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 19, 2020

Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby

Flatiron Books, 304 pages, $26.99


Yee-ow! “Blacktop Wasteland” is an intense, intense book. I was so glad it was fiction, although I’d be naive if I didn’t think that if enough people’s stories were cobbled together, they might equal “Blacktop Wasteland.”


S. A. Cosby has written a stark, violent, dark, noir book about a family man in rural Virginia who makes a choice and how that choice leads him deeper into a place where he didn’t want to go.


Beauregard grew up Black and poor. His dad was a criminal. When his father left the family, his mother fell apart. Despite taking a lot of left turns when he should have turned right, Beauregard managed to get himself right. He married Kia and had three children, one of whom was with a woman he only knew briefly. Nevertheless, when he is able, Beauregard helps out with the daughter from that union. His daughter, Ariel (influenced by the Disney cartoon), is thinking about going to some kind of college after she graduates. One of his sons needs braces. The payment is due on his garage. The bills are piling up, and the life Beauregard has tried hard to build over the years is falling apart.


Beauregard does not want to step backwards. He wants his family to have a better life than he had. He wants to provide for his family, to run an honest car repair business. There was a difficult road to this place in his life. Once upon a time Beauregard was a criminal. He was a getaway driver. And he was good. Very good.


Beauregard grew up driving fast up and down and spiraling around the hills of rural Virginia. No one could catch him. He was just like his dad, another man good with a car, born to run fast. But now Beauregard has mostly put the days of running wild behind him. Until his money woes become a little too heavy.


A deal put together by some knuckleheads he knows promises to be easy money. Suddenly, “Blacktop Wasteland” is a caper book. It’s an exciting one. The men are planning to rob a jewelry store. No one will get hurt, a bag full of diamonds will be theirs to split, Beauregard will drive the getaway car. The book will end after a hundred pages. (P.S. It doesn't.)


The robbery should not have been difficult. If only the fellows on the crew had been smart, if only one of them hadn't been hopped up on something, if only people hadn’t gotten hurt. All of a sudden, on the run from serious consequences, Beauregard guns the getaway car and does the impossible: He gets himself and his crew away.


But you know, stupid people stay stupid, and soon the people who lost the diamonds come calling. And they are not nice people.


There are a lot of dead bodies. Things go bang and boom, crash and whomp. When Beauregard, by far the brains of the entire story, is planning something, the story quiets down a little, while Beauregard does his brainy best, and we get to watch. That part is especially good.


The question you should ask yourself before you begin this book is, Can you take it? It’s a tough-talking storyline. Even if you admire the heart-grabbing way Cosby revs up his story and hauls you up to face a dilemma you personally hope you will never have to see, there’s a shock to the system — there should be a shock to your system — about what Beauregard chooses to do.


If you go for it, you will be rewarded by great writing. Cosby offers a heart-wrenching conflict. Iron Man does not come to the rescue. No lawyer in a tidy suit pops in to say, Hey, need some help? Jeff Bezos doesn’t offer to share his billions. There’s just this harsh fictional reality Cosby has created.


Monday, December 14, 2020

MBTB's Best (Mostly) Mystery Books of 2020

Click on the titles to see the whole review. 


MBTB stars were awarded to the following books in 2020:


 
 





Hi Five, by Joe Ide


Ide continues the tumultuous journey of his eccentric protagonist Isaiah “IQ” Quintabe, an unusual sort of private investigator in South Central Los Angeles. The owner of a neighborhood bodega was shot and lies near death. It turns out he wasn’t just nice, he walked the walk by helping the homeless, shelter animals, and little kids. IQ wants to track down the shooter and bring him to justice, maybe with a caulk gun or Taser. IQ doesn’t want to really hurt anyone. “Hi Five” strays into more serious territory than the other books, although there are still Ide’s signature touches of humor and the peculiar.


Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd


Oh, to be as lyrical and Irish as author Jess Kidd is. This happy combination has led to some wonderful books. Protagonist Bridie Devine, who does “Domestic Investigations/Minor Surgery (Esp. Boils, Warts, Extractions),” marches full-tilt into the world of 1863 London. The six-year-old daughter of an English aristocrat has been kidnapped. There is something peculiar about the child, Christabel, which is why Bridie’s discretion is needed to find and return her. And it results in a fine tale full of mystery and a touch of the fantastic.


Play the Red Queen, by Juris Jurjevics


Author Juris Jurjevics was a co-founder of Soho Press. Unfortunately, Jurjevics died in 2018, but we were fortunate that this novel could be published posthumously. His book is set in 1963 Vietnam, just after the U.S. has sent in “advisors” in order to unseat the king and insert a “democratic government” with Ngo Dinh Diem as the president. This tale is noir, political thriller, cultural exposition, and a backwards historical glance rolled into one. A woman riding pillion on a motorcycle is shooting Americans and placing a card with the picture of a red skull at the kill sites. Who is she? How does she know whom to kill? Why is she killing? Jurjevics gives us a mighty fine chase to find out.



