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

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

Dutton, 381 pages, $26

It’s a good thing it’s summer as I write this, because “Lock Every Door” is a summer read. It’s got Gothic thrills and chills, an intimation of a coven, and a harkening back to the claustrophobic apartment building of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Oh, my.

Jules (not a nickname, she points out) Larsen is twenty-five and poor as a churchmouse. She has just lost her job and found out her boyfriend was cheating on her. She is homeless in Manhattan and penniless, with no family and only one true friend, Chloe. It is with Chloe that Jules is staying while she looks to gather her wits and restart her life. Chloe is wonderful, but she has her own life to live and her apartment is small. When Jules spots an advertisement for an apartment sitter, it seems to answer a couple of her most urgent needs: money and a place to stay.

And what a place it is! The Bartholomew (along the lines of “The Dakota”) is a place out of Jules’ favorite book, “Heart of a Dreamer,” by Greta Manville. As teenagers in Pennsylvania coal country, Jules and her sister Jane read the book and dreamed of life in the big city, along the lines of the book’s heroine, Ginny, who lived in The Bartholomew. Now she is being shown around a fabulous apartment on the top floor of that very real building, with a fabulous view of Central Park and lurking gargoyles. And she gets paid $1000 once a week, in cash! Wowee wow wow! But you know the saying about if something is too good to be true ...

The caretaker job comes with some restrictions, very odd restrictions. No one can ever visit Jules. She may not spend a night away from the apartment. She may not post anything on social media. She may not initiate contact with anyone else in the building. Privacy concerns, you know. Most of the permanent residents are rich and famous and “vant to be alone.” Most of the ones she spots seem standoffish anyway. There’s the old man with his nurse toddling up and down the stairs for exercise. There’s the old woman with her yappy dog always going for walks. And then there’s the old woman who ... OMG, she’s Greta Manville, the author of Jules’ favorite book! Could that be why her book is placed in The Bartholomew? She herself is a resident! Jules longs to talk with her and risks breaking a rule to make contact.

The wonder of The Bartholomew is compromised when Jules hears a noise in the night. Is it coming from her fabulous and richly appointed living room? She slowly descends from her richly appointed bedroom, down her marvelously constructed spiral staircase only to find no one and nothing.

It is true that Jules has nightmares anyway. Her older sister Jane disappeared when they were teenagers. One day she stepped out of the shop where she worked part-time and into a mysterious car, and then she was gone, without a trace. In her dreams, Jules relives that. That story haunts Jules’ increasingly difficult experience at The Bartholomew.

Jules almost immediately makes a friend in the building, another young woman named Ingrid Gallagher. Ingrid’s cheeriness balances Jules’ recalcitrance. But their friendship ends abruptly when Ingrid disappears. Jules is told that Ingrid just dropped her keys on the lobby floor and vanished into the night. A large part of the book is given to Jules’ search for Ingrid.

Perhaps the sequel to “Lock Every Door” will be “The Phone Call Is Coming from Inside Your House,” because although the story takes place in Manhattan, the feeling is of a suburban horror movie.

The ending was a little goofy but that is appropriate for a summer read, don’t you think?

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

We Were Killers Once by Becky Masterman

Minotaur Books, 312 pages, $27.99

Brigid Quinn rides again! This is good news because Brigid is one of the most unusual private eyes in the biz. She’s ex-FBI. (Hold the applause; she was disgraced and banished to Arizona.) She’s the wife of an ex-priest, Carlo. (He looks for the good in people; she knows there’s evil out there.) Her niece, Gemma-Kate, is a bit of a psychopath, but a brilliant psychopath. (She may — or may not — have poisoned one of Brigid and Carlo’s lovable pugs.) Both Brigid and Carlo have almost been done in by murderers. (Can’t think of an aside. This is a — for the most part — mystery blog, so there are usually murders being discussed. PI-ing is a dangerous profession, fictionally speaking, and being married to such a person presents its own dangerous moments.)

