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

Friday, April 17, 2020

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

William Morrow, 288 pages, $27.99

Shame on me! I read a few pages and immediately presumed this would be a certain kind of book: a cozy with lots of geeked-out mystery references. I was down with that and looked forward to a tea-sipper. Despite how ready I was for a soft-boiled, kudos to author Peter Swanson for blowing that out of the water!

Slowly he turned, step by step …

Swanson creates layer upon layer of back story for his main character, Malcolm Kershaw, co-owner of the Old Devils Bookstore in Boston. Having once been a bookstore owner myself (sob), the details of bookstore maintenance were satisfying. (However, when did he order books? Where is the inordinate amount of time spent on advertising and event planning?)

Malcolm’s co-owner is a famous mystery author who only occasionally visits the premises, sometimes actually filling in for a shift or two. (Really? Like Ann Patchett, I suppose. Although in my experience, it's not easy just to fill in at a bookstore unless you know the stock.) He has a couple of steadfast employees who seem very flexible in their ability to fill in for shifts. And there’s a store cat, Nero. (Wow! This seems like bookstore paradise. I’ll take one to go, please.) (I’ll try to curb the parenthetical comments, but it’s hard.)

One day, FBI agent Gwen Mulvey enters the store with a cockamamie story about murders being committed according to the list of “Eight Perfect Murders” Malcolm once did a long time ago for the bookstore’s blog.

For the curious, here are the eight books: 

The Red House Mystery, by A. A. Milne
Malice Aforethought, by Anthony Berkeley Cox
The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
The Drowner, by John D. MacDonald
Deathtrap, by Ira Levin
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

So. Has some twisted mystery fan been murdering people by twinning the plots of these books? From an obscure list written years ago? Agent Mulvey presents what she knows so far, then perhaps in the best tradition of involving amateurs in professional matters, she asks for Malcolm’s help. Maybe. Does she have another reason? There is a lot going on under the surface, according to Malcolm’s thinking.

This is what I really enjoyed about “Eight Perfect Murders” — because I’m not going further with telling you about the plot of the book — Peter Swanson moves slickly from one style of mystery to another, ending with a very contemporary-yet-old-fashioned ending. The story flies in the face of everything die-hard mystery readers think they know about plotting. Surprise!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Shattered Justice by Susan Furlong

Kensington, 304 pages, $26 (c2019)
“A Bone Gap Travellers Novel (Book 3)”

“Shattered Justice” is a tough, creatively written novel set in Tennessee, some of it in the colorfully named Bone Gap, “a remote and densely wooded holler about ten miles outside McCreary.” What clich├ęs can we assume from this setting? Meth? Poverty? Abuse? Yes, but author Susan Furlong offers so much more.

Sheriff’s Deputy Brynn Callahan is a Traveller. Ironically, her community of Travellers doesn’t really travel so much, although mostly they do live in mobile homes, psychologically ready to fly at a moment's notice. Historically speaking, Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers are both nomadic, but they have separate cultures, language, and derivations. Susan Furlong often has a character refer to the Travellers as “Pavees.” Neither group usually is welcomed with open arms by settled communities. Travellers are wary of officials and none of them are interested in becoming representatives of the law in Furlong’s world. So that sets Brynn apart.

Brynn’s background is in the military. She was deployed to the unforgiving desert battleground of the Middle East. There she made a friend, Wilco, her corpse-sniffing dog. Then she and Wilco were injured by an IED. Both of them suffered physically: Wilco is deaf and lost a leg and Brynn is scarred. Both have nightmares and flashbacks. Wilco is Brynn’s comfort dog and Brynn is Wilco’s comfort person. They were allowed to stay together in civilian life. Some of Brynn’s story about being a Marine is told in pieces throughout the book. What is kept secret for a while is the trauma Brynn experienced in Bone Gap, and that incident and the repercussions ripple through the main storyline. Brynn is damaged goods. She became addicted to a few substances and has been trying to quit as the story opens.

Someone has hung freshly severed ears from a jungle gym in a children’s playground. Brynn recognizes the earring in one ear. It belongs to a male stripper who entertained Brynn’s friend’s hen party at a bar the night before. Urp. Much further along in the book, there’s a tongue to go with it, but it belongs, forensically speaking, to another person. Who is the second victim? What do the victims have in common? Does the whole mess involve the Traveller community? In answer to the last question, it would appear … maybe. One of Brynn’s friends from the hen party may have been the last person to see the victim alive. Brynn is called upon to be the Traveller liaison, a role she doesn’t relish since it may bring up skeletons from Brynn’s past. Sometimes there’s nothing like a fellow Traveller to know where the secrets are buried.

