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

Friday, January 22, 2021

Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton

MCD, 288 pages, $27


Madson, Nebraska, in Pickard County, is the world described by Chris Harding Thornton in the darkly moving “Pickard County Atlas.” And it’s only a tiny piece of the tiny town of Madson which receives most of Thornton’s attention.

There is a trailer park, and near the trailer park are abandoned homesteads. At least one of the homes has been abandoned because a tragedy occurred. The tragedy belongs to Harley Jensen, 47 years old, who grew up in the town and now serves as a deputy sheriff. Paul and his brother Rick, both in their twenties and much younger than Harley, also have their lives woven into the town through tragedy. Harley’s mother killed herself, and Rick and Paul’s older brother was murdered when he was seven years old, although his body was never found.


This may seem like the makings of a mystery. Who killed the young boy? Why did Harley’s mother kill herself? Are they related? But let me burst that bubble. It is a mystery about the young boy but ostensibly not about who killed him. It is not a mystery about Harley’s mother. The real fabric of the story is woven around how the characters have been influenced by what happened in the past. As a tiny reference to the story of Paul and Rick’s brother, Rick and his wife, Pam, have a three-year-old daughter. She is not so much a child in the story as a reminder of what to treasure. If that is possible. 


Rick and Paul’s mother, Victoria, still alive eighteen years after losing her young son, has disappeared. Her adult sons are barely scraping by. Her husband is a mean-spirited son-of-a-gun. She is often unmoored and exhibiting strange behavior, like having been caught dancing naked around a trash fire in a barrel. We primarily meet her in anecdotes describing her unwillingness to make-do with the reality she has been dealt. Paul, the younger of the two adult sons, has been taking care of her, since Rick has his young family to consider.


Pam dreams of saving for a home of their own, instead of having to make do in her family's flimsy trailer. So many things are triggered around the time of Victoria’s disappearance, including finally the overflowing of Pam’s dissatisfaction with her life. A great deal of the book belongs to her. She is a life-long resident of Madson. Her parents disapproved of her marriage to Rick, and it becomes increasingly obvious she shares their opinion.


Harley has the night patrol of the county. One of his routes takes him past the house, now abandoned, in which he grew up and in which his mother killed herself. Too many memories. This house is also one of the main characters in the story. Event after event is situated there, traveling through the years to reach the house’s dark and decaying current state. But not all memories are dark. Not all resolutions are beyond reach.


As Harley’s life intertwines with Paul, Rick, and Pam’s — and one would think they’d all know each other very well, but that isn’t so; Harley is a good deal older than they — several problems put on hold through the years come to a head. Author Thornton has written a masterpiece of small-town secrets, longings, and frustrations revealed.


Here is an example of Thornton’s evocative writing:


What Paul had was the hostile indifference of a person who valued nothing. The kind of rarefied spite that came from never having known a single thing he’d mind losing.


And here’s an example Thornton’s storytelling ability. Ziske is a minor character in the story, an occupant of one of the homesteads, surrounded by abandoned homes, but this little piece of the book shines:


The two old men — Otto Ziske and Jack Christiansen — had parked at the counter of the Range every weekday seemingly since time began, a stool between them, cups of quarter coffee untouched. Folks called them Pershing and the Kaiser. Jack wore his WWI American Legion lapel pin on a freebie seed company hat, and Otto was half German. They were there four days ago when Jack dropped dead. ‘How’d you like that,’ Ziske supposedly said. ‘Man survives a shot through the drumstick at Ch√Ęteau-Thierry only to die of bad ham.’ The hospital said it was a coronary.


For Thornton’s ability to wrestle and pin writing to the ground, an MBTB star.


Saturday, January 16, 2021

Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

Gallery/Scout Press, 352 pages, $28 (c2020)



Maybe the moral of this story is: Choose your siblings well. (Haha.) Liz Nugent has written an entertaining book in which the plot twists gently at first, then more, and more. At the end, with all that twisting, the reader should be pretty well wrung out.


William, Brian, and Luke are three brothers not very far apart in age. They grew up in Ireland in a household with a mom and dad. But that’s where the resemblance to “Leave It to Beaver” ends. There are four segments of the book, with each brother having one of the first three.


The book begins with the information that one of the brothers has died but, aha!, we don’t know which one. Has he been murdered? Did one of the other brothers have something to do with his death? 


William, the oldest, begins the book. The chapters flow back and forth in time, but I have to say that where I am usually annoyed by this sort of gimmick, I thought Nugent presented her time switching very smoothly. The relevance of each time period referenced chapters in the other brothers’ stories. I think I will have to spill some of the beans in order to tell you what impressed me about how Nugent handled the brothers’ stories. So,


SPOILER ALERT …….












