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

Monday, September 26, 2011

Starvation Lake, by Bryan Gruley, c2009 ($15)

The lake areas of the Midwest seem so exotic to me. Yes, Oregon has lakes, too, but there are so many lakes and so many islands and so much of life revolves around those lakes and islands in the Midwest. William Kent Krueger and Steve Hamilton are the best known of the lake writers*, and now there's Bryan Gruley. Gruley is the Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, but he spent summers as a youth in an area not unlike Starvation Lake, the northern Michigan lake town of this book, and still maintains ties to that area.

Why do we need another lake writer? There is a definite sense of mystery associated with the deep, dark waters of a lake. The Scandinavian writers certainly know it. Karin Fossum and Arnaldur Indridason, for instance, used lakes to great effect in some of their books. The harsh winter season, in which things are frozen until the spring thaw, provides great metaphorical sustenance as well. Although, in my opinion, these books are best read on blazingly hot summer days, a good book is never out of order. Starvation Lake is a good book.

There are many plot elements that other writers have used before. There have been disgraced journalists -- anyone remember Stieg Larsson's Mikael Blomqvist? -- frozen lakes giving up their secrets, wise-cracking protagonists, sports talk, and villains with similar bad mojo. Gruley, however, puts it all together in a well-written package.

Gus Carpenter used to work for The Detroit Times, a big city, big-time newspaper. It takes a while before we know the reason he left The Times. All we really need to know up front is that he left with a cloud hanging over him. He returns to his hometown, Starvation Lake, Michigan, a town hanging on the edge of Starvation Lake, the lake. The story is set in 1998, when Gus is 34. (Why is it set in 1998? Would the book have shriveled to nothing if everyone had a cell phone and CCTV?) Gus has gone to work for the town newspaper, The Pilot, as its associate editor. It's a quiet town with quiet news, and usually the only news challenge Gus faces is navigating to his desk in the small office. Then everything Gus knows is upended over a period of a few days in February.

A snowmobile is uncovered at the edge of one of the lakes in the area. It belonged to the legendary kids' hockey coach, Jack Blackburn. A few years before, the town had mourned Jack's death in a snowmobile accident, although the snowmobile and his body were never found. Here's the snowmobile, but it's poking out of Walleye Lake. Everyone knows Jack drowned in Starvation Lake.

Gus was the goalie for Starvation Lake's high school hockey team, the one that almost won the state championship. If only Gus hadn't choked. Jack Blackburn was his respected coach. After that loss, Gus and Jack's relationship dwindled into nothingness until Gus moved on to college and his newspaper job. Since returning to Starvation Lake, Gus has had to relive that awful moment over again because the townspeople have never forgotten or forgiven. Because he's a glutton for punishment, or because he really loves the game, 34-year-old Gus plays in an adult league as a goalie.

When the snowmobile re-appears, Gus's life shifts into overdrive. As a newsman, he can't pass up on the drama of the bullet hole discovered in the snowmobile's body. As a hockey player, he needs to know what happened to his coach. As a former reporter for "The Detroit Times," he has some unfinished business in the form of a potential lawsuit over his last investigation. His mother, his best friend "Soup," his ex-girlfriend and current sheriff's deputy Darlene, and many of the town's citizens who stayed put while Gus left seem to be hiding secrets.

Gus is dealing with issues far beyond Journalism 101. He must determine what he owes to the public's right to know and what he owes to the people he has known and trusted all his life.

With the exception of the useless prologue, Starvation Lake intriguingly unravels a small town's secrets but also acknowledges the strength that comes from a small community.

* Although let us not forget the truly mysterious In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Vermilion Drift, by William Kent Krueger ($15)(c2010)

In ten books, William Kent Krueger has taken Cork O'Connor from his early days as a sheriff in fictional Tamarack County, Minnesota, to what he is now, a private investigator and a man who has seen his share of tragedies. The award-winning Iron Lake, the first in the series, was published in 1998, and last year's Vermilion Drift was the 10th. Cork has aged, his children have grown older, he has dealt with the blows and joys dealt him throughout the years.

In Vermilion Drift, the Department of Energy is reviewing whether an abandoned iron mine would be a good place to bury nuclear waste. As a result, several threats have been received by the parties involved. The Ojibwe/Anishinaabe people especially are concerned about the impact on reservation land. Cork has been hired to find out who has been sending threatening notes.

