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

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $25.99 (c2015, US Ed. 2016)

I remember when it was hard to get British author Ann Cleeves’ books in the United States. Some of her books were out of print, others were just not available in a U.S. edition. The only series we could get with any certainty was the one starring Jimmy Perez of the Shetland Islands police. MBTB store manager Jean had to order the Vera Stanhope books from our British distributor. Of course, that meant the price was stratospheric. With the popularity in the U.S. of the Vera series, occasionally carried on PBS and now on Acorn paid streaming service, Minotaur has begun releasing the Vera Stanhope series. In the inexplicable fashion of publishing, however, it is easier to get the seventh book in the series than the sixth in the U.S.

“The Moth Catcher” is the seventh DI Vera Stanhope book. The first, “The Crow Trap,” was issued in 1998 (and recently released in a U.S. edition). Once again, she is joined by the faithful Joe Ashworth and ambitious Holly Clarke to investigate murder in Northumberland, England.

A studious young man, clearly disturbed by something, has cut ties with his fiancĂ©e and barely communicates with his parents. Although he had been working steadily on a doctorate, he seemingly abandons it to housesit in a manor house near a little town. The locals haven’t really gotten to know him before his body is discovered in a ditch. Who would want to murder him in a place where he is a stranger? Furthermore, when Vera’s investigative team searches the young man’s apartment in the attic of the manor house, the body of another man is found, also murdered. After much searching a link is found between the two. They both were interested in moths. They were both moth catchers. But what about moth catching would be enough to get them murdered?

It wouldn’t be a Vera Stanhope investigation if the psychological underpinnings of the characters weren’t plumbed inquisitively and thoroughly. In earlier times, Vera would have been Miss Marple, without the knitting. There are nearby suspects or suspicious persons aplenty. The manor estate has been mostly sold off and high-end homes created out of the estate’s former farmhouse and barns. Each home has a retired (“the retired hedonists,” they gleefully tell Vera) couple who has moved to the country to escape their former busy lives. It is delicious vintage Vera when she and her team explore their backgrounds and find, of course, many questionable activities. On the face of it, one of the least significant but most interesting background facts has to do with the daughter of one of the couples. She has been in jail for the last few months for GBH of a fellow bar patron one night and is soon to be released. What could that possibly have to do with the murders?

Vera does well in this country environment. After all, she is the daughter of the infamous poacher Hector Stanhope. She assisted her father in his nefarious nighttime outings when she was a child. In fact, her home is just over the hill from the site of the murder. For a city detective, she knows the ins and outs of the country and its denizens.

Like Nero Wolfe, the famous housebound detective created by Rex Stout, Vera is rotund, a characteristic that Cleeves harps on throughout the book — just in case we were inclined to forget. If I were Vera, I’d demand that Cleeves give her a break. Just how many adjectives can Cleeves come up with. (Like a Buddha was probably the low point.) Nevertheless, Vera is spry when the occasion warrants. Having been a hiker in that area of England, I know it requires a stout pair of boots (and a tolerance for mud and sheep pies) and strong ankles to traverse the rural trails.

Vera is my favorite of Cleeves’ characters. She is cerebral without an annoying intellectualism; tart and blunt but capable of grace; and pigheaded and secretive but willing to share any accolades with her team. Vera, Joe and Holly play their established roles very well. The resolution of the murders is more moving than I thought it was going to be. “The Moth Catcher” can be read without reference to earlier novels or the television series, but how wonderful that Minotaur is releasing the earlier books in the U.S.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press, 224 pages, $25

“The Refugees” is NOT a mystery but rather a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees, set mostly in the 1970s to 1990s is my guess. Viet Thanh Nguyen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel, “The Sympathizer.”

Nguyen inhabits the characters of old to young, men and women, all touched at some point by either being a refugee from Vietnam after the war or being the descendant of a refugee, with graceful and deft writing. How do they all cope with the trauma of leaving their country for a place so different, culturally and linguistically? How do they cope with memories of the war that tore them from home? How do they cope with the manner in which they escaped Vietnam? And sometimes their return to their country many years later? Actually, a couple of notable characters are not even Vietnamese.

