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

Monday, December 10, 2018

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown & Co., 352 pages, $28

Oof! Kate Atkinson does it again. There’s a metaphorical punch to the solar plexus at the end. And before and including the final punctuation, she leads us on a marvelous journey. Atkinson’s dry humor, sly characterizations, quirky storyline, and acerbic asides are worth every penny of what I hope you are paying for her book, if you are able. (Authors need more than kind regard to live on.)

Juliet Armstrong, an earnest innocent, enters government work as an eighteen-year-old, after her mother dies and she is left rudderless. The UK has not yet entered World War II, but it is only a matter of time, she knows. She is catapulted — maybe that is too strong a word, since the work is tedious — into being a transcriber of recordings of an MI5 operation. In the apartment next to her small apartment/office, an MI5 operative is pretending to be a spy for the Gestapo. He meets with Nazi sympathizers. They tell “Godfrey Toby” all they have discovered about potential British maneuvering, and he passes the information along to … well, British intelligence.

Then one of Juliet’s superiors asks her to pose as a sympathizer and infiltrate a group led by Mrs. Scaife, the nasty wife of a naval admiral. She is dogmatically related to all the ordinary but intolerant people who meet with Toby, but Mrs. Scaife’s social status is a step up. She is the link to all the other upper crust British fascists and to their misguided plots.

Much later, as an aside, Atkinson follows up on one of the lesser lights in the conspiracy, Trude. She is dying, alone, in a hospital. A nurse importunes Juliet to sit with Trude, mistaking her for a friend.

It would have taken the hardest heart — harder even than Juliet’s — not to feel a little sorry for Trude, but then Juliet thought of Fräulein Rosenfeld, who had lost all her prettier sisters to the camps. She stood up and said, ‘Well, this is goodbye, Trude,’ and left her to die on her own.

That’s how Kate Atkinson rolls.

Atkinson moves among stories set in 1940, 1950, and 1981. Even within their individual time frames, Atkinson bounces the story back and forth some. Juliet travels a long way in both time and experience from when she first joins the Service to the point when she watches a dying Trude. In between are many spy moments, even some moments of suspense and violence. Here is Atkinson describing the body of a murder victim:

Beatrice looked as though she had been modeled from clay, rather badly, and the clay had begun to deliquesce slightly. Someone had washed her, but the coal dust was ingrained in her skin, and her mousy hair was sooty. Something had already started nibbling at her and Juliet wondered what kind of creatures lived in coal holes waiting for this dreadful food.

But the majority of Atkinson’s book is quiet. We follow Juliet, her obsessions and confusions. She is so idealistic that the only thing that can happen, novelistically speaking, is disillusionment. Even that happens quietly.

That eager-to-please, academic sixth-former, who played on the left wing in hockey, who was the leading light of the drama club and practiced piano almost every day at school (because there was no room for a piano at home), that girl who was a keen Girl Guide and who loved drama and music and art, that girl, transmuted by bereavement, had gone. And, as far as Juliet could tell, she had never really come back.

In 1950, circumstances take a turn to the sinister. She is sure she is being followed. Someone has sent her a threatening note. Whom can she trust? She is working for the BBC as a children’s program producer. There is nothing more benign. Then why does she feel she is still at war? She ruminates on the agents of her destiny: 

Her war (and her peace too, she supposed) had been shaped by the men she knew. Oliver Alleyne, Peregrine Gibbons, Godfrey Toby, Rupert Hartley, Miles Merton. She thought they sounded like characters in a novel by Henry James. One of the later, more opaque ones, perhaps. Who, she wondered, was the most opaque of them all?

As an example of Atkinson’s quirky humor she bestows upon Juliet a quiet abhorance of hideous metaphors: 

‘You have an eye,’ Miss Gillies told her. I have two, she thought.


She cast her eye around the room (dreadful phrase) …

The book begins in 1981. Juliet has just been hit by a car. She sees the tunnel heading into the light. The rest of the book is the flashback of her life, a transcription, if you will, of her life. Imagine what could have been, instead of what was. Does she have regrets? Yes, she (and Frank Sinatra) has a few, including a major one that isn’t revealed until the end of the book. But then, in the shadowy world of espionage, everyone probably has a few.

Kate Atkinson is a master of the hidden story. Her characters quietly hide in plain sight. Her story is defined as much by what she doesn’t say as what she does say. 

MBTB star!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Depth of Winter by Craig Johnson

Viking, 304 pages, $28

For the most part, the Mexican sun blazes unsparingly throughout “Depth of Winter,” the fourteenth full-length Walt Longmire mystery by Craig Johnson. It is easy to feel how parched various characters feel, how desolate the desert hillside is. In the midst of Dia de los Muertos festivities, Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming, has journeyed to the holdout of butchers and madmen in an almost inaccessible part of Mexico to make sure those dear to him do not join the spirits on the other side.

Psychopath Bidarte has been a long-time foe of Walt. Walt suspects Bidarte has been behind the recent spate of evils that has befallen his family: the death of his son-in-law, the kidnapping of his daughter, Cady. Bidarte has left a trail for Walt to follow, a trail that ends in Walt’s death, Bidarte hopes.

