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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block ($14.99) (2011)

This great book has been out for two years, and I don't know why it took me so long to get to it. This is a return to Matt Scudder's past, 25 years ago, almost a year after he has given up booze and joined AA. It's storytelling in a lean, mean way. No frills, spies, global virus, fiscal cliffs, Vatican rags, or conspiracies. "Just" Lawrence Block spinning a well-constructed tale of human frailties.

Matt Scudder has been entertaining readers since 1975 as an unlicensed private eye in Manhattan. Block has chronicled Scudder's destructive relationship with alcohol and then his redemption through Alcoholics Anonymous. It's the best advertising AA could have in many ways. A Drop of the Hard Stuff, especially, takes a clear-eyed look at what it takes for an alcoholic to remain sober.

Block's story is straightforward and smoothly told. He makes that look easy, even though we know it's one of the hardest writing skills to learn. What also lifts his writing to the next level is his lack of extraneous detail. At the same time, he salts his narrative with interesting asides. Not extraneous details, just extra details. That's a big difference.

Block paints a picture of a character with only a few physical details. What he adds are the details of their experience at living. Scudder has a humorous exchange with another character about the difference in meaning between sobriquet and nickname. It doesn't add to your understanding of the crime in the book, but it does add to your understanding of the two characters exchanging the remarks. Yes, Danny Boy Bell is a "diminutive albino Negro," but what makes him stick in your mind is that he uses the word sobriquet, the first time, Scudder says, that he's ever heard that word said out loud. The pleasure of meeting a character that well-developed in just a paragraph or two is of rare value.

Look for an almost throw-away exchange about why a character has had her hair cut. Look for the moose or elk or whatever it is hanging from a barroom wall. Look for "bare ruined choirs," a nice counterpoint to the finale. This is what places Block on the other side of the line, in that small place with few occupants reserved for writers with their own inimitable style.

This is the simple story of A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Scudder has met many people in the year he has been going to AA meetings. One of them, Jack, a man Scudder knew when they were children but with whom he is not close, is trying to live the Eighth Step. Jack is trying to make amends to people he has wronged. When he is murdered, his sponsor enlists Scudder's help to see if one of the people on Jack's list could have been the murderer. That's it. It's that simple. It's complicated only by the complexities of human nature and the ability of one person to go beyond society's mutually agreed upon restrictions.

It must have been difficult to write a story set so long in the past. It was a different world and how does one avoid anachronisms? Block makes reference to the Twin Towers. He has other references that anchor us in that time: pay phones, subway tokens, long-gone restaurants, and tough neighborhoods now upscaled into gentility. Makes you want to sigh for a time gone by, until you consider, forensically speaking, how much easier it must have been for a murderer to cover his tracks.

The last chapter, set in the present, brings us poignantly up-to-date with all the characters in the story.  Scudder, we know, survived sobriety and adversity. If this is in fact the end of Scudder's saga, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is a mighty fine coda to a magnificent opus.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Nightmare, by Lars Kepler ($16)

I liked The Hypnotist, the first book in this series by the husband-and-wife writing team that uses the pen name "Lars Kepler." One of the strongest elements in that book, the character of the doctor-hypnotist, isn't present in this book. What we have left is Inspector Joona Linna, a Finn who grew up in Sweden but who still retains his capacity to swear in Finnish. He's just as irritating and arrogant in this book as he was in The Hypnotist. He is joined this time by an equally irritating investigator, Saga Bauer, a female version of the short-tempered, know-it-all Linna. It doesn't matter that they are right in their "instincts," because they're so darned moody all the time. After a while "I just know it" doesn't cut much literary clout. (I don't know why this persona is attractive in Kurt Wallander but not here. Maybe because Kurt has more personal humility and a well-written character; he knows when he's being an ass?)

For the first 230 pages of this book, I wondered what I was doing, slogging along page after page. To add to the hum-drum, chapters of Linna investigating the hanging of a prominent government official were interwoven with chapters of a young woman and her boyfriend being stalked by a mysterious professional killer. It became obvious that most of those chapters were in the past, but that interweaving was just plain old confusing. "Gyah," I complained to Jean. "Just stop reading it," was her advice, the same advice I've given countless other readers when their books didn't "speak" to them. But I didn't stop. There was something there, a spark of potential, a hint that what I treasured in The Hypnotist -- the quirky characters, the surprising twists, the fast pacing -- would eventually surface. Two hundred and thirty pages is about two hundred pages more than I give any book that doesn't hold my interest, but that was about when things started to happen.

Instead of a hypnotist, Kepler gives us Alex Riessen, the man who takes over the government job of the hanging man. That job is to approve arms exports. He must ensure that the materiel doesn't go to countries or organizations boycotted by Sweden or its allies. A tragedy, the nature of which is teasingly drawn out, haunts him. He is tortured by insomnia, the only partial cure for which is cuddling up to a real-life "teddy bear." He could have been a world-class violinist, but he became a statesman instead. Now we're talking interesting stuff.

