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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl

Oneworld Publications, 480 pages, $24.99 (c2014, US Ed. 2016)
Translated by K. E. Semmel

The 480 pages of “The Hermit” by Danish author Thomas Rydahl are densely packed with storylines, characterizations, and tourist information on Spain’s Canary Islands. It felt more like 680 pages, but in a good way.

Erhard Jørgensen is in his 60s. He has lived on the island of Fuerteventura in the Canaries for almost two decades. It’s quite a contrast: a pale Dane in the tropical, Spanish-speaking Canary Islands. This is what we learn about Erhard in fairly short order. Erhard is a taxi driver and a good one. He left his wife and two daughters in Denmark but sends them money every month. He only has four fingers on one hand.

Rydahl has created one of the more idiosyncratic crime novel heroes in recent memory. Erhard reads books and seems smart, but he does really dumb things. Or maybe they are just things that come from alternative thinking by an individual with an incomplete personality. For instance, at the beginning of the book, a fellow resident of the island dies in a traffic accident. Erhard picks up one of the man’s fingers that has become detached. He takes it home, nurtures it, pets it, and places it on the hand with the missing finger. He proudly drives his cab with the new finger taped to his hand. Definitely alternative thinking.

Although he did live in a cave by the sea when he first arrived, Erhard is not a hermit any longer, but most people call him “Hermit” anyway. However, he does live in a remote part of the island, with two goats who sometimes eat the washed clothes he has hung on his line. Soon he is also joined by a young woman who has suffered traumatic brain injury. She is in a coma. Rather than take her to a hospital, a thin train of reasoning leads Erhard to try to take care of her himself. How did he manage to get himself into this situation?

Erhard had been relatively content — although a little lonely — to drive his cab, tune pianos occasionally, and drink beers or lumumbas (whatever those are) or other spirits with his young friend Raul and Raul’s girlfriend, Beatriz. How did he go from that to running from the police, taking care of a comatose woman, hiding a prostitute, and tracking down the mother of a dead infant found in a cardboard box in the backseat of a car stuck in the sand of a popular beach?

Part of Erhard’s problem is his soft heart. Another problem is his lack of clarity. Yet another is his inability to understand what other people mean. He worries that he cannot judge other people’s motives adequately. He wonders if he should be courting the much younger daughter of his hairdresser. He wonders whether the mute boy he drives to see his mother every week from his care facility is talking to him by telepathy. He wonders if the comatose woman has been another voice in his head saying, “Help me. Let me go.”

Even after the corrupt police department, anxious to solve crimes rapidly to assuage the tourist industry, declares they have found the mother of the abandoned infant and are charging her with a crime, Erhard figures out that they are lying and proceeds, against police advice, with his own investigation. Such as it is.

Throw in Raul’s demanding papa, a rich man whose funding is discreetly concealed; the tense mother of Erhard’s mute client; the ex-reporter who now runs a bookstore/jumble shop and many more odd and colorful characters, and you can glimpse why “The Hermit” was declared the winner of the Nordic Glass Key Award.

“The Hermit” is jammed full with novelty, eccentricity, humor, philosophy, dreaded ends, and unpredictable turns. Here is a sample of Rydahl’s writing:

He pushes his way through bodies, people, faces. They come like waves crashing over him: arms, legs, flowers pounding against him, knocking him around and around so that he doesn’t know which way is what. The sea, life, and the relentlessness of humanity, the eternal flow of energy. How does one ever get a chance to become whole?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016 MBTB's Year's Best Crime Novels

Yes, in fact Murder by the Book has been closed for three and a half years. But, yes, we still provide you with a list of the best mystery books released during the year (with a few exceptions, duly noted).

Here they are, in no rational order.


A Song for the Brokenhearted by William Shaw: This is the last volume in the Breen/Tozer trilogy, set (for the most part) in 1960s London. Policeman Paddy Breen was injured at the end of the second book, and ex-cop Helen Tozer has taken him to her family’s farm to recuperate. While he recovers, Paddy investigates the long-ago murder of Helen’s sixteen-year-old sister. This is a grisly, bloody, heart-wrenching end to an outstanding series.

The Verdict by Nick Stone: Celebrity businessman Vernon James (“VJ”) has been accused of strangling a woman in a London hotel. Terry Flynt is a clerk at the law firm which draws Vernon’s defense. The twists and turns start right at the beginning. Terry and VJ were childhood mates, but they have not met or spoken for twenty years. Stone has created a wonderfully complex drama about the men’s past, the current murder case, and the tangled web in which both are now caught.

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney (c2015): This is a captivating and intense novel about long-harbored grief. Oklahoma City provides the background and Wyatt Rivers, a private detective in Las Vegas, and Julianna Rosales, a nurse whose older sister disappeared years ago, provide the drama. This book was nominated for many awards and won many of them!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: Scott Burroughs is a little known painter living on Martha’s Vineyard and managing to make ends meet. It is Scott’s misfortune to be aboard the plane of fabulously wealthy media mogul David Bateman when it crashes into the ocean. This is not much of a spoiler alert: Scott survives. He then commits to finding out what happened. Hawley shows us that crafting a good book is not just about the techniques of plotting or the technical details to show authenticity; it’s most definitely about character and morality.

