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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell

Vintage, 176 pages, $14.95

So you thought you had seen the last of Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s Swedish police detective. Actually, you have. “The Troubled Man” (c2009) was the last book Mankell wrote in the Wallander series. “An Event in Autumn” was first published in Dutch in 2004, following the penultimate book, “Firewall.” "Event" was published in Swedish last year and in English this year, and the story’s timeline precedes “The Troubled Man.” To add to the confusion, this novella was made into an episode in the Kenneth Branagh version of Mankell’s books and the storyline was substantially changed. 

It doesn’t matter what the genesis was. Fans of Wallander will immediately know where to place the story.

Martinson, one of Wallander’s colleagues, wants to sell the home of a relative. It’s set in an isolated part of the countryside near Ystad, fairly close to where Wallander’s father used to live. Wallander is interested in finally moving out of his apartment, which he shares with his daughter, Linda, if the price is right. He examines the property and in the process trips over something. The something is a skeletal hand protruding from the ground in back of the house. Suddenly the home he envisioned has become a nightmare of police procedure.

Even though the crime proves to be dauntingly old, Wallander cannot drop his investigation. Through this novella, we get to see our favorite characters one last time. (Mankell has hinted, or at least not outright refused to consider, that there may be a Linda Wallander book if inspiration hits.)

Mankell has stated that he wanted the story and societal issue it represented to be at the forefront in his series, the only exception being “The Troubled Man,” in which major changes in Wallander’s life make him the focus. He feels that he has brought the Wallander books to a logical conclusion and would not like to emulate Conan Doyle, whose weak, in his opinion, return of Sherlock Holmes came because of the clamoring of fans.

Mankell packs a lot into his novella. It is an excellent effort and, as far as nostalgia goes, is a warm reminder of a great series.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Reckoning by Rennie Airth

Viking Adult, 368 pages, $26.95

British author Rennie Airth has taken his time releasing the books in his John Madden series. The critically praised “River of Darkness,” the first in the series, came out in 1999. It has been five years between “The Reckoning” and the third book in the series, “The Dead of Winter.” Airth’s characters have also traveled through time, moving from Britain right after World War I to right after World War II, the time period of “The Reckoning.” His main characters have married, had children, retired, and moved along in life like normal people, even though the times were anything but normal.

Airth’s birth year is listed as 1935. I don’t know how much World War II affected him personally, how much of the war he remembers, whether he was even in Great Britain at the time, but his writing reflects such thoughtfulness about the profound effects that war had on people. Airth’s tales hinge on how some of the young men and women who went off to fight a righteous war came back with a horrifying knowledge of what they and others were capable.

John Madden, long retired from Scotland Yard, is brought into a current case when a murder victim’s unsent letter mentions his name. Madden’s prodigious memory fails to recognize the victim. A link is discovered to a previous murder, similar in execution. That victim, too, is unknown to Madden. But he and they are somehow involved in an event that is driving the murderer forward.

Even though the revelation comes about a third of the way into the book, I don’t think it’s a disservice to tell you that the connection is World War I. All Airth’s books relate to either WWI or II. Airth’s depiction of the hidden side of war, the side not glimpsed by the public who is cheered on by rah-rah slogans and propaganda, falls on the side of devastating revelation. In this book, too, there is a real-life basis for what turns out to be the central story. Unfortunately.

Airth brings back many of Madden’s colleagues, either retired like he or still working in the upper levels of the police. Through the prior books his readers have learned to respect the different ways in which Billy Styles, Angus Sinclair, and DCS Chubb have honorably acquitted themselves in solving crimes. Airth brings them back. They accord Madden the respect he deserves, as he tags along to interview witnesses and review evidence. He does so reluctantly, however. A good life for him involves running his farm, walking the dog, and spending time with his wife and daughter.

What would motivate someone to kill more than once? To kill the victims execution style? Is it a pair of murderers, a group?

“The Reckoning” is a compelling book because of Airth’s strong writing and the moral strength with which he imbues his characters. 

As it was with “River of Darkness,” so shall it be with “The Reckoning”: MBTB star.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ghost Month by Ed Lin

Soho Crime, 336 pages, $26.95

I love books that give readers a strong sense of place. Ed Lin has given his readers a Taiwan vivid with scents, tastes, and clashing politics and culture.

Taiwan, a large island off the coast of the People’s Republic of China, was the last stronghold of Chiang Kai-shek, who maintained that his party was the official ruling party of all China. However, the Communist Party was eventually accepted as the actual ruling party by all the major nations of the world. Taiwan, with its mix of Japanese, Chinese, and aboriginal cultures, is a roiling sea of people and religions. Jing-nan, Lin’s protagonist, explains, “We have twenty-three million people, the same population as Texas, packed on an island slightly bigger than Maryland.”

As a punk music-influenced teenager just starting off into manhood, Chen Jing-nan was avowedly atheistic and rebellious. His girlfriend, Zheng-lian, shared his beliefs. They were both smart and ambitious. The first step in their plan was to attend school in the U.S. Jing-nan became Johnny and Zheng-lian became Julia.

