What we've been reading lately

Welcome to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association redesigned Killer Books page. Below, you will find selections from members' blogs and webpages that post mystery reviews. If you've read the book discussed, or would like to, we welcome your comments.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Simple Murder

Recommended by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, MI, www.auntagathas.com:

A Simple Murder, Eleanor Kuhns, Minotaur, $24.99.
Winner of the new contest set up by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books, this is an unusual novel in it's setting and time period, but in every other way it is an absolutely classic traditional mystery.  Set in a Shaker community in Maine in 1796, the main character is a traveling weaver and former soldier searching for his runaway teenage son. 
The Shakers were a "charismatic Christian" sect formed as an offshoot of the Quakers, sharing some of their more advanced concepts like equality between the sexes and pacifism.  Because the Shakers didn't actually reproduce, they have now practically died out. However, back in the 1700's the communities were vital ones, as they took in children (and other lost souls, no questions asked) via adoption or abandonment.  In this way, the main character's son, David, has come to be a part of the Shaker community. 
Kuhns comes at her story in a very gentle way, but the number of killings contained within the plot prove her to be every bit as ruthless as Agatha Christie, who frequently had a very high body count.  Also like Mrs. Christie, Kuhns seamlessly blends the social setting and characters she is writing about into her mystery. 
Because Rees, the main character, has had some experience both in the army and during his travels unmasking killers, he is asked to lend a hand when one of the Shaker sisters is killed.  The murder seems to point to someone within the community, but for the life of him Rees can't connect the sister's death with a growing string of deaths and mysterious disappearances, nor can he figure out how she was killed on the quiet Shaker grounds with no one hearing anything.
His "assistant" is one Lydia Jane Farrell, who has left the community for unknown reasons, but who can provide a bridge between Rees and the Shaker sisters, many of whom are unaccustomed to talking to outsiders.  While Rees is treated with generosity by the Shakers – he's given room and board as well as a place to set up his loom and work – he's also treated with a certain wariness, as, like all good detectives throughout mystery fiction, he is an outsider.
Lydia Jane proves an intelligent and fearless assistant, though she becomes emotionally involved as she knows almost all of the victims.  The other main thread is the reuniting of Rees and his son, who resents him for leaving him alone after his mother died with his aunt and uncle who, it becomes clear, have not treated him with all the loving kindness one would hope for.  The writing about this father and son is wonderfully well done.
While this is a very traditional mystery with an actual summing up by the main character at the end, it also seems to be organic in the way the story unfolds so inevitably, each plot point and character growing from another.  It all seems completely natural in every way, and I think some of the reason for that is the exquisite insight the talented Ms. Kuhns has into her characters. 
She's set the book up as the first in a series, one that doesn't seem as though it will continue in the Shaker community, but the threads she leaves hanging at the end of this first novel are tantalizing ones.  This is an enjoyable and thoughtful read, and I'd certainly be more than willing to follow Rees on his next investigation.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Skeleton Box Review

Recommended by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, Mich., www.auntagathas.com:

The Skeleton Box, Bryan Gruley, Touchstone, $25.00.
I guess I believe in doing my best, trying to be a good guy, be nice to my mom, take care of the people I love.  Is that good enough?

One of my favorite things about selling books is watching an author grow not just career-wise, but grow as a writer.  Each book of Bryan Gruley's is better than the last, and this third in his Gus Carpenter series really hits it out of the park. 

His first novel, Starvation Lake, established Gruley's character.  Gus has come back to Starvation Lake from a big time Detroit paper to run the tiny Pilot.  The balance of kinship, friendship, and community ties and history are finely drawn in the first two novels (the second is The Hanging Tree), but in this third installment Gruley goes to the heart of the matter: family.

Usually a book that has lots of hockey in it isn't one that will make me cry, but this book really got me.  The amount of hockey in the books (a personal and life long passion of Gruley's) has been declining, just as Gruley the storyteller amps up his game.  This one has the least amount of hockey, and there's a redemptive quality to it.  It also is tied into the essential story line, so the book without the hockey wouldn't make sense.  And that's how it should be.

Hockey of course gives a specific flavor and zip to the stories, and a real note of authenticity.  In this book though, the true focus is on Gus's mother.  Gus speeds to his mother's house in the opening scenes to discover that her best friend, Phyllis, has been attacked and rushed to the hospital; his mother in a state of shock.

Gruley unsentimentally lays out his mother's increasing memory related struggles; she has good days and bad days, but the death of her best friend begins to bring the past to life, as does her friend's last word.  Gus' love for his mother is clear; she pushes him to investigate more.  Helping Gus is his crusty ace reporter, Luke Whistler, who hustles the story for all he's worth.

It becomes evident early on in the story that whatever happened to Phyllis is related somehow to the Catholic Church and the long ago disappearance of a nun.  Gruley bases the bones of his story on a true incident (see Mardi Link's fine Isadore's Secret) where a nun disappeared and a long cloud of suspicion settled in over the parish.  While Gruley utilizes the bare bones concept, there the similarity ends.  Like any good story teller, he twists the narrative to suit the needs of the story he has chosen to tell.

What's really powerful and moving is the connection not only between Gus and his mother, but his mother's connection to her long time best friends, both of whom are now dead.  As Gus races toward a resolution, one his mother has nudged him into finding, he discovers things even she didn't know, though the ultimate revelation really belongs to her.  The way Gruley honors this character without hitting the reader over the head with it is really well done.

The details of life in Michigan – down to the Better Made potato chips served up at the local bar – add lots to the story.  So do the hockey details, which are just enough, and just specific enough, to give you a real flavor of the ice.  This is a wonderfully told story and a moving novel.