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

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

William Morrow, 320 pages, $27.99

If you read my last “review,” you will know I was discouraged by yet another book about the bringing together —on an isolated island in a storm — of people with deep secrets from their youth. I did not finish that book. It is the exquisite nature of literary randomness that the next book I picked was about people with dark secrets from their past getting together — on an isolated island in a storm. But this time I finished the book.

Will Slater and Julia Keegan are getting married. They are successful people in their early thirties who look good together, have much in common, and are madly in love. Julia is a perfectionist so it is a miracle she found someone of whom she approves. They are enough into their individual lives that they can just enjoy the future together. Ruggedly handsome Will stars in a man-in-the-wllderness-against-the-elements reality television show. Julia has a trendy online style magazine.

For their wedding, they draw together their families and close friends to celebrate. From Will’s exclusive prep school come a bunch of rabble-rousers and from uni, his rugby mates. On Julia’s side are her fragile and beautiful younger half-sister, Julia’s neglectful mother and even more neglectful father, and her best friend, a man, Charlie. Will’s family are no more adoring or adorable than Julia’s; his father was the headmaster of Will's prestigious prep school.

While it is a celebration of Will and Julia’s wedding, it is also an opportunity for Charlie and his wife, Hannah, to rekindle the flame that has been dampened over the years by their two children. Only Julia pretty much spirits Charlie off for gossip and reminiscences right from the start.

The prep school mates are boisterous and border on being rude. Johnno, Will’s best man, also is one of the group. He has been the least successful of all the school chums. He is more unkempt and unfit than the others, with a brittle unhappiness.

Well, doesn’t this sound like a merry group?

Lucy Foley builds up the tension expertly. With chapters going back and forth throughout the weekend’s activities and through the viewpoints of several of the characters, she slowly introduces all the sad and sordid tales from the past. In the end, there is a body. In the end, there is a murderer. But that’s only in the end. The journey there is intense.

I didn’t think I wanted to take on this “reunion” tale after the last foray, but I’m glad I hung in there. I don’t think I had a choice. Lucy Foley saw to that.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

They Did Bad Things by Lauren A. Forry

Arcade Crimewise, 288 pages, $25.99

Oh, please, no more college students get back together to solve a mystery that took place twenty, twenty-five, thirty, fifty years ago. Whatever.

I saw the recommendation that called it Agatha Christie-like. The scene was a lonely, ghostly mansion on an island, with no modern communication ability. That's for me, I said! Nope.

I blame my lack of interest on COVID-19. Why not?

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Atria, 496 pages, $17 (c2018)

“Once Upon a River” is a great title. Right away it informs you of the overall tenor of the book: like a fairytale. And there’s a river, the mighty, fabled, mythic Thames. The time period is a little amorphous but has the feel of the late 1800s in England. (It is "once upon a time," after all.)

The river flows past an ancient inn, The Swan. It is a gathering place for locals in a small rural area. The Swan is a storytelling inn. Locals gather to tell stories and hone their speaking skills. The same stories are told over and over, a detail refined here, an afterthought added there. Then one night the regulars are treated to an event that will provide sustenance for their storytelling for years to come.

It was a dark and stormy winter’s night. (Of course it was. This is a fairy tale, of sorts.) An ugly giant of a man bursts through the inn door. He is injured and would have crashed to the stone floor had not the regulars grabbed him. A strange doll was in his arms. In the hurry to tend to the man, it is a while before anyone notices that the “doll” is actually a little girl. She is dead. Her body is placed in an outside storage room. Now what can the storytellers make of that?

The inn is run by Margot and Joe with help of their good-natured son. Their other children are daughters, all of whom have left for their own hearth and home over the years. When the daughters come back to help at the inn on special occasions, the locals, not wishing to remember the long list of names, call them all Margot. Little Margots.

Rita Sunday is the closest the village has to a doctor. She was trained in medicine by the nuns at the orphanage in which she was raised. She is the locals’ midwife, bone-setter, herbalist, and, it seems, their psychologist as well. She is intentionally single and lives in a little cottage on the riverbank.

The injured man is eventually discovered to be Henry Daunt, a photographer from Oxford, down the river a bit. It is yet a little while more before pieces of his story can be put together. The most mysterious of all the mysterious events that night proves to be that Henry does not know who the little girl is.

When the little girl awakens — oh, yes, this is a fairy tale (maybe), remember — she does not talk and cannot assist in figuring out who she is. She appears to be four years old, the age Amelia Vaughan would be were she alive. Amelia was the beloved daughter of Mr. Vaughan (does he have a first name?) and his wife, Helena. She disappeared from her nursery room one night. A ransom note was received and the ransom paid, but Amelia was never seen again.

