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

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Crown, 336 pages, $27

“Groundhog Day” was cute, charming, romantic. “Recursion” is grim and scary. “Recursion” is about events that happen over and over again, with differences, sometimes with a phase of mere minutes and sometimes of years. It’s “Groundhog Day” on steroids. Blake Crouch’s story starts off small, if very dramatically. The insistent, repetitive nature of the central idea of the book could be dreary but Crouch makes it exciting and heart-breaking.

Barry Sutton is a detective who has caught an unusual case. A woman is teetering on the edge  of the top of a tall building, threatening to jump. Barry gets her to tell him her story as he awaits specialists to help him rescue her. She says she is Ann Voss Peters and her husband is married to another woman. But that woman died many years ago by jumping off the very roof Ann occupies. She was her husband’s first wife. Ann is his second wife. They have children. Suddenly, she says, she awoke with a different life. Her husband was not her husband any longer. She had no children. The first wife had not died. Ann fears she has FMS — false memory syndrome — a disorder that seems to be increasing in occurrence. She and others are convinced they lived lives that no longer “exist.”

Barry is a morose kind of guy, still smarting from his divorce from Julia ten years ago. That was a year after their teenage daughter died. His life has been spiraling downwards ever since. After Ann kills herself, Barry becomes intrigued by how convincing Ann was about her alternate life. The intrigue turns into an obsession, one that replaces his obsession over his daughter’s death.

Helena Smith has invented a “chair.” She is not a carpenter or a designer like Eames (although an Eames chair does appear in the latter stages of the book). She is a scientist driven by the advancing Alzheimer’s disease of her mother to find a device that will help her. Helena is interested in mapping memories and playing them back for someone with a memory disease. Helena is hoping her chair will be that device.

At this point, you have to be thinking, Aha, these events are related. It is true that when Barry meets Helena, hell on earth breaks loose. But Crouch’s book is not strictly a science-fiction thriller or even a horror novel. It is genuinely touching to read of Barry and Helena’s struggles and how they must deal with frustrations over the course of their lives. “Recursion” is the butterfly wing that beats and opens up an unpalatable look at the repulsive tendencies of humans but also a hopeful glance at their transcendent and self-sacrificial ones as well.

MBTB star!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Never Game by Jeffery Deaver

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 416 pages, $28

Are you now or have you ever been a gamer? Do you now sit or have you ever sat in a dank basement or on a rumpled bed or lumpy couch, surrounded by old crusty food, with the lights dimmed and played an RPG or VR game, or even Wii Fitness? Are you now fantasizing or have you ever fantasized about writing code with the big guns in Silicon Valley? Are you just a regular person who likes to play games every once in a while? Are you someone with gaming habits somewhere in-between? (Does that cover everyone except the never-evers, nuh-uhs, ain’t-gonna-plays?) Then this book is for you.

Colter Shaw is a man in his late twenties or early thirties. He grew up in a compound in the California wilderness. He learned all sorts of useful skills: hunting, climbing, surviving the elements, tracking. Was it some sort of “Deliverance” thing, as one of the characters suggests? In fact, both Colter’s parents were academics who took to the woods with their three children for reasons Colter is still trying to understand. After his father died under suspicious circumstances, Colter began an earnest effort to figure out if his father was crazy as a loon or crazy like a fox.

Colter now lives in the modern world, and he uses all his skills to solve problems for which people have offered rewards. He chooses his cases carefully. He is a bounty hunter who refuses that title. Jeffery Deaver does a skilfull job of gradually revealing who Colter is and how he processes his cases. I think Deaver delights in imbuing his character with interesting quirks. For instance, Colter is a percentage, calculate-the-odds kind of guy with small, neat handwriting. He rarely smiles, except for his nieces. He has a home in Florida but travels around in a Winnebago to solve cases across the country. The Winnebago is his version of Jack Reacher’s toothbrush.

The latest case he decides to solve is that of a missing nineteen-year-old college student, Sophie Mulliner. Although she has been gone only a short time, her father is frantic. The police have been less than helpful (or there wouldn’t be a story). Of course, Colter finds her and in the process finds a bigger mystery. Five items were left for Sophie to help her escape her confinement. And a stencil of an odd-looking businessman was left nearby.

Suddenly, the police, specifically Detective LaDonna Standish, are interested in Colter. Also interested in Colter — for a different reason — is rad, tatted, eccentric Maddie Poole. She is a gamer and introduces Colter to that culture in a big way, by taking him to the latest gamer con. He meets a couple of big names in the game industry, which leads to introductions to more people in the industry, which leads to the realization that the kidnapper is following an old video game format: The Whispering Man.

The eerie Whispering Man leaves his victims with five items to aid in their escape. If they cannot escape, he comes back and kills them. When the IRL kidnapper steals his second victim, Colter joins the hunt.

