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

Friday, March 29, 2013

Stolen Lives, by Jassy Mackenzie ($14) (c2008)

South African author Jassy Mackenzie's first book was "Random Violence." In that she introduced Jade de Jong, a woman who had fled her homeland after her father, an outstanding police captain, died. Upon returning years later, she became a private investigator.

Jade's adventures show us a South Africa hidden behind high walls topped with barbed wire, a country in which many ordinary citizens are armed and dangerous, a place in which the haves and have-nots are still poles apart.

It is every parent's nightmare, one that Jade's former boyfriend, police detective David Patel, now knows intimately. His son has been kidnapped. That doesn't happen until midway through the book, but it is the story with the highest intensity. It is at that point that Jade and David become involved in all the various stories.

The book begins when Jade is hired to protect a woman with a shady background. Pamela Jordaan is over-the-top, a caricature of a nouveau riche woman whose husband owns strip joints. She plunks down a Ferrari-load of money, gets Jade shot at, and finally crashes her sports car, with Jade in it. Jade must also locate Pam's husband and daughter. Who has gotten Jade into this mess? David. When Pam asked him for a reference, he gave up Jade's name.

David is also involved in an international investigation into sex trafficking. Beginning in England and crossing into Europe and winding up in South Africa, British officers are tracking the masterminds of an organization bringing innocent women into English brothels.

All roads lead to Rome and all stories lead to a shocking and cleverly drawn together conclusion. 

This book should have been called "Graphic Violence," to follow the theme of the first book. There are graphic scenes of people suffering violence at the hands of others. Several victims are tortured, and Mackenzie gives you excruciating detail. It may be fiction, but it will make you squirm.

For a competent police officer and devoted father, David Patel seems singularly juvenile and ineffective in his social life. What does Jade see in him? Nevertheless, he is the unintentional locus of all that happens, and he is Jade's link to everything as well.

I like the character of Jade. She's got killer instincts and is still trying to come to terms with that. She has sacrificed a normal life to go her own way. She is still haunted by her parents' deaths. She likes dogs. She lives a spartan life, but unfortunately, it's devoid of humor as well.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Artful Egg, by James McClure ($14.95)

I think the last time I read this book was when it came out in the 1980s. James McClure's eight-book Kramer and Zondi series was written during apartheid in South Africa. That ignominious period lasted from 1948 to its abolition in 1994. (Racism, however, doesn't require government permission to exist.)

Several works have recently re-focussed the spotlight on apartheid. Malla Nunn has a series set near the start of apartheid. Jassy Mackenzie and Wessel Ebersohn have contemporary post-apartheid series, whose characters still feel the repercussions of that time.

McClure's stories were shocking to the outside world, mostly naive to the day-to-day manifestations of apartheid. Although he grew up in South Africa and worked briefly as a reporter there, McClure fled to England when his criticisms of the government drew scrutiny. He lived a multi-faceted professional life and brought an international awareness to the horror of institutionalized racism. According to Mitzi Brunsdale's "Gumshoes: A Dictionary of Fictional Detectives," astonishingly, only one of McClure's books, "The Sunday Hangman," was banned in South Africa.

Tromp Kramer is an Afrikanner police detective and Mickey Zondi is his Bantu detective partner. It is implied that Zondi is smarter and a better detective than Tromp, having more restraint and better analytical skills. Both are victims of their time. Kramer teases Zondi, often calling him a "kaffir," the derogatory epithet for a black African. Zondi, as far as I can tell, has no equivalent word with which he can tease Kramer. It appears this relationship is a little lopsided. However, Kramer is a gadzillion times more accepting and liberal than his fellow whites.

There are the whites and the blacks, but there are also the browns. The brown underclass is Asian. One such second-class citizen, Ramjut Pillay, is the unfortunate postal worker who delivers the mail to the home of Naomi Stride, a rich and famous white author. He discovers her body and spends the rest of the book discombobulated and running from one outrageous situation to another. He is at first delighted that he may hold the key to her murder and become famous for solving the crime, then aghast that he may hold the key to the murder and will be punished for withholding it from the police.

