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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $25.99
Translated from Icelandic by Quentin Bates

There’s nothing like reading a book about a cold, cold place while your own locale is still plunged in the tail-end of winter. In a glass is half-full kind of way, a reader could say, “At least I’m not living in a white-out blizzard.”

Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson’s main character is a newly minted police officer, Ari Thór. (As an aside, last names, which are usually patronymics, often are not used in everyday life.) During 2008, when this book is set, the Icelandic banks were failing, a recession was hitting the land hard, and jobs were few and far between. Ari Thór must leave the security of the life he has built with his girlfriend in Rekyavik to travel to the far, cold, isolated north of Siglufjördur in order to work as a policeman. There, like in the bar Cheers, everyone knows your name. And your business. Before he knows it, Ari Thór has acquired a nickname, The Priest, in honor of his curtailed education in theology. (How did everyone know that?)

Nothing ever happens, he is told by his boss, Tómas. Fender-benders, accidental deaths, drunk-and-disorderlys. Nothing much. Until someone is sort-of-kind-of murdered.

Hrólfur Kristjánsson is arguably Iceland’s most famous author, but, like Harper Lee, he has only written one book. But it’s a darned good one. He is also famous in Siglufjördur for being grumpy and imperious. He has managed to make friends over the years, however, and his latest is Ugla, a young woman who rented the basement of his house for a time. She is a music teacher — with only one pupil, Ari Thór.

Hrólfur is producing a play for the local dramatic society. Ugla takes part, as do old acquaintances of Hrólfur, director Úlfur and playwright Pálmi. There are dramatic tensions and loud arguments over how the play should be done. There are personal relationships among the cast and crew that also affect the drama. When Hrólfur’s body is found at the bottom of the theater’s stairs, it looks like an accident. After all, Hrólfur was known to tipple quite a bit and he was getting on in years. Were it not for some secret sleuthing by Ari Thór, an accidental death would have been an easy conclusion.

Even with Ari Thór’s involvement — and rookie mistakes — Hrólfur’s death still may be an accident, but, too late, emotions and secrets already have been stirred.

And, oh yes, in this heavily unsuspicious and heretofore placid piece of Iceland, there is another suspicious death. What has Ari Thór stirred up?

The most impressively detailed part of “Snowblind” is the winter. Deep, claustrophobic snow. Dark, unrelenting early nightfalls. Isolation. Not surprisingly, Ari Thór has a visceral reaction to his new posting. He experiences sleep disturbances, claustrophobia, nightmares, and loneliness. He doesn’t know where his relationship stands with Kristin, his girlfriend in Reykjavik. He feels an unwanted attraction towards Ugla. His boss is mostly genial, except when he’s not. He has been warned off creating a case where none exists. These combine to create a very interesting (in a good way) work.

“Snowblind” has the advantage of being set in a fascinating part (Siglufjördur) of a fascinating part of the world (Iceland). Jónasson reveals the culture not just of a part of Iceland but also the universality of the small-town experience. Although “Snowblind” is not the first novel by Jónasson, it is the first translated into English. A prior untranslated novel, “Fölsk nóta,” deals with Ari Thór’s search for his missing father. There are several other untranslated novels after “Snowblind” as well. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Other Press, 512 pages, $25.95 (c2016, U.S. Ed. 2017)
Translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

What a riveting book this was! And the translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles was terrific. Willson-Broyles’ work conveys a sense of a different culture while reading smoothly as though it had been written originally in English. Malin Persson Giolito has written a book with a full quota of suspense, overlaid by the social commentary for which Swedish writers are known.

When the story begins, eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is awaiting her trial in jail. She is accused of participating in a school shooting with her boyfriend Sebastian Fagerman. Both Sebastian and Maja come from well-off families, especially Sebastian, whose father Claes Fagerman is a celebrity and fabulously wealthy. Was the shooting a thrill kill launched by two apathetic and disengaged young people? The answer slowly reveals itself in Maja’s first-person narrative.

Ah, but is Maja an unreliable narrator? Can we believe what she tells us? Maja’s dream-like life in jail contrasts with her sharp recollection of how events and introductions coalesced into the teenaged angst that led to the murders. During the trial, she sits removed and quiet on the outside, while suffering from inner turmoil. Her celebrity lawyer has winnowed her involvement down to only the useful parts, so Maja’s narrative adds substance and color to the trial testimony and statements.

