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

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

Henry Holt & Co., 304 pages, $27 (release date - 3/4/14)

Raymond Chandler died 55 years ago. Through 1958, Chandler wrote seven Philip Marlowe novels. Author Robert B. Parker completed one Chandler manuscript and then wrote another of his own creation. Benjamin Black, the crime-writing pseudonym of Irish author John Banville, has hopped the Atlantic puddle and attempted to craft an original Philip Marlowe story.

The year is 1952, in Los Angeles. It’s summer and “There are days in high summer when the sun works on you like a gorilla peeling a banana.”

A black-eyed blonde, Clare Cavendish, enters Marlowe’s office one sultry day and hires him to find her dead boyfriend, Nico Peterson. That’s right, Nico was declared dead after a motor vehicle accident, with his sister identifying the body. That seems pretty dead, but Clare has spotted him wandering the streets of San Francisco. Marlowe salivates and pants so hard, it’s a wonder that Mrs. Cavendish doesn’t need a towel, and he takes the case.

Tracking down the elusive Nico entails visiting some unsavory places and meeting some unsavory people, some of whom are part of the hoity-toity crowd. Indeed, Mrs. Cavendish is part of that crowd. Her mother is the creator of the famous and expensive Langrishe perfumes. Everett Langrishe, Clare’s brother, just languishes and creeps about the estate. Richard Cavendish, Clare’s often-intoxicated husband, languishes and bumbles about the estate.

There’s something that doesn’t sit right with Marlowe, a scratching on his cerebellum; what does a dame like Clare want with a gigolo like Nico. He dismisses this concern in the face of his own class war; society broad Linda Loring wants to marry him. Fortunately, she’s off-camera, as our marriage-shy Sherlock works on his case.

Chandler’s creation Marlowe returns as the alcoholic gumshoe with a predilection for similes. Chandler defined hard-boiled for the writers who followed. Surely most would tip their hats in gratitude for the style, insouciance, terseness, and tough-guy qualities set by Chandler and Hammett. Surely it was a daunting task to write in Chandler’s style, using Chandler’s iconic private eye.

I’m not sure how authentically The Black-Eyed Blonde mimics Chandler’s voice. There isn’t as much sass and humor. (The famous Chandler similes were sometimes tongue-in-cheek after he became noted for them.) Also, there are quite a few references to things Irish and English, including a comparison of one person’s head to the “type of English bread they call a cottage loaf.” Chandler excelled at creating characters like Moose Malone — dim and strong, a lethal combination, and there weren’t such oddities here, except for the butler, Bartlett.

This is the bottom line: The Black-Eyed Blonde was a thoroughly enjoyable story in the fashion of those great noir classics. It was nice to visit Marlowe in his milieu again.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin

Back Bay Books, 432 pages, $15

I’m on a quest to read as many of the Edgar Best Novel and Best First Novel nominees as I can before the awards are announced on May 1. (http://www.theedgars.com/nominees.html, if you’re curious.)

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is Scottish author Ian Rankin’s twentieth book in his John Rebus series set in Edinburgh. That’s an impressive number in and of itself, but what is more spectacular is how good Rankin’s stories still are. Standing flows with humor, good pacing, interesting characters, and an obvious love of his home country.

At this point in the narrative, because of age requirements, Rebus has been retired as a DI with the Lothian and Borders Police. He’s picked up civilian work with the Cold Case Unit. Of course he is barely tolerated by his boss, an ambitious toady, but is on friendly terms with the other two retired detectives who have been rehired as civilians in the unit. For those of us who thought Rankin had tired of Rebus and drifted off to a new series — featuring the Scottish version of Internal Affairs, with a cross-the-t’s kind of character, Malcolm Fox (The Complaints, The Impossible Dead) — we had barely begun our mourning when Rebus was popping up again. He’s as complicated as ever.

A small thread through the book is Rebus’s application to rejoin the force, since the age of retirement was raised after he left. Malcolm Fox rises out of his own series to join this book as a more vigorous nemesis, as he struggles to prove that Rebus is a corner-cutting, criminal-loving reprobate and not worthy of being reinstated. At various points in Standing, Rebus sadly remembers he has no official warrant card to flash at and intimidate people. He misses the life. He has no hobbies, no interests outside of work, a distant relationship with his grown-up daughter, and much too much to drink and smoke.

