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

Monday, September 28, 2015

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

DAW, 384 pages, $7.99 (c2012)

“Throne of the Crescent Moon” is a fantasy adventure. It is not a mystery, but I wish it were so I could give it a star for how much fun it was to read. The cover says, optimistically, that this is “Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms.” Saladin Ahmed’s website says the next book is due in 2016. I hope so.

Set in a fantasy version of the Middle East with an Arabian Nights inflection, there are magicians, alchemists, spell casters, ghuls (ghouls?) and ghul hunters, Dervishes, and shape shifters. Ghul hunter Adoulla Makslood, his apprentice, his beloved neighbors, and a desert tribeswoman are all that stand before a mysterious force of evil intent on taking over Dhamsawaat, the ruling city of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. Detroit author Ahmed has created his characters with reverence to the actual mythology and culture of the Middle East.

Can’t wait for the next volume.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $15.99 (c2014)

There was a fleeting thought at the beginning of “Invisible City” that, ho hum, here was simply another book about an edgy, feisty young woman, trying to make her way in New York City. However, as the story unfolds, more unusual elements arise, and they make the story very different and very much worth reading.

Rebekah Roberts has been a stringer for a NYC tabloid newspaper for a few months. As the story opens, she is freezing outdoors as she waits for the body of a naked, bald woman to be lowered from a hoist in a scrapyard. The scrapyard is owned by a Hasidic Jew, and the dead woman is known to the owner. Special Hasidic attendants remove her body. As time passes, however, Rebekah wonders why there is no police investigation or autopsy. Eventually, a man named Saul Katz, who presents himself as a rogue cop possibly investigating corruption in the police department, wants to help Rebekah with her story if she will help him with his subrosa investigation.

Rebekah is a stranger to the Hasidic way of life, but nevertheless, a connection is revealed. Her mother, Aviva, came from the same community that apparently has made a murder (and murderer) disappear. Rebekah has not seen her mother since she was six months old. She has harbored anger towards both her absent mother and her forgiving father, and it manifests itself in a clinical case of anxiety.

What Julia Dahl does so well is give her readers a multi-layered look at a Hasidic community. Her depiction reveals the genesis of this tightly controlled Orthodox Jewish community, and the modern-day repercussions of traditions and orthodoxy rooted in an ancient past. Dahl also has created a complex character who is given an opportunity to perhaps forgive the woman who deserted her by understanding the forces that shaped her.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Armada by Ernest Cline

Crown, 368 pages, $26

Ernest Cline’s first book, “ Ready Player One,” was on MBTB’s best books of the year list. Its characters were engaging, the story had real heart to it, and its vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth was grim but not hopeless. It’s disappointing that none of that applies to Cline’s second book, “Armada.”

The main character is a short-tempered, whiny eighteen-year-old gamer. The plot of “Armada” was done better in “The Last Starfighter.”

Bah, humbug!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

Riverbed Books, 464 pages, $28.95

This is not a mystery. But it is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Ivan Doig recently died and it is fortunate that we have this fine book as his coda. He is a writer with a western sensibility. He was raised in Montana and has written often of the area. “The Last Bus to Wisdom” celebrates the wandering, adventurous spirit of an eleven-year-old boy, cast adrift by accident and mishap to ride the “dog bus” (Greyhound, if you haven’t already guessed) between Montana and Wisconsin one summer.

Although his books often are celebratory of the new Old West, he said: “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Western’ writer. To me, language — the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose — is the ultimate ‘region,’ the true home, for a writer.”

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pages, $24

What does an autistic man have to do with a coma patient in a care facility? "Rubbernecker" begins when eighteen-year-old Patrick Fort, a university student with Asperger’s Syndrome, briefly and unknowingly passes by Samuel Galen just after Galen’s car plunges off a cliff, rendering him alive but comatose.

Patrick (not Pat, not Paddy) marches to his own drummer; there’s little else he can do. He doesn’t like to be touched, finds serenity in cleaning and scrubbing, and is fascinated by dead things because of his father. Patrick’s father had been in the street reaching for his young son when he was hit by a car and died. His mother is an alcoholic who cleaned up her act to care for Patrick after that.

At university Patrick is intent on becoming an anatomist in line with his childhood fascination with all manner of dead things. (Patrick’s mother memorably found a dead critter under Patrick’s pillow.) Patrick’s part of “Rubbernecker” follows him mostly in his anatomist’s class, dissecting a body. We are also privy to his awkward relationships (if that word is appropriate) with his classmates and roommates. He puzzles over what emotions people are expressing as they interact with him. Belinda Bauer’s depiction of this is funny, sad, and touching.

