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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George (hardcover, $28.95) (due date 1/10/12)

Believing the Lie is so long and takes so long to finish, rife as it is with plot and setting details and character descriptions, that it felt like a member of the family had died when I finally finished it. It  had had breakfast and lunch with me for so many days that I now have forgotten what I used to do while eating before this 624-page guest came to stay.

Lynley and Haver have their own personal turmoils to contend with while solving a crime in the far-off Lake District. The Lake District, where Peter Rabbit frolicked and daffodils grow in great abundance in Spring. The Lake District, where the body of the presumed heir to a bathroom fixtures fortune has been found in the family boathouse, expired by way of drowning.

It's a tortured path that brings Lynley to the victim's family estate incognito. He co-opts Havers into performing her own brand of subterfuge to get research past acting superintendent Isabelle Ardery, the bane of Havers' existence and Lynley's erstwhile lover, because no one must know that Lynley is in the Lake District. Sorry. That's a little too contrived. Nevertheless, there sits Lynley, far from the madding crowd of London.

Even more contrived is the involvement of Simon St. James, forensic scientist, and his wife, Deborah St. James. Deborah, although she is a photographer and not a law enforcement officer, plays a part in the deception to discover who might want Ian Caldwell dead. Deborah's part of the book takes a good fourth, and her part makes for a sad tale in the end. 

Apart from the ongoing soap opera involving George's standard players, there are three distinct mysteries that George sets before us. Who killed Ian Caldwell? Who is the mysterious Argentinian wife of the victim's cousin? What is Ian's young son's terrible secret?

It's hard to swallow all the stories George creates; some are more sympathetic than others and some are too outrageous. Each of the non-recurring characters is the carrier of his or her own salvation or destruction, and heavy lie the heads with that burden. At this stage in her series, Believing the Lie is neither the best nor the worst of her stories. George always gets an A+ for effort. I admit to a heavily tilted prejudice in favor of the stories with Barbara Havers over the other main characters, and the more Barbara the better. That being said, I really enjoyed the fourth of the book that was Barbara's and less the fourth that was Deborah's.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Whisperer, by Donato Carrisi (hardcover, $25.99) (due 1/5/12)

Foreign authors are only as good as their translators let them be, and conversely, translators are only as good as the material they have to translate. I've read translated books with an awkward rhythm to them and wondered who was to blame.

The best translated book I've read recently, The Boy in the Suitcase, had a co-author who was fluent in English. I think that must have had an impact on the translation, as she, it turns out, was the translator. If only that were possible for all books. An author's art is not just the story being told but the way it's told. Look at how many English translations of the Iliad and Dante's Inferno there are by translators/poets fighting to get both the intent, meter, and beauty just right. I'm currently also reading Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery and trying to linger over every paragraph -- and what a lot of paragraphs there are! His translator is fabulous, as is the original work, I'm sure.

It's hard to stand in comparison to Umberto Eco, and Carrisi does and doesn't succeed. Both books are full of details served up as side dishes. Eco's side dish is a rich, opinionated history lesson; Carrisi's is "CSI"-like detail. Eco wants to seduce you; Carrisi is simply thorough. In any event, the translation is good but there's still a definite otherness and a vague tediousness to the writing.

Although Carrisi is Italian, it is not clear exactly where his story is set. The characters have last names like Stern, Gavila, Rosa, Boris, Roche, Vasquez, Bermann, Rockford, and first names like Sarah, Debby, Anneke, Sabine, Mila, Goran, Alexander, an international hodgepodge. I could imagine Sweden just as easily as I could France. (However, I think I can rule out the whole continents of Africa, Asia, and Antarctica.)

In an interview conducted in Italian by Raffaello Ferrante for Mangialibri (http://www.mangialibri.com/node/4255) and translated awkwardly by Google, Carrisi says that evil can be anywhere. The multiracial and multicultural society of the "no land" he depicts in the book is actually the society he hopes Italy will become one day.

Dr. Goran Gavila, a civilian criminologist working with the police, and Mila Vasquez, a police officer specializing in crimes against children, are the main characters. They have been banded together with others to catch the person or persons who have kidnapped and possibly killed six young girls. Both Goran and Mila have tragedies in their own lives, and both are seeking some comfort or distance from their personal problems by solving crimes. Each is intuitive. But the similarity ends there. Goran has the respect of the other team members, while Mila is a twitchy, indecipherable outsider.

