Congrats to Edgar recipients Jim Klise, Tom Bouman and Stephen King!

EdgarsSo, I’m feeling pretty smug – I may not have batted 1000 on my Edgar rankings this year, but it was pretty dang close.   I called it 100% one time, been completely wrong once, and otherwise tend to get one right and the other one wrong.  Since I’m not actually trying to predict the outcome, but to review and rank by my own standards (I’m not actually sure what standards the Edgars judges actually use!), it’s not surprising that I am not in perfect alignment.  Still, MWA and Literary Lunchbox agree way more often than random chance would dictate.

secretsFirst up, kudos to ADA pal and FB friend Jim Klise, whose young adult mystery The Art of Secrets took home an Edgar.  I read The Art of Secrets and enjoyed it very much!  Not in middle school?  Read it anyway!

bonesMy call for Best First Novel was Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley.  An assured debut, it stood out for me among the other worthy nominees.  And indeed, it won the Edgar.  My good friend Addy Whitehouse reviewed this category as well – her call was The Life We Bury.  I enjoyed that book, but it wasn’t my favorite.

mercedeAnd you all know just how difficult the call was for Best Novel this year.  Of the six nominees, I truly felt that five of them were 5-star books.  Ultimately, I gave Mo Hayder’s Wolf the nod because it was a more complex narrative, in my estimation, than Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes.  I ranked that #2, and dang it, Mr. King’s Mr. Mercedes took home the Edgar.  Still, if this were horseshoes, I’d be the big winner.

The Edgar excitement is all over for another year!   Colleagues in my workplace find it all super-geeky, but hey, geek is chic.

Mo Hayder’s Wolf the final nominee for MWA Best Novel Edgar

wolfLunchbox regulars know that there are a few favorite authors that I buy in hardback, recommend wholeheartedly, and await with anticipation their next novel.  Back in the day it was Dick Francis, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and John Grisham.  Currently, it’s Ian Rankin, Laura Lippmann, Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, William Kent Krueger and Mo Hayder.   It was a wonderful day when I discovered Mo Hayder’s Gone – not to mention her entire back catalog – and I marveled at her ability to create suspense and surprise.  As an aspiring writer myself, reading Gone was like a master lesson in craft.  It deserved and won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2012.

No surprise to me –  Mo Hayder has penned another masterclass of a thrilling detective story with Wolf.  If anything the plot is even more knotty than Gone, and there’s no cheating.  Reading Wolf the third time through to review it for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, I was able to note all the clues that I should have been picking up on were right there in front of me.

There are two plot threads. In the first, a wealthy family – the Anchor-Ferrars – are settling into their comfortable vacation home when they’re visited by two policemen, DI Honey and DS Molina.  Fifteen years previously, a teenage couple had been brutally murdered just a short distance away.  The killer disemboweled them both and strung their intestines, shaped into a heart, in the trees above them.  Now it appears that a second, similar murder has taken place, and the family is stricken to learn that their safety is at risk.  And it certainly is, for we soon realize that the policemen are not policemen at all, but have been hired to terrorize the family in order to suppress the publication of Oliver Anchor-Ferrars’ memoirs.  Although he’s now in his mid-60s and recovering from open-heart surgery, Oliver Anchor-Ferrars is a much harder and smarter man than he appears.  Over the four days of their captivity, Oliver deduces the truth and leaves a hidden message for the police detective he anticipates will be responsible for solving the crime.

The second thread is DI Jack Caffery’s lifelong search for the truth about the abduction and presumed sexual assault and murder of his 9-year-old brother, Ewan.  The Caffery family lived just steps away from a known pedophile, and Jack has spent decades trying to discover what happened to his brother and to find his body.  He’s similar, in that respect, to Hayder’s continuing character known as the walking man.  The walking man is a homeless itinerant, but highly intelligent and educated man, whose daughter was abducted.  He searches as he walks, seeking her body, and sometimes shares information with Jack.  And sometimes he doesn’t.

The threads come together through coincidence, or as the walking man would have it, fate.   For the only hope for rescue of the Anchor-Ferrars family rests in the speedy exit of their Border terrier, Bear.  A note reading “Help Us,” and including their address, was attached to Bear’s collar by Mrs. Anchor-Ferrars, who then threw the dog down the fireplace chimney.  Injured and with most of the note missing, Bear is discovered by a little blonde girl – Amy – in the nearby park who turns to none other than the walking man for help.  And the walking man turns to Jack, dangling the potential of information about Ewan from a new source as his incentive to track down Bear’s owners.

