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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Burning, by Jane Casey ($15.99)

DC Maeve Kerrigan is the prickly creation of Jane Casey, a young Irishwoman who studied at Oxford and is a children's book editor. Maeve's a young policewoman who has made her way onto an ace investigative team. She's teased about her Irish heritage, her temper, her good looks. She's determined to show that she deserves to be on the team. When her team begins investigating the "Burning Man" serial murders, she has her chance.

Late at night, young women are being brutally murdered. Then their bodies are set afire. Casey could have written a grislier, more graphically violent book, but she doesn't linger on the scenes of death. (However, this is not a cat-who-solved-the-crime sort of book either.)

When the body of a young woman, Rebecca Haworth, is discovered, there are some small discrepancies between her manner of death and that of the other victims. Maeve feels that she may be the victim of a copycat killer. With the support of her superintendent and fellow DC, Rob Langton, she begins to dissect Rebecca's life.

What Maeve finds are Louise, a possessive friend, Gil, a possibly abusive ex-boyfriend, a mysterious incident in Oxford, and a picture of a young woman gone off the rails. But does any of it mean that Rebecca was not another burning victim? 

Casey alternates narratives mostly between Maeve and Louise. Louise's voice is the more interesting because we can follow her fascination with all things Rebecca, including her ex-boyfriend. Maeve's character is initially a little scattered and hard to grasp, both angry and unsure, vulnerable and independent, obsequious and sarcastic. In the end she's more a smart cookie than a smart aleck.

I enjoyed this book enough that it will be good to see another episode in Maeve's life, should Casey desire to write a series.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Meeting Clare O'Donohue - 5/9/12

Yes, Clare O'Donohue is an author. That's why she was in Portland recently, to introduce her latest book, "Life Without Parole." First and foremost, however, Clare is a busy television producer.

She started 15 years ago as a script supervisor on the HGTV show, "Simply Quilts." Since then, she has produced episodes on a variety of subjects, including murder victims, convicted killers, and food. She has been a reporter and a writing teacher, and takes art classes for fun. Add all that experience together and you have the basics for two mystery series, one featuring quilting and the other about producing "informational programs" for television.

Her first book was the byproduct of wanting to escape from having to do extended scenes on "a disorganized and awful" shoot. Before she could receive the call back to work, she hurriedly left town. She began the book to take her mind off her troubles and to prove "life is more than a stupid TV show." Later, some of her crew members patronizingly would ask, "How's that little book you're writing?" "I doubt I get more respect [for being a published author]," she laughed and added, "It's just this other job I have."

Although the quilting series is milder and seems to fit in with the recent proliferation of lighter handicraft mysteries, O'Donohue tries to bring depth to her characters. She "wanted it to be more than a throw-away." These books are about "the multi-generational aspect of quilting, a hobby that brings together people from very disparate ways of life."

It was talking about her producing job at author events for her quilting mysteries and her audiences' positive reaction that got her thinking that that might make a good second series. She wrote "Missing Persons," the first Kate Conway book, without a publishing commitment. No worries. It was gobbled up.

In the Kate Conway books, we get an insider's look at what goes into producing a show that's both information and entertainment. "Informational programming," O'Donohue called it. She has taken all she's learned as a producer and a curious person and used it in Kate's stories. "The job of an author is to take real life and make it more entertaining," she said.

The first thing to know about television producing is that "cameramen are obsessed with where they're going to eat." O'Donohue sets Kate up with a cameraman and a soundman, both of whom make good teammates and both of whom are obsessed with where and when they are going to eat. Since the series is set in Chicago, there's plenty of talk about Chicago's food specialties.

O'Donohue's television segments "have to be relatable." A story must retain the gist of what happened -- "accurate-ish is enough." When you see people telling their stories and they appear to be staring slightly off to the side, it is O'Donohue, or someone like her, to whom they are speaking.