Samuel Galen’s part of the story is the more frightening by far. He is a coma patient who is aware of what’s going on around him but has no way to communicate. He anguishes over the fact that neither his wife nor his young daughter have been to visit him. Who is the old woman whose voice he hears murmuring endearments to him? And did he hallucinate opening his eyes and witnessing the murder of another patient?

There are several times when Bauer wickedly and expertly deals out a surprise. (This review is a bit circumspect because I don’t want to spoil some great aha! moments.) I’ve read a lot of mystery books, and I’ve come across my share of seen-that-before points while reading them. I was caught off guard by Bauer’s originality, creativity, and sensitivity. Although there have been memorable books with both autistic people (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) and aware-but-helpless coma patients (“Locked In”), Bauer manages a unique take with her characters.

Bauer deftly presents her tricky story while also paying homage to the extraordinary setting of Wales. For the great setting, intriguing characters, marvelous plot, great heart, and the best last line I’ve read in a long time, here is an MBTB star for “Rubbernecker.”

Thursday, September 10, 2015

She’s Not There by P. J. Parrish

Thomas & Mercer, 382 pages, $15.95

Evil twin/good twin and amnesia are a couple of favorite women-in-jeopardy storylines (and especially were when made-for-television movies were more prevalent). One of them is used in “She’s Not There,” by sisters Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols, writing under the pen name of P. J. Parrish. Here’s a hint: There are no twins in the story.

What P. J. Parrish does well is move a story along. This is evident in their Louis Kincaid series, and it is evident in what I assume is the first in a new series. The authors have now created “Amelia Brody,” an intelligent, self-sufficient female protagonist … who has amnesia. Clay Buchanan, a skip tracer with a sketchy background, is sent to find her when she leaves the hospital in a panic.

As Amelia’s memory gradually returns, she pieces together some important details of her life, but none that will answer why she feels afraid and why she is being hunted. Good storytellers pose lots of questions (but not too many) and gradually answer them (if we’re lucky). So…

What is she running from? Is her husband a good guy or a bad guy, and is he even her husband? If he is good, why did she run from the hospital after hearing his voice? How will she survive in a muddy little black dress, with no money, and with cuts and bruises over her body? Why was Clay Buchanan really hired to find her?

Except for a couple of head-scratching deus ex machina pieces to help the mystery along, it’s a pretty good book with a likable heroine and some likeable transient, warm-hearted, regular people who help Amelia along. (And the villain(s) is villainous.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 320 pages, $16

“The Lock Artist” by Steve Hamilton was a masterpiece. “The Second Life of Nick Mason” attempts to copy that story in many ways. Hamilton is a great storyteller so it’s not a problem.

Nick Mason is a criminal. He was small-time, but then he was caught when a deal went sideways and a federal agent died. He expected to spend twenty-five years to life in prison, but something unexpected happened. A lifer named Darius Cole still manages to run Chicago’s criminal side from inside, and he wants Nick Mason on the outside doing his bidding. If Nick didn’t have a nine-year-old daughter whom he hasn’t seen in five years, he would have walked away. It is the deal with this particular devil that nominally frees Nick. The catch is that Nick must answer a special cellphone and do whatever the voice on the other end requires. And that voice requires a lot.

Mentally and physically, Nick makes the journey from an Irish Catholic neighborhood on the South Side where he grew up to the luxury of a townhouse on Lincoln Park West when he is freed. Cole has the money and the pull to put Nick there. His roommate is Cole’s girlfriend, Diana Rivelli, who manages one of Cole’s semi-legitimate businesses, a restaurant. Don’t ask, don’t tell seems to be the credo by which Nick and Diana live, as they gingerly live their separate lives. Actually, Nick has many articulated rules by which he lives. It helped to keep him out of sight of the law for quite a while. Rule Number Three seems to be his favorite: “When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.”

How does he get back in contact with his ex-wife and his beloved daughter? How does he avoid doing anything heinous for Cole? Will the dogged detective, Frank Sandoval, who originally sent Nick away, manage to trap Nick and send him back to prison? Can he ever call anything “normal” again?

Hamilton wastes no time getting Nick into the thick of things. At the same time, he presents the big reveal about the night it all blew up for Nick well into the book. In terms of structure, Hamilton knows what he is doing. There are many other significant characters and Hamilton makes them play their parts well: the buddy, the girlfriend, the crooked cop, the dark and mysterious go-between. Even if the language isn’t standard noir, the story is.

