Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
by
John Berendt

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This nonfiction novel is about a murder that took place at the historic Mercer House in Savannah, Georgia in 1980, the home of antiques dealer and historic preservationist Jim Williams. Williams, 50, was charged with shooting and killing Danny Hansford, a 21-year-old man who helped Williams with his antiques restoration business. Hansford was also a prostitute and Williams’s part-time lover. Williams was initially convicted, but various appeals and three retrials led to his ultimate acquittal in 1989. In a twist of fate, Williams died in his house eight months later, near where Hansford had fallen.

Berendt’s book was published in 1994, was an immediate best seller, won the 1995 Boeke Prize and was one of the finalists for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. It was made into a movie in 1997, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Berendt, an associate editor for Esquire, moved from New York to Savannah to research the story. He immersed himself in Savannah’s inner circle and his book describes both the people and downtown Savannah’s grand architecture which Williams and others helped to restore to its glory. I enjoyed reading about Savannah and its preserved community, which deliberately resisted commercial build-up. Like any place, Savannah had its politics, social conflicts and power-hungry people. What makes the story even more interesting are the colorful side-characters who play a role in the story, including a voodoo practitioner and Williams’s second attorney, who was a big University of Georgia fan and owner of the school’s bulldog mascot, Uga. Berendt also describes his unlikely friendships with Joe Odom, a fast-talking piano player and schemer and Chablis, a trans showgirl.

Williams himself was a fascinating character. He was well-known in Savannah, particularly for his lavish Christmas parties which were the social event of the year. Williams took particular delight in changing his guest list, removing those who weren’t worthy and adding new guests.

During the trials, Williams shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense, but followed few of the details of the case, sure he would be acquitted. He was sentenced to life in prison after his first trial. While awaiting appeal, he ran his business from the local jailhouse phone, selling off antiques to pay his lawyers. With his help from jail, Williams’s mother kept Mercer House running, including hosting an elaborate luncheon for Savannah’s high society. Eventually, Williams was released and returned to business-as-usual, including hosting his annual Christmas party.

Even though this isn’t a new book, I’d recommend it for its interesting story and excellent writing. I knew nothing about Savannah and enjoyed envisioning its unique gardens and squares. I also enjoyed reading about the trials and how evidence was introduced, how the jurors reacted and how important this case was for Savannah’s new and very green district attorney.

Have you read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Have you seen the movie? Leave a comment and let me know.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Review: A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

A Rule Against Murder
by
Louise Penny

Rating:

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec, but in the fourth book in this series, Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie are taking a mini-vacation at the beautiful Manoir Bellechasse to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Or so they think.

They’re sharing the remote lodge with the wealthy Finney family, there to honor the raising of a statue of the late Charles Morrow, Mrs. Finney’s first husband and the father of their four adult children. It isn’t long before someone is murdered, however, and Gamache must change gears to investigate. He summons his staff, Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir and Agent Isabelle Lacoste, they quickly set up an investigation room and begin interviewing suspects.

The Finney family is not a warm bunch and the adult children are laden with bitterness and hatred for each other. Although they are in their 50s and 60s, their petty rivalries shoot to the surface, all centered around who was favored and loved and who was shunned. It doesn’t help that their mother is cold and distant and her new husband, Bert Finney is a puzzle. An accountant, he’s frequently seen doing his “sums” and the reader can’t help but ask if he’s in the marriage for the money.

The siblings are busy asserting themselves, in terms of who’s the most successful, most charming (on the outside), best at the piano, and word games and they frequently jab at each other’s weaknesses. The youngest Morrow, Mariana, takes her fair share of criticism. Unattractive, sloppy and less refined, she also has a child whose sex she refuses to reveal to the family.

Busy serving this demanding family are Pierre Patenaude, the Manoir’s maître d’, his large staff of young waiters and attendants, the owner, Clementine Dubois and Chef Véronique Langlois. There are secrets, romance, drama and a little rebellion among the Manoir’s staff, adding to the story.