There is more action in this book than in all the previous thirteen books combined. It begins with Walt meeting “The Seer,” a blind man with no legs. Walt hopes he is the start he needs to find Cady. Walt must put his trust in this stranger. Then he must trust more strangers and even some bad people who are not strangers.

Will the ghosts of the First Nation who have led and aided Walt in dire moments clear a path for him now? Will all the people waiting around the bend who want to kill Walt finally have the odds in their favor? Will the mules or donkeys help or hinder? There’s no telling with mules, or donkeys.

Despite the surfeit of action, Craig Johnson capably tends to his characters. He shows us their stories. He prods their better natures and tests their mettle. He also gives his long-time readers what they have come for: humor and heart.

There is a lot of bang, bang. There are a lot of rat-a-tats. There are even some moments of ka-boom. There are cough, coughs. There are eeeeeeees, aaaaaaas, oh shits, and a clothesline. Good times.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Red, White, Blue by Lea Carpenter

Knopf, 320 pages, $26.95

Two stories are braided together in this poetic and beguiling spy/father-daughter novel by Lea Carpenter. 

Much to her surprise, a young American woman, Anna, discovers her father, Noel, was a spy, mostly working in Asia. From that revelation flows a re-examination about their relationship: It wasn’t her, it was him. Her mother, Lulu, moved on to another life, abandoning her daughter and husband early on. Again, maybe it wasn’t her, maybe it was him. Still, revelations only beget more questions, and in the midst of that turmoil, Anna discovers she has married one kind of man and has gotten another.

Anna is set to marry Jake (whose name doesn’t appear for quite some time, although he is important in moving events forward) in Switzerland, when Noel’s body is found buried by an avalanche just before the wedding. Noel had been visited by strangers just shortly before he headed up for a ski. Is there a connection? Anna doesn’t think about this for quite some time.

On Anna’s long-delayed honeymoon, a man begins a conversation with her in a bar. He takes her to a beach where he invites her to swim far beyond the buoyed boundary. He reveals in a shadowy way his connection to Noel, who was his mentor at the shadowy CIA.

Anna learns about a young Chinese woman who spies for her father and the unnamed colleague. Veritas is her code name. Who was she and what was she to both men? Is she why her father died in circumstances, come to think of it, that seem more sinister by the minute? Why has the colleague contacted her? He does not romance her but he acts with familiarity towards her. She responds with trust, although he has done nothing to warrant it.

“Red, White, Blue” moves between the first-person narration by the unnamed colleague and Anna’s story told in the third-person. Noel’s career and obsession unfolds before us and before Anna. His still waters ran deep and with compassion.

There’s a lot of talk about polygraphs and Wonder Woman’s golden lasso, both items that purportedly determine if someone is lying. Being fiction, the lasso is infallible, but the polygraph machine apparently is subject to interpretation and fiddling. The question that runs through the book is what is truth, what is truth-telling, and what is holding to the truth. In truth, veritas

As Anna’s story progresses, we see her husband, a golden boy with a golden touch, go from being an impressario in the pop music world to being a contender for U.S. Senator from New York. Anna’s own accomplishments begin to wane in the harsh beauty of his light, until she is no longer truly herself. The colleague’s intrigue draws her back into her own light long enough to assess what she wants to do to honor herself and her father.

Although the spy bits had substance, they weren’t overly meaty, and that’s good. Anna’s story showed her fading out. She was Phi Beta Kappa, worked for the prestigious Ford Foundation, and had a mission and an independent life before marrying Jake. What is she now if she is not Mrs. Jake? The novel is about Anna, and that’s good, too.

Here is an example of the writing that captivated me:

“For years, whenever she thought about Switzerland, she thought less about prayers and more about that breakfast, what they’d discussed, this idea that people tell you who they are. As of people, so of things: A thing can elicit emotion, too, can tell you what it is, and you should believe it when it tells you. Sometimes a thing looks like a riddle when it’s a clue. That thing that arrived in Anna’s mail after her father died, after the burial and the honeymoon, looked like a riddle but was actually a clue. It was trying to tell her something. You might say it was shouting.”

For the odd mix of spycraft and inner reflection, for an underlying story that touches the heart, for saving Anna, here is an MBTB star for Lea Carpenter!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Swift Vengeance by T. Jefferson Parker

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $27

I’ve always liked T. Jefferson Parker’s straight-ahead storytelling. He has usually set his stories in a place he knows well, Southern California. His characters are strongly delineated. There are no unreliable narrators, clowns in the gutter, or apocalyptic zombie terrorists.

Speaking of terrorists. Roland Ford, a private investigator last seen in “The Room of White Fire,” is trying to lift himself out of mourning the death of his wife in a plane crash. His current outstanding client wants him to find her missing giganto kittycat. Other than that, he sits on his rural homestead, which he shares with his “renters” — they’d be renters with no quotation marks if they actually paid on time, or at all — and plays ping pong and watches the day come along.

