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

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life, by Lulu Miller

Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $26

When I first chose to read “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” I assumed it would not fit in the mystery category. In fact, the book doesn’t, but about halfway through the book, one appeared anyway.

“Why Fish Don’t Exist” is a biography of David Starr Jordan, a famous taxonomist in his day and the first president of Stanford University. It is also a memoir by Lulu Miller. The book is a fabulous jumble of then (early 1900s) and now; discursions on stars, fish, love, meaning, being, and chaos; and a coming of age of a person long past her teenage years. Lulu Miller slices-and-dices various stories. All that means is that you will have several intriguing storylines to follow.

The writerly thing that Lulu Miller does is she draws her story forward from a gentle rural beginning to a cosmological ending. Will the poor, farm-bound, intelligent but awkward lad manage to escape his destiny among cows and fields to sing with the stars he so admires? Will the boy who grew up so far inland that his first glimpse of the sea does not come until he is a man become the unlikely cataloguer of the creatures of the sea? Will the boy who once was open to everything become a man who despotically ruled what would become one of the premier educational institutions in the country? Will you love him or hate him, admire him or loathe him?

Will Lulu Miller move past her obsession with the boy with the curly hair? Will she make her peace with chaos or will the darkness wrap tightly around her?

“Why Fish Don’t Exist,” and I hope you are convinced that the title is true by the time the book ends, is about a poetic yearning by both subject and author. There are wondrous asides, crafted by a person who is embedded in a science background. The part about Anna and Mary  sorry, no hints allowed  almost made me cry. 

And there is a brief but crucial murder mystery.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Strike Me Down by Mindy Mejia

Atria, 352 pages, $27

An accounting mystery. With accounting jibber-jabber. Big company, lots of money, rich people with no boundaries. Not my jam, I thought.

I actually like numbers. Numbers and science are my friends. I like $$ but have no deep desire to turn that into $$$$$. (I don’t even know any people with $$$$$.) I don’t watch all those money-grubbing shows on television. “Strike Me Down” didn’t sound like a book in which I’d find many sympathetic characters. These days, it’s all about the characters. And sympathy.

I read the book anyway.

The main character, a forensic accountant named Nora Trier, turned out to be fascinating. She has a pivotal backstory but it was on the book’s back burner. Nora is humorless and calculating, perhaps a bit of a stereotype for an accountant, but the characteristics serve her well in turning up malfeasance in the financial affairs of her clients.

The book, contrary to expectations, starts off with a bang. Fifty thousand people are chasing Nora Trier in a sports arena in downtown Minneapolis. What in all heck has she done to deserve that? The rest of the book is spent explaining how she got to that point.

Logan Russo may be fifty years old, but she is a super-star athlete. She has won kickboxing matches all over the world, co-owns a premier sporting brand, has opened a large number of gyms, and is slavishly followed by a massive number of people. She and her husband called their enterprise Strike. They are just about to hold a tournament to end all tournaments. At stake is twenty million dollars in prize money and the honor for one of the contestants to be the new face shown on all of Strike’s product packaging.

The only problem is the prize money is missing in action. Gregg Abbott, Logan’s husband, hires Nora’s forensic accounting company to track it down. Nora immediately recognizes Gregg as the man she slept with on an out-of-town trip. She did not know he was Logan’s husband, and she never saw him again. In a separate coincidence, Nora turns out to be one of Logan’s slavish followers. She takes classes from her at Strike’s flagship gym, just down the walkway from her office. (As a place of much snow and cold, downtown Minneapolis has eleven miles of walkways so people can navigate the inhospitable winter climate.) Awkward. In a real life situation, that would be enough to preclude an accountant from doing forensic work for a business. But this is fiction, so have at it!

Gregg thinks Logan has taken the money. Double awkward.

On the surface all the primary characters keep much too cool. I mean alabaster. Inside, apparently volcanic activity. There’s a lot of smoldering, jealousy, anger, and frustration, albeit you can’t see it. For a seething, sweaty, sexy book, there’s very little sex. There’s seething and sweat, though. It’s intense.

