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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens (hardcover, $23) (due 3/11)

I am withdrawing my original post. The following comments are correct, it was too vitriolic. Just because I didn't like a book doesn't give me the right to be so "snarky." It was not the book for me, in any event.

Random House is welcome to directly contact me should it find one of my reviews offensive. I am open-minded to legitimate discussion. My apologies to Random House for any discomfort I've caused it.

The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas ($14)(c1996)

It took me long enough to read my first book by Fred Vargas, the "number-one bestselling author in France," according to the blurb page. It was delightful -- contrary to the impression given by the gory cover with blood dripping down the page!

Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is Rousseau's "natural man." He is his own person, yet he works for the body that implements society's laws. He is a commisaire in the 5th arrondissement in Paris. Most of his life up until his recent appointment to Paris was spent in the area around the Pyrenees village where he grew up. His background, his dark, small, wiry appearance, and his uncommon thinking have labeled him a "wild child" by his colleagues. But they can't argue with success. It is his out-of-the-box thinking and the number of crimes he has solved that have won him the appointment to the plum assignment in Paris.

He is aided by the phlegmatic Inspector Adrien Danglard, whose wife ran off and left him with two sets of twins, his own children, and another child, not his own. He drinks a lot of wine, beginning early in the afternoon at the police station. C'est le vin! Jean-Baptiste and Adrien form an oddly complementary couple, each fairly tolerant of the other's peculiarities.

Into their working lives bursts a force of nature, Mathilde Forestier, who at first seems to be an ordinary madwoman. They soon learn that she may be a madwoman, but she is also a famous oceanographer and anything but ordinary. She wants the police to find a blind man she had just met. No crime, no problem, just her desire to find the man. Although others scoff at her request, Adamsberg helps her. He is rewarded when he learns that she knows who the chalk circle man is.

Paris is amused by the man who comes out in the dead of night and draws a blue chalk circle around objects he finds on the streets: for instance, 12 bottle caps, four paper clips, a leather handbag, a Coca-Cola can, a pool of vomit, a broken egg. But to Adamsberg something doesn't feel right, and he waits for l'autre chaussure to drop. The justification comes when a murdered woman's body is discovered in a circle. Was she placed there by someone else or by the chalk circle man? Adamsberg, Danglard, and Mathilde and her collection of eccentric acquaintances are all involved in figuring out who, what, and why.

There is a great deal of charm to this book and a clever, if somewhat dubious, ending. (How could they not know, I predict you will be asking yourself. But, never mind, as Emily Litella of "Saturday Night Live" used to say.)

I can only imagine what Mme. Fred Vargas sounds like in French. Thank goodness for Sian Reynolds, who seems to have done a masterful job with translation, giving us the flavor of how unusual Adamsberg is and how quirky Vargas' writing is. Par example:

"[Adamsberg] had left behind him office walls covered with graffiti which he had scribbled there over the last twenty years, without ever getting tired of life."

"They all sat nodding, without knowing why. There are moments when everyone just sits nodding."

"...[Mathilde] had been quite entertained by a clandestine couple at the Brasserie Barnkrug. They had obviously not known each other long. But when the man got up in the middle of the meal to make a phone call, the woman had watched him go, with a frown, and then she had snatched some of his chips on to her own plate. Delighted with her booty, she had devoured it, licking her lips after every mouthful. The man had returned and Mathilde had told herself that she knew something essential about the woman that her companion would never find out."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Red Wolf, by Liza Marklund (hardcover, $25.99)(c2011)

U.S. author James Patterson gave Swedish writer Liza Marklund a leg-up in the U.S. market by co-authoring The Postcard Killers with her. Red Wolf marks her first big-time release in the U.S. Unfortunately, it is the fifth book in the Annika Bengtzon series. Annika has been through a lot by the time the action in Red Wolf happens. When we meet Annika, she has panic attacks, the world sways and rolls in times of stress, she hears angels singing to her, and her emotions are described as solid things crouching inside her, waiting to shatter, grow heavy, or burn. She is a psychological mess.

