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

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Western Star by Craig Johnson

Viking, 304 pages, $28

Wait! What? I predict that is exactly what you will say upon finishing this book. Ingenious author or wicked tormentor? That Craig Johnson is some clever cowboy.

This is Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire’s upmteenth millionth adventure. Thank goodness they have all been embellished by Johnson’s humor! This time around, Johnson tells two and a half tales, resulting in two-and-a-half times the fun. 

Once in a while Walt travels to Cheyenne to appear at the parole hearing of a criminal he put in jail many years ago. It was his first case as the deputy sheriff of Absaroka County, under Sheriff Lucian Connelly. The case didn’t take place in Absaroka County, however, but on a train full of sheriffs having a rootin’, tootin’ time riding the rails through Wyoming, celebrating their good cases and finding a sympathetic ear for the cases that didn’t end as well. Surely nothing bad could happen on a train full of lawmen. But murder most foul, in the best tradition of Agatha Christie, does its best to derail the happy times. Dame Aggie even makes a cameo appearance in the form of a paperback copy of “Murder on the Orient Express” that Walt carries around like a talisman. In the end, Walt catches the villain, and it is his parole hearing Walt attends.

The present time story plays mostly as a backdrop to the telling of the old story in which the murderer was brought to justice. In that “origin” story set in 1972, Johnson gives us more of a sense of Walt’s mindset when he first left the military and felt unmoored in civilian life. He had just married Martha, the love of his life, and that relationship had hit a bump in the road as tall as the Rockies. Walt has always had a strong sense of justice and honor, as well as a good understanding of human nature, and those qualities were evident even way back when. Walt had also been whacked a couple of times on the head during the course of his investigation, so he was also a tad grouchy and temperamental.

The usual suspects also serve as backup in the present story: The Cheyenne Nation, The Greatest Legal Mind of Our Time, the undersheriff, the granddaughter, and the old man. They flit around as babysitters, house painters, and couch movers for most of the book, until they are required to haul out their firearms in a good cause.

Craig Johnson has always come through for his readers, but this one elicited more than one gasp. So two-three gasps equals one MBTB star!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur, 416 pages, $25.99

There are series and there are series. Even within Ann Cleeves’ ouevre there are series and there is Vera Stanhope.

Inspector Stanhope heads up a tightly-controlled murder investigation team based in Kimmerston, Northumberland, the northernmost county in England. Returning are Joe Ashworth, Holly Clarke, and Charlie, whose last name, if I ever knew it, is lost in the mists of time. They are Vera’s bright or cagey underlings. She alternately mothers them — except for Charlie who is her age — and irritatedly pushes them. The team's results are spectacular. As her “reward,” Vera’s boss wants her to give a talk to the prisoners in the Elderly and Disabled Unit of the local gaol.

Humph, Vera grumbles as she shambles towards the meeting area in prison. One of the prisoners she recognizes right away. It is her old boss, ex-superintendent John Brace. Vera had a part in putting him away for corruption. Also, John was an old friend of Vera’s father, Hector. They and two others formed the inhospitably-named “Gang of Four.” Their bond was based on the common interest of illegally harvesting birds’ eggs for personal display or, worse, for sale out of country.

While John has Vera as captive company, so to speak, he asks a favor. The cheeky bastard wants Vera to check on his adult daughter Patty and her “bairns.” In exchange, he will provide the whereabouts of Robbie Marshall, missing since 1995. Unfortunately, the information is the location of Robbie’s long-cold corpse. Vera has a vested interest because Robbie was another member of the Gang of Four. Could Vera’s long-dead father have had something to do with the murder?

The mysterious fourth member of the Gang was known to Vera only as “The Prof.” How has his identity managed to be so well hidden after all these years? And what did that posh-toned, shadowy man have to do with Robbie’s murder?

The last word anyone would ascribe to Vera is “warm.” However, she tries her best to help Patty, once she discovers that the poor single mom is overwhelmed and seriously depressed. Her children are left to their own devices. Here’s an example of Patty’s attempt at parenting. Patty made sandwiches for her childrens’ lunches. So proud of herself for getting something right, she hies her kids off to school. Then she realizes that the sandwiches are still at home. It is too much for her to think of taking the food to school, and she sinks into an torpor.