Then the sister of the mine owner disappears, and Cork is also hired to find her. Unknown to Cork, his cases are about to become very personal. Is Henry, Cork's Anishinaabe mentor, trying to help or hinder Cork's investigation?

There is a strong poetic style to Krueger's writing and a spiritual element to Cork that make Krueger's books different from a lot of other police officer/private eye series. Cork is center stage in the books, even while he is trying to solve someone else's problems.

Krueger constantly challenges himself to come up with stories that show Cork's personal growth and highlights the place of the Anishinaabe in a white-dominated society. He is always worth reading.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Book of Lies, by Mary Horlock ($14.99)

This book tells two stories, both set on the Isle of Guernsey. Guernsey, if you don't already know from either Elizabeth George's story, A Place of Hiding, or the surprising hit, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, was the only place in Great Britain that the Germans captured.

One is the story of Emile Rozier, who was a young child during WWII, and his quest to defend the reputation of his brother, Charles, who spent three years in a concentration camp, accused of spying on the Germans. Strange that a spy against the Germans would have to defend his reputation, eh? That's part of the fascinating aspect of this part of the book. Because so many of the people involved in the WWII story are dead, it is through transcripts and letters that we hear the story of how Charles found himself in the predicament which led to his imprisonment.

The other story is of Emile's teenage daughter, Catherine. From the start of her part of the book, she confesses to killing another teenager. Cat's tale begins a couple of years after her father's death, and she and her mother are still dealing with their loss. To make matters more miserable, although Cat is smart, she is also plain-looking, not popular, and awkward. When the rich and popular Nicolette befriends her, Cat finds herself caught by a force beyond her naive understanding. Of course, it is Nic whom Cat has killed. It takes the rest of the book to learn (sort of) why Cat killed Nic.

I suppose the danger with books that are two stories in one -- and so many of today's books are -- is that the reader might like one of the stories much more than the other. And I'm sorry to say that I enjoyed the WWII story a lot more. It's hard-hearted but I couldn't really maintain an interest in Cat's plight. She was a tough character to like and understand, as well.

Guernsey's war history is fascinating and sad. No doubt, as expressed in this book, the families are still feeling the repercussions of what happened then. Mary Horlock deftly tells that part of the tale in a sensitive manner. That story unfolds to an unexpected and creative conclusion, and it's this that makes the book worth reading.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Backpack, by Emily Barr (c2001)(out of print -- sorry)

I saw Backpack poking out of the sale bin. Wait, I thought. I haven't read it yet. I always meant to read it. It's out of print and now it's probably headed out the door soon. So I grabbed it.

Tansy Harris is a spoiled, arrogant, superior, snobbish Londoner. She's young, has a great job at a newspaper, and jaunts about with her spoiled, arrogant, superior, snobbish Londoner boyfriend, Tom. What the world only sees a tiny glimpse of is that Tansy's mother is an alcoholic. She has made home life miserable for Tansy. Then Tansy's mother dies.

Suddenly Tansy is released from her burden. She and Tom plan to travel to Southeast Asia, lie on the beach, get tanned, eat great food. Then Tom, the rat, backs out of the trip and breaks up with her. Just to show him, Tansy goes ahead with her plans anyway.

Tansy's first day is in Ho Chi Minh City. She's wearing a stylish traveling outfit and turning up her nose at the smells and cacaphony. She's miserable and refuses to associate with the traveling backpackers (eww!) she meets. After she has had her fill of touring the requisite tourist spots, she realizes that she's lost and lonely. She gradually makes the acquaintance of several backpackers, who warmly receive her despite her snobbish attitude. And gradually, as she makes her way through Southeast Asia -- as a backpacker -- her old persona melts away and a more thoughtful Tansy appears.

This book hit the spot. Next to mysteries, I love reading travel books. This has thoroughly combined the best of both worlds. Emily Barr brings traveling through Southeast Asia to life. She packs details of the Asian cultures and the backpacking world into her story, so much so that the mystery is hard to spot.

The mystery is that someone is killing young blonde female backpackers. Tansy is a young blonde female backpacker. His -- because enough people have identified a potential suspect as male -- killing spree begins in India and travels, strangely enough, backwards through Tansy's projected travel route. Each victim is found with an object. Granted they are ordinary objects, but Tansy has a box back in England with these same objects. In a hallucinatory moment, Tansy imagines that she might be the killer, despite the fact that it would be physically impossible, say, to kill someone in India at lunch and make it back to Laos by dinner.