Standing begins with a scene at the funeral of a fellow policeman. Rebus hates being there, because it reminds him that he teeters on the edge of his own grave. He encounters little reminders that life is ephemeral, including mishearing the lyrics to a song. “Standing in another man’s rain” becomes “standing in another man’s grave.” Luckily (for Rebus, not for the victim), a fresh murder gives him purpose.

Serendipity draws Nina Hazlitt to the CCU looking for a detective long retired from the department. He is her only connection to the case of her missing daughter, gone about thirteen years at that point. Rebus inherits her by default. She has brought a strange tale to him. She believes that her daughter was the first in a string of murders of several women along highway A9. Rebus is the perfect person to hear this. Her theory has been dismissed by other police, but Rebus sees the potential in her information. Plus, she’s attractive.

As Rebus draws together information from the missing person cold cases and muses about their relationship to a brand new MisPer, he interests more people who can act officially, including his old cohort Siobhan Clarke. Siobhan must choose between helping Rebus in his out-of-the-box way or toeing the line with her new crew.

Throw in characters like retired — yeah, right — crime boss Ger Cafferty, Siobhan’s boss James Page (Rebus nicknames him after various Led Zeppelin titles), and police computer whiz Christine Esson, and there’s something for everyone.

The real star of the show is still Rebus and this book showcases his never-ending battle with everyone else. Malcolm Fox has one thing right: Rebus does consort with criminals. But not because they are his friends. He loathes, despises, and abominates them and what they do, but they can be valuable assets if you work them right. And Rebus can work them right. There are lots of things Fox gets wrong, including the devotion Rebus has to bringing criminals to justice.

Rebus is not long in the tooth, and here’s an MBTB star to prove it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Chance by Kem Nunn

Scribner, 336 pages, $26 (release date 2/18/14)

Read up on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the Banach-Tarski paradox before you begin this book. It won’t help but then you can nod knowledgeably when Kem Nunn periodically brings one or the other up in the story.

Chance is a strange story, part metaphysical, part parable, part noir existential thriller. There are sentences such as, “We might well bleed upon Nietzsche’s secret sacrificial altars, but are we not also impaled upon the axiom of choice?” cozying up schizophrenically to sentences such as, “…the money shot, a single fatal strike delivered to the chest at a point roughly even with the second button of a shirt…a psycho strike in and down….”

Eldon Chance is a 49-year-old forensic psychiatrist in San Francisco. Although he is successful in a niche market, i.e., professionally evaluating people for legal cases, he is on the verge of divorce, alienated from his teenage daughter, strapped for cash, and living in a soulless shoebox. He also has inappropriate but undisclosed feelings for a former patient, which are replaced by inappropriate and dangerously public feelings for a new patient. 

Jaclyn Blackstone claims to be abused by her husband, a homicide detective in Oakland. She says he is corrupt and has criminal connections and interests. She is beautiful and messed up. Her prior psychiatrist has noted another personality, Jackie Black, a more extroverted, sexual personality.

Chance thinks he shouldn’t think past interacting with her on a professional basis, shouldn’t act on his attraction, shouldn’t give in to the “white knight” syndrome. He already knows that he is prone to “imagine any and all worst-case scenarios.” Methinks he doth protest too much, because in the end Chance doesn’t try very hard to avoid a relationship with Jaclyn Blackstone/Jackie Black.

Chance’s personal hole gets a little bigger when, in order to help himself out of a financial pickle, Chance allows Carl Allen, an antiques dealer, and his assistant, Big D (300 pounds big, five-nine), to tamper with some furniture he has in order to sell it as an unblemished authentic antique.

Then Chance is menaced by Raymond Blackstone, you-know-who’s husband. The menacing seems to escalate, and Chance enlists the aid of Carl and Big D, people he pretty much just met. In for one criminal enterprise, in for another, he must conclude. Soon it is Big D who proves to have some knowledge of the dark arts of combat, and before you can say “ethics violation,” Chance is in over his head.

