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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Disciple of the Dog, by R. Scott Bakker (hardcover, $24.99)(c2010)

Diogenes was a philosopher, our mythic embodiment of a cynic. As the story goes, Diogenes held up a lantern in broad daylight. When asked what he was looking for, he apocryphally answered, "a human being" (sometimes translated as "an honest man'), which by his definition very few people were. His emblem was a dog (standing for a creature that acted naturally), and a statue of a dog was erected in his honor in Corinth. What does this have to do with the book?

Disciple (yes, that's his name) Manning is a low-rent private investigator. Bakker drops bits and pieces of Disciple's past throughout the book, just enough to intrigue, just enough to explain some of Disciple's weirdness. And Disciple Manning IS an odd duck. He has complete retention of everything he has heard, everything he has seen or done. He knows he is about to smoke his 99,999 cigarette, for instance. Cool sounding, huh? Except, apparently, if you are the one with the disorder. Would your head explode if it HAD to contain so many experiences? Would your psyche blow apart if it HAD to deal with the twins of triumph and disaster over and over and over again?

What the sum of his experiences has taught Disciple is, first of all, to be cynical about everyone. Is there an authentic human being among us, or are we merely cover-ups and shells, wallowing in repetition? Pretty heavy stuff for a mystery book, eh? Disciple also knows our "tells." He has seen pretty much every expression and knows what they mean. He can sit back later and re-process every scene and conversation, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. This is a compelling character with lots of flaws.

He is hired by a well-to-do couple to locate their daughter, who ran off to join a cult and is now missing. The cult is located in a small town, so we get to meet some of the inhabitants and get the general ambiance of a town on the verge of collapse. Decaying industrial structures remind everyone of what the town used to be. It is somewhere in that rotting landscape that Jennifer Bonjour -- Bakker has such interesting names for his characters -- took her last walk from a local bar back to the compound. And disappeared.

A local reporter, Molly, thinks this story could be her big break, and she joins forces with Disciple to investigate. They meet Xenophon Baars, the cult leader and a former college professor, a la Timothy Leary. They are embraced by the police chief, Caleb Nolen ("nolens" = Lat., not willing). They all play their parts in this stylish book, which is deliberately overly coarse at times, and violent or contemplative at others.

We hear the story from Disciple's point of view, apparently because his therapist has advised him to write his thoughts down in an attempt to purge their emotional lockgrip on him. Here is one of his musings on getting information from someone:

Now I know you like to think you're like me, but you're not. Not if you're reading this, you're not. If you met me, you would take the five, cough up your honor, and count your blessings. Nurse your wounded ego with a bag of Doritos or something.
Everyone but everyone knows that readers are pussies.

An analysis of his character:

Sasha Lang, that old philosopher girlfriend I told you about, once told me I was the kind of guy who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. That was January 20, 2001, another bad day, as it so happened. ... She understood that a cynic is just someone who believes nothing to better judge everything.

R. Scott Bakker gets lots of points: for writing style, for creative storytelling, for a quirky main character. In the end, what more could you want?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Morlock Night, by K. W. Jeter ($7.99)(c1979)

To good or bad effect, there have been many contemporary authors who have taken the English language classics or their authors and involved them in adventures of their own making. To good or bad effect, other contemporary authors have taken up the dissemination of a new genre, "steampunk." For the most part, steampunk is set in Victorian England. Marvelous, outrageous, and elaborate fictional machines powered by steam are set in motion by these authors to clink and clank their way through (usually) stylish and original adventures.

It is pretty much accepted out there that K. W. Jeter is the father of steampunk, and Morlock Night is his baby.

Borrowing the elements of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, K. W. Jeter has taken the story way beyond where Wells left it. The precious time machine has been co-opted by the evil but not-very-bright Morlocks, with the help of the wizard Merdenne. Not content with ruling the world of the future, they have journeyed back to England in 1892 to begin their conquest. Only the legendary King Arthur can save the kingdom. He must be resurrected and a sundered Excalibur returned to him.

Dr. Ambrose, aka Merlin, has singled out the foppish, whiny Edwin Hocker, an aimless young man in London, to assist him in locating pieces of Excalibur to return to an ailing Arthur. Hocker is paired with Tafe, a young, tough-minded woman from the future. Together they travel down into the labyrinthine sewers of London to attack the Morlocks as they gather their forces.

