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

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh

Berkley Publishing, 352 pages, $27

I can’t say “Madness of Sunshine” is a mystery/crime novel, although there are a few murders and attempted murders. It seemed more a romance, and a formulaic one at that. The strength of the book is its stunning setting: the west coast of South Island, New Zealand, not far (distance is relative in a twisty, jungly environment) from Greymouth, a real town. Golden Cove is not real. It stands in for all the small and remote towns overlooking the dramatic and tumultuous sea. It is the sort of small town (i.e., every small town) in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s a town in which a murder is hard to hide, but in which murders have been shelved away, until the latest disappearance of a young girl, a beautiful and beloved member of the community.

Author Nalini Singh does a great job of creating and describing the setting and portraying the small-town nature. She avoids turning her book into a tour guide — major kudos to her — but she still makes the area sound so appealing. But her writing skills are not strong enough to overcome the repetition (Josie is Anahera’s best friend, her best friend Josie, good thing Josie is her best friend) and heavy-handed casting of a netful of red herrings (every man is a suspect).

This would have joined my pile of unfinished books, if not for the compelling location and the underlying sweet story of a community bound by ancient culture and modern necessity.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Whisper Man by Alex North

Celadon Books, 368 pages, $26.99

What’s a book without coincidences and ghosts, I say. Luckily, “The Whisper Man” has both, if you believe in that sort of thing — either coincidences or ghosts.

Alex North is not a newcomer to professional writing, but “Alex North” is a pseudonym, so who knows what else he/she has written. Maybe it was a book on sociology, since the author’s CV lists a stint at Leeds University in that department. The author’s biography says he lives in Leeds with his wife and son. “Him,” hmmm. Let us not forget that J. K. Rowling said she was the male author Robert Galbraith! And Michael Redhill pretended to be Inger Ash Wolfe. Whatever. “The Whisper Man” reads smoothly and does not hint that this might be a first attempt.

What would you do if your seven-year-old son persisted in talking to invisible companions? You’d probably laugh it off, because don’t a large number of young children have make-believe playmates? What if your son was kinda creepy about it? What if your wife had died not long ago? What if you are a crap parent, riddled with self-doubt and grief? Ta dah, “The Whisper Man.”

Twenty years ago, several young boys were kidnapped. At the time, fifty-six-year-old DI Pete Willis found the killer, Frank Carter, and put him in prison. But the body of one boy, Tony Smith, was never found, even though Carter acknowledged Tony as one of his victims. Willis was a heavy drinker. Eventually, his drinking cost him his family. His inability to find Tony Smith weighed on him throughout the years, but contrary to expectations, he is now sober.

In the quaint English village of Featherbank, not far from where DI Willis lives, another young boy has disappeared. The investigation this time is headed by DI Amanda Beck. She allows Willis onto her team because of his experience with the prior child abductions and killings. The cases are similar in that they are about missing children, but until the police learn one crucial piece of information, the old and new events are not linked. His parents reveal that six-year-old Neil Spencer reported hearing whispering at night. That was a signature of the cases twenty years ago. Frank Carter was dubbed “The Whisper Man.” Willis is now on full alert.

Tom Kennedy, a book author, has moved to Featherbank with his seven-year-old son, Jake. Jake is “different.” Tom has often caught him whispering to himself and seeming to talk to someone who is not there. Jake tells his dad about a little girl who is his playmate, but no one else has seen the little girl. It’s the shock of having his mother die suddenly, Tom thinks. Tom and Jake have moved to get a new start, away from the home where Rebecca died, away from the bullying at Jake’s school, to a place where Tom could jumpstart his writing.

What is Jake’s strange connection to their very strange new house? Why is Jake afraid enough to beg his father to lock their doors and windows at night? Then late one night, Tom catches Jake on the verge of letting someone into their home. By the time Tom opens the door, the visitor has disappeared. The police become involved and, inevitably, their incident becomes part of the larger picture of the new Whispering Man case.

Alex North relies on his readers’ imaginations to provide the gory details after he has supplied the gory outline. The author’s strength is in how he builds the suspense and uses ordinary but fragile people as the prey. Horror is worse when it comes by way of your own imagining. Although every shadow flickers ominously (and usually dissipates into nothing), it becomes clear that every odd utterance is based on an odd foundation. Just because it’s your imagination doesn’t mean it’s not … real.