Chance’s confidantes are an odd bunch. Aside from Big D and Carl, there’s Jean-Baptiste Marceau, his business building’s chief parking attendant. He proves to be a pocket philosopher and master of bizarre and revealing photographs of people in distress. Doesn’t Chance know anyone normal? Even his ex-wife left him for not just any old personal trainer, but a dyslexic one. Stumbling constantly over such eccentricities might be an artifact of his job or of his own predilections. Perhaps what they all have in common is “They had all spent a good deal of time prowling among the ruins.”

So this is what I think the Banach-Tarski paradox has to do with the price of tea. Contrary to what we in the physical world experience, in mathematicsland you can disintegrate and reconfigure a 3D object in such a way as to make two replicas of the original object, as long as you have the axiom of choice. (When I understand the axiom, I’ll let you know. Don’t hold your breath.) Perhaps Jaclyn is the disintegrated and reconfigured figure, only the copies are not perfectly alike. She probably needs to exercise the axiom of choice more. Let’s not even talk about the frozen lake risk theory.

I would rather have had more stylish noir thriller and not so much metaphysics.

Portobello by Ruth Rendell

Scribner, 322 pages, $16

What a fabulous writer! What a slow-moving book! I say that just so you will be prepared and not expect the usual suspects right from the start. From the candy-eating art dealer to the lower class, low-class thief to his uncle, the born-again ex-con, and all the characters in-between, Rendell paints their eccentricities with deft strokes.

As is the case with so many books these days, Rendell presents multiple storylines, and it is only at the end that coincidence or propinquity brings the threads together. The diligent reader is rewarded for the first 300 pages by the last ten.

Rendell is also a magician who draws her readers’ attention to a diversion to obfuscate the real climactic crimes. With each character in turn, it is easy to ask, Is this the one? The one who will crack? The one who will venture to do the unthinkable, the abhorrent act, the sideways slide into the abyss? Because you know it is coming.

I'm glad I read this book, but I felt like the sucker who was born in that minute. I kept expecting fireworks. Perhaps, had they gone off, the story would have become clich├ęd, but I felt vaguely let down.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

After I'm Gone

AFTER I’M GONE, by Laura Lippman
(William Morrow, 351 pages, $26.99)
Reviewed by Carolyn Lane

 Laura Lippman is no stranger to accolades, but her new novel, After I’m Gone, should garner quite a few more.  Several of her books feature alternating time and character narrative—I’ll call it “diffraction”—and even though I’m generally not a great fan of this stylization, here it works wonderfully to carry readers in suspense to the very last page.

 The storyline is structured around a fifties’ song, with episodes following the lyrics Hold Me, Kiss Me, Thrill Me, through to the final Never Let Me Go.

In the first episode, Hold Me, are a man and a woman, obviously close, who are leaving for a rendezvous some decades ago—purpose unknown.  What we do find out is that they have very different expectations for this meeting.  What we don’t know is how that meeting will color their future or that of their close friends and family.

 Subsequent episodes—and time periods and characters—reveal a budding romance, a happy but somewhat veiled life on the part of the husband, and a crisis that threatens their happiness.  Years later, a retired detective becomes interested in a cold-case murder that happened around the same time as the family crisis, and in solving that case, it is he who assembles all the facets of the story into a crystalline image that captures all:  hopes, dreams, hard work, laziness, errors of judgment, envy, revenge, the fullness of life, and growing old.

After I’m Gone is really a superb book, but describing it without giving away the amazing plot is difficult.  Lippman’s eye for the extraordinary to be found in the mundane is key here, and her storytelling talents have been honed to razor sharp. And a particular advantage to this novel is that, even if you can’t resist peeking ahead or turning to the last chapter, you’ll have to enjoy every page to understand the whole. 

 Happy reading!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson

Harper Paperbacks, 432 pages, $14.99, c2012

Within the last few years, it’s become the fashion to exhume real people and make them characters in fictional renderings of what-could-have-been episodes in their lives. Siggie “Sandman” Freud, Chuck “Poorboy” Dickens, Winnie “Dawg” Churchill (or his secretary, actually), Nellie “Fly” Bly, Dash “Skinny” Hammett, Artie “Doc” Doyle, to name a few, have become informal private eyes in this way. Nicola Upson has hit pay dirt with her series starring author Josephine Tey, who wrote mysteries from the late 1930s to early 1950s. Upson’s series is charming but not cozy, witty but not snobbish, stylish but not arch.