Then a former renter, Lindsey Rakes, returns. She was a lieutenant in the USAF and worked as a drone operator, a drone operator tasked with searching for terrorist targets in the Middle East and remotely sending death screaming down onto their heads. Someone has taken a strong dislike to Lindsey and other drone operators on her team. There was an unfortunate incident they were involved in, and the assumption is that the person threatening the team members is somehow related to that incident. In any event, Lindsey’s letter from “Caliphornia” says he or she would like to decapitate Lindsey. “The thunder is coming for you,” Caliphornia says.

Although Lindsey is successfully rebuilding her life and putting her drone work in the past and the subsequent PTSD in abeyance in order to regain custody rights to her young son, the threat has thrown her back to her old landlord for help.

Roland is not just a landlord and seeker of missing cats; he was once a cop in San Diego and a soldier in the Middle East. He is smart, tough, and protective of his friends. Lindsey is a friend, so he takes her case. (And won’t even charge her rent as she returns to one of the cabins on his land.)

There are not a lot of twists in this book. Books nowadays have too many twists sometimes, and it creates a false expectation that all books will have twists. There are gotcha! moments in “Swift Vengeance,” but that is not the attraction here. Roland’s loyalty, intelligence and judgment, and Parker’s portrayal of these qualities, are what should draw readers in. Parker is one of those good storytellers who doesn’t have to rely on tricks to satisfy readers.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Comforts of Home by Susan Hill

Overlook Press, 320 ages, $26.95

I have to admit right from the start that I skipped the last Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler mystery in the series because I had gotten tired of our hero’s whining (or whinging, if you’re British). He finds it difficult to commit to a romantic relationship, tortures himself with philosophical and artistic dilemmas, and rummages among his many spanners to find a suitable one to throw into whatever his current works are.

But I love Susan Hill, so of course I came back, whether she wanted me to or not. There’s still a bit of whining and ineffective introspection by various characters in the ninth book in her series, “The Comforts of Home,” but I enjoyed returning to the cozy and murderous town of Lafferton, England, which is not to imply that this is a cozy series. It’s not.

Have you read Ann Cleeves? Besides her wonderful creation, Vera Stanhope, she has a series set in the Shetland Islands with police detective Jimmy Perez. Jimmy Perez is a less despondent version of Simon Serrailler, but they are both brooding heroes. And in “The Comforts of Home,” part of the action takes place on the darkly brooding Scottish island of Taransay. (This island, according to Wikipedia, in reality hosts vacationers but has no permanent population. Nevertheless, it’s darkly brooding and heavily atmospheric, I’m sure.) 

And how about Peter May’s Fin Macleod, police inspector on an Outer Hebridies island? He’s pretty dark and brooding, too.

These series and heroes share a similar disposition because it suits both the place and genre. More Scottish power to them, I say. And more miserable, windy, rainy, gloomy Scottish weather, as well.

But this review is neither for a Cleeves’ book or one by May. Susan Hill — a skilled practitioner in the art of setting a pregnant and spooky scene — has put her brain to working a mystery on an isolated island (returning to the scene of the fifth book in the series, “The Shadows in the Street,” and mis-marketed as “Tallansay”) as well as one on the more familiar streets of Lafferton.

On Taransay, someone has shot popular resident Sandy Murdoch. She arrived only a couple of years previously, but she had made friends and shown her commitment to pitching in and helping the community. But her past lies in shadow, and perhaps someone has reached out of her past to murder her. Simon, who is on leave in Taransay recovering from a grievous wound, is drafted to assist the local police. He liked Sandy and would very much like to find her killer.

Meanwhile, back home. Simon’s chief, Kieran Bright, has married Simon’s triplet sister, Cat. Cat is a doctor, was widowed young, has been and is raising three older children. Kieran seems to fit right in. There's too much happiness on that homefront, so Richard, Simon and Cat’s grumpy, snobbish, demanding father, re-enters the picture. He had exiled himself to France to escape the gossip of people after charges of rape were leveled against him. Now he’s baa-ack. And living in Cat and Kieran’s house. Needless to say, Chief Bright does not look kindly on the old fart.

Kieran is dealing with a plague of arson attacks around Lafferton. In the midst of that aggro, the mother of a girl gone missing five years ago pesters the police to reopen her daughter’s cold case. Kieran has no personnel to spare, so he pulls Simon out of his convalescence to look at the case file. In his steadfast and meticulous manner, Simon might find a crack or two not yet explored.

There are shots, there is fire, there is anger, there are tears. This is a dramatic series without much humor, but with a lot of inner turmoil by all parties. Soap opera cum crime novel. But Susan Hill can really weave the mysterious into a mystery by combining atmosphere, menace, turbulent emotions, and the pull of obligation.

City of Ink by Elsa Hart

Minotaur Books, 352 pages, $25.99

At last author Elsa Hart’s clever 18th century, Chinese detective, Li Du, has wended his way back to his home city of Beijing after many years in exile. The Emperor — who had sent him away because of his association with a man accused of treason — pardoned him because of the the service Li Du rendered in “Jade Dragon Mountain,” the first book in Hart’s addictive series. Now Li Du must solve the “crime,” if one exists, that sent him into exile. It is Li’s belief that his mentor, Shu, had not been a traitor, even though he had admitted to the crime of treason.