The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie: This is a thriller with a big heart. Lt. Peter Ash returned to the U.S. after several years in the Middle East. He has come back with problems, such that he initially lives like a hermit in the woods. When an old friend commits suicide, Peter puts aside his own problems to help his friend’s family. For some reason unknown to them, they are in danger. Petrie writes of veterans’ difficulties with passion and care.

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan: Lt. Bill Warren is a mess. His wife left him, his seven-year-old son has been diagnosed with “the mental capacity of a three-year-old,” he’s lonely, his emotions come to a fast boil, and he is the temporary chief of the Barnstable, Masschusetts police force. Oh, and there’s a serial killer wandering around doing despicable things to young boys before killing them. Besides a great, shifting plot, Joe Flanagan’s writing often rises to a level above.


End of Watch by Stephen King: This book is the end of the road for the marvelous and touching Bill Hodges trilogy by a master storyteller. What started with “Mr. Mercedes” ends here. This is good versus pure evil in the form of sociopath Brady Hartsfield. King slowly builds his story and at the midpoint begins to unleash his thrilling revelations and clever resolutions that tumble down to a poignant ending. His attention to detail and ability to neatly pull everything together is legendary.

Willnot by James Sallis: What if James Sallis wrote a long poem (for he is a poet) and called it “Willnot." He did and this is it. This is one of the most beautiful crime stories we’ve ever read. To be honest, it isn’t a traditional crime story. Dr. Lamar Hale is a small-town doc in Willnot. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him. What does the doctor know about the mass grave recently discovered? What does he know of a military assassin? When something of a violent nature does happen, it is secondary to the philosophical discursion and observations of other lives. Here’s to Sallis’ shining prose and the questions he never answers.

Ping Pong Heart by Martin Limón: This is the eleventh book in the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series set in South Korea in the 1970s. These CID agents are assigned to investigate when a major is robbed by a prostitute. Just what is the real story? Before they can figure it out, the major is murdered. In the end it is Limón’s compassion in the face of the clash of cultures that brings us back time and again. Besides it contains the best line written in 2016: “You slicky my ping-pong heart.”


The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock: If you forced us to pick one book as our favorite, it would have to be this one. Once again, here is an unconventional crime book. Set in 1917, in the U.S. South, Pollock writes with humor, compassion, and fierceness. He can put us within the impoverished world of the mostly illiterate southern tenant farmer and the middle class one of a college-educated military man. He can describe the daily humiliation of being black and poor. He can show us big and small examples of the devil’s work, demon rum, and godforsaken poverty.

Dead Souls by J. Lincoln Fenn: This is a captivating, well-written novel of horror. Yes, horror. The Devil (old Red Suit himself) insinuates himself into our modern world and reels in needy souls. J. Lincoln Fenn’s premise is simple, but her handling of it is complex and stylish. Fenn’s writing is dark, modern, swift, quirky, twisted, creepy, grisly, heartless and heartfelt, romantic, and deadly.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: This book is almost Shakespearean in its coincidences and accidentally interrelated characters. It begins when Jimmy Phelan is tasked with disposing of the body of a man (who has been hit on the head with a holy stone, begorra). McInerney’s look is about the underclass of Cork (Ireland) society. There are alcoholics, drug dealers, prostitutes, fixers, and people out to find some comfort in a cold world that has mostly abandoned them. And the writing is glorious.


The Trespasser by Tana French: French is one of the most creative writers around. Her plots twist, her characters always have quirks and flaws, and her writing shines. Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran return (after “A Secret Place” told from Moran’s point of view) to solve the murder of a young woman. The catch — and there’s always a catch with French — is that the story is told from Conway’s view this time. French flawlessly switches tone, slang, and gender.

IQ by Joe Ide: Here’s another astonishingly creative book. IQ is set in the gang/drug/non-white scene of Long Beach, California. Although it deals with gangs, drugs, and non-white stuff, it is primarily a book about characters and universally understood motivations. “IQ” is Isaiah Quintabe, a brilliant young man who is also the neighborhood private investigator. His scammer friend, Juanell Dodson, is not brilliant, but he has connections and big ideas. Not quite Sherlock and Dr. Watson, they are just as interesting. This is a stunning combination of poignancy and absurdity.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters: Picture an alternate United States in which slavery is still legal in some states. What would people do to escape slavery? How brave would others need to be to help them? The underground airlines is the nickname given to a system that spirits slaves to Canada, where slavery is rightfully outlawed. “Victor” is a black man. On behalf of the government, it is his job to hunt down escaped slaves and return them to their owners. This is a thriller and a detective novel, but it is in no way typical. It is a social statement, an invective against racism, a plea for humanity. And it’s well-written.