Tansy does feel a strange affinity to what is happening to the victims. Perhaps it is because she, too, has a secret, and maybe she feels she should be punished for it. It has been traveling heavily with her as psychological baggage. Thus, Tansy's voyage is also one of enlightenment and a search for a better version of herself, Tansy 2.0.

I'm sorry that this book is out of print, because it's quite wonderful. Barr is a very good travel writer, and the mystery is original. The book is going back in the bargain bin tomorrow, so on your mark, get set, go!

The Gentlemen's Hour, by Don Winslow (hardcover, $25)

Dude, this is a most excellent follow-up to The Dawn Patrol. Macking, even.

Returning to a lighter, more humorous style than the dark pieces he has been writing (e.g., Power of the Dog), Don Winslow brings us another story in the life of surf bum and private eye Boone Daniels.

Besides the Peter Pan-like boardriders, San Diego is home to Mexican drug cartels, real estate con men, American drug crazies, white supremacists, and lots of rich people. Boone tangles with the various groups when he is drafted to do investigative work for the attorneys defending a young man accused of murdering a surf legend, Kelly Kuhio. "K2" was an inspiration to many and a mentor to Boone, yet Boone is convinced that Corey Blasingame -- a spoiled, nasty little rich kid -- is innocent of murdering Kelly.

Complicating matters is another murder, this time it's the lover of the wife of another surfer. Boone had been hired by Dan Nichols to determine if his wife was having an affair. Soon after telling Dan the bad news, Boone learns that the lover has been murdered.

His involvement in the two murders puts Boone on the outs with the rest of the surfing community, including best friend and fellow surfer Johnny "Banzai" Kodani, the homicide detective in charge of both cases. Despite the alienation, Boone trudges forward, convinced that K2 himself would have urged Boone to trust his instincts.

"Gentlemen's Hour" refers to the second surf shift. Boone usually hangs out with the Dawn Patrol crew, the younger, more competitive surfers. The surfers of the Gentlemen's Hour are more laid back, older. When Boone is shunned by his own crew, he begins to hang with the older men, a sad endnote to Boone's surfing days, he thinks.

Don Winslow's story races along, but thankfully, it's not all about the plot. There are wonderfully eccentric characters, including a couple of the villains. I defy you not to enjoy the characterizations of Red Eddie, a good old, relocated Hawaiian boy who's the head of a dangerous mob, and his henchmen. Boone's reminiscences of Kelly carry the story into more tender, philosophical regions. The "Surfbonics" that the Dawn Patrol uses in their conversations is amusing and gives a good sense of community.

Finally, having grown up in Hawaii, I especially appreciated the surf talk and the rendering of Hawaiian pidgeon, both of which Winslow did very well.

Beast of Burden, by Ray Banks (hardcover, $25)

British noir lives through the words of Ray Banks. It's got all the requisite elements of an outstanding crime novel: a flawed and complicated protagonist, Callum Innes, who alternates white and black hats; a plot that gives an overall sinking feeling the closer one gets to the end; and a nemesis, Iain "Donkey" Donkin, whose primitive reactions burst through, bypassing the red mist and other warning signs of impending eruption, until he regains his senses and wonders at the havoc he has caused.

Set in Manchester, we only view a slice of the underworld, a cage of dysfunctional police detectives, and a gathering of people who have spent time in a hell of one kind or another. Rationally, you know there's more to Manchester than corruption, greed, violence, and Sisyphean efforts to claw out of the criminal mire -- it would be the same as if New Jersey were only about "The Sopranos" -- but this way lies a good story.

This is the fourth Cal Innes book and concludes the story arc that began with Saturday's Child. The prior books are difficult to get in the United States. It would be nice to have the complete story, but Beast of Burden packs a solid punch all by itself.

The first shock comes when we learn that Cal Innes has had a stroke. He walks with a limp, is physically fragile, and has difficulty speaking, and half his face droops. And he's not even thirty. He was involved in criminal activities, spent a couple of years in jail, and has been trying to go legit as a private investigator.

Cal is hounded by a neanderthal of a police detective, Iain Donkin. Donkin doesn't have a problem with his temper, but other people do. A dim light flicks on halfway through the book, as Donkin realizes that perhaps he needs to do detective work based on reasoning rather than by beating the stuffing out of people.

