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

Friday, April 29, 2016

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Grand Central Publishing, 400 pages, $26 (anticipated release date - 5/31/16)

"Fargo" was a most excellent Coen brothers movie. "Fargo" became a most excellent and excitingly unpredictable television series, now in its second year. Author Noah Hawley is associated with the television series, and I expected big things of his new novel, 'Before the Fall." I was not disappointed; "Before the Fall" is a most excellent and excitingly unpredictable book.

Scott Burroughs is a little known painter living on Martha's Vineyard. He befriends Maggie Bateman at a local farmers' market. She is the retiring wife of fabulously wealthy media mogul David Bateman. David Bateman has made his fortune and living putting forth a conservative agenda, à la Fox News. Of course, he owns his own plane, and this provides the nexus for Hawley's story.

Although Scott is about forty, artistic success has eluded him, but now he has a chance to move forward and ignite his ambitions. He must fly to New York to see about presenting his work in a gallery. Maggie and her family, including two young children, are flying back to New York, so she offers Scott a seat on their private jet. David in the meantime has offered seats to shady investor Ben Kipling and his wife Sarah. Rounding out the gang are a pilot, copilot, flight attendant, and Gil Baruch, the Batemans' bodyguard, a necessity for the Batemans ever since daughter Rachel was kidnapped when she was two. Sixteen minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes.

Scott awakens in a cold, blazing sea. Disoriented but not panicked, he has only a vague idea of what has happened, because he was knocked unconscious during the first few minutes of the disaster. He hears a sound, and it turns out to be the cries of the Batemans' four-year-old son, JJ. Despite a dislocated shoulder, Scott manages to swim to shore with JJ on his back.

This is the bare bones outline of the first few pages of the book. The history that brought Scott, David, Maggie, Rachel (the Batemans' daughter), JJ, Ben, Sarah, Gil, the pilot, copilot, and attendant to their fateful flight is detailed movingly and unexpectedly by Hawley, who proves to be a master storyteller.

Hawley also created the character of Bill Cunningham, a controversial, pot-stirring show host on David Bateman's network, who becomes Scott's nemesis. Used to finding conspiracy and controversy wherever he looks, he works to make Scott not the hero but the villain of the piece.

What Hawley shows us is that crafting a good book is not just about the techniques of plotting or the technical details to show authenticity, it's mostly definitely about character and morality.

Here's an MBTB star for an outstanding novel!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Arabesk by Barbara Nadel

Felony & Mayhem, 384 pages, $14.95 (c2001, F&M ed. 2009)

“Arabesk” is the third book in Barbara Nadel’s Inspector İkmen mysteries set in Istanbul, Turkey. A well-written, interesting concept and an exotic setting — it doesn’t get much better.

Çetin İkmen is a hard-working, hard-drinking, chain-smoking police detective with a large family. All of which was true until “Arabesk.” The book opens with İkmen sidelined because of an ulcer. No more drinking and no more working for a while. Instead, there’s more family time, much to İkmen’s dismay. To be clear, İkmen loves his wife and many, many children. His eldest is a doctor and two more of his children aspire to that profession as well. Another teenage son is giving him agita with his surliness, and the rest of the children are an amorphous, roiling, noisy mass. Fatma, his wife, has no sympathy for his whining.

Surely İkmen will die of boredom and/or broken eardrums. Except. Inspector Mehmet Suleyman was promoted to his current position after having served admirably as İkmen’s second. Now he has his own cases, and one in particular draws İkmen like a moth to flame. İkmen knows Suleyman needs his help because İkmen knows about the cultural diversity that makes up Turkey. Suleyman as a member of the aristocratic (if somewhat impoverished) Ottoman dynasty has inherited a lofty but narrow perspective of his fellow man, despite having been a policeman for many years. And it is İkmen’s perspective that will prove more useful.