Everyone is a suspect and, while it’s easy to line them up, it’s not easy to explain how the impossible events of the murder occurred. For Gamache, when more people go missing, it’s a race against time to figure it out.

Penny includes strong themes of family, fatherhood, and parenthood in general, the conflict between French and English Canadians and also between the upper class and the working class. Many of her characters, Gamache included, struggle in this story to understand their pasts and possible misconceptions about their families. She also includes a bit of her Three Pines characters, the recurring setting in her other books.

I enjoyed reading A Rule Against Murder, which absolutely can be read as a standalone, or even out of order. I read my first and only other book in the series, A Great Reckoning (Book 12) about two years ago and had no issues adjusting to the story line or characters then or now. You can read my 4-star review here. Penny’s books are smart, literary, a little quirky (but not too much to keep me away) and both serious and warm. I recommend A Rule Against Murder to mystery readers who enjoy both standalones and series.

Have you read any books by Louise Penny?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Coffin Road by Peter May

Coffin Road
by
Peter May

Rating:

(and a half)

When a man washes ashore the Isle of Harris and a fellow islander asks what happened, he remembers and recognizes nothing. His only clue is a map in his pocket with a highlighted line up the island’s Coffin Road.

His neighbors know him as Neal Maclean, an author who is writing a book about the mysterious 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on one of the Flannan Islands. In conversations, Neal plays along, reluctant to admit he knows nothing and hoping his memory will soon return.

It isn’t easy to pretend, however, and after searching through his house, looking for anything to jog his memory, he comes up short. And it isn’t long before his life is in obvious danger. What is up on Coffin Road and what does it have to do with Neal?

In a fast-moving atmospheric mystery set in Scotland’s spectacular Outer Hebrides, where landscape, sky and winds contribute to the story’s mood and effect, Neal rushes to find answers to his ever-increasing list of questions. When a body is discovered on one of the Flannan Islands, he soon becomes entangled in a murder investigation. Is there a connection too, to the unsolved Flannan Island mystery from years ago? (For more about the Flannan Island lighthouse keepers, check out the movie The Vanishing, an excellent psychological thriller.)

Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Karen is a rebellious seventeen-year-old, angry at the world and trying to understand her father’s suicide. Her mother is moving on, but something isn’t right and Karen is determined to understand why.

I’ll stop here in describing the plot, because any more would give away too much, but readers should get ready for a much broader story, with global conspiracies and clandestine efforts that point to an environmental disaster.

I enjoyed this standalone novel from 2016 by Peter May, who is a former script writer and editor for British television. I read and liked The Lewis Trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, and The Chessmen) and was excited to read Coffin Road. I always like a good memory loss story, so Neal Maclean’s mysterious circumstances fit the bill.

A bit formulaic and with a couple incongruous situations, particularly at the end and regarding Karen’s plot line, I didn’t think this was as good as The Lewis Trilogy. A few typos and a grammar mistake (the old “I” instead of “me” no-no) took a little bit away. I don’t think this is the same publisher as his other books, so maybe it’s related to that. In addition, the environmental story line and implications were interesting, but I didn’t think they fit well into Neal’s mystery. But it was a fun read, always good during a busy time, and I’m looking forward to reading other books by May.

If you’re interested in The Lewis Trilogy, check out my reviews here:

The Blackhouse
The Lewis Man
The Chessmen

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient
by
Alex Michaelides

Rating:

Alicia Berenson does something strange after she kills her husband. She stops talking. Not another word. Nothing to the London police, to her lawyer, and still now, years later, nothing to the doctors at the Grove, the psychiatric ward where she lives. Before the murder, they lived the good life. Alicia was a well-known artist and her husband, Gabriel, was a famous photographer. Now she sits silent. The only clue to explain her actions is a self-portrait, painted a few days after the murder.

Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist and he’s been obsessed with Alicia’s case from the beginning. So he jumps when a job opens up at the Grove. The doctors have given up on her, but Theo is determined to get Alicia to speak. Despite warnings from his boss, Theo digs so deep into Alicia’s psyche he may not be able to free himself.