The Cipher by Nick Slosser: If the name of the author rings a bell, it’s because Nick worked for Murder by the Book for many years. He is a fan of noir and dark, stylish tales, so we were surprised that his first novel was a play-fair, almost-cozy mystery set in 1955 Portland, Oregon. His characters are eccentric, colorful, and remind us of the heyday of Agatha Christie-type drawing room murders. Nick is smart and so is his book. (This book was released at the end of 2015 and did not make it on to our 2015 list.)

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller: Here’s another 2015 book that was released too late to make it on to our 2015 list. Freedom Oliver is unique, her persona like quicksilver, her flaws and strengths many, and her determination the backbone of this book. Someone is out to kill her and to harm people she loves. Fueled by guilt, alcohol, a kick-ass mentality, and nothing to lose, Freedom decides to get back at him/her/them. This book is a tear-jerker without being maudlin, sentimental without being mawkish, philosophical without being condescending.


After Atlas by Emma Newman: This is sci-fi but it’s also a murder mystery, set so far in the future it’s hard to tell just when. There are brain implants for almost everyone. Governments of the big societies are hybrids of what we have in the present time and big corporations. Big business rules. Indentured servitude exists in what used to be Great Britain. Carlos Moreno was captured when he was a teenager, brainwashed, and for the last twenty years has been a police detective. He has the misfortune to catch a big case. Alejandro Casales, the leader of a cult group in the United States, has been murdered in an upscale hotel in the English countryside. Casales was also a pseudo-father to Carlos when he was young and a member of Casales’ cult. What a coincidence! (Or is it?) Carlos doesn’t let the bad blood of their parting detract him from his job. Not that he would dare to refuse the case.

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta: Here is a true thriller with big space given to a clash of cultures. Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a detective chief inspector in England who has been suspended from his job. He is busy feeling sorry for himself when he gets the worst news possible for a parent: A bomb has gone off in his teenage daughter’s tour bus. Bish rushes to France, where the bombing occurred, and becomes the nexus of the bombing investigation. Is it terrorism or revenge, or is there a sociopath running loose?

Too many books, too little time ...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

W.W. Norton & Co., 464 pages, $26.95

This is not a mystery. Well, it is a mystery, but there’s no crime. Well, there is a crime, sort of. Stretch your definitions for this gem of a book.

Twelve-year-old Ada lives with her dad, David, in Boston. It is the 1980s and Ada is a precocious child who is being raised in her dad’s computer lab. David believes he can teach her just as well as a school, so Ada is more like a grown-up than a child when the story opens. In fact, the story opens with Ada mixing cocktails for her father’s party for the new crop of graduate students interning in the lab. Life is merry and challenging for Ada and David.

There’s not much tension in a happy story, so into this idyllic world a little rain must fall. There is something wrong with David. At first, he appears a little fuzzy at times, staring into the distance at other times. Ada is uncertain about what is happening, but she turns around and becomes the caregiver and assistant to her father.

Ada’s mother was a surrogate, and she is long gone. The closest Ada has to a nurturing female is one of her father’s lab colleagues, Diana Liston, or just “Liston” to all. Liston has four children of her own and even a grandchild. She and her brood live just a few doors down from Ada and David. Liston becomes the shoulder Ada leans on when David weakens further.

It is a by-product of her growing reliance on Liston that results in a startling revelation. There is something wrong with the bona fides of David Sibelius. After years as a graduate student at a Boston college and then as the director of a specialized computer lab there, David’s background suddenly appears murky.

Ada is frantic to find out who her father is. He has given her a floppy disk (remember those) with a clue to his past. But she cannot crack the encryption. Thus begins a long search to give meaning to David’s life. 

Liz Moore has created a story that mostly switches back and forth from the 1980s Boston and its life-changing events, and Ada in 2009 as a no-longer-young coder in the competitive world of technology. The revelations in the end extend past 2009 and neatly tie-up the story.

Moore has created a very likable young girl who awkwardly seeks her place in the world. Moore has also created the Listons, Ada’s vision of what a normal family is like, but they are anything but normal. The adults in the lab are geekily endearing and provide a loving, if helpless, support for Ada. Moore’s mystery reveals a heart-breaking story hidden within a truly creative puzzle.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Hogarth, 208 pages, $15 (c2007, US ed. 2016)
Translated by Deborah Smith

This is not a mystery.

Occasionally I read books that aren’t mysteries! I’m especially fascinated by what wins awards. “The Vegetarian” won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

“The Vegetarian” was interesting for many reasons. It begins with a woman giving up eating meat because of a nightmare and ends in a flurry of symbols. In between is a contemplation on the cultural role of Korean women. Although the book is about the madness/enlightenment of one particular Korean woman, Han’s cultural context is South Korea.

Let me say a few words about the translation. When a translated book is a little clunky or awkward, it’s hard to know if that’s what the original sounds like. Sometimes mystery books are translated because they have good plots or interesting characters, and not especially because they are great literature. Translated books always come with a caveat. Deborah Smith, the translator, is remarkable for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that “The Vegetarian” reads elegantly and powerfully in English. It is easy to make the assumption that it directly mirrors the elegance and power of the book written in Korean. The second reason is that Smith learned how to read (and speak?) Korean about seven years ago. Now that’s crazy good. I don’t know if Smith has actually been to Korea (I haven't), but her translation presents the flavor and atmosphere of a different world.