 



The Lost Ones, by Sheena Kamal


This is a tough book to read at times. Bad things come in waves and are unrelenting for long stretches, but the protagonist, Nora Watts, is a tough character. She fights to have some semblance of a normal life, to be a survivor. Nora is an assistant to a photographer and his private investigator husband in Vancouver, B.C. One day a man and woman walk into their offices and say they are the adoptive parents of Nora’s child, given up for adoption years ago. The fifteen-year-old girl has run away from home, maybe to find Nora. Will Nora find her? All the buttons are pushed, the traumas flare, and things tamped way down are now bubbling up. But, of course, she finally says yes.


Running Out of Road, by Daniel Friedman


If talk of crime, philosophy, ethics, discrimination, and Machiavelli all crashed into each other, “Running Out of Road” would emerge from the rubble. And it would be sublime. Buck is an 89-year-old man with dementia. He was a police detective in Memphis before he retired – let me be clear, he was a Jewish detective in Memphis. Buck arrested Chester March way back when. Chester is on death row, and an NPR journalist, Carlos Watkins, is looking into whether Chester is actually guilty of the original charges. Can Buck remember enough of the case to help out? Does he want to help out? There are historical elements in the mix and a side discussion of the death penalty. It’s all within an economical 288 pages. 


G. I. Confidential, by Martin Limón


I have followed this series for years, and it has gotten even better, a difficult accomplishment in the world of series writing. George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are CID investigators for the military in South Korea in the 1970s. They become involved in a string of bank robberies because the culprits are not Korean. Could they be military? What other choices are there? Sueño and Bascom also get involved in the purported transportation of hookers to the Korean compound in the DMZ. That story was broken by intrepid American reporter Katie Byrd Worthington, who works for a trashy alternative to the venerable Stars and Stripes, and the powers-that-be want that story squashed. Tangled webs everywhere with the simplest of explanations in the end. Real historical facts peak over everyone’s shoulder.







The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman


This was a fun read. The characters were interesting and charming. The premise was outlandish but I had no trouble accepting it. A group of senior citizens in a retirement village in England meet to solve cold cases. Then a fresh body pops up and the group takes up the task of solving that murder. Chaos ensues, of course. Yay!


The Deep, Deep Snow, by Brian Freeman


Here’s Brian Freeman’s winning trifecta: compelling story, believable yet strange resolution, interesting characters. Shelby Lake is a deputy in her father’s police department in a small town. Her father, Tom Ginn, has the beginning stages of dementia. Shelby must navigate how that affects the department’s new case of a missing ten-year-old boy. That’s the first part of the book. The second part of the book — neatly presented in its own part — takes place ten years later. I was impressed with how Freeman brought almost everything together in the end, even things that didn’t seem to matter. His characterizations were impeccable.




Two of these “retro stars” were published in 2019, the other was in 2017. Two aren’t even true mysteries, but they got coveted MBTB stars nonetheless.





The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves (2019)


Meet Ann Cleeves' new character, North Devon police detective Matthew Venn. A body was found on the beach near the home Venn shares with his husband. There are lots of surrounding small villages and towns with a lot of small town busybody-ness to complicate the story satisfactorily. When the identity of the body is revealed, there is a surprising connection to Venn’s husband. The creator of Vera and Jimmy successfully strikes again!


All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (2017)


Murderbot to the rescue! Yes, this is science fiction about a sentient organic-inorganic synthesis, but hear me out! Murderbot’s regulator was accidentally disconnected, so Murderbot can make its own choices now. It chooses, as it turns out, to help people with their problems. Of course, that is also advantageous to Murderbot’s agenda, the story of which is probably strung out over several of Martha Wells’ novellas. I haven’t read them all, but what I have read I've enjoyed tremendously. 


Exhalation, by Ted Chiang (2019)


Speaking of science fiction, Ted Chiang has written some short stories that are exquisite. They are meditations on what it means to be human. Not a mystery.




These titles missed MBTB star status by a hair’s breadth. 



  





Kingdomtide, by Rye Curtis


A 71-year-old woman survives a plane crash in the forested wilderness of the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. This book doesn’t meet my definition of mystery, but it was compelling. Does she survive the wilderness? How does she survive the wilderness? Boy, is she stubborn.


The King at the Edge of the World, by Arthur Phillips


This isn’t a mystery either. It’s a fictional work set in early 1600s England. Mahmoud Ezzedine, a scholar and a doctor, finds himself marooned in England, far from his home in Constantinople. England at the time was full of its superiority to other cultures, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Mahmoud manages to survive his abandonment by his home delegation and even some English palace intrigue, but he is shuffled around the aristocracy like a pet peacock. This is a vivid look at racism, nationalism, monarchy, intolerance, and longing.