Family is a hard-to-define term in a place beset by drugs. Mothers die. Fathers die. Children die. Blood isn’t always the common denominator in a family, but it counts for a lot among the Travellers. Next in importance is the Traveller community. They live by their own laws, ones a lot harsher than in the outside world. Brynn still has a grandmother and cousin in the community, but she works among the outsiders. She has conflicting loyalties, but in the end, it is her own code that determines how she solves the case and how she chooses to live.

It was fascinating to see where Furlong took the story. She opened up her version of the Traveller community, as well as rural America and the world of traumatized vets. Well done!

Monday, April 6, 2020

Firewatching by Russ Thomas

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $26

Firebug, arsonist, pyromaniac. Firewatcher. I remember watching the movie “Backdraft,” a movie which showed the mercilessness and beauty of fire. In the slowed-down footage, the fire looked alive and terrifying. The arsonist or arsonists in “Firewatching” aren’t just enamored of fires but at least one of them, if there is a "them," is trying to cover up something big.

We mystery readers are used to being suspicious of practically everyone. Usually the kind author gives us at least one person to hang onto, to be the sympathetic rack on which to hang our hat. In “Firewatching,” we have Detective Sergeant Adam Tyler and a flibbertigibbet named Constable Amina Rabbani. Are they good hatracks? DS Tyler is good at appearing sullen, and DC Rabbani alternately blushes and takes offense. They are adequate hatracks  As an aside, most of the females in this book do not come off particularly well. They stutter and are easily flustered or they are no-nonsense.

A civilian with the police department, Sally-Anne, encourages Adam to get out more, find someone to love. She is larger than life and a lesbian. He is (see aforementioned “sullen”) quiet and gay. (Sally-Anne and Adam have an intriguingly odd communication problem.) She is thrilled when she talks him into a local pub night with other SYPLGBTSN (South Yorkshire Police Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual Support Network) members and Adam finds someone engaging at the bar. And that, dear children, is how Adam met Oscar. Adam, however, has a difficult time with commitments, relationships, bonding because of his own terrible family issues. So, the next morning, it’s ta-ta to Oscar.

Adam has committed the ultimate police sin, revealed later in the book, and he has been consigned to the CID’s version of Siberia: the cold case files. He is dying to get back into actual, live CID work. His chance comes when the skeleton of notorious Castledene resident Gerald Cartwright, either a leading citizen or a gangster, is uncovered in the basement of his now run-down mansion. Adam forces his way into the cordoned off building, thereby compromising DC Rabbani who was not supposed to let anyone in. Her boss, Detective Inspector Jim Doggett, aka “the Yorkshire Terrier,” is livid, but strangely, soon both Adam and Rabbani are working on the Cartwright case.

While Adam Tyler is his own worst enemy, among the people on his side is DCI Jordan (the only woman who doesn’t appear to have aggravating issues) who has offered a modicum of protection to Adam after his “incident,” and managed to get Adam into cold cases. But even she may not be able to keep Adam out of trouble when it is revealed that Oscar is the absent son of Gerald Cartwright, who disappeared six years earlier.

The tangled web is woven when Adam doesn’t take advantage of an early opportunity to tell either Jordan or Doggett about his personal relationship, such as it is, with Oscar. So, darker, webbier, tanglier pages later, Adam is in a right pickle.

Main issue: Who killed Cartwright? Secondary issue: Who is setting fires all over the area? Could they be the same person, because long ago someone tried to burn down the Cartwright mansion.

What I liked about the book is it didn’t stray off-piste and become a convoluted tale of embezzlement, gang activity, international intrigue, stuffing corpses with smuggled dope, or UFOs. This was a story set in the neighborhood of The Old Vicarage, the mansion Cartwright remodeled. He, his wife and son, Oscar, lived there until Oscar’s mother ran off and years later his father disappeared. Oscar was cared for by two neighborly little old ladies until he left for boarding school and uni. They were his “aunts,” but now there is something squirrely about them. Edna has cancer and is dying, and Lily has dementia They are receiving blackmail letters. Lily has not told Edna about the letters. In addition, Lily has forgotten what they have done to merit being blackmailed. (Now that’s a sweet premise!)

What I had trouble with is the main characters of Adam Tyler and Amina Rabbani. Tyler was so very morose and Rabbani was so very flustered, it was hard to attach to them. Adam’s moroseness was more understandable and forgivable, but Rabbani’s ambition to be more than a constable is at odds with how terribly she handles herself. Why would anyone give her a chance? Adam extends a professional hand because he feels apologetic about getting her into trouble in the first place. She should run with that, but instead she’s petulant, sullen, nervous, excitable, rambling.

