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

Monday, September 23, 2013

Pronto by Elmore Leonard

[This is our book group pick for October. We usually meet on the fourth Tuesday of the month at the Belmont Library. Don't read this review, read the book, and join us.]

William Morrow, 400 pages, $14.99 (c1993)

Pronto should also be known as "Gasp! Elmore Leonard leaves Detroit and Miami." Actually, Leonard has often left those cities behind, but he has used them as his settings for some of his most famous crime novels, filled with wise guys, dumb guys, good bad guys, bad good guys, and quirkiness up the yinyang.

Italians answer their phone calls with "Pronto," meaning I'm ready to listen. In the U.S., we use it to mean quickly, derived apparently from the Latin for prompt. The thing about Leonard is that he is the master of using the minimum amount of language with the optimum of meaning. Leonard probably would have summarized those last two sentences as: Raylan Givens is pronto.

There are many fans of the television series "Justified," centered on Raylan Givens, who have never read an Elmore Leonard book. More's the pity. But it's understandable that the character of U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens has warranted such fan devotion.

As created by Leonard, first in his short story, "Fire in the Hole," and then in the full-length novel Pronto, Raylan is a laconic, sincere, self-aware, mostly uncomplicated man, who came out of the mines of Harlan County, Kentucky, but never truly left that culture behind. Leonard says he "looks like a farmer …. The weathered, rawbone type."

In contrast, Harry Arno is a Miami bookie. His mob boss has caught him skimming. Everybody skims, says Harry, but Jimmy Caps thinks Harry has gone overboard. Harry soon learns that he has been set up by the Feds, so they can get their hooks into Jimmy.

Harry is 66 years old, has a much younger, ex-stripper girlfriend, Joyce, and is capable of ignoring the obvious. When the heat is turned on, he passes on being a scapegoat and skedaddles, without Joyce, to a little town in Italy. Harry has slipped away on Raylan's watch -- for the second time -- and Raylan needs to get him back but, amazingly, not with vengeance or anger in mind. Raylan is descended from a slightly different line than many of the private eyes, cops, and ex- and current military men that fill crime novels these days.

Years ago, during World War II, Harry claims to have seen the poet Ezra Pound imprisoned in Italy for being a traitor. He is obsessed with Pound's life in that little town, especially with how Pound hid himself with both his wife and his mistress at his mistress's villa. Pound was a genius, Harry proclaims. You can't even understand his poetry, Joyce retorts. Harry ignores her. Harry ignores most of what he doesn't want to admit or confess to. And that in a nutshell is what has gotten Harry into trouble, trouble that drags in Raylan, Joyce, ex-pat Robert Gee, and mobsters like the ambitious Zip and muscleheaded Nicky Testa.

Even if Pronto weren't clever and a great showcase for Raylan Givens's quiet cool, it would be a showcase for the prodigious writing talent of one of America's greatest writers. A different world lies within each page. With just a few words, Leonard is able to create both comedic and dramatic tension. He can end a paragraph far from its prosaic beginning.

Here's Raylan talking about Harry's first disappearance: "'We're in the Atlanta airport. I'm eating an ice cream cone, he says he's going to the men's and will be right back. The next time I saw him was yesterday, six years later.' Harry grinned. Raylan didn't."

Leonard's good with peripheral story material. Here's a tailor talking to the the Zip: "'I made a suit for Meyer Lansky one time, way back. I was down on Collins then in the McFadden-Deauville. Made him a beautiful suit of clothes and he stiffed me. You believe it? With all his dough?'"

Dialogue is his strong suit. Here's Robert Gee when he first met Harry in Italy: "'You could be Italian, yeah, but not from around here the way you're dressed. Well, you could come from Milan, I guess, close by. But to look all the way Italian, man, you got to have the suit with the pointy shoulders and the pointy shoes with the little thin soles.'"