I’m going to start a new category, “Lights On,” as in read this book with the lights on. This will be my first entry.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

William Morrow, 352 pages, $26.99

I wish I hadn’t watched the third season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” before reading this book. This is not a humorous book, but there are certain quirks and traits shared between Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz and Midge Maisel. They come from Jewish families who only want their daughters to be good wives and to not appear publicly in shameful professions. Mrs. Maisel, if you don’t know, is a stand-up comedian in an Amazon Prime series. Mrs. Schwartz is an aspiring reporter, at the age of thirty-seven, after having left her husband and sixteen-year-old son to find out what would fulfill her life. Both can cook.

It is 1965-66 in Baltimore. Mrs. Schwartz — Maddie — is learning to be part of the larger Baltimore world, after having spent her housewife years trying to keep a kosher house, anticipate her husband’s needs, deal with a sullen teenager, and throw the perfect dinner party when her thoughtless husband drags people home at the last minute. Milton is a putz, but Maddie has enabled that. And can he be a putz if that is the standard operating procedure for men — Jewish or non- — of the time?

After she leaves the befuddled Milton, Maddie is tossed into instant penury. She refuses to live with her parents, but she has very little money. Her very first scheme is to pretend her apartment in an undesirable neighborhood (read “black”) has been robbed and her engagement ring stolen. She collects the insurance money and then hocks the ring. That and a randomly-selected pittance Milton provides is what she will live on while she tries to follow her bliss.

Tessie Fine, eleven-year-old Tessie Fine is missing. Maddie knows the girl’s father’s fur store. The Jewish community is organizing search parties of the area where she was last seen. Maddie, however, is a woman, so she is rejected as a search party member. Not to be deterred, she hies off with a woman she just met to do her own searching. Based on her own personal experience of the area being searched — i.e., she used to make out in certain spots — she heads for “her” spot. And there lies the body of Tessie Fine.

Eventually, Maddie finagles that discovery into a bare bones try-out at one of the lesser Baltimore papers, the Star. (Oh, my goodness, remember when there was more than one city paper and almost every city and town had a paper?) She's not exactly a reporter, but her toe has crossed the threshold. In third-person chapters, author Laura Lippman, a former newspaper reporter herself, describes Maddie’s second coming-of-age as an adult.

Maddie’s story is interrupted by chapters told in the first person by many of the characters Maddie meets. Persons of interest. Victims. Killers. Waitresses. Patrol officers. Columnists. Mr. Helpline. Lady Law.

All the while, the line is being drawn from a probable crime — Cleo Sherwood, a young mother of two, left her sons with her parents, went to work in a bar, and disappeared late one night — to the discovery of a body in a lake. Cleo was black, i.e., her story has not rated much or any mention in the major papers. This is Baltimore and black lives barely mattered, not that Baltimore had that locked up for themselves. Where is Cleo? Maddie cannot leave the sleeping dogs sleeping. She purposely and accidentally stirs up the past.

Laura Lippman has re-created life in 1960s Baltimore. She drops observations that bring back that time: fashions, buildings, phone booths, politics, segregation, mass migrations of communities as “the blacks” moved in. Lippman wants you to make no mistake about where her story is set. 

Lippman brings so many of the subsidiary characters to life in short first-person narrated chapters. She faultlessly melds them with the third-person narrative of Maddie’s journey. In the end, after she has turned things upside-down and wrung out every tasty morsel of the unexpected, she hits you with a chapter set in 1985. This is a thoughtful story of unintended consequences.

Despite having Mrs. Maisel on the brain as I read this book, I felt this was an outstanding addition to Lippman’s already outstanding output, even if there was no stand-up routine in the book.

*This book is on the year’s best list for The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and The Washington Post.

Friday, December 13, 2019

City of Windows by Robert Pobi

Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $26.99

I like books with characters who have a quirky psychology. When both the antagonist and protagonist have quirks —  oh, baby!

Dr. Lucas Page is an astrophysicist who accidentally is teaching a class called, “Simulation Theory and the Cosmos.” He meant it as a joke proposal, but his boss took it seriously. Of course, it is the hit of his department, and comes complete with whiny students. Perhaps he needs a bigger challenge, especially after years with the FBI as a … what? Mathematical profiler? Big brain? FBI jackass? Check the box for “all of the above.”

