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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Random House Trade Paperbacks, 336 pages, $17 (c2017)

“Idaho” is an odd, moving novel about a family that has come apart and then is welded together by a fragile commonality. “Family” is a loose term for Wade, Jenny, June, Mae, and Ann. Jenny, Wade’s first wife, killed their young daughter Mae. Upon seeing either the act itself or the aftermath, June, the not-much-older daughter, runs away and disappears. After Jenny goes to prison, Wade eventually marries Ann, the music teacher at his daughters’ former school. As if Wade has not experienced enough tragedy, he begins to act strangely and fears that he has the same early onset dementia his father and grandfather had.

“Idaho” is told from alternating viewpoints, most of which belong to Ann and Jenny. Why did Jenny kill Mae? What is Ann’s role in the tragedy? What was Wade’s? If you, as a mystery reader, are expecting straightforward answers, this is not the book for you. As Smith Henderson said, in reviewing this book for The New York Times, “‘Idaho’ will thwart readers expecting a defining pathology or demon at the heart of Jenny’s act.”

Emily Ruskovich presents her tragedy with grace and beauty infused in the telling. Especially Jenny’s story seems dreamlike, and she almost saintlike. Her burden in prison is borne mostly with silence, and in silence comes a sort of forgetting. But there is no forgiving.

Ann forgives. She forgives daily. She is the only one, it seems, who still searches for answers. One of the most poignant moments is when she meets with an amateur artist who is very good at creating a portrait of what the missing June may look like later in life. If Ann and the artist cannot know the real June, the portraits of June give her a real enough life.

In the end, there is a dilemma about whether there was even a crime committed. There was an action following a thought, but what in the end was the thought.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

Katherine Tegen Books, 336 pages, $16.99

Recommended for 8-12 year-old olds, grades 3-7

Mason Buttle is a good, good boy. Moonie Drinker is a good, good dog. They make “The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle” shine like the sun. 

In the world created by author Leslie Connor, Mason is the tallest, sweatiest kid in the seventh grade in what was once a rural community that is now being overtaken by housing developments. He has dyslexia, synesthesia, and a sweet innocence. All of these personal characteristics have doomed Mason to a sad, shy life. Although he is bigger than they, neighborhood kids bully him, pelting him with apples and lacrosse balls as they walk to their homes.

Mason would be lonelier if it weren’t for his grandmother and his Uncle Drum with whom he lives. He would have a good bedroom in his home if it weren’t for Shayleen, whom Uncle Drum brought home one night. Shayleen almost never goes out, orders things from the Shopping Network, and complains about everything. And has taken over Mason’s bedroom. No one understands why Uncle Drum brought her home.

If Benny Kilmartin hadn’t died, Mason would also have a best friend. The saddest part is Benny died from a fall from the apple tree in Mason’s family’s apple orchard in which Mason and Benny had built a tree house. Together Mason and Benny suffered the slings (literal and figurative) and arrows of the neighborhood bullies. But now Benny is gone, and a sadness lingers over Mason’s house and the orchard. Also, Lt. Baird keeps coming back to see Mason, trying to get him to remember details of Benny’s death. It seems sometimes that he wants Mason to remember things that didn’t happen, which confuses Mason. It has been a year and a half since Benny’s death, and the lieutenant keeps returning to their farmhouse, or the “crumbledown,” as Mason nicknames it.

The school counselor, Ms. Blinny, is a constant comfort to Mason as he struggles with his schoolwork and the bullying of the kids. She is compassionate, goofy, sweet, and clumsy. She has taken the old letters of “Social Work Office” and created “Swoof,” the office where kids can come to talk into Ms. Blinny’s listening ears. In Swoof, Mason finds “the Dragon,” a talk-to-type dictation program that translates Mason’s thoughts into typewritten words. It’s a small freedom for him that turns into a large blessing.

In Swoof one day, Mason meets Calvin Chumsky, a small, white-haired, gentle soul who soon becomes his new best friend. Also, Mason is often asked to dogsit Moonie Drinker, who belongs to the family of one of his tormentors. Together Mason, Calvin, and Moonie share small adventures. One day they discover an old root cellar on the farmhouse property, and it becomes their secret club house. Mason can put up with almost anything, including the strange lethargy that seems to have overtaken his household, now that he has Calvin and Moonie.

