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

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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Murderous Mistral by Cay Rademacher

St. Martin’s Press, 281 pages, $16.99 (c2017)

Ah, to be in Provence in the south of France! The food, the wine, the relaxed atmosphere! Captain Roger Blanc did not see his reassignment to Gadet in Provence as something positive. His fall from the heights in Paris was rapid and final. He had uncovered corruption there and it was not appreciated. He loved his wife and children but that, too, was not appreciated. Within a couple of days, Blanc had gone from a prestigious job in the Paris gendamerie and being a happy family man to being “sentenced” to a rundown house in Sainte-Françoise-la-Vallé to live and in a cupboard of an office in Gadet to work, without his wife or children who had gone to live with her lover.

Blanc is a by-the-rules kind of guy. His bête noire is probably the easy-going life. But one thing hasn’t changed; there are just as many political toes to avoid as in Paris. Welcome to Gadet! Forget the sleepy town scenario, however. First there is a charred corpse found at the garbage dump. It had been plugged by bullets from a Kalashnikov before being burned. Then the juge d’instruction, the person who holds the fate of his case in her hands, turns out to be the wife of his old boss in Paris, the one who exiled Blanc to the paradise of Provence. And to top it off, the deadly mistral begins bringing heavy winds, cold misery, and the ill-will of a wind that blows no good.

Cay Rademacher brings a je ne sais quois to his story. He presents the smells (mostly thyme), the sounds (mostly loud motors and roosters), and the sights of a truly beautiful region. They add a quality to the story that makes it more than just entertaining. Everything seems to say relax, drink some wine, grill a sausage, take a nap, have a romance, avoid forest fires. As Rademacher explores Blanc’s murder case, he entwines it with the essence of the region.

Meet Second Lieutenant Fabienne Souillard and Lieutenant Marius Tonon, Blanc’s new cohorts. They help Blanc come to terms with how things are done in that part of the world. Paris intensity meets Provençal ease. Despite how Rademacher presents the sublime qualities of the French countryside, this story is not quite a cozy. On the other hand, it is not the noir of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles series either. Rest in-between those worlds and enjoy.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Current by Tim Johnston

Algonquin Books, 416 pages, $27.95

“The Current” poses a lot of questions. Whether Tim Johnston answers them depends on what his readers will discern from his words.

Audrey Sutter is the nineteen-year-old daughter of a man dying of cancer. She leaves college to travel back to her home in Minnesota to see him, maybe for the last time. Although they did not get along initially, Audrey has become fast friends with Caroline, her original roommate in the dorm. They parted ways right away but then the vagaries of fate entwined them once again, only this time the bond was not based on shared accommodation but on shared interests and a deep liking. So Caroline offers to drive Audrey home, far from their college and far from her hometown in Georgia. It’s winter, there’s snow and ice, and it’s a preposterous journey for two young girls to be doing on the spur of the moment.

There is an incident at a gas station and the girls speed away in Caroline’s car. The car crashes down an embankment and spins out onto an ice-encrusted river. Johnston writes one of the most thrilling and haunting scenes of the two girls suspended on top of the possibly very fragile ice. The next time Audrey makes an appearance is in a hospital.

Audrey is not just any girl. Her father is the ex-sheriff of her hometown. After her mother died when Audrey was very young, her father became everything to her. She hero worshipped him and he never let her down. To have him so vulnerable when he was so strong, to have him worrying over her when it should be the other way around is painful to Audrey. And the fact that Audrey believes someone purposely bumped Caroline’s vehicle onto the river adds to his frustration and her despair. Can he protect his little "deputy"? Can she protect her dad? Tim Johnston spends the whole book finding out if they rise to the task.

It’s more than just what happened to Audrey. Ten years earlier, another girl fell into the same river. She wasn’t as lucky as Audrey and she drowned. Holly Burke was about the same age as Audrey when she died. Before Holly drowned, she had been hit by a car. She had been murdered, but Audrey’s father, who was sheriff at the time, could not find enough evidence to arrest anyone. 