The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart


England in 1703 was no place for a lady scientist. Lady Cecily Kay and her childhood friend, Mrs. Meacan Barlow, are middle-aged women who meet again in the home of collector Barnaby Mayne. Mayne’s home overflows with both junk and treasure. Visitors come to stay for awhile and inspect this or that collection. Other people wait for the rare invitation to visit for a day and take a guided tour of the cabinets. A murder occurs in the midst of a houseful of visitors, who then become suspects. There’s a cliff-hanger at the end.


 



The Devil and the Dark Water, by Stuart Turton


The characters and their value to the storyline have to be teased out. That can be difficult because are a lot of people wandering below ship and on deck of the ship trying to make its way back to Amsterdam from Indonesia in 1634. Before he dies in a flaming ball, a leper has warned of a curse on the ship. So there’s that. Also, something called “The Folly” is on board. And someone (maybe) called “Old Tom” is determined to make the curse come true. Old Tom can scale the hull of the ship and leave burnt handholds as evidence, slip into cabins, and kill without a whisper being heard. Yeow!


The Glass Kingdom, by Lawrence Osborne


Gorgeous language. Unrelenting sense of dread. Exotic locale. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Everyone is guilty of something. Probably.


Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, by Deepa Anappara


Jai is a nine-year-old boy living in the slums of a big city in India. Children have gone missing in his basti (settlement), so he wrangles his friends Pari and Faiz into finding them. It turns out being a detective is harder than it looks. This dive into life in the slums, the loss of childhood innocence, and the despair of loss isn't for everyone, but it will enrich the souls of those who do venture to read it.




Finally, I am currently reading “Blacktop Wasteland,” and I like it very much so far, so it may join the line-up. I’ve had “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line” in my to-be-read stack forever. That may get added as well. (Addendum: I read both of these books and liked "Djinn Patrol" well enough to add it to the list of best books for this year! 1/12/21)

Happy reading!

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne

Hogarth, 304 pages, $27

Right on the heels of a review I wrote in which I expressed my mild dissatisfaction with how the author had too much description of the setting before getting to the action, I have to write this review in which I will begin by praising a book and saying it was almost all description of the setting. In my defense, I think intention is everything. And Lawrence Osborne’s intent in “The Glass Kingdom,” I think, was to create a lush but menacing atmosphere to surround a little nugget of a story.


Sarah is a 30-something assistant in New York to a well-known author. Eventually, we learn her name is Sarah but the rest of her name is made up. And we don’t actually find out she worked for the famous author until the book has gone on a little bit. This is what Osborne starts with: Sarah is a farang or foreigner in Bangkok, Thailand. She is living in a luxury apartment in an old part of Bangkok that was once part of the estate of the aristocratic Lim family. Because of the almost constant political unrest and economic instability, the family no longer has a family compound but instead has erected a luxury apartment complex called the Kingdom. Sarah doesn’t appear to have any job.


We know Sarah is running from something. She is nervous, she trusts no one, she sees movement in the shadows, she thinks people are following her. Reluctantly, she makes the acquaintance of a young woman, Mali, who lives in one of the other units. Through her, she meets two other women, Ximena and Natalie, in the complex. They have an occasional poker and get-drunk night. Even though Sarah has a tight-lipped sort of fun, she is wary of extending her hand further in friendship. Ximena is a chef from Chile, Natalie, a European, is a manager at the Marriott Hotel, and who knows what Mali does. Mali, who looks only part-Thai, hints she is from a wealthy family, that she works in an office with loose office hours, and that she has an older Japanese man friend. And a dog. Mali has a little dog.


Throughout the book, a sinister note sounds at all times (even when it comes to the dog). Osborne creates an environment that hints that the lush greenery surrounding that section of Bangkok can become wild jungle at any moment should the gardener and guards relax their concentration. It is on the cusp of the monsoon season when the book begins, and the storms begin in earnest a short time later. Always there is the heavy humidity and heat. At one point the electricity goes out, and Sarah contemplates the enormous task of walking up fifteen flights of stairs.


Sarah and the other women, with the exception of Mali who seems to know what is going on at all times, are sheltered, encased in a bubble in the Kingdom. Sarah especially has no idea what is going on when she hears gunshots, sees smoke, hears chanting. Nor does it seem she really wants to know. She is just biding her time.


Then everything begins the slow slide off into the peculiar, the abnormal, the irregular. Even though Sarah has not been in Bangkok very long, she has some expectations: Restaurants will serve food, stores will sell supplies, the streets will be busy. But something is happening out “there,” and it is having an effect on the Kingdom. Oh, don’t pay any attention, Mali and Mrs. Lim say. But that’s the sort of advice that could get a gal into trouble.