Also Penelope Fernandez and Björn Almskog, the couple being chased by the hired killer, get interesting when their timeline almost catches up to Linna's present day. They are briefly held captive by a colorful and devilish ex-game show host. Rub your hands because, finally, the circus is out of the tent.

Riessen is being pressured to approve a significant shipment of ammunition. Fernandez is part of the Swedish Peace and Reconciliation Society, mostly concerned with the atrocities she witnessed in Dafur. Somehow these two are related, and it is up to the much faster-paced second half of the book to connect the dots. Linna and Bauer for the most part have quit their drama queen ways, and it's interesting to watch them speed to prevent more deaths and catch the bad guys.

Riessen's story is very moving and by itself makes it worth the price of admission.

Let me help you out if you want to read this book. Here are the first 230 pages condensed:

DI Joona Linna is with the National CID, homicide division. He doesn't listen to what anyone else tells him. Cool cats in the police department think he's fabulous and way cool. His boss metaphorically just rolls his eyes and lets Joona do what he wants. When work doesn't get in the way, he is courting Disa.

Lots of police and Säpo personnel are mentioned. You don't need to know any of them, except Carlos is Joona's boss, Anya is Joona's assistant, Göran is a jackass with Säpo.

Saga Bauer is with the anti-terrorism group in Säpo, kind of like the FBI and CIA. It doesn't help that she's petite and looks like an elf. She's smart but no one takes her seriously. (See previous comment about elf-like appearance.) She wants to prove herself and takes over the hanging man case. Joona attaches himself like an unwanted limpet to that case.

Penelope Fernandez was born in an El Salvadorian prison. Her mother was an activist there, but now she and her two daughters live in Sweden. Viola, Penelope's younger sister, cadges a ride on Björn's sailboat when Penelope and he were meant to have a romantic getaway. Viola is murdered while the boat is anchored on a remote beach of a Swedish island. When Penelope and Björn discover the body and see a man in black, they hightail it out. They run and run and swim and swim, never quite connecting with sympathetic humans who want to help them. Then they run into the house of the aforesaid game show clown.

Axel Riessen lives in his family's manor house, subdivided to share with his brother, a violinist and violin maker. Axel has taken in a 15-year-old mentally and emotionally handicapped girl. Axel can only sleep if she's curled up next to him. No hanky panky. Just weird. He has just signed a contract to take over the government job and is being pressured to approve a particular shipment. Just before he died, his predecessor wrote down something about "reaping a nightmare." No one knows what that means.

Now go to page 220 and read on. You can thank me later.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Available Dark, by Elizabeth Hand ($14.99)

Available Dark continues the tribulations of Cass Neary, punk heroine of Generation Loss. It's dark, hard as nails, and -- bonus! -- it mostly takes place in Iceland during winter. Edgy + dark + more dark = cult winner.

About fifty pages in, I was thrilled to find wonderful writing and a quirky, noirish character made to entice a reader who has seen too many same old, same old books. I vowed that I wouldn't care if the mystery didn't hold together properly.

Cass is a photographer whose aesthetic is definitely not mainstream. She is attracted to photographs of the dead, to scenes of dismay and disaster. Weegee-esque. Reality captured and made grotesquely and ethereally beautiful. Cass is no spring chicken. I'm guessing she's in her late 40s. She's been heavily influenced by punk music and the renegade culture of NYC in the late 70s and 80s.

On the run from an investigation into a murder detailed in Generation Loss, Cass needs to get out of town. A mysterious letter from Iceland that may have come from Quinn, a former boyfriend, also pulls at her. When an offer suddenly appears from a Norwegian nightclub owner to examine some "unusual" photographs by former high-fashion photographer Ilkka Kaltunnen in Finland, she hops on the next plane out.

Kaltunnen, surprisingly, admits to having been influenced by "Dead Girls," a book Cass did in her younger years. When he shows her photographs of weirdly staged scenes of what appear to be people who have died in bizarre ways, she intuits that the photos are real. Kaltunnen claims that the bodies were never found, that they were instead given to the scavengers of nature to disburse and conceal. It's not Cass' job to judge anything other than the authenticity of the photos. In an era in which "Photoshopping" has virtually ceased to refer to a brand name but to the process of altering reality, authentic is a highly valuable condition.

Curious but limited to the job at hand, Cass certifies the pictures, then takes off for Iceland to find the mysterious person who sent her the letter. Almost immediately upon landing, she learns that Kaltunnen and his assistant have been murdered and Kaltunnen's house ransacked.

