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

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives
 edited by Sarah Weinman

Penguin Books, 354 pages, paperback, $16.00

(This is a guest review by author Chuck Caruso)

Just out this week, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives edited by Sarah Weinman, offers a well-researched treasure trove of short stories by the brilliant women who defined the psychological thriller during the mid-century.  This collection features fourteen gems of suspense from Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong, as well as stories by less familiar authors like Vera Caspary, most remembered for penning the novel Laura, which inspired the famous film.

Of the authors included here, Shirley Jackson will probably ring the most bells of recognition, though novels like We Have Always Lived in the Castle skew a bit more toward horror than mystery.  Jackson’s story in this collection shows her in top form, weaving an uncanny tale of how deceptive appearances can be and how we always seem to want what we haven’t got. Dorothy B. Hughes is now mostly remembered for In a Lonely Place, adapted to screen as a Bogart vehicle, but her seemingly light-hearted “Everybody Needs a Mink” stands out as perhaps the most troubling tale in a collection full of clever turns and well-executed twist endings.  I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

This anthology also offers a few remarkable surprises by forgotten authors.  I’d never even heard of Nedra Tyre but her dark tale of poverty and despair “A Nice Place to Stay” has me determined to seek out more of her stories.  Miriam Allen Deford was a new name to me as well, but “Mortmain” presents a compellingly creepy story about a criminal-minded nurse caring for elderly patients.  It’s no surprise that Joyce Harrington’s brilliant yarn “A Purple Shroud” won her the Edgar Award for Best Short Story in 1973.  She’s another of these authors whose work I plan to pursue.

Yet another favorite of mine in this collection was “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” by Helen Nielsen, whose Sing Me A Murder I was first pleased to encounter as a paperback reissue from Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard imprint in the 80’s.  Though it only reprinted a few works by women, Gifford’s project exposed a new generation of readers to important works that might otherwise have been entirely forgotten.

As such, noted crime fiction maven Sarah Weinman has done important work in editing this retrospective anthology.  With this book, she provides a useful corrective by heightening awareness among contemporary readers of crime and suspense that the women writing such great fiction today are building upon the work of a previous generation.  Weinman gets it exactly right with the pitch that she says convinced Penguin to publish this collection:  “If you loved Gone Girl, here’s an entire generation of writers who helped make that book possible, and who deserve to be rescued from the shadows.”

Despite its historical approach, this is no stuffy academic anthology.  These stories still have enough life in them to thrill and surprise.  We owe Weinman a debt of gratitude for finding these stories and helping see them back into print.  Here’s hoping that collections like this not only revive interest in Highsmith, Hughes, and the rest of their generation, but also help them to continue inspiring future generations of young women.  They could certainly do worse than to follow in the footsteps of these amazing writers.  And mystery readers who love short stories couldn’t do better than to pick up a copy of Weinman’s expertly curated Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

Chuck Caruso is a Portland writer (and friend of MBTB) whose latest short story appeared in the anthology Kwik Krimes, released in August 2013.
Follow him on Twitter: @jcdarkly.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dissolution by C. J. Sansom

Penguin Books, 416 pp., $16 (c2003)

The trouble with historical fiction is …

I don't read much in this genre because even the best sometime devolve into history lectures. (In my opinion, Ellis Peters was one of the few writers who excelled at quietly educating while entertaining with a good story.) So my forays into time have been many, but few books survive to be read to the end. The exception is if a book has humor. I will tolerate anachronisms, modern sentiments inappropriately pasted onto a time past, overuse of colloquialisms, and unnecessary deep background recitations because an author wants to include ALL the research he or she did for the book if a book has humor (slapstick, dark, or lightly dusted)  or wit (dry or nit-). At least I'll tolerate it to a certain extent. I do draw a line.

I enjoy Arianna Franklin (lightly dusted lecturing, great pacing and sense of place), Charles Finch (quiet embodiment of the times with a good sense of the language), Deanna Raybourn (breaks a few of my no-nos but has humor, charming main character), Caroline Roe (history as real life not a school lesson, too few books under this pseudonym) and Lindsey Davis (Sam Spade meets ancient Rome -- what's not to love), to name a few of the few.

C. J. Sansom effortlessly brings forth a sense of the time. It is 1537 England. Henry VIII is king. The monastic world is being torn asunder. Henry has forced England to break from the Catholic Church because it would not grant permission for him to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn or to forsake Boleyn for Jane Seymour. Reformers, tired of the moral and material excesses of the Catholic Church, back the king in the dissolution of the monasteries.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who works as a commissioner for the vicar general of England, Thomas Cromwell. He is charged in this case with solving the murder of another commissioner at a large monastery in Scarnsea on the south coast. Then Shardlake is to get the abbott there to voluntarily sign an agreement to dissolve the monastery.

How clever to pick Dissolution for the title of the book! The sins of the residents of the monasteries have been collected by Cromwell as part of his campaign to break down the enclaves. The dissolution of the faithful will lead to the dissolution of their home.