Every day there was a slight feeling of risk, of impermanence. The Kingdom protected them and gave them status, but also made it clear that they were ultimately worthless in the social dimension. It was a refuge, a prison, a fantasy, and a luxury living machine all at once.


And here is one of Osborne’s long journeys into description that brings life to Sarah’s Bangkok:


The long monsoon had by now settled into its rhythm, alternating violence and periods of silence. Around the Kingdom ghostly laburnum flowers appeared in the empty lots one day as if summoned into existence, a slow-motion blossoming that carried a sinister beauty into the cloudy evenings. In the interior gardens the winds came and went with bewildering speed, blowing the fading moths here and there, and over the neighboring towers a moon with a vast smoky halo appeared, calling the daydreaming mind back to past centuries.


Osborne has created a very good horror— for lack of a better description — novel, with the same embrace of dread found in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. It’s a light Osborne keeps lit almost until the very last page.


The Wall Street Journal's Best Mysteries for 2020

 “Three Hours in Paris,” by Cara Black

“The Bramble and the Rose,” by Tom Bouman


“Troubled Blood,” by Cormoran Strike


“Clean Hands,” by Patrick Hoffman


“Hi Five,” by Joe Ide (my review)


“Pretty as a Picture,” Elizabeth Little


“The Thursday Murder Club,” by Richard Osman (my review)


“All the Devils Are Here,” by Louise Penny


“One Fatal Flaw,” by Anne Perry


“Eight Perfect Murders,” by Peter Swanson (my review)

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Back Bay Blues by Peter Colt

Kensington, 272 pages, $26

What do you get when you mix Robert B. Parker, Lee Child, Stephen Hunter, and the current crop of novels of people dealing with coming back into ordinary life in the United States after having been in a war? “Back Bay Blues,” by Peter Colt.


Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series is honored by at least three mentions in the book. Colt’s main character, private investigator Andy Roark, may be a licensed P.I. in Massachusetts like Spenser, but his life is rootless, or rather, it is still rooted in a war halfway across the world. Andy is a Vietnam vet, but more than that, he was an elite special forces operative who saw the worst that war could throw at a soldier. Stephen Hunter’s sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, is meticulous in his planning and broad in his knowledge of implements of destruction, and there’s a long, similarly satisfying section of the book devoted to planning one of Andy’s missions.


There have been a few authors who have created notable characters who went to war and came back with a psychological burden. I’ve been especially taken with the established authors like the aforementioned Stephen Hunter and Michael Connelly, but also with some of the newer lights like Nick Petrie (Peter Ash) and Susan Furlong (Brynn Callahan), for example. Colt adds an extra challenge the others didn’t: His book is set in 1982. (Except of course for those authors who actually were writing and publishing in 1982!)


In 1982, Andy is still relatively young after surviving the war and being mustered out. There are no convenient cellphones to help him out of predicaments. There are no omnipresent CCTVs. The Vietnam War is still close enough in time that it plays a major role in this book. PTSD is mostly just a set of letters.


During one of his cases, Andy spots a small cafe, The Blue Lotus. He smells the Vietnamese food as soon as he enters. Over the course of many subsequent visits, he becomes friends with the owner, Nguyen. They talk about life in Saigon just before the fall. “Round Eye,” Nguyen calls Andy, but there is no bitterness or spite attached to that. They drink old cognac. 


Coincidentally, a young Vietnamese woman, Thuy Duong, approaches Andy to solve a murder. Her Uncle Hieu was murdered. He was a journalist at a Vietnamese newspaper. He had soured on an organization called the Committee, a group of refugees purportedly interested in returning to Vietnam and reclaiming its lost country. Could Hieu have come across something damning and been killed for his knowledge? Or was his death just one of those random homicides, a mugging gone wrong? Thuy also wants to know if her uncle’s death was somehow related to the death of another Vietnamese man in Chinatown in Boston.


The one thing we can anticipate is that these cases will stir up old memories. Andy, as far as we know, never tried to deal with the trauma of his time in Vietnam. It cost him relationships. It has made him a loner. He has nightmares and sometimes flashbacks. Good dramatic stuff into which readers can sink their teeth. But first, some meandering.


The book almost lost me with the first part of establishing Andy’s character: bona fides (ex-cop), Quincy and Boston background scenes, Boston weather, Boston traffic, Spenser paeans. But once Andy met Nguyen and Thuy, the action started to build. Then my interest was almost torpedoed by Andy’s  limp pseudo-romance with Thuy. But when Andy began to figure out how to investigate the murdered men, it was game on.