“The Never Game” was fast-paced, had quirky characters, interesting crimes, and a to-be-continued storyline about Colter’s father. And, seriously, you don’t have to have ever played a video game in your life or watched anyone play one or breathed the same air as someone who once played a video game, but it might assist in your enjoyment. Way to hook a reader, Jeffery Deaver!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Metropolis by Philip Kerr

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, $28

British author Philip Kerr died last year, so “Metropolis” is the last Bernie Gunther book to be released. Maybe. There is an unfortunate tendency to resurrect characters by giving them to other authors to handle. Sometimes the results are terrific, but often, meh. Bernie will be a hard character for an author to adopt. Kerr has taken him through the horrors of World War II as a police detective in Berlin to the post-war world and all its disillusionment and falsity. It’s not just the unusual time and place, it’s not that Bernie is a German in Germany during WWII, it’s not that Bernie is a cynical optimist, it’s that Kerr has breathed startling life into Bernie and his time. It was heartbreaking to learn of Kerr’s death, because it also meant that Bernie, as Kerr wrote him, is also dead.

In “Metropolis,”* Bernie is a beat cop who gets a big break when he’s asked to join the murder squad. The year is 1928. Let Kerr provide the context for Berlin between wars. Morally and politically lost after WWI and with Hitler on the rise, this is Berlin through Bernie’s eyes:

...Berlin now had almost nothing in common with the rest of the country. Increasingly the capital city was like a large ship that had slipped its mooring and was slowly drifting father and father away from the coast of Germany; it seemed unlikely we were going to return its more conservative ways, even if we’d wanted to. It’s not just people who outgrow their parents and origins; it’s metropolises, too.

And

It’s never the cold that brings out the worst in people, it’s the heat. If you can call them people: the sick, venal, lowlife that lies oozing at the bottom of the strata we are wont to call Berlin society. Sometimes I had the strong idea that [artist] George Grosz was right and I was wrong; that he was only recording what was already there: the indifferent fat bankers, the cripple veterans, the mutilated beggars, and the dead prostitutes — that this was how we really were, ugly and obscene, hypocritical and callous.

Into this societal maelstrom, Bernie’s mission with the murder squad is to find out who is killing prostitutes. The killer is also scalping them, earning himself the nickname of “Winnetou,” a Native American character from German author Karl May’s wildly imagined American Westerns. One of the victims is the daughter of a criminal bigwig, Erich Angerstein. He puts pressure on Bernie to find his daughter’s murderer. He is willing to help, and the suspect might even survive his “help.”

Suddenly, the murder squad is pulled off the murder of the prostitutes to investigate another series of murders, that of handicapped ex-veterans. “Dr. Gnatenschuss,” which translates as coup de grĂ¢ce, is that murderer’s nickname. He has boasted in a letter to a newspaper that he will run rings around the stupid police. Dr. G’s m.o. is to walk up boldly to his victim and shoot him in the head. 

Bernie has many ideas and many orders from Herr Weiss, his boss, and Herr Gennat, a fellow detective with lots of experience. While Bernie still searches for the murderer of Eva Angerstein, Erich’s daughter, he must also don a disguise as an amputee beggar. His old army jacket and Iron Cross will see another day in the sun, as long as Bernie does not actually become a victim himself. And he still mulls over the first murder case he handled with the murder squad a year ago, before he was called up to audition to be a permanent member of the squad. That victim, too, was a young woman. She was dismembered and now has been mostly forgotten.

What else is happening in Bernie’s world? Let’s see. He’s a raging alcoholic. He finds a number of women interesting and, for better or worse, they reciprocate. He may be in over his head with the criminal underground. He knows far too much about the gruff and weird underbelly of Berlin’s nightlife, especially the “anything goes” motto of the sex industry. There is extreme poverty in the city. There has been way too much death and everyone is traumatized to some extent. Bernie suffers. Berlin suffers. Hitler marches forward to his future.

Kerr handles all the intricacies of this historical environment and spins a thrilling fictional narrative from it. And Kerr’s writing has humor. Granted, it’s a touch ironic and sarcastic — e.g., “I never yet saw a musical I didn’t think could be improved by a deeper pit for the orchestra, and a bottomless chasm for the cast.” — but it balances the grimness of the crimes and the blackness of Berlin’s soul.

MBTB star!


* Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is referenced a few times. It was screened in 1927. Lang’s wife appears as a character in the book.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Conviction by Denise Mina

Little, Brown & Co., 385 pages, $27

Denise Mina’s writing voice is jazzy, lippy, arresting, and Scottish. In her latest book, she presents a complicated, enigmatic, troubled protagonist, a character she writes so well.

