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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Last Detective by Peter Lovesey (c1991)

Written more than 20 years ago, age has not withered nor custom staled the infinite variety of the first in Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond series. In what seems such prescient writing now, Peter Diamond -- how unusual to give your main character your own name -- abhors the acceptance of the unimpeachability of scientific methods in determining whodunnit, while at the same time acknowledging its inevitability. Diamond is the "last detective" because he still uses his own faculties to ascertain clues. The book was written on the cusp of our new age of computer, scientific, and forensic obsessiveness (e.g.,  "CSI: Everywhere" and Patricia Cornwell's series, begun in 1990).

Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Avon and Somerset police lives in Bath, is oblivious to the astounding ancient artifacts that abound in his area, blusters his way to one of the highest solution rates among the detectives, and for better or worse goes his own way. Eventually, of course, his occupational path must get worse.

For one thing, hanging over his head is a charge of intimidating a confession out of a suspect in London. While the charge is being investigated, he has been moved to the hinterlands, which is how he views Bath. Then he is assigned up-and-comer John Wigfull as his partner. John is full of something, for sure. He is younger, modern, and while not overly dismissive of Diamond's methods, he's obviously patronizing. There's a lot of eyebrow lifting on both Wigfull and Diamond's parts.

When the body of a woman is found in a lake, Diamond is off and running. He crows when the computers cannot collate data fast enough. (It's entered manually, Wigfull whines.) Cherchez la femme and Diamond has found two among the cast. Gerry Snoo, ex-actress, plays the body and the prime suspects are Professor Greg Jackman, her husband, and Dana Didrikson, the mother of a boy the professor rescues. Hints of love triangles, wanton seduction, and celebrity loopiness spice the story.

It's refreshing to meet a protagonist who does not have a cardinal defect (alcoholism, depression, Alzheimer's) but is merely vain. Pride and prejudice goeth before the fall in Jane Austen country. And, yes, there is a Jane Austen subplot. And, no, there are no zombies. Diamond is no matinee idol either. Why should a reader like him? He's fabulously seat-of-the-pants smart about psychology and has a well-earned instinct for piecing together a tale of criminal mischief.

The only part that bugged me -- because, truly, I found the writing superior, the characterizations zippy and captivating, and the Jane Austen subplot genius -- was the much-too-expeditious capitulation of one of the characters when accused of criminal monkey business towards the end of the book. Shades of Perry Mason!

Lovesey just released his 13th Diamond novel, "The Tooth Tattoo"!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (hardcover, $27.99)

Unlike Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brody series, this is not a mystery, unless you want to say something philosophical like "life is a mystery."

What if you got to "do-over" your life if it ended up being boring or you missed an opportunity or you died too young? Or what if you were meant for something more? What if your life began again and again on the same snowy day in February 1910? If one of the times you were born, you didn't even make it past your first minute, what could be done differently?

Ursula Beresford Todd is destined for many iterations of her life. The basic formula for Ursula is this: born on a snowy day in 1910 in a village in England; parents are well-off; three of four siblings are okay, one is a prig; aunt is eccentric. Other appearing and disappearing elements are a housekeeper, maid, farmer, Jewish neighbors, best friend, several boyfriends, some nasty characters, WWII, Nazis, wartime bombing and deprivation. Shake it all up, see what falls out, and write a storyline.

As Ursula gets (maybe) deeper and deeper into her lifetimes, she begins to experience déjà vu. She has no specific knowledge of her prior or parallel lifetimes, but sometimes something passes through. Sometimes she just has a strong feeling that something bad will happen unless she acts.

Kate Atkinson has crafted an extraordinary book. For instance, Atkinson writes the story of Ursula's birth from many perspectives in many different ways, all of them intriguing, each story with a peculiarity of character or sequence of events.

The tangle of what-ifs never snarl; the many storylines just prod the reader to be a careful observer to determine what has changed in the next lifetime. 

