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

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

Anchor Books, 292 pages, $16.95 (c2019)

Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell

At times, “The Plotters” is a very beautiful book about assassins. Most of the time, the book is a meditation on human frailty, the futility of creating a good life, searching for a reason to live, and pondering whether death is frightening or enlightening. Some of time, there are assassins assassinating.

“The Plotters” is set in modern day South Korea, but the book feels like a comic book fantasy. There are “plotters,” people who determine a target and hire an agency. There is “The Library,” one of those agencies, with a roster of assassins. There is Renseng. He was a garbage can baby. After he was rescued from the garbage can, he grew up in The Library, taken care of, so to speak, by Old Raccoon, the head “librarian.” Inevitably, Renseng became an assassin. He is young but he is good. 

There actually are books, thousands of books, in The Library. There is even a cross-eyed assistant librarian, but she doesn’t appear to assist with much of anything. Renseng hangs out at The Library waiting for his next kill assignment. So does Hanja, although it appears Hanja is making his way up in the world and is leaving The Library behind.

Bear cremates the victims and sometimes assassins who have met a sorry fate. Although business is slowing, death and more death tend to go on. Bear respectfully deals with the remains.

What loyalty does Renseng owe to Old Raccoon, a taciturn and unaffectionate old man? Do the assassinated people weigh heavily on Renseng’s soul? If not, why not? Doesn’t Renseng want a normal life with a family and love? All is pondered as the pages move along. Along with cat cafés, knitting shops, pink bicycle baskets, women assassins, and new underwear.

Although “The Plotters” is not a comic or humorous book, it has its eccentric moments. I’d say the overarching feeling is melancholy. Times are changing for the assassins, and they must adapt or die. And someone may be trying to kill Renseng.

The last chapter (hooray for books with chapter titles!), “The Door to the Left,” begins with a beautiful meditative thought before Renseng gets cracking at what he does best. It is unfortunate that killing is what Renseng does best. Renseng would agree with me.

I highly recommended this book to you if you want a very different kind of thriller, if you want something at a deeper level, but not if you want to learn to be an assassin.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Silence of the White City by Eva García Sáenz

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 514 pages, $16.95 (paperback) (c2016, U.S. Ed. 2020)

Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Eva García Sáenz wrote a three-book series which became very popular in its original Spanish. A Spanish movie was made in 2019 based on the first book, “The Silence of the White City.” So far, this is the only book to have been translated.

As with series written in other languages, the writing cannot be separated from the culture in which it is set. García Sáenz’s book is set in the Basque region of Spain. She does a great job of presenting the Basque elements: the food, history, religion, icons, family and friend groupings. Sometimes, though — as with the famous books by Stieg Larsson (Sweden), Andrea Camilleri (Italy), Leonardo Padura (Cuba) — some equivalencies will be missing in translation. Unlike books written by English-speaking authors who place their books in foreign countries, these foreign books make no accommodation for people who do not know them or their country. The authors hop right into the storytelling. Sometimes editors or translators insert some explanations, but rightly so, we readers are mostly on our own.

I don’t know how much of García Sáenz’s style was preserved or how much of it is typical. For instance, American thrillers have a certain cadence, with a tough main character who is terse but sensitive, cynical but undeterred to right moral wrongs. This is a generalization, of course, but I think there’s a certain expectation that American thrillers follow a rapid-fire pacing with a tough/snappy/moral hero/heroine. 

This is what García Sáenz’s style seems to me: Her hero, Unai Ayala, is emotionally wounded, tough yet tender, loyal and seemingly unforgiving of betrayal (but forgiveness is in his DNA), and smart (but you don't actually see him solve any clues). The pace is uneven because the action often pauses for romantic and personal excursions. That’s typical for American thrillers as well, but in “Silence,” the action sequences are spare and rapid, and the personal scenes in contrast are sometimes florid. Once the lengthy novel draws to a close, the pace quickens, the action pounds through, and a satisfying conclusion is reached.