Navigating the sticky politics of the police department, Kramer and Zondi fight not only the criminal forces but also their own fellow detectives, some of whom are brutal, corrupt, and/or incompetent. There is a lot of dark humor throughout the book, much of it provided by the police.

Is Naomi's adult son the villain? What about the liberal friends she had? The son's ex-girlfriend? A "Hamlet"-besotted academic stalker? There are many twisty roads for Kramer and Zondi to travel, while giving us a look into everyday life in the fictional town of Trekkersburg, Natal.

A second crime diverts the team temporarily. It's a sensitive case because one of the suspects is a former policeman, one who had the reputation of unnecessary violence in apprehending and questioning people. It's a clever bit of sleuthing that dispenses with that case, so the team can return to Naomi's murder.

It's easy to be morally stunned by the careless disregard whites had for non-whites during that period of time. McClure gives us dialogue rather than diatribe to show us how insidiously racism infected the culture. On the other hand, at the end he springs upon his audience a real historical event that greatly influenced the murderer. It doesn't make the author's murder less atrocious, but McClure is saying that there are more horrors in that part of the world, and apartheid is just one of them. If McClure could have a punchline it would be, "Now discuss among yourselves."

H.R.F. Keating included "The Artful Egg" in his book, "Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books." It's certainly outstanding on several different levels.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Grandad, There's a Head on the Beach, by Colin Cotterill (hardcover, $24.99)

Colin Cotterill is a rare author who can combine humor and tragedy and not make it sound awkward or forced. Following the superb "Killed at the Whim of a Hat," the first Jimm Juree adventure, "Grandad" is even better. Funnier, sadder, wiser.

This will catch you up with the story so far. Jimm Juree's mother got it into her noggin to uproot the family from Chiang Mai, where Jimm was a nop-notch reporter, to a backwater coastal village. Her brother Arny, the bodybuilder, and Grandpa Jah, a retired traffic police officer, were also forced into exile. Only her oldest brother/sister, Sissi, managed to stand her ground.

Jimm has made a few friends, including gay police officer Chom, in the village, and her mother, Mari, has made many. Arny, at the age of thirty-something, has found his first girlfriend, Gaew, another bodybuilder. Grandpa Jah never made it out of the traffic department because he was too honest and refused to take bribes, de rigueur for advancement. However tenuous the accomplishment, he and Jimm seem to have cornered the market on the family's claim to normalcy. And after Sissi, a transgendered computer geek and beauty queen, talks Jimm into taking a pharmaceutical trial course of anti-depressants for money, Grandpa seems to stand alone.

Although "Grandad" veers off into Wackyville on every page, Cotterill retains a very human and warm sensibility. He doesn't tangle the story up in fancy language and never obfuscates when he needs to elucidate. Jimm is the narrator and her voice is clear as a slightly-cracked bell.

There are many mysteries to solve this time.

Two women, obviously from a higher class than Jimm and her family currently inhabit, take a cabin at Jimm's family's seaside resort -- a loose term, since the sea is often not beside but IN the resort during monsoon season. They are scared and running from something. 

Then there is the titular head that Jimm's dog finds on the beach.

The head appears to belong to a Burmese man. Burmese people are the underclass of Thai society. Many are there illegally, but even a legitimate work permit holds no sway when Burmese workers begin to disappear. Jimm is disgusted with her country's attitude towards the workers, who are treated like slaves, and she is determined to discover how the man's head wound up on her beach. Cotterill buries this very serious issue within his entertaining book, a tactic he uses in his Dr. Siri series as well. It's a bitter pill wrapped up in a savory treat, and it gets the message across.

Kudos to Colin Cotterill, and I am pleased to award the last MBTB star to this book.

I laughed. I cried. I hiccupped.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book sale begins 3/23

Murder by the Book's farewell book sale begins this Saturday, March 23. The store will close to the public on April 20. Please see www.mbtb.com for details and updates on events.

