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

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Älexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, 240 pages, $24.95

So, Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Botswanan No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Scottish Isabel Dalhousie, and 44 Scotland Street series, has ventured off to capture the Scandinavian ethos in the first book in a projected series (I imagine) starring Malmö police detective Ulf Varg. What do Swedish people think of Älexander McCall Smith’s usurpation of its long-honored Swedish crime fiction? Can someone who wrote about a female detective in Botswana and a philosopher in Edinburgh also write successfully about a Swedish detective?

McCall Smith has successfully written scads of books and presumably gainfully employed himself in the process. I don’t know what credentials McCall Smith may have to allow him to exert his Swedish literary muscles. All I can say is that “The Department of Sensitive Crimes” captured an essence of Swedish writing, surrounded it in bubble wrap (no violence or harsh words), and served up a slice of ordinary life with unusual (and sensitive) twists.

In the best way possible, McCall Smith humorously and frequently slips into asides. Pertinent crime-related information must stand by as Detective Varg and his cohorts (Erik, Anna, Carl, Blomquist) discuss, for instance, fishing, vitamin D, “Davidson-Harley,” and whether small people, dwarves, or midgets might be the proper phrase. Varg politely follows each sidetrack until he can continue to follow the course of a crime. Are Swedish people, in general, this polite? Doesn’t matter.

McCall Smith, as we have learned from his other books, writes with charm and a fascination for the nature of what it means to be human. The several crimes in this book reflect this. One crime involves a “small person,” a dance teacher, it turns out, who cries a lot, feels deeply, and doesn’t want to disarm bombs. In another story, there are three young women. Jealousies and insecurities in their group eventually need the services of the police, but only in the tidiest way. And as far as the final case is concerned, I am at a loss to describe it. (A nude beach and talk of werewolves are involved.)

If you like/love/fan-obsess McCall Smith, here is more of the same, with humor and really nice niceness, the Swedish version.

P.S. Do you like the umlauted version of McCall Smith's first name? McCall Smith's subtle joke, no doubt.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Ace, 317 pages, $16

I suppose you could read “Atlas Alone” as a standalone, especially since different characters lead the parade in the other three books in Emma Newman’s loosely joined series, set in the not-to-distant future: “Planetfall,” “After Atlas,” “Before Mars,” and now “Atlas Alone.”

“Atlas Alone” continues the stories, begun in “After Atlas,” of Dee and Carl, both indentured servants of government-corporations that rule in place of democratic or republican governments, who manage to gain places on the last spaceship to leave Earth before nuclear war begins. “After Atlas” was mostly Carl’s story. “Atlas Alone” is Dee’s.

All of Newman’s Planetfall books share a history and about the same timeline. At least knowledge of each book gives a deeper understanding of the next book. Mostly, that history is bleak. In “Planetfall,” the mythic “Pathfinder,” Lee Suh-Mi, was directed by visions to a planet about twenty years travel from Earth. In “After Atlas,” Carl found himself in peril at a young age with a mother lost to Lee Suh-Mi’s stars and a father lost to a cult called “The Circle.” As an adult, Carl is a detective in London. His brain has been re-wired and his behavior has been re-directed to create a computer/human hybrid. He and his friend Dee, similarly re-worked, end that book when they get on the spaceship using Carl’s father’s cult connections.

That brings us to “Atlas Alone.” Due to tinkering by Carl’s friend, Travis, the three of them witness an abomination. From the safety of space, on board the Atlas 2, they view multiple nuclear weapons unleashed on the Earth they have just left, some of them apparently triggered by person(s) unknown aboard the ship. As far as they know, life on Earth has been extinguished.

Safe, cared for, and bound for Lee Suh-Mi’s planet to live with God, Dee feels directionless. She no longer is bound to the government corporation she worked for. Carl is the same way. They are bereft in an odd way, because life under the corporation was untenable, but they knew what they were supposed to do, the jobs wired into their heads. Now these jobs no longer exist. Unchained, they don’t know where to go or what to do. There’s no direction from whomever the commanding forces are on the spaceship. 

