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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Your Friendly Neighborhood Criminal, by Michael Van Rooy (hardcover, $24.99)

Of course I'm only thinking of myself here. Sob. It is next to impossible to get A Criminal to Remember, the third book in the series written by Michael Van Rooy. It's probably because he was Canadian, and legal rights and red tape snarled everything up when he died unexpectedly last year. He was much too young. Death is not respectful of talent.

While we're waiting for Criminal to become untangled and scooped up by a U.S. publisher, however, we can sing Van Rooy's praises for his spectacular first book, An Ordinary Decent Criminal, and this book, his second, Your Friendly Neighborhood Criminal, which continues the story of Monty Haaviko, reformed (sort of) thief, burglar, armed robber, con artist, smuggler, drug dealer, jailbird.

What has a guy got to do to go straight? His former and current worlds conspire to make it very difficult for Monty to live a normal, middle class life with his wife and infant son. (And with his dog, Renfield, and unnamed mouse.) An ex-con with a history of violence finds it very difficult to find a job, which is why Monty is currently employed as a babysitter. One of his charges is the son of a police officer he met under more adversarial circumstances in the first book.

When Monty is approached to open up a smuggling operation between Canada and the U.S., this time to help refugees seeking asylum, he has to seriously weigh what sort of impact this could have on his walk down the straight and narrow.

After Monty decides to take on the challenge of developing a supply line for the refugees, he also develops a serious problem with Sam, a drug dealer. Knowing Monty is the best at this sort of thing, and having heard about his latest project, she wants the line for herself and her drugs. Now Monty must outwit the border patrols AND the local drug wacko.

That's not enough stress, so let's throw in an ex-mate from Monty's bad old days, Smiley. Smiley is only smiling when he's beating the stuffing out of someone. He's a well-slithered snake, a many-horned devil, a card-carrying romper-and-stomper. That was then. Now he wants to go straight. He wants Monty's help.


The only way for the right people to come out alive is to have on hand knives, darts, grenades, a gun or five, and a saber.

There is a great deal of humor in the book … and a great deal of violence. Van Rooy strikes the right balance and it's a terrific combination.

I had A Criminal to Remember briefly in the store. I should have read it then. Now it's selling for mucho dinero on various websites. Rats!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hidden Depths, by Ann Cleeves (UK ed. only, sorry)

[Yes, sorry, for again choosing a book not available -- for the moment -- in the U.S. Something to look forward to!]

I got hooked on the ITV [British TV] production, "Vera," based on Ann Cleeves' books about DI Vera Stanhope of a fictional northern England police jurisdiction. Since MBTB imports some books from England, I snagged a copy of Hidden Depths, the basis for the first episode of "Vera."

I was shocked that the TV production changed so much of the ending, and I still don't know why. Maybe Cleeves' original version wasn't cinematic enough. Vera, however, is wonderfully brought to life by actress Brenda Blethyn in all of Vera's sarcastic, mopey, imperious glory. I'm glad I approached it this way, the TV version first, because Blethyn's expression of Vera's idiosyncrasies was spot on.

Vera brings all the baggage from her unpleasant childhood and lonely adulthood to bear in her job as a police detective, especially in Hidden Depths. Vera's father was an autocratic, egocentric birdwatcher and Vera's sole parental influence. Some of the suspects in the book are birdwatchers, making use of Vera's hard-earned insight into their culture. And some of them seem lonely. Takes one to know one, Cleeves seems to say. The solution to the murders of two young people are tailor-made for Vera.

If you don't need to like a main character or have him/her be your surrogate in solving mysteries, then you are primed to get the best out of Cleeves' series.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Bat, by Jo Nesbø (available only in UK and Canada for now -- sorry)

We're about a year behind the UK in publication of Jo Nesbø's books, so maybe we'll see the first book in the Harry Hole series, The Bat,* at the end of this year. It's a plus that the translation is so good that I had to remind myself that the book was written in Norwegian. So, you have something worthy to anticipate.

