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

Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Conspiracy of Tall Men by Noah Hawley

Grand Central Publishing, 384 pages, $15.99 (c1998, reprint 2018)

The last time we saw Noah Hawley in print, he had written a smashing thriller, “Before the Fall,” about a man who survived a plane crash and all the implications that had for him afterwards. This time, there is a plane crash but no one survives, and it is not a traditional thriller. In many ways, there are echoes of “Fargo,” the eclectic, quirky, linguistically athletic television show for which Hawley is a show runner. “A Conspiracy of Tall Men” is a reissuance of a 1998 book.

Hawley populates his new book with people named Linus, Porter, Forbes, Preston, and Ford. There are other more mundane-sounding names, like Robert, but those five are the meaningful characters. Not that Claudia, the wife Linus mourns because she died in the plane crash, is insignificant, but she spends no time on stage. And not that Roy and Edward, Linus’ conspiracy cohorts, aren’t pivotal to the action, but they are the baby steps, not Big Foot.

It is about 1998-99, just around the time Y2K adherents began really panicking and stockpiling goods. Linus Owen is a professor of conspiracy — although it has a fancier name at his college — in San Francisco, and he hobnobs with other socially awkward conspiracy afficianadoes, theorists, and geeks. His best friends are Roy and Edward. Edward is rich from an early Silicon Valley coup. He is twenty-four years old and retired. Roy was a logger. Now he limps and is divorced. Roy and Edward live next door to each other.

Claudia is Linus’ wife. She is beautiful and has a successful advertising career. It seems, rightly so, that she and Linus have very little in common. But Linus loves her. That’s why he falls apart when officials tell him she died in a plane crash. The plane was heading to Brazil. She was seated next to a divorced executive who worked for one of her clients, a pharmaceutical company. They were holding hands. The plane crashed because a bomb exploded.

Linus has a lot of whys, the most important of which is why was Claudia on the plane heading for Brazil when she should have been in Chicago visiting her mother. Was she really having an affair? Who set off the bomb? Were Claudia and the pharma guy collateral damage, or were they, against all odds, the targets? One why leads him in a straight path to the other whys. That eventually makes the conspiracy professor into a conspiracy proponent and victim. Perhaps. Perhaps a conspiracy would be less hurtful than thinking that Claudia was simply a runaway wife and an unknowing victim of a terrorist group. (Remember this story was published in 1998.)

Linus asks:

What is the nature of a conspiracy? It is the darker side of human beings. It is a philosophical animal, the pursuit of which is a never-ending series of questions. It is the paranoia of the pharmaceutically disturbed, the insecurity of crowds, the resentment of the dispossessed.

Linus also asks, why am I growing taller, why does my nose bleed frequently, what happened to the clothing of my youth, am I turning middle class as I turn toward middle-age?

Far down the rabbit-hole, we are greeted with various elemental questions and philosophizing by weird and enigmatic characters. Here’s one exchange:

“At least try to tell me, before you put me in a hole, why it is I spent my whole life trying to prove that for every evil there is some nefarious, elite group secretly plotting.
Wiley picks a piece of apple peel from between his molars. 
“All right, buddy. You’re getting a little blubbery now. They just pay me to ask questions, not to philosophize.” 
“Who pays you?” 
“Rowdy Roddy Piper.* Now will you shut up.”

This is Hawley telling a fable or a myth, about a quest the hero must engage in before finding out the meaning of life. This is no “Da Vinci Code” or “Hunt for Red October.” This is quirky and then quirkier. It reminds me a little of David A. Crossman’s Winston Crisp mysteries, still some of my favorites.

Ultimately, we come to the crux of the matter. It also underlies some of the plot in “Before the Fall.” Linus asks,
“What is the value of wealth without humanity?”

*A colorful old-time wrestler. I loved the throwback reference.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

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The People’s House by David Pepper

St. Helena Press, 400 pages, $16.99 (c2016)

“The People’s House” is an exciting book about … gerrymandering. Not really, but yes, really.

For almost twenty years, David Pepper has been involved in politics in Ohio. It has given him the background to form a fictional political thriller, and to levy a convincing real-life argument against dividing up our representational districts for the U.S. House of Representatives in such a blatantly prejudicial fashion. But that almost operates as a background hum.

Reporter Jack Sharpe of the “Youngstown [OH] Vindicator” may work for a fictional newspaper but the horror of political manipulation of voting isn’t exactly fiction anymore. What Pepper presents isn’t a reality, as far as anyone knows, but the potential is daunting.

Before Election Day in the United States of America, the Democrats hold sway in the House of Representatives. After Election Day, about thirty-five swing counties have unexpectedly swung in favor of Republican candidates, including some who are not very well known or favored. The House is now in the Republicans’ domain. There are now enough members of the House to pass an energy package allowing the placement of a massive network of pipelines to move a substantial amount of oil squeezed by fracking.

