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

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Devil Aspect by Craig Russell

Anchor, 432 pages, $16.95 (pb ed. 2020)

The horror! The horror! What grisly thing DOESN’T happen in this book? In 1935, there are six serial killers immured in a special medical facility/prison in a rural wooded area of Czechoslovakia. Hrad Orlü is located in a converted medieval castle. There is only the most modern of medical gear and only the most ancient of folktales about how the castle is the gateway to hell. Meanwhile in Prague, there is a serial killer on the loose. He butchers women, and so he is nicknamed “Leather Apron” for the butcher’s apron he wears while eviscerating his victims. Can you hear the squelching yet?

Dr. Viktor Kosárek is trying to find the “devil aspect,” or underlying pseudo-Jungian evil archetype, active in the Hrad Orlü prisoners. Detective Lukáš Smolák is trying to find Leather Apron. As each man learns more about his target, the weirder the situation becomes. Ancient script newly carved on a wooden post, a woman Smolák had just met becoming a victim, people declaring there are demons peeping out of the shadows … whoa!

If horror is your jam, then here’s a doozy. But of course, the challenge for the reader is to determine whether there actually is something supernatural going on or if it is just clever criminals hornswoggling the puzzled “experts.” Plus, there are Nazis. But you knew that would get tossed in, given the time period.


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

HarperCollins, 277 pages, $26.99

I read a review that said “Nothing to See Here” was about children bursting into flame. Maybe there’s a mystery story in there, I thought, or a horror story, à la Stephen King. On the cover was my first warning that the book wouldn’t be what I thought it was going to be. The author Jacqueline Woodson’s blurb was on there. “Laugh-out-loud funny,” it said. I rarely laugh at books that are introduced as “laugh-out-loud funny.” The expectation is too high, so my sense of humor goes into hibernation. I sometimes laugh at slapstick. I sometimes laugh at quirky humor, and that is the category in which I would place “Nothing to See Here.” But I did not laugh at this book — although I smiled a couple of times. I laugh out loud (even while all by myself) mostly at unexpected humor. The first time I read a Janet Evanovich book — in that case, “One for the Money” — I laughed out loud quite a few times. Stephanie Plum was unexpected.

“Nothing to See Here” turned out not to be a mystery or even a novel involving any sort of crime. I finished the book anyway, because it was interesting. I found Lillian, the lost-in-place woman who has a punk vibe, compelling. She was lured into taking care of her ex-best friend’s stepchildren, the aforementioned children who burst into flame.

Im not sure what made Jacqueline Woodson laugh so much, because I found it to be mostly a poignant, sad tale of two children who know they are not wanted. But wait, don’t turn away from reading it because of that description. Dysfunctional Lillian, who knows nothing about children, is there to help. Or maybe she just wants to drink margaritas and play very competitive basketball with her ex-best friend, Madison.

Despite the fact that there was no mystery to see here, I enjoyed Kevin Wilson’s writing. I loved Lillian. I loved the hapless children who caught fire. Best wishes to them. I hope their fictional lives will end happily somewhere, sometime.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Circe by Madeline Miller

Back Bay Books, 416 pages, $16.99 (c2018) (pb ed. release date 4/14/20)

“Circe” is not a mystery.

“Circe” was the New York Times/PBS Newshour’s book group pick for December, but because of other reading obligations and general disarray, I didn’t finish it until now. I remember being fascinated that Gregory Maguire would take the fantasy of “The Wizard of Oz” and humanize the witches in his 1995 book, “Wicked.” Creating “real people” from fairy tale characters was a novel, mind-bending thought, one he went on to use again and again. “Circe” also reminded me of “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Legendary figures were hampered by human emotions and desires, and humans were burdened by destiny. So it is in “Circe, fresh on the heels (!) of Madeline Miller’s similarly-worked book, “The Song of Achilles.” 

What must it be like to be immortal? Apparently it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, especially if a god can feel pain and sorrow. And what does one do if exiled to the remote island of Aiaia, to ponder slights, love gone wrong, and mistakes in potion mixing? It’s a long time to think about everything and anything.

“Circe” is a novel for adults, even though the myth of Odysseus and Circe and her habit of turning men into pigs is sometimes fashioned into a story for children to learn some now-lost lesson about manners or pride or something classically appropriate.

Miller has created a spell-binding (!) story of a woman who finds her strength comes from within, not from who her father is (Helios, by the way). Also, it helps to have a bunch of herbs nearby. I enjoyed this book very much and thought it was worth all the fuss generated about it. Reading about gods ripping people apart piece by piece made a nice change from the serial murder mysteries in which people take other people apart piece by piece that I seem to have picked up lately.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Knopf, 368 pages, $25.95 (c2019)

“Exhalation” is not a mystery.

Instead, it is a collection of stories with a science fiction veneer. The stories are meditations on what it means to be human, the construct of time, what purpose a lifetime serves, and what-if. They are ingenious, sorrowful, illuminating. Ted Chiang writes with a philosopher’s pen and an artist’s heart.

I am impressed by Chiang’s collection. I recommend it to anyone waiting to step beyond and to do so within an economy of words.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Autumn by Ali Smith

Anchor, 288 pages, $15.95 (c2017)

“Autumn” is not a mystery, but it is a helluva book. A young woman, Elisabeth — with an “s” — and a much older man, Daniel, have a friendship that began when he was her next-door neighbor and de facto mentor. Daniel is close to dying when “Autumn” begins, although the story travels backwards in time as well to gradually fill in certain holes.

One of the most moving moments is when Daniel imagines himself locked in a tree. It is cozy and life-affirming, contrary to what one might expect. Elisabeth contends with a chaotic life, including a bureaucratic run-in with the British post office, but finds moments of stillness with Daniel, as she waits with him for his journey’s end.

