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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Precipice by Paul Doiron

Minotaur Books, 336 pages, $25.99

I just heard Portland author Lori L. Lake mention at MBTB’s book group that she had heard two different authors refer to the power of book six in a series. Apparently it is the tipping point when people begin to notice authors; there’s an established track record and evidence that a publisher had faith in the books. Well, folks, “Precipice” is Paul Doiron’s book six in his Maine game warden Mike Bowditch series, and we need to take note of him.

I quietly admit that I had not read the previous five books, even though people whom I respect praised the series. I just hadn’t gotten around to it. Shame on me! I loved book six, and Doiron has tipped over to the side of must-read authors. Also, lucky me; I get to read five books without waiting a year for the next one to come out.

Without the knowledge of what came before, I only had this book to judge the recurring characters. Bowditch apparently overcame the difficult hurdle of being the son of a poacher — thus, the title of the first book in the series, “The Poacher’s Son”! — to become a game warden. Although he now appears responsible and wary, his prior behaviors were more spontaneous and reckless. (By the way, Bowditch’s first name isn’t even mentioned for about fifty pages!)

“Precipice” begins with the search for two missing female hikers on the Appalachian Trail. At first, Bowditch is paired with a hiking legend, “Nonstop” Nissen, who is more curmudgeon and showboater than partner, to search a piece of the trail for the women. As more clues appear, at times Bowditch searches with his girlfriend, impetuous wildlife biologist Stacey Stevens, the daughter of Bowditch’s mentor. Quite a number of wardens, investigators, police, and other officials appear, but they neatly take their places, advance the story, then pop back out for the most part.

As more is learned about the hikers, it is not even clear that they may be dead. If they are dead, there are a satisfying number (for us readers) of potential murderers. Doiron manipulates Bowditch down this road and that, chasing down suspects and theories. It’s great suspenseful reading.

I’ll end with examples of Doiron’s evocative writing:

“As I stepped through the door, my nose was treated to an amazing bouquet of aromas: wood smoke from the stove, floral shampoo (or maybe soap), burned coffee, the steamy smell of drying sleeping bags, muddy boots that stank from within and without, bug repellent, the distinctly sweet odor of consumed alcohol being exhaled, and some sort of freeze-dried curry dish being heated on a propane camp stove.”

“I have never suffered from a fear of heights, but there was something unnerving about the way my feet kept slipping, as if an invisible pair of hands had closed around my ankles and was trying to yank them over the drop-off. I imagined the gorge as a malevolent entity intent upon tossing me to my death in the churning water below.”

“His voice seemed to bubble up from the bottom of his throat like something viscous.”

Friday, July 24, 2015

Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $24.99 (c2012, US Ed. 2015), translated from German by Sorcha McDonagh

I never mind when Hercule Poirot cogitates with his little grey cells, murmurs a French phrase or two (“Mais oui, Hastings!”), and keeps mum. I never mind when Poirot doesn’t reveal his deductions and thoughts to Hastings or Miss Lemon and instead presents all with his impeccable reasoning at the end. Ah, yes, I think to myself, of course.

Jean-Luc Bannalec’s hero, the imperious Commissaire Georges Dupin, doesn’t have Poirot’s brio and doesn’t quite pull off the wait-and-see game as well as Poirot. Dupin abruptly hangs up on his assistants after demanding six impossible things before breakfast, goes for long, aimless walks in the woods or by the sea to think, often feels faint with hunger (or gasping for his third, fourth, fifth cup of coffee), turns off his phone to avoid his assistants and superiors, and is not good at sharing information. Despite (or perhaps because of) his recalcitrant protagonist, Bannalec does have a winner in his series set in Brittany. “Death in Brittany” is the only book by Bannalec, German author Jörg Bong’s pseudonym, to be translated into English so far. There are three more available only in German.

Dupin was declared persona non grata as a policeman in Paris and so he decamped to Brittany, where he has been based in Concarneau in the Finistère. Bannalec does descriptive justice to this ancient and beautiful land. The Breton-born regard anyone not born there as newcomers. Newcomer Dupin has only been in the area for three years and has a double-strike against him as well: “Parisians are the only people whom Bretons consider to be true outsiders.” Nevertheless, Dupin bears his shame well. He enjoys the food, the scenery, the sounds, the air, and, although he cannot pronounce their Breton names, the people.

When a respected hotelier is murdered in the nearby town of Pont-Aven and the local policeman is on vacation, the burden falls to Dupin to solve the case. Working in his private bubble, Dupin writes in his notebook, orders his underlings around, and avoids keeping everyone abreast of his theories. As annoying as everyone finds him, he has his moments of gestalt that keep others in brief abeyance while he figures out what is out-of-place at the crime scene or in his interviews with suspects.