One day Sebastian stopped by to see Maja at her summer job. Maja had no idea he even knew she existed. He is on a different plane and travels with a raucous crowd. Maja’s friend Amanda hooks up with Sebastian’s friend, Labbe, and the four of them head off to have a good time. Lavish parties, first-class travel, and excessive drug use are contrasted with Maja’s fairly normal home life, Amanda and Labbe’s good manners, and discussions with adults about Sweden’s political and social systems. Also present as the “good conscience” is classmate Samir Said, an immigrant with working-class parents. He is smart and motivated to move ahead. He and Maja, before Sebastian, were friends.

It’s not an aside when the students at Maja’s school attend a lecture by an American economist, but a display of the national philosophy that Swedes like to discuss. The economist’s trip was sponsored by Sebastian’s father as a treat for the students. Sebastian uses the occasion to petulantly and dismissively demean progressive societal goals. In what resonates within the current political situation here in the United States, the fictional economist (who never appears again) says:

“But I think you were trying to make a different point, Samir. To say that there is a limit to how unequal a society can become and continue to remain a stable democracy. And you’re right.”

Later, she adds:

“It’s no crazy conspiracy to say that there are those who benefit when social ills can be blamed on a minority. To pretend those problems are due to … ‘the blacks’ or, as in the 1930s, ‘the Jews’ or, as you call them in Europe today, ‘the immigrants.’”

This sets the underlying conflict between Samir and Sebastian. But this is just one of the threads Giolito weaves into her story. It is also about teenage anxiety, about parent-child relationships, about friendships, about expectations, about powerlessness and love and abuse. Giolito does her weaving so well that her story sticks around long after the last page has been turned. I started the book thinking that Maja would prove to be a conniving, spoiled brat who was startled to find herself caught. Giolito pulls out other possibilities, until Maja’s truth is revealed.

MBTB star!

Monday, March 20, 2017

What You Break by Reed Farrel Coleman

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $27

“What You Break” is the second entry in the Gus Murphy series by Reed Farrel Coleman, a veteran of hard-boiled crime novels.

Gus is a retired police officer from Long Island, New York. When his twenty-year-old son died, Gus and his family imploded. Although it took almost the whole of the first book to understand what had happened to John Jr. (Gus’s name is John Augustus Murphy), it is soon touched upon in the second book. Gus is slowly healing both himself and his breaches with his ex-wife and daughter. Things are quietly looking up.

Gus works for a second-rate hotel. (He defends it against slander that it is a third-rate one.) He picks up passengers from Long Island’s small airport and its train station and drives them to the hotel. He also serves as the hotel detective and its nightclub’s bouncer, neither of which to this point has produced too much excitement, if you don’t count the dead body that had more to do with Gus than the hotel. In return he receives a small income and lives in one of the hotel’s rooms. It is a meager existence but one that suits the penance Gus feels he has to pay. In the Things Are Looking Up category, however, he has met a woman, Maggie, with whom he is compatible and, dare he say it, in love. Of course, in “What You Break,” things go sideways in virtually all aspects of his life.

One of Gus’s true friends is Slava, a fellow employee at the hotel. Slava saved his life in the first book. He has a mysterious past which, of course, he refuses to discuss. It is something to do with Russians and, as Gus finds out in the course of this book, Chechens. Slava, too, is paying penance for things he will not discuss with Gus. One day, as he knew it might, someone with a Russian accent has come looking for Slava, and not in a good way. Whoever is hunting Slava is cold and determined.

Just because Gus doesn’t have enough to do, his old friend, Father Bill (actually, ex-Father Bill), has asked him for a favor. He knows someone, Micah Spears, who could use Gus’s investigative skills. Micah’s granddaughter was murdered. The police caught her murderer, and he is currently neatly and tidily in prison. What more is left? Micah wants to know why she was murdered, since her killer won’t say. Asking why will bring you only heartache, thinks Gus, but takes on the case because of his friendship with Bill. But Micah has cold eyes and he, too, is as determined in his own way as the man hunting Slava.

Gus is crossing the paths of a lot of cold-eyed people, and he is under a moral obligation to keep putting himself into worlds where he is not welcome.

Coleman is a great storyteller, and it was refreshing to read a book with a linear plot, with a single narrator. (Call me old-school.) “What You Break” is in line with the fine hard-boiled tradition. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the inevitable twists. I enjoyed the moral ambiguity.

The only criticism I would levy is about the character of Maggie. She has been used, tossed aside, and used again. She and Gus have brought baggage to their relationship. Gus brings more hurt in terms of still trying to deal with the death of his son and its aftermath. He is a warm bag of self-pity. When Maggie gets her dream fulfilled of working as an actor again, Gus gets angry because her job will take her away from him (melodramatically, maybe forever). Maggie tells Gus she will turn the job down to stay with him.

