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

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville, c2009 ($14)

This book was nominated for just about every book award around. It's intense, grim, and sad.

Stuart Neville's premise is unique. Take a troubled youth, turn him into an assassin, smack him down into the turbulent times of "The Troubles" in Belfast, and have redemption as the theme. That's not the unique part. Have the young man, now considerably older, having done a long stint in prison for his crimes, haunted by the twelve ghosts of the people he killed. Have his only way back to sanity be through killing the people who set up the victims.

Gerry Fegan shuffles through his days after his release from prison. The Republicans owe him. Everyone knows what he did for the cause. He's a hero to some, a man to be avoided to most, and a drunk to all who see him these days. During the nights, he is haunted to the point of madness by the screams and wailings of the ghosts who climb out of the shadows to form gray, angry visions in front of him and in his dreams. The most poignant are the "civilians," a butcher and a young mother with her baby, who were killed during a bomb blast Gerry set off.

It is while Gerry is talking to a childhood friend that the plan forms. This childhood friend grew into a fellow activist, and it is this friend who gave the order to kill one of the victims, an informer to the police. If Gerry kills his friend, will the ghost leave him alone? Yes. And so begins the retribution.

In the uneven progress of Northern Ireland towards stability, another peacetime coalition is tentatively at hand in Belfast. Fragile prosperity and quiet have returned to the former war zones. When Gerry starts killing former key players in the dissident movement, some of whom are now prosperous politicians and businessmen, it threatens to unsettle the peace talks. There are no longer any heroes on either side, just a lot of people scratching backs or burying pasts, and there certainly isn't any excess of trust to go around.

While attending his friend's wake -- the friend he had just murdered -- Gerry meets his friend's niece, a woman who has been shunned by her family for taking up with, and having a child by, one of the hated policemen. It doesn't matter that she is no longer with him, Marie is a living ghost to her family. She and her young daughter become a beacon of hope to Gerry, that all need not end unhappily for him. Is he delusional for thinking anyone would want a man with murders on his conscience and the anticipation of more killings to come? Maybe not. It is Northern Ireland. Everyone has had to deal with the twins of death and disaster.

The imputed behind-the-scenes descriptions of the former dissidents -- how the former idealism has turned into graft and corruption and how the former organization has made way for a criminal gang -- are cynical and depressing. There's an especially brutal depiction of a dog fighting scene late in the book.

This is a page-turner, no doubt. Don't start this book lightly, because you will have to finish it. It becomes a compulsion to find out if Gerry succeeds in his plan. There is a hint throughout that maybe Gerry's ghosts aren't a figment of his imagination, and you'll want to know what that's about. There's an unsettling Saki-like twist at the end.

This book is NOT for everyone. Besides the violence that splatters every bloody page, there's a nagging worry that the book is becoming something it shouldn't be. In that regard, I have mixed feelings about the ending. (Sorry, can't discuss more than that without spoilers.) Beyond a doubt, however, Neville is a powerful writer whose pitbull-like narrative style grabs and shakes the reader, and commands attention.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Diamond Dogs, by Alan Watt, c2000 ($19.99)

This is the sort of book I can't read very often. It's the sort of story that goes from bleak to bleaker, then sinks lower than you think it has a right to sink. Along the way, there's a realization that the machinery that holds us all together is rather fragile, and that we humans aren't really meant to keep secrets, because we fear that if we were to release our secrets, then all would turn to dust.

Neil Garvin is a high school quarterback. He was named for Neil Diamond. He is a bully. His father is the sheriff in a small town near Las Vegas. His father, Chester, has a violent temper. Chester loves Neil Diamond and Midori liqueur. Neil's mother deserted his family when he was very young. Into this troubled background, a little more rain must fall. Neil accidentally kills another boy. He and his father silently conspire to hide the boy's death, which becomes increasingly difficult to do when the boy's uncle, an FBI agent, enters the picture.

