Bad Country Under Consideration

bad countryThe time has come for the final Literary Lunchbox post in the 3-Rs (reading, reviewing, and ranking) for the 2015 Best First Novel by an American Author Edgar.  The official Edgar will be awarded in NYC on April 29, but the anticipation is building right here.  The final entry is Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie.  Set in Arizona and featuring Native American PI Rodeo Grace Garnet, the book won the Tony Hillerman Prize, a $10,000 advance and publication by St. Martin’s Press.   I loved Tony Hillerman’s work, devouring his Leaphorn and Chee books when I discovered them in the 1980s.   He received practically every mystery writing award there was to win, and was president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Hillerman passed away in 2008, a sad day for mystery lovers.   All this is leading up to why I was very interested in reading Bad Country.

My overall impression is that CB McKenzie is no Tony Hillerman – but then, who could be?  Hillerman’s books were police procedurals, but steeped in the ways of the Navajo and other tribes.  There is a lot of looking, thinking and talking in Hillerman’s books.  They have a lot of space for subtlety.  Not so much for McKenzie.

Some critics have called Bad Country “cowboy noir,” and that’s a particularly apt description.  The writing is spare, the violence is gritty and real, the men are hard although not all bad, and the women are, for the most part, demons.   One plot point features the characteristics of ten Native American tribes, but otherwise, Native American culture doesn’t have much impact on the book.  It’s more like the movie Chinatown, with Rodeo Grace Garnet in the JJ Gittes role.

Here’s where the plot begins:  Rodeo’s a tough, hard-living PI in a small town in Arizona, with a bad ex-girlfriend who happens to be the good sheriff’s daughter, and a faithful dog.  Someone’s murdered an Indian man on Rodeo’s doorstep.  And someone else has gunned down a teenager in a drive-by; that teen’s grandmother hires Rodeo to look into it, and the game is afoot.

These two seemingly straight-forward crimes are just the respective tips of two different icebergs, and along the way to solving them both, Rodeo faces disillusionment and death more than once.  By the end, more than one good guy is dead, as are multiple bad guys, but Rodeo has kept more evil at bay, Rodeo’s dog is okay and we suspect that the chemistry between him and the lady vet is building into something good for book #2.

Here’s what I liked about Bad Country:  Excellent main character, knotty plot, noir tough, and a great dog.  Not in love with:  Too many characters with too many problems and too much plot stuffed into one book.  Also, use some quote marks, already.

So where to rank it?  Definitely above The Life We Bury and Invisible City. Definitely below Dry Bones in the Valley.   Shovel Ready was more inventive, Murder at the Brightwell was more assured and better written.  So Bad Country goes on my ranking at #4, making Dry Bones in the Valley my winner!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
  3. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  4. Bad Country by CB McKenzie
  5. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  6. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Cover art for Bad Country: No complaints.  The car features in the plot, as does the desert locale, and the typography is spot-on.  Title:  Also appropriate.

Shovel Ready Edgar-ready?

shovelThe fifth nominee for Best First Novel by an American Author is Adam Sternbergh’s genre-bending debut novel, Shovel Ready.  And I have to say, it knocked my socks off.

Shovel Ready‘s set in the near future in a New York City that’s been half-emptied by dirty bombs, tourist-free and divided sharply into the haves and the have-nots, where the haves can tap into the  latest technological marvel:  the limnosphere, an alternative universe where anything can happen.  And often does.

Back in the day, Spademan used to be a garbage man.  Literally.  Like his father before him, he was a NYC waste-hauler.  He met and married Stella, a beautiful, loving woman with hoped to become an actress.  One day, a bomb went off in the subway.   And then, impeccably timed to coincide with the arrival of paramedics, firefights, and cops, a second, bigger, radioactive bomb.  And Spademan can only hope that Stella was killed by bomb #1 and didn’t lie there, broken and bleeding, praying for rescue, until the big boom of bomb #2.

Now he’s a hit man.  Pay him and he’ll kill for you.  He doesn’t need to know more than who, and he doesn’t want to know why.  He only has a few rules, such as  no suicides and no children.  That’s why he’s slow to take the job when a caller wants him to target Grace Chastity Harrow (who’s re-named herself Persephone).  She’s run away from home and her uber-rich evangelist father.  Assured that she’s 18, he takes the job, but calls a halt again when he realizes she’s pregnant.  Stuck with her temporarily, he plans to feed her, clean her up, and then send her on her way.  But that can’t happen, because it’s pretty clear that Spademan is not the only hit man on the scene.  And he’s starting to like her.

