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

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Dark Site by Patrick Lee

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $27.99

I’ve noticed something some writers do, and I’ve done the same something myself when writing but without any conscious effort. It’s worth pondering why this is so in our hyper-aware and stressful times. It is this. When a male protagonist is referred to, it is by his last name. A female character, on the other hand, is mentioned by her first name. In “Dark Site,” Sam Dryden is “Dryden,” and Danica Ellis is “Danica.” Even more telling, one of the characters is named Jack Grace, and he is referred to as “Grace.” Hmm.

I suppose I fell into a rhythm based on the stereotypes with which I grew up. The male prep school and adult male enclaves of business and the military foster males calling each other by their last names. Women are chatty, friendly, and nurturing, so they receive motherly recognition encapsuled in their chatty, friendly, and nurturing first names. The protective one receives the tougher name and the person who needs protecting receives the friendlier one.

I’ve been trying to break myself of this bias.

“Dark Site” hardly breaks the mold with tough guy “Dryden protecting the more helpless Danica (i.e., she doesn’t know how to shoot a gun). However, in the sections of the story dealing with events in 1989, he is “Sam” and she is “Danica," and she is the more adventurous and daring of the two. Of course, they are both twelve years old, so they are allowed their first names.

Back to the story.

Author Patrick Lee has already written a couple of other Sam Dryden books, both fast-paced thrillers. But “Dark Site” can very well stand on its own outside of the series playbook.

In 2018, Danica is in fairly desperate financial straits in Gold Beach, Oregon, when two people attempt to kidnap her. Her background is innocuous and her life certainly has held only minimal drama, of interest to almost no one, including herself. Danica flees her perilous situation in Oregon to visit her estranged stepfather in California.

In 2018, Sam is pondering purchasing and renovating an old house in Malibu. When someone tries to attack Sam, he dodges the bullet meant for him and realizes the trail leads to where Danica’s stepfather is. He does not know Danica or her stepfather, however, so the journey is a strange and puzzling one for him. He arrives just in time to save Danica from yet another attempt to capture or kill her.

After some distrust and disquiet, Sam and Danica unite to uncover who is behind the attacks and why. Bring in the military and FBI? What if it is the military or FBI trying to kill them for nefarious reasons? They realize that they have to eventually trust someone who can provide a clue. And that is how Patrick Lee leads his readers on a merry chase, following clues obtained in heart-pounding fashion to advance the plot. He’s very good at that!

The plot of the last third of the book is a little hare-brained, but Lee presses the accelerator and zooms on at breakneck speed. Events in 1989 and 2018 toggle back and forth. We realize early on that Sam and Danica did know each other as twelve year olds. But why can’t they remember each other, especially since the events that took place when they were twelve seem to be extraordinary.

The only comfort I can give you while reading this book is to remind you that Sam and Danica somehow survive the events of 1989. They are functioning adults in 2018. Now if only they can survive the events of 2018, they will have quite a tale to tell.

Great page turner, even though the ending was a little too fantastical.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

William Morrow, 320 pages, $26.99

Hen and Lloyd have just moved into a perfectly cozy suburban home. Hen is an artist and she has a nearby studio. Lloyd does some sort of corporate job, the nature of which doesn’t add to or detract from the story. Their new neighbors are Matthew and Mira. Matthew is a high school teacher and Mira travels for some sort of corporate work, the nature of which doesn’t really affect the story. One of the four is a killer.

Author Peter Swanson has loaded his main character, Hen, with quite a background. Before her bipolar chemistry was leveled with medication, Hen imagined someone at college was a murderer. Now it is several years later and Hen still has some peaks and valleys, but there are no severe psychotic breaks anymore. Lloyd is committed to helping Hen maintain a clear vision of reality. Everything was going smoothly until Hen declared to Lloyd one day that neighbor Matthew is a killer, the murderer of a boy who lived in their old neighborhood. Awkward!

Matthew and Mira obtain a restraining order after Hen calls the police. Not to be deterred by a piece of paper, Hen follows Matthew and investigates someone she thinks may be Matthew’s next victim. Meanwhile, and this is where Swanson takes a different path in his storytelling than others would take, it turns out that, yes, Matthew is a murderer. Oooo.

“Before She Knew Him” is a lively but mostly cerebral story. Even if you figure out one of the main secrets of the story, it won’t matter, because Swanson is still good at tickling the horror funny bone. I really liked Hen. And I really liked Matthew. Go figure!

