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

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

Picador, 320 pages, $16 (c2006)

British author Jason Goodwin is fascinated by Turkey, Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire. He wrote a nonfiction book of its history and a travel book of his journey to Istanbul. Then he created a memorable mystery series set in mid-1830s Istanbul with a eunuch for his hero.

At this point, Goodwin is up to the fifth book in the Investigator Yashim series, but this is a review of his first award-winning entry.

Istanbul stands (geographically and historically) at the junction of Europe and Asia and their varied cultures. As modern-day Turkey’s seat of power, it is fascinating for its continuous adoption and melding of Western and Eastern politics, religions, and rituals. Its history is one of the oldest; its obeisance to and conquest of the major empires of the time give it a rich texture. It has been the seat of power for a world-arching empire.

At the time “The Janissary Tree” opens, the sultan in residence in Istanbul is westernizing his army. Adopting the military tactics of the French (having first relieved itself of Napoleon), the British, and the Russians, Istanbul is attempting to enter the modern world. (As one character memorably points out, to anchor us in time, the Declaration of Independence is only sixty years old.) Ten years earlier, a rout was carried out against the Janissaries, the former military component of the Turkish empire. They were far too independent, cultish, and morally corrupt. (That is not to say that the Byzantine turnings of the Sultan’s retainers, advisors, and family do not stem from the same flaws.)

Investigator Yashim is a palace employee, as it were, as were most of the eunuchs of the time. As is stereotypically portrayed, quite a few are guards of the sultan’s harem, but others are administrators and trusted servants. Eunuchs, perforce, do not suffer from the same desires and failings as other men — or so the thought goes — and are more reliable and trustworthy.

As Goodwin depicts Yashim — and as Wikipedia will describe to you, if you care to visit it — not having sexual desires depends on when a eunuch is castrated. Too much information, you say? Then turn away from this series, because Goodwin gracefully deals with this issue. And having a eunuch as a central character, Goodwin is obligated to deal with Yashim’s most obvious and curious issue.

To the book. Four outstanding cadets of the new army have disappeared. The head of the military wants Yashim to find them. Rather, three of them are missing; one has been found in a large cooking pot, dead. Also, the sultan’s mother is missing some jewels given to her by Napoleon. Then strange rumors of a Janissary resurgence are heard and mysterious fires are set in the city. All fall on Yashim’s shoulders to solve. He is the appointed center of the maelstrom.

Along with his old friends Palewski, the devalued Polish ambassador, and Preen, a transsexual entertainer, and his new friend, Eslek, an open market worker and handy-to-know person, Yashim begins to unravel the obscure threads of the various problems.

I loved the hardworking historical perspective. Goodwin knows a lot and attempts to recreate the very bricks and plaster of the time. He gives us a chance to replace Disney’s “Aladdin” (I know that’s not Istanbul, don’t write me; you know what I mean) with the fervor and exotica of a dying culture attempting to recreate itself.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

Houghton Mifflin, 341 pages, $25

I have enjoyed Elly Griffiths’ series featuring Ruth Galloway, a contemporary forensic archaeologist situated in Norfolk, England. Griffiths’ stories and character portrayals have grown stronger over the years. Not part of this series, “The Zig Zag Girl” concentrates on a story set a few years after the end of World War II.

Edgar Stephens is a police inspector in Brighton, England. His most recent case is the gruesome death of a woman, made to look like the magic trick of sawing a girl into pieces has gone awry. But, surprise, the woman was formerly the assistant to famous stage magician Max Mephisto. And, surprise again, Edgar knows Max very well from their time spent in “The Magic Men” special unit during the war.

Some of Edgar’s memories of The Magic Men are fond, but others are brutal. Not every comrade in the unique corps was fondly embraced, but neither were there strong animosities, as far as Edgar knew. There were several stage magicians in the group; Edgar was a strong puzzle solver. Together they were tasked with manufacturing a strong military presence to fool the German fly-overs. With stage magic and strong carpentry skills, they tried their best to create the look of a heavily-armed base.

Now back in civilian life, the former members have moved on and apart. What, then, is haunting the group, drawing them back into communication as someone appears to be targeting them and those associated with them? Edgar reconnects with his old buddy, Max Mephisto, to solve the mystery.

