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

Friday, November 29, 2019

The Institute by Stephen King

Scribner, 576 pages, $30 (whew!)

Stephen King gets people. His stories may color outside the borders, his horrors unimaginable until he imagines them, his trips loopy and crazy, but he understands people quite thoroughly. His kids, especially, are kids — until they prematurely have to make adult decisions. Although a lot of his characters are young, King doesn’t really do touchstone current idioms and pop references. Nevertheless, the psychology feels so right.

There are a lot of children in “The Institute.” Although there is a reference to “Lord of the Flies,” this is a kinder and better gathering of children. It begins with the murder of twelve-year-old Luke Ellis’ parents and Luke’s kidnapping from Minneapolis to the wilds of northern Maine.

Actually, that’s not true. The story begins with the introduction of some adults. Tim Jamieson is looking for work. He was a police officer in Florida but a Kingian-style bizarre wrong turn put him on the road to New York to find security work. On the way to NY, he “feels” right about getting bumped from a plane and hitchhiking up the eastern seaboard. His luck, good or bad, lands him in DuPray, South Carolina. He takes a job as a “night knocker” in that small town.

A night knocker, according to King, is someone who doesn’t carry a badge or a gun but walks the night shift to check on the safety of the town, mostly its businesses. He becomes one of the sheriff’s team, but without authority. It suits him fine. There’s even — boing! — Deputy Wendy to quell his loneliness.

With Tim in place in South Carolina, we can return to Luke in Maine.

Luke awakens from his drug-induced stupor in a room very much like his own. Except for the absence of some small details — like windows — it IS his room. When Luke opens his door, he sees a dormitory hallway. That leads to a bunch of kids. They greet him and explain that he is now a captive. Abandon hope, etc. Prepare for Nazi-style shots, shocks, experimentation, and physical and verbal abuse. The goal of the adults who run The Institute is not to kill the kids but to measure them and turn them into ... what?

When Luke is upset or anxious, he can move things, small things. Telekinesis. TK. Some of the other kids are also TK, others are TP, telepathic. Are the adults trying to eliminate these tendencies in the children, determine how they are what they are, or enhance their powers? King tells you that The Institute has been around since the ‘50s. The children are told they are helping their country by submitting to the various examinations and shots. Sure.

What becomes obvious is that kids eventually move from “The Front Half” to the “Back Half,” never to be seen again. New children arrive periodically. The adults tell the children that after they perform services for the group, their memory of the place will be wiped out and they will be returned to the happy bosom of their family. Luke does not know but he suspects that this is never going to happen, especially since he believes his parents are already dead.

Luke’s time in the Front Half is miserable and Dickensian. If it were not for the friendship of some of the other TPs and TKs, he would be miserable and lonely. His buddies are Kalisha, Nick, George, and Iris. They are joined by ten-year-old-going-on-eight TP wunderkind Avery. Part of Luke’s talent is he can be sociable and appear “normal.” He can charm and engage, while absorbing and calculating. Before his abduction, he was on the path to attending simultaneously both Emerson College and MIT as a twelve-year-old. He knows big words, has superior analytical skills, and can hack a computer.

How does King bring Luke, trapped in Maine, together with Tim, settling in to life in a small South Carolina town?

As I said, King does kids well. But what would be the big whoop about ordinary kids? King’s kids are mostly articulate, generous, kind, and steadfast ... and also have TK and/or TP powers. (There are even twins, which gives King a chance to make an oblique reference to “The Shining.”) Put a bunch of kids together in a dire situation, make one a leader, another a brave one, and another a catalyst, and things will happen.

Turn the pages, read a most excellent story, revel in Stephen King’s storytelling ability, put your cares aside for a few hours.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

36 Righteous Men by Steven Pressfield

W. W. Norton & Co., 360 pages, $26.95

Ah, a murderer who seems to appear out of nowhere to strangle and brand his victims, a list of people killed in the same bizarre way in many different countries, and increasingly hazardous climate catastrophes. Are we talking End Times or The Apocalypse? Maybe.

Author Seven Pressfield has developed a hair-raising, propulsive, intriguing thriller that includes all of the above.

Do you know the story of the 36 righteous men from the Talmud? The world is saved from God’s destruction by the existence of 36 righteous men living among us at all times. Should the 36 cease to exist, so will the world. What if someone (or -thing) is murdering those 36 people. (Ahem, as it turns out, not all of the righteous 36 are male in this story.)