This isn’t much of a bean-spiller, but still, it reveals some of how Nugent intends to work her book. William’s story begins in a fairly traditional fashion. He begins as the hero of his story. He is the good husband and the good father. As his story goes along, the good husband sort of loses a few Brownie points. Then he dumps a pile of points. He is not the good boy his mother — another significant character in the book, but she doesn’t get a chapter — believes he is. Also, the brothers have definite problems getting along with each other; this one with that one, then the other one with one of them. They drift apart, reconfigure, and break apart again. There are tiny mysteries which are explained in another brother’s story. There are characters who appear in other time frames.


I was mesmerized by Nugent’s gymnastics. She must have had lots of Post-It notes so she could keep track of the storylines to which she wanted to return. As I said, the timeline jumps around and while it is the reader’s responsibility to remember what happened, it’s not painful to figure out when a plot point bears fruit.


There is mental illness in the family, beginning with the boys’ mother. She has her own tragic times and she covers the parts of her life she doesn’t want to think about by being dramatic, selfish, and the center of her own universe. Certainly one of the boys has his own break with reality. The other two have their undisciplined moments and center-of-the-universe arrogance. 


It is not until a few pages from the end Nugent finally reveals which brother died and why. It is chilling and appropriate. 


Nugent is an excellent plotter. Her story is not so much a dwelling on the psychology or psychosis of her characters as it is a horror story.


Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Random House, 368 pages, $27 (c2020)


“Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line” is a great book. It is also a heart-wrenching one. It has brief moments of humor and many more moments of warmth. But just be prepared for it to affect you emotionally.

Jai is a nine-year-old boy living in the slums of a big city in India. His family’s living conditions are inconceivable to most people in the United States. He lives with his mother, father and sister in a one-room shanty. There are lots of other similar shacks surrounding them. There’s a “toilet complex” they use as a restroom and as a place they can throw a bucket of water over themselves for a wash. There is electricity but it often goes out. There is no air-conditioning for them and the hundreds (thousands?) of others in shantytown, although the temperatures are unbearable. There is a constant haze of smog over the city, but of course no air filters for them. They cough, slog, and wend their way through trash, bad smells, and the press of the crowd to carry on with their lives.


One day one of Jai’s schoolmates, Bahadur, disappears. The boy had been talking about taking off for better prospects in the busier part of the city. Maybe he took the Purple Line, the train route that runs from their area of town towards the center. But maybe he hadn’t gone voluntarily. Jai wonders what Byomkesh Bakshi would do.


Bakshi is the TV detective hero upon whom Jai models his junior crime-fighting persona. Along with his friends Pari, a pretty good thinker and brave soul — for a girl — and Faiz, a Muslim in a world of Hindi, Jai begins his investigation. Jai has more enthusiasm than actual ability or critical skills, but the other two follow along. Pari provides the only genuine attempt to ask pertinent questions of witnesses.


The story is told mostly through Jai’s narrative. He is an average kid whose understanding of the world barely extends beyond the slum he lives in and the fictional world of television. But he has to have some basic survival skills to live in his basti (settlement). He and his nine-year-old friends walk home from school, wander the marketplace, and scour the rubbish ditch for sign of their missing classmate.


The trio ramps up their theorizing and bravely extends their investigation after another school friend disappears. Then another. And another.


The disappearances are so mysterious and without any clues that Jai wonders, Are bad djinns taking the children for rituals and reasons only djinns know? There is much wailing and anguish in the basti now. The police finally are called — a last resort, given their reputation for corruption and laziness — and if there is any activity on their part to locate the missing, no one really knows.


Author Deepa Anappara uses this storyline to bring us into the world of the basti. The picture of the physical surroundings is dire. Culturally, most of the people are Hindi, as is Jai’s family. Anappara describes some of their rituals and beliefs. But the bottom line is all the families in the slums are in the same degree of impoverishment. Work is hard to find, some people work at more than one job, children sometimes have to work. Life is hard.


Jai is lucky because he has a mother and father taking care of him and his sister. His father is not a drunk and his sister is old enough to cook, clean, gather water, and chaperone Jai while their mother is at work as a cleaner in one of the high rises at the edge of the basti. Jai has no real chores except to be a good student, a chore he fails at.


Jai and his friends provide the color and humor of being children at the beginning of the book. Jai and his sister, Runu-Didi, are typical siblings. They argue and tease. Runu is a teenager with a passion for track. Jai is an indifferent student who doesn’t like that his parents love Runu more, or so Jai thinks.


The story turns darker as it goes along, as more children go missing. There can’t be a happy ending it seems. It is Anappara’s great gift that she shows us a culture without glamor, with very little hope, with only dreams, and she does it with tact and compassion. (That’s why Runu is so involved in track; it is a means to continue her education.)