What brings these two together again -- prior occasions having taken place in the other books -- is the death of Mo Tiernan, the son of a Manchester criminal kingpin. Donkin is convinced that Cal murdered him. The narrative flips back and forth between Cal and Donkin, so we know Cal did not kill Mo. We meet characters who have obviously been important in the other books. In some ways, Beast of Burden is a retrospective journey of Cal's life in Manchester. Overhanging all Cal does is a sadness over the death of his brother from a drug overdose. The Tiernan family and Donkin have something to do with that, and the story is slowly revealed, although sometimes the thread is hard to find for someone who hasn't read the other books.

Beast of Burden wrangles Manchester street language into flowing form, so even a glossary-less reader can manage. (Here's a heads up, though: "Scouse" is someone from Liverpool.) In the best noir tradition, the darkness lifts occasionally and we can see a safe harbor ahead, only to have it snatched away in a mournful moment.

Bad Intentions, by Karin Fossum (hardcover, $24)

This is the ninth book in the Inspector Konrad Sejer series, most of which have been translated into English from Norwegian, and it's a knockout.

Perhaps because it's so far along in the series, the book is less about Sejer and his partner Jacob Skarre as it is about crime and its psychological consequences. Like a modern-day Crime and Punishment, Karin Fossum's book ventures deeply into the effect of guilt. But what is causing the guilt?

The book opens with three young men spending some time in a cabin in the woods by a lake. They are childhood friends, but there is an inexplicable tension in their gathering.

"It was Friday the 13th of September. They went out into the dark night and fetched the oars from the shed.

"A narrow path led down to the shore of Dead Water."

And before long, one of them is dead.

Jon has jumped out of the rowboat and committed suicide. Instead of getting help, the other two, Axel and Reilly, row back to shore and pretend Jon slipped out at dawn while they were asleep and drowned himself. Inspectors Sejer and Skarre are sent to investigate, and they immediately realize something is wrong. Jon's body has been found too far out for him, a non-swimmer, to have died in the manner described by Axel and Reilly.

Why have Axel and Reilly lied? We know something is wrong, and it is Fossum's great ability to present us with a picture of guilt under pressure that creates such a tense and beautifully crafted story.

The translation by Charlotte Barslund seems especially well done. With Barslund's light hand, Fossum's words seem poetic and just right. For instance, when Sejer is interviewing the grieving mother of a teenage boy whose body has just been discovered, the Vietnamese woman is overcome and disappears behind some coats hanging on a wall:

"Having hidden behind the clothes for a while, she reappeared with an apologetic smile."

Such simplicity of tone, but so much is conveyed by both Fossum and Barslund.

The mother says to Sejer:

"'Can you find out what happened?' she said, and now her voice was urgent. 'Will you know if anyone killed or tortured him? Can you find out why his heart stopped beating, his young, strong heart? There has to be a reason,' she pressed on. 'Nothing happens without a reason.'"

Sejer promises (the "forbidden word") that he will find out what happened to her son because, he tells Skarre, she "wears slippers embroidered with dragons."

It's a powerful story of psychological disintegration, suspicion, and a yearning for redemption.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran (hardcover, $24)

Claire DeWitt is an original. She is a private investigator and her methods are unusual. Zen, drugs, "I Ching," herbs, alcohol, intuition, legwork, whatever it takes is what she uses to solve her mysteries. Each case is labeled in the best Nancy Drew fashion: for instance, "The Case of the Green Parrot." It is that case which brings Claire, now in her late thirties, back to New Orleans, the city where she learned how to be the best detective from mentor Constance Darling and Jacques Silette, author of Détection.

It was hard to know at first what path author Sara Gran would take with her story. Claire DeWitt was so out-there that it could have been just an ordinary woo-woo story, especially with the voodoo and mysticism that New Orleans brings to mind. Of course, New Orleans also brings to mind the devastation Hurricane Katrina brought to the people and buildings there. When Claire arrives back in NO years after Katrina, post-hurricane corruption, lawlessness, death, and debris still taint what was once a good-time city. Gran puts all of this, and more, into the mix to create one of the most unusual detective stories I've read in a while.

