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

Thursday, January 17, 2019

American by Day by Derek B. Miller

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 352 pages, $26 (c2018)

“American by Day” is the companion piece to “Norwegian by Night,” the quirky and wonderful book about an addled old American-born man living in Norway who is on a quest to save a young boy from rampaging criminals. “American by Day” is just as quirky and humorously Quixotic.

The story takes place in 2008 in upstate New York, a month after the events in “Norwegian by Night,” just before the presidential election that elected Barak Obama. Derek B. Miller puts in several references to the politics of the time. And one of the central issues is the shooting death of a black boy by a white police officer. But having said that, this is a story about 40-year-old Sigrid Ødegård, a police chief in Norway, who tries to find her older brother, Marcus, in the United States. He has gone into hiding following the death of his girlfriend, Lydia Jones. So the question is: Did he murder her?

What sends Sigrid across the ocean is a puzzling letter her father received from Marcus. It signals a sadness neither the father nor Sigrid can explain. Over the Big Puddle, in upstate New York, where Marcus lived and taught college, Sigrid connects with Sheriff Irving Wylie. He and sweetly innocent Deputy Melinda Powell are investigating Lydia’s death and Marcus’ disappearance. It would be hard to find an odder or kinder team.

Lydia was the aunt of the young African-American boy shot by the white police officer. The black community is riled up. Lydia was a study in grief. Could she have taken her own life? If she had, it would be a blow to her religious family. At the same time, Sigrid is positive her gentle brother could not have murdered Lydia. But she hadn’t connected with him for a long time; perhaps he had drastically changed. What a mess!

Boston-born Derek B. Miller (who now lives in Norway) does the tricky trick of giving us a picture of the United States as seen through a stranger’s eyes. We are an odd bunch of people, with odd social tics and political ideas. Sigrid is the perfect lens. Her mind is open, her intellect is unimpaired, her instincts are humane.

I loved this book for its humor. (Not as much as I loved “Norwegian by Night,” however.) I appreciated the outsider’s look at our country. 

MBTB star! (I will add this to 2018’s best list.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Wild Fire by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 416 pages, $26.99 (2018)

“Wild Fire” is DI Jimmy Perez’s last stand as seen by Ann Cleeves’ pen. (Who knows wither the television series goeth.) Cleeves told the BBC News that she’s “told all the stories she wants to tell and doesn't want to kill off any more Shetlanders because she likes them too much.” So this is the eighth Perez book and the fourth in what she calls the “Four Elements” series. (The first four are the “Four Seasons” books. I personally would have labeled them the Four Colors, but nobody asked me.) In a video done by “Promote Shetland,” Cleeves says that she wanted to end the series “before everyone got tired of me.” (Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_qzPwX2eF8 if you’d like to see more.)

Jimmy’s last mystery isn’t so much his as that of the group of interesting crime fighters Cleeves has amassed over the years, especially Sandy Wilson and Willow Reeves. Cleeves provides endings for all.

We were talking at our “The Other Book Group” meeting last month about how series books provide a serial or soap opera aspect to the main characters’ lives nowadays. In times past, we didn’t need to know a lot about our hero or heroine. For instance, we got along swimmingly with Poirot by just learning he was Belgian (repeatedly) and fussy; just give us some eccentricities to wake us up and we’re happy. Yes, we learned about Sherlock and Watson, but one work’s personal story didn’t necessarily bleed into the next work, with the exception of Reichenbach Falls. There was no true continuing storyline.

Sometimes now that’s mostly what we get: the personal storyline. I’m thinking of when Joe Pike was brought out of the shadows in Robert Crais’ series, or when Spencer goes haring off after Susan, or when Kinsey discovered she had a family. (Sorry if these were spoilers, but these are ancient plot lines. So getcher bad self down widdit!)

In Jimmy Perez’ case, he doesn’t have eccentricities, he has woes. His woes continue on an up and down trajectory over the course of the eight books.

//  We now interrupt our review to remind you that there are spoilers involved in this review because it is the eighth book in the series. //

As the book begins, Jimmy is still grieving and working on sharing custody of Cassie with Duncan Hunter, her biological father. Jimmy has a possible romantic partner, but he comes with a lot of baggage. Not to mention the Shetland Islands are fairly isolated, Jimmy has to fly hither and yon at times for his job or to visit his family on Fair Isle, and the weather can be treacherous. It would take a certain kind of woman to deal with that. Jimmy’s rather psychologically labile as a result of all the demands of the heart and the uncertainty of his future.

All gets pushed aside to discover who has strung up a young woman from the rafters of the barn belonging to a family just recently moved to Shetland. Sadly, it is the young autistic son in the family who discovers the body. Fortunately, he is a fan of CSI and, although he is only eleven, his interest is piqued. The young woman worked as a nanny for the children in the local doctor’s family. Two are in high school, but Emma Shearer, although she is only a few years older than they, was still responsible for chauffeuring them, along with watching the two younger kids, tidying, and being a dogsbody.

As Jimmy and the others delve into Emma’s life, it turns out that all was not rosy. She was pretty, although odd in demeanor, and that might have some relevancy in figuring out prospective killers. She landed on Shetland at a young age because her father abused her mother and wound up in jail. Although she was quite young, she helped raise her brothers and tended her dying mother. Leaving her home life was a way out for her, or so everyone thought. Who would want to kill this poor soul?

There might be a connection with a suicide that took place in the same barn. The young couple, Daniel and Helena, who bought the old farm have found acceptance hard to come by and gossip about themselves easy to find. Jimmy, et al., have to sort through the gossip and local misery to find out what the suicide, Emma’s murder, and yet another murder have to do with each other.

Ann Cleeves never lets her readers down in providing dense narrative handholds, i.e., there’s a lot of substance. And, at least for me, there was a satisfying conclusion.

I can only hope that Cleeves has other ideas up her literary sleeves.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

Hogarth, 272 pages, $26 (c2018)

I am going to ask you a series of questions, but don’t worry, I will also give you the answers. My answers.

What do you get when you ask a travel writer to write a mystery? Mostly you get a travelogue. What if that writer is a really good writer? You get a really good travelogue.

What if the main character is the iconic noir private investigator Philip Marlowe? What if the people who control Raymond Chandler’s estate (who also, FYI, control Graham Greene’s estate) ask the writer — who has in fact written much more than travel pieces — to continue the saga of Philip Marlowe, one that has already been continued by Robert B. Parker (“Poodle Springs” and “Perchance to Dream”) and John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black (“The Black-Eyed Blonde”)? If you are smart, you hesitate, as did Lawrence Osborne, and then you say no. Then you say yes.

What makes Lawrence Osborne’s take on Marlowe different from Parker’s and Banville’s? To begin with, he ages Marlowe to his 70s, places the action in 1988, puts the aged and decrepit detective in the exotic country of Mexico, and lets it rip.

There aren’t enough words to describe how fabulous Lawrence Osborne’s take on Marlowe is. Parker’s version was pretty faithful and hard-boiled, imbued with Parker’s style. Banville’s was strangely flat, while faithfully honoring the word play and noir aspects. Osborne’s is exploding color and taste and word play, plus convoluted characterizations and sinuous noir.

In "Only to Sleep," Marlowe is pathetic, a retired gumshoe in a quiet Mexican seaside town. He dies slowly as the minutes and hours go by. He is not dying of anything specific, just of old age, ennui, self-pity. He thinks enough of lingering on, however, to use mosquito nets and a Japanese sword built into his walking stick.

Then a U.S. insurance company hires him to figure out if they are being scammed by a life insurance claim for the death of a rich guy, Donald Zinn, in Mexico. It’s two million smackers and the widow is a looker. Why not, says Marlowe.

Marlowe’s investigation and surveillance take him over a good deal of scenic Mexico. Thus, the travelogue aspect. But it’s the kind of travelogue that makes you want to go there, eat the food, see the flowers, hear the sea, drink things that are colored green, learn who Rita Hayworth was.

The torturous ways of the scam have been deftly described by a lot of authors, quite a few of whom wrote the legendary noir books of a time past. Osborne competes admirably. But, as we know from reading Chandler and his famous “missteps,” the plot is hardly the thing. It’s how Chandler, and now Osborne, get from the beginning to the end. Maybe that is why having a travel writer write this Marlowe paean was a genius stroke. Osborne brings us Mexico in 1988 in all its lushness or aridity, amiability, and sensuality, and plops a puzzlement in the middle. Maybe it’s not a whodunnit; maybe it’s a didsomebodydunnit. (I won’t torture you; I’ll answer this. There is a whodunnit, but one that seductively leaves a few holes to peek through.)

Here's an example of Osborne's writing, channeling Chandler:

Between miles of maize tall, forked saguaros rose into a dark-blue atmosphere, and I slept with my silver-tipped cane beside me in the hot beaten-down grass and dreamed of the bodies I had seen a lifetime earlier. Bodies sometimes sprawled in fields a little like this one, or else slumped at bars where they had been shot in the temple. The unfortunate can die anywhere, and they often looked like children asleep, with faces that I had known when they were living.

MBTB star!

Friday, January 11, 2019

In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

Little, Brown & Co., 384 pages, $27 (c2018)

Scottish author Ian Rankin is the master of convoluted deal-making, double-crosses, and backstabbings, and his speciality shines in “In a House of Lies.” Everyone has a moral center, but some centers are wee tinier than others.

Rankin’s bread-and-butter character, Inspector John Rebus (ret.), cannot keep out of the game. Because he still has contacts within the police department and because he once was reincarnated as a bloodhound, Rebus needs to stick his nose in when a cold case and a tepidly warm case wind their tentacles around him.

When Rebus was a young lad in the force, he was attached to a close gang of detectives who played by the rules they made up as they went. Over the years, they got the job done, they did, but mostly by refusing to be hamstrung by legalities and civil protocol. When the body of gay private investigator Stuart Bloom shows up after over a decade as a “misper,” his body rotted and his ankles tied together with a police-issue set of handcuffs, something smells fishy-fishy in the home of the people chosen to protect and serve.

It was Rebus’ old gang who had initially investigated Bloom’s disappearance. Bloom’s partner’s father was a police detective in another jurisdiction. Did Rebus give him an odd tip when their favorite gay bar was scheduled to be raided? If so, it was just part of the hidden police world of tit-for-tat.

After Bloom disappeared, his connections were investigated: the last person for whom he worked — a “film maker,” à la Roger Corman, but much, much lower on the ladder — his partner, his partner’s father (the cop), the shady businessman who was a rival of the film maker, and a trail of humanity’s odds and ends. Rankin’s Edinburgh has a lot of suspicious characters.

The gang gathered together to investigate Bloom’s re-appeared and murdered body contains Rebus’ old partner, Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’ old nemesis-now-friend Malcolm Fox, and peripherally, Deborah Quant, Rebus’ lover. It’s an interesting, intelligent group led by DCI Graham Sutherland, and you just know (and you would be right) that they will solve the mystery. Because of Rebus’ scant involvement in the Bloom case, Clarke and Fox slowly let Rebus draw himself into their circle. His loosey-goosey investigative methods provide key elements to the solution. But you knew that would happen if you’d read ANY prior Rebus book.

It’s not only former colleagues who pop up in this book but former criminals, as well. Rankin can’t let any good character go completely. Probably even death wouldn’t prevent a mention or two in a book down the road. Big Ger Cafferty, bane of Rebus’ existence, sometimes reluctantly accepted ally, criminal boss, and drug lord, has all forty of his fingers and toes in every criminal pie in Edinburgh, and he makes an appearance. DCI Bill Rawlston, now a shadow of a man, was Rebus’ first supervisor, and he makes an appearance. Darryl Christie, Big Ger’s rival, makes an appearance. The whole muddled shebang of them swirl around in this and another case involving Clarke.

A few months before, young Ellis Meikle had been found guilty of killing his girlfriend, Kristen Halliday. Ellis confessed but not everyone was satisfied with how the case was concluded. Clarke begins to receive anonymous hang-up calls. Two and two eventually equal four, and she learns it is because of the Meikle case. In a roundabout way, the case might also tie into the Bloom case, but that remains to be seen. Is someone trying to scare Clarke off the Bloom case?

Ian Rankin always astounds me at how poetically and artistically he writes his endings. But before that, he twists and turns you, and captivates you in the process, through the complicated past and present relationships of his characters. Good one, Ian Rankin!

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

Minotaur, 336 pages, $27.99 (c2018)
Translated by Victoria Cribb

“The Darkness” marks the first appearance of Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. Author Ragnar Jónasson has written other thrilling books set in Iceland, but this time he has chosen to feature a female police detective, and Jónasson does well by Hulda. This is the first book in a proposed three-part series, two of which have already been published in Iceland.

