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

Friday, March 30, 2018

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $26

This is not a mystery.

I so would show off if I could do what Lisa Halliday can as an author. I felt the same way about David Mitchell after I had read “The Cloud Atlas.” Halliday seems capable of effortlessly creating different, authentic-sounding voices.

In the first section of her book, Halliday gives us the strange relationship between a sixty-something big-name author, Ezra, and a twenty-something, Alice, who can’t quite admit that she wants someday to be a big-name author. The relationship begins as a flirtation which becomes sex on demand for Ezra. In return, Alice at least gets writing tutorials and a pile of classic books to read. They only see each other when Ezra wants to be seen. We don’t know, really, what Alice feels. Sometimes we get a glimmer of warm feeling and appreciation and maybe even love. But mostly we view a fairly demure presentation of the relationship, punctuated infrequently by erotic or profane exclamations.

The second section of the book is from the first person viewpoint of a 40-something American citizen of Iraqi heritage. In the most current part of the story, Dr. Amar Jaafari is trying to get back to Iraq. It is around 2010 and security has tightened enormously around the world. He is stuck as far as we are concerned in terminus at Heathrow Airport, caught in a blind bind because he has been to Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, because he is Iraqi, because he is Muslim, because of other wayward facts. Stories from his past are told in serial moments, other visits to relatives in Iraq, his first real American relationship with a woman, his ties to his family who are all affected by wars and terrorism.

I won’t discuss the third section because.

We are meant to think about the connection between the two. Halliday said in an interview that she first attempted to draw more direct lines between the two sections, but they grew naturally as separate tales.

Here is the real-life tale that actually plays an interesting part in Halliday’s book: When she was in her twenties she had an affair with Philip Roth, who was about seventy at the time. Don’t get your “ah-hahs” out, because it’s a red herring, I believe. It is Halliday who writes so convincingly from the viewpoint of a middle-aged Iraqi economist and his tales of life in both America and a war-challenged country. It is obvious that that is fabrication, since Halliday is a thirty-nine-year-old American white woman. So why can’t the first part also be a fabrication. Both stories have feet planted in reality, but it is Halliday’s gifted pen that tells both tales. By discreetly revealing her relationship with Roth to the press, Halliday perhaps has the last laugh.

Here is, I hope, a passage from "Asymmetry" that doesn't give much away. Jaafari is talking about "the metaphysical claustrophobia and bleak fate of being always one person":

But then even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes -- she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view -- but there's no getting around the fact that she's always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can't see yourself in a reflection doesn't mean no one can.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Mulholland Books, 320 pages, $26 (c2017)

There are a lot of stories mixed together in “Bluebird, Bluebird," but Attica Locke unpacks them all; all the secrets are revealed. I have heard it said over and over that this is what appeals to readers of crime/mystery books. The mysteries are solved. In a world that struggles to answer questions, mystery authors mostly satisfactorily answer the questions they pose in their books.

A large part of Locke’s story deals with racism in Texas. Her main character, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, is black. He was headed towards becoming a lawyer at one point, just like one of the uncles who took care of him when his father died and his mother decided nurturing wasn’t her forte. Then he decided to become a Ranger instead, just like the other uncle who raised him. And also because of “Jasper.

I had to look up “Jasper” because it is central to Locke’s character’s motivation. It is a true story and it is really appalling. In 1998, three white men dragged a black man, James Byrd, Jr., behind a pickup truck until his arm and head were severed. One of the men was executed, one is on death row, and one is serving a life sentence.

Darren reveals that he returned from Chicago to the area where he was raised in Texas and became a Ranger because white people like those killers – who minimize, brutalize, and pass sentence on black people – would not and should not send people like him running away. That path is too easy. He decided to return home and fight with the power of the law, such as it is, behind him. After all, this part of Texas, rich with his family's history, is his story, too.

