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

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson

Minotaur Books, 263 pages, $16.99, c2012 (U.S. Ed. 2017)
Translated by Quentin Bates

“Rupture” is another atmospheric novel by Icelandic novelist Ragnar Jónasson. Ari Thór, Jónasson’s resolute police inspector, is a big city boy who has been living in the remote town of Siglufjördur for the last few years. His initial misery has slightly worn away, but for a while he was depressed about moving so far away from Reykjavik, about losing his girlfriend of many years, about how the town had nicknamed him “The Reverend,” mistakenly believing he had wanted to be a priest.

The good news in “Rupture,” the fourth Ari Thór mystery, is his old girlfriend seems to be willing to start seeing him again. The bad news is that his small town has been been quarantined because one person has died and another is barely alive because a haemorrhagic virus (of which Ebola is one kind) has come a-callin’. The town goes into lockdown, people barely emerging for necessities. Ari Thór has no room for fear; he still has to monitor, maintain, and defend the town. But mostly, he is just bored, bored, bored.

Batting away the gloom that has descended on the town, Ari Thór becomes excited when a cold case comes his way. Five-plus decades ago, Gudmundur and his wife Gudfinna, her sister Jórunn, and Jórunn’s husband Maríus went to live on an even more remote area near Siglufjördur. Hédinsfjödur was beautiful and wild, but hardly good farming territory. Nevertheless, they stuck to it long enough for Gudmundur and Gudfinna’s son, Hédinn, to be born. Then Jórunn, Hédinn’s aunt, was poisoned. The adults said she had died from suicide. But Hédinn, now an old man, wants to know if that is the truth. An elderly uncle has sent him a photo of the group at the settlement. But who is that unknown young man holding baby Hédinn in his arms? What sort of sinister goings on could there have been? He has come to the police for help. Were it not for the quarantine, Hédinn would have been turned away. But, as it is, Ari Thór has lots of time. With meticulous research and a dogged attitude, Ari Thór plods on.

Ari Thór is also open to helping television news reporter Ísrunn, when she calls from Reykjavik. It is through her that Jónasson develops the two stories of “Rupture,” as Ísrunn helps Ari Thór research his puzzle.

In Ísrunn’s neck of the woods, Snorri Ellertsson, the son of a former contender for prime minister, has been murdered. In a separate incident the young son of Sunna has been abducted. She and her boyfriend, Róbert, are beside themselves. And, hmm, maybe Róbert knows more about the situation than he tells the police. Because of Snorri’s former prominence as the son of a politician and as a long-ago friend of the current prime minister, that story engages the front pages and leading minutes of the newscasts, but only until the young boy’s abduction overwhelms the news. Ísrunn holds onto these stories because she suspects there is something lurking in the background of both. Ísrunn brings her own personal problems to the literary mix as well, sharing the main character spotlight with Ari Thór.

Jónasson draws all the threads together. He mixes sympathy with revulsion, bravery with guile, and drama with even more drama to form some very interesting stories which are satisfactorily resolved at the end.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham

Scribner, 368 pages $27

I’ve been a big fan of Australian author Michael Robotham since forever. (We would call him “Robot-ham” at the store to remember how to spell his name, no disrespect intended.) His signature series starring psychologist Joe O’Loughlin and retired London detective Vincent Ruiz dwindled to a close, it seems, with “Close Your Eyes” (2015). Since then he has written a couple of standalones, including the new “Good Girl, Bad Girl.” However, my money is on a continuing series from “Good Girl, Bad Girl” because there were some—not cliff-hangers, exactly—hill-hangers. And, best of all, the two main characters, whose narratives take turns, psychologist Cyrus Haven and psychologically damaged maybe-teenager Evie Cormac, are truly wonderful, eccentric, interesting characters, chock-full of unrevealed past elements. And not incidentally, some of the side characters beg to be brought back again and again.

Cyrus is a consulting forensic psychologist for the Nottinghamshire police. You would think that would allow him to live a middle class life, but instead he lives with a crumbling house and a rotting car. I think you are meant to equate that with a sense that his unresolved trauma and personality also need tidying. 

Here’s an aside: The action takes place in Robin Hood territory. Yes, we get the Sheriff of Nottingham(shire). (Boo!) We have “Maid Marion Way” for a road. Cyrus says, “Sometimes I’d say that my mother’s maiden name was Locksley and I had outlaw blood in my veins, which was complete bollocks but a great chat-up line.”

