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

Monday, August 27, 2018

Burning Bright by Nick Petrie

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 496 pages, $9.99 (c2017)

“Burning Bright” picks up the adventures of Peter Ash, honorably discharged military vet and PTSD sufferer. Because Peter cannot be in enclosed spaces for very long, he lives in the great outdoors, getting by with infrequent contacts with civilization, a combat-weary Thoreau. One day a bear crosses his path, sending Peter up a tree. Bears can climb, but apparently Peter’s discarded backpack sufficed to keep the bear earthbound. There was nowhere for Peter to go but up and outward, which is what he did. Astoundingly, he found traces of prior habitation in the treetops and, more significantly, equipment to help him navigate the world created on the tiptop of the forest. That’s when Peter meets June. She’s on the run from nasty people, some of whom try to shoot her (and Peter) down out of the trees.

And that’s how the book begins. It barely gives you time to draw a breath before rip-roaring onto the next dangerous encounter.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the first book in the Peter Ash series, “The Drifter,” because “Burning Bright” stands adequately by itself. However, if you want to learn more about the mysterious Lewis, the deadly sidekick in the footsteps of other great sidekicks — think Mouse, think Hawk, think Joe Pike — you would do well to start there.

When Peter met June. When Peter met June the world became a much wider place. Who or what is after June and what for? Her mother had just been murdered by a hit-and-run driver. It turns out she was a formidable computer programmer on the verge of creating a genuine AI. But had she succeeded before she was killed? June is trying to find out, while keeping the kidnappers/killers from catching up with her.

There are memorable characters to be met along the way: Shepherd, the assassin; Yeti, the looming, dark presence who could be the key to everything that’s happened to June. Author Nick Petrie keeps the action rolling but also keeps his eye on making his characters three-dimensional. Peter seems grateful for any joy that unexpectedly crosses his path and for steadfast friendships. It’s hard not to root for him both to find his way out of the pickle he’s in and to find peace.

“Burning Bright” drops from the tree tops to trips through the Pacific Northwest to finding an isolated compound in the mountains. It’s not a travelogue, however, but it did make me wonder what the view would be like from the tallest tree in the forest.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Solo: A James Bond novel, by William Boyd

Harper Perennial, 321 pages, $15.99 (c2013)

The truth is it has taken me five years of fitful reading to finish “Solo,” one of the many James Bond books written after the death of series creator Ian Fleming. What propels Bond’s popularity to the extent that at least six authors have officially continued the hardy series? What drives people to see the twenty-four Bond movies and has provided a healthy livelihood for six or seven actors (depending on where you stand about David Niven)?

Bond is suave, athletic, sophisticated, a culinary aesthete (he makes his own salad dressing in restaurants) and he has a license to kill. But in Ian Fleming’s hands he was also a racist and an imperialist. The more recent Bond movies and the books by other authors struggle to right those attitudes in these different times. It says something about the appeal of the character of Bond that he has survived to receive these major plastic surgeries.

There is something attractive about a character who can solve problems that threaten world peace by cannily assessing situations and then shooting the heck out of whoever and whatever moves. Real world problems are complex and are never solved long-term with a bullet to anyone’s head. Real world problems drag on and on, passing from one administration, dynasty, or junta to another. Real world problems involve the lives of millions of people physically, economically, and emotionally. But we can happily ignore the real guns, bombs, and terrorists staring at us while James Bond frolics on the screen or cavorts in a book. Life in Bond’s world is simple: kill bad guy, make love to woman/women, teach bartender to make martini.

Bond is good but not a goody-goody. He is tough but can be tender — just ask the zillions of fictional women who have swooned in his presence. There is no pretense that Bond is anything other than fiction, no matter how “human” or “vulnerable” any of the authors or screenwriters try to make him. We do not need him to contain either of those characteristics; we just need him to succeed with his mission.