Scarnsea has its dissolutes and its righteous. The problem for Shardlake and his assistant, Mark Poer, is to figure out who is which. What did the dead commissioner uncover that sealed his fate? After a young novitiate becomes the second victim, Shardlake begins to fear for his own safety.

Shardlake is a complex character. His vision is flawed. From the start, his evangelical point of view is tempered by what becomes obvious in historical hindsight: The Reformation is just another word for injustice; the common man's welfare is secondary to the political machinations of the king and gentry. But Shardlake believes in what he does. He believes in the corruption of the Catholic Church and its representatives. He believes that it is necessary to acquit his world of the idolatry and false religion that the monasteries represent. In good faith, he accepts his mission from Cromwell.

It's bad luck to touch a hunchback. It makes Shardlake's job harder when people withdraw from him in fear. Shardlake is a hunchback. He pities himself and envies those who are not malformed, especially his young assistant. He lets his emotions warp his judgment sometimes. He is lonely, clever, impassioned about the reformation, and a reluctant judge of the inhabitants of Scarnsea.

Sansom's knowledge of the times shows itself in the details and, for the most part, this doesn't interrupt his narrative flow. He rarely stutters to a stop because of a digression for a history lesson. 

The only trouble is how difficult it is to feel the necessary empathy for our narrator, Shardlake, whose "curt" remarks are often derived from self-pity and a short temper. It's not that I need only physically perfect, white-hatted heroes, it's that I don't like whiners, and Shardlake whines several times. It was necessary to make Shardlake so, however. Dissolution is also about Shardlake's growth as a person and how he meets the challenges to his beliefs.

Also, I loved the character of Brother Guy, the physician. He comes from a family of immigrant Moors, has been highly educated, and we are encouraged to immediately suspect him because of his foreignness. This was one "modern issue" that I enjoyed.

P. D. James has declared that C. J. Sansom is one of her favorite authors. Colin Dexter has favorably blurbed this book. I'm not about to argue with them. This book is an erudite, articulate winner.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Eva's Eye by Karin Fossum, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages, hardcover, $25

If you are already a fan of Karin Fossum, you will rejoice that the first book in the Inspector Sejer series has finally been translated into English. Fossum wrote it in 1995 and Eva's Eye is occasionally glaringly salted with oddities of that time. (At one point Fossum describes a Compaq computer sitting on someone's desk.) This book is the missing piece to the puzzle in that Fossum describes Sejer in many ways, more so than in her other books.

Inspector Konrad Sejer lives and works in "a small town" in Norway. But this small town certainly has had its share of crime over the years, enough to keep a detective force busy.

Sejer is 49 years old, has been a widow for eight years, has a daughter who is a nurse, a son-in-law who is a Red Cross doctor, and a grandson who was adopted in Somalia. Fossum describes him at various points as reserved, traditional, never diffident, exuding authority, and logical. Rather staid adjectives. But wait! Fossum injects quiet humor into her story, including this description of Sejer: "But during sunny summers he found peace, he didn't itch so much then."

Sejer is a seeming contradiction at times. He placidly drives at the speed limit but likes skydiving. Then we learn that he only skydives when it isn't windy. He has made 2000+ windless, accident-free jumps. There is that dour part of him that realizes that statistically he's headed for a fall. Someday his main chute will fail and he's going to have to pull his reserve chute. He mentally practices what he will need to do. He's a prudent man in all things, a cautious daredevil.

Not long into Eva's Eye we meet Eva Marie Magnus and make the assumption that it is her titular eye. She discovers a dead body in a river while walking with her young daughter. She tells her daughter that she is phoning the police, but strangely she dials her father instead and carries on an insipid conversation with him. They then walk to MacDonald's for lunch.

After the police are eventually notified about the body in the river, it becomes Sejer's case. The corpse used to be a brewery worker named Egil Einarsson, who has been missing for six months. He was murdered.

Sejer's other case has been languishing. A prostitute named Maja Durban was murdered in her home. Sejer doggedly pursues further investigation, even though the murder is now six months old. He decides to reinterview one of the witnesses. Eva Marie Magnus.

This is a stellar start to the series. Sejer's character is well delineated. The plot is surprising right up to the end. Fossum adroitly splices stories together. The reader may think she or he is following one storyline, only to bump up against another story. Past alternates with present. Halfway through Eva's Eye, the story starts all over again at a point before the beginning of the book and catches up at the end to where it left off at the halfway point. But Fossum's clear writing and James Anderson's wonderfully smooth translation give it clarity.

At the beginning of the book Sejer is described like this: "[I]n reality he was merely reserved, and behind the stern features dwelt a soul that was kindly enough." Now that is a quality to be treasured.

This is the convenient excuse you needed to begin reading Fossum's wonderful, award-winning series all over again.

(P.S. I don't know if Fossum regularly uses this scheme, but I think Eva's Eye ends with the start of the case that is the next book, Don't Look Back.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Sound and the Furry by Spencer Quinn (release date 9/10/13)

Atria Books, $25, 320 pages

The Sound and the Furry was definitely more fun than breaking rocks in the hot sun, and there were laughs up the yingyang.

This is the sixth Bernie (human) and Chet (dog) adventure. As usual, Chet is the narrator. That means that the plot doesn't travel from A to Z but is often interrupted by disquisitions on what is the tastiest kind of chicken ball, why Bernie shouldn't put checks in his shirt pocket, and poop, including but not limited to "javelina, buzzard, snake, coyote, cougar, goat, lizard, human."

Chet is the best doggy storyteller, bar none. Besides his superlative narrative skills, he is loyal, smart (most of the time), and fiercely protective of Bernie. Chet has endearing narrative peculiarities. He occasionally reminisces about past cases -- Bernie is a private investigator in Arizona -- the punchline to which is always that the "perps" are "breaking rocks in the hot sun." Also, Chet is fond of using the word "yingyang," as in "Freeways we've also got out the yingyang," and "checks, practically out the yingyang."

On the other hand, human talk frequently befuddles him. He takes figures of speech literally. For example, when Bernie remarks about an event leaving a bad taste in his mouth, Chet frets:

Bernie had a bad taste in his mouth? I felt sorry for him. At the same time, I let my tongue roam around my own mouth, and what do you know? Up in the roof part, hidden away in one of those hard ridges? Yes! A Cheeto!

This time around Bernie and Chet travel to New Orleans and Louisiana's bayou country to find a missing inventor. The inventor's name is Ralph Boutette and his hayseed brothers are Duke, Lord, and Baron. Ralph lucked out on both his name and his brains, having inherited not just his share but his brothers' as well.

Where is Ralph? Is he a casualty in the generations-old feud that the Boutettes have with the Robideaus? Was it a drug cartel moving into his neighborhood? Did he invent something significant? Was one of his ornery, thieving brothers to blame? There are quirky characters aplenty. And who or what is Iko and why should everyone beware?

I am so entertained by Chet's ramblings that it took me a while to get the hang of Bernie's character. There's still a disconnect between the goofy private eye -- who lost his (aloha) shirt on an investment in aloha pants, who stammers when a pretty woman talks to him, and who would lose his paychecks if Chet weren't around -- and the West Point educated, sharp-shooting, heroic Iraqi war veteran and martial artist. It can be disconcerting when suddenly Bernie hi-yahs a bad guy or shoots what he's aiming for. I guess I still don't have Bernie's number. (The number would be two, if Chet were asked, two being the highest he can count.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King (hardcover, $26) (release date 9/10/13) published by Bantam.

Do you know about the catacombs of Paris in which piles of human bones make striking designs? Those bones lend a ghoulish backdrop to Laurie R. King's absorbing mystery set in 1929 Paris.

Harris Stuyvesant is an American in Paris. He is an at-the-moment downtrodden private investigator who fortuitously receives a commission to find the niece of a wealthy American. Pip Crosby had come to Paris to have a good time, but now she is missing. 

As Harris investigates, he runs into an old flame, a woman he had hoped to marry, Sarah Grey. She is currently working for a wealthy Parisian aristocrat with an interest in the bizarre. She is also engaged to a Paris policeman, Émile Doucet. So much for any hope Harris might have had of one day being reunited with her. Of course, as fictional irony must run its course, Harris needs to work with Doucet to solve a problem that is growing by leaps and bounds.

Although the main characters are fictional, King peppers her story with many of the famous visitors to Paris and the resident artists and creative minds of the time. Man Ray makes a notorious appearance. Ernest Hemingway (of course), Josephine Baker, Cole Porter, Sylvia Beach, Coco Chanel, among others, make sometimes brief, sometimes important, sometimes silhouetted appearances.

King does a splendid job recreating that time in Paris between the wars. The story begins during a heat wave in September. Stuyvesant broods: "It had been a long summer, in all kinds of ways. He'd begun to feel as tired as Paris, a city worn down by the heat, as used up by foreign invaders as an aging femme de nuit. Maybe even Paris had a limit to her charms. Maybe in another generation, the social and cultural center of the country would shift south, to Lyons, or Marseilles. … His thoughts were broken by a loud voice. 'Hey, mister, you mind taking our picture?' 'I'spreche kein English.' he snarled."

Harris is a bit of a lunkhead at times, imbibing a little too much, mouthing off a lot, choosing action when words would have been better. It is from his perspective, however, that we see most of the action.

When Sarah Grey's brother, Bennett, enters the picture, the interest quotient rises. In contrast to Harris, Bennett is almost Sherlock Holmes-like in his ability to determine a person's truthfulness and character, he senses the subtle emanations of an object or person that bypass 99.9 percent of us. He is the actor in King's play whose entrance the audience has been awaiting. Harris meanders through Montparnasse and Montmartre a few times, entangles himself in distracting relationships, bumps up against the luminous figures mentioned above, setting the stage until Bennett arrives.

However, that does a disservice to the deductive powers that Harris brings to the story -- after all, it is primarily his story -- and over-emphasizes what Bennett does, but Bennett's character is so captivating that the story really took off for me when he came on board.

Laurie R. King has produced a great homage to Paris in the '20s. The mystery is tantalizing, the quirky, creepy stuff is enough to give "a frisson of visceral excitement," and the ending was worth the wait.