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

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

William Morrow, 320 pages, $25.99

Hercule Poirot is not dead. Agatha Christie may have passed away thirty-eight years ago, but her creation lives on through author Sophie Hannah (with permission from Christie’s family). However, if you are looking for another Poirot book in the style of Agatha Christie, you can fuhgeddabowdit.

Part of what drove me away from Agatha Christie’s books many, many years ago — and eventually drove me back into her literary arms soon after — was how two-dimensional her stories and characters were. Now I find that two-dimensionality comforting. In Christie’s books, there is much “wickedness” and very little ambiguity. Sophie Hannah has added a layer of psychological depth. Instead of wickedness, there is a blanketing darkness.

Écoutez. Poirot is temporarily trying to escape the burden of being Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian detective and current thorn-in-the-side/consultant to Scotland Yard. He has left the comfort of his perfectly aligned home for the suffocating coziness of a boarding house not far from his digs. Of course there is a police detective also in residence, Edward Catchpool, with whom Poirot investigates three (almost) identical murders at a hotel.

Catchpool is no Hastings when it comes to chronicling the activity in Poirot’s “little grey cells.” That is both good and bad. Catchpool and Hastings are equally clueless, both having rather simple approaches to solving a murder, but Catchpool comes with his own mental baggage, which strangely interferes with his duty as a detective of homicides. Christie was lean and tight in her storytelling; Hannah tends, through Catchpool, towards more details and frills.

Whether Hannah will captivate enough readers to continue wearing Christie’s mantle remains to be seen. In the positive column, I could clearly hear David Suchet’s voice whenever Poirot spoke. In the less successful column — if she is trying to emulate Christie — her story lacks the humor and tartness of the original. All in all, by today’s standards, her story has the complexity and psychological darkness to qualify as an emblematic British crime novel.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Alfred A. Knopf, 333 pages, $24.95

“Station Eleven” is a superb dystopian novel, because it is first and foremost about people, not special effects. After a flu epidemic wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population within an astoundingly short period of time, the survivors must do hard and sometimes unspeakable things to survive. But this is not a book with graphic horrors. It is about psychological toughness, optimism, and the will to survive and endure.

The book travels between events before the epidemic and going forward until twenty years after “the collapse.” There are two central characters: actor Arthur Leander, who dies within the first few pages of a heart attack while he is on stage, and child actor Kirsten Raymonde, who had a bit part in the same stage production.

In a series of flashbacks, Arthur’s life is presented as a voyage between wives. As his renown grows, he becomes unmoored and trades his wives in with regularity. Has he ever cared about anyone, including the son he and his second wife produced? Arthur’s death occurs on the eve of the viral cataclysm. 

Kirsten is seven or eight years old at the time of the play. When we next see her it is twenty years after the epidemic. She is now a member of a traveling acting and musical troupe. By horse and wagon the thirty or so people in the troupe travel a circuit in the Midwest, presenting entertainment for the sparsely populated settlements in the area. Although the settlements are fairly stable and non-threatening, there are still dangers from brigands and beasts wandering the area.

As the players enter one familiar town after a two-year absence, they look forward to reuniting with two former members they had left behind when their child was about to be born. Instead of their friends, they find a much sparser population and a reticence among the people who are there. Instead of a mayor, the town is ruled by a mysterious “prophet.” The troupe cannot leave town fast enough.

Back on the road the players begin to suddenly and quietly disappear. Is it the prophet? Or something more sinister or supernatural?

Emily St. John Mandel offers an interesting and thrilling book. Kirsten is a grown-up version of Katniss Everdeen — she’s smart and can hunt and kill — but she’s also close to the little girl she used to be. Arthur had given her a comic book, also named Station Eleven, on that last night, and she has treasured it as a connection to a world she barely remembers and as a imaginative depiction of other survivors in a fantasy world.

Mandel traces the fine threads of connection between the past and the present. She provides knowledge that only we readers will ever know about who some of the present characters really are. (In a charming touch, some of the troupe no longer use their birth names but are referred to by their instruments, e.g., Viola.)

Despite the hazards of the new world, there’s a freshness and renewal — in the air, in the night sky, in a sense of possibilities — that slowly had been driven out of the technology-obsessed world that fell that night twenty years ago.

Mandel has created a book that is wonderful in so many ways. Not without reason, it was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction. She didn’t win that award, but here is an MBTB star.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

Mysterious Press, 258 pages, $24

Nothing was strengthened in “The Forgers,” only sundered, for most of the book. Once, and only once, is the narrator named. It is among the interesting items hidden throughout the book. Actual rare book information and a fascinating tiptoe through the mind of a forger underpin Bradford Morrow’s erudite and entertaining morsel of a book. Surely it is contrary to the law of physics that this 258-page book seems twice as long, but not in a bad way.

The narrator is a naughty boy. Despite being born with several advantages and educated more than adequately, he takes to forgery. Specializing in no more than a few authors, mostly in the late-19th century, the narrator forges their signatures, and sometimes writes in their manner. He is very, very good.

After the narrator is driven to walk a straight and narrow path, he is plunged back into consideration of that proscribed vocation when his girlfriend’s brother is murdered. Meghan’s brother, Adam, too, is a collector of rare books. He is found amid a mess of ruined books, splattered with ink (forger’s ink?), with both hands chopped off.

The narrator would happily toddle off into the sunset with Meghan, with no further thought about the murder; there certainly was no love lost on his part over Adam. However, a stalker -- who also is a (gasp) forger -- proceeds to try to pin the murder on the narrator.

Morrow does an excellent job of giving us the viewpoint of a slightly supercilious, slightly sociopathic, clever, and uncommon man. Sunsets are not red; they are “prancing citron and orange flames.” There isn’t mist out there; it’s “lissome creamy fog.” As if repeating material memorized for a test, the narrator tells about his rehabilitation and moral reawakening. He reserves his passionate speech for the art of forgery. The narrator relates, “It takes a lot of truth to tell a lie. Truth must surround the pulsing heart of any lie for it to be convincing, believable.” And that is at the heart of “The Forgers.”

The rather abrupt ending is the only thing that keeps this from an MBTB star.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason

Picador, 336 pages, $16

Arnaldur Indridason, the go-to Icelandic crime writer, published “Black Skies” in 2009 in Iceland, right in the midst of the economic meltdown of Iceland’s financial structure. Those were wild days when bankers and investors were hauling in the krónur until the three major banks failed when they couldn’t refinance their debt. In “Black Skies” the bubble hasn’t quite burst, but one of the storylines deals with the greed that put Iceland in a cold pickle.

