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

Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Edgar Awards 2020

Congratulations to this year's nominees for Edgar Awards!

Best Novel:

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (our review)  -- the winner
The River by Peter Heller (our review)
Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham (our review)

Best First Novel by an American Author:

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim  -- the winner
The Good Detective by John McMahon (our review)
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
Three-Fifths by John Vercher
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (our review)

Best Paperback Oirginal:

Dread of Winter by Susan Alice Bickford
Freedom Road by William Lashner
Blood Relations by Jonathan Moore
February's Son by Alan Parks
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O'Fallon Price (our review)  -- the winner
The Bird Boys by Lisa Sandin (our review)

Please see the Mystery Writers of American's website for more categories and nominees: http://www.theedgars.com/nominees.html

The Edgar banquet is scheduled for April 30, 2020, in New York City, at which time the winners will be announced.

As we review more of these titles, links will be provided.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Message into the ether

Sometimes MBTB just tosses a message into the air, hoping whoever needs to see it will see it.

Walter "Cool Walt" Satterthwait was more than a mystery writer to some of us at MBTB (Portland). We went to Reed College in Portland with him. He earned his sobriquet there because, well, he was cool.

We were thrilled when he got his mystery books published. There were five books in his Joshua Croft series, set in Santa Fe. There were three in his Pinkerton agent series. There were standalones and a couple of Lizzie Borden books. (One of his works was edited by the redoubtable Sarah Caudwell.)

In the end, Walt struggled to write as various ailments overtook him. Many fans, friends, and fellow writers contributed to a GoFundMe account to let Walt finish what he knew would be his last book amongst the inspiring scenery of Greece. Alas, his stay did not last long, as medical needs sent him back to the U.S. In the end, he was still trying to write, still trying to communicate with the group of people who continued to call and write him.

MBTB's Jill Hinckley wrangled his electronic communications, and she and her husband, Ron, talked often to him, as he lay in a care facility in Seattle.

He died on Wednesday morning. We don't know how much work he had done on his last novel, but if there is anything to say about it, we will say it.

MBTB mourns a friend, an accomplished writer, and a free spirit.

Peace, Walt.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Blaze by Chad Dundas

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 384 pages, $26

If you’ve got a good gimmick, (almost) all is forgiven. Chad Dundas has a good gimmick for “The Blaze.” His main character, Matthew Rose, suffered brain injury while a soldier in Baghdad. He has been returned to the U.S. without proper treatment for the amnesia that was a result of a bomb explosion. What Matthew Rose has is a pretty complete loss of who he is. Friends, family, colleagues are strangers to be met again. If they liked or loved him, he doesn’t remember. If they didn’t, he is easy prey.

After returning to live with his mother and stepfather in Florida, Matthew is too lost to seek proper treatment, to fight against government bureaucracy, to get help. He is traumatized by the war and by the loss of people he doesn’t remember but mourns anyway. Then Matthew’s father dies.

Matthew returns to Missoula, Montana, where he grew up, to attend to his father’s affairs, such as they are for a piss-poor poet and alcoholic. He meets people he should know intimately. He fakes it sometimes and at other times he admits his disability. But he senses there is something very wrong about his reaction to his hometown. He is uncomfortable. People tell him he was a sullen teenager, a boy who raged against his father, a man who abruptly left town to join the military. Even his closest friends, Georgie Porter and Scott Dorne, are at a loss to help him figure out what had soured him on the place. 

Georgie is now a reporter. She was his girlfriend for a while, but they broke each other’s hearts. His silence hurt her worst of all. As teenagers Scott and Matthew got high together, passed the time, and then parted, each no wiser than before about what the other was going through. Scott is now a janitor at the college in which his father is a professor. The connection between Matthew and his ex-friends is awkward, but they seem willing to help him solve the mystery of what happened when Matthew was a teenager.

As Matthew meets more people, he vaguely feels his unease has to do with a store fire that took place when he was about twelve years old. That makes no sense because the store was a beloved hangout for the kids and the neighborhood families. His, Georgie’s, and Scott’s families would discuss community politics and how to “stick it to the man” in the backyard of the store while the kids played.

Matthew decides to pack up his father’s meager possessions but instead comes across a break-in at his father’s home. The intruder escapes and Matthew almost dies in an ice-encrusted river trying to catch the person. What could be so valuable among his father’s ratty things? This also makes Matthew aware how unusual it was to have arrived just the day before and to have happened upon a house fire not far from where he used to live. A young university student, Abbie Green, died in the fire. Matthew does not know her, but to be fair, he does not know whether he knew her. It seems unlikely, nevertheless. Could the candy store fire over a decade ago have anything to do with the recent house fire? It wouldn’t be a normal person’s first reaction, but this is a mystery book, so the answer is: maybe.