The year is 2034 and cataclysmic ecological disasters are already making portions of the world uninhabitable. For instance, Manhattan is frequently awash in seawater as the oceans’ level rises. There are nasty storms that are becoming increasingly more violent. Millions of people have died and millions more are fleeing to higher ground.

But it is not quite a free-for-all in Manhattan. Yet. But through the deaths of two prominent men, one in Manhattan and one in D.C., Detective Jim Manning and his unlikely assistant Detective (Third Grade) Covina “Dewey” Duwai begin to see a conspiracy surfacing. The connection between the victims is a commitment to mitigating the probable environmental collapse. Why would someone want to kill people who are trying to help?

Dewey is the narrator. She is a hard-working, ladder-climbing, loyal, clever, and talented detective. (“Third Grade means I’m a grunt.”) She is thrilled to be working with Manning, even if he is a precinct pariah, because he is the best investigator NYPD’s Division Six has. I’ll let her present herself:

I am twenty-eight years old, the youngest female in DivSix by nine years. My degree is a bachelor of science in criminal justice from St. John’s, plus three years as a patrol officer. I served in the Marine Corps for three years before that. I speak fluent Spanish and can get along in Portuguese and Tagalog.

And she is a whiz at computer-related stuff. She is also thorough and has surreptitiously scoped out her partner/mentor. She reveals both his brilliance and his despair. Dewey herself is somewhat less transparent. She exists almost as a disembodied voice, a voice-over Watson for the independent sleuth.

Here she is about Manning:

There are old-school detectives, and then there is Manning. He’s a troglodyte, a Neanderthal. I know next to nothing about his personal history, other than the fact that he came out of a twelve-month leave of absence following a family tragedy two weeks before I was assigned to work with him.

The mystery of the deaths deepens when their medical examiner discovers there is a subcutaneous “brand” between the victims’ eyes: “LV.” So in addition to trying to figure out whodunnit, there is also the question of whattheheck. How was it possible to brand the victims without external damage?

Then a mysterious woman appears. She communicates with Dewey and tells her that “LV” stands for lamed vav, Hebrew representing 36. Another helpful person explains the tale of the righteous 36 to Manning. Yeah, but that’s nuts, right? But then so is the “impossible” way in which their victims were killed.

As Manning and Dewey proceed to investigate the Judaic story of the 36, they discover there potentially are more victims. Eventually, they meet and join with people who say they trying to protect the remaining 36. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

Pressfield has envisioned an embattled world, and he has Dewey relate a lot of the destruction going on. There might be a monstrous being roaming around killing people, but that’s nothing compared to how the world lives (or survives) in that (slightly) future time. For instance, here’s a description of an area of New York City the detectives visit for clues:

You exit Little Hong Kong on foot along a series of suspended walkways, like rain forest bridges, swaying dubiously about eight inches above the petro-scum surface of Jamaica Bay. These catwalks have no handrails. They’re about as wide as a lawn mower. This constriction, however, does nothing to retard the bumper-to-Uber, two-way traffic of pushcarts, mopeds, deliverymen and -women using Chinese coolie carrying poles, tea and coffee hawkers with their dispenser tanks on their backs, not to mention hookers, skimmers, incense peddlers, acrobats, jugglers, three-card monte dealers, political orators, one-legged guys selling wild Siberian chaga, bhang, khosh, naswar, and half a hundred types of aphrodisiacs, psychedelics, soporifics, and herbal intoxicants that I’ve never heard of and neither have you. Canvas sheets overhead shield the floating city from the sun.

This is an extraordinary book in many ways. Pressfield keeps the action moving. He makes the possibility of a religious apocalypse seem credible. He has created intriguing — if somewhat lacking in facets — main characters. He scares the hell out of me with his descriptions of what awaits us ecologically. I would give this an MBTB star, but I confess I did not like the ending. I’m frustrated I can’t say what I didn’t like about it, but I will say that if the last chapter did not exist, I would be happier. Oh, well. Otherwise, I enjoyed the heck out of this book.

Monday, November 18, 2019

This Poison Will Remain by Fred Vargas

Penguin Books, 416 pages, $16
Translated by Siân Reynolds

Canadian author Louise Penny’s Three Pines series began in 2005 to much acclaim. Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series was begun in 1990 in its original French. It was not translated into English until 2009, according to stopyourekillingme.com. I had to check because there is much similarity in tone, character, and eccentricity between the two series.

I’ve read more Penny than Vargas books. Both series have grown since their inception into full-bodied works. Each series leans heavily on character and repetition. 

