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

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Saga Press, 416 pages, $24.99

Isn’t Theodora Goss the perfect author’s name for a Sherlock Holmes pastiche? It is her real name. It appears that way on the Boston University website where she is a teacher. It is also the perfect author’s name for someone who has placed some formidable women at the center of her adventure set in Victorian England. And there’s not a steampunk invention in sight.

Holmes and Watson appear frequently, but Goss’ main cast is headed by Mary Jekyll, impecunious daughter of the mad scientist. Soon Mary discovers a sister, Diana Hyde, impecunious daughter of the mad scientist’s evil persona. Because “The Strange Case” is a book within a book, we know fairly soon that there are many female characters whose stories may eventually be told: Catherine, Beatrice, Justine, Alice, Mrs. Poole. I will not fully name them for you because half the fun is learning who they are.

Unlike Doyle’s dour and misogynistic Sherlock, Goss’ Sherlock is fine with having some of the female characters traipse along with him and Watson as murders begin to crop up in the Whitechapel area. (He might even have an itty-bitty crush on one of them.)

The story mostly follows Mary, but it is written by Catherine, who eventually makes her own appearance in the main narrative. When one of the female characters interrupts Catherine’s writing to make a comment (metatextually speaking), her name is helpfully capitalized.

There are initially several murders of working women. Pieces of them are apparently taken away by the murderer. The latest missing body part is a brain. Lestrade is beside himself and Holmes, et al., step in.

Within the context of Goss’ world, all things are possible, however improbable. Holmes himself said, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” The truth in this case means putting your own ideas of the Sacred Characters on a shelf and just enjoying the strange fun.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Back Bay Books, 352 books, $15.99 (c2012)

This is not a murder mystery, but one of the characters manages to disappear. (Could it be Bernadette? Hmm?)

I’m not immune to the allure of lighter summer fare. Murder doesn’t always hold up well under a bright sun with bees buzzing the multi-hued flowers. I pushed this ahead in the queue thinking it was a “summer read.” That is to say, iced skinny latte, heavy on the froth. Add a lot of sugar.

Nopey, nope, nope.

The delightful teenage Bee (short for Balakrishna — what was her mother thinking!) and her mother, the eponymous missing person, Bernadette Fox, are the central characters. Bee’s father, Elgin Branch, may take up a lot of paper space, but he is such a literary tool, designed to move the plot along without much development. Also present is a major citizen of Wackyland, neighbor Audrey Griffin, mother to one of Bee’s schoolmates. Never seen but indisputably there is virtual assistant Manjula Kapoor of Delhi.

Bernadette and family live in a decaying former school for wayward girls in Seattle. It was to have been a project to distract Bernadette. At the time she and her husband bought it, she had been an architect fleeing an unknown disaster in L.A. But the renovation project stalled before it began. Bee was born and is now in the eighth grade. That’s how long Bernadette has had to fix their home.

Never mind. There are other crazy things coming down the pike to occupy Bernadette's scattershot thinking. It starts with all the (sometimes hilarious) reasons Bernadette can think of — and they are many — not to live in Seattle. It moves on to Audrey’s foot, blackberry vines, mudslides, Antarctica, and loss. Misunderstandings, deceit, psychological fragility, and the burden of simple family stuff add to the mix.

This is a wonderful book, wonderfully written, wonderfully humorous and eccentric. Wonderful.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 496 pages, $27.99 (and worth every penny)

If I ever stop raving about this book, it will be because I’m dead.

Anthony Horowitz has mastered the art of writing a mystery so much so that he can even be full-blown meta about it. Yes, this is a mystery within a mystery. And each one is superb.

I don’t want to give too much away, so here are the bare bones.

Right from the start you find out that an editor at a publishing company in present-day London has as her main client a dislikable, but immensely popular, mystery writer. The publishing company has received his latest manuscript, but it is missing the crucial whodunnit pages at the end.

Horowitz actually presents this manuscript, set in 1955, in a small village in the English countryside. (Can you say "cozy"?) He writes in the mystery writer’s voice. Then he places that story within another mystery eggshell. The present-day editor must find the missing pages. It should simply be a matter of asking the author for those pages, except the author has died by falling off the tower of his eccentric home in the English countryside.

Was it murder? Ohmygosh, was the author murdered for what his book revealed? Or, Occam’s razor, was it suicide?

Horowitz makes every character appear suspicious. He drops legitimate clues throughout the two stories. There are red herrings. There are two remarkable detectives, meta-fictional Atticus Pünd and simply fictional Susan Ryeland. Hats are offed to myriad other mystery novelists, especially Dame Agatha. It is clear that Horowitz is a fan and a scholar of the genre. Fair play to you, Mr. Horowitz!

Most definitely an MBTB star!

Saturday, July 15, 2017


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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Scribner, 336 pages, $26

Although “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” starts off forced and a little bumpy, the tone soon smoothes out and the story moves along. Especially noteworthy is the story of Lydia as a young girl and the trauma that becomes her “defining moment.”

Lydia is the star of this book, mostly as a young woman, a bookseller who cares about the books and the people who buy books. She even finds a space in her heart for the “BookFrogs,” a set of lost, sometimes perplexed, uniformly odd men who haunt the bookstore in lieu of a wider experience in the outside world. When one young BookFrog commits suicide in the bookstore, it is to Lydia that he leaves his worldly belongings. That consists mostly of books with holes cut in them, sometimes lots of holes. Thus the mysteries are set: What happened to Lydia when she was young and what sort of message, if any, was the young BookFrog sending to Lydia?