When the hole in the rocks where Robbie’s body is supposedly buried is uncovered, a surprise awaits. There are two skeletons. Is the other of Patty’s missing prostitute mother? So many missing people in the small, downwardly mobile town of Whitley Bay!

Ann Cleeves excels at creating a complex, intelligent character, whose life revolves around police work because her personal life is so sad. “The Seagull” capitalizes on her depressing past by weaving in her team’s current crime. I heart Vera.

Righteous by Joe Ide

Mulholland Books, 336 pages, $26

I’m going to imagine that if I were to ask how many of you liked “IQ,” author Joe Ide’s first book about Long Beach, California, eccentric private eye, Isaiah Quintabe, a heck of a lot of hands would be enthusiastically shooting up. If you were lucky enough to discover that first book in the series, you have bragging rights. Now here comes book two and it’s a mighty fine sophomore effort.

Isaiah Quintabe, or “IQ,” as he is known in the hood — the hood being a lower income, mostly non-white neighborhood in east Long Beach, California — has stunted social skills, a brilliant investigative mind, a business that sometimes pays off in vegetables instead of money, and a burning desire for revenge.

Ever since IQ’s brother Marcus was killed by a hit-and-run driver about ten years ago, he has obsessively focussed on whether Marcus had in fact been murdered. In “Righteous,” it becomes clear that Marcus was. Now IQ needs to find out the who and why.

Marcus was a few years older than IQ. He had a girlfriend, Sarita, a woman the nerdy teenaged Isaiah had an enormous crush on. He had no contact with Sarita after Marcus’ death, until she called him with a plea. Her younger half-sister, Janine, is in trouble. Janine is a gambling addict, and she and her boyfriend, Benny, have amassed a debt to a local gang. Because they cannot pay the vig, they are in danger and at various times on the run. Janine’s and Sarita’s father is Ken, a well-off financial investor. Ken will not fund Janine anymore, so she and her boyfriend hatch a scheme to steal Ken’s investment information. What is hammered home is that addicts’ brains do not fire on all cylinders. IQ must unravel their predicament and square things with Ken and the gang. 

And find Marcus’ killer.

That’s all.

It takes the whole book in alternating steps of each goal to resolve these issues. Ide’s storytelling is glorious. Some of his characters — like Deronda, the neighborhood tough-talker with a kind heart and a great fried chicken recipe — should are inspired secondary characters. Dodson, IQ’s childhood friend, was present in the first story and rocks out in this one as well. He is trying to turn over a new leaf, primarily because his girlfriend is pregnant. Dodson would really like to be a normal dude, something that’s hard to do given his criminal past and inclinations. “Helping” IQ doesn’t exactly solve his problems or endear him to the mother of his child, but he is vital to taking on the Las Vegas underworld, nasty gangs, and lots of people with guns.

Ide must delight in twisting his story onto an unexpected path. His writing is artful, manipulative, and surprising. He can wring pathos, draw out comedy, and has an ear for slang and cultural essences.

Want more. Please.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Party by Elizabeth Day

Little, Brown, 304 pages, $26

What a complex and fascinating plot author Elizabeth Day has set down. No, not set down, this is a throw-down. What do you think is happening, the author seems to say. Aha! It’s not that. Now what do you think? Aha! It’s not that either.

Bare bones, the story is told in three alternating pieces. Martin “Little Shadow” Gilmour and his wife, Lucy, attend a party thrown by his best friend, Ben Fitzmaurice, and Ben's wife, Serena. Martin and Lucy are puttering along in life, Ben and Serena are fabulous. The current tale takes place in the Tipworth Police Station, while Martin is being interrogated. Something obviously happened at the party, but what is not immediately ascertainable. Then we see Martin’s story, going back to when he and Ben first met. Finally, Lucy’s story goes back a long way but primarily is centered on what happened after she met Martin.