This is not a happy book. Its three parts become bleak, bleaker, and bleakest. Kim Yeong-hye is a relatively young woman in a loveless marriage. She is on automatic pilot when she has her dream. Her family, especially a menacing father, is less than supportive. The narrative is told in the first person, but by three different first persons. First, by her deadwood of a husband, then by her deadwood of a brother-in-law, and finally by her sympathetic, but not empathetic, sister, Kim In-hye. It is at the end that In-hye glimpses what Yeong-hye sees, and we have an insight into Yeong-hye’s behavior.

This is well worth reading, but it is not for everyone.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

Mulholland Books, 416 pages, $26

There are many ordinary teenage characters in Australian author Melina Marchetta’s new book, “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,” and she makes their voices crystal clear, not an easy task. (But maybe easier for someone who has up until now written young adult books.) Before I mislead you further, here’s some pertinent information: This book is set mostly in England and Calais, France, and it is an adult crime novel. But Marchetta’s ability to juggle a lot of characters, half of whom are teenagers, is a literary feat worth noting.

Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a detective chief inspector who is under some sort of cloud at work and has been suspended. He is drinking copious quantities of whisky and feeling quite sorry for himself as his ex-wife prepares to give birth to her current husband’s child. His beloved 17-year-old daughter, Bee (short for Sabina), treats him with disdain and provides the least amount of information possible in their “conversations.” In the middle of Bish’s existential morass, the unthinkable happens.

Bee has been on a bus trip through Normandy with other British teens, and the summer holidays and the tour are about to end. Then a bomb rips through her bus, killing several people. Bish races to the campground where it occurred and is relieved to find Bee is alive. There are other buses from other countries at the campground, and a teenager from the Spanish bus has also died. Coincidentally, the father of one of the girls on the French bus is a police detective, Capitaine Olivier Attal. With his atrocious English and Bish’s toddler’s grasp of French, Bish learns more about the investigation and becomes a liaison between Britain and France.

As one of the first adults on site and because he is used to calming people, Bish becomes the de facto spokesperson and information hub for the British group. The incompetent chaperones who survived the blast are unable to provide any organization or support, so Bish takes over corralling and comforting their charges. That’s when he finds out that one of the teenage girls has been locked in a cupboard in a meeting room on the campgrounds. She is Violette LeBrac Zidane from Australia. One of the chaperones has decided that she is the reason the bomb went off.

About twelve or thirteen years earlier, a supermarket was bombed. The bomber, Louis Sarraf, died in the attack. Several members of his family were also jailed, some of whom were later released but continue to live under a cloud. One family member, Noor LeBrac, Louis’ daughter, confessed to building the bomb, an easy task for a woman on the verge of completing a PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge. Violette is her daughter.

Over twenty people died in the supermarket bombing. Could one of their relatives be responsible as revenge for what Violette’s grandfather and mother did? Or is Violette simply carrying on the family trade?

As a disenfranchised detective, Bish doesn’t have any official standing or recourse to investigative tools. That’s when a lucky break happens to assuage his frustration. An old school mate, who Bish thought was in charge of making sure Britain’s trains ran on time, turns out to work for the Home Office, and he provides the tools on a quid pro quo basis. Bish will interview and locate certain people for them and for himself.

After people begin to disperse from the campground, it is discovered that Violette and another teen, 13-year-old Eddie Conlon, have disappeared. Since Violette is a person of interest, an intensive manhunt begins, sometimes resulting in violence when vigilantes mistake innocent people for the missing teens. In an inadvertent tie-in to current events in our part of world, racial unrest and targeting plays an important role in the background of this novel. Violette and her family are the descendants of Algerian immigrants, their dark and golden features marking them as “different.” Bish can sympathize because one of his grandparents was Egyptian. Both he and Bee carry a vague remembrance of that genetic heritage.

It is also uncovered that Violette is in France without the knowledge of her grandparents in Australia, her legal guardians, who think she is on a student tour in their country. In the course of trying to locate Violette and Eddie, Bish interviews Noor LeBrac, a permanent resident it seems in an English prison. Although she has not seen her daughter for many years, it is possible that she knows why Violette secretly entered Europe.

Marchetta’s plot is intricate and satisfying. Her characterizations are stellar. The resolution is a cascade of tidiness. Although it is not dipped into at any political or sociological length or depth, immigrant discrimination, racial profiling, and the indignities suffered by innocent people because of their heritage provide the foundation of her story. A humanity shared by all is the hope.

MBTB star!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

After Atlas by Emma Newman

Roc, 384 pages, $15

I recently read a sci-fi novel that got under my skin, in a good way, “Planetfall.” That was in preparation for reading the just-released “After Atlas,” a detective story set in the same future that contains “Planetfall.” While the two share the same universe, the characters are not the same. Some of the characters from “Planetfall” are mentioned in “After Atlas,” but none are shared between the books.

