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

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sarah Jane by James Sallis

Soho Crime, 216 pages, $23.95

James Sallis wrote some of the best mystery novels I’ve ever read: his Lew Griffin series. His books are brought to life by his understanding of human nature and his poetic writing. Also, apparently Sallis can write from any point of view and sound credible. Lew Griffin was a black private investigator. The eponymous star of “Sarah Jane” is a white woman. He takes her from her teenage years to middle age.

“Sarah Jane” is told from Sarah Jane’s perspective. It is full of her pensive thoughts and softly evasive storytelling. Time goes back and forth but that allows the many revelations to occur in their appropriate places. It allows Sallis to meander us down his path.

This is what Sarah says at the beginning: “My real name is Sarah Jane Pullman.” Sarah also adds:

I grew up in a town called Selmer, down where Tennessee and Alabama get together and kind of become their own place, in a house that spent the first sixteen years of my life getting ready to slide down the hill, which it did right after I left.

Scenes in the Middle East appear and we begin to realize a significant part of Sarah’s history: She was in the military and saw action. So, later when she becomes a cop, it is not such a stretch to imagine that. Yes, I gave away something she does not reveal until maybe half way through the book. The hefty prelude to that part of her story has her meandering through various towns, all the way to, at least, New Mexico, where she took cooking jobs. There were diners and some fancier places, some places where she was bossed and some places where she was the boss. Men go in and out of her life, but it is a solitary journey she eventually takes to the point where she becomes a deputy.

It’s hard to say where Sarah eventually washes up, maybe in Tennessee, somewhere near the capital. She's not in a small small town — maybe a big small town. It’s rather vague but then specificity is not required.

It turns out Sarah is good at her job as a deputy. Part of it is having a good boss, Cal Phillips. Then one day, Cal disappears. All the interesting but tidy stories of life in town disappear. She becomes the acting chief of police, despite herself. Did she have something to do with Cal’s disappearance? Is her narrative disingenuous? Was Cal getting too close to fully discovering her past?

I have to say that if you are looking for a traditional mystery, this ain’t it. Maybe not all your questions will be answered. Come for the story, stay for the writing. For instance:

The ancient tree by the town square, given up for dead most every year before it pushed out delinquent sprigs of green, was filling with leaves.

And when Sarah and another deputy check out a bar fight:

[The men were] swearing and giving forth declarations of what they were going to do to each other, an entire bar fight waged in the future tense, as though they’d caught strains of some futuristic affliction from the toys and models [decorating the UFO-themed bar] surrounding them.


We can’t ever know how others see the world, can’t know what may be rattling around in their heads: loose change, grand ideas, resentments, pennies from the fountain, spiffed-up memories, codes and ciphers.

“Sarah Jane” is a beauty of a book. It is storytelling essence. It celebrates a joy of words and reminds us of the definition of strength.

Of course, MBTB star!

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

Mulholland Books, 305 pages, $27

“Heaven, My Home” continues the story of Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. Attica Locke infuses her story with the heat and humidity of East Texas, and weds it to the friendliness, standoffishness, generosity and avariousness emblematic of small-town life. Texas has history and you better be prepared to learn some. Plus, don’t mess with family.

Darren Matthews is one of the more fraught “heroes” of current crime series. He is an alcoholic, as are several other authors’ main characters, but Darren’s devil-in-the-bottle is waging all out war for his soul. Darren is also the most tender-hearted of main characters. Realistically, it wouldn’t be a long relationship between a person and crime fighting were he or she to have Darren’s softness towards underdogs, his tenacious version of honor, and his shut-tight sense of right and wrong, never mind the law. Be that as it may, this is Attica Locke’s fiction and she invites us into her world.

So, Darren is black. He sometimes is drawn to work in areas of Texas which aren’t open-minded or open-armed about, as they say, [insert “n”-word here and pluralize it]. Darren gets mad, then he gets madder, then he solves the crime. Ostensibly, he is fighting crime from the Houston bureau of the Texas Rangers, to which he has transferred to appease his wife, but his heart is in the rural areas. He is part of the team which is trying to bring the ABT (Aryan Brotherhood of Texas) to account for their nastiness and crimes.

In the small provincial town of Jefferson, a nine-year-old boy has gone missing. He is the son of a man who was sentenced to prison for crimes committed as a major player in the ABT. His wife has taken up with an ABT wannabe. Levi, poor young boy, was growing up in the only way he knew how, as a nine-year-old future member of the ABT, before his disappearance one afternoon.