Elizabeth Day deftly forms each character’s outstanding characteristics. Then she shakes up your preconceptions and dumps you in another version of the tale. You think you know, but you don’t. Actually, there are things you think you can discern from the story, and you will be mostly right, but what you don’t understand is what ties these disparate people together. That is Day’s conjuring trick, the story that ties them all together.

I found the odd but appropriate ending only vaguely satisfying. It smacked a little of the ending of Harry Potter, in which J. R. Rowling jumped ahead to show you how all the characters turned out. I liked that too, but found it vaguely jarring.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz

Trans. from Swedish by Charles Goulding

Knopf, 368 pages, $27.95

This time around, following his commercially successful first effort, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” Swedish author David Lagercrantz totally channeled Stieg Larsson and his famous characters. In my opinion, although I liked it, the “Spider’s Web” was missing a key Larsson ingredient: at least one unexpected and jaw-dropping scene or character revelation. Larsson could be tedious at times, but he more than made up for it in his ability to make his readers gasp. Lagercrantz is a more polished writer and he caught Larsson’s tone the first time around, but he magnified it this time.

Lisbeth Salander, the reason we readers ravenously tear into each installment, is in prison. She doesn’t seem to mind; it’s a nice opportunity to delve into higher level mathematics and physics. Like a monk in a monastery, only God is a quantum agent.

What Salander does mind is the bullying by one of her fellow prisoners, Benito — a woman who has charmingly nicknamed herself after her favorite Italian dictator. Benito’s primary target is a young and beautiful woman, Faria, a Bangladeshi whose sad story slowly is revealed. The price for peace appears to be “mediating” the conflict between Benito and Faria. Benito may be finito.

At the same time, Salander’s past weighs more heavily on her mind. If you have read the other novels, you know about her abusive and deranged father, her abused and sad mother, and her abusive and deranged twin sister. What Lagercrantz gives us this time is the space in-between. What happened to Salander after her mother died and before she began to be abused by the odious guardian she was assigned in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Who knew her back then?

Instead of just blurting out the serious questions she has about her past, Salander challenges Holger Palmgren, her kind and courteous guardian — although as an adult she no longer needs one, and Mikael Blomkvist, a magazine owner and, as it turns out, a true friend, to uncover more about some people in her past. Maybe those people were kind and naive, maybe they were Machiavellian in the cause of science or personal gain. Palmgren and Blomkvist are sent in different directions but their investigations converge in the end.

Unlike the Larsson tales in which the stories gave more page space to Blomkvist's social concerns, this one is solidly Salander’s story. If you thought Salander had been through the mill in the other books, here are tales of her youth that will make you shudder at her long-winding path of pain.

Both Larsson’s and Lagercrantz’s works always have strong moral points of view. What’s wrong is really wrong and what it takes to cure those wrongs, no matter how violent, is very right. The takeaway always is don’t mess with Salander.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Rat Catchers’ Olympics by Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, 289 pages, $26.95

Ah, I do so love a faraway story told with humor, philosophy, ghosts, 1980s Laotian Communists, and rat catching.

Maybe some of you remember the 1980 Olympics, the one the United States shunned. The U.S.S.R. had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympics, which were being held in Moscow in 1980, to protest. It was also the first year Laos participated. In real life, no medals were awarded to Laos.

Colin Cotterill has used the 1980 Olympics and Laos’ first participation in Olympic sports as background for his twelfth Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery. Why would the Laotian team need its own doctor, the doctor’s wife (an ex-spy), a nurse, an old military man, and an even older military man, all of whom are non-participants in the sports? The U.S.S.R., in putting on a good public face, presented to the Olympic crowd the latest in technologies, bountiful presentations of food, stellar buildings for the events, and smiles upon their faces, despite being a country whose economy was hovering in the no-fly zone. And, presumably, they have a crack medical staff.

Siri used a devious and clever trick to include himself as a member of the team. (I will let you discover what he did.) He deviously and cleverly managed to include his wife, Daeng, the one with the tail that wiggles when she is excited. The mission was headed by his friend Civilai, who thought he could leave the country without Siri being the wiser. Like that would ever happen. Also included on the support team is Dtui, once Siri’s nurse/assistant when he was the country’s only coroner. Siri retired and Dtui went on to more important jobs, but their friendship remained strong. Inspector Phosy, Dtui’s husband, had to remain in Laos to take care of their young daughter and to, you know, do police things.

