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

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 384 pages, $27.99

Daniel Hawthorne is a former Scotland Yard detective. He was “released” under dishonorable circumstances. It is in his incarnation as a private investigator that he meets Anthony Horowitz (fictional). Yes, Anthony Horowitz (fictional) is a character in his (real-life) own book. He is Hawthorne’s “Watson.” That makes Hawthorne, of course, “Holmes.” There is nothing like being a character in one’s own book to obfuscate the actual relationships, strengths, weaknesses, and silliness of the author’s real character, one would say. Clever, disingenuous, and entertaining.

“Tony,” Hawthorne’s nickname for Horowitz — and loathed by him — is still the writer of television’s “Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders,” and other actual projects of the prototype Horowitz. One of the fictional characters in “The Sentence is Death” loves Horowitz’s actual book series, the Alex Rider books. A fictional author in the book remembers meeting Horowitz at a book fair and not liking him much then, or now. How much fourth wall demolition is there? Horowitz’s readers are both his confidantes and also the readers of the second publication of the adventures of Daniel Hawthorne, a publication that Hawthorne and the characters left alive at the end of the book presumably will read. Quite a bit of flash and tomfoolery are the result.

Horowitz, the fictional version, is reluctantly called upon to bear witness to Hawthorne’s greatness, without getting to muck about in his tantalizingly mysterious personal life. Hawthorne wants the money that Horowitz’s writing can provide. Horowitz is prey to his own curiosity and he soon forgets his strident resolution to never become involved with the arrogant, manipulative, sociopathic investigator again (after The Word Is Murder). Thus begins “The Sentence is Death.”

Richard Pryce, a divorce lawyer, has been bashed over the head with a £2000 bottle of wine and lacerated with the resulting shards. Who hated him (or the wine) that much? Could it be his current client, a successful businessman with interests he perhaps didn’t want revealed; the client’s abrasive wife, the so-called author who puzzlingly dislikes Horowitz; his husband who may have been having a slap-and-tickle on the side;  someone involved with a caving incident that took place years ago. The suspects, in the best British detective fashion, are numerous.

Although the Hawthorne-Horowitz by-play is enormously entertaining, the plot is everything. Horowitz gathers all the clues and gradually comes to his own conclusion. Aha! Horowitz has finally bested Hawthorne. Will future books star only Horowitz? Will it fall to Horowitz alone to battle the odious Scotland Yard detective, DI Cara Grunshaw, and her equally odious assistant, young what’s-his-name (actually named Darren, but who cares?), in future episodes?

There’s a lot of wink-winking going on with the real-life Horowitz writing about the fictional Horowitz, but underlying the murder story are some sad glimpses at human frailty and its consequences. Horowitz balances it all and creates a page-turning book as well.

Logically, will the next book be entitled, The Paragraph Is ...”? The paragraph is too long? The paragraph is buried? The paragraph is erased? His final paragraph?

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Island by Ragnar Jónasson

Minotaur Books, 352 pages, $27.99
Translated by Victoria Cribb

There are all sorts of travels through time in “The Island,” Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson’s second Hulda Hermannsdóttir book. But not in a science fiction-y way.

To begin with, “The Darkness,” the first Hulda book, takes place just as Hulda is set to retire. In “The Island,” Hulda is only fifty, fifteen years younger than the version that appears in “The Darkness.” Why is Jónasson going backwards in Hulda’s story? By going backwards he exposes certain aspects of Hulda’s earlier life and then shows the effect those events have had on her. Jónasson has indicated that there will be only one more Hulda book. He seems to be creeping back to the defining moment in Hulda’s life: when Hulda lost both her daughter and her husband. Of course, in “The Darkness,” the tragedy is revealed, so we know just what we are in for. Jónasson has created a moment of exquisite dread for his readers.

In “The Island,” Hulda is a police detective, a woman in a man’s world, a woman without support, love or appreciation. Her talent for solving crimes should have landed her in a superior position a long time ago. Instead, she labors under the direction of a shiny but bent boss, former colleague Lýdur. He is aggressive, egotistical, and a law unto himself. His lack of scruples eventually comes into play as Hulda is assigned a case that has a link to one of Lýdur’s past cases.

In 1987, a young man, Benedikt, and a young woman rendezvous in an isolated cabin in a lonely area far north of Reykjavik in the West Fjords peninsula. Later, the owners of the cabin, who live in Reykjavik, are worried about their missing daughter. They request that the police in ´Isafjördur, the closest town, check to see if she is at the family’s cabin? Of course, it is the cabin where Benedikt and the girl were staying, but all the police find is the body of a young girl. Indeed, she is the daughter of the cabin’s owners. Soon, Lýdur arrests the girl’s father, Verturlidi, for murder, after twisting the arm of the investigating police officer to provide false testimony. Case closed.

Is the murdered girl the same girl who was with Benedikt? Where is Benedikt? Is he the killer? Why was Verturlidi arrested instead?

The story then jumps to ten years later. Four people in their late twenties, old friends from their teenage years, gather after much time apart for a reunion. One of the group, Benedikt, has arranged for them to be dropped off by boat on an isolated island. Benedikt, Dagur, Alexandra, and Klara will then be together with their secrets and memories. Not surprisingly, someone dies.

Hulda enters the picture and immediately senses that none of the group is forthcoming about their common past. It is like pulling teeth to get information, but Hulda is a competent dentist. When she discovers the current suspects had a connection to the death of the young girl in 1987 that Lýdur had investigated, Hulda begins to smell a lot of rotten herring.