Brigid is Carlo’s second wife. His beloved, we assume, first wife, Jane, died a few years back. The personal understory of “We Were Killers Once” is about Brigid coming to terms with Carlo’s relationship with Jane. Before Carlo, Brigid had never been married, so Carlo doesn’t face the same potential anguish. In fact, most of Carlo’s anguish seems to be philosophical. It’s a good thing he’s a professor of philosophy. His thoughts and conversation are measured. Brigid is a person of deed, not word. It’s a wonder they have found each other. It’s a wonder they are still together after a couple of years of marriage. Neither is a blushing bride or groom, so there’s perhaps less dramatic romance and a steadier kind of love. Their relationship is about to be tested from all sorts of angles because of an obsession and an old sin. 

For as long as she can remember, Brigid has been fascinated with the killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. You might know them as the focal points of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” They were found guilty and subsequently executed for the murders of the Clutter family. Becky Masterman’s hypothesis here is: What if Capote got it wrong? His story is mostly from Perry’s point of view. What if Dick Hickock had his own tale to tell? What if there were another person involved?

For a number of years, Brigid has been intrigued by the murders of another family, the Walkers, in Florida. Hickock and Smith were known to have been in the area of those murders, but they were discounted as suspects by lack of evidence tying them to the crime. What if that “other person” was willing to do whatever to prevent the discovery of his involvement and his knowledge of Hickock and Smith?  What if that man’s name is Jeremiah Beaufort and Brigid and Carlo cross his path?

Mixing real life facts, Capote’s book, and Masterman’s imagination results in an intriguing book. From the start, Masterman divides her book into Brigid’s first person narration and a third person viewpoint of Beaufort’s search to eradicate whatever information may exist to link him to any killings. Beaufort is seventy years old when he gets out of prison for other crimes, and he doesn’t waste any time trying to track down potential threats. 

In favor of Brigid and Carlo surviving their encounter is Beaufort’s naïveté and his egotism. Also on the plus side are Brigid’s tough mind and practical planning based on her years as an agent and borderline sociopathic personality. Gemma-Kate is an apple that doesn’t fall far from the Quinn tree, so she is another plus. Carlo has deep sense of the value of humanity and loving kindness, but they probably are not really pluses here. So that’s the team trying to fend off the clammy fingers of Death grabbing one or more of them.

I’m leaving huge swathes of the story still under wraps. For instance, how specifically do Brigid and Carlo wind up on Beaufort’s radar? That’s part of the circle-tightening Masterman does to carry the story along, and I’m not going to be the one to muck up the deal!

This is a good one.


Thursday, August 1, 2019

Love Story, with Murders by Harry Bingham

Delacorte Press, 400 ages, $27

When your popular novel features a protagonist so acutely different, what’s your next move? How do you continue to create interest when readers (presumably) already know the secret to your character’s eccentricities? We should all have this problem. Harry Bingham was born ready to write the sequel to “Talking to the Dead” (2012).

D.C. Fiona Griffiths of a Welsh CID unit is back. This twenty-six-year-old woman (in the fictional year of 2010) spent part of her youth thinking she was dead. She still isn’t quite sure she isn’t actually dead. But mostly now, she lives on what she terms “Planet Normal.” She has a loverly boyfriend, Buzz, and a job she hasn’t managed to lose, although there are a few of her colleagues who don’t like her.

“Love Story, with Murders” is a strange title, but at the end, perhaps you will agree, it is spot on. It first begins with a murder. The murder actually took place several years ago, but the body — or at least part of it, consisting of a leg — was only recently discovered. In someone’s garage freezer. Soon other pieces of Mary Jane Langton, a twenty-two-year-old student and sometime “exotic” dancer, begin to surface. 

The title contains the plural, “murders.” And so soon, another body, or parts thereof, makes itself known. This one is of recent vintage and is of a man, Ali el-Khalifi, a lecturer in engineering. His parts are not hidden in freezers or cans of oil the way Mary Jane’s are. His are merely strewn around the suburban-side.

This is Fiona’s reaction to the discovery, of which she was an integral part, of Mary Jane: “[T]his will be a CID case from here on. A sweet little murder. I feel a deep sigh of relaxation pass through me. Of pleasure.” An unusual reaction, wot?

How about when Buzz asks her about her case: “I tell him about my night, except not the bit about going down to Pontcanna or up to Whitchurch, or the bit about calling my dad, or the bit about going into the dead girl’s room, or the drizzle of body parts, or the joint which I thought about twice but didn’t have. Apart from that, I’m as open as sunshine.”