The idea is that Cyrus is a complex person, better thought of as a psychological patient rather than a doctor sometimes. Robotham does reveal Cyrus’ traumatic past and his relationship with a police detective who took a teenage Cyrus under her wing, Chief Inspector Lenny Parval. It is because of Parval that Cyrus becomes involved in a recent homicide. And it is because of a colleague who is at his wit’s end with a patient in a care facility that Cyrus becomes involved in a six-year-old homicide.

First the current case. Jodie Sheehan was an exemplary fifteen-year-old, it seemed. She was bound for glory as a champion ice skater. Coached to success by her mother’s brother, she maintained her grounding by staying close to relatives. When her body is discovered in the woods, it horrifies the community. The details are graphic. The police are looking for a rapist, but is it for a stranger for whom this was a crime of opportunity or is it for someone who knew her, with whom she felt comfortable and by whom she could be easily waylaid. When Cyrus is called to the scene, we realize from his first-person narrative that his take on the crime is very different from that of a detective or forensic specialist or just about anyone else.

A psychologist views a crime scene differently from a detective. Police search for physical clues and witnesses. I look at the overall picture and the salience of certain landmarks and features. Where are the obstacles and boundaries that alter behavior? How quickly does someone disappear from sight? How far can I see in each direction? What are the vantage points and the shortcuts?

Will Cyrus’ input confuse or clarify the crime?

Now the old case. Evie Cormac, a young person of indeterminate age, was discovered hiding in a house in which a gruesome torture murder had occurred. The murdered man was assumed to be her abductor, but as we can tell from Evie’s first-person narrative, he was her savior. What kind of life had Evie led? Robotham dishes some information out in drips and drabs, but she is a huge question mark. She is remarkably smart in some ways, and incredibly naive in others. The press dubbed her “the girl in the box” and nicknamed her “Angel Face,” since her real name (which isn’t Evie Cormac, by the way) was not released at the time. Cyrus is called upon to meet with her and offer aid. The first thing Cyrus notices is that Evie can tell when someone is lying. He knows she is a “truth wizard,” a human lie detector. (Is there such a thing? Don’t know. For the purpose of this book, it’s a great gimmick!)

Through some contrivances, Evie becomes Cyrus’ ward. The court has determined, in lieu of actual documentation, that Evie will not turn eighteen, the age of emancipation, until the next year. Cyrus volunteers, much to his surprise, to be her guardian until then. Two damaged people can understand each other, he supposes. She is suspicious of his motives, but soon a Holmes-Watson relationship develops. Make that Holmes-Holmes, since Evie is a bright but cantankerous bulb.

Red herrings, blind alleys, everyone-is-a-suspect. Name a mystery trope and it’s here. In other words, these days, it’s not so much what the story is as how it is told. Robotham is a very good story teller. He excels at characterization. He flicks his pen in a literary fashion. He brandishes philosophical writing skills. Here are a few choice quotes:

As a forensic psychologist, I have met killers and psychopaths and sociopaths, but I refuse to define people as being good or evil. Wrongdoing is an absence of something good rather than something fated or written in our DNA or forced upon us by shitty parents or careless teachers or cruel friendships. Evil is not a state; it is a ‘property,’ and when a person is in possession of enough ‘property,’ it sometimes begins to define them.


In reality, there isn’t some shooter in the grassy knoll or child sex ring in the pizza shop or secret group controlling the world. To misquote Mark Twain: It isn’t what we don’t know that gets us into trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just isn’t so.

There’s a lot a reader can learn about humanity from Michael Robotham’s books. He brings thought and caring to his books. Well done, sir!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

Dutton, 381 pages, $26

It’s a good thing it’s summer as I write this, because “Lock Every Door” is a summer read. It’s got Gothic thrills and chills, an intimation of a coven, and a harkening back to the claustrophobic apartment building of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Oh, my.

Jules (not a nickname, she points out) Larsen is twenty-five and poor as a churchmouse. She has just lost her job and found out her boyfriend was cheating on her. She is homeless in Manhattan and penniless, with no family and only one true friend, Chloe. It is with Chloe that Jules is staying while she looks to gather her wits and restart her life. Chloe is wonderful, but she has her own life to live and her apartment is small. When Jules spots an advertisement for an apartment sitter, it seems to answer a couple of her most urgent needs: money and a place to stay.