Siri has always, it seems, been able to see ghosts. Lately, the thin window between now and the hereafter has thinned even more. Now Siri has two “spirit guides,” a thousand-year-old shaman and Bpoo, a “fortune-teller transvestite.” * Siri even disappears into the hereafter every once in a while to converse with the spirits, who manage only to confuse him with metaphorical visions. Daeng used to be concerned with his disappearances, but now she considers it part of the joy of living with Siri.

What could go wrong in such a tightly controlled environment as the Olympics in the Soviet Union?

Civilai spotted an old acquaintance while waiting for the plane to Moscow. He appeared to be a member of the team, so Civilai was looking forward to reminiscing. However, his friend never made the trip. The mystery of what happened to his friend leads Civilai to involve Siri and Phosy, and the three of them seem to uncover a plot to assassinate someone in Moscow.

Siri and his friends must uncover the secrets that hover over their group, while maintaining Laotian solidarity in cheering for their Cinderella athletes. Will one of them magically place as a shooter, a boxer, a runner, or a race-walker? Unlikely. But the cheerleading gang is determined to celebrate their unexpected good fortune and Quixotic expectations by being the loudest people to celebrate not winning a medal.

Colin Cotterill twists and turns his characters throughout the Olympic venue and the politics of Laos and the U.S.S.R. Cotterill, as usual, presents a delightful story filled with quirkiness and heart. For the pleasure Cotterill brings his readers, an MBTB star, of course!

* Publishers’ Weekly

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Viking, 272 pages, $28

It’s one thing to wrap up loose threads, it’s a genius thing to fifty-four years later create loose threads that need fixing. Is there any spy book more iconic than “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”? John le Carré wrote that in 1963. George Smiley, spy master and grand marshal of the spy parade, made a quiet splash there. Main spy character Alec Leamas — spoiler alert — died at the end, along with his lover Liz Gold.

What made le Carré’s books different was the moral gray ground through which the characters waded. There is no suave James Bond with a license to kill. There are instead intellectuals playing a chess game with real people as pieces.

“A Legacy of Spies” takes place an indeterminate amount of time after “The Spy.” Peter Guillam, a second banana in many of the Smiley books, has been retired to his Brittany farm for many years. It is Guillam, not Smiley, who holds forth from center in the current novel.

Descendants of Leamas and Gold are threatening to file suit against the British government for the wrongful death of their relatives. It’s the ne plus ultra of our current way of resolving difficulties. This banal starting point opens a cascade of case files and memories. Rightly or wrongly, Guillam is held to account for what happened so long ago. Interrogated in the agency offices by the likes of a Bunny and a Tabby*, Guillam remains sanguine. Le Carré’s sly humor pops out more than in just funny character names. Guillam’s observations are often understated and wry.

After protesting ignorance too much to the interrogating agents and not getting away with it, Guillam remembers it all, although, of course, only the tip of the story is revealed to the imperious Bunny and Tabby. We, as readers, get to experience the full force of what lies in Guillam’s cave of wonder. Le Carré is so good at peeling back the layers of a story. He aims not so much for a hit between the eyes as for a challenge to our moral center. He succeeded in “The Spy” and he succeeds here. Our sympathies lie almost everywhere (including with Bunny and Tabby, but only for their fluffy names) in this telling.

“A Legacy of Spies” is an old man’s story. As agelessly randy as Guillam may have been and currently may be, his spycraft and politics are from another era. The enemy had faces, not hardware. They were killers, not hackers. A couple of guys used to be capable of settling things, without an army or missiles, instead of an army or missiles. This spy’s legacy is tinged with complicated relationships and emotions. As the fifty-four-year-old story** emerges, the only thing that matters is what the spies did and will do for love.

MBTB star!

* Okay, you got me. Her name in the book is Tabitha, but who could resist.

** Fifty-four years is not quite accurate. As mentioned, the main story takes place an indeterminate amount of time from the original events in “The Spy.” Fifty-four is the number of years between then and 2017.