As a side plot, but with extreme relevance to Hulda’s life, she is trying to find her American G.I. father, who got her mother pregnant when he was stationed in Iceland. Her hunger for someone to call family propels her to travel to the U.S. to meet a likely candidate. Having at this point lost her daughter and husband — both still alive in the 1987 portion of the story — and recently also her mother, Hulda feels so lonely and vulnerable. It is strange to know how Hulda eventually winds up in “The Darkness.” If only she could have known everything at a time when the information could have helped her or given her comfort. Alas.

It’s a strange and convoluted tale Jónasson tells of the death in 1987, the reunion in 1997, and Hulda’s life. There’s even maybe a ghost wandering around. I am dying, DYING to read the third book. Jónasson gets an “A” for creativity.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Mercy River by Glen Erik Hamilton

William Morrow, 368 pages, $26.99

Glen Erik Hamilton has turned the life of Van Shaw, ex-Army Ranger and ex-thief, into a series. I liked the first book, never got around to the next two, but picked up Shaw’s story in “Mercy River,” Van Shaw’s fourth adventure.

As one would expect about a story of a former elite special ops guy, there is a lot of action. But there’s also a lot of moving back and forth and missed opportunities. The missed opportunities are because Van believes that killing should be a last, last, last resort. So the action could have ended by chapter seven (just exaggerating here) if Van had shot the bad guy. There was a lot of driving from Seattle (where Van lives) to a fictional central Oregon town to Portland to central Oregon to Seattle to… Anyhow, a lot of driving, some of which was accomplished with a life-threatening injury. Yee ha!

I make fun of it here, but I like Van. He’s got troubles and PTSD and a desire to get over himself. He has his standards, and those standards dictated that he wanted out of the thriving heist operation his grandfather, who raised him, had going with his heist buddies. Van has skills developed as a teenage accomplice to his grandfather. But the military squeezed most of that out of him, and he returned to a dying grandfather in the first book, “Past Crimes.”

In “Mercy River,” Van winds his way to the town of Mercy River in central Oregon to answer a distress call from a Ranger buddy, Leo Pak. In less time than it takes to blow his nose, Van hoists himself into his decaying Dodge pickup and zooms off to play cavalry to the rescue.

Van finds a battered Leo in a jail cell in Mercy River. Leo’s PTSD makes being in small spaces very uncomfortable. Plus, there’s a potential concussion that has not been medically treated. And Leo is being charged with murder. Leo? It makes getting Leo out of jail imperative.

The man murdered was Leo’s new employer. A) What was Leo doing in Mercy River? He lives in Utah and has no perceivable reason to be in Mercy River. B) Who killed crotchety old Erle, the local gunstore owner, if Leo didn’t do it? C) There are coincidentally a lot of Rangers in town, swelling the population to twice its normal size, for some sort of alpha male Ranger festival. Maybe one of them did it? Is that why Leo was in town? Leo makes like Marcel Marceau, only without the gestures.

Van has a lot of work ahead of him, and he needs help. He calls his grandfather’s irascible attorney, Ephraim Ganz, out of his warm bed in Seattle to travel to Mercy River to get Leo out. It should be easy-peasy, but then Leo pleads guilty. Van spends quite a few pages unraveling what that is about, then the rest of the book is about a heist-heist, or heisting a heist. (I love heist books. As soon as I take my fingers off the keyboard, I’ll be rubbing my hands together and cackling.) I wish more of the book had been about the heist-heist and less about white supremacists and Ranger buddies.

There are very few in-depth characters of the legally law-enforcing persuasion in this book. There’s a lot about Ranger code, right vs. right-but-not-legal, kill vs. just kill a little. That’s fine. It’s fiction.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I liked most of the Ranger one-upsmanship. I really liked the heist. Maybe I already told you that. And I sympathize with Glen Erik Hamilton's desire to raise the issue of the inadequate treatment many veterans receive for physical and psychological issues.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Knopf, 272 pages, $26.95

It’s good to hunker down to a book with a sense of anticipation based on practiced expectation. That is, two children have been kidnapped and the rest of the book should be about dogged police or private investigators or a determined relative tracking the children down. If the reader is lucky, the book will be well-paced, full of fleshed-out characters, even ones falling prey to a trope or two, and with writing that clamps your heart in a vise.

Julia Phillips burns your expectations and drowns your tropes in an inky bog.

Alyona, eleven years old, and her sister, Sophia, eight, take care of themselves most summer days while their mother, Marina, works. As the book begins, they are at the beach. As their chapter ends, they are being stolen away by a man who has tricked them into getting into his car.

The first expectation Phillips tosses out is where her action is set, where the kidnapping takes place and where the various characters (presented in the best “War and Peace” style in a character list) live. It’s not New York, Paris, London, or some other romantic megapolis. It’s Kamchatka, Russia. Mostly the characters wander around Petropavlovsk, but the stark and drear northern reaches are also visited. Families who travel with the reindeer herds and people with links to non-White indigenous groups are among the faces we see in “Disappearing Earth.” Phillips has introduced a genius-level blend of characters.

Here’s another expectation blown away by a hot summer dust storm: Right after the first chapter in which the girls are kidnapped, Phillips writes chapter after chapter about other people. Occasionally, the girls are mentioned in passing. Older girls aren’t allowed out because they might be kidnapped. Someone else sees a poster for the missing girls. A bear attacks a car. Someone else discovers a sore on her chest. A girl from a northern village joins a folk dancing group. In other words, life goes on.