In "informational programming," unlike in a documentary, it helps for the producer to be perceived as nice, a good listener, and not manipulative in order to get people to tell a story. "I seem like a really nice person, but I can't tell you the number of times I've done that," she confessed. She has been known to say, "be bigger surprised," to her interviewees as she re-shoots a line. It is this method that Kate uses to get people to talk to her. Other people in the industry may be concerned that O'Donohue reveals too much of the smoke and mirrors. It is the hope of some of the interviewees, however, that "somebody will learn from their story," however it is presented.

How does O'Donohue cope with sad stories? "You can't take it personally," she said, "It's not your grief."

It's important to O'Donohue that Kate is portrayed as a normal person, to be strong but "reluctant to solve murders," as a regular person would be. It is with this in mind that one of the first important scenes in "Missing Persons" deals with the death of Kate's husband, Frank. This puts Kate in an emotional quandary, because they had begun divorce proceedings and Frank was living with another woman. At the funeral, Kate meets Vera, Frank's fiancée, for the first time. (How could Frank have a fiancée when he's not yet divorced, one of the other characters remarks.) It's a difficult moment that O'Donohue could have played differently. Vera, to Kate's shock, seems to be a nice woman. So there's no dramatic face-slapping, swearing, or screaming. Instead, Kate "doesn't know what to do, so she does nothing." Kate "is in a weird position," when she finds herself tentatively and awkwardly sympathizing with Vera.

There are "real person" touches throughout her books. O'Donohue's heroines don't traipse fearlessly into dark alleys, dark rooms, or dark anything. Kate, for instance, takes her crew with her if she's worried or calls the police if something is wrong. And that's how O'Donohue wants it. If it's not real, then it might as well be "a cat solving a crime."

O'Donohue based the second book in the Kate Conway series, "Life Without Parole," on her own experience. It's surprisingly easy to get interviews with prisoners, she said. The prisoners themselves are "polite and respectful, even though they're sociopaths." She believes it's because they're "permanently stuck with their choices -- they can't undo them," but they can act like a good guy for the cameras. "They want to be believed," she said, "Most prisoners won't admit they're guilty."

How does writing compare to producing? "It's nice to have something that's mostly you," she answered. She wants "to sell well enough that people want the next one." "This is my great fear, that the later books in the series aren't as good," she said, "I never want to hear that."

Flat Spin, by David Freed (hardcover, $29)

This is a great debut novel. It has humor, technical stuff about flying airplanes that you didn't know you wanted to know, international intrigue, romance, good detection, fist fights, football talk (just a little), brisket on Monday nights, and just the right mixture of all of the above.

All ex-special ops agents don't automatically roam the country and buy new underwear, rather than wash the old ones, like Jack Reacher. Some of them return to civilian life and try to live better, different lives. Some of them become Buddhists, vegetarians (mostly), sober (mostly), and pacific (mostly), like Cordell Logan. Cordell tries to pay his bills on time and do no further harm. What happens, however, when harm comes looking for Cordell?

At the start of Flat Spin, Cordell is a flight instructor with a dwindling number of students -- i.e., from one to zero -- in Santa Bonita (à la Sue Grafton, a thinly disguised Santa Barbara), California. He owes money for his hangar space and is postponing maintenance on his plane, but he's all paid up to his sublimely Jewish landlady. (The colorful and hilarious Mrs. Schmulowitz is 80-something and jogs around in Lycra and Spandex. Oi vey!)

Cordell is on the verge of applying for work at any place that will take him. Taco Bell, here he comes! So, is this what has become of a highly trained, courageous, quick-thinking member of the legendary but secretive Alpha team? Yep.

The beauteous Savannah Echevarria, also known as the ex-Mrs. Logan, has come slumming. Her husband has been murdered. Cordell could give a rip. Arlo Echevarria was once his Alpha team mentor and friend, until he stole the beauteous Savannah from Cordell six years ago. Cordell sends Savannah packing. But Savannah's daddy packs a big wallop in the form of a fat wallet. For a fistful of dollars, Cordell finds himself talking to some L.A. detectives and describing what he and Arlo once did for their country, despite the secrecy agreement he signed (upon pain of imprisonment) and despite not ever having told Savannah the truth about what he did.