This is a serial killer novel. Twenty years ago, in the city of Vitoria, several double murders occurred. The first victims were babies, a boy and a girl, posed naked with one’s hand caressing the other’s cheek. The next set were five-year olds and the next ten-year-olds. The last victims were the fifteen-year-olds. Archaeologist Tasio Ortiz de Zárate was arrested by his twin brother police detective Ignacio. When the present story begins, Tasio has been in prison for twenty years. Through mysterious tweets addressed to Unai, Tasio again declares his innocence and expresses his joy at his upcoming parole.

But then the murders begin again, starting with the twenty-year-olds. All the bodies, both twenty years before and now are placed at historical sites. What is the meaning of that message? Is it even a message or is it a quirk on the part of the murderer? (It appears that the murderer is giving the police a fair play way of figuring out where the next set of bodies will appear.) Is there a copycat murderer now, or is Tasio really innocent and the real murderer has lain low for twenty years? Maybe Tasio has an accomplice who is helping to spread doubt about his guilt? Ooo. Maybe it's Ignacio.

Unai and his partner Estíbaliz try to catch up with the case material from twenty years ago, predict what will happen with the next set of murders, and more importantly, profile the killer. García Sáenz weaves in elements of the Basque society, with its close family ties and the comfort of cuadrillas (friendship groups).

I found the Basque elements very interesting and looked forward to when García Sáenz would talk about them. Unai’s personal life I found less compelling, with the exception of his relationship with his grandfather and brother. Estíbaliz was mostly a cipher until part of her personal life became pertinent to the case.

I mostly have positive feelings about this book, but there were parts I was tempted to speed through. It’s a very emotionally wrought and sincere book.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Too many books ...

I’ve had extended periods in which I haven’t posted anything on the blog. It doesn’t mean I’m not reading, but goodness knows, it’s difficult to maintain concentration these days, isn’t it? I don’t blog about every book I read. I usually have three or four books going at the same time, most of them not mysteries. Current events have driven me to read way out of my wheelhouse, but one thing good about the state of affairs these days, it’s expanded my horizons.

I also decided to do something I have almost never done before: read an entire series in order, bottom to top. I especially don’t like reading books I’ve read before because — What’s the reader’s motto? Too many books, too little time! The exception is I re-read books for MBTB’s book club. I’ve read them once before, usually two years ago, because I am pretty much the sole arbiter of what makes it onto our reading queue. But two years is a long time in blogger’s terms. Many books have passed by — not even including ones I don't blog about — in the meantime. So I re-read. It unexpectedly has proven to be a pleasure, because knowing the outcome — especially in mystery books — enhances the reading the second time around. So my blogging silence doesn’t mean diddly squat.

What is the series I am re-reading? For accuracy’s sake, I will clarify that I haven’t read all the books in the series. So it’s a surprise to me to discover what is hiding in the crevices: references made to preceding events in books I haven’t read that have flown over my head. I feel virtuous that I am remedying it now. (Please wait while I shine up my star.) And, as mentioned before, I have forgotten most of what I’ve read if it’s been longer than a week, a week with luck, that is. So I am enjoying Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series of supernatural mysteries. It’s humorous (notice I mention that first), original, beguiling, and there is an apprentice wizard whose police training is unique. Yes, future fans, Peter Grant is with the London police. 

Aaronovitch has written eight books over nine years. I’m savoring book two, “Moon Over Soho.”

What are the other books I’m reading? Well, it’s a mish-mashy answer, for sure.

“Ancillary Justice,” by Ann Leckie — science fiction, recommended by MBTB employee Majida, who was also the store bookshelf color coordinator :) . Remember “The Ship Who Sang,” by Anne McCaffrey? This is a souped-up version of that.

“American Spy,” by Lauren Wilkinson — for MBTB’s August book group. (More about the book group on www.mbtb.com.) PBS Newshour/New York Times picked it for one of their book group reads, so its popularity has been revived, not that it is that old (c2019).

“The Splendid and the Vile,” by Erik Larson — nonfiction about Winston Churchill during World War II. Larson became famous with “The Devil in the White City” a few years ago. “Splendid” is a hefty tome, and since I rarely sit and read a book straight through, to the exclusion of every other book, it will be a companion for months to come.

“The New Silk Roads,” by Peter Frankopan — I became interested in a modern look at the ancient Silk Road. I was coincidentally rewarded by a NYT Magazine focus on the Silk Road a month or so ago. That led to this book by Frankopan. It’s more of an economics-oriented look at bridging the cultures and countries that once were home to the traveling caravans carrying goods and culture across half the world.

“History Teaches Us to Resist,” by Mary Frances Berry — I must first point out to “The Great British Bake-Off “enthusiasts that this author is not that Mary Berry. This 2018 book is relevant again — although when has resistance ever been out of style, or unfortunately needed to go out of style — with its look at “How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times,” to quote the subtitle.

“Merchants of Doubt,” by Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway — What has has been buried, ignored, disrespected, camouflaged, and lied about? We’re talking issues significant to the American public who, it turns out, has been sold a load of horse pucky over the years about the dangers of smoking, nuclear armament, and especially global warming. Do you know that thirty years ago, something could have been done to mitigate the effects of decades of carbon dioxide and methane release into the atmosphere? I know, I know, Greta Thunberg is trying her best to get us back on track. But I decided to depress myself about how our failure to act is now beginning to gaudily manifest itself. And how, as I write, measures are poised to be enacted to dismantle one of the few regulations to limit methane. (Sigh.)

“Caste,” by Isabel Wilkinson; “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram K. Kendi; “The Blood of Emmett Till,” by Timothy B. Tyson. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Mist by Ragnar Jónasson

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $27.99

At last, Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson has fulfilled his promise to his readers. Here is the third and last Hulda Hermannsdóttir book. Jónasson has worked a nifty gimmick to expose heartbreak and crime over a twenty-five year period, the time span of the Hulda books: The Darkness, The Island, and now The Mist. Hulda is 65 years old in the first one, 50 in the second, and 40 in this last book.

This is one of the rare times I say, please read the books in order. There is a sense of drama in reading “how it turns out” first, and “how it begins” last. Hulda’s story will wrench your heart. 

Misery is Hulda’s constant companion. In this last book — but first chronologically — we see the beginning of the sense of dread Hulda feels; something is wrong in her life. She has a teenage daughter who is sullen, antisocial, and wants nothing to do with her parents. Christmas is around the corner, and Hulda hopes miraculously that Dimma will bounce back to her lively, happy self. Hulda admits she has neglected her family, mostly because she is trying to prove herself at her police precinct, where she is a detective. That and the unhappiness at home leads Hulda to have no regrets about drawing the Christmas Day shift.

In the meantime, the story of Hulda’s family is alternated with a story about a farming couple in an isolated homestead, currently being blocked in by heavy snowstorms and freezing temperatures. Einar is content with farming the inhospitable and bleak land worked by his ancestors before him. His wife, Erla, who grew up in Reykjavik, is not as thrilled with the isolation and claustrophobia of the dark winters. At this point of Erla’s story, however, we are told she has no other recourse. She has been apart from her own family for a long time, and it would be hard to reconnect. One bright light is Anna, their daughter, who lives just down the road. Erla looks forward to Anna’s visit on Christmas.

But first, comes a stranger. Yes, in the terrible, raging snowstorm a stranger appears out of nowhere. He claims he was separated from his hunting buddies. (Seriously, in this weather, Erla thinks.) The more the stranger, who introduces himself as Leó, says and doesn’t say, the more suspicious Erla becomes of him.

Back to Hulda’s story. Jónasson loves to play around with the time frame. He doesn’t make it clear until the end how the stories he tells are related to each other in time or in people. So in one of Hulda’s storylines, she is sent to investigate the deaths of people found at an isolated farmhouse. Are Erla and Einar two of them? Did the stranger murder them? Is it even contemporaneous with Hulda's Christmas story?

Also, at some point, Hulda is investigating the cold case of a missing daughter, a young woman who has taken a gap year before college. It will tie in somewhere with one or more of the other storylines. Maybe.


If you have read the first two books — and if you have not but are reading “The Mist,” shame on you — you can’t wait to get back to the Hulda chapters to find out about the tragedies you know will play out. But the chapters about Erla and Einar — mostly focusing on Erla — increase in dread and terror. The author is such a pro!

I was so happy to finally read this story, although “happy” perhaps isn’t the right word. I was satisfied. Happiness would imply somehow a happy ending, but we know there is no happy ending, just a well constructed, moving origin story. 

Thank you, Ragnar Jónasson. MBTB star.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne by Elsa Hart

Minotaur Books, 352 pages, $26.99

Boy, howdy (to borrow Craig Johnson’s favorite phrase), do I love Elsa Hart. Her three-volume Li Du series set in ancient China was a winner. Now, she presents us with a mystery set in a more recent time and a different place, England in 1703. Her new detective, or detectives, rather, are middle-aged women, Lady Cecily Kay and her childhood friend, Mrs. Meacan Barlow.

What would draw Lady Kay, newly deposited on England’s shore after many years away, to the cluttered rooms of the London mansion of Sir Barnaby Mayne, the famous collector of … well, everything? Cecily is married to a man with the British consul in Smyrna, but she has left her husband behind and is now tarrying in London. While in Smyrna, she collected unusual plants. Some of them are unidentified, so she has acquired an invitation to riffle through Sir Barnaby’s large dried plant collection, with a view to identifying those pesky specimens of hers.

While at the mansion, Cecily runs into an illustrator who is working for Sir Barnaby. Astoundingly, it is a childhood friend whom she has not seen in decades. They warily renew their acquaintance and together meet other occupants of the house: Walter Dinley, Barnaby’s curator; Otto Helm, a snake specialist from Sweden; and several mysterious household staff given to botany, dusting, and blackmail.

Others soon join the list of suspects, for that is what they all will soon become when someone murders the esteemed collector Sir Barnaby Mayne in his own study, no less, and while the house is teeming with guests.

Several other collectors and curious individuals have arranged to take a tour of the extensive collection covering just about anything that can be sized, cataloged, displayed, and labeled. They are Humphrey Walbulton, a man who obviously appreciates himself, perhaps more than others appreciate him; Dr. Giles Inwood, a medial doctor and solicitous friend of Sir Barnaby; the beautiful Miss Alice Fordyce, who apparently doesn’t need to be anything else; and Martin Carlyle who fades into the surroundings with his innocuousness.

It’s as good as a locked room mystery. One of them must have murdered the good Sir. With nary a police detective in sight, Cecily and Meacan, whose motives Cecily has yet to determine, take it upon themselves to answer the questions no one else is asking. Could it be because they don't believe curator Dinley's gasping utterance when caught in flagrante: “I killed him”?

Thank goodness Cecily doesn’t take those words at face value or we wouldn’t have a story. A woman alone (and even with another woman) wandering around London, accosting men of high and low birth for information might have had a different storyline, but thank goodness, Elsa Hart has everything in hand and we have a rather pleasant soft-boiled mystery.

And we have writing like this, in which Hart describes the ludicrous thought that Dinley might have actually murdered Sir Barnaby, to enjoy as well: “The same man who apologizes to furniture when he bumps into it?”

I think this is the birth of a new series, because in the best cliffhanger fashion, Hart leaves a tantalizing clue about Cecily’s next adventure. Can’t wait.