The writing is everything. The crossing of lives and how connections are made are potently important to Elisabeth and Daniel.

And so the story drifts but not without meaning or intention. Lovely.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

You Can Run by Steve Mosby

Orion, 336 pages, $15.99 (c2017, paperback ed. 2019)

How would you classify a book in which there is a serial killer on the run, gruesomely stored bodies, a police detective who “senses” things, and a repugnancy that is revealed towards the end of the book? Horror? Crime? Supernatural? I’m smooshing all those labels in a big red bowl and serving it with “You Can Run,” Steve Mosby’s main dish.

I’ve read one other of Mosby’s books, and it had a very similar mix of elements. He is tremendously good at getting his reader to turn the pages. (Faster, faster.) He is also pretty grim reading. You can turn away, but you can’t unread!

I rarely issue this warning, but I think it is warranted here because Mosby has several reveals. If you’d rather be surprised, go no further.

DI Will Turner, serial killer John Edward Blythe, and author Jeremy Townsend are the characters whose stories we follow. (DI Emma Beck is in there, but she mostly is background. Pity.)

DI Will Turner has “intuitions” that help him process his cases, and that brands him as peculiar by his colleagues, except for his partner DI Emma Beck. Beck is a stalwart, loyal friend and makes for good wallpaper. One fine day, the “Red River Killer” case falls into their laps when the two partners follow-up on an accident scene. A car has crashed into the garage of a house. Forget the crash, forget the driver, because in the garage is a shackled, barely alive, naked woman. She is Amanda Cassidy, the latest missing woman and presumed victim of the RRK. Over seventeen years, there have been fifteen victims, counting Amanda Cassidy.

The owner of the home and garage is John Edward Blythe. According to people who know him, he could provide the template of a serial killer: quiet, looming, antisocial, grim, minds his own business. But he is not there in the home.

After some internal wrangling at police headquarters, Will and Emma are assigned the task of tracking down Blythe. But Will cannot let go of the bodies — I’ll spare you the details — found in Blythe’s home. There is a secret Will is keeping about one of the victims. Sooner rather than later, Mosby fesses up the connection, but in the meantime there is suspenseful vagueness.

Will and Emma track Blythe, a course sometimes determined by Will’s “feelings.” I have to say that it might appear that author Mosby took an easy way out by having Will figure out things that would be hard to discover or slower to appear using more conventional thinking, but I enjoyed the mystic divination.

Jeremy Townsend provides a writerly stand-in for author Mosby, maybe. Certainly there are some writerly asides about publishing and writing. Jeremy’s participation in the story is as the husband of one of the victims, Melanie Townsend, who vanished ten years earlier. He was briefly known for writing a crime book, “What Happened in the Woods.” The chapters he appears in become stranger and stranger. He knows something. He is wracked with guilt over something. His soul is withering away because of something. Cough it up, Jeremy, for Gawd’s sake!

Despite the grimness and griminess of the crimes, I thought Mosby did a good job of creating an entertaining story. This is ironic since Mosby writes, ironically:

“In much the same way the newspapers amped up the gory details to sell copies, these books were filled with violence as entertainment, and it all felt the same. Dead women shifting units.”

Although the men in the story appear not to understand women very well and the women were diminished by flat personalities, I have no problem recommending this book as a thriller. And the last chapter was a soul-cleansing winner.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

Doubleday, 272 pages, $25.95

You’re on your own in terms of translation. There are some Irish terms explained for us tourists, but there are others left hanging there, pitiless modifiers or vague nouns we might never know but for Goggling a translation. Although the main action in “Night Boat to Tangier” takes place in a ferry terminal in Algerciras, Spain, this book is as Irish as they come.

By the way, this isn’t a mystery, the kind of mystery for which this blog exists. It is about a mystery of the heart, however. The two main protagonists (or are they actually antagonists) are criminals. Their main business over thirty or so years was drugs. Now they are old men, broken and fairly broke. And there they are in the ferry terminal in Algerciras, and they might be waiting for Godot.

Indeed, the book has a play’s overlay: the scene is set, the supporting characters are swept in stage left, and exeunt stage right. Mostly the other characters are in memories, whose stories are told both in narrative and dialogue.

“Godot” in this case is Dilys or Dill or Dilly. She is the twenty-three-year-old daughter of Maurice or Moss or Hearne. The other gentleman claiming a seat on the bench next to Maurice is Charlie or Redmond or Red. Maurice and Charlie have known each other forever, have been in trouble together forever, have known Dilys forever.

Dilys skipped town three years ago and has not let her demented papa know her whereabouts. But word has gotten out that she is on a night ferry to Tangier or from Tangier or has a dog or has dreadlocks. It is nebulous whether Dilys is still alive, let alone traveling on the night ferry.

While they wait, Charlie and Maurice (who “retain — just about — a rakish air”) reminisce about their lives, individually and together. They talk about how they know this terminal well. They also intimidate some passengers into coughing up “information” about Dilys. Life in the terminal is simple and existential.

Simple except, as they go along, the reminiscences become deeper, tragedies are revisited, and sins confessed. In the end, the play finally drifts off stage and Charlie and Maurice transform into the next level of their individual and combined stories.

“Night Boat to Tangier” is wonderful poetry and storyteller layering. It is a gem. But it is not a traditional mystery.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

“[Moss] wanted to leave the place again but was rooted to it now. Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Its haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.”

“[Moss] started to see the sky as a kind of membrane. His head felt like it was the size of the planet. The sky was just a casing for his pulsing brain and it was too thin. He might explode like a star.”

“Night Boat to Tangier” is Irish writing in the best Irish way. I’d give it an MBTB star but, after all, it’s not a mystery.