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

Sunday, April 11, 2021

On Harrow Hill by John Verdon

Counterpoint, 400 pages, $28


I’ve read almost every John Verdon book. He has a way of creating an authentic-sounding, ordinary world, mostly populated by ordinary people. The odd element in this ordinary picture is retired detective Dave Gurney, formerly of the NYPD, occasional consultant to various counties in upstate New York. The quiet hills and dales have erupted over the years with weirdness, ever since Dave moved in.


Dave Gurney is my detective hero: He’s meticulous, smart, knowledgeable, yet thinks outside the box. These characteristics mean Verdon must write a book-and-a-half where others would only write one book. Dave thinks and re-thinks his cases. If he “feels” things are not right, he will doggedly try to figure out what is wrong and then hound his target to ground. That sums up “On Harrow Hill.” “Hound Dog” Gurney takes off after a scent no one else gets.


Dave and his (long-suffering) wife have a well-kept home, a barn, a bunch of chickens, a field to mow, trees, sunshine, a porch, and one of them has plans for a llama enclosure. Hint: It’s not Dave. After his adventures as an NYPD police officer and an inadvertent late-in-life career as a tracker of serial killers, Dave thinks his home is a haven. That haven has been breached in the past, but so far Dave has taken care of business. He would do happily-ever-after at home, but there has been one devilish serial killer after another crying to be caught.


How about a zombie serial killer, though?


The man who was Dave’s police partner a geologic age ago is now the chief of police at an idyllic town up the road a few hours from where Dave lives. He begs for Dave’s help with a high-profile case.


Chief Mike Morgan of Larchfield is in over his head. What, he wonders, does Dave make of the following? A very rich man in his jurisdiction has died. The man is so rich, he IS the town of Larchfield. He is old and has a young, sullen wife. Or had. He is dead, killed in his bedroom, his throat slit from side to side. His wife heard nothing from her bedroom. Enter Dave to do a favor for his former partner.


There’s a catch. Shortly after Dave’s arrival, fresh fingerprints found in the victim’s room are determined to belong to a dead man.


When all pertinent authorities immediately gallop to the morgue where the body is supposedly stored, they find a broken casket — broken from the inside — along with stolen scalpels and the gruesome possibility that Billy Tate has risen from the dead. People saw him die by lightening and a serious fall. The doctor pronounced him dead. On the other hand, the doctor has been known to tipple, and it was kind of dark when “Billy” fell. Whatever, the morgue video reveals someone breaking out of the morgue — someone who bears a resemblance to, gulp, Billy Tate … 


Larchfield, home to millionaires and their manicured gardens, is suddenly the hotspot for news organizations trying to get a story on the zombie killer.


It’s up to Dave to use his logic. That’s a tall order when another victim is found, with another sighting of the zombie.


Eventually, the mystery appears to be solved, but there are many more pages of the book to go. That is because Dave has a “feeling.” It takes him a while to realize what makes him so uneasy. Then we get a second denouement more in line with the other Dave Gurney books: a spectacular, bang-bang-shoot-‘em-up final twist.


Whew!


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Snow by John Banville

Hanover Square Press, 304 pages, $27.99 (c2020)



John Banville is known by another, more familiar name to the mystery world: Benjamin Black. Under this pseudonym, he created the character of a forensic pathologist named Quirke. In “Snow,” Quirke is on his honeymoon, and that brief mention is his only contribution to the story. Apparently, Banville has decided to dispense with his alter ego and just write as John Banville henceforth.


“Snow” begins in the best, albeit very bleak, Agatha Christie way and ends with a very Vladimir Nabokov touch, no double entendre intended. Beware, those who seek a cozy winter novel set in an idyllic village in Ireland in 1957, you will get a nasty twist for all your trouble. Not that I’m giving away anything; a garden gnome could see what was coming. But could a garden gnome write the way Benjamin Black/John Banville does? Not even the finest pointy-headed of the lot could.


Let’s look at the title, “Snow.” In Banville’s story, snow falls heavily, covers everything, damages some things, obfuscates that which should be plainly visible. The clues from the murder – body in the library of a proper crumbling British manor house – the victim, the perpetrator(s), the huffy housekeeper, the sulky stableboy, the petulant, haughty children, the damaged wife, the colonel in the library with the candlestick are all mystifyingly unhelpful.


St. John (“Sinjun”) Strafford (“with an ‘r’”) is the awkwardly inappropriate detective assigned to the case. He wanders around befuddled, befogged, and bemused in the snow, although he is smart. He comes from an old aristocratic background, he is Protestant, and he was maybe promoted too soon.