It’s hard to shake comparisons with the Ruth Galloway series. Ruth has an fascinating job, although the number of recently deceased bodies, as opposed to ancient ones, complicates her life. Ruth is an interesting, quirky, and modern character. Edgar is more one-note in comparison, although the tension between him and his mother is interestingly presented. “The Zig Zag Girl” is more reliant on story than character at this point, assuming Griffiths intends to create a series. (Oh, wait, I see that her second Edgar/Max mystery has been released in England.) It's worth a look because Griffiths is a good storyteller.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

Minotaur Books, 352 pages, $15.99 (trade paperback release date - 12/15)

Quite a while back I read about eighty pages of this book, then stopped. I actually stopped before the “good” part, the tough look at the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims that Ausma Zehanat Khan portrays so movingly. I lost the rhythm of the story early on. Khan’s psychological scrutiny and depiction of the interplay between her main characters, Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, detectives in the Toronto Community Policing Section, was obscure. There were oblique references to losses and traumas and they swirled in an obfuscatory way. Had I hung in there, I would have been mesmerized by Khan’s telling of the tragedies that befell Muslims in Srebrenica, for Khan bases her story on actual experiences. But her crime story is fictional.

“The Language of Secrets,” Khan’s second story in what is now a series, is due to be released in early 2016, so I took another stab at “The Unquiet Dead,” when the vague set-up of characters in the second book proved too confusing. I am happy that I did give “The Unquiet Dead” another try. 

Christopher Drayton was rich. He fell off a cliff near his house and died. Was it an accident, suicide, or was someone else responsible for his demise? Why would someone want to kill the kind old man? To a person, his neighbors said he was nice and generous, although a little vain. In fact, he wanted to donate a large sum to a new museum in the neighborhood devoted to Andalusian history and art. Drayton shared his life with a pneumatically-enhanced girlfriend and her two daughters. Everything seemed to be peachy keen.

Why would Esa Khattak, who was usually called in for problems in the Muslim community, be asked to look into Drayton’s death? Rachel Getty is our surrogate; she is as clueless as we are as she follows Khattak through the first stages of investigation. Khattak is purposely keeping Getty in the dark so he can get her unbiased view. Getty is no wiser for a long time, until certain aspects of Drayton’s life are actually spilled out onto her lap. It appears that Drayton might not have been who he claimed to be.

It is a politically precarious investigation for Khattak and Getty. There are both too many suspects — if Drayton was murdered — and too few, depending on who Drayton really was or was perceived to be. How does the Srebrenica horror work its way into the story? When a lot of the murkiness, both personal and professional, is pushed aside, Khan’s story shines.

In many favorable ways, Khan’s pacing and storytelling are reminiscent of another Canadian writer, Louise Penny. Each author likes to slowly unveil her story, with a lot of asides for her large cast of peripheral characters, and the motives behind the churned-up emotions that the dead create.

My review of “The Language of Secrets” will follow closer to its publication in 2016. I did enjoy it more because the writing is much more straightforward and Khan’s main characters are steadier and more clearly defined, having hoisted off some personal issues in “The Unquiet Dead.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

Tor Books, 240 pages, $24.99 (release date - 11/15/15)

If Raymond Chandler wrote about a robot. If a book contained as many similes as there are feet on a milipede. If a one-ton robot walked into a bar. These are the suppositions that guide Adam Christopher’s “Made to Kill,” subtitled “The LA Trilogy, volume 1.”

It is 1965 in L.A. Raymond Electromatic is the last robot on earth because all the other robots have been disabled. He is a public private eye and a secret assassin. His able assistant (or handler) is a room-sized computer named Ada. Raymond (too) frequently imagines he can hear “her” smoking, moving a squeaky chair, rifling through papers, even though she is a massive, boxy, stationary computer. One of Raymond and Ada’s prime directives appears to be “stay solvent.” In order to do so, Ada figured out that Raymond must offer his services as a hitman for big pay.

So, a blonde walks into the office with a million dollars in unmarked gold bars and wants Raymond to kill a movie star. Ada and Raymond don’t seem particularly fazed by the morality of the request. They must stay solvent, after all.

It takes a while to locate the target, and during the search, Raymond stumbles across some fishy circumstances. If only he could remember things for more than just 24 hours it would be helpful. The magnetic tape that comprises his memory expires after 24 hours. Ada must provide a synopsis every morning of what came before. The blonde and the target are part of something big, weird … and campy. Does Raymond carry over enough knowledge to figure out what it is?

Will Raymond and Ada somehow wind up as forces for good? Will Raymond remember enough to prevent the ominous disaster lurking on the horizon like a cloud as dark as a smoker’s lung?