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

Mulholland Books, 320 pages, $26 (release date - 9/15/15)

Chris Holm has turned from writing about collectors of souls in his intriguing fantasy/pulp series to this straightforward thriller.

There are hitmen galore in “The Killing Kind.” First is the original hitman hired to do what hitmen do. Then there is the hitman hired by the potential victim to protect him against his potential killer. Then there is the hitman who is hired to find the hitman who is hitting hitmen. Clear?

Michael Hendricks makes his living, although he has been officially declared dead, by convincing people that they are about to be whacked and wouldn’t it be worth their while to hire him to kill the hitman? Alexander Engelmann is an elegant, sadistic, European psychopath who is hired by The Mob to find the man who is killing some of their most effective hired guns. Special Agent Charlotte “Charlie” Thompson is the FBI agent who is no longer thought to be crazy for believing that there is a hitman hitting hitmen. Without knowing exactly who Michael is, she calls him her “ghost.” She’s usually a step behind everyone else, but, really, she can’t catch all the killers before the explosive denouement, can she?

“The Killing Kind” adheres to the thriller scenario pretty well, and the hitman hitting hitmen schtick is clever. For better or worse there’s nothing too deep to slow the story down and nothing to stop you from enjoying this read either.

Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville

Soho Crime, 368 pages, $27.95 (release date - 9/22/15)

Stuart Neville’s bleak, uncompromising, noirish view of Northern Ireland is unsettling and difficult to read sometimes. There is no doubt that Neville is a powerful writer. His DI Jack Lennon series is exceptional and laudable. His standalone, “Ratlines,” was an eyeopener. I had to read “Those We Left Behind” in small sections because it was emotionally so raw. Everyone has a disability, an issue, a hole in their souls.

DCI Serena Flanagan has just returned to duty after attending to a personal issue. She is out of step with the rest of the force and is driven even further afield when an old case steps to the forefront. Ciaran and Thomas Devine were foster children when Ciaran confessed to killing their foster father. Flanagan always thought Thomas had actually committed the murder and forced his younger sibling to take the blame.

Paula Cunningham is the probation officer assigned to Ciaran, and her sympathies, too, lie with him. He is now nineteen and just released from institutional care. It is her job to see that Ciaran fits into a society he only remembers through a childhood haze. He certainly is not capable of carrying on as an adult. Judged merely an accessory to the crime, his brother Thomas has been out for a couple of years. All they have to do is stay out of trouble and they are home free.

Easier said than done.

Daniel Rolston, the son of the murdered foster father, has had his life destroyed by the Devine brothers. His mother committed suicide shortly after the murder. When Ciaran is released, Daniel’s life goes into a tailspin. He becomes a stalker and not just of the Devines.

To her occupational detriment, Flanagan wants Ciaran to admit to Thomas’ guilt. To her occupational detriment, Cunningham wants to protect Ciaran from his brother.

The stage is set for lots of tragedy. It’s just a question of how many dead bodies will result, how many tattered professions will be left hanging in the wind, and how bloody it all will be.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Knopf, 416 pages, $27.95, translated by George Goulding

Wow! “Wow” for how much I enjoyed “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” “Wow” for what a tough row Swedish author David Lagercrantz had to hoe. “Wow” for cui bono: The continuation of the popular, thrilling, and provocative Millennium series props up the piggy banks of the estranged father and brother rather than Stieg Larsson’s long-term life-partner. And, lastly, “wow” for what Larsson’s projected plan for his characters must have been and how little we will ever know of that plan.

Part of the attraction of Larsson’s series was his naivety and his passion. He had never written a novel before, and it showed in the huge, honking section of the first book devoted to polemic and lecturing. But Larsson used his avatar, Mikael Blomqvist, and the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander to give voice to his real social and political concerns, and hit a literary and human nerve. The adrenaline-spiking scenes and the surprisingly clever revenge scenarios Larsson crafted were genius. He not only thought outside the box, he had the gall to say, “What box?”

David Lagercrantz captures the essence of Blomqvist and Salander, recapitulates Larsson’s central social concerns, tightens the writing, creates new compelling characters, but doesn’t quite deliver on the surprise and portrayal of exquisite revenge. But he comes close enough. Larsson evoked, "Oh, no, he didn’t; where’s the next book?” at the end of his books, whereas Lagercrantz evokes, “That was well done.” A compulsion created versus a satisfaction met.