I finished the book because I was captivated by Nora’s character and backstory. As the primary on the case, she provided the outline for the investigation. But her minions did the backbreaking paper-shuffling and tracing, so the story wouldn’t be slowed down. I can’t say I feel the same sort of fascination for Logan. I was not ready to bow and scrape before her. Gregg? He was a sad man. Author Mindy Mejia is the mistress of innuendo and provocation, but mostly her characters were fleshless. On second thought, I mostly did like one of the secondary characters, Nora’s best friend at her agency, Corbett MacDermott. (In horror movies it doesn’t pay to be the best friend of the main character!)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

Knopf, 400 pages, $27.95

Just in case actually living through a pandemic isn’t enough suspense for you, Lawrence Wright, usually a writer of nonfiction, has issued a companion piece to our actual COVID-19 crisis. Yes, you can sit at home while isolating and read about a fictional pandemic that eerily mirrors our own … up to a certain point. With luck, most of his book will prove to be just fiction.

In “The End of October,” a virus has gotten loose in the world. The people in the book wonder about its origin. The world governments, too, think devious thoughts about each other. Was the virus concocted in a laboratory and either maliciously or accidentally let loose? The virus seems to be especially virulent. Good old Asia seems to be implicated. But Russians are mysteriously not falling victim to the virus as much as other countries, like the U.S., for example. Hmm.

Wright’s story starts in Indonesia, in an HIV camp. The medical personnel sent to help the camp have fallen silent. Dr. Henry Parsons of the CDC in the U.S. is sent to investigate. He thinks he will be away a couple of days from his loving home in Atlanta. But this is what he finds: The medical personnel are dead. Transmission is fast, and the already vulnerable people in the camp have caught what appears to be a highly lethal virus. 

Unfortunately, before he can be caught, a carrier of the disease — Henry’s cab driver — travels to the hajj in Saudi Arabia. And — bammo! — thousands of pilgrims are infected. Now everyone can blame Asians, Muslims, homosexuals, the W.H.O., Russians … wait! A lot of this sounds familiar. Here’s something else familiar: Medical facilities are overflowing, there’s a shortage (but maybe not as bad as we have it in real life) of PPEs, grocery store shelves are empty, and people get their guns out.

And where is Henry? About half of the book is our world today, governments and health organizations struggling to contain and understand the virus. It’s full of realistic details, including appearances by real people doing their real jobs in a fictional setting. Real medical pioneers are honored in their mentioning. Henry navigates this real-world mirror, initially going from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia.

The second half of the book? Yikes! If you want to feel better about our current situation, Wright shows you how it could get so, so, so much worse. I don’t think Wright meant to release his book in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t think Wright means to make us feel worse or more helpless. If it’s of any consolation or interest, the fictional U.S. government seems to be almost as clueless and ineffective as our real one.

It is the second half of the book that takes us more into the personal lives of a couple of the main characters. This is where humanity lies. It is the heroic struggle of a few to survive. It is the bad of Henry’s past that drives him relentlessly to help mankind through the crisis. It is his love of the goodness in his present life that leads him to frame the philosophical question Why? and then to try to answer that. But make no mistake, the second half is not primarily about existential fumblings, it is about how the world, as individuals and as communities, answers a serious threat.

I found the crisis details absorbing, though mighty unsettling.

I read the book. I survived it. I even cautiously recommend it. We are a nation divided by people who read and listen to C-19 information and those who assiduously avoid it. I’m not certain this book qualifies as news you can use, but it is an insight into how difficult it is to dissect a virus and develop an effective fix. So maybe people of either inclination can read “End of October” with interest.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

Harper, 528 pages, $28.99 (c2019)
Translated from the Danish by Caroline Wright

Let’s see. Creepy nursery rhyme. Check. Man with eyes of different colors. Check. Copenhagen. Check. Bloody, grisly, grim, haunting murders. Um. Check, check, check. All the elements are there. Buckle up, buttercup!

