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

Monday, April 30, 2012

One Was a Soldier, by Julia Spencer-Fleming ($15)

We jump forward several months from Julia Spencer-Fleming's last book. Her unusual protagonist, Episcopal priest/helicopter pilot Clare Fergusson, has just returned from a stint in Iraq as a pilot to her diocese and life in Miller's Kill, New York.

As far as I can tell, it's 2002 and many of the book's characters have returned to normal lives after their abnormal experiences away from Miller's Kill. They meet in a veteran's therapy session that postdates Clare's return by about five months. When one of the group's members dies, it hits the group hard, not only because there could be malfeasance associated with the death but also because it forces acknowledgement that nowhere is safe.

There are actually two books in one, the first dealing with the mystery surrounding the death and the other about Clare and her fellow damaged souls. It is the latter story that is deep, rich, human and worth telling. We learn how each member deals with the mental and physical injuries he or she has acquired away from home.

How can Clare care for her congregation if she won't acknowledge her alcohol and pill problem? How can she enter into a more serious relationship with Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne if she can't be honest with him? How can she unravel the mystery of her fellow member's death if she won't acknowledge that maybe she can't provide the solutions to everybody's problems all the time?

Spencer-Fleming plumbs human emotions very well. Her main characters suffer from conflict and confusion and helplessness. It is the illuminating journey forward that makes half of this book a cut above.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

As the Crow Flies, by Craig Johnson (hardcover, $25.95), set to be released on 5/15/12

It's fine if Johnson wants to hightail it up to the philosopically elevated heights of the Big Horn Mountains every once in a while (Hell Is Empty), but the people and country of As the Crow Flies is where Sheriff Walt Longmire belongs. Actually, he belongs in Absaroka County, Wyoming, but he's slumming it in Montana on the Rez, getting ready for his daughter's wedding to his deputy's brother. (The small-town interlocking relationships stretch all the way to Philadelphia, where Cady and her fiancé live.)

I love the way this book starts. It's full of Craig Johnson's trademarked humor and snappy white man-red man dialogue. It gets a rollicking book off to a great start. Despite the sometimes bizarre circumstances in which the characters find themselves in the eight books of his Longmire series, there is a naturalness to Johnson's writing. It's hard to believe his characters aren't real. If wishes were fishes, I'd be swimming alongside Walt, best friend Bear, more-than-just-a-deputy Vic, just-a-deputy Saizarbitoria, daughter Cady, predecessor Lucien, and dog Dog.

It's just Walt's hapless luck that he should be planning his daughter's wedding in Montana when he stumbles across a murder, drug dealing, a trap set by federal agents, a peyote ceremony, a grumpy reservation police chief, and bad truck karma.

Speaking of bad truck karma, this passage doesn't really have anything to do with either of the main stories, but it's a shining example of Johnson's enveloping humor. This is Walt trying to get Henry Standing Bear's recalcitrant truck, "Rezdawg," to start:

I climbed out, unhooked the rubber straps behind the grille, pinched my finger into a blood blister with the hood latch, and finally got the thing open long enough for it to close onto the back of my head. I pushed it up again, with more effort and a little anger this time, reset my hat, and stood outside its jaws long enough to make sure the hood would stay up. 
Relatively sure I wasn't going to get snapped again, I wiggled the corroded positive clamp on what had to be the original AUTOLITE STA-FUL battery and thought I'd be happy if the damn thing just STA-CHARGED. The greenish-white buildup on the lug fell away just enough for the worn bare part of the cable to turn and rub against the inner fender and shoot sparks around the engine bay, my hand held in an electrified death grip.

Johnson knows how to tell us a (tall) tale, and better than anyone else except James Lee Burke, he knows how to end it. He brings us to our sentimental knees at the end of his stories without bowing at the twin altars of schmaltz and ham.

Craig will be visiting us this summer (yay!). Look for him on Tuesday, June 19, 7:00 p.m. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

House of the Hunted, by Mark Mills (hardcover, $26)

Mark Mills' books are very polished and suave. This book, from our modern retrospective viewpoint, feels like the encapsulation of an aesthetic from a time decades past. A time when spies played at clever games and had to think on their feet, a time when technology hadn't taken over. The story is set on the brink of World War II and is a prelude to the Cold War. Mills' characters dance through layers of subterfuge to define the shifting alliances and allegiances of the countries or causes they represent.

Tom Nash was a spy in the Soviet Union for Great Britain. He was a trained killer and infiltrator. Until he gave it up. After a short burst of storyline in Russia, we next see Tom sixteen years later on the south coast of France, living in bucolic happiness, retired from the spy business, awaiting a celebratory reunion with some of his nearest and dearest friends: Leonard, a former fellow spy and current bureaucrat; Venetia, Leonard's wife, and Lucy, Leonard's stepdaughter; Yevgeny and Fanya, art dealers; and Barnaby, an old schoolmate. With the addition of a few new acquaintances, they are the assortment of louche, disappointed, ingenuous, dissembling, beguiling, and weary characters of Mills' play.