The book ties together the Icelandic and Finnish mysteries. The resolution was all right but put together in a rather slapdash way. In my opinion, it actually doesn't matter who did it or why. The journey was the thing. We learn Finnish and Icelandic mythology. We see what seems to be an endless variety of scenes featuring snow, sleet, cold, bitter wind, leaking boots, and chattering teeth. I loved it all.

Here's a little scene:
I stopped to crouch beside a trickle of water that emerged from a thumb-size cleft in the rock. Iridescent mud surrounded it, slicks of acid green and cobalt and cadmium yellow, colors I'd never seen before in the natural world. But of course this is where pigments come from, disgorged from the center of the planet to cool into vermilion and lapis lazuli. I held my hand above the fuming vent, gingerly dipped my finger into the water, and snatched it back. 
"Shit." I straightened, sucking on my finger tip, and held it out to Quinn. It had already blistered.
"You never learn," he said.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Woman Who Wouldn't Die, by Colin Cotterill (hardcover, $25) (release date - 2/19/13, or thereabouts)

There once was a possibility that Slash and Burn would be the last Dr. Siri novel, because Colin Cotterill moved to another publishing company. Slash was briefly, oh, so briefly, billed that way. There was nothing final about that story, however, so hope sprang eternal and we were rewarded. Nowhere, you should gladly note, will you find the words "the final Dr. Siri novel" in The Woman Who Wouldn't Die.

It is Dr. Siri's nature that he is faintly amused and amazed by just about everything in this world. It is Dr. Siri's burden that many inhabitants of the world beyond this one intrude into Siri's life with their silent messages.

It is a glorious gift that a village witch has determined that the bones of the beloved brother of a state minister rests in a bend in the Mekong River, not far from the sleepy and oppressed village of Pak Lai. So the minister assembles a team to get the bones back. Dr. Siri has been called out of retirement to perform the services of a coroner. As a result of this excursion they take together, Siri becomes acquainted with the witch.

The witch is so-called because she has died, been cremated, and awoke in her bed to a second chance at life. She says that she now can see the dead, just as Siri does. (Siri calls himself "a spiritual suitcase.") Moreover, the dead talk to her, whereas the sound button is broken on Siri's receiver. The witch, Madame Peung or Madame Keui ("Who Used to Be a Woman"), as she is now known, agrees to help Siri to turn up the volume on his own visions.

Also along on the trip are Madame Daeng, Siri's wife; Geung, his former morgue attendant; and Siri's best friend, Civilai, himself temporarily out of retirement on political matters. Nurse Dtui and Inspector Phosy, other regularly appearing characters, remain in Vientiane but are called upon to provide investigation for Siri and Daeng.

Siri is especially anxious to get Daeng out of town, because he learns that she is being hunted by a foreigner, someone who apparently has long-ago ties to her. Through her own writings in a "memoir," we learn more about Daeng's involvement in the rebellion against the French invaders. It becomes apparent that the man knows Daeng because of something that happened way back when.

Cotterill's light and humorous touches belie the very serious subjects he always brings up in his books. His setting is Laos in the 1970s, at a time when the Communist Party rules with a rusty iron fist. The country is still recovering from the wars of the last few decades. Siri and his gang are nonconformists, and we cheer their every insubordinate move.

The Woman Who Wouldn't Die is satisfying because 1) it continues the Siri series and 2) it mixes the terrible, wonderful, and whimsical in perfect proportions. In the end, I enjoyed the mystery of the sunken boat more than the mystery of Daeng's pursuer, but I suppose it was time to peek into what makes Daeng tick.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R. L. LaFevers ($6.99)

Where has Theodosia been all my life -- at least since 2007? I'll admit that I've come late to this party. But I'm now an enthusiastic guest.

Written for children, probably in the 9-12-year-old range, I'm here to tell you that it's suitable for EVERYONE. Yay!

This book begins in 1906 London, in the Museum of Legends and Antiquities. Theodosia Throckmorton's father is the head curator, and 11-year-old Theodosia is his unofficial assistant, although he doesn't know it.

She has the peculiar gift of being able to sense magic. She can see spells swimming in the moonlight on ancient Egyptian artifacts. Ancient Egypt, in fact, seems to be her specialty. She can read hieroglyphics like you and I read the ingredients on cereal boxes, and understands them better, no doubt. She devises amulets of protection and calming spells for curses out of (mostly) everyday ingredients. (One does have to develop a reliable source of myrrh, however.)

Largely ignored by her globe-trotting archaeologist mother and absent-minded father, she yearns for their approval but knows they would rein her in -- i.e., send her to boarding school -- should they suspect her paranormal activities. So subterfuge serves her well in trying to help and protect them and the museum.

Theo's mother brings back a bauble known as "The Heart of Egypt" from the Valley of Kings in Egypt. It has serious bad mojo attached to it and the bad guys -- i.e., German spies, who turn out not to be so much German spies as servants of the Serpents of Chaos -- want it. It is up to Theo, her adversarial younger brother, Henry, and a Dickensian pickpocket named Sticky Will to thwart their plans and neutralize the artifact. Theo is unofficially conscripted by "Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers," a secret organization of grownups who are trying keep chaos at bay.