Adamsberg operates in Paris with his squad of quirky, sometimes emotionally volatile fellow detectives. It is strange that Adamsberg is the leader. He is vague, not organized, not articulate (speaking mostly in zen-like koans). He has bubbles that float around in his head, tantalizing him with what feel to be break-through thoughts, but they mostly avoid surfacing in a timely fashion. It is a wonder he solves anything at all. But that is his saving grace: He does solve the puzzles using intuition, experience, and bubbles.

In “This Poison Will Remain,” the seventh book in the series, Adamsberg first appears in Iceland. He is floating in an agreeable stupor. He has learned a few words in the native lingo, made a friend or two, solved a mystery — off camera, or rather in the last book — and has only vague plans about returning to work. An urgent message sent to him by his office about a woman who has been run over twice eventually gets to him and lifts his fog slightly, just enough to force his return.

This is an aside. The reason the message did not find Adamsberg quicker is because he lost his phone. “Lost” is the wrong word, because he knew exactly where his phone was:

His mobile phone had fallen into some sheep dung, and the ewe had trodden it firmly in with its hoof, no malice intended. That was a novel way to lose your phone, and Adamsberg had appreciated it as such.

After the brief appearance of Iceland in the story, we hear almost nothing more about that. Instead, Adamsberg goes about solving the riddle of who would run over the harmless wife of a lawyer. He is still in his fog, has only incompletely registered the information sent him by his office, and begins a wavy course of investigation. Once that case has been dispensed with, Adamsberg’s ship sails away on a course of its own. 

There is something peculiar about the recluse spider. The recluse is supposedly a shy creature and loathe to actually bite people. So why, all of a sudden, are people dropping dead from their bite, a rather painful process. Certainly, one or two deaths a year, maybe five, but several within only a couple of months? Is someone using the small arachnid to murder people? When Adamsberg probes the deaths and then obliquely brings the subject of murder to the attention of his team, there is muttering of how generally unsound such an accusation seems.

Danglard, a brilliant member of the team, is especially dour about the chances of proving a case of murder and questions his boss’ acuity, even threatening to take his qualms to a higher level. How odd! Danglard is usually a staunch comrade, even though Adamsberg’s methods leave him mystified.

Added to what seems like a hare-brained quest, Adamsberg is feeling strangely uneasy about this particular spider. It gives him the heebie-jeebies and he has a strong physical response when its name is mentioned. To the best of his knowledge, there is no basis for his uneasiness; he has never been bitten, never known anyone who has, and cannot place this particular spider anywhere in his life.

There is meandering. There is anguish. There is a slightly addled woman who keeps apologizing for swearing. There is a brother who is actually quite logical. There is a camp-out under the stars. There is a reckoning with the past. Victims of spider bites continue to pile up. But how on earth could they be murder victims? It would take a huge amount of venom or an unusual sensitivity on the part of the victim to actually kill someone. And now there are many someones.

Adamsberg plumbs his psyche, searches out experts, and takes advantage of a chance meeting with a stranger to sort it all out. I can’t say it was an ideal mystery. I can say it was a bit of far-fetching, but that is what I assume about Vargas’ books: Expect the unexpected and the extraordinary.

If you like having main characters who have a mission to straighten out the world, an unyielding responsibility, in fact, and a peculiar insight into human motivations, then you are welcome to Adamsberg’s world.

Should you read them in order? It wouldn’t hurt. I enjoyed “The Chalk Circle Man,” the first in the series. I confess the oddness of “This Poison Will Remain” charms me, but a small slice of odd-pie will last me a long time.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes

Pegasus Crime, 320 pages, $25.95

S. D. Sykes surprised me. After reading thousands of mystery books — or so it seems — I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that most of them recycle plot points. Now I read less for whodunnit* than whydunnit or wow! great writing or wow! unusual character. While S. D. Sykes’ “trick” is not original, it reminded me that we can be victims of our own assumptions.

So let me back up to the review now.

“The Bone Fire” is the fourth in the Plague Series. By 1361, when the events of this book take place, Oswald de Lacy has had more than his share of run-ins with the plague. This book finds him about eleven years after the events in the first book, “Plague Land.” I haven’t read Sykes’ other books, but I can attest that the author reveals enough of prior events to make it a smooth transition to “The Bone Fire.”

Here’s an aside. I always point to Sue Grafton as an expert in catching readers up with crucial backstory in a few deftly written sentences in her Kinsey Millhone series. But Grafton’s task was easier, because Kinsey often talks directly to her audience. Sykes chooses to explain background as the story progresses. So I laud Sykes for this part as well.