Then someone tries to kill Tom in his own home, and the game is back on.

Tom Nash has given up his cold spy persona for that of a warm human being and worldly ex-pat Brit, so the murderous attempt throws him. Soon after, he must attend a dinner he is hosting:

Tom struggled to engage with any of it, a stranger at his own feast, almost an impostor, only there because he had somehow managed to cheat his destiny less than twenty-four hours previously.

It is Mills' overlying, constant quiet tone that keeps it from being labeled a "thriller" or a "spy adventure," even though there is quite a lot of action. It feels as though this book might have been written in the 1940s or '50s. At the same time, there are some characters, e.g., Lucy, who are clearly cinematic -- added for the benefit of any future movies, perhaps. While I can't say that it was a surprising book, it is thoroughly entertaining, the characters are well-described, and I now desperately want to vacation at La Rayol. There are clever flourishes and sincere moments. 

Cf. Tom Gabbay's "The Tehran Conviction" and Barry Unsworth's "Land of Marvels."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Shadow Pass, by Sam Eastland ($15)

This is the second in Sam Eastland's books about Special Investigator Pekkala, nicknamed "The Emerald Eye."

As a young Finn, Pekkala was brought to Russia to train as a soldier. He was singled out by the Tsar and trained further to be his special investigator. The badge indicating his special status looked like an emerald eye.

After the Romanovs were killed, Pekkala was sent to Siberia. There he endured terrible hardships. If it weren't for bad luck, as the song says, he'd have no luck at all. Pekkala was brought back from the verge of madness by Stalin to solve the murder of the Romanovs. After that case (The Eye of the Red Tsar), Pekkala remained as Stalin's investigator and the holder of a rare honor, the "shadow pass." Like 007's license to kill, Pekkala has the authority to go anywhere and do anything to solve the cases put forward by Stalin.

Pekkala is helped by the effervescent Major Kirov, who turns their office into a garden and offers kumquats to Pekkala like jewels.

In Shadow Pass, the two investigators must find out how Colonel Nagorski, the head of a top-secret department that is working on a top-secret tank, was killed. An accident? Possibly. The body was discovered under the colonel's favorite tank. It might have slipped out of gear when the colonel stepped out of the tank. Suicide? Possibly. He was given to moodiness. Murder? Most emphatically, especially when a bullet is discovered in his head.

Pekkala is a somewhat mystical character. Metaphorically risen from the dead, having survived exile and ostracism, he now somehow survives Stalin's infamous temper. Although an assassin previously shot at him at point blank range, there was not a mark on him, making him a legend in Moscow. No longer the young man who was a confidante of the tsar, he has learned many lessons the hard way over the years. He's tough, wary, smart, and has great reflexes.

The time period and setting that Eastland has selected are ripe for stories of intrigue and danger, and he does a great story-telling job, but it is the creation of Pekkala that is Eastland's best feat. There are flashbacks to Pekkala's time with the tsar, the crazy tsarina, and even crazier Rasputin. That is when Pekkala's character seems most human. He has not yet learned the loss and deprivation that future years hold for him, and has not yet walled off his emotions.

Not a spy story in the tradition of Le Carré or Furst, nor a political detective thriller like Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, nor a political picture of a difficult time like Tom Robb Smith's books, nor a straddling of disparate ideologies like in J. Robert Janes' books, Eastland's works are primarily about one person. Don't think about the unlikelihood that a man could work for both the tsar and Stalin. Don't think about how Stalin sounds almost rational at times. It is easy to warm to Pekkala and Kirov as they make their way through the political minefield of their time.

Sam Eastland is the pseudonym of Paul Watkins, an American author. His biography says that he is the grandson of a London police detective. Good credentials, wot?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Viral, by James Lilliefors (hardcover, $25)

There are an overwhelming number of characters and a lot of back-and-forthing in this debut novel. James Lilliefors is a journalist who is probably used to untangling complex stories and having to identify ALL the parties. So, without giving too much away, I hope, here's what you need to concentrate on.

Charles Mallory is the central character. He is a former CIA operative who now is a private intelligence contractor. (Lilliefors advises us through a character that "70% of intelligence work is subcontracted" these days. If true, yikes!) Because of his current assignment for the U.S. government and because of a project his father was interested in, Charles becomes involved in a mystery that involves Africa, both as a place of incredible suffering and of incredible potential.

Jon Mallory is Charles' brother, whom he has hardly seen over the last decade, not even at their father's funeral. Jon is a contributing editor of "The Weekly American," writing about politics. In a rare moment of brotherly contact, Charles tells him an interesting story and sends Jon on his way to Africa to be a "witness." 