Cui bono? Representative Tom Stanton (R-PA) who eventually becomes the Majority Leader. Oliver Ariens, a super-lobbyist, would be on the list of beneficiaries, but he died of a heart attack. Jim Gibbs, the Ohio Republican candidate, who won over Lee Kelly, the long-time Representative of their county. 

Lee Kelly was despondent after losing what should have been a sure thing. He stayed despondent until suddenly he wasn’t. He had discovered something, he told his wife. He had left a message for Jack Sharpe, but Sharpe never had a chance to talk with him before Kelly died in a fiery car crash.

Pulling at the threads of what possibly could have interested Kelly, Jack acts as both reporter and homicide (if that is what it was) detective. The first question is what drove so many swing counties in the country to tilt toward the Republican candidates. Jack thinks he has an answer. In the process of compiling evidence to override legal objections from his newspaper, he uncovers another potential murder, this time of a young woman, an assistant to the odious Tom Stanton.

In a back-and-forth timeline, Pepper lets his readers know pretty early on what the real skinny is on the voting malfeasance. The thrill comes from following Jack’s determination that there was a crime and then his uncovering of the villains. The real villain, however, is gerrymandering. What a terrible system, one of the foreign characters says. Indeed. (Yes, that is my personal opinion.)

This book skews to Democratic readers, although I would hope that everyone of every political persuasion could appreciate the book for what it is. Just switch the parties around if it would make you feel better — although historically, looser regulations for fracking in the oil industry have been more supported by Republicans than Democrats. And, may I add, this was published before the election of 2016.

The bottom line: I highly recommend this book to all people who stand under our free-flying flag, long may it wave!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Rise the Dark by Michael Koryta

Back Bay Books, 416 pages, $15.99 (c2016)

“Rise the Dark” follows the first Markus Novak story, “Last Words” (c2015). A third book will follow as day does night, and that’s because Markus’ story is not yet over.

Markus Novak is an private investigator in Florida. He is still mourning the death of his wife, Lauren, a couple of years previously. The man who he believes killed his wife, Garland Webb, has been released from prison. Webb sends Markus a gloating message, then disappears.

There are answers in the little town of Cassadaga, Florida. A medium whom Lauren went to see in that town populated by many mediums, spiritualists, and other woo-woo people just before she died has agreed to see Markus. He hopes to find out what Lauren had gone to Cassadaga to find. Then he wants to kill Webb. A mysterious man and woman instead try to kill Markus in Cassadaga. That just makes him even madder.

With the help of a Pinkerton agent, Lynn Deschaine, he begins a hunt for the woman, Webb, and another strange man who has inserted himself into the dialogue, Eli Pate. Markus and Lynn travel to Wyoming, to the home town Markus hoped never to see again, the place where his family came apart. His mother was a woo-woo hippie, his father non-existent. What Markus and Lynn piece together is something large in scope and crazy in intent

Unbeknownst to Markus and Lynn, a lineman from Montana, Jay Baldwin, provides the key to a disaster looming over the country. His wife is being held hostage by Eli Pate. Pate wants him to do something terrifying and dangerous. And Jay is going to do it.

All parties converge on a compound in the wilderness. Who will die and who will live to fight another day in Michael Koryta’s sequel? 

“Rise the Dark” is done in Koryta’s trademark thrilling, fast-paced manner. Just don’t expect a total resolution at the end.

Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr

Marion Wood Books/Putnam, 528 pages, $27

“Greeks Bearing Gifts” has turned out to be Philip Kerr’s last Bernie Gunther book. He died on March 23, 2018, shortly before this book was released. Did Kerr know this was to be his last book? If not, it is still a fitting coda to his opera. The sunset Bernie heads into at the end holds the promise of a more rewarding life.

Bernie Gunther, now known as Christof Ganz, has managed to survive World War II in Nazi Germany without himself becoming a Nazi or carrying out heinous crimes on their behalf. He is to be applauded for his political juking ability, much like a top-notch soccer player runs a zigzag pattern in order not to be caught.

It is now 1957 and Bernie has had to change his name in order to return to live in Germany. In order to get to 1957 in one piece, he has been a hotel worker in France and a political prisoner in Russia. He has worked for Nazi high command here and there and the police in Berlin. He has solved murders but most successfully managed to not get murdered himself, executed, or wantonly used and thrown away. Oh, wait, maybe not the latter.