These seemingly unrelated stories are compelling for their own reasons, so compelling that it is easy to forget that the girls, or their bodies, are still out there somewhere. What does anything have to do with anything? Phillips’ genius (there’s that word again) is displayed when she gradually draws the characters together. She exposes the links, the hearts that are joined, the black holes in the universe. In the end, the story of the two girls receives an ending but it’s almost inconsequential. It is the lives of the people whose stories we have learned on the way to that resolution that are important.

Here is an emphatic MBTB star!

Monday, May 27, 2019

Deception Cove by Owen Laukkanen

Mulholland Books, 384 pages, $28

Owen Laukkanen has created an interesting couple of protagonists: a female ex-Marine with PTSD and a male convicted murderer just released after seventeen years in prison. The action takes place in the Pacific Northwest, a suitably wet and atmospheric site for what becomes an action-plus adventure.

Jess Winslow is a new widow. Her husband was no great shakes, but the combination of loneliness and the PTSD she has because of her tours in Afghanistan has driven her into a deep place. If it weren’t for her comfort dog, Lucy, she probaby would have given into darker urges.

Mason Burke was seventeen years old when he was put in prison. Now that he is about 34, he realizes he has the social ability of a 17-year-old tempered by the don’t-see-anything, don’t-hear-anything discipline needed to stay alive in prison. It’s hard for him to look anyone in the eye. It's hard for him to make conversation. His sister and her husband have taken him in, and Mason just wants to compress himself into a little, inconsequential package in their basement.

While in prison, the one bright light in Mason’s life was when, towards the end of his sentence, he was permitted to join the dog training program in prison. He and fellow inmates trained service dogs for returning vets. Lucy was the runt of the litter, rescued from what was probably horrible conditions. She trembled and cowered when she was first introduced to Mason. But under Mason’s guidance, she became a Very Good Dog. Mason’s Lucy then became Jess’ Lucy.

Upon release, Mason inadvertently learned that Lucy was in trouble. Lucy had been taken from her owner and placed in a facility to be destroyed after an attack on a sheriff’s deputy. Mason knows — knows! — that Lucy would not have hurt anyone without reason. Crossing from Michigan to the coast of Washington state, Mason is determined to find out what happened.

After much difficulty Mason finds Jess. Jess says Lucy attacked the deputy, the evil Kirby Harwood, when he threatened Jess. Apparently Jess’ less-than-honest deceased husband had something that Kirby wanted, something, she suspects, illegal.

I’ve read a couple of other Laukkanen books. He is capable of creating action without making characterization suffer. He takes great pains to do that in “Deception Cove.” He tries not to turn Jess and Mason into stereotypes and, in fact, has a cute scene in which Mason, who has no idea where he is going, takes the lead in front of Jess, who does. That is not to say that Mason pictures himself as the macho man; what that scene highlights is that Mason has no clue what he should (and should not) be doing. Laukkanen shows how capable he is in creating an interesting man-woman relationship.

This is a good read for a rainy Saturday in the Pacific Northwest when the line to see “The Avengers: Endgame” is still too long to tolerate.



Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

Scout, 384 pages, $26.99

British Gothic mysteries are not dead. Ruth Ware has plumped up a bona fide entry into this sub-genre. She said an inspiration was Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” and it shows. It’s very atmospheric and despite the use of cellphones and laptop computers, and talk of modern conveniences, “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” is a throwback. The principals are even temporarily housed in a gloomy old mansion. (And don’t Gothic mansions predictably have spotty cell coverage?)

There are tarot cards, suddenly discovered impecunious relations, a (perhaps two) missing girl, a crusty old woman, her estranged children, an Igor-like battleaxe of a housekeeper and confidante of the crusty matriarch, not-so-avuncular uncles, and I’m sure if there had been time and space enough, there would have been spiders and creaky basement stairs. Oh, wait, there are creaky basement stairs.

Young Harriet “Hal” Westaway is struggling to survive in the beachside town of Brighton. Her mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and there is no money, no relatives, no kind strangers to guide her through the travails of life. There is a kindly kiosk owner who pours her cups of coffee every once in a while. He is Hal’s neighbor on the Brighton pier. She has a tarot-reading hut, inherited from her mother, and purportedly from her mother's mother before that. It’s not much of a living, especially in the winter.

At one stage, Hal was so desperate she injudiciously borrowed money from the local moneylending thug. Of course, she has already paid back many times the original amount borrowed, and more has yet to be paid. This is the contrivance that explains why Hal is desperate to accept an invitation to hear the bequest of the dearly departed Hester Westaway, an ancient widow down Penzance way. (Oh, those Penzance cliffs and storms and dark-eyed strangers!) After doing some computer research, Hal realizes that Hester might have left a significant estate. Perhaps her share of the estate would suffice to pay off the loan shark.

The only thing standing in the way of Hal’s victory dance is that she is not related to Hester Westaway. Hester's lawyer erroneously believes that Hal is the daughter of Maud Westaway, Hester's missing daughter. Hal’s mother’s name was Maggie. After serious internal struggles, Hal decides to chance impersonating Maud’s daughter. She’ll take her paltry share of the proceedings, and Hester’s real family will never hear from her again.

That’s not how Gothic novels work, Hal.

Hal vacillates between being confidant she can “read” the other people — a skill she uses, instead of anything supernatural, in telling people’s fortunes — well enough to fool them and despising herself for conning Hester’s bereaved family, if there is one. And of course, there is one. There are three sons, two of whom have families. The remaining one is a friendly guy with brooding looks. Suddenly, Hal has uncles, an aunt, and young cousins. But they are not Hal’s to keep.