After the fact, this is what Jon must bear witness to: Two hundred thousand people have died at the same time in Sundiata (a fictional nation), Africa. How did they die? Why did they die? What does it mean?

Soon people are trying to kill Charles. And anyone who helps him. Then practically everyone with whom he talks. Charles is like a virus himself. And he does determine that it was a virus that killed all those people in Sundiata. But where did a virus that could cause such massive destruction come from?

Lilliefors quotes a fictional (I think) reporter/spy, Arthur Caswell*: The West/America 
... has become overwhelmed by what [Caswell] called moral laziness. He characterized it as an epidemic that worsened proportionally as the world's problems worsened. He had this idea about active endorsement versus passive endorsement, and how we've increasingly come to passively endorse some very terrible things.
This quote is at the heart of Viral.

What does the fact that 200,000 people died in a small, impoverished, corrupt African nation mean to the Western world? Is it merely a blip on the empathy radar before we return to whatever is immediately pressing in our everyday Western lives? If we found out that the U.S. government or U.S. citizens were somehow involved in this disaster, would we do anything about it? Politics can be an amoral bitch sometimes, and the answer is not always clear, Lilliefors intimates.

Charles and the main members of his team -- ex-military, ex-intelligence, technological geniuses -- spend the rest of the book trying to prevent further deaths.

Interesting aside: NDB (non-discernible bio-inoculator), advanced satellite imaging technology, plasmid Destabilization Propellant Gun, quantum encryption supercomputers, nano-drones, Digital Immersion Technology ("digitized, three-dimensional, holographic environment") are all currently available or in development, according to what Lilliefors says on his website (www.jameslilliefors.com). Now that's scary, especially in light of how Lilliefors' characters put them to nefarious uses!

Another aside: Mancala, Buttata, Sundiata are fictional African nations, but they reflect the problems in real countries, making them prey to international interests.

In impeccable journalistic fashion, Lilliefors gives us a lot of information, perhaps too much for a fictional book. Some of his characters seem almost superfluous, even while they give us another building block upon which to decipher the evil plan. (Do you want to take notes the way I did? It might help. And I had to keep referring to the notes to figure out who did or said what to whom and what kind of player he/she was.) What works and is appreciated in nonfiction books sludges up the gears in fiction.

However, this was a thought-provoking book in the best sense. Lilliefors takes what exists -- the real potential for harm that individuals motivated by greed or a higher purpose can do -- and gives us a chilling thriller. Had I but time and worlds enough I would read it again to see how Lilliefors built the layers of his story. He must hope that his readers come away with concern, or at least a curiosity, for the direction the first world is taking in regard to the third world, especially in parts of Africa.

*His name only appears a couple of times, so you don't need to remember him, but I mention him here because this is one of the most memorable quotes in the book.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Beastly Things, by Donna Leon (hardcover, $25)

Let's hear what Guido Brunetti had for lunch. How about dinner? What kinds of pastries does he get with his coffee? What are the stops for the vaporetto?  Let's chastise Pucetti for hacking into databases. Wow! Spring flowers on Signorina Elettra's desk. Let's go to a shoe store!

Oh, the mystery. Let's see, I'm almost to page 100 and there hasn't been too much about the victim, other than nobody knows who he is. He was found in the water but died of exsanguination, not drowning. Let's get back to the shoe shopping. And, finally, that actually has something to do with the dead man. Although quite a lot of the remaining two-thirds of the book still is not really about the murder but about life in Venice and the philosophy of that life, Leon finally rachets up the mystery.

More obviously in this book than most, Leon's stories are about Guido, his family, and his colleagues as people, not as part of the police machinery. The mystery part is almost incidental. We tune in to get an insider's glimpse of life in one of the most fascinating places on earth, Venice. We read about the succulent dishes Paola Brunetti effortlessly whips up. We hear about Elettra's latest extralegal activities and cleverness.

On the darker side, Leon brings to our attention that all is not heavenly in this earthly paradise. Venetian justice is relative. That is, if your relative holds a title or a position of power, then justice may be more lenient. Corruption, venality, back-scratching, these are all facts of Italian life. Side-stepping the politics and family connections is more harrowing than side-stepping patties in a field packed with cows.

Speaking of cows … Andrea Nava is a veterinarian who has taken a second job as an inspector in a slaughterhouse. It is the unfortunate Andrea Nava who turns out to be the victim found in the canal. Could his new work have had something to do with his murder?

This is a book for Donna Leon fans. It effusively celebrates Guido's sensitivity, Paola's indefatigability, and Elettra's miraculous and convenient sophistication with computers and databases. The mystery, cosi va il mondo, is a little on the watery (ahem!) side.

Donna Leon is an American who has lived in Venice for a quarter of a century. At last report, she had not authorized translation of her books into Italian. I don't know whether this is to protect her privacy or elude any criticism of an unfair portrayal of a city she obviously loves and holds in great regard.