But, of course, tragedy must strike again. It provides the impetus for wrapping up the mystery that has accrued around Benny’s death, dispelling his family’s lethargy, and maybe saving Mason’s life.

“Mason Buttle” is a wise story about caring for people, choosing gentleness instead of violence, and how to be trustworthy and loyal. This is a wonderful story for children (maybe not for eight-year-olds unless they are precocious) and adults.

A two-hankie MBTB star!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

William Morrow, 448 pages, $26.99

This is a book that caused a bidding war. The war was won by publisher William Morrow. William Morrow’s vice president and executive editor is Daniel Mallory. Daniel Mallory is the real name of A. J. Finn. No, the acquisitions editor for William Morrow did not know who Finn was at the time she excitedly brought the work to her bosses. Mallory pulled off a good one.

All Mallory’s years of dealing with books has had a salubrious effect on his work. He might have learned about pacing, building to a climax, narrative style, characterizations, the hook, tying off the package and bringing it home from all the books he read for work, pleasure, and research. He must be a natural writing savant, too. The bottom line is he has the goods. “The Woman in the Window” has a strong first-person voice; a set-up influenced by “Rear Window,” the fabulous book by Cornell Woolrich* and movie by Alfred Hitchcock; and a cry-worthy reveal about two-thirds of the way in. For a debut novel, there was nary a stumble.

MILD SPOILER ALERT: If you want to be completely surprised by the story — and I wouldn’t deny you that delicious choice — read no further. So you won’t have to read to the end of the review, I’ll tell you now that this gets an MBTB star!

Psychologist Anna Fox no longer lives with Ed and Olivia, her former husband and daughter. She lives alone and, although she talks frequently to Ed and Olivia, has limited contact with other people. PTSD is mentioned, a physical injury is mentioned. These are a few provocative pieces to the puzzle that may explain Anna’s disability. She has agoraphobia. Finn (not Mallory) does a blazingly good job of revealing her disorder fairly early. This is a great device to hamper her detecting ability.

“Rear Window” gave us a neighborhood busybody, laid up by an injury with nothing to do, who looks out of his window and accidentally spies some spousal drama across the way. He eventually suspects the husband has murdered his wife. Woolrich ingeniously provides his amateur detective with very few resources to prove the murder, a murder without a corpus delicti.

So, too, Anna — a fan of all those old suspense and noir movies — thinks she sees a murder in a nearby house, occupied by a newly ensconced family. She views the crime through the powerful lens of her camera, but fails to take a photo of it. The wife, whom Anna believes was murdered, shows up to prove her existence to the police. But it is not the “Mrs. Russell” Anna had met earlier. Mr. Russell and their teenage son also disavow knowledge of a mysterious other wife and mother.

See, Anna drinks a lot. And pops a ton of prescribed medication. For anxiety, depression, agoraphobia. It’s possible she was hallucinating because of the medication. It’s possible she is crazy. But, against all odds, it’s possible she is telling the truth. If so, who murdered the woman and how will Anna prove it? For someone who cannot leave her house, this is a monumentally difficult task.

The joy of Finn’s book is in the narrative voice of Anna Fox. She is fairly sharp and witty, despite her perpetual chemical fog. Here’s an example. The book begins with Anna spying from her window on another neighborhood family:

Her husband’s almost home. He’ll catch her this time. 
There isn’t a scrap of curtain, not a blade of blind, in number 212 — the rust-red townhome that once housed the newlywed Motts, until recently, until they un-wed. I never met either Mott, but occasionally I check in online: his LinkedIn profile, her Facebook page. Their wedding registry lives on at Macy’s. I could still buy them flatware.

Also, what’s not to love about a detective called Little who is reassuringly large. He sort of becomes Anna’s protector.

As the first big revelation neared, I knew what was coming because Finn had dropped hints. I had to take a long break before continuing. Finn unsparingly rips through that part of the story, and it was hard. But I emerged on the other side and it was beautiful.

It almost doesn’t matter whether there was a murder or not. (I say that, but I don’t really mean it.) The genuine beating heart of the story is Anna’s journey.

MBTB star!

* Woolrich’s initial short story was entitled, “It Had to Be Murder.”

