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

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.