Indridason’s main character, Inspector Erlender, is strangely absent in this book. He is mentioned by colleagues and family in passing, wondering where he is and when he will be back. However, this gives Sigurdur Óli, Erlender’s conservative, rigid colleague, a shot at the limelight. Instead of being a one-note foil for Erlender, Sigurdur Óli takes a moral journey of his own, with the three cases highlighted in this book as his background.

Sigurdur Óli is asked by a friend to “talk” to a couple who has been blackmailing the friend’s sister- and brother-in-law. What the heck, he decides, and drops by the couple’s home. The door is open and there is a dying woman in a ransacked front room. Sigurdur Óli barely misses being clobbered himself by the escaping marauder. Since he can’t easily explain what he was doing at the couple’s home, he hems and haws and attaches himself to the official investigation.

When the woman dies, convinced they had nothing to do with her death, Sigurdur Óli tries to deflect blame from his friend’s family. He finds a suspicious connection between the woman and a hiking trip that ended in the death of one of the hikers. All the hikers are bankers and the more Sigurdur Óli digs, the more is uncovered, but maybe not necessarily having to do with the current murder victim.

In the final storyline, Andres, a young man with a troubled past and addictions galore, tries to pull Sigurdur Óli into helping him with some sort of tortured scenario. Andres is rarely lucid but when he sends Sigurdur Óli a few seconds of film that show a young boy being assaulted, Sigurdur Óli’s wizened heart is moved. Andres proves elusive throughout the book, and his story becomes evident to Sigurdur Óli in pieces until a final tragic scene that closes “Black Skies.”

Sigurdur Óli is ending his relationship with his wife. He realizes, too late, that he was at fault. He traverses the complicated relationship between his mother and father, long divorced, and discovers several uncomfortable revelations about himself in the process.

This is a chance very few secondary characters have: to have their lives fleshed out and given a sympathetic hearing. Sigurdur Óli makes the most of it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The City Under the Skin by Geoff Nicholson

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pages, $26

“The City Under the Skin” is a provocatively odd book. It’s both sweet and bizarre, creepy and tame.

The only niche for Zak Webster is in a quiet store specializing in maps. He is a map nerd and nothing exciting happens to him except when his boss, Ray McKinley, drops by. Ray is an entrepreneur, land developer, and quick to find a buck. He is not a map guy but seems to understand more about the subject than his brash and assertive personality might initially indicate. He mostly leaves Zak alone, which suits Zak just fine.

One day a woman comes to the map store. She is obviously homeless and disoriented. When she drops her velvet coat, Zak sees — aside from the fact that she is naked — a bunch of scribbles on her back, a chaotic tattoo. A passerby, Marilyn Driscoll, sees their encounter and also sees the tattoo. Suddenly a man in a Cadillac appears, whisks the woman away, then later returns to threaten and beat Zak (you have seen naw-zhing…naw-zhing).

Billy Moore is the menacing man, and he has been hired by a sociopathic hitman, Wrobleski, to pick up women with similar tattoos on their backs. Wrobleski is also a map nerd but does not share Zak’s shy and awkward disposition. It appears that he would like to solve the mystery of what he presumes are maps on the women’s backs.

Zak separately figures out that it was a map he saw tattooed on the homeless woman’s back. With Marilyn’s help, they toodle around town doing their amateur detective thing. Nobody ever thinks of calling the police, but Geoff Nicholson does hint at corruption in the government of the decaying, unnamed city where the characters live, so maybe they were worried about getting into hotter water.

One of the best characters is Billy Moore’s 12-year-old daughter, Carla. She’s precocious and understands her father better than he would like to admit. She and her father live in separate trailers on the parking lot Billy owns. Billy is trying his best to convince the powers-that-be that he is qualified to take care of his daughter. As a result of trying to provide for her, he becomes embroiled in the escalating events engineered by Wrobleski.

The tone of the book is dreamlike and slyly humorous. The chapters have titles. For example, the one about Ray is entitled, “Ray of Light.”

Maps should show us where we have been or where we are going, but maps, as the characters note, exist in all kinds of forms. Zak says, “Every map has its use…The problem may be working out what that use is. And it may be even harder to work out who’s the intended user.” 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 400 pages, $28

Although “The Burning Room” showcases Michael Connelly’s terse and compact style, the book weighs in at 400 pages. That’s because Connelly presents two full stories, both featuring Los Angeles cold case detective Harry Bosch and his new partner, Lucy Soto.

A mariachi player was hit by a bullet twenty years ago and finally died from it. Twenty years ago the injury was attributed to a stray shot from a gang fight. When a postmortem dislodges the bullet, it is discovered that it came from a rifle, which tells Harry that it probably was not a gang-related shot. And, upon further investigation, Harry and Lucy conclude that the dead man was not the original target! After twenty years, exactly what clues possibly could be left?

For the second story, Lucy reveals to Harry her traumatic childhood secret. She was a poor child who was in daycare in the basement of an apartment building when it caught on fire. The daycare provider and several children died, but Lucy survived. At the core of why she became a police officer is her determination to some day figure out who caused the fire. Was it drug-related, as was determined by the police twenty years ago? The perpetrator(s) was never found.

Looking at the case material through fresh eyes, and with a certain amount of serendipity in both cases, provides Harry and Lucy with aha! moments. 

Skirting procedural correctness many times, Harry may be teaching Lucy some bad habits. Do as I say, not as I do, seems to be his lesson. The reasoning behind pairing an old-timer like Harry with a newcomer like Lucy didn’t quite have that method in mind.

Although twenty years distance provides some insurmountable obstacles to finally solving the cases, Harry and Lucy lift the heavy weight necessary to provide satisfying conclusions. Connelly’s hypnotic storytelling and insider’s look at police procedures is also satisfying.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Knopf, 352 pages, $26.95

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" is not a mystery.

It won this year's Man Booker Prize. I have had mixed feelings about some of the other Man Booker winners in the past. I kept falling asleep while reading one of the prize-winners many years ago. (I never did finish that book!) I really liked "The Luminaries," last year's winner.

Australian author Richard Flanagan has a terrific half a book. Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian surgeon, lives the horror of life as a POW in a Japanese work camp during WWII. The descriptions are graphic and heart-rending. The misery of the work camp will seep into your air, your mood, and your general everyday thought as long as you are reading this book. What did anyone -- prisoner or Japanese guard -- do to deserve being placed in the hellhole of Siam, building a Sisyphean railway?