Jónasson excels at presenting a dark and brooding version of his home country. Iceland plays a dramatic background to Hulda’s case because of both its location and its history. Over a year ago, the body of a young Russian asylum seeker was found on an isolated beach. It was concluded that she had taken her own life and drowned in the sea. The case was closed, that is until Hulda decided reopening it would be her poke in the eye to the police department that was forcing her to retire from a job she may not have loved, but which turned her away from her haunted, lonely life and gave her something to do.

Hulda only has a few days to re-interview everyone who knew Elena and to dig up any new leads to prove Elena was murdered. She proves to be persistent, if unwise at times.

In concurrently running stories, a young woman gives birth to a child who is placed in a care facility and another young woman — an asylum seeker, it is revealed — begins a weekend getaway into the mountains with a man. Where these stories are in time and what they have to do with either Hulda or her case is left for the reader to guess until close to the end. But they turn out to be surprises that fill in the gaps for both.

Hulda turns out to be a complex character who only appears to be fairly simple to understand. Both her husband and daughter died much before their time, leaving Hulda alone and self-conscious. Now that she is sixty-five, the walls are closing in. There are thoughts that finally must be let in and care given to what her life will be now. She is handling both badly. When her boss demeans and undervalues her, she simmers, but will she now blow?

I’ve enjoyed Jónasson’s other books and I enjoyed this one. He displays his characters’ insecurities very well. They are accommodating creatures until, of course, they are not. And that is Jónasson’s gift to his readers.

P.S. It's worth noting that the title in Icelandic is "Dimma."

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Custom House, 288 pages, $27.99 (2018)

Occasionally a book will strike me hard. It will sound like a choral work building to a thunderous denouement with a single sustained dying note. “Melmoth” is like that.

Melmoth, Melmotte, Melmotka and other names are what Sarah Perry gives to her myth of “The Witness.” Perry gives you the myth story in many forms, then she spins a contemporary story set in Prague around the new coming of Melmoth. Or maybe not. Maybe Melmoth is not coming. Maybe Melmoth is the product of a vivid imagination and the colluding of similar-sounding tales. It’s certainly a fascinating trip down the road created by Perry’s vivid imagination.

Poor Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman set adrift and barely subsisting in Prague. By her sins, you will know her name. But we do not know Helen’s sin, only that she is suffering and paying penitence because of something in her past. She translates instruction manuals from German. She has a hard, thin mattress. She does not indulge in the wonder and passion of eating, instead merely mouthing the bare amount to keep her thin body alive. She has only two friends, after twenty years in Prague.

Karel and Thea are an odd couple. Karel is an academic and Thea is a vibrant ex-lawyer who has a wasting disease. They enfold Helen, although goodness knows what her attraction is to them. They are not so much interior characters as exterior stage hands who pull the strings that move the play along.

There are several stories tucked into “Melmoth,” all having to do with Melmoth the Witness. Melmoth, the myth goes, appears when someone has transgressed, someone who needs atonement. Melmoth herself eternally seeks atonement for her wrong, but there is no redemption for her. She seeks a companion to share her lonely wandering of the earth.

Sarah Perry knows how to create a foreboding atmosphere, as she proved in “The Essex Serpent.” It is the — to some readers — delicious anticipation of the horror, the horror that turns the pages ever faster. Perry breathes Gothic fog, drips Gothic nightmares, tangles Gothic threads so very well. Shiver. But Perry initially creates all this without bringing Melmoth into focus; she exists as a shadow, a dream, a fevered vision. At the foundation, the horrors come from actual human failings. And each perpetrator knows that someone is watching, that someone is bearing witness. Melmoth.

Perry must of course eventually reveal what Helen’s sin was. The author’s build-up is tense and Victorian; there’s eccentrically implemented decorum and swooning. Then will Melmoth reveal herself? What kind of a book is “Melmoth” anyway?

I can’t say that “Melmoth” is a crime novel, although there are crimes against humanity and tales of people victimizing people, and there even is a murder, but the book defies pigeonholing into any crime category, even for me. So, I say “enjoy” it as a chilling tale by a good writer.