A brief background from "Planetfall": Forty years ago, a spaceship, the Atlas, left Earth for a secret planet where God lives. Lee Suh-Mi, aka “The Pathfinder,” was the charismatic leader of the thousand people who journeyed with her, and it is her vision that determined the location of the God-planet. You can read my review of that book.

One of the chosen followers on that spaceship was a young woman who left her husband and baby behind. The baby, Carlos “Carl” Moreno, has lived a life of misery ever since. His father also tried to join the pilgrimage but did not make the cut. He had a nervous breakdown and Carl was left to fend for himself at an appallingly early age. After leaving an American cult group, The Circle, at the age of sixteen, Carl managed to find himself in indentured servitude (i.e., slavery) in England for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as a police detective, a position he has held for twenty years as this book begins. The story of how Carl reached that point is something author Emma Newman gradually reveals throughout the book. That story, too, is appalling in what it signifies about the degradation of human rights in a corporate-led world.

Carl is sent by the MoJ to investigate the death of Alejandro Casales in an upscale hotel in Dartmoor. As one of the MoJ’s best detectives, his assignment makes sense, but there’s another reason. Casales was the leader of The Circle. He rehabilitated Carl’s father and was like a second father to Carl for many years, before he rebelled and ran away. What was Casales doing in England? Why was he hanged, drawn and quartered?

Casales’ appearance is suspiciously close to the scheduled opening of a capsule Lee Suh-Mi left behind forty years ago. That is the topic du jour and one that Carl is heartily sick of. Every year on the anniversary of the blast-off of the Atlas spaceship, newshounds seek an interview with the “baby left behind.” This anniversary, with the addition of the capsule brouhaha, has made Carl’s life ten times worse. He hates his mother, he hates his father, he hates Casales, and he hates that he is owned by the British government/corporation and will be until he is about eighty years old. He lives for the day when he is free of his contract and can grow his own vegetables in his own little patch of dirt, somewhere quiet and in some uneventful time. As the Casales investigation grows murkier and more complex, he fears that the day he has been longing for may never come.

I won’t risk doing anything less than the cleanest, deepest investigation I’m humanly capable of. I can’t risk anything less than that, as their property. I’m prepared to extend my contract in order to eat proper food and live in anything bigger than a broom cupboard but not for sloppy work.

Most food is synthesized from chemical glop in 3D printers. It is Carl’s pleasure to buy real food, not like the rich buy it in fancy stores, but from carts peddling cast-off veggies and other sullied foodstuffs. The catch is that even that food is ridiculously expensive. In order to buy them — and to rent his bigger apartment — he must pay for them with an extension of his slave’s contract.

Carl has been “trained,” i.e., brainwashed, to provide the most thorough and intelligent service possible. Obedience and doggedness are enhanced traits, but lurking within the manufactured detective beats the heart of a man who may be bent but not bowed.

Newman depicts a world in which the major governments we know today are corporations in the future. Slaves are legal. Carl is lucky that his contract is with the Ministry of Justice. Other fellow “trainees” were not so lucky. Almost everyone, slave or regular, has a chip installed on their person to receive the enhanced equivalent of today’s Internet, with a computerized APA (artificial personal assistant) and, more to the point, a way for the governments to track their citizens.

As with “Planetfall,” author Newman invigorates her story with compelling characters, realistic scientific detail, and a complex storyline. With the knowledge of how “Planetfall” turned out, and of what kind of person Carl’s mother is, it is easy to see the irony and hopelessness of what sent the Atlas into its journey forty years ago and what it left behind.

If you are interested in learning more about Emma Newman’s inspiration, Bart’s Bookshelf interviewed her last year, and you can read about it.

For a genuine futuristic thriller, here’s an MBTB star!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Blood Strand by Chris Ould

Titan, 448 pages, $14.95

Do you know where the Faroe Islands are? In the cold sea between Iceland and Norway. The Faroese speak their own language, but quite a few also know Danish and English. Denmark provides them with administrative benefits but, if you go by this book, the Faroese mind their own culture and manners.

Like series set in the Scottish Isles, the cold, rainy, isolated setting lends a lot of atmosphere to a murder mystery. British author Chris Ould has chosen his setting well. Most of the action takes place on the island of Streymoy. It is more than adequately cold and rainy.

British police detective Jan Reyna — who forgoes the proper Faroese pronunciation of his name, Yan Reyná, until he is in the Faroes — is visiting on a personal mission. Under some kind of cloud at work, he has a leave of absence, and decides this is the time to find out what happened between his mother and father to make his mother flee to Denmark. He would have asked his mother, but she committed suicide when he was young. He was raised by his aunt and uncle who had moved to England. And now he journeys to the Faroes to talk with the father he had last seen more than a decade ago. That meeting, when Jan was seventeen, did not go well. Actual blood was spilled and Jan returned to England no wiser.