As I said before, I really enjoyed the section when Andy planned a covert mission involving a potential motive for the men’s deaths. Andy enlisted the aid of Chris, a former SF comrade, currently an unofficial medico to a local bike gang in San Francisco, to help him. Chris was a great character. The mission and Chris are the elements that drove me to finish the book.


I enjoyed this book. But I won’t give it an MBTB star because it had a slow start — many others would not agree with me, I know — and the sex scene was insipid. Colt gets high marks for hero worshipping Robert B. Parker and for capturing the essence of a tough guy P.I. to whom Spenser could relate.


"The Off-Islander" is the first Andy Roark book.



Tuesday, December 8, 2020

NPR’s Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2020

Here is NPR's list of best mysteries for 2020, although I have to say I'm not certain I would have included "Why Fish Don't Exist" as a thriller/mystery. I really, really liked the book and it was thriller to me. Still. Here's the link to NPR's page


The Missing American, by Kwei Quartey

Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller (my review)

Foul Is Fair, by Hannah Capin

Catherine House, by Elisabeth Thomas

American Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson

Lakewood, by Megan Giddings

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

The Searcher, by Tana French (my review)

Blacktop Wasteland, by S. A. Cosby

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

Sisters, by Daisy Johnson

Moonflower Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (my review)

This Is My America, by Kim Johnson

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, by Deepa Anappara

Agency, by William Gibson

Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Survivor Song, by Paul Tremblay

Long Bright River, by Liz Moore

Slippery Creatures, by K. J. Charles

A Shadow Intelligence, by Oliver Harris

When No One Is Watching, by Alyssa Cole (my review)

Amnesty, by Aravind Adiga

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Blackwood, by Michael Farris Smith

Midnight at the Barclay Hotel, by Fleur Bradley

A Castle in the Clouds, by Kerstin Gier

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The New York Times' list of best mysteries for 2020

Marilyn Stasio, mystery book critic for The New York Times, presents her top books for 2020. Here is the link.   


If you are unable to see it, here is her list in brief:


The Rabbit Hunter, by Lars Kepler (my review)

Shattered Justice, by Susan Furlong (my review)

The Evil Men Do, by John McMahon

The Truants, by Kate Weinberg

Perfect Little Children, by Sophie Hannah

Don’t Turn Around, by Jessica Barry

Hard Cash Valley, by Brian Panowich

Please See Us, by Caitlin Mullen

The Forger’s Daughter, by Bradford Morrow

Lady Chevy, by John Woods


It’s nice to see Stasio laud new or lesser known authors. At the end of her list, she also gives nods to established and popular writers who had books this year and who are among her favorites: Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Donna Leon, Charles Todd, Louise Penny, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Joe Lansdale, Michael Connelly.


Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Sourcebooks Landmark, 480 pages, $26.99


I spent most of the book wondering if “The Devil and the Dark Water” was a supernatural thriller or a historical mystery. Stuart Turton provided many opportunities for vacillation. Mostly, it was a feel-the-salt-spray-in-your-face kind of book. It was “Master and Commander” on woo-woo mode.


The author says the book is set in 1634. The beginning is set in Batavia, Indonesia. (Turton freely admits that he was not totally faithful to the time period in technology or seafaring.) Batavia was the seed of what is now Jakarta, Indonesia. The Dutch East India Company colonized many areas in the Pacific, including Indonesia. The company made their riches from spices, especially those found in the Indonesian islands. (The fabled Spice Islands.)


Thankfully, Turton doesn’t slow down the narrative with any of that background. The reader is just plopped down in Batavia just as Jan Haan, the Governor General of Batavia, and his family are about to set sail back home to Amsterdam. He has been invited to appear before the Gentlemen 17, the administrators of the Dutch East India Company. Eight months, nine months at sea. Oh, yeah, that should be fun.


The reader is also dropped straight into an ongoing drama. Jan Haan had sent for the renowned detective, Sammy Pipps, to find Haan’s stolen “Folly.” (We don’t know what The Folly is for quite some time, so don’t obsess about it.) Sammy journeyed to Batavia with his hired bodyguard/assistant, Arent Hayes. Hayes is also Sammy’s Dr. Watson; he has chronicled Sammy’s adventures for the public. Like Sherlock Holmes, Sammy has topnotch observational skills and logic, so of course he finds The Folly. Unfortunately, when the book opens, Sammy is in chains and is being hauled aboard the ship, the Saardam, to be brought before a court back in Amsterdam on charges. No one except Haan knows what the charges are. Arent cannot help his boss and friend except to try to make his sudden incarceration less miserable.


I have to stop here and say this is a very difficult review to write. Many plot developments are surprising and the author drops them in periodically until the biggest surprise of all appears at the end. How much to tell you? How much to leave out? I’ll let you make the choice. Read no further if you want the book to be a complete surprise. I’ll tell you now the author toys with his audience, and I enjoyed it very much. It is worth being surprised. But if you insist on knowing more …







SPOILER?