There are three main stories Gran wants to tell, but none of them are quite linear. Assistant District Attorney Vic Willing disappeared right after the flood. His nephew has hired Claire to find out what happened to him. In the process of working that case, Claire comes across how-it's-done now in NO, how the no-class refugees of the flood get along to survive. One of those survivors is a young man, Andray Fairview, who knew Vic. Andray is part of the drug-dealing, gun-toting baby gangs that litter NO with gunshots and bodies. The last story involves a childhood friend, Tracy, from Brooklyn, where Claire grew up. Tracy disappeared one afternoon, just as she, Claire, and Kelly, another friend, were on the verge of escaping their depressing and dysfunctional lives in Brooklyn.

Let me stop for a minute and talk about the characters' names. Is Claire DeWitt clear of wits? Is Andray Fairview brave and just? Is Constance Darling a constant and true presence? How about Tracy who disappeared without a trace? Let's not forget Vic Willing who may have been an unwilling victim. Are some of the names meant to be sarcastic? And what does Jacques Silette mean? Who knows? Perhaps Gran means that to be a mystery her readers must solve. Most of the rest of the characters have names like Mike, Mick, and Jack. They aren't throwaway characters, but they are just catalysts for the most part.

Gran dissolves a gut-wrenching depiction of New Orleans into a prescient dream into a flashback of Claire's youth in Brooklyn into Claire's life and resurrection with Constance. Each scene has its own song: from hard-edged and bleak to floaty and whimsical to mystical and exuberant. Even three-quarters of the way through the book, it was still hard to know where Gran would take us. A solution involving an extraterrestrial flying saucer would not have been out of the question.

Gran's affection for New Orleans lifts off the pages. She tells us about the Black Indians, plays "Iko Iko" in the background, mourns the passing of neighborhoods into yuppiedoms, and has Claire slurping margaritas until three in the morning. There's more to NO than just the Mardi Gras; Gran tells us to appreciate the cultural core that underlies that mostly tourist event.

Threading the book are excerpts from Jacques Silette's book, Détection, a manual for the investigation of mysteries. Copies of this obscure book pop up throughout the story. Here are some of Silette's thoughts on mystery and solution:

•"For the detective whose eyes have truly been opened ... the solution to every mystery is never more than inches away."

•"The detective and the client, the victim and the criminal -- all already know the solution to the mystery.

"They need only to remember it, and recognize it when it appears."

•"Those who try to grasp on to the mystery will never succeed ... Only those who let it slip their fingers will come to know it, and hear its secrets."

This is the manual and method that Constance uses to teach Claire how to be a detective. It would be splendid if it were real. When the story opens, Constance has been dead for some time. Claire immediately left New Orleans afterwards, and coming back to New Orleans now is a way of also coming to terms with her feelings for Constance. This is what Claire says about Constance:

"She taught me to read fingerprints like tea leaves and eyes like maps. She taught me how to smell trouble literally and figuratively. She sent me to lamas and tulkus, to swamis and psychics. Like most detectives, she kept a police scanner in the kitchen, and if we weren't busy we'd go to crime scenes and solve the crimes before the NOPD even showed up."

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is a strange mixture of noir and whimsey, but I quite liked being kept off balance. I would like to hear more Zen-like words of wisdom from Silette. I nominate Sara Gran for more tales of the art of metaphysical detection.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dove Season, by Johnny Shaw ($13.95)

If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he'd be Johnny Shaw. Like "The Border Trilogy," this is a very American mystery, and not just a North American one. The action in this book takes place on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. The twin, but not identical, towns of Mexicali and Calexico straddle the border, one on each side. Traffic -- tourist and illegal -- wends its way back and forth between the towns, the former mostly by day and the latter mostly by night. If a young man grows up in California's Imperial Valley, chances are at one point or another he'll have crossed over to the Mexican side, home to several nasty delights and unregulated forbidden fruits. Besides Calexico, the Imperial Valley is populated by several small communities, mostly centered around the agricultural industry.

And that's where we find Jimmy Veeder, wayward son of Jack Veeder. Back in the Imperial Valley, just before the beginning of dove season.

Dove season once attracted movie stars from Hollywood. They'd come over, get drunk, shoot some doves, and pretend to be rugged outdoorsmen. Nowadays hunters still head to the fields, get drunk, shoot some doves, and play rugged outdoorsmen, although they may shine with lesser wattage than Hollywood movie stars.

Everything Jimmy ran away from as a young man is now again in place to haunt or challenge him. But this time Jack is terminally ill and in a care facility, and Jimmy has returned after a 12-year absence to be with him. Jack has a last wish: Find Yolanda. Yolanda, the hooker.