Danny Young had known Holly Burke from childhood because their fathers were partners in a plumbing supply store. After Holly’s body was found, people suspected Danny of having something to do with it. He and Holly had been in the same bar, he had left soon after Holly, and he had been drunk. Because that was pretty much all the information that existed, Danny was never charged with anything, although, by gum, the sheriff interrogated him intensely. Not long after, Danny left town and had been wandering the country from job to job. His mother and twin brother, Marky, were left behind, heartbroken.

Then one day Danny returns. With his return arise the old questions that were never answered satisfactorily. There are still murmurs in the town about his guilt. One of the people who has never forgiven Danny is Holly’s father, Gordon. The fact that Gordon had been an old family friend and close to Danny’s mother has caused him distress over the years, but he never repaired that bridge. And now that Danny was making one of his infrequent appearances in town the old issues are raised again.

What did Sheriff Sutter know back then about Danny and Holly? What does he know now about Audrey’s trauma? He’s a sick man but he never lost the resolve to correct old wrongs. Audrey wants to acknowledge a similar courage in herself when she inadvertently comes across information that could either finally condemn Danny or exonerate him.

I’ve danced around some of the story’s plotlines because it’s so satisfying to watch author Johnston introduce them, spin them, and finely draw them. He also adds in certain spiritual, for lack of a better word, elements. Some of the characters “know” things or “see” things, without knowing or seeing them in reality. Marky is especially interesting. He is Danny’s twin but has suffered from a slowness and “otherness” from birth. Danny and his mother tried their best to buffer him from the world. After Danny left, Danny’s friend Jeff stepped up a little. Marky is still loved and protected. And Marky knows things, feels badness and goodness, knows death before anyone else. After Audrey recovers a little, she, too, feels certain things, is haunted and comforted by thoughts of young women drowning in the river. Johnston doesn’t really step over the line into woo-woo. His take on it is poetic and underlies the empathic feelings of Marky and Audrey.

Johnston is a good writer. He evokes the winter in Minnesota, the tenderness of death, and the vulnerabilities of his main characters so well. I’m going to quote something from his book. It’s not the best thing he wrote -- those would be spoilers --  but it speaks to how true his writing is:

The first time it snowed it made you happy, it made you think of being a kid and sledding and making snowmen, and Christmas and sometimes after that the snow would turn everything white and pretty again, but now the snow was just snow and the winter went on and the spring would never come.

Now that’s what I’m talking about. MBTB star!

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard

Blackstone Publishing, 336 pages, $24.99 (c2018)

What would you do if your boyfriend turned out to be a serial killer? That’s the question that underlies Catherine Ryan Howard’s book. Because Howard seems to effortlessly make Alison Smith real and sympathetic, it’s easy to slip into the book and watch Alison’s struggles.

Young Alison and her best friend from forever, Liz, are ecstatic when they both get into college in Dublin, Ireland. They are smaller town girls from Cork and they are looking forward to being independent. Alison meets Will Hurley pretty much right off the bat. They begin an intense but mutually supportive affair. No weird, debasing stuff here. Alison’s roommate is a bit of all right. Liz’s roommate is weird but avoidable. The bars are hopping with other young people. Times are good. So far, standard stuff. 

Then the killings begin. At first, it appears that a young woman, after a night out drinking, stumbled, fell into one of the large canals that run through Dublin, and drowned. For the most part there are no barriers to the canal waters which rise almost up to the road, so that was not hard to imagine. When a few more young women turn up drowned under the same scenario, the police begin looking for a serial killer.

The victims were all students at the college. The scrutiny becomes personal when someone Alison and Will know becomes a victim. Soon Will is taken into custody. Soon Will confesses. Soon Will is sentenced to five life terms in prison. Soon Alison flees to the Netherlands, where she is living and working when the current story opens up ten years later.