And thus does Jack Caffery begin his search, even as Honey and Molina are inflicting mental torture and physical abuse on the family.  It’s a long and complicated process, and Jack prevails in bringing all the perpetrators to justice, although the day is not entirely saved.  (I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.)

Mo Hayder has written a perfect Rubik’s cube of a puzzle, where all the pieces slot perfectly into place but there’s a lot of looking at things in new ways to make them do so.  At the same time, the characters are simply the most well-drawn and compelling characters – good guys, bad guys, and minor walk-ons alike – that I have seen in … well, forever, really.  The book itself is painful at many points and the resolution of the mystery of Jack’s brother Ewan is surprising, ironic, and completely in keeping with the synchronicity of life’s events.

So, there’s the review – but what about the ranking?  The #1 ranked novel, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, is an excellent book and I look forward to more from Bill Hodges.  But Mo Hayder’s Wolf is a deeper experience all together – it takes the top spot.   I forecast Wolf as the big winner at the Edgar Awards ceremony this week.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Wolf by Mo Hayder
  2. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  3. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  4. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  5. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
  6. This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

The Mystery Writers of America Edgars Banquet is Wednesday, April 29.  That night, the winners of the Best Novel and Best First Novel awards will be announced, among others.  My former colleague Jim Klise is up for an Edgar for his YA novel, The Art of Secrets.  (Good luck, Jim!)  We’ll see if he prevails, and if my calls of Mo Hayder’s Wolf and Tim Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley are on the money.

Beat the clock: This Dark Road to Mercy & the Edgars

dark roadSuper-speedy rereading occurring here in Okemos, as I endeavor to get all the nominees reviewed and ranked before the Wednesday evening Edgar banquet.  I imagine all the authors (many crime fiction luminaries!) calming their respective tummy butterflies as the hours grow short.  Next up:  Wiley Cash‘s This Dark Road to Mercy.

Cash was unknown to me prior to this nomination.  In fact, Dark Road is just his second novel.  His debut, A Land More Kind than Home, is on my must-read-after-the-Edgars list.   An Edgar nom for Best Novel on his second outing is quite an accomplishment, and it’s well-deserved.

Here’s the set-up:  Twelve-year-old Easter Quillby and her 9-year-old sister Ruby are in a foster home following their mother’s death by overdose.  The girls have had a tough life with their troubled mom and their dad, a former pro baseball player named Wade Chesterfield, gave up his parental rights years ago.  Now Wade wants them back, and that means sneaking them out the window and taking them on the run.  And it’s not just family court that’s looking for them, it’s a hit man with a grudge against Wade that’s even more important to him than getting back the hundreds of thousands of dollars the opportunistic Wade lifted from mobbed-up criminal Tommy Broughman.

The story is told from three perspectives:  Easter, would-be hitman Robert “Bobby” Pruitt, and Brady Weller.  Weller is the girls’ guardian ad litem, a former police detective who was forced from his position when he accidentally ran over – in his own driveway – the teenage neighbor who mowed his lawn.   The multiple POV approach works well for the reader, and we quickly bond with both Easter and Brady.  It would be a stretch to say that I bonded with Pruitt, but his motivation… and the depths to which he would sink in order to harm Wade… were clear, believable, and chilling.  

While a compelling crime novel, the book is even more effective as the story of the love that binds a family together, character flaws and all.  I forecast a film treatment in Dark Road’s future.  Unfortunately for Cash, he’s up against some pretty heavy hitters in this year’s Edgar race.  Although it’s a good story, well-told, he’s outclassed by his competitors.  Hence, the eminently readable Wiley Cash takes the #5 spot.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  3. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  4. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
  5. This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

Mr. Mercedes enters Edgar ranking for Best Novel

mercedeIn the immortal words of Bart Simpson:  Ay, carumba.

My reading, reviewing and ranking is running out of time, with just three of the nominees for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel checked off… and they are neck and neck and neck, to boot.

