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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Zoo Station, by David Downing ($14)(c2007)

In 1939 Berlin, World War II has not yet begun, but Europe is on the edge of madness. Hitler and his Nazis are terrorizing the Jews and other "imperfect" groups. Their influence is felt not just in Germany but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is almost January 1, 1939, and Hitler has been in power for about five years when the book opens. Within a few months, Germany will invade Poland, and Great Britain will begin its war with Germany. Kristallnacht, the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses, the beating of Jewish people, the theft of Jewish property, is only a couple of months old. It is into this setting that David Downing places his protagonist, British journalist John Russell.

Russell will not leave Berlin, although he easily could. In better times, he met and married Ilsa, a German woman, and they have a son, Paul. Russell is determined to stay in Paul's life, although he and Ilsa have divorced. Russell's girlfriend, actress Effi Koenen, is another anchor to Berlin.

Russell does mostly freelance work for various publications, so it is not unusual for him to be approached by an organization that wishes to hire his writing skills. However, it is the Russians who want a series of articles, for which they will pay well. Although his impecunious existence is a burden, Russell hesitates, but then he acquiesces, not without stipulations. He will most emphatically not be a spy for them. He will not be a spy for Great Britain or the U.S. either. Germany? Nein. It would be a less interesting book if eventually Russell didn't find himself tossed about by all these secretive forces.

Jews line up daily at the British embassy, and the line stretches further each day. As a way to supplement his income, Russell teaches Germans to speak English. As a result of a reference from a friend, he teaches the daughters of a Jewish family and gets to know the family well. They are trying desperately to emigrate, but before they can get anywhere, the father, a doctor, is accused of a crime. The 18-year-old son is on the run. The daughters and the mother cannot get visas. Russell could simply shake his head, sympathize, and go on with his work. Times are tough for everyone. Despite the danger to himself, however, Russell knows he cannot avoid the inevitable. His conscience says that he must do what he can to save this family, save himself, avenge the mysterious death of a colleague, and try to stay in Berlin with Paul and Effi.

It's a tall order.

David Downing describes a complex situation with clarity and without over-explaining the mutable geography and politics of the time. The story does not lose pacing as it focuses on the many groups affected by Hitler's march to war. Sometimes with just a single sentence, Downing can capture the essence of an issue. His smart and ironic observations are thought-provoking and entertaining. For instance:

"The film had been made on the sort of budget which would feed a small country, but was mercifully devoid of consciousness-raising pretensions. The consciousness-lowering effect was presumably accidental."

Downing has written three more books, all named after train/subway stations. In fact, the important Zoo Station stop in Berlin represents the turning point in the journeys of Russell and others.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin ($14.99)

Here is a mystery, birthed in the languid, humid cauldron of the South, and set free by quick and sensitive writing. Tom Franklin was nominated for an Edgar award for this book, and it says something about the excellent competition this past year that Franklin did not win. (The winner was The Lock Artist, an excellent novel by Steve Hamilton, also awarded an MBTB star!)

"Crooked letter, crooked letter" is part of the chant that children use to learn how to spell Mississippi. It is to Chabot, a small Mississippi town, that Silas "32" (for his high school baseball team number) Jones returns after wandering the world and trying to escape his impoverished Southern roots. He is now the constable of that tiny company town. The owner of the mill that supports the town and pays 32's salary is bereft because his daughter is missing. This eerily mirrors a crime committed years ago when 32 and his friend Larry Ott were 17. Larry was the prime suspect in the disappearance of a classmate, his neighbor Cindy Walker. A body was never found, so Larry was never charged. Now Larry and 32 are both 41 years old, and Larry has been living a hermit's life, shunned by the community, but tied to it nevertheless because of his incapacitated mother. Even before Cindy disappeared, Larry and 32's friendship had begun to fracture, fostered in part by Larry's cold and callous father and Larry's overly protective mother. It also didn't help that 32 is black and Larry is white. Perhaps we like to think that such things don't matter anymore, but Franklin is here to tell us differently.

Despite Larry's attempts to contact him after his return, 32 is reluctant to communicate with Larry. It turns out that it isn't just because he's a constable and Larry is once again a suspect in a disappearance and presumed murder. In a style reminiscent of another fine writer of Southern-inflected mysteries, Thomas L. Cook, Franklin slowly reveals Larry and 32's true story. Franklin's pace is a little swifter than Cook's; where Cook is molasses, Franklin is maple syrup.

Is this where I admit that about halfway through the book, I skimmed the ending? I felt it enhanced my reading of the rest of the book, but I certainly wouldn't recommend this approach. What it did give me was a respect for the way Franklin led his story to its conclusion.