Not far away the estate of Robert Armstrong, his wife Bess, and their brood is tidily and happily managed. Except. Robin, the oldest child, once a wild boy and now an unsettled man, is a trouble to his parents. He is not really Robert’s son, as anyone with two eyes can tell. Robert is a black man, unusual for the time and place, and Bess is white. Speaking of eyes, Bess wears an eye patch because she has an unusual eye she prefers to keep hidden. Robin is her son, but much loved and claimed by Robert. Robin had a wife and couldn’t keep her. A pumpkin shell would have been better than where she wound up. It is said that she was so distraught that she killed both herself and their young daughter … who would be about four years old had she lived.

Lily White also lives down by the river. She regularly checks wooden posts stuck in the riverbank to measure how high the water has risen, scratches the chin of a keen-eyed sow in a nearby pen, collects money from a mysterious hidey-hole and puts it in another hidey-hole, cleans the parsonage for the quiet and well-mannered parson, and although she is old and her mother is dead, claims to have a sister who is about four years old.

Does the mysterious girl who was dead and is now alive belong with any of them?

Diane Setterfield crafts a wondrous story. Were she sitting in the inn by the fire, competing for best storyteller, she would be the clear winner.

There are many mysteries to be cleared up by the end of this book, and the stories wend their way like branches of a river to join together at the end in a rush of telling.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Running Out of Road by Daniel Friedman

Minotaur Books, 288 pages, $26.95

If talk of crime, philosophy, ethics, discrimination, and Machiavelli all crashed into each other, “Running Out of Road” would emerge from the collision. And it would be sublime.

There are not too many books — can’t think of one, actually ... not even close — in which the protagonist is an 89-year-old Jewish man, a retired detective from the Memphis police force, living in an assisted care facility with his wife of seventy years. He has been retired for decades, but a case he had in 1955 has come back to dog him. He can’t outrun the past even with his walker and legs in high gear.

Buck has dementia which is slowly diminishing his memory. He has to be told over and over again, each time newly traumatic for him, that his wife, Rose, has lymphoma and the prospects are grim. Also, while we’re talking about sad things, Buck and Rose’s only child, Brian, died a while ago. Buck has to be reminded of this as well. Their grandson, Brian’s son, William Tecumsah Schatz, is studying to pass the bar in New York, but he has traveled to Memphis to be with Rose for a little while. Buck dismissively calls William “Tequila.”

So Buck (née Baruch) Schatz, the retired detective, meets his moment of comeuppance in the form of Carlos Watkins, an NPR journalist. (“He sounded like the liberals on MSNBC.”) Carlos’ latest production is “American Justice,” in which he explores cases of potentially misbegotten justice. His latest focus is on Chester March, an 87-year-old man who is on death row and whose execution by lethal injection is only two months away. Chester has been preparing to die for thirty-five years. It was Buck who put him away.

William, the future lawyer, has advised his grandfather to stay away from Carlos and his radio program, but Buck would like his version of Chester’s case to be heard. Can this be a good thing for a man with dementia? It does appear that Buck has a pretty good recollection of Chester’s case ... maybe.

Let’s introduce a little timeline here. The present-day story with Buck and Carlos actually takes place in 2011. Buck originally arrested Chester for murdering his wife and a prostitute in 1955. I have given you all the information you need to do the math and discover there is a missing piece. Chester alleges he is innocent — are there any guilty men on any fictional death row? — and that Memphis Police Detective Buck Schatz beat a false confession out of him.

Ed Heffernan, Chester’s appeals attorney, has taken the case because he opposes the death penalty and not necessarily because he thinks Chester is innocent. Between William and Ed, we clearly hear author Friedman’s own lawyerly voice. (And probably what his personal opinion is about the death penalty.)

Carlos has been trying to interview Buck but because of William’s intervention, he has been unsuccessful. The episodes presented on NPR so far have been without Buck’s point of view. So Carlos’ audience has only heard Chester’s story. Chester is an articulate, educated white man, so he presents a very sympathetic character. Carlos and Chester have built a large audience of listeners. 

“Running Out of Road” is a combination of Buck’s first-person narrative and transcripts of Carlos’ broadcasts. Sections set in 2011 alternate with those set in 1955 and 1976 (aww, I’ve given away the missing piece), when Buck actually managed to put Chester away.

Underlying the story of the alleged crimes committed by Chester and Buck’s hunt for evidence of those crimes is the story of systemic, invidious, and appalling discrimination. Although Buck fought in WWII and was gravely injured, he is no better than … that Jew detective. He has to be smarter and bolder and more fearless than his non-Jewish, white colleagues. The KKK is still a powerful force in Memphis and so there is that factor as well. You would think that 1955 is far enough from the Civil War that white cotton landowners wouldn’t have a superior class standing. But they do. Chester’s family is one of them.

Most appalling is the diminishment of the eyewitness testimony of a woman who saw Chester drive off with the prostitute whose mangled body was discovered later. The eyewitness is black. The bottom line: It doesn’t matter what she saw.