There is very little humor, but there is some. On the other hand, there are no grisly or graphic scenes, although a crime is committed in one story. Rather, Nguyen’s stories are vignettes of daily life, the slow accommodation to aging, the unpeeling of secrets once left far behind or buried. There is even a gentleness to the most horrid of revelations.

My favorite story is of an old couple. He was an oceanographer in Vietnam but must settle for teaching Vietnamese at a local community college. She happily works in the public library, in their Vietnamese collection. His life is fading, a victim of dementia. She is hanging on to what independence she can for them, as their children press her to give up her job, take care of their father, even hire a gardener for the outside chores she cherishes.

As the husband progresses deeper into his senility, he begins to call his wife “Yen.” Her name is Sa. Nguyen’s handling of this is touching. The wife’s journey from jealousy to a passive-aggressive resentment to an acceptance within a few pages of writing is an example of how powerful short stories can be.

Perhaps you are in need right now of another perspective, seeing the United States from the viewpoint of people granted sanctuary here. In fact, after all, we find that they are just people, simply people, just trying to live.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The 2017 Edgar Award Nominations for Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Paperback Original

The Edgar Awards will be handed out on April 27, 2017, in Manhattan.

I've read almost all the Best Novel and Best First Novel nominees. Usually I try to read the Best Paperback Originals as well, but I've fallen way short of that mark. I have read other books by Tyler Dilts, Robert Dugoni, and Adrian McKinty, and I can see why they were nominated. I'll keep trying. (Last year the book I most enjoyed was a paperback original!) I'll add links as I read more. 

Click on the title for my review.

Best Novel

  • The Ex by Alafair Burke (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper) 
  • Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (Hachette Book Group – Grand Central Publishing)

Best First Novel

  • Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry (Penguin Random House – Penguin Books)
  • Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown Publishing Group)
  • IQ by Joe Ide (Little, Brown & Company – Mulholland Books)
  • The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
  • Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright (Penguin Random House –Marian Wood Book/Putnam)
  • The Lost Girls by Heather Young (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)

Best Paperback Original

  • Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott (Polis Books)
  • Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer) 
  • The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni (Amazon Publishing – Thomas & Mercer)
  • Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  • A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  • Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)

Dodgers by Bill Beverly

Broadway Books, 304 pages, $15 (2016)

I’m not sure what Bill Beverly’s background is other than the information contained in the blurb on the back cover: He grew up in Michigan, attended Oberlin and the University of Florida, has a Ph.D., and teaches at Trinity University in Washington, D.C. The story lies in what is NOT said. In a nutshell, “Dodgers” is about four young black boys traveling across the country to kill a judge who is scheduled to testify against their gang boss in Los Angeles. What research, life experience, or attentive ear qualified Beverly to write this book? I have no personal experience or knowledge of gangs in L.A. (other than being a loyal fan of “The Wire,” set in Baltimore) and wouldn’t know if Beverly’s portrayal of gang activity is accurate. For instance, if there is a lot of street cant that gang members use in normal conversation, it’s mostly absent from the dialogue in this book, to the benefit of the reader — I had to have the captioning turned on while I watched “The Wire” — but it still sounds authentic.

Perhaps authenticity is not the main goal anyway. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age kind of story, a what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong kind of story, a touching story of a boy without a sense of normal who must learn to inhabit the alien environment of the Midwest.

But it begins this way.

“East” is fifteen years old. He stands guard on a drug house in “The Boxes” housing section of L.A.  a designation I Googled and could not find in the real world  and is in charge of a number of other boys who are also guards. It’s the kind of world in which a young child, let alone a teenager, cannot show fear. East’s home situation is frangible with a zoned-out mother and a sociopathic younger half-brother. He would rather sleep in a box in an abandoned basement than spend time at home. (Yes, boxes big and small inhabit the book.)

A judge scheduled to testify against East’s gang boss is hiding out in Wisconsin. East is chosen by the gang boss (also purported to be his uncle) to be part of a crew comprised of his younger half-brother, Ty; a former college student, Michael Wilson; and the smartest person on the trip by far, Walter. In order to not leave a paper trail, they must journey to Wisconsin in an old van, obtain guns, and kill the judge. Michael Wilson, always referred to as such, is by far the oldest at twenty but not necessarily the best planner.

None of the boys has killed anyone, except, maybe, for Ty. At thirteen, he has the stone-cold stare, the attitude, and a touch of craziness to make anything possible. There is no doubt who the triggerman will be, but all must be willing to participate.