After Cordell lays it all out for the police and after they laugh him out of their sight, it becomes Cordell's problem to solve. He must put old grievances to rest -- or revisit them in excruciating detail -- to get his ex-father-in-law and ex-wife off his back.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Talk with Brian Freeman - 5/8/12

Brian Freeman recently stopped by to chat with us at Murder by the Book.

Freeman's first published book, "Immoral," was nominated for all the major mystery book awards. That auspicious start propelled him into the full-time job of writing. He is currently working on the fifth book in the Jonathan Stride series, of which "Immoral" was the first. He also has two non-series novels. It is one of those non-series novels, "Spilled Blood," his newest release, that brought Freeman to Portland.

Although his books are serious and dark, Freeman himself is funny and engaging, with smooth, articulate answers and anecdotes. He made us laugh with the following story. One of Freeman's earliest and best marketers was his mother. She told her doctor about Freeman's first book, "Immoral." The doctor wrote it on a note so he wouldn't forget the title, and attached it to her file. Unfortunately, the note was still there when Freeman's mother next visited the doctor's office, only her regular doctor was otherwise engaged and she saw a replacement. It amused both Freeman and his mother when her doctor reported back that the temporary physician was puzzled about why such a "nice lady" would be tagged "immoral."

Freeman could fill his next book with amusing stories such as that, but he uses humor judiciously in his books. Except in his Ally O'Brien books. The secret is out. In cahoots with his British agent, Ali Gunn, he writes a "'Sex and the City' meets 'Devil Wears Prada' series" under the pseudonym Ally O'Brien. "The Agency" details the scandalous side of book publishing and gives vent to Freeman's sarcastic and sassy side.

"Being a writer was my only dream in life," Freeman said. But after he was unsuccessful in selling the first five books he wrote, he gave up and went to work for a big international law firm and also did mortgage banking. He joked that "writing gigs get a little more respect" than either of his former occupations. He knew he "wasn't being true to himself," so back he went to writing when he could. The result was "Immoral." He credits the dust-gathering first few novels with giving him "a much better sense of what I like to write about, what my niche was in the writing world."

Freeman came at the U.S. market through a side door. His agent is British (the aforementioned Ali Gunn), so Freeman's books are released first in the U.K. Despite their unusual path to U.S. readers, Freeman's books are American and solidly Midwest in their setting.

While other writers may gloss over where their books take place, Freeman goes to extraordinary sensory lengths to vividly describe where his characters operate. In "Stalked" (which probably should have been titled, "Shiver"), it is winter, so Freeman stood outside in a storm and recorded his impressions. "The character of the place should reinforce the characters in the book," he added. People should get a "you are there" feeling.

While he understands the need to quickly define his style – thus, he is often likened to Harlan Coben – he is thoughtful about what he wishes this description would include. Freeman writes psychological suspense, with complex moral issues, if you must categorize him, he said. He described "Spilled Blood," as "an intensely personal and emotional thriller, which is what I like to write."

Next to setting, his stories are anchored on people: "real, flawed human characters who make mistakes" and find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. When he "scratches the surface of ordinary people," he finds there are interesting stories to tell. He's not surprised that his readers may not like some of the choices his characters make. "There are no easy answers," and that's reflected in his books. He also is interested in the "self-perpetuating nature of hatred" as a theme.

Is he a good observer? "You can never really observe everything you need to know when you're writing books, but we are a product of our experiences," he said. He must have excellent powers of observation, however, to create the teenagers in "Spilled Blood." In fact, he has been complimented on his realistic portrayal of teenage characters and angst in general. He laughed and said, "Teenagers have adult hormones and desires but they lack mature judgment," just right to create dramatic situations.