Page left the FBI when half of him was torn apart in a work-related incident. In the words of his friend, Dingo, “The one that took your drumstick, wing, and peeper?” So Page has to remember to align his face forward so his eyes will point forward together, and he doesn’t scare kids. Still, with one working eye and replacements for his arm and leg, he goes along and gets along. But he is retired from the FBI and is looking forward to spending time with his wife and their four or five adopted or fostered children. They hope the newest arrival will stay, but she will take coaxing and TLC. His wife has taken time off from being a pediatric surgeon and Page has promised two weeks during the school’s winter holiday. And, truly, at this point, you don’t actually expect the hero of this book to be able to keep this promise, do you?

A sniper takes what turns out to be an almost impossible shot in a snowstorm and kills an FBI agent riding in a moving car in Manhattan. Come back to the FBI, says his former boss, Brett Kehoe. No way, says Page. The victim is your former partner, says Kehoe. Multiple page pause. Okay. But just for a few New York minutes.

What a presumption for the authorities to make that Doug Hartke, Page’s former partner, was the real target, given the difficulty of making the shot in a snowstorm! However, there were very few people about, so maybe Hartke was indeed the target. Using his mental abilities, Page discerns the sniper’s perch.

Throughout the book, author Robert Pobi describes several characters, but mostly Page, in technology terms. They power down, tik-tok through sequences, have numbers appear overlaid on the landscape. At one point I thought, perhaps this is a science fiction work? But, no, that’s just a tic of Pobi’s writing. And it underscores how unusual Page is. Kehoe describes what Page does as “simple acute spatial awareness, nothing more than a very precise sense of comparison. Apparently his intuitive understanding of geometry converted the landscape to numerical values.” In any event, it’s a fabulous construct.

There’s not much for Page to do to help the FBI besides pinpoint the shooter’s spot; the shooter has not left any evidence, discernible tracks, or whiffs of incriminating scent in the air. There’s no way to solve this crime. The FBI is left with looking up the usual suspects, including the prime suspect, a rich, crazy French shooter who has disappeared. Nah, says Page, it’s not the French guy, but nobody is willing to believe him, because otherwise, there is only The Invisible Shooter.

After the second and third victims are found, with equally invisible telltale signs on the part of the shooter, Page is finally dragged back into active service. He forsakes a disgruntled wife and disappointed children.

What do the first three victims — oh, yeah, there are more — have in common? They are all career law enforcement. Can an analysis of their pasts eventually triangulate a commonality? 

This book is rapidly paced, a hard task for a comparatively long book. Pobi did that well. Describing Page’s genius, difficult nature, Dickensian youth, and prickly adulthood without overstating it or using excessive repetition was also a hard task. Pobi did that well. Creating the sidekick characters of Agent Whitaker, Dingo, and Kehoe and making them sound intriguing and with their own distinct voices was a hard task. Pobi did that well.

There are more sniper victims. The criteria for being targeted seems to become looser as the rampage goes on. The near mystical sniper is hunted by the near mystical analyst. Or is it the other way around?

And what is that elusive connection? There’s quite a bit of book before the aha! moment arrives. It is worth the wait.

There are some unanswered questions, although Pobi asks them himself, that are sort of swept over to the side. A crucial clue comes from a bizarre connection. I’m not sure I’m satisfied by that. But I am satisfied by everything else*. Great book. MBTB star!

* I’m hoping maybe Pobi hesitated before he added this bit for Agent Whitaker, a female FBI agent: She “had worked in places populated exclusively by women before, and the takeaway was that they were just as bad at bickering — they were just sneakier and meaner about it.”

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Westside by W. M. Akers

Harper Voyager, 304 pages, $22.99

W. M. Akers presents a version of 1921 Manhattan's Westside that is mostly nightmare. The map at the beginning of the book shows a Manhattan demarcated north-south by “The Borderline,” i.e., Broadway, and east-west by “The Fence,” i.e., Fourteenth Street east to Broadway. The wrought-iron Fence is guarded by cops. The Borderline protected by fires and gangs. The lower Westside is neatly cordoned off. But why?

Our hero, Gilda Carr, lives on that imprisoned Westside. It’s a place governed by the smells of wild and rotten things, of mossy carpet covering the streets, of a cataract falling from an abandoned tenenment, of a stream flowing where a street once stood, of menacing night shadows. The Westside is a place where modern-day artifacts do not work. Appliances, including guns, rust and fall apart. Food doesn’t last long, succumbing to mold and decay. I was strongly reminded of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. As in that series, the world of the Westside is returning to the wild and untamed, with a mysterious source of danger added to the mix.