The amnesia thing carries the book pretty far. Is Matthew talking to someone who is lying or telling the truth? helpful or distracting? a killer or worse? As snippets of Matthew’s memory emerge, they begin a slow illumination of the horrible story that underlies why Matthew left town.

When I wasn’t hollering “Call 911!” or “Don’t go into the forest!” or “Has that gun been oiled recently?” I enjoyed the contrivance. FYI, my personal sense of self-before-others would not have allowed much of what Matthew kept saying yes to. But then I’m not in a mystery book or a Hitchcock movie*.

*Seriously, I still check the upper lighted windows of the motel for a mummified corpse rocking in a chair.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A House of Ghosts by W. C. Ryan

Arcade Crimewise, 384 pages, $25.99 (c2019)

If you shook Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew up in a bag, you would get “A House of Ghosts.” It’s got the flavor of an old-time mystery. The two main characters are a plucky young woman and a dashing undercover agent. Of course.

Kate Cartwright grew up with lords and ladies in Great Britain, but she doesn’t live a life of leisure. Instead, her effort and brain power are applied to her job in the War Department. It is 1942, or thereabouts. She is dying for an assignment that’s more glamorous than her routine codebreaking. And so that’s what happens.

Kate’s parents’ good friends are Lord and Lady Highmount. During vacation times, the Highmounts hang out at a splendid pile called Blackwater Abbey, about a mile off the coast of England. There used to be an abbey and now there is a mansion plunked on top of where the abbey used to be. Now Kate and her parents have been invited to join the Highmounts for the winter solstice and to join in a séance.

Kate is hesitant to join such a gathering, apparently because there was a “disaster"  forever unrevealed  at the Abbey, and the less said, the better. But duty calls. Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming, aka “C,” has ordered her to attend and see what she will see. What she will see will surely involve the ghostly comings and goings of the flickering afterlife of a good number of former living souls. Why? Because Kate can see ghosts, a talent she reluctantly will acknowledge sometimes. 

Accompanying Kate will be her former fiancé, Rolleston Miller-White, a staff officer at the War Department. He, too, will see what he will see. He has no ghostly talent, however. It is awkward because Kate and Rolleston quietly disengaged themselves not too long ago. You must carry on anyway, says “C.”

The picture is complicated further by the attendance of another mysterious War Office employee, “Robert Donovan.” He will play “Frank Donovan” (the name change seems the product of unfocused editing), injured and mustered-out military hero. (Neither Robert nor Frank nor Donovan is his real name, anyway.) More awkwardness ensues when Donovan turns out to have been Rolleston’s superior officer in the trenches but is now playing his valet. Furthermore, it eventually comes out that Donovan knew one of the Highmount sons and also Kate’s brother, Arthur, all presumed dead, killed by a horrible shelling that collapsed tunnels and spread mustard gas. There were very few survivors. Donovan is one of them, just by luck o’the Irish.

So why are Kate, Donovan, and Rolleston there on behalf of the War Department? There may be a traitorous spy celebrating the solstice on the remote island. Francis Highmount’s business is arming the British fighting forces with his deadly weapons. There may be plans afoot to steal information.

The Highmounts and the Cartwrights hope to contact their dead sons through Madame Feda and Count Orlov, the mediums who will launch the otherworldly connection.

There are other characters, including an invalided soldier whose trauma in the collapsed tunnel sparked his ability to see ghosts. Of course, Donovan knows him as well. (Author Ryan makes it feel as though it was a very small war and the participants kept tripping over each other.) There is a doctor who is attempting to help the invalid. There is a family of retainers (brother, sister, in-law) who take care of the abbey, island, and Highmount family. There may be mysterious others — ghostly or real — who are intent on murder or mayhem.

And lastly, there is a dread storm that strands everyone on the island. The better for the (maybe) murderer to have their way. And there you have the classic locked room mystery with red herrings a-plenty, that may or may not play fair, that will entertain, that will send ghostly shivers down your spine. (The ghostly stuff is pretty mild, so no worries that there will be a Jack Nicholson maniac trying to chop his way through a door.)

“The Ghost House” is very enjoyable. There is at least one dead body. There are secrets the mansion reluctantly gives up. There is an ossuary. There are bashful blushes.