For Franklin's intriguing main characters, his spot-on side characters, and heart-breaking story, I have awarded this book an MBTB star!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Truth, by Peter Temple ($16)(c2009)

This is the third Peter Temple book I've read. I gave the other two stars (for books I really, really like). This one doesn't get a star. I didn't even understand it half the time. And I'm not just talking about the Australianese.

The main character here is Stephen Villani, head of the homicide department somewhere in Australia, but it's really an ensemble piece, and that is part of the problem. There are millions of characters. One of them is Joe Cashin, hero of The Broken Shore, and another is Jack Irish, who stars in a bunch of books that haven't made it to the U.S. yet. But they play very tiny parts, cameos really. There are Bikerts, Dove, Finucane, Singleton (or Singo), Kiely, Lizzie, Webber, Gillam, Colby, Anna, Bob, Corin, Laurie, Luke, Mack, Orong, Barry, and those are just the police and family members. This doesn't even touch on the people involved in the two main cases of which Villani takes control. Either Temple assumes you've read his other books and his characters need no introduction, or it's a singularly annoying gimmick to just toss his readers into the muddle of people. Ha, ha, ha, he might be saying, sink or swim.

Even though I got the gist of the two cases -- a young woman is found naked and dead in the bathroom of an upscale condominium, and two gangsters are found tortured and dead -- it was a convoluted path through potential political and police malfeasance to solve them both. In his equally convoluted personal life, Stephen is having a rocky time with his wife, one of his daughters runs away, his farmer father refuses to leave his holding when a massive fire threatens it, and his reporter girlfriend is the the worst-kept secret around. Is it all worth the agita, both for him and for us?

Temple has a way with words, and it's still true in Truth. However, sometimes he seems to shake them up in a bucket, pluck a few out and throw them away for the challenge, and then plop what's left on the page. He was clearest and most moving when telling about Stephen's family, especially in stories of his father's stubbornness in the midst of his plight and his guilt over his daughter Lizzie.

I wish I had time to re-read this book. Having come through it once, I now know who (most of) the characters are. I do so want to enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

County Line, by Bill Cameron ($15.95) (due 6/1/11)

Ruby Jane Whittaker, both as the eccentric coffee shop owner in Portland and especially as a young girl from a crazy family in Ohio, sparkles on the page. Something terrible happened when Ruby Jane was a teenager in a rural community in Ohio. That something terrible has been nipping at her heels all these years, and now it has taken a big bite. That Ruby Jane should have turned into the self-confident business woman in Portland is a miracle. That the past is now haunting her is a deadly burden.

Skin Kadash is a retired cop in Portland. When he allows himself to think about it, he realizes he is in love with Ruby Jane. When she disappears and he finds the dead body of a bum in her bathtub, he heads off to find her. And save her. He knows above all else that he must save her, but he doesn't know from what.

Skin reconnects with Ruby's old boyfriend, Pete, in California, and we're guessing that Pete still has feelings for Ruby. Ruby's estranged brother, Jimmie, lives in San Francisco, not too far from Pete. Perhaps he knows where Ruby is, because Pete doesn't. Soon there's another dead body.

The trail finally leads back to Preble County, Ohio. The first-person, present tense, present time narrative that begins Bill Cameron's book segues into Ruby Jane's tale of when she was a teenager. That third-person narrative splits into several different time frames, all within a year. There are flashbacks within the flashback, but Cameron does a great job drawing us closer to the terrible event that shattered Ruby's family and dispersed its members. The final section of the book brings us back to the present time and Skin's story.

Cameron has written a thriller that makes you want to turn the page faster and faster. He has also written a sensitive story about a young girl from a dysfunctional family who has more troubles than someone her age should have. Cameron's writing easily and poetically handles the transition from Skin's story to Ruby's, from then to now. This is a story that will linger.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Bayou Trilogy, by Daniel Woodrell ($16)

The Bayou Trilogy is a compilation of three works by Daniel Woodrell, published between 1986 and 1992: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do.

Set in Louisiana bayou country -- reeking of atmosphere, tawdriness, two-bit criminals, and hardasses -- Woodrell doesn't so much write a novel as produce an epic poem. For instance, Woodrell describes where Detective Rene Shade lives:

"In the aspiring self-mythology of Saint Bruno, a town that liked to refer to itself as a baby Chicago, there were grapevine Roykos and street-corner Sandburgs who found odd connections between the Windy City on the Lake and the Wheezing Town on the River."