Gilda is a twenty-eight-year-old detective of “tiny mysteries.” She has been traumatized by the death of her mother, the disappearance of her revered police detective father, Virgil, and the strangeness surrounding her. She really doesn’t want to solve big mysteries, but big mysteries find her. It begins in a tiny way.

Edith, wife of successful businessman Galen Copeland, has lost a glove. It is a very fine, thin leather glove, with a strange insignia. It is right up Gilda’s alley. She is hired by the Eastside Edith because she (naughty, naughty) had ventured to the Westside and lost it there, although that doesn’t come out until much later. Mea culpa for the spoiler. The point is Gilda takes it because the case seems easy. Check around on the Eastside — which she has a permit to visit from her home on the Westside — rummage around a few lost-and-founds, and ta-dah, case closed, money earned.

Because Edith has not played straight with her, Gilda cannot find the glove. She resorts to following Galen Copeland and uncovers some strangeness there. The strangeness multiplies when she learns of connections to other “dignitaries” of the trifurcated Manhattan. Van Alen holds the Upper Westside, Barbarossa the Westside hootch trade and underworld, Aiken (the “city’s foremost fight-promoting, jazz-loving, gin-swilling, white-shoed gangster”) and the cops of the fourth precinct  are settled on the Eastside. And where would 1921 Manhattan be without gangs? They have colorful names like One-Eyed Cats, Swamp Angels, West Fourth Particulars, and the Dead Barrow Toughs. (Oh, there’s a mayor somewhere. We never meet him/her. Doesn’t matter.) 

This story is about the darkness, anger, and greed of this Bizarro-world Manhattan.

Over the last two decades, thousands of “citizens” have disappeared from Manhattan’s streets, mostly from the Westside, and the number disappearing each year is growing larger. Worse, they haven't simply disappeared; they have vanished. Turn away and when you turn back, a loved one or a stranger is suddenly gone. A lot of the vanished are children. Gilda has lost many friends to the spreading horror. And dead-and-gone Virgil Carr is somehow involved. Before he died, he claimed he had solved the mystery, the greatest mystery of his life. And then he, too, disappeared. By then he was a disreputable, discredited drunk. Gone was the vaunted police detective who caught the villains and solved the crimes. No one in the end gave credence to his babblings. But now Gilda must find out if her father knew the truth of what was happening.

Gilda is small and tenacious. She appears to exist without sleep or food or water. Author Akers has created a debauched, decrepit, delinquent Manhattan. It is original on many levels (despite my being reminded of the Southern Reach books and film “The Warriors”). It is agony to watch Gilda get beaten up, set afire, shot at, and have her heart broken. This is one of those books gasping to be set up by the visuals of a movie -- including how people miraculously are uninjured after what would kill the rest of us. So, the book was entertaining, even though it did a lot of back-and-forthing, as I call it — go here, go there, go somewhere else, go back to the first place — which I don’t like in general. However, Akers used the tramping around to highlight different visuals of the island. It’s as if he were saying, if you know Manhattan, then you will appreciate this, and this, and this. He’s certainly allowed.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Paper Son by S. J. Rozan

Pegasus Books, 352 pages, $25.95

S. J. Rozan is great at giving us a cultural look at the Chinese in America. Usually her stories are set in New York City and the Chinese viewpoint is set in Chinatown. This time her leading characters, private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, venture to the South. Kentuckian Bill Smith gets to reactivate his southern charm, and Lydia gets to feel like a trout out of aquatic fluid.

S. J. Rozan began her series with “China Trade” in 1994. In “Paper Son,” Lydia is still a youthful 28 years of age. (Ah, literary time stoppage!) Her world may have gone from the electronics-simple 1990s to the plugged-in 2010s, but Lydia (28 and Chinese) and Bill (40-something and white) are still the perfect foils and companions for each other, and that is timeless. Rozan used to alternate between telling stories from Lydia’s and then Bill’s viewpoint. In this case it's a writer showing off her strong writerly muscles, because it's so well done.

To Lydia’s very Chinese mother, family is everything. When a distant relative is murdered in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and his son is accused of being his killer, Mama Chin puts on the full-court press to get Lydia to go down South and tidy things up.