More than a story about a death and its discovery, it's about Neil and his father and their strained relationship. How did they get to this point in their lives, in which football and, for his father, Neil Diamond are the only bright spots? What does each see flickering at the periphery of his life that needs to be addressed? Everyone is a victim in this story, but not every victim knows his story. Diamond Dogs is also about testing love and loyalty.

Alan Watt wrote this book from the perspective of Neil. Neil's voice seems so young, lost, and true. He goes through the motions to make each day bearable, because there is pain deep inside with which he cannot deal. Watt unrelentingly uncovers everyone's secrets and does a good job building up the tension, even though I often felt it was a short story on steroids.

It's a coming-of-age story. So, Neil, welcome to the bleak.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Liar, Liar, by K. J. Larsen ($14.95)

Move over, Stephanie Plum, Cat DeLuca is on the prowl!

Liar, Liar is the debut novel by three sisters, two of whom live in the Pacific Northwest. This book harkens back to the first few bad hair days of Janet Evanovich's iconic heroine, the aforementioned Stephanie Plum. Liar, Liar has zest and sass very similar to Evanovich's z&s, and Cat has her own eccentric smloving (a cross between smothering and loving) family. There's also flirting, backtalk, an over-the-top sidekick, and even a car disaster. The differences? With Liar, Liar, there's a little more plot focus, and Cat manages to anger way more people. I personally have no problem with imitation, especially if it's well done. This book made me laugh out loud, the way Evanovich's One for Money did many years ago.

Cat DeLuca runs Pants on Fire Detective Agency. She surreptitiously chases after allegedly cheating spouses and gives the wronged parties ammunition to kick the bums (or bumettes) out of their lives.

In the course of following a far-too-good-looking-for-his-own-good-and-he-drives-a-Porshe guy for a sobbing client, Cat becomes embroiled in something bigger and more explosive than anything she has ever run across before. Literally. A bomb explodes in a building as Cat nears her prey, and she is clunked unconscious by a falling sign. When she awakens in the hospital, she is told that the man she was tailing died in the explosion. After the "dead man" visits her in her hospital room, she tries to tell the police and anyone else who will listen that the dead man must be someone else, but no one pays any attention. And the woman who hired her may not be the not-dead-man's wife. Then she has another near-death experience. Is her concussion making her delusional, or is someone trying to kill her? So she tries to figure out what the FBI, diamonds, a cranky mechanic, a shady philantropist, and Max the bodyguard (who doesn't resemble Kevin Costner and isn't Italian) have in common? And, yes, someone is trying to kill her.

Toss in a mother who shouts, "Let's eat," as a coda to difficult situations, a family that tramples its way to the buffet table, a wild bunch of friends and relatives who are either Chicago cops or working for "the other side," and you have ...

Fun, fun, fun!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey, c2009 ($15)

Pardon me while I decry the abundance of comparisons of mystery books set in Africa to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I especially think it's misleading when the book's tone may be similar but the subject matter and intensity is radically different. (Having said that, I must admit to having recently used that comparison for my review of The Second Death of Good Luck Tinubu!)

Kwei Quartey's wonderful Wife of the Gods has a similar tone; that is, there is an underlying cultural civility expressed when people meet each other. Whether it is "Dumela, Mma" or "Woizo, woizo," as in this book set in Ghana, there is a shared ritual politeness and propriety that belies the very different nature of the books. Wife of the Gods is NOT The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, not by a long shot.

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson loves his family and enjoys his job in the big city of Accra. There was tragedy in his young life when his brother was injured in an accident and his mother disappeared. The grown-up Darko has anger management issues and an intolerance for the Ghanian equivalent of snake-oil salesmen, people who traffic in superstitions and ritualistic fetishism. He also enjoys a toke of the weed every so often, weed obtained from a man whom Darko arrested once upon a time. Darko is a contradictory mix of principles, but he vehemently adheres to those principles.