There is that clichéd knock on the door of Alison’s house in the Netherlands. Two Irish gardaí are standing there, wanting to take Alison back to Dublin to talk to Will. She has successfully — for the most part — sublimated the events of ten years ago. Why would she voluntarily go back to Dublin just to meet with someone she never wants to think about or see again? But of course she does. And that’s because the killings have started up again.

This bare bones recital of Howard’s book doesn’t do her writing justice. Under her pen, the prickly relationship between Alison and Liz and the sweet one between Alison and Will are well rendered. Then as the plot proceeds, Howard builds the drama well, introduces a third-person look at the killer, lightly involves the clichéd good garda/bad garda — because, well, it’s Alison gathering clues — and satisfyingly brings the curtain down. The best part is about Alison finally having the strength to face Will, something she could not do at the time he was caught. By escaping to the Netherlands, she put reconciling herself to the events of that time and her personal growth on hold. It’s time to let go and grow up, Alison.

This book has been nominated for the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Celadon Books, 336 pages, $26.99

Has the market finally become saturated with books with unreliable narrators and twisted endings? Since “Gone Girl” made such a tremendous splash in both the book and movie markets, there have been read-a-likes galore. “The Silent Patient” is one. In my defense, I’m not spilling too many beans with that statement. The narrator, Theo Faber, is a forty-two year old psychotherapist, and it is obvious from the start that he has some deep issue himself, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there is an “unreliable” nature to what he says. In Theo’s words:

We are drawn to this profession because we are damaged — we study psychology to heal ourselves.

and

It’s odd how quickly one adapts to the strange new world of a psychiatric unit. You become increasingly comfortable with madness — and not just the madness of others, but your own. We’re all crazy, I believe, just in different ways.

At the center of the book is the story of Alicia Berenson. While in her early thirties, she was convicted of murdering her husband, Gabriel. Six years later, Theo begins to treat her as a patient in the psychiatric facility where she lives. Since the police discovered her standing over her husband, she has not uttered a word. Furthermore, she has tried to kill herself several times. And she has attacked people. Her actions, as most people conclude, condemn her. But not Theo. He is determined to get her talking, to relieve her of the burden of whatever happened the night her husband died, to “find her.”

Theo should be more worried about his own life. As he becomes more obsessed with Alicia’s case, he seems to be helpless to put his own marriage back together with his wife Kathy, an actress. As firm and directed as Theo seems in his professional life, he staggers and waffles in his personal one.

Both stories rush to an ending in which everything will be revealed, but not until the story’s final breath. Is your adrenaline spiking as you read the last few pages? Then Alex Michaelides’ work is done.

I cannot award this book a star because while this type of thriller is still compelling, mostly I’m over being tricked. My “gullible bone” is nearly numb. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 352 pages, $27.99

“A Stockman’s Grave” should be an alternate title, because the activities in “The Lost Man” revolves around both the grave and the metaphor it becomes for Jane Harper’s central mystery. Here is her description of where the grave is located — if you haven’t read Harper’s other books, see if you can guess where her story is located:

[T]he landmark was known to locals — all sixty-five of them, plus one hundred thousand head of cattle — simply as the stockman’s grave.
….
Months, up to a year, even, could slip away without a single visitor passing by, let alone stopping to read the faded inscription or squint west into the afternoon sun. Even the cattle didn’t linger. The ground was typically sandy and sparse for eleven months of the year and hidden under murky floodwater for the rest. … So the grave stood mostly alone, next to a thin, three-wire cattle fence. The fence stretched a dozen kilometers east to a road and a few hundred west to the desert, where the horizon was so flat it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the earth. It was a land of mirages, where the few tiny trees in the far distance shimmered and floated on non-existent lakes.


Did you guess the outback of Australia? Congratulations if you did. Jane Harper evokes the aridity and loneliness and alone-ness of that area so very, very well. Lightly littered with words like “g’day,” “mate,” and “jackaroo,” the book’s language seems natural, not clichéd. Echoing one of the central elements of her first novel, “The Dry,” Harper gives us a parched and dangerous environment in which it seems remarkable that anyone has managed to live.

