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

Friday, March 27, 2015

Fox Is Framed by Lachlan Smith

Mysterious Press, 256 pages, $24 (release date - 4/7/15)

“Fox Is Framed” is the third in the Leo Maxwell series written by Lachlan Smith, a civil rights lawyer in Alabama. Wouldn’t you think that that would be a better scenario for a book than the life of a civil trial lawyer in San Francisco? Not if the civil litigation lawyer has a father in prison, an older brother whose brain is impaired from having been shot by the man he suspects killed his mother, and the prospect of an offer he may not be able to refuse from the criminal world.

I haven’t read the first two books (“Bear Is Broken” and “Lion Plays Rough”) which detail Teddy Maxwell’s shooting and Leo Maxwell’s legal practice. Thankfully, Smith does a good job of introducing his characters, explaining the relationships among the people, and summarizing the plot thus far without making it sound forced.

The year is 2004 (or thereabouts) and I’m not quite sure why this series is set in the past. Maybe it’s explained in one of the other books. Nevertheless, it doesn’t appear significant in “Fox Is Framed.” There’s some DNA talk, and maybe the story had to be shifted back that far so there wouldn’t be any DNA testing available for the original trial in 1983 (or thereabouts).

For twenty-one-years Lawrence Maxwell has proclaimed his innocence while imprisoned for killing his wife, mother of Leo and Teddy. Leo was ten years old when he returned home from school and discovered his mother’s body.

As “Fox Is Framed” opens, Leo has finally come around to believing in his father’s innocence. Teddy, also a lawyer, has been helping Lawrence since he was able. The burden rests on Leo now, however, because Teddy’s brain injury means he no longer can swim with the sharks as a defense attorney. He can shuffle papers but can’t do trial work. Smith touchingly describes Teddy’s life now, with his brain-damaged wife (they met in a support group for people with brain damage) and their infant daughter.

The family scenes are good, but the strength of this book lies in the courtroom scenes. Defense lawyer Nina Schuyler grabbed the short straw and was assigned Lawrence’s defense. Fortuitously, it turns out she’s a keeper. Smith gives Nina and her nemesis ADA Angela Crowder some great speeches.

If Nina is the brains in this case, Leo is the brawn and gets to do the action scenes. In investigating some leads, he is led back to an old acquaintance and to some dark and criminal connections his father may have.

Leo gets to scramble around some more when an ex-con is murdered, virtually on the eve of his anticipated testimony that Lawrence confessed to him that he killed his wife. Why would he do that when Lawrence, acting as a jailhouse lawyer, helped to free him? It’s part of the nice, thick plot.

This is a tiny bit of a spoiler, so alert, alert, alert! Read no further if you don’t want to know this tiny bit of information. 

One of the intriguing parts of this book is that there are plot lines left unfinished. There is a cliffhanger at the end in the best serial tradition.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Other Child by Charlotte Link

Pegasus, 416 pages, $15.95 (c2009, English ed. 2012)
Translated from German by Stefan Tobler

“The Other Child” is a treat: a dark, disturbing, chewy treat. Set in 2008 in Yorkshire, England, this book belies the fact that it was written in German by a German. It is the perfect brooding British mystery. (A long-distance handshake to the translator. The book reads extremely well in English.)

The book begins with a short description of an incident in 1970. A young woman has seen something on an isolated farm and it makes her fear for her life. Alas, we are fated not to know what happened for a long, long time, as the main story in 2008 unfolds with a tenseness and masterful heightening of suspense.

Gwen Beckett, spinster and farmer’s daughter, has found a man. She’s plain; he’s handsome. She’s socially awkward; he’s smooth as silk. Gwen calls her childhood (and almost only) friend, London physician Leslie Cramer, to  come and celebrate her engagement to Dave Tanner. Totally surprised, Leslie agrees to come. It will also give her a chance to visit her grandmother, Fiona Barnes, who lives in the same area.

Fiona and Chad Beckett, Gwen’s father, have been lifelong friends. Fiona was a constant presence on the farm, even before Gwen’s mother died. That is what led to Leslie’s friendship with Gwen. After Leslie’s mother died — a hippie who succumbed to drugs — she was raised by Fiona and often taken to visit the Becketts.

Besides Fiona and Leslie, the other guests to the party include Jennifer and Colin Brankley who visit the Becketts' bed-and-breakfast several times a year.

In the background of the main story is the murder of a young local woman one night a few months earlier. She was a college student who had been earning money babysitting. She was killed as she walked home one dark and lonely night. When someone from the engagement party is murdered, the police detective, DI Valerie Almond, tries to draw a link between the two murders.

When Charlotte Link introduces “the other child” well into the meat of the book, the sense of foreboding lies heavily until the end. That story begins during World War II and the evacuation of children from London. Fiona was one of those children and, we learn, it was to the Beckett farm that she was sent.

Link deftly introduces her characters, weaving back and forth between 2008 and World War II. Guilt stretches its long arm and the repercussions ripple far forward, it turns out, but does it have anything to do with the murders? Is there a serial killer stalking this quaint and picturesque area of Yorkshire?

Everyone, including DI Almond, has doubts and second thoughts. There are a lot of heavy psychologically burdens being hefted by almost everyone. The pages seem weightless, however, as Link moves the story along very well.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

Soho Crime, 325 pages, $26.95

“The Bishop’s Wife” is an unexpected book. Although religion is the artery of this book, there is no proselytizing. Instead there is a heroine with doubts, faith, strength, failings, commitment, and wistfulness. She is a Mormon, but not just any Mormon. She is the wife of a Mormon bishop. Linda Wallheim describes herself as the mother of her ward (congregation). This is where her natural nosiness, intuition, and empathy find a home.