"Spilled Blood" takes place in two fictional small towns set in southeastern Minnesota. Since setting is everything, Freeman takes great pains to describe "the desolate, rural, flat as a board" environment. His vision of the area is based on observations he made during summer drives with his family to their cabin on Lake Michigan, traveling through areas that gave him a "feeling of the remoteness and desolation of the Midwest."

It opens with a scene of Russian roulette, and Freeman thanks Lady Gaga's song, "Pokerface," for inspiring him with the line, "Russian roulette is not the same without a gun."

How does he suppress what seems to be a natural levity. "That's just a different side of me," he said, "I see that what I'm trying to [write] is serious and intense." It will be a challenge for him to keep that discipline with his next book set in Florida. He mused, "Can you get dark drama out of such a sunshiney place?"

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A talk with Jack Fredrickson - 5/6/12

It's a back-handed compliment, we guess, but Jack Fredrickson is the best author you've never heard of. He has been nominated for awards, awarded stars, and favorably reviewed by The New York Times. But you've never heard of him, right? Read this and remedy that situation.

Jack visited us from his home near Chicago to celebrate the release of his third Dek Elstrom book, Hunting Sweetie Rose. He is working on #4 and #5 in the series, so you'll have more opportunities to get to know him and his character.

Unfortunately, #1 and #2 are out of print. It's the goofy way of the publishing world now that books go out of print faster than weeds sprout in your lawn or grey hairs on your head.

What made Jack run from productivity consulting and commercial furnishings, areas he was good in and of which he was an acknowledged expert? Anger.

One day after an especially trying encounter at work, he barricaded himself behind an IBM Selectric and banged out a story. Actually, the word "story" implies some sort of plan. There was no plan. Jack just wrote and wrote and wrote. And added his trademark quirky sense of humor.

This is what he was meant to do, he thought. He began to take writing classes. A short story he wrote for a class garnered this praise from one of his fellow students, "[It was the] best story in the whole class, but I have no idea what it's about." During another class, he asked Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, when an author knows he's funny. Russo leaned over him and, sotto voce, told him, "When you laugh."

In fact, Jack sits at his computer (no longer the IBM Selectric) and "giggles and cackles like a bluejay." Despite the writing classes, Jack doesn't really plot his books. "Where I've thought about it, it's come back to bite me," he says. He just lets his imagination take over.

He interweaves his story of learning to write with funny, self-deprecating one-liners. On receiving a Shamus nomination for his first book, A Safe Place for Dying, he says, "I figured they screwed up." To create his praise-worthy protagonist, he thought of his favorite mystery characters, like John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. Instead of Travis' boat, he chose an unfinished castle turret for Elstrom's abode, one of Jack's many charming touches.

Underlying the charming touches and quirky continuing characters are serious stories that are tied to and have arisen from the politics and sociology of Illinois. "I had a successful bootlegger grandfather," he said, and his parents innocently introduced him to big-name gangsters. (Jackie Cerone, one of those big-name Chicago gangsters, made spaghetti for his mother's bridge group.) Speaking of the storied history of corruption and "crookedness" of the Chicago area, he said, "In some perverted way, I think Chicagoans are proud of it."

His initial success in publishing a short story in Ellery Queen Magazine scared him. He thought, "What does this mean?" As in, now what? He was "writing to become a better reader," but now he was a genuine published writer. He now had to think bigger.

Once he worked out the kinks in his novel, Jack eventually found his way to the Maui Conference, an event attended by editors and agents. Jack went from "Let me see five pages" to "Let me see the manuscript" to "Do you have any more?" Based on John D. MacDonald's A Purple Place for Dying, Jack titled his work, A Safe Place for Dying, and his first book was s-o-l-d.

After a lifetime of reading and being a fan of mystery books -- Harrison Ford's father, while he was a temporary bookseller, tricked young Jack into reading a lot of books as he waited for the next James Bond (the arrival of which was always just around the corner, according to Mr. Ford) -- Jack can now say he, too, is a writer.