Och, did I mention the action takes place in Ireland, near Dublin? Strafford is outnumbered by Catholics. Now to introduce the murder victim. He was a Catholic priest, Father Tom. Because of the heavy snowfall, he was kept from returning to his home and was staying the night in the manor owned by Colonel Osborne, Protestant. Father Tom died in a rather dramatic way: his throat was slashed and he was castrated.


Osborne recognizes at once one of his own when he meets Strafford. Strafford’s equally ancient family lives a few counties over. He has disappointed said ancient family in his choice of livelihoods. Imagine, a common policeman. Strafford’s lineage opens doors for him with the family, for all the good it does him. The family members effortlessly turn away direct questions, especially the colonel’s young second wife whose multiple personalities confuse everyone. 


Strafford seems very obtuse and naive about following the clues to their logical conclusion. Maybe because it’s 1957? That doesn’t seem to be a complete excuse. Nevertheless, the murder and its solution are not the point. Banville explores the psychology of the times. He is most excellent at letting his characters define themselves in little sweeps of dialogue or action.


Poor Strafford can barely consider the facts of a case because his own life is in such a muddle. What exactly does he want? What is important to him? He loves no one and no one loves him. He is attracted to the daughter of the house, the colonel’s wife, the rosy-cheeked, plump maid in his inn. He is untethered, as lost in his life as he sometimes gets in the deep snow and woods surrounding the manor.


Banville (and Strafford) does solve the mystery. He provides background in a very well-written, shocking prelude to the murder, which appears towards the end of the book. Banville is a literary force.


To give you a sense of Banville’s mix of subtlety, humor, and gristle, here are some excerpts:


“Thinking of these things, Strafford was once more struck by the strangeness of this killing How could it possibly have come about that a Catholic priest, ‘a friend of the house,’ should be lying here dead in his own blood, in Ballyglass House, hereditary seat of the Osbornes, of the ancient barony of Scarawalsh, in the County of Wexford? What, indeed, would the neighbors say.”


and


“They were, all three of them, bored and cold and eager to get the hell out of this big chilly gloomy bloody place and head back as fast as their black van would carry them, and the snow would permit, to their cozy quarters in Pearse Street. They were Dubliners — being in the country gave them the jitters.”


and finally,


“When there was a lapse [in conversation] like this on the line, if Strafford listened hard he could hear, behind the electronic crackles, a sort of distant warbling. It always fascinated him, this eerie, cacophonous music, and gave him a shiver, too. It was as if the hosts of the dead were singing to him out of the ether.”


Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda

Bitter Lemon Press, 346 pages, $14.95 (c2005, UK ed. 2020)

Translated by Alison Watts



I’d like to label this yet another postmodernist book about which I cannot write a review. But here’s a review anyway.


Should you read this book, read it twice or take notes. Author Riku Onda defies convention whenever possible.


In an unnamed Japanese city, the Aosawa family is throwing a party to celebrate some family birthdays. Friends and neighbors are invited. It should be a Big Event. Hours later ambulances and police arrive to find seventeen people dead of cyanide poisoning. There are two survivors: a housekeeper who drank some of the poison but managed to pull through in the hospital and the family's blind teenage daughter who did not drink the poison-laced beverages. 


Whodunnit? Why?


Although they are not main characters, two police detectives appear off and on in the story, mainly to express their bafflement. The family appears to have had no enmity or rancor directed toward them. The father was a doctor in a long line of doctors who served the community; the mother was a doer of good deeds at the local orphanage. The blind daughter was an exemplary student and role model to other children.


Shortly after, a young man killed himself and left a suicide note confessing to the killings. Almost no one involved in the case believed he actually was the primary party.


Ten years later, Makiko Saiga, a neighbor of the family, who was eleven or twelve at the time, wrote a book, “The Forgotten Festival,” about the murders. She meticulously researched it and interviewed many people involved in the case. 


Thirty years after the murders, someone – an unnamed narrator – is poking around in the case again. 


“The Aosawa Murders” jumps around in time, from narrator to narrator, first person to third person. It seems to have no structure. But, aha! There are hints and insights each chapter adds to the Big Picture. In the end, is it all enough to present a coherent story? And often, it turns out, the narrator is unreliable or has an underlying motive or prejudice.


How can one trust a detective who immediately knows, without evidence, who the killer is? How can a person who is envious or one in thrall or one lost in innocence provide an impartial presentation of the murders?


There are lots of sensory descriptions. There is Weather. The city is humid, the air is heavy, the torrents of rain startle and menace the people. It is hot. (If you seek immersion, read this book in the summer!)


When you are done piecing together the testimonies and judging which are reliable, will you have an answer to who the murderer is or why the people had to die? Also, you are not reading solely to solve the murders but also to understand the narrators.