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 384 pages, $27.99

Daniel Hawthorne is a former Scotland Yard detective. He was “released” under dishonorable circumstances. It is in his incarnation as a private investigator that he meets Anthony Horowitz (fictional). Yes, Anthony Horowitz (fictional) is a character in his (real-life) own book. He is Hawthorne’s “Watson.” That makes Hawthorne, of course, “Holmes.” There is nothing like being a character in one’s own book to obfuscate the actual relationships, strengths, weaknesses, and silliness of the author’s real character, one would say. Clever, disingenuous, and entertaining.

“Tony,” Hawthorne’s nickname for Horowitz — and loathed by him — is still the writer of television’s “Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders,” and other actual projects of the prototype Horowitz. One of the fictional characters in “The Sentence is Death” loves Horowitz’s actual book series, the Alex Rider books. A fictional author in the book remembers meeting Horowitz at a book fair and not liking him much then, or now. How much fourth wall demolition is there? Horowitz’s readers are both his confidantes and also the readers of the second publication of the adventures of Daniel Hawthorne, a publication that Hawthorne and the characters left alive at the end of the book presumably will read. Quite a bit of flash and tomfoolery are the result.

Horowitz, the fictional version, is reluctantly called upon to bear witness to Hawthorne’s greatness, without getting to muck about in his tantalizingly mysterious personal life. Hawthorne wants the money that Horowitz’s writing can provide. Horowitz is prey to his own curiosity and he soon forgets his strident resolution to never become involved with the arrogant, manipulative, sociopathic investigator again (after The Word Is Murder). Thus begins “The Sentence is Death.”

Richard Pryce, a divorce lawyer, has been bashed over the head with a £2000 bottle of wine and lacerated with the resulting shards. Who hated him (or the wine) that much? Could it be his current client, a successful businessman with interests he perhaps didn’t want revealed; the client’s abrasive wife, the so-called author who puzzlingly dislikes Horowitz; his husband who may have been having a slap-and-tickle on the side;  someone involved with a caving incident that took place years ago. The suspects, in the best British detective fashion, are numerous.

Although the Hawthorne-Horowitz by-play is enormously entertaining, the plot is everything. Horowitz gathers all the clues and gradually comes to his own conclusion. Aha! Horowitz has finally bested Hawthorne. Will future books star only Horowitz? Will it fall to Horowitz alone to battle the odious Scotland Yard detective, DI Cara Grunshaw, and her equally odious assistant, young what’s-his-name (actually named Darren, but who cares?), in future episodes?

There’s a lot of wink-winking going on with the real-life Horowitz writing about the fictional Horowitz, but underlying the murder story are some sad glimpses at human frailty and its consequences. Horowitz balances it all and creates a page-turning book as well.

Logically, will the next book be entitled, The Paragraph Is ...”? The paragraph is too long? The paragraph is buried? The paragraph is erased? His final paragraph?

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Island by Ragnar Jónasson

Minotaur Books, 352 pages, $27.99
Translated by Victoria Cribb

There are all sorts of travels through time in “The Island,” Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson’s second Hulda Hermannsdóttir book. But not in a science fiction-y way.

To begin with, “The Darkness,” the first Hulda book, takes place just as Hulda is set to retire. In “The Island,” Hulda is only fifty, fifteen years younger than the version that appears in “The Darkness.” Why is Jónasson going backwards in Hulda’s story? By going backwards he exposes certain aspects of Hulda’s earlier life and then shows the effect those events have had on her. Jónasson has indicated that there will be only one more Hulda book. He seems to be creeping back to the defining moment in Hulda’s life: when Hulda lost both her daughter and her husband. Of course, in “The Darkness,” the tragedy is revealed, so we know just what we are in for. Jónasson has created a moment of exquisite dread for his readers.

In “The Island,” Hulda is a police detective, a woman in a man’s world, a woman without support, love or appreciation. Her talent for solving crimes should have landed her in a superior position a long time ago. Instead, she labors under the direction of a shiny but bent boss, former colleague Lýdur. He is aggressive, egotistical, and a law unto himself. His lack of scruples eventually comes into play as Hulda is assigned a case that has a link to one of Lýdur’s past cases.

In 1987, a young man, Benedikt, and a young woman rendezvous in an isolated cabin in a lonely area far north of Reykjavik in the West Fjords peninsula. Later, the owners of the cabin, who live in Reykjavik, are worried about their missing daughter. They request that the police in ´Isafjördur, the closest town, check to see if she is at the family’s cabin? Of course, it is the cabin where Benedikt and the girl were staying, but all the police find is the body of a young girl. Indeed, she is the daughter of the cabin’s owners. Soon, Lýdur arrests the girl’s father, Verturlidi, for murder, after twisting the arm of the investigating police officer to provide false testimony. Case closed.