In 1957 Munich, Bernie is a mortuary attendant. It’s a humble but pleasantly quiet life. He talks to the corpses and none of them give him lip back. It’s a paradise compared to a Russian prison. Alas, all good, quiet things must come to a loud end. It comes in the form of a police acquaintance from way, way back. Criminal Secretary Schramma recognizes Bernie and blackmails him into “helping” him extort money. It’s a convoluted set-up and Bernie is the wary but inevitable patsy. But Bernie didn’t survive WWII on just luck. He manages to cotton to the game Schramma is playing and extricates himself in spectacular fashion.

Bernie is aided by another old, old acquaintance, Max Merton, lawyer of dubious distinction, and, boy, does Max have a job for him. Soon Bernie is making lots of marks working for Munich RE, an insurance company, as an adjuster/investigator. In another convoluted situation — this is why the book is 528 pages long — Bernie is sent to Greece to “adjust” a maritime claim. Bernie knows bubkis about maritime loss, but he is given the assistance of a Greek liaison, Achilles Garlopis.

A boat has sunk. It was both the workplace and home for Siegfried Witzel, a German who lives in Greece and films underwater movies and hunts for antiquities in the Mediterranean depths. Bernie smells a rotten octopus and secretly follows the taciturn claimant after a meeting. He is rewarded with a dead body. Then he is cursed by a Greek detective who threatens Bernie in order to get him to find the murderer.

Bernie attracts odd characters who are interested in his investigation, including the lovely Ellie Panatoniou. If I would criticize the author for padding (excuse the expression) his book, it would be in his overblown (again, excuse the expression) and interminable descriptions of Ms. Panatoniou’s lusciousness, voluptuousness, and general anatomical excessiveness. If books could slobber, this one would produce buckets of the stuff. Oh, by the way, she’s also a lawyer. One who doesn’t appear to do any work. She could be putting poor Bernie through his paces, however, only to ka-boom him in the end with some traitorous, self-aggrandizing agenda. If that were so, it would serve him right for never raising his eyes further than her mighty bosoms.

What is it about Philip Kerr’s writing and his wonderful character, Bernie Gunther, that I will miss? Kerr could tell a story and he could tell it with style. Not too many people could write humor into Nazi Germany, but Bernie is, too, Kerr’s darkly comic, wise-cracking creation. Bernie may be hard-boiled and Berlin may be noir, but Kerr presented them in his own idiosyncratic way.

Here are Kerr’s last words in Bernie’s voice:

And to mark where I had been and to testify to what I still had in me to accomplish, I needed only that place in the new moral order offered by the bandit queen [another terrifically eccentric character], where a drifting ghost like me could feel like something real again and breathe the dream of true atonement.

Vale, Philip and Bernie.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Shutter Man by Richard Montanari

Mulholland Books, 432 pages, $26 (c2015, U.S. ed. 2016)

There are so many characters in “The Shutter Man” that I will start right off naming the few to whom you should pay attention: Kevin Byrne, Philadelphia homicide detective; Jessica Balzano, former police partner of Byrne and now assistant district attorney; Sean and Michael Farren, the latest generation of a crooked and thuggish Irish family. Now you can relax about most of the names that will flit in and out of the book. (The trick, however, is finding out which other names are vitally important to the story.)

In 1976, eleven-year-old Catriona Daugherty was murdered. The man believed to be the murderer was the very odd Desmond Farren, the uncle of Sean and Michael. Desmond was murdered. Desmond’s brother, Danny, took over the family thug business after his father, Liam — immigrant from Ireland and progenitor of the thuggish family — was murdered. He and his other brother, Patrick, were dangerous players in the downtrodden mostly Irish community of Devil’s Pocket in Philly. As a young boy, Michael saw his uncle Patrick murdered. Michael was hit by a car at the same time and went into a coma. When he awoke he had “face blindness” and developed a new personality, “Billy the Wolf.” He could not remember what people looked like. Later in his life he had to carry pictures of people to remind him, e.g., do not hurt this one, hurt that one.

For a while Devil’s Pocket was also Kevin Byrne’s temporary neighborhood. A couple of his boyhood friends have died. Another is set to become the new district attorney in Philadelphia.

Kevin becomes involved in investigating a horrible murder. The father, mother and son in a family have been murdered. They were tied to chairs with duct tape. The mother was shot efficiently in her chest. Then her face was carved off and her birth certificate taken. A linen handkerchief was found with the word “TENET” written on it in blood.

Eventually, Jessica, in her capacity as an ADA, joins Kevin in investigating what soon becomes several murders. They all involve “face lifts” and birth certificate thefts. They struggle to determine a relationship between the victims.

Meanwhile, author Richard Montanari throws in the saga of the Farren family. They are all horrible, horrible people. Are they involved in the murders? They are more thugs than serial cult killers. Also, for a while, we follow the quiet routine of Anjelica Leary. She is a 60-something-year-old visiting nurse who cares deeply about her patients. We really like her. That dooms her, in mystery terms, to something awful. But when and, if so, why?