What a great set-up for a suspenseful psychological thriller! I tore through this fast-paced story because I was both engrossed in the plot and anxious to see what Michaelides’ characters would do. The story is told from both Theo’s and Alicia’s perspectives, with Theo as the narrator and through Alicia’s journal entries. Readers will need to do some work, however, because they won’t get the full story from either, not until the finish where a final and unexpected twist explains it all.

Although plot driven, The Silent Patient is also a look at different psychologies and how vulnerable children are to their circumstances, especially in relationships to their parents and other family. Both Theo and Alicia suffered miserable childhoods and were subjected to pain and rejection. Through his story, the author asks important questions about nature versus nurture. Would his characters be different people if they’d had better childhoods?

Michaelides also cleverly ties The Silent Patient to the Greek play, Alcestis and the tragic choices that are made between Alcestis and her husband. I enjoyed this parallel very much and how it explains Alicia’s behavior.

The Silent Patient is the author’s debut novel and the type of book you want to start and finish in the same day. I recommend it to readers who like the fast pace of a thriller with the bonus of interesting characters and ideas.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

What’s That Book? Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

 

TitleFrog Music

Author:  Emma Donoghue

Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  The fictionalized account of the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet, an enigmatic free spirit in San Francisco, who dressed like a man and earned a living catching frogs for restaurants.

The story begins with Jenny’s murder, which takes place in a rented room at a railroad saloon. An unknown assailant shoots through the window, kills Jenny, but misses her companion, Blanche Beunon. Blanche, a burlesque dancer at the House of Mirrors, is certain she knows who is responsible, but will the authorities believe her? The author cleverly frames this original story with music and lyrics of the times.

The majority of Donoghue’s characters come from historical record and comprise San Francisco’s gritty underbelly during a smallpox epidemic and record heatwave. Blanche’s efforts to both save herself and point to those responsible for Jenny’s murder reveal many complicated and unlikable characters who are trying to scrape by in a rough environment and willingly take advantage of each other. Blanche’s lover and his companion are former trapeze artists from a circus in Paris, where Blanche performed on horseback. A back injury has forced him to quit performing and now Blanche is the breadwinner for the trio, earning money from her “leg shows” and private rendezvous.

Blanche thinks nothing of this until she meets Jenny, who has a knack for asking unsettling questions, and forces Blanche to see her life as it is.

How did you hear about it?  It is this month’s mystery book club choice.

Closing comments:  The author presents a vivid picture of the seedy side of San Francisco during this time period, including its widespread abuse and racial intolerance. Her characters’ attitudes towards other races, including the French, Irish, Chinese, Italians and Prussians, show how prejudice was deep seated during these times. While the story is based on actual events, Donoghue includes themes of love, friendship and motherhood, yet most of her characters don’t come close to holding onto these things. While Blanche’s character is the most developed, Jenny is the most interesting one. She was well-known throughout the city and I was very interested in her back story.

Frog Music is not for the faint of heart, due to many graphic and weirdly violent sex scenes. Many readers will question whether they are necessary to the story. I’m not sure. I think on one hand, they help define the characters and the times, but I also think there were too many “defining moments.”

The mystery is solved in the final pages and an Afterward provides much detail about the author’s research and the musical references. I thought this was one of the best parts of the book.

Contributor:  Ginette 😉


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine

Stillhouse Lake
by
Rachel Caine

Rating:

Gina Royal’s problems are just beginning the day she discovers her husband is a serial murderer. It doesn’t matter that Mel Royal goes to prison and is awaiting execution. The internet haters are making her life miserable because they are certain she was an accomplice, despite a court acquittal. Gina does not want to wait to see if the threats are real.

So she grabs her two kids and runs, with new identities. And by using sophisticated internet tools, she is able to monitor the hate and stay hidden. The trolls are only a few steps behind, however, and that means picking up and changing names again and again. When they finally land at Stillhouse Lake, a former resort in Tennessee, they are Gwen, Lanny and Connor. At fourteen and eleven, Lanny and Connor are tired of being without friends, or roots. Can Gwen let down their guard, just a little?

Letting down their guard still means being on alert and staying sharp with target practice, however. Alarms, security cameras, internet traces and short-term phones are just some of the precautions Gwen takes. A new friendship may be just the thing to make their family feel grounded, something all three desperately need.

When a woman’s body floats to the surface of the lake, however, the murder is shockingly similar to Mel’s sadistic crimes. With Mel behind bars, Gwen becomes a person of interest. New friends and neighbors suddenly seem shady and Gwen can’t separate the good guys from the bad. Readers will watch her make both reckless and wrong decisions, putting herself and her kids in grave danger.

A wild chain of events leads Gwen to a big vigilante showdown, with plenty of twists and mind games. Caine finishes with a surprise cliff-hanger, however, an ending that I didn’t see coming. I didn’t know that Stillhouse Lake is the first in a three-book series and that answers await in the next two books, Killman Creek (2017) and Wolfhunter River (2019).

All in all, however, Stillhouse Lake is a fast-paced and entertaining thriller, with a good scare-factor and limited violence. The best part of the book is deciding whether the characters were good or bad. I got some of them wrong!


I read Stillhouse Lake as part of my library’s Summer Reading Challenge to read a book of my own choosing – the center square of my BINGO card!


Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Tell No One by Harlan Coben

Tell No One
by
Harlan Coben

Rating:

Dr. David Beck’s life fell apart eight years ago when his wife Elizabeth was taken by strangers. Even though a serial killer sits in prison, Beck can’t move on. He trudges through life and work as a pediatrician in a low-income New York neighborhood. The years have passed, but how can he let go of his best friend and sweetheart?

When Beck receives a computer message, he’s certain it’s from Elizabeth because it’s about something only she would know. But there’s a warning: “Tell no one.”

Readers are in for a wild ride as Beck tries to make sense of this message and later instructions. Set in New Jersey, New York and parts of Pennsylvania, the story revolves around Beck, his sister Linda and her partner, plus-size supermodel Shauna, as well as Elizabeth’s cop family. Added to the mix is the powerful billionaire, Griffin Scope, a third-generation rich guy. Scope is consumed by avenging the death of his golden-boy son Brandon and by preserving Brandon’s good-works charitable foundation, headed, coincidently, by Linda.

Several messages later, Beck is certain Elizabeth is still alive. He needs help and turns to Shauna. Shauna keeps him grounded, but events get out of hand when Beck becomes a wanted man for murder.

Coben leads the reader through the preliminaries, then adds a great variety of side characters, including my favorite, the conflicted Tyrese Barton and the unknowable bad guy Eric Wu, someone you don’t want to meet in an alley. Other characters with questionable morality, but a sliver of conscience make this story more than just a thriller, but an interesting character study.

In addition to an exciting plot, Coben’s writing style is full of dry humor as well as many laugh-out-loud moments, as Beck somehow escapes certain death, more than once.

Just as in an action movie, Tell No One is a terrific, fast-moving suspense, with twists and turns to the final page. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy reading about the battle between good and evil in a highly entertaining story.

And if you like watching action movies, Tell No One was adapted to the screen in the French film of the same name. Read all about it here.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

 

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders

The Secrets of Wishtide
by
Kate Saunders

Rating:

When Laetitia Rodd’s lawyer brother summons her for a meeting, she knows he has some work for her. It’s 1850 and the 50-something widow has made a name for herself in the Hampstead section of London. With an eye for detail and a nose for the truth, Lettie is a lady detective way ahead of her time.

The task seems straightforward enough: uncover the past of Helen Orme and thwart Charles Calderstone’s efforts to marry her. The wealthy and powerful Sir James Calderstone is behind this request. He’s pushing his son to marry Esther Grahames, a cousin and childhood playmate.

Posing as a governess for Charles’ younger sisters, Lettie moves in with the Calderstones at their Wishtide estate. And it isn’t long before a murder puts Charles in jail and presents Lettie with a much meatier case. Lettie and her brother are convinced Charles is innocent and to save him from the gallows, they know it’s a race to find a mysterious killer known as “Prince.”