At the beginning of the story, however, Darren has been suspended for possible compromised testimony in a case involving a long-time friend. A white racist harassed and threatened the granddaughter of that family friend. Later the racist was found dead and the grandfather was charged. As a Ranger did Darren look the other way? Did he not see what there was to be seen? That storyline plays throughout the book, and through it we meet his family, including his remaining uncle, his sad sack mother, and the wife who has thrown him out of their home. Now Darren is an alcoholic, who has been suspended from a job he loves, instead of being a strong, proud Ranger. He has fallen pretty far.

Possible redemption comes through an FBI agent’s suggestion that Darren look into two deaths in the little town of Lark, which brings him smack up against what appears to be a black and white divide. Our nation is split by colors at the moment. Red versus blue is the most recent conflagration, but black and white is as old as our country.

One of the dead is a black man who ostensibly was just passing through Lark. He had been raised in Texas but had married and moved away. What was he doing so far from either his new or old homes? The next day a young white woman was murdered. Isn’t this story the wrong way around? Shouldn’t the young white woman be the first victim with the black man as the revenge killing? Everything seems off to Darren as he begins his investigation.

Two establishments in Lark hold the key. One is a small, shabby black-owned diner settled in a shack right across the road from the pretentious mansion owned by the richest white man in the county. The other is a bar down the road owned by that rich white man. That bar is full of good ol’ boy, white nationalist types.

Yes, this is a murder mystery but it’s also a reminder of how in real life race still matters in our country. And not just race but the perception of race. This PBS article delves into what happens when white supremacists discover they are not “pure bloods” through DNA testing.

“Bluebird, Bluebird” is also about family. Darren’s family situation is especially complex. His mother lives in a trailer, needs alcohol more than air, and has a conniving, hucksterish personality. His remaining uncle and his estranged wife are pressuring Darren into returning to law school and leading a less fraught life.

All of these ingredients have produced a layered and meaningful novel.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Policeman’s Daughter by Trudy Nan Boyce

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 352 pages, $28

“The Policeman’s Daughter” is a prequel to Trudy Nan Boyce’s first two books, “Out of the Blues” and “Old Bones,” featuring homicide detective Sarah Alt, aka “Salt.” In “The Policeman’s Daughter,” Salt is a patrol officer in “The Homes” section of Atlanta. The Homes is the poor black section, and it is Salt’s “mission” — a term largely derided by cops who, out of self-defense, try not to confuse saving people’s lives with directing people’s lives — to patrol and help those in need as much as she can. Even if they don’t want to be helped.

I read this book on the heels of reading “Green Sun” by Kent Anderson, an outstanding book, also about patrolling a poor black section. Although both books are written by ex-police officers and deal with their main characters’ personal issues, “The Policeman’s Daughter” is more heavily character-driven. “Green Sun” wins the unasked for competition, but “The Policeman’s Daughter” has a lot to recommend it.

Salt’s Kevlar-bound heart weeps for Shannell, a drug addict with two children. Her son, “Little D,” is just getting into the same drug trade that is destroying his parents. His sister has been passed along to Shannell’s mother to raise. When Shannell dies, suspicion falls on her boyfriend, Big D. Nobody wants to talk to the “poleese,” so Salt is stymied when she tries to find the murderer. With great danger to herself, Salt continues chipping away at the community’s reluctance to talk with her.

We slowly learn about her police officer father and why he died so young. We learn the effect her relationship with her father has on her work and life. It’s hard for her to maintain relationships, so kudos to homicide detective Wills for not giving up. It sort of smacks of fairy-tale stuff, however, because Salt is so unwelcoming that a modern man would surely have given up. 

Boyce was a cop for thirty years and the authenticity of her setting, people, and situations shines through. It is also what I liked about “Green Sun.” Since I haven’t read the other two books in the Salt series, I am curious about the characters in this prequel, whether they stay the course or are victims of one thing or another. You who have read the others will be that much wiser and rewarded.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Used Women’s Book Club by Paul Bryers

Bloomsbury Publishing, 282 pages, out of print (c2004)

It’s only taken me about a year and a half to finish reading “The Used Women’s Book Club.” I was mostly interrupted by other, newer books, the lack of detective work, and the density of Bryers’ writing. The latter is a terrible thing to say, because the most attractive feature of “Used Women’s” is the density of the writing. Paul Bryers puts a lot into his sentences, his structure, and his characters, and it’s worth plumbing the depths.

