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

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Capitol Murder, by Phillip Margolin (hardcover, $25.99)

The reason Phillip Margolin is a New York Times best-selling author is because he can tell a good story.

Margolin returns with what is billed as the last book in his "Washington Trilogy." Former cop and private investigator Dana Cutler and attorneys Brad Miller and Ginny Striker return for their denouement. I welcomed Dana's piece of the story especially. Margolin does a great job portraying strong women without patronizing or caricaturing them.

Margolin meticulously plots his books as he must have meticulously planned his cases when he was a practicing criminal defense attorney. Each piece of the puzzle is laid in place, and when the final piece is inserted, it turns out the completed picture is not what was shown on the box. (Okay, enough of that metaphor.) What I mean to say is that Margolin has one humdinger of a twisty, twisted ending.

In brief -- although it is a complex plot with lots of characters -- Brad has a new job working for a senator from Oregon. His wife, Ginny, has a new job with the Department of Justice. Dana alternately works as a private eye and as a reporter for a rag publication that hawks both major news stories and an-alien-kidnapped-my-husband fabrications. A terrorist plot to bomb a football stadium during an audience-packed game is afoot. Each of our heroes/heroines becomes involved through separate circumstances. And running amok after escaping from jail is Oregon serial killer Clarence Little. There's enough horror to go around.

This is my favorite book by Phillip Margolin so far. You go, guy!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

And She Was, by Alison Gaylin ($7.99)

Winner! This is Gaylin's fifth book and the start of a second series.

Brenna Spector has hyperthymestic disorder (like demi-celebrity Marilu Henner). That means that she can recall every day of her life in excruciating detail from the age of 11 onwards. She can remember with all her senses the highs, lows, and mediocrities of her life. She can remember how happy her ex-husband made her, which means she can never truly let go of him. The mostly upside of the disorder means she is an extraordinary private investigator. In fact, Brenna has started to link two cases of disappearance, one about a decade earlier and the other, a recent case.

Because Brenna also peripherally investigated the disappearance of six-year-old Iris Neff from her neighborhood ten years ago, she has met several of the people who now pop up in her current investigation. Carol Wentz has disappeared, and her husband, Nelson, an odd-duck of a man, wants Brenna to find her. Carol lived in Iris' neighborhood and was one of the last people to see Iris. In trying to find Carol, Brenna tries to find Iris' mother, Lydia. She, too, has disappeared. Then a series of seemingly unrelated deaths turn out to share a tenuous link, and the link is Iris, Lydia, and Carol. Is a cigar sometimes just a cigar, or is there really something there worth investigating?

What would romantic suspense be without romance? Professor-ish homicide detective Nick Morasco is the window dressing. Brenna's assistant, the oafish but brilliant Trent, provides the levity. Brenna's daughter, Maya, provides the illusion of teenage angst. And Brenna's missing sister, Clea, provides the reason for the next book.

Nicely paced, well written, good disease/disorder-of-the-week -- a few years ago it was M√ľnchausen-by-proxy -- and just enough character depth to get readers going without drowning in detail. Well done!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Twice a Spy, by Keith Thomson ($7.99)

When we last saw Drummond and Charlie Clark in Once a Spy, the father and son duo were being chased by every conceivable governmental law enforcement agency for being terrorists and killing a CIA agent. They were being helped by Alice Rutherford, an agent who believed in their innocence. (No, they aren't terrorists, and yes, they are innocent.)

As the current story opens, Drummond is in Switzerland, receiving experimental medical treatment for his Alzheimer's. There's nothing worse than a spy with Alzheimer's. Secrets rattle around in his head, sometimes occluded and at other times vivid and helpful. He is one of the few people around who can find and arm the washing machine bombs he helped to create. If it's one of Drummond's fuzzy moments, the going is tough. However, Drummond has enough lucid flashes that he and Charlie find themselves hunting for one of the bombs to exchange for Alice who has been kidnapped by real terrorists.

The bomb, however, isn't what it's cracked up to be. On purpose, Drummond, as a CIA agent, created dummy nuclear bombs to sell to terrorists, who would then be caught. Unfortunately, the bombs really have enough detonation material to cause a big blast -- just not a nuclear one -- so they are still deadly.

Because this is a spy story, not every (alleged) good guy is on the up-and-up. There are plot and character twists, James Bond-like action and coincidence, and sly winks on the side. There is also a moving depiction of a father and son who were estranged for a long time and are now trying to reconnect. Before Charlie discovered he was a spy, Drummond appeared to be an appliance salesman, and a very distant and cold father. Charlie for his part was a man who wasted his talents, a mathematical genius who threw his money away at the racetrack and was in serious danger of throwing his life away as well.