About Fiona’s dad: He’s a criminal. He has never been caught, so he’s either a smart criminal or a lucky one. It is with trepidation that the force has accepted Fiona as a cop. Also about Fiona’s dad: He isn’t her biological father. At about two-and-a-half, Fiona was discovered in her adoptive parents’ car, abandoned. By whom? Why? Fiona continues a desultory personal investigation into it, but there isn’t a lot to go on. And she wouldn’t want to stub her toe on the wrong rocks.

So these are the basic elements to Bingham’s second Fiona story. What makes this book so extraordinary is the same thing that made “Talking to the Dead” extraordinary. Bingham mixes the grisly with the humorous, the sweet with the macabre. He is excellent at keeping both the pacing and storyline off balance. Tra la la la la, boom! For example, at one point Fiona is in dire danger of losing her life. Well, you think, there is a good portion of the book to go and Fiona is the only first person narrator, so she must survive, right? But how? And the fun of it is how Bingham goes about resolving those “difficulties.” Tra la la la la, boom!

Fiona studied philosophy at Cambridge, so every once in awhile Bingham inserts a philosophical digression. Fun. She rarely can feel her feet. Fun? She grows her own weed. Fun? Pile the weirdness on, Bingham!

Here’s a lovely bit of Bingham:

For me, all corpses count the same. One dead body might lead to Barry Precision. Another to nothing more than a love poem lost down the back of a sofa. There is no eminence here, no lowliness. We are all equal under Death’s scythe.

I’ve left out the “love story” part of the title. It’s one of the quieter moments of the book and should be revealed in its own time and only to its reader.

MBTB star!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Crown, 336 pages, $27

“Groundhog Day” was cute, charming, romantic. “Recursion” is grim and scary. “Recursion” is about events that happen over and over again, with differences, sometimes with a phase of mere minutes and sometimes of years. It’s “Groundhog Day” on steroids. Blake Crouch’s story starts off small, if very dramatically. The insistent, repetitive nature of the central idea of the book could be dreary but Crouch makes it exciting and heart-breaking.

Barry Sutton is a detective who has caught an unusual case. A woman is teetering on the edge  of the top of a tall building, threatening to jump. Barry gets her to tell him her story as he awaits specialists to help him rescue her. She says she is Ann Voss Peters and her husband is married to another woman. But that woman died many years ago by jumping off the very roof Ann occupies. She was her husband’s first wife. Ann is his second wife. They have children. Suddenly, she says, she awoke with a different life. Her husband was not her husband any longer. She had no children. The first wife had not died. Ann fears she has FMS — false memory syndrome — a disorder that seems to be increasing in occurrence. She and others are convinced they lived lives that no longer “exist.”

Barry is a morose kind of guy, still smarting from his divorce from Julia ten years ago. That was a year after their teenage daughter died. His life has been spiraling downwards ever since. After Ann kills herself, Barry becomes intrigued by how convincing Ann was about her alternate life. The intrigue turns into an obsession, one that replaces his obsession over his daughter’s death.

Helena Smith has invented a “chair.” She is not a carpenter or a designer like Eames (although an Eames chair does appear in the latter stages of the book). She is a scientist driven by the advancing Alzheimer’s disease of her mother to find a device that will help her. Helena is interested in mapping memories and playing them back for someone with a memory disease. Helena is hoping her chair will be that device.

At this point, you have to be thinking, Aha, these events are related. It is true that when Barry meets Helena, hell on earth breaks loose. But Crouch’s book is not strictly a science-fiction thriller or even a horror novel. It is genuinely touching to read of Barry and Helena’s struggles and how they must deal with frustrations over the course of their lives. “Recursion” is the butterfly wing that beats and opens up an unpalatable look at the repulsive tendencies of humans but also a hopeful glance at their transcendent and self-sacrificial ones as well.