There's a staccato rhythm to Leonard's writing that seems natural after a while. He strays off-point a lot, but that's his charm.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Mulholland Books, 304 pages, $14.99 (c2011)

There's a joke Abraham Lincoln apocryphally used to tell: How many legs does a sheep have if you call a tail a leg? Answer: Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one.

Calling The House of Silk a Sherlock Holmes story and not a pastiche does not in fact make it a Sherlock Holmes story, as it would have been written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even if you have the imprimatur of the Conan Doyle estate. Sorry.

There isn't a single nod to all the arcana and trivia that Sherlockians and Holmesians adore, there's a veritable head-banging symphony of references to all those wink-wink Sherlock-isms (e.g., the 17 steps up to SH's rooms). That's pastiche wetting a toe in the sea of parody.

Having refused to call a tail a leg, what did I think of the story?

Anthony Horowitz is a genius. He is the man responsible for "Foyle's War," one of the best television mystery series (ever?). His storytelling and dialogue for that show is endearing, precise, informative, and enviable. If only he weren't such a fan of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps he could have stepped back, divested himself of the trivia, and made this book a true Holmesian wonder. Even so, it is a very entertaining tale, and amazingly clever in many instances (e.g., Sherlock and Mycroft trying to one-up each other on observations of the other).

The House of Silk starts out with Holmes and Watson temporarily reuniting when Mrs. W goes off to visit friends. In walks a man who claims he is being stalked by a criminal from America. While helping to locate the mysterious man, a Baker Street Irregular is gruesomely killed. (Doyle would never, never so graphically describe a death.) Holmes has a secondary goal: to avenge the young lad's death. And that, dear readers, eventually leads Holmes and Watson to try to find the House of Silk and what, if anything, it had to do with the young boy's death.

The case grows convoluted. Holmes is tossed in the gaol. Even with Mycroft and Lestrade on Team Sherlock, it is difficult going trying to unravel how everything is somehow related.

In fact, this is a very modern tale, with a modern focus on the crime. Watson writes from the perspective of old age, after Holmes has (actually) died. The come-on is that the story has been cached for 100 years because the tale is so shocking. I cannot imagine that Doyle would ever have written such a tale, even one that he buried for 100 years.

Again, letting go of the authenticity poppycock, what's left is a very good story. Horowitz uses Doyle's tactic of creating outrageous situations that eventually have real-world explanations, however improbable. Horowitz has parts for all the characters you've come to love in the Holmes Canon. He takes his readers credibly back to the fog-shrouded London that Holmes and Watson inhabit. He dangles a few clues. And he writes a story that's probably twice the size of anything Doyle would have created, but the extra is not padding.

One of the blessings of Horowitz's narrative is that he makes everyone more human. For instance, Watson speculates on what happened to the criminals after he and Holmes caught them, what fear and remorse they may have felt. Even Holmes is shown in a more vulnerable light. 

The House of Silk is different, not the same, so stop pretending it is. That way Horowitz can receive his proper and well-deserved accolades for creating a wonderful Sherlock Holmes world of his own.

Monday, September 16, 2013

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Harper Perennial, 432 pages, $14.99 (c2003)

As disquieting as We Need to Talk About Kevin is to read, it is compelling once the first page is turned; there is no putting the book down. Each sentence is deliberately crafted and significant, each chapter leads to a dark revelation. 

Lionel Shriver delves deeply into the mind of the mother of a teenaged mass murderer. Eva Khatchadourian's son, Kevin Khatchadourian, killed some of his schoolmates and a teacher, and what, in the end, does this mean to Eva?

Told through a series of letters from Eva to her distant husband and Kevin's father, Franklin Plaskett, Eva's writing traverses the vast psychological distance from before Kevin was born to the present, a year and a half after the killings. Currently, Kevin is in a youth detention facility, a place Eva dutifully visits every couple of weeks. But why does she do so? Her letters reveal that she never liked Kevin. From birth, she found him cold and rejecting. In turn, she muses, it was easy to reciprocate the feelings.