Actually, this first paragraph is not a spoiler, so it may throw off those who want to take a peek at my revelations — which, trust me, won’t amount to much. Most of the book takes place aboard the Saardam, so there is a lot of nautical to-ing and fro-ing, which I enjoyed. Turton delights in describing the horrible task of crewing a big ship or the ignominy of the passengers being herded like cattle. The dark, dank, dinky (alliteration, folks) quarters for the social betters are sumptuous compared to the foul-smelling, disease-infested passenger hold, which in turn is infinitely better than the gag-worthy, dangerous, rat-infested crew quarters, where murderers share space with thieves and other miscreants. Sammy is tossed into a tiny cupboard, without light, without amenities, without without without. Arent receives permission from Haan to visit Sammy and take him on deck for a little while at night.


The book opens with a scene on the dock, before the ship sails, when a leper appears before the travelers. He is atop some cargo containers and shouts down to the travelers:


Know that my master … sails aboard the Saardam. He is the lord of hidden things, all desperate and dark things. He offers this warning in accordance with the old laws. The Saardam’s cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.


He bursts into flames. After he dies, it is discovered he has no tongue. Ooooo.


During that first riveting scene, we meet the governor general’s wife, Sara Wessel, who says she is a healer. She and Arent try to help the leper, but he is beyond help. 


After the ship gets underway with a strange cast of crew and passengers, the leper – Wait! Isn't he dead?  – appears outside the porthole of Sara’s quarters. Burn marks are found on the hull leading from the sea to Sara’s window and continuing over to her husband’s chambers. Ooooo.


The consensus is that the leper’s master must be the mysterious Old Tom, a creature said to take people’s souls in exchange for their hearts’ desire. His sign is a circle with a tail, just like the sign that appears on the mainsail when it is unfurled. Just like the scar Arent has from a wound received during a mysterious event that occurred when he was a child.


There are seven ships in the fleet that sails to Amsterdam. Some are lost during a storm, but one, the ominous eighth ship, shows up just before something awful happens. Ooooo.


How can Sammy solve what is going on while he is locked up? What can Arent and Sara do before the crew goes mad, people start dying in bunches, and Governor General Haan loses his marbles? (P.S. Haan is an obnoxious bully, so we aren’t terribly upset that Old Tom is whispering at night to everyone aboard that whoever kills Haan can receive their heart’s desire.)


“The Devil in the Dark Water” is a tale bigger than the pages it is written on. Feel the salt spray and Old Tom’s claws reaching for your soul and the ship going up and down, up and down, up and down in the storm (urp). Smell the spices bursting from the torn sacks in the holds.


And, finally, the spoiler — sort of — learn why Haan and Arent already know each other.


Was that worth peeking down the page?


Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Guardian's List of Best Mysteries for 2020

 The British newspaper, The Guardian, has put forth its list of best mysteries for 2020 (link):

"The Man on the Street," by Trevor Wood

"True Story," by Kate Reed Pettty

"The Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line," by Deepa Anappara

"Black Rain Falling," by Jacob Ross

"Three-Fifths," by John Vercher

"The Thursday Murder Club," by Richard Osman (my review)

"Your House Will Pay," by Steph Cha

"When No One Is Watching," by Alyssa Cole (my review)

"Leave the World Behind," by Rumaan Alam

"Blacktop Wasteland," by S. A. Cosby

"Remain Silent," by Susie Steiner

"Broken," by Don Winslow

"Magpie Lane," by Lucy Atkins

"Our Fathers," by Rebecca Wait

"Summer of Reckoning," by Marion Brunet (translated from the French by Katherine Gregor)

"We Begin at the End," by Chris Whitaker

"The Searcher," by Tana French (my review)

"The Last Protector," by Andrew Taylor

"The Devil and the Dark Water," by Stuart Turton

"Bent," by Joe Thomas

"Cry Baby," by Mark Billingham


I do have a couple of these titles in my to-be-read pile. Hope springs eternal that I'll find enough time for them.

Washington Post List for Best Thrillers/Mysteries of 2020

The Washington Post listed these as their top ten thriller/mystery/crime books (link):

"City of Margins," by William Boyle

"Dead Land," by Sara Paretsky

"Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line," by Deepa Anappara

"Long Bright River," by Liz Moore

"The Missing American," by Kwei Quartey

"One by One," by Ruth Ware (my review)

"The Searcher," by Tana French (my review)

"Squeeze Me," by Carl Hiaasen

"Three Hours in Paris," by Cara Black

"Trouble is What I Do," by Walter Mosley


I have several of these books on my to-be-read pile. But the heart wants to read what it wants to read.