MBTB star!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 416 pages, $28

Are you now or have you ever been a gamer? Do you now sit or have you ever sat in a dank basement or on a rumpled bed or lumpy couch, surrounded by old crusty food, with the lights dimmed and played an RPG or VR game, or even Wii Fitness? Are you now fantasizing or have you ever fantasized about writing code with the big guns in Silicon Valley? Are you just a regular person who likes to play games every once in a while? Are you someone with gaming habits somewhere in-between? (Does that cover everyone except the never-evers, nuh-uhs, ain’t-gonna-plays?) Then this book is for you.

Colter Shaw is a man in his late twenties or early thirties. He grew up in a compound in the California wilderness. He learned all sorts of useful skills: hunting, climbing, surviving the elements, tracking. Was it some sort of “Deliverance” thing, as one of the characters suggests? In fact, both Colter’s parents were academics who took to the woods with their three children for reasons Colter is still trying to understand. After his father died under suspicious circumstances, Colter began an earnest effort to figure out if his father was crazy as a loon or crazy like a fox.

Colter now lives in the modern world, and he uses all his skills to solve problems for which people have offered rewards. He chooses his cases carefully. He is a bounty hunter who refuses that title. Jeffery Deaver does a skilfull job of gradually revealing who Colter is and how he processes his cases. I think Deaver delights in imbuing his character with interesting quirks. For instance, Colter is a percentage, calculate-the-odds kind of guy with small, neat handwriting. He rarely smiles, except for his nieces. He has a home in Florida but travels around in a Winnebago to solve cases across the country. The Winnebago is his version of Jack Reacher’s toothbrush.

The latest case he decides to solve is that of a missing nineteen-year-old college student, Sophie Mulliner. Although she has been gone only a short time, her father is frantic. The police have been less than helpful (or there wouldn’t be a story). Of course, Colter finds her and in the process finds a bigger mystery. Five items were left for Sophie to help her escape her confinement. And a stencil of an odd-looking businessman was left nearby.

Suddenly, the police, specifically Detective LaDonna Standish, are interested in Colter. Also interested in Colter — for a different reason — is rad, tatted, eccentric Maddie Poole. She is a gamer and introduces Colter to that culture in a big way, by taking him to the latest gamer con. He meets a couple of big names in the game industry, which leads to introductions to more people in the industry, which leads to the realization that the kidnapper is following an old video game format: The Whispering Man.

The eerie Whispering Man leaves his victims with five items to aid in their escape. If they cannot escape, he comes back and kills them. When the IRL kidnapper steals his second victim, Colter joins the hunt.

“The Never Game” was fast-paced, had quirky characters, interesting crimes, and a to-be-continued storyline about Colter’s father. And, seriously, you don’t have to have ever played a video game in your life or watched anyone play one or breathed the same air as someone who once played a video game, but it might assist in your enjoyment. Way to hook a reader, Jeffery Deaver!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Metropolis by Philip Kerr

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, $28

British author Philip Kerr died last year, so “Metropolis” is the last Bernie Gunther book to be released. Maybe. There is an unfortunate tendency to resurrect characters by giving them to other authors to handle. Sometimes the results are terrific, but often, meh. Bernie will be a hard character for an author to adopt. Kerr has taken him through the horrors of World War II as a police detective in Berlin to the post-war world and all its disillusionment and falsity. It’s not just the unusual time and place, it’s not that Bernie is a German in Germany during WWII, it’s not that Bernie is a cynical optimist, it’s that Kerr has breathed startling life into Bernie and his time. It was heartbreaking to learn of Kerr’s death, because it also meant that Bernie, as Kerr wrote him, is also dead.

In “Metropolis,”* Bernie is a beat cop who gets a big break when he’s asked to join the murder squad. The year is 1928. Let Kerr provide the context for Berlin between wars. Morally and politically lost after WWI and with Hitler on the rise, this is Berlin through Bernie’s eyes:

...Berlin now had almost nothing in common with the rest of the country. Increasingly the capital city was like a large ship that had slipped its mooring and was slowly drifting father and father away from the coast of Germany; it seemed unlikely we were going to return its more conservative ways, even if we’d wanted to. It’s not just people who outgrow their parents and origins; it’s metropolises, too.

And

It’s never the cold that brings out the worst in people, it’s the heat. If you can call them people: the sick, venal, lowlife that lies oozing at the bottom of the strata we are wont to call Berlin society. Sometimes I had the strong idea that [artist] George Grosz was right and I was wrong; that he was only recording what was already there: the indifferent fat bankers, the cripple veterans, the mutilated beggars, and the dead prostitutes — that this was how we really were, ugly and obscene, hypocritical and callous.