These are a couple of excerpts from an interview of Donna Leon that you can find on the Penguin website:
Italians aren't all that different from the rest of us, save that they feel less guilt about the impulse to have fun.
 [Venice] is believed to be romantic, mysterious, faintly sinister, when in truth it is a tiny provincial town that happens to be extraordinarily beautiful in almost every angle but which is now buried under a wave of tourism that makes daily life at times insupportable.
Perhaps Leon is faintly embarrassed by how successful her books have been and how she herself may be the cause of a tiny wave of tourism to the sites described in her books. In fact, her fans have popularized two adjunctive works, a cookbook and a guidebook, related to Guido Brunetti's fictional travels and gustatory excitations.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Last Good Man, by A. J. Kazinski, translated by Tiina Nunnally (hardcover, $26.99)

The Last Good Man is a Danish book that has won a couple of foreign awards. A. J. Kazinski is the pseudonym of Anders Rønnow Klarlund and Jacob Weinreich. Klarlund is a filmmaker, so guess where this book is probably headed! And, frankly, I would be standing in that movie ticket line.

On the face of it, this is an apocalyptic thriller. Two police detectives, Tommaso di Barbara in Venice and Niels Bentzon in Copenhagen, are drawn into figuring out what has killed people all over the world. These people -- di Barbara and Bentzon have found about twenty of them so far -- die with an odd, burning, stigmata-like rash on their backs. Di Barbara is convinced these people represent some of the thirty-six "righteous" people (Tzadikim Nistarim from the Talmud) who guard the world from evil. How many people are left who might be saved from death? 

It soon becomes mostly Niels' story, and he gets some help from Hannah Lund, whom he meets while trying to find one of the "good" people who might be the next victim. Hannah represents science in its purest form. She's an astrophysicist, crippled emotionally by the death of her son and desertion by her husband. She tries to find a "system" by which the next victim can be identified. It is Hannah's struggle to reconcile enjoying the scientific puzzle with the realization that human beings are at peril that adds to the interest.

There are action and chase scenes and all the mandatory props for a thriller, but it is the authors' use of the myth of the thirty-six righteous people that carries the intrigue forward. If there are these people and they all die, will that herald Judgment Day? The last part of the book heads into spiritual territory, but always within the context of no matter who or what has created the thirty-six people (and, remember, we still don't know if there are actually thirty-six saintly souls), the question remains, who or what is killing them.

Kazinski starts the book with a scene of a researcher putting a picture face up near the ceiling of an operating room. Will some of the people who die in the operating room and are subsequently resuscitated relate that they floated to the top of the room and viewed themselves on the operating table? Will they "see" the picture and be able to identify it accurately? That's almost a forgotten element of the story until the end.

It is a race against the clock in the best thriller style. But it is also a very moving book about people trying to do their best, trying to forgive themselves, trying to help others. That's what really separates this book from other apocalyptic novels and makes me raise my thumb up in praise. (Plus Nunnally really is a good translator.)

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Slip and Fall, by Nick Santora ($13.99)


If this book sounds like an episode of "The Sopranos," it's because Nick Santora was a writer on that show.  The wiseguys, the Italian families, life in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York City -- they're all in Santora's debut novel. Not surprisingly, the dialogue sings.

Bobby Principe's family, especially his father, scrimped and did without to allow Bobby to attend Columbia Law School. A smart guy with high principles, modeled after his father, Bobby was proud to turn aside offers from major NYC law firms to hang his shingle out in his old neighborhood. His wife, Janine, and his secretary, Joey, are proud to be associated with him. You can't get any higher than this -- which is why the fall, when it comes, is excruciatingly long and sorrowful.

SPOILER ALERT -- there's no reason, really, to label this a spoiler, except if you want to read the book and receive no hint of what is to come, stop here. If you think you're reading a warm-hearted book about a neighborhood lawyer, find another book. 

As every new attorney out on his or her own knows, cases don't just fall like manna and troubles don't melt like lemon drops. After a few years of struggling, Bobby is in full-fledged despair. He owes for the mortgage, office equipment, malpractice insurance, taxes, and then Janine tells him -- he's going to be a father. Straight-arrow Bobby, not-going-down-that-sneaky-road Bobby, I'm-going-to-make-my-father-proud Bobby makes a deal with the devil, aka Big Lou Turro, the neighborhood mobster. Negotiated by his psycho cousin, Jackie, Bobby comes up with a clever scheme to defraud insurance companies.

This is a book begging to be made into a movie. The dialogue is wonderful. Santora's description of Bobby's inner turmoil is two-hankies worthy. Crazy Jackie, saintly Janine, feisty Joey, loyal Roland, whiny Ginny are great characters.

Goodness costs but crime costs more.

Kudos to Mulholland Press for re-issuing this 2007 book.