So much fun. So much magic. And a black cat named Isis thrown in to boot.

The Professionals, by Owen Laukkanen ($9.99)

"The Professionals" is a pretty good thriller, a debut novel by Canadian Owen Laukkanen. Although it's a long book for a thriller (482 pages), Laukkanen moves the pace along sprintingly. He works hard not to muddy the waters with too complex a plot, for which I give him a couple of cheers, because he does juggle two hefty, different-but-related storylines.

Arthur Pender, Marie McAllister, Matt Sawyer, and Ben Stirzaker are recent college graduates with no interesting job prospects. So they decide to become kidnappers. Maybe this plot device is a little outrageous, but without it, you've got bubkes. Really, what would you do with your mediocre credentials in history from UDub?

The young-uns prove to be talented kidnappers with no significant harm befalling themselves or their victims for the three or so years they've been at it. They mostly choose wealthy but not famous bankers around the country, feeding a Robin Hood complex. They keep their ransom demand to $60,000. Why not $100,000? Do you have to pay more taxes if it goes over $60,000? Why not $80,000 at least; that would split into a nice number with lots of zeroes among four people. They want to lie on the beach in the Maldives. Just a couple more years, Pender, "The Boss," estimates before they will have enough to "retire."

There's an eccentric charm to the mixture of innocence and cunning that they bring to their game, and it is a game for them, up until they kill someone. The someone, unfortunately, is mob-related. Suddenly there are gangsters gunning for them.

We learn just enough about the individual kidnappers to sympathize. It's more "Thelma and Louise" than "Bonnie and Clyde."

And where are the authorities while all this is going on? The group has been on their spree for a few years before one cagey law enforcement official, Kirk Stevens, an investigator with the BCA in Minneapolis, tumbles to the serial kidnappings. He connects with a local FBI agent, Carla Windemere, and the two of them proceed to assemble the jigsaw puzzle. It turns out this is really Stevens and Windemere's story, and there's a second volume of their adventures in the works.

The characters of Stevens and Windemere struggle with their personalities. In their storyline, they apparently are attracted to each other when they should be sticking to business. Seriously. What are they basing their attraction on? Forced close proximity seems to be the top runner, as far as I can tell. Other than that, there's only a moment or two of snappy dialogue and Stevens' fear of flying to fuel the love-at-first-sight scenario. Stevens has a nice supportive wife and Windemere's an alpha dog. Those are great angles and those should be enough, but I'll bet you dollars to donuts that we're probably going to see more of this romantic angst.

"The Professionals" is both a moving tragedy and an entertaining story.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ratlines by Stuart Neville (hardcover, $26.95)

This is Irish author Stuart Neville's first release after completing his lauded Belfast trilogy ("The Ghosts of Belfast," "Collusion," "Stolen Souls"). This time the setting is 1963 Ireland, just before President Kennedy's historic visit. The visit is merely a reference point; Kennedy doesn't make an appearance, nor is his visit part of the story. Neville captures the complicated political and social structure of the time, and the unsettled lines of authority. Neville's signature scenes of graphic violence and noirish essence are present in full force.

Lt. Albert Ryan is a "G2 fella," the Irish equivalent of an FBI/CIA agent. Against his personal wishes, he is assigned to protect an escaped Austrian Nazi, SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. Several other Nazis and sympathizers escaped to Ireland after "The Emergency," a rather quaint sobriquet for World War II. The enemies of my enemy are my friends appears to be the operating dictum, since Ireland's great foe, England, was an Axis enemy. Thus, many unsavory characters have come to roost near Dublin.

Ryan is unusual in that he ran away from home to join the British Army during World War II. Although his homecoming was almost as unsettling as his war experience, he found a place for himself back in a regimented setting with military intelligence. The irony doesn't escape Ryan that Ireland would rather harbor Nazis than an Irishman who fought with the British.

As morally repugnant as his assignment is, Ryan does his best to find out who has murdered three war fugitives and who is threatening Skorzeny. In the process, we see the fine lines the various political and intelligence organizations must tread, and the crosses and double-crosses that ensue.

Real-life characters appear in "Ratlines," including former prime minister Charles Haughey, Ryan's ostensible boss for this case. And, it turns out, Skorzeny and a Breton nationalist who has a prominent part in the book, Célestin Lainé, are real people. Neville produces extraordinary scenes in which they are the stars, including a bizarre fencing duel for Skorzeny and Lainé as a master of torture techniques.

"Ratlines" superbly and cleverly tells the story of a street-smart man who must find justice for those without voices, while playing various agencies against each other. Above all, he must survive being cast as a scapegoat and pawn.