Darko is sent on a case to the village of Ketanu, a place with which he is familiar from his youth. Long ago he accompanied his mother and brother on a visit to his mother's sister, Osewa, who lives there, and he remembers Osewa fondly. However, Darko's mother disappeared after a visit to Osewa and was never found. It is with joy and trepidation, therefore, that Darko re-enters Ketanu.

A young woman, Gladys, has been found murdered, lying in a plantain grove. She was not just any young woman. She was the hope of Ketanu, a young medical student who was trying to stem the tide of AIDS and to save women bound into virtual slavery by an old-time system of oblation to the village fetish priest. Darko's own dander rises when he meets the drunken, abusive priest as part of his investigation. The village healer fares no better under Darko's glare when he learns the healer was one of the last people to see Gladys alive. Then there's the young infatuated man who allegedly stalked Gladys and the alleged village witch, who happens to be Gladys' aunt. What about Gladys' boss, a seemingly shifty person whom Darko senses is lying. And how does he sense the boss is lying? He has a mild form of synesthesia, a mixing up of the senses.

Synesthesia has been used, in my opinion, to good effect in The Fallen by T. Jefferson Parker and Still Waters by Nigel McCrery. In The Fallen, the hero sees colors and shapes when people talk. In Still Waters, the unfortunate hero tastes what people sound like. In this book, Darko feels the sound of voices. His aunt, for example, is dark velvet. This is an understated and clever addition to Darko's complex character.

Wife of the Gods deals with some very serious issues in a very serious manner. There was more violence than I had expected at first, lulled as I was initially by the "No. 1 Ladies" demeanor. And there's a whopper of a plotline resolution at the end that had me wincing. The best parts are the cultural perspective by a Ghanian writer who is now a doctor in the U.S., and Quartey's willingness to give us a flawed but principled hero.

Monday, October 18, 2010

In Search of Mercy, by Michael Ayoob ($24.99)

I think this book defines the direction of modern noir. With a nod to the old timey black-and-white "B" movies and a wink to the subculture of the young these days (and a sideways glance at "The X-Files"), Ayoob has constructed an interesting and sometimes bizarre story.

Mercy Carnahan is an actress who disappeared decades ago after a meltdown during her Broadway debut. She was the queen of the sassy 1940s "B" movie dames. In the process of becoming "La Devila," the nickname given to her naughty and not nice persona, she left behind Louis Kashon, her hometown boyfriend. In the present time, when Louis meets Dexter Bolzjak, a young, traumatized -- but, as is typical these days, the story of his unfortunate past is drawn out in scant inches throughout the book -- produce warehouse worker, Louis prevails on Dexter to find his long-lost love. As inducement, Louis shows Dexter a drawer full of $100 and $500 bills. Just find Mercy and all that would be his. It soon becomes obvious that this is not your reality-based detective story; there are too many odd-ball characters and way-out situations.

What Dexter first starts investigating is Louis. Who was he and where did he get the money? Then he investigates his new boss, Gen, a business diva who has deigned to work at Dexter's produce company. Dexter has dizzy spells -- no, he has whirlpool spells -- that occur whenever he has flashbacks to "the trauma." In the end he must also investigate and face what happened to him. And the elusive quarry of his search is Mercy, who is alternately good girl Agnes, her real name, and the flashy, trashy Hollywood dame, whom drag queens and S&M freaks have come to adore. So, it is not just the whereabouts of Mercy that Dexter needs to discover but who Mercy really was.

Told in the present tense, probably to distinguish the current narrative from the parts about Mercy and Louis in the past, it remains to be seen until the end whether Dexter survives his adventure intact.

This is an intense book, at times graphically violent. It won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Best First Private Eye Novel award. Ayoob's writing has punch and he gets an "A" for creativity. And those of us who've read this book are still talking about the ending!

Michael Ayoob is scheduled to appear at Murder by the Book on Tuesday, October 19.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke, c2009 ($14.99)

This is a primer for readers too young to remember the fight for Black Power in the 1960s and 70s. It is also an invective against the manipulation of the government by big oil companies. And, lastly, it's a sad tale about union strikes and the hovering shadow of mechanization just over the horizon. These are big issues for a debut novel to take on, and the result is a little uneven but captivating.