Unfortunately, Jing-nan’s parents both died, leaving him the family food stall in the famous Shilin Night Market. Jing-nan had vowed to claim Julia’s hand in marriage after he became successful, a vow increasingly difficult to keep. Unknown to Jing-nan/Johnny, his family owed a great monetary debt to a gangster. Instead of continuing with his American education, Jing-nan had to return to Taipei to keep the food stall going. As a matter of honor, he refused to contact Julia about his reversal of fortune. When Ghost Month begins, it has been several years since he has had contact with Julia. During that time, Jing-nan has assumed that Julia graduated from college and remained in the U.S. with a good job.

Then one day Jing-nan picks up the newspaper and reads about Julia’s murder at a betel nut stand in Taiwan. Betel nut girls provocatively invite men to buy betel nuts, an intoxicant, from their stands. Sometimes the men are invited to purchase more than just betel nuts. Julia — ambitious, smart Julia — was a betel nut girl.

Everything that Jing-nan knew about Julia fights against that scenario. He knows that he must find out who murdered her. He is especially concerned when he is warned off his investigation by a mysterious ABC (an American-born Chinese).

It wouldn’t be an Ed Lin book if there weren’t also humor in the story. Lin uses descriptions of Jing-nan’s funny and endearing relationships with his two food stall employees, Dwayne and Frankie, and his encounters with eccentric Shilin Market workers to balance Jing-nan’s sad and lonely search for who Julia was.

Because Ghost Month is a book with a great sense of place, a good story, interesting characters, and a tender heart, here’s an MBTB star.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Peter Pan Must Die by John Verdon

Crown, 448 pages, $25

Peter Pan Must Die is the fourth in the series starring Dave Gurney, a retired NYPD detective. I really enjoyed the first book, Think of a Number, but couldn’t get into the third one, Let the Devil Sleep, primarily because of one of the characters. (She has a brief off-stage, thank goodness, mention in this book.)

Dave is a fascinating character. He is brilliant, obsessive about his cases, and clueless about social interactions. Perhaps not “clueless,” but certainly willing to ignore conventional give-and-take. He sometimes has to stop and “read” his wife’s physical cues to understand what she is saying. Sometimes he needs a psychologist to tell him. (It’s probably the best scene in the book when Dave visits a psychologist who helped him years before.)

Although Dave has retired to the country, people keep popping up and requesting his help. This time it is a local detective who was forced into retirement, he says, by a crooked cop. Jack Hardwick isn’t exactly Dave’s favorite person in the world: “He felt his jaw tightening at the prospect of a visit from the detective with whom he had such a bizarre history of near-death experiences, professional successes, and personality clashes.”

Jack has brought Dave a lost cause. Kay Spalter has been convicted of killing her rich husband, Carl. She has maintained her innocence (of course), but she, too, is not the world’s most likable character. Jack, who is trying to establish himself as a private investigator, needs Dave to help him come up with enough cause to get an appeal granted. He emphasizes that he doesn’t need Dave to prove her innocence or another’s guilt, just malfeasance or error on the part of the judge, prosecutor, or police. Dave, however, has his own way of doing things, and it is not enough for him simply to acquire the minimum cause for appeal.

All John Verdon’s books (even the one I didn’t finish) are worth reading because of Dave and the methodical way he investigates. Also, Verdon is a master twister and turner of plots.

Despite an over-the-top ending, the actual resolution of who killed Carl Spalter was great.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo

Pamela Dorman Books, 400 pages, $27.95

Elisabeth Elo is a kick-ass author, and she has created a kick-ass character.

I wondered at first why she had given her main character, Pirio Kasparov, a super-human characteristic. Pirio can endure for hours in extremely cold water that would kill an ordinary person within a few minutes. Was this a sci-fi/action heroine book? Knock, knock, Marvel Comics? Within a few pages it became obvious that that wasn’t the case. Not that Pirio is a “normal” person.

Pirio is the daughter of two fabulous, wealthy, and famous people. Together they formed a perfume company, developed by Pirio’s model mother and organized by her autocratic Russian father, whom she accuses of having grown up in a “gulag or whatever it was, hacking off chicken heads and puking your vodka.” “You American,” Pirio’s father combatively addresses her. Isa, her mother, died when Pirio was young, and the formula for her provocative personal scent was lost. Pirio works for the family company with her father and step-mother, but her personal life is out of sorts and vacant. “Is That All There Is?” could be playing in the background.

Pirio was shipped off to boarding school when she was young, made the acquaintance of another wealthy juvenile reprobate, Thomasina, and now provides moral support for the adult Thomasina, a roaring alcoholic and fellow lost soul, and her son, Noah. It is this complex relationship that brings Pirio into jeopardy and results in the discovery of Pirio’s extraordinary ability as a survivor.

Ned, Noah’s father, was a fisherman. He had quit his job with a big fishing company and was trying to make a go of lobster fishing. Pirio was helping him (no hanky-panky going on) when their boat was broadsided by a huge vessel. Ned died in the disaster, but Pirio survived.

In her quest to find out what vessel hit them and ran, it becomes clear that Ned had secrets. It is in searching for clarity that Pirio becomes reacquainted with people from her past, including an old boyfriend, also a fisherman.

Elo does a great job with her heroes and villains. She puts Pirio in jeopardy to show off how mentally tough she is. (Thanks, Dad.) She discourses on perfume, the fishing industry, and 10-year-old boys and makes them all interesting. And finally, she finds a use for Pirio’s extreme talent, and not in a science-fiction-y way.

MBTB star!