Keith Thomson describes Drummond's ordeal with sensitivity. He also shows restraint in portraying Drummond's senescence. In lesser hands Drummond's is-he-or-isn't-he state would be clumsily drawn and made dully repetitive. Instead there's an elegance to Drummond's oscillation between lucidity and befuddlement.

It is to Thomson's credit that he can successfully mix an over-the-top spy adventure with humor -- a washing machine nuclear bomb! -- and a tender father-and-son story.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (hardcover, $35)

Mokes, cons, dames. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Noir from the 40s and 50s. This is the stuff from which classic dreams are made.

David Goodis was prolific. He died young (age 49 in 1967) but left a large body of work, only a fraction of which has been widely circulated and preserved. The Library of America is doing its part to spread the word.

Dark Passage, the book, was written in 1946. Bogart starred in the movie in 1947. "The Fugitive" went on television in 1963. Goodis began a lawsuit against United Artists and ABC, claiming "The Fugitive" violated his copyright of Dark Passage. The case was not resolved until after Goodis died, and then only for a pittance paid to his heirs.

In his lifetime, Goodis wrote primarily for pulp magazines. Dark Passage was one of his first books. Although many of his books sold very well when they were first published, it has not been until the last decade or so that interest has peaked again in him as representative of the golden age of noir.

Film noir immediately brings to mind high-contrast back-and-white images, dark tales of men and women whose morality is muddied and who seem only to get more desperate. A happy ending certainly isn't guaranteed. But, man, oh, man, they had style and a high cool factor.

This is about a story. A dark story. Dark Passage by David Goodis. It starts with a man. This is how it begins:

"It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin."

Vincent Parry makes a break for it one day. Then he's on the lam and luck finds him in the shape of the shapely and rich Irene Janney. But it's not even about Parry and Irene. It's not about whether Parry's wife was murdered. It's not about how Parry survives while on the run. All those things are interesting and essential to the story, but what is most important is how Goodis tells these things.

Here are a few quotes. Listen to the rhythm and humor and leanness.

"Parry had jumped at the job in the investment security house when he learned it was the kind of job where he could smoke all he pleased. He was a three-pack-a-day man."

"He wore a felt hat that had been dead for years."

"It was bad because it was soft and if there was anything he couldn't afford now it was softness. The lukewarm and weak brand of softness. Everything had to be ice, and just as hard, and just as fast as a whippet and just as smooth."

"A small studio orchestra was trying to do something with Holiday for Strings but there weren't enough strings. Toward the middle most of the orchestra seemed to be taking a holiday."

"He touched the door. He touched the knob. He handled the knob, turned it. He opened the door."

What a voice Goodis had! What a wonderful, wry, dark voice. It was full of emotional stasis and arrested movement while charging forward at the same time. Goodis is an undisclosed party in his scenes -- his aesthetic, his punchlines, his poetry, his deliberate style.

Humphrey Bogart's laconic portrayal of Parry matches Goodis' writing exactly. Game, set, match.

There are five books within this volume, including Dark Passage. It's a deal at $35.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino ($14.99)

Keigo Higashino has created a stunning and moving mystery. His characters are interesting and his plot is a return to a traditional whodunnit format in which there are two masterminds, one to create the clues and the other to unravel them.

Yasuko Hanaoka, a hard-working single mother, kills her ex-husband in self-defense. Shinji Togashi was loathsome and a villain whose death (because it's fictional) we can cheer. What can she and her teenage daughter do now with the dead body in their living room? Yasuko's next-door neighbor, Tetsuyo Ishigami, is a brilliant mathematician, whose academic light has been hidden under a bushel for many years. He will take care of everything, he says. Not to worry, Yasuko.

Detective Kusanagi cannot find any better suspect than Yasuko. It doesn't matter that she has been divorced from Togashi for five years and hasn't seen him at all during that time -- except, as we know, for the fateful night -- and there's really nothing linking her to the victim, whose body, by the way, was found far away on a riverbank. Kusanagi just has finely tuned intuition and that is apparently enough to keep him on Yasuko's trail.

Alas for Ishigami, Kusanagi has asked Manabu Yukawa, an assistant professor of physics at a highly-regarded university -- from which all of them have matriculated  -- to help him figure out what's wrong with the murder picture. Kusanagi jokingly calls Yukawa, "Professor Galileo." Yukawa, it turns out, was one of Ishigami's only friends at college and greatly prizes their acquaintance. It is a joyous boon for Yukawa that he has been reunited with Ishigami. Not so much for Ishigami.

