember, except for part of a pork taco I'd scarfed up behind a cantina. My guys, not all but some, are different in Mexico -- real tough customers, red-eyed dudes, lean and mean. Got into some scraps down in Mexico, and so did Bernie. The Mexican vet had to stitch me up; she stitched up Bernie, too. She was nice, kind of fell for Bernie, which led to complications on account of she forgot to mention her husband. But he turned out to be a real bad shot, so it ended up okay.
There are lots of references to former cases, in which so-and-so is now in an orange jumpsuit breaking rocks in the hot sun. Chet also refers to Mexico as "south of the border, down Mexico way," because Bernie always hums that tune when they cross the border. These are doggy references that just crack me up.

In many ways, it doesn't really matter what this book is about. It's not about the plot, it's about Chet. Chet thinks like this: kidnapping, kids, napping, maybe he should lie down ... oh, where was he? Once again, let me reiterate that Chet is not a doofus. He has tracking, herding, leaping (for better or worse), and attacking skills, many of which he learned at the doggie police academy. (Let's not talk about why he didn't graduate.) At any rate, this is what the book is about: a circus elephant and her trainer disappear. The elephant's disappearance relates to a bigger whoop-de-do that takes Chet and Bernie to Mexico. There are muy loco bad guys. Chet would like them to be in orange jumpsuits breaking rocks in the hot sun.

Less hilarity than in the past ensues, but it ensues anyway. And readers get to spend time with Chet. That's better than breaking rocks in the hot sun, especially in an orange jumpsuit.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Faithful Place, by Tana French (hardcover, $25.95)

Like a set of nesting dolls, each book by Tana French contains the seed for the next book. Frank Mackey, the police detective/hero of Faithful Place, was a second banana in The Likeness. The heroine of The Likeness was similarly a secondary character in In the Woods, French's first book. Each book, however, has a very separate identity, tied together only by French's moody lighting and characteristic plot twists.

What makes Faithful Place very different from the other two is a realism grounded in French's characterization of a dysfunctional lower class Irish family. Her dialogue jumps at you with the tang of neighborhood slang. The brothers and sisters of the Mackey clan are like your own brothers and sisters -- for the most part. (They are dysfunctional, after all.) Their "da" is a raging alcoholic, their mother a hectoring victim who spreads guilt thickly among her children. There are ancient hurts that impinge upon the collective family nerve, some of which are raked back into the light by Frank Mackey's return to see his family after a 22-year absence.

That's right, Frank has not been back to see his family for 22 years. If he had lived far away, it would have been one thing, but Frank and his family all live in Dublin, Ireland. Frank has had contact with his younger sister, the ameliorative and sensitive Jacinta, nicknamed Jackie. She is the only one whom he will allow his daughter, nine-year-old Holly, to meet.

Frank and his girlfriend, Rose, were 19 and 20 and living with their families when they decided to run away to London. On the night they were to steal away from their houses set on the street called Faithful Place, Rose failed to meet Frank. Frank left by himself that night, but he didn't go to London. He moved to another section of Dublin and on to an eventual career with the police department. Frank returns because Rose's suitcase has been found, stuffed up a chimney in a deserted house on Faithful Place. Soon after, Frank is instrumental in finding a skeleton in the basement of the same house -- Rose's skeleton.

Faithful Place is a beautifully written story of a family in perpetual crisis. It's also the story of a tight-knit community pounded by an economic depression, straight-jacketed by religious strictures, bound by family rituals and obeisance to the family "da" who may rule, as in this case, with an iron fist and unholy temper. French's fine depiction of the family personalities draws the reader in, and her story of the underlying romance will break the reader's heart.

Both In the Woods and The Likeness were slightly fey and had a touch of malicious enchantment to them. What did happen to Rob Ryan in the woods in the first book? Why was Cassie Maddox so readily accepted in place of her doppelganger in the second? There is a surreality overlying the scientific and investigational elements. Faithful Place, on the other hand, feels real, as expressed by the family and in the crime and its poignant resolution.

P.S. My money is on Stephen Moran, a young detective Frank enlists as a "mole," as the star of the next novel.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Origin, by Diana Abu-Jaber ($13.95)

Is it part of our human design that we automatically try to categorize what we see? We don't have to spend energy re-creating the wheel every time if we can safely slot what we sense and experience into good-bad, funny-sad, rewarding-painful, for instance.

In Origin, this question of category has a fascinating answer: Who or what is Lena Dawson? The protagonist of Diana Abu-Jaber's 2007 novel is distant and befuddled by her senses. Abu-Jaber gives us abundant descriptions of what Lena sees and how that makes her feel. The descriptions are lush and complex. Abu-Jaber describes in hallucinogenic terms what thoughts the objects trigger in Lena. Lena has difficulty with social interactions. She stutters or her sentences trail away, and what seems clear in her head rarely translates smoothly when spoken. Is she autistic? Has she been abused and is now withdrawn? The answers are not definitive, because the questions are flawed. Nevertheless, we initially struggle to contain her personality.

Winter has a death grip on Syracuse, New York. Images of snow, ice, a blanketing whiteness fill most of the book. Lena herself is frozen in her own little world. She is a fingerprint analyst for the police. Her apartment is disintegrating and bare. Her social life is in similar straits. Her work world has definite boundaries and an on-off complexity: either the fingerprint belongs to "x," or it doesn't. Lena hides in plain sight in the dead of winter. Without a serious disturbance, it is likely she will remain this way, even were spring to come, until the day she dies.

This is the serious disturbance: babies are dying of SIDS in statistically awkward numbers. Intuitively, Lena feels that someone is murdering them. The babies belong to families from all areas of town, and from all levels of social and economic means. In a surprising revelation, Lena believes she is part of the equation, although she has had no children. She struggles, mentally and physically (wrapped in coats, hospital sheets, embracing arms, illusory vines, a gorilla mother's arms), to bring her subconscious feelings into a legally viable accusation.

Lena's background is intriguing right from the start. Her memories obsessively focus on how she survived a plane crash and was raised in a tropical rain forest by a mothering ape. When she was returned to "civilization," she was fostered by a couple in Syracuse. Her foster mother is prickly and fragile. Lena has gotten to the point in her life when she needs -- like food and water -- to know about her origin. It seems that the way to her own personal answers is to step out of her work cocoon into the real world.

Lena must venture into a real crime scene. She must battle a nosy, persistent reporter. She feels strangely aligned with a schizophrenic who lives in her building. Her knuckleheaded estranged husband, who left her for another woman -- actually, several other women -- wants to come back into her life. A detective is showing romantic interest in her. A co-worker is behaving suspiciously. Lena must overcome this stressful jumble to make herself whole.

Abu-Jaber, with her striking and poetic prose, uses the wintery motif well. As Lena proceeds with the case and an understanding of herself, the world around her begins to thaw and her ability to speak her thoughts improves. Lena goes from trying to be what everyone else wants her to be -- and not succeeding very well -- to allowing her real self to emerge. It takes her most of the book to finally say, "It's about me."

Here's a taste:
That evening after work, the moonlight is flat and silvery as fish bones; it floats in the darkness, a cage of ribs. There's something weird in the air, in that bone of a moon. The wind flashes through the fabric of my coat, freezing me. At the door to my apartment, it feels as if something is standing just on the other side of the door. I put my hand out and watch it turn the knob. There's nothing on the other side of the door, of course.
You will either really like this book, as I did, or it will annoy the heck out of you; Lena's character drives this book.