Into this societal maelstrom, Bernie’s mission with the murder squad is to find out who is killing prostitutes. The killer is also scalping them, earning himself the nickname of “Winnetou,” a Native American character from German author Karl May’s wildly imagined American Westerns. One of the victims is the daughter of a criminal bigwig, Erich Angerstein. He puts pressure on Bernie to find his daughter’s murderer. He is willing to help, and the suspect might even survive his “help.”

Suddenly, the murder squad is pulled off the murder of the prostitutes to investigate another series of murders, that of handicapped ex-veterans. “Dr. Gnatenschuss,” which translates as coup de grâce, is that murderer’s nickname. He has boasted in a letter to a newspaper that he will run rings around the stupid police. Dr. G’s m.o. is to walk up boldly to his victim and shoot him in the head. 

Bernie has many ideas and many orders from Herr Weiss, his boss, and Herr Gennat, a fellow detective with lots of experience. While Bernie still searches for the murderer of Eva Angerstein, Erich’s daughter, he must also don a disguise as an amputee beggar. His old army jacket and Iron Cross will see another day in the sun, as long as Bernie does not actually become a victim himself. And he still mulls over the first murder case he handled with the murder squad a year ago, before he was called up to audition to be a permanent member of the squad. That victim, too, was a young woman. She was dismembered and now has been mostly forgotten.

What else is happening in Bernie’s world? Let’s see. He’s a raging alcoholic. He finds a number of women interesting and, for better or worse, they reciprocate. He may be in over his head with the criminal underground. He knows far too much about the gruff and weird underbelly of Berlin’s nightlife, especially the “anything goes” motto of the sex industry. There is extreme poverty in the city. There has been way too much death and everyone is traumatized to some extent. Bernie suffers. Berlin suffers. Hitler marches forward to his future.

Kerr handles all the intricacies of this historical environment and spins a thrilling fictional narrative from it. And Kerr’s writing has humor. Granted, it’s a touch ironic and sarcastic — e.g., “I never yet saw a musical I didn’t think could be improved by a deeper pit for the orchestra, and a bottomless chasm for the cast.” — but it balances the grimness of the crimes and the blackness of Berlin’s soul.

MBTB star!


* Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is referenced a few times. It was screened in 1927. Lang’s wife appears as a character in the book.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Conviction by Denise Mina

Little, Brown & Co., 385 pages, $27

Denise Mina’s writing voice is jazzy, lippy, arresting, and Scottish. In her latest book, she presents a complicated, enigmatic, troubled protagonist, a character she writes so well.

Anna McDonald is the young mother of two wonderful daughters and the companion of a respectable lawyer, Hamish. She does the laundry, picks up dry cleaning, drops kids off at school, and executes other mundane household tasks. On the face of it, she is a normal housewifey-type character.

The first eccentric thing about Anna is she likes to awaken early and listen to podcasts. Before her husband wakes and their mutual stresses and demands begin to take their daily form, she sits with a cup of tea and listens to whatever happens her way. She is just about to begin a podcast by Trina Keany, a producer on the MisoNetwork. Trina’s podcast is entitled, “Death and the Dana.” But before Anna can get fully into it, Hamish announces he is leaving her. He is taking the children and he is going to Portugal for a vacation with Estelle. Estelle? Anna’s best friend Estelle? What?

Amid the flurry of the tossed contents of Hamish’s suitcase, Anna is left to grieve. At first she is only capable of lying on her hall floor. Eventually, a knock on the door intrudes on her catatonia. It’s Fin. Estelle’s husband Fin. He obnoxiously batters on the door and harasses her through the mail slot until she opens up.

It is hard for her to focus on Fin and his problems. While still stunned by events and before Fin arrived, Anna continued to listen to “Death and the Dana,” her podcast. She hears a name she has not heard in almost a decade: Leon Parker. According to the podcast, Leon and his two adult children drowned aboard Leon’s yacht not too long ago. He had just married Gretchen Teigler, a very, very wealthy and powerful woman. Gretchen was not there when the ship went down, and she says she has no idea why Leon would destroy his own boat and kill his own children. Trina, the podcaster, has many things to explore about the mysterious sinking in the next episodes of her show. But suddenly, Anna must carry on her own investigation into the sinking. She is convinced that Leon would never have killed himself, let alone other people, let alone his children.

