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

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Guardian's List of Best Mysteries for 2020

 The British newspaper, The Guardian, has put forth its list of best mysteries for 2020 (link):

"The Man on the Street," by Trevor Wood

"True Story," by Kate Reed Pettty

"The Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line," by Deepa Anappara

"Black Rain Falling," by Jacob Ross

"Three-Fifths," by John Vercher

"The Thursday Murder Club," by Richard Osman (my review)

"Your House Will Pay," by Steph Cha

"When No One Is Watching," by Alyssa Cole (my review)

"Leave the World Behind," by Rumaan Alam

"Blacktop Wasteland," by S. A. Cosby

"Remain Silent," by Susie Steiner

"Broken," by Don Winslow

"Magpie Lane," by Lucy Atkins

"Our Fathers," by Rebecca Wait

"Summer of Reckoning," by Marion Brunet (translated from the French by Katherine Gregor)

"We Begin at the End," by Chris Whitaker

"The Searcher," by Tana French (my review)

"The Last Protector," by Andrew Taylor

"The Devil and the Dark Water," by Stuart Turton

"Bent," by Joe Thomas

"Cry Baby," by Mark Billingham

I do have a couple of these titles in my to-be-read pile. Hope springs eternal that I'll find enough time for them.

Washington Post List for Best Thrillers/Mysteries of 2020

The Washington Post listed these as their top ten thriller/mystery/crime books (link):

"City of Margins," by William Boyle

"Dead Land," by Sara Paretsky

"Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line," by Deepa Anappara

"Long Bright River," by Liz Moore

"The Missing American," by Kwei Quartey

"One by One," by Ruth Ware (my review)

"The Searcher," by Tana French (my review)

"Squeeze Me," by Carl Hiaasen

"Three Hours in Paris," by Cara Black

"Trouble is What I Do," by Walter Mosley

I have several of these books on my to-be-read pile. But the heart wants to read what it wants to read.

One by One by Ruth Ware

Gallery/Scout Press, 384 pages, $27.99

Okay, I think I’ve already met my quota of locked-room/island/manor mysteries for the roaring 2020s. Most of them I didn’t finish. Oh, another locked-room mystery, I would say, and if it didn’t grab me within the first twenty to thirty pages, boom, reject pile.

I used to love this sort of mystery, the celebrated grand-progenitor of which is “And Then There Were None,” by Agatha Christie. Slowly each foolish or intrepid visitor to the isolated domain would get killed, narrowing the field of suspects … or so we are meant to believe. What isn’t deliciously appealing about that concept? Windswept, isolated, fog-shrouded locations; looming edifices; ominous bells or foghorns tolling the remaining time before the next death; smarmy, arrogant, snobby, quivering, avaricious, sociopathic, homicidal, warped characters from which to choose the most likely suspect, Or maybe it’s the everyday person, the one who could be like you or me, driven by exigent circumstances to break the Sixth Commandment.

One flourishing branch of his most royal root

Is crack’d, and all the precious liquor spilt;

Is hack’d down, and his summer leaves all faded,

By envy’s hand and murder’s bloody axe.

– Richard II

Maybe “envy’s hand,” maybe passion or cool calculation. Greed or compassion. Opportunity or accident. Methods and motives are not infinite, many are variations on what has come before. So, what can be new under the sun in the closed-castle, isolated-manor, storm-shut cottage sub-genre of crime? 

It turns out in “One by One” there is no new motive — this is not meant pejoratively, by the way. Other than a space alien coming down and death-raying the victims, there are a limited number of suspects who can be the fair-play murderer(s) in these books. The authors of this sub-genre define the mystery in their books within implicitly agreed upon boundaries. In many ways, this is the ultimate challenge for a mystery writer. Ruth Ware has answered this challenge many times. She is the current queen of the locked-room mystery.

What is the turn of plot the author employs then? In Ruth Ware’s case, perhaps it is not even so much that. (There is, of course, a turn in the plot in “One by One.”) There are some improbable things to be had before breakfast. But where Ware excels is in character development. We hear the thoughts of two of the people locked in the snowbound Swiss ski chalet where this locked-room mystery takes place. There are revelations that speak to motive. There are past events that speak to character failings. Ware supplies all the ingredients.