The rest of the book involves Evans' life before and after the war. (Yes, this is not a spoiler alert, actually, Evans does survive.) The book switches among the various time frames. The story that holds the non-POW scenes together is a romance Evans has with his uncle's young wife. Love at first sight, super-magnets clicking in place, love as a force of nature: That overrides everything. Almost. They cannot be together for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is Evans' vacillating nature and his belief that he is not an intrinsically good person. (However, he is very passive-aggressive.)

Just as I thought about another sweeping historical classic, "Gone With the Wind," so, too, do I apply this judgment to one-half of Flanagan's book: I don't give a damn. The POW part, I laud, applaud, and congratulate Flanagan on a job well done.

The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll

Tor Books, 304 pages, $14.75 (c2001)

If a person kills an older or younger version of him- or herself, is it murder, suicide, sci-fi, magic, or just really, really strange? It is questions like this that have made Jonathan Carroll a cult figure.

Maybe it was that the wind changed (à la Mary Poppins), but I suddenly felt in the mood to read “The Wooden Sea,” a book that has been tickling the back of my mind for a while. It is a goofy, thought-provoking, funny/serious book. Indeed, there are murders, thus qualifying it for this blog (not that lack thereof has stopped me from writing about a book), and witty, hefty helpings about the mystery of life.

But I can see why this book might not appeal to everyone.

Frannie McCabe is the chief of police of Crane’s View, New York, the town in which he grew up. He was more likely to be on the opposite side of the jail cell in his youth, but the Vietnam War and an overdue maturity have settled him. He has a wonderful wife, a shy stepdaughter, and a three-and-a-half-legged, one-eyed, droopy dog named Old Vertue. Frannie is happy with his life and is good at his job. After all, he solved (off-stage) only the second murder Crane’s View ever had.

What then is Frannie to do when his three-legged dog expires, is buried, and resurfaces — still dead — in the trunk of his car the next day? By the way, instead of smelling corpse-like, Old Vertue exudes all the smells that Frannie finds most wonderful and evocative. How about when Frannie discovers that a battling couple — regulars on the call circuit — has mysteriously disappeared from their home? And someone(s) has tidied and scrubbed their once disgustingly chaotic house (and it smells wonderful). One minute they are screaming at each other and the next they are gone. The neighbors, standing watch outside the home and waiting for the police to show, did not see the couple leave. Hmmm.

Why do a colorful feather and a sweet-tasting bone-but-not-bone pop up every which way Frannie turns? Why did the corpse of a dead teenage girl talk to him? Who is the stranger who apparently can stop time? Is he an angel? Why is Frannie sent into his future sixty-something-year-old body to live his last week on earth? And the story just gets stranger and stranger.

Underneath the strangeness, Carroll tells the story about a regular kind of guy, someone you might be happy to have in your life. Yeah, he was a hellraiser and nasty piece of work when he was younger, but the past is long gone. Isn’t it? Frannie must travel on an existential journey to find the meaning of his life and what his true purpose might be, and it is to Carroll’s great credit that he keeps that journey moving right along from strange event to even stranger event and gives it an everyman voice besides.

Before you know it, you are at the end. Has Frannie learned anything? More importantly, do you know how to row on a wooden sea?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Death in Sardinia by Marco Vichi

Pegasus Books, 464 pages, $25 (c2012) (Translated by Stephen Sartarelli)

“Death in Sardinia” is the third book in the Inspector Bordelli series set in Florence, Italy. Although it appears that this book (and others in the series) may be a little difficult to get, it will be worth the struggle.

Marco Vichi has set this book in 1965 and has done a fabulous job of introducing elements from that era, Italian style. There are two (or three or four, depending on your point of view) separate stories for a reader’s delectation. 

The main story involves Inspector Bordelli, with all his faults and glory. The inspector travels Florence’s back alleys and country tracks to solve the murder of a brutal loan shark. In the process, we meet his friends, not all of whom are totally on the right side of the law. They all mingle, sometimes quite congenially. For instance, Botta, a minor criminal who has spent time in prisons all over the place, is an excellent and picky cook, and a good friend of Bordelli.  He is charged with producing the Christmas Eve feast for Bordelli and other friends. Sometimes reading “Death in Sardinia” was like mixing “Babette’s Feast” with poliziotteschi. But it worked!

The secondary story involves one of Bordelli’s fellow detectives, the young Piras, who has gone home to Sardinia to recuperate from an injury suffered in the line of duty. Christmas in Sardinia in 1965 has a small-town charm. Because not everyone has a television set, neighbors join Piras’ parents to watch theirs, reinforcing the bonds of their tight community. The brother of a neighbor, a country farmer, has been found dead in his living room, a probable victim of suicide. Piras suspects something fishy, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. There are 464 pages that Piras shares with Bordelli, so it’s okay that both stories are drawn out to include personal details about the two heroes.

Vichi excels in providing the realistic (and often humorous) details of the detectives’ lives. For instance, Piras has a girlfriend, Sonia, and he talks with her frequently by telephone. He doesn’t wish to discuss her with his parents, especially his mother. She employs not-so-discreet subterfuge to find out more about the girlfriend. Piras is “tricked” into revealing his girlfriend’s name is “Francesca.” Piras’ mother is happy, and Piras is happy to have successfully concealed information about Sonia.

Bordelli has an eccentric and vivacious girlfriend, the prostitute Rosa. In his mid-fifties, Bordelli regrets many past relationships and missed opportunities. He treasures Rosa but they are not moving towards marriage, and that suits them both. He was a young man during WWII and scenes from that horrible time haunt him almost daily. American soldiers were able to come home to an America physically unscathed by the bombs of war, but Bordelli and his countrypeople had to live with physical and political reconstruction. Enemies needed to be forgiven in order for Italy to move forward. Vichi writes a moving narration when telling about those times and expediencies.

“Death in Sardinia” has a richness and color that exceeds the basic level needed to tell the crime stories. In the end, will Bordelli do what is right according to the law or according to his moral lights?

P.S. I recently read a book in which the author said that when a person commits suicide with a gun, it is impossible to hold on to the gun. In the Sardinian part of the story, the dead farmer is found clutching the gun. I thought, aha!, is that the trick? But no, that wasn’t a part of the story.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Random House, 640 pages, $30

Ha, ha, ha. David Mitchell crafted his own tongue-in-cheek review of “The Bone Clocks” and placed it smack dab in the book: “The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions.”

