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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, 317 pages, $26.95

This is not a mystery.

At first glance “The Buried Giant” is a fantasy elaboration of the legend of King Arthur and his knights. When the book begins, Arthur has been dead for a number of years, and a strange “mist” has grown over a wide part of England. Tribes that Arthur had defeated or diplomatically brought under his charge have been at peace for some years. But the mist has made people forgetful, not only of their own lives but of their area’s history.

Figuratively rubbing the mist from their eyes, Axl and his wife, Beatrice, venture forth on a journey. They are old and their journey is to visit their son who lives in another village, somewhere vaguely “over there.” They have only partially shaken off the forgetfulness that has settled over their cave-dwelling community; they know that they have forgotten significant events in their lives. Their journey, it turns out, is also to reclaim those memories.

On the way they meet other victims of the mist, some kindly and some traitorous. They join forces at various times with Sir Gawain of the Round Table, nephew of King Arthur, and Wistan and Edwin, displaced Saxons, normally enemies of Britons like Axl and Beatrice.

The mist, it appears, is the result of the breath of the great and fearful dragon, Querig. To conquer the dragon would defeat the mist, and memories would return. Surely that would be a good thing. Sir Gawain and Wistan are each on quests to find the dragon.

Axl and Gawain ruminate throughout the book about what the future holds. Each looks back in his own way and sees sadness. Their hope for the future, however, diverges. Should either wake the sleeping giant of the past? Is what the future holds worth more pain and suffering?

Mythological tales underlie “The Buried Giant,” but tales turned to make Kazuo Ishiguro's point about what mankind values or should value. The writing is restrained, the infrequent violent action sudden and brief and often only found in subsequent discussion, and the moral lesson subtly stated and shaded. Although it is slow-moving and sometimes tedious in its descriptions, this is a quietly effective book and a treasure.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Telling Tales by Ann Cleeves

Pan, 448 pages, £7.99 (UK only) (c2005)

“Telling Tales” is the second book in the series starring DI Vera Stanhope. In the first book, “Crow Trap,” Vera was just one of a group of women whose stories were told in turn. It took seven years for Cleeves to write the second book. Perhaps it took her a while to see the value of the character she had created. Set in Yorkshire, that fecund area of England for crime novels, this (so far) six-book series features Vera, a curmudgeonly, independent, abrasive, plain-looking and plain-talking, but intuitive, inspector.

Like “Crow Trap,” there are a few characters whose trails we follow, but “Telling Tales” is most definitely Vera’s book. Emma Winter Bennett is a young mother. As a fourteen-year-old, ten years ago, she discovered the body of her best friend, Abigail Mantel, in a ditch by Abigail’s home. Abigail’s father’s much younger girlfriend, Jeanie Long, was charged with the murder. It was assumed at the time that Jeanie killed her out of jealousy. Now, however, a witness has appeared, giving Jeanie an ironclad alibi for the time of the murder. Unfortunately, Jeanie has just committed suicide in prison, having despaired of convincing anyone of her innocence.

Vera is assigned the task of reviewing the Mantel case with “fresh eyes” in a neighboring village precinct. She’s an outsider and resented by the local detectives. She and DS Joe Ashworth, her young assistant, uncover a variety of secrets nevertheless.

Ann Cleeves is good at writing about secrets. She seems to reveal a lot about her main characters, while at the same time hinting that something is hiding in the closet. Her characters seem real, vulnerable, burdened. She also writes with rich detail about the culture and scenery. It is worthwhile tracking down a UK copy of this book. Try www.abebooks.com for a good used copy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves

Pan, 552 pages, UK edition (c1999)

I hate to recommend “The Crow Trap” because it is hard to find in the U.S., but it’s worth scrounging around for a copy of this British import (and the others in the Vera Stanhope series). What has made it to the U.S. is the ITV version of Ann Cleeve’s series, starring Brenda Blethyn. Both the book and TV series are highly recommended.

In this first book in the series, the alternating viewpoints are all of women. Rachael, Anne, and Grace are doing an environmental impact evaluation of a Northumberland site for a proposed quarry. During the first half of the book, Cleeves presents the same period of time as seen very differently by the three women. Vera’s point of view doesn’t come into play until the last part.