“Solo” is set in the 60s, the time period of about half the books and the beginning of the movie franchise. I can’t tell you why I’ve dragged my feet for five years. Author William Boyd certainly makes a credible show of animating Bond. But maybe that’s the problem; Boyd’s Bond is stuck in the 60s with a 21st century ethos. It’s not tongue-in-cheek, insouciant, or Ludlum-esque enough. Boyd creates a Bond trapped in amber. After five years of toying with the book, however, I no longer know why I stumbled so.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A Noise Downstairs by Lincoln Barclay

William Morrow, 368 pages, $26.99

Paul Davis, a mild-mannered college professor caught in a rut, was very unlucky one night. He chanced upon a friend, his mentor in fact, in the process of burying two women. Paul’s friend clobbered him and was going to bury him as well, but the police arrived in the nick of time. This is where Lincoln Barclay’s story really begins.

Unlucky Paul Davis luckily survived the attack, but there are physical and psychological issues still. Memory frizzles and dizziness plague him, and then the sounds in the night begin. The clacking of keys on an old-fashioned typewriter wake him repeatedly. (Before slitting their throats, Kenneth Hoffman, Paul’s mentor and colleague at the college, made his victims type apology notes on an old typewriter.) Ooo-wee-ooo.

Kenneth is in prison. Without hesitation, he pled guilty to murdering the women and trying to murder Paul. But Paul is having trouble reconciling the Kenneth he knew with the killer he faced on the night he was attacked. With the approval of his wife and his psychologist, Paul attempts to recreate the story of what happened to Kenneth.

“A Noise Downstairs” is a straightforward tale, but one laced with twists big and small. Barclay must have been rubbing his hands together while plotting his story and muttering, “Nyah, ha, ha.” Despite the most excellent surprises, Barclay’s writing seems stodgy towards the end. While galloping to the resolution, Barclay sacrifices nuance (with the exception of the final interview with Kenneth) in the cause of wrapping things up. Still and all, a good end-of-summer read.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart

Hodder & Stoughton, 256 pages, c1962

British author Mary Stewart published her first book in 1955. “Madam, Will You Talk?” started her career of writing romantic suspense and historical novels. Stewart was an erudite and stylish writer, and her books still hold up fairly well today. I felt a nostalgic summertime tug towards one of her books, since she was one of the first “grown-up” authors I read as a kid during summer vacation.

“The Moon-Spinners” is set in Greece. Nicola Ferris, a young British woman on holiday in Crete, almost immediately stumbles across nefarious doings on the trail down to the village where she is staying. Mark Langley, a fellow Brit, has been shot. He claims to be looking for his younger brother who has disappeared. Mark is being helped by a gun-carrying Greek. Nicola, based on nothing much, throws her lot in with Mark. It helps that Mark is attractive.

There are goings on in the village in which Nicola and her soon-to-arrive aunt are to spend their vacation. She plans to keep to her plans and spy on the villains and try to find Mark’s brother. People are kidnapped, there is a mysterious “treasure,” and Crete is beautiful.

If you are looking for a well-written light mystery and don’t mind a dated setting, Mary Stewart is the one. Nicola is feisty although mostly lady-like as befits the time period. There is blood but no gore, badness but no evil, romance but no sex.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Atlantic Monthly, 352 pages, $26

Belinda Bauer could teach a master class in how to plot the unexpected. She takes every cliché and trope and trashes them. You think you know where Bauer is going because you’ve read sooo many crime stories, but you really don’t. You shake your head at what seems to be an obvious mistake or easy way out that Bauer has taken, and it turns out you are the one who deserves the head shake.

In “Snap,” Bauer gives center stage to Jack Bright, a fourteen-year-old in Tiverton, England. Three years earlier his mother was kidnapped and murdered. His father fell apart and deserted Jack and his two younger siblings. At a tender age, when Jack should have been playing video games and carousing with mates, he had to assume responsibility for his siblings so they wouldn't be put into care. He tells nosy neighbors that his dad travels a lot. He has burgled over a hundred homes to get healthy food, clothing, and other necessities for his sisters. He takes his anger out on the furniture in those homes. He frequently falls asleep in their beds. He has been nicknamed “Goldilocks” by the police, who have no idea he is a kid.