Mitchell has once again created a turmoil of styles, voices, and tones, similar to, but certainly not exactly like, “The Cloud Atlas.” From the viewpoint of a cheeky teenage girl in England in 1984 to that girl as an elderly woman in a dystopian Ireland in 2043, Mitchell tells everything from the small to the cosmically large stories of Holly Sykes, that girl/woman. While not every story in the book is primarily about Holly, she appears in each section. She goes from awkward teenage sentiments:

I only cry a bit, and it’s shocked crying, not boo-hoo crying, and when I’m done I go to the mirror. My eyes’re a bit puffy, but a bit of eyeliner soon sorts that out … Dab of lippy, bit of blushers … Sorted.

to the thoughts of a 74-year-old survivor:

When I first moved to Dooneen Cottage — a quarter of a century ago — I couldn’t have plucked a hen if my life depended on it. Now I can stun, decapitate, and gut one as casually as Mam used to make a beef and Guinness stew.

Holly has several parts to play in the war between the Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass (or just “Anchorites,” if you please) and the Horologists (if they have a lengthier name, I don’t remember it). They are immortals (or close enough), but they can die for real (“die-die”).

“The Bone Clocks” includes a narrative, as realistic as can be, by a journalist about life and death in a Middle East war zone. It also includes the whinging of a deluded, narcissistic author (responsible for the quote in the first paragraph). How about a rebellious 15-year-old girl who runs away from home? Most of the stories run swiftly along, most excellently combining Mitchell’s quirky turns of phrase and the voice of the character. However, it all comes to a thunking halt when the story turns to the Anchorites v. the Horologists about three-fourths through the book.

How well does Mitchell succeed in his attempt to mix some very serious and real issues facing our world with a far-out battle of immortals? It’s fascinating and awkward at the same time. Fascinating because Mitchell’s creativity is way off the charts. Awkward because the pace goes from zipping along to suddenly stuttering because of the vocabulary, back story, and suddenly larger cast of characters needed to explain this supernatural competition.

Mitchell ends with a story about the aftermath. Not the aftermath of the battle, but the aftermath of the human negligence of our world. Why didn't the immortals intercede? In general, they didn’t seem to have a major impact on our world. The Anchorites demanded scant human sacrifices and the Horologists didn’t, but no one on either side was a world leader or author of economic policy. Maybe their actions were like butterfly wings, flapping and rippling into hurricanes.

There needs to be applause for Mitchell’s writing (with not a cliché in sight), his willingness to be a different sort of storyteller, his intelligence in presenting diverse topics, and his ability to be absolutely riveting. He is an extraordinary literary acrobat.

P.S. Yes, there are murders. And the whole book is full of mysterious goings-on.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

Viking Adult, 352 pages, $26.95

Despite many mysterious elements, I can’t categorize this as a legitimate mystery.

Rebecca Makkai builds her story around a mansion. It may be haunted. It may be illustrious. It may be the scene of murder, abuse, fraud, and hanky-panky. She presents her book in several parts, each part going back further in time in the life of the house.

In 1999, a professor and her PhD. candidate husband move into the carriage house in back of the mansion. The professor’s mother and her current husband live in the mansion. Soon the current husband’s son and his wife also move into the carriage house. She is an artist (of dubious quality) and he has just lost $5 million dollars as a financial analyst and been fired from his job.

The professor turns out to be conniving — she could be the little sister of Amy from “Gone Girl.” Cross that with “A Comedy of Errors.” Throw in a ghost story. Throw in an artists’ colony.

Makkai is clever in the construction of the story. If you read this book, pay attention; there will be a test. I wish there had been more of a ghostly component.

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Quirk Book, 322 pages, $14.95 (c2013)

Rule Number One: You must have read “The Last Policeman,” the first book in Ben H. Winters’ series, for “Countdown City,” the second book, to make any sense.

Rule Number Two: There is no rule number two.

There are very few rules left in Concord, New Hampshire, where Henry Palace used to be a police detective. The “authorities” have consolidated and Henry and his fellow homicide detectives are out of a job. And all this because of a wayward asteroid headed for a disastrous rendezvous with Earth seventy-seven days from the beginning of this volume of “The Last Policeman” trilogy.

What would you do if you potentially only had seventy-seven days to live? Henry keeps his sanity by simply living his life according to the ethical and legal rules he has always known. He and his sister, Nico, grew up in the area, so when his former babysitter, Martha, needs help, she comes to him.

Martha’s husband was a state trooper and much admired. He gave it up to work with her father in a pizza pie restaurant. He was good and faithful and true, or so Martha believes. But suddenly, after asteroid Maia became public knowledge, he disappeared. Martha wants Henry to find him. With the Internet down, the police/security/military forces simply holding chaos at bay, and electricity shut down, what chance does Henry have to find Brett? But Henry being Henry, he has to try.

Through Henry’s eyes, Winters presents the slow disintegration of a vital city. Almost nothing and no one can be counted on any longer. (At one point, Henry sees his childhood dentist hanging from a light pole, dressed in leather, directing an unruly mob.) After Henry was released from the police force, he no longer had access to a car and must now travel everywhere by foot or bicycle. He is accompanied most places, no matter how far away, by his dog, Houdini (acquired in the first episode).

To track Brett, Henry travels perilously through ad hoc strongholds. He meets crazy people, people on the edge of being crazy, and clear-eyed lunatics.

There are some people he can still count on. His maybe-crazy sister comes to his aid at one point. An old colleague from the detective squad gives him strength and assurance. Ruth-Ann, a fixture at the diner where Henry and other detectives used to eat, still dons her waitress uniform, pulls out her pencil and pad and takes orders, despite a dwindling supply of food. At the end, there is only tea to offer, but the diner remains a still point in the chaos. And that is what book two is about: the descent into chaos, with new rules and new allies. The center cannot hold, but Henry tries his best.

Winters has written a real detective story and combined it with a dark look at human beings on the point of potential destruction. It makes for a powerful story. Winters’ writing is strong and elegant enough to carry the story forward, without being schmaltsy, tawdry or pandering.

Luckily book three, “World of Trouble,” was just released. I would have hated to have had to wait a year in between each book. Forward and onward.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pages, $24

This is a psychological mystery, not a criminal one. And it blew my socks off! Apparently it blew the socks off the nominating members of the National Book Award committee as well. It has been longlisted for this year’s fiction award.

