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.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Curse of the Jade Lily

Curse of the Jade Lily, David Housewright, Minotaur, $25.99.
"You became Batman."
Donatucci snorted.  "Everything but the cape and the car," he said.  "Tearing around, working with the cops; sometimes working against the cops; doing good for goodness sake…"

Miss Robert B. Parker?  There's really no need – give the excellent David Housewright a try to fulfill your Spenser jones.  All things being equal, Housewright would be as well known a quantity as Parker, as their skillsets are not only similar but similarly enjoyable.  Housewright's central character, Rushmore MacKenzie (though he goes by MacKenzie, and can you blame him?)  lives in St. Paul rather than Spenser's Boston, and he has no sidekick, but other differences are less discernible.

This is far from a cut as I've enjoyed Parker's novels and his great creation as much as anyone.  And Housewright's novels, while perhaps slightly more complex than Parker's, have a wisecracking tone that's very comfortable and familiar.  MacKenzie  is so much the "White Knight" that he doesn't even charge his clients anything.  He doesn't need to – he's independently wealthy thanks to a long ago insurance settlement.  He doesn't like to work, but he likes to keep busy, and when he sees a wrong, a good way to keep busy is to right it.

While in this novel MacKenzie has been sought out by a paying client, that isn't usually the case.  He's approached by the very insurance agent who made the original payout to him, on behalf of a new Minneapolis art museum.  A priceless treasure known as the Jade Lily has been stolen and for a museum this new, publicity about a high profile theft can be nothing short of a disaster.  And – oh yeah – the artnappers have asked that MacKenzie – much to the insurance guy's disgust – be the go-between. 

MacKenzie reluctantly accepts – he likes the young museum director and the forensic art expert who authenticated the lily – and then he's off on a convoluted path involving double crosses, Bosnians, rich guys, competing artnappers, and multiple claims of ownership of the Lily.  MacKenzie's clear sightedness and quick action can get him into trouble but mostly it helps him cut through an enjoyable thicket of tricksters and con artists.

Housewright's wit is every bit as sharp as Parker's, and as I read along, I was chuckling to myself over bits of dialogue and acerbic observations on MacKenzie's part.  While this book doesn't have the emotional resonance of some of Houswright's earlier titles – notably Tin City, A Hard Ticket Home or Madman on a Drum- it still has the snap and crackle of great storytelling.  I can't think of a better way to spend a couple of evenings than curled up with a new David Housewright novel.  Check it out for yourself.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Midnight in Peking

Midnight in Peking, Paul French, Penguin, $26.00, reviewed by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, Mich. www.auntagathas.com:

The best true crime books have a few things in common.  One is a vivid setting, one that's well described and felt.  Even better is an unusual setting – in this case, the setting is Peking right before the Japanese took over in 1937.  Another thing is a sense of outrage at what happened to the victim portrayed in the book – and the victim needs to be portrayed, not just presented as a dead body.  Just like in a fictional mystery, investment in the victim is investment in the outcome of the story.

Also the very top notch true crime books don't spend too much time in the courtroom.  Anyone can go to a courtroom and take notes, not everyone can craft a narrative that's compellingly told.  Paul French rarely dips a toe into the long ago courtrooms of China. And Mr. French does one more thing I'm a big fan of (and it's rarely done) – he structures his book like a whodunit.  The reader doesn't know whodunit it until the end of the book, and like any good whodunit, it's a jaw dropper.  Books sharing this characteristic would include Edward Keyes' The Michigan Murders and Kate Summerscale's instant classic The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.  Like Summerscale, French sets his book in the past, and like Summerscale, he gets some of the  juice of a good crime story by making the reveal of the murderer almost unbelievable.  If it was fiction, you would probably set the book aside in disgust.  But that's the beauty of it all: it's true.

And it's a story you feel might be better known, because it's so terrible.  One night in 1937 a young Englishwoman living in Peking is found brutally murdered – so brutally, that it makes almost no sense unless the killer was completely psychopathic.  As French begins to roll back the layers of Pamela Werner's life, it emerges that she's the spoiled only daughter of an often absent academic father, a girl whose mother died before she could even remember her.