Ruya, the wife of an Arabesk singer, has been murdered and her baby has disappeared. Erol Urfa is distraught and strangely wary. The story becomes a little clearer when it is discovered that Urfa was having an affair with a much, much older Arabesk singer, Turkey’s “darling” Tansu Hanım. The mark of an Arabesk singer is the ability to sing songs of love and hate with passion. Was passion behind Ruya’s death? Or was she merely in the way of someone who wanted a baby? And what about the high-functioning Down’s syndrome neighbor, Cengiz Tamiz? He obviously knows more about the murder than an innocent bystander would.

Barbara Nadel is a British writer who has visited Turkey many times over the last twenty-five years. Her books certainly have a ring of authenticity about them. She captures the exotic nature of a city on the cusp of both Europe and Asia, a city with a notable history of conqueror and conquered. From time under dictators of the Roman and Ottoman dynasties to its current position as a democratic society, Istanbul/Constantinople is the stuff of legends. It’s also a melting pot of cultures, tribal affiliations, and political intrigue. And, as becomes clear as the book goes along, some people can be other than they seem.

With İkmen’s help, Suleyman struggles to understand the dynamics of Tansu’s family. Her protective brothers and sister must bend to the demands and tantrums of their famous sister. As she pouts and cries for her Erol, she seems cleverly manipulative. Is she just a spoiled diva or is it a show to distract from the possibility that she is a murderer?

I love the İkmen books, even though I have bounced around without regard to series order. İkmen himself is extraordinarily perspicacious, amusing, and larger than life. Suleyman provides a good conservative counterpoint. Other series mainstays are different in background and temperament and make the series more than just a bunch of whodunnits.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie

G. P. Putnam's Sons, 384 pages, $27

“The Drifter” was a recommendation from a friend. It was recommended to him by the CEO of a big independent bookstore. What a provenance! Indeed, it was one of those books I didn’t want to put down. When I did manage to close the book, I looked forward with pleasure to resuming. It was a thriller with a big heart.

Most good authors build their story slowly, and this is what Petrie does. He cleverly goes from an opening look at his protagonist dealing with a growling dog under a porch to later investigating what could be a terrorist attack. If you don’t mind learning in the next few paragraphs what Petrie takes a few chapters to establish, then read on. This is a mild spoiler alert.

Lt. Peter Ash safely returned to the U.S. after several years in the turbulent, stressful environment of the Middle East. Virtually the minute he touched U.S. soil, his disabling PTSD, in the form of claustrophobia, began. For over a year he disappeared into the north woods to live under the stars and trees. The veterans’ grapevine, however, managed to find him to tell him that his old buddy, Sgt. James Johnson, had committed suicide. Peter’s disability had prevented him from keeping in touch, and now it was too late.

Harboring feelings of guilt and shame, Peter heads to Milwaukee to look up Jimmy’s widow, Dinah, and two children. Under the pretense of being part of a new government program that helps out families of deceased veterans, Peter begins to do some fix-it work on Dinah’s house. In the process of redoing her porch, he discovers a big honkin’ dog growling in the corner under that porch. Legend has it that the mastiff is the reason the neighborhood cats and small critters have been disappearing. Having disabled the dog in a clever manner, Peter then discovers a suitcase. In the suitcase are $400,000 and a big honkin’ amount of explosives. It’s clear Dinah knows nothing about it. It also becomes clear that Jimmy hadn’t lived with his family towards the end. Was the suitcase his? If so, what had he gotten mixed up in? It’s hard for Peter to believe that Jimmy had turned rogue or radical. If Jimmy hadn't placed the suitcase under the porch, who had?

In the process of tracing Jimmy’s footsteps, Peter meets some unsavory and shadowy characters. People give him the stink-eye, shadow him, beat him up, try to kill him, and want to know what he knows. The truth is Peter doesn’t know diddly. What is also true is that Dinah and her sons are in danger. Peter stretches himself to the limit to protect them.

Petrie’s thriller comes with a bonus. Although it appears from his biography that he was not in the military himself, Petrie writes of veterans’ difficulties with passion and care. Many of the characters in “The Drifter” are veterans, and their perspectives have been warped by what happened to them in the Middle East. How do you turn that part of yourself off, the part where it’s okay, if not laudable, to kill? Peter must answer this question, and he must figure out if Jimmy had the same problem.

Petrie has crafted an entertaining and thoughtful book. Pretty good for a debut. Here’s an MBTB star (despite the squeamish fact that both Peter and the dog needed a good scrubbing for most of the book)!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Cold Barrel Zero by Matthew Quirk

Mulholland Books, 384 pages, $26

I read Matthew Quirk’s first book, “The 500,” and thought it was mighty fine, primarily because he didn’t concentrate on plot at the expense of character. Quirk mastered some could-have-been-dull-as-ditchwater political inner workings and presented them as part of a thriller story. He pretty much does the same thing in “Cold Barrel Zero.” There’s technical gun, medical, and war talk, the details of which enhance the story instead of waylaying it. I have no idea if the technical talk is accurate or not — I was astounded when Roger Hobbs confessed that one of the most interesting details in his caper novel, “Ghostman,” was fabricated — and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Quirk (and Hobbs) talks a good talk.

Although he apparently has had several noms de guerre, “John Hayes" is a special forces leader who went deep undercover in the Middle East with his crew. He claims he was betrayed by his superior officer and Hayes and his crew have been on the run ever since. Whether it’s true or not is determined in teasing bits of story that spring up as the book goes along.

Dr. Thomas Byrne is a surgeon who used to be with the military and now travels around the U.S. working at different hospitals. We learn that he could have a stable job somewhere, but, alas, he has issues. Nevertheless, in an interregnum between episodes of anxiety, he and Kelly Britten, a potential girlfriend, are having a small vacation in San Diego, when men in black come for him because of a supposed connection with Hayes, who, at this point, has been branded a terrorist and renegade.

Some of the men in black are extralegal — perhaps the author is saying that this is not totally unusual in our real twilight world of covert ops and amorphous terrorist organizations. It’s true, it turns out, that Byrne knows Hayes, but they haven’t seen each other in years. Why would he know anything about Hayes’ current activities? “Cold Barrel Zero” contains many wonderful oh-no-he-didn’t moments, but co-opting Byrnes into Hayes' little group stretches it. Nevertheless, Byrne and Britten are soon enmeshed in working out the problem of who are wearing the white and black hats.

There were twists. There were turns. At one point, I thought Quirk was leaving us with a cliffhanger at the end, a device I would have supported. But no, he swiftly clears up the remaining issues. The best part for me — mild spoiler alert — is that Kelly Britten also turned out to be a kick-ass military type. In the end this was an enjoyable and swiftly-paced read.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Infidel Stain by M. J. Carter

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 432 pages, $27 (c2015, US Ed. 2016)

Goodbye to the exotic landscapes and people of India in the mid-1800s where M. J. Carter’s first book in the Blake and Avery series, “The Strangler Vine,” was based. Hello to the bleak, poverty-ridden, misery-inducing crowded streets and dirty alleyways of London’s Soho/St. Giles/Covent Garden neighborhoods. Children especially have hopeless, hungry, shameful lives. The adults have had hard compromises to make in order to survive and worse choices if they have families. Charles Dickens would recognize this seedy part of London, and in fact he makes a non-speaking cameo. Unfortunately, after the colorful Edgar-nominated “The Strangler Vine,” this sequel is a little bland, but M. J. Carter has a good way with presenting historical events clothed in a thought-provoking mystery.

We take so much for granted in our technologically plush current time, even though poverty, abuse, and slavery still exist in our “first world.” In M. J. Carter’s story, the majority of people in Great Britain are disenfranchised, the power held by a minority of people born to the right families. Cheap labor to run the ruling class’s enterprises, people for whom there usually is no legal recourse, people who are one precarious step away from the legendarily odious poorhouse. The “blue bastards,” the police force, are not on their side for the most part.