Oh, and take that “White Baboon” with you! You mean Bill? My goodness! That for Mama Chin is a serious rapproachment towards a man she has deemed unfit to clean her daughter’s shoes. Lydia and Bill have danced around a relationship for … forever. Could this be a turning point?

Back to the main event. Twenty-three-year-old Jefferson Tam is a slackard with (apparently) serious hacking chops. His father, hardworking Leland Tam, owned a small-town grocery store. Jefferson claims to have found his father dying from stab wounds on the floor of the store. The sheriff arrests Leland, whose fingerprints are all over the knife. People posing as county workers arrive to transfer Jefferson to another facility but instead break him out of jail. So the question is: Where is Jefferson?

Lydia has come down to exonerate Jefferson, not to help locate him, but that is the first order of business. While interviewing the very Southern Chinese “uncle,” Pete Tam, about his nephew (Leland) and great-nephew (Jefferson), Lydia learns a little more about the nature of Chinese grocery stores, their place in the history of the South, and the Tam family acculturation in particular. It’s fascinating.

There’s moonshine, meth, black-white relations, The Law, and other Southern tropes which Rozan nods at. She y’alls, ma’ams, and sirs. But at the heart, she doesn’t do it to make fun of the South but to add depth to her story about families, communities, and loyalty in an area with its own set of particularities.

I love the Chin/Smith books, but in “Paper Son,” I found the family trees a little leafy (take notes) for such a compressed space and one of the crucial explanations about Tremaine McAdoo left a little dangling. However, I am satisfied and happy to have read another Lydia Chin book.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

MBTB's Best Books of 2019

Here they are, not in any countdown order, merely in order of when I published my reviews.

Flatiron Books, 368 pages, $16.99 paperback release scheduled for 1/2020

“A Stockman’s Grave” should be this book’s alternate title, because the activities in “The Lost Man” revolve around both the grave and the metaphor it becomes for Jane Harper’s central mystery. Harper evokes the aridity and loneliness and alone-ness of the Australian outback so very, very well. Lightly littered with words like “g’day,” “mate,” and “jackaroo,” the book’s language seems natural, not clich├ęd. She gives us a parched and dangerous environment in which it seems remarkable that anyone has managed to live. It should be no surprise that Cameron, the person whose dead body immediately appears in “The Lost Man,” died from exposure. The deceased’s brother, Nathan, lives next door. Next door in this case means a three-hour drive away. He has chosen to live alone after his wife left him, taking their young son with her. He and other members of his family must find out why Cameron died. This is not a “thriller,” but it is a page-turner, which enhances the lure of the characters and the environment. Seeing the author’s resolution of what turns out to be many storylines is like watching a stone drop and following the ripples out.

Algonquin Books, 432 pages, $16.95

Audrey Sutter is the nineteen-year-old daughter of a man dying of cancer. She leaves college to travel back to her home in Minnesota to see him, maybe for the last time. Although they did not get along initially, Audrey has become fast friends with Caroline, her original roommate in the dorm. They immediately parted ways, but then the vagaries of fate entwined them once again. This time the bond was not based on shared accommodation but on shared interests and then a deep liking. So Caroline offers to drive Audrey home, far from their college and far from Caroline’s hometown in Georgia. It’s winter, there’s snow and ice, and it’s a preposterous journey for two young girls to be doing on the spur of the moment. Not too far from Audrey’s home, their car crashes down an embankment and spins out onto an ice-encrusted river. Johnston writes one of the most thrilling and haunting scenes of the two girls suspended on top of the possibly very fragile ice. The next time Audrey makes an appearance is in the hospital. Her ailing father is an ex-sheriff and he uses his dwindling strength to find out what or who caused the accident. Johnston evokes the winter in Minnesota, the tenderness of death, and the vulnerabilities of his main characters so well. 

Mysterious Press, 496 pages, $16.00

Henry Porter is one of my favorite authors of spy fiction. Porter is a journalist and obviously au courant about British and European affairs. He imbues his works with a larger sense of the politics and corruption at play, but his focus is at a very human level. Paul Samson is an independent investigator, sometimes hired by his ex-employer, MI6, to go where his smaller footprint might be more useful than the clodhoppers of MI6. This proves to be the case when Paul’s interests turn toward a thirteen-year-old migrant, Naji Touma (codenamed “Firefly”), a Syrian refugee, who might have, improbable as it sounds, important information about a terrorist plot. Paul manages to track Naji through Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia, following Naji’s desperate attempt to reach the safety of Germany. What Henry Porter does well is to give his characters depth without oversharing their lives but with enough sense of how they are different from "normal" people. More people need to read Porter.