The first spanner in the works is when Hester’s surprising will is read. The gloomy, dilapidated mansion provides no safe haven for Hal after that. Her only avenue is to find out why Maud disappeared. Did she have a baby? If so, will that child come forward to claim his/her share of the fortune, pushing Hal out?

Ruth Ware takes us on a journey featuring staircases with light switches that don’t work, a weedy and uninviting lake, confusing hallways rife with ominously closed doors, and the foreboding scrabbling and cawing of magpies who may be bringing sorrow — according to the old rhyme — or worse. Then there is the impediment of the seriously inhospitable Mrs. Warren, the housekeeper — who is a lousy cook, to boot  who is not there to serve anybody. Maybe she killed Mrs. Westaway for a share of the inheritance.

Maybe.

The one element missing from this generously gloomy tale is romance. There’s an ancient romance, to be sure, but the Gothic novels I remember always had a damsel, a roué, and a sinister (but handsome) stranger. None of that nonsense here. Hal has to rescue herself if she needs it.

“Mrs. Westaway” was very entertaining. It was fun to shiver and thrill to a mystery in a dark English mansion in a snow storm. Even while you realize author Ware is checking off the elements from the bygone version of The Great Gothic Tale, you will cheer for her to succeed.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Älexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, 240 pages, $24.95

So, Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Botswanan No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Scottish Isabel Dalhousie, and 44 Scotland Street series, has ventured off to capture the Scandinavian ethos in the first book in a projected series (I imagine) starring Malmö police detective Ulf Varg. What do Swedish people think of Älexander McCall Smith’s usurpation of its long-honored Swedish crime fiction? Can someone who wrote about a female detective in Botswana and a philosopher in Edinburgh also write successfully about a Swedish detective?

McCall Smith has successfully written scads of books and presumably gainfully employed himself in the process. I don’t know what credentials McCall Smith may have to allow him to exert his Swedish literary muscles. All I can say is that “The Department of Sensitive Crimes” captured an essence of Swedish writing, surrounded it in bubble wrap (no violence or harsh words), and served up a slice of ordinary life with unusual (and sensitive) twists.

In the best way possible, McCall Smith humorously and frequently slips into asides. Pertinent crime-related information must stand by as Detective Varg and his cohorts (Erik, Anna, Carl, Blomquist) discuss, for instance, fishing, vitamin D, “Davidson-Harley,” and whether small people, dwarves, or midgets might be the proper phrase. Varg politely follows each sidetrack until he can continue to follow the course of a crime. Are Swedish people, in general, this polite? Doesn’t matter.

McCall Smith, as we have learned from his other books, writes with charm and a fascination for the nature of what it means to be human. The several crimes in this book reflect this. One crime involves a “small person,” a dance teacher, it turns out, who cries a lot, feels deeply, and doesn’t want to disarm bombs. In another story, there are three young women. Jealousies and insecurities in their group eventually need the services of the police, but only in the tidiest way. And as far as the final case is concerned, I am at a loss to describe it. (A nude beach and talk of werewolves are involved.)

If you like/love/fan-obsess McCall Smith, here is more of the same, with humor and really nice niceness, the Swedish version.

P.S. Do you like the umlauted version of McCall Smith's first name? McCall Smith's subtle joke, no doubt.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Ace, 317 pages, $16

I suppose you could read “Atlas Alone” as a standalone, especially since different characters lead the parade in the other three books in Emma Newman’s loosely joined series, set in the not-to-distant future: “Planetfall,” “After Atlas,” “Before Mars,” and now “Atlas Alone.”

“Atlas Alone” continues the stories, begun in “After Atlas,” of Dee and Carl, both indentured servants of government-corporations that rule in place of democratic or republican governments, who manage to gain places on the last spaceship to leave Earth before nuclear war begins. “After Atlas” was mostly Carl’s story. “Atlas Alone” is Dee’s.

All of Newman’s Planetfall books share a history and about the same timeline. At least knowledge of each book gives a deeper understanding of the next book. Mostly, that history is bleak. In “Planetfall,” the mythic “Pathfinder,” Lee Suh-Mi, was directed by visions to a planet about twenty years travel from Earth. In “After Atlas,” Carl found himself in peril at a young age with a mother lost to Lee Suh-Mi’s stars and a father lost to a cult called “The Circle.” As an adult, Carl is a detective in London. His brain has been re-wired and his behavior has been re-directed to create a computer/human hybrid. He and his friend Dee, similarly re-worked, end that book when they get on the spaceship using Carl’s father’s cult connections.

That brings us to “Atlas Alone.” Due to tinkering by Carl’s friend, Travis, the three of them witness an abomination. From the safety of space, on board the Atlas 2, they view multiple nuclear weapons unleashed on the Earth they have just left, some of them apparently triggered by person(s) unknown aboard the ship. As far as they know, life on Earth has been extinguished.

Safe, cared for, and bound for Lee Suh-Mi’s planet to live with God, Dee feels directionless. She no longer is bound to the government corporation she worked for. Carl is the same way. They are bereft in an odd way, because life under the corporation was untenable, but they knew what they were supposed to do, the jobs wired into their heads. Now these jobs no longer exist. Unchained, they don’t know where to go or what to do. There’s no direction from whomever the commanding forces are on the spaceship. 

One thing does motivate Dee: She is determined to find out who authorized the death of billions of people. How does Dee even begin without resources, a place in the ship’s hierarchy, or any friends, except for Carl and Travis. Then a message arrives from a woman named Carolina, inviting her to crunch some data, analyze some patterns, decipher trends. Dee lights up because not only will she have a job but that job gives her access to data which may lead to discovering who blew up Earth.