Although "Made to Kill" has more similes than a leopard has useful spots, its comic-book style is entertaining. Some pieces of Raymond and Ada's story certainly will deserve further explication in the next two volumes.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Mulholland Books, 512 pages, $28

Thank goodness we all know that Robert Galbraith is the pseudonym of J. K. Rowling. After having read “Career of Evil,” I would be hard pressed to believe it was written by a “former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry.” At this point in the so-far three-book Cormoran Strike series, the romantic by-play between Cormoran and his partner in the detective agency, Robin Ellacott, is a big part of the story. Although elements of the murders are indeed gruesome, it would be difficult to imagine a hard-nosed ex-cop writing this book.

Before I knew Galbraith was Rowling, I enjoyed and praised “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” the first book in the series. Even then the ex-cop author persona was hard to accept, but it wasn’t beyond the realm of reason.

Cormoran and Robin have had their professional ups and downs. Their agency takes a turn for the worse when a human leg is sent in the mail to Robin. When word reaches the public, the public runs away from hiring a detective who might attract the vengeance (for whatever reason) of a serial killer. The duo logically concludes that the perpetrator needs to be caught, and since the police don’t seem to have a lot of clues, Cormoran and Robin need to step up.

Cormoran decides it is one of three people from the past of his strange and wayward life. Top of the list is his stepfather, a wastrel, misogynist, and pathetic leech whom Cormoran suspects of having murdered his mother years earlier. Robin grapples with her own past issues that the current investigation has dredged up. Also, her upcoming wedding to manipulative weasel Matthew needs her attention. She alternates discussing floral arrangements with tailing miscreants.

As with the other two books in the series, this book has charm to spare. Toss in a moving look back into both Cormoran and Robin’s pasts and lots of adventures for heretofore second banana Robin, and you have a winner.

(This is a personal aside. I've lately become fascinated by singer and poet Patti Smith. Her autobiography "Just Kids" was compelling. She was an iconic punk presence in 1970s New York City. She was involved romantically and musically with Alan Lanier of The Blue Öyster Cult. Lyrics from the band's songs, including some penned by Smith, begin each chapter.)

The Blackhouse by Peter May

Quercus, 501 pages, $14.99 (c2011, Amer. ed. 2014)

I’m late to the party. Scotsman Peter May has been publishing since 1978. “The Blackhouse” is the first of the Fin Macleod trilogy, set in the Isle of Lewis, the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, and it is the first of May’s books that I have read. He obviously mastered the dark matter of psychological crime fiction while he was waiting for me to read him.

“The Blackhouse” had an inauspicious beginning. No English-language publisher would print it. It was finally accepted by a French publisher, and in a twist worthy of Dickens, it was a hit at the Frankfurt Book Fair, garnering excitement and bidding wars. Of course, better late than never, a British publisher (Quercus) picked it up. Quercus was a new company at the time, although it had already scored hits with the translated books of … wait for it, wait for it … Stieg Larsson.

Dept. of Just Wondering: Was an English translation made of the French translation of May’s book written in English? (Have you ever used a translation app to turn something from English into another language, then back into English? It’s hilarious sometimes.) Just being facetious.

Back to the book.

Fin Macleod left the cloistered, claustrophobic town of Crobost on the wild and dark tip of the Isle of Lewis to become a big city police detective. It has been eighteen years since he left Crobost and he has not returned, except for his aunt’s funeral. He has a high-profile murder to solve in Edinburgh and, as the Fates would have it, a similar-enough murder victim is found on the Isle of Lewis. Talk about a welcome home!

Actually, Fin is not welcomed home. The police, territorial beings that they are, don’t want him sticking his big-city nose in their murder. He hasn’t kept in touch with childhood friends, and his presence sets off startling storylines. They don’t necessarily want him home either.

“The Blackhouse” has an unusual structure. It is thoroughly Fin’s story, but the murder narrative is told in third-person, while the back story gradually revealing the traumas that drove Fin away from the Isle of Lewis is told in Fin’s first-person voice. Mysteries abound and for a good while all we know is that “something” awful happened to Fin. Then it is revealed there are several “somethings.” One by one, Fin’s life is laid bare. In the end, it is less about the murder victim — by the way, a childhood acquaintance of Fin — and much, much more about the person Fin has become.

“The Blackhouse” is atmospheric, dark, rewarding, and a literary archaeological dig. The scenes set on the lonely island to which the village men journey to kill two thousand gugas (gannet chicks) each year is particularly chilling and riveting. That the trip serves as a rite of passage for older boys, including Fin when he was of age, gives the story a horrifying anticipation when it is finally told.