This was very much worth reading, but I would not like to read many more of this type in a row, although I inadvertently seem to have done so three times now.


Monday, March 22, 2021

Two Books But No Review

I read “Red Pill” by Hari Kunzru and “Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri. I have no reviews to share, not only because they are not mysteries -- I often have reviewed non-mysteries before — but also because they are of a philosophical, existentialist bent and defy neat explanations. I read mystery books, for goodness sake, because whodunnit becomes AllIsExplainedInTheEnd. It’s not that I am beneath (or above) reading a good postmodernist novel. I can go with the flow of the angst protagonists suffer over their what-is-life-why-am-I-here quandaries. It is simply this: I cannot explain in a front-to-back manner what these books are about without massive amounts of wordage. This, then, is what is left:


 



Red Pill (Knopf, 304 pages, $27.95, c2020)— Someone or something is lurking just out of sight — but not physical sight, rather inner sight — of the protagonist. It is a dread, the understanding of which cannot be explicated by the narrator until the end. Then the dread becomes manifest. (And it’s so much worse than one could imagine, in my opinion.)


Tokyo Ueno Station (Riverhead Books, 192 pages, $25, c2020) — Despite all the reviewers and the author proclaiming the protagonist is dead, that's not the way I read it. Kazu is a man who had to leave his family in a village far away in order to earn enough money to support them. He works hard but feels no joy. He does not know his family, and before he knows it, his adult son is dead. Embracing but not understanding his existential problem, he eventually becomes homeless and lives in Ueno Park. He ponders his past, his losses, his hut and day-to-day living in the park. He ponders all this, if you would believe everybody else who read this book, while he is dead. Of course, the only part that lends credence to him being dead is at the end when you may (or may not) discover how he died and the vision he “sees.”


Why don't I acknowledge the protagonist is dead? I saw the storytelling as more important than the physical state of the main character. It's a device, not a state of being.


Both books are melancholy.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner

Dutton, 400 pages, $27



Frankie Elkin is a great character. Because author Lisa Gardner knows her way around a book, she has created a memorable private investigator, not that that is the designation Frankie gives herself.


Frankie is haunted by events that are slowly revealed, but don't necessarily have anything to do with the book's central mystery. Right away Gardner tells you Frankie is an alcoholic. If you have read Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, alcoholism is a big part of who Scudder is. We read one of the Scudder books for MBTB’s Other Book Group, and many people felt as though they had attended an AA meeting afterwards. There is definitely an authenticity about alcoholism in both the Scudder series and “Before She Disappeared” that cannot be denied. While it is not intrinsic to the plot of Gardner’s book, it defines top, bottom, and sideways who Frankie is.


As if on a mission — and who can argue with her — Frankie seeks to discover missing people. Up until she recently moved to Boston to look for teenage Angelique Lovelie Badeau, she had found fourteen missing people. None of them found alive. Frankie is looking to break that demoralizing record by finding Angelique alive if possible.


Frankie, a slight, forty- or fifty-something white woman, moves into Angelique’s neighborhood. It is very Black and in many places evidence of the big part poverty and drugs play in the neighborhood culture. So Frankie stands out painfully. It is a foregone conclusion that Frankie will find it difficult to get Angelique’s family and community to talk with her. But Frankie has learned a trick or two in the ten years she has been wandering the country looking to save souls. (And maybe her soul while she’s at it.)


Despite the suspicion that greets her and long odds, Frankie digs out a toehold both in the case and within the community. Although she occasionally/frequently takes shortcuts to meet people and gain information, she invariably lets the police know what she is up to. Not that they approve. Especially Detective Lotham whose case it is. Not that he has had many breakthroughs in the year since Angelique has been missing. Not that he can afford to turn down Frankie’s help. Even if she is a civilian.


Frankie establishes an uneasy truce with the neighborhood. Despite the fact that she is an alcoholic, she is by trade a bartender. So she gets a job in Stoney’s bar, with a rentable room above, complete with an ill-tempered, sharp-clawed cat. Making acquaintances one wary person at a time, she manages to learn who she needs to interview.


Frankie has heart. She’s forthright, compassionate but clear-eyed, and street smart based on years of experience. Slowly, she chips away at the mystery of what happened when Angelique walked out of her high school one day a year ago and disappeared.


Do I think, realistically speaking, a strange, small white woman could engage with neighbors — friendly and not — in a Black neighborhood in Boston and break open a long-standing mystery? No. But it doesn’t matter what might be realistic, because Lisa Gardner has a page-turning, relatable, emotional story to tell, and I enjoyed the journey.