On the heels of her new job, she receives a secret message from someone who will not identify him or herself, “hirself.” A “mersive,” i.e., a cortically immersive game or experience, created by her mystery contact brings her face-to-face with the avatar of one of the people Dee determined has caused the holocaust on Earth. In game-time, Dee kills the man. When she emerges from her game-time twilight, she learns the man has really died … of a heart attack. The secret contact suddenly seems not so benign.

Dee is led into deeper waters by “The Beast,” as Dee ultimately labels it, as she begins a work relationship with Carolina. Is Carolina one of the people who committed the atrocity? Why is Dee given such timely access to data she needs? Who are the killers? And what will Dee do with Carl, who slips quickly into his wired-in detective mode to investigate what he feels was a murder, not a heart attack? Did Dee really kill the man? Can Dee save whatever is left of humanity on board Atlas 2?

In the end, this is a philosophical murder mystery. The mystery is not who killed the man — Dee immersively did the deed — but what will happen next and why. Have Dee’s childhood traumas made her a stronger person or a weaker one? 

I loved Emma Newman’s other books and thought “Atlas Alone” moved Newman’s world-building along very well. Newman’s stories provide a few thoughts to chew on.



Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Firefly by Henry Porter

Mysterious Press, 480 pages, $27 (c2018)

Henry Porter is one of my favorite spy authors. That is, as far as I know, Henry Porter is not a spy but he’s a heckuva writer of spy fiction. My guess is that he is an under-the-radar writer in the U.S., but he shouldn’t be. His writing doesn’t need translation into Americanese like the Britishisms of other British spy writers. Porter is a journalist and obviously au courant about British and European affairs. He imbues his works with a larger sense of politics and corruption at play, but his focus is at a very human level. More people need to read him.

Paul Samson is an independent investigator, sometimes hired by his ex-employer, MI6, to go where his smaller footprint might be more useful than the clodhoppers of MI6. This proves to be the case when Paul’s interests turn toward a thirteen-year-old migrant, Naji Touma (codenamed “Firefly”), a Syrian refugee, who might have, improbable as it sounds, important information about a terrorist plot. Paul manages to track Naji through Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia, following Naji’s desperate attempt to reach Germany. 

Why Germany? Paul has yet to find out. He begins with a thumbnail psychological sketch of Naji by a psychologist working with an immigrants’ camp in Greece, Anastasia Christakos. Naji is undoubtedly bright, determined, and capable of extreme stealth. He also manages to acquire a wicked throwing knife and should not be underestimated in that regard. Besides the information from Anastasia, Paul finally manages to contact Naji’s sister, still with the rest of Naji’s family in a migrant camp. It becomes clear that Naji is still in deep danger from the Syrian terrorists who precipitated his family’s flight.

What Henry Porter does well is to give his characters depth without oversharing their lives but with enough sense of how they are different from "normal" people. For example, Paul plays the horses to fill in the financial gaps left by his investigating business. He feels empathy for Naji and desires to protect him even when called off by his original employer. The race between Naji’s enemies and Paul (and his eccentric resources: wealthy Denis Hisami and vulgar Vuc Divjac) to find Naji in the Macedonian wilderness is thrilling. Porter describes Naji with greater force throughout the book, and it finally becomes easy to see what the fuss is all about. Porter also endears Naji’s travel companions, slightly older Ifkar and dog Moon, to his readers.

Porter is a keeper.

MBTB star!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

Le French Book, 144 pages, c2004
Translated by Anne Trager

“Treachery in Bordeaux” is the first in “The Winemaker Detective Series,” begun in 2004. It looks as though ten of them have been translated into English and perhaps another fifteen have not. The winemaker part flourishes in the book, the mystery part … is slight. There is no murder. The mystery is about whether the processing of a vineyard’s grapes has been sabotaged.

Benjamin Cooker is a half-Brit, half-French resident of the larger Bordeaux region. He is a tastemaker, as it were, as a wine expert and published critic of France’s wine. He is also a wine “doctor,” examining problems with the various winemaking processes and helping vineyard owners and winemakers to fix them. Although he is sometimes also a vintner, Cooker is meticulously independent and fair. One of his good friends is an vineyard owner and winemaker, but his friendship would never translate into a prejudiced review.

Cooker prides himself on his judgment of the various vintages, although he is beset by insecurities about that judgment. He is a fifty-year-old eccentric and a sensualist at heart. He holds not just an intense appreciation of wine, but also a fondness for good food (mostly cooked by his beloved wife, Elisabeth), an artistic view of the beautiful countryside in which he lives, and a love of art depicting all things wine. Unfortunately, that countryside is falling prey to developers building shoddy homes for people who want the country lifestyle and who are inadvertently precipitating the destruction of that world. Some of the famous vineyards have been sold and turned into housing developments.

It’s hard not to learn a lot about wine, and I admit to having my attention wander during some of the denser paragraphs. However, that is also the major attraction to me. Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen go willing and often into the intricacies of making wine and the history of wine-making in the Bordeaux region. I mostly enjoy expert exposition in a mystery, and I enjoy it here.

This is a short book by today’s standards, and it is mercifully so. The mystery is succinctly stated after a bit of charming meandering, and towards the end, the solution pops up in its proper place. Et voilà, Cooker and his new assistant, Virgile Lanssien, can head off into the succulent sunset where dinner awaits.

This book is definitely not for everybody, especially since the who, what, when, where, why must have been hidden under a cork somewhere. But I was charmed. I believe Cooker and Lanssien’s later adventures will be equally as educational and quaint.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Nowhere Child by Christian White

Minotaur Books, 384 pages, $26.99

“The Nowhere Child” begins in Melbourne, Australia, but mostly moves through the town of Manson, Kentucky, and surrounding area. Australian author Christian White bravely tackles small town life in America and snake-handling evangelicals in his debut novel.