UPDATE: 3-7-19. There has been a lot of controversy about this book and its author, Daniel Mallory. You can read a New Yorker article here. It's confusing when the more intriguing mystery is about what happened in the creation of the book rather than in the book itself.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

Mulholland Books, 352 pages, $26 (c2017)

One of the delights of “The Dime” is learning the derivation of the title. But that’s just one of the treats Kathleen Kent disperses throughout her novel.

“The Dime” starts out with a whiz-bang moment when rookie cop Betty Rhyzyk is called to a shooting that goes south very quickly. She is all that stands between a really bad situation and a FUBAR. That happens in Brooklyn, land of her birth and home to generations of Rhyzyk cops.

Jump ahead a few years and half a country away to Dallas, Texas, and Betty is still a cop, but this time with narcotics. Her most recent case would stay within the purview of narcotics, except for the dead bodies. Betty is in charge of the unit that is setting up to take down a big time Mexican cartel drug dealer. What’s the opposite of kismet? Is it FUBAR? Betty is already acquainted with that. This book is about how Betty deals with things when they go south. Nothing would suggest that she is not up to the task.

Betty is almost six feet tall with luxurious red hair. Not surprisingly, “Red” is one of her nicknames. She has gained wary respect from her colleagues because of her calm, cool and collected manner and her toughness. Let’s dispense with the she’s-tough-for-a-woman or he’s-sensitive-for-a-man qualifiers. Kathleen Kent has created a character who exists in her own space.

Betty’s quest to plug up some of the drug problems plaguing Dallas soon infringes on her personal life. Her girlfriend is a native Texan, the reason Betty relocated there. Betty and Jackie have enough trouble with her family’s prejudices and the homophobic atmosphere they frequently encounter, they really don’t need to be playing hide-and-seek with the cartels.

Kent charges through her story with fast-paced action and solid characterizations. From the dead uncle whose advice Betty still channels to the grumpy colleague who constantly busts her chops, Kent makes the surrounding personnel three-dimensional with just a few strokes.

MBTB star! 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

2018 Edgar Awards

Here are some of the nominees for the 2018 Edgar Awards:

Best Novel

The Dime by Kathleen Kent
Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke - WINNER
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Best First Novel

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper - WINNER
Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li 

Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love 

Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich 

Best Paperback Original

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
Ragged Lake by Ron Corbett 
Black Fall by Andrew Mayne
The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola - WINNER
Penance by Kanae Minato
The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong

The only nominee I read for the non-fiction award is "Killers of the Flower Moon." You can read my review here. - WINNER

We'll bring you more of our reviews of these books in the coming months. The Edgar Awards ceremony will be on April 26 in Manhattan.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Ghosts: Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

While “Grief Cottage” and “Sing, Unburied, Sing” are not mysteries, each contains references to crimes. The books relate to the fall-out from these crimes.

The mysteries of life are often interwoven with thoughts of death, however much we try to suppress them.

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin
Bloomsbury USA, 336 pages, $27 (c2017)

At first (and almost to the end of the book) I thought this might be a Young Adult or Middle School book. Eleven-year-old Marcus is the narrator, but obviously from a future viewpoint.

After living on the edge of poverty with his mother for most of his life, Marcus finds himself elevated a few economic notches when his mother dies in a car accident. He is sent to live with his great aunt by the sea in South Carolina. His mother providentially had paid for life insurance for herself. As a result, Marcus no longer has to worry excessively about money, but a small lifetime of parsimonious habits are hard to reverse.

Great-aunt Charlotte is a successful, but vaguely impecunious, artist of sea and seaside paintings. She has lived alone for quite a while and, as in the best children’s stories in which a small child goes to live with an distant relative, is grumpy, dismissive, and uncommunicative. We know that if this were a children’s tale, she would come around, fiercely love her nephew, throw her arms in the air and finally embrace what is left of her life. Close to the end of the book, it becomes obvious that this is not a children’s book but could be, yeeeaah, stretched to the sub-genre of “Young Adult.”

At a not-so-distant point in the past, Marcus injured his best friend in a fight. Psychological care was mandated, and Marcus and his mother had to move to another town. Before that happened, however, Marcus and his friend would discuss what they would do if they met a ghost.