The Bat was written in 1997 and it is a very young Harry Hole whom we see. When the story begins, he is barely in his 30s, already has had two major tragedies in his life, and is a sober alcoholic. The death of a young Norwegian woman in Sydney, Australia, puts Harry's first book far away from the cold and dark Norwegian environment that is so familiar to us fans. Rather than the dour and serious colleagues in Norway, we have colorful, dour, and serious Australian colleagues.

Harry's "babysitter" is Andrew, an indigenous person, actually one of the babies spirited away by the Australian authorities to be raised in "better" surroundings with a white family. Through him, Harry learns a bit of the indigenous folklore. The bat is a symbol of death in their culture, and death is what Harry finds. Considering how foreign Harry is, the Australian detectives are unnaturally accommodating, even letting him call the shots during tense times. Maybe they sense the greatness that will become apparent in later books in the series.

This is mandatory reading for Harry fans, because we learn so much about his background, family, and tragedies. It quickly puts into perspective what we've learned about Harry in the books onwards from Redbreast, the first book published in English but the third in the series. There's even some humor about how to pronounce his name, the Australians primarily resorting to calling him Harry Holy.

Some of the deaths in the book are bizarre and a little, but not overwhelmingly, graphic. Just warning you.

*The title actually translates to "The Batman," but the holders of the copyright to the American "Batman" would not release it for use in the translation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs (hardcover, $24.95), release date February, 2013

Do you ever get that frisson of hope when you start a book? I rarely get it, but I got it within a few pages of reading this debut crime novel. It got good, gooder, goodest as I read along and its promise had been fulfilled by the end. What's also extraordinary about the book is that Roger Hobbs was a junior in college on his summer break when he wrote most of this book. (And, no, he wasn't a 58-year-old freshman.)

Ghostman reads as though an expert in bank robbing, safe cracking, international banking, and the art of the con wrote this book, enough knowledge for several lifetimes. So Hobbs was, what, 21, 22 years old? No. Way.

I googled Hobbs and one of the first things to pop up was his "Modern Love" confessional essay that was a runner-up in a New York Times contest. Apparently he accepted his geekiness and refined the art of winning a modern-day Roxanne via writing. Now he has modified his method to romance a legion of readers.

We never learn what the main character's real name is. Most of the time he is called "Jack." He is a bank robber, a con artist, a master of disguise, a disappearing act. He is in his mid-thirties but can blithely assume the shape and articulation of older men. For fun and relaxation, he translates books from Latin. (A little Aeneid, anyone?) When we meet him, he is holed up in an unremarkable apartment, living an unremarkable life in Seattle. Then he gets a phone call that makes him face his past and endangers his future.

Ghostman tells the tale of two capers, one five years ago and the other a present-day casino robbery gone awry that Jack has been "hired" to fix. The common denominator is Marcus. He designed* the caper that blew up in Kuala Lumpur five years ago, and he is the man who has hired Jack to fix the current problem.

Jack has accepted responsibility for why the previous job failed -- and we don't find out why until much later -- so he has an obligation to assist Marcus in cleaning up the detritus from the new heist. One of the robbers is missing, along with the heist money. Unfortunately, the heist money has a bomb in it, so it and the robber need to be found now, if not sooner. There are a lot of dead bodies behind and in front of Jack.

Hobbs is the master of leaving one story hanging at an interesting point to pick up the other story. The details of the heists are intricate and clever. Jack is enigmatic and haunted.

For what it's worth in the store's waning days, I've given this an MBTB star.

* Hobbs uses insider's terms for the various people -- wheelman, ghostman, boxman, buttonman, controller, and jugmarker, which is what Marcus is -- involved in a caper, but I didn't want to stop to explain them, especially since Hobbs does it very well and you need to buy the book anyway.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Thanks for the memories!

It was one of the saddest things I've ever had to do. I sent out announcements today that Murder by the Book will be closing at the end of April. See www.mbtb.com for more information.

The good news -- if it can be called that -- is that we will be functioning normally -- with a wide selection of books, including new arrivals, and very loud opinions -- for a few more months.