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

Friday, November 30, 2018

Swift Vengeance by T. Jefferson Parker

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $27

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Comforts of Home by Susan Hill

Overlook Press, 320 ages, $26.95

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Ink by Elsa Hart

Minotaur Books, 352 pages, $25.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $16.99 (c2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart

Minotaur, 336 pages, $25.99 (c2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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