We have followed Li Du’s path from exile and redemption in a remote city of the Chinese empire to ruminations in a blizzard in a remote valley in the first two books. Because of those ruminations and a clue dropped by a fellow traveler hinting at Shu’s innocence, Li Du has returned to Beijing. “City of Ink” picks up Li Du’s story two years after his return. He is the assistant to the administrator of a small section of the Outer City, a position far beneath his original posting as a librarian in the imperial library of the Inner City. But it is this lowly clerkship that is more useful in obtaining the information he needs to vindicate his former master.

Because this is a mystery series, eventually there is a murder. The Black Tile Factory, which manufactures roof tiles, is the scene of the crimes, plural, since two bodies have been found. Because the factory is within the purview of Li Du’s borough, he accompanies his boss to view the scene. Eventually he works with Chief Inspector Sun to discover who might have murdered Mrs. Hong, the wife of the tile company owner, and Pan Yongfa of the Ministry of Rites. Had they been meeting romantically and were they then discovered by Mrs. Hong’s husband, the inebriated and confused Hong Wenbin? Was he capable of murdering them? Of course, Li Du realizes there are some anomalies at the crime scene. And he’s off.

The pressure to solve the tile factory crime interferes with Li Du’s investigation of the culpability of his old master, but he manages to spread himself all over both the Inner and Outer Cities. He even briefly joins forces with the strong and intelligent mistress, Lady Chen, of his snobbishly superior cousin, a woman he met in the first book. In this latest adventure, Li Du also reunites with Hamza, a storyteller he met in the first book whose help has been invaluable in solving the crimes that have littered Li Du’s winding path.

Elsa Hart writes in a compelling way very few others can; she combines history with a quiet and confident good story. She does not sacrifice setting a scene in order to barrel into action. She lays her story down in a deliberate and enticing manner. Li Du’s contemplative manner is attractive instead of boring. There are also little pleasant surprises to go with the big reveal-all ones. I have been so satisfied with all three books that I have read them one after the other, something I rarely do.

This is a heartfelt MBTB star award, not just for this 2018 title, but for the entire series, the start of which I missed a few years ago. I am attempting to remedy that omission now.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $16.99 (c2016)

I don’t usually read one book after another in a series, but Elsa Hart’s Li Du series captivated me. Because I missed the debut when it came out, I’ve been playing catch-up. The book after “The White Mirror, “The City of Ink,” was just released, and I hope to get to that soon.

Li Du is the enigmatic Chinese Sherlock Holmes-like character created by Elsa Hart in her debut novel, “Jade Dragon Mountain.” “The White Mirror,” the follow-up to that book, takes place eight months later. Li Du finds himself trekking up the mountains of Tibet, continuing his quest to find himself. Then an unforeseen snowfall traps him and the death of a monk intrigues him.

In the early 1700s, China was a world force, a mysterious destination for Europeans bent on both economic and religious conquest. The Jesuits brought science to the Chinese court. At home, they engendered envy and enmity by other Catholic sects.

Li Du learned Latin from the Jesuits in court, because Li was an up-and-comer in his youth, destined for administrative greatness in the Emperor’s empire. Because of a mentor’s arrest for treason, Li became disgraced by association and was exiled. In “Jade Dragon Mountain,” he solved a crime and was rewarded by reinstatement into the good graces of the Emperor. Still, Li Du has decided to continue his trek over rural paths and into remote valleys.

Author Hart has a great touch with providing a historical context and a fresh sort of story. Here she presents her version of a locked room mystery when Li Du is trapped by a heavy snowfall in a Tibetan manor — actually more a farm holding rather than what the word “manor” brings to mind — with disparate characters, including a recent acquaintance, storyteller Hamza, along with the muleteers and guides who are taking them to Lhasa (he hopes), the hardworking lord of the manor, the lord’s family (also hardworking), and various monks, manor hands, eccentric neighbors, and fellow travelers.

The first thing Li Du and his traveling party realize is that the monk who looks from a distance to be welcoming them on the bridge to the manor is instead very, very dead. On his chest is drawn a blue and white circle. It is later identified to be a stylized white mirror, drawn to ward off evil. What drove the monk to kill himself? Or could someone have murdered him?

As Hart uncovers layers of plot, she also warms up the land to melt the snow. Li Du must find out who is behind the nefarious deeds in the remote valley before the routes are clear and the villain or villains scatter.

Once again, Hart deftly describes a culture and rugged landscape which is very different than that found in the U.S., but with characters whose foibles and fancies are more than recognizable. And once again, Hart has produced a wonderful book.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart

Minotaur, 336 pages, $25.99 (c2015)

At the end of “Jade Dragon Mountain,” Elsa Hart writes about the circumstances that led to her writing the book. She was living in China at the time with her husband, who had a project based there. She lived in a remote village and it inspired the setting for the first Li Du mystery. Hart’s background is a great story in and of itself.

I missed this series when it first began in 2015, but I plan on catching up ASAP.