“Djinn Patrol” isn’t a cute kid’s book or a laundering of cultural problems. It’s a thoughtful, open look at a real problem that is taking place in countries with enormous problems of poverty and population.


Although the mystery is non-traditional, this gets an MBTB star!


Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Missing American by Kwei Quartey

Soho Crime, 448 pages, $16.95


I have read a few of the books in Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson series set in Ghana and enjoyed them. “The Missing American” does not have Darko in it and there’s an American character, stretching the author’s talents to include both of his real-life worlds in his fictional one. Quartey was a medical doctor in California before he retired. He grew up in Ghana and the United States.


The Darko series is flavorfully foreign, whatever that might convey to you. Quartey gives texture to his descriptions of life and culture in Accra, Ghana. He does so as well in “The Missing American,” but because he has an American character, parts of his book have a very Western voice. It is an impressive presentation of different cultural points of view.


American Gordon Tilson doesn’t appear until Ghana and quite a few of the Ghanian characters are introduced, but it is Gordon's case which provides the problems private detective Emma Djan must solve. Emma wanted to work in the Accra CID force. She was stuck in a boring, mostly clerical job for the department. It is the compelling story of why Emma wound up a private investigator rather than a detective on the force that takes place in the initial part of the book. Quartey tells that tale with feeling.


Emma meets Gordon’s son, Derek, when he comes to Accra to find his father who has disappeared. In his home in the U.S., Gordon met a Ghanian woman online. Surely, it could not be an Internet scam, Gordon thinks, he's much too sophisticated for that. Gordon decides it is love and flies to meet her. He is no stranger to Ghana, having been in the Peace Corps and met his wife there years ago. When “Helena” proves elusive, Gordon begins his own investigation into what went wrong. A white man without command of the various languages traipsing around Ghana … what could go wrong?


Quartey also plays with the theme of corruption in politics and the police bureau. He introduces us to the sakawa boys, the Internet scammers. There is also a local priest, SWAT team members, a crusading reporter, and a center for autism, and they all fit together somehow.


It is very good storytelling and a great look at cultural differences and expectations.


Saturday, January 2, 2021

Murderbot books 3, 4 and 5

 “Rogue Protocol,” #3 in the Murderbot series, Tordotcom, 160 pages, $17.99 (2018)

“Exit Strategy,” #4, Tordotcom, 176 pages, $17.99 (2018)

“Network Effect,” #5, Tordotcom, 352 pages, $26.99 (2020)

by Martha Wells



These books are not mysteries, but they are good science-fiction.


It has been a long time since I read an author’s works one after another. I think there is a good reason I don’t usually do that. I get author fatigue if I read too many books in a series. Martha Wells has a pretty fresh voice, so that sustained me to a large extent. But #5 in the series, “Network Effect,” is a full-sized novel, full of technical talk and imagining the protagonist in a “Tron”-like environment (or so I imagine). I wanted to reach the end. I had been conditioned to expect something more like a 160-page work. Instead, “Network Effect” was 352 pages. I’m a baby with no patience, I admit. Still, I love this series and the tribulations of a synthesized organic-inorganic construct who is a rogue security agent.


Books three through five in the series take Murderbot — granted, it is the only one who refers to itself this way — aka “SecUnit,” from finding out what happened to it in the bad old days when it worked for a corporation which rented it out to other corporations to maybe finding a place to hang its hat. Maybe with friends. Maybe with a future in which it can say yes or no, as it pleases. But author Martha Wells is good at throwing a curveball, so one should expect the unexpected with her.


I won’t go very deep into the plot for these three books, but I will tell you a little bit about Murderbot. As a hired security unit, Murderbot had to be prepared to be violent, to kill if necessary. Until it dislodged its regulator and became an independent, free-thinking AI, it was at the mercy of its corporation. Even after it freed itself, Murderbot continued to work for the company for lack of other possibilities. That changed when it met Dr. Mensah, an administrator of the Preservation system of planets. She and her people were determined to recognize Murderbot’s “personhood,” whether it wanted that or not.


In order to clear up a blank spot in its memory, Murderbot journeys into its past and visits a place it feels holds a bad secret. In another adventure, it helps Dr. Mensah, with whom it has an ill-defined relationship, out of a pickle in which Preservation finds itself. The last book, a full-length novel, has Murderbot suffering the slings and arrow — many slings and many arrows — of misfortune, as it and its crew get drawn into the fight for the soul of a lost colony.


As I mentioned, the latest book has lots of technical stuff, some of which can be confusing, but it’s possible to push through. Wells is very good at providing a good story backbone and she tries very hard to make the coding talk accessible.


Once again, I highly recommend this series. I am looking forward to whatever else springs from the creative mind of Martha Wells.