One by One by Ruth Ware

Gallery/Scout Press, 384 pages, $27.99


Okay, I think I’ve already met my quota of locked-room/island/manor mysteries for the roaring 2020s. Most of them I didn’t finish. Oh, another locked-room mystery, I would say, and if it didn’t grab me within the first twenty to thirty pages, boom, reject pile.


I used to love this sort of mystery, the celebrated grand-progenitor of which is “And Then There Were None,” by Agatha Christie. Slowly each foolish or intrepid visitor to the isolated domain would get killed, narrowing the field of suspects … or so we are meant to believe. What isn’t deliciously appealing about that concept? Windswept, isolated, fog-shrouded locations; looming edifices; ominous bells or foghorns tolling the remaining time before the next death; smarmy, arrogant, snobby, quivering, avaricious, sociopathic, homicidal, warped characters from which to choose the most likely suspect, Or maybe it’s the everyday person, the one who could be like you or me, driven by exigent circumstances to break the Sixth Commandment.


One flourishing branch of his most royal root

Is crack’d, and all the precious liquor spilt;

Is hack’d down, and his summer leaves all faded,

By envy’s hand and murder’s bloody axe.

– Richard II


Maybe “envy’s hand,” maybe passion or cool calculation. Greed or compassion. Opportunity or accident. Methods and motives are not infinite, many are variations on what has come before. So, what can be new under the sun in the closed-castle, isolated-manor, storm-shut cottage sub-genre of crime? 


It turns out in “One by One” there is no new motive — this is not meant pejoratively, by the way. Other than a space alien coming down and death-raying the victims, there are a limited number of suspects who can be the fair-play murderer(s) in these books. The authors of this sub-genre define the mystery in their books within implicitly agreed upon boundaries. In many ways, this is the ultimate challenge for a mystery writer. Ruth Ware has answered this challenge many times. She is the current queen of the locked-room mystery.


What is the turn of plot the author employs then? In Ruth Ware’s case, perhaps it is not even so much that. (There is, of course, a turn in the plot in “One by One.”) There are some improbable things to be had before breakfast. But where Ware excels is in character development. We hear the thoughts of two of the people locked in the snowbound Swiss ski chalet where this locked-room mystery takes place. There are revelations that speak to motive. There are past events that speak to character failings. Ware supplies all the ingredients.


Erin is one of two people on-site assigned by the chalet rental company to serve the various groups that cycle through on skiing holidays. She serves as the clean-up crew, ski guide, English-to-French interpreter if needed, and kitchen assistant to Danny. Danny is the chef who is perhaps a bit too stereotypically temperamental. Erin is one of the narrators.


The group of visitors consists of members of Snoop, an online music service. Snoop is a way to listen to the same music that others are listening to. What is Beyoncé listening to (if she were a member)? If you know her user name, you can plug in to what she is hearing at that very moment.


The two big bosses, Topher and Eva, are there with their personal assistants, along with a code writer, an in-house accountant, and a couple of other people. Almost everyone has known each other a long time. Liz is the other narrator. She worked for Snoop when it first began. Because of this and that and the other thing, Liz owns some stock in the company, even though she no longer works there. She comes across as nervous, tense, lumpy, withdrawn, indecisive, a definite outsider. The perfect voice to comment on the actual Snoop people.


When one of the group dies, the chalet is not yet under siege. Shortly after an avalanche cuts the chalet off from the rest of the world.


Until the second death, it was possible to believe the first death was accidental. Now the remaining people believe the murderer lives among them. Maybe. Most likely. Probably.


Ware is very, very popular. This is only the second of her books I’ve finished. I started about two others and put them down. (I plan on trying “The Woman in Cabin 10” again.) There is something about this genre that makes me want the victims and suspects to be from a wider range of people. I want to hear the author voice different kinds of people. I want a vicar and a trollop. A wastrel and a stiff-necked butler. A sweet young thing and a demanding dowager. And these days, I want them from different cultures. I don’t ask for much. (Note: One of the visitors is a man of color, I think, but that doesn’t play into the story.)


I don’t actively seek to guess the murderer, but I did stumble upon this one. Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I waited patiently for the motive. That part was pretty good but reliant, once again, on some stereotyping.


I expect this book to be wildly popular because it delivers what the author promises.



Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Mortmain Hall, by Martin Edwards

Poisoned Pen Press, 368 pages, $15.99



I made the cardinal mistake of series readers: I read this book out of order. I frequently read series out of order. Usually, I am not punished. This time I was punished. In my defense, I think most writers want you to understand their characters and the circumstances that bring them to the beginning of the book you are reading, if you are not reading the first in the series, so they supply a little oblique précis for your elucidation.


