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

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly (hardcover, $27.99)

I liked everything about this book, including the surprising explanation of the title. Michael Connelly, I never tire of saying, is one of the best storytellers around. He meticulously populates his stories with details but doesn't drown out the main story with them. In this case, Connelly has returned to the adventures of Mickey Haller, the "Lincoln Lawyer." When last we saw Mickey he had done a turn as a special prosecutor at the behest of his half-brother, Harry Bosch, star of Connelly's most famous series. Now Mickey's back is to the wall because criminal defense work has dried up, and he mostly represents people who are fighting foreclosure. In these days of economic depression and the fall-out of unscrupulous mortgage lending, the potential for clients is sadly large.

Lisa Trammel began as a foreclosure client, one whose case Mickey is on the verge of winning, when she is charged with the murder of a man whose bank held her loan. Connelly has crafted a tale that races along despite lingering over a fair amount of foundation-building as Mickey layers his case. And, of course, Connelly flourishes several aces he has kept up Mickey's sleeve.

What tips the scales in his favor as best character in a Connelly series over Harry Bosch or Terry McCaleb is Mickey's rapscallion charm. It is why his two ex-wives still think fondly of him. It is why he can get away with outrageous stunts in the courtroom. His antics anger judges, opposing counsel, and the same two ex-wives who stick by him. Connelly has created a character who is both larger-than-life and down-to-earth. Mickey is humbled by his teenage daughter, by his past as an addict, and by his search for a better self.

For this fourth book in the series, Mickey still uses the traveling office in his chauffeured Lincoln Continental, but he actually rents a real office for this case. Sadly, this may herald the downhill road for an aging avenger.

The Fifth Witness is clever. It's exciting even in the wordy courtroom scenes. (Although Stieg Larsson has my vote for best courtroom scene ever.) It's provocative in setting such a contemporary issue before us.

And, yes, there is a reference to Matthew McConaughey starring in a movie about a lawyer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Satori, by Don Winslow, based on characters by Trevanian (hardcover, $24.99)

Trevanian's enigmatic and compelling book, Shibumi (the state of effortless perfection), came out in 1979. His protagonist, Nicholai Hel, was a Caucasian man with an Asian turn of mind. Because of family circumstances, Nicholai was raised by a Japanese military man, General Kishikawa. Kishikawa taught young Nicholai to play the game of Go. In fact, he taught Nicholai that life and the problems it brings could be viewed as a giant Go game. Combining Go-strategy, his martial arts skills and discipline, a knowledge of many languages, and a superior intellect, Nicholai was a force to be reckoned with. He was also an assassin.

Almost thirty years later, along comes respected thriller novelist Don Winslow to give us the prequel to Shibumi. Satori is a higher level of awareness, a moment of perfect clarity, and the book Satori defines the moment when young Nicholai Hel finds his true place in the world.

In 1951 Japan, Nicholai Hel has just been released from prison. Put there and tortured by Americans, Hel is not inclined to be sympathetic to any proposal they may have for him. Because Hel has such an extraordinary combination of talents, the CIA would like him to assassinate a high-level Soviet spy in China. His reward will be freedom. The 26-year-old Hel takes up the offer. It is especially sweet when Hel realizes the target is Voroshinen, the man who cast aside Hel's mother and stole his family's fortune. A few characters are introduced in Satori who eventually show up in Shibumi, so it is well worthwhile to track down a copy of Shibumi and read that next.

I must say that Shibumi was definitely Trevanian's book, as Satori is definitely Winslow's. Winslow is well regarded for the hard-edged thrillers he writes, mostly about drug trafficking and corruption in Southern California and Mexico. However, before those thrillers, he wrote one of my favorite series with a sweet and smart hero, Neal Carey. In my opinion, written with Winslow's pen, young Nicholai Hel owes some of his personality to young Neal Carey. There is a sweetness and a hopefulness to Hel that not even assassination assignments and torture can allay. Winslow depicts Hel's Buddhist philosophy fairly well, but Trevanian's portrayal reached more mystical and esoteric levels. Anyhow, I enjoyed this follow-up, and anything that brings attention to a masterpiece like Shibumi has my vote.