Friday, March 12, 2021

Winterkill by Ragnar Jónasson

Orenda Books, 276 pages, $15.95 (paperback)



Ari Thór Arason began his stint as a police officer in Siglufjör∂ur, Iceland, in 2009’s “False Note,” according to the venerable website Stop, You’re Killing Me (www.stopyourekillingme.com). Although that volume has not been translated into English, the rest have been and Ragnar Jónasson has amassed an English-speaking following.


Unlike books set in the main Icelandic city of Reykjavik, Jónasson’s Siglufjör∂ur books may seem slow-moving and quaint. The northern town of Siglufjör∂u is slow-moving and, especially before the new tunnel was opened to allow traffic during the snowy winter months, was trapped in time because of its isolation. Now there are ski venues attracting winter tourists and quaint shops attracting summer tourists.


Ari Thór is a city boy from Reykjavik. He was dismayed with his assignment to Siglufjör∂ur but grew more comfortable with the help of his superior, Tómas. Now Tómas has left for Reykjavik, in an irony not lost on Ari, and Ari is the boss, such as it is. Even after seven years or so, Ari still doesn’t feel much like a local. The “real” locals know family histories and stories going back generations. It appears, however, that Ari has finally shaken the sobriquet of “The Reverend,” awarded him when he first arrived because he once attended a seminary. Progress is in baby steps in that part of Iceland.


Another thread flowing through the books is of Ari Thór’s love life. He has had an on and off relationship with Kristín. They share a three-year-old son. Kristín and Stefnir (which the handy guide tells us is pronounced “STEB-neer”) have come for a visit over the Easter holiday. Ari has some unrealistic hope they will want to move back from Sweden where Kristín is studying currently.


That’s the background. Now here’s the mystery.


Late one night, a nineteen-year-old girl, Unnur, is found on the sidewalk below a house which was converted into apartments. It very much looks as though she jumped from the balcony. Unnur’s mother, Salvör, insists her daughter was a good girl with no problems. When Salvör’s ex-husband shows up he is aggressively insistent that someone has murdered his daughter and Ari needs to find the murderer or heads will roll. It is the first major crime for Ari to solve without his mentor by his side.


Unnur was studious and shy. She apparently didn’t have a good reason to be in the apartment building except to jump off the balcony. There is nothing to indicate murder. But Ari’s conscience will not let “I don’t know” suffice as an explanation to the distraught parents. Through luck and perseverance, he digs toeholds into the case and discovers anomalies.


One of the reasons Ari and Kristín broke up was supposedly because his job took up too much time. What appeared to be a straightforward suicide seems to blossom into something more when a patient with dementia in a nursing home writes, “She was murdered,” on his wall. How will Ari balance his growing case with the short amount of time he has to re-bond with his young son?


In the process of describing Ari’s case, author Jónasson gives us a little more of a tour of the surrounding area — something at which he is very good — and makes the cold, forbidding north seem more like a wilderness paradise than ever. Then, of course, Jónasson throws in a wicked snowstorm. Not even the intrepid locals want to venture out.


This is not a cozy mystery, but the winter storms, power outages, most excellent bakery, fancy hotel, and polite locals would all be at home in a cozy mystery. Take everything you can from this book, because it may be the last Ari Thór episode. I have liked everything he has written, especially the Hulda Hermanssdottir series.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Exit by Belinda Bauer

Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pages, $26



“Exit” is a thriller with humor. It’s not a fast-paced book; it is a well-paced one. There are quite a few characters, but you’ll sort them out. (Take notes!) Belinda Bauer is an author with kindness to spare. Her characters are quirky but human, mean but human, smart or average or sly but human. Before you know it, Belinda Bauer has packed a whole lot of story into her book.


Felix Pink has an alias. To those in the business of helping people out of this world, he is known as “John.” Every “Exiteer” has an alias. Anonymity protects people whose calling it is to assist people with terminal ailments with taking their own lives. The small group of people who have become the Exiteers somehow were discovered by Geoffrey who tries to organize them. He schedules the appointments and assigns a pair of Exiteers to each case.


Felix is an older gentleman and he meets twenty-something Amanda, a first-timer. Together they travel to keep an appointment with Charles Cann. When they get to Cann’s house, they find an older man in the front bedroom gasping for breath. He is ashen and looks to be in some pain. He can’t respond to them, but the Exiteer’s release paper is on his bedside table, the nitrous oxide canister, with which he will quietly slip into death, is beside the bed, and his will is there as well. Everything seems ready to go. Uh, oh. (Well, there has to be an “uh-oh” because that’s how you get a story.) The mask slips away from Mr. Cann’s grasp. Amanda helpfully grabs it and puts it in Mr. Cann’s hand. Felix gasps. Exiteers are not allowed to help with the suicide in any way. What Exiteers do is not illegal but it is a fine line between watching a person die and murder.