Dupin is depicted fairly well, his associates less so. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference between policemen Le Ber and Labat, except that Dupin cannot easily tolerate Labat. In the beginning Labat is described as “small-minded, unbearably keen and syncophantic, yet also driven by ambition.” Le Ber is “precise, quick, intelligent.” However, for all intents and purposes in the rest of the book, they are interchangeable.

“Death in Brittany” also deals with the artists who were inspired by the area almost a century and a half earlier, most notably Paul Gauguin. Bannalec does a wonderful job of weaving that into the story.

Dupin is not a ball of lovable and fuzzy; he’s often terse, inarticulate, and rude, but it’s not necessary to love the protagonist to enjoy the story. Bring on the next book!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Badlands by C. J. Box

Minotaur Books, 288 pages, $26.99 (release date - 7/28/15)

What C. J. Box does so well is create characters with depth. Men, women, children — he understands the whole range of humanity and deftly drafts them for his stories.

In “Badlands,” it is a handicapped twelve-year-old boy who is inadvertently at the center of a drug war in his town. To help out his family -- consisting of a recovering addict mother and her no-account, layabout boyfriend -- Kyle has a job delivering newspapers early in the morning. In the middle of winter in Grimstad, North Dakota, that's not such a good thing: “The vinyl covering of his bicycle seat had actually shattered into shards that morning when he sat on it.”

One morning he sees a car accident. Something flies from the ruined car and Kyle picks it up. It is a bag of high-quality drugs slated for sale, primarily in the burgeoning population of oil workers in Grimstad. The frakking industry has brought jobs and inflation and violent crime to a once faltering, quiet community.

What Kyle doesn’t understand about the car accident is that there is another car involved, the one that caused the accident. Two men exit that car and look around the snow-covered ground. Obviously, they are looking for what Kyle has found. Strangely, a police car shows up, too, but instead of calling an ambulance or detaining the two men, the officer also searches the ground.

Into this potentially corrupt environment comes our heroine, Cassie Dewell. She has just left her job in Montana (see “The Highway” by C. J. Box) and taken on the job of Chief Investigator for the Bakken County Sheriff’s Department. Her welcome consists of a dead body, cut into pieces, and strewn all over Grimstad.

Cassie’s eleven-year-old son and hippie mother are slated to follow soon, so she’s anxious to ensure they won’t be moving into hell frozen over. She hasn’t even learned the names of all the other officers and she has to trudge through the frozen landscape looking for drug cartels and bent police. Because Grimstad is the backend of nowhere and boasts a hellacious winter season, and because of the sudden wealth and resulting inflation oil has brought to the area, Bakken County has paid Cassie a bigger salary than she could hope to earn elsewhere and has even included a three-bedroom apartment. She needs to make this job work.

Running in the background of “The Badlands” is a story arc from “The Highway.” The Lizard King, a notorious serial killer, has eluded the authorities for a long time. Cassie’s burning desire is to capture him and, if possible, witness his death. Authorities in North Carolina think they have him, but will they be able to keep him? And if they can’t, will he follow up his aborted attempt to kill Cassie and track her down?

Box can write the heck out of the "New Wild West.” Except for Craig Johnson, Box pits man against nature and man against man better than anyone. He can write believable female characters. He can write children without a precocious adult overtone. He could probably write the phone book and make it thrilling.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Harper, 288 pages, $27.99

What to do when a hero tumbles? As almost everyone who is interested in “Go Set a Watchman” knows, Harper Lee’s new novel isn’t really new. From this third-person narrative that bounces back and forth between grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s 1960s little-town Alabama and her mostly idyllic childhood years, Lee’s publisher got her to winnow it down to a first-person narrative of a defining incident in Scout’s childhood. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, defends a black man accused of rape in the segregated let-no-man-put-asunder-South. For fifty-five years Atticus has been a hero to a lot of us.

“Go Set a Watchman” plays out against a background of Supreme Court-ordered desegregation, an angry call for states’ rights, and a burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the South. As has been so widely publicized, Atticus indeed is discovered to have been a KKK member in his distant past. He now (late 1950s) runs a citizen’s council in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, which objects to federal and NAACP intervention in their government. 

Where “To Kill a Mockingbird” had a dramatic main story, with a wonderful rendering of Scout’s unconventional life anchoring it, “Go Set a Watchman has no focal point other than Jean Louise’s frustration and growing alienation from the town which birthed her. She has come from her home in New York to visit her father, uncle, aunt, and hopeful boyfriend, Hank. Although her visits have been yearly, this time she notices a definite change. There is no longer one Maycomb, but two. Where blacks and whites knew their “places” and, at least in the opinion of the whites, amicably co-existed, now there is suspicion and an underlying hostility. The saddest scene in the book is when Jean Louise visits her family’s old housekeeper, Calpurnia, a black woman who raised her from the age of two after Scout’s mother died suddenly. “Go Set a Watchman” is primarily about Jean Louise’s struggles to understand how her nearest and dearest can tolerate what is going on and whether everything she learned as a child is suddenly invalidated.