It’s not getting any easier.  As the clock ticks down to Wednesday’s big reveal at the Edgars Banquet in NYC, Stephen King – master of the horror genre among other literary achievements – is now on board with his detective novel, Mr. Mercedes.  It’s a classic for the genre, but feels fresh, thanks to King’s spin.

The book opens with the victims.  Down-on-his-luck Augie Odenkirk has queued up late one evening for a jobs fair that doesn’t open till the next morning… but he’s bound and determined to be one of the lucky ones.  He’s in line next to the even sadder Janice Cray and her baby.  The crowd swells.  And then the artful King begins to build suspense with an outcry from the within the mob, identifying the source of the voice as  “… Keith Frias, whose left arm would shortly be torn from his body.”  Indeed it would, by the madman driving a stolen gray Mercedes. And this is King’s strength – to portray a scene, a short scene, really, and introduce the people there and make the reader care about Augie and Janice and her baby Patti, and then to drop inescapable horror into the midst of them.   Thus is our killer introduced – through his impact on his victims.

Now fast forward to retired Detective Bill Hodges.  He and his partner Pete had tried and failed to apprehend Mr. Mercedes.   The crime scene reveals the bad guy to be smart and evil, with a wickedly twisted sense of humor.  Hodges is the classic washed-up detective, lonely, overweight, watching too much TV and eyeing his gun, haunted by crimes unsolved.  The bright spot in his life is not friends or family, but Jerome, the African-American teen who cuts his lawn.

Then one day Hodges receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, taunting him and suggesting that Hodges would be better off dead.   But instead of feeding Hodges’ sense of failure, the letter intrigues him.  We see the detective Hodges had been:  a smart and intuitive problem-solver.  And thus begins the cat and mouse game.  But who is the cat?  And who is the mouse?

King reveals the identity of Mr. Mercedes early on, and Brady Hartsfield is truly sick (in both senses of the word).   Brady works by day at a discount computer store “geek squad,”  drives an ice cream truck in the afternoon and spends his evenings in a basement lair filled with explosives and computer gadgetry.  He’s a 28-year old virgin (unless you count the many times his mom has helped ease his “headache” by fondling something a little farther south) who killed his little brother, murdered eight people and maimed countless more with a stolen car, drove the car’s owner to suicide, and is entertaining himself by doing the same to Det. Hodges prior to committing some final unspecified heinous suicidal act of mayhem.

King stays true to the genre as Hodges decides to solve the crime himself, enlists his Harvard-bound lawn boy as his new partner, taps into his contacts for intel, and starts hitting the streets even as he engages Brady in an online private chat room.   The only thing missing is the love interest… oh, wait, here she is!  Janey Patterson is the sister of the woman who owned the Mercedes Brady stole; the woman who killed herself out of guilt for leaving her keys in the car that was used in the vehicular massacre.  Or at least that’s what Bill Hodges thought at the time.  Now that he’s met Janey and gained a new perspective on her sister Olivia, he realizes that he and his partner jumped to the easy conclusion.  His regret only ramps up his determination to bring the killer to justice.

But enough synopsizing.  King’s writing is flawless, and he escalates the suspense masterfully.  There’s not a wasted paragraph nor clunky plot hole to be found.  (Unlike his recent Revival.  Enough said.)  The characters are great, particularly Janey’s cousin Holly, who starts out a compulsive, mother-pecked bundle of nerves and through sheer grit, becomes a hero.  Hodges’ rebirth into a man of action through the application of romance is a breath of fresh air.   Especially good news is that Mr. Mercedes is evidently the first book in a planned trilogy, so I’m looking forward to more of Hodges, Jerome and Holly.  (Next up:  Finders Keepers.)

How does King’s novel stack up against such stiff competition as Cop Town, The Final Silence, and Saints of the Shadow Bible?   No doubt about it – it’s #1.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  3. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  4. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

Edgar race heats up with Final Silence

silenceI’ve got to tell you, 2015 is the toughest race yet for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel.  So far I’ve reviewed two books by well-known and well-loved authors of the police procedural, the UK’s Ian Rankin and USA’s Karin Slaughter.  And the competition heats up further with the third entry, Stuart Neville‘s The Final Silence.  Neville was unknown to me prior to this nomination, but I’ve come to learn that he is a popular Scottish crime fiction writer.  His primary protagonist is Detective Inspector Jack Lennon of Belfast.