So enjoy!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

Atria Books, 384 pages, $27

There should be a celebration and parade every time Jess Kidd releases a book. Her writing flows like the water that drips, storms, mists, runs, and rushes throughout her newest book, “Things in Jars.” Her descriptions are populated with word, character, and plot eccentricities that beg to be read over and over. Her other books are set in Ireland, but this book takes place in England, mostly in and near London. It’s still very Irish.

Bridie Devine, who does “Domestic Investigations/Minor Surgery (Esp. Boils, Warts, Extractions),” is the heroine of this tale set in 1863. There are flashbacks to twenty years earlier as young (“no older than ten, no younger than eight”) Bridie is passed from home to home after arriving in England from Ireland. With each new situation, she picks up skills not often available to either high or low status children. She learns about autopsies, concoctions, the scientific method, and observation, a talent with which she was already blessed.

Now that Bridie is about thirty, she has a reputation for being able to handle difficult cases. She even assists the police, mostly her old childhood friend, Scotland Yard Detective Valentine Rose. Her most recent case comes courtesy of a private client, one who wants utter discretion and no police involvement. 

The six-year-old daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick has been kidnapped. So far there is no ransom demand, says Berwick’s emissary, Dr. William Harbin, but the baron is frantic with worry. The newly hired nurse, Mrs. Bibby, is also missing. Upon arrival at the estate, Bridie traces the course of the kidnappers and locates one of their hiding places. She comes to several astute conclusions, but still there is no rescue.

In other chapters, we become aware that Christabel, the daughter, indeed has been kidnapped by Mrs. Bibby and an accomplice. There is something unique about Christabel that will bring a fair price from interested buyers. While I won’t reveal Christabel’s specialness, I will say that snails, newts, and damp walls are involved.

Oh, and Bridie is assisted by a ghost, Ruby Doyle, a boxer who was killed in a bar fight. He popped up right before Bridie was commissioned to find Christabel, and he won’t go away. (His appearance might — might! — be occasioned by Bridie’s use of Prudhoe’s Bronchial Balsam Blend in her pipe.)

I could go on and on about the wonderfully luminescent and nasty characters that flit in and out of Kidd’s book. Terrible things happen. Wonderful things happen. Humorous things happen. I’ll quote one of the humorous asides. Prudhoe (of the pipe blend fame) was one of Bridie’s mentors (even though she was just a girl). Instead of going into the apothecary business like his father and his father’s father and a few more begetting generations before that, Prudhoe became a toxicologist, scientist, and medical expert for the police.

“Prudhoe has also developed several unwavering beliefs. These being: that lawyers (both for the prosecution and for the defense) are the devil’s own horned bastards, the accused are always guilty, and there are more efficacious tests for arsenic than Marsh’s but none are as beautiful.”

Kidd has treats in store throughout her book, including Bridie’s seven-foot-tall maid; Lufkin, king of the circus; and Jem, the street urchin who briefly becomes Bridie’s eyes and ears. Two of my favorites are prison guards Mr. Hoy and Mr. Scudder, sort of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern minor characters who have a rich life in their brief time upon the stage.

In the end, there was no true mystery to be solved that could actually be solved. All along you know who the villains are, even if there are suitable revelations at the end that become the aha! moments of any good mystery book. And is there anything supernatural about the story? What can I tell you? It’s Irish!

MBTB star!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

Europa Editions, 432 pages, $19 (c2019)

I read a review of this book in which the reviewer* spoke of how “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free” reminded him of Hillary Mantel’s writing. Yes, that’s a good comparison. Andrew Miller creates the universe of 1809 Great Britain. He dresses his story with multiple details of the period: furniture, architecture, dress, food, drink, work, etc., etc., etc. But this is also the story of the descent of John Lacroix, Miller’s main character, into a hell of past military horrors and of his pursuers. The story also reminded me of a Charles Dickens tale of woe, with more graphically violent invention.

When John Lacroix first appears, he is in very bad shape. Somehow people have returned him from the Napoleonic war raging in Spain to his quiet country home near Portsmouth, England. In his idyllic youth, not that long ago, he had bought a commission into the Hussars. He dreamt of fighting in a noble fight atop his mighty steed. He would return a hero. The truth was less than that. The truth comes out in pieces.

After John has regained his strength, thanks in no small part to family servant Nell, he knows he must leave, go away to the islands of Scotland to … what? … learn the music of the Scottish Isles. Yes, that’s what he will tell everyone. He even takes his fiddle.