This is definitely a book that "borrows" a classic book to great effect. Jeter does a good job capturing the language of Wells' book. Written in 1979, Morlock Night appears short by today's standards, but it still has a lot to say and says it well. From the eerie fog-shrouded meeting between Hocker and Dr. Ambrose to the eyebrow-raising denouement, it's a lot of fun.

It's good to see Morlock Night back in circulation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Bell Ringers, by Henry Porter ($14.95) (apa The Dying Light)

An Orwellian future may be closer than you think. Henry Porter has set his "Big Brother" epic in the "near future," but it is not an unrecognizable future. There are no flying cars or robot maids. Rather there are CCTVs everywhere and additional government monitoring of cars, IDs, credit cards, phone calls, and computers, among other susceptible paraphernalia of our day-to-day life. The near future is here you say? So says Henry Porter through his fable set in a Great Britain controlled by a power-mad prime minister and the unscrupulous head of an international security firm.

Our heroine is Kate Lockhart, a brilliant lawyer who has left a government spy job for a job with a big firm in New York. She is called back to England when a good friend and former lover dies and leaves her his cottage, his fortune, and a mystery. David Eyam (The man who cried "I am," get it?) was the former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and was ignominiously ejected from his post and bargained into a rural retirement. He somehow has circumvented the massive spy machinery in Great Britain and wound up in Cartegena, Colombia. A tourist's video recording captures his death in a terrorist bomb explosion.

Although she had lost touch with Eyam, Kate thinks she knows him well enough to sense more than meets the eye in his precipitous departure from government. And who is following her? Why is David's estate lawyer so nervous? What does the untypical I-must-be-dead-if-you're-reading-this letter from Eyam mean? Clues and puzzles start dropping like autumn leaves, and Kate is not sure which side of the ensuing controversy she is on.

There are no talking barnyard animals in this book, but this is the successor to "1984." Its premise is that under the guise of ensuring safety from Britain's (and America's) greatest unseen enemies, a purported democracy has placed enormous powers, including suspension of due process of the many, in the hands of a few.

This is a horror story scarier than anything Stephen King has written, because its scenarios seem possible.

Monday, August 15, 2011

An Ordinary Decent Criminal, by Michael Van Rooy ($14.99) (c2005)

Now here's a refreshingly odd voice! Career criminal Montgomery Uller Haaviko has changed his name to Sam Parker, moved his young family to Winnipeg, and is trying to get a job in the straight world. As if.

As if the world would let him. Surely one of the points that Canadian author Michael Van Rooy makes is that it is difficult to go straight after being in prison for all sorts of crimes, large and small, and after using a young lifetime's worth of all sorts of nasty addictive substances.

As if it would be easy to break from thinking like a criminal, to not jones after those nasty substances, to have other people give you a break.

Monty/Sam is letting the past go, he is finding ways to deal with the anger that builds up inside him, and he knows if he screws up his wife, Claire, will take their baby, Fred, and he will never see them again. If he were lucky, she would leave him Renfield, their dog, and the mouse who lives in an aquarium.

Right off the bat, right after moving into their rented home in Winnipeg, burglars -- of all the nasty insults -- break into Sam's home at night. Using James Bond-like skills, he kills them all. Just in case, his naked wife has his back, armed with a baby and a bayonet.

Justified or not, excessive force or not, Sam now has a local mobster after him, and police sergeant Enzio Walsh thinks he has hit the criminal jackpot, never mind that Sam has done his time, shaken off all his drugs, and no longer associates with the criminal world. Now the new neighbors don't think too highly of him either. Pretty spectacular work for the first 24 hours.

"An Ordinary Decent Criminal" is a very clever, wry story of an unusual man. It's also a manual in how-to do many things criminal. (Don't try this at home!) I haven't heard such a compelling, unexpected voice since Josh Bazell's "Beat the Reaper." Van Rooy keeps the reader off balance; it is impossible to guess where he will take his story next. The author manages to craft a story that's always moving but that lauds the quiet moments in his protagonist's life. The story is often violent and tough, but has a graceful presence.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Cursed Inheritance, by Kate Ellis (British ed.)