Erin is one of two people on-site assigned by the chalet rental company to serve the various groups that cycle through on skiing holidays. She serves as the clean-up crew, ski guide, English-to-French interpreter if needed, and kitchen assistant to Danny. Danny is the chef who is perhaps a bit too stereotypically temperamental. Erin is one of the narrators.

The group of visitors consists of members of Snoop, an online music service. Snoop is a way to listen to the same music that others are listening to. What is Beyoncé listening to (if she were a member)? If you know her user name, you can plug in to what she is hearing at that very moment.

The two big bosses, Topher and Eva, are there with their personal assistants, along with a code writer, an in-house accountant, and a couple of other people. Almost everyone has known each other a long time. Liz is the other narrator. She worked for Snoop when it first began. Because of this and that and the other thing, Liz owns some stock in the company, even though she no longer works there. She comes across as nervous, tense, lumpy, withdrawn, indecisive, a definite outsider. The perfect voice to comment on the actual Snoop people.

When one of the group dies, the chalet is not yet under siege. Shortly after an avalanche cuts the chalet off from the rest of the world.

Until the second death, it was possible to believe the first death was accidental. Now the remaining people believe the murderer lives among them. Maybe. Most likely. Probably.

Ware is very, very popular. This is only the second of her books I’ve finished. I started about two others and put them down. (I plan on trying “The Woman in Cabin 10” again.) There is something about this genre that makes me want the victims and suspects to be from a wider range of people. I want to hear the author voice different kinds of people. I want a vicar and a trollop. A wastrel and a stiff-necked butler. A sweet young thing and a demanding dowager. And these days, I want them from different cultures. I don’t ask for much. (Note: One of the visitors is a man of color, I think, but that doesn’t play into the story.)

I don’t actively seek to guess the murderer, but I did stumble upon this one. Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I waited patiently for the motive. That part was pretty good but reliant, once again, on some stereotyping.

I expect this book to be wildly popular because it delivers what the author promises.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Mortmain Hall, by Martin Edwards

Poisoned Pen Press, 368 pages, $15.99

I made the cardinal mistake of series readers: I read this book out of order. I frequently read series out of order. Usually, I am not punished. This time I was punished. In my defense, I think most writers want you to understand their characters and the circumstances that bring them to the beginning of the book you are reading, if you are not reading the first in the series, so they supply a little oblique précis for your elucidation.

Martin Edwards paints the background of “Mortmain Hall” with a dry brush, and I didn’t have the secret sauce to make the picture appear. Now, I confess I do own a copy of the first book, “Gallows Court,” but it lies unread. There was no reason not to read it first, except “Mortmain Hall” had come out recently, I read a good review of it, and I am an adult who takes responsibility for irresponsible actions. It is my own fault I enjoyed this less than I should have. Probably. Anyway.

This is what I eventually gathered. Rachel Savernake is a young woman. A rich young woman. Her crazysocks father, Judge Savernake, killed himself. She has no blood relations, but her family is comprised of the servants, the Truemans, of her father's mansion on the isle of Gaunt, where Rachel was raised. They are not mistress and servants; they are family. Together, they abandon the lonely, wild island and relocate to London. Rachel’s clear mind and observational skills indubitably mean she is destined for a life of crime … as a private investigator. Her inherited wealth means she doesn’t have to scrabble for a living and can take only the cases she wants.

Jacob Flint is a young reporter for a newspaper. He is the crime reporter, and his stories are sometimes at odds with the newspaper’s more respectable mission. Other London rags don’t have the same problem and consider the more lurid the story, the better. He met Rachel in the first (unread) book and has been secretly smitten with her. Not to give away the plot, but Jacob spends a lot of time smitten with all kinds of women, at least one of whom leads him into danger. Nevertheless, he and the Truemans are available to help Rachel with her current adventure.

The first half of the book builds excruciatingly slowly to the second half of the book, the part set on the lonely, windswept headland in a mansion in Yorkshire, not to be confused with the lonely, windswept island of Gaunt. There's a rising storm on the horizon. There are creepy, eccentric, or sinister characters sitting in the vast living room waiting for the murderer, if there is one, to be named.