In the end the book was not about the mystery of who the murderer was but why the murderer was. And in the end it didn’t really matter why either because the why was given fairly short shrift. What the book is about is how women and men come together before they drift apart, how men and women misunderstand each other and themselves, and the damage people can inflict upon each other. Finally, how responsible can one person be for the sins of others?

The not-so-little women of the book club are Meg, Amy, Liz, and Jo. Meg’s husband, Rob, has been murdered in his best friend’s house, which he temporarily was using, it is assumed, for an extramarital affair. Larry, the friend, is one of the main characters, as is Jo. The women’s personalities are vaguely reminiscent of Louisa May Alcott’s characters, but they are more appropriately 30-something modern women living in London. Larry is an anti-Laurie. He is vague, detached, uncommitted, untethered, traumatized.

At the time Rob was murdered, the women were having a meeting of the Used Women’s Book Club, an accidental misnaming of the original idea of a women’s used book club. “Men, who needs them” seems to be the motto of the group. But were all the members at the meeting when Rob was being murdered? Could one of them have done it? 

Jo, an American, is a scholar and actually reads Virginia Woolf. Amy pretends to be a Woolf scholar. Larry brushes against some of Woolf’s books. Amy and Larry give guided walks based on themes such as Jack the Ripper and Virginia Woolf. So somewhere in this book are a feminist tale, a tale of commodifying a famous name, a tale of ignorance, and a tale of forensic evidence.

Alas, I have been staring at my slightly opened copy of “To the Lighthouse” for the last thirty years, so I cannot tell you if “Used Women’s” is a parody, a tribute, or in any way a likeness of Woolf’s writing. Paul Bryers is clever enough to have written this book and may have indeed also been clever enough to have channeled the meat of Woolf’s style.

The last paragraph and last line in this book are the sweet payoff for the wait.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

R.I.P. among the stars, Kate Wilhelm

We knew her at MBTB for her mystery stories, including the Barbara Holloway series. She lived in Eugene, a couple of hours south of Portland, and visited us way back when.

She was an engaging writer, with great imagination and verve.

Here is the New York Times obituary.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Ballantine Books, 496 pages, $17 (c2017)

Dan Chaon uses 496 pages to depict the psychological disintegration of one of his characters. It’s like hearing nails on a chalkboard.

I’m posting “MAJOR SPOILER ALERT” here because I don’t see how I can discuss this book without giving away at least one of the big plot points.


“Ill Will” juggles various points of view, tenses, and time periods. It does seem like the reader will be playing whack-a-mole sometimes to get back to a character’s storyline.

The basic story at the beginning is that Dustin is a 41-year-old psychologist in Cleveland. He has a loving and supportive wife, Jill, and two teenage sons, Dennis and Aaron, with whom he gets along. He is motivated to help people because of his own background. When he was thirteen, his father, mother, aunt, and uncle were murdered, and he and his two older cousins, Kate and Wave, were sent to live with a grandmother. His adopted older brother Rusty was accused of the crime and found guilty. Rusty is a guest of a government hotel. Dustin was smart and managed to make something of himself despite his traumatic background. It is pure evil genius that Chaon starts from this premise.

THEN Dustin acquires a new patient, Aqil, who says he was a cop but now isn’t. Aqil immediately goes off on a pet theory he has. Young men have been drowning around Ohio. It usually is assumed they were drunk and drowned accidentally in various bodies of water. But Aqil says they were murdered by a fiend he calls “Jack Daniels.” He is now privately investigating the deaths, and he wants Dustin to help him.

THEN Rusty is released from prison when the Innocence Project shows he was innocent of murdering his family. Rusty was partly found guilty based on Dustin’s testimony about Rusty’s Satanic rituals, bullying, threats of killing their parents and burning their house down, and (look away) killing baby bunnies.