And, again, in one of the best opening lines of a fourth chapter ever:

"The spiteful heat of summer turned sullen reached Voltaire Street early. Sun-faded blinds flapped up on dusty front windows as "Closed" signs were flipped and brown-bag lunches were stashed beneath countertops by optimists seeking coolness for their tuna fish. Delivery men, customers, and owners had gotten the message that the bad sun sent out and slowed to lessen the punishment that any hint of speed would draw. Summer was the mean season along the river, the air thick as syrup, and the sky a lowdown fog that held in the torture."

Rene Shade is the central character. We also meet his wildly different family members, morally ambiguous fellow lawmen, and criminals of varying mindsets and intellect who cross his path.

This is Louisiana noir at its best, complete with cajun and Southern patois. At times, however, Woodrell's pages are logy with words. One forgets the beginning of the thought by the time of its completion. Nevertheless, this is stylish writing. As a matter of fact, it drips and sweats style. His narrative moves with an undulating rhythm. Words pile up and then fall on you. It almost doesn't matter what the hell the story is about. Almost.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Drowning River, by Christobel Kent (hardcover, $24.99) (c2009)

Florence has known centuries of intrigue and dark deeds. Home of the infamous Medici family, Machiavelli, and Dante. Cradle of Renaissance art. Alluring, mysterious, and inspirational. In this case, Christobel Kent has been inspired to create a novel that inserts us foreigners into everyday Florentine life. Kent has designed a puzzle that uses art, the River Arno, the flood of 1966, and a police detective forced into retirement.

Iris March is a young art student from England, via the south of France. She has been given a place to stay and tuition to an art class in order to be the companion/watchdog to another young woman, Veronica "Ronnie" Hutton. Sure enough, Ronnie doesn't show up for art class one day. It isn't long before her disappearance is attributed to more than just youthful folly and indolence.

In another part of the city, Sandro Cellini begins his new career as a private detective. It was not long ago that he was an official police detective and he mourns his premature departure from the ranks -- caused by compassion, not dereliction. His wife Luisa supports and nags him into continuing on his new path. As he waits, clientless, in his new office for something to happen, something does. As he gazes out his window to the street below, he sees a young woman, excitedly hurrying along. Sandro pulls back in embarrassment when she looks up and sees him watching.

Sandro soon has more to keep his mind occupied, however, when his first client shows up. Lucia is a widow whose husband, an elderly man with Alzheimer's, was recently found drowned in the River Arno, a suicide. Claudio would never have left her, she insists. There is foul play, surely.

It certainly seems inevitable that these stories will intersect at some point. And, indeed, through a convoluted but intriguing set of circumstances, Sandro becomes acquainted with Iris as she searches for her roommate. We meet people from Sandro's past and present lives, Iris' feckless fellow art students, the proprietors of the art school, and interesting residents of Florence.

Throughout the book, the rain falls in ever-increasing amounts. There is a danger that a flood like the one in 1966 threatens the city and its irreplaceable art again. The clock ticks and the river rises as Sandro, Luisa, and Iris work to solve the mysteries of Claudio and Ronnie. Evviva, Firenze!

P.S. Despite the thousands of people who roam the streets of Florence, of course, the young woman passing Sandro's window was ... Ronnie.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Death of a Cozy Writer, by G. M. Malliet ($13.95)

WWAD? What would Agatha do? She'd probably write something very similar if she were writing today. But G. M. Malliet has pumped her version with more acerbity and humor, not to mention a few choice swear words that Dame Agatha would find a little outré.

This is a classic locked room mystery.

Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk is a nouveau riche, revolting, wealthy mystery novelist. He is roundly hated or disliked by almost everyone. Did I mention that he is wealthy? Money keeps family coming around, and his adult sons and daughter, and their significant others have gathered at the manor house for a wedding.

Chloe, the former Lady Beauclerk-Fisk, ran away as fast as she could when the children were still young. Adrian took a while but there is a new Lady Beauclerk-Fisk on the horizon. She is Violet Mildenhall, widow of the late Lord Winthrop, who died under mysterious circumstances. And so the stage is set.

It is a particularly nasty game that Adrian plays, revolving his children in and out of his will at whim. As a result, none of his children are steady, stable, or normal. All love has been lost in this family, although there may be brief tenderness between some of the siblings.

When the first murder occurs, the unbroken snow outside means that the killer resides within the hall. Detective Inspector St. Just and Sergeant Fear (whose phone ring is "Jingle Bells") are the aptly named forces of justice and judgment, and it is their duty to sort out the many motives and relationships of the manor's inhabitants.

This is a well-written, witty, and clever nod to the mysteries of the Golden Age, while at the same time retaining a contemporary tone.