Kimberly Leamy is a photography teacher in Melbourne. Her life isn’t totally satisfying, but there she is and there you have it. Until. One day a man interrupts her break time between classes. His name is Stu, as it eventually develops. (I don’t know why he bothered with an alias, actually.) He says he has been searching for most of his life for a sister who was taken from his family’s home in Manson, Kentucky, when she was two. And here, in Melbourne, Australia, he thinks he has found her.

Stu presents DNA evidence (what did we ever do before DNA testing!) that he says proves his case. Please fly half-way around the world to a dinky area of the U.S. and meet the rest of your slightly — or perhaps more than slightly, no promises — dysfunctional family, he asks. Together they can all figure out what happened. Why not, says Kim. Anything is better than ennui, loss, and an alcoholic fug.

Kim leaves behind a puzzled stepfather and a half-sister (or so she has always thought) in Melbourne. Kim’s mother died four years earlier, so there is no help untangling her story from that end.

In alternating chapters, author White describes both Kim’s experiences in Kentucky and the kidnapping twenty-eight years previously.

Sammy Went was the name of the toddler who disappeared. Father Jack, we learn almost immediately, had an affair with a neighbor. Mother Molly, although she married into her husband’s evangelical faith, was an ardent supporter of the speak-in-tongues, holy-rolling, snake-handling, save-the-sinners church. Emma, Sammy’s sister, was thirteen and rebellious. Stu was "a lumpy nine-year-old." Their secrets, big and small, come spilling out. Do any of them have to do with Sammy’s disappearance? Maaaaybe.

White does a good job bringing Aussie Kim to life. Her struggle to accept the story of Sammy and her family in the bizarrely different environment than the one she was raised in provides a good basis for the story. I did enjoy the book, but after a major revelation occurs at the end, I had to shake my head. (Why, Dean?)

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Flatiron Books, 384 pages, $26.99

How many fingers would you need to count the number of books you’ve read which are set in Malaysia? Counting “The Night Tiger,” I count one. I never read “Lord Jim,” which apparently is set in Malaysia, so you very likely are one up on me right from the start.

Yangsze Choo is a “Malaysian writer of Chinese descent.” She was educated in the U.S. and now lives in California, according to her biography. Those two sentences reflect the varied background of a person from Malaysia. The population of Malaysia is primarily “bumiputera,” a mix of many different groups that  arrived a long time ago from other countries and an aboriginal group. There are also many of Chinese and Indian descent. The British colonized the Malay kingdoms in the 18th century, and their influence lasted until 1957. It’s an ethnic soup and also a soup of old religions, superstitions, and myths. It is into this strange brew that Yangsze Choo drops her story, set in 1931.

Ji Lin’s mother was widowed. Their poverty was almost assured. A prosperous tin merchant married the mother and Ji Lin went to live with her newly cobbled family, including the merchant’s son, Shin. Remarkably, Ji Lin and Shin share the same birth day. They grew up supporting one another, but as they grew older, an estrangement crept into their relationship.

Because Ji Lin is a female, her hope to become a doctor never leaves the ground. On the other hand, Shin is accepted into medical school in Singapore and rarely returns home. Ji Lin takes a position as an apprentice seamstress. When Ji Lin’s mother incurs an oppressive mah jong debt, Ji Lin also becomes a dance hall girl to earn more money to pay the debt. That’s dance hall as in a dime-a-dance place, where a man buys a ticket and dances with a “lucky” young woman. It’s humiliating, but Ji Lin’s options are limited.

Sharing Ji Lin’s story (first person) is a third person narrative mostly of Ren, an eleven-year-old houseboy to first one British doctor and then another. Sometimes the narrative follows the second doctor, William Acton, as he encounters increasingly mysterious events.

I would have put the label, “This is not a mystery,” at the top of the page, but in fact there is a mystery. A woman is killed, supposedly by a (wo)man-eating tiger, but there is some doubt expressed by the pathologist. Is there such a tiger terrorizing the little hamlets and villages around Batu Gajah? Or is there a murderer? And if so, is the murderer a Malay or a farang? Actually, there is very little of a traditional mystery path taken in this book. Let’s forget about the skeptical pathologist and the stern police inspector. You don’t even really have to know the inspector’s name. (Jagit Singh.) The inspector is a literary wraith and the pathologist has his best showing at the end but not for being a pathologist.

So, what kind of book is “The Night Tiger”? It’s primarily a romance. Secondarily, it’s a concoction of mystical elements, both Chinese and Malay. And by “Malay,” I mean there are elements that may belong to village tribes and larger ethnicities, and maybe even Greek mythology. Stir, shake, and serve.

In many ways, if it weren’t for the exotic element of the location, this book would be a book version of cotton candy.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Good Detective by John McMahon

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 320 pages, $27

Is it possible to write a Southern novel these days without referencing race? Race issues and racism run throughout “The Good Detective.” It’s a story old and out in the open and also one that’s new, still damaging, and often hidden behind smiling faces. John McMahon has written an entertaining story around a real-life dark side we are seeing pop up more in the news these days. There’s also maybe a supernatural element to the book.

P. T. Marsh is a police detective in the Georgia town of Mason Falls. At the time McMahon’s story opens, Marsh’s wife and young son have been dead a year. Marsh is still grieving and drunk most of the time, but is still trying to solve cases. He has a young rookie under his wing, Remy Morgan, but she seems to be taking care of him more than he is of her. 