Through the years, Eva and Franklin had ever more divergent parenting programs. In her letters, Eva mourns her inability to reach Kevin on any sort of level. But she also displays how weak her parenting skills are. Franklin has read all the parenting books, Eva none. Kevin is engaging with Franklin; Eva claims that's all gloss and manipulation. 

Through Eva's recollections, Kevin appears disgruntled from birth. He swings from almost ceaseless wailing to stony, malignant silence. And that just covers the first five years! With increasing tension and foreboding, Eva brings the story to the point at which 14-year-old Kevin reaches his crescendo.

We Need is American gothic, a horror story without supernatural fireworks, a chilling, thoroughly discombobulating painting of a family gone scarily awry. Shriver immaculately deals with all the details. If I ever wondered what happened to so-and-so or such-and-such, within a few pages, there would be the answer. As far as I could tell, she never forgot. Although I wanted to hurry through the agonizing pages of Eva's admissions and submissions, it was impossible to skim through Shriver's muscular sentences.

If you decide to venture into Eva's world, my hope for you is that you are as open-mouthed at the end as I was. I was the perfect foil for Shriver, standing placidly on the rug she was about to pull out from under me. Shriver's book is an original.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

Anchor, 416 pages, $15.95

Set in Italy in 1502, Michael Ennis re-creates the heyday of Renaissance Italy and plops a mystery into it. The Borgias, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Leonardo da Vinci all have parts to play.

There is always the difficulty when importing real people into a work of fiction that the author is constrained by the best guess of historians about what really happened. Fiction must be woven into fact. Michael Ennis indicates he studied the history of the period extensively, including reading the collected works of Niccolò Machiavelli, perhaps best known for his authorship of The Prince. His research does him proud, as The Malice of Fortune gives a great sense of what it must have been like to live during that period of time and how heavy lay the heads who engaged in political intrigue.

As a character spun mostly from whole cloth, Damiata, a high-class courtesan and lover of Juan Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, narrates about half the book. Niccolò Machiavelli narrates the rest.

At the beginning of the story Machiavelli is a young man who has not yet achieved the notoriety as the author of The Prince or received the accolades as the author of The History of Florence. He is merely a secretary sent from Florence -- that is, he is an observer with no ambassadorial powers -- to the court of Cesare Borgia or Duke Valentino, as he's more frequently known in this book, in Imola. Although he has no authority, Machiavelli is there to prevent Duke Valentino from invading Florence.

Damiata is in Imola because Pope Alexander VI holds her young son hostage. He wants her to find the murderer of his son Juan Borgia, Damiata's lover. The body of a woman was found in Imola. An artifact belonging to Juan was found on her, so surely the killer is now in Imola and still taking lives.

Although they have a shaky start, Damiata and Machiavelli become cohorts, Damiata to regain her son and Machiavelli to defuse an alliance which may endanger Florence. Leonardo da Vinci's science and mathematics provides a new-fangled forensic approach to discovering the bodies of more murdered women, victims of Imola's serial killer, who might also be Juan's killer. Machiavelli uses his own brand of psychology to understand the mind of a killer.

Did the book work? Yes and no. I loved the appearance of Leonardo as the messy, intense, aggravating, and brilliant polymath. Machiavelli's obsession with Damiata, not so much. Ennis' portrayal of Valentino's maneuvering of the condottieri was brilliant. Characters tromping around in blizzards and seafront storms without much ill effect, not so plausible. Overall Ennis succeeds very well at creating the political atmosphere of the times and in using tenets from The Prince to narrative advantage.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages, $15.95 (c2012)

Wild falls more under the life's-a-mystery category than plain-old-mystery. This is the first non-mystery book I've completed (although many others are in various states of doneness) since retiring from Murder by the Book.

This ranks right up there for best last line.

Best of all, Cheryl Strayed at this point is a Portland resident. Her hike along the Pacific Coast Trail ended at Cascade Locks. It's no mystery that she chose to stay here.

Although I miss the book business, I gratefully have a slew of books to read and the freedom to read what I want. I'm glad I chose Wild.