The three scientists are billeted in a cottage on the farm owned by Bella and Dougie. Rachael has been to the cottage before for various studies and has come to appreciate her friendship with Bella. Her shock is exacerbated, therefore, when she discovers Bella’s lifeless body swinging from a rafter in the barn. It seems to be suicide — there’s even a note — but Bella hasn’t really left an adequate explanation as far as Rachael is concerned. As she takes it upon herself to investigate, she wonders if Bella’s death doesn’t have something to do with the proposed quarry.

As Anne’s and Grace’s stories are added, it’s apparent there is an abundance of intertwining relationships. There are connections, for instance, to the local landed gentry, the Fulwells, a horse riding academy, and a sanitorium. And each woman’s past also muddies the water. Soon there are other deaths, and finally — finally — Vera is called in.

What a brilliant, independent, quirky, soul-burdened spirit Vera is! Even something from her past, when she was a lowly constable, affects the current problem. She is a curmudgeonly joy to watch in action. From her imperious dealings with underlings to her sad musings over her unusual relationship with her father, she is always interesting.

Cleeves has created a complex storyline, but it is told clearly and with excellent pacing. She differentiates her characters brilliantly and makes them whole, especially Vera.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

Minotaur Books, 288 pages, $24.99

Engaging character (a book editor). Check. Great location (London). Check. Witty dialogue. Check. Funny bits. Check. 

Sam(antha) Clair is a “middle-aged, middling-ly successful editor.” Breda, Sam’s most famous author, writes “women’s books.” After regularly producing a predictable book (and bestseller) each year, she offers something different. And Sam hates it. Her assistant, Miranda, hates it. How do you tell your bread-and-butter that her book sucks?

While Sam is pondering the imponderable, she is cheered by her friend (and client), Kit Lovell. Kit is a fashion journalist and he has brought her a book alleging the murder of a famous couturier, Rodgrigo Alemán, and criminal activity at Alemán’s company. Since Alemán’s death was ruled accidental, Sam is concerned that Kit’s evidence adequately supports his charges. Kit says it’s in the bag. Unfortunately, the bag disappears with Kit.

When Sam tries to interest CID Inspector Jacob Field, who has come to see Sam on an entirely different matter, in the (perhaps) disappearance of her friend, he blows her off. By the time Sam manages to convince Jake (yes, he soon becomes “Jake”) that something may be amiss in fashionland, other people have become involved in what might be an international scandal.

Helena Clair, Sam’s powerhouse attorney mother, however maternal she may not be, is willing to put her mighty brains and knowledge of corporate shenanigans at Sam’s disposal. With the help of other acquaintances, Sam slowly gathers information about Kit and about the fashion scandal. But will it help her find Kit?

And what is she going to do about Breda?

Knowledgeable about the publishing business and gossipy about what goes on behind-the-scenes. Articulate and funny. A touch convoluted in the plot but satisfying, nevertheless. Happy to love Sam Clair. Hope she survives to wield her pen another day.

MBTB star!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, 256 pages, $26.95 (release date - 5/19/15)

I’m not sure why the rumor got started (by me), whether I misread or misheard something, or whether I just plain made it up, having been given misinformation from my own version of Auntie Bpoo, but I thought Colin Cotterill had planned to kill off Dr. Siri Paiboun several books ago. When his Jimm Juree series began in 2011, I was positive that Dr. Siri was scheduled to breathe his last any day. I went into premature mourning. So it is indeed a pleasure to welcome “Six and a Half Deadly Sins,” nuimber ten in the Dr. Siri series, at least three books past when I thought the coroner would have had to perform his own autopsy.

The easy byplay among the continuing characters is charming and funny and built upon ten-plus years of character-building stories created by British-born, Thai resident Colin Cotterill. That’s not to say you couldn’t just jump in at this point;. I think you very much could. But should you need a run-down of characters, here it is.