THEN Dustin’s wife’s health disintegrates, but she doesn’t want her sons to know she is dying. Meanwhile each of the sons has taken to drugs and prevarication.

Dustin becomes more and more detached as he tries to juggle secrets and deal with the stress of a dying wife, a brother who may want revenge, and a practice that seems to have been taken over Aqil and his “evidence.”

Slowly Chaon reveals the mutable story of when Dustin’s parents died. Dustin’s parents and his cousins’ parents are siblings married to siblings, just one of Chaon’s weird and wonderful dangling details. The two families are scheduled to go on a summer vacation drive to Yellowstone Park. Dustin and his cousins are sleeping in a trailer on the driveway while their parents party in the house. Rusty, who is six years older than Dustin, is off partying with his friends. Then the memories and stories diverge.

Kate and Wave are dangerously bored and Rusty adds hormonal fuel to that teenage fire. Just before the night of the murder Rusty holds a Satanic ritual at the local graveyard. It is the 1980s, a time of heavy metal, Satanic fascination, Goth style. He claims to be able to call up a demon — a minor demon he blithely says. Everyone is blitzed on drugs and alcohol.

The bad things in Dustin’s life don’t start with the graveyard ritual and the murders. The bad things started with Rusty's arrival. Chaon reveals more and more details of Dustin’s family life and the effect Rusty and his cousins had on him. If you have read “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, you will understand the sense of psychological dread Chaon creates. And he does that well.

Around the middle of the book, Chaon mercifully begins to answer some of the questions he has piled up in his wandering narrative.

Is Dustin a good psychologist, and what are the repercussions of his family tragedy?

As Dustin’s obsession with Aqil’s theory grows, his distance from his sons grows and he becomes more distracted. Is his voice in the book unreliable, or is he the one who will save everyone?

In regard to the night of the parental murders, who is telling the truth? There are certainly as many versions of what happened as there are people who were there.

Is there a demon silently running amok?

Good questions. Good answers. “Ill Will” is tense and foreboding as hell. I gave myself a good head-to-toe shiver after I finished this book.

And for those of you who like quotes to judge the flavor of the writing, here's Chaon on Dennis and Aaron's druggie friend, Rabbit:

He cogitated all the hope out of his life, which of course is the danger.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Speak, 384 pages, $10.99 (c2011)
Ages 12-up

If you were looking for the West African version of Harry Potter, look no further. “Akata Witch” is about a magical community mostly unknown to the Lamb (Muggle) people. Twelve-year-old Sunny discovers she is different. That is to say, she is even more different than her albino appearance has made her. Born in the United States, where she lived for her first nine years, she and her parents moved to Nigeria, her parents’ home country. She is Igbo, so she knows that language as well as English. What could make her stand out more? Ah, yes, her magic.

Sunny is academically strong, but she has made playground enemies of many children. Her albino looks automatically beget hostility. Still, she makes friends with Orlu, another smart kid in her class. Through him, Sunny meets the mysterious Chichi. Chichi may be another child or she may not. She eyes Sunny appraisingly and introduces her to her mother. Chichi’s mother lives in a simple hut. On the outside Chichi and her mother look poor, but there is something powerful about them. Sunny soon learns that Orlu and Chichi are the gateway to another world, one in which her latent powers begin to arise.

At the beginning of the book, Sunny has an apocalyptic vision. It’s easy to write it off as some sort of waking nightmare, until the magic community gives more credence to what she saw. Thus begins a quest for Sunny to discover and tame her powers, find her juju knife (magic wand), and receive a mentor-teacher, all while battling the strong force that is killing children and seeking to rip the outer world apart.

This first adventure — Nnedi Okorafor has written a follow-up book, “Akata Warrior” (c2017) — introduces the group of four children (Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha) who will stand as a force against evil.