The book begins in London after the First World War has ended. I’m certain there are clues thrown in to show when, but I couldn’t pinpoint the year if my pants were on fire. It is sometime after the Wall Street Crash, so after 1929, plus at least a few years. (Okay. If I hadn’t spent all my time rambling, I could have just looked on the back of the book. The time is 1930.)

In the first half of the book we are introduced to the characters who will eventually become the cast of suspects in the second half of the book set in Mortmain Hall. Through the ramblings of a gin-soaked young bureaucrat, Rachel knows the list of people to investigate. But investigate for what reason?

Does it help to know people are dropping like flies through the book?

First up, Gilbert Payne. Actually, Gilbert doesn’t manage to make it to the second half of the book, but he is prominent in his absence. 

Sylvia Gorrie was accused of murdering her husband, in cahoots with her lover. She was acquitted. Her lover killed himself in prison.

Henry Rolland fled the scene of his mistress’ murder and was later caught. He would have swung for it, but the woman’s dissolute husband proved a better suspect. Henry was freed and the husband died.

As a reporter, Jacob has been following the current trial of Clive Danskin, charged with murdering a stranger. Life’s financial burdens were proving too much for Clive, so he allegedly killed a man, put the body in his car, set the car on fire, and vanished. He was caught trying to leave the country. Clive’s alibi sounds outrageous: A man picked Clive up after his car broke down. Clive does not know how the body got into his car or who set the car on fire. The newspapers and authorities advertised for the mysterious man who picked Clive up and could provide an airtight alibi, but no one responded. Few thought that such a person actually existed. All hope had fled on the last day of the trial when, sure enough, a man of impeccable reputation arrived to say it was he who had given Clive the ride. Clive was found innocent.

These people have something in common, but what? With the help of the Truemans and Jacob, Rachel manages to meet Leonora Dobell, wife of the heir of the atmospheric Mortmain Hall. It becomes obvious that Leonora knows about Rachel's sleuthing, just as Rachel knows about Leonora's popular book on true crime cases. Their mutual interest in crime cements the last layer necessary for the denouement.

Finally, halfway through the book, the dramatis personae are gathered, the stage is set, and the house lights dim.

I read a few of Martin Edwards’ books in his Daniel Kind series, and especially liked “The Coffin Trail,” the first in the series. Those are books in the traditional, cozy British fashion. “Mortmain Hall” is as well to a large extent, but Rachel's series is a step into the past, with a female protagonist who has modern sensibilities, while the other series are set in the present day. 

I enjoyed the book, once I got past establishing who everyone was. Yes, the beginning was slow and rife with characters — Should I pay attention to this one? Or maybe that one? Rachel knows a police detective. Is he going to play a big part? — but ultimately entertaining. (Although cricket? It was a bit of a wicked googly for me.)

P.S. Edwards provides a “Cluefinder” listing at the end of the book. Apparently, many of the old classic mysteries had them. You can alternately berate and praise yourself for what hints you caught.

P.P.S. A lot of the men in this book are really creepy. I guess it reflects how women mostly were considered chattel, addenda, trophies, lineage keepers. I liked Leonora. I liked the makeshift daddy figure, Clifford Trueman. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Deep, Deep Snow by Brian Freeman

Blackstone Publishing, 368 pages, $16.99

It’s satisfying to read a good book. In “The Deep, Deep Snow,” the characters are interesting, the story is compelling, the resolution is believable yet strange. Brian Freeman has created a winning trifecta.

Freeman’s characters are so human and relatable. The small towns in which most of the action takes place are pretty much small towns everywhere. Everyone is up in everyone else’s business! That is why it is so startling when a 10-year-old boy disappears and it becomes more and more obvious to the searchers that it must be one of the residents of the area who had something to do with the disappearance.