Would "The Chestnut Man" be more appealing if you learned that the author, Søren Sveistrup, is the creator of the original version of “The Killing,” the Danish production that spawned the celebrated American version. According to Sofie Gråbøl, the star of the Danish series, there's an American version because Americans “for some reason cannot read subtitles, or they don’t want to.” I didn’t hear her say it, but I’m sure it was accompanied by a slyly humorous smile. Both series are worthy of bingeing, bingement, bingeitude, binge-watching. The television series is dark and grisly, and so is this book. Sveistrup has already shown us he can do heart-thumping and serious twisty-turny plot.

Naia Thulin is a smart detective. She is so smart she is angling for a way to move up from the Major Crimes Unit to NC3, the cyber crimes unit, after only nine months as a detective. She is especially eager to get out of the MCU when she is saddled with babysitting a bad boy, Mark Hess, who was kicked out of Europol as the Danish liaison and sent home to the Copenhagen squad to await review. Hess is the man with eyes of different colors. The rest of him, including his attitude, is equally as wonky. He is mostly uncommunicative, terse when he deigns to say something, and seems as though he is peering over the border into a parallel world, a better parallel world, because he sure as hell has no interest in the current one. 

It takes something big to get Hess’ interest. The murder of Laura Kjær fits the bill. She is a young mother who is tortured and left to die in an outdoor children’s playhouse near her home. A dangling “chestnut man” children’s toy is left at the scene. The prologue contains a grisly murder done several years in the past. In that, there are many chestnut creations populating a grim basement. What does the old incident have to do with the awful torture and murder of the young mother? Thulin and Hess are observant, intuitive, and smart, so they begin to tease out the clues and eliminate the dead-ends.

There are 500 pages in the English translation I read. Included is a lot of step-by-step scene setting. (“Their voices seep out under the door of the glass-partitioned room, and a few teenagers in slippers have stopped to watch.”) There are multiple victims, almost victims, and a victim-in-progress. There are red herrings, bad police practice, ambitious supervisors, and a taunting killer to waylay poor Thulin and Hess. Even after the killer is revealed, there is a lot of action and detection to do, probably constituting a novella all by itself. The novel’s heftiness is satisfying, even if there are some plot lines that are unnecessary but intriguing. I definitely got the feeling that Sveistrup was setting the groundwork for another television series. (“And in episodes nine and ten, the detectives chase down the real killer.”)

Spoiler alert: Hess is not an air-head. Another spoiler alert: As it is in so many Scandinavian mysteries, there is a social commentary element to “The Chestnut Man.” Third spoiler alert: Will we see a sequel? I hope so.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 384 pages, $26.99 (c2019)

I salute Ann Cleeves for beginning a new series and not resting on her laurels! This is not Vera. This is not Jimmy. This is Matthew Venn in North Devon, England.

Matthew is a cop, a detective in the North Devon constabulary. The body of a murdered man is found on the sandy strand close to where Matthew and his husband have their home. There are little towns and villages scattered throughout the area, and Cleeves makes use of their availability to set pieces of her story in them. 

Ross May and Jen Rafferty are his main assisting detectives. Ross is a newby and seen as a spy for the alcoholic, dysfunctional DCI of the station. Jen transferred from a bigger post because she was looking to escape an abusive marriage and bring her two children up in a better environment. She is a bit of a late-blooming wild child and hasn’t found her footing yet. As in her other series, Cleeves creates solid side characters with relatable stories.

The body turns out to belong to Simon Walden, an alcoholic homeless person who barged into a help center and, indeed, found help. Caroline Preece counseled him, introduced him to other aspects of facilities in North Devon, including the Woodyard community center, and gave him a room in her own home. She already had a roommate, Gaby Henry, who was wary of the arrangement. But Caroline owned the house, so there was very little Gaby felt she could say. Gaby, too, was involved in the community center as an art teacher.

In addition to counseling, Simon soon became involved as a cook at the cafe in the Woodyard. It turned out he had some talent as a chef. He got to know some of the other people who used the Woodyard, including some of the Downs syndrome group members.

So why was Simon murdered? Until he showed up, he was a stranger to the area. Slowly Matthew and his group draw out other interesting tidbits from Simon’s past, including some aspects that could explain why he was held in bad will. But did his past follow him to North Devon? Maybe. But that doesn’t explain why days later one of the women with Down’s Syndrome has disappeared. She was last seen at Woodyard, presumably catching the bus home, but she never arrived. Are these incidents related? Matthew and his team have only slender threads to tug in their investigation.