Knopf, 272 pages, $26.95 (still in hardcover as of this writing)

It’s good to hunker down to a book with a sense of anticipation. But Julia Phillips turns that anticipation on its head. She gives you an unexpected story. Two children have been kidnapped and the rest of the book should be about dogged police or private investigators or a determined relative tracking the children down. If the reader is lucky, the book will be well-paced, full of fleshed-out characters, even ones falling prey to a trope or two, and with writing that clamps your heart in a vise. Julia Phillips burns your expectations and drowns your tropes in an inky bog. Alyona, eleven years old, and her sister, Sophia, eight, take care of themselves most summer days while their mother, Marina, works. As the book begins, they are at the beach in their hometown of Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, Russia. As their chapter ends, they are being stolen away by a man who has tricked them into getting into his car. After that scene, we are treated to chapter after chapter about … other people. Where are the girls? Ah, that is Phillips’ genius. It is on full display when she gradually draws all her characters (and what happened to the missing girls) together.

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $30

Investigator 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. Jackson settles into his new abode near Whitby, England, having made the decision that investigation can be done from anywhere.  Atkinson introduces many inhabitants of the villages in this coastal area. One of them is the dead ex-wife of Vince, who is afraid he will be charged with her death. Impetuously, Jackson hands Vince his business card. Call, he says. Ha! Area constables are investigating a cold case that ostensibly has nothing to do with anything. Ha! One of the constables is Reggie Chase, first viewed in “When Will There Be Good News,” when she was sixteen. Now she’s twenty-six. It is a delight to witness Reggie and Jackson’s subdued reunion, haunted as it is by a murder and the odious men who litter this story. There are invisible threads everywhere, and it is our delight to see Atkinson roll them out and unravel them. This is not a whodunnit per se. 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.

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 and the companion of a respectable lawyer. She does the laundry, picks up dry cleaning, drops kids at school, and executes other mundane household tasks. On the face of it, she is a normal housewifey-type character. Then her husband leaves her to go to Portugal with Anna’s best friend (ex-best friend). AND he is taking the kids. Then Fin, ex-best friend’s not-yet-ex-husband, arrives. Just before this Anna, in a stupor, had listened to a podcast. The name of an old friend was mentioned in the podcast. The old friend is dead, perhaps because he sunk his yacht, which also killed his children. Impossible, thinks Anna. She tears out of the house to save her friend’s reputation. Fin tags along. 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. Also, the ship’s chef was the person convicted of destroying the yacht and the subsequent deaths. So many types of conviction to choose from. Most importantly, I laughed when I read the last paragraph.


G.P. Putnam & 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.) Bernie will be a hard character for another 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. Kerr has left us, however, with a Bernie at the beginning of his police life. It is Berlin in 1928, and he is a beat cop who has just earned the right to join the famous murder squad. His first task is to find out who is killing prostitutes and then scalping them. 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.

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 for a phase of mere minutes and sometimes of years. It’s “Groundhog Day” on steroids. 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 police detective who must figure out why people are insisting that “things” are not the way they should be. “False memory syndrome” is a term being bandied about. Barry becomes convinced that it is something more devious than a disease that causes a warped-time dementia. Crouch’s book is not strictly a science-fiction thriller or even a horror novel. “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.

Riverhead Books, 285 pages, $27 (Polish ed. c2009; US ed. c2014)
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. Although her age is never stated, she is old enough to have “Ailments” and to refer to herself as an old biddy. The other two occupants of her little area are “Oddball” and “Big Foot.” Of course those are not their real names.  Mrs. Duszejko prefers to give people names appropriate to how she views them. One cold night Oddball awakens Mrs. Duszejko to attend to Big Foot, who lies dead on the floor of his own house. 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. It is hard to believe this odd work is a mystery book, but more bodies slowly start to drop. 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. 


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. 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. “Sarah Jane” is a beauty of a book. And, yes, there is a dead body. It is storytelling essence. It celebrates a joy of words and reminds us of the definition of strength.

Just added this to the list (12/13/19):
Minotaur Books, 400 pages, $26.99

Great enigmatic protagonist and antagonist! A mystical sniper is hunted by a mystical FBI analyst. (And it's not a science fiction or fantasy book.) Fast-paced, lots of action but also lots of cerebellum, suspense, thrills. Find that sniper in the wilds of Manhattan, Agent Lucas Page!

