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

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