P.S. I read this on my iPhone while waiting for movies to start, for appointments, when picking up people and pizza. There were 1,223 itty-bitty pages. This was my own personal book PCT.

The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill

Vintage Books, 288 pages, $15 (release date 9/24/13)

The one adjective I always think of when I read the Simon Serailler series by Susan Hill is atmospheric. Even though they are police procedurals, they retain the same quality that made Susan Hill's spooky The Woman in Black such a long-running, ghostly success in London's West End. Her works have a dark sense of brooding and hidden evil. Susan Hill knows how to make us clutch the blankets to our heads, peer into the darkness to see what secret will come slithering out, shock us with an unexpected turn of events.

The Small Hand and Dolly are two gothic ghost stories, with a very traditional British bent. Both are partially set in isolated country houses. Both horrors rely on past secrets that insist on rising to the surface. Both are satisfyingly and deliciously spooky.

In The Small Hand, Adam Snow is a dealer of antique books. While visiting a client, he becomes lost and accidentally stumbles upon an abandoned, derelict mansion, inappropriately called The White House. It was once famous for its gardens, now overgrown and choked with weeds. As Snow curiously inspects the grounds, he feels a small, cold hand grasping his. Of course, there's actually no one there. From that moment, Snow is periodically and inexplicably haunted by a sense of fear, dread, and anxiety. Later there's a wonderful scene set in an old and isolated monastery in France. 

Dolly was a slightly less captivating story for me, primarily because Edward Cayley, one of the main characters, is a chump and is taken advantage of by his egotistical cousin Leonora. It's hard to warm to him adequately as he sympathetically tries to help his cousin, first as a young child and later as an adult. As the disagreeable housekeeper says of him as a child, he was "too sweet-tongued to trust." As a child he was preternaturally polite, obedient, a real Milquetoast. As a young child, he is sentenced to spend a summer with his childless aunt and sociopathic cousin in a creaky, isolated old house in the marshes, Edward, despite signs to the contrary, insists on trying to make lemonade out of lemons. Hill does manage to raise the requisite goosebumps as Edward does the strangest things. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Death Canyon by David R. Bertsch

Scribner, 384 pages, $26

Jake Trent was a high-powered attorney from the East Coast who gave up his high-powered life to become a fishing guide in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Noelle Klimpton is a park ranger. They are the stars of David R. Bertsch's debut novel.

Over the course of a couple of days, three bodies are discovered, at least two of which seem to be the result of accidents. One died in a snow avalanche. Another was a body discovered by Jake while he was fishing. Noelle had to deal with the third, a man attacked by a bear. Jake, who spent his prior life being suspicious of everyone, thinks that three deaths, no matter how unrelated they may seem, are too much of a coincidence. (Really?)

David R. Bertsch has created a couple of characters with potential, although they are at times a little too self-effacing. Bertsch seems to know his environmental issues. He's at his best when Jake addresses his concerns about what is being done to Jackson Hole. The story is a little rambling and ordinary at times. About two-thirds of the way in, it was like reading a different book -- a little disconcerting.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham

Atlantic Monthly Press, 400 pages, $25

Dour, grim, gruesome, intense. That pretty much sums up Mark Billingham's DI Tom Thorne series. The Dying Hours is the 11th in the set and it's a good one.

I haven't read a Billingham book in quite a while. (I think there were pigs involved in the last one I read.) But Billingham does a pretty good job presenting the story thus far, so I happily joined the story arc in progress.

Actually, it's just Inspector Tom Thorne of the South London police force these days, Thorne having been demoted to uniform for shenanigans explained in the last book, Good as Dead. All was not lost at the end of that adventure, because Thorne had gained himself a live-in girlfriend and her 18-month-old baby. That girlfriend, Detective Sergeant Helen Weeks, owes Thorne a lot for the unrelenting stubbornness that saved her life. However, when evidence of Thorne's stubbornness again makes itself apparent in regard to certain recent suicides, Weeks is not immediately supportive. Perhaps that's because Thorne chooses to conceal, lie, and evade first before telling her what's going on. It's the price of having two police officers in one household.

Thorne misses the thrill of being a detective. He misses North London. His exile to South London is okay -- after all it's work he's good at -- but his real mates are still with his old unit. Nevertheless, he puts his best foot forward and is happy enough with Weeks and her son, Alfie.

When Thorne is called to a suicide, several things at the scene don't feel right. "'Oh Christ, are you talking about a 'hunch'?" says a detective with his department, when Thorne brings his uneasiness about the declaration of suicide to his notice. It is a hunch, but it's based on discrepancies that are red flags to someone of Thorne's experience. And, of course, Thorne's instincts are correct. Having been sloughed off by the murder squad, Thorne is determined to prove the suicide, soon to be joined by other suspicious suicides, is bogus. He enlists the help of former detective buddies, who reluctantly agree. A small part of Thorne thinks that if he figures out the solution and catches the killer, this might bring him back into the good graces of the department.

We meet the killer early on, so we know the deaths are the result of murder, not suicide. It's a terrific build-up to find out why the killer is targeting these people and how he gets them to commit suicide. (Actually, I think I saw something vaguely similar on the new Sherlock Holmes series on PBS, with Benedict Cumberbatch, but that doesn't detract from the cleverness and terror in Billingham's story.)

Billingham fleshes out his characters and brings Thorne's old world together with his new one very well. He also serves up spots of wry humor. For instance, when a couple of Thorne's old cronies are gloomily discussing what sorts of trouble they could get into by helping Thorne, one of them says, "In for a penny," and the other finishes, "In for a P45." A P45 is the British version of a pink slip. And just to warn you, Billingham does have the last laugh.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sandrine's Case by Thomas Cook

Mysterious Press, 352 pages, $24

If you have read any of Thomas Cook's other books, you know to distrust the narrators who tell their stories, because your initial impression will inevitably take a 180-degree turn before the book sees its final pages. Will Sandrine's Case follow this road? Professor Samuel Madison is narrating his tale while on trial for the murder of his wife. He admits his guilt, but whether it is guilt from murdering his wife or guilt over something else will slowly be revealed after a series of exquisite twists. However, it is hard to review a book that reveals itself so slowly, each chapter another peek into an aspect of the case or a veering away from what you thought you knew, without giving something away. So let me start by describing the structure instead.

The chapters are headed by the day of the trial or the day of rest or the witness who is testifying. Sam appears in real time with his grown-up daughter Alexandria, his defense attorney, Morty Salberg ("the smartest Jew lawyer in Coburn County"), and the state's attorney, Harold Singleton. Many of Sam's memories enhance the witnesses' testimony or conversations he has with others.

This is the first thing we learn: Sam is a supercilious little twit. Whether or not he is guilty of his wife's murder, he is certainly guilty of being "one cold fish." Morty says to him, "[I]t's pretty clear that the people in Coburn don't like you very much." And again, Sam becomes aware "quite clearly that I was charged, more than anything, with the crime of being me." His theory is that the regular folk don't like "eggheads" and think professors are subversively instructing impressionable youth. In return, he is dismissive and critical of his fellow teachers, his neighbors, and his daughter. We can only assume that he treated his wife the same way.

Besides being a disagreeable fellow, Sam also has a propensity to accidentally implicate himself with the authorities at every opportunity by confessing or admitting to things before he even is asked about them. It's hard not to shout, You killed her, or alternatively, Shut up! Morty and Alexandria warn him about making "pedantic literary allusions" or bringing up "elitist stuff." (Cook is kind enough not to make obscure literary allusions.)

The rest of this review deals with plot you may not wish to know. If you are stopping here, this is the bottom line: Read the book!