Here’s the spanner in the works: Jonathan Church, the director of the Woodyard Centre, is Matthew’s husband. These incidents and others that follow seem to revolve around the center. Is Jonathan a suspect? 

Cleeves again does what she does best. She creates a suspenseful atmosphere that lightly shrouds the story in dread but doesn’t overwhelm it. The people and their relationships beam through. They don’t get lost in bright but vacuous gimmickry or thudding scenes racing to the end. Why do we love Vera Stanhope? (And if you don’t know Vera, why not?) Why do we love Jimmy Perez? (Ditto.) Cleeves makes them human.

Matthew Venn has a sad background. His parents were ultra-religious and could not accept a gay son. (To Cleeves credit, Matthew’s sexuality really isn’t a big deal. Most characters acknowledge he is married to Jonathan, without judgment.) As the book begins, Matthew’s father has just died, and he is outside the church during the service. His appearance would not be welcome by the members of the sect or his (sigh) mother. This is a dynamite set-up. And Cleeves flows with it.

Aside: At one point, in my OCD way (not really), I was ready to castigate Cleeves for not showing photos to a victim to determine the criminal. Lo and behold, within a few pages, there were the photos being shown to the victim. She does detail!

When do I not love Ann Cleeves? MBTB star!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit, 448 pages, $28

Not a mystery.

If you’re from Staten Island, maybe don’t read this book. Just jokin’, y’all. Mostly.

N. K. Jemisin is still riding high off her award-winning Broken Earth series. It’s hard to pigeon-hole both that series and this book as “science fiction,” but they certainly aren’t of this world! Having said that, “The City We Became” is about New York City, as real as the real New York City, but with a parallel universe overlay. And squidgy, flaccid monsters. And people as themselves but also as the human manifestations of the boroughs of New York. I know, that’s a lot to absorb as a premise.

A strange force has launched an attack on New York City. It’s mostly a psychic attack, since regular people can’t see the wormy or feathery tendrils that burrow into their bodies, but the people-boroughs can. Most big cities in the world have periodic incarnations as people. Birth or rebirth, it’s called. Cities help each other with the rebirth. It’s not a frequent event, but it occurs to battle sublimation, degeneration, disintegration of the city. Not all cities survive the rebirth; e.g., Atlantis. (I know, whoa!, right?)

In the case of New York, there are five avatars for the five boroughs, plus one who represents all of New York City. The trick, of course, is to get all these newly awakened avatars together to defeat the enemy. Before becoming avatars, the people were mostly just ordinary people. Several are young or young-ish, one is old, a couple are white, one is Latinx, one is Lenape, one is black, one is a mash-up, some are cheerful or cheerful-ish, one is damn grumpy. Most are born and bred New Yorkers, but one — Manhattan — is newly arrived to the city. Moreover, Manhattan does not remember his original identity. The five + one are truly an agglomeration of those who comprise New York City.

Jemisin doesn’t just mix up the phenotypes, she mixes humor with drama with adventure with philosophizing with science with what I can only assume are insider New York observations. The story is pretty straightforward — for a jiggly storyline, that is — but Jemisin packs a whole lot into it. Even if you didn’t know, you probably would guess that she is a born and bred New Yorker herself. You’d be wrong. She was born in Iowa City. But she has lived in NYC off and on for many years.

Her books are inventive and out-of-the-box. Her main thesis in her latest works is that worlds are organisms. Life cannot be defined solely in human terms. Supernatural merely means above our understanding of how the universe works. “The City We Became” has an element of superhero as well. If you have seen “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” that would be good preparation for this book.

Sassy, saucy, serious, substantial, subway-ish, surprising, and ancient. You can’t go into reading this with expectations or preconceptions. It’s a “hell, yeah, girl” kind of book.

This is labeled as book one of a trilogy.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Edgar Award Winners for 2019

The Mystery Writers of America's banquet was cancelled this year. The winners were announced on their website and their Twitter feed. Here is a link to their website:


Congratulations to the winners!