It doesn't matter that fiendish Togashi slapped Yasuko's daughter repeatedly on the face and there's no mention of bruising. It doesn't matter that it makes no sense to single out Yasuko when Togashi was a gambler, alcoholic, and general wastrel with, no doubt, plenty of shady characters in his life. It doesn't matter because it's all about the puzzle and how two geniuses respect each other enough not to underestimate the other's intelligence.

Go along for the ride and gasp at the ending. Then you'll see why this book has been nominated for an Edgar Award, and received stars and recommendations from just about every reviewer around.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Night She Disappeared, by April Henry (hardcover, $16.99)

We know Portland author April Henry from her adult books and because of her makes-us-laugh sense of humor. She has co-authored other young adult books, but this is her first solo YA venture.

This is a different kettle of fish than Henry's adult books. It's serious and thriller-intense. Kayla Cutler, a 17-year-old girl, disappeared while delivering pizza. Her coworkers and classmates, Andrew "Drew" Lyle and Gabriella "Gabie" Klug, become involved even though they know next to nothing about either Kayla or her disappearance.

Drew is trying to earn enough money to keep a roof over his head. In the brief scenes in which she is introduced, it's obvious that something is wrong with Drew's mother, and his father is nowhere to be seen. Henry draws out Drew's story over the course of the novel, until his plight is finally revealed. It could be maudlin, but Henry does a good job making it moving instead.

Gabie is the daughter of two high-powered surgeons. She's smart, independent by necessity, and down-to-earth. Gabie had switched shifts at Pete's Pizza with Kayla. It was Kayla who was working the night that Drew took a phone order from a man who wanted to know if Gabie was working that night. Drew didn't answer his question, and Kayla took the delivery. And disappeared. The police and Kayla's family do everything they can to find her body and her killer. Gabie, on the other hand, has a vague feeling that Kayla is still alive.

Gabie and Drew struggle to come to terms with Gabie's intuition and the opposing evidence the police have found, including a young man they suspect of being the killer.

It's not just a book for young adults, old adults can enjoy the tension and characterizations as well. Henry is a good storyteller, and she fashions her plot well.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Poison Flower, by Thomas Perry (hardcover, $24)

Jane Whitefield, a modern Seneca warrior who helps people disappear, disappeared herself for ten years before Thomas Perry resurrected her in Runner in 2009. Jane appears to be back but she's a shadow of her former self. This modern Jane uses cell phones, surfs the web, and kills with impunity. The body count is high in Poison Flower. Jane herself, like the old Timex watches, takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'.

In one of her more daring rescues, Jane helps a man escape from the Los Angeles County Courthouse. James Shelby has been accused of murdering his wife. Thugs hired by the real murderer much too expeditiously capture Jane and torture her to find out where she's hidden Shelby. There's a long, detailed description of what happens to poor Jane and is a homage to what Stieg Larsson did to poor Lisbeth Salander. Jane, like Lisbeth, doesn't get mad. She gets back.

Jane's story is told in measured tones, with meticulously described action and stoically withheld self-pity. The plot is advanced step by logical step and the characters explain themselves precisely, but neither is done with any inner fire. Still, the story is clever, and it's hard not to sympathize with whatever Jane wants to do in retaliation, especially after old nemeses surface for an auction to win a captured Jane. Have I mentioned the body count?

When I read Vanishing Act, the first Jane Whitefield book, way back when, I was amazed by how well Perry had created such a unique and interesting female character. The way Perry incorporated Jane's Seneca heritage and knowledge was a thrilling addition. Her coolness in the face of danger was contrasted by her anger over of the wrongs that had been done to others. She had a mission to sublimate her own needs in the service of these others. So, welcome back, Jane, whoever you are now.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bleed for Me, by Michael Robotham (hardcover, $25.99)

There are some authors -- good authors -- whose works make me stop every page or two to assess how much I've read and how much further I have to go. Sigh. With Michael Robotham, I can have read fifty pages, a hundred pages, without noticing. His words move swiftly along.

Robotham is one of those amazing authors who can juggle a panoply of characters. He might feature psychologist Joe O'Loughlin in one book, retired detective Vincent Ruiz in another, and give voice to a young female Sikh detective in a third. Most of them run around in the same crowd and bump into each other in the various books. Robotham states that Ruiz, however, is the only one to have appeared in all his books.