The Secrets of Wishtide is the first book in the Laetitia Rodd mysteries. A huge fan of Charles Dickens, Saunders based her story on David Copperfield and uses her characters to develop themes of love, marriage, women’s rights, and class distinction, all in equal measure. In addition, several of her characters must live with their reputations as fallen women as they watch men pursue relationships outside marriage.

The story moves quickly, despite a long list of characters. While some expert mystery readers may be able to figure out who Prince is, key details reveal themselves only as the plot develops, making it an entertaining read.  I also liked reading about the creature comforts of the times – warm fires, hot tea, spirits and ale, good food and good humor. It seems as if the author is suggesting that, despite the hardships of the times, and the big trouble in which many of her characters find themselves, they seem to know how to make their own happiness.

The book finishes with a satisfying conclusion and hints of the future help the reader imagine what might happen in the next book. No doubt the side characters in this book will make appearances in the next and I look forward to seeing how Lettie’s character develops. I recommend The Secrets of Wishtide to readers who like entertaining mysteries on top of more serious themes.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

In the Woods by Tana French


In the Woods

by
Tana French

Rating:

After his friends Peter and Jamie mysteriously disappeared in the woods near their home, Adam Robert Ryan’s parents sent their son away to boarding school. The shock of the 1984 event had already given Adam amnesia, but he could never completely forget his best friends. When the three twelve-year-olds climbed the wall of their County Dublin neighborhood that summer day and entered the woods they knew so well, only Adam came out, with a slashed shirt, bark under his nails and shoes full of blood. Despite an intense investigation, the disappearance of Peter and Jamie was never solved and it’s been haunting Adam ever since.

Now, twenty years later, Adam goes as Rob and, although he’s back in his old neighborhood, he’s kept his past a secret from everyone except his partner, Cassie Maddox. As detectives on the Dublin Murder squad, they are investigating the murder of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin, whose body was found at an archeological dig site, on the edge of the same woods where Rob’s friends disappeared.  Are the two cases connected?  Should Rob even be on the investigation?

Tana French tells an excellent mystery, which is part murder investigation, part psychological study, part political tale and part love story. Clues point in many directions as Rob, Cassie and a third detective, Sam O’Neill, work the case. Is there abuse in the Devlin home? Is the murder connected to Jonathan Devlin’s involvement in a protest group that is trying to stop a highway from going through the dig site? What else happened in the woods the summer Peter and Jamie disappeared? The investigation continues to uncover facts that may or may not be related to the crime, muddling up an intriguing mystery. In addition, French develops sleeper characters that suggest new motives, leaving the reader to sort it out.

Rob, privately and desperately, wants to confront his past and connect it to Katy’s murder, but the intense investigation sends him into a destructive spiral.  As his relationship with Cassie teeters between professional and personal, new events could jeopardize the case.  And Rob, Cassie and Sam may not be ready when the case breaks with shocking revelations.

I enjoyed In the Woods very much for the same reason I like reading any book with many layers of plot and character development:  there’s a lot going on. It’s much more than a classic mystery with a fast-moving plot and red herrings. It’s a commentary on family, relationships, society and police work.  I especially enjoyed the dynamics between Rob and Cassie, their slick interrogation skills, and the unraveling of several key characters.  I also liked the story because of its open-ended finish, with some satisfying tie-ins, but plenty to think about afterwards.

I recommend In the Woods to readers who enjoy complex mysteries and character studies.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Three books in my near future

Photo: theguardian.com

I’m looking forward to reading these three very soon:


Winter of the Gods by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Selene DiSilva returns as the modern-day Artemis in
Brodsky’s second crime mystery in Manhattan.


Click here to read all about Brodsky’s debut novel, The Immortals.


At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

Historical fiction – a post-World War II love story set in Scotland. My book club enjoyed Water for Elephants and we’re looking forward to this one too!


In the Woods by Tana French

Our library Whodunits group will be discussing this Dublin crime story in April.  In the Woods is Book 1 of 5 in the Dublin Murder Squad Series.


That’s what is on top of my pile.
What books are in  your future?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!