In this outing, DI Lennon is just barely a DI.  A widower, single parent to a traumatized daughter following the very-likely-Jack’s-fault murder of her mother, Jack’s addicted to painkillers and making a mess of his personal and his professional life.  When Rea Carlisle, politician Graham Carlisle’s daughter, inherit’s her uncle’s home, she also inherits his secrets:  Uncle Raymond was very likely a serial killer.  Her abusive dad wants to burn the evidence, her cowed mother goes along with that plan, but Rea turns to an ex-boyfriend for help:  Jack Lennon.

Of course, by the time Jack meets Rea at the uncle’s home, someone’s broken in and lifted the book… and he wonders if it ever existed.  She gives him an old photo of Uncle Raymond with Graham Carlisle and some others, which makes it clear that not only did Carlisle know his brother-in-law a great deal better than he let on, they both had been involved in some kind of paramilitary organization back in the day.  “Find out if my father was even suspected of anything . . . bad,” she asks.  Jack reluctantly agrees and heads out, slamming the stubborn front door three times to get the lock to catch.

By morning, Rea is dead, bludgeoned to death by the very crowbar she used to pry open the locked door her uncle kept his secrets hidden behind.  And Jack Lennon’s the primary suspect.  Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan is investigating.  DCI Flanagan is smart and tough, with a strong sense of character judgment, a supportive spouse and two small children.  She’s also challenged with a breast cancer diagnosis that she’s hiding from her husband.

While eluding arrest, Lennon manages to use the one friend he has left on the force and a criminal who owes him a favor or two to unearth the truth about Graham Carlisle, his brother-in-law Raymond Drew, and the strange friendship Raymond had with his colleague at arms, a serial killer known as the Sparkle.  Prodded by DCI Flanagan, he also manages to pull himself up out of the depths and give up the comfort of pills-and-booze and rescue his daughter from the clutches of his dead wife’s controlling relatives.

So.  Augh.  Tough one.  Here’s what’s compelling about The Final Silence: Great characters, heroes, villains, and victims alike.  Lennon’s a flawed but good guy.  Flanagan’s out-and-out awesome.  Uncle Raymond’s pathetic.  The Sparkle is compellingly twisted. And Rea Carlisle’s a victim, but she’s around till chapter 16, which gives us plenty of time to admire her and to gasp in shock when we read Neville’s first line in that chapter:  It took hours for Rea Carlisle to die.   Her parents leap off the page, real people.   And the plot makes the book a page-turner.

But how does it compare to Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible and Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town? Frankly, we’ve got three 5-star books here.   I could make a compelling argument for any one of these books to receive the Edgar.  But when all is said and done, I’m going to continue to give it to Cop Town for originality, move The Final Silence into the #2 position for characterization, and leave Saints of the Shadow Bible third in the ranking.  (Although I reserve the right to change my mind upon further reflection, that’s how conflicted I am.)

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  2. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  3. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town Best Novel Nominee

coptownI grabbed another police procedural for my second book to read, review and rank for the Mystery Writers of America‘s Edgar award for Best Novel this year:  Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town.  Slaughter’s a well-established author, like Rankin, albeit a younger one.  According to her website, she writes two series, although both are set in Georgia and feature overlapping characters.  The book that’s up for an Edgar is a standalone.  And what a standalone it is.

Cop Town‘s set in 1974 Atlanta, and the protagonists are officers Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy.  For Maggie, Atlanta is truly a cop town – her brother, her uncle, in fact, most of the guys she knows and grew up with are all with the police.  And in Atlanta in 1974, the police department is about as segregated as it gets.   White rides with white, black with black, and when it comes to gender… man, no guy wants to ride with a woman.  Maggie’s got the street smarts and the experience (mostly from her time with Gail Patterson, an experienced detective, who’s both profane and surprisingly tender).  But at home, she’s chopped liver.  Her mother dotes on her brother Jimmy while Maggie does everybody’s ironing and takes the back of her uncle Terry’s hand – and worse – whenever he’s angry with her.

Enter Kate Murphy, her first day on the force.  Kate’s blonde, beautiful, rich, Jewish and a widow.  There’s no hiding the first two attributes, but she keeps the final three well-buried.  She’s also smart, determined, and willing to learn.