It should be no surprise that the person whose dead body immediately appears in “The Lost Man” died from exposure. Cameron Bright, a rancher with a wife and two young daughters, is found about five and a half miles from his vehicle, still on his ranch but in the middle of nowhere. He didn’t last long in the heat of the sun.

Harper describes the fascinating contents of outback vehicles: water, water, water, food, a working radio, air conditioning, a cooler, extra tires, more water, tools. The environment is not your friend, mate. And survival is serious business. Harper also describes the vital nature of stocking adequate household supplies, too, since many homes could become isolated for weeks by floodwaters. Everything needs forethought.

Communication is also vital. If you live alone on a ranch, you need someone to know you’re alive, or still alive. Cameron’s brother, Nathan, lives next door. Next door in this case means a three-hour drive away. He has chosen to live alone after his wife left him, taking their young son with her. Even his beloved dog recently left him, the victim of poisoning, Nathan believes. And so Nathan has existed with little human company for ten years, during the last six of which he has not gone much into the small town of Balamara because of an incident, eventually described by Harper. Nathan also seldom visits Cameron and Ilse and their two daughters. Liz and Bub, Nathan’s mother and brother, live with Cam and co-manage the ranch. Nathan’s family has insisted on installing a pair of buttons, one of which Nathan must press each day: “okay” or “not okay.”

As the story opens, Nathan is being visited by his now sixteen-year-old son, Xander, on a Christmas break. Nathan’s relationship with his ex is fraught and pricked by that incident that occurred six years earlier and resulted in the town shunning Nathan. Together they drive to where Cameron’s body was found, at the stockman’s grave.

Throughout the book, Harper gives us one version after another of the story behind the stockman’s grave, including how the ghostly remains of the stockman haunt the land and cause havoc. Certainly one of Cam’s young daughters seems haunted by that story. As a young man Cam painted a picture of the grave and the surrounding land. It won an award and acclaim, but it came to naught, as Cam settled down to manage the ranch and gave up painting. In real life and in Cam’s picture, there is a mysterious element to the stockman’s grave, a conjuring of the isolation of the land and the natural silence. But does the marker represent something more malevolent, as well?

Nathan is our hero, assisted by his young son. Their relationship is a tentative one, since Xander doesn’t see Nathan much. But there is a yearning to know each other, to overcome whatever difficulties caused their separation. Harper presents their vulnerabilities very touchingly. Both Nathan and Xander are convinced beyond what reason would tell them that Cameron did not meet his death by suicide, the official cause of death.

Jane Harper paces her story so well. This is not a “thriller,” but it is a page-turner, if only so the characters and the environment’s lure can be better comprehended. Seeing Harper’s resolution of what turns out to be many storylines is like watching a stone drop and following the ripples out and out.

This is a champion of a book. MBTB star!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Evil Things by Katja Ivar

Bitter Lemon Press, 304 pages, $14.95

Thank goodness for places like Iceland and Lapland! They make provocative settings for crime novels. Somehow it spurs the creative mind when a crime is placed somewhere cold and dark for a lot of the year. Claustrophobia, snow madness, icy veins, dark thoughts seem to flow naturally from this source. Indeed, Katja Ivar has used this environment to great advantage.

“Evil Things” is set in Finland in 1952. The psychological and physical remnants of WWII have not been totally dismissed. Finland shares an extensive border with the USSR, already on the other side of an intensifying Cold War.  This makes a great background for disgraced police officer Hella Mauzer, relegated to Ivalo in Lapland, for her sins committed in Helsinki. For her continuing sins, Hella is assigned to investigate a missing person in the tiny community of Käärmela, scant miles from the Soviet border.

It is about the time when the night is about to claim the day, when the snows will banish all color from the land, when one either loves “cozy” quarters or goes mad from “claustrophic” ones. Hella’s bosses would rather she binned a letter written by Irja Walteri, the village priest’s young wife in Käärmela, about the missing Erno Jokinen. Instead, Hella packs her backpack and accepts a ride from a would-be suitor, the unsuitable Kukoyakka, to the remote village.