Using his dilapidated childhood home as a base, Jimmy seeks the help of his old buddy, Bobby Maves, to find Yolanda. Bobby grins his way through life. In his more sober moments, he's a farmer and an absentee father. Despite the years between meetings, Jimmy finds Bobby to be pretty much as he left him, a two-fisted party boy and scuffler. In fact, Jimmy and Bobby spend a lot of the book getting drunk and counting bruises.

In order to find Yolanda, Jimmy must reconnect with another person from his youth. Years ago, the older Jimmy read stories to the younger Tómas in his grandfather's bar across the street from Jimmy's home. Tómas now is a successful businessman, but his businesses are illegal on this side of the border and tolerated on the other.

Shaw does a great job of describing the conditions of a Mexico that depends on the U.S. for both its extralegal and illegal revenue. He does an equally skillful job with the California community. Everyone knows everyone else in a small place, and it doesn't matter if someone has been gone for twelve years either. Some secrets are kept better than others, but eventually some of those come to light, too. Will Jimmy survive the exposure of his family's secrets?

Dove Season is an entertaining mix of humor and grit. It's dark and violent, funny and outrageous, heart-warming and heart-rending. In a time when a lot of books are told in prologues, flashbacks and flashforwards, Shaw has chosen a straightforward path and it suits his story impeccably. He pays as much attention to the details as to the broader tale. In the end, just like dove season, everything changes but everything remains the same.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dark Road to Darjeeling, by Deanna Raybourn ($14.95)(c2010)

I'd say that Deanna Raybourn's Julia March/Grey/Brisbane series is like macaroni and cheese, like bread pudding or some other comfort food, but that makes it sound too bland. Maybe it's more like khichdi-kadhi -- an Indian comfort food -- sprinkled with curry. Exotic and a little spicy.

Lady Julia Grey has married the man of her dreams, the dark and dashing Brisbane. While still on their honeymoon, two of her nine siblings, Portia and Plum, intrude and demand that Julia and Brisbane accompany them to India.

Jane, Portia's former lover, suddenly married Freddy Cavendish, an heir to a tea estate. They decamped England to his family home near Darjeeling. Now Jane has been widowed and is expecting a baby. Further, she suspects that her husband was murdered. Since Brisbane is a professional inquiry agent (private detective to us 21st-centurians), his help especially is requested.

It is 1889, the British are still lords and overseers in many areas of India. The British social strata are as complex and rigid as the Indian caste system. Add the complicated personal lives of the March family to the mix, and the result is an intriguing and beguiling story set against a dramatic and lush background.

After lurching their way to Jane's plantation, the Marches discover that some of their distant relatives are also ensconced in the small edenic valley. They shared an unsettling adventure with cousins Emma and Lucy, and are not overly excited to re-make their acquaintance. Other British inhabitants of the valley include the Pennyfeathers (the passive Reverend P., his eccentric and artistic wife, and their uninhibited and eccentric children), an alcoholic doctor who is grieving the death of his wife, killed by a marauding tiger, and a mysterious older gentleman, nicknamed "The White Rajah," who has taken over the monastery on the hill. Although the valley may seem like Eden, there are mysteries and dramas in each household. The question is: What do any of them have to do with Freddy's death?

This could be solely an entertaining romance, but Raybourn sidesteps stereotypes and veers off the neat-and-tidy story path. In one of the more moving and satisfying scenes, Portia confronts Julia about her audacity in thinking she could be Brisbane's equal in the art of investigation, which is what Julia yearns to be. Up until the death of her first husband, Julia was a snooty, imperious, and dissatisfied aristocratic wife. Brisbane, on the other hand, although he is now rich and has an estate, grew up rough and learned to rely on his wits and ingenuity. He has paid a dear price for his knowledge.

Portia later further lectures Julia, the narrator:

'My dearest, we have every possible advantage of birth and wealth in this modern age. The blood of kings flows in our veins and our father's skill with money makes Croesus look like a beggar man. Our every whim has been attended to all of our lives by a loving family and a staff paid to treat us as if we were minor deities.' 
'We are not so bad as all that,' I protested weakly. 
'Of course we are. But we do try to think of others, and that is what saves us from being deplorable and weak of character.'

Raybourn also effortlessly places her readers in a different time and place. Her prose isn't forced. There aren't references, wink-wink, of what is to come in the future. And the story, the heart of the matter, satisfyingly attaches itself to us.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Fall, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan ($9.99) (c2010)

The second installment in del Toro and Hogan's trilogy is just as captivating as the first. Vampirism is not romantic or sexy in these books. It is more akin to a grotesque viral epidemic.