Is the murdered girl the same girl who was with Benedikt? Where is Benedikt? Is he the killer? Why was Verturlidi arrested instead?

The story then jumps to ten years later. Four people in their late twenties, old friends from their teenage years, gather after much time apart for a reunion. One of the group, Benedikt, has arranged for them to be dropped off by boat on an isolated island. Benedikt, Dagur, Alexandra, and Klara will then be together with their secrets and memories. Not surprisingly, someone dies.

Hulda enters the picture and immediately senses that none of the group is forthcoming about their common past. It is like pulling teeth to get information, but Hulda is a competent dentist. When she discovers the current suspects had a connection to the death of the young girl in 1987 that Lýdur had investigated, Hulda begins to smell a lot of rotten herring.

As a side plot, but with extreme relevance to Hulda’s life, she is trying to find her American G.I. father, who got her mother pregnant when he was stationed in Iceland. Her hunger for someone to call family propels her to travel to the U.S. to meet a likely candidate. Having at this point lost her daughter and husband — both still alive in the 1987 portion of the story — and recently also her mother, Hulda feels so lonely and vulnerable. It is strange to know how Hulda eventually winds up in “The Darkness.” If only she could have known everything at a time when the information could have helped her or given her comfort. Alas.

It’s a strange and convoluted tale Jónasson tells of the death in 1987, the reunion in 1997, and Hulda’s life. There’s even maybe a ghost wandering around. I am dying, DYING to read the third book. Jónasson gets an “A” for creativity.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Mercy River by Glen Erik Hamilton

William Morrow, 368 pages, $26.99

Glen Erik Hamilton has turned the life of Van Shaw, ex-Army Ranger and ex-thief, into a series. I liked the first book, never got around to the next two, but picked up Shaw’s story in “Mercy River,” Van Shaw’s fourth adventure.

As one would expect about a story of a former elite special ops guy, there is a lot of action. But there’s also a lot of moving back and forth and missed opportunities. The missed opportunities are because Van believes that killing should be a last, last, last resort. So the action could have ended by chapter seven (just exaggerating here) if Van had shot the bad guy. There was a lot of driving from Seattle (where Van lives) to a fictional central Oregon town to Portland to central Oregon to Seattle to… Anyhow, a lot of driving, some of which was accomplished with a life-threatening injury. Yee ha!

I make fun of it here, but I like Van. He’s got troubles and PTSD and a desire to get over himself. He has his standards, and those standards dictated that he wanted out of the thriving heist operation his grandfather, who raised him, had going with his heist buddies. Van has skills developed as a teenage accomplice to his grandfather. But the military squeezed most of that out of him, and he returned to a dying grandfather in the first book, “Past Crimes.”

In “Mercy River,” Van winds his way to the town of Mercy River in central Oregon to answer a distress call from a Ranger buddy, Leo Pak. In less time than it takes to blow his nose, Van hoists himself into his decaying Dodge pickup and zooms off to play cavalry to the rescue.

Van finds a battered Leo in a jail cell in Mercy River. Leo’s PTSD makes being in small spaces very uncomfortable. Plus, there’s a potential concussion that has not been medically treated. And Leo is being charged with murder. Leo? It makes getting Leo out of jail imperative.

The man murdered was Leo’s new employer. A) What was Leo doing in Mercy River? He lives in Utah and has no perceivable reason to be in Mercy River. B) Who killed crotchety old Erle, the local gunstore owner, if Leo didn’t do it? C) There are coincidentally a lot of Rangers in town, swelling the population to twice its normal size, for some sort of alpha male Ranger festival. Maybe one of them did it? Is that why Leo was in town? Leo makes like Marcel Marceau, only without the gestures.

Van has a lot of work ahead of him, and he needs help. He calls his grandfather’s irascible attorney, Ephraim Ganz, out of his warm bed in Seattle to travel to Mercy River to get Leo out. It should be easy-peasy, but then Leo pleads guilty. Van spends quite a few pages unraveling what that is about, then the rest of the book is about a heist-heist, or heisting a heist. (I love heist books. As soon as I take my fingers off the keyboard, I’ll be rubbing my hands together and cackling.) I wish more of the book had been about the heist-heist and less about white supremacists and Ranger buddies.

There are very few in-depth characters of the legally law-enforcing persuasion in this book. There’s a lot about Ranger code, right vs. right-but-not-legal, kill vs. just kill a little. That’s fine. It’s fiction.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I liked most of the Ranger one-upsmanship. I really liked the heist. Maybe I already told you that. And I sympathize with Glen Erik Hamilton's desire to raise the issue of the inadequate treatment many veterans receive for physical and psychological issues.