Anna McDonald is the young mother of two wonderful daughters and the companion of a respectable lawyer, Hamish. She does the laundry, picks up dry cleaning, drops kids off at school, and executes other mundane household tasks. On the face of it, she is a normal housewifey-type character.

The first eccentric thing about Anna is she likes to awaken early and listen to podcasts. Before her husband wakes and their mutual stresses and demands begin to take their daily form, she sits with a cup of tea and listens to whatever happens her way. She is just about to begin a podcast by Trina Keany, a producer on the MisoNetwork. Trina’s podcast is entitled, “Death and the Dana.” But before Anna can get fully into it, Hamish announces he is leaving her. He is taking the children and he is going to Portugal for a vacation with Estelle. Estelle? Anna’s best friend Estelle? What?

Amid the flurry of the tossed contents of Hamish’s suitcase, Anna is left to grieve. At first she is only capable of lying on her hall floor. Eventually, a knock on the door intrudes on her catatonia. It’s Fin. Estelle’s husband Fin. He obnoxiously batters on the door and harasses her through the mail slot until she opens up.

It is hard for her to focus on Fin and his problems. While still stunned by events and before Fin arrived, Anna continued to listen to “Death and the Dana,” her podcast. She hears a name she has not heard in almost a decade: Leon Parker. According to the podcast, Leon and his two adult children drowned aboard Leon’s yacht not too long ago. He had just married Gretchen Teigler, a very, very wealthy and powerful woman. Gretchen was not there when the ship went down, and she says she has no idea why Leon would destroy his own boat and kill his own children. Trina, the podcaster, has many things to explore about the mysterious sinking in the next episodes of her show. But suddenly, Anna must carry on her own investigation into the sinking. She is convinced that Leon would never have killed himself, let alone other people, let alone his children.

Here are two more bits of information about Anna: She does not drive and she will not fly in an airplane. That’s because she is not Anna McDonald, and both driving and traveling abroad might expose her deceit. Mina reveals very early on that Anna is really “Sophie Bukaran.” In spits and spots throughout the book, Mina tells the story of what happened to Sophie/Anna and why Anna declares that Gretchen Teigler is trying to kill her.

Back to the story. So Anna tears out of her house with the keys to Hamish’s prized car. What? Anna can drive? Fin tags along. Anna can’t be bothered with a road trip companion, so she periodically tries to get rid of him. But he sticks like glue. He is a bonehead about the podcast, a bonehead about being dumped, a bonehead about what really is going on with Anna. And it turns out he’s a sticky, anorexic, persistent, famous bonehead. Fin was once a rock star. Then he was famous for the disaster that enwrapped his band and his life. One of the reasons he doesn’t want to be left behind is he’s broke. Anna, on the other hand, before lighting out, scooped up the pound notes Hamish had given Anna to resettle in a little apartment somewhere.

It’s a daunting road trip because someone is trying to kill Anna again, all because her nosy neighbor, Pretcha, has snapped and tweeted a photo of Fin and Anna leaving her house. Fin, if you will remember, is famous. The tweet builds viewership momentum until Anna’s life is an open book. That’s when people begin to express themselves in violent ways in her presence.

Besides the appeal generated by the quirky stories of why Anna is in disguise, why she is trying to find out about the sinking of the Dana and Leon’s death, and what she is going to do about losing her family, there is Mina’s ear-catching writing. For instance:

I lay in bed savouring the anticipation [of listening to podcast], watching light from the street ripple across the ceiling, listening as the heating kicked on and the grand old dame of a house groaned and cracked her bones.

and about meeting Leon:

Our stories weren’t disguised curriculum vitae. We didn’t tell them as a way of boasting or declaring our relative place in the social order. There was none of that crap. These were stories to entertain, told for the shape of them, for the sake of them, for the love of a tale.

and, finally:

It’s hard to be among vanilla bastards all the time. Normal people can get genuinely upset about a bad haircut, cross words, sick cats. It’s hard not to roll your eyes and say the wrong thing. I often said the wrong thing — wake up, shut up, grow up. These are the wrong things to say when people are sad about some minor cruelty or sentimental incident. But Adam Ross [who worked with Anna and is an addict] was as damaged as me. He didn’t need to be shielded or protected and he knew what not to pick at. A fellow traveller. You could say anything to him. That is rare and very precious.

Plus, there is a ghostly element. When Mina first introduced it, I got "ghost bumps" and turned on all the lights.

As for the title, Amila Fabricase, the yacht's chef, was accused of murder in the yacht deaths and convicted. It is as much for this stranger as for herself that Anna stubbornly traces the fate of the Dana. The dual meaning of "conviction" is a smile from Mina's pen. Also, I laughed when I read the last paragraph. I can't remember the last time I laughed at the end of a mystery book! That, too, comes from Mina's smiling pen.