Sean Phillips suffered a debilitating injury at the age of 17. “Wolf in White Van” flicks between flashbacks of the time surrounding the disabling event and Sean’s life many years later. John Darnielle slowly teases out the story of Sean’s second chance. Was Sean haunted by a darkness, a nervousness, an apathy, an ambiguous vision of his life? In the end, is he satisfied, maybe even happy, with who he is and what he does?

Sean has developed a role-playing game. He began it before computers were the sine qua non of gaming. With typewritten instructions, Sean sends his players on a gigantic choose-your-own-adventure. Even when computers begin to produce similar games, people still write him from all around the world. They do not meet in real life but are mutually dependent. Ah, but for some the line blurs between Trace Italian, Sean’s post-apocalyptic survival game, and real life.

Everyone — his high school friends, the players of the game, his family — has an effect on Sean’s life, but they cannot help him answer the ultimate question he doesn’t even know he has asked. As with his choose-your-own-adventure game, Sean ponders what it means to answer one way and then, after seeing where that path led, to answer in yet another.

The title comes from a garbling of lyrics on a record. Sometimes people hear what they want to hear. And in Sean’s world, they sometimes believe what they want to believe.

It’s difficult to describe this book without tripping over the surprises Darnielle craftily offers when they are least expected. The review I read, the one that made me want to read this book, pretty much blasted the main surprises right out in the first paragraph. Not fair, I say.

It’s not just the snaking plot that is compelling; the writing is grade-A-quirky. For instance, Sean imagines what it took to produce one of his medicines:

Explorers on distant South American mountainsides retrieving flowers from rock cliffs whose petals alone could yield the essence that would make the nauseating syrup in the tinted bottle: but you couldn’t get the essence directly from the petals; it was far too potent for human beings, it’d kill you; first you had to feed it to sparrows, whose livers filtered out the toxins, then cut out the livers and boil all the remaining organs in water.

If Sean can imagine sparrow livers, then I can imagine this book is a mystery and award it an MBTB star.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey

Soho Crime, 368 pages, $26.95

Because I reveal a vital piece of the plot, I'm labeling this whole review as a spoiler, so …


There’s a good reason, I guess, why I don’t read two books in a row (or in near proximity) by the same author, especially two books far apart in a long series. One or the other is bound to suffer in comparison.

I read the second book in Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series, “Diamond Solitaire,” and okay-liked the whole book and crazy-liked some parts of that book (the 300-pound sumo wrestler, for instance). That was only a few weeks ago. “Stone Wife” is the latest in the Diamond series; #14, if you’re counting. Twenty-two years separates the two books.

This is the plot in short: A professor and Chaucerian scholar is about to seal the winning bid on an old sculpture supposedly depicting The Wife of Bath, one of Chaucer’s bawdier tales, when he is shot and killed by masked men who invade the auction. Diamond and his police cohorts set out to find which of many trails should be followed to find the man’s killer. Not being able to narrow down the choices, the police follow them all!

Whatever set up this particular piece of the plot and whatever came after was completely overshadowed when about halfway through the book DS Ingeborg Smith finds a gun cache in a suspect’s house, makes a hurried getaway, and then ... nothing. Instead of bolting for the nearest police station/phone box/box of flares/all-night diner to alert the police, she goes home, refreshes herself, then almost casually drops by her office. By the way, she says, there also may have been a dead body falling from a tree in the front yard. But since that was hours ago, good luck on finding any evidence!!!

Yes, Diamond cleverly ties everything up. Yes, the solution was a byproduct of one of the many theories the detective team thought up. In the best Perry Mason fashion, the culprit coughs up a confession despite lawyerly warnings. Once again, enjoyed parts (the professor’s naughty widow) and not others (Ingeborg’s hare-brained undercover assignment).

Despite Ingeborg's misadventure, kudos always have to be extended to Lovesey on doing well by his creation, Peter Diamond, and the charming and historically intriguing city of Bath.

As the naughty Wife herself might say in advice to Diamond, not just about marriage but life in general: Experience, thou noon auctoritee / Were in this world, were right ynogh to me/  To speke of wo that is in mariage.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Drop by Dennis Lehane

William Morrow Paperbacks, 224 pages, $14.99

It has taken me a while to figure out what I wanted to say about this book. My respect for Dennis Lehane as a writer and storyteller borders on adoration, especially for his Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie series. He taps deep and tender emotions in his main characters, while also depicting a violent and often unforgiving world. “The Drop” succeeds in doing that, too, but only to a certain extent. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t wholeheartedly clasp this book to my bosom until Jean told me that it had originally been a short story. Now that it has been made into a movie, we have this short book/novella version.

Every word and movement counts in a short story. By necessity, given the needs of certain genres, like crime writing, characters and descriptions are more concise because there’s a lot of plot to get through. “The Drop” seems stretched. (I know many books begin as short stories and many authors work from a small idea that expands to become a long book. I wouldn’t necessarily have the same reaction to them, so I’m not complaining about the process.) “Animal Rescue” was the precursor to “The Drop,” and it contains the best parts of “The Drop.”

Bob is a bartender in his cousin Marv’s bar. He is lonely and there’s a heaviness that hangs over his life. He plods from day to day. He is quiet and it’s not a stretch to imagine that he is the flickering dim bulb in the sign. Then he finds a dog in the trash.

“Cassius” changes everything. Bob’s dog needs and loves him. With the help of Nadia, the woman who saw Bob pull Cassius out of the trash, he learns how to take care of a dog. Also, as Bob’s neighborhood Catholic church is scheduled for closure, his life veers even further away from the tedium and routine he had accepted.

Lehane has added more about what gives the book its title: Marv’s little bar is a drop for the Chechen mafia. He has enlarged the part of Eric, Nadia’s psycho ex-boyfriend. He’s added an NYC detective. There’s a little more about Bob’s life, and maybe that’s the problem. It’s both too much and not enough. A lot depends on Bob’s character. The resolutions of the short story and the novel are mostly the same, but the hit from the short story has more punch because we’ve only had a short time to process what’s happening to Bob.

Those bang-up twists at the end are stellar. That part is pure Lehane. The story of “Cassius” is intact from the short story and it, too, is wonderfully rendered. Even though I felt the book’s rhythm was a little bumpy, I would and could never NOT recommend a Lehane book. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Voices by Arnaldur Indridason

Picador, 336 pages, $16 (c2002)

Icelanders are only concerned with first names, I’ve discovered by reading Arnaldur’s books. The last names, for the most part, are patronymic, reflecting a person’s father’s or, more unusually, mother’s name, so carrying on family surnames is rare. Unusual first names are also rare, since all first names must be vetted by the Icelandic Naming Committee.