And what a place it is! The Bartholomew (along the lines of “The Dakota”) is a place out of Jules’ favorite book, “Heart of a Dreamer,” by Greta Manville. As teenagers in Pennsylvania coal country, Jules and her sister Jane read the book and dreamed of life in the big city, along the lines of the book’s heroine, Ginny, who lived in The Bartholomew. Now she is being shown around a fabulous apartment on the top floor of that very real building, with a fabulous view of Central Park and lurking gargoyles. And she gets paid $1000 once a week, in cash! Wowee wow wow! But you know the saying about if something is too good to be true ...

The caretaker job comes with some restrictions, very odd restrictions. No one can ever visit Jules. She may not spend a night away from the apartment. She may not post anything on social media. She may not initiate contact with anyone else in the building. Privacy concerns, you know. Most of the permanent residents are rich and famous and “vant to be alone.” Most of the ones she spots seem standoffish anyway. There’s the old man with his nurse toddling up and down the stairs for exercise. There’s the old woman with her yappy dog always going for walks. And then there’s the old woman who ... OMG, she’s Greta Manville, the author of Jules’ favorite book! Could that be why her book is placed in The Bartholomew? She herself is a resident! Jules longs to talk with her and risks breaking a rule to make contact.

The wonder of The Bartholomew is compromised when Jules hears a noise in the night. Is it coming from her fabulous and richly appointed living room? She slowly descends from her richly appointed bedroom, down her marvelously constructed spiral staircase only to find no one and nothing.

It is true that Jules has nightmares anyway. Her older sister Jane disappeared when they were teenagers. One day she stepped out of the shop where she worked part-time and into a mysterious car, and then she was gone, without a trace. In her dreams, Jules relives that. That story haunts Jules’ increasingly difficult experience at The Bartholomew.

Jules almost immediately makes a friend in the building, another young woman named Ingrid Gallagher. Ingrid’s cheeriness balances Jules’ recalcitrance. But their friendship ends abruptly when Ingrid disappears. Jules is told that Ingrid just dropped her keys on the lobby floor and vanished into the night. A large part of the book is given to Jules’ search for Ingrid.

Perhaps the sequel to “Lock Every Door” will be “The Phone Call Is Coming from Inside Your House,” because although the story takes place in Manhattan, the feeling is of a suburban horror movie.

The ending was a little goofy but that is appropriate for a summer read, don’t you think?

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

We Were Killers Once by Becky Masterman

Minotaur Books, 312 pages, $27.99

Brigid Quinn rides again! This is good news because Brigid is one of the most unusual private eyes in the biz. She’s ex-FBI. (Hold the applause; she was disgraced and banished to Arizona.) She’s the wife of an ex-priest, Carlo. (He looks for the good in people; she knows there’s evil out there.) Her niece, Gemma-Kate, is a bit of a psychopath, but a brilliant psychopath. (She may — or may not — have poisoned one of Brigid and Carlo’s lovable pugs.) Both Brigid and Carlo have almost been done in by murderers. (Can’t think of an aside. This is a — for the most part — mystery blog, so there are usually murders being discussed. PI-ing is a dangerous profession, fictionally speaking, and being married to such a person presents its own dangerous moments.)

Brigid is Carlo’s second wife. His beloved, we assume, first wife, Jane, died a few years back. The personal understory of “We Were Killers Once” is about Brigid coming to terms with Carlo’s relationship with Jane. Before Carlo, Brigid had never been married, so Carlo doesn’t face the same potential anguish. In fact, most of Carlo’s anguish seems to be philosophical. It’s a good thing he’s a professor of philosophy. His thoughts and conversation are measured. Brigid is a person of deed, not word. It’s a wonder they have found each other. It’s a wonder they are still together after a couple of years of marriage. Neither is a blushing bride or groom, so there’s perhaps less dramatic romance and a steadier kind of love. Their relationship is about to be tested from all sorts of angles because of an obsession and an old sin. 

For as long as she can remember, Brigid has been fascinated with the killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. You might know them as the focal points of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” They were found guilty and subsequently executed for the murders of the Clutter family. Becky Masterman’s hypothesis here is: What if Capote got it wrong? His story is mostly from Perry’s point of view. What if Dick Hickock had his own tale to tell? What if there were another person involved?

For a number of years, Brigid has been intrigued by the murders of another family, the Walkers, in Florida. Hickock and Smith were known to have been in the area of those murders, but they were discounted as suspects by lack of evidence tying them to the crime. What if that “other person” was willing to do whatever to prevent the discovery of his involvement and his knowledge of Hickock and Smith?  What if that man’s name is Jeremiah Beaufort and Brigid and Carlo cross his path?