As pudgy, forlorn Marcus attempts to begin life in his aunt’s seaside town by rambling along the shore, he finds a tumbledown house with a tragic past. A family of vacationing outsiders died in Hurricane Hazel (1954), their bodies never found. Fifty years later, Marcus stares into the depths of the rotting home and thinks he sees the ghost of the family’s young son.

I’ve gone on too long about a book which is not strictly a mystery, but I was favorably struck by Gail Godwin’s characterizations, kindly perceptions, and depiction of a smart young boy with a big burden to shoulder. Old crimes eventually surface and catalyze the emotionally intense last moments of the book.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, 304 pages, $26 (c2017)

Could this be one of the best-selling books on the planet right now? The New York Times and The PBS Newshour have combined their significant literary forces to begin an online book club. The last time I looked, there were 30,000+ members. In other words, good luck on getting a copy from your library. This is their first pick, and the discussion is currently ongoing on Facebook under the heading, Now Read This.

Ghostly and spiritual presences abound in this profound literary excavation into the difficulties of an African-American family in Mississippi. You can say that their story is the tip of the iceberg that is the history of the South. The ripples of slavery, including its demon spawn of racism and bigotry, strike even centuries down the line. Jesmyn Ward wrote this book before our nation began its most recent conversation about racism, bigotry, prejudice, the shiny re-packaging of the Civil War, and what it means to be human.

Thirteen-year-old Jojo, his three-year-old sister Kayla, his mother Leonie, white father Michael, grandfather Pop, and grandmother Mam are the central characters. Some of them can see ghosts, make healing herbal concoctions, talk to the voodoo spirits. But what does that spirit world mean to them, provide for them, demand of them?

Although the narrative ball is passed among a few of the characters, including one ghost, Ward never loses her strong and provocative central voice. The dialogue reflects the characters’ external world, but the narrative voices are Ward’s.

There are crimes and misdemeanors aplenty, but the biggest crime is how the system that should protect all is sometimes turned against the most vulnerable.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Dry by Jane Harper

Flatiron, 336 pages, $15.99 (c2016)

Australian author Jane Harper has written one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a long time. She combines a great, human story with evocative writing. “The Dry” depicts drought-ridden Kiewarra, a small town a few hours outside of Melbourne, so well that you would be advised to have a big, cold glass of water nearby as you read.

Federal police officer Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra after an absence of twenty years to attend the funeral of his former best friend, Luke Hadler. Everyone is saying that Luke shot his wife and young son, then killed himself, but Luke’s parents believe in their hearts that their son could not possibly have done that. The fact that Aaron is with the feds’ financial investigation unit doeesn’t dissuade the parents from asking Aaron for his help. In payment of past kindnesses, Aaron unofficially agrees to “look into” the deaths.

Some of the story is told in flashbacks to when Aaron still lived in Kiewarra as a teenager. What Harper does so well is delineate the complex relationships that teenagers can have with one another, given the wild hormones, self-consciousness, and secrecy of that age. Aaron and Luke grew up together. Their twosome is joined in their teens by Gretchen Schoner and Ellie Deacon, first friends and then potential girlfriends. When sixteen-year-old Ellie, Aaron’s crush, is found drowned in the nearby river, already bad relations with her family become worse. Both Aaron and his father are accused in turn of having murdered her when their last name, “Falk,” is found written on a piece of paper in Ellie’s possession. Soon the Falks leave town.

Harper draws her characters with minimum fuss but with great impact. Although various people represent town stereotypes, they feel real, not cartoonish. Working from nothing, Aaron and Sergeant Greg Raco, newly appointed to what was supposed to have been the quiet post of Kiewarra, try to piece together Luke’s last day and what might have driven him to the massacre. They find some vague inconsistencies at the death scene, including the fact that baby Charlotte’s life was spared.

Gretchen still lives in town and Aaron glimpses the changes that have come to Kiewarra through her eyes. Not least of the changes is the disappearance of the river, a victim of the drought. Kiewarra is a dying town. The remaining residents are hoping somehow to struggle through until the drought breaks, but no one can assure them that it will break in time.