Surprises start popping up as this lengthy novel begins to wind up. As the team discovers the bodies of the missing girls, each taken and killed by a different man, the team suspects that there's a mastermind behind the killers, a "whisperer" who controls their movements. But is that an illusion fed by intuition and psychic mumbo-jumbo? Hard evidence proves evasive.

While the book does seem overly long, it is a good thriller with an unexpected and stunning ending, and Mila is a strangely captivating character. In the same aforementioned interview, Carrisi mentions that he learned from the great masters of the genre: Dan Brown and Jeffery Deaver! He certainly has matched or exceeded them in cleverness.

Friday, December 16, 2011

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander ($13.95) (c2005)

Portland author Bill Cameron has been telling me for years (years!) to read Tasha Alexander. I'm not a vociferous historical mystery reader, so I generally need all the hints I can get. But still, it took me a while before I picked up this first book in her series.

And I'm glad I did. It was a proper little Victorian mystery.

Emily, widow of Philip, the Viscount Ashton, is young, rich, and nearing the end of her two-year period of mourning. Her husband succumbed to an illness while on a hunt for an elephant in Africa. But don't cry for her, Argentina. She didn't love him anyway and the austerity of mourning chafes her. She married Philip to get away from her nagging, interfering mother. 

But surprise of surprises, Emily finds herself getting to know her husband, posthumously, through his journals and falling in love with him. She finds that he was a patron of the British Museum, a smart and educated world traveler, and someone who loved her deeply. Oh, dear.

Then Emily discovers that someone had been stealing artifacts from the museum and replacing them with excellent copies. It appears that that someone was her husband. And maybe he's not dead after all. 

Helped or hindered by a couple of hopeful suitors, giddy aristocratic girlfriends, and a wise and eccentric Frenchwoman, Emily prepares to both find her husband and solve the mystery of the missing artifacts.

What I enjoyed most of all was Alexander's light touch. Some authors create a character more suitable for contemporary times rather than the conservative and repressive society of Victorian times. Alexander allows Emily to be progressive but within self-imposed bounds. Emily explores and expands bit by little bit. She worries that the husband she now loves will be appalled by her independence. 

All the characters, good and bad, fictional and real (e.g., Renoir), male and female, make you want to turn the page and read more.

P.S. Tasha Alexander's series is not just for the female of the species. Ask Bill Cameron!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

2011 Year's Best Paperback Books

We've chosen our favorite books of 2011. Go to http://www.mbtb.com/home/favorites-of-2011 and find out what they were!

Mr. Kill, by Martin Limón (hardcover, $25)

Over the prior six books Martin Limón has written in his series, he has taken Army Criminal Investigations Division detectives George Sueño and Ernie Bascom through some physically punishing times in 1970s South Korea. Add Mr. Kill to the list. Bascom especially has a way with his fists and uses them when words don't accomplish what he wants. Sueño, the narrator of the stories, has a more intellectual approach to crime solving, but he, too, can come out swinging.

Mr. Kill is the closest Americans can get to pronouncing Mr. [G/K]il Kwon-up, a heroic and almost mythical detective for the Korean National Police. He exhibits talents learned from both the new and old worlds. He's a tae-kwon-do expert who also knows calligraphy and history. His office is in a modern police station, and his officers use 1970s-modern techniques. There wasn't enough of Mr. Kill in the book, in my opinion. He was such a fascinating character that I'm hoping Limón has more in store for him.

Sueño and Bascom determine that an American G.I. is raping Korean women on trains. They are not interested in covering up on behalf of the U.S. government, which immediately puts them at a disadvantage in terms of cooperation. Luckily they're bull-headed and heavy-fisted. They are not above bending the law themselves to suit their purpose. And their purpose is to catch the rapist.

On the other hand, while not immediately sanctioning this more important case, the military puts Sueño and Bascom in charge of escorting women country and western singers who are on a USO tour. Someone has been stealing pieces of clothing and equipment. A boot here, a bra there. 

The C.I.D. detectives must balance working on these cases, and find time to sleep somewhere in their busy days and nights.

What Limón does really well is return us to a time and country that we never knew  while it was happening. G.I.s have been stationed in South Korea since the Korean War in the 1950s. The complications resulting from a clash of cultures, a not-so-hidden American feeling of superiority, and the tense military situation between North and South Koreas provide the unique background of Limón's books.