Whoa. I get Maggie’s offer. I get Gus is still hurting. I get Coleman is creating tension here. But there’s too much me-me-me to Gus’s anger. Even when he relents, I think he feels more pride in himself for HIS sacrifice than pride for her accomplishment. If this was Coleman’s intent, then, congratulations, he succeeded in how that scenario made me squirm.

That took much too much space, because I really like Coleman’s books, and that should be the emphasis. I love that he took over the Jesse Stone series after Robert B. Parker’s death. I love his Moe Prager series.

Here’s an MBTB star for “What You Break” and the overall quality of his life’s work.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

Penguin Press, 400 pages, $27

First I thought “The Night Ocean” was about a missing man. Then I thought the book was about H. P. Lovecraft. Then I thought it was about a man who, as a teenager, was Lovecraft’s lover. Then I thought it was about a man hiding from the world. Then I thought it was about a world being crafted by words. Then I thought it was about a woman looking for her husband and waving the world of words into being with her arms. It’s a Russian nesting doll of stories.

It’s not necessary to have Lovecraftiness, but it helps if you’ve read a story or two and done a Google search on the cult phenomenon Lovecraft has become. Then you will go into the book with the knowledge of how deeply weird and inventive Lovecraft was. Then you can sit back and let Paul La Farge spin you a tale.

“The Night Ocean” contains facts among the fiction. Many of the characters breathed real air and croaked real sentences and typed fiction or screeds or dreams. La Farge takes a basic mystery about the elusive Lovecraft and nails one literary face after another on him, until it’s impossible to tell which story is coming or when it’s going.

Charlie Willett is the present-day investigator of Lovecraft and a purported erotic diary written by him. He meets Robert Barlow, Lovecraft’s literary executor and perhaps the young lover in the diary. Then Charlie investigates L. C. Spinks, an appliance repairman in Canada, who may have the answers to the most intriguing questions. Then Marina, Charlie’s wife, follows in Charlie’s footsteps when he disappears. This paragraph is misleading because the book begins with Charlie’s disappearance. He is never a current character, only one visible in flashback.

“The Night Ocean” is a jumble of viewpoints and time frames. There are not always clear demarcations when one narrator gives way to another. Time slips sneakily into another decade. Characters exist then and now, but which are real and which are fabrications or enhanced versions of reality? There’s a definite charm to the way La Farge intertwines his tales and reveals his “facts.”

Everyone, even the mostly normal Marina, is running from something. Marina is a psychotherapist but can’t see her own forest for the trees. Barlow is always on the brink of friendship, of knowledge, of duplicity, of happiness, of disaster. Spinks is the mystery of the Sphinx, as is mentioned more than once, in character form. He asks and answers riddles, but perhaps nothing is made clearer when he does.

This is a happy convolution if you are in the mood for it. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Borrowed by Chan Ho-kei

Black Cat/Grove Press, 496 pages, $15, c2014 (U.S. Ed. 2016)
Translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang

“The Borrowed” is an extraordinary collection of novellas with common characters. The six stories are all set in Hong Kong and go backwards from 2013 to 1967. They cover modern Hong Kong, the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, and the unrest under British rule. Chan Ho-kei has given us an historical perspective along with some cracking good detective stories.

The first story, “The Truth Between Black and White (2013),” introduces the character of Inspector Sonny Lok, twenty-seven years with the Hong Kong police and now head of Kowloon East Crime Unit. The first case is presented at the bedside of his mentor, retired Superintendent Kwan Chun-dok. Kwan is in a coma and dying. Lok has to solve the murder of Yuen Man-bun, the head of an extensive family business. One of Yuen’s close companions or family members has done it, and they are all in Kwan’s hospital room. Lok has a device, he tells the family and friends, that can be hooked up to the brain of the legendary detective Kwan, and it will allow Kwan to determine the killer via a computer. Under the questioning of Lok, the family and friends repeat their alibis and stories before Kwan.

This and the subsequent stories are clever, old-fashioned detective stories. They fade from Lok as the predominant character to Lok and Kwan together to Kwan as the main man to just Kwan. I kept thinking, “Clever, clever, clever,” throughout the stories. And Chan ends his book with a bang, just to show he can.