There are military people who have held an inquiry into a My Lai-type massacre in Los Morales, Spain. As a result, two men — Calley and Medina (wow!) — are sent to track down Lacroix to answer for his part in the massacre. Lacroix seems more absent-minded than panicked in his flight, because he does not realize there are men in pursuit, men who leave a nasty smear of destruction in their path.

Gentle John speaks kindly and has a child’s naiveté about many things. He also carries a pistol and a bag of stuff with which to make ammunition. He wanders without true purpose — except to get away from the named terror of war — and is saved time after time by the kindness of strangers. Will he ever grow up? And will he ever be free?

“Now We Shall Be Entirely Free” begins in a slow roil that quickens and abates, quickens and abates, until the truly breath-holding ending. This book is a masterpiece of detail, a thrilling chase, and an indictment of the “glories” of war. It is also a tale of a person beginning to look past himself to others.

*Charles McGrath for "The New York Times"

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Hi Five by Joe Ide

Mulholland Books, 352 pages, $27

At this moment there is a lot of discussion about cultural appropriation, mostly brought on by the book “American Dirt.” At the core of the controversy is whether the author can claim a legitimate right to her subject matter despite a lack of connection to the culture depicted in her book. I have not read the book, so I cannot speak to the authenticity of what the author depicts — and I probably could not comment on the authenticity anyway, because the subject is beyond my experience or purview. Because I have not read the book, I could not speak to whether it’s a good book (IMO) either. But this discussion now hangs over every book written by an author who is not actually a genetic/cultural member of the story’s group.

Oh, boy. Can you say can of worms?

And that brings us to “Hi Five.” Author Joe Ide will make you laugh and then break your heart, and you will love him for it. He is of Japanese descent but is an American by birth and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, California, the area his characters inhabit. He grew up knowing a wide variety of ethnicities, cultures, and, if his book is any indication, food. He is not black, African-American, or a gang banger (at least not to my knowledge). But the culture of South Central LA is what he writes about. His central character, Isaiah Quintabe is black. His secondary character, Dodson, is black. His comic relief, Deronda, is black. Other characters are black. Other characters are white, (the great amorphous grouping called) Asian, (the other great amorphous grouping called) Hispanic. Also, I assume Joe Ide is not a criminal, but crime is what he writes so engagingly about.

What is my point?

I am sorry if the author of “American Dirt” is not a good writer. I am sorry if she is a good writer, which actually would make that controversy more difficult. I am sorry people are offended. I am sorry if people are offended that other people are offended. Definitely a can of worms.  But ...

Isaiah (“IQ”) Quintabe is a choice piece of literary creation. Eccentric, intelligent, streetsmart but people-awkward, IQ solves mysteries with intense focus and Holmesian procedures. Over the four books of the IQ canon, Ide has shown us a part of California held hostage by warring groups swimming in a criminal sea. IQ to me is not black — just black, only black — so much as he is a great standard bearer for the rights of his neighbors and community members to live without fear and in possession of anything they may have misplaced (purses, cats, keys). Over these four books, IQ’s life has enlarged from the world in which he lived, a life compressed by the senseless death of his beloved older brother and his own social confusion, into one in which he has a girlfriend (albeit a very different kind of person with her own difficulties), a sometimes best friend/partner, and a client-base that has grown increasingly more complex and dangerous.

There are vicious cartel members, drug lords, violent gunslingers, assassins, uneasy tribal truces, and random drive-by deaths. It is one of those drive-by deaths that begins IQ’s journey into the dark world of Southern California crime. The owner of a neighborhood bodega was shot and lies near death. It turns out he wasn’t just nice, he walked the walk: helping the homeless, shelter animals, little kids. IQ wants to track down his shooter and bring him to justice, maybe with a caulk gun or Taser. IQ doesn’t want to really hurt anyone.

Good books start from a simple premise and drive further and further into a more complex and morally ambiguous situation, if you’re lucky. “Hi Five” is a good book.

Soon IQ is involved in a vicious drug lord’s personal problems. His right-hand man was murdered while in the drug lord’s daughter’s clothing shop. Everyone is traumatized. During his interview with the daughter and her mother, IQ discovers there’s an enormous secret distracting him from the solution of the case. The deeper IQ dives, the more secrets he uncovers, and they are all unpleasant. Soon IQ’s investigation takes him into more gang territory, and the concerns are more about weapons than missing cats. The escalation is fast, furious, definitely not funny.

Joe Ide juggles all this very well. The escalation of events drives his story to a memorable and poignant conclusion.

MBTB star!