The rushed ending crams a lot of philosophizing about the end of a long-standing culture, no matter how odious its genesis. Yes, Atticus says the Negroes are “children” and still in need of guidance before they can be given full civil rights; how dare the federal government interfere. It’s a forgettable and regrettable mandatory tiding up of a storyline, such as it is.

What is still marvelous, however, is Harper Lee’s ability to evoke Scout’s childhood. In flashbacks, Scout is still irrepressible, incorrigible, exuberant, and good-hearted. We see her in adolescence, too — quite a poignant depiction and a real treat. This greatness outweighs the grown-up Jean Louise’s duller journey of re-awakening, although what makes that journey interesting is that it was written at the time it depicts; it isn’t a rendering with the precious foreknowledge of what will happen.

Remember as you are reading that this Atticus Finch is not the Atticus of TKAM. Harper Lee distilled what was best of her character and tethered him to a story that represented the intensity and volitility of the times. And that was genius.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Scribner, 448 pages, $30

Will you be surprised, ecstatic, or disappointed to discover that “Finders Keepers” is a straight-ahead thriller?

Stephen King has brought back the character of Bill Hodges from “Mr. Mercedes” (c2014). After suffering a heart attack at the end of “Mr. Mercedes,” Bill has changed his ways. He eats healthy foods and is no longer a stressed-out police detective. He and Holly Gibney, another character from “Mr. Mercedes,” operate a private investigation agency. For “Finders Keepers,” they are also eventually reunited with yet another familiar character, Jerome Robinson. Together they thwarted a man who was attempting to bomb a crowd in “Mr. Mercedes.”

Did King have “Finders Keepers” in mind when he wrote “Mr. Mercedes”? The mind of a genius works in mysterious ways. One of the defining scenes of the earlier book was when the villain drove his car (a Mercedes!) into a crowd of people waiting in line for the opening of a job fair. The current book opens with what happened to one of the driver’s victims. Tom Saubers was first a victim of the bad economy at the time, and his life became even worse after he was badly injured. Tom’s teenage son, Pete, is the hero of “Finders Keepers.” A young boy at the time of his father’s accident, he, too, was traumatized by the attack when his family lost most of what they had. They especially mourned the demise of their middle-class dream and were then constantly on the verge of fragmenting. 

Long before the events of “Mr. Mercedes,” crazy-as-a-loon Morris Bellamy murdered famous, reclusive author John Rothstein — perhaps a nod to John Updike and Philip Roth — because he was mad about how Rothstein failed, in Morrie’s mind, to adequately depict the life of Jimmy Gold, his fictional protagonist, in the third and final published book in Rothstein’s series. Morrie is “rewarded” when he finds lots of Moleskine notebooks in Rothstein’s safe. Joy of joys, there could be more about Jimmy in these notebooks!

Many years later, Pete accidentally discovers those Rothstein notebooks but has no idea about the bloody lineage of his discovery. Pete uses the $20,000 he finds with the notebooks to improve his family’s life. Over the next few years, an anonymous dribble here and a surprise dribble there makes all the difference in his family’s security. More importantly, Pete discovers John Rothstein and, like Morrie before him, becomes obsessed with the writer. 

When Tina, Pete’s younger sister, becomes concerned about Pete and the origin of her family’s anonymous benefaction, she confides in Barbara Robinson, who turns out to be Jerome Robinson’s sister. Because of their past association, Barbara knows Bill Hodges, and she and Tina go to him seeking help. Little do they realize how much help they and Pete will soon need.

King, the author of many books with a supernatural horror theme, plays it straight with these characters, although Morrie is over-the-top baloozey. (“Red Lips” is how Pete later nicknames him, highlighting Morrie’s most notable physical feature. Here is a real-life version of King’s iconic scary clown.) His trio of investigators from “Mr. Mercedes” are compelling. “Finders Keepers” is a great melding of the stories of Pete’s lonely journey and the reunion of effective crime fighters.

King is a master of finding the psychological funny bone spot; it’s neither funny nor a bone, but it gives us painful shivers to see what he does to torture his characters. King must enjoy his god-of-the-story status, being able to determine which of his characters die and which just simply suffer in extremis. Oh, no, he didn’t, is what will float frequently through your mind.

At the end of “Finders Keepers,” King hints at the storyline for his his proposed third Bill Hodges book. 