Despite the manipulation of time, this is not sci-fi or fantasy. "Life After Life" is illuminating fiction. Atkinson has something to say about all the ways the human heart can soar, be hurt, be healed. Atkinson is a story manipulator, and she is very deft. "The Cloud Atlas" and "The Orphan-Master's Son" also used story manipulation, veering from a straightforward narrative, or even the modern penchant for split stories set in different time periods, and reached a point of sublime art. "Life After Life" floats just beneath. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Children of Wrath by Paul Grossman ($15.99)

This is certainly an engrossing pre-WWII thriller set in Berlin, starring a Jewish police detective. It's not for the faint-of-heart, however. The main case Detective-Sergeant Willi Kraus must unravel? Missing children, lots of them, a scarily unknown number of them. Since a bag of children's bones was discovered in the sewer system, the authorities decide that the crime, for certainly there is a crime involved, must be heinous.

In 1930, although Berlin is at the forefront of the arts, architecture, and science, all of Germany is poised to head down the long road to economic upheaval and Nazi dominance. "Children of Wrath" is placed at the tipping point and chronicles the beginnings of the slide downwards. When the economic structure fails, there are a disturbing number of homeless and orphaned children roaming the streets. Someone is preying on these invisible ones.

And it is in 1930 Berlin that Willi suffers the humiliation of being a second-class citizen because he is Jewish. The ones who shout the loudest and impede him the most are his fellow Kripo agents and superiors. At first he is handed the case of the bag of bones. Then when the profile threatens to explode publicly, the case is taken away from him and given to Freksa, the media darling of Kripo.

Instead, Willi is given a case of food poisoning. A deadly bacteria has been mixed in with the city's ubiquitous sausages, and people are dying. Disgruntled and frustrated by his status in the department, Willi nevertheless tries to track down the source of the listeria. That is how he first comes into contact with the huge meat processing district, the Viehof. From live animal to consumer-ready meat and by-products, Willi learns the business. It is through his research and interviews there that he runs across a clue to what the media has dubbed "Der Kinderfesser," the child-eater.

Although there are times when "Children of Wrath" seems more like a travelogue than a thriller -- action stops as Paul Grossman points out the sights, hoping to anchor the story in the appropriate setting -- it manages to move along at a fast-enough pace. The main story is plenty scary, but it is the depiction of Willi's family life and the affect that prejudice has on them that is the real triumph for this book.

"Children of Wrath" is Paul Grossman's second book, following "The Sleepwalkers," the first Willi Kraus book. It is, however, the prequel to "The Sleepwalkers," taking place a couple of years before. In oddly satisfying epilogues, Grossman ends each book with a look into the future of the characters after WWII.

P.S. This may put you off sausages for a while.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Rage, by Gene Kerrigan ($17)

This is a perfect novel. It won the British Crime Writers Association's 2012 Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year. And well it should.

Irish journalist Gene Kerrigan's fourth crime novel is beautifully constructed, with sharp and relevant dialogue, and not a superfluous word to be found.

The Dublin worlds of Detective Sergeant Bob Tidey and small-time crook Vincent Naylor are about to collide. Tidey is a morally upright but practical police detective. He will probably never rise above his current designation because he doesn't play office politics very well. Vincent has just gotten out of jail for beating a stranger who had cursed at him. His brother, Noel, has an idea for a grand score. He's found a security company employee who can give them information about armored car deliveries. (Okay, I have only one nagging thought and it has to do with this robbery storyline. How could an armored car driver, who says he's an underpaid little cog in the wheel, know so much about the big boss' routine and passwords? Not important, but nagging nevertheless.)

At first, a reader will assume the rage of the title refers to Vincent's flash temper and manic violent streak. An example of that is one of the first scenes in the book. Tidey's temper isn't obvious. It's slow to rise and the rest of the book is an example of what happens when it's finally engaged.

The Dublin depicted in "The Rage" has fallen on hard financial times after crazy, heady spending and lending by government and banks. Kerrigan writes, "Everyone knew the money-go-round would keep spinning as long as two or three bad things didn't happen simultaneously -- then four or five bad things happened at once." As a result, there are a lot of white-collar criminals, not all of whom have been legally chastised. One of them, banker Emmet Sweetman, meets his final punishment when gunmen murder him in his home.