Mixing real life facts, Capote’s book, and Masterman’s imagination results in an intriguing book. From the start, Masterman divides her book into Brigid’s first person narration and a third person viewpoint of Beaufort’s search to eradicate whatever information may exist to link him to any killings. Beaufort is seventy years old when he gets out of prison for other crimes, and he doesn’t waste any time trying to track down potential threats. 

In favor of Brigid and Carlo surviving their encounter is Beaufort’s naïveté and his egotism. Also on the plus side are Brigid’s tough mind and practical planning based on her years as an agent and borderline sociopathic personality. Gemma-Kate is an apple that doesn’t fall far from the Quinn tree, so she is another plus. Carlo has deep sense of the value of humanity and loving kindness, but they probably are not really pluses here. So that’s the team trying to fend off the clammy fingers of Death grabbing one or more of them.

I’m leaving huge swathes of the story still under wraps. For instance, how specifically do Brigid and Carlo wind up on Beaufort’s radar? That’s part of the circle-tightening Masterman does to carry the story along, and I’m not going to be the one to muck up the deal!

This is a good one.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Love Story, with Murders by Harry Bingham

Delacorte Press, 400 ages, $27 (c2014)

When your popular novel features a protagonist so acutely different, what’s your next move? How do you continue to create interest when readers (presumably) already know the secret to your character’s eccentricities? We should all have this problem. Harry Bingham was born ready to write the sequel to “Talking to the Dead” (2012).

D.C. Fiona Griffiths of a Welsh CID unit is back. This twenty-six-year-old woman (in the fictional year of 2010) spent part of her youth thinking she was dead. She still isn’t quite sure she isn’t actually dead. But mostly now, she lives on what she terms “Planet Normal.” She has a loverly boyfriend, Buzz, and a job she hasn’t managed to lose, although there are a few of her colleagues who don’t like her.

“Love Story, with Murders” is a strange title, but at the end, perhaps you will agree, it is spot on. It first begins with a murder. The murder actually took place several years ago, but the body — or at least part of it, consisting of a leg — was only recently discovered. In someone’s garage freezer. Soon other pieces of Mary Jane Langton, a twenty-two-year-old student and sometime “exotic” dancer, begin to surface. 

The title contains the plural, “murders.” And so soon, another body, or parts thereof, makes itself known. This one is of recent vintage and is of a man, Ali el-Khalifi, a lecturer in engineering. His parts are not hidden in freezers or cans of oil the way Mary Jane’s are. His are merely strewn around the suburban-side.

This is Fiona’s reaction to the discovery, of which she was an integral part, of Mary Jane: “[T]his will be a CID case from here on. A sweet little murder. I feel a deep sigh of relaxation pass through me. Of pleasure.” An unusual reaction, wot?

How about when Buzz asks her about her case: “I tell him about my night, except not the bit about going down to Pontcanna or up to Whitchurch, or the bit about calling my dad, or the bit about going into the dead girl’s room, or the drizzle of body parts, or the joint which I thought about twice but didn’t have. Apart from that, I’m as open as sunshine.”

About Fiona’s dad: He’s a criminal. He has never been caught, so he’s either a smart criminal or a lucky one. It is with trepidation that the force has accepted Fiona as a cop. Also about Fiona’s dad: He isn’t her biological father. At about two-and-a-half, Fiona was discovered in her adoptive parents’ car, abandoned. By whom? Why? Fiona continues a desultory personal investigation into it, but there isn’t a lot to go on. And she wouldn’t want to stub her toe on the wrong rocks.

So these are the basic elements to Bingham’s second Fiona story. What makes this book so extraordinary is the same thing that made “Talking to the Dead” extraordinary. Bingham mixes the grisly with the humorous, the sweet with the macabre. He is excellent at keeping both the pacing and storyline off balance. Tra la la la la, boom! For example, at one point Fiona is in dire danger of losing her life. Well, you think, there is a good portion of the book to go and Fiona is the only first person narrator, so she must survive, right? But how? And the fun of it is how Bingham goes about resolving those “difficulties.” Tra la la la la, boom!

Fiona studied philosophy at Cambridge, so every once in awhile Bingham inserts a philosophical digression. Fun. She rarely can feel her feet. Fun? She grows her own weed. Fun? Pile the weirdness on, Bingham!

Here’s a lovely bit of Bingham:

For me, all corpses count the same. One dead body might lead to Barry Precision. Another to nothing more than a love poem lost down the back of a sofa. There is no eminence here, no lowliness. We are all equal under Death’s scythe.

I’ve left out the “love story” part of the title. It’s one of the quieter moments of the book and should be revealed in its own time and only to its reader.

MBTB star!