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

Friday, May 31, 2019

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Knopf, 272 pages, $26.95

It’s good to hunker down to a book with a sense of anticipation based on practiced expectation. That is, two children have been kidnapped and the rest of the book should be about dogged police or private investigators or a determined relative tracking the children down. If the reader is lucky, the book will be well-paced, full of fleshed-out characters, even ones falling prey to a trope or two, and with writing that clamps your heart in a vise.

Julia Phillips burns your expectations and drowns your tropes in an inky bog.

Alyona, eleven years old, and her sister, Sophia, eight, take care of themselves most summer days while their mother, Marina, works. As the book begins, they are at the beach. As their chapter ends, they are being stolen away by a man who has tricked them into getting into his car.

The first expectation Phillips tosses out is where her action is set, where the kidnapping takes place and where the various characters (presented in the best “War and Peace” style in a character list) live. It’s not New York, Paris, London, or some other romantic megapolis. It’s Kamchatka, Russia. Mostly the characters wander around Petropavlovsk, but the stark and drear northern reaches are also visited. Families who travel with the reindeer herds and people with links to non-White indigenous groups are among the faces we see in “Disappearing Earth.” Phillips has introduced a genius-level blend of characters.

Here’s another expectation blown away by a hot summer dust storm: Right after the first chapter in which the girls are kidnapped, Phillips writes chapter after chapter about other people. Occasionally, the girls are mentioned in passing. Older girls aren’t allowed out because they might be kidnapped. Someone else sees a poster for the missing girls. A bear attacks a car. Someone else discovers a sore on her chest. A girl from a northern village joins a folk dancing group. In other words, life goes on.

These seemingly unrelated stories are compelling for their own reasons, so compelling that it is easy to forget that the girls, or their bodies, are still out there somewhere. What does anything have to do with anything? Phillips’ genius (there’s that word again) is displayed when she gradually draws the characters together. She exposes the links, the hearts that are joined, the black holes in the universe. In the end, the story of the two girls receives an ending but it’s almost inconsequential. It is the lives of the people whose stories we have learned on the way to that resolution that are important.

Here is an emphatic MBTB star!

Monday, May 27, 2019

Deception Cove by Owen Laukkanen

Mulholland Books, 384 pages, $28

Owen Laukkanen has created an interesting couple of protagonists: a female ex-Marine with PTSD and a male convicted murderer just released after seventeen years in prison. The action takes place in the Pacific Northwest, a suitably wet and atmospheric site for what becomes an action-plus adventure.

Jess Winslow is a new widow. Her husband was no great shakes, but the combination of loneliness and the PTSD she has because of her tours in Afghanistan has driven her into a deep place. If it weren’t for her comfort dog, Lucy, she probaby would have given into darker urges.

Mason Burke was seventeen years old when he was put in prison. Now that he is about 34, he realizes he has the social ability of a 17-year-old tempered by the don’t-see-anything, don’t-hear-anything discipline needed to stay alive in prison. It’s hard for him to look anyone in the eye. It's hard for him to make conversation. His sister and her husband have taken him in, and Mason just wants to compress himself into a little, inconsequential package in their basement.

While in prison, the one bright light in Mason’s life was when, towards the end of his sentence, he was permitted to join the dog training program in prison. He and fellow inmates trained service dogs for returning vets. Lucy was the runt of the litter, rescued from what was probably horrible conditions. She trembled and cowered when she was first introduced to Mason. But under Mason’s guidance, she became a Very Good Dog. Mason’s Lucy then became Jess’ Lucy.

Upon release, Mason inadvertently learned that Lucy was in trouble. Lucy had been taken from her owner and placed in a facility to be destroyed after an attack on a sheriff’s deputy. Mason knows — knows! — that Lucy would not have hurt anyone without reason. Crossing from Michigan to the coast of Washington state, Mason is determined to find out what happened.

After much difficulty Mason finds Jess. Jess says Lucy attacked the deputy, the evil Kirby Harwood, when he threatened Jess. Apparently Jess’ less-than-honest deceased husband had something that Kirby wanted, something, she suspects, illegal.