East is a sensitive teenager. He tries to take care of his mother, such as she is. He tries not to let kindness trip him up. He is still capable of being horrified at some of the things he sees. He sounds like absolutely the wrong kind of person to send on a hit run, but he is the right kind of fictional hero to acquire an odyssey.

The poetry and power of Beverly’s book lies in the observations East makes of the country he travels through and the people he meets. What is the toll on East's psyche caused by his and others’ actions? He suffers traumatic blow-back from what he witnesses and what he himself has done. "Dodgers" is a heart-wrenching book about survival and belonging.

"Dodgers" has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

MBTB star!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

Little, Brown and Co., 320 pages, $27

“Rather Be the Devil” is probably the twentieth novel in the DI John Rebus canon. I say “probably,” because some of you might count novellas, a confusing distinction from “novels” at times. Nevertheless, Scotsman Ian Rankin has been writing a long time, and John Rebus has popped up across the decades with one entertaining adventure after another.

There was a pall hanging over this work, just as there is a shadow hanging over the lung of John Rebus, retired detective inspector; former colleague of Siobhan Clarke, still with the ill-reformed Scottish police bureau; former adversary and now friend of Malcom Fox, late of internal affairs and the murder squad, and currently newboy at the Gartcosh amalgamated crime fighting headquarters. You are meant to wonder if this is Rebus’ last hurrah. If so, he is going out in style, with a gem of a cold case (reminiscent of his time on the cold case squad), a criminal gang matter (starring an old adversary/odd boon companion), and bringing in his old mates, Clarke and Fox. There is a sense of finality implicit in the rounding up of these elements.

There is also a satisfying complexity and roundness to the crimes: a mugged crime boss, a murdered ex-colleague, a disappeared financier, a strangled beauty, and the ever-popular combination of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.

Although Rebus is retired, working crimes is second nature to him. This old dog still wants to hunt. At first reluctant to work with each other, let alone with the buttinsky Rebus, Clarke and Fox join forces to find out who clobbered local mob boss Daryl Christie. Factoring in the reluctance of people on the wrong side of the law to help the law help them, it’s a long haul for Clarke and Fox to even come up with a list of suspects. Big Ger Cafferty is on that list. He has a love/hate relationship with Rebus, who simultaneously respects, tolerates, and vilifies Cafferty. But Rebus is never complacent where Cafferty is concerned.

Mostly the result of having too much time on his hands, Rebus begins a cold case investigation of the decades-old murder of Maria Turquand, a young, flighty, upper-class beauty, in a room at the iconic Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh. Many of the major players are still alive, including her reclusive husband, unfaithful lover, and former one-night stands. In a strange way very common in crime novels, a link pops up between the cold case and the current crimes and misdemeanors. Robert Chatham, the ex-cop who last reviewed Turquand’s case, is now a bouncer in the club owned by the crime boss who has been coshed. When ill tidings befall Chatham after he talked to Rebus, it’s a toss-up whether it is because of Turquand’s or Christie’s case.

Rebus, ever his own man, inserts himself into official investigations. His humor is wry, his charm is rough, his talk is mostly blunt, albeit often evasive. This proves to be a gem of a case for a man who might be walking into a sunset.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Ex by Alafair Burke

Harper Paperbacks, 304 pages, $15.99 (c2016)

It’s not always true that a book written by a lawyer will be a paragon of legal orthodoxy. If a novel is to be interesting it must step outside the bounds of the tedious legal wrangling and investigation that occurs in most real cases. And that sometimes results in stories that lie more in the realm of fantasy. There are gunfights, exploding cars, backdoor shenanigans, a robot shouting, “Danger, Will Robinson” … sorry, got carried away.

What I like about “The Ex” by ex-Portlander Alafair Burke is the nitty gritty of working a criminal case has not been wrapped in last year’s “Mission Impossible” script. Good twists, good characters, and a good story have not been buried.

Criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall has agreed to handle the defense of an old college boyfriend on charges of murdering three people. One of the people Jack Harris, now a well-regarded author, is accused of murdering is Malcolm Neeley, the man whose teenaged son went on a shooting rampage a few years earlier which killed thirteen people, including Jack’s wife. Although it has been about twenty years since Olivia has seen Jack, she knows that no matter the provocation, Jack could never kill anyone. She should know. She provided enough provocation during their time together to rile a saint, and Jack did not lash out at her.