Here are two more bits of information about Anna: She does not drive and she will not fly in an airplane. That’s because she is not Anna McDonald, and both driving and traveling abroad might expose her deceit. Mina reveals very early on that Anna is really “Sophie Bukaran.” In spits and spots throughout the book, Mina tells the story of what happened to Sophie/Anna and why Anna declares that Gretchen Teigler is trying to kill her.

Back to the story. So Anna tears out of her house with the keys to Hamish’s prized car. What? Anna can drive? Fin tags along. Anna can’t be bothered with a road trip companion, so she periodically tries to get rid of him. But he sticks like glue. He is a bonehead about the podcast, a bonehead about being dumped, a bonehead about what really is going on with Anna. And it turns out he’s a sticky, anorexic, persistent, famous bonehead. Fin was once a rock star. Then he was famous for the disaster that enwrapped his band and his life. One of the reasons he doesn’t want to be left behind is he’s broke. Anna, on the other hand, before lighting out, scooped up the pound notes Hamish had given Anna to resettle in a little apartment somewhere.

It’s a daunting road trip because someone is trying to kill Anna again, all because her nosy neighbor, Pretcha, has snapped and tweeted a photo of Fin and Anna leaving her house. Fin, if you will remember, is famous. The tweet builds viewership momentum until Anna’s life is an open book. That’s when people begin to express themselves in violent ways in her presence.

Besides the appeal generated by the quirky stories of why Anna is in disguise, why she is trying to find out about the sinking of the Dana and Leon’s death, and what she is going to do about losing her family, there is Mina’s ear-catching writing. For instance:

I lay in bed savouring the anticipation [of listening to podcast], watching light from the street ripple across the ceiling, listening as the heating kicked on and the grand old dame of a house groaned and cracked her bones.

and about meeting Leon:

Our stories weren’t disguised curriculum vitae. We didn’t tell them as a way of boasting or declaring our relative place in the social order. There was none of that crap. These were stories to entertain, told for the shape of them, for the sake of them, for the love of a tale.

and, finally:

It’s hard to be among vanilla bastards all the time. Normal people can get genuinely upset about a bad haircut, cross words, sick cats. It’s hard not to roll your eyes and say the wrong thing. I often said the wrong thing — wake up, shut up, grow up. These are the wrong things to say when people are sad about some minor cruelty or sentimental incident. But Adam Ross [who worked with Anna and is an addict] was as damaged as me. He didn’t need to be shielded or protected and he knew what not to pick at. A fellow traveller. You could say anything to him. That is rare and very precious.

Plus, there is a ghostly element. When Mina first introduced it, I got "ghost bumps" and turned on all the lights.

As for the title, Amila Fabricase, the yacht's chef, was accused of murder in the yacht deaths and convicted. It is as much for this stranger as for herself that Anna stubbornly traces the fate of the Dana. The dual meaning of "conviction" is a smile from Mina's pen. Also, I laughed when I read the last paragraph. I can't remember the last time I laughed at the end of a mystery book! That, too, comes from Mina's smiling pen.

MBTB star!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $28

Warning: I will be using the words “love,” “genius,” “unexpected,” “spectacular,” and “genuflecting” many times during this review.

Jackson Brodie has been resurrected* to appear in “Big Sky, “ the fifth novel in Kate Atkinson’s adept series. Atkinson has a writing style that is designed to keep readers off balance. She inserts humor in subtle ways in unexpected places. She has a protagonist who appears only sporadically and sometimes just whimsically in her series. She probably sits at her writing desk and says the word “traditional,” then laughs uncontrollably.

In broad strokes, Atkinson plays with fate and coincidence. (I say it is coincidence if it is non-fiction and fate if it is fiction.) “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen,” says Jackson Brodie. Thus it is that a diverse and idiosyncratic lot are tossed into the area where the sun first rises in Yorkshire. Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay, Scarborough, the Cleveland Way, picturesque areas I know from having hiked the Coast-to-Coast route years ago.

Jackson settles into his new abode near Whitby, having made the decision that investigation can be done from anywhere. Down the road is The Seashell hotel, run by the formidable Rhoda and her meekly acquiescent husband Andy Bragg. Not too far away are the offices of Steven Mellors, a lawyer for whom Brodie has done some work. Jackson’s new client is Crystal Holroyd, wife of Tommy. One evening, Jackson happens across Vincent Ives who fears he will be charged with the death of his wife, Wendy. Jackson takes pity on Vince and gives him a business card. Call if I can help, he says to Vince. Ha!

DC Ronnie Dibicki and DC Reggie Chase are young police officers set to check out any current connections to an old case of corruption and a pedophile ring run by Antonio Bassani and Michael Carmody, now in jail or dead. Oh, you Kate Atkinson fans, does the name Reggie Chase sound familiar? Toss your remembering muscle back to “When Will There Be Good News” (c2008). She was sixteen years old in that book, and now she is twenty-six. It is a delight to witness Reggie and Jackson’s subdued reunion, haunted as it is by a murder and odious men. At one point Jackson says to Reggie, “Truth is absolute, but the consequences of it aren’t.” “Sounds like a specious argument to me, Mr. B,” shoots back Reggie. It’s a wonderful if brief connection.

Here is where Atkinson draws the strings up and hauls her characters into the same bag. Tommy, Andy, and Vince are golfing buddies. (“Golfing friends,” Vince thinks, not “friend friends.”) Right off the bat, we learn Tommy, Andy and Steven are involved in something shady. Ronnie and Reggie are trying to interview … Tommy, Andy, and Vince in conjunction with the old case. As a matter of fact, they are in Vince’s apartment when he learns someone has murdered his soon-to-be-ex-wife. (Did Vince?) At one point Reggie spies Jackson in the distance, the first time she has seen him in a long while. It is then that she recalls Jackson’s comment on coincidence just waiting for an explanation. Coincidence (or fate) is the life-blood of “Big Sky.”

The main characters are Jackson, Reggie, Crystal, Harry [Crystal’s stepson], and Vince. Atkinson sometimes writes a scene several times so we can see it from the viewpoint of different characters. These characters are plopped into circumstances mostly not of their creation and left to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. These people are unusually nuanced, engaging oddballs, victims of fate (or coincidence).

Will Ronnie and Reggie find connections to their old case? Who killed Wendy? What’s the story about Tommy, Andy, and Steven? (Okay, you learn right off the bat that it is sex trafficking. Slimy, grody, reprehensible, inexcusable sex trafficking. But in Atkinson’s understated way, there are almost no graphic scenes, but there often is a view of the black-and-blue aftermath.) Crystal wants Jackson to determine who has been tailing her, so … Who is tailing Crystal? Why have anonymous notes panicked Crystal and has-been comic Barclay Jack? What about Vince? What will happen to sweet sixteen-year-old Harry, a summer employee of Transylvania World, a volunteer assistant to Barclay Jack, and the son of the odious Tommy?

There are invisible threads everywhere, and it is our delight to see Atkinson roll them out and unravel them. As Atkinson writes, “Worlds were colliding all over the place. Jackson thought he might actually have gone mad.”

This is not a whodunnit. You are not given clues per se and asked to solve the murder along with the detective. This is a look at some good-hearted people trying to wade through life’s many miseries, mysteries, and mayhem and not lose their humanity. The big sky covers us all.

A huge MBTB star for this one!




* As Jackson ponders his past, he reminisces: “He’d fallen off a cliff, been attacked by a mad dog, almost died in a train crash, nearly drowned, been crushed in a garbage truck, blown up — his house had been, anyway — and that wasn’t counting  a couple of near misses when serving in the police and the Army. His life had been a litany of disasters. What if he was already on his ninth life? The last go-round. Perhaps he should be more cautious.”

