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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Whiling away the days in a cow pasture with a couple of books ...

If you were lucky enough to view the recent total eclipse (hip or hype?), you may have journeyed far to get a prime viewing spot. I traveled to Eastern Oregon to said cow pasture. There were portable toilets dotting the landscape instead of cows. There were long lines for coffee at the one coffee cart. There were scientists and credentialed enthusiasts talking about science (yay!), and not just about the science of the eclipse. I was at Atlas Obscura's fabulous event. When I wasn't geeking out, I was reading. These perhaps were not entirely noteworthy for this blog, but at least one of them was a mystery.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Pamela Dorman Books, 336 pages, $26

I’m pretty sure I am too old to read “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” with the intended joie d’esprit. The book was cute, but I wondered in the end how the first part logically related to the second part. Was it possible for a person to change radically through the kindness of strangers? Was it possible for someone to stubbornly hang onto the hope that someone else would change? Was it possible to have a happily ever after given the premise? I guess that’s why this is fiction. The author obviously didn’t have my qualms and answered the questions to her satisfaction.

I guess if I had written this story, my version would have been a tragedy. Luckily for the world I didn’t.

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Harper Perennial, 270 pages, $15.99

Yes, this book was written eons ago. 1992, to be precise.

“Death at La Fenice” was the first in the now-plump series starring Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice, Italy. This introduced us to the astute and convivial Brunetti, his charming (and almost perfect) family, and the exigencies of life as a Venetian policeman. He knows both opera and what motivates the common man. He can find his way through the labyrinth created by Venetian alleys and streets. He is incorruptible but not hidebound. Donna Leon’s series is articulate and a tourist brochure for Venice without being fawning.

I re-read this book for MBTB’s Second Book Group. It was a pleasure to re-acquaint myself with this charming novel.

Y Is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton

Marian Wood Books/Putnam, 496 pages, $29

All of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books are blasts from the past, since Grafton has steadfastly refused to budge from the 80s (until the end of “Y Is for Yesterday”). This book is even more blastworthy as the story also wanders back to events in 1979.

The main story of “Y” concerns the release from prison of Fritz who, as a teenager, shot Sloan, a fellow student at an expensive private school. There were other teenagers involved, including the sadistic ringleader, Austin. Some of the other teens have had to pay for either their conspiracy or their silence at the time, except for Austin. He was gone, gone, gone before the debts were called in.

Fritz was dealt the most severe sentence. At the age of twenty-five, he is finally being released. Luckily, his family welcomes him back, but Fritz appears less than gracious. He merely wants to pick up with his high school friends again, doing things 17-year-olds like to do. But time and his friends have marched on.

The lowest blow comes almost immediately after Fritz' release when an extortionist demands $25,000 from his parents or he/she will send a certain videotape to the police. The tape contains scenes of Fritz and other boys in his group either raping or being complicit in the rape of a young girl. Who would know about the tape except for someone from the group of Fritz’ so-called friends? That’s when Fritz’ parents call in the services of Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator in Santa Theresa, California.

Although Kinsey accepts the case to find out who the blackmailer is, she is still dealing with fallout from one of her last cases. A deadly serial killer of young girls was never caught, and he is looking for the trophies he collected from his victims. One or another of his ex-wives holds the clue to this gruesome assortment, and it is Kinsey’s job to make sure the killer, Ned Lowe, doesn’t add his wives or her to his kill list. 

So there are three stories here. Besides the storylines of the blackmailer and the serial killer, Grafton has added a third-party narrative of the events in 1979 which resulted in Sloan’s murder. The story of the serial killer is riveting, especially for those who read “X.” (In her impeccable fashion, however, Grafton gives her readers enough information that it is almost unnecessary to have read the previous book. But why would you bypass “X”?) The story of tracking down the blackmailer is workmanlike. Grafton and Kinsey cross the t’s and dots the i’s. Still, to my mind, it’s not a particularly compelling teenage story. All the teens are dopes. Compared to the warmth and humor of Kinsey’s first-person telling, the 1979 story seems colorless, narrative for narrative’s sake.