I’ve read a couple of other Laukkanen books. He is capable of creating action without making characterization suffer. He takes great pains to do that in “Deception Cove.” He tries not to turn Jess and Mason into stereotypes and, in fact, has a cute scene in which Mason, who has no idea where he is going, takes the lead in front of Jess, who does. That is not to say that Mason pictures himself as the macho man; what that scene highlights is that Mason has no clue what he should (and should not) be doing. Laukkanen shows how capable he is in creating an interesting man-woman relationship.

This is a good read for a rainy Saturday in the Pacific Northwest when the line to see “The Avengers: Endgame” is still too long to tolerate.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

Scout, 384 pages, $26.99

British Gothic mysteries are not dead. Ruth Ware has plumped up a bona fide entry into this sub-genre. She said an inspiration was Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” and it shows. It’s very atmospheric and despite the use of cellphones and laptop computers, and talk of modern conveniences, “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” is a throwback. The principals are even temporarily housed in a gloomy old mansion. (And don’t Gothic mansions predictably have spotty cell coverage?)

There are tarot cards, suddenly discovered impecunious relations, a (perhaps two) missing girl, a crusty old woman, her estranged children, an Igor-like battleaxe of a housekeeper and confidante of the crusty matriarch, not-so-avuncular uncles, and I’m sure if there had been time and space enough, there would have been spiders and creaky basement stairs. Oh, wait, there are creaky basement stairs.

Young Harriet “Hal” Westaway is struggling to survive in the beachside town of Brighton. Her mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and there is no money, no relatives, no kind strangers to guide her through the travails of life. There is a kindly kiosk owner who pours her cups of coffee every once in a while. He is Hal’s neighbor on the Brighton pier. She has a tarot-reading hut, inherited from her mother, and purportedly from her mother's mother before that. It’s not much of a living, especially in the winter.

At one stage, Hal was so desperate she injudiciously borrowed money from the local moneylending thug. Of course, she has already paid back many times the original amount borrowed, and more has yet to be paid. This is the contrivance that explains why Hal is desperate to accept an invitation to hear the bequest of the dearly departed Hester Westaway, an ancient widow down Penzance way. (Oh, those Penzance cliffs and storms and dark-eyed strangers!) After doing some computer research, Hal realizes that Hester might have left a significant estate. Perhaps her share of the estate would suffice to pay off the loan shark.

The only thing standing in the way of Hal’s victory dance is that she is not related to Hester Westaway. Hester's lawyer erroneously believes that Hal is the daughter of Maud Westaway, Hester's missing daughter. Hal’s mother’s name was Maggie. After serious internal struggles, Hal decides to chance impersonating Maud’s daughter. She’ll take her paltry share of the proceedings, and Hester’s real family will never hear from her again.

That’s not how Gothic novels work, Hal.

Hal vacillates between being confidant she can “read” the other people — a skill she uses, instead of anything supernatural, in telling people’s fortunes — well enough to fool them and despising herself for conning Hester’s bereaved family, if there is one. And of course, there is one. There are three sons, two of whom have families. The remaining one is a friendly guy with brooding looks. Suddenly, Hal has uncles, an aunt, and young cousins. But they are not Hal’s to keep.

The first spanner in the works is when Hester’s surprising will is read. The gloomy, dilapidated mansion provides no safe haven for Hal after that. Her only avenue is to find out why Maud disappeared. Did she have a baby? If so, will that child come forward to claim his/her share of the fortune, pushing Hal out?

Ruth Ware takes us on a journey featuring staircases with light switches that don’t work, a weedy and uninviting lake, confusing hallways rife with ominously closed doors, and the foreboding scrabbling and cawing of magpies who may be bringing sorrow — according to the old rhyme — or worse. Then there is the impediment of the seriously inhospitable Mrs. Warren, the housekeeper — who is a lousy cook, to boot  who is not there to serve anybody. Maybe she killed Mrs. Westaway for a share of the inheritance.


The one element missing from this generously gloomy tale is romance. There’s an ancient romance, to be sure, but the Gothic novels I remember always had a damsel, a rouĂ©, and a sinister (but handsome) stranger. None of that nonsense here. Hal has to rescue herself if she needs it.

“Mrs. Westaway” was very entertaining. It was fun to shiver and thrill to a mystery in a dark English mansion in a snow storm. Even while you realize author Ware is checking off the elements from the bygone version of The Great Gothic Tale, you will cheer for her to succeed.