#4 in the Edgar countdown: Invisible 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.

Homage to Sherlock Holmes

holmesAs you know, the Edgar nominees are out and I am eager to begin reading, reviewing, and ranking, but first I have a number of other books to address, Lunchbox-wise.

One that caught my eye in the New York Times book review section was In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.  This book of short stories is edited by Laurie King, who writes the Mary Russell series, and Leslie Klinger, a Holmes expert.

The stories are inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and were written by some mighty familiar names, including Sara Paretsky, Jeffrey Deaver, Denise Hamilton, John Lescroat, and Michael Connelly, among others.  Andrew Grant contributed “Dr. Watson’s Casebook,” a story told social media-style, including thumbs up and thumbs down, invitations to events, and chat rooms.  There’s a story told in graphic novel style, by Leah Moore and John Reppion, with illustrations by Chris Doherty and Adam Caldwell.  I will admit that neither of these two genre-benders were my favorite!

Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky

That honor goes to Sara Paretsky, whose twist on Holmes (in “The Curious Affair of the Italian Art Dealer”) pits the acknowledged expert against the even more clever American detective, Amelia Butterworth.  Holmes underestimates Miss Butterworth, who handily outsmarts him.  The Butterworth character was created by American crime novelist Anna Katherine Green ten years or so before Holmes made his appearance, so this clever pairing of dueling detectives works on two levels!

Sherlock Holmes is clearly enjoying a resurgence of popularity – I love both the  Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman and the Jonny Lee Miller/Lucy Liu versions on TV – and both casual and committed fans should enjoy this book!

Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock.

Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock.

Lucy Liu as Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes in Elementary

Lucy Liu is Dr. Watson and Jonny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes in Elementary.

You go, Girl on the Train

trainOM Serious G.  I just finished The Girl on the Train, and I am pretty amazed  with what author Paula Hawkins has accomplished.  The girl on the train is Rachel.  She’s a sad, pathetic woman – childless, divorced, jobless, and drunken much of the time, barely hanging on.  Her own life is so bleak that every day, as she passes through the neighborhood where she used to live, she looks out the window of the train and spies on a young couple that she calls Jess and Jason.  She sees how beautiful, how happy they are, living just a few doors down from where Tom – Rachel’s ex-husband – and his new wife, Anna, live with their baby.  They are also happy, and Anna is living the life that Rachel should have had with Tom.

Only it’s not that simple.  Jason and Jess are really Scott and Megan, and Megan is pretty messed up, with some serious backstory going on.  And Anna is not just a doting young mother.  In fact, almost everybody in this novel is complicated.  The book is told in first person, shifting from Rachel’s perspective to Anna’s to Megan’s.  Little by little we learn more about the women, their pasts and their tragic present, tied together in a way you won’t foresee.

Here’s the scoop:  Megan disappears one night.  Suspicion falls on her husband, of course.  What can Rachel do besides find a way to tell the police what she saw through the train window: Megan kissing another man.  Of course, Rachel is an unreliable witness.  In fact, she’s unreliable even to herself.  She’s haunted by the idea that she knows more than she can recall.  Her memory of the night that Megan disappeared is fragmented and incomplete, but when Megan’s body is found, Rachel becomes convinced that the truth is buried deep in her brain.  She pulls herself together, stays sober (mostly) and begins to investigate. Ineptly, of course, but that just adds to the suspense.  By the time she gets it figured out, the reader is right there with her, trying to stay alive.

The Girl on the Train is sure to elicit comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girlas they both have unreliable narrators, intricate plots, and OMG endings.  And while I raved about Gone Girl, I have to say that Train has an edge from my perspective:  characters that are worth caring about.  You really root for Rachel.  With GG, it was hard to find anybody to root for.

Reviewers have been raving about the book, for good reason.  As with Gone Girl, I foresee a movie in the making.