Hate follows Aaron, who is still blamed for Ellie’s death, even by people who do not know him. There is a simmering lynch mob whose attitude is not helped by the deadly hot weather. Even with the backing of Raco, Gretchen, and a couple of other worthy citizens, Aaron needs to tread carefully, which makes it hard to investigate the deaths. Inexplicably, too, Aaron finds he needs to consider if the Hadlers’ deaths are somehow related to Ellie’s long ago.

Harper doesn’t veer from her clear storytelling style. There is a strong sense of you-are-there that comes across in her writing. And when she resolves all the storylines, you can hear all the “aha”s echoing around the world.

In honor of the recent release of the paperback version of "The Dry," this is my first 2018 MBTB star!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Minotaur, 400 pages, $28.99

Louise Penny torments her readers with tender grace. She not only plots a mystery, she also tells the ongoing stories of many of the residents of the tiny village of Three Pines*, Québec. It all takes a mighty fistful of pages. She draaaaws out the mysteries in “Glass Houses,” then suddenly swishes a piece of jagged glass cleanly through with a surprise twist. It’s a merciful killing after a long, exquisite torture.

Penny is known for her slow buildup of the who-what-when-where-whydunnit of her story. In this case, there are several stories, one the continuation of main character Armand Gamache’s continuing fight against corruption in the police force. Now he is the Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec and in a position to really do something about it. Also, opiate use has run amok in Canada, as it has in the United States. There is a line of no return that might already have gone by, with no chance of curbing the illegal import and export of the increasingly strong drugs being manufactured.

Closer to home, Gamache’s quiet village is suddenly haunted by a death-costumed character who stands on the village green. It makes no sound, rarely moves, appears to have no agenda. It simply stands in mute criticism. Of what or whom is unknown. A pall descends on village life. Armand and his village confidantes — his wife, the bookseller, the artist, the daughter, the son-in-law, the B&B and bistro couple, and the cranky poet with a duck — discuss what is to be done about the unwanted visitor. It has broken no law, and although the villagers want it gone, there is nothing Gamache, powerful as he is, can do about it. (How about loitering?)

I am always reminded of the epithets of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” whenever I read Penny — e.g., rosy-fingered dawn, gray-eyed Athena. Each of Penny's serial characters has repeated attributes, especially the cranky poet, Ruth, and her expletive-spewing duck. Her readers must get into the leisurely rhythm and repetition of her style of storytelling. “Glass Houses” is the lucky thirteenth book in Penny’s Gamache series, and there has been ample time to study the continuing characters.

On a more poignant note, her recent books have also allowed her readers to follow her real life a bit.  In her acknowledgements, Penny has referred to her husband, Michael. She mentioned his Alzheimer’s diagnosis at the end of one book. And at the end of “Glass Houses,” she talks about his death. Her work is imbued with the kindness and compassion of the kind that must infuse her real life.

(*Haha. I originally posted "Lone Pine," which is a town in California, instead of the fictional "Three Pines." Mea culpa.)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit, 464 pages, $16.99

This is not a mystery.

The Broken Earth trilogy has been a terrific series! “The Stone Sky” completes N. K. Jemisin’s outstanding fantasy work, following “The Fifth Season” and “The Obelisk Gate.” I also applaud Jemisin’s commitment to getting the books in the series out to her readers in a timely fashion. I have been waiting for YEARS for some sequels from other authors.

Essun and her daughter, ten-year-old Nassun, are the special people upon whom human survival depends. In this last book, Jemisin reveals the genesis of how people like Essun and Nassun are able to affect geological events, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which they can cause or quell.

There are many timely issues: ecology, misuse of natural resources, biospheres, biotic interconnectedness, the complex definitions of who or what is human and non-human, and the moral cost of subjugation.

Essun and Nassun have spent most of the books separated. A tragic cataclysm drove them apart and an even greater one threatens to destroy all life on the surface. It is only when the end is near that they might manage to meet again.

Finally, Jemisin solves one of the predominant mysteries of the series: Who is the books’ narrator? The narrator has slowly come into focus. The narrator has a surprising role to play and an intriguing final story to tell. The narrator is the only one who can tie what caused the beginning of the disruptive fifth seasons with the current stories of Essun and Nassun.

Life in a chaotic fifth season is not easy and the myriad problems never have black or white answers. That is what makes this book so riveting. And that is what makes this final book so satisfying.