And this one (12/17/19):
Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

Baltimore in the 1960s. Thirty-six-year-old runaway Jewish housewife seeks second life as a reporter. Mystery; Jewish communities; black communities; single, soon-to-be divorced woman; the underworld, the underbelly, the under-served. Laura Lippman's world has it all. (But no humor; not Mrs. Maisel.) Was the "The Lady in the Lake" murdered?

And now for a book I missed in 2014!
Delacorte Press, 400 pages, $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. “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. 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! 


I added these three titles after 2018’s list was first published. Here they are again, with links to my reviews:

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 374 pages, $26

Boston. Museums, history, impossible traffic, beans, midnight rides, midnight dreary, Edgar Allan Poe, hauntings, ghosts, Tuesday Mooney.

Does Tuesday Mooney talk to ghosts? Who is Tuesday Mooney?

When she was sixteen years old, Tuesday Mooney’s best friend, Abby Hobbes, disappeared in their hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. As a thirty-three-year-old “prospect researcher” for Boston General Hospital, she is “single but not young. She was tall and broad, pale and dark-haired, and, yes, dressed all in black.” And what is a prospect researcher? “A prospect researcher is one part private detective, one part property assessor, one part gossip columnist, and one part witch,” to do background research on potential hospital money donors.

Tuesday has no close friends. The best-qualified to hold that honor is Poindexter “Dex” Howard, a former co-worker, and she only tolerates his friendly overtures. She informally tutors Dorry Bones, her fourteen-year-old next door neighbor, but is not involved in her life. Dorry lives with just her father, so she moons over her black-clad neighbor and her mysterious, silent nature. Although Tuesday has parents and a brother, she does not connect often with them. She has no significant other. She has her job and her present. Her memories are shoved into the wayback of her mind.

Fate throws "Archie" Arches in her path. Archie is a single, mega-rich young Boston man (and attractive, naturally). Tuesday meets (okay, meet cute alert) him at a fundraiser for the hospital. She is just getting to the quipping stage with him when an eccentric potential donor, Victor A. Pryce (“Pryce with a Y, so you see, it’s completely different,” for those of you who know who the actor/art appreciator Vincent Price was), drops dead on the banquet floor.

Pryce purportedly died of natural causes, and his death sets off an unusual contest. There are clues scattered around Boston. A treasure hunt, with no clear description of the prize. (Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia?) Teams form to take on Pryce’s challenge. Tuesday is in. Archie is in, not the least because he actually knows the Pryce family. Rumor has it that the Arches and the Pryces are upper-class Hatfields and McCoys. Dorry is in because — awww — young Ned Kennedy is in. Dex is in.

Dex. He’s an unusual guy. He is making big bucks as a financial guy, but that does not represent his soul. His soul is a Dex who “had dreamed, once, of painting his face, wearing someone else’s clothes, and belting show tunes on Broadway.” He is capable of carrying on a one-sided “conversation” with Tuesday. He is emotionally needy.

The last salient character to be introduced here is Edgar Arches. You can’t meet him in person because he, too, is missing. He is Archie Arches’ father, the cutthroat head of a mega-corporation. His wife has taken over stewardship in his absence. His son has taken over some of the major duties. His daughter is … cool, calm and collected. As Tuesday gets to know Archie a little better, she strongly believes he is hiding knowledge to do with both Vince Pryce and his family.

Almost everyone is haunted in some way: Dex by the ghost of what he might have been, Tuesday by what happened to Abby, Dorry by her desire to obtain Pryce’s green goggles which she believes will allow her to see her dead mother, and Archie by what happened to his father.

Pryce’s widow, the remaining members of the Arches family, Dex’s cavalcade of boyfriends, earnest Ned all have parts to play.

Kate Racculia’s novel is about the human need to belong, being true to oneself, and of being able to move forward. She writes about these subjects with a gentle pen (but that doesn’t mean no grisly stuff) and a tender approach to her main characters. She hovers like a ghost for a while about supernatural issues before being more transparent (pun, pun!) about them. I enjoyed this book. I liked her eccentric characters and their stories, and the initial plot with Pryce’s game. But towards the end, I sort of drifted off, waiting only for the resolution. Will Tuesday Mooney be back? I hope so.