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

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!