What attracts children and adults to the Harry Potter series is its foundation of goodness, kindness, love, and acceptance of what is different. Those also hold for this book. Also, there is danger and a need for courage and independent thinking. Great elements, good book.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 336 pages, $25.99

“The Dry,” Jane Harper’s first book in her Federal Agent Aaron Falk series set in Australia, was stellar. Simply stellar. “Force of Nature” can’t compete with “The Dry.” In the first book, a death in Falk’s past, when he was a teenager, came back into play. That story wasn’t just about a death but also about Falk’s life in a very small town. “The Dry” had depth, well-rounded characters, and an exploration of the narrowness of small town life. It was deeply moving, especially by the depiction of a drought-devastated area. “Force of Nature” can’t compete with the range of that story, but Harper once again presents a well-written novel with evocative descriptions of a wild area of Australia and a fundamental understanding of human nature.

“Force of Nature” succeeds, although the originality of “The Dry” has been left behind. Now Falk is simply a cop with a case. Falk works for the financial investigation branch of the national police. His new partner is Carmen Cooper, late of Sydney. They work well together and are trying to close a case against a large company, BaileyTennants, for money laundering.

BaileyTennants employee Alice Russell has been co-opted by Falk and Cooper to obtain documents which would prove the company’s malfeasance. Before she can turn over the last of the crucial documents, she is chosen to participate in a company retreat for team building. Team building is grimly the wrong term. Somehow, during the sure-fire team building exercise — traverse a section of the mildly rugged Giralang Ranges on a multi-day hike without guides — Alice has disappeared.

The other women on Alice’s hiking team are her boss, Jill Bailey; Bree McKenzie, Alice’s beleaguered assistant; Lauren Shaw, a co-worker Alice has known since they were youngsters; and Beth McKenzie, Bree’s sister and company drudge. Somewhere along the line their train of thought derailed and they got lost. The remaining members of the team finally pop up far from where they should have been, tired, thirsty and hungry. And missing Alice.

The story of Falk and Cooper’s search for either Alice or any papers she left behind alternates chapters with the story of what happened to Alice’s hiking group. Jane Harper is so good at leaving the hiking group’s chapters at a cliffhanger. She is also good at slowly revealing the stories behind the tensions in the group. What haunts the McKenzie sisters’ past? What haunts Lauren and Alice’s past? What haunts Jill? And finally, does the ghostly presence of serial killer Martin Kovac haunt the group?

When Lauren and Alice were teenagers, Martin Kovac — now deceased — kidnapped and killed young women he found in the very area the group is hiking. Kovac had a son, Sam. Has Sam, who dropped off the police radar a while back, taken up where his father left off? Harper is also good at making all the trembling possibilities of that scenario come alive.

“Force of Nature” delivers a wonderful story, with flawed and human characters, especially that of Aaron Falk who is still trying to heal from the events of “The Dry.” On its own merits this book is strong and vibrant. The rains that spit, fall, and gust throughout the book play a malevolent background music. The tortured, dark, close woods the hikers must fight through mirror their personal voyages through tortured, flawed lives. The one cell phone that was smuggled on the hike is useless, a mockery of the group’s hope for rescue and a false conveyance for dealing with immediate problems in their real lives.

Also, because of a faint link to the Giralangs, Falk is finally forced to deal with the relationship he had with his father, now deceased. It’s a small part of the story, but it’s the one part that makes the heart strings resonate.

Of course, MBTB star!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Green Sun by Kent Anderson

Mulholland Books, 352 pages, $27

“Green Sun”'s combination of metaphor, poetry, grittiness, and exposition of human foible and grace are hard to beat. (Plus, I don't often come across a crime novel that pays homage to the “rosy-fingered dawn” of “The Iliad.”) I nominate this for next year's Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Green Sun follows 1987's “Sympathy for the Devil” and 1996's “Night Dogs.” The latter is set in Portland in 1975, in the gritty, bad-side of a mostly mellow city. But back then in real life there was a lot going on. A lot of it bad. Kent Anderson was a police officer in both Portland and Oakland, California. “Night Dogs” was Portland, and “Green Sun” is Oakland. Both are thoughtful and eye-widening police fiction with perhaps more than a soup├žon of truth.