P. T. and Remy catch the case of a partially burned body found near a farm. The body is of a fifteen-year-old boy, Kendrick Webster, the son of a preacher. Kendrick is black. He was tortured before he died. Did someone try to lynch him before or after he died? Did the fire burn him before or after he died? Pretty grim stuff.

Mixed into P. T.’s troubles is the death of a lowlife, Virgil Rowe, who used to beat his girlfriend. One night P. T. goes to harass Virgil on behalf of the girlfriend. The next day P. T. awakens from a drunken stupor to find out Virgil has been murdered. Has he killed Virgil? He doesn’t remember.

Sometimes in P. T.’s head, he hears his dog, Purvis, give him advice. As Kendrick’s case moves along, a woman shows up who claims, mystically speaking, to know certain things about his death. A man in jail knows certain details about the dead boy that haven’t been released to the public. There's a twenty-five-year-old case of a death under similar circumstances. Then, of course, we have mysterious The Order. Is McMahon veering off into Dan Brown territory? Hard to know for a while.

P. T.’s personal story is engaging, the character of Remy is lightly drawn but engaging, the woo-woo stuff is mildly engaging. All in all, “The Good Detective” is worth a read.



Wednesday, March 20, 2019

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

304 pages, Random House, $26

There are many reasons I can never completely understand the viewpoint of Marie Mitchell, the main character in “American Spy.” For one, she is black and no one not-black can walk in the shoes of a black person. I am not white either, but that is neither here nor there. I was not raised in a world that was white, but that, too, is neither here nor there. This is a perspective I will never understand no matter how many books, articles, or interviews I read or how many black friends I have. “American Spy” and Lauren Wilkinson make me realize that even more so.

To have an oppression, even a subtle one, hovering over you most of your life makes for an uneasiness that’s not easy to explain to people who don’t share that experience. Throughout reading this book, I thought of all the #blackwhile hashtags I’ve seen over the last year. “American Spy” is not meant as a political novel, per se, but it speaks to an issue at the heart of American equality.

At various times throughout Marie’s life until her sister died, that sister, Helene, was Marie’s best friend, her caretaker while she was growing up, a confidante, and an irritant. It was because of Helene that Marie became an FBI agent after Helene’s death. Marie’s frustration with the Bureau has to do with how she is treated as a person of color and as a woman. That part of the story takes place in the late 1980s.

The story is told by Marie in a journal she is writing for her young twin sons in 1992. Her narration begins almost immediately with her having to kill an intruder in her home in the U.S. Soon after she and her sons leave for Martinique to live with her mother. That part is present tense, but the bulk of the story is about how Marie got to the point of having to kill an intruder in her house in the U.S. It is bound up with a story that takes place in Burkino Faso. It is bound up in what it means to be an American, an American spy, and a black person in America, Africa, and Martinique. It is a tale of loyalty, morality, and shifting perceptions and obligations.

This was quite a good novel. It provokes thinking. It reminds me that sometimes we Americans don’t acknowledge the elephant in the room, preferring to be ostriches, if I may mix metaphors. It’s a hard book to read in the sense that the world of a spy is never black and white. Marie is caught off balance by that flexible morality. 

As an aside: There was an odd use of the word “Ms.,” a term used in the 1962 portion of the book. Although the word was apparently coined before 1962, I don’t think it was put into regular and widespread usage until the late 1960s or early 1970s.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna by Mario Giordano

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pages, $26
Translated by John Brownjohn from the German

Wait, I’m still laughing. Okay, I’m better now. Here’s the review.

Mario Giordano, a German, has written a savory Sicilian mystery (in German). There is a lot to recommend it, not least of which is that the Auntie Poldi of the title is brash, larger-than-life, in her sixties, never leaves home without her wig, and is determined to drink herself to death in the land of her late ex-husband’s birth.

Isolde “Poldi” Oberreiter speaks Sicilian (not Italian, although she speaks that as well) and has been adopted by her ex-husband’s large, exuberant family. Peppe’s sisters are good cooks and kind-hearted, and Poldi is in need of both to mend her storm-tossed mind. We do not know the whole story about what brought Poldi to Sicily, but hints were dropped in the first book (“Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions”) and hints continue to fall in this book like ash from a volcano.

Most of Peppe’s family returned to Sicily, except for a brother who also settled in Germany. The narrator is the German-born son of Peppe’s brother. He becomes the idiotic Watson to Poldi’s Daliesque Sherlock Holmes. In bits and pieces Poldi reveals her latest caper (and her personal audacious and brazen behavior) to her nephew, who in the portrayal of himself in the story has not yet come to the obvious conclusion that he should be her chronicler. He has been imported from Germany by his Sicilian aunts to help control Poldi. Her drinking is at a toxic level, her amateur investigating has proven dangerous, and she would have to check “complicated” on Facebook to describe her love life. Surely, the young nameless nephew (although I vaguely remember he was named in the first book) can help straighten Poldi out. However, when last we see him in this book, he has learned to drink and smoke excessively on Poldi’s terrace.

Just a few months after solving her first Sicilian murder, she encounters another mystery and even discovers one of the murder victims all by herself. But the first mysterious death is that of Lady, her neighbor’s beloved dog. He was poisoned and Poldi is determined to find out what heartless bastard (or bastardess) did the deed. Soon a second body is on Poldi’s radar; Elisa Puglisi, a district attorney who was part of the anti-Mafia prosecution department, has been murdered.