“Finders Keepers” moves quickly forward, definitely the product of a genuine storyteller who understands pacing and what drives a story forward.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Orbit, 416 pages, $15

“Soulless” is the July seelction for the MBTB book group. We will be meeting on Tuesday, July 28, 2015, at 6:30 p.m., at the Belmont Branch of the Multnomah County Public Library,1038 SE César E. Chávez Boulevard, Portland, Oregon.

The front cover of this book heralds that it is “a novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols.” Although that basically sums it up, I would add that steampunk and Victorian England are also in the mix.

Alexia Tarabotti is a preternatural; that is, she has no soul. As a result, she is safe against the supernatural machinations of vampires and werewolves, but she is mortal and must still beware.

As the book opens, Alexia is an aging (26 years old!), plain spinster of independent disposition and moderate wealth. She is a thorn in the side of handsome, virile, alpha werewolf and head of the UK’s BUR (whatever that stands for), Lord Maccon. BUR deals with the troubles supernaturals might cause. It is, in a sense, the supernaturals policing their own, although humans are also part of the organization.

Gail Carriger has put together all the elements of popular interest, including some salacious romance, and crafted the well-received “Parasol Protectorate” series. of which “Soulless” is the first.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson

Viking, 320 pages, $27.95

That itty-bitty square of dark chocolate is never enough. How do you stop with one potato chip? Just ten minutes of “Angry Birds”? Come on! If you lined up all the Sheriff Walt Longmire books in a row before a Longmire virgin, at the end, there would be a tired veteran staring blank-eyed and drooling after finishing the last book. Then he/she would say, “Where’s the next one?” Indeed.

Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, is our hero. He spouts Latin, knows his museums, and is the epitome of the Gary Cooper strong, silent type. With the imposing and wise Henry Standing Bear to watch his back, front, and side, is there any varmint who would dare challenge Walt? There are an ignorant few and they go down.

When the largest T-Rex ever found is discovered on a local ranch, it shakes the archaeological world. When Danny Lone Elk, the owner of the land upon which the discovery is made, dies a suspicious death, it shakes Walt Longmire’s world. How can he deal with this potential crime? His daughter, Cady, and granddaughter, Lola (named after Henry’s car), are due for a visit, and he doesn’t even have the Pack ’n Play assembled. What the heck is a Pack ’n Play, he wonders.

“Jen,” as this particular gigantic ancestor-of-the-chicken is called, is not just the scientific discovery of the century, it is a $$ bonanza for someone. And that’s the mystery: Who inherits Danny Lone Elk’s dinosaur now that he is dead? And is it even Danny’s dino? Suddenly Walt has the Feds, State officials, and the media breathing down his neck.

When his life becomes even more complicated after a personal tragedy, and his old friend and mentor, Lucian, almost dies, Walt once again puts his life in jeopardy with a sorry trudge into the wilderness (even if it is in a luxurious Neiman-Marcus helicopter with gigaillionaire Omar) to track down whodunnit.

It took a lot of willpower to actually read (almost) every word. How does Craig Johnson get the pace going so well? How does he know when to twist the rope a little tighter? Before you know it, you are bleary-eyed and the exhausted book is lying before you. Where’s the next one?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

Broadway Books, 387 pages, $15 (2011, first printing 2014)

“The Martian” began life as a free download in 2011. Then it became a 99-cent download on Amazon. (More people bought it than downloaded it for free.) Then it found a print publisher and a spot on the New York Times bestsellers list. Finally, the movie made from this book, starring Matt Damon, is scheduled for release in October. Well, imagine that! And that is the attraction of this book: Andy Weir’s imagination and his based-in-reality science.

Astronaut Mark Watney’s crew thought he was dead when they blasted off from Mars and headed back to Earth. Watney was not, however, dead. “Hey, guys, wait for me” fell on ears too far away to hear. With potatoes and disco music for companions (beggars cannot be choosers), Watney must solve one survival problem after another. Yes, Mars is trying to kill him (by being inhospitable), which makes this a trying-to-murder-someone mystery.

Mostly told in first-person by Watney, his sense of humor, his ingenuity, and his optimism carry the book. As one rescue scenario after another hits snags, the potential for heartbreak is huge. But Watney’s efforts and will to live can be applauded no matter the outcome. He exemplifies the best in human nature and resourcefulness.

Although this is Weir’s first published book, he has the mechanics of suspense down tight. He takes his readers on a roller coaster ride with what looks like impeccable scientific knowledge. (But how would we know for certain unless we were orbital/astrodynamic geeks ourselves?)

I wish I could legitimately issue an MBTB star, but I can’t. There’s no crime, even if there is suspense as big as Jupiter.