Yes, Robotham's books are thrillers -- the pace certainly justifies the use of that term -- but he also delves into his characters' lives, emotions, and fears brilliantly. Bleed for Me is not just about finding a killer; it's also a look into the psyche of a once distinguished, arrogant, vain man who has fallen from his pedestal and is being humbled by degrees.

This time around Joe O'Loughlin takes the main stage. It is his first person, present tense narrative that drives the book, although Ruiz pops in to lend a hand when Joe runs into trouble.

To set the stage: Joe and his wife are separated, living in a small town near Bath, England, and sharing custody and the privilege of taking care of their two daughters, one of whom, Charlie, is a teenager and knows how to push Joe's buttons. Charlie's best friend, Sienna, shows up at Charlie's home one night covered in blood. Her father has been murdered and Sienna is suspected of the crime.

What begins as the response of a caring parent and responsible psychologist to help Sienna remember the events of the night her father was murdered winds up as the story of a man possessed and obsessed with achieving justice for Sienna, safety for Charlie, and a semblance of a normal life.

Joe's life is complicated by his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. He has not learned how to forgive himself for becoming a victim of the disease. He cannot understand why his wife wants a divorce. He cannot move past his own concerns to see how his actions affect his family. His priorities are put to a test in this book.

Sometimes on the right side of the law, helping DCI Veronica Cray, for instance, and sometimes on the outside, Joe lurches forward with what increasingly becomes his private investigation. It's a good thing he has Ruiz to rein him in, although Joe manages to get hauled into police headquarters several times anyway.

Robotham's wryness frequently shines through:
They must have called her at home. Woken her. There are some supermodels who won't get out of bed for less than ten thousand pounds. DCI Cray doesn't stir unless someone is dead, defiled or missing.
Here's more about DCI Cray:
Lighting another cigarette, she sucks hard into her lungs as if concerned that fresh air without tobacco smoke might damage her health.
Ruiz's solid, bull-headed approach towards solving crime is a nice counterpoint to Joe's more analytical one. Joe can "read" people's mannerisms, tics, and gestures to tell if they are lying or, à la Sherlock Holmes, what they are thinking. Ruiz knows how to work the system, and can be blunt and physically intimidating. Teamwork at its finest. But this story is definitely Joe's, with Ruiz along for the ride.

My favorite Robotham is Night Ferry, with the young Sikh detective as the narrator. Ruiz' stories are a close second, and trailing both are Joe's. It's Joe's arrogant tone -- much quieter by the end of the book -- that made him third. However, I have enjoyed all the books, unequivocally. Robotham's writing is topnotch, his stories are page-turners, and I really want to find out what happens next with his cast of regulars. What more could a reader ask for?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The House at Sea's End, by Elly Griffiths (hardcover, $25)

Elly Griffiths' books get better and better. This is the third Ruth Galloway book to make it to the shores of the U.S.

Ruth is an archaeologist at a university in Norfolk, England. She's also a self-styled consultant to the police force. Although she prefers old bones, she also has to contend with freshly murdered corpses on occasion.

It's Ruth's continuing underlying story that makes the series so rich. In Crossing Places, the first book in the series, Ruth met DCI Harry Nelson and they began a strange and strangely romantic alliance, even though Harry is married and Ruth is not interested in changing her hard-won intellectual life for him. But, of course, things gang aft a-gley, or it wouldn't be an interesting story. By The Janus Stone, Ruth was pregnant and determined to go it alone. Now Ruth is the mother of a baby girl, whom she single-handedly is raising after steadfastly refusing to name the baby's father. Which brings us to The House at Sea's End.

Six skeletons are found in a seacliff crevice, the bones uncovered by erosion. Through modern forensic techniques and the coincidental appearance of a German researcher, the bones are determined to belong to World War II German soldiers. How did they die? Why were the bodies hidden? A couple of other recent deaths appear suspicious, but these deaths are of old English men. Are they related? Ruth is part of the archeological team investigating the soldiers' bones but soon finds herself embroiled in a village mystery. As erosion eats away at the small coastal town of Broughton Sea's End, so do Ruth and Harry chip away at the mysteries that seem to accumulate like falling dominoes.

The answers aren't neat and presentable in Griffiths' mysteries. Some of them produce more predicaments in the best cliff-hanging fashion. Moral ambiguity looms large and even the most outwardly heroic of souls can harbor a touch of the devil. It is that confusion of motivations and the occasional rising above that makes Griffiths' stories so very interesting and worthwhile.