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

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

Translated from German by Anthea Bell

Penguin Books, 208 pages, $16 (c2011)

The Collini Case is a small book (208 pages) by today’s standards, but it packs a wallop. Economically but thoroughly presented, German defense attorney and author Ferdinand von Schirach has written a courtroom drama that is intelligent and surprising.

Fabrizio Collini is an Italian who has lived and worked in Berlin for decades. What would suddenly drive him to murder a prosperous businessman whom he had never met? Not just murder him, but deliver death blow after death blow. The victim was completely and thoroughly dead.

Caspar Leinen is a brand-new defense attorney. He was smart enough and impressive enough that he could have become a high-paying corporate business suit or an organization man, but he struck out on his own, to make his own way in the legal world. The very first case he is handed is to defend Collini. The question isn’t how can he get Collini off, but is there anything that could mitigate the charge against him?

Leinen is frustrated because his client will not talk to him, other than to say that he did indeed murder Jean-Baptiste Meyer. The motive remains a mystery.

Then a voice out of Leinen’s past calls him. It is a past love, Johanna, the sister of his best friend, who died tragically with his and Johanna’s parents. Leinen also had close ties with Johanna’s grandfather, Hans Meyer. Guess what! “Hans” was a nickname. The victim in Leinen’s first case is the man who was like a grandfather to him. Jean-Baptiste is Hans.

Ethically, morally, Leinen is in a quandary. What pulls him forward before making his fateful decision is a need to know what drove Collini to murder Meyer. Collini has impressed Leinen as a quiet giant, a polite, obedient man. Why, why, why?

Von Schirach’s narrative is spare, but he hits all the notes that will compel you to turn page after page after page. His resolution will take your breath away. (And don’t forget to read the historical note he has added at the end.) The Collini Case is a great, meticulously crafted courtroom drama, as well as a very touching novel about what it means to be part of a family.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

Mulholland Books, 384 pages, $16  (paperback release date - 6/10/14)

When Thomas (“Confessions of an Opium Eater”) De Quincey is not jonesing for a laudanum dose, he obviously is well-suited for catching killers using his own form of profiling and by rifling the messy closets of the subconscious. So David Morrell posits in Murder as a Fine Art.

In 1811, multiple killings shocked London. They were subsequently dubbed The Ratcliffe Highway Murders. That part is true. The made-up part happens in 1854, when more murders occur, patterned eerily after the murders years ago. Because De Quincey had written about the previous murders in an essay entitled, “Murder as a Fine Art” (another fact), he becomes involved in the current murders. Initially De Quincey is the prime suspect of Inspector Ryan and Constable Becker because of his detailed knowledge of the original murders, replicated in detail by the current killer. De Quincey and his daughter, Emily, eventually become allies of the police.

For most people De Quincey is probably known, if at all, only for having written a book about the effect opium had on him. People erroneously assume that he praises the drug for its ability to grant him clarity of thought. In Murder as a Fine Art, De Quincey, still in the throes of his addiction, takes great pains to explain to all that he meant the book also as a means of deterring others from following in his footsteps. In De Quincey’s time, opium was not illegal and its derivative, laudanum, could freely be found.

Morrell has created the page-turning story of the search for a mass murderer, a madman, a chameleon, in the dirty, teeming streets of London. He has given De Quincey depth and gravitas as a backdoor psychologist who can understand what might be driving the murderer. In a creative way, Morrell’s third-person narration reads alternately like a history presentation and a set of you-are-there scenes.

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Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan

Berkley Trade, 352 pages, $15, c2009

There must be a word for it but I just can’t think what it is: when writers write about writers, when movie makers make movies about movie makers, when journalists journal about journalists, when the media discusses the media. Self-what? It shouldn’t be a benign term, like self-reflection. It shouldn’t be harsh, on the other hand, like self-aggrandizement.


Harry Dolan, a former editor, has written a book about an editor. Dolan’s crime fiction is about an editor who works with crime fiction. It’s like a halving of the axiom that a writer must write what he knows. That most popularly means that a writer, who theoretically enjoys writing, writes about something other than writing that he or she knows. In Dolan’s case, he has written a quirky, attractive, winking look at the business of crime fiction.

I could hear the sounds of noir writer David Goodis as I read the first few pages. The focus of attention is the enigmatic David Loogan. Dolan almost immediately declares that Loogan is not his real name. It is not apparent what Loogan’s thoughts are, why he acts the way he does, and what his deal is. He’s the enigma in the puzzle, the wheel within a wheel. Is he the good guy or the bad? Why is it so important to know which? Here’s either a hint or an obfuscation: Loogan begins the story by buying a shovel with which to bury a murder victim.