Linda is not all butter cookies and canning for the apocalypse. She is such a real and human character that I Googled Mette Ivie Harrison to find out more about the author. She herself is a Mormon and her philosophy and life’s experiences mirror Linda’s to a large extent. Harrison was temporarily an atheist who, nevertheless, remained part of her Mormon community. She has a degree from Yale and has written other books (non-mysteries). She has questions, as does Linda. But she takes great comfort and sustenance from her faith and community, as does Linda.

Harrison depicts the Mormon warts and flaws, along with the pluses. In a memorable quote from her interview with NPR, she said: “…I am treating Mormons as someone looking at Mormonism from an anthropological perspective almost and I’m not giving them a pass.” But her sympathies and support are for her Mormon community, make no mistake about that.

How does a woman whose practical and logical bent come to terms with a religion that promotes the idea that if a child dies, he or she will be reunited with and continue to be raised by the parents after they die. How does a feminist — which is what Linda sounds like — deal with the male-dominated administrative hierarchy of her church? First of all, she probably would never call herself a feminist and, secondly, she would probably tamp down any public expression of her negative opinions. Thirdly, she would be there to protect any woman in her ward in a difficult relationship. And, lastly, having faith means not having to have something tangible to point to.

So the stage is set for a thought-provoking and intriguing mystery.

A young neighbor woman suddenly disappears, leaving her husband and young daughter, a daughter she clearly adored. Linda’s radar pings into overdrive. Is the woman’s intractable, dogmatic husband a murderer? Another member’s husband is clearly overwrought. Is the wife the victim of abuse? Yet another member’s husband is dying. He clearly has a secret. Is that wife also the victim of abuse?

Linda knows that she is not seeing shadows instead of substance, but she thinks her interpretation may need adjustment. The story follows Linda’s thought processes and actions as she seeks to solve the mysteries and, perhaps, prevent a tragedy. The real journey, it turns out, is Linda’s. She must face some of her own hidden problems before she can help others. Harrison does a lovely job of turning Linda into a three-dimensional woman.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A String of Beads by Thomas Perry

Mysterious Press, 400 pages, $26

Jane McKinnon just doesn’t have the same ring as Jane Whitefield, but Thomas Perry’s smart and ingenious white knight comes to the rescue under either name. “A String of Beads” is the eighth in the series of a Seneca woman who uses both modern and traditional Seneca ways to help people escape intolerable situations. She helps them disappear. Her way is safer than any witness protection program.

As “A String of Beads” opens, Jane is living companionably with her husband, Dr. Carey McKinnon. Except for taking a few cases, she has retired from the disappearing business. Her last case was the most difficult of her life; it left her with mental and physical scars. Although she still keeps in shape and her observational skills honed, she doesn’t anticipate being called upon again. Her husband certainly thinks she has given it up.

When the “mothers” of the eight Seneca tribes — the community’s wise women — call on Jane to help a young Seneca man who has been wrongfully accused of killing a man, Jane does not take their request lightly. Despite Carey’s displeasure, she feels honor-bound to help her childhood friend, Jimmy.

So much for expectations.

First, she has to track down Jimmy. Then she has to hide him. Then she has to figure out who framed him. And, finally, she has to figure out who wants to kill Jimmy and is willing to expend significant manpower to make it happen. It stopped being a “simple” murder case a while back.

Thomas Perry does another terrific job depicting Jane’s meticulous planning and farsightedness in helping Jimmy and some others escape sure death at the hands of mysterious thugs. Perry has Jane also help the fairly clueless police in a Lone Ranger kind of way. (Who was that masked woman?) It’s a caper novel without the heist. “The Great Escape” with McKinnon instead of McQueen. If you ignore the faintly awkward sex scene, it’s an enjoyable novel.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Life or Death by Michael Robotham

Mulholland Books, 432 pages, $26 (release date - 3/10/2015)

“Life or Death” automatically had a big plus going for it before I even turned the first page; it was written by Michael Robotham, an Australian author who writes the superior Ruiz/O’Loughlin series, set in England. “Life and Death” is not part of the series, but is a standalone thriller set in Texas.

This is why Robotham is one of my favorite authors: He can write the all-get-out of a character. Vincent Ruiz and Joe O’Loughlin are two very different characters, each of whom receives that most difficult of authorly treatments: different voices. (I can’t begin to tell you how many books I’ve read in which all the characters sound alike.)

For the most part Audie Palmer, the main character, is blank and humorless. (Insert sad face icon here. Where are Ruiz and O’Loughlin when you need them?) Of course you don’t really learn who he is until the very end. FBI Special Agent Desiree Furness has the best scripting by far, and she is known mostly for being short. Moss Webster, Audie’s best friend (sort of), has the next best showing.

The basic story: Audie Palmer is scheduled to be released from prison after serving ten years for a bank robbery and murder. (I know, I know. You find out why the sentence is so short much later in the book.) The day before his scheduled release, he breaks out of prison. (What!?) We slowly learn Audie’s backstory in installments throughout the book, including why he broke out early.

Everyone is after him, including the FBI, the local police, and the police from Dreyfus County, the jurisdiction in which he was arrested ten years earlier. Audie is on a mission to return to Dreyfus.

There are close calls, shootouts, innocent bystanders being victimized. It’s cinematic and follows a standard thriller format.