The main character is Shelby Lake. There’s a wonderful, woo-woo story about her birth. Her father, Tom Ginn, the sheriff of the town of Avery Weir (endearingly nicknamed "Everywhere"), was fishing one day when an owl landed on his boat. “Home,” the owl seemed to say. So Sheriff Ginn rushed home and found a baby in a basket on his doorstep. Tom Ginn lived alone in a converted church, and he thought perhaps someone had mistaken it for a real church. Whatever the reason, he kept the baby. He named the baby girl Shelby Lake, after the lake in which he was fishing. Twenty-plus years later, his baby girl is a deputy in his department.

The first part of the book takes place when Shelby is twenty-five, and the second part ten years later. I applaud the author for not splicing the two stories together; each story is tidily in its own part. Shelby is the narrator, and you know right from the start she is telling a story from the past. Let me savor the neatness of this book for a moment.

Okay, onward. 

Each featured character is developed in a way which anchors them in Freeman’s story. Sheriff Tom Ginn has the beginning stages of dementia. Shelby is close to having to make Tom face his disease. Deputy Adam Twilley is Shelby’s partner, but he is jealous when Shelby is chosen to be the FBI’s liaison. Monica is the sheriff’s office secretary. She carries the ashes of her dead dog around with her. Several of Shelby’s high school classmates still live in the area. They were volleyball teammates who won a championship together. For instance, Breezy works at the diner where Tom and Shelby eat every day. Also, Breezy likes men, let’s just say that. Another classmate, Violet, went to law school, came back, and is on the city council. Trina was Shelby's high school volleyball coach. She subsequently became Shelby’s best friend, and her daughter, Anna, is close to Shelby. 

Poor Jeremiah Sloan disappeared one day. His bike was found in the forest. Shelby and others slowly tease out some of what happened that day. Jeremiah was ten-year-old Anna’s best friend, but shortly before Jeremiah disappeared, they stopped hanging out together. What had happened to Jeremiah before he disappeared, everyone wants to know. Jeremiah’s mother wants the FBI brought in because Tom is not up to the job, she says.

Special Agent Bentley Reed heads up the FBI involvement. Surprisingly, he and Shelby get along. He listens to her opinion about local goings on and respects her observational ability.

The second half of the book deals with where everybody is ten years later. Freeman catches us up to the happiness and tragedy which has taken place in that time. Parts of the story are moving but not maudlin. It’s not neat and tidy and some people have not lived happily ever after. Then several incidents move the story forward significantly. The people who are left are reunited to unravel new information. Yes, I am being deliberately parsimonious with the information of the ten-years-later storyline.

I was impressed with how Freeman brought almost everything together. Things that didn’t seem to matter wound up mattering. I was deeply satisfied with the resolution. (The questions Freeman didn't answer are left as tantalizing bits on purpose.) I was especially taken with the relationship Shelby has with her father. In the second part of the book, Tom is to the point in his dementia where he slips in and out of time:

His mind operated like a time machine with a bug in its programming. You couldn’t tell where it would carry him next. Whenever my father went traveling he came out at a different moment of his life. Sometimes the moments were enveloped in fog, and sometimes they were crisp and clear. And you never knew how long any given moment would last.

Relationships matter in this book because relationships in small towns matter. People care for each other, vie with each other, complement each other, help, love and die for each other. There is sweetness and catharsis in the end.

MBTB star!

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Powell's Bookstore's Best Fiction of 2020

 Not all of the titles chosen for this list are 2020 books, and one of them sounds rather difficult to get. But I love lists, and Powell's did title their post, "Best Fiction of 2020."

Only one is even remotely a mystery/crime book. I, too, enjoyed it, but I would put it, sort of, in the quirky adventure category -- that is a category, isn't it? That book is "Kingdomtide," by Rye Curtis.

I reviewed two of the other books on the list, but they, too, are not mystery/crime books:  "The Pull of the Stars," by Emma Donoghue," and "Circe," by Madeline Miller.

Powell's is a Portland institution. We are so lucky to have some great independent bookstores (still) for both new and used books in town. If you are interested in any of these titles and you are able, pay the price and order a copy from an independent near you. They are suffering mightily during our quarantine.

Powell's Bookstore's Best Fiction of 2020

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

No, I'm not done with my year's best list for 2020!

 No, I am NOT done with my year's best list for 2020. I am not done yet with 2020, although I long to be done with it and maybe chilling in 2022. Time travel, anyone?