It takes a long time to get used to the combination of her fragility and iron strength without knowing what issues she has faced in the past. Eventually we learn that she was trapped in a tunnel with a bomber -- the previous book in the series, unfortunately not available in the U.S. -- and suffers from claustrophobia as a result. Her best friend, Anne Snapphane, an executive with a start-up communications company, is no better. She, too, sways and slumps with emotional baggage. Annika's husband, Thomas, is egocentric and contemplates wandering off into marital infidelity with a colleague. Annika's young children are her bright spot, and they are the recipients of her few bright thoughts and gestures.

This much angst covers the interesting plot of the book for quite some time. Buried under the tears, sobs, heartbreak, and dizziness is the story of murders in the cold area of Sweden that lies within the Arctic Circle. A newspaper reporter in one of the towns in that cold swatch of land has been murdered. Annika, herself a respected investigative reporter for a large newspaper in Stockholm, had been contacted by the reporter before he died. He had some information about the destruction of a fighter jet at a military base and the death of one of the military personnel during the 1960s. The incident had been attributed to a terrorist group, but the perpetrators were never caught. Although the reporter has died without leaving Annika any clues, she begins investigation by herself and uncovers a series of deaths that may be related to the group. Annika meticulously and inventively discovers information that eventually winds up linking several aspects of her life together.

When the story finally got going, it was a page-turner. The resolution was exciting but kept at a fairly human level -- as opposed to a car chase/bomb-throwing/cliff-jumping cinematic denouement, although there was a little of that thrown in.

Annika doesn't appear to be much of a prize herself, but why did she want the inconstant Thomas? The story, I'm sure, is buried in one of the books in the series that we may not see for a long time. Wade through the soap opera to get to an intriguing story of an incipient 1960s Maoist revolution in Sweden and the very human faces behind that revolution many years later.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bad Debts, by Peter Temple (out of print) (c2005)

It took a lot of restraint to keep from immediately tackling every known work by Peter Temple as soon as I had finished Broken Shore, a book I loved for its language and characterizations. Actually, it didn't take a lot of restraint because Temple's books, with the exception of Broken Shore, are out of print in the U.S. This Australian writer is mostly an undiscovered gem from Down Under. Slowly, over the last year or so, I've managed to find -- or other people have stumbled on them and passed them on to me -- a couple more: Bad Debts and Black Tide. I've put off reading them until I've absolutely needed the comfort of reading a sure-fire winner. After reading sturm-und-drang and just-plain-silly lately, I wanted something that reminded me that language can convey more than a story. In Temple's case, the poetry and black humor in his words immediately elevate my reading experience.

Bad Debts is the first of four books in the Jack Irish series, according to the wonderful website, www.stopyourekillingme.com. Among the many things you slowly learn about Jack is that "Irish" is not his last name. Somewhere along the ancestral line his real family name was mangled into "Irish." I hate to reveal details about Jack's life that the author painstakingly teases out over the course of the book ... so I won't. However, the details embellish what you already sense about Jack, that he's capable of playing both good cop and bad cop (although he is not a cop), that he's capable of feeling fear but is also fearless once he makes up his mind, that he has seen tragedy almost beyond bearing.

Jack is an attorney who doesn't practice law anymore. Instead, he finds people who owe money to his employers (who are a little shady, perhaps), helps run gambling schemes (a little toe over on the shady side), and apprentices to a master woodworker (a Zen experience to balance the shadiness and gloom in other parts of his life).

When Jack was an attorney he specialized in criminal defense. Danny McKillop, one of his ex-clients, has been released from jail. He claimed then and claims now to be innocent of killing a woman while driving drunk. He calls Jack for help in proving his innocence, but by the time Jack gets his message, his client is dead, shot by the police. It would be a very short book if things didn't go sideways from there. There are intimations that Danny may have been the victim of a larger-than-life conspiracy. On the other hand, Danny may have been just plain crazy. Either way, Peter Temple does a gorgeous job of showing us Melbourne and its fictional warts. Interesting characters abound.