Fear in the Sunlight is the fourth book in the series and is less a mystery than a speculative look into Tey’s private life. However, Alfred Hitchcock does appear with his entourage, and there are dead bodies. The tally at the end is significant, but many are off-screen, as it were. The two or three murders for which Tey and her friends and lovers are present are gruesome, and indicate a malevolent, personal reason behind them. It is the unexpected bitter that Tey must take with the sweet, because she and her friends are at the resort of Portmeirion in Wales to celebrate her 40th birthday at the same time that Hitchcock, et al. are there. (Some of you may recall Portmeirion as the odd and whimsical setting for The Prisoner television series with Patrick McGoohan.)

Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, have connections with Tey’s group. In addition, Reville hopes to talk Tey into allowing them to film A Shilling for Candles. (Note: This was indeed filmed by Hitchcock and renamed “Young and Innocent.”) Like cuckoo’s eggs in a foreign nest, abnormal personalities are clasped unknowingly to innocent bosoms, and way, way, way into the book, the victims are revealed. Shortly thereafter, a solution is provided. But, wait, there’s a whole lot of book to go. That’s because Fear in the Sunlight begins from an unusual point: 1954, London. Tey has been dead for two years, Archie Penrose (Tey’s great and good suitor and friend) is about to retire from Scotland Yard. The action in Portmeirion took place eighteen years previously, in 1936. It is brought to Penrose’s attention that there is a serial killer in jail in Los Angeles who claims to have been the real killer at Portmeirion. It’s flashback time.

There are a lot of characters to meet: Tey’s group, Hitchcock’s group, resort people, townspeople. There are longstanding tragedies and hidden relationships. Tey’s role is microscopic with regard to the crime and gigantic with regard to her own personal affairs. Penrose is central to the mystery and is a bystander or participant at most important events. It’s his gig.

Nicola Upson acknowledges several sources for information on the Hitchcocks. She also must have researched the heck out of Tey. It is noteworthy that Upson uses the name Josephine Tey, the nom de plume for Elizabeth MacKintosh, for her headliner, perhaps intentionally distancing herself from the real person upon whom her character is based. Tey was the public face for a very private person. I have no idea if Tey had to come to terms with her romantic feelings for a woman named Marta Fox. I have no idea if Archie Penrose was a real person. Is that segment of Upson’s story spun from whole cloth? If yes, does it cast a shadow of credibility upon Upson’s books? My guess is, not really. Calling her character by the name of a real person gives Upson a leg up with her readers. They are probably already fans of Tey’s books. They can “hear” her voice, can guess at her values and stands, and come prepared with expectations about how Upson’s mysteries will run. Fear in the Sunlight is a little out of the ordinary, but it is very moving about what people are capable of doing for and to others.

Where did the title come from? Here is Hitchcock in the book: “Fear of the dark is natural, we all have it, but fear in the sunlight … where it is so unexpected — that is interesting.”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Little, Brown & Co., 848 pages, $27

The Luminaries is a complex novel on at least a couple of levels. First of all, Eleanor Catton, a New Zealand author, has created a historical novel beyond measure. Set in the 1850s, during the hectic, heady period of South Island’s gold rush, Catton has crafted a murder mystery, a mystical conundrum, and a portrait of diverse people of the little mining settlement of Hokitika, South Island, New Zealand. Secondly, Catton has set her production to the music of the spheres. Almost every chapter is headed by an astrological determination. Twelve of the characters are represented by a sign of the Zodiac, and they interact with each other (the Stellar) and with the characters who have set the drama in motion (the Planetary).

Although there are many characters, Catton has 800 pages in which to waltz them about with each other. They dance solo or in duets, trios, or more. The book begins with a secret conclave of the twelve Zodiacal characters. Their meeting is accidentally disturbed by a newcomer, an unpracticed lawyer and nascent gold miner. He is the catalyst by which the twelve slowly reveal their stories. Their individual knowledge is fragmentary, but their combined is more illuminative. It takes almost half the book to hear these stories. The twelve are all men, consisting of a chemist, a Maori, two Chinese, a newspaper editor, a hotelier, a magnate, a commission merchant, a shipping agent, a courthouse clerk, a banker, and a chaplain.