I still have books to read, places to go, people to see, things to do. Well, maybe just books to read.

Ask me again in a month.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 608 pages, $28.99

“Moonflower Murders” follows along the same path as its predecessor, “Magpie Murders.” Anthony Horowitz gives his readers a whole lot of words and a multiplicity of pages. The enveloping, contemporary story stars the ex-book editor, Susan Ryeland, and the novel-within-a-novel stars private detective Atticus Pünd, the creation of the late author, Alan Conway. Alan died in “Magpie Murders” and Susan solved the murder. So why is the 50-year-old ex-book editor, ex-Londoner Susan set to solve another murder?

After Alan’s murder and the subsequent conflagration which destroyed Susan’s place of work, Susan felt a change was in order. She moved to Crete with her partner, Andreas, to open up a small hotel by the enduring, wine-dark Greek sea. Susan is happy. Sort of. There is not enough money to keep the hotel in repair and there is too much work to go around. But, opa!, it is Crete! Susan is much too English to relax and go with the flow, and she misses working with books and authors.

When the shadow of a mystery falls across Susan’s sunny table, she is powerless to resist. Perhaps another challenge will help her define what she wants out of life. She bolts back to England, away from Andreas and his desire for a stronger commitment, the failing hotel, the different culture, and a life so far from what she used to enjoy in hectic London.

This is what ensnares her. Pauline and Lawrence Treherne were vacationing in Greece when their adult daughter Cecily disappeared from the hotel they own in the English coastal town of Tawleigh-on-the-Water. Branlow Hall is a luxury hotel, and it is has been lucrative. The Trehernes and their daughters, Lisa and Cecily, and Cecily’s husband, Aiden, all work there. So what’s the mystery?

A guest named Frank Parris was murdered in one of Branlow Hall’s rooms eight years ago. His head was viciously bludgeoned with a hammer. The hotel’s handyman, Stefan Codrescu, was arrested, he confessed, and he is now in prison. But Cecily never thought he had committed the murder. What happened to give Cecily more confidence she was right?

A few days ago, Cecily called her parents in Greece and said she knew who the real murderer was. She disappeared shortly after.

The Trehernes want Susan to investigate because she was Alan Conway’s editor. What does that have to do with the price of tea? Cecily had been reading one of the books in the Atticus Pünd series, “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case,” when she had her aha! moment. She called her parents shortly afterwards. Because Susan had edited that book, the Trehernes believe she may have insight into what triggered Cecily’s revelation. Plus, they will give her ten thousand pounds for trying.

So Susan whisks off to the jolly old. Wot.

Susan has learned that the Trehernes and several other people believe Conway’s book’s characters were  based on members of the hotel staff. However, the murders in the book do not resemble the murder at Branlow, and the characters do not resemble their real-life counterparts to any depth. Or so it seems.

Susan’s investigation consists of going around and interviewing people who are not eager to be interviewed about something that happened eight years ago, even given the urgency of finding Cecily. Besides a police report, there doesn’t seem to be any hurrying and scurrying by anyone to locate good old Cecily. Even Cecily's sister — especially her sister — is overtly hostile to Susan. In turn, Susan herself is reluctant to talk to the police. Her old nemesis, Detective Superintendent Locke, was in charge of Frank Parris’ murder investigation and looks to have made a hash of it, having taken the easy way out with Stefan’s “confession.”

Looks as though Susan will have to re-read “Atticus Pünd Takes the Case.” And we get to read right along with her.

I’m not going to go into details of that inner book. Let that be a treat for you. Suffice it to say there actually is a clue which relates to Frank Parris’ death, and a discerning reader might — might — unearth it.

The bloom is off the rose somewhat with this book. The extraordinary effort of Anthony Horowitz to develop two separate mysteries was astounding to me in “The Magpie Murders.” If Horowitz had done anything less in “Moonflower Murders,” I would have been disappointed, but it is no longer a surprise.

Susan is a little blander in this book. There isn’t the urgency or personal connection as there was when she was solving the murder of her client. However, Horowitz does make neat mysteries in the cozy vein with a few un-cozy, contemporary elements.