Meanwhile, Catherine While is a pregnant woman. Her home is burgled and she finds a knife by her bedside with a creepy note attached: “I could have killed you.” She doesn’t tell her husband, Adam, because, because … she just doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Detective Chief Inspector John Marvel has run afoul of the Metropolitan Police in London and has been reassigned to the backwater — by Marvel’s lights — city of Tiverton. Instead of homicide cases, Marvel finds himself enmeshed right off in a police scheme to capture Goldilocks, a case much beneath his dignity. Furthermore, he is benighted — again, by his lights — by the pompous, preening Detective Sergeant Reynolds and (the very normal) DC Rice, a woman who tweaks all Reynolds’ ideas of proper procedure. Bauer does an admirable job of fleshing them out as very different characters.

Bauer brings her stories together early on, but it is unclear whether the relationship between the stories is on solid footing or dangling from a spider’s thread. Did Jack burgle Catherine? If so, did he leave the note? If so, why? How does Marvel eventually get pulled into the murder case of Jack’s mother? You can envision Bauer thinking through this outline and then gleefully rubbing her hands together as she decides what to reveal and when.

Bauer excels at poignant endings. She arms the tender and vulnerable with weapons of intelligence and luck. Fortune favors the bold and the persistent. Fortune favors Bauer.

MBTB star!

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor

Catapult, 176 pages, $22

Don’t you wonder sometimes what happened to characters or real people after their story or fifteen minutes of fame ended? (I feel weird saying this, but I recently wondered about the McCaughy septuplets!) Maybe that is what is so attractive about book and television series: We get to follow characters we’ve gotten to know further into their lives, desperate or otherwise. We get to be the fly on the wall.

So, whatever happened to the characters from “Reservoir 13”? (Read my review here.)   If you enjoyed “Reservoir 13” as much as I did, here is a chance to see some of the characters again in their ordinary glory. Sometimes the additional glimpses of the characters slip into the past. And it’s not so much that questions are answered as that lives are elaborated upon.

Ah, yes, the ultimate question: What became of Rebecca? “Reservoir 13” began with the hunt for thirteen-year-old Rebecca. She was on holiday with her parents in a small town in England. While on a hike with her parents, Rebecca disappeared. The hunt was massive and fastidious, but she was not found by the end of "Reservoir 13." Instead the book became about her parents and the people of the town, the ones left behind.

In “Reservoir Tapes,” there is much talk of Rebecca and one tiny thought dropped into the middle of a larger story is vaguely heartening. But once again, the story is mostly about other people, although Rebecca is fleshed out a little more, especially in a little vignette concerning an apple. Not all the stories are pleasant, but then not all people, real or fictional, are pleasant.

(My favorite character is the mysterious and competent river keeper.)

Thank you for the follow-up, Jon McGregor. I enjoy your town. I wish your passengers well. May your town's reservoir of stories never end.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

Puffin Books, 179 pages, $7.99 (c1973)

John Bellairs wrote some mighty fine scary books for children before he died in 1991. Young Gothic. His first series starred Lewis Barnavelt, an awkward ten-year-old who has a penchant for magic. “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” was the first in the series, and it is being re-released because there is a movie version coming out in September. I say read the book version first. The movie will no doubt be padded by special effects and celebrity mugging. I hope the movie retains what the story is at its heart: how a lonely young boy who has a hard time fitting in becomes a little braver, a little smarter, and a little more confident. That should be the takeaway and that is the loveliness of Bellairs’ books.

Lewis is orphaned — all the best books about intrepid children seem to begin that way, parents being more impediments than mentors — and sent to live with Uncle Jonathan, a man he has never met. Uncle J has a next-door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, who spends a lot of time in Uncle J’s house when they aren’t spending a lot of time at her house. Mrs. Z is a witch, Uncle J explains, just as he is a warlock. Oh.

Within Uncle J’s spooky mansion is a ticking clock. It is an evil clock that proves reluctant to reveal its location. Can Lewis find the clock, render harmless whatever curse exists, and make friends at school? Despite some truly spooky stuff (The Hand of Glory!), “The House” is delightful and nonsensical in the best way, and the version I have has Edward Gorey illustrations. Score!

Crossing my fingers that the movie retains half the charm and quirks of the book!