Whoever Loogan really is, right now he is an editor for a crime fiction magazine. The magazine publishes short stories by both unknowns and famous people. The famous people are really famous and some of them help the editor, Tom Kristoll, with the running of the magazine, Gray Streets. Tom’s wife, Laura, is a professor of literature, and he hires interns — mostly Laura’s students — to help at the magazine.

It’s not clear whether Loogan was a writer in his former life, but he tries his hand at a crime short story, and soon he is working for the publication as an editor. Soon, too, there are three dead people, and Loogan is a suspect. Chasing him is Ann Arbor, Michigan, police detective Elizabeth Waishkey, who seems more beguiled by Loogan at the start than seems wise. Waishkey, fortunately, proves to have a logical brain and a dry sense of humor, and it was fun to watch her operate.

Dolan is obviously a big fan of crime fiction. He quotes Chandler, winks at real famous authors with his fictional famous authors, and gives a high-five to noir fiction. As Waishkey often says to Loogan, “You think you’re in a story in Gray Streets.” Wouldn’t it have been ironically fine if Dolan had titled his book, Grey Streets? No, maybe that’s overkill, and killing is best left to murderers.

Dolan gets the award for best selection of odd character surnames: Loogan, Waishkey, Kristoll, Hideaway, Shellcross, Hifflyn, Tully, Shan, Beccanti.

The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau

Grove/Atlantic, 240 pages, $16 (release date - 6/3/14)

The Antiquarian is one of those books that cannot be serviced by telling you the bare bones of the plot. Similar in a periphrastic way to Umberto Eco and Robert Bolano, Peruvian author and Bowdoin professor Gustavo Faverón Patriau takes a while to get to where he is going. Certainly kudos are due to the translators for all three writers. In this case, the translator is Joseph Mulligan.

Daniel, the main character, although not the narrator of the book, “is surrounded by shelves packed with books, manuscripts, notepads, and bundles of papers folded into quarters, and corbels stuffed with thousands of volumes with amber spines, cracked leather covers, and glistening dust jackets.” Books are stories or information by themselves, but they are also the byways and venues for the personal stories of the people who read them.

Gustavo, the narrator (and the author’s namesake), is introduced thusly: “I chose psychology, thereafter psycholinguistics, and barely had I left the department when I married an irresistible, elegant colleague who fell terminally ill and died two years later, leaving me alone in a house I no longer recognized, with a collection of letters from lovers who had given her more affection than I had — and afterward I no longer had the strength to build another relationship that would not decline into brevity and anonymity.”


Because this is a mystery blog, this is the story’s mystery. Daniel is in an mental institution because he confessed to stabbing his fianceé, Juliana, 36 times. Gustavo maybe wants to know why, maybe not. In any event, three years after Daniel is institutionalized, Gustavo finally goes to visit his childhood friend. What he finds is not a mental institution but a place for stories, a library of bizarre personalities. Daniel reads stories aloud in the central courtyard of his unit. The stories weave themselves into the minds of the other patients — one of whom is a psychiatrist who started out treating the patients and eventually became one himself. As it is meant to be, there is a confusion of who are the staff and who are the patients in this institution, since so much depends on Daniel’s unreliable remarks to Gustavo.

Metaphysical, often wandering off on tangents, burnished with an antique veneer — even though I think it is set in modern times — bizarre, and challenging, this book will summon your willpower to keep to its circular course. It begs analysis, not straightforward reading. That process I’ll leave to someone else. The best I can do is say that it’s a book of sad stories, among them Gustavo’s.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Scribner, 206 pages, $15 (c1951)

Daughter of Time has been declared one of the best mysteries ever (Crime Writers Association, New York Times). Josephine Tey is an exalted “mystery author,” right up there with Dorothy Sayers, from the classic era of mysteries. What endears authors like Tey and Sayers to new generations of readers is the fact that they are good writers. Period. There is a lot of hoo-hah about “genre” writing and labeling these days, but good writing is good writing. Mystery/crime/thriller/suspense writers just happen to be darned clever as well. Oh, excuse me, am I biased?

Tey’s writing is lively, sophisticated, and informative. “Informative” is a buzzkill kind of word, I know, but it surely applies here. I don’t know what the history poobahs think of Tey’s thesis that Richard III did not kill his nephews, but Tey adeptly presents real information (even if some of the sources quoted are fictitious) and makes it entertaining.