At the beginning of “Spider’s Web,” it has been awhile since Blomqvist and Salander have had contact with each other. The fortunes of "Millennium" magazine, the heart of Blomqvist’s passion, are on the wane. The board of the magazine must make a deal with the devil to survive, unless Blomqvist can pull a big, issue-selling story out of thin air. Also a hacker has broken into the supposedly unbreakable NSA computer system in the U.S. Hmmmmm.

The underlying theme of “Spider’s Web” rides on the backs of the Julian Assange and Edward Snowden classified information stories. What should be ultra secure government organizations are actually leaky ships. (And should those organizations have the right to so much information anyway?) In the dark world of the Darknet lurk extraordinary hackers and they may have discovered damning evidence of a conspiracy to privately make money from government-held secrets. When Frans Balder, a computer and mathematical genius who is working on artifical intelligence, is murdered, his autistic son, August, may be the only witness. Are August and other computer geniuses at risk?

In separate storylines, we see Blomqvist and Salander facing these issues. Their “relationship” is fraught with past tensions and misunderstandings, but bonded by unacknowledged tender feelings and implicit trust. They must rely on each other (but not in person) to solve what becomes intertwined problems. Lagercrantz brings Blomqvist and Salander back to life with respect and a good eye for who they are. He also vividly creates or fleshes out some unusual characters like the odious but brilliant Ed Needham of the NSA and a wonderfully surprising guest from Salander’s past.

Finally, I can’t imagine Larsson writing this sentence: “Pensively he brushed his teeth and undressed and climbed into bed.” It is at once mundane and authentic. It felt as if Larsson always had an issue or deep thought to put forward, but Lagercrantz affords the time to set the stage. In this way, Lagercrantz moves forward both the action and the attending humanity. But Larsson’s originality and zing are ever so slightly missed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Atria Books, 512 pages, $28 (release date - 10/20/15)

The gothic novel never really died, but if it had, Kate Morton would single-handedly be responsible for its resurrection. In “The Lake House,” there are tragic heroes and heroines, an old mansion, wickedness, and secrets that go boo! in the night. There are also a couple of intertwining story lines, one contemporary (2003) and the other hidden in the 1930s and 40s.

The contemporary heroine, Sadie Sparrow, has been “ten years on the police force, five as a detective” in London, and she’s in trouble. Teased out in bits to the end of the book is why Sadie is “vacationing” at her grandfather’s home in Cornwall. Initially, we find out that Sadie has talked with a reporter about a case, leaking details condemnatory of the police actions.

To while away the time and avoid thinking about how much trouble she is in, she runs with her grandfather’s dogs. They stumble across a crumbling estate, with a mansion worthy of a true gothic tale. Curious about why the interior of the mansion seems intact, with personal effects still scattered as if the occupants had meant to return in a minute, Sadie investigates what turns out to be the sad story behind the estate of Loeanneth, Cornish for “The Lake House.”

In 1933, the youngest child of a well-to-do family, 11-month-old Theo, disappears on Midsummers Eve. A few days later the body of a family friend and treasured house guest is found in the river. Disconsolate and grieving, the family moves to London, leaving Loeanneth to crumble into its surroundings.

In 2003, eighty-six-year-old Alice Edevane and her older sister, Deborah, are what remain of the household at the time of the disappearance. Alice is now a famous writer of detective novels: “Alice’s books were English mysteries, but there was nothing cosy about them. They were the sort of crime novels reviewers liked to describe as ‘psychologically taut’ and ‘morally ambiguous’, whydunits as much as they were whos or hows.” (Personally, I envisioned Ruth Rendell.) She harbors a secret concerning the night her brother disappeared. Most of the book is the slow unveiling of what she and others in her family knew of that night.

Sadie doggedly pursues, unofficially, this case that ended with no conclusion or suspects. Had Theo been kidnapped? There was no ransom note. Had he been murdered? A body was never found. There were too many people on the grounds of Loeanneth to be of any help in narrowing down suspects. Was Daffyd Llewellyn, the unfortunate man who died the same night, involved?

There are many possibilities and Morton throws them all up in the air, along with the story of Sadie’s personal travails with the police and her life. So many people have voices in this book that it felt too crowded at times. Since much was revealed in other ways, some of the characters could have done without personal surveillance. There are stories set during World Wars I and II, and while nothing new was revealed, Morton did a good, atmospheric job of incorporating the horrors of war. (Just an aside for you to ponder after you finish the book: Was the name "Sophie" chosen for a character on purpose or was there a subconscious agent working?)

In the end, “The Lake House” is a novel more of romance than mystery. Morton is a great storyteller and can sweep a family epic convincingly. And speaking of sweeping, thank goodness, I say, for a tidy ending!