The only person who saw him return the boat he had “borrowed” after traveling on the lake to visit a classmate was old Leroy Page, just before he vanished. Ironically, Leroy Page is black and is the de facto owner of the land the ABT family and their kith and kin have parked on. It’s a hell of a dilemma. Levi’s grandfather (white) was Leroy’s friend, and it was to the grandfather that Leroy allowed residence on his land. Now Leroy is stuck with a whole disruptive, bullying lot of white ABT people.

Leroy, of course, is accused of having kidnapped and killed Levi, but there is no proof. Darren is willing to give Leroy the benefit of the doubt, but as the evidence begins to pile up against Leroy, Darren’s optimism wanes and the temperature rises in the town of Jefferson.

Levi’s grandmother is a grande dame of the little pocket of antebellum South parked in Jefferson. Although her son and his family are “white trash,” Rosemary King is made of finer stuff. Surely, she has been hiding Levi to get him away from the nastiness in his trailer home. But there is no evidence of that either.

Just what is there evidence of? That’s Darren’s problem and despite being summarily dismissed by the local authorities, he sticks around in Jefferson like a fly to flypaper, like syrup to a pancake, like mosquitoes to the lake. The boy may be white trash and he may have graffitied Leroy’s home, but he is still a nine-year-old missing child.

Behind that story is the ongoing one (begun in “Bluebird, Bluebird”) of how Darren is covering up the involvement of an old family friend in the murder of another ABT doofus. He is hounded by the authorities in charge of that crime. The district attorney of San Jacinto County smells a dirty rat, and he is certain, without evidence, that Darren is involved. That “evidence” is in the sneaky hands of Darren’s mother, Bell, who is playing that to her monetary and emotional advantage. She defines the acronym SNAFU.

Here’s a bit of Locke’s evocative writing. This is the last we see of Levi before he is reported missing:

“Here,” he called, the sound like a single drop of water on cotton as the Spanish moss ate the words out of his mouth whole, needing the cries of lost souls as sure as it needed the blood of the bald cypress to survive in the swamp.

And this is Darren’s feeling about Jefferson:

But nothing about Marion County said home to him. It was not his East Texas. It was zydeco where he wanted blues. It was boudin where he wanted hot links. It was swampy cypress trees where he wanted pines, which always made him think of the holidays at home, even in the dead of summer.

Again, what Attica Locke does best is present a sensory experience of life in small-town East Texas. And, too, she presents a compelling portrait of a hero in distress, in agony, in opposition to even those he would call friend. 

I don’t know how long Locke will extend the series, but there has to be at least one more. I’ll be waiting.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley

Bantam, 352 pages, $17

There are so many books toppling off of piles and tables in my house, all of them waiting to be read. I have “Motherless Brooklyn” to re-read — although I seldom re-read books — because of the new film based on it. I have Attica Locke’s wonderful “Heaven, My Home” half read. I have Wil Medearis’ “Restoration Heights,” not yet begun, even though it has been winking at me from the pile since it debuted in January. And the list goes on with current and old titles vying for a quiet corner and a comfortable chair. 

I admit I have been especially distracted the last couple of months. I remember when the World Trade Center fell, there were almost no customers in my bookstore. When they finally started coming in again, they uniformly said that it had been impossible to concentrate on reading. I knew what they meant, because I, too, had had the same difficulty. This is not meant to be a political post; it simply acknowledges that no matter what your political position, even if you have been paying only scant attention to the news, you know the known world had been whirling atilt at a dizzying pace.

So what do I grab in the midst of the daily bombardment of bad news (or good news, depending on your turn of mind)? Flavia de Luce is my comfort. She is my tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwich. She is a “Friends” marathon. She is a pet to hug.

At this point in the series, I’m not sure I even care if there is a mystery. Is there a dead body? Really? When? It doesn’t matter, I’m certain Flavia and Dogger have solved the whodunnit part. Moving on…

What do I really get out of Alan Bradley’s works? Flavia is, what, thirteen, fourteen years old at this point, although it has been ten years since her debut in “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.” Literary dog years. She is plucky in the traditional sense of precocious child sleuths. She has taken her setbacks and mourned and moved forward.