Soon Hella learns that Erno has left a grandson, Kalle, currently being taken care of by Irja. It was only by luck that Kalle was found by a disagreeable relative and kept from starving. Although Hella is sympathetic to Kalle’s dilemma, she has no great social graces and as a police officer must assume everyone is a suspect or is hiding something, so she stomps her way around the village interviewing the people, including the disagreeable relative and a disagreeable neighbor. Of course her hosts, the priest, Father Timo, and the lovely and hospitable Irja, are also subjected to brusque questioning.

When a body, or pieces thereof, is discovered, it turns out to be that of a woman. Where’s Erno? Why does the woman’s head, one of the pieces found, have a bullet wound in it? There are deeper things afoot than just an old man missing in the Lapland woods.

As Hella tromps around the bleak landscape, she has time to muse about what brought her to this low point in her life and career. She lost a post in Helsinki about which she could have been passionate, she lost a lover about whom she was passionate, she lost her whole family in a tragedy. As author Ivar recounts Hella’s musings, these stories gradually emerge into the light. What results is a story of Hella’s courage and humanity, both of which are tested as she tries to bring justice to the little Lapland community.

This is a book whose true grit is not revealed until the end. It seems to meander and fall short of the mark, but Ivar draws everything in at the end. The end is cheer-worthy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Break Line by James Brabazon

Berkley, 368 pages, $26.99

“Coming soon to a theater near you.” I kept thinking that as I read “The Break Line.” It wasn’t surprising to read at the end under the bio that the author had ties to filmmaking. I admit to liking bang-bang, $$$$$, uber-FX movies, and this is a movie I would see. But as a book … 

James Brabazon, according to his bio, has been in some of the world’s most hostile environments as a journalist and filmmaker. He has brought his knowledge of hostile African countries and authorities to his story.

Max McLean is an assassin for the UK. His unit is listed as UNK for “Unknown.” He has no official ties, titles, or boss. He can be commandeered by several organizations. He aims to kill his target cleanly, with no collateral damage. Max is good.

What created the Max McLean capable of holding such a soulless job? While Max was still young, his father died in a plane crash and his mother took her own life after hearing that. Orphan Max joined an elite military school. And that’s how assassin Max was born.

In the world of spycraft, one of drifting loyalties and conflicting goals, Max prides himself on doing his job without heavy analysis of the big picture. However, the job Max has when the story opens has him questioning whether the woman he is to kill is who his superiors say she is. There’s a long slippery, bullet-riddled road that flows from that simple thought in Venezuela.

After that debacle in South America, Max is offered a job — to reward him for his perspicacity or to punish him for his rebellion, he doesn’t know — in Africa. He must kill an old white man who appears to be heading some nefarious organization creating something really dangerous to the world. Vague enough for ya, Max? 

But first, visit an old buddy of yours who was in that same area, Sierra Leone, to which you will be going and ask him for advice. Just so you know, he’s a little strange now and might be off his rocker, this “six foot six and two hundred and fifty pounds of soft-spoken, stone-cold killer.” Indeed, “Sonny Boy” was a good friend, so why does he try to kill Max when they meet in the secure facility where Sonny is being held?

Up to halfway in the book there’s a lot of sniper and equipment talk. Meters, lens coverings, extra magazines, etc., etc., etc. take up space and I quite enjoyed it. Then Brabazon segues into the “blockbuster” aspect of the book. Is Bruce Willis too old to play a man in his thirties? Or Arnold? Or … what’s the name of the guy who can do the splits on his kitchen counter? Anyway, things go rogue.

“The Break Line” was a page-turner. It just was too much movie and not enough book. Too much Michael Crichton and not enough John Le Carré. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Captives by Debra Jo Immergut

Ecco, 288 pages, $26.99 (c2018)

Right off the bat I have to say that “Captives” suffered in contrast to “The Mars Room.” Both are about women serving long sentences in prison for murder. Both books have male characters who have awkward personalities. Both of the main characters are also victims of their own weaknesses and of others’. There is no vote or poll or contest, but “The Mars Room” wins anyway. Despite my prejudice, “Captives” has a lot to offer.