This is essentially a police procedural with a lot of additional stuff packed in. This is when I bemoan the trend of intertwining an old story with a current one. The Farren family saga was chilling and interesting. It deserved better than the chopping up it got, but that’s how it’s done these days and that’s how suspense is driven.

“The Shutter Man” is worth reading because it comes down to an provocative story with authentic-sounding details of a police investigation.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Knopf, 304 pages, $26.95

“Warlight” is the most beautiful spy book I’ve ever read, but it is not so much a book about spies in Great Britain around World War II as it is a poetic novel about how war, politics, and necessity affected the people who lived through thundering bombers flying overhead at night, the subsequent bombs changing the landscape of a neighborhood in the blink of an eye, and the mostly invisible underground war. World War II changed European agencies and it changed the expectations of at least two generations in "Warlight."

Michael Ondaatje’s main character, Nathaniel — a name that apparently reeks of pretension, according to other characters — narrates most of the book, although he becomes more of an omniscient third person later in the book. First he tells his story, then he hypothesizes further afield as he describes the world hidden from him by his near and dear.

When the book opens, Nathaniel is fourteen; his older sister, Rachel, is sixteen. Suddenly their parents are required to move from a comfortable life in England to Asia, for their father’s career advancement. The parents will only be gone a year, they say. In a change of plans, their mother, Rose, leaves them some time after their father. She elaborately packs her trunk and spends a few pleasurable days with her teenagers. Then she is gone.

In Rose’s parental place lands The Moth. He has a real name, but not as far as Nathaniel and Rachel are concerned. He shyly flits like a moth, they decide. His is a peculiar guardianship. They almost always eat away from home. His rules are rather lax and his friends are vaguely criminous. The Darter, another sobriquet that strips whatever his real name is from our consciousness or need, is one of those friends who seems heavily occupied with transporting illegal greyhounds down wayward branches of the Thames at night. Of course, Nathaniel and Rachel tag along.

As the teens grow older, Ondaatje gives the impression that they only vaguely hanker after knowledge of their mother. They, or at least Nathaniel, seem placidly accepting of their unusual status. And this is when Ondaatje turns the tale outward. In lovely little pieces, the author drives Nathaniel into adulthood and a part of Rose’s story into the light.

Everything relates to World War II. And not everything is beautiful. The brutality is mostly hidden from Ondaatje’s readers, but the aftermath ripples forward. Nathaniel finally wants to know the truth about his strange childhood and his recalcitrant mother. As an adult he is in a position to find out, but he finds that truth is an elusive term.

Ondaatje’s story flows in a dreamlike way. Instead of ogres and trolls, there are members of The Moth’s coterie who drift into and out of the children’s lives. Instead of a princess, there’s an impecunious kitchen helper. Instead of a king, there is The Darter. Instead of a mother, there is a queen lost in exile. Instead of specificity, there is the vague dreaminess of somnambulant characters.

This would be a great spy story, if only it were a spy story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $16

Most of the action in “Girl in Snow,” the first novel by author Danya Kukafka, takes place in 2005, in a little town in Colorado. It is February, so the snow in “Girl in Snow” is a foregone conclusion. The girl is fifteen-year-old Lucinda Hayes. She was pretty. Of course she was.

Kukafka presents several viewpoints and tenses, a tough literary juggle. We hear from another teenage girl, Jade, a former friend. We hear from Cameron, a teenage boy who is Lucinda’s … shadow. He might be creepy enough to be a stalker. We hear from Russ, Cameron’s father’s former police patrolman buddy: so, a grown-up. Sometimes we hear from Jade in the first person and sometimes in the urgent second person singular.

The focus is, of course, on Lucinda, but not as much as you would think. Jade, Cameron, Russ are all outsiders. None of them could be called good-looking. Kukafka details the physical blemishes of her main and subsidiary characters. The teenage years are spotty at best for most. These outsiders look in at themselves and the investigation. They are witnesses and vessels of misery. And they are suspects.

Cameron is haunted by the disgrace and subsequent disappearance of his father. He is silent and “tangled,” as he would say. He has difficulty in social situations. He is obsessed with Lucinda. On “Statue Nights,” he stands in Lucinda’s backyard and watches her through her window. Late at night, on his rambles, he waves to Ivan, the janitor at his high school.

Ivan is the brother-in-law of Russ. Russ has almost accidentally married Ines, Ivan’s sister. After Ivan was released from prison, Russ helped him get the school job. He, too, is a suspect.

Who is not a suspect? The high school art teacher and object of much teenage affection is one. The parents, who are rarely seen, are suspects. How about Cameron’s mother? How about Jade’s abusive mother? How about Lucinda’s boyfriend? Maybe Lucinda’s boyfriend is Zap, whose real name is Edourd Arnaud. Jade used to be friends with Zap, too.

