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

Friday, July 31, 2020

His & Hers by Alice Feeney

Flatiron Books, 308 pages, $27.99

Split narratives, unreliable narrator(s), red herrings, terrible people. Alice Feeney takes popular writing trends and gives us a much-tangled plot.

Anna Andrews is “Her” and her ex-husband DCI Jack Harper is “His.” They tell the story of their lost marriage, individual tragedies, and childhood traumas tying their past and present. It is more Anna’s story in the sense that her tale travels from her childhood with an abusive father to her present life as an alcoholic adult. But her chapters alternate with Jack’s and those of another individual, the killer.

It remains to be seen if the killer is Anna or Jack or someone else. Author Alice Feeney must have twisted herself in knots to avoid giving away the gender or motive for the murders. The murders are connected to women who were Anna’s companions when they were all teenagers. One of those companions is Jack’s younger sister, Zoe. The relationships are tangled and many, and their secrets are buried deep.

The first body found in the woods of Blackdown, England, is of Rachel, another one of those teenage friends. Only now, Rachel was an adult, a woman who had been having an affair with Jack. Jack and Anna are no longer married, so that's not a sticking point, but Jack still carries a torch for Anna. Anyway, the affair is meaningless. Until, of course, Rachel’s body is discovered just hours after she and Jack met for a little coochy-coochy in Jack’s car by the side of a forest, the forest in which Rachel’s body now lies.

Of course, of course, Jack should have recused himself from being the lead investigator, turning it over to his younger colleague, Priya Patel, a strange creature whose thought processes are never explicated, whose reactions seem overblown, and whose loyalty is a sad, sad thing. But at all costs, Jack does not want it known that he was involved. He barely wants it known that his ex-wife is one of the television reporters assigned to the case.

Author Feeney has filled a soup pot with a trendy selection of thriller and psychological elements and stirred it up. Whatever she shook out of the pot got put into the story. It wasn’t that I was confused about the story or narrative lines; rather, I was stunned by the number of elements. There were plenty of murders, hidden relationships, prior events fraught and freighted with reasons for hate, and people behaving badly.

When the killer was finally revealed, I was exhausted. I had a hard time accepting Anna’s innocence and culpability as a teenager. And that tumbled down the house of cards for me.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $16 (c2018)

Not a true mystery novel.

Would you want to know the date of your death, especially if you were very young? The four Gold children – Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon – pool their money and go to a fortune teller to hear when they will die. Before any of them have a chance to really live, they are already thinking of their deaths. After they hear the old woman prophesy, they soberly return home. None tell the others what they learned.

Then author Chloe Benjamin moves her novel forward in four parts, one for each of the children. A few years later, after their father has died unexpectedly young, we learn that Simon is prophesized to be the first to die. But will he? With the thought in mind that he may not have many years at all, he leaves school at about 15 years of age and runs away to San Francisco with Klara. Klara, about 17, has also decided she must begin her life as soon as possible. They leave the rest of the Golds back in New York City, older siblings Daniel and Varya and their mother, Gertie. The fortune teller has also doomed Klara to die young.

Strangely, although the premise is chilling, the thought behind the novel is very plain and elegant. What do you do if you believe you are at the mercy of fate? How do you live your life? Do you huddle in a corner and then laugh when the due date comes and goes. Then do you begin to live? What about those wasted years you spent huddled in that corner?

Similar scenarios have played out in many books, most of them science fiction, over the years. What about a nuclear apocalypse? A giant earthquake? A comet traveling to collide with Earth? But here is a book that asks what if instead of months or minutes, thought of your death loomed over you for years?

There are some strange events. They could be supernatural. On the other hand, they could be just lapses in attention, memory, analysis. Benjamin does not give you easy answers as each section unfolds.

We are left with a magic trick at the end. A cascade of nested cups lifts, one after the other, and what, we wonder, will lie at its center.

The way Benjamin writes each character’s yearning, fears, wonder, and love is worth reading.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $26.99

Arden Maynor was six years old when she disappeared one night. Her mother frantically called 911. Arden’s shoe was caught in a storm drain. There was a huge rainstorm and the thought was that Arden had been swept away by the water into the drain. Her mother relentlessly urged people to keep looking for her, even though there was little hope for her survival. But, indeed, Sean Coleman, a 32-year-old father who had volunteered to help look, saw Arden’s little hand clutching onto another drain cover. He held onto her until a way could be cut into the pipe to save her. She became a miracle child.

In the real world, children miraculously saved from dire situations have dotted the news over the years. The media picks up anniversary stories of those children and their families. We viewers share in the victories and glow in the reflected happiness of the lives now lived in full. Those children and families belong to us, too, by virtue of our thoughts and prayers.

Don’t they?

Olivia Meyer is twenty-six years old and works in hospital administration in Central Valley. Her best friends are nurses Bennett and Elyse. She owns her own home on a remote street. Her closest next door neighbor sold her the house. He’s old and seems kindly. He watches out for her and she gets him groceries.

Everything is going well. She is trying to extricate herself from a toxic relationship and seems to be succeeding. She has distanced herself from her toxic past. A phone call provides the conclusive touch: Her mother has died. A box of mishmashed things arrives as her last possessions. 

Then one night, Olivia’s worst nightmare occurs. Only it’s not a nightmare. She was sleepwalking, something she hadn’t done since she was a child, and tripped over a dead body in her front yard. Worse, with the arrival of the police, she realizes she knows the victim. He is Sean Coleman, her savior when she had another name, another life in Widow Hills far away. She had not seen or heard from him in the twenty years since. Why was he in her front yard late at night? Who killed him? Did she?

This is another thriller by author Megan Miranda (“The Last House Guest”). Olivia’s is the only viewpoint. Everyone else is suspect. Trust no one. No, wait, maybe trust him. Nah, he’s too angry. How about her? All of a sudden she’s too flaky. What about the handsome man who suddenly appears in town? Her former boyfriend? Nina, the cop who hates her neighbor, the old man? Yeah, what about the old man, hmm? He has a lot of guns.

There’s a TV movie in there somewhere, and it will be just as entertaining.

Monday, July 6, 2020

G. I. Confidential by Martin Limón

Soho Crime, 384 pages, $26.95

There are very few series which have gotten better along the way. The George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series set in 1970s Korea is one of the winners. Sueño and Bascom are CID investigators with an Army base outside of Seoul. “G. I. Confidential” is Martin Limón’s fourteenth book in the series, and he is still going strong.

Korea in the 1970s has no K-pop. It does have a dictatorship, however. There are no trendy Korean BBQs, except in Korea. And those are not trendy; they just are. There are no Kia cars in the U.S., but there are kimchi cabs in Seoul.

On average during the 1970s, there were about 40,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea. They ostensibly were keeping the peace between North and South Korea at the DMZ. The U.S. was also supporting a dictator, Park Chung-hee, who would rule with an iron fist until (spoiler alert) his assassination in 1979. However, at the time of “G. I. Confidential,” Park is very much alive.

Tensions with North Korea are high. The U.S. walks on eggshells to manage and/or sidestep the turbulent internal South Korean politics, and to run its own part of the DMZ. Into the reality of South Korea at the time (a nebulous sometime in the 1970s), Limón inserts his own dramatic inventions. 

Non-Koreans are robbing banks in Seoul. The descriptions given by witnesses of the first robbery identify the men as U. S. soldiers. They are carrying military weapons. They are driving a military vehicle — with identifying marks taped up. In the second robbery, someone is killed with a bullet. Although Sueño and Bascom were not originally assigned the robberies, they take the cases upon themselves — because the CID originally assigned idiots to investigate.

Sueño and Bascom have to consult with their scary friend, Mr. Kill of the Korean police. He speaks impeccable English, knows everybody, and hears everything almost before it happens. But Mr. Kill is hampered in solving the bank robberies because he is not American. The three investigators have a strong alliance developed over several books. There is no doubt the robbers will be caught. However.

Complicating matters is a case that seems to be about a relatively trivial matter, but looks are deceiving. A photograph has appeared in the alternate newspaper, the trashy “Overseas Observer.” That is, it is the alternative to the “The Stars and Stripes,” the official U.S. military newspaper. (As a sidenote, author Limón worked for “The Stars and Stripes” in Korea during the 70s.) The photo is of Caucasian women in a U. S. military truck, with the caption that they are being taken north to the ROK (Republic of Korea) headquarters at the DMZ for “entertainment.” Blustery head honchos want Sueño and Bascom to put a damper on the story before the news gets out stateside.

When Sueño and Bascom journey north, they discover a greater mystery than women being trucked up north. There is a subtle but definite tension between the ROK commander and the U.S. commander at the DMZ. Also, it is rumored the U. S. commander, Lt. General Abner Jennings Crabtree, has a few screws loose, and the only thing saving his bacon is his assistant, Screech Owl Tapia. There are rumors the ROK commander, Major General Bok Jung-nam, has a few lose screws himself. The only thing keeping him from exploding apparently is a mysterious woman, Estrella. Was she one of the women in the truck? Why does Crabtree seem to know her?

And who the heck is Katie Byrd Worthington and why is she sticking her nose into everything?

It turns out Katie Byrd Worthington is responsible for a lot of the scandalous material being published in the “Overseas Observer.” She is its reporter in Korea, and she already has given Sueño and Bascom publicity (of the bad sort) over the first bank robbery. She also has connections. She also has the goods on our heroes. She also helps them some. She is inescapable.

Add a killer to the general chaos. Someone is trying to kill either Sueño or Bascom, or both, or maybe Katie Byrd Worthington. There are a lot of things to keep the investigators and an intrepid reporter awake at night.

This is a tremendous mix of story elements, including one carry-over item from the other books. The story builds to a crescendo in which bombs boom and rifles erupt, an honest-to-goodness military engagement. You can’t get any more crescendo-y than that! The end story was so convincing that I had to Google some of the characters involved. It turns out the events at the end are just fiction, but wowee-wow-wow, what a stunner.

Gomapsumnida, Mr. Limón! MBTB stars and stripes for “G. I. Confidential”!