Tidey is called in to work on the Sweetman case. A lot of police characters, both higher and lower in status, drift through the book, but each is there for a reason, each advances the plot. Looming largest is Detective Rose Cheney who is Tidey's provisional partner for the case.

It is another example of Kerrigan's talent that he is able to sketch their characters with a minimal of fuss. Tidey's ex-wife and daughter briefly appear early in the book, and serve the purpose of showing Tidey's caring side. Off-hand comments by Cheney establish her as a wife and mother. Their work on developing the Sweetman case establishes their competence and devotion to work. "Bob Tidey," Kerrigan writes, "was in the law and order business, and whatever else went belly-up, there'd always be hard men and chancers and a need for someone to put manners on them."

In the meantime, Vincent and Noel plan an elaborate heist. Kerrigan once again excels in description, this time of the criminal world they live in, especially the violence that is a calling card left by minor and major hoods. Vincent navigates the criminal hierarchy and carefully chooses his crew. In his own way, he is as meticulous as Tidey in his police investigations. 

Vincent's heist eventually touches the life of ex-nun and teacher Maura Coady. She, too, it is revealed has had her own brush with rage, and it has colored her life. She is the focal point through which Tidey and Vincent eventually cross paths.

Cold rage dominates the last third of the book. Pay-back and justice serve both good and bad masters. Moral ambiguity and shaky rationalization are their lackeys. Kerrigan impeccably draws all the threads together into a surprising and thought-provoking denouement. Although the plotting is complex, Kerrigan takes great pains not to lose his readers. He draws and re-draws the connections by making use of his subsidiary characters in multiple contexts. "The Rage" is Kerrigan's master class in plotting and clarity.

The novel begins with a scene of Tidey overlooking the Liffey River and wrestling with a thought. There is "No moral thing to do. But something had to be done." Then the book jumps back a few days to show what led Tidey to that point. The last third of the book returns to that scene and the choice Tidey makes. This is clean and brilliant scene twinning, and a marvelous thought-provoking denouement.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rage Against the Dying, by Becky Masterman (hardcover, $24.99)

Brigid Quinn has all the qualities I find compelling in a character: She's quirky, headstrong, socially awkward, intelligent, and brave. She also has a dark past she keeps hidden from her new husband, a warped sense of humor, and years of experience hunting down and exposing the most depraved killers. She is under-appreciated, of course.

Becky Masterman's debut novel is noteworthy. She gives us great character development, strong storytelling, and clever twists.

Brigid is 59 years old and retired from the FBI. Actually, because of an incident involving the death of an unarmed suspect, she was exiled and effectively forced into retirement. Her exile sent her to Tucson, Arizona, and despite being a fish out of water there and figuratively flopping in the desert, she stayed and now calls the area her home.

After she retired, she tried many activities that she had never had time for before, but, in her own words, "[I]t felt like I was still undercover, temporarily posing as a Southwestern Woman of a Certain Age." Besides, "No one likes a woman who knows how to kill with her bare hands." Nothing suited her until she took a class in Buddhism at the local university. She and the "Perfesser," as she refers to Carlo DiForenza, hit it off and were soon married.

Married life agreed with her and Carlo, an ex-priest, widower, and retired teacher. Brigid was even learning to cook. Sort of. At least no one died eating her food. The same can't be said of people she met while she was with the FBI. Although she had thought those days were uneasily in her past, she is unexpectedly drawn back into a game of find-the-perp.

The biggest case of Brigid's career involved tracking down, unsuccessfully, the "Route 66 Killer." Young women died. So presumably did an undercover FBI agent, Jessica Robertson, Brigid's protégé. Set up as a decoy to catch the killer, Jessica disappeared during Brigid's operation to catch the killer and several years later still has not been found.

One day during Brigid's new life, an old friend, Deputy Sheriff Max Coyote, shows up with an invitation to  observe a joint investigation into the confession of Floyd Lynch, a trucker who was found with a mummified body in his cab. He claims to be the "Route 66 Killer." Heading the FBI task force is Laura Coleman. She seems favorably disposed towards Brigid and knows how important it would be to the former agent to know that the killer had been caught.