The story is a little heavy on coincidence, but there’s a definite charm to it. Lydia, her friend Raj, and Lydia’s father have interesting parts and quirks. As a matter of fact, every character, minor or major, has quirks. And, of course, in a setting close to my heart, Lydia does work in a bookstore. (And that is where the dead body is discovered.) 

I wish for Raj and Lydia, who spend the book looking for their true stories, what the anonymous delivery man (brief, quirky appearance) said when delivering life-changing papers, “May your news bring peace.”

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Putnam, 320 pages, $26

At one point I was racing through the book so fast, I lost track of the story’s timeline. I had to go back and reread a couple of pages. I resented that. I didn’t want to waste an extra minute getting to the end. That’s the kind of book “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is.

Here is some basic information. Helena Pelletier is 28 years old in the main story. She was 12 years old when she and her mother ran away from her father, Jacob Holbrook. I can’t be certain — I made no note — but I don’t think Helena’s mother’s name is mentioned once. She was 16 years old when Jacob kidnapped her. She gave birth to Helena a couple of years into her captivity. Helena now has a husband and two daughters, Iris and Mari. 

Let’s flesh that out a bit.

Jacob held Helena’s mother prisoner in a marshy area, a naturally isolating environment, for 14 years. Jacob added the finishing touches by psychologically intimidating and physically abusing her. Jacob raised Helena to be his “Little Shadow.” She learned to hunt, fish, trap, track, and survive in the brutish environment of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She also learned to shoot and gut her prey. Jacob set severe challenges for Helena to meet, and the punishment for failure was a honking big serving of Jacob’s version of tough love. 

What Dionne does so well, besides present a refreshingly novel view of victimhood, is describe her protagonist from two different angles: Helena in one storyline is the child and in the current storyline the mostly socialized young mother of two young girls. Dionne reveals early on that Jacob was eventually captured and imprisoned for many things, not least of which is the mother’s kidnapping and rape. As the story begins, Jacob has somehow escaped from a maximum security prison. No one knows him as well as Helena, so she becomes his most effective and vigilant tracker.

The intensity level is high. Descriptions of survival in the U.P. seem authentic. But what do I know? I have electricity, a lot of salt, and neighborhood stores. 

I appreciate that Dionne answers all questions. What happened to Helena’s mother? How did Helena get from the “jungle girl” mentality of someone who lived in isolation from other people to a functioning wife and mother in a town setting? How does Helena feel about her father? (Hint: She has never visited him in prison.) (Actually, that may be less of a hint and more of a red herring. Sorry.) What does the name Rambo mean? Was Jacob just making stuff up? What is the Grimm fairytale of the Marsh King’s Daughter, anyway?

This most emphatically rates an MBTB star!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $25.99

Poor Jimmy Perez. His fiancée died. He is raising her young daughter. He is a police detective. And he lives in the bleak (but beautiful), windswept Shetland Islands, just north of the Orkney Islands and mainland Scotland. “Cold Earth” is the seventh in the series.

If you are an avid fan of the BBC Scotland television series “Shetland,” based on Ann Cleeves’ books, the books carry a different storyline for the main characters. Should you be coming backwards to the written series, I think you will be surprised how well the books capture the evocative Shetland isolation and how well the TV series captures the general nature of Cleeves’ characters. The main differences? Book Jimmy Perez is more angst-ridden than TV Jimmy Perez. Cleeves develops her book characters — both the permanent staff and the murder victims/suspects — way more. Now on to the book.

It is the hallmark of Ann Cleeves’ later books — she’s written quite a few of them — to tell her tale from many different angles. In at least one of her books, the protagonist doesn’t show up for almost half the book. She shadows characters through their days and in their thoughts, without giving away whether they are future victims or killers. Woe to you if you become attached to someone who later bites the Shetland dust.

The first victim* is found in the aftermath of a landslide during a particularly miserable spate of bad weather. At the time, Jimmy was graveside mourning the passing of a neighbor and friend, Magnus Tait**, when the hillside gave way, crashing down over a major road and upon an abandoned croft below. It turns out the croft was not quite abandoned. The body of a beautiful, well-dressed middle-aged woman was flushed out of the croft by the mud. She would have been killed by the slide had she been alive in the croft at the time, but she was already dead from strangulation.

Jimmy finds himself in an awkward position of having to professionally interview neighbors and friends. This situation cannot be avoided in the small community of the Shetlands, but some of these people are actually his nearby neighbors. The murder has occurred over the hill from his home.

The first problem is to identify the woman. It proves surprisingly difficult. Jimmy, his assistant DC Sandy Wilson, and their boss, flown over from the mainland, Chief Inspector Willow Reeves, follow all the traditional trails. The difference, as stated above, is that we are already following several of the characters and their reactions to what is happening. Cleeves sets a complicated task for herself.

As usual, I enjoyed the latest episode in the Shetland series. As usual, I enjoyed Cleeves’ complex characters and the setting.

* I can’t remember the last story I read in which there was only one victim.

** Magnus, some of you may recall, was a character prominently featured in the first Perez book, “Raven Black.”