Talk about comfort. Flavia takes comfort in scrupulously tidying her lab, studying scientific texts, testing for poisons. Although she is the youngest child in her family, she is the one left holding the bag in terms of ownership of her drafty family mansion. Her oldest sister has just married, her other sister remains firmly hidden behind books. With the help of gentle Dogger, her father’s — how to describe him? — best friend, factotum, fellow war survivor, Flavia feels visible and acknowledged. However, Dogger is beset occasionally by PTSD flare-ups, although, it being 1952, PTSD had the luridly descriptive name of “shell shock.” His background is unusual and mostly unknown. He has a vast knowledge of things medical, chemical, exotic, and can also relay the recent village gossip.

Together Flavia and Dogger have developed a consulting detective agency, Arthur W. Dogger and Associates. It sounds frivolous and one wonders if Dogger is simply doing it to distract Flavia, but he plays it with a straight face. And, of course, the dead bodies continue to roll in, as they have in the nine previous novels, so the agency is a useful strategy.

I love how Flavia rides her bicycle Gladys throughout the village. I love how her bicycle has a name! I love Flavia’s indomitable spirit, housekeeper Mrs. Mullet’s kindness, younger cousin Undine’s brainy madness, and sister Daffy’s occasional non-hostile attention.

For the record, Mrs. Anastasia Prill hires the Dogger Agency to solve a mystery involving purloined letters. Then she dies under mysterious circumstances. There are rugby-playing divinity students, missionary ladies determined to give a talk about health issues in Africa, someone’s severed finger stuffed into sister Feely’s wedding cake, and a doddery old person.


Saturday, October 5, 2019

A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar

Riverhead Books, 351 pages, $27

So I had to look up “Pomoc” on the Internet. It is a “Proto-Slavic” word for help, aid, assistance. Hmm. Interesting. And this is why I had to look it up:

“A Prayer for Travelers” is the debut novel by Ruchika Tomar. Here are Tomar’s bona fides: “Ruchika Tomar was raised in Southern California. She holds a BA in English literature from the University of California, Irvine, and an MFA from Columbia University. A recent Wallace Stegner Fellow, she is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.” I include this information in the event you begin with an erroneous assumption — especially since I began this review with a definition for the Slavic word “Pomoc” — a dangerous undertaking these days in the world of literature. Anybody with any name can write anything.

Cale is a teenager on paper but the events of her life detailed in this book solidly qualify her for adulthood. Who knows anything about her father? Her mother abandoned her, and she was raised by her grandfather, “Lamb.” She and the taciturn Lamb live in Pomoc, a fictional town somewhere in the mountain states in the U.S. It’s a small, poor, run-down town. Apathy seems to be the standard emotion. 

At this point, I should describe Tomar’s gimmick. The chapters are out of order, so events occur in a mixed-up timeline. But to be helpful, Tomar has headed each chapter with a number. My guess is that most of her readers have read the chapters the way Tomar has laid them out, e.g., 31, 2, 5, 3, 32, 82, 6, 33, and so on. I tried that and realized I was bored by chapter 32. It’s a storytelling puzzle which can be solved — probably a bonus for mystery aficionados — but the mystery of the missing Penny cannot be discerned by clues, because they don’t exist. So the mystery and puzzle-solving is in the reading.

I read it sequentially. Chapters 2 and 3 are fairly close to the beginning, but chapter 1 is tucked away between chapters 25 and 26, themselves tucked between chapters 29 and 30, all of which are preceded by 78. I knew there was no way I could tackle it the way the author intended. I just couldn’t.

It would probably have made more sense to have events out of sequence if it had been a film. The visual cues (dress, time of day, locale) would help anchor the scene in time. But it wasn’t and readers are all on their own.

Tomar doesn’t need the gimmick of mixed-up chapters. The book holds together pretty well, even when told linearly. She has an affinity for how language sounds and reads. She juggles suspense and character depiction well.

Cale was a nobody in school: “…I had been invisible for so long, I was starting to wonder if I still had a fleshly outline, a concrete human shape.” The popular, if slightly outrĂ©, girl group in school was comprised of four girls: Penny, Flaca, Lourdes, Luz. Penny was the leader and a person of fascination for Cale. As they grew older, the gang broke apart and Cale met Penny one-to-one. Cale soon was waitressing at the same diner where Penny worked. Then they started hanging out together. Then they started getting into trouble together. Then Penny disappeared.