In “The Bone Fire,” de Lacy and his family are fleeing another sweep of the plague through the land. They have left their ancestral home and are bivouacking in a remote castle on a remote island on a remote hill. It appears that they have outrun the plague and are safe with Godfrey, Lord Eden.

There is some bickering among the castle’s now isolated residents: you know, “Titanic,” “Lifeboat,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Survivor,” “Mockingjay” stuff. Will the provisions last the several months of winter until spring brings the raising of the castle’s portcullis? Will the strange 14-year-old daughter of one of the other sequestered lords get on everyone’s nerves? Will the shiny knight have to poke away desperate villagers from the gate? Will Godfrey be murdered?

Never mind the rest, but yes, Godfrey is murdered. Lord Eden was murdered in his study with a heavy wine cup. (While Colonel Mustard got it in the billiard room with a lead pipe.) He was dutifully giving shelter to many people. Why would someone clobber the hand that fed him or her?

There are enough strange and suspicious characters among the guests and regular castle inhabitants to provide a good, old-fashioned round of he-did-it, no-she-did-it. Then another of the castle folk is murdered. And no one can blame the plague, which still rages outside the walls.

Here’s another thing I appreciate about how Sykes has structured the story: Hero de Lacy must muddle through the moral dilemma of choosing who shall live and who shall die in an excruciating way. The plague was capable of making moral villains of the pious, but could it also make heroes of the unworthy?

As I so often do after reading books set in this time period, I mentally thank my hot water heater, my HVAC unit, my washing machine, antibiotics, my refrigerator, and my machine-made, fuzzy wool socks.

This is a read-worthy but dour look at a time of extreme crisis. Jump right into the series here, or go back to “Plague Land,” “Butcher Bird,” or “City of Masks.”

* To be fair, I’m still shite at guessing who the killer is unless its identity is obvious from the beginning.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

Viking, 288 pages, $29

John le Carré began his auspicious writing career with “Call for the Dead,” in 1961. It starred George Smiley in the first of what was to become a long and honored series about the Cold War. In 1963, he released “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and in 1965, “The Looking Glass War,” two of his most popular novels. His books were erudite, articulate, readable, slyly humorous, authoritatively complex yet apprehensible, and the sine qua non of appreciating spy fiction. John le Carré, or David Cornwell as he was born, lived in the world of spy and counter-spy in real life. Although le Carré is now 88 years old, his works still illuminate, while ushering out the old order and bemusedly watching the younger generation work to build their own ideas of empire and republic.

Although this is 2019, three years after the surprising election of Donald Trump and the equally surprising Brexit vote in Britain, fictional works with references to these events and their effect are only now beginning to rapidly pile up in the book world. The non-fiction world was way ahead in that sense. “Agent Running in the Field” places the story squarely into post-Trump and Brexit chaos. Both forces affect the old alliances, and no treaty or promise is worth the paper it’s printed on.

Nat is a twenty-five year veteran of service in MI6. He is about to be put to pasture, by his own estimation. Instead, he is given the management of The Haven, a London substation of agents who don’t fit anywhere else. (See Mick Herron’s terrific “Slow Horses” series about the same topic.) Although nothing significant is expected to come out of the department, one of its brighter lights, young Florence, just may have a lead to uncovering a trail of nefarious financial misdeeds to the Russians through a London-based oligarch.

As Nat is trying to wrap his head around his latest assignment and what it might mean for his future — agents always have to see past the obvious — he meets a young man about twenty-five years his junior, at his athletic club. Ed appears to be serious about challenging Nat’s supremacy at club badminton. Nat is proud of having beaten most comers, including much younger men. Ed gives Nat a run for his money, and a strange and tentative acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, develops between the two.

This is where I get cagey because everything that develops from this point on is hush-hush, and you must have the proper clearance. I will give you le Carré’s opening lines, however:

Our meeting was not contrived. Not by me, not by Ed, not by any of the hidden hands supposedly pulling at his strings. I was not targeted. Ed was not put up to it. We were neither covertly nor aggressively observed….There was no contrivance, no conspiracy, no collusion.

That pretty much tells you that Nat and Ed will headline a book touching on Nat's world. If I may interject a telling remark here: It is difficult in this day and age to gauge the accuracy and meaning of accusations thrown about these days: “treason,” “leader,” “nationalism.” Definitions may need re-defining. The world has certainly been turned on its head. With this in mind, read le Carré’s relatively short novel. It is not so much about the political thunderstorms, but about how real people are buffeted about in them. It is about survival and personal belief. It is not le Carré’s deepest or most complex novel, but it is one of his most sincere.