Carlos, the NPR broadcaster, is black. What difference does that make in his drive to complete Chester’s story? It’s complicated. Black, white, Jewish. Latent prejudices. Overt prejudices. Friedman brings it all out but it doesn’t overwhelm the story, which still manages to come in at a neat 288 pages.

This book has layers and a succinct and compelling lawyerly overlay. Author Daniel Friedman has a law degree, after all. But mostly what Friedman does so very well is bring to life an ancient soul whose life is guttering out. With compassion, Friedman also sketches Rose, the valiant and loyal wife.  Friedman also uses wry humor well. 

Here’s a passage from the book. Buck is mulling over what he could have done differently over the years, now that his beloved Rose is dying and he is running hard to avoid his grim future:

“[M]aybe I should have taken more risks. Started more gunfights. Maybe smoked more. It takes a lot of nails to pin a beast like me into a coffin, but I could have found my numbers. An extra half a pack a day, maybe, and I could have been dead thirty years ago.”

The book begins with Buck in a doctor’s office wondering who the doctor sitting across the desk is. His mind has drifted off while the doctor was talking.  Was the doctor talking about his dementia, his frailty, his smoking, his heart, his … oh, any number of things? But, no, he is being told, again, that Rose has cancer. And his heart breaks, again. Friedman continues to break Buck’s heart and ours throughout the book.

MBTB super-sized star!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Mr. Flood's Last Resort by Jess Kidd

(Note: This book is also known as "The Hoarder.")
Washington Square Press, 352 pages, $16.99 (c2018)

“Mr. Flood's Last Resort” is set in London. Pish posh! I heard the entire book spoken with an Irish accent. Cathal Flood and Maud Drennan, the two main characters, would perhaps amend this description slightly, but I heard what I heard.

Speaking of hearing what one hears, Maud Drennan, a young woman working as a health care giver, sees dead saints. She talks to them, they walk with her, they play pranks on people, they deny her a look into anything helpful although they know, they know.

“Mr. Flood's Last Resort” is rife with missing girls. Something happened to Maud’s older sister when Maud was very young. That story haunts the book, with narrative nuggets strewn throughout until the end. Another girl who becomes a growing mystery is Marguerite Flood, perhaps a relative of Cathal Flood.

Ah, Cathal Flood. When Maud is sent to take care of him, he is an old man with hoarding habits. We are told that hoarding is often an offshoot of deep grief. What does Cathal Flood mourn? His wife died twenty-five years earlier. But did he murder her? It would have been so easy for him to have pushed her down the stairs, which is how she died. He is estranged from his adult son, Gideon — Dr. Flood, if you please — a pompous, idiotic, and shifty drama and theater lecturer. And what has happened to his daughter, Marguerite? If there had been such a daughter? He refuses to talk about any of his family.

The last young girl, Maggie Dunne, disappeared from a seaside town when she was fifteen, more than twenty-five years ago. Why was Cathal’s wife, Mary, obsessed with her? She collected newspaper clippings about her disappearance.

Cathal is a “retired artist, mechanical engineer and dealer in curiosities.”  He has closed off most of his four-story mansion with an impressively engineered wall of old “National Geographic” magazines. His truncated living area is filthy with litter, hoarded items, cats, a fox, and mostly a mundane accumulation of detritus. Maud is determined to clear the area so Cathal won’t be shuffled off to assisted living.

Maud’s landlady, the colorful, eccentric, and agoraphobic Renata, is convinced that Maud’s life is in danger while working at Bridlemere, Cathal’s mansion. The danger, Renata says, is Cathal is obviously a murderer, having done away with his wife and maybe the mysterious daughter, and he surely is aiming for Maud next. (Ominously, the saints won’t enter Bridlemere with Maud, although they travel most everywhere else with her.)

To emphasize how threatening Cathal might be, this is Maud talking about the disclaimer portion of her employment contract: “…if I had paid more attention I would have noted the words: council raid, booby traps, ingenious mechanisms, police caution.

Maud, Renata, and Sam Hebden, a young man Maud meets skulking around the mansion, have gathered together in an informal murder committee to solve any and all murders. This is a charming group. Renata unleashes her hidden forensic investigator (and her array of wigs) and Maud just hitches up her I'm-intrepid-don't-mess-with-me britches. 

Renata sums up the group’s remit: “… what does the old man have on his son, what does Gabriel want so badly from the house and what have the Floods to do with the disappearance of Maggie Dunne?” 

“Mr. Flood's Last Resort” is a delight. The revelations every time Cathal and Maud meet are a heady mix of sweetness, tension, sadness, and joy. 

Read this. After you have read it, wonder why there isn’t a follow-up book. I wonder why. Hope springs about someday holding that follow-up in my greedy little hands.