One of the heroes, Eph Goodweather, was an epidemiologist with the CDC. He sought to bring the truth to the world and was rewarded with a false accusation of murder, the loss of his job, and a spot on the FBI's most wanted list. His ex-wife became one of the "strigoi" -- the authors' preferred term for vampire -- in the first book, and her main goal is to find their son, Zach, and turn him into one as well.

Abraham Setrakian is an old man, one who first met the "Master," one of the prime vampires, in a concentration camp during World War II. He has made it his life's work to track down the Master and destroy him.

Vasiliy Fet was an exterminator of small vermin before the apocalpyse and he is still an exterminator, this time of the strigoi. He, Setrakian, and Eph have found each other, and form the core of the rebel group.

As the disease spreads throughout New York City, other characters have been added, including some gangbangers and a broken-down ex-wrestler/"B" movie star. The collapse of political, social, and protective structures is worldwide, but the main characters and the Master are dueling in the Big Apple.

This episode has more of the same as the first book, with a few choice hints dropped on how each side may defeat the other. A mysterious book must be found by the vampire hunters if humankind is to survive. It contains information on who the ancients -- of which the Master is one -- are and, with luck, how they may be defeated. Or so the story goes.

What I enjoy about these books are the nods to science and to a philosophy embracing the archetypes lying within the collective unconscious. Medicine AND voodoo. Although del Toro is a movie maker, with the help of Chuck Hogan*, perhaps, the book doesn't feel that it could go straight to screen without much effort. They are books first and budding screenplays second.

The book ends with a bleak, apocalpytic vision of the world, but with enough hope to ensure that we head straight for the third book the minute it is available!

* Hogan is known for his gritty crime dramas, and his touch can be seen in the development of scenes and characters in the tough neighborhoods of New York.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated by Tiina Nunnally (hardcover, $25.95)

The more famous Scandinavian crime novels have come from Sweden and Norway, but with this entry Denmark shows it has a grittier side, too. This Danish thriller was exactly that, thrilling. People use the phrase "page-turner" far too often. But it applies in this case. Plan on putting everything else in your life on hold if you pick up this book.

Curmudgeonly police detective Carl Mørck was injured on the job. One of the other members of his team was killed and another drastically injured in the same incident. He now has survivor's issues to add to his general discontentment. After recovering from his injuries, he has been assigned to head the new "Department Q" to examine cold cases one last time, a putative promotion. In fact, it is solitary confinement. He heads to his new office in the basement. He wants to shut the door, prop his feet up on his desk, and smoke forbidden cigarette after cigarette. If only his office door weren't off its hinges and propped against the corridor wall.

There is no one else in Department Q, just Carl. Using creative blackmail, Carl finagles an assistant, someone who will make his coffee and tidy the non-existent case files. Hafez el-Assad, a Syrian immigrant who proves elusively cagier than everyone had thought, is whimsically assigned to Carl. He is not a police officer but a civilian with a prayer rug, savory smelling foreign delicacies, and an off-and-on vagueness.

Carl and Assad are quite the charming and eccentric couple.

Crime novels these days rely heavily on the intertwined storylines. This book also uses this gimmick, but how well Jussi Adler-Olsen handles it! Carl and Assad's trials and tribulations run as the main story in 2007. A separate story set in 2002 runs alongside, with a young female politician named Merete Lynggaard as the subject. Although she was under pressure from the many political issues the Danish Parliament had to juggle, her main concern was the guardianship of her brother Uffe, who was injured in a terrible car accident that killed their parents many years before. While traveling on a ferry with Uffe, Merete disappeared. Police determined that she either fell accidentally from the deck of the ferry or she was pushed. The case was put on the back burner after no leads could be found. Then it wends its way to Carl's desk in 2007.

Five years after the kidnapping, Carl is not motivated to find out what happened. He resents his "demotion," has panic attacks, has alienated almost everyone in his work and personal lives with his churlishness, and doesn't want to be bothered. However, he's still a good detective at heart. With providential legwork provided by Assad and fueled by the outrage Carl feels at how shoddily the case was processed the first time, clues slowly slip out and pieces begin to fit together about what really happened to Merete.

After almost 400 pages, the conclusion is stunning and satisfying.