After several interviews of Lynch, discovery of substantiating evidence, and the uncovering of more bodies, it appears the case is open-and-shut, with a lifetime reservation in the Big Cage awaiting Lynch. But hold on. Coleman, after all, is not satisfied. There's something wonky. She wants Brigid and Brigid's old profiler partner, David "Sig" Weiss, to back her up that maybe the killer is still out there.

Brigid has no credibility with the current FBI staff, and that's crucial to why Brigid is forced to go off on her own when her instincts tell her Coleman is right. Without the resources available to law enforcement, Brigid has to find corroborating evidence herself.

The book begins with the story of an unknown woman -- whom we find out is Brigid within a few more pages (so this isn't a complete spoiler comment) -- caught by a serial killer who likes older women. He obviously hasn't factored in Brigid's 40 years of FBI training or her walking stick festooned with a razor blade. This was a most entertaining start.

Masterman piles on the intriguing elements. Why hasn't Brigid told Carlo about her prior life? For goodness sakes, he thinks she did "copyright infringement" investigations for the FBI. What is Laura Coleman's interest in keeping Brigid, a discredited agent, on tap? Why hasn't Brigid gotten rid of Carlo's deceased wife's things? Why weren't there more victims of the Route 66 Killer after Jessica was taken? All answers come to those who wait.

Here are a couple of examples of Masterman's writing. Most of the book is from Brigid's point of view.

Max is in Brigid's home and is telling her about Lynch's arrest:
"You couldn't tell much from the victim. The body was mummified."
"Curiouser and curiouser. Smell much?"
I nodded, making a mental note to get more celery before I closed the refrigerator door.

Here is Brigid describing Lynch:
There was the dark curly hair I remembered, the ski nose, and the wire-rimmed glasses. Now I noticed other details, how his upper lip was more prominent than his jaw. How his fingers showed he was a fine-boned man. I noticed again that scabby patch on one cheek that looked like it got picked at when he was bored with biting his wart. How his ears stuck out from his head.

It's easy to read a book when the author has such a strong sense of character, when the plot is entertaining and clever, and when the final product delivers the goods.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Mr. Churchill's Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal ($15)

Margaret "Maggie" Hope is an orphan. She was born in London, grew up in Boston with her aunt, has been accepted into M.I.T. for a graduate degree in mathematics, and has postponed that study to live in London and work as a typist, for goodness sakes, for Winston Churchill.

Brilliant, brave, quick-witted, and beautiful, Maggie and her red hair flame on during Britain's darkest hour. It is May 1940, and Britain is on the verge of being bombed by Germany. What can American-sounding, America-raised Maggie do to help the cause?

For the first time Maggie has returned to the land of her birth as a recent graduate of Wellesley, in order to sell her grandmother's house. Instead, she befriends other young women, including Paige, a fellow Wellesley graduate; Charlotte, aka "Chuck," a young Irish woman; the "Dumb-Belles," Clarabelle and Annabelle; and Susan, an extraordinary young ballerina.

One of her best friends is David, a private secretary in Churchill's office. He gets Maggie a job as a typist, although Maggie, with her mathematical ability, would prefer to be doing analysis.

A Nazi/IRA plot is afoot, and sharp-eyed Maggie is the heroine who unravels it. There are also some surprising personal twists for Maggie that are well done.

Susan Elia MacNeal infuses her story with great historical detail and an olfactory subplot. She drops the names of several famous scents and some not so aromatic (people sweat a lot in her story), and associates them with her characters and scenes.

MacNeal could have made her story just sentimental or romantic with a tepid and clichéd plot, but she didn't. Maggie has a sense of real life about her. There are elements of romance and sentiment, but they're at a human level, no Cinemascope settings or maudlin violins. There are bona fide math and cryptology puzzles, too, showing the author respects her readers' intelligence. Primarily, however, she relies on a theme as old as time, the fallibility and heroism of human nature under duress.

Although there are several "cute" elements, this is not a cute story. It takes advantage of the drama of World War II and doesn't belittle the times with sugar-coating, but neither does MacNeal prolong her descriptions of the violence.

Enjoyable. Couldn't wait to get back to the story at the end of the day.