“Voices” is the fifth book in Arnaldur’s series featuring police detective Erlendur, but the first two books have never been translated into English. Not all of Iceland, despite an insistent assumption on our part, is uniformly icebound and cold. In “Voices,” the setting is Reykjavik near Christmas, and the streets are bare until just before Christmas when the snow begins to fall.

Icelandic food sounds very exotic; there’s a lot of talk about ox tongue and boiling various animal parts for Christmas. Erlendur is thinking about traditionally boiling roast lamb for his dinner. There’s a memorable scene in the movie version of “Jar City,” Arnaldur’s first book translated into English, involving a sheep’s head.

Apparently foreigners love to travel to Reykjavik to celebrate Christmas. The murder in “Voices” takes place in a swanky hotel that offers a holiday buffet laden with Icelandic food. The only parts of the hotel that aren’t swanky, it seems, are the basement where the dead body is found in a cubbyhole of a room in which the victim was living and the heatless room Erlendur takes while he investigates the case.

Gudlaugur was the hotel’s doorman, handyman, and Santa Claus. No one knows anything about him, except that he had been at the hotel a long time. He was found partially clad in his Santa suit, in a compromising position. Erlendur and his mainstay cohorts must tease out facts about the doorman. They finally discover something amazing about Gudlaugur’s past, but does it have anything to do with his death?

Arnaldur presents such a tantalizing picture of Reykjavik and the culture there in his books. He adds to that an intense thread that runs throughout the series: Something from Erlendur’s own past is haunting him as he works on this case. As his personal life is befuddled by his past, his drug-addicted daughter, and a budding romance with a forensic scientist, Erlendur’s tangled story becomes just as much the focus as the murder.

Although I’ve bounced around in reading this series, I’ve enjoyed each one. The food may be unusual, but the emotions that engender murder are not.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Quirk Books, 336 pages, $14.95

It’s been a long time since I read the first in a series and immediately wanted to read the rest. I like putting a mental space between books in an author’s series, custom having the propensity to stale, etc. After finishing “The Last Policeman,” I wanted instantly to jump back in the saddle and ride off to the last page of the last book.

“The Last Policeman” won Ben H. Winters the Edgar Award for Best Original Paperback in 2012. This year Winters released “World of Trouble,” the last in his trilogy about a pre-apocalyptic society. “The Last Policeman” certainly deserves the “original” part of the award.

An asteroid is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s no Bruce Willis counterpart to save mankind. (Although it’s probably a given that cockroaches will survive.) There’s plenty of craziness as people react in different ways to the disaster scheduled for sixth months in the future. Six months is an awfully long time to contemplate one’s mortality. So much so that some people opt to commit suicide, preferring pills and hanging, for example, to the darkening of the skies and slow obliteration, or worse.

When “The Last Policeman” opens, no one knows exactly where the asteroid will hit. It will be another month before scientists can predict that. Some people are quitting their routine and seeking their bliss. They are “bucket listers.” Others have been fired or let go from failing businesses, some of which are megaglomerates. The people who choose to live sit around and mope, run off to New Orleans and party hearty, or continue with life, seeking a new normal.

Henry Palace is one of the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other people. He was a patrol officer with the Concord, New Hampshire, police department. Because of defections and deaths in the homicide squad, Henry suddenly finds himself a newly minted, wet-behind-the-ears detective. And he feels ambivalent: “But since making detective I’ve been befogged by a frustrating unnamable sensation, some dissatisfaction, a sense of bad luck, bad timing, where I got the job I’ve wanted and waited for my whole life and it’s a disappointment to me, or I to it.”

People don’t want to be arrested, because incarceration, even if it’s just while awaiting a trial, probably means a life sentence. Pretty much all crimes have the ultimate in a serious consequence. That doesn’t mean there is no crime. Drugs are big. They cut down on the dread and anticipation of potential annihilation. Fraud is big. Money is still the active currency. Looking to weather the environmental devastation, should you be so lucky? Canned goods are available on the black market, as are guns, but all for a humungous price.

A lot of the remaining cops’ time is spent glancing at suicides. Henry has gotten a call on what everyone else is happy to call a suicide and keep on moving. But something bothers Henry, so he doggedly (and sometimes underhandedly) pursues whatever intuition and flimsy clues support a declaration of murder. Does it matter? Is there a karmic justice if an earthly one fails? There is a reason Ben H. Winters calls his book an “existential” mystery.

Clever and beguiling. Heartrending and darkly humorous at times. Despite what I originally thought in 2012 when glancing at the back cover description, this is not a sci-fi novel. Sure, it has an apocalyptic premise, but this story is about human nature, about how hearts break and are healed, about how people can rise or fall when faced with the ultimate crisis.

Here is my post-apocalypse MBTB star.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

White Nights by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $15.99 (c2008)

I was infamous at MBTB for (usually) not reading series in order. Even I will admit my scattershot approach has its bumps. I sometimes missed the lengthy background given to some characters in previous novels but, in my defense, I believe a good author will write a book that can stand alone. If there’s a backstory or character trait that needs explicating, then the author should explicate it. Which brings me to Ann Cleeves’ “Shetland Quartet" and the second book in that series, "White Nights."

I read two of Cleeves’ books out of order. Main character Inspector Jimmy Perez was well established in the first and a wet-behind-the-years junior in the next. Cleeves is an excellent writer, however, so all was not lost. Each time, she took care to explain the isolated and small community mindset of Shetlanders. There may be bad folk residing on their islands, but they are the Shetlanders’ bad folk.

Cleeves writes about a mixture of real places and fictional towns in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, north of the mainland. The islands are so far north that they experience the odd constant light during summer nights, giving “White Nights” an eerie atmosphere ripe for murder.

Biddista is a small, isolated village on the island, but it boasts more than its share of well-known folk. Bella Sinclair is a famous artist and her nephew, Roddy Sinclair, is a famous fiddler. They have brought business and tourists to quiet Biddista.

During one of Bella’s art shows, a strange man shows up, falls to his knees and sobs when he sees one of Fran Hunter’s paintings, then claims amnesia when Jimmy questions him. (In “Raven Black,” Fran was an innocent bystander who discovered the murder victim, and in this, she is a blossoming painter and being courted by Jimmy.) When Jimmy leaves him alone briefly, the man disappears. Later he is found hanging in a fishing shed.