Actually, Reyna has come because his father is in the hospital. He suffered a stroke under strange circumstances. He was found alone in an isolated area. There was blood spattered in the inside of his car. In his trunk was a case full of money. His shotgun had been discharged. Unfortunately, Signar Ravnsfjall is unable to communicate with anyone, thus putting paid, perhaps permanently, to gaining any knowledge of his mother from Signar. The mystery deepens when the police find that the blood in the car is not Signar’s.

Reyna has not come in his capacity as a cop, but he can’t help but ask questions. Questions of his half-brothers, Magnus and Kristian, and questions of the lead detective, Hjalti Hentze. Reyna is respectful of Hentze’s authority, so he is not inclined to interfere. But Hentze realizes Reyna’s potential usefulness, and so begins Reyna’s slow absorption into the investigation.

Then the body of a young man, Tummas Gramm, is found on a beach. Hentze plays his cards close to his chest, but Reyna soon intuits that Hentze thinks the man’s death has something to do with his father’s last activities. 

It might be considered a drawback that Reyna only speaks English, but most of the rest of the world is remarkably multilingual, and the Faroese are no exception. His lack of language does not prove to be an impediment. And a good thing, too, because there are many interviews to be carried out, including with some of his family members.

Ould packs a lot into the 448 pages of his book. He tells a straightforward story, but he infuses his narrative with scenic details and interesting characters, with a small history of some small islands thrown in. He has a great sense of pacing and the story flows easily. The only gimmick he uses — and while I didn’t mind it, I don’t think it was necessary — is Reyna’s portion of the story is told in the first person, and the scenes following the rest of the characters, primarily Hentze, are told in the third.

“The Blood Strand” is a solid story, carefully plotted and well-written.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $29

Again, here’s a toast with a cuppa my best tea to the meticulous way Michael Connelly tells a story — actually, two stories this time. His appeal ranges wide because of his straight-ahead style, lack of pretension, solid plotting, insight into our society’s ills and culture, and crime reportage disguised as fiction.

Banged up but not bowed, ex-L.A. hotshot police detective Harry Bosch continues the good fight as a reserve detective with the tiny San Fernando police department. There’s no pay but there are excellent opportunities still to right some wrongs. While it is not a universal sentiment, Harry is ostracized by a good many of his former L.A. brethren because of his lawsuit against the police department. San Fernando, however, is happy to have him, and he is pleased to join them. He has “police DNA” and retirement does not suit him.

“The Wrong Side of Goodbye” is Harry’s twenty-first adventure. Harry first appeared almost twenty-five years ago. And he has felt every year of his service since then. As “The Wrong Side” begins, Harry is an old-timer who feels the aches and pains of age. But his caginess and years of experience balance out any physical diminishment. Harry’s experience in Vietnam has often been mentioned in the series, and it comes into play once again in a vivid and poignant way.

One of the conditions of his part-time (unpaid) employment by the SFPD (an acronym Harry uses at one point to get information, hoping the person will mistake it for the San Francisco PD) is that he be allowed to carry on a business as a private investigator. As long as he doesn’t use SFPD resources for his private matters, the chief says. Connelly makes a point of bringing this up at the beginning of the story, so we can watch how Harry honors it only in the breach.

A former colleague, but not an especially esteemed one, throws Harry a case. The colleague is now in the high-end security business, and one of his high-end clients has a mysterious task for which he needs a discreet straight-shooter. Shortly thereafter, Harry is surprised to find himself in the presence of Whitney Vance, a multi-billionaire, à la Howard Hughes. Vance is old and frail, and he wants Harry to find out if he has an heir from a liaison that ended abruptly in his youth. Harry has to agree not to discuss this matter with anyone. ANYONE!

Tracing Vance’s young inamorata, Vibiana Duarte, Harry is led to a young medic who served in Vietnam, thus triggering Harry’s memories of a time that still haunts him. The most moving passages in the book come at the halfway point, when Harry realizes that he and the medic might have been on the same ship during a never-to-be-forgotten Christmas experience.

As Harry begins an investigation into Vance’s early life, matters at the SFPD are heating up. Harry has found a correlation among several rape cases, leading to a manhunt for “The Screen Cutter.” Once again, his methodical search for common denominators and his cop's Spidey-sense has led to potential breakthroughs. Although Harry is only a reserve officer, his chief has required more and more of the veteran cop's time to find the criminal.

As with all of Connelly’s books, it is hard to put this one down. He crosses his t’s and dots his i’s as he provides his readers with a close-up look at how Harry progresses through his cases. Harry’s sober pursuit of justice can be dark and a heavy weight to bear, so it is uplifting to find that Harry’s half-brother, Mickey “Lincoln Lawyer” Haller, eventually joins him in the missing heir case. Mickey is a shark and conman, with a law degree and excellent defensive skills in the courtroom. He also is written with a lighter touch and more humor. (I secretly now prefer the Haller books to Bosch’s for that reason. I guess not such a secret now.)

“The Wrong Side of Goodbye” is satisfying, thrilling, mesmerizing, and sometimes heart-wrenching.