Chan cleverly (there’s that word again) presents the stories backwards in time so you can notice how the future of the characters is affected by occurrences in the past. I don’t know why the title of the book is “The Borrowed.” Does it refer to some of the characters borrowing experiences from the past to inform the present? The book is certainly about choices. Are they living on borrowed time, because they certainly could have been killed at certain points? 

Here is Chan in the afterword to his book:

“I’d started out planning to write a classic detective novel, but now I’d pivoted towards writing a social one. These two varieties aren’t necessarily at odds with each other, but it wouldn’t be easy to mix them together — the flavour of one would easily overpower the other. In order to solve (or avoid) this problem, I chose the structure of six standalone novellas, each one fuelled by mysteries and clues, but all six fitting together to form a complete portrait of society.”

And here is Kwan giving advice to Lok:

“[D]on’t forget the basic duty and mission of the police … make the right decision ….”

This book was published in 2014 but here’s an MBTB star!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

Seventh Street Books, 315 pages, $15.95 (c2016)

Is Adrian McKinty Ireland’s poet laureate? He should be, although he is a fiction writer and there probably is fierce competition in the land where words rule. Even though McKinty lives in Australia now, his Irish voice is strong and melodic. It’s also funny, ironic, resigned, feisty, and tantalizingly evocative of Belfast in the time of The Troubles. “Rain Dogs” is McKinty’s fifth book featuring Detective Sean Duffy of the Carrickfergus CID.

McKinty plays with history and place names a little, but it’s all for a worthy cause. At the start of “Rain Dogs,” it is 1987 and Muhammad Ali has just paid a visit to Belfast. (In real life, Ali visited but not in 1987 and not ever in Belfast.) Sean has had a chance to meet his idol while on guard detail. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there, as murders and murky dealings soon follow.

A Finnish delegation is in town to eyeball an old industrial building as a possible location for their electronics plant. In war-torn Belfast, partially eviscerated by violence and economic bad times, that could mean hundreds of new jobs. How unfortunate, then, that Sean is rolled out on his day off to investigate a crime at the delegation’s hotel. The head delegate’s wallet has been stolen. The smallness of the crime irritates Sean, who is even more irritated to find most of his bosses already involved. But the buck stops with Sean. He soon makes short work of the theft and in the process meets a young, pretty journalist, Lily Emma Bigelow of “The Financial Times” of London.

Saddened by the recent departure of a young woman with whom Sean thought he might settle down and reflecting on his unconventional life — wake up, eat breakfast, check under car for bombs, drive to office, do the crossword puzzle in under five minutes, fuss about which record to listen to at work, put on riot gear (or not), rescue boss’ wife’s cat (or not), try to catch a bad person, drink to the edge of oblivion (but with impeccable taste in single malts), smoke a blunt in a storage shed, hope to sleep until morning (or not) — Sean is ready for something challenging to come his way. And a pretty face wouldn't be unwelcome either.

His challenge comes in the form of a locked room mystery. Or rather, in this case, a locked castle mystery. That pesky Finnish delegation is at it again. This time, however, it looks like the pretty journalist has leapt off the highest tower to her death in the courtyard below. Despite the caretaker’s assurance that he had checked the grounds for wayward tourists at closing time, he must have missed Lily Bigelow, a tagalong with the Finns on a tourist visit there. He finds her body during his morning rounds before the castle opens to the public. 

Sean catches the suicide case and determines that there is no way she or anyone could have snuck in after hours. The castle walls and portcullis were impregnable. Lily had come in the previous day, but CCTV did not catch her leaving. Where had she been hiding? It soon becomes obvious that she had not voluntarily leapt but had been pushed or dropped by someone else. Aged Mr. Underhill, the caretaker, must be the villain, because no one left the castle before the police arrived and no additional person was found in an extensive search of the grounds. Q.E.D.

Although it isn’t obvious if there is a connection to the murder or the Finnish delegation, Sean is suspicious of the car-bombing death of one of his superiors. He just couldn’t get his old knees to bend enough to look under his car before setting off after a mysterious phone call, his widow says. Even if it is not related, the death is a reminder of how vigilant all police must be.

I enjoyed the slow uncovering and linking of clues. I loved how McKinty gave Sean a love of esoteric classical music and single malt Scotches. I love how Sean used words in fun, to spite, to cajole, to spar. Sean Duffy is a great character.

And McKinty is a wonderful writer. Here he has Sean describing another character with a “broad, camp West Belfast accent so grating that it could be banned under several of the Geneva Protocols.”

Despite the fact that this book was released in 2016, here is an MBTB star in 2017!