Part of the task Kukafka sets herself is showing the relationships between the many characters. When the big murder reveal arrives, it lands more with a by-the-way than an aha. In the process of hearing the main characters’ stories, Lucinda isn’t really illuminated so much as designated the object of catharsis. Being an outsider means there’s a lot more of interest to lay bare than for a “normal” person. Lucinda was a teenage darling, popular with boys, girls, parents. In other words, not an outsider. 

This book is a psychological page-turner, with main characters whose curious stories are compelling.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Catapult, 304 pages, $16.95 (c2017)

I am in awe! “Reservoir 13” is one heck of a book. It’s complex and lyrical, with knock-out storytelling, and full of real world ambiguity and messiness. Take a small town in England, preferably near Manchester. Give it an assortment of characters, the ones who are needed to make a town hum but also those on the cusp of failure and success. Make sure the old, young, and in-between are represented. Speak authentically with these characters’ voices. Toss in a major tragedy. Bingo! You can now call your book “Reservoir 13.”

Rebecca, Becky, Bex — whatever people have called her over her thirteen short years — disappeared one day while on a walk up a hill with her parents. A massive search is conducted by professionals and concerned townspeople, including some of the children. She is gone.

Before you get your hopes up based on this dramatic beginning, you should know that Rebecca’s disappearance is the least of “Reservoir 13.” It loosely binds the chapters and lives of the characters that drift in and out of focus. Some of the characters we meet never met her. They have no well of feeling for her. They did not share in the emptiness and fear the town felt when she first disappeared. The reason some of them have not met her is that they were just born, not born yet, not moved to the town. “Reservoir 13” takes place over thirteen years. Thirteen years worth of stories about the characters: Sally, Cathy, Richard, Jones, the Jacksons, Irene, the vicar, Gordon, Cooper, Su, and most of all James, Sophie, Lyndsey, and Rohan, four young people who age from their early teens to adulthood. And there are even more people.

Every once in a while something related to Rebecca’s disappearance pops up, but most of the time the town struggles on, at first grimly and quietly, then with more naturalness as the shadow cast by the girl’s disappearance fades. Life goes on, as they say. And what lives they are: mostly quotidian, sometimes sentimental, rarely clamorously passionate, always human. They are beset by frailties, surprised by hidden strengths, marked by burdens, pricked by loneliness. They will engage you.

The mystery of Rebecca’s disappearance? Would you be disappointed if I told you that it remains a mystery for the most part. Your need to know will be replaced by the richness of watching the town breathe in and out, year after year. And not just the characters, but also the bats, the butterflies, the fish, the many birds who migrate and nest, badgers, cow parsley. The reservoirs respirate with the rains and drought.

Gorgeous. But not a traditional thriller or mystery.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Obscura by Joe Hart

Thomas & Mercer, 340 pages, $24.95

“Obscura” is one of those can’t-put-it-down books. It’s a sci-fi thriller. It’s a book by a male author with a credibly-voiced female protagonist. It’s a dour look at our future.

Dr. Gillian Ryan, a research neurologist, is burdened by a double tragedy. Her husband died of a new dementia-like disease, probably brought on by the increasing pollution and environmental degradation, and now her young daughter also has it. Gillian has devoted herself to finding a cure. At the same time, Gillian treasures each minute spent with her daughter. It’s a tug on her priorities.

That dilemma is further challenged when an old boyfriend, now a NASA pilot, wants her to join his team to solve an unspecified medical crisis in space. Gillian’s lab is going under, sunk by the lack of funding. Carson LeCroix has a terrible offer: permanent funding for her project in exchange for her trip to a space station orbiting Earth. Six months at the most. Save lives, win funding, maybe advance a cure for her daughter. This doesn’t sound like Gillian’s cup of tea, but in the end she agrees.

Joining Gillian is her research assistant and friend, Birk Lindqvist, a gentle Swedish giant who has trouble with American idioms. In other words, author Joe Hart works tropes into his space ensemble: heroine, hero, loyal assistant, efficient co-pilot, nasty and mysterious administrator, laconic cowboy-type, competent doctor (“I’m a doctor, Jim, not Matt Damon.”). Although Hart’s book follows a well-worn path of ensemble-in-space, his take on the genre is surprising and entertaining.

The suspenseful part begins when Gillian is the only one awake after the others have chosen stasis for their two-month journey to (sorry, spoiler alert) the actual site of the medical crisis. She begins to sense there is someone else awake on the ship. She hears doors opening and footsteps. Maybe it’s overwork. Maybe it’s the opioids to which she is addicted. Maybe it is the weaning off of the opioids. Maybe she is just nuts.