It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that the wrong Mr. Cann has died. As Amanda and Felix are leaving, an even older man down the hall asks Felix what took the Exiteers so long. He has been waiting for them to begin his suicide.


Uh, oh.


Felix is a kind soul with a wish to do good and a need to feel useful. His wife died a few years ago and his dog, Mabel, is his sole comfort. He was a tad depressed and aimless before finding the Exiteers. Even the cheerful woman who lives next door, Miss Knott, makes him want to run away. The Exiteers seemed a godsend. Now, with the erroneous death, his mission in life seems doomed and his final resting place will be a prison cell.


Instead of calling the police once he realized the error in identity, Felix pushes Amanda out the front door and tells her to leave, that he will take care of everything. Then he hightails it out the back door. Once he gets home, the law-abiding Felix expects the police to arrive to arrest him at any minute. He tries to prepare for that. But it appears that is not such a simple process. For one thing, Felix worries about Charles Cann, left to his own devices with a dead man in his house and not a flipping thing he can do to hasten his own death.


Although there are a few village names mentioned, I have no idea just where this action takes place in England. The police do eventually become involved but which precinct is a mystery. (You are invited to enlighten me if you figure it out.) Constable Calvin Bridge is seconded to DCI Kirsty King to help with the investigation of who murdered Mr. Albert Cann. Albert’s son Reggie is shocked. Charles, Albert's father, is mad. The housecleaner is useless.


PC Bridge is a local lad and he knows a lot of people. We follow him as he tries to get food out of a vending machine in the station, place bets at the local betting shop, and faithfully accomplish the boring tasks assigned him by DCI King. He is a real sweetheart.


Police and locals pass in and out of the various stories. If you have read Belinda Bauer before, you will know that no one is extraneous. And that is, in a nutshell, the joy of reading her stories.


About Felix walking Mabel in the neighborhood, Bauer says this:


Miss Knott was always interrupting their walks to engage him about Mabel, as if she were a Crufts* winner and not a scrubbing-brush mutt with breath that could strip paint.


* British dog show.


Felix is seventy-five years old and he is surprised by how that affects his life:


Felix Pink’s days of buying clothes were over. He had bought his last three-pack of Y-fronts a year ago, and the socks he had now would see him out. It was a strange feeling — that he would be outlived by his socks.


Although it had already happened with other things, of course.


The last house.


The last car.


Felix wondered how finely he might judge it. How low he could go. The last can of shaving foam? The last jar of jam? He sometimes wondered whether his last dying thought would be of a half-pint of milk going to waste in his fridge.


Belinda Bauer is a treat. Her book is genuinely pleasing. MBTB star!


Friday, February 26, 2021

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Riverhead Books, 352 pages, $27 (c2020)


This is not a mystery, but it is one of the best books I’ve read over the last year or two. Brit Bennett has created a strong story about identity and what it is that makes or breaks a person.


There is a town in Louisiana called Mallard. If you opened a map, there wouldn’t be a reference to the town in that map. If you asked people where it is, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. And it wouldn’t be just because the town is small; it also would be because it’s the sort of town where if you don’t need to know about it, then you don’t get to know about it.


Have you read the “Blanche White” series by Barbara Neely? In one of the books, Neely writes about the different shades of black, how lighter-shaded Blacks are often prejudiced against darker-shaded Blacks: the unwritten caste system. Mallard is a town that was created as a refuge for the lighter-skinned Blacks, the lighter the better. However, Mallard has a dark history, too.


Adele Vignes has twin daughters, Desiree and Stella. One night in Mallard white men came and took Adele’s husband, Desiree and Stella’s father. They hanged him. It made quite an impression on the young girls and broke Adele’s spirit. Nevertheless, Adele worked to try to give her daughters opportunities. But Desiree was high-spirited and got into mischief. When they were sixteen, Desiree convinced her sister to run away with her.


In New Orleans, the twins struggled but managed to slowly lift themselves up. Adele never gave up hoping her daughters would return. Away from home, it was a revelation to the twins when they were mistaken for white girls. After having spent years forging their identities as Black women with superior light skin in Mallard, suddenly there was a very different way of looking at the world open to them.


“The Vanishing Half” follows Desiree and Stella together until New Orleans. When Stella disappears one day, it is Desiree who becomes the main focus. Who is she without Stella, she wonders. Part of her is missing. Desiree’s life continues down a better path: She marries a man who can create the world she often has wished for: a comfortable home, a child of her own. Then the man proves to be a brute; he beats and belittles her. Desiree takes her daughter and runs.