In 1981, Jay Porter is black and a lawyer in Houston. His wife is expecting their first child. Where once he was fire and revolution, he is now establishment and quiet. His former girlfriend is the new mayor of Houston, and her 70s rhetoric has led her in a different political direction. His father-in-law is involved, and gets Jay involved as a result, in a longshoremen's union strike.

The catalyst that propels the convergence of all the issues is the rescue of a white woman from a canal. Jay and his wife are happily celebrating her birthday while drifting down the canal on a rag-tag boat scrounged up through the connections Jay has made in his financially shaky practice. They hear a woman screaming, gunshots, and splashing.

If Jay had never jumped in the water, if Jay hadn't been curious about the woman's story, if he hadn't heard she was being arraigned for murder, if someone hadn't bribed him to stay out of it, if a young man hadn't been beaten up because of the impending strike, if the man he accuses of masterminding the beating weren't an officer in a fraternal union, if there weren't an oil crisis, perhaps Jay would have lived a long uneventful life.

Attica Locke's story is clever, but there are times when the long interludes in which she describes the student politics of the 60s and 70s seem to undermine the rhythm of her main story. Stokely Carmichael, the SDS, and black power schisms are a volatile mix, and they introduce the tale of Jay's felony arrest and trial when he was a young college student. Some elements are integral to the current story, but the lengthy background setup interrupts the otherwise fast-paced tale of the woman in the canal. Along with the strike storyline with all of its participants, there's a lot a reader has to go through to get to the end of Locke's book.

Then, too, this is the second story in a row for which I've guessed one of the main plot turns long before the end and wonder why the knucklehead of a protagonist can't tell the storyline from the asides. Having said that, this book gets high marks for bringing in interesting issues, cleverly interweaving the past and the present (including our 2010 present), and creating a complex and sympathetic protagonist. (I didn't really mean to call him a knucklehead.) I can see why Black Water Rising was nominated for an Edgar and chosen as one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. Locke's writing is clear and compelling. When she brings in the phrase "black water rising" towards the end of the book, its poetry and multiple meanings hit hard.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mr Peanut, by Adam Ross (Borzoi Books, $25.95)

If you're thinking of getting married, don't read this book: it will terrify you

If you're thinking of getting married, read this book: it will inspire you.

Paradox and duality are the heart of this stunningly weird book, whose leitmotif is the Escher picture of interlocking angels and devils that switch from one to the other depending on how you focus, and whose villain is named Mobius. It is the story of David Pepin's love for and resentment of his wife Alice, whom he may or or may not have killed, in “real life” and in the book he is writing about their life together. Interwoven with the tangled revelations of the facts and fantasies about their relationship is the story of Sam Sheppard, who may or may not have killed his wife in real “real life” and in the pages of this book – or is it in David's book? Also sprinkled into the unfolding is a riff on Hitchcock and how Rear Window's story of Jimmy Stewart's character's voyeuristic investigation of the man who may have killed his wife is an allegory for Stewart's character's desire to kill his own love interest; a fantasy on the part of the detective investigating Alice's death about the murder and dismemberment of his own wife; a description of how the living arrangements on Malaya promote non-violence; and much much more.

With precision and poetry, Ross captures life's big moments of passion; the small details of everyday existence; and the way marriage is lived along the complex interface between the two. Reading his book offers some of the same experience: tumbling around in a vortex of alternate histories while being riveted to page by a still moment of absolute clarity and simplicity.

If you're confused but intrigued by this review, you have a foretaste of what this brilliantly original book is like.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In the Shadow of Gotham, by Stefanie Pintoff, c2009 ($14.99)

This novel won the Edgar for best first novel by an American, a heady accomplishment for the author. Reviewers have given this book stars and high praise. It frequently has been compared to The Alienist, a novel written a few years ago about the beginnings of profiling at the turn of the last century. I wish I had liked it better. But then, I had the same problem with the very popular The Alienist. Maybe I just have a thing against turn-of-the-last-century profiling . . .