Nevertheless, in keeping with my promise to star all Grafton’s remaining Kinsey Millhone books, here’s an MBTB star for “Y.” In fact, I tremendously enjoyed the roles of homeless Pearl and Killer, the dog. I continue to love landlord Henry and his eccentric family, Rosie and her awful offal, and the nasty-sounding peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches.

P.S. For all of Kinsey’s training in assertive self-defense, she still seems sort of helpless and reliant on the serendipitous proximity of others. I’ve resigned myself to her as an intellectual P.I., more brains and pathetically fewer brawn. (Too much Wonder Woman and Black Widow movies!)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

Soho Crime, 320 pages, $25.95

August Snow is the hero’s name. He grew up in “Mexicantown” in Detroit, the son of a cop and an artistic mother. They were loving parents who instilled principles of decency and honesty in their son. When he graduated from the police academy, it was a proud moment. Big cities being what they are, August soon found that there was police corruption. Big time. Also involving the mayor and other political peons. August helped to publicly heave-ho a lot of them, but he was persona non grata for “ratting” out his fellow officers. The force in blue brooks no excuses, even if the excuse is a good one. The event ended with August’s dismissal from the force, a successful lawsuit by him against the city, and a check for $16 million.

Now after a year of wandering around the world, mostly drinking himself silly, August has returned to Detroit. More specifically, now that his parents are dead, he has returned to the very house in which he was raised. At a loss for what direction to take, he begins with renovating his house and another few on the block. That leads to meeting some of his eccentric neighbors. They soon become more family than nodding acquaintances, and these relationships provide the hearty backbone to Stephen Mack Jones’ debut novel.

One of the last big cases Snow worked as a cop on was the murder-suicide of financial heiress Eleanor Paget’s husband and his sixteen-year-old “mistress.” More queenly than businesslike, Eleanor imperiously summons August to her well-guarded mansion when she discovers he has returned to town. She has a mission for him. “Something” is wrong with her investment institution. Nah, says August. Not my bailiwick or interest. And Eleanor is a bitch. He notes the disdainful way Eleanor treats Rose Mayfield, a long-time friend and assistant at her business.

Does heritage have anything to do with the skewed relationships in the book? Does gender? August is Mexican (mother) and African-American (father). Eleanor is white. Rose Mayfield is black. Other main characters spread themselves along the spectrum. Is Eleanor a bitch because that’s the way she rolls, or is she deeply prejudiced? Does her motivation have anything to do with why she was murdered?

Author Jones puts depth and conscience into his work. August is trying to reinvigorate his little part of Detroit. He is proud of his Mexican heritage (especially the food). Even though he is no longer a police detective, he is morally bound to defend the defenseless. Will solving Eleanor’s death give him freedom from his Catholic guilt at having refused her request for help? All signs point to Eleanor’s death being a suicide, but there is a soup├žon of doubt, enough to push August to ask a series of questions bound to aggravate some touchy people.

There is a lot of bang-bang violence and also other terrible harm befalls many. But there is a thoughtfulness about what a community should do for themselves if they don’t want to sell their souls or become victims of “progress.” August is joined by one of Eleanor’s former guards, a street dealer who had the misfortune to be selling on August’s street, and an old friend who also worked for Eleanor. August is not dead to everyone on the force. There are a few still willing to help a little, including James Falconi, the medical examiner, and Captain Ray Danbury, an old crony. The cast is large but the by-play is interesting.

Jones talks food well enough to make your mouth water: a department store’s “Maurice salad and garlic mashed potatoes with meatloaf,” “Turkey Reuben ‘Extraordinaire’ with buffalo-seasoned sweet potato fries and a side order of cole slaw complete with chopped walnuts and McIntosh apples,” and so on and so on. Jones peppers his tough story with hometown asides, and that flavors his word salad splendidly.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

Random House, 320 pages, $27

Manon Bradshaw’s personal life is still a mess. There’s the bad, the worse, and the awful. Does it matter that she is a crackerjack police detective? No.