And that’s when the dystopian tale gets even more dystopian.  Turns out that Daddy has been selling heaven to the masses, but what he’s been delivering is a second world where the rich can prey upon the helplessly enslaved.  And the only way to free the slaves and bring down Rev. Harrow involves not only Spademan and Persephone, but several of Spademan’s friends in a daring rescue mission, simultaneously occurring in the real world and in the limnosphere.

Here’s what’s fabulous about Shovel Ready:

  • Great voice
  • Lots of action
  • Compelling plotting (despite a couple of holes)
  • Skillful blend of fantasy, sci-fi and crime thriller

If you’re looking character development or subtlety, Shovel-Ready is not going to do it for you.  It could, however, be a great movie.  (Optioned by Denzel Washington, I’m not sure I see the big D as Spademan.)

Now for the hard part… where does it rank?  For sheer enjoyment, it’s gotta be ahead of Brightwell… but will it be #2 or take the top spot?  It could not be more different from Dry Bones in the Valley.  And as much as I love Shovel Ready‘s energy and vision, I think Bones is a deeper book.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
  3. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  4. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  5. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Cover art for Shovel Ready:  Dystopian- check.  Edgy- check.  Eye-catching – check.  Title:  just okay.  Overall,  Shovel Ready is just behind Murder at the Brightwell on the “judging the book by its cover” rating scale…

#4 in the Edgar countdown: Invisible City

city

Well-titled Invisible City, okay cover art! IMHO.

They say to write what you know, and Julia Dahl did.   She’s a journalist specializing in crime, has a Lutheran father and Jewish mother, and lives in Brooklyn.  And Rebekah Roberts, the protagonist of her debut mystery (up for an MWA Edgar!), Invisible Cityis a lot like Julia.   Her mother was a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who rebelled, married Rebekah’s dad (just to mix it up, he’s a Methodist), and stuck with him for a few years, leaving them to return to her own community when Rebekah was five. Her mother’s abandonment has haunted Rebekah ever since.  It’s the expectation that somehow, someway, she’ll find out more about her mother – and perhaps even connect with her – that leads new college grad Rebekah to head for NYC and a job as a tabloid stringer.

Indeed, it’s Rebekah’s physical resemblance to her mother that gives her an edge over other reporters when the naked body of an observant woman turns up, head shaved, in Gowanus.  The NYPD barely investigates and the woman’s body is whisked away, not to the coroner’s office, but to a Jewish funeral home, where her body will be cleansed and buried within 24 hours – no autopsy, no evidence.  A Jewish police detective, brought in to help translate, knows Rebekah’s mother, and he smooths the way for her to talk with many of the religious who would ordinarily keep shtum.  At first, Rebekah just wants to get the story.  But soon, she’s driven to actually solve the crime.   As she gets deeper into the investigation and her persona as Rivka (the diminutive for Rebekah), she also begins to understand the world her mother inhabited.

Dahl tells the story well, including a surprising plot twist at the end that you won’t see coming, but is not a cheat. The side story about her mother is interesting, and Dahl is skillful in revealing this religious culture to the reader as Rebekah learns about it herself.  However, I’m having a terrible time ranking the book, because there are definitely clunky aspects to the writing.  For example, the boyfriend Tony is barely a sketch, and there’s at least one random, coarse-languaged sex scene that feels grafted-on to ensure grittiness.

The book clearly ranks above The Life We Bury, and below Dry Bones in the Valley, but where to place it compared to Murder at the Brightwell, which has an assured, elegant style and is a lovely book for its type (not my favorite type, though!)  After much mental haggling, I’m ranking this Edgar nominee third out of the four reviewed to date.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  3. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  4. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

And since I’ve been explicitly commenting on covers and titles, I would point out that Invisible City is a perfect fit for the city within a city where the Hasidim reside.  I suppose the cover art features the appropriate city and evokes a certain angst, so can’t really complain there, either.

Charming Murder at the Brightwell enters the competition

brightwellDeborah Crombie’s blurb on the cover of Ashley Weaver’s debut mystery, Murder at the Brightwell, says it all:  “An elegant Christie-esque 1930s romp.”  Quite a change from the college student/amateur sleuth (The Life We Bury) and the Pennsylvania noir police procedural (Dry Bones in the Valley) that were the first two entries in the competition for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

And romp it is, if you like beautiful people doing fabulous things in an exclusive hotel with a dark undercurrent of skulduggery and murder.  Amory Ames is a wealthy young woman, married five years to Milo, who stole her away from fiancé Gil Trent.  Now they mostly lead separate lives, hers at home and his out gallivanting.  Let’s just say he’s good looking, charming, and quite popular with the ladies.  Amory’s ripe for reconnecting with Gil when he shows up, seeking her help in discouraging his niece from marrying a good-looking ne’er-do-well.  His plan is to bring Amory along to a holiday at the Brightwell, where her sad experience with Milo will serve to illustrate to the lovely Emmeline what a big mistake she is about to make.  He’s hoping she’s willing to behave as if they are back together as a couple… and she’s willing to do so because she is frankly annoyed with her husband and doubting their future together.

