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

Monday, June 13, 2016

End of Watch by Stephen King

Scribner, 448 pages, $30

“End of Watch” is the end of the road for the marvelous and touching Bill Hodges series by master storyteller Stephen King. “Mr. Mercedes” introduced the murderous sociopath Brady Hartsfield who drove a Mercedes into a line of people waiting outside for a job fair to begin. Bill Hodges, a retired detective, is smart and hard-working. Together with his teenage helper, Jerome Robinson, and the psychologically broken Holly Gibney, Bill tracks down Brady and Holly clobbers him on the head hard enough to send him into a coma. “Finders Keepers” came after that, but it had little to do with the Mr. Mercedes story. At the very end of that book, however, a chilling revelation presaged the coming of “End of Watch,” the continuation of the Mr. Mercedes story.

Taking place six years after the events in “Mr. Mercedes,” Bill finally has stopped going by Brady’s hospital room to check on him. Although Brady is now awake, he is physically unable to move around and is hard to understand. Bill still gets the willies when he is in Brady’s presence. I know you’re in there, Bill taunts Brady.

Bill’s old police partner, Pete Huntley, is just about to retire, and he calls Bill to help with one last case. Izzy Jaynes, the detective who replaced Bill as Pete's partner, is ambitious and doesn’t want to be chained to a case that can’t be cleared with lightning speed, especially one that has potential woo-woo elements attached. The mother of one of Brady’s victims has killed her handicapped daughter and then killed herself. Maybe. When Bill and Holly show up at the crime scene, Izzy has already written the case off as a murder/suicide, but Pete, Bill, and Holly think there’s something more to it. Holly finds an old electronic game — a Zappit — shoved down in the mother’s easy chair, and that’s the true beginning of this concluding novel.

That innocent-looking Zappit is slowly revealed to be the conduit for the madness that still festers in Brady’s untethered soul. In perfect fashion, author King slowly builds his story and at the midpoint, begins to unleash his thrilling revelations and clever resolutions that tumble down to the poignant ending. His attention to detail and ability to neatly pull everything together is legendary.

This was a very satisfying read. Here’s an MBTB star!

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Hero of France by Alan Furst

Random House, 256 pages, $27

Alan Furst has style. He doesn’t waste words, but he does provide a “You Are There” feeling through the details in his books, almost all of which have been set in and around World War II. He doesn’t belabor his characters’ backgrounds, the politics of the time, or the psychology of good versus bad. He gets on with it and tells a good story rife with the essence of the finer human traits: kindness, generosity, courage, and self-sacrifice.

As with most of Furst’s books, “A Hero of France” is a standalone. There are many heroes, but the main heroic character is a French Resistance member named Mathieu, a nom de guerre. Mathieu operates in Paris with other brave souls in his cell to infiltrate agents from Britain and help others escape from Vichy France. Running the escape lines is especially perilous because often the people are downed British airmen who can’t speak French. Mathieu and his colleagues are clever and find connections to local people, who surprise themselves with their bravery by supplying peripheral help to the cell.

After an interesting and lengthy introduction, the main stories emerge. Provocateurs must enter Paris to set off bombs to disrupt the German/Vichy machine, and a Polish pilot flying for Britain has come down in occupied France and must be spirited out of the country. It is Mathieu and his team who must solve both problems.

Furst throws in a German police detective, Senior Inspector Otto Broehm, who has been sent to Paris to find and break the Resistance’s escape lines. Broehm recruits someone he believes can infiltrate the movement, and the race is on.

There is no whodunnit in “A Hero of France.” It is an open-faced war story that manages to be a nail-biting spy novel as well. It should be obvious that I am an Alan Furst fan, and this book did not disappoint.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Random House, 368 pages, $27 (anticipated release date - 6/28/16)

British author Susie Steiner has a hefty background in newspapers. She quit a few years ago when her first novel, “Homecoming,” was published. “Missing, Presumed” is her first crime novel.

DS Manon Bradshaw, Steiner’s hapless protagonist, is part of the solid Major Incident Team, detectives who investigate suspicious situations. Because of Steiner’s journalistic background, her book seems especially authentic with respect to the various political machinations that go on in a police department. Her characters don’t charge ahead so much as stutter forward through budgetary constraints and over-promoted superiors.

Many characters share the stage with their own chapters, despite Manon’s predominance. This is a good thing. Manon is a mess. One wonders how she manages to be a functioning detective. Crippled by loneliness, emotional volatility, self-pity, a ticking biological clock, and a dysfunctional family situation, she appears to be tethered to reality by one loose screw. It seems that she spends more time crying in the bathroom than detecting. If anything, her character weakens an interesting and strong story.

The main story is of a young woman who is missing from the home she shares with her fianacĂ©. Her front door has been left open and there is blood on the floor. Of course it puts the spotlight on those closest to her, and most have secrets that couldn’t bear the light of day.

The detectives must also juggle other crimes, including finding out what a decomposed corpse was doing in the river. Manon, along with Harriet and Davy, other members of the team, must discover if there is a connection between the woman’s disappearance and the unidentified body.