MBTB star!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $28

Warning: I will be using the words “love,” “genius,” “unexpected,” “spectacular,” and “genuflecting” many times during this review.

Jackson Brodie has been resurrected* to appear in “Big Sky, “ the fifth novel in Kate Atkinson’s adept series. Atkinson has a writing style that is designed to keep readers off balance. She inserts humor in subtle ways in unexpected places. She has a protagonist who appears only sporadically and sometimes just whimsically in her series. She probably sits at her writing desk and says the word “traditional,” then laughs uncontrollably.

In broad strokes, Atkinson plays with fate and coincidence. (I say it is coincidence if it is non-fiction and fate if it is fiction.) “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen,” says Jackson Brodie. Thus it is that a diverse and idiosyncratic lot are tossed into the area where the sun first rises in Yorkshire. Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay, Scarborough, the Cleveland Way, picturesque areas I know from having hiked the Coast-to-Coast route years ago.

Jackson settles into his new abode near Whitby, having made the decision that investigation can be done from anywhere. Down the road is The Seashell hotel, run by the formidable Rhoda and her meekly acquiescent husband Andy Bragg. Not too far away are the offices of Steven Mellors, a lawyer for whom Brodie has done some work. Jackson’s new client is Crystal Holroyd, wife of Tommy. One evening, Jackson happens across Vincent Ives who fears he will be charged with the death of his wife, Wendy. Jackson takes pity on Vince and gives him a business card. Call if I can help, he says to Vince. Ha!

DC Ronnie Dibicki and DC Reggie Chase are young police officers set to check out any current connections to an old case of corruption and a pedophile ring run by Antonio Bassani and Michael Carmody, now in jail or dead. Oh, you Kate Atkinson fans, does the name Reggie Chase sound familiar? Toss your remembering muscle back to “When Will There Be Good News” (c2008). She was sixteen years old in that book, and now she is twenty-six. It is a delight to witness Reggie and Jackson’s subdued reunion, haunted as it is by a murder and odious men. At one point Jackson says to Reggie, “Truth is absolute, but the consequences of it aren’t.” “Sounds like a specious argument to me, Mr. B,” shoots back Reggie. It’s a wonderful if brief connection.

Here is where Atkinson draws the strings up and hauls her characters into the same bag. Tommy, Andy, and Vince are golfing buddies. (“Golfing friends,” Vince thinks, not “friend friends.”) Right off the bat, we learn Tommy, Andy and Steven are involved in something shady. Ronnie and Reggie are trying to interview … Tommy, Andy, and Vince in conjunction with the old case. As a matter of fact, they are in Vince’s apartment when he learns someone has murdered his soon-to-be-ex-wife. (Did Vince?) At one point Reggie spies Jackson in the distance, the first time she has seen him in a long while. It is then that she recalls Jackson’s comment on coincidence just waiting for an explanation. Coincidence (or fate) is the life-blood of “Big Sky.”

The main characters are Jackson, Reggie, Crystal, Harry [Crystal’s stepson], and Vince. Atkinson sometimes writes a scene several times so we can see it from the viewpoint of different characters. These characters are plopped into circumstances mostly not of their creation and left to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. These people are unusually nuanced, engaging oddballs, victims of fate (or coincidence).

Will Ronnie and Reggie find connections to their old case? Who killed Wendy? What’s the story about Tommy, Andy, and Steven? (Okay, you learn right off the bat that it is sex trafficking. Slimy, grody, reprehensible, inexcusable sex trafficking. But in Atkinson’s understated way, there are almost no graphic scenes, but there often is a view of the black-and-blue aftermath.) Crystal wants Jackson to determine who has been tailing her, so … Who is tailing Crystal? Why have anonymous notes panicked Crystal and has-been comic Barclay Jack? What about Vince? What will happen to sweet sixteen-year-old Harry, a summer employee of Transylvania World, a volunteer assistant to Barclay Jack, and the son of the odious Tommy?

There are invisible threads everywhere, and it is our delight to see Atkinson roll them out and unravel them. As Atkinson writes, “Worlds were colliding all over the place. Jackson thought he might actually have gone mad.”

This is not a whodunnit. You are not given clues per se and asked to solve the murder along with the detective. This is a look at some good-hearted people trying to wade through life’s many miseries, mysteries, and mayhem and not lose their humanity. The big sky covers us all.

A huge MBTB star for this one!




* As Jackson ponders his past, he reminisces: “He’d fallen off a cliff, been attacked by a mad dog, almost died in a train crash, nearly drowned, been crushed in a garbage truck, blown up — his house had been, anyway — and that wasn’t counting  a couple of near misses when serving in the police and the Army. His life had been a litany of disasters. What if he was already on his ninth life? The last go-round. Perhaps he should be more cautious.”