As Pamela grew, she grew wild, getting kicked out of several schools.  When we join her, she's been sent to a strict boarding school by her father in hope of changing her life direction.  In the book, the reactions of her friends at school and at home are the same:  "That's Pamela?"  The school girl Pamela looked her age (19), dressed in a drab school uniform; the at home Pamela was all decked out in fancy clothes with an up to the minute hairstyle.

Her father was devoted to her, and one of the things that propels this book is his grief.  It's sometimes impotent grief, as the contentious Edward Werner had burned many bridges throughout his professional life.  As he reached out to the authorities, again and again, he is frequently rebuffed.  It's heartbreaking.

The two policemen investigating the case must work in an uneasy partnership – one is a Chinese, Colonel Han, and one is called in from out of town, an Englishman, Dick Dennis.  As they can bridge essentially two cultures, they actually make a good team.
All of foreign Peking lived in a separate area of the city, the Legation quarter, and Pamela and her father were no exception.  This quarter was literally surrounded by a wall – though Pamela made her way freely all over the city on her bicycle.  In fact, on the night in question, she'd gone off on her bike to meet a friend and go skating.

As Han and Dennis run into walls of things they are not supposed to ask and people they are not supposed to talk to, their investigation stalls.   When they finally throw in the towel, the specter of the invading Japanese is more on the minds of most people than the death of one young girl.  It's up to her father to set things right.

French's portrait of 1937 is a vivid and layered one, revealing all the different levels and classes of Peking society, from the upper class foreigners in the legation to prostitutes and madams and aimless white Russians, drinking their lives away.  At the same time the portraits of Pamela, her father, Han and Dennis are just as finely drawn.  And he doesn't waste time telling the story – it moves at a brisk pace. 
It's a heartbreaking tale, and a rich portrait of a very specific, very tragic time.  This is a beautifully done and intelligent book.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Killer Books Recommendation

This review is presented by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon, www.mbtb.com:

House of the Hunted, by Mark Mills
Random House, 320 pages, $26
ISBN: 9781400068197

Mark Mills' books are very polished and suave. This book, from our modern retrospective viewpoint, feels like the encapsulation of an aesthetic from a time decades past. A time when spies played at clever games and had to think on their feet, a time when technology hadn't taken over. The story is set on the brink of World War II and is a prelude to the Cold War. Mills' characters dance through layers of subterfuge to define the shifting alliances and allegiances of the countries or causes they represent.

Tom Nash was a spy in the Soviet Union for Great Britain. He was a trained killer and infiltrator. Until he gave it up. After a short burst of storyline in Russia, we next see Tom sixteen years later on the south coast of France, living in bucolic happiness, retired from the spy business, awaiting a celebratory reunion with some of his nearest and dearest friends: Leonard, a former fellow spy and current bureaucrat; Venetia, Leonard's wife, and Lucy, Leonard's stepdaughter; Yevgeny and Fanya, art dealers; and Barnaby, an old schoolmate. With the addition of a few new acquaintances, they are the assortment of louche, disappointed, ingenuous, dissembling, beguiling, and weary characters of Mills' play.

Then someone tries to kill Tom in his own home, and the game is back on.

Tom Nash has given up his cold spy persona for that of a warm human being and worldly ex-pat Brit, so the murderous attempt throws him. Soon after, he must attend a dinner he is hosting:

Tom struggled to engage with any of it, a stranger at his own feast, almost an impostor, only there because he had somehow managed to cheat his destiny less than twenty-four hours previously.

It is Mills' overlying, constant quiet tone that keeps it from being labeled a "thriller" or a "spy adventure," even though there is quite a lot of action. It feels as though this book might have been written in the 1940s or '50s. At the same time, there are some characters, e.g., Lucy, who are clearly cinematic -- added for the benefit of any future movies, perhaps. While I can't say that it was a surprising book, it is thoroughly entertaining, the characters are well-described, and I now desperately want to vacation at La Rayol. There are clever flourishes and sincere moments.