At the hotel, there’s a mixed group of characters (just like Agatha Christie!), including rapacious women, stodgy men, a handsome actor, cruel husbands… They’re all lightly and skillfully drawn.  It’s frothy amusement until  Emmeline’s bad-boy-fiance Rupert turns up dead, conked on the head and thrown over the cliff onto the rocks below.  Various characters come under the suspicious gaze of canny Inspector Jones, who develops an easygoing rapport with Amory, and when said gaze falls upon friend Gil Trent, Amory goes into overdrive to determine which of the hotel guests committed the murder.  She is aided in her efforts by husband Milo, who is undertaking an effort to win Amory back… at least until some details emerge which cause our heroine to wonder if her husband is himself the guilty party.

Of course, that’s not the case, but once the crime is neatly solved, the couple cannot bring themselves to admit what is completely clear to the reader:  that they belong together.  I won’t spoil that surprise for you!

So, comparison time.  Brightwell is a lovely book of its type, well-written, albeit lightweight.  Impossible to complain about the characters, plot, or pacing.  I briefly wondered if it would be as good set in present day and decided it would not; although I am sure there are plenty of idle rich among us in 2015, any book that featured them would require either a heavy dose of irony or one of cynicism.

Is it likely to win the Edgar?  Stepping outside of Lunchbox mode, I’d have to say no.  Reviewing the Edgar database, I see plenty of spy novels, police procedurals, and thrillers that won the Best First Novel award.  Is it worthy of a win, from my perspective?  I enjoyed the book, but it is definitely outdone by Dry Bones in the Valley.  But the quality of the writing and plotting gives Brightwell a decisive edge over The Life We Bury.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  3. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

ps- thumbs up on the cover and title for this book!  I had previously complained about Dry Bones and Life, noting that neither the books’ titles nor their cover art made any sense to me.  Everything about Murder at the Brightwell is spot on, including the title, artwork and typography.  Well-done, Minotaur.

Dry Bones in the Valley second entry in Edgar Race

bonesAbout ten pages in, I realized that I had previously read Dry Bones in the Valley, Tom Bouman’s debut novel featuring Officer Henry Farrell of Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania.  And I liked it.  That made re-reading it for the Edgar race for Best First Novel by an American Author a pleasure for me.

Here’s the setup:  Henry’s a rural cop in a small department (one deputy), where a typical crime is a stolen tractor.  Times have been hard, but landowners have been banding together to sign contracts for drilling rights on their land, and it’s dividing the community.  It’s the kind of place where the law-abiding, the lawbreakers and the lawmen all know each other and drink together in the local tavern.  Henry plays the fiddle and is more than half-way in love with the local doc.  Unfortunately, she’s his best friend’s wife.

It’s a sloppy, thawing-out March when local eccentric Aub Dunigan shoots a load of buckshot into a local ruffian trespassing on his land.  Henry comes out with a family member to see what’s what, only to find that Aub – who’s not really all there – has discovered a body in the melting snow.  Pieces of it are missing.  Who is this young man?  Who killed him and why?  Along the way to solving the murder, somebody shoots the well-liked deputy dead, and Henry uncovers a tragedy that is decades old.

Dry Bones in the Valley is a notable debut for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Bouman’s skill in depicting places and people.  His prose is elegant and spare, with carefully chosen details that illuminate the story.  Henry himself is a good man, weighed down by expectations and a tinge of sorrow.   The book is well-plotted, the action sequences are nail-bitingly realistic, and while the resolution is satisfying, it’s not all happy-happy-joy-joy.  Thank heavens.

Comparison to The Life We Bury?  Dry Bones has it all over Life.  Life has a lot to recommend it, but it is obviously a first novel.  Dry Bones is more assured, the product of a fully developed talent.  I’m waiting for more from Tom Bouman and Officer Henry Farrell.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

PS:  Another note of comparison, as an aside.  What is up with the titles and book covers for these two books?   The Life We Bury is set in a small town and a university town – the cover makes it look rural.  And nobody is literally buried, and if you want to go all metaphorical, I don’t see it.  So the title is a miss for me.  Same deal, more or less, with Dry Bones in the Valley.  The cover makes features an ominous flock of birds, potentially hovering over dry bones, making you think of desert, not Pennsylvania.  And all the bones in this book are literally wet. Soaking, in fact.  I realize you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this may be taking that adage too far…