What makes Bennett’s book so compelling is that other stories are linked through the story of the twins. When she's older, Jude, Desiree’s daughter, has some exploring of her own to do. She meets Reese who expands her definition of love. She meets Kennedy who defines the word “lost.”


“The Vanishing Half” covers years in the lives of the main characters. The girls’/women’s search for identity is complicated by their whiteness or their blackness, the change in cultural acceptance in different cities in the U.S., the love and stubbornness of family ties.


I highly recommend this book.


Monday, February 22, 2021

The Book of Lamps and Banners by Elizabeth Hand

Mulholland Books, 352 pages, $27 (c2020)



Sometimes reading Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary books is like coming upon an accident and not being able to look away. I love Cass Neary. I hate Cass Neary. I love Cass Neary. Sometimes her escapades – no, that sounds too Audrey Hepburn – sometimes her catastrophic undertakings make the inside of my skin itch. I am a fan.


Elizabeth Hand’s series defies pigeon-holing. I am reminded of Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt books, which are similarly undefinable. It’s a big pot that holds the ingredients for the Cast Neary books. They are dark, inscrutable, visual, hard on the nerves, noir, punk, words as speed.


Hand only issues a Cass Neary book every four years or so. That sounds like a good period of time for her fans to recuperate and to get them jonesing for another story.


Cass has just finished a blow-out with bad people in Iceland. Now she and her boyfriend — once again, too genteel a term — her human narcotic, Quinn, are in London. In ways that are best left not too heavily scrutinized, Cass becomes involved in the search for an ancient book, the work of many hands over many centuries. (How would anyone know what Plato’s handwriting looks like to authenticate it, Cass wonders.) This is not totally out of her wheelhouse; after all, she worked at the Strand Bookstore for many years. Granted, that work was in the stock room, but …


Tindra, a rich woman who can code like the devil, wants the book. Some other nefarious (we assume) souls also want the book. There is something downright supernatural about the book’s ability to mesmerize people, including Cass. After encountering the book for mere minutes, she experiences an intense flashback to her most unforgettable moment. Unfortunately, the flashback is to when she was raped as a young woman in New York.


The trail eventually leads to Sweden and we are all welcome to draw a comparison to another tough, stubborn woman with dark secrets, Lisbeth Salander. However, whereas Lisbeth was young, Cass is in her forties, or maybe even her fifties.


Cass also has substance abuse issues. If it’s a substance, Cass has abused it. It is a race to the finish whether Cass will expire from overdosing or withdrawal before she solves the mystery of where the book is, where Tindra is, and who killed various people who came into contact with The Book.


I might not ride in the car Cass is driving, but I’m happy to follow far, far behind in my own vehicle.


Saturday, February 13, 2021

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Vintage, 288 pages, $16 (c2020)



“Interior Chinatown” has a dead body — over and over again, a dead body — and there are two police detectives. BUT. This is not a murder mystery. It is a book about cultural shaming, invisibility, relevance, and it is done in a most unusual, creative way.


“Interior Chinatown” won the 2020 National Book Award for fiction. Charles Yu has written other books and, most notably, was a writer for the “Westworld” television series. So Yu has plenty of heft.


Yu uses a television script as the framework for the tale of Willis Wu, identified at various times as a generic Asian man number three/delivery guy, generic Asian man number two/waiter, generic Asian man number one, kung fu guy, and dead Asian man.


Willis Wu is the star of his own life. Although some reviewers have said Willis Wu is an actor who appears in the cop show “Black and White,” I don't think it shouldn’t be taken literally. The script framework and the acting references are ways Yu has chosen to examine the life of Asians. It doesn’t hurt to think of Wu as a struggling actor, but getting better acting jobs is not what the struggle is about: Wu must climb up the ladder from invisible Asian person to visibility as an American, without reference to ethnicity. That is the story. What Yu describes is the vulnerability of non-whites to being compartmentalized and burdened by cliches.


Just as the death of George Floyd sparked a monumental discussion and can't-look-away moments of Black cultural repression, the same holds for other non-white cultures. Also, Black people have different origin stories, yet they are lumped together as “Blacks.” In the same way, Asians come from a lot of different cultures but they are all lumped together as “Asians.” In one telling “scene” in the book, several Asian men are living together while they attend graduate school. They are from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and India, yet they are interchangeable Asians. Generic Asian men. So two things: In skin-color groups, non-whites are subjected to prejudice both overt and subliminal, and they get lumped together.


What Yu also says is that there are certain behaviors Asians have to adopt to be acceptable, ones that meet expectations, however false, make them even more generic. An Asian, for example, who does not have an accent gives pause to non-Asians, Yu says. It does not compute and therefore might make non-Asians uncomfortable. So who gives in this tug-of-war? Do non-Asians pivot their thinking or do Asians align with their stereotype?