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Dark Site by Patrick Lee

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $27.99

I’ve noticed something some writers do, and I’ve done the same something myself when writing but without any conscious effort. It’s worth pondering why this is so in our hyper-aware and stressful times. It is this. When a male protagonist is referred to, it is by his last name. A female character, on the other hand, is mentioned by her first name. In “Dark Site,” Sam Dryden is “Dryden,” and Danica Ellis is “Danica.” Even more telling, one of the characters is named Jack Grace, and he is referred to as “Grace.” Hmm.

I suppose I fell into a rhythm based on the stereotypes with which I grew up. The male prep school and adult male enclaves of business and the military foster males calling each other by their last names. Women are chatty, friendly, and nurturing, so they receive motherly recognition encapsuled in their chatty, friendly, and nurturing first names. The protective one receives the tougher name and the person who needs protecting receives the friendlier one.

I’ve been trying to break myself of this bias.

“Dark Site” hardly breaks the mold with tough guy “Dryden protecting the more helpless Danica (i.e., she doesn’t know how to shoot a gun). However, in the sections of the story dealing with events in 1989, he is “Sam” and she is “Danica," and she is the more adventurous and daring of the two. Of course, they are both twelve years old, so they are allowed their first names.

Back to the story.

Author Patrick Lee has already written a couple of other Sam Dryden books, both fast-paced thrillers. But “Dark Site” can very well stand on its own outside of the series playbook.

In 2018, Danica is in fairly desperate financial straits in Gold Beach, Oregon, when two people attempt to kidnap her. Her background is innocuous and her life certainly has held only minimal drama, of interest to almost no one, including herself. Danica flees her perilous situation in Oregon to visit her estranged stepfather in California.

In 2018, Sam is pondering purchasing and renovating an old house in Malibu. When someone tries to attack Sam, he dodges the bullet meant for him and realizes the trail leads to where Danica’s stepfather is. He does not know Danica or her stepfather, however, so the journey is a strange and puzzling one for him. He arrives just in time to save Danica from yet another attempt to capture or kill her.

After some distrust and disquiet, Sam and Danica unite to uncover who is behind the attacks and why. Bring in the military and FBI? What if it is the military or FBI trying to kill them for nefarious reasons? They realize that they have to eventually trust someone who can provide a clue. And that is how Patrick Lee leads his readers on a merry chase, following clues obtained in heart-pounding fashion to advance the plot. He’s very good at that!

The plot of the last third of the book is a little hare-brained, but Lee presses the accelerator and zooms on at breakneck speed. Events in 1989 and 2018 toggle back and forth. We realize early on that Sam and Danica did know each other as twelve year olds. But why can’t they remember each other, especially since the events that took place when they were twelve seem to be extraordinary.

The only comfort I can give you while reading this book is to remind you that Sam and Danica somehow survive the events of 1989. They are functioning adults in 2018. Now if only they can survive the events of 2018, they will have quite a tale to tell.

Great page turner, even though the ending was a little too fantastical.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

William Morrow, 320 pages, $26.99

Hen and Lloyd have just moved into a perfectly cozy suburban home. Hen is an artist and she has a nearby studio. Lloyd does some sort of corporate job, the nature of which doesn’t add to or detract from the story. Their new neighbors are Matthew and Mira. Matthew is a high school teacher and Mira travels for some sort of corporate work, the nature of which doesn’t really affect the story. One of the four is a killer.

Author Peter Swanson has loaded his main character, Hen, with quite a background. Before her bipolar chemistry was leveled with medication, Hen imagined someone at college was a murderer. Now it is several years later and Hen still has some peaks and valleys, but there are no severe psychotic breaks anymore. Lloyd is committed to helping Hen maintain a clear vision of reality. Everything was going smoothly until Hen declared to Lloyd one day that neighbor Matthew is a killer, the murderer of a boy who lived in their old neighborhood. Awkward!

Matthew and Mira obtain a restraining order after Hen calls the police. Not to be deterred by a piece of paper, Hen follows Matthew and investigates someone she thinks may be Matthew’s next victim. Meanwhile, and this is where Swanson takes a different path in his storytelling than others would take, it turns out that, yes, Matthew is a murderer. Oooo.

“Before She Knew Him” is a lively but mostly cerebral story. Even if you figure out one of the main secrets of the story, it won’t matter, because Swanson is still good at tickling the horror funny bone. I really liked Hen. And I really liked Matthew. Go figure!

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.