P.S. Bygone television actress Connie Stevens is my new heroine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Roc, 336 pages, $15 (c2015)

“Planetfall” is a sci-fi novel. It’s intriguing and original and has a fascinating main character.

Renata “Ren” Ghali is one of the original pioneers who followed Lee Suh-Mi to a planet “a million miles” away from Earth to find God. Her colony has developed a highly self-sustaining community at the foot of “God’s city,” a strange organic form that towers above them. The mythology is that Suh went to live in God’s city when the original travelers first made planetfall and she will someday reappear to give them words of wisdom. In the meantime, a settler is chosen every year to receive "the seed" Suh leaves in a sacred community ceremony. That entails actually eating an indigenous food, something the settlers usually avoid.

It becomes clear very shortly that Ren is one of the most competent people in the colony. She’s an engineer, a builder, a fixer, all skills that seem to be rapidly diminishing. As the story goes along, Emma Newman brings in disturbing aspects of Ren’s personality. This makes Ren more and more interesting. Newman tosses in back stories of Ren’s life on Earth and how she made the decision to join the space crusade.

Although the colonists think they are the only ones on the planet, a wanderer soon appears. Sung-Soo is the grandson of Suh. His story is that his parents and some others managed to survive their malfunctioning pod at planetfall more than twenty years ago, landing far from Ren’s group. Lacking the supplies Ren’s group had, their existence had been a painful scramble for basic survival. Sung-Soo is the last survivor. His appearance provides a catalyst for community discontent. Soon Ren must face the horror that her life has become.

While “Planetfall” is not a mystery, apparently the just-released follow-up, “After Atlas,” might be. You can read a précis and an excerpt here: http://www.tor.com/2016/10/06/excerpts-after-atlas-emma-newman/

MBTB Manager Jean May often lamented my propensity for sometimes prematurely reading the ending of a mystery book (to see if it was worth reading the rest of the book). I did not skip ahead to this ending. I wanted to savor the surprise and revelations. 
Emma Newman deserved that and she earned that. And it was worth it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson

Viking, 336 pages, $28

Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, are off on their twelfth (full-length) adventure. Hulett, Wyoming, is a little town with a tiny population, but it swells when the bikers come to visit, spilling over from the famous Sturgis, South Dakota, motorcycle festival. The draw is an infamous hill-climbing contest for motorcycles. Of course, Henry has brought his classic Indian motorcycle to try his hand at the contest he won in his youth. Now, pretty far from his youth, Henry remains optimistic that he has one more win left in his toolbox.

I think the first obvious fact is that Wyoming author (and dedicated motorcycle rider) Craig Johnson never takes the easy road. “An Obvious Fact” lands pretty far from where it began. First off, the Lola, after whom Henry’s beloved ’59 Thunderbird is named, shows up, guns and grins flashing. She’s not quite a lady and she’s far from the young woman Henry romanced (not quite the correct word) years ago. Then Lola’s son, Bodaway, is injured in a motorcycle incident. Was it an accident? If not, was his gang involved? Was his secret girlfriend involved? Whatever, Walt and Henry are now involved.

Then there’s Brady Post, the ATF undercover agent working as the enforcer of the Tre Tre Nomads, one of the baddest of the motorcycle gangs, which just happens to be the one affiliated with Lola and her son. They’ve all brought their badness to Hulett. In the blink of an eye, Walt and Henry’s quixotic trip turns into something sinister.

Why is the ATF sniffing around the Tre Tre Nomads? It’s not alcohol. It’s not tabacky. It must be guns. Other than the revolvers people are using for grudge shooting and the ones used in the annual skeet shooting contest, there’s nary a gun in sight. The ATF man may have revealed himself to Walt and Henry, but he’s closed-mouthed about what he’s looking for. What does he know about Bodaway’s injury?

Then Johnson tosses an MRAP, nicknamed “Pequod” because it’s big and white, into the escalating story. The MRAP is a tank that a millionaire resident of Hulett donated to the police department. It runs at a chilling top speed of twenty-miles-an-hour and strikes ennui into the hearts of the citizens moseying in its path. Walt is happy to help out his fellow sheriff who, while proud to have the MRAP, does not even know how to start it. With its upgraded CD player, audio, and flashing lights, it providentially provides Walt with a mobile office.

Vic eventually shows up and the Absaroka gang, sometimes on the right side of the law and sometimes not, is at the service of the Hulett PD, the ATF, and Lola Wojciechowski.