Hanson — just Hanson — starred in “Sympathy for the Devil and “Night Dogs, and the trail picks up for him in Oakland after a period in which he was an English professor in Idaho. Yes, police officer to professor and back to police officer. Hanson’s latest goal is to bury his violent and traumatizing past as a soldier in Vietnam and police officer in the North Precinct of Portland and score a gig in a quiet backwater of California after qualifying for his law enforcement certification by serving in Oakland for a year. Throughout the book, Anderson tosses in reminders of how much time Hanson has left on his Oakland PD service before he qualifies for transfer. His four years on the Portland PD have counted for exactly nothing.

Underlying the episodic storytelling nature of “Green Sun” is the story of the community of Oakland: whites fleeing the expansion of black neighborhoods and the drug trade. If “Green Sun” were the only book one read set in Oakland, one’s takeaway would be that it is a war zone. Because Hanson marches to his own drummer, he is denigrated, ignored, and given the worst calls. If Hanson were paranoid, he might think someone wanted him dead, or at best wouldn’t care if he were dead.

Hanson has the dreaded night shift. Most of his colleagues ignore the “inconvenient” calls to which Hanson is drawn like a magnet. For instance. Two elderly gentlemen have called the police because they think their car has been stolen. The first answering officer blew them off, thinking they had merely forgotten where they parked. Hanson stops, politely listens to their tale, offers to drive them home, spots their car on the way out of the neighborhood, and respectfully helps them on their way. In many ways, this book reads like a fairy tale. The hero rises above the meanness of his fellow humans, his good nature and humor shining through.

However, this hero, Hanson, has a mean streak he struggles to suppress, a drinking problem, nightmares, and insomnia. He sublimates fear, perhaps in the hope that he will die and not have to worry about what he should do next in life. He may feel unworthy of love himself, but his actions express his optimism and hope for his fellow citizens. His first reaction may be to kill, but his first outward action usually is kindness. He is Mr. Complexity.

Hanson’s world is perhaps Oakland of 1984 or so. (I think Anderson dropped lots of hints, but I was too ignorant to grasp them.) In this world black/white tensions are tightly humming and police corruption is a given. Hanson meets many characters in the shadowy night world he patrols. He has no partner because of budget constraints, so his human conversations are pretty much solely with the denizens of the tough, poor sections of black Oakland. He tries to see past their crimes, complaints, and complicity, and instead sees the individual struggles and honors that. Plus, he really doesn’t like to do paperwork. (Although his one accolade from his hostile superiors is that he writes a good report.) He is the master of disarming ignitable situations by himself. He quiets drunk bar customers and a crowd of screaming people with equal finesse.

Throughout a large part of the book, a large black rabbit, first met in the grounds of a Buddhist temple, sporadically hops through scenes, sometimes as inspiration, sometimes as savior. It’s all part of Anderson’s quirky world view, and it’s a balance against the venality he also describes.

Here is Anderson describing Hanson’s “bravery” and indifference:

But he wasn’t brave, or even crazy, he just wasn’t afraid, only angry sometimes. He was supposed to have died over there in the war. He worried sometimes that he might fuck up, get somebody else killed, do something careless and look stupid when he died. He didn’t want that, and, of course, he hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much or take too long when it happened. It was that simple, and he kept it a secret.
Look for Anderson's scene in which the green sun of the title appears. It's a captivating piece of writing.

Periodically, Anderson tells us Hanson is sleeping. Then a scene follows that might be his dream/nightmare, or it might be what is continuing on in his world without him. Whichever, it has the feel of a dreamlike grim fairy tale. Anderson’s art is combining realism and dream into a book that is entertaining and fine. The short takes on Hanson’s call-outs are illuminative and humbling.

