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

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol

Bitter Lemon Press, 224 pages, $14.95 (c2001, English ed. c2011), translated by Ruth Whitehouse

Esmahan Aykol is an İstanbullu, someone from Istanbul, Turkey, but she has connections to Germany as well. It is understandable, then, that her heroine, Kati Hirschel, is an Istanbul-born German who returned to Istanbul when she was an adult. “Hotel Bosphorus” was written in Turkish but exhales in Turkish, German, and English. As is so true of most of us Americans, we are out of step with a good deal of the European and Asian worlds. Besides their native language, they know English and probably other languages as well, and we know English. We are the world’s perpetual tourists, especially in regard to books written in other languages.

Aykol stops to explain certain differences in how things are set up in Istanbul and how difficult it is to render certain expressions into Turkish. I think her foreign reference point is the German reader, but it applies to us English readers as well. Kati is soliciting help from a French lawyer in German:

“‘If there’s no objection to you giving me the information I want, I’d rather not say,’ I said. I have to admit that, even after so many years [in Turkey], I would have found it difficult to construct that sentence in Turkish.”

There are many languages floating around in this book and many characters from countries other than Turkey, and they all lend an international sheen to Aykol’s work. For example, Kati says to her Turkish friend Lale:

“‘If you spoke German as well as my Turkish … Well, not German, because that’s a difficult language. But if you learn to speak any language as well as I speak Turkish, I’ll kiss your forehead in admiration.’”

It is Aykol’s stew of foreign sensibilities, the depiction of walls breaking down between countries, and her description, however brief, of the economic frustrations and breakdowns in Turkey at that time that gives this book an interesting underlying layer.

Kati is the owner of a crime-centric bookstore — although goodness knows how she manages to keep her store afloat since she’s seldom there to pay bills and do orders. Perhaps that mundane aspect of bookstore arcana is not worth mentioning. Her complicated world is complicated further when an acquaintance from Germany comes to town.

That acquaintance is Petra, a popular German actress, who is in town with a German crew to film an adaptation of a famous Italian book. Production hasn’t even started when their two-bit film director is murdered. Since Kati is so familiar with crime (where’s that irony emoticon when you need it), she decides to investigate the murder. Her desire to exonerate her friend is a weak motivation.

In the process, Kati, a woman in her forties who is constantly worried about her appearance, meets several eligible men, not all of whom are on the right side of the law. There are a few steamy sequences worthy of a comical version of “Shades of Grey-Lite.”

I enjoyed the book for its glimpse of life in Istanbul, but I had trouble with the sometimes abrupt transitions and undulating tone — was it about political criticism, elitism, sex-in-the-city girl-gone-wild, rom-com, the sensitive handling of relationships? Perhaps it was more about my Western expectations and sensibilities. The murder mystery itself played second fiddle to life in Istanbul and Kati’s love life.

My familiarity with authors who set their series in Turkey is limited. I have read one Mehmet Murat Somer and there is a tonal similarity with Aykol. I’ve also read Orhan Pamuk, and Pamuk (Western-influenced, I’d say) and Aykol live in two different worlds. I’ve read several of Barbara Nadel’s books in the Çetin İkmen series, but she’s British and writes in English. I don’t know enough to say whether Aykol's style is “Turkish,” but it is an interesting glimpse into a different world, even if it is an indifferent look at murder.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Woman of the Dead by Bernhard Aichner

Scribner, 288 pages, $26, translated by Anthea Bell (release date - 8/25/15)

Brünhilde Blum prefers to go by just Blum. She loathes the name given her by her adoptive parents, just as she loathes those same parents. They owned a mortuary and her father trained her at a very, very young age to process the dead. Needless to say, Blum has a very practical, albeit skewed, view of death. In this way “Woman of the Dead” by Austrian author Bernhard Aichner is like no other, although there are homages paid to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter and Steig Larsen’s Lisbeth Salander.

At the heart of the story is how the losses Blum experiences affect her view of the world. Instead of drawing inward, although she does do that for a time, she reaches out to help someone even more troubled than she. With her family’s love and support — and virtual ignorance of the real situation — Blum attempts to bring some evil men to justice. 