I’m certain it will be a series. There are all kinds of issues left dangling.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips

Random House, 288 pages, $27

Warning: This review is littered with spoilers, especially if you don’t know much about the time period and intrigue of Elizabeth I, James I, and Mary, Queen of Scots. And there's also a major reveal about the fictional main character, Mahmoud Ezzedine.

“Victoria and Abdul,” the much-nominated movie starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, had an uplifting ending. British colonization is still an intriguing topic for movie makers and authors. Whether it is center stage or an element of background for a character, the uneasy relationship between conquerer and conquered plays well, drama-wise.

“The King at the Edge of the World” is not about colonization, although at the basis of the book is England’s feeling of superiority, even in the face of massive evidence that it is not the shining light at the center of the universe. The science, mathematics, and art of the Islamic world surpassed most of the English product of the late 1500s and the early 1600s, when “The King” is set. The cultures of the Ottoman Empire and the English kingdom were not equal. It is that inequality which begins Arthur Phillips’ tale.

Mahmoud Ezzedine is a well-regarded scholar and doctor in Constantinople. He advises and treats Sultan Murad and other members of the royal family. He has a loving wife and young son. His life is full of beauty, intellectual challenge, and happiness. This would be another book altogether if he were to remain in felicitous circumstances. This certainly is not that book. There is much unhappiness in store for Ezzedine, as he is forced to journey to the heathen, backward country of England as a representative of his country. Unlike “Victoria and Abdul,” there is no happy ending. Perhaps I am imposing my preference for knowing what happens on you, but I think, for instance, “The Diary of a Young Girl” is no less compelling because one knows Anne Frank’s fate.

Before I go further, let me ask myself if this book is in any form a mystery, thriller, or crime novel? Within actual elements of an historical period, Arthur Phillips has inserted a fictionalized world of Elizabethan spy-craft and palace intrigue. So, my answer to myself is: could be. And that answer is because there is much more about civilian and palace life in England and Scotland at that time, and a little about palace intrigue.

Protestant Elizabeth I is on her last legs. She has executed her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, is poised to become Elizabeth’s successor, but the big question that could produce either a war or a smooth transition is the question of whether James is Catholic or not. (Historical spoiler alert: James VI of Scotland does become James I of England.) Ezzedine’s story intertwines with the question of succession. 

Ezzedine has been left in England when the rest of his delegation return to Constantinople. Why? Because another delegate has his eyes on Ezzedine’s wife. (It is that blackguard who has arranged for Ezzedine’s appointment to the delegation to begin with.) What better way to get rid of a rival than to present him as a “gift” to the English queen. What should have been a month away from home becomes — sorry, another spoiler alert — years away.

After the initial story of Ezzedine, there is a lengthy segment about the life and times of Geoffrey Belloc, a palace spy. We are then shifted to a story of “Matthew Thatcher.” Thatcher’s life is limited by how he is not accepted by other members of society. People, high and low, shun the “Musselman” or a “Mahometan.” He is accorded no preeminent stature, despite his accomplishments as a doctor and naturalist. He even saves an Englishman, attends to various members of the palaces and manors in which he is housed, plays excellent chess, has memorized large swathes of Averroes’ work. Still, he is treated disdainfully by many, forced to sleep on rude bedding, and his dietary restrictions ignored. Phillips writes movingly of Thatcher’s situation. 

Thatcher is eventually recruited by Geoffrey Belloc. Thatcher is a stranger in a strange land. He observes English practices, but he has yet to fully embrace the rationale behind the country’s ethics and laws. He simply seems to be biding his time until death comes for him. It doesn’t seem to matter whether he will meet the Protestant God or Allah and Paradise.

The styles and voices of the two stories — Ezzedine and Belloc — were very different. Ezzedine was refined, even as he navigated a coarse world. Belloc was born in poverty and worked his way up to work for the Queen. It works but I would have preferred one or the other as the primary focus. This story did break my heart, especially in our current context in which cultures bat up against each other, often violently, around the world. Nothing changes, nothing stays the same.

The bottom line is I would recommend this book heartily. Its story, based in an historical time full of warts and pox, is all the more compelling because it is anchored in fact. Also, when the final crisis was worked through and the resolution revealed, I was stunned, saddened, impressed. When the dialogue is reached that references the title of the book, I was moved. (And Shakespeare makes an uncredited brief appearance.)

(Ed. note: 4-2-20 - edited, edited, edited)