No one will admit to knowing him. No one was seen with him. Jimmy must notify the higher-ups in Inverness. Inspector Roy Taylor (“the most restless man [Jimmy had] ever met”), another character from “Raven Black,” is sent to head up the investigation. He acknowledges Jimmy’s value in questioning the locals, and the two of them make a compatible, if uneasy, team.

It is disturbing to everyone in Biddista that there may be a black sheep among the flock, but it is like dripping water on stone to dislodge information from the inhabitants. Cleeves excels at depicting this slow-moving, closed life among people who must get along to survive. It is obvious that they don’t all love or like each other, but they are a strange sort of family, most of the older folk having known each other since they were babies. Everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are silently acknowledged. Bella is self-involved. Roddy is a wild man. But they belong to Biddista’s history, so they are tolerated. And so it goes with each of the other inhabitants.

It will take Jimmy’s intimate knowledge of how such communities operate to spring open the ages-old stories that brought the stranger to his death.

One of Cleeves’ other series, featuring Inspector Vera Stanhope, is wrier and has more black humor, and blunt Vera is a more fascinating character than taciturn Jimmy, but “White Nights” has menacing atmosphere up the yin-yang and a killer plot.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Diamond Solitaire by Peter Lovesey

Soho Crime, 327 pages, $15 (c1992)

“Diamond Solitaire” is the second in the police detective Peter Diamond series, mostly set in Bath, England. I say “mostly,” because this book takes us to New York City and Japan, and Bath is temporarily left far, far behind.

Chubby, volatile Peter Diamond is the star of the type of series rarely seen today: temperate with play-fair detecting.

At the start of this book, Diamond has peremptorily quit the police force in Bath. He does not suffer fools and, unfortunately, it does not matter to him if they hold his fate in their palms. He and his wife have moved to London and he has begun work as a night security guard at Harrod’s. He is fired when an unknown person invades the department store, triggering a full-out anti-terrorist response. (This is pre-9/11, as we are reminded by a bittersweet reference to the Twin Towers that makes its way into the book.) The invader turns out to be a nine-year-old girl, mute and abandoned, as it turns out.

With his sudden abundant leisure time — when he’s not ineptly attending to some home repairs — he tries to find out who the little girl is and why she was abandoned.

Diamond must be more charming than multiple award-winning author Peter Lovesey gives him credit for, because doors open for Diamond and people trust him to be what he says he is and do what he says he’s going to do. He interviews and gains the trust of what appears to be an autistic Japanese girl. Somewhere along the way, he has committed to helping her, come what may.

The plot leaps along joyfully as Diamond tries to determine if the girl is from Japan or England or some point in-between. He acquires an astounding patron in a 300-pound revered sumo wrestler from Japan. He befuddles, bewitches, and beleaguers police forces on three continents, most of whom twitch their collective shoulders in surrender to an irresistible force.

Read the review of the first book in the series, “The Last Detective."

Monday, October 6, 2014

Robogenesis by Daniel H. Wilson

Doubleday, 384 pages, $26.95


If you have not read Daniel H. Wilson’s first book in the series, “Robopocalypse” (I never tire of saying that, by the way), you must read that first.

It’s been a long wait (in my opinion) for “Robogenesis,” the sequel to Wilson’s outstanding “Robopocalypse.” We again meet the main characters: soldier Cormac Wallace, teenage hybrid Mathilda Perez, Native American hybrid Lark Iron Cloud. We also catch up with many other characters Wilson so masterfully created in the first book and meet new ones. It’s a “charactergenesis.”

In “Robopocalypse,” mankind had become overly dependent on (and sometimes abusive to) robots who did menial work, complex thinking, and entertaining. An AI (artificial intelligence) became self-aware and, taking charge of the robots, declared war on humans, most of whom have died by the start of “Robogenesis.”

A hearty, kamikaze few defeated the AI at the end of the first book, so the start of “Robogenesis” deals with the aftermath of the apocalypse. Everyone (and everything) is straggling home, trying to find out what the new world looks like. There is no structure, no central government, no one to pin a medal on a chest made of flesh or metal.

Wilson’s picture of this new world is bleak, especially when it’s obvious an ambitious rogue intelligence is again at play. Is it harmless or harmful? (Well, I guess it wouldn’t be much of a book if the answer were harmless.)

There aren’t many quiet moments in “Genesis.” Instead, there’s running, escaping, booming and bombing, shooting, conniving, and mayhem. The heroes and heroines aren’t all flesh-and-blood. In fact some of the most moving moments belong to the robots. Are you rubbing your hands together in anticipation? You won’t be disappointed. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wool by Hugh Howey

Simon & Schuster, 528 pages, $15.99 (c2011)

“Wool” was a free ebook that grew so fast in popularity that now it is a print book. Yes, I do firmly believe that an author should be rewarded with cash, moolah, dinero, and greenbacks if he or she provides us with a meaningful book. Whether they provide us with information, entertainment, enlightenment, or the sheer joy of owning an unread book, authors are precious to us.

This is “Wool”: Hundreds, if not thousands, of people live in a giant underground structure they call “the silo.” Each person has a job. Each person has enough to eat. There are sensors that transmit images of the landscape above ground. The surface is bleak and, so the story goes, the atmosphere is noxious. Everything looks dead, including the corpses strewn on the landscape. They are uniformly dressed in containment outfits that look as though they would protect the people from the deadly environment. So why are they dead? They were sent out to clean the sensors as punishment for heresy, traitorous acts, insurrection, and none of them ever returned to the silo. No one knows why the castaways chose to clean the sensors — as each of them did — instead of just hightailing it over the hill, and no one knows why they died.

Juliette was born and raised in the upper levels — there are about 150 levels all together. However, her calling took her to the bottom levels, to maintenance, where she was a gifted mechanic. Although she is young, inexplicably to her, she has been drafted to be the next sheriff of the silo, replacing the last sheriff who voluntarily chose to go outside and clean. Why? No one truly knows.

Once she accepts the job, she finds herself with a brutal enemy, Bernard of IT. What is the sway that Bernard has over the silo? After visiting IT, the thoughtful and sincere mayor of the silo, Jahns, is murdered. She becomes Juliette’s first case and burden.

Hugh Howey knows how to create tension. He knows how to create great characters. His invented world is fascinating and when he finally gives us a little more information about how our great big world (for we assume it is Earth where the action takes place) got to this point, it only dimly illuminates. Thus the need for a set of prequel stories (“Shift”) and follow-up stories (“Dust”). Nevertheless, “Wool” is a complete and complex beginning.