Craig Johnson has set a pretty high standard for action, quotable quotes, and humor in his long-running series. His writing translates well internationally. In fact, he is about to begin a tour of France, where he is lauded and has been laden with awards. Those are obvious facts.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

IQ by Joe Ide

Mulholland Books, 336 pages, $26

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! “IQ” is one of the most creative mysteries I’ve read in a long time. After I had read about fifty pages, I stopped to find out more about author Joe Ide, because his portrayal of the gang/drug/non-white Long Beach, California scene seemed so authentic. (But what do I know, right?) In fact, Joe Ide grew up in South Central L.A. and “IQ” sounds authentic because it’s based on all the gang and street stuff Ide learned when he was a kid. Yet while it’s a novel that deals with rappers, gangs, drugs, poverty, neighborhood crime, its weight is thrown behind characters and their motivations. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like a print version of “The Wire” (a show for which I had to turn on the captions), although an “aw-ight” slips in now and then. Dialect is cleaned up to aid comprehension. Hardcore details are briefly acknowledged and not dwelt upon. You may come to this book because of reviews, but the amazing ability of Ide to capture the flavor of the neighborhood and its inhabitants is what will make you stay.

IQ is the nickname of Isaiah Quintabe, an accidental private investigator. When his older brother is killed in a hit-and-run automobile accident, leaving an underage Isaiah without a guardian, it plummets the promising high school student into a life of poverty, rage, and mental turmoil. A few years later, the adult Quintabe has established a tenuous place in the neighborhood as a Sherlock Holmes-like solver of crime (or just plain problems). How did he get from the fragile teenager to the hard-working adult? That story is what makes Ide’s book a thing of beauty.

Juanell Dodson is a character in both Isaiah’s past and his present. It’s clear Dodson is a shifty character, having been a gang member and drug dealer as a teenager. Now he appears to be a hustler who finds new business for Isaiah. Their relationship has never been easy, but a lot of murky water has passed under the bridge in the eight years since they were teenagers together. Dodson has a relative who works for the mega-star rapper Black the Knife, aka Calvin Wright. Through the relative, Isaiah and Dodson learn that someone is trying to kill Cal.

Cal has a video of the first attack. Someone sent a trained pit bull into his house to maul him. It is only through a series of flukes that Cal has lived to scream another day. In his own disjointed, nonsensical way, Cal wants Isaiah to pin the pit bull assassin on his ex-wife Noelle and stop any further attempts. That’s a tall order since Cal is surrounded by people who don’t necessarily have his best interests at heart. But the money is a mighty attractive incentive.

“IQ” toggles between Isaiah’s story in 2003, when he was a teenager recently bereaved of his older brother Marcus, and 2013, with Dodson and Cal and his assorted crew. To great effect, Ide answers all questions in his own time. There are many memorable characters along the way, including Deronda, a woman who initially appears in a comic role, and Skip, a truly comically frightening, psychopathic character. Just when Ide veers toward the lachrymose, he throws in an unexpected twister and the pages rapidly turn themselves.

MBTB star for originality and a stunning combination of poignancy and absurdity!

Jackaby by William Ritter

Algonquin Young Readers, 304 pages, $9.95 (c2014)

This is labeled a young adult book. Phooey on such pigeon-holing! (As a matter of fact, there are a lot of interesting reads for older adults slotted under this label.) William Ritter has created an intriguing fantasy world with an eccentric hero and a redoubtable teenage heroine.

In 1892, in New Fiddleham, New England, R. F. Jackaby is widely known to be unusual, to say the least. He wears a bizarre, multi-colored hat and a long coat with many pockets stuffed with magical odds and ends, and sees things that others can’t. Abigail Rook, fresh off the boat, is a very young woman looking for work. She answers an advertisement for an assistant, and before she is even hired, she is off on her first adventure with the enigmatic Mr. Jackaby.

Abigail mistakenly interprets Jackaby’s accurate but farfetched observations about her recent travels to mean that he is a Sherlock-type genius. (“Let me guess, you smelled salt water on my coat, and I’ve got some peculiar shade of clay caked on my dress,” she says.) Later she finds out that his statements are related to supernatural critters he sees latched onto her outfit. If you watched the television show “Grimm,” it’s like that. Only a few chosen protectors can view the “other world,” and only they can effectively battle it.

Jackaby is a self-styled private investigator. He sometimes inserts himself into a police investigation, as he does in the case portrayed in “Jackaby,” the first book in Ritter’s series. A newspaper reporter has died, his body torn apart as if by a vicious animal and his blood drained. Jackaby senses some supernatural force at work. In fact, whatever the powerful force is, it has its footprints all over the place. One of Jackaby’s first pronouncements is that at least one more person will die that night. What no one knows at the time is that there is a potential for a catastrophe if Jackaby, Abigail, and police detective (junior variety) Charlie Cane can’t identify and stop the force.

“Jackaby” is not a subtle ghostly novel. Neither is it overly grisly or don’t-go-down-to-the-cellar stupid. It is well-balanced, slightly humorous, slightly dour, unexpectedly poignant, and very entertaining. There is a resident ghost in Jackaby’s home and a duck with decidedly un-ducklike propensities. And let’s not dwell on the frog in the aquarium in the front room. People have secrets. People have b-i-i-i-ig secrets. Bonus as far as I’m concerned: There is no prologue and no stories going back and forth in time. (That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed both those things when used well, but hey, now almost everybody uses those devices.)

This is a first book that makes you want to read the second book in the series.

P.S. Thanks to Chuck Caruso, the formidable former member of the MBTB staff, who came up with this recommendation.