The star of the show, let's not forget, is Temple's writing. Here are some samples, chosen at random (that's how good he is):
The Minister smiled. He had a thin, sly face with high cheekbones. Something about it said cosmetic surgery. His full head of dark hair was the kind that doesn't move in the wind.
I put in the next day at Taub's [the woodworker's], cutting a taper on and hand-morticing the legs of the boardroom table. It was soothing work for someone not feeling all that flash. Charlie didn't make tables any more unless he had to. Having me around meant he didn't have to. 'A table is pretty much a table,' he said. 'When you can't make a complete ruin.'
And, finally:
'Nice bit of cloth,' I said. Drew was wearing a navy-blue suit.

"He looked down at himself. 'Bought it with the tip Mrs De Lillo gave me,' he said. 'From Buck's. Nine hundred dollars.' He pointed at a lapel. 'There's a puke stain here you can barely see.'

"'Nearly invisible,' I said. 'From about a hundred metres in bad light. ...'
Instead of selling this paperback, I may just put it on loan, so people will have to bring it back and other people can share this rare treat. Or I'll move to Australia.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Subterranean, by James Rollins ($9.99) (c1999)

Two words: escapism, fun. This was James Rollins' debut book, and people have been coming back for more since then. Like Clive Cussler and Michael Crichton, he takes his readers on improbable adventures, with a smattering of real history and science to back it up.

An older scientist has amassed a group of specialists and military guards to explore a series of linked caverns two miles beneath ... Antarctica. A relic has been found, indicating a primitive culture existed long before man stood on two legs, and archaeologist Ashley Carter and Australian spelunker Ben Brust are two of the people who will investigate its origins. Ashley has a young son who, for contrived reasons, must accompany the group, at least to the underground military base from which the team will plough into the tunnels and caves. All this bustling about has irritated something nasty in the subterranean world, and it's coming to express its dismay ... loudly. Does this smack of something like Jurassic Park meets Journey to the Center of the Earth?

It's all contrived. Ashley and Ben's two-dimensional characterizations are alternately irritating and laughable. Movie stereotypes abound: hyperventilating curvy scientist, Middle Eastern biologist with a hidden agenda, macho-macho military men, and smelly but loveable characters that draw on forces from the dawn of man. Jurassic Park meets Journey to the Center of the Earth meets "Star Wars" meets Lord of the Ring.

Despite all that, it's hold-your-breath fun.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Truth-Teller's Lie, by Sophie Hannah, apa Hurting Distance ($15)(c2010)

I've read some dour books lately, so I thought (wrongly), "Hey, here's a book by someone with a cute name, Sophie Hannah; it should be entertaining."

The Truth-Teller's Lie is entertaining, but not in the way I thought it would be. The back cover quotes The (London) Times: "A superbly creepy, twisty thriller about obsessive love, psychological torture and the darkest chambers of the human heart." That quote neatly summarizes this book. So, ditto.

Just before embarking on a disastrous vacation, Detective Sergeant Charlotte "Charlie" Zailer interviews a distraught young woman who is convinced her married lover, who has disappeared, needs help. She and her partner Simon Waterhouse chalk it up to the hysteria of a discarded lover and put the case on ice. Since every other chapter of the book is the first-person narrative of that woman, Naomi Jenkins, a reader can suspect that Naomi's concern is justified.

In a convoluted series of events, the stories of Charlie and Naomi intertwine as the story becomes darker and more depraved. As Hannah says, "The diagram [of connections] now resembled a morbidly obese spider -- a huge black mass of lines, arrows, circles, loops. The shape of chaos."

I probably should have read The Times' quote before reading this book, but it was soon too late. I was immediately caught in Hannah's web, trying to make sense of the chaos. She does it so well.

Apparently the Jenkins/Waterhouse series is being adapted for television in Great Britain.