Martin Edwards paints the background of “Mortmain Hall” with a dry brush, and I didn’t have the secret sauce to make the picture appear. Now, I confess I do own a copy of the first book, “Gallows Court,” but it lies unread. There was no reason not to read it first, except “Mortmain Hall” had come out recently, I read a good review of it, and I am an adult who takes responsibility for irresponsible actions. It is my own fault I enjoyed this less than I should have. Probably. Anyway.


This is what I eventually gathered. Rachel Savernake is a young woman. A rich young woman. Her crazysocks father, Judge Savernake, killed himself. She has no blood relations, but her family is comprised of the servants, the Truemans, of her father's mansion on the isle of Gaunt, where Rachel was raised. They are not mistress and servants; they are family. Together, they abandon the lonely, wild island and relocate to London. Rachel’s clear mind and observational skills indubitably mean she is destined for a life of crime … as a private investigator. Her inherited wealth means she doesn’t have to scrabble for a living and can take only the cases she wants.


Jacob Flint is a young reporter for a newspaper. He is the crime reporter, and his stories are sometimes at odds with the newspaper’s more respectable mission. Other London rags don’t have the same problem and consider the more lurid the story, the better. He met Rachel in the first (unread) book and has been secretly smitten with her. Not to give away the plot, but Jacob spends a lot of time smitten with all kinds of women, at least one of whom leads him into danger. Nevertheless, he and the Truemans are available to help Rachel with her current adventure.


The first half of the book builds excruciatingly slowly to the second half of the book, the part set on the lonely, windswept headland in a mansion in Yorkshire, not to be confused with the lonely, windswept island of Gaunt. There's a rising storm on the horizon. There are creepy, eccentric, or sinister characters sitting in the vast living room waiting for the murderer, if there is one, to be named.


The book begins in London after the First World War has ended. I’m certain there are clues thrown in to show when, but I couldn’t pinpoint the year if my pants were on fire. It is sometime after the Wall Street Crash, so after 1929, plus at least a few years. (Okay. If I hadn’t spent all my time rambling, I could have just looked on the back of the book. The time is 1930.)


In the first half of the book we are introduced to the characters who will eventually become the cast of suspects in the second half of the book set in Mortmain Hall. Through the ramblings of a gin-soaked young bureaucrat, Rachel knows the list of people to investigate. But investigate for what reason?


Does it help to know people are dropping like flies through the book?


First up, Gilbert Payne. Actually, Gilbert doesn’t manage to make it to the second half of the book, but he is prominent in his absence. 


Sylvia Gorrie was accused of murdering her husband, in cahoots with her lover. She was acquitted. Her lover killed himself in prison.


Henry Rolland fled the scene of his mistress’ murder and was later caught. He would have swung for it, but the woman’s dissolute husband proved a better suspect. Henry was freed and the husband died.


As a reporter, Jacob has been following the current trial of Clive Danskin, charged with murdering a stranger. Life’s financial burdens were proving too much for Clive, so he allegedly killed a man, put the body in his car, set the car on fire, and vanished. He was caught trying to leave the country. Clive’s alibi sounds outrageous: A man picked Clive up after his car broke down. Clive does not know how the body got into his car or who set the car on fire. The newspapers and authorities advertised for the mysterious man who picked Clive up and could provide an airtight alibi, but no one responded. Few thought that such a person actually existed. All hope had fled on the last day of the trial when, sure enough, a man of impeccable reputation arrived to say it was he who had given Clive the ride. Clive was found innocent.


These people have something in common, but what? With the help of the Truemans and Jacob, Rachel manages to meet Leonora Dobell, wife of the heir of the atmospheric Mortmain Hall. It becomes obvious that Leonora knows about Rachel's sleuthing, just as Rachel knows about Leonora's popular book on true crime cases. Their mutual interest in crime cements the last layer necessary for the denouement.


Finally, halfway through the book, the dramatis personae are gathered, the stage is set, and the house lights dim.


I read a few of Martin Edwards’ books in his Daniel Kind series, and especially liked “The Coffin Trail,” the first in the series. Those are books in the traditional, cozy British fashion. “Mortmain Hall” is as well to a large extent, but Rachel's series is a step into the past, with a female protagonist who has modern sensibilities, while the other series are set in the present day. 


I enjoyed the book, once I got past establishing who everyone was. Yes, the beginning was slow and rife with characters — Should I pay attention to this one? Or maybe that one? Rachel knows a police detective. Is he going to play a big part? — but ultimately entertaining. (Although cricket? It was a bit of a wicked googly for me.)



P.S. Edwards provides a “Cluefinder” listing at the end of the book. Apparently, many of the old classic mysteries had them. You can alternately berate and praise yourself for what hints you caught.


P.P.S. A lot of the men in this book are really creepy. I guess it reflects how women mostly were considered chattel, addenda, trophies, lineage keepers. I liked Leonora. I liked the makeshift daddy figure, Clifford Trueman.