The books take place in the 1970s in Vientiane, Laos. Dr. Siri was (since retired) the only coroner in Communist Laos. He did his best to steer clear of politics and wanted only to do his best. He was assisted by Nurse Dtui, who became a formidable woman and capable of doing an autopsy herself. A few books ago, Dr. Siri married Daeng, a former stealthy agent for the Pathet Lao and current noodle seller (except her business burned down in the last book). Popping in and out are a few other characters, some living and some dead: Comrade Civilai, the most un-Communist Communist party bureaucrat ever; Geung, a Downs syndrome man with a big heart; the aforementioned Auntie Bpoo, a transvestite ghost; and Inspector Phosy, Dtui’s husband. Since Siri and Civilai both retired a few books ago, they and Daeng have managed to get into just as much trouble as before.

This time Siri and Daeng have received in the mail a mysterious skirt made in the traditional Lao style of weaving. They track the pattern to a village in the northern part of Laos. Taking half the cloth and the severed, preserved finger they found sewn into the lining of the skirt, Siri and Daeng head off to the north to find out why they were sent these items. Dtui is charged with getting a chemical analysis of the other half of the cloth, and that provides her with an unexpected adventure of her own. Phosy has been sent to the north on a mission to determine who killed the headmen of two small villages. Civilai, too, is up north, but his mission is mysterious. He may be there on an important diplomatic mission or on a time-wasting one to get his pain-in-the-ass self out of Vientiane.

Although these storylines are couched in his trademark good humor, Cotterill almost always teaches us a serious lesson about Southeast Asian history. And so it is with this book. The Chinese are invading Vietnam. Laos, unfortunate in its geographical location, stands in the way. Many of the Lao people, especially in the north, have Chinese ancestry, and this is the background for Siri’s quest.

Cotterill has much devilment in store for his readers with this book. It was a treat to follow the twists and turns, which end, of course, in the twining of the various stories into one.

Here is an MBTB star for how thoroughly Cotterill surprised me (and for working in an Irving Berlin quote).

Mañana by William Hjorstberg

Open Road Media, 242 pages, $13.99 (release date - 5/12/15)

William Hjorstberg’s prose crashes through the pages with deep, dark slashes. “Falling Angel,” a book with an MBTB star, proved Hjorstberg’s ability to twist and turn through a story. “Mañana” is as black as noir.

Set in Mexico in 1967, Hjorstberg depicts two gringos, Tod and Linda, who are surfing and toking their way through paradise. When Tod wakes up one sunny morning next to a dead hooker, splashed with her blood, he is disoriented and quite alone. Where are his wife and the lowlifes they met? They gave him heroin, and that’s the last he remembers. All of Linda’s stuff is gone. And all their money.

Did the lowlifes kidnap Linda? How will he explain the dead body? Safer to run and try to find Linda’s trail, Tod decides. Ingeniously, throughout the next few days, he manages to scrape up enough to buy food and gas. He begins to slowly track his former buddies and his wife.

Nick, Doc and Shank are ex-cons and always had a trick planned. While Tod was never an all-American boy, he had never anticipated a life of crime, but that is where he is headed as he searches for the men and Linda.

Hjorstberg has style. It’s not just the fast-paced story, it’s also how it is told. His writing ranges from poetic:

“I’d searched for the heart and soul of midnight all my life, a quest as ephemeral as the brief trajectory of the discarded ember. I never found what I was looking for on my nocturnal pilgrimages, always the outsider, yearning to be hip.”

to wry:

“Tequila crashed inside my skull like a Lower Slobovian demolition derby.”

Tod’s quest is our quest. Did he unwittingly kill the prostitute? Is Linda dead? What is he willing to do to exact revenge? 

“Mañana” is muy macho.

Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

Mysterious Press, 208 pages, $24 (release date - 5/5/15)

It is difficult to review a book you can’t really talk about without tripping over a spoiler with every sentence. 

Joyce Carol Oates has built a refined and dark novel about murder, conscience, and insanity. Oates builds the story up slowly and meticulously. She leaves hints of things to come like leaves blown into a house by the wind. The closer you get to the front door, the more leaves you discover. But, at first, it’s just the tiniest of leaves that has blown the farthest in, so little you might not notice it at first. You might not wonder how it got into your house or whether it has playfellows who have also dampened your hallway. Finally you see more and more leaves, and before you know it, it’s obvious someone has opened the door and let the leaves in. But you live alone and there should be no one there but you.