Miranda Greene, or “M,” as the awkward male personality in “Captives” nicknames her, is in her early thirties. Prison is horrid but Miranda has made a few friends, eccentric or vulnerable women like her. Their days are limiting and tedious. Miranda cannot stand the thought of serving her fifty-two year sentence, despite assurances from her family that legal appeals are progressing. She decides to take her own life and makes an appointment with one of the prison psychologists to acquire access to enough pills to do that.

The psychologist immediately recognizes Miranda. Frank Lundquist feels he has already failed as a psychologist in the outside world. The prison job is, for him, the lowest of the low, but he is still trying his best. Miranda was the girl of his dreams in high school, as it turns out. He was too awkward and shy to do anything about it; she was popular and dated a jock. Nevertheless, he spied on her, followed her around, watched her perform from a distance. Creepy, much? Frank’s marriage has failed, all he has is a cat waiting at home for him, his brother is an addict, his father is a world famous psychologist in whose shadow Frank is flailing. Frank’s world is becoming increasingly smaller.

When Frank meets Miranda again, fireworks go off. When Miranda meets Frank again, bupkis happens.

Frank should excuse himself from treating her, but of course that doesn’t happen. Although “Captives” is Miranda’s story, Frank is another kind of captive and his intrusion must be accepted. He is first an unwitting victim, then after throwing his professional scruples aside, he is complicit.

Debra Jo Immergut is a victim of Rachel Kushner’s excellence. Immergut’s writing is good, but it lacks Kushner’s oomph. Miranda is not as compelling a character as Kushner’s Romy Leslie Hall. (Also, and this is not Immergut’s fault, the cover of “Captives” is very misleading.)

“Captives” has been nominated for a 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Under a Dark Sky by Lori Rader-Day

William Morrow Paperbacks, 416 pages, $15.95 (c2018)

Eden Wallace has been dealing with grief and depression because of the death of her husband, Bix, nine months earlier. Nevertheless, she is determined to honor a reservation her husband made for a getaway to a “dark park,” a place with very little extraneous light so the stars at night can shine in all their splendor. The catch is that Eden has developed an overwhelming fear of the dark. What does she hope to accomplish in a place whose main draw is one she cannot enjoy? This is how Lori Rader-Day’s mystery begins.

In the best Agatha Christie tradition, Rader-Day populates her large park cabin with Eden and six strangers. Night falls, one of them is murdered, Eden is caught in the middle and even becomes a suspect. So, whodunnit?

Rader-Day slowly reveals Eden’s full story. It gets sadder and sadder. She just wants to go home, where she can turn on all the lights in her house, not sleep at night, then finally drift off for a few hours as dawn is breaking. It’s a hellavu schedule to have kept for nine months. But she can’t go home as long as the murder of golden boy Malloy (a little pretentiously, just “Malloy”) goes unsolved.

The other suspects were friends of the victim. As a matter of fact, it appears it’s a college reunion of good friends that Eden inadvertently crashes. Although it’s been almost five years since they graduated, something is drawing them all together for the first time since then. Some of them have kept in touch, but the whole group is gathering to mourn the loss of one of their own. And that’s another story gradually teased out by Rader-Day.

Eden’s anxiety about the dark becomes symbolic for many aspects of her life. “Under a Dark Sky” is about Eden unburdening herself from what has been crushing her. She appears to be coolly competent and smart. As she attempts to unravel the murder herself — the local authorities being irritatingly slow, in her opinion — it appears she is fully capable of that. But that’s when her many problems rise up and confuse the issue. After a slow beginning — despite the murder — Rader-Day does a good job of ensuring her characters waver between knowable and unknowable and that several surprises await at the end. The only point that seemed vaguely awkward was the romance tossed into the storyline. Didn't need it, didn't want it.

“Under a Dark Sky” has been nominated for the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.