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

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.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

2019 Edgar Nominees

These are the nominees for SOME of the categories. For the full list, see http://www.theedgars.com/nominees.html. Links are provided for books we have reviewed. We will be reviewing a couple more of these books and links will be provided to those reviews.

The Edgar Awards banquet will be on April 25, 2019, in New York City.

Best Novel

The Liar’s Girl — Catherine Ryan Howard
House Witness — Mike Lawson
A Gambler’s Jury — Victor Methos

Best First Novel

A Knife in the Fog — Bradley Harper
The Captives — Debra Jo Immergut
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy — Nova Jacobs
Bearskin — James A. McLaughlin
Where the Crawdads Sing — Delia Owens

Best Paperback Original

Hiroshima Boy — Naomi Hirahara
The Perfect Nanny — Leila Slimani
Under My Skin — Lisa Unger

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Tin House Books, 320 pages, $25.95 (2018)

There is a lot of fuss being made about “Bitter Orange.” (It made NPR’s best book list of 2018.) There should be a “girl” or “woman” in the title, because it’s that kind of book. You think you know, the author spends a lot of time making you think you know, but really, you don’t know.

Odd duck Frances Jellico was the sole caretaker of her housebound mother for a couple of decades. She was her mother’s physical and emotional prisoner. Frances is presented as a nice girl who follows the rules. She is plain, virginal, and socially naive, with a dissonant overlay of academic sophistication. After her mother’s death, Frances felt she still had a lot to give, so she took a temporary post to do an architectural assessment of the grounds of Lyntons for its new owner. Peter Robertson has also received an assignment to do an assessment of the interior and furnishings of the estate. Peter has come equipped with a woman, Cara Calace. When Frances first glimpses Cara, she is shouting in Italian and evinces a fiery temper. Later, Frances learns Cara is Irish and has a fiery temper. They are the inhabitants of Lyntons for part of the summer.

Fuller sets the stage. Here is Frances:

I am a voyeur, the person who stands at the police tape watching someone’s life unravel, I am in the car slowing beside the accident but not stopping, I am the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime. I am the lone mourner.


It was so hard to get it right, the way other people had conversations, back and forth with no effort. I wondered, not for the first time, how it was done.

“Bitter Orange” is also a bit of a gothic ghost story. There was a tragic figure, the last of the Lyntons, to whom a tragic story was tragically attached. Cara claims to have seen faces of children in the windows. Frances hears sounds in the night and odd things happen; a pillow is left in her bathtub, for instance. (I know, a pillow. But Fuller makes the pillow sound spooky. Points for her.)

Cara begins to confide in Frances. She says she had a baby, Finn, but she no longer has Finn. Frances, not being an expert interrogator, wonders but does not ask why. Or maybe she is a polite Brit. In any event, it is half the book gone before the story puts on a little meat. Yes, Cara has a bigger story. Yes, Peter has a bigger story. And, yes, Frances, the narrator, has her own big story.

When the book begins, we are listening to Frances who is on her deathbed. She is being visited by someone named Victor, whom she must know, did know in another life. It is twenty years past the point of the main story, about Frances’ summer with Cara and Peter. So the book is mostly a reminiscence told by a grumpy old woman who is dying about a turning point in her life in the 1960s. 

This was the main question I had: Why did Peter and Cara seek out Frances’ acquaintance? They all stayed up nights getting drunk, laughing, singing along with 60s music. Charismatic couple Peter and Cara cooked for her, took her on picnics, were kind to her. Frances, in turn, adored Cara who was everything she was not. She fell in love with Peter. She was haunted by Lyntons. But Frances was socially awkward, shy, burdened by her past, plain, chubby, old-fashioned, rigid.

“Bitter Orange” is about the unmaking of Frances’ idea of Frances. It is a story about what the essence of Frances is. Mostly Fuller’s language is gorgeous. It made me hang in past the point where I thought it was becoming bogged down. From the middle of the book onward, it was about revelations and I was caught in Fuller’s storyweb.