Tey’s series star, Inspector Alan Grant, has been injured in the course of duty, and he’s stuck in a hospital bed for a long stay. Helpful friends drop off the latest books, none of which suit his personality or interest. Bored to tears, Grant is finally saved by his actress friend Marta. She brings a sheaf of portrait prints. Faces fascinate Grant, and before he’s quite aware of it, he has picked a face out of the pile. A judge, he thinks, before he learns the identity of the face. Of course, it is Richard III, mostly vilified in history textbooks and in popular folklore as the murderer of his two nephews in order to become king of England.

With the help of an American researcher, an odd fellow recruited by Marta, Grant embarks on an historical journey 400 years in the past.

What an original idea! And it is a stroke of genius. How in all heck did Tey craft such a compelling story out of what is essentially a lesson in historical research?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wolf by Mo Hayder

Atlantic Monthly Press, 352 pages, $26

If you are already a fan of Mo Hayder, then you know what kind of book she writes: convoluted tales with gruesome details and surprises hidden like Easter eggs throughout the book. You will not be disappointed by Wolf.

DI Jack Caffery, Hayder’s series hero, has been obsessed with finding out what happened to his nine-year-old brother after he was kidnapped by a pedophile. Jack is now 40 years old and he finally may have a chance to find out. He must track down the owners of Bear, a lost dog, and trade that information for a hint about his brother. That tale, the hunt for and story of Bear’s owners, takes up 90 percent of the book.

Bear’s owners are rich and they have settled into their country estate for a stay while the patriarch recovers from heart surgery. Oliver, Matilda, and their 29-year-old daughter Lucia are no strangers to tragedy, which Hayder details with gory relish. One such trauma is enough for a lifetime of harsh memories, but now they are victims of a home invasion. Worse yet, the demon who haunted them fifteen years ago might now be back.

Will Jack rescue them? Will it be in time?

Wolf, as is the case for all of Hayder’s books, is not for the faint of heart. It is clever. It will hold you hostage until all 300+ pages are done. You will want a strong cuppa after.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Last Dead Girl by Harry Dolan

Amy Einhorn Books, 416 pages, $26.95

I read the first two books by Harry Dolan, Bad Things Happen and Very Bad Men. They featured book editor David Loogan. Dolan had a knack in those books for creating unusual names for his characters. However, it turns out that Loogan is not David’s real last name. It’s the more prosaic-sounding Malone. And David is only his middle name. His first name is Darrell.

David’s troubled past has been hinted at and this, finally, is that story.

The Last Dead Girl explains a turning point in Darrell David Malone’s life about ten years earlier. 1998 is when it all happened for 26-year-old David, although almost half the narrative is from 1996. Sharing narrative duties with David, who gives us a first-person point-of-view, are third-person tales of David’s love interest, Janna Fletcher, in 1996 and 1998, and a creepy serial killer in 1998. And, to complicate the point-of-view storytelling, David is telling his part of the story from a present-day perspective. Complicated is easy for Dolan. So is odd.

Dolan’s first book, Bad Things Happen, has an unusual feel to it. It is dream-like and complex, and nothing is straightforward. The Last Dead Girl is a little more “normal,” like David’s last name, but the twists and unexpected roller coaster drops are still there. Even the obligatory facing-the-killer-in-the-storm scene at the end twists in a different direction. Dolan has created two intertwining stories with different styles (Imma-gonna-solve-this-murder-cause-Imma-man-and-the-cop-has-his-head-in-an-anatomically-impossible-position amateur detective and girl-in-jeopardy thriller).

David’s fiancée, Sophie, has an affair. David leaves their apartment to clear his head and meets Jana, a law student, when her car is disabled. (Who needs Match.com?) For the next ten days, he virtually lives with her. Then Jana is murdered and, of course, David is hauled in as a suspect by Detective Frank Morelli.

Is Jana’s death related to “The Innocence Project” case she took on as a law student? She was convinced that Gary Pruett was wrongly convicted of killing his wife. Hey, what a coincidence! Morelli oversaw Pruett’s case as well. Suspicious of what Morelli is hiding from him, David decides to solve Jana’s murder himself.

Dolan intersperses David’s story with what he calls “interludes.” In recent flashbacks and older flashbacks, we learn what Jana has done to put herself in harm’s way, assuming she wasn’t a random victim of the Rome, New York, criminal element. Dolan also shows us a killer stalking, well, just about everybody. “K” — maybe that stands for Killer — is appropriately wacko, and David gets to unmask him in a stormy denouement.