MBTB star!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Beneath the Mountain by Luca D’Andrea

Translated by Howard Curtis
Harper, 400 pages, $16.99 (c2016, U.S. Ed. 2018)

If there were an award for the book equivalent of the Olympics’ Giant Slalom race, “Beneath the Mountain” would win. There are more twists and turns in this book than there are serpent coils in the caduceus. How many authors does it take to screw in a light bulb? Only one, if that author is Luca D’Andrea.

“Beneath the Moon” was translated from Italian by Howard Curtis. Let me toss a massive number of kudos to Mr. Curtis, because the book read smoothly in English. The fact that the main character, Jeremiah Salinger, is supposedly Brooklyn born and raised ups the challenge to produce an authentic-sounding American. Italian author Luca D’Andrea can raise the flag on the summit of that challenge.

Despite being dizzy from completing D’Andrea’s novel, I think what appealed to me the most was not the twisty plotting but the deep shadings of his many characters.

Salinger and his wife and five-year-old daughter travel from the U.S. to Siebenhoch in the northeast part of Italy, an area more Deutsche than it is Italiano, for Salinger’s work. He and his American partner, Mike, almost by accident, are reality show developers. Their newest idea involves trailing the mountain rescue squad in the Siebenhoch area. This is where the father of Salinger’s wife, Annelise, lives. Because Salinger had a German immigrant mother, he speaks German. So everyone thinks of it almost like a vacation. Until tragedy strikes. Dum, dum, dum!

Mike is the videographer but he is unable to go on one of the rescue missions, so Salinger — not the bravest soul — fills in. The helicopter swoops and twirls to the rescue site. Salinger finds himself  you can see the thought balloon above his head: "What?!"  asking permission to make the descent into the crevasse to film the rescue of a wayward tourist who managed to jam herself into the crack. The mission does not end well, and Salinger finds himself dealing with the effects of PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

To take his mind off his physical and mental difficulties, Salinger becomes interested in a twenty-six-year old tragic tale that still resonates strongly, although discreetly, in the small community of Siebenhoch. The Bletterbach mountain looms over the village and has seen its share of mishaps and deaths, as locals and tourists insist on traversing its inhospitable cliffs. But on the face of it, one particular tragedy had nothing to do with the act of hiking or climbing per se and everything to do with a malevolent human act.

Evi, her boyfriend Kurt, and her brother Magnus went for a hike on the mountain. As young adults who had grown up in the area, they knew the ins and outs of Bletterbach better than most. Nevertheless, a once-in-a-lifetime storm hits the area during their hike, stalling their progress. Their dead bodies are discovered shortly after by a rescue team. And their bodies aren’t just dead; they are mangled. Were they murdered by a person or a legendary beast? During Salinger’s own ordeal on the mountain, he heard what he calls “The Beast” muttering and calling to him. Or did he? (He is pretty danged traumatized in any event.)

It is clear that as Salinger begins his “investigation,” he begins to step on toes and uncover secrets that should have stayed in the shadows. The investigation becomes an obsession at times. He knows it would be better for him to stay away from any more potential for trauma. He knows his wife and father-in-law strongly disapprove of his interference. He knows only heartache can come from digging into a crime that has uneasily settled down over the last twenty-plus years. No one was charged, no strong suspect investigated, no further murders occurred on the mountain.

The strong secondary story in D’Andrea’s book is the disintegration of Salinger’s personality. He has gone from fun-loving dad to his precocious daughter and romantic husband to his stalwart wife to a man who screams in the night and tortures himself with the details of the mountain murders. The locals alternately pummel and confide in him.

I can see why this book, according to promotional statements, made a splash at the London Book Fair. It’s loaded with plot twists, a mostly sympathetic main character, a cute kid, great physical setting, quirky culture (German-speaking part of Italy), and volatile human drama. But there was almost too much of everything. You really can stop now, I kept saying to Salinger. Let it go, I added. He didn’t listen to me. (He didn’t listen to anybody else either, so I don’t feel so bad.) Nevertheless, I found it hard to stop turning the pages.