Li Du is a fairly young librarian in exile in early 18th century China. Hart touches on some of the convoluted political machinations that led to Li’s exile from Beijing. On the surface it appears he was innocent of sedition but had the misfortune to have rebellious acquaintances. All was not revealed in this first book, so I hope one of the other books contains more information. It doesn’t matter now, because the point is Li is an ex-librarian, a full-time observer of the world, a scholar, a wanderer, and an inquisitive soul.

Reluctantly, Li finds himself in Dayan in a remote corner of the Chinese empire. His cousin is the magistrate there. He is much older than Li, resentful that Li received more attention because he showed intellectual promise, smug in Li’s fallen status, and more than happy to sign the papers allowing Li to move on to other areas. Then a fellow traveler succumbs to poison, and Li forces his cousin to recognize that Jesuit priest Pieter van Dalen was murdered. That’s the last thing the magistrate wants to hear because the emperor is scheduled to visit.

After a year of traveling, the emperor is drawing close to Dayan. He has come to cause the sun to disappear. We would call that an eclipse, but the emperor wants his subjects to recognize his divinity by commanding the sun to disappear, in a heavily ritualized and dramatic fashion, of course. (And then reappear.) Li must solve the murder before the emperor’s arrival. (And preferably be long gone by then.)

It is not a very well-kept secret that the Jesuits have brought their science along with their religion to China. It is they who provide the emperor with the calendar of celestial events that he uses to “control” the skies. Could someone have resented the Jesuits' influence on the emperor and taken it out on van Dalen, an astronomer? Joining forces with a traveling storyteller, Hamza, Li delicately investigates, mostly to satisfy his sense of right and wrong. 

“Jade Dragon Mountain” is well-written with a strong sense of place. Hart’s descriptions are evocative, her presentation of court customs beguiling, and her plotting satisfying. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it certainly would have earned an MBTB star in 2015!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill

Doubleday Canada, 262 pages, $27

It must be frustrating to be a well-regarded author whose works become eclipsed by the writings of a pseudonym. Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Redhill’s pseudonym, found an American audience. Michael Redhill has not. Both authors are better known in Canada, home to both Redhill and his nom de plume. And that may be a problem — an identity crisis — that has driven Redhill to write “Bellevue Square,” apparently the first in a “triptych of novels called Modern Ghosts.” Redhill seems to be haunted by his own creation.

Redhill essentially disables his alter ego in this book. If this presages no more books by Wolfe, I will mourn her death. I am enamored of Wolfe’s quirky, entertaining, often gruesome crime books. By winning the lucrative Canadian Scotiabank Giller Prize for “Bellevue Square,” has Redhill received establishment permission to permanently partition off a part of himself, to professionally murder Inger Ash Wolfe?

Jean Mason, the main character in “Bellevue Square,” begins life as a normal, somewhat boring bookstore owner in Toronto with an ex-police officer husband and two young sons — formerly of the same town as Inger Ash Wolfe’s protagonist Hazel Micallef. In increasingly bizarre and anxious revelations, Jean becomes aware of a doppleganger afoot in Toronto, the elusive Ingrid Fox. Who is she becomes what is she. Well, she apparently is the first “modern ghost” of Redhill’s intended future opus.

There are seizures, hospital stays, an ineffective therapist, and baby Aspirin — medical red herrings to explain Jean and her twin, perhaps? Or does Redhill go down a bumpy horror or science-fiction road? I guess we’ll have to wait for the rest of the “triptych” to reveal the underlying theme.

My sense that doom hangs large over Inger Ash Wolfe leads me to give a puzzled thumbs down to a book that as far as I know hasn’t even been officially released in the U.S.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Viking, 528 pages, $28

I am among the Tana French fans who yearn for the next book as soon as one is finished. I love the consistency of her inconsistency. I love how the only thing you can count on with French is how you will eventually stumble across the unexpected. She can mix the natural with a hint of the supernatural, the striving to be good with the lapsing into the bad.

Rich, poor, lucky, unlucky Toby is our narrator. He was born blessed and cursed by a charm and glibness that hasn’t forced him into understanding his deeper character. Then one day he is attacked, an attack so vicious that he is left with longstanding physical repercussions. His memory and sense of self seem to be faulty. Who is he now that he cannot rely on being what he was before? That may be convoluted syntax, but it is an accurate question. Anyway, French loves the convoluted.

While he is recuperating, Toby repairs to Ivy House, where his Uncle Hugo lives, with his girlfriend Melissa. Toby and Melissa are also there to take care of Hugo, who is in the last stages of an incurable illness. Ivy House is where Toby spent his summers with his cousins Susanna and Leon, as his careless parents, aunts and uncles frolicked in sunny climes. Hugo was the preferred de facto parent anyway. As the cousins grew older, teenage bacchanals raged in Hugo’s immense back yard garden. Is it any surprise that in the end the garden itself harbored a terrible secret?

The police have been a periodic presence in Toby’s life recently. They are still trying to find out who attacked him. Then other officers and detectives are called in to unravel the secret of the wych elm, the expansive, dominating presence of the garden. The elm has spit out a nasty little bit which must be dealt with by everyone. In a metaphor for Toby’s extended family, I suppose, the elm is cut down in order to examine the diseased parts.