In any event, although this book is not a murder mystery, the author uses a clever framework to discuss the mystery that is currently roiling our country.


Monday, February 8, 2021

The Survivors by Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 384 pages, $27.99



Here’s a new setting for you, courtesy of Australian author Jane Harper: Tasmania.


Tasmania may seem exotic, but what Jane Harper shows you is that a small-town murder in Tasmania has more elements in common with small-town murders everywhere than not.


The deaths in “The Survivors” take place on a beautiful beach in Evelyn Bay or in its freezing waters. Tourists and residents like Evelyn Bay. There’s a lot to recommend it, but when the body of Bronte Laidler is discovered on the beach right outside the beach house she had been renting, there are no tourists hanging around upon whom blame can be cast. The disadvantage of living in a small town is there are only a handful of viable suspects. Yes, there could have been the random killer driving through town. It could have been a not-introduced-before resident who pops up as the killer in the second to the last page. But that sounds more like real life, not an expertly written whodunnit. What Jane Harper does so well is dissect small town life, the eddies and flows of relationships, the twining of family histories, the back story to almost everything in town. And so it is in “The Survivors.”


Kieran Elliot and his partner, Mia Sum, return to Evelyn Bay where Kieran grew up and Mia lived until she was about fourteen. They have come back to visit Kieran’s parents, Verity and Brian, who are getting ready to move. Brian has dementia, and Verity is frazzled. Kieran and Mia's baby, Audrey, is still portable enough that it should be an auspicious visit for everyone. If only there weren’t secrets from the past hanging over everyone and buried grudges brought to light again by Bronte’s murder.


A story from twelve years earlier still haunts the town, although it is honored now more in everyone’s unsaid agreement to not discuss it. Kieran’s older brother, Finn, and Finn’s business partner in a scuba diving service, Toby, drowned when they were out at sea in a huge storm. Kieran’s good friends from that time, Ash and Sean, still live in the town. Toby was Sean's brother. Ash has paired with Olivia, another classmate. And this is where Mia’s story comes in. Mia’s best friend from when she lived in Evelyn Bay was Gabby, Olivia’s younger sister. Gabby disappeared and was presumed drowned on the same day Finn and Toby died. The storm shattered the town in more ways than one.


Finn and Toby were older enough than Kieran and his friends, who were about sixteen at the time of the storm, that Toby left behind a wife and young son, Liam. Liam is now old enough to work at the restaurant his step-father owns and work part-time with his uncle Sean in the scuba diving business he took over. One of his co-workers in the restaurant was Bronte.


These are the main characters but they are not the only ones involved in the current murder and the storm of twelve years ago. It is through those main characters that Harper draws her readers into the world of Evelyn Bay, its loyalties, its animosities, and its unvoiced assumptions.


Even the police constable, Chris Renn, tasked with solving Bronte’s murder was around when Gabby went missing and Toby and Finn died. Perhaps he knows more about each case than he is willing to reveal. However, it is through Kieran’s character that we view most of the story, not Renn’s.


I applaud Harper for her detailed and nuanced storytelling. I cheered for everybody. I wanted no one to be the killer. I can’t say her resolution made me totally happy, but she didn’t have any choice. It had to be someone(s).


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler

Bantam, 464 pages, $28.99


How strange! That’s something a reader might say at any point in reading one of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May books. In this case, I mean: Which number is “Oranges and Lemons” in the series? The official “About the Author” section in the book says, “Christopher Fowler is the acclaimed author of the award-winning Full Dark House  and sixteen other Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries….”  In his “Acknowledgements” for the same book, the author himself says, “Considering this is the nineteenth Bryant & May book ….” And finally, my steadfast compendium of perfectly pertinent bibliographic information, the “Stop, You’re Killing Me!” website: I count “Orange and Lemons” eighteenth on the list of series titles. Peculiar.


I have not read all the “Peculiar Crimes Unit” (“PCU”) stories. As a matter of fact, but not of pride, I have read very few. At the beginning, I read three or four, then a vast, yawning chasm of “other books” interceded. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I craved the strange sauciness of the PCU books. I was finally in what has proved to be the sublime mindset needed to embrace with love and understanding that which is the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth PCU book.


Are you planning on reading this particular PCU book without having read the others? Even I read the first three or four. I will say that after such a long time without the company of Bryant and May, I did not forget what I thought I had not remembered. As much as that sounds like an endorsement as weak as a cuppa from a bag dipped for the third time for reading one of the early set-up novels, I actually don’t think it’s necessary.