Steiner’s strength is in her characterizations, in humanizing what could be stock crime story characters. Even Manon’s pathetic nature eventually transforms and transcends — as it must, or what’s the point.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Manitou Canyon by William Kent Krueger

Atria Books, 336 pages, $24.99

William Kent Krueger has been writing and receiving awards for his Cork O’Connor series since 1998. “Manitou Canyon” is his fifteenth book about the sheriff (and now ex-sheriff) of Aurora, Minnesota, near the legendary Boundary Waters wilderness. In 2014, Krueger’s non-series book, “Ordinary Grace,” won the Anthony, Barry, Dilys, Edgar, Left Coast Crime, and Macavity Awards for best book, a clean sweep.

Two issues Krueger presents so well are the threats to the environment and the rights and culture of the Native American tribes. Cork is part Ojibwe and embraces this part of his heritage. Many of his friends are First People, one of whom, Henry Meloux, is his guide in all things spiritual. Although Cork barely admits it to himself, he has romantic feelings for Rainey, Henry’s niece, who is herself now more accepting of the spiritual side of her Ojibwe heritage. The visions a couple of characters have and other can't-be-explained events play an important role in “Manitou Canyon.” In general, spirituality is a major theme for Krueger in his books. What greed and ignorance have done to erode the beauty and natural life cycle of the great wilderness of Minnesota takes center stage.

In “Manitou Canyon,” O’Connor is beseeched by Lindsay Harris, the granddaughter of a former neighbor, to locate her missing grandfather. She, her grandfather, and her brother went camping in the nearby woods not long ago. They ostensibly went to improve their family relationship and to enjoy nature in the raw. During the trip John W. Harris, a rich and important engineer, disappeared. As in, not a trace, into thin air, leaving aught behind, poof. Huge amounts of energy are expended trying to find him, but no human, dog, or airplane can find a clue.

As a final effort, Lindsay asks Cork for one last look around their camping area. Although Cork’s daughter’s wedding is just days away, he agrees out of loyalty to the memory of an older teenage boy who was kind to the kid (Cork) across the street, and because Lindsay's brother has had a vision that reveals intimate knowledge of Cork's family. Cork and Lindsay almost immediately run afoul of people who have been hanging out on an island not far from the campsite. After Cork and Lindsay are kidnapped by these people, it becomes obvious that the strangers were hanging around waiting for them. How did they know Cork and Lindsay would be there? Do they know what has become of the grandfather?

When Cork and Lindsay disappear, Cork’s daughter, son, soon-to-be-son-in-law, former sister-in-law, girlfriend, mentor, mentor's former sister-in-law, and the new sheriff of Aurora do some investigating and searching of their own. They each have a strength, and they form a formidable team. Krueger does an excellent job of having these characters neatly uncover the pieces of the puzzle throughout the book.

With Cork and Lindsay in danger, the gang in Aurora on high alert, and hidden issues that drive the whole criminal plot, there is more than enough momentum-building to drive “Manitou Canyon” to the explosive end. Krueger is the master at ending a book, always with a thoughtful revelation and always beautifully written.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong

Minotaur Books, 416 pages, $25.99

I read “City of the Lost” on the heels of having read “Sweetbitter” and “My Brilliant Friend” by authors whose writing is extraordinary. Kelley Armstrong’s writing seemed too simple by comparison. It’s the part of reading that cannot be controlled: what came before. I’d like to think that I can shake off prior readings, but in the end I’m the sum of what came before. (That’s mostly a useful perspective.) Authors do not write in a vacuum and are themselves influenced by the same “what came before.” Still, Armstrong’s book suffered. Mea culpa.

Having said that, I will say that I looked forward to picking up "City of the Lost" each time to see what new twist Armstrong had crafted. After a slow start establishing her main characters, Casey and her best friend Diana, Armstrong picks up speed when both women arrive in a town hidden in the wilds of Canada’s Yukon Territory. They are running away from their pasts: Casey from having accidentally killed a man and Diana from her abusive ex-husband. The town of Rockton harbors a lot of secrets. Everyone is running away from something or someone. It’s a town that can only be entered if a secret council agrees that a person has legitimate reason to want to disappear from the outside world. That and a boatload of money to buy his or her way in.

Eric is the sheriff/mayor of the town and what he says goes. He has a deputy, but what he needs is a detective. Casey was a police detective in her former life, so she fits the bill. Several residents of the town may or may not have been murdered. They certainly disappeared … until bits and pieces of them are found in the woods. Is there a serial killer haunting the town? Is it one of the residents or one of the “hostiles” or “settlers” living independently out in the huge forest and mountains? Or are there critters, unimaginable monsters, living in the dense woods surrounding the town?

Armstrong knows how to put all the popular elements in her book: romance, mysterious women, suspicious-looking men, menacing horrors that lurk in the dark, and a tough protagonist and the conflicting relationships that pull at her.

“City of the Lost” is a long book and I admit to having just quickly scanned some sections; e.g., the potboiler romance and sex seemed obligatory rather than sincere and sometimes police work was summed up by "she interviewed several people." But I finished the book and my first thought was “summer read.” That sounds more derogatory than I mean it to be, because Armstrong really gets the pulse of popular fiction and she makes the most of it with a creative storyline.