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson (hardcover, $24.99)

Kate Atkinson's characters are often either victims or beneficiaries of kismet or deus ex machina. Bad guys get what's coming to them but in unexpected ways, and good guys are saved in unexpected ways. This characterizes Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books, and it is what makes her readers say, "Get outta here," in astonishment at some point in the book.

Let's talk about Jackson Brodie, the former police detective and current private investigator. It is his series, but in name only. He barely appears in one of the previous books in the series -- Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News? -- and his story is only one of the many tangled tales in the other books. Atkinson's gimmick is to create many stories that intersect at a later point -- in an unexpected way, of course.

Story #1: Tracy Waterhouse, just retired from the police force and now head of security at a shopping mall, rescues and then impetuously buys a young child from her abuser. With no family of her own, Tracy realizes that she has been aching for someone to love, and three- or four-year-old Courtney seems to be the cure.

Story #2: Jackson Brodie has been hired by Hope McMaster, a woman in New Zealand who was adopted in England when she was a very young child. The time has come to find out her true story. Jackson finds a link to the death of a prostitute right around the time Hope was adopted. Tracy Waterhouse, her ex-police partner, a social worker, and a former newspaper reporter all have pieces to the puzzle that Jackson must solve, but it's a comedy of missed opportunities for him to get in touch with these people, especially the women, or perhaps there's a subtle conspiracy involved.

Story #3: Tilly Squires is an elderly actress who is taking big steps into the world of dementia. She accidentally shoplifts, unintentionally cooks her roommate's dinner at three in the morning, and forgets she's in front of the camera when filming her part in a popular TV show. During some downtime, Tilly wanders into Tracy's mall and witnesses Courtney's mistreatment and subsequent rescue by Tracy. And sort of remembers it. Mirroring Tilly's awareness, her story drifts in and out of the book's narrative. There are amusing and sad stories of Tilly's past life and her current predicament, but there seems to be little correlation to what else is going on with Jackson, et al. It is easy to wonder what her story has to do with the others. However, references to her TV show pop up every now and then in the other stories, which is quite amusing.

In the background is the convoluted, ongoing story of Jackson's relationships with his ex-wives, girlfriends, and children.

Atkinson mixes humor with darkness, sadness with glee. She wends her dulcet way to her Shakespearean ending in which identities are revealed, mistakes are rectified, and karma swings its gavel to bless all with what they deserve.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Julia Spencer-Fleming: An Interview

We welcome author Julia Spencer-Fleming as a guest to our blog! Beginning with the award-winning In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia has had a string of books that are popular with our customers -- and us! She has graciously agreed to answer some of our questions:

mbtb: One Was a Soldier is your seventh book. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to write a series and that Clare and Russ's evolving relationship would be a central plot point?

Julia: I didn’t know I was writing a series from the very beginning, no. When I started In the Bleak Midwinter, I didn’t know much more about the publishing industry than I could find in Writer’s Digest. (It was the end of the century, and there wasn’t the Internet treasure-trove of information on books and writing we have today.) I did want to write a book that would linger in the reader’s mind, whether that meant rushing out to buy the next novel or simply thinking about the characters wistfully.

I don’t know if Russ and Clare’s relationship is the central plot point. Their story question is a very simple one: will these two decent people find an ethical way to be together? Or will they be forced to part? They are at the heart of the novels, though, because we read for characters, not for plot.

mbtb: On your website, you describe your series as “novels of faith and murder.” How are your books received in the religious community?

Julia: Very well, thank God! I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from clergy and clerical families. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes - the books are sprinkled with ecclesiastical errors. (The hardest part of researching, I have found, is knowing that you DON’T know something that you think you know. If that makes sense.) I think what the religious community responds to is the portrayal of a cleric who is authentically human. Lay people invest such a staggering amount of symbolism into the clerics around them: they’re better and more holy than anyone, or deluded, or dangerously hypocritical.

The Rev. Clare Fergusson in a thirty-something woman doing a difficult job, often with inadequate support from the folks around her. She makes mistakes, she has self-doubts, she tries very hard to love her neighbors, but she doesn’t always like them very much. In fact, the highest praise I get isn’t from the religious community - they already know the reality of their lives - but from readers who are areligious. It’s enormously gratifying to get an email from someone saying, “I’m not a believer, but knowing Clare helps me understand what it’s like from the inside.” Which ultimately is the job of fiction. To enable the reader to experience another person’s reality from the inside.

mbtb: Do you think small towns are as accepting in real life as the Millers Kill you portray in your series?