Then someone is murdered. Then someone tries to murder Gillian, again and again. Is that enough to keep you reading yet? It was enough for me.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Subterranean, 96 pages, $40 (special edition)
Available for $4.99 in digital formats

“The Tea Master and the Detective” is a novella about a spaceship with a human mind at its core. Shades of Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang.”

“The Shadow’s Child” is the ship. She has survived a traumatic loss of her crew and big doses of “unreality” in “deep spaces.” Long Chau is maybe a human. The depiction of Long Chau on the front cover of the book certainly looks human. Let’s say she’s human. She has a mysterious background and it eventually is revealed she, too, suffers from trauma. So much space trauma.

Mindships like “The Shadow’s Child” can brew “teas” to help clients overcome psychological difficulties, including handling the transition into deep spaces, or “the unknowable space shipminds used to travel faster than light.” The ship (via an avatar) offers Long Chau a congenial brew and they settle in to discuss Long Chau’s needs.

Long Chau needs to find a corpse lost in deep spaces. Any corpse. The one the ship and human find turns out to have been murdered. Traversing the hierarchies necessary to find information on the dead woman leads to an involuntary examination of both the ship’s and human’s pasts. In the end they are both put to an extreme test of their ability to hang on to their rational selves long enough to solve a case and prevent another murder.

Short and enjoyable. A complex and intriguing other world.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor

Crown, 288 pages, $27

Whoa! “The Chalk Man” is an impressive debut by British author C. J. Tudor. She takes well-used suspense tropes and twists them around. The result is a surprising story.

Tudor’s “heroes” are a group of twelve-year-old kids in the town of Anderbury, England. (With its quaint parts, dicey parts, pub parts, and foresty parts, Anderbury sounds so British. Queue up Midsomer Murders.) Eddie Adams is the narrator. His buddies are Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and Nicky (a girl). In a story reminiscent of Stephen King’s “Stand By Me,” the kids range through deep and dark woods, bicycle to each other’s homes, and work out a secret code to communicate. Several tragedies, including finding a dead body in the woods (you knew that would happen), hit them and their town.

There are two stories: one when the kids are twelve and the other thirty years later in 2016. The tragedies of 1986 are revisited in 2016 when a grown-up Eddie reconnects with Metal Mickey after not having seen him in years. That reunion sets more deaths into motion.

In 1986, Eddie and his friends are at a traveling fair. One of the amusement rides breaks and comes crashing into the crowd. A beautiful girl whom Eddie had been admiring is one of the victims. The newly arrived and exotic looking Mr. Halloran (an albino!) enlists Eddie’s aid to help save the girl from bleeding to death. Although they were strangers before the incident, Eddie and Mr. Halloran form a strange bond. They are destined to affect each other’s lives over the next few months.

The kids communicate by drawing chalk stick figures. They use different colors to indicate the sender. Suddenly, chalk is being used for something more malevolent than childish secrets. Eddie begins having nightmares in which he sees ghosts of the recently deceased. The dreams have a somber, menacing tone. Sometimes Eddie finds dirt and leaves in his house, open doors, rank smells. Remnants of the walking dead?

Tudor does a fabulous job of showing both the comfort of friendship and the creepiness of the setting. There are kid secrets and adult secrets, any of which could blow up, some of which do. Tudor creates so many possibilities without making her story impossibly complex. Tudor also is great at creating forward momentum. You want to turn that page. And the next page. And the next. Also, all her characters have psychological fiddly bits that will engage you.

MBTB star!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

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Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel

Headline, 314 pages, out of print (c2002)

“Deep Waters” is the fourth book in Barbara Nadel’s series about Çetin İkmen, a homicide inspector in Istanbul, Turkey. Beginning in 1999 with “Belshazzar’s Daughter and continuing through eighteen more novels, British author Nadel has given us a look at the cultures swirling in the city that straddles Europe and Asia. Istanbul has been the center of mighty ancient empires and modern-day subterfuge. It has the color and smells of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe. Perhaps it’s difficult for someone not born in a place to authentically write about that place and I can't speak for Nadel's authenticity, but she crafts some excellent and entertaining mysteries while providing a lot of atmosphere.

“Deep Waters” is one-half solving the murder that falls under İkmen’s purview as a detective. The other half concerns personal matters of the series’ characters.

The Albanians and their complex cultural version of revenge is at the core of the police matter. Rifat Berisha’s body has been found. His throat has been cut, a sign of feudal enmity. His family has a blood war with the Vloras, so that family comes under scrutiny. A man of one family must kill a man of the other family, ad infinitum, until there are no more men in one of the families. That’s the way of fis.