Jean May, currently the store manager, will take over the website, Facebook, blog, and Twitter accounts after the physical store closes. She's working out the details on providing a paid subscription service for information on upcoming titles. You can email jean@mbtb.com if you want to be notified about that service.

I plan on continuing to blog about the books I read.

-- Barbara

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Soul to Take, by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir ($13.99) (c 2009)

Thóra Gundmundsdóttir is an attorney, single mother, and Reykjavík, Iceland's version of Kinsey Millhone. Unlike the other Scandinavian mysteries that have erupted into the American market in the years since "The Girl Who" series, Sigurdardóttir's series has a sense of humor. For the most part, when she's not dodging her kids or brushing them off on her sometime boyfriend, Matthew Reich, Thóra is a good mother. When she's not dodging or brushing off Bella, her awful secretary, instead of facing her down, Thóra is a good attorney.

It is one of Thóra's clients, Jónas, the owner of a spa located in a foggy, desolate, mystical area on the coast, who needs her help when he is involved in the murder of Birna, his part-time paramour and  architect. As in "Last Rituals," the first book in the series, there are Icelandic myths and potential paranormal activities laced throughout the story.

In order to help Jónas, Thóra breaks into the victim's room, steals a diary, barges into homes, verbally attacks suspects and witnesses, lies, and generally engages in pretty sketchy unlawyer-like behavior. Yet, I find the character of Thóra strangely compelling and attractive.

I found some parts of the story a little muddled but wasn't sufficiently disturbed to stop reading. In general, I liked the hunt for clues and the ultimate solution, once the red herrings were sloughed off.

It's Thóra's personal story that adds considerably to the series. The side story of Thóra's 16-year-old son and his pregnant girlfriend was human, funny, and sad. Her ex-husband is a dunderheaded lummox. It's her battles to remain upright when everything is tilting against her that should put readers on her side.

(Readers who do not like stories of children in danger should give this a pass, as it begins with a heart-wrenching story of a little girl in jeopardy.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Suspect, by Robert Crais (hardcover, $27.95)

I have to admit to being a little misty-eyed at the end of this book. "Suspect" was a little sappy, but every good dog story is a little.

What happens when an LAPD officer and a Marine-trained dog both suffer from PTSD? They are joined in partnership at the LAPD K-9 unit. It's a convoluted story that brings Scott James and Maggie together to help each other heal (and heel).

Scott was shot when he and his patrol partner were inadvertent witnesses to a violent late-night attack at a quiet intersection in LA. A truck T-boned a Bentley. Another car screeched up to the accident. Five men got out and began shooting the occupants of the Bentley. Scott and his partner were collateral damage. Scott was the only one to walk away. In the nine months since the incident, none of the killers has been identified.

Maggie's Marine partner died while hunting for explosives in Afghanistan. So her superb training won't go to waste, she is eventually adopted by the K-9 unit. Against his better judgment, the captain assigns Maggie to Scott, who has been foisted on his department. No one quite knows what to do with the emotionally and physically disabled hero who refuses to retire quietly. Maggie startles at loud noises and is on the verge of washing out of the service herself.

While Scott is bonding and training with Maggie, the new detective assigned to his case contacts him and allows Scott to read his file materials. Scott finds an evidence bag that has been misfiled. Even though the artifact in the bag has been declared unimportant to the case, luck and instinct makes Scott take a second look at it. From that stepping stone, Scott surges forward to find new evidence of who the shooters were. Using Maggie's extraordinary skills and olfactory talents, and the recent acquaintance of detective Joyce Cowly, Scott finds that the answers are more complicated and closer to home than he had imagined.