In this second outing for DI Bradshaw, her personal life again intrudes into her professional one. For one thing, Manon is walking like a beached battleship and can’t always get up if she is down. She’s six months pregnant. The how and why of that doesn’t come until way into the book.

It has been over a year since the events in the first book. Manon has returned to her little town of Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, leaving her big city London job behind. That is so she and her sister can create better lives for their children. In Manon’s case, it isn’t just for her unborn child. For those who read the first book, “Missing, Presumed,” it will warm the cockles of your heart to learn that her adopted son is twelve-year-old Fly Dent, the sweet and vulnerable child whose older brother was murdered. Her sister Ellie has a three-year-old, Solomon. They all live together in an unremarkable but large house.

However, all is not well in paradise. Although the move was made to take Fly away from the poverty, drugs, and grinding lifestyle of where he is from, he feels out of place as a black boy in a very white town. Also, he is in trouble at school, often asked to babysit his young cousin, and buries his head in a book at every opportunity. And let’s not get into his monosyllabic responses! Manon finds out that he has skipped school at least once to travel back to his old London neighborhood. Can she win Fly’s heart if their new life is already stacked against them?

Worst of all (actually, worse is yet to come!), she has been sidelined from active duty. When a murder case occupies the squad, she eavesdrops, offers unwanted suggestions, and inserts her nose where it doesn’t belong. Her old colleague and former underling, Davy Walker, is supervising the case, something Manon used to do with Davy’s assistance. Sigh.

A man has been found stabbed to death in a nearby stretch of woods. A woman was walking on the same trail when she saw the man fall. He whispered what sounded like, “Sass,” as he died. The murder weapon cannot be found. It is discovered that the man had just arrived by train, walked the short distance to the woods, and then died.

Susie Steiner’s plotting shows her genius. Why are there holes in the testimony of the woman who found the man? Is she his killer? Then she claims to have seen someone else in the woods. A black man with a hood? A black boy, perhaps? Fly? Is her testimony reliable? I want to be careful and respect Steiner’s meticulous layering of the story, including the revelation of who the dead man is, so this review is rather sparse in details. But Steiner presents a deliciously layered crime-cake.

Manon is hard to like as a character; she’s too needy and self-involved. She spent the first book whinging, crying, and being a mess. She does less of that in “Persons Unknown,” trying desperately to pull herself up to face her new responsibilities, but she still has to be rescued by her incredibly tolerant friends. Her saving grace is she is a tenacious and intelligent snooper. Despite not being on the official team investigating the murder, she has an advantage. Besides the above-mentioned qualities, she is not hampered by certain assumptions the team is making.

My favorite new character is Birdie Fielding, who headlines one of the many sections of “Persons Unknown.” She is an overweight convenience store owner in London. She accidentally becomes involved in the case. She loves Tony Blair, disgraced though he may be. She misses her grandmother. She watches reality shows in her apartment above the store. Then this heretofore lonely, complex, intelligent woman living an ordinary life falls headlong into a dangerous situation. Steiner wins five gold stars for this character and her part in the story.

Finally, finally, Manon moves slowly outside of her own needs. The promise and ending for “Missing, Presumed” is realized in this. 

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Pamela Dorman Books, 336 pages, $26

This is not a mystery, although a crime is revealed at the end.

Eleanor Oliphant is captivatingly odd. She appears robotic, autistic, compulsive, unsociable, judgmental. She is thirty years old, has been a bookkeeper at a design company ever since graduating from university, and has no friends. She talks to her mother every Wednesday. Those conversations are never pleasant. It’s clear that her mother is judgmental, too, but with a vicious undertone. Eleanor tells her mother that she is fine. Fine, fine, fine. The book gradually reveals how Eleanor Oliphant (Miss) is not fine.

Gail Honeyman has crafted a sweet, bittersweet, sad, and poignant novel.