One thing does motivate Dee: She is determined to find out who authorized the death of billions of people. How does Dee even begin without resources, a place in the ship’s hierarchy, or any friends, except for Carl and Travis. Then a message arrives from a woman named Carolina, inviting her to crunch some data, analyze some patterns, decipher trends. Dee lights up because not only will she have a job but that job gives her access to data which may lead to discovering who blew up Earth.

On the heels of her new job, she receives a secret message from someone who will not identify him or herself, “hirself.” A “mersive,” i.e., a cortically immersive game or experience, created by her mystery contact brings her face-to-face with the avatar of one of the people Dee determined has caused the holocaust on Earth. In game-time, Dee kills the man. When she emerges from her game-time twilight, she learns the man has really died … of a heart attack. The secret contact suddenly seems not so benign.

Dee is led into deeper waters by “The Beast,” as Dee ultimately labels it, as she begins a work relationship with Carolina. Is Carolina one of the people who committed the atrocity? Why is Dee given such timely access to data she needs? Who are the killers? And what will Dee do with Carl, who slips quickly into his wired-in detective mode to investigate what he feels was a murder, not a heart attack? Did Dee really kill the man? Can Dee save whatever is left of humanity on board Atlas 2?

In the end, this is a philosophical murder mystery. The mystery is not who killed the man — Dee immersively did the deed — but what will happen next and why. Have Dee’s childhood traumas made her a stronger person or a weaker one? 

I loved Emma Newman’s other books and thought “Atlas Alone” moved Newman’s world-building along very well. Newman’s stories provide a few thoughts to chew on.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Firefly by Henry Porter

Mysterious Press, 480 pages, $27 (c2018)

Henry Porter is one of my favorite spy authors. That is, as far as I know, Henry Porter is not a spy but he’s a heckuva writer of spy fiction. My guess is that he is an under-the-radar writer in the U.S., but he shouldn’t be. His writing doesn’t need translation into Americanese like the Britishisms of other British spy writers. Porter is a journalist and obviously au courant about British and European affairs. He imbues his works with a larger sense of politics and corruption at play, but his focus is at a very human level. More people need to read him.

Paul Samson is an independent investigator, sometimes hired by his ex-employer, MI6, to go where his smaller footprint might be more useful than the clodhoppers of MI6. This proves to be the case when Paul’s interests turn toward a thirteen-year-old migrant, Naji Touma (codenamed “Firefly”), a Syrian refugee, who might have, improbable as it sounds, important information about a terrorist plot. Paul manages to track Naji through Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia, following Naji’s desperate attempt to reach Germany. 

Why Germany? Paul has yet to find out. He begins with a thumbnail psychological sketch of Naji by a psychologist working with an immigrants’ camp in Greece, Anastasia Christakos. Naji is undoubtedly bright, determined, and capable of extreme stealth. He also manages to acquire a wicked throwing knife and should not be underestimated in that regard. Besides the information from Anastasia, Paul finally manages to contact Naji’s sister, still with the rest of Naji’s family in a migrant camp. It becomes clear that Naji is still in deep danger from the Syrian terrorists who precipitated his family’s flight.

What Henry Porter does well is to give his characters depth without oversharing their lives but with enough sense of how they are different from "normal" people. For example, Paul plays the horses to fill in the financial gaps left by his investigating business. He feels empathy for Naji and desires to protect him even when called off by his original employer. The race between Naji’s enemies and Paul (and his eccentric resources: wealthy Denis Hisami and vulgar Vuc Divjac) to find Naji in the Macedonian wilderness is thrilling. Porter describes Naji with greater force throughout the book, and it finally becomes easy to see what the fuss is all about. Porter also endears Naji’s travel companions, slightly older Ifkar and dog Moon, to his readers.

Porter is a keeper.

MBTB star!

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.