İkmen is half Albanian, courtesy of his mother, the witch. The Albanian community accepts as common knowledge that Ayşe Bajraktar had powers and it was best not to cross her. Because of something one of the people in the homicide investigation said, İkmen now believes there was something fishy about his mother’s death. According to his family, she committed suicide. He and his brother discovered her after they returned home from school. His older brother shielded him from the sight of their mother, so İkmen has no personal knowledge of the death scene. Could his mother’s death and his current investigation be related?

Mehmet Süleyman, longtime sidekick of İkmen, now is a detective in his own right but still occasionally joins İkmen on his cases. He has asked Zelfa Halman, a much older woman, a psychiatrist, to marry him. He is an impoverished member of an aristocratic and ancient Turkish family. She is part Irish and still settling into her life in Istanbul. Her warring cultural halves prevent an easy answer to Süleyman’s question.

Nadel's personal background in mental health advocacy adds depth to this book. One of the characters is Dr. Halman's patient and he appears to be part of the large cast of people of interest in the murder. 

Heritage is at the crux of all the matters. Istanbul provides the cosmopolitan background. These are cultural deep waters.

Although Nadel's earlier books in the İkmen series are hard to get, there's no reason why one shouldn't just jump right into reading whatever is available. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Scribner, 352 pages, $27

Eventually Romy Leslie Hall occupies the “lower bunk in room fourteen of unit 510 of C yard.” Her life is circumscribed by the prison’s boundaries in Stanville, California. She is in prison for murder, with a lifetime to repent and no hope for redemption. Author Rachel Kushner describes the small lives of Hall and her fellow prisoners and their desire to make it somehow more meaningful or joyful. (Although revenge sustains some of them just fine.)

Rachel Kushner takes almost 357 pages before she tells you about the murder that got Hall put away. Because the thought isn’t about the murder; it is about Hall’s existence on her bunk, in her cell, in the prison yard, in the G.E.D. classroom.

Kushner has you think about the crummy lives people live, sometimes by choice but often just because that’s all there is. Alcohol, drugs, sex, violence. Sometimes people just have to deal with it, with no bubble to shield them, no money to help them escape, maybe not even family or friends. And sometimes it’s because people and friends have been pushed away. It’s about choices you make and some that are made for you. Once you are in prison, all the choices are made for you.

Hall meets Sammy, Conan, Teardrop, Candy, Betty, and Serenity. Kushner deals their stories out to compare and contrast with Hall’s. They are harsh stories with streaks of poignancy and sometimes humor. They are all told with Kushner’s incredible ability to describe her characters with compassion, even if they are clobbering a fellow inmate with the flat side of a garden shovel.

Throughout Hall wonders what has happened to her son. He was five when she was incarcerated. She lost touch with him when he was seven. She tries through legal channels at first, but the law is not her friend. So she will be manipulative if it will get her answers. She will use her street smarts and her stripper-sharpened wiles to help her.

Kushner doesn’t make the whole story about Hall, but she certainly has the largest role, a first-person narrative that travels until the end. But we also see the world through the eyes of an unambitious teacher who can score nothing better than teaching the difficult women of the prison. We listen to another first-person narrator who lives in the woods and sometimes rages and vents about neighbors and sometimes rhapsodizes about nature. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that those sections turn out to be excerpts from the dairy of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.)There’s an ex-cop who is crooked and amoral. We hear his story because his lover is in the same prison as Hall. We follow the path of a transgender prisoner. 

Kushner is the real deal.

MBTB star.

P.S. If you haven’t already cottoned to it: Although it is called “The Mars Room,” this is not a sci-fi book. The Mars Room is the strip club where Hall works.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Sirens by Joseph Knox

Crown, 352 pages, $27

Mancunian (hah! I got to use that in a sentence for the second time in my life) author Joseph Knox lists the ABCs of his story, but you soon find out there are a few invisible letters that came before. Surprise!

Set in Manchester, England, “Sirens” is as tough and thoroughly boiled as they come. It’s just a shade off the blackest shade of noir. Its griminess will leave stains on your eyeball. Detective Constable Aiden Waits begins his story telling you he is persona non grata on the force, then he proceeds to tell you why in a flashback.

Waits is sent undercover by a superintendent on the force to uncover a dirty cop. No one can know. If you have read crime books before, you can pretty much guess how this probably won’t work to Waits’ advantage. I would have gotten an exoneration in writing first. Nevertheless.

Waits is supposedly a crooked cop who is hooked on drugs. Actually, the shoe fits. But Waits must appear even worse than he is. The other shoe slips on a little too easily. He infiltrates one of the drug gangs in Manchester. He meets Zain Carver, drug boss and the hub around which many mysteries revolve. He gets in tighter than loose but looser than tight with him and his crew.