Julia: Is Millers Kill accepting? (You can’t see it on the page, but I’m laughing here.) Between the gossip, and the people saying, “But this is the way we’ve always done it!” and the feuding neighbors and the economic struggles - yes, I’d say small towns are as accepting as Millers Kill. I live in a very small town in Southern Maine, and some of my scenes - I’m thinking of the contentious town meeting in A Fountain Filled With Blood are ripped from the headlines, as it were.

mbtb: The supporting characters all play strong roles in your novels. How did you
create the community of Millers Kill from scratch?

Julia: Can I get away with saying I don’t know? There were certain roles to be filled once I had cast my protagonists as a new young priest and the home-town chief of police. Clare had to have a vestry, and parishioners, and of course, a church secretary. Russ needed officers and a dispatcher and old friends and family. I know the essential nature and some of the background of all the supporting cast, but I try to leave enough space to flesh them out and introduce new plot elements as necessary.

I tend to be thinking about one to two books ahead as I work, so I can weave in threads ready to be pulled in the next novel. For instance, in Out of the Deep I Cry, Russ broke his leg, necessitating a doctor’s care. The physician, George Stillman, turned out to be the third doctor of that name; his grandfather’s diaries provided important information in the cold case Russ was working. We meet him again briefly in I Shall Not Want, caring for an illegal migrant worker with a broken arm. He tells Clare he, like her, is in the Guard. Now in One Was A Soldier, he’s a major viewpoint character, returned from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury. Did I know where he would wind up when I was writing Out of the Deep I Cry? Nope. I just needed a doctor. The rest of it just grew like Topsy.

mbtb: Here in the Pacific Northwest, local crime writers often use our rainy weather to add atmosphere. What attracted you to the cold, snowy climate of Upstate New York as a setting?

Julia: Failure to appreciate that if I set a mystery series in Hawai’i, I could take a yearly tax-deductible trip there for “research.”

No, actually, that’s where I’m from. My family settled the area I write about in the 1720s, and we’ve been there ever since, too foolish or too stubborn to relocate to better weather and decent farmland. As a writer, I love the idea of extreme weather. Blizzards, ice storms, impassible roads, roaring spring floods; bring it on. In Millers Kill, NY, it’s not just the bad guys you have to worry about. The climate can kill you, as well.

With Clare¹s background as an Army helicopter pilot and her position as an Episcopalian priest, you must do a lot of background research. What¹s your process?

Julia: As I said, the hard part is realizing I don’t know as much as I think I do! I research like most other writers, I suppose. I get information at libraries and historical societies. I have people I can call up with questions: a priest and a police chief and a gun guy and a doctor. And of course, I use the Internet a great deal. The greatest gift Google has given writers is time. If I have a quick question: “What’s the nearest maximum security prison to Washington County?” “What time does the sun go down on this date?” Boom, it’s right there. I can check it and keep on writing.

I did a great deal more research on One Was A Soldier than I usually do, because I felt it was so important to get it right. So along with the usual research mix, I talked with several veterans at length, and I spent a long time reading books, articles and military blogs. With this war, you don’t have to wait for Walter Cronkite to update you. You can get the raw feed in soldiers’ own words, online and updated daily. It’s amazing.

mbtb: For books like "One Was a Soldier," which deals with returning veterans, and A Fountain Filled with Blood, which dealt with homophobia, are you drawn to a particular topic or timely current event or do the plots naturally leadthere?

Julia: I start with an issue or event that I’m interested in. Then, of course, it has to fit into the confines of Millers Kill. I’m fascinated by epidemics and epidemiology, for instance, but how would that translate into a small-town contemporary crime fiction setting? Everybody in the police department gets the flu? Not really a starting point for a riveting tale. However, I’ve been deeply interested in what happens to veterans returning home after one, two three tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. So many of the men and women serving are in the Guard, and they don’t come back to Army bases, they come back to little home towns, just like Millers Kill. That’s a story I can tell.