Although I do not actively try to figure out whodunnit while I'm reading, especially these days when mystery books are less about the intellectual process of solving a mystery and more about character, within 100 pages I guessed what the catch was. It disturbs me that there had to be a "catch." It probably would have been a crackling good story without it. Anyway . . .

Simon Ziele is a police detective who has been reassigned from Manhattan to a small town outside of New York City. He suffered a trauma, slowly unveiled, and the town is just about his speed these days. Unfortunately, a hideous murder in the town drives him back to Manhattan to search for a potential serial killer. Alistair Sinclair, a rich, uppercrust criminologist at Columbia University, declares he knows who is behind the murder. It is the subject of Sinclair's study on criminal psychopathology, Michael Fromley. Ziele teams with Sinclair and his research staff to track down Fromley.

There are many interesting and entertaining elements to the story, including Pintoff's description of the wary introduction of systematic scientific techniques that we consider indispensible today. Pintoff gives us lots of details of Manhattan in 1905. However, she falls prey to the same affectation some other historical novelists have; there's a wink and a nod from the future when there shouldn't be any reference to what is to come. Ziele says: "It wasn't that I was too old, though at thirty I was no longer young by the standards of the day." Maybe this book is done from the veiwpoint of an 100-year-old Ziele, reflecting back on his youth . . .

Some of the characters are engaging, the best two of which are a Manhattan madame and a dowager in the small town. The basic story -- my guessing the ending notwithstanding -- was fairly clever. I did like it better than The Alienist, however faint that praise might be. I think this has used up my quota for "birth of profiling" stories, and I can now move on.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Let the Dead Lie, by Malla Nunn ($15)

If you haven't read A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn's first book in her series set in South Africa, don't read this review.

I loved A Beautiful Place to Die. It introduced white police detective Emmanuel Cooper. Let the Dead Lie gives us the next great chapter in Cooper's roller coaster of a life. At the end of A Beautiful Place, Cooper had given up everything he had accomplished in order to stand by his principles. He had also sacrificed what other people had, people whom he had come to respect, including a black police constable, Shabalala, and a Jewish refugee doctor, Zweigman.

The time is the early 1950s, soon after apartheid has become the law. At the start of Let the Dead Lie, Cooper has moved to Durban from Johannesburg. He works in the shipyards as a manual laborer, having been stripped of his badge and his designation as "white," a serious change in circumstance in an extremely stratified, color-coded world in which anything other than white means something less than human.

Cooper accidentally stumbles across the body of a young white boy, a street hustler from the poor side of town. Then Cooper's landlady and her maid are found murdered in a similar fashion. Cooper is accused of the murders. Only the intercession of his mentor and protector, van Niekerk, saves him from immediate arrest. Van Niekerk has also moved to Durban and, although Cooper is no longer a police officer, hires Cooper to work as an independent investigator on the side.

The catch is this: Cooper must find the real murderer within 48 hours or he will be jailed and surely executed. Of course, there is more than meets the eye. When is the murder of three people not about the murder of three people? This is the question that propels the rest of the book, as Cooper struggles to figure out what the real issues are.

A shadow is cast over whether van Niekerk is really protecting Cooper or whether Cooper is merely a pawn in a larger game. Lana, a young woman to whom Cooper is attracted, turns out to be van Niekerk's girlfriend, complicating the nature of all the relationships. Nunn also gives us a glimpse of the Indian community and its place in the hierarchy. And so the story goes; every stone Cooper turns over only displays more stones.

I loved the complexity of the story, with Cooper as alternately pawn and provocateur. Shabalala and Dr. Zweigman are brought back in a surprising way to help Cooper (and to personally make me happy). This is an outstanding series and gives a nuanced look at the various avenues racial prejudice can travel down.