Wait, that’s crazy talk.


Joyce Carol Oates used to write her dark, psychologically twisted novels under the pen name of Rosamond Smith. The irony of Oates using her own name for “Jack of Spades” should not be lost on readers of this book.

I will say this about the plot: The narrator is a successful writer of mysteries. He plots his books the way a general plots his battles.

And I will say this about “Jack of Spades”: It’s stylish, macabre, and compelling. Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe are mentioned frequently. They are good company for this wicked tale.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Minotaur Books, 304 pages, $23.99

Olen Steinhauer is known for his two series about a) apparatchiks in an unnamed Balkan country and b) an American CIA agent, both of which have received numerous nominations and awards. Before “All the Old Knives,” I most enjoyed another standalone spy book, “The Cairo Affair.” “All the Old Knives” has beaten the others into the dust. This is a sophisticated, twisted, intelligent spy novel.

What is most surprising about this book is that a lot of the “action” takes place in a conversation between two people in an upscale restaurant in Carmel, California. (Is anything not upscale there?) The two people were both American spies in Vienna. Henry has asked to see his former lover and teammate, Celia, because of a tragedy involving terrorists that occurred five years ago, right before Celia got out of the biz.

Was there a mole in their office in Vienna who precipitated the tragedy? Was the mole Celia? Or Henry? Why did Celia leave both their relationship and her job? She is now a plump mother of two young children, living a staid and boring (in comparison to her spying in Vienna) life in Carmel with her much older ex-business executive husband. She thought and had hoped that she had left all the subterfuge and drama behind her.

Sometimes the narration is by Celia, and other times by Henry. We hear one person’s version of what happened, then we hear how the other really felt. Steinhauer’s back-and-forth is ingenious. The denouement is surprising and unexpected. Steinhauer’s writing is elegant and his characterizations necessarily sparse but thorough.

MBTB star!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Devil She Knows by Bill Loehfelm

Picador, 336 pages, $16 (c2012)

Maureen Coughlin is a waitress at a dive bar on Staten Island. She is only 26 years old, but she is old before her time, having frittered away her youth, partially because of alcohol and drug abuse, but also because of her lack of ambition and bad family relationships. She is a mess. One night she figures she can’t sink any lower when, drunk and disoriented, she spies an intimate sexual act between her boss and a man running for political office. Of course the political figure, Frank Sebastian, is not a man to cross, having buried — one suspects actually as well as figuratively — some bodies. What’s a girl to do? Not what Maureen does, that’s for certain.

Maureen does the equivalent of pulling her hair, screaming, and running around in circles for the entire book. If you told her not to go into the dark basement, she would set her mouth in a determined line and do it anyway. If you told her to go into hiding, she would take out an ad announcing her location and point a neon sign at herself. If she had been a regular person with “normal” reactions, the book would have ended at page twenty.

She does find a protector (maybe) in lugubrious, weary Detective Nat Waters. He never deems it necessary to let Maureen know what’s going on — nor should he — but she acts on half-suspected, no-basis-for-thinking-this scenarios. Detective Waters probably should have filled her in because he spends way more time bailing her out of fixes than he would have explaining things.

Maureen, for her part, is becoming savvy in the dark ways of the world, and her righteous indignation flows like water. She is determined to root out evil and take herself out of danger. But first she must look danger in the eye. (There is an overabundance of talk about looking people in the eye, not looking people in the eye, looking at feet while avoiding same.)

To enjoy a book I like to like a main character, but it’s not necessary. Especially in noir books, the main characters have moral defects, but they and their stories still carry literary punch. I couldn’t wrap any warm fuzzy feelings around Maureen, but I also didn’t find her interesting. This book is carried by a look at a dark night world affected by the criminality of one creepy, powerful guy.

While I enjoyed “The Devil She Knows” overall, I can’t say I was as blown away.

(And would someone tell me, please, why there is a picture of a man on the cover of this book, when it is clearly Maureen's story.)