First up in Edgar Countdown: Allen Esken’s The Life We Bury

In the weeks between now and the Edgar Awards Ceremony on April 29, I’ll be reading, reviewing, and ranking the nominees for Best Novel and Best First Novel by an American Author.  When the Edgars are polished up and handed out, we’ll see whether the Literary Lunchbox Edgars match the MWA Edgars.  Typically it’s not 100% (although I did call them both in 2010).  In a change of pace, I’m starting with the new authors and head down the home stretch for a big finish with the Best Novel nominees.

life-we-bury-200First up is Allen EskensThe Life We Bury.   One positive right off the bat:  written in first person, Eskens’ protagonist, Joe Talbert is a fresh voice. The prose is clean and the character’s engaging.  His problems are real, and the way he handles them makes us root for him.

Joe’s a college kid from a small town, struggling to put himself through the University of Minnesota, dragged down by his alcoholic gambler of a mother and guilt-ridden because he’s not able to protect his autistic brother.  He lives in a cheap apartment across the hall from Lila, a cute co-ed with a past.  An English assignment – to interview someone and then write a biography of that person’s life – sends him on an unexpected quest to solve a decades-old crime.

Carl Iverson is a Vietnam vet, a hero, a convicted rapist and murderer – and he’s dying of pancreatic cancer.  He vows to tell the truth, no matter what; it’s his “dying declaration.”  Carl’s a good guy who is haunted by his actions in Viet Nam- he feels guilty both for not doing more and for the actions he did take.  (It’s clear to the reader, of course, that Carl has nothing to blame himself for.)  But he denies raping and murdering Crystal Hagen 30 years previously.  And as Joe begins to validate Carl’s story, with Lila’s help, it becomes more and more apparent that the killer may still be out there.

Of course he is!  And he’s pretty crafty.  When he gets his hands on Lila, the suspense ratchets up.  Not much of a spoiler alert to let you know that it all works out in the end.  The bad guy is vanquished, Joe and Lila are injured but live on, and Carl Iverson’s conviction is vacated before he dies, peacefully, in his sleep.  The only fly in the ointment is that Joe’s out of money for college because he paid his awful mother’s bail.  But wait!  The bad guy has killed multiple women, the cops connected the dots, and there’s reward money in it for Joe.  Yay!  College is back in the cards and he even has enough money to take care of Jeremy.

Here’s what I like about The Life We Bury:

  • characters you care about
  • a fresh voice
  • an easy, readable style with excellent pacing
  • an unexpected twist in the plot

And now here are a few drawbacks:

  • Too much reliance on coincidence 
  • Iverson’s too saintly
  • Ending’s too upbeat

Overall, Allen Eskens has real talent and the book itself is well worth reading.  I’m looking forward to seeing more from him, and for now, the Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking has him at #1.

mwa_logoBest First Novel by an American Author:

  1. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Three quick mini-reviews

I’m about to start the Edgar countdown, but first, I have three quick reviews to do!

winterpeopleFirst up is Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People.  This supernatural thriller alternates between present day – when there are some mighty strange goings-on in West Hall, Vermont – and 1908, when Sara Harrison Shea’s beloved daughter Gertie dies, setting in place a chain of events that will literally never end.  It’s a zombie story with a twist.  Despite a plot hole or two, Winter People benefits from McMahon’s writing skill and you’ll be totally sucked in.  Like a little dark magic and horror in your mysteries?  This one’s for you.

revivalThe second is Stephen King’s Revival.  The book is in the tradition of Carrie, Cujo, and Pet Sematary, with a little Ray Bradbury thrown in.  Jamie Morton, young son of the local minister, meets the Rev. Charles Jacobs and his family.  There’s something special about Rev. Jacobs:  he believes he can harness the special electrical power of the soul to heal the afflicted.  The twist is: he can. After the death of his wife and child, the grief-wracked Rev. Jacobs moves on, the years pass, and Jamie grows up to be in a rock-and-roll band.  When they reconnect, sparks fly (literally) and its all eerie fun and games until Charlie Jacobs actually brings somebody back from the dead to learn the secrets of life after death… that’s on page 378.  King had me till then, but the rest of the book was all too graphic and over the top for me.

salvationThe final book is Salvation of a Saint, by Keigo Higashino.  Higashino’s debut novel, The Devotion of Suspect X, was an Edgar finalist in 2012 and I enjoyed it, ultimately ranking it in the middle of the nominees.  If Winter People has breathless pacing and Revival is old-style horror, Salvation is pure Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction.  Minimal drama, and what there is, is understated.  For people who like their mysteries cerebral, this puzzler’s a good one.