Sandrine and Sam were not always distant with each other. Just before her death Sandrine had brought up returning to Albi, "the little French town that had been the last stop on what she had always called our 'honeymoon trip.'" There are several references to that idyllic trip, the first time Sandrine and Sam realized they belonged together. Sandrine's desire is understandable. She has recently been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease and probably doesn't have much longer before she will die from it. At first it seems she has committed suicide rather than endure the slide into helplessness, but a lot of small things aren't "normal."

Officer Wendy Hill and Detective Ray Alabrandi collect incriminating indications that Sandrine did not commit suicide. The clues add up, the prosecuting attorney decides to charge Sam, and bam!, there's a trial. Morty keeps reassuring Sam that the case is weak. But with each new chapter, Cook winds another strand of rope around Sam's neck.

Cook has a patented way of bringing out the deep and vulnerable heart of a character. Several times Sam says that what Sandrine loved about him was his kindness and tenderness, qualities about which he no longer cares to show or is incapable of showing. Sandrine, on the other hand, was devoted to her teaching, was well-liked and admired, and still had that vulnerability. It is tenderness and kindness that mark Thomas Cook's novels and it is evident in the beautiful Sandrine's Case as well. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Multiple Exposure by Ellen Crosby

Scribner, 320 pages, $25

Multiple Exposure is a book whose characters and theme are probably closer to what author Ellen Crosby deals with in her actual life than the books she wrote as part of her popular wine country series. She is a "former freelance reporter for The Washington Post and the Moscow correspondent for ABC Radio News," according to her biography. This book deals with international intrigue and a character who was a photographer for an international press organization. As Sophie Medina says repeatedly, "I've been in war zones."

Americans Sophie Medina and her husband Nicholas Canning were very happy in England, Sophie in the aforesaid photography job and Nicholas as an executive with a British oil company, working in a former Soviet republic. Oh, yes, he is also a CIA agent. Perhaps "was" is the operative word, because Nicholas has disappeared, ostensibly kidnapped from his home, with all signs pointing to his death. Sophie is devastated and ignorant of what has happened to her husband.

A few months after Nick disappears, Sophie sadly moves back to Washington, D.C., an area she knows intimately. She reconnects with old friends and family, including her imperious mother, and gets a job working for a photography agency owned by Luke Santangelo.

Sophie and Luke have been hired to shoot the unveiling of two recently discovered Fabergé eggs at the National Gallery in D.C. The owner is an ultra-rich Russian, Arkady Vasiliev, who dabbles in oil and may dabble in crime as well. The curator is his girlfriend's mother, Katya Gordon. Senator Scott Hamilton and his wife, socialite Roxanne Hathaway, also have a Russian connection. She is a director at the National Gallery, and he has an old college friend, Taras Attar, a Russian author. During the reception, there is open hostility between the Russian ambassador and Senator Hathaway about Hathaway playing host to Attar, a vocal critic of the current Russian government. 

Crosby makes Sophie a likable and believable character. My bête noire is when a character (almost invariably a plucky female character) decides he/she can't trust the authorities and tries to solve the case him/herself. Thankfully, Sophie has the brains to tell her CIA contact and a police detective what she knows, which turns out to be quite a lot. (Then, of course, it's hard not to suspect that her trust may be misplaced.) She is accosted by Vasiliev at the reception. He wants some information that Nick had about drilling in Abadistan, the former Soviet republic. He doesn't believe that Sophie doesn't have it. Then Sophie overhears a Russian and an American talk about what she thinks is a plot to kill Attar. Somewhere in all this may be the answer to why Nick has disappeared and why, she assumes, he is being framed for the deaths of his boss and another CIA agent.

There's a lot of stuff happening in the book, but Crosby moves the action along admirably, thus making the plot more apprehensible. Multiple Exposure is a variation on the woman-in-jeopardy-through-no-fault-of-her-own theme, but Crosby gives it a fresh look. She gives us the bare necessities of photography, the oil business, and the suspected Russian state of affairs, but enough detail to make the story interesting, a fine balancing act overall. This was enjoyable, easy reading.