Dolan is an original voice. He is obviously a fan of old-fashioned crime, as evidenced by his references to old-timey authors and his noirish voice (more noticeable in the other books), but he also believes in keeping his readers off balance.

There are some creepy, creepy scenes, so it wasn’t all Mickey Spillane. It’s hard-boiled and noir for the 21st century.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 384 pages, $27

This is the sixth book in the Elly Griffiths’ series starring Dr. Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist and professor, in King’s Lynn, England. Ruth is the mother of a toddler daughter, whose father is DCI Harry Nelson of the King’s Lynn police. He is married and the father of older children. Shona, Ruth’s vivid and vibrant best friend, is living with Phil, the arrogant and conservative head of Ruth’s department, and they have a baby. It would be harder to find a more incongruous couple. Druid and scientist Cathbad (real name Michael Malone) is also Ruth’s good friend. Although there are many regulars in Griffiths’ cast, these are the mainstays.

Several of Griffiths’ stories in the series have to do with children in danger, either ancient children or modern-day ones, but her series is actually quite gentle. (She has added more touches of humor.) The Outcast Dead has several child-in-danger stories. I’m adding this note because several customers at MBTB assiduously avoided this type of book, no matter how mild.

Ruth has been tapped to take part in a television series with the dramatic title of “Women Who Kill,” as good publicity for her university. The focus of the show will be the recently discovered bones of “Mother Hook.” Ruth is involved in that dig and, it turns out, she is a natural in front of the camera.

Rhymes about Mother Hook were used to scare children into submission. Legend has it that she takes little children, kills them, and sells their bodies to resurrection men. Brrrr. But the American historian, Frank Barker, brought in to advise and appear on the show, believes that Jemima Green, Mother Hook’s real name, was innocent and wrongly executed during the years of Victoria’s reign.

At the same time, DCI Nelson has a case of a dead child. Was he murdered by his mother or father? All initial evidence points to a natural cause, but something doesn’t seem right to Nelson. Then a toddler is kidnapped. Is it related to the baby’s death? Just to confuse the issue, all the people involved have common connections. 

If Ruth and Frank solve the mystery of Mother Hook (so-called because an industrial accident amputated Jemima’s hand, with its subsequent replacement by a hook), how will that help solve the kidnappings? (Yes, yet another child is kidnapped.)

What makes Griffiths’ books so solidly readable is her characterizations. She makes even the most woo-woo (Cathbad) and outrageous (Shona) character seem human and accessible. Ruth is a complex woman, whose visages as a mother and a professional are at odds with each other. She never thought she’d have an affair with a married man. She never thought she would be a mother. When Frank seems attracted to her, she fusses over how much of herself she has left to give. She doesn’t have all the answers, but optimistically perseveres with the struggle. Some nights the toast burns, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Random House, 544 pages, $27 (release date 6/17/14)

If there’s one thing we have lots of these days it’s vampire stories. The vampires are invariably darkly romantic. The famous vampires who live in rainy, atmospheric Washington state are sparkly. The New Orleans vampires are sexy. The Bon Temps vampires live in marginally sassier times, at least in the books. Certainly the TV series takes them to darker quarters. The first book in Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s series gave me nightmares. So why do we need another vampire book? Do we need more bastardized television or movie versions? Sometimes an author has a different take on the well-known mythology, and it’s worth reading. Lauren Owen’s is set in a Victorian world, shared by humans and vampires.

I can count on one hand the number of times Lauren Owen writes the word “vampire.” For her, they are the undead or, more humorously, the undid. Her book is not in the least humorous, however. It is quite Victorian and she settles it nicely in that era in both speech and tone. She doesn’t drop her “voice” for entre nous witticisms or anachronisms. Thank goodness. She keeps to the vintage and thus succeeds in presenting a historical mystery without pretensions or contrivance. Except for the vampires, of course. It reminded me vaguely of Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Queen Victoria would have been surprised to find out that vampires consider London’s foggy, chilly environment ideal, although Owen’s vampires are always cold. Some have even caught on fire trying to warm themselves — thus hotly ending their notorious existences as bloodsuckers.