The mystery isn’t in solving the murders, it’s in finding out what makes the silo tick and following Juliette as she fights for her survival. Good one, Hugh Howey!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Knopf, 400 pages, $25.95

This is NOT a mystery. (Except in the sense that its purpose is mysterious for 99.9% of the book.) There is a murder in it, but it is so NOT the focal point of the book.

Briefly, then, Tsukuru Tazaki is colorless because his four best friends in high school each have a color in their name. They become Red, Blue, Black, and White to each other. Tsukuru means builder, and he feels he is the odd-man out. Five best friends, a little off balance. Tsukuru is the only one to leave Nagoya for college in Tokyo. He feels he has left the womb and can’t wait to return during breaks.

During his sophomore year, when Tsukuru returns for a visit, his friends inexplicably refuse to see him or speak to him. Completely at sea, Tsukuru returns to Tokyo and a lonely existence. Over the years (the story picks up when Tsukuru is 36 years old), he has found nothing even close to replacing them.

Tsukuru designs, fixes, and admires train stations. He compulsively watches trains come and go, but he is not a traveler. His world is small and hurting.

A potentially serious girlfriend tells Tsukuru that it has been long enough; he must become visible (colorful) to the world and the world must become visible to him again by finding out why his friends shunned him 16 years ago. And that’s the book. 

The only other Haruki Murakami book I read, “Kafka on the Shore,” led me to believe that “Colorless” would be a different sort of book, one that perhaps featured an alternate reality, strange visions, or, at the very least, talking cats. It was a disadvantage to anticipate in that way, even though there were moments when Murakami might have slipped into another world, because his story was about self-definition. Do we need other people to define us? Can we be strong enough to exist clearly in our own minds?

Murakami takes us on a journey with Tsukuru into the psychology of friendship and ego. It is compelling. Even Murakami’s little asides — for example, about birds and helicopters — prove useful in understanding Tsukuru’s ego.

Not a book for everyone, but certainly rewarding if it hits you right.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

Viking Adult, 464 pages, $27.95

I don’t know who first dubbed Tana French’s series the “Dublin Murder Squad” books. It is the only bind the five books share, although some characters appear in more than one book, a main character in one, a shadow of a character in another. There is also a difference in tone, from realistic to borderline otherworldly.

“The Secret Place” is the first of French’s books to cross the line into the out-and-out supernatural, even if it is in a fairly small way. It is her way of expressing the shifting worlds of the teenage years, when everything is potentially possible, when alternate realities might exist, when flawed logic and desperate hope can be made flesh without regret.

It’s probably a game that fans of French play: Sifting through the characters in her current book, can we scope out who will be the next star? After reading “Faithful Place,” a powerful tale of Dublin homicide detective Frank Mackey’s lost love, I picked Stephen Moran, a young, sympathetic detective. But “Broken Harbor,” the next book, focused on another. Well, finally, here’s Stephen’s book, and he IS the star.

As “The Secret Place” starts, maybe six years after the events in “Faithful Place” in which Stephen and Frank Mackey met, Stephen is stuck in a dead-end posting to cold cases, when he longs to belong to the Murder Squad. Frank Mackey’s daughter, Holly, a boarding student in a posh girls’ school, brings Stephen a card, posted anonymously on a bulletin board at school, saying the poster knows who killed Christopher Harper, a student at the concomitant boys’ school, a year before.

Stephen takes the card to homicide detective Antoinette Conway, a prickly loner in the Murder Squad. Luckily, she asks him to go with her to St. Kilda’s school to interview the students. Conway was one of the main detectives a year earlier investigating the still-unsolved murder. To Conway’s frustration, she is not fitting into the squad and she needs this case solved. An outcast, she has ulterior motives in temporarily partnering with Stephen.

Stephen, it turns out, has a light touch with the young girls he must interview. He intuitively feels what the best approach to each girl should be. He understands the psychology of friendship and belonging, perhaps because he doesn’t seem to have either in his own life.

Holly is tight with her three roommates, Julia, Rebecca, and Selena. A “rival” gang consists of four other girls, Joanne, Alison, Gemma, and Orla. It becomes clear from the information Stephen and Conway patiently pry out of the girls that one or more of them knows something about Chris and maybe his murder, too. A year ago they had all clammed up. The card Holly found gives the police a new lever, and they aren’t taking “dunno” for an answer.

French tries to get into the minds and syntax of teenage girls. There are a lot of “amazeballs” slung about. (Too bad the echo of the Sprint ad with James Earl Jones and Malcolm MacDowell puts the teenspeak on the level of parody rather than authenticity.) What does ring true is French’s depiction of the strong feelings that teenage friendships engender. Swear on your friendship. Swear on your life. Friends are family too. Friendshp is what is at the heart of the story. It is what keeps the secrets buried. And, finally, it is what builds to the final eruption of revelations.

Especially in French’s first book, “In the Woods,” it wasn’t apparent if there was a supernatural element to the story. Likewise with “The Likeness.” French teeters on the edge between reality and fantasy, but always leaves ambiguity to keep the edge intact. In “The Secret Place,” French explicitly has some minor witchy/twitchy scenes. No ambiguity there. But there are also scenes when some of St. Kilda’s students spot Chris Harper’s ghost. Are they just hysterical or is there really a ghost? Ah, the old girls’ school meme.

Conway is a shrill, awkward character. How did she become a homicide detective? As her professional relationship with Stephen develops over the course of the day (yes, ONE day) in which this story takes place, her strengths are more obvious and her character redeemed. She could be French’s next main character, but I pick Holly Mackey for another adventure of her own. She is 16 or 17 by the time “The Secret Place” ends, and I can see her future, even if she can’t.

Alternating between first-person narration by Stephen of the current investigation and third-person storytelling of what happened around the time of Chris’ death with the eight main girls, French expertly tightens the story, building her reveals to a crescendo and bringing her story to a ringing conclusion. It’s not my favorite of her books so far, primarily because there was a lot of language like this:

“The air is bruised and swollen, throbbing in black and white, ready to split open.”

And not enough:

“I felt the size of the stillness and green all round us. The breadth of it; the height, trees taller than the school. Older.”

Granted, these sentences stem from the same place, but a lot of narration glows from things thrown into the atmosphere, growing, glittering, and shining, and the air is heavy with all the mysterious strands of whatever. Stephen and the girls sense (and see) what to me (putative normal person) would be invisible.

French is a master story builder. No one excels at making her readers thrill at reaching the denouement better than she.