All this becomes obvious when a printer is murdered. There are many printers in the area, most of whom struggle to make a living. Sometimes they are obliged to print forbidden material. Was his job related to the horrendous way that Nat Wedderburn was murdered? Mutilated, gutted, covered in ink, a most unsavory end. His body was discovered by a young girl, a street urchin Wedderburn and his family sometimes sheltered in the print shop under their home. Matty is streetsmart, has some learning, and is doomed to an early death unless a miracle happens.

Lord Allington is an aristocrat who is using his money and influence to make things better for the poor. As he and his sister are evangelicals, he also wants to save their souls. (By the way, Carter begins her book with this explanation of “infidel”: “In the first half of the nineteenth century, ‘infidels’ were political radicals with atheist and republican beliefs. They were regarded by the government as dangerous revolutionaries.”) Religion plays a role in Carter’s story. It is to her credit that she presents  societal issues without losing the dramatic story of the murders.

Carter has chosen to have young Captain Avery, late of India and Afghanistan, represent the unsullied middle class. He is clueless about the conditions of the poor. He is fallible, judgmental, hot-tempered, and class conscious. Although Jeremiah Blake’s past is a mystery, he has a deep knowledge of the rough areas in town. When Theophillus Collinson, their former superior in India, reunites them after three years to solve the printers’ (yes, there are other printers) deaths at the request of Lord Allington, their relationship springs back into form. That is, Blake is mysterious and imperious; Avery is befuddled and harumphing.

In a mere 432 pages, Carter intensely examines a slice of London life, presents the pressing social and political issues of the time, and still manages to present a coherent mystery. 

See my review of the first book, "The Strangler Vine."

Friday, April 1, 2016

Lesser Evils by Joe Flanagan

Europa, 416 pages, $18 

Lt. Bill Warren is a mess. His wife left him, his seven-year-old son, Mike, 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, Massachusetts police force. Oh, and there’s a serial killer wandering around doing despicable things to young boys before killing them. Perhaps that’s enough to stop you from picking up “Lesser Evils,” but I hope not. This book is a mighty good read on many different levels.

To add to Warren’s woes, the state troopers have been brought in to deal with the murders. Captain Dale Stasiak is a whole stinking lot of bully. Although he’s a hero for having helped put down a notorious criminal mob in Boston, he’s an enigma and overpowering presence in the smaller communities of Cape Cod. He and his sneering gang of troopers play rough and feel no need to explain much.

When the murder cases are taken away from Warren, he fumes but then puts his attention to other suspicious goings-on in the area. The husband of a woman who works for the DuPonts (yes, those DuPonts) is missing. Soon the woman and her child are also missing. Warren sees faint traces of something bigger going on in the Cape area related to the missing people. Warren balances this investigation with a surreptitious continued involvement in the murders, a growing desperation about his son’s disabilities, and feelings of anger and isolation.

Elliott Yost, the district attorney for the Cape Islands, a weaselly character, believes that he has “lived with an uneasy sense that a great turmoil was under way in the world and that somewhere west of the canal its distant surging could be felt in the air.” This in fact informs the whole story; that uneasiness pervades the community, drags at Warren’s life, brings evil and sadness to many. It is up to Warren and a trusted detective on his force, Ed Jenkins, to put names and faces to the evil and rout it out.

Besides a great, shifting plot, Joe Flanagan’s writing often rises to a level above. For example, “Fugitive smells rose in the air and spoke a secret language he shared with them: The dregs of discarded bottles, sodden clothing, coniferous decay.” Flanagan’s story also takes unexpected turns and at this stage in my life, with hundreds of crime novels read, the unexpected is rare and welcome. “Lesser Evils” gets an MBTB star.