Here are the relevant facts. (I am tempted to use the word “factoids” because Fowler loves to add obscure words throughout his book, usually put forth from the mouth of Arthur Bryant, one of the elderly, eccentric detectives in the cast, but I won’t because I abhor the sound of the word said out loud.) Arthur Bryant is one of the elderly, eccentric police detectives in the book. John May is also elderly and a police detective, but not quite as eccentric. Not that eccentricity is a conserved quantity and only a sparing amount needs to be doled out as far as characters go.


Bryant and May are part of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a department formed to deal with odd crimes with a potential woo-woo factor, the acknowledgement of which might deeply embarrass the police department, but if shunted off to the PCU has the potential to be plausibly denied.


Raymond Land is the head of their department, but “head” neither describes his ability nor his capability. Janice Longbright is a long-serving DI who worked her way up and sideways. Dan Banbury, Meera Mangeshkar, and Colin Bimsley have popped up to help along the way. This edition of the PCU adventures introduces the additions of Sidney Hargreaves, a young intern, and Tim Floris, a young overseer from the Home Office.


The beginning of the book introduces the disintegration of the PCU after the blow up of one of the incidents which was shunted off to the PCU and that then needed to be plausibly denied. John May is recuperating from a gunshot wound he received at the end of the last book but, of course, returns to work for the cases that rivet the unit in “Oranges.”


England (Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Isles — take your pick) was the mother nest of many gruesome nursery rhymes. Usually we have only learned one or two charming and nonsensical verses, but your childhood caregivers would be appalled to learn the original rhymes had bloody, violent endings. I don’t think we properly ever learned the Bells nursery verses because they speak of the famous church bells of London. As Fowler points out, in the days before competing jackhammers, airplanes, car horns, subways, and general thundering and bellowing, one could hear the bells ringing their individual tunes.


"Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's" is the first verse of the rhyme.


The first case quickly shunted off to the PCU, after it had been regurgitated and reconstituted by the police department in its haste to pass the buck, is the injury of a man hit by cases of fruit in an accident. The man turns out to be important, he has not been injured by falling fruit but by a stabbing, and there was clearly no assailant. Furthermore, the incident happened near the real church of St. Clement Danes and the victim was covered in oranges. Since failure is assured … pass it off to the PCU. 


“You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s” goes the next verse. And so goes the next victim, also stabbed, near St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with five farthings scattered nearby.


Beware the Jabberwock and the last verse, my son: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head."


I loved reading every page of this book. Even when the killer became obvious — by the way, Fowler helps by posting a few thoughts directly from the killer — as well as the last target, it was delightful. All the regular characters bloom off the page, especially Arthur Bryant. When “Oranges” turns sad, it is very sad, but when it is happy, it is giddy.


MBTB star for the nostalgia and mise en place of the plot.


Here’s audio of the song if you are interested: https://us.audionetwork.com/browse/m/track/oranges-and-lemons_6947


Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi

Henry Holt and Co., 304 pages, $26.99 (c2020)



This is the summary of my reaction to “The Eighth Detective”: To quote Arte Johnson, “Veeeery interesting.”


I can see why people are going crazy about this book. There are a few short stories, clever twists, more clever twists, and a gimmick as big and as wide as Texas. Entertainment masquerading as a book. I don’t mean to imply it isn’t well written; Alex Pavesi has to be a master of style and form to have created these stories within a story. Let me explain.


A young woman, Julia, goes to a Greek island and meets Grant, a writer. Julia is an agent representing a publisher. Her company would like to reissue the book Grant wrote more than twenty-five years ago (in maybe the 30s?). “The White Murders” is a collection of seven stories about mysterious deaths. Grant explains he was devising permutations of classic murder mysteries of the time. The factors are victim(s), suspect(s), detective(s). What sort of storytelling could Grant do with that?


In the first story, for example, there is one body and maybe two suspects. Then there are two bodies. 


Julia and Grant discuss. Aha, Julia says, there are inconsistences. Did you mean to include them? Yes, says Grant, faulty memory aside – he excuses himself – he did mean to tease his readers.


Next story.


One dead body over a cliff. Probably one suspect. Maybe one witness. 


In both these stories, and the subsequent ones (seven in all), the perpetrator(s) is/are revealed. After each story, Julia and Grant discuss the development. After each case, Julia nitpicks the errors and Grant tries to explain his state of mind.


There actually is a Venn diagram moment towards the end as Grant outlines his thoughts on how he chose his groups of characters.


Then Parvesi gives you the wangdangdoodle of revelations.


The End.


You’ll probably like it; a lot of readers and reviewers did. I admired it rather than “liked” it. I know, I’m a curmudgeon.


P.S. There's probably a question you want to ask me. You think there's something I forgot to explain. I'll think about it.