In the meantime, Cale’s grandfather is beginning on the short road to the end of his life. Cale is still a teenager. She is used to loss and not used to security. To trust in security was to be betrayed; but still, she hungers for and leans toward it. That defines so much of the motivation in the book.

Although the book features teenagers Cale and Penny, it is not a young adult book. Cale and Penny play at adult responses to adult problems. Their grief is bottled yet loud, their rage vicious yet contained, until it isn’t. There is no one to save the main characters in Pomoc, especially if they refuse to be “saved.”

This book is a challenge and I failed to accept it. But I did think well of the effort.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Riverhead Books, 285 pages, $27 (Polish ed. c2009; US ed. c2018)
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Janina Duszejko is an “old crone” who lives alone in her house in an area fairly distant from the nearest village, in Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic. There are other cabins where she lives, but most of them are uninhabited for most of the year. She is taxed with keeping those properties in good shape, so she routinely makes a circuit of her area, including the “Plateau” from which she can view her area and the land below. Although her age is never stated, she is old enough to have “Ailments” and to refer to herself as an old biddy. Despite her physical difficulty in navigating the course, she enjoys her circuits and a chance to observe the natural world.

The other two occupants of her little area are “Oddball” and “Big Foot.” Of course those are not their real names. Mrs. Duszejko, for that is what she prefers to be called, never Janina, prefers to give people names appropriate to how she views them. (“I’m sure this is the right way to use language, rather than tossing about words stripped of all meaning.”) Oddball is eccentric, a loner, given to timidity in conversation. Big Foot has … big feet. The three of them are the only year-round residents.

One cold night Oddball awakens Mrs. Duszejko to attend to Big Foot, who lies dead on his own floor. Notorious for being parsimonious, Big Foot was hardly likely to have his light on late at night. And that is what led Oddball to investigate and discover Big Foot’s body.

It is obvious from the start that Mrs. Duszejko is an unusual person. She has mysterious physical problems, a belief centered on a reverence for nature, and more than a passing interest in astrology. After it is determined that Big Foot has died from choking on a bone from a deer he killed — probably illegally — and cooked, Mrs. Duszejko believes it was fated because of his cruelty to both humans and animals.

Not only is Mrs. Duszejko odd, but it is hard to believe this odd work is a mystery book. But the bodies slowly start to drop. Mrs. Duszejko and Oddball and just about everyone else in the village are interviewed about the deaths. Who saw what, when? Mrs. Duszejko has a theory, about which she writes voluminous letters to the local police. They are all ignored.

Mrs. Duszejko describes herself:

…[D]espite the semblance of cheerfulness that people naively and ingenuously ascribe to me, I see everything as if in a dark mirror, as if through smoked glass. I view the world in the same way as others look at the Sun in eclipse. Thus I see the Earth in eclipse. I see us moving blindly in eternal Gloom, like May bugs trapped in a box by a cruel child. It’s easy to harm and injure us, to smash up our intricately assembled, bizarre existence. I interpret everything as abnormal, terrible and threatening. I see nothing but Catastrophes. But as the Fall is the beginning, can we possibly fall even lower? 
In any case, I know the date of my own death, and that lets me feel free.

On how astrology explains all, using the Alien movies as an example:

I succeeded in observing similar conformities with regard to the Alien films, set on a spaceship. Here subtle dependencies between Pluto, Neptune and Mars came into play. As soon as Mars was in aspect to these two Slow Planets at the same time, the television showed a repeat of one of the Alien films. Isn’t that fascinating?

Mrs. Duszejko used to build bridges and now she teaches English to school children once a week. She is helping Dizzy to translate Blake into Polish. She enjoys the cozy nature of Good News’ shop. So she has friends and participates somewhat in village life. And if I may borrow Blake, she worries about the widening gyre that may engulf her world.

Although the rhythm of the book is slow and replete with full-stop digressions into astrology and philosophy, "Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead" is a book with a strong voice. Olga Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize for an earlier work, so she is an author to command attention. She leads Mrs. Duszejko gently through what appears to be madness and a loosening of the veil.

(For fans of Call the Midwife on PBS, Mrs. Duszejko strongly reminded me of elderly Sister Monica Joan, a cultured woman who took to her calling as one of the first nun-midwives in England, but now wanders adrift from reality sometimes.)

This is a book both splendidly written and translated. MBTB star!