Aichner’s pacing is very different and off-kilter in a fascinating way. The violent acts and deaths are portrayed rather vividly. Blum is a provocative character. Her thought processes and resulting actions are impulsive and calculating at the same time. “Woman of the Dead” is an exemplary thriller.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Vanishing Games by Roger Hobbs

Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95

I don’t know how Roger Hobbs does it. From the very first page, he is able to hit his readers with fast-paced action, technical legerdemain, and a gripping plot. He even addresses the little things that drive me batty sometimes in books.

Before I talk about the rest of the book, let me explain what I mean by that last sentence. If I notice it, it bothers me if characters miss out on what real people would do. I recently read Sue Grafton’s “X,” and her stalwart P.I., Kinsey Millhone, had to uncomfortably deal with the lack of bathroom facilities while on a stakeout. It didn’t have anything to do with the plot, but it lent a painful authenticity to Kinsey’s character. No matter how farfetched the plot gets, if a character is human, you have got to take that into account. Jordan Foster, an editor at “The Life Sentence”, mentioned a “Wired” article about the latest season of “True Detective” and how characters would travel long distances (between actual places in California) in impossibly short times. That bothered her. That bothers me. Internal consistency.

At one point, “Jack” (Hobbs’ ghostman from “Ghostman,” his first book) gets dunked in a sewage-filled ocean, is run ragged while getting away from bad(der) guys, and suffers slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to the extent that he is dripping and oozing blood. He merely changes clothes and keeps going for several more chapters. I thought to myself, eww, he must smell really bad and have a wide personal zone in crowds, making it easy for a sniper to get him. I fretted about how unreal (hah!) that little piece of the narrative appeared. But I should have trusted the author more. Eventually Jack connects with a shower, while acknowledging his fundamental odiferous nature. Everything was all better for me and I could continue to read. The fact that Jack eventually cleans himself up speaks to the meticulous way Hobbs crafts the world his characters inhabit.

In “Vanishing Games,” the world consists mostly of Macau, the incongruous high-flying, big-stakes gambling mecca for the rich of China and beyond. To be sure, there’s a seedy side to Macau. (And an even seedier side.) The poor inhabitants co-exist with the rich tourists on this geographical appendage to mainland China.

After not having heard from her for six years, Angela, Jack’s mentor. friend, and fellow con artist, surfaces and contacts him. Jack has missed her terribly. She is one of the few people capable of assuaging his loneliness. It’s not easy being no one and everyone, as the criminal term “ghostman” signifies. A ghost is someone who can assume different identities and can craft them for others as well, a necessary job for someone working in a criminal crew that needs to disappear after a job.

Angela is in trouble. An attempt to swindle the swindlers has backfired big time. She put together a crew to pirate away some sapphires from a ship of smugglers in the waters near Hong Kong and Macau. Somehow a stranger has found out about Angela’s scheme and wants what’s his. Since he already has the sapphires, Angela has no idea what he really wants. She just knows, after she receives a box containing the head of her last crew member, that she needs help, and Jack is whose help she needs to pull off the ultimate con game.

When Roger Hobbs appeared at MBTB a few years ago after “Ghostman” hit the market, I had a chance to ask him a bunch of nosy questions. It was then I learned that some of his “facts” were made up. Fabricated. Out of thin air, whole cloth, nada. He made it sound so authentic. I’m sure some of the stuff in “Vanishing Games” is of the same ilk, but it doesn’t matter. It sounds good.

“Vanishing Games” is every bit as nervy, compelling, and dramatic as “Ghostman” was. With the addition of the mysterious Angela, mentioned several times in “Ghostman” but never seen except in flashbacks, it becomes even more intriguing.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

X by Sue Grafton

Marion Wood Books, 416 pages, $28.95 (release date - 8/25/15)

With the farewells this year of comedians whom I enjoyed watching (Dave Letterman, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart — even though, technically, Colbert’s departure was to another show), I am feeling sentimental about the — guesswork here — upcoming end of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series with “Z” She is up to “X,” and there isn’t too much left of the alphabet, if memory serves me right. Therefore, I’m announcing straight off, every single one of the remaining books will get an MBTB star.

“X” is not for anything this time around, yet it signifies a lot. There are “x”s written into characters, settings, and situations. And let us not forget, in scientific notation, “x” is the unknown quantity.