Anthony Horowitz has had a long history of entertaining us with televised British mysteries and histories (“Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders”), and other books for adults and young readers. He understands the mystery genre very well and, I would hazard to say, is a steadfast fan. Horowitz inserts many cute references to classic authors for his fellow steadfast fans.

The development of both the murder mysteries and Susan’s personal journey was satisfying. (But I could have done without the man-to-the-rescue element.)

Monday, November 9, 2020

A Song for Dark Times by Ian Rankin

Little, Brown & Co., 336 pages, $27

Times have changed for John Rebus, recently retired inspector in the Edinburgh police. He and the police establishment have aged since his first appearance in “Knots and Crosses” in 1987. Police procedures are tamer and more by-the-book for one thing. Rebus has had to renounce the hands-on aspect of policing for the most part. Rebus also had to dodge the police corruption rife in the department. That didn’t mean, however, that he was squeaky clean. Some of his frenemies were decidedly criminal-minded.

Ian Rankin tried to give Rebus his walking papers in “In a House of Lies.” The retirement has stuck, more or less, in “A Song for the Dark Times.” Rebus’ COPD has meant he had to move from the walk-up apartment in which his daughter lived as a baby to a wee box of a ground level place not too far away. In case you are having anxiety issues over his prized albums, they have moved with him. Siobhan Clarke, his loyal ex-colleague and most-of-the-time friend, has taken time off from work and is helping him settle in. Until a case draws her back to work.

Rebus is not left to his own devices. He is called to northern Scotland by his worried daughter, Samantha. The father of Samantha’s daughter, Keith, is missing. Rebus’ Saab is on its last legs, but it manages to get him to the fictional town of Naver where his daughter lives. Where, oh, where is Keith? Samantha Rebus has a bit of temper to her and she alternately rails against her father and pleads with him to help. Of course Rebus will help, even after Samantha throws him out.

Keith had been involved in work to raise funds for purchase of a piece of nearby land which was a POW camp during the war. Keith had hopes of turning it into a tourist attraction as a means of preserving its history. Unlike the German POW camps, the British camps allowed some prisoners to labor in neighboring farms. The prisoners became known to the small town of Naver. After the war, some of the POWs returned to the U.K., married local women, anglicized their names, and lived their lives there ever after.

Siobhan, in the meantime, has become involved in a case of a rich man who was mugged, his friend who was murdered, and a rich woman who was a mutual friend. The deceased, Salman bin Mahmoud, could have been killed for any number of reasons. It is the murder team’s duty to find out which one was the right one. Joining them because of the international aspect — Sal was Saudi Arabian — is precise, joyless Malcolm Fox, protagonist and antagonist in several other Rankin books. He was recently promoted — a promotion Siobhan feels she should have gotten — and is a little skittish about how Siobhan will receive him. 

How does Rankin juggle the two cases of the missing boyfriend and the murdered Saudi national? He has them cross paths of course. But are they truly related or is it a coincidence the color of a red herring?

Both cases are worked extensively, and Rankin minds the myriad procedural steps. But he wastes no space in his books lollygagging, even though there are subplots, one involving a character who has appeared in several of the Rebus novels, local crime boss Ger Caffferty. He and Rebus had a hate-hate relationship, but they each found the other useful. Now he is Siobhan and Malcolm’s albatross.

Samantha also has appeared in several books. Rebus has not been a good father. It was easier to be a good detective and ignore the hard work of being a family man. So his relationship with his daughter is fraught. Can he redeem himself by finding Keith?

Of course I liked the book, but did I love it? I have invested years reading Rankin’s novels. But is this his finest work? I don’t really know. I don’t think so, but I have to admit I’ve been preoccupied the last couple of weeks, and my commitment to reading “A Song for the Dark Times” was a little lackadaisical. Let’s give “A Song” the benefit of the doubt. Here are the pluses. Rankin gave us two mysteries in the space of one. He has given Rebus a chance to balance his personal life. He has given Siobhan center stage. The answers to the mysteries could have been outlandish and exaggerated, but instead, Rankin has given us stories that draw back in the end to people and their frailties. And bonus point: Rankin retains his grandmaster’s rating in knowing how to write an ending.