Julia Spencer-Fleming is the Agatha and Anthony-award-winning author of the upcoming One Was A Soldier, the seventh Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery. You can find her on Facebook, on Twitter, and at her Reader Space.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sweetheart ($14.99) & Night Season (hardcover, $24.95), by Chelsea Cain

Chelsea Cain came to the store last night for a signing. I re-read Sweetheart, the second book in the series, to get me in the mood. Night Season is her fourth and latest in the Archie Sheridan/Susan Ward series.

There's no villain quite like Gretchen Lowell in the mystery world. She's clever, manipulative, and, for the moment, Chelsea Cain is keeping her past under wraps. Gretchen is also vicious and sociopathic. She will flick out a heart, suck out a brain, slice a throat, or otherwise maim, mutilate, then murder a man, woman, or child without a second thought. She is police detective Archie Sheridan's obsession, and apparently he is hers.

Although Chelsea Cain ladles on the gruesome details, there's a stylishness and verve to how she does it. With reporter Susan Ward, Chelsea finds an outlet for her humor. Susan's eccentric, hippie mother, Bliss, also provides respite.

Having said all things in praise of the ultimate villain, Gretchen has only a small part in Night Season. (I've only read the first thirty pages, so this is mostly a book signing report.) One of the things Chelsea does so well is to make the city of Portland one of the characters in her book. She names real places and real events. For those of us who live here, there's a gasp of recognition when she delivers a dramatic scene or dead body at a local spot. Night Season takes the real Vanport Flood of 1948 and a fictional, contemporary flood (but one that's based on a recent overflowing of the banks of the Willamette River, which bisects the city), and weaves a mystery from them. Although Gretchen is absent, there's still an outlet for the ghoulish with a morgue scene or two, as evidenced by Chelsea's reading.

I've seen Chelsea talk several times -- she's a Portland resident -- and I am always entranced and entertained. She has great comedic timing and the inclusionary grace of an extroverted hostess. She decorates some of her autographs with stick-on gems and laughs readily with fans waiting patiently in long lines.

Authors are often asked about autobiographical elements in their fictional stories. I'd say that the only thing Chelsea shares with Gretchen Lowell is creative thinking. The rest … not so much.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Naming the Bones, by Louise Welsh ($14.95)

There's not much action -- in a mystery/thriller sense -- until the very end, but British author Louise Welsh gives us a good dose of suspense throughout the book. There's a sustained note of dread overlying her tale of a young-ish academic whose projected biography of a long-dead poet is at a standstill.

Professor Murray Watson has the job he has always wanted in Glasgow, Scotland, but he remains discontented. His frustration has led him into a dead-end affair with a fellow academic, who also happens to be married to the head of his department. His brother, Jack, is an artist, and when Murray attends Jack's opening exhibition for his current work, he discovers that Jack has used a family tragedy as his inspiration. Although he's angry at his lover for dumping him, at his brother for exposing his family's low point, at each block in the road to discovering more about poet Archie Lunan, instead of throwing in the towel on all counts, Murray doggedly seeks to pull in the threads of Archie's life. Of course, he has to accomplish this around frequent drinking bouts.

When he was still a young man, having achieved some success with a book of poetry in the 1970s, Archie sailed onto a stormy sea one night and was never seen again. Murray's prize interview would be with Archie's former girlfriend, Christie Graves, who lives on a remote Scottish island, but she's not interested in talking with him. In the process of conducting his research, Murray brings to light some hidden relationships and mysteries but, with the exception of Archie, there's nary a dead body in sight. Then Murray learns that another researcher, who was looking into suicidal patterns, died in a car accident on the little island where Christie lives. Unlike Murray, he had managed somehow to secure an interview with Christie.

Was Archie murdered? Was the other researcher murdered after uncovering something unsavory? At the risk of his life, should Murray pursue an interview with Christie? In his academic world, who are his friends and who are his enemies? In the end, we discover that nothing is as it first seemed, and this is where Welsh excels. She slowly teases out the real story of a poet and his group of friends, and the madness that sometimes grips people when joy should be there instead.

Louise Welsh tells a finely twisted tale, creates a stunningly ominous setting, and makes Murray Watson a sympathetic and very human character.