There are three unknown quantities to be solved by Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s redoubtable private investigator in Santa Teresa, California, forever trapped like a fly in amber in the 1980s. 1) Kinsey is hired by Hallie Bettancourt to find the son she put up for adoption at birth. 2) Kinsey suspects new neighbors Edna and Joseph Shallenbarger are up to no good. 3) Private investigator Pete Wolinsky died in “W Is for Wasted,”  and his widow now is asking for Kinsey’s help in finding some financial papers.

Nothing is ever simple, thank goodness, for Kinsey. 1) Hallie Bettancourt doesn’t exist. 2) It isn’t simply a case of not liking the sly, sneaky looks of Edna Shallenbarger, it’s a case of how does Kinsey protect her dear friend and landlord, Henry Pitts, from being used. 3) When Kinsey discovers that Pete hid a packet of objects that should have been delivered to a young girl about twenty years earlier, it leads her on a major journey to discover why Pete also left a coded list of women’s names.

I love Kinsey’s tidiness and meticulous note keeping. I love that there have been thirty-some-odd-years of watching Kinsey eat either a cholesterol-laden, all-American diet or some strange Hungarian concoction at Rosie’s restaurant. I will miss passages like this:

“…I had time for a bite to eat, supping on milk of tomato soup and a gooey grilled cheese sandwich, which I held in a fold of paper towel that neatly soaked up the excess butter. While I ate, I read a couple of chapters of a Donald Westlake paperback.”

Sue Grafton has created a major female character who relies on her brain cells rather than her brawn. Yes, Kinsey can shoot a gun. Yes, she knows karate. But her strengths are always her deductive and intuitive skills. And Grafton’s sense of humor.

There’s more to the story that “X” begins. Will it take us all the way through to “Z”? 

MBTB star!

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Prayer of the Bone by Paul Bryers

Bloomsbury, 256 pages, out of print (c2000)

“The Prayer of the Bone” is an atmospheric, Gothic novel set in Maine, written by a Brit. (John Connally has a series set in Maine. What is it about Brits and Maine?)

Maddie left the UK with her ten-year-old daughter to move to Maine. She got a job working on Dr. Wendicott’s archaeological dig, looking for the remains of an English settlement. Secondarily, the dig crew is trying to determine what happened to the Souriquois (Micmac) indigenous people. On the verge of a significant discovery, Maddie’s body is found near the cliffs of the coastal excavation site. She appears to have been mauled by a bear.

Calhoun is the detective assigned to the backwater where the death occurred. When Maddie’s sister, Jessica, flies in from England, he is immediately attracted to her (and Dr. Wendicott). (Pickings are slim, apparently.) It’s a story about sex. It’s story about myths. It’s a story about dysfunctional families. (Lots of dysfunctional families.) It’s a history lesson.

Mostly there is a lot of grey, snowy, rainy, muddy bleakness. Paul Bryers paints the gloom well. Here is a passage about the “cold, bleak border country between England and Scotland”:

“A land of sheep. Ugly rain-sodden sheep with shaggy grey coats that looked like bits of wall had broken off and been scattered across the hillside; and black crows that nested in the twisted beech trees of the churchyards and flew down to eat the eyes from new-born lambs…”

Even the child, Freya, comes in for her share of foreboding: “Jessica often used the word [elfin] to describe Freya to her friends in Rome, meaning ‘scamp-like, cute’, not thinking then of its more chthonic connotations, of furtiveness, secrecy, even slyness, of the dark creepiness of the forest. But Freya was half Celt, half native American; it had to be in the genes.”

Bryers holds the Gothic tone pretty well, except for a rhythmic change-up when dealing with Calhoun’s soaring testosterone. Bryers also presents a fascinating history lesson of the European insolence and expansionism in Maine, even though a lot of it is fictional.

For most of the book, Bryers keeps up the suspense of whether Maddie has been murdered. (Or maybe it's just tough to get an analysis done during a cold Maine winter in the middle of nowhere.) There's a rousing discussion of bear cults, people acting like animals, spirit animals, and weirdness.

Although “The Prayer of the Bone” is out of print, it is easy to find a used copy. It’s worth the effort.