Secondarily, he is hired by an MP (member of parliament, not military police) to find his teenage daughter who may — or may not — have run away from home. At any rate, she is not living at any of her official homes. Young Isabelle may have started out in this story as a naive punk, but she turns up with Zain Carver and slips into his life of drugs and booze. Waits doesn’t immediately pack her up and drag her home, however, even though he is quick to find her. He tries to suss out what is going on with her. The warning bells started to ring when her father engaged his services after she had been missing over a month. What kind of a dad is he?

Waits sinks lower and lower into Carver’s world and a potential conflict with another drug gang. When several kids die from using tainted drugs, that becomes another of the mysteries Waits wants to solve. Then there’s the disappearance ten years ago of Carver’s old girlfriend. And who slugged Waits as he left a nightclub? And what for?

Knox piles on the questions and man(chester)fully answers them all. I enjoyed the surprises, the unveilings. Most of all I enjoyed Bug, the transvestite who says turquoise is his natural hair color. He doesn’t show up until way into the story, but his personality and hair shine like a rainbow.

An apology: I read this book on the heels of Walter Mosley’s “Down the River Unto the Sea,” and Mosley’s clear and stylish prose outshone Knox’s from the get-go. I’m sorry, Mr. Knox, to knock luster off your novel because of Mosley’s proximity. Knox's writing is choppy and snipped. It fits the tumbling noirish vibe but takes a little focus to read.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Baby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick and David Serlin

Scholastic Press, 192 pages, $16.99

It’s never too soon to steer readers on a mystery reading course. Although “Baby Monkey, Private Eye” is suggested for 4-8 year olds, I know for a fact that it has a much wider appeal.

There are words. There are fabulous pictures. And in each case, I did not guess the identity of the criminal.

I declare “Baby Monkey” a success.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley

Mulholland Books, 336 pages, $27

Walter Mosley has written thirteen Easy Rawlins novels, with one set of short stories, and three Socrates Fortlow, three Fearless Jones, five Leonid McGill, and twenty other books and short story collections. That’s quite a writing feat. It’s hard to come up with a completely new design for a series — and who’s to say that the main character in “Down the River Unto the Sea” will star in a new a series — so there are elements of his other characters in Joe King Oliver, the duplicitously framed ex-cop and current day private investigator.

Joe is a “deep shade of brown,” and too, Joe's world is colored by the expert hand of an expert novelist. Why do people love Walter Mosley? Because, quite simply, the man can write. He also expresses a sympathy for human failings without giving up on a core of morality. If his works are to judge by, Mosley also believes no man stands alone, that there must be something or someone for whom his protagonists must fight the long, lonely struggle.

Joe King Oliver’s marriage did not survive his frame-up for raping a woman and his temporary incarceration in prison, before being inexplicably released. He was dismissed from the NYPD, where he had been a good, solid detective, first class. Through it all, Joe kept connected with his daughter, now seventeen years old and an afterschool receptionist in his private eye office. He is her white knight and she never lost the belief that he was a good person. That is what shines at his core, his desire to protect and mentor her.

Now an opportunity arrives for him to prove who was behind the frame-up years ago. It involves a convoluted journey to follow-up one lead after another, to track down and “interview” one person after another for the next clue that will get him up the ladder. Joe is at first fervent about his potential exoneration, but it may come at the cost of endangering his daughter, his ex-wife, and her odious new husband.

Also, a new case presents itself, courtesy of Aja, Joe’s daughter. She has met and brought in a teary-eyed young lawyer, Willa. Willa is beside herself because the big-time lawyer for whom she works appears to have dropped his defense of “A Free Man,” the determined advocate for a black community who changed his name to reflect his self-declared status. Something is fishy and Joe has a lot of sympathy for fishy … and for his daughter’s passion for the project. So now Joe has a second labyrinthine endeavor. He is up to his eyeballs finding the shadowy power players behind both cases.

There are many characters of both long and short duration, all of whom are given the “Mosley touch” which springs them off of the page. Most notable is Melquarth Frost, a smart criminal with cold eyes. He kills without compunction. They used to be on opposite sides of the fence, but Joe always had a respect for Mel, a devil he knows. Opposites make for a great push-pull of characters, and Mosley has already demonstrated his canniness in using that device.

As with Mosley’s male characters in other books, Joe is a man’s man. Mel is a man’s criminal. There are quite a few female characters, but they are depthless, even Joe’s beloved daughter. The closest to genuine revelation is the character of Nathali Malcolm, the woman who entrapped him in the rape scandal, but having fulfilled her purpose, she disappears.

Mosley asks the question, Which is better: being sold up the river or being sold down the river?

Here is a small sample of Mosley’s writing. Joe is in prison for the alleged rape:

When I quit moving, time congealed around me like amber over a mosquito that had taken a small misstep. I could hear my breaths and feel the pulse in my temples. It was in that moment I understood the prhase serving time. I was that servant.