We've come to know and appreciate the quirky, independent-minded, and smart-alecky Elvis Cole, Crais' usual protagonist, that Scott James is rather flat by comparison. The storytelling, however, is Crais' usual blend of good pacing and interesting details, with a tear-jerker story of man's best friend thrown in.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dying in the Wool, by Frances Brody ($14.99)

This is a surprisingly tart book about post-WWI England, with a peek into the world of wool textile mills of the time. Despite the bucolic picture on the book cover, the Yorkshire area depicted in the book is more "Hound of the Baskervilles" than Agatha Christie. There's a sense of desolation and dark, eddying village connections, covered by the miasma thrown up by a thundering mill.

In many ways this new series is like the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. Kate Shackleton, like Maisie, has lost the man she loved in the war. Each becomes a private investigator. Each knows the upstairs-downstairs elements of a stratified society. Frances Brody's Kate is less angelic than Winspear's Maisie. Kate seems more human and a little more bumbling, sometimes blurting out a discovery to the discomfort of her listeners. Each author creates a whole, believable post-war England very well. 

Kate is more queen than commoner. Her father is a police officer, her mother a Lady, with a capital "L." Kate's late husband -- for whom Kate, in vague denial, still searches -- was a surgeon. Her housekeeper, Mrs. Sugden, is Kate's Mrs. Hudson, if Mrs. Hudson had a manure pile in the back yard. Her friends are upper crust, and her new assistant, the redoubtable Sykes, is working class. In order to solve the central mystery, Kate interviews upper and lower classes and appears comfortable talking with both.

A friend from her war days with the VAD -- volunteers who helped as nurses and medical staff -- has asked for help locating her father, who has been missing, presumed dead, for many years. Tabitha Braithwaite is soon to be married and she wants her father to walk her down the aisle. That is a big problem, since Joshua Braithwaite ran away from a psychiatric hospital in which he was confined after the police arrested him for attempting suicide and never seen again.

Kate is less scientific in her investigation than Maisie would be, but she efficiently manages to uncover all sorts of information many people would prefer be kept hidden.

This was an enjoyable read -- although one of the characters, the psychiatrist, still puzzles me a bit. Brody did a great job stepping back into the past without overemphasizing and banging on about what was different about that time from the present. She gives us a tour of a textile mill of the time, and it would be difficult to imagine a less wholesome work place, unless it were a coal mine or munitions factory.

I liked Kate and wish her well in her next adventure.

P.S. When various characters sit on a "buffet," they are not sitting on a variety of food dishes. It's northern England slang for a low stool.

Friday, March 8, 2013

V Is for Vengeance, by Sue Grafton ($7.99) (c2011)

Do I need my temperature taken, my obsession level checked, my craving for neatness -- in other people's lives -- curbed? Why is the most satisfying part of a Sue Grafton novel seeing Kinsey Millhone tidy her house and office, shuffle her index cards, meticulously organize her stakeout kit (including peanut butter and pickle sandwiches)? It isn't that I didn't like the storyline about shoplifters, a criminal gang, a couple of murders, love among the rich and morally wacky, and coyote scat. I enjoyed the story and Grafton's re-creation of the 1980s, the time bubble in which Kinsey is preserved. (At one point, Kinsey's push-button desk phone breaks, so she pulls out a rotary dial phone from her office cupboard and remarks on how ancient it seems.)

Grafton's early books were slender and to-the-point. "B Is for Burglar," for example, was about 200 paperback pages long; "V" is about 400. Kinsey's great first-person narration appears in only about two-thirds of the book. The other third was third-person, following the lives of Dante, a Mafia-type gangster, and Nora, a Beverly Hills housewife-type. I couldn't drum up the requisite sympathy for or interest in their characters, people caught in unsustainable lifestyles. Kinsey, however, is a different story. I LOVE Kinsey.

Forever and a day I will enjoy watching Kinsey push around unidentifiable glop at Rosie's restaurant and tootle around Santa Theresa, a thinly disguised Santa Barbara. I can smell landlord Henry's baking through the pages. (Although he is largely absent in "V.") Who needs a mystery?

"V" was fine. There were good people, bad people, a bad person who really got his comeuppance (yay!), and morally in-between people. But give me 200 good pages of Kinsey and we'll call it a triumph.