Brother and sister James and Charlotte Norbury already have a rather gloomy existence in Yorkshire. Money is somehow scraped up to send James off to Oxford. He’s rather reclusive and humorless there, perhaps because of a childhood trauma or innate shyness or a rating somewhere on the autism spectrum. Until she is freed much later in the book, Charlotte is doomed to being tended by an elderly and fussy aunt, and then being the tender in turn of said aunt in her dotage. James chooses not to return to dour Yorkshire and hies off to London to have all the fun. Perhaps “fun” is the wrong word. He manages to be reclusive and humorless in London, too.

Yes, James runs across the vampires. There are two sects: the “Club” members, who choose an exclusive and limited membership from their own upper class ranks (only males need apply); and the Alia, originally the poor from the teeming lower class (men, women, children have an equal opportunity to become neck-biters). Never the twain shall meet, because Club members see to it that the Alia stay in their own neck, so to speak, of the woods. Although James is a member of neither group, he soon becomes involved with the vampires’ clandestine activities. (The advantage to having upstanding, monied vampires in the Club is that they can control how much official attention is given to the discreet disappearance of many of London’s denizens.)

“Quick” refers to regular human beings. When timid Charlotte loses contact with James, she travels to London to find him. She stumbles across several other members of the Quick who are trying to save humanity, one person at a time, unlike the vast majority of the Quick who remain oblivious to the darker aspects of living in a big city.

Owen has created a lot of characters on both sides of aisle. One member of the Quick is trying to determine which of the superstitions about vampires are true. Are they reflected in mirrors? Yes. Does a stake through the heart work? No. Owen must have had a lot of fun deciding which of the vampire lore to endorse. But, once again, the book is not funny.

Some elements of the ending nodded at modern horror movie/book tropes and seemed unnecessary. But overall, the ending was chillingly satisfying. The best characters were evil; the humans were ironically colorless in contrast. Kudos to Owen for creating a book that has enough style and rhythm to make it sound like the “undid” indeed could have roamed the streets of Victorian London. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Cold in July by Joe Lansdale

Tachyon Publications, 288 page, $14.95, c1989 (release date 5/27/14)

When I say Cold in July is a plain story, I don’t mean it’s boring. It’s anything but. What I do mean is that there are no explosions, no conspiracies, no serial killers, no dystopia, no political underhandedness (actually, there’s a teeny-tiny bit), no mobs (except in passing), no drugs, no cell phones, and only some prehistoric computer talk. It’s basically a linear story, told by a master writer, with phrases such as: a woman “had a tongue sharp as a meat fork” and the tree was “dripping hot ink instead of shadow.”

This is the story. A burglar breaks into Richard Dane’s house one night. Dane shoots him, after which Dane can describe himself like this, “Richard Dane, part-time killer, full-time father.” A believer in an eye for an eye, sixty-year-old Ben Russel gets out of prison and goes looking for his son’s killer, and that would be Richard Dane, killer of Freddy Russel, aka The Burglar. Dane has a young son, Jordan, and Russel intimates to Dane in a creepy confrontation that he will kill Jordan to even the score.

In a most excellent, head-exploding (figurative) moment, the first part of the book ends with a didn’t-see-that-coming twist. Which sort of hobbles this review. I don’t want to give away “the twist,” but that twist occurs about a third of the way into the book. What can I say about the other two-thirds without giving it away?

After the serious, regular-guy-feels-threatened-what-should-he-do of Part One, the rest of the book contains some lighter, comic scenes and dialogue, although the overall tenor is still dark. The humor is due to the introduction of an outlandish character, private investigator Jim Bob Luke, about whom Dane’s wfe, obviously not roused by her first impression of him, declares, “‘He couldn’t find his ass with both hands and an ass map.’” 

An unlikely team of misfits, including Dane, must uncover a secret. The secret in turn reveals yet another secret. Richard Dane used to be an ordinary guy. Now he finds himself looking around Jim Bob’s home and musing: “I went over and tested the tips of the antlers with my finger. Not that sharp. That was all right. I wasn’t that sharp either. I was involved in a plot to kill a man I didn’t know and had never so much as spoken to. There was already one man dead by my hand….”

Cold in July was published in 1989, and 25 years later it has been made into a movie, triggering this re-release of a great novel. Whatever brings this to the attention of a new generation of readers is okay by me.

There are some terrific mini-scenes within the larger story. Look for Jack, the obnoxious mailman, and Rodriguez, the doctor without a degree. Lansdale’s story sneaks up on its readers in several places. This is a classic that hasn’t worn thin, and that, I think, is due to Lansdale’s ability to write sentences and scenes that are truly original.