The world they’re living in:  Somebody’s shooting cops, execution-style... and not from a distance.  Somehow they’re getting up close and personal, getting the victim to call in for a break, unplug his radio, kneel on the ground and take a bullet to the brain.  Only the most recent victim is a little different:  It was Jimmy Lawson’s partner who was killed while Jimmy watched, horrified, just a few yards away.  And Maggie and Kate are determined to find the killer.  

The job’s a tough one, because they not only have to piece together the clues, but they have to do so by crossing the color line (the barriers they have to overcome just to get to talk to a black pimp!) while all the male cops either shut them out or harass them.  It takes them just four action-packed days.

Needless to say, Cop Town‘s an out-and-out fantastic crime thriller.  The pacing, the police work, the dialogue, plus the occasional sneak peek into the killer’s POV, keeps it moving right along.  It’s a gritty book, too.  The violence isn’t gratuitous, but Slaughter doesn’t shy away.  Add in great, three-dimensional characters and even some character development – you know I’m going to love that.  Then, throw in the fact that I was 19 in 1974… man, I can relate to Maggie and Kate.  We were all trying to convince ourselves that we could do anything we wanted to do.

Still, how does Cop Town stack up against Saints of the Shadow Bible?  That’s a tough one.  Saints is a superior Rebus novel, and I love Rebus.  In Goodreads parlance, Saints is a five-star book for me, and so is Cop Town.  But I’m going to have to give Cop Town the edge for originality.   Slaughter’s told a tough story from a unique perspective and done it exceedingly well.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings:  Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  2. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

First Up for Best Novel: Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible

shadowAt about this time last year, I read Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible for the first time.   I actually started a blog post to review it, but had to move on, because the 2014 Edgar nominees had been announced.  Now I’m back with an actual review, having read it twice, because it’s up for a 2015 Edgar for Best Novel.  What goes around comes around!  So it’s first up in the Lunchbox read, review, rank-fest.

Rereading this book was a pleasure, because I’m a Rankin fan – particularly his Rebus series – and in Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rebus is paired with the protagonist of Rankin’s new series, Malcolm Fox.  (Click here for my take on the new series.)

We’ve been through a lot with Rebus.  He’s been at the top of his game.  He’s been retired.  He’s come back to work cold cases as a civilian.  In Saints, Rebus is back in the CID as a Detective Sergeant, and his old colleague, Siobhan Clarke, is a Detective Inspector – in fact, his boss.  Rebus, no longer top dog, is investigating a questionable car wreck.  Was Jessica Traynor truly driving alone on that lonely road where her car crashed, or was someone else driving – say, her boyfriend, Forbes McCuskey?  That Jessica is the daughter of a well-known baddie, while McCuskey’s the son of a politician makes it all the more enticing.  Meanwhile, Fox is investigating a 30-year-old case, and has strong suspicions that Rebus’ old crowd (well-known for rough treatment, cutting corners, and even the occasional evidence-plant) was responsible for the death of a criminal and the subsequent cover-up.

Thirty years is a long time, and the Saints of the Shadow Bible, as the crew called themselves, have moved on.  Rebus, the youngest and least trusted of the Saints back in the day, is still on the job.  Others have retired, one is dead, one’s at death’s door, and one – Stefan Gilmour – took a fall and left the force early on.  Gilmour, now a successful business man and active in Scots politics, has the most to lose.  Malcolm Fox is out to team up with John Rebus, to use him to get information about the Saints, counting on John’s basic decency.

But loyalty is hard to overcome.  Sticking together, over the line sometimes, but always getting results, so bad behavior was forgiven.  As Rebus explained,  “But the Shadow Bible was the copy of Scots Criminal Law we were given.  Big black thing with a leather cover and brass screws.  And we all spat on it and rubbed it in till it was dry.  I thought it was a kind of oath, but it wasn’t – we were saying the rules could go to hell, because we knew better.  We were the ones in the field…”

In Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rebus has to come down on one side or the other – loyalty to his former friends and colleagues, or the truth.  And when a 30-year-old crime results in a present-day murder, Rebus can no longer look away.  There are some impressive titles nominated this year, but Saints will be a tough one to beat – this is Rankin’s fourth nomination of a Rebus book for Best Novel, and he won in 2004 for Resurrection Men (a fabulous book).

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings for MWA Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin