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

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole

William Morrow Paperbacks, 368 pages, $16.99

“When No One Is Watching” is a book that starts off with so many wonderful and provocative elements. The protagonist is a young woman having a hard time. She has gone through a divorce and some sort of hospitalization. She recently moved back from Seattle to live with her mother in the family home in Brooklyn. And her mother is very ill and in a care facility. Bills are mounting, although she has some sort of admin job at the local public school. Sydney Green is in trouble.

Sydney’s neighborhood is especially tight, neighbors know neighbors, know grandparents, children, grandchildren, take care of one another, greet each other at the corner bodega. Gifford Place is an old Black section of Brooklyn. It has history in its bones, laid on top of older bones of the rich, white Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, and probably laid on top of the even more ancient bones of the Lenape. But Gifford Place has been Black a long time. Then gentrification brings in new buyers of old homes, let go by old-time people who couldn’t refuse the offer. The new buyers are white. The old, notorious derelict hospital down the street is also being re-purposed. A drug research company wants to put in a shiny, new facility. Just what a nice residential neighborhood needs, right? In the wake of future prospects come real estate agents looking for a good deal, more police drive-bys for "security" reasons, a walking tour of the history of the white people who once owned the homes, and the potential for higher taxes and shenanigans.

Theo is one of the white people who moved into the house across the street from Sydney. His rich girlfriend — soon to be his ex-girlfriend — bought it. Theo tossed his meager savings into the home, just before his relationship went far, far, far south. He knows his days as an occupant are numbered. In the meantime, since he is unemployed as well, he peeks out his window at the movement and rhythm of the neighborhood. He is especially struck by Sydney. He volunteers to help her do research into the area so she can start her own Black history-based walking tour, having been disgusted by the “white” walking tour she joined. Things being things, Sydney and Theo (“Ebony” and “Ivory,” as a neighbor teases them), after the traditional prickly start, learn to work and flirt together.

When Sydney and Theo wander the neighborhood, talk to older residents, check source material and museum exhibits, the story is illuminating and fascinating. It is a real problem when neighborhoods are gentrified. Older residents are displaced not just from their homes but from their community. If the issue of minorities being replaced by whites also is part of the picture, then it also becomes part of the issue we Americans are facing now, the diminishment in value of minorities. If you have to struggle to get jobs, find homes, get an education, childcare, an equitable salary because you are a minority, then it becomes harder to compete for homes which are escalating in value and taxes.

It could be a powerful look at the issues currently part of our national focus. And it starts off that way. But the author intends to bring you a thriller, so the story veers off. It’s about the advantage powerful white corporations take of powerless minorities, but it also becomes Robin Cook/“Mission Impossible”/“Get Out.” I would have liked a more subdued story. The point of neighborhood displacement would have carried a bigger punch.

Even though it was not the book I hoped I was reading, it’s still worthwhile. I was captured by Sydney’s pain and sorrow. She had so many problems, which she tried to solve, but the deck was stacked against her and her mental fragility weighed her down. Theo is an unlikely assistant. The best part of the book was when he thought it would be cool to wear a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. Uh. No.

Monday, September 21, 2020

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Tor, 160 pages, $15.99 (c2017)

I’m in love! With a murderbot.

Our protagonist has no name. “Murderbot” is the designation it has given itself. Part organic, mostly inorganic and weaponized, the SecUnit, its more official name, is sold or leased out, mostly for protection. There is a regulator — remember when R2D2 tricked Luke Skywalker into detaching its regulator? — which Murderbot has disconnected through a fluke when it was reprogrammed after a disastrous mission. Essentially, Murderbot is a free agent, although no one knows, including his latest human crew.

The human crew is on a mission on a far off planet in the way distant future to gather information about that planet. It slowly becomes apparent to the very smart (human) group leader that Murderbot is different. That becomes a very good thing when it also slowly becomes apparent that someone or something is out to get the crew. Murderbot to the rescue!

Murderbot is different, no matter how much the crew tries to treat it as they would a human. It does not like to look people in the eye, becomes uncomfortable riding in their part of the ship and not in its cubicle in the cargo hold, and really doesn’t want to carry on conversations with them. A vaguely autistic robot? Perhaps. It really likes episodes of a space soap opera and watches the episodes in its down time. Its greatest lessons on humanity may be learned from tele-dramas.

Although “All Systems Red” is short, it is packed with humor, thrills, and wonderful characterizations.

I’d give it an MBTB star if it were more recent. As it is, I’ll just give it a *****.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Wicked Sister by Karen Dionne

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 304 pages, $27

I loved “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” Karen Dionne’s first book. “The Wicked Sister” has many of the same elements: the great outdoors, survival skills, deranged family members. In addition, the book has a great premise: a twenty-six year old woman has been voluntarily residing in a mental health facility since she was eleven. She believes she killed her parents. What is known is that she ran away into the woods around her home and survived for two weeks. When she was found, she was catatonic. She is not incarcerated or involuntarily held now, because the official story is her father killed her mother before killing himself.

Rachel, the young woman at the heart of the novel, sees living in the mental facility in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as her just punishment. Her only two friends are fellow resident Scotty, a young man with severely limited skills but a pleasant demeanor, and Scotty’s brother, Trevor, who visits him frequently. Trevor knows who Rachel is and he wants to write a story about her and her family. He has acquired information, including the police report. From that report, Rachel learns the rifle which killed her parents could not have been fired by a little eleven-year-old girl. Since Rachel cannot remember the killing or her two weeks in the wilderness, she is astounded by the revelation that she may not be the killer after all. Years of inaction turn into sudden determination. Rachel checks herself out and with Trevor’s help goes back to her family home.

There is a fairy tale sound to “The Wicked Sister,” as there was to “The Marsh King’s Daughter.” Rachel’s childhood seemed idyllic. She lived in “wild and beautiful surroundings, a hunting lodge as splendid as a castle in the middle of a mysterious, impenetrable forest; [with] intelligent and loving parents who treated me like a princess involving me in their work as if I were their peer while giving me the freedom to explore, learn, grow.”

Rachel’s parents were wildlife biologists and raised their daughters to explore and survive in the wild forest land surrounding the lodge. Diana, Rachel’s sister, was nine years old when Rachel was born. When Rachel returns to the lodge, we find out what happened to Diana and to their Aunt Charlotte, sister to their mother, who lived with the family. Also living on the family land was Max, Charlotte’s boyfriend.

As more characters are introduced, Rachel’s story becomes fleshed out. We learn why her parents moved from the big city to the backwoods, why Charlotte began living with the family, why life was perhaps not as idyllic as first described. It’s a wicked story. But who is the wicked sister?

Rachel’s first-person chapters alternate with chapters from her mother Jenny’s point of view. So present day vis-à-vis back when. Each unfolding of a piece of the back story made me feel as though ants were crawling on me. I would feel sympathy for one character, followed by revulsion for the same person. Were the woods crawling with psychopaths? It certainly seemed that way sometimes. But of course that wasn’t true, and Dionne wends her way back to a revelation of what really happened all those years ago.

I found it a much tougher read than “The Marsh King’s Daughter.” I think that’s primarily because Helena, the main character in “Marsh King,” appeared sturdier and mentally stronger than Rachel does at the beginning of her story. There were times in both mother’s and daughter’s stories that I shouted at them to get a grip! “The Wicked Sister” seemed more farfetched, although isn’t that what fairy tales are?

The tale of the marsh king is given a brief mention towards the end of “The Wicked Sister.” That was the only cute in a book not dependent on cuteness.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 379 pages, $27.99

Vera Stanhope may resemble the dotty, busybody, spinster aunt who haunts many a cozy British mystery, but most of that description falls far from who she really is. Vera is the genius creation of British author Ann Cleeves. And at this point, Vera is also the creation of actress Brenda Blethyn who plays her on ITV’s “Vera.” DI Vera Stanhope has progressed from Cleeves' first novel, “The Crow Trap,” in 1998, in which Vera doesn’t appear until half-way through, to be the most definite star of the series.

Vera has overcome her lonely and dysfunctional past to become a detective inspector with the police in Yorkshire. Her mother died young, her father was an alcoholic and eccentric thief of birds’ eggs, and she dropped out of school at sixteen. She was a plain girl who became a plain woman who is now a plain old woman. She is single and has never received a proposal, “Though it might have been nice to be asked … just once.” In “The Darkest Evening,” we see all these elements come into play, because this book is as much about Vera’s past as it is about a present day murder.

It is close to Christmas, snow has begun to fall, and the temperature begins a downward slide. Vera is on her way home after work and, uncharacteristically, she takes a wrong turn and temporarily loses her way. She was raised in the rural and sometimes wild Yorkshire surroundings, so the disorientation doesn’t last long. In fact, she discovers, she is near her father’s ancestral home. Hector was long disgraced and disinherited by the time he died, but on occasion during Vera's childhood, he insisted on visiting the old estate where he was raised and would drag her along. Although she was the embarrassed daughter of the wayward son -- who mostly wanted to cage some money from his near and dear -- she is surprised at her emotional response upon seeing the Stanhope home again. But that’s getting ahead of the plot.

So, back to driving home after work. As Vera is trying to figure out where she is, she comes across a car that seems to have slid into a gate near the now slippery road. She sees the driver’s door is open but there is no one in sight. When she stops to be a good Samaritan, she discovers a baby in a car seat in the back. Where is the driver?

Vera can’t leave the “bairn” in the freezing car, so she piles the car seat into her ancient Land Rover and toddles off in what she eventually recognizes as the Stanhope land. She arrives at the ancient manor, a place she has not visited since she was a wee lass. The eldest Stanhope, Hector’s brother, died a long time ago, and his son, Vera’s cousin, died a few years back, so the ancient pile belongs to his daughter, Juliet. Juliet is a youngish woman who is trying to bring the manor back to life by helping her husband turn the manor into a theatrical venue. Juliet’s mother, Harriet, still lives in the house, and she is still fully capable of playing lady of the manor, even though she is there at Juliet's sufferance. Juliet is helped by a college friend, Dorothy. Dorothy lives in one of the lodges on the property with her husband and young son. Dorothy is a formidable housekeeper and organizer, but hardly a Mrs. Danvers type.

It was a dark and stormy night …

Upon entering the house, Vera finds she is crashing a fancy dinner party. She is shuttled to the kitchen, where she proceeds to do police-y things to solve the problem of the baby. While she is there in the cozy kitchen with the competent Dorothy and the youngish Juliet, the neighboring farmer has come to collect his teenage daughters who were helping serve the dinner. He pulls up in his tractor, a more capable beast than Vera’s Land Rover in the snowstorm. When he enters the kitchen, he is visibly upset. Call the police, he hollers, there’s a dead woman in the snow. Well, pet, Vera says, I am the police. Ba dum DUM!

Who is the young woman? Is she the baby’s mother? What was she doing out in the middle of nowhere? When it turns out she was a local woman, it becomes even more mysterious. Where was she going? When it turns out she was hospitalized for anorexia as a young woman, but returned anyway to her home area despite the assurance she would face gossip and whispers, Vera is determined to discover the character of the woman. And, lastly, who was the baby’s father?

In the process of investigating, she stumbles across some of her own family history, if rather obliquely. As a woman who has never had substantial ties to any other person, except maybe Joe and Holly on her investigating team who are protégés and not friends, suddenly Vera is awash in relatives and potential relatives.

It is hard to see Vera vulnerable. Her loneliness and “differentness” is on display, even if she’d rather they weren’t. She even recognizes her increasing frailty, as do her shocked cohorts Joe and Holly. They move in to protect her as they would an ailing, crotchety aunt. She also is beset by emotional tides and that leads to rumination with whiskey and firelight.

But do not fear. I don’t believe this is the end of the road for Vera just yet. But it was a bittersweet preface to what some day may be a final work in the series.

Yes, you betcha, this gets an MBTB star! But Vera really takes a lickin' in this one and it is hard to fathom how she could keep on tickin'.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Patient by Jasper DeWitt

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pages, $23

A traditionally-styled horror story. With a modern Reddit overlay. These two methods bang at the edges sometimes. Is the psychiatrist main character who has top-notch credentials and a formal reporting style really the poster who says stuff like, “Whoa. I seriously didn’t expect my first post to get this much attention. I honestly expected you guys to think I was exaggerating. And, yeah, I know that’s been the response of some (I hear you, DrHouse1982) ….”? Here’s the psychiatrist in a more somber vein: “More puzzling still had been his apparent shift in tactics right after his disastrous encounter with his first roommate. Prior to that, the numerous therapy records all indicated that his preferred approach was to induce feelings of anger or self-hatred in his victims.”

Let me back up to the story’s set-up.

Dr. Parker H— disguises the people in his story and himself with the old-fashioned last initial reference. The patient of the title is Joe E. M—. Parker’s supervisor is Dr. P—. So, “hey, dude” meets Kafka.

Eager to get on with establishing himself as a rising star psychiatrist, Parker accepts a stint at the Connecticut State Asylum (“a dismal little place,” referred to by this alias). There is one patient he must never, never, never see. Don’t even ask. Mysteriously bad things have happened to people who are too compassionate or too nosy. So don’t even try.

So you want to sneak around and try anyway? Okay. You do know people have … died? Yes? Okay, then. 

In a series of posts, Parker reveals to his Internet audience what he discovers of patient “Joe,” who has been a guest of the facility for a couple of decades, since he was six years old. How bad could something be for a six-year-old essentially to be incarcerated for more than two decades? It becomes Parker’s mission in life — and maybe his last mission … but no, he is posting on the Internet … hmm — to find out Joe’s story and then cure him. That would be a fine feather in his professional fedora.

I mostly enjoyed Parker’s investigation into Joe’s story. It was scary and sad. It was both a horror story and a detective story (sort of). I think I would have liked it more if there hadn’t been such a difference in voices. Or could that have been the point? Hmm.