Jack’s sixteen-year-old daughter is the one who found Olivia and begged her to take her father’s case. Despite the unhappy ending of their affair, Jack, too, begs Olivia to help him. Her guilt over their breakup two decades earlier guarantees that she will take his case.

People and memories from Olivia’s past pop back into play. For example, Charlotte, Jack’s childhood friend and the college schoolmate to both Jack and Olivia, has the money to pay Olivia’s fee. It is she who inadvertently set the murder scenario rolling by trying to find an intriguing woman Jack spotted on a morning jog. Charlotte posts a “missed moments” alert in her online publication and it goes sufficiently viral that the woman is found. It is while going to meet this woman face-to-face that Jack is put right in the vicinity where the odious Malcolm Neeley is fatally shot.

While it’s not a slam-dunk that Olivia will be able to extract Jack from the charges, there is yet no actual evidence that Jack murdered Neeley. With the help of her eccentric office assistant, Einer Wagner, and other more sedately portrayed characters, Olivia methodically picks through the evidence and innuendo. Then slowly, one revelation after another appears. And it is delicious.

Although the ending is a little far-fetched, here is an MBTB star for the page-turning enjoyableness of “The Ex,” another nominee for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, $17 (c2016)

Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager series is one of my favorites. As a matter of fact, maybe I’ll reread the books in the series and post reviews. That’s a worthy goal. “Where It Hurts” introduces a new character and potentially a new series.

John Augustus “Gus” Murphy is a man in pain. He used to be a Suffolk County cop on Long Island before his teenage son’s death a couple of years ago. There is so much hair-rending in the first part of the book that I was convinced that Gus had somehow caused the death of his son or failed to rescue him. It takes a long time to learn the facts of John Jr.’s death and Gus’ role in it. “Where It Hurts” is the for-better-or-worse story of Gus’ sudden emergence from his personal valley of despair.

A two-bit punk, TJ Delcamino, has been tortured and murdered. His heart-broken father, Tommy Delcamino, a two-bit career criminal, has gone to the only honest cop he ever met, Gus Murphy. Unfortunately, Gus is no longer a cop. His sorrow has taken all incentive and color from his world. He now drives a courtesy van and acts as bouncer and house detective for a two-bit hotel near a Long Island airport and a train station. Gus has contact with lots of people — commuters, hotel staff, service people, his ex-wife — but no lasting relationships. That’s the way he likes it.

A chord is touched in Gus, but not in a good way. He chases Tommy Delcamino off. How dare he assume Gus would help him with TJ because they share a common grief. Later Gus discovers Tommy knew nothing about John Jr. That is when he begins to understand that it’s not all about him anymore. But Gus no longer has the opportunity to apologize to Tommy. Someone has murdered him.

Then “Smudge,” Tommy’s sad-sack friend, shows up with Tommy’s investigative materials and a retainer fee to hire Gus. Contrary to an overwhelming sentiment to the contrary, Gus takes on the case.

Gus soon realizes he is mired in something that reeks of rotten, slimy things, much like the sewage that littered the lot where TJ’s body was found. Is it drugs? Is it prostitution? Is it corruption? Is it unvarnished greed? Why won’t the cops, some of whom were friendly to him when he was a cop, talk to him?

Coleman’s story works its way forward as Gus meets sleazy character after sleazy character. The author paints these portraits artfully. He also depicts the poor and hard-luck parts of Long Island well. Here is the final product: a book dog-paddling in a melancholy soup.

After a choppy beginning as we struggle to learn who Gus is and why he seems to be stuck in a loop of misery, the story smoothes out as Gus takes on the investigation. When Slava, the hotel’s doorman, proves an exciting, unanticipated cohort, the story really flies.

Here is what stops me from giving this book an MBTB star — certainly not the writing, which is often made of riveting, poetic stuff — Coleman could have thrown the final twist away and still stood on a cohesive, engaging story. I also couldn’t figure out why Gus wouldn’t have to worry about future attacks on his life by the ultimate culprit’s associates. I’m hoping I just missed that point.

"Where It Hurts" is one of the Edgar Award Best Story nominees for 2016.