"I've got a lot to be modest about," he says. We take that to mean he's had a lot of success. And now you know him, too.

Missing Persons, by Clare O'Donohue ($15)

Kate Conway is a television producer of "20-20"- and "Dateline"-like segments. She has been asked to produce a show on Theresa Moretti, a young woman who disappeared about a year ago. Kate is to interview the family, friends, witnesses, and police detective involved. The show will highlight the puzzle and ask viewers to help solve the disappearance.

Kate usually maintains a friendly demeanor to get interviewees to talk with her, but as a veteran, she can turn it off when the job is done. Instead, she becomes personally involved when her home is broken into and her peace disturbed. She suspects that the invader may be related to Theresa's case.

Or the burglar may have something to do with her husband's recent death.

Kate and Frank were getting a divorce. Frank was living with Vera, a woman who claimed to be his fiancée. Although he was only 37 years old, Frank died of a heart attack. Another police detective is looking into the possibility of foul play, and Kate may be at the top of the suspect list, especially after it's discovered that she is the beneficiary of a hefty life insurance policy. And to her horror, Kate actually begins to not exactly hate Vera, but not quite like her either. Could Vera have murdered Frank and broken into Kate's home?

Clare O'Donohue raises her book's empathy factor by making Kate an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances. Kate must come to terms with her responsibility for the disintegration of her marriage, but it's too late to make amends to Frank, with whom she had been since they were teenagers. Also, O'Donohue looks at Kate's focus and ambition as a television producer, and puts that into the context of her personal morality. We get to tag along as Kate struggles with life-defining problems.

Unlike a lot of strong female characters in other books, Kate does not go haring off alone to capture a killer. O'Donohue cleverly inserts the characters of Andres and Victor, Kate's camera and sound people. They all enter Kate's home together to inspect it when taking Kate home. They all meet the suspects and witnesses together in Theresa's case -- and sometimes in Frank's as well. It may not seem like a big thing, but I felt relieved not to have to shout at the book the equivalent of "Don't open that door."

O'Donohue's characters are given individual and purposeful lives, and each brought something to the table. For example, goofy, foot-in-mouth Victor stood in for the reading audience. Right on cue, he suspected each character in turn for being the cause of Theresa's disappearance.

This was the enjoyable debut of a new series for O'Donohue, who also writes a quilting mystery series.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy, c2008 ($15)

Here's a book to read in a well-lit room on a dark and stormy night.

I applaud Delta Publishing for giving us something other than the latest Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbø look-alike. The translation is good and retains the menacing flavor the Swedish version must have had.

This isn't a police procedural, per se, although one of the main characters is Tilda Davidsson, a new police officer assigned to the newly opened office in Marnäs on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea, and there may have been a couple of murders. It's the story of generations of loss on the isolated island. 

Katrine and Joakim Westin and their two children have bought a house on the island where Katrine's mother and grandmother spent some formative time. They plan to restore a huge, damaged relic of a house set between two lighthouses. Once the abode of the lighthouse keepers and their staff, it appears that the hundred and fifty years of history have soaked into the timbers, along with sand and salt water.

Along with the modern story of the family adjusting to their new life and unsure if the sounds they hear are whispers of the dead or just the wind blowing through the cracks, there are older stories about the first days of the settlement and later of Katrine's mother.

From the start Johan Theorin sets the stage for a potential ghost story by mentioning some Swedish folklore that the dead gather on Christmas Eve. Then he slowly brings in elements reminiscent of "The Turn of the Screw" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." The spooky stage is impeccably set for a denouement that takes place on Christmas Eve in a once-a-century blizzard that brings all the important characters and storylines to the house at Eel Point.

Look for the appearance of Gerlof Davidsson, Tilda's great-uncle. He is my favorite character. Aside from holding the key to one of the mysteries, he can predict the weather and provides a nice touch of foreboding.