Frankly, it’s not so much about the crimes, one of which takes a backseat to the other to the point of almost disappearing. It’s about the people. It’s about whether Toby is an unreliable narrator, so unreliable even he doesn’t realize the scope of his veracity. It’s onion-peeling time for French. And I don’t mean that in a culinary sense.

French excels at exposing the past to inform the present. No one is innocent or without a secret. “The Witch Elm” is a long book, and at times I pleaded for French to get to the point. That may say something more about me than French’s writing, however. It is in her nature to paint layer upon layer, so what you expect is turned about by what is next revealed.

Where are you now, Toby? Who are you now? In the very end, we must once again adjust what we think we know, and that is French’s ultimate present to her readers.

Oh, okay, it’s Tana French, so MBTB star — although, nasty bit that I am, it was too long!

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos

Mulholland, 272 pages, $27

George Pelecanos is pretty well known at this point in his career, both as a novelist and as a television producer and writer. His strong suit is depicting life on the tough streets of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. His characters may appear to be morally ambiguous, but ultimately, they do what’s right. Music and sports provide a backdrop for his characters, giving them a time frame and a culture.

Some of the characters Pelecanos created in other books (Derek Strange, Nick Stephanos) show up here in teasing one-liners, references rather than in the flesh. They all inhabit the same universe. Washington, D.C., at this point is a mixture of the old inhabitants, mostly black, and the new incomers, Latin or middle class white. There is a shift in the economics of some neighborhoods but the criminal element still hides in the shadows.

Phil Ornazian is a D.C. private eye. He hustles to keep his family afloat. It’s important to him to provide for his beloved wife and two young sons. And that is what leads him to cross the line one day. He convinces himself that he is more like Robin Hood than a guy robbin’ the hood. He only steals from the nasty and corrupt. The money he gets from stealing a dealer’s cash stash is thus rationalized.

Michael Hudson was in jail for a failed armed robbery. While in jail he learned to love reading because of the jail’s excellent librarian, Anna Kaplan. Somehow Ornazian, Michael’s former investigator, manages to get all charges dropped. This time, Michael swears, he won’t disappoint his mother and siblings. He gets a job washing dishes and, although it is boring, he is determined to use it as a stepping stone to staying straight. He uses an empty bookcase to hold his growing collection of books that open his eyes to the nature of human feelings.

At a later point Ornazian will come to collect his payment for getting Hudson off. At a later point thoughtful decisions must be made. In the meantime, we get character studies of Ornazian, Michael, and one of Ornazian’s friends, retired D.C. police officer Thaddeus Ward, who now runs Ward Bonds,* a bail bonds place.

As with most of Pelecanos’ stories, “The Man Who Came Uptown” steers a straight story path, but it is enriched by his characterizations and love of detail. For instance,

Anna had her hair down and was wearing mostly black and a pair of distressed short Frye boots. Rick [her husband] was wearing his gear: track pants, a white pullover sporting the Callaway logo, and gray New Balance 990s.

Doesn’t that tell you a lot about Anna and her husband and what their relationship must be like?

Again, here’s another passage:

The following morning Terry Kelly woke up to the sounds of his phone alarm and the hard-core thrash of a band called Storm.

That’s that loser character in a nutshell.

As always, if you love Pelecanos, here’s more of him to love.

*  Ward (and Pelecanos) shows his age by punning off the name of a long-ago actor, Ward Bond, late of TV’s “Wagon Train” and many Westerns and B movies. Pelecanos likes to throw in jokes like that.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Little, Brown & Co. and Knopf, 528 pages, $30

Well, I didn’t expect this!

After having read “Hope Never Dies” by Andrew Shaffer, which features former President Obama and Vice-President Biden in a mystery-solving caper, and being vaguely disappointed, I expected something similar from “The President Is Missing.” I should not have disparaged the association of James Patterson so blithely. This book was a humdinger and I was vastly more entertained by it than by “Hope Never Dies.” No matter where your political beliefs lie, this book should be a humdinger for you.

President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan is only a couple of years into his term when he is hit with the precursor to impeachment proceedings. The opposition-dominated House Select Committee has accused the president of colluding with known terrorist Suliman Cindoruk. His organization, the Sons of Jihad, has avowed the downfall of the U.S. Why would the president be talking to him? In a few days, Duncan will appear before the committee, and he knows that there won’t be much he can say in his defense. Because the situation is dire and a secret and approaching DEFCON 1. And there’s a traitor in the midst.

Combining James Patterson’s mastery of the thriller format with Bill Clinton’s familiarity with impeachment proceedings and the routines and terrors of holding the highest office in the land, the two authors seamlessly integrate their strengths into a rapid-fire novel.

Duncan "disappears" from the public's eye to meet with a skittish contact who can maybe help him combat a truly nasty threat to everything in the U.S. and, by association, in the world. There’s a code bomb in the technological system that ties us all together and that controls just about everything that matters: medical care, military defense, water, heat, electricity, and on and on. Duncan is the only person standing between the status quo and what his team has termed the “Dark Ages.”

Yes, I know, it seems contrived that only Duncan can save us. But Clinton and Patterson create a feasible scenario about why the number of people involved must be extremely limited. With limits, of course, comes a higher potential for disaster. Yay!

I hope you forget everything I just told you about the plot, because the authors create a tightly written reveal of the situation.  The authors cleverly create tension by starting the story off in the dark and only gradually increasing the sliver of light to reveal other facets.

Read it. Technical terms are rendered legible. The look behind the White House curtain is delicious. Political intrigue is sadly attuned to the real world, which makes it valuable in its own way. 

The only part of the book I thought had Clinton’s boot prints all over came at the ending: a speech before a joint session of Congress in which the hopes for the future of the U.S. are delineated. Other than that, it kept to the thriller format and was a triumph of entertainment.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

Mulholland Books, 656 pages, $29

Oy! Robert Galbraith — such as he is — packs a lot of stories into his 656 pages. As the traveler’s maxim goes: Pack your suitcase, throw out half of your stuff, then repack the suitcase. About a quarter of the book is romance related  stuff that would have outed supposed former military police officer Robert Galbraith as a fraud, even if the infelicitous murmurings of the wife of one of J. K. Rowling’s agents hadn’t. To wit, will they or won’t they? They, meaning London private eye Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, his partner who seems more employee-like in every book. “Lethal White” is the fourth in the series.

These things don’t change. Cormoran and Robin yearn and burn for each other. Cormoran’s stump aches in his prosthetic device, making him seem more vulnerable and human. As we know from her other writings, Rowling is capable of conjuring up the best villains. This is given rein in Robin’s nasty lump of a husband, Matthew. (Boo, hiss.) 

Rowling's job is to build a mystery plot around that continuing soap opera. In this case, a young disturbed man enters the detective agency and declares he needs their help to find the body of a child he saw buried when he himself was a child. This young man, Billy, then disappears. Intrigued, Cormoran tracks down Billy’s much older brother, Jimmy, now a socialist radical trying to marshal other radicals.

Somewhere along the line the agency also books a case of blackmail against a government minister, Jasper Chiswell (pronounced Chizzle, of course, because ... Britain). He and his dysfunctional family of Izzy, Fizzy, Rancid, Kinvara, and Torks provide a convoluted history that needs unraveling before any headway can be made into the story of why Jasper is being blackmailed. (The twee names are so Rowling.)

Is it any surprise that all of the stories are nestled together like snakes in a pit? Who is the child buried under the nettle-filled hill? Why is Jasper being blackmailed? Why is Raphael (aka “Rancid”) so disliked? Who is/are the person/people skulking around Kinvara's horses? Why is Billy mentally disturbed? Who is Venetia? Actually, I can answer the last question. Venetia is Robin. She uses her middle name to go undercover, and that brings us to the last questions: Why does Venetia need to go undercover and is she any bloody good at it?

“Lethal White” is too long. Perhaps Rowling wants to be sure we get our money’s worth; after all, the book is listed at $29USD. Maybe she is just used to producing ever longer books and can’t stop. I wasn’t overjoyed with the solution to the blackmail case, which eventually became a murder case. There was a mostly gratuitous scene in which the police embraced Cormoran and Robin that didn’t quite ring true, despite Cormoran’s enhanced standing with the police resulting from his solution of the Shacklewell Ripper case (“Career of Evil”).

But I enjoy these books and watching Rowling spread her adult wings, no longer constrained by the rules of writing children’s books.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Don’t Eat Me by Colin Cotterill

Soho Crime, 304 pages, $26.95

Revenge is a dish best served in the thirteenth book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Author Colin Cotterill has had a winner since “The Coroner’s Lunch” was released in 2004. The series began in 1970s Laos and Cotterill has worked his way up to 1980 in “Don’t Eat Me.” It is a time in which: “Life sped by in Vientiane like a Volkswagen van on blocks.”

The sterling cast of characters include Siri, his wife Daeng, Siri’s ex-morgue nurse Dtui and her husband Phosy (now Chief Inspector Phosy), Siri’s ex-morgue assistant Geung and his girlfriend Tukta, and Siri’s old pal and former Communist Party bigwig Civilai. Transvestite fortune-teller Auntie Bpoo has been around a while and she certainly was a character when she was alive, but she is possibly more irritating dead. She is Siri’s spirit guide, as the ghostly world tries to throw Siri a bone to help him in the real world. Sometimes the bone lands with a clunk, however.

Although I rarely insist on reading a series in order, I think this series needs to be one of those exceptions, especially for “Don’t Eat Me.” One of the standing villainous characters has a big part in this. Because Soho Press is fabulous, all of Cotterill’s books are available.

Siri and Daeng have settled back into the rhythm of the noodle shop as the story opens, after having had quite a bit of excitement attending the Olympics in Moscow. But since Siri and Civilai are like two naughty boys, despite their 70+ years, they are challenged by Phosy when they are caught smuggling something large and bulky over the Mekong from Thailand. A nuclear weapon? A dead body? A priceless artifact? Nah. This is a Dr. Siri book, remember.

What they smuggle in becomes the centerpiece for the comic relief in the book. The bureaucratic humbuggery stutters to life when Siri and Civilai decide to film a movie, a Laotian “War and Peace.” Humor and cleverness ensue. This proves just the counterbalance to the very serious issue discussed in the rest of the book: wild animal trafficking.

Phosy cannot stand to be a paper-shuffling administrator. Even though he is the chief inspector, he begins a hands-on investigation of a skeleton found discarded on a main road. It appears to be that of a young woman, only recently deceased. Dtui, an informal coroner for her husband, determines that there are animal marks on the bones. From there, Phosy journeys deeper into the dark heart of Laos to find those animals, ably assisted by only a few well-chosen police officers. Phosy has been cleaning house and many former officers, including his predecessor, now languish in prison, charged with corruption.

I’ve tried to be circumspect about what I reveal about the storyline. Cotterill writes his story as if he were deconstructing an onion. The layers fall off and in the center there are surprises a-plenty for the denouement.

It’s hard to combine both tragedy and comedy, but Cotterill does it well. His love for his adopted home of Southeast Asia comes through, as well as his desire to highlight various problems the countries have.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Tin House Books, 272 pages, $15.95 

“Who Is Vera Kelly?” lives beyond the expectations created by the misleading cover picture. It is not yet another book with an unreliable female narrator. It is not a plucky young woman goes to the big city book, although this perhaps comes closer than the other to describing Vera.

Toggling between stories set in the late 50s and 1966, the book does not display a distracting and dizzying juggle. Rather, the earlier story lends direct coherence to the 1966 story. So refreshing.

Vera is fifteen or sixteen when the earlier story begins. She does not fit in with her “peers” in high school. She accidentally overdoses on one of her mother’s medications. That leads to her mother sending her to juvenile detention, removing Vera from the few things and people she loves. It turns out Vera is tough. Lonely but tough.

The 1966 story takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s one of those times in Argentina’s turbulent history when the balance of political power seems fated to tilt in favor of an outlier. The communists, sponsored by the U.S.S.R., are fomenting rebellion in Argentina and other South American countries. Vera, who speaks Spanish and French, is an American spy for the C.I.A. She presents herself as a Canadian student seeking an advanced degree at the local university.

Using her cover story, Vera meets some student radicals, gets a hint of a terrorist conspiracy, and operates a sophisticated technical listening outpost to eavesdrop on the current government and the student radicals. She gives information to her handler that indicates the political pot is about to boil over. But this is not a James Bond tale, and that makes all the difference.

Vera is smart, wily, and intrepid but not foolhardy. She would never go unarmed down those basement steps in the dark to investigate the serial killer. She seems so real and human and vulnerable. She is willing to make sacrifices and practical decisions for her mission. She romances an male ex-pat to cement her cover, even though she is a lesbian. As hard as it is, she tamps down her desire to frequent one of “those” bars to find companionship. As I said, Vera is lonely but tough.

The grown-up Vera is very much a product of the tribulations she had to overcome and the independence she had to foster at a young age. (Thank you, Mom, she may someday say, for being such a bitch.) Author Rosalie Knecht brings in so many layers of character and plot in ingenious ways. I was transfixed. 

At random — not that I could lose by doing this — I picked a page to find a quote, and this is what I found:

I had found the apartment in San Telmo with the help of a motherly rental agent in a pink suit who had tried to cheat me on her percentage not once but twice, and reacted with a broad and charming laugh both times I pointed it out, as if we were flirting on a date and I was removing her hand from my thigh.

High calibre all the way! MBTB star!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Fear in Yesterday’s Rings by George C. Chesbro

Mysterious Press Books, 215 pages, c1991

Carolyn Lane, one of MBTB’s owners, enjoyed the Mongo series by George C. Chesbro. “The Fear in Yesterday’s Rings” was my first foray into the series, and I probably should have picked another title. Although the premise of the series — a former circus dwarf becomes a private investigator — has a lot of points going for it in originality, this book, which had me rooting for the villainous lobox on occasion, lacked discipline.

Mongo the Magnificent, otherwise known as Robert Frederickson, may have left the circus, but his heart still belongs to the big top and its residents, including African elephant Mabel. People, including his brother, still call him “Mongo.” As shown towards the end of the book, Mongo still has some of the athletic skills he developed as an acrobat and animal trainer in the circus years earlier.

Phil Statler, the former owner of Mongo’s circus, is now a bum, found in dire straits on the streets of New York. Mongo owes him a great deal, so he decides to form a consortium of buyers among former circus folks to buy back Phil’s circus. That leads to Mongo’s reunion with Harper Rhys-Whitney, also formerly of the circus. Quite a lot of the book deals with their energetic reunion activities, a lot of which seems gratuitous considering some of the stressful situations they find themselves in as they track down the circus and its new owners.

Hmm, Mongo thinks, as he examines information about vicious animal attacks across the Great Plains, mysteriously mirroring the pathway of the circus. The first thing that springs to mind: werewolves. Why? Because.

It’s a tangled path of discovery, escape, more discovery, more escape. Call the cops, I kept shouting. But nobody listened to me. 

The best scene was of Mongo attempting to tame the lobox (the creature causing the damage — sorry for the spoiler). That was genuinely entertaining.