This is what propels them to meet. On a certain night, three things happen: a hermit is found dead in his cabin, a prostitute is found insensible on a mining road, and a young miner is missing. Are these events related? “A string of coincidences cannot be a coincidence,” says one of the characters. And so the twelve pool their information and puzzle out a story that leaves new questions in its wake.

“But onward also rolls the outer sphere — the boundless present, which contains the bounded past,” Catton says. Thus, after an admirable, concise, and probably ironic summing up of the information produced by the twelve to end the first part of the book, a good deal of the rest of the book reveals past events.

I am in awe of Catton’s ability to create such a novel.  Such a novel novel, no less. She sets the tone in homage of books of the Victorian era but with more concision (if that can be said of an 800-page book) than those authors would. Reading this book is less like trying to solve a mystery along with the author than trying to put together an 800-piece puzzle. At the end, it’s still possible to wonder whether after the puzzle is compiled, if it isn’t the backside of the picture that has been revealed.

Eleanor Catton won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for this book.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Riverhead Hardcover, 423 pages, $27.5

This is not a mystery.

In honor of Black History Month, here’s a recommendation: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. It’s a wild, blackly (!) humorous, fictionalized telling of John Brown’s passionate charge to free slaves that ended in the Quixotic taking of the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. That was the signal event, historians agree, that ignited the Civil War.

Our cowardly (yet sometimes intrepid) and lazy (by his own account) narrator is ten years old at the beginning of the story, about four years before Harper’s Ferry. Henry “Onion” Shackleford’s father was shot by accident before his eyes by John Brown. In remorse and with the intent of freeing the “high yellow” Henry from slavery, Brown kidnaps and informally adopts Henry. But Brown thinks Henry is a girl because of his curls and his diminutive stature. Henry, thinking he will be safer that way, does not disabuse the great man of his assumption. Thus begins a rollicking, intense period when Henry/Henrietta/Onion has a front row seat to view some of the greatest events in U.S. history and to meet some of the greatest names of the era.

Good writing, good tale, Good Lord Bird.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

Dial Press Trade Paperback, 386 pages, $15 (c2008)

Charles Dickens wrote a book or two about hapless orphan or disabled boys, boys found in terrible circumstances but of good heart. They are, of course, rewarded for their innocence and kindness in the end. But before they receive their just recompense, they must endure travails and tortures of the soul and body. All must be lost before anything can be found.

Hannah Tinti carries on that fine tradition of weep before wonder in The Good Thief. Her story takes place in New England in a purposely vague time and place, but not unlike Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Her orphan boy is called Ren, abandoned to fate and the monastery of St. Anthony’s as a baby. Unlike Tiny Tim’s crutch-free future intimated at the happy ending in A Christmas Carol, Ren’s lost left hand will never regrow.

When we first meet Ren he is 12 years old and is an inventive child with rudimentary emotions. However, he has learned to care for his best friends, fellow orphans Brom and Itchy. He knows he will never be chosen by the few adults who come through looking for someone to adopt. With his missing appendage, he is unlikely to be of much use on a farm or with a family needing a helper.

Then a miracle occurs. Benjamin Nab shows up and claims Ren as his long-lost, much younger brother! He tells an exciting and tragic tale of how their parents were killed by Indians. Ren escaped thanks to his mother but lost his hand in the process. Ben saved the baby but was parted from him soon after.

Not surprisingly, Ben’s story has a little stretch to it. Ren is not his brother. His parents were not massacred by Indians. They immediately begin to pull some scams. They are joined by an alcoholic ex-teacher, Tom. He promptly drinks his share of the proceeds of their cons. Is this what the good brothers of the monastery had in mind for Ren when they let him go? As hard as life was in the orphanage, the life of crime is worse.

Fable, history, adventure story — whatever it is, it works. The Good Thief is true storytelling. The villains, of which there are many, are dastardly. Within most of the non-villains, too, is a sly side. Anything can happen in this fantasyland/adventureland/yesterdayland. What Tinti does well is keep Ren’s voice true to that of a 12-year-old boy’s. It’s easy to feel his helplessness and innocence. It’s easy to root for him to find a home.