The police detective in charge of the investigation is her lover, Vito Montana. He has learned to suffer her interference, because, frankly, what could he do to stop her? She is the original irresistible force. We learn more about Poldi’s love life than that of most of the protagonists of other mystery series put together. She regales her nephew, and thus us, with admiring details of the male form, both generally and specifically. Nevertheless, she eventually gets around to the point and sniffs out clues and applies her vast knowledge — according to her — of human nature to resolving problems.

…[M]y Auntie Poldi already lived on the knife edge between joie de vivre and melancholy. The least she wanted was to straighten things out, because straightening things out was always something of an aid to getting over her fits of depression.

Here is one of Poldi’s pronouncements:

…[H]appiness possessed a simple binary structure, and the whole of human existence was suspended between two relatively distant poles. Between heaven and hell, love and ignorance, responsibility and recklessness, splendour and scuzz, the essential and the dispensable. And within this dual cosmic structure there existed only two kinds of people: the deliziosi and the spaventosi, the charming and the frightful. Rule of thumb: house guests, friends and dogs are always deliziosi, the rest are spaventosi.

Aside from the kind of rough humor that makes me cackle, there are descriptions of the food and scenery that makes me want to hop on my Vespa and drive to Poldi’s door, even if the neighborly Etna is actively spewing forth ashy dark clouds. “Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna” is generous with love for Sicily and provides good entertainment with its simple mystery.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Ice Beneath Her by Camilla Grebe

Ballantine, 368 pages, $27 (c2016)
Translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel

“The Ice Beneath Her” is a psychological thriller. There are many flawed characters. The author is Swedish. It is set in Stockholm. Dark, dark, gloom, decapitation, ice. Plot twist you can see coming, even if you aren’t trying to see it. Mostly heavy, with pieces of intrigue.

Hoping “After She’s Gone,” Camilla Grebe’s latest book, will let criminal profiler Hanne Lagerlind-Schön have most of the book instead of having to share it with other annoying voices.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, $27 (c2018)

Now I know what all the fuss is about! “Where the Crawdads Sing” is making Reese Witherspoon’s heart flutter and has received an Edgar nomination for Best First Novel.

The short of it is that Kya Clark was abandoned by her family as a young child and grew up almost feral in the marshes of North Carolina. The book is mostly about how she survived and about the intricacies of the marshy environment. The authorly magic Delia Owens adds to those stark statements is what brings Kya’s story to life. As a real-life scientist with a doctorate in animal behavior, Owens has the knowledge and ability to add vivid and captivating detail to her descriptions of the marsh.

I think a childhood reader of Jean Craighead George or Gary Paulsen would love this book. Although only part of the book is about Kya as a very young girl, her fortitude, resilience, and ingenuity echo in the best way George’s and Paulsen’s heroes, Sam Gribley and Brian Robeson. Although at ten years of age, when Kya is finally totally abandoned, she is much younger than either of the other characters.

The book begins with the discovery of a dead body. A prominent young man in the town of Barkley Cove, Chase Andrews, apparently has fallen through a hole in the floor of a fire tower and broken his neck. The sheriff decides there is something suspicious about Chase’s death and begins a murder investigation. In other mystery books, the sheriff would become the central character and the forensic and legal hunt would be predominant. Owens gives all that a place, but the book — make no mistake — is about Kya and her symbiotic relationship with the marsh.

Because you know there has to be some sort of connection between Kya and Chase for there to be any sort of cohesion to the story, part of the book is about how they come to know each other. Since Kya is so isolated in her run-down shack deep in the marsh, without official schooling, parents, and someone to teach her social interactions, she usually shies away from people as much as possible. The two people she does let into her life are Jumpin’, the owner of a little ramshackle shop at the end of a ramshackle pier, and Tate, a friend of her brother who teaches Kya to read. So how does she meet Chase, the golden boy of the town, the high school football quarterback, a kid with money? Seems unlikely their paths would cross. But Owens’ book is about the unlikely.

I will tell you flat out that the mystery part is almost nothing. Yes, there is an investigation, there are “clues,” there is a trial, there is a resolution. But it is a thin structure upon which to hang a wonderful survival story. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is about loneliness, determination, and struggle. It is the heart-breaking story of a little girl who loses her mother when she just walks off one day into the marsh and never returns. It’s about having an abusive father who has his own sad story. It’s about how a tender young friendship makes all the difference. It’s about how sometimes you just have to stop, listen and look at the wonderful natural world in which we live. It’s also a timely commentary on what it means to be a young woman alone.

The book mostly centers in the time period between 1952, when Kya is abandoned by her mother, to 1969, when Chase’s body is discovered. Owens’ book is also a slice of the intolerant time when black people were formally forbidden from so many places and activities. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel are black, but Kya hasn’t “learned” that blacks and whites are different, and their kindness makes her love them as if they were her own family. I know. It’s a little sappy, but who cares. The whole book is a little sappy. As a matter of fact, I bet you get a little damp-eyed at the end when you read about the cashier at the Piggly Wiggly.

This is a book about nature and karma. Although you won’t understand this until you’ve read the book, I think it should have been called, “Where the Fireflies Flash,” although that is definitely not as stylish as its real title.

I also have to reference one of my favorite books of 2017, "The Marsh King's Daughter," by Karen Dionne. The main character there was also once a young inhabitant of the marsh. She, too, learned to survive in dire circumstances. She, too, was traumatized by that experience but emerged a survivor. If I were comparing marsh stories, Dionne's would win as a better mystery/thriller. That leads to why I'm not giving this book a belated MBTB star. It’s a flimsy excuse for a mystery but a wonderful revelation for a book.