This was a British, psychological, psycho killer book, with intertwined storylines and the requisite twist at the end. This is the first Kate Ellis I've read, and I think I missed the much-needed background on the relationships that the series' characters have with each other by reading a book so far into the series. Some of that stuff fell flat for me.

The description on the back cover says that this is a West Country crime novel that features "Wesley Peterson, one of Devon's first black detectives." Wesley studied archaeology at university, and he's a thinker when it comes to solving crime.

A client of a spa claims her jewels have been stolen. The body of an obscure true crime writer is found in the local river. Meanwhile in the U.S., two centuries-old skeletons have been disinterred, with musket balls signaling that the cause of death was by unnatural means. How do these relate to a decades-old murder of six people in a mansion?

This book is very readable, but I had a problem with Wesley. He realized that a couple of the people peripheral to the crimes might be in danger. He does nothing to protect them, except later wish he had done something to protect them. (Thus advancing the plot dramatically, however.) He has an awkward relationship with his wife that needs mending, doesn't see his two children much -- and one of them a baby -- and he passively-aggressively flirts with a co-worker and the widow of the murdered man. Maybe I'd feel more kindly towards him had I read the prior books.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Good Thief's Guide to Paris, by Chris Ewan ($14.99)

Hmmm. Chris Ewan and his books may be the literary equivalent of seeing a bunch of infinite selves in a couple of mirrors. Ewan's main character, Charlie Howard, is a thief who writes caper novels about a thief. Of course, very few people know that Charlie is a thief. His fence knows. And his literary agent, Victoria. And not too many people in-between. Charlie likes keeping his legal and extra-legal selves separated. He even submitted a false picture for his dust jacket.

Charlie is in Paris trying to write his next novel. Victoria may know that Charlie is a thief, but she does not know what he looks like. She thinks he is a suave, sophisticated world-traveler. What would make her think that? Why, the picture on his dust jacket, of course.

So, let's pause for a minute and ask what's the story with Chris Ewan? Have you seen his author's picture on his website? It screams suave, sophisticated world-traveler, if you ask me. And is Chris Ewan a burglar? Perhaps only his fence and literary agent know the answer.

What I do know is that this book is amusing, highly creative, and enjoyable reading. And instructive. There's even a lock-picking tutorial at the end.

In the book there are break-ins, a dead body, double-crosses and double-double-crosses, lots of Parisian atmosphere, and a charming protagonist.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Dewey Decimal Systen, by Nathan Larson ($15.95)

Although the basic premise may seem familiar ("Caveman's Valentine," Rosemary Aubert's Ellis Portal series, "Gun, with Occasional Music," "The Zero," and even "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"), Nathan Larson puts his own definite spin on it. Take a character with a psychological difficulty, in this case obsessive-compulsive disorder, place him in a time after another, but more disastrous, 9/11 in New York City, give him a memory shot full of holes, and make him a vet, probably physically and psychologically manipulated, not by the enemy but by the U.S. military. Bingo! You have "The Dewey Decimal System."

Of course, Dewey Decimal is not his real name. He doesn't or won't remember what his real name is. He talks sporadically of events in his lifetime, or they could be episodes implanted in his brain. He lives in the devastated New York Public Library and is working, compulsively, to organize the books. He is currently still on the 000s. But that's his passion. His livelihood is as muscle for a corrupt New York City D.A., in whatever form that occupation still exists.

There are still police and FBI agents, but they are warped shadows of what used to be. In this post-apocalyptic New York, decimated by both the bombs of 2/14 and a subsequent super-flu, the rules of play are written behind the scenes and under the table. Gangsters of every stripe, especially of Eastern European and Russian origin, run the game. It's hard to know where everyone's loyalties lie. And that is Dewey Decimal's world.

Nathan Larson's book is a rocket ride through this world. His hero is charming but ruthless, quirky with his own moral code. Dead bodies virtually fling themselves all over the pages of the book, mounting in increasing numbers as the book reaches its denouement. (Does Larson have Quentin Tarantino on his speed dial?)

Bring on the Purell (™). I'm ready for the next installment.