Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs up next

raindogsSo, Adrian McKinty is quite thrilled with his Edgar nom for the second year in a row in the Best Original Paperback category.  Last year’s nominees included his Gun Street Girl, which lost out by MWA and Literary Lunchbox-wise to Lou Berney’s Long and Far Away Gone.  That being said, I really liked Gun Street Girl.  And he has a pretty darn good shot at the Edgar this year for Rain Dogs.

The book is the fifth in the Detective Sean Duffy series.  Duffy’s an Irish police detective (Carrickfergus CID) in late-1980s Ireland.  He got to work security detail on Muhammed Ali’s visit to Belfast (good stuff), but his younger girlfriend’s moving out, he has to look under his car before he gets into it to make sure he’s not about to be blown up (those mercury bombs, one slip-up and you’re history), and his inept boss can’t even unravel a who-lifted-the-Finnish-big-shot’s wallet case (solution: one of his own traveling companions).  On the plus side, he has a great team in Sgt. “Crabbie” McCrabban and DC Alexander Lawson.

One of the thing I love about the Duffy series is the tone – it’s written in the first person, and Duffy is a great character.   He’s smart, capable, funny, wry, and eminently human.  Bad stuff, scary stuff happens, and he handles it, but there’s not a hint of noir bleakness.  (Not that I don’t also love noir!)

And the “misplaced” wallet cracks open a doorway into a much darker and complicated crime.  The Finnish entourage include Mr. Laakso – a very big deal in Finland – and his colleague Mr. Ek, the twin nephews of the company owner, Nicolas and Stefan Lennatin, as well as reporter Lily Bigelow, on the scene to cover the visit, and Duffy’s former colleague Tony McIlroy, providing security.  The Finns are there ostensibly to evaluate the  location as a potential site for a mobile phone factory.

While in town, the group heads for the one real tourist destination, Carrickfergus Castle.  And the next morning, Lily Bigelow’s body is found at the castle, an apparent suicide.  Duffy has strong doubts about the suicide, but can’t figure out how she could have been murdered, because there is no way the murderer would not have been discovered along with the body.  It’s a locked room mystery of the highest order.  And it’s the second locked room mystery that Duffy’s faced in his career.  Hmmm, what are the odds?

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Lily did not kill herself.  But why she was killed, what she was looking into, and how Duffy, Lawson and McCrabban figure it all out is a great read.  It’s especially frustrating, once the truth is revealed, to see Mr. Ek slip out of Duffy’s clutches, and then particularly satisfying to learn how justice is served, quietly and without fanfare.

I understand that McKinty originally planned for the Duffy series to be a trilogy, and especially with this fifth book, how wonderful it is that he kept going!  He is an assured writer, the book is well-plotted, the characters and camaraderie a plus, and the emotional connection growing.  The break-up subplot has a twist at the end the ensures a new phase of life for Sean Duffy in book #6, which I anticipate eagerly – it’s out March 7 and titled Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.

Compared to the other books nominated, Rain Dogs is just the work of a more mature and well-developed author.  It’s the whole package and takes the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox Edgar ranking!

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

  1. Rain Dogs – Adrian McKinty
  2. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  3. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  4. Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
  5. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott

Ellie Stone series entry gets Edgar nom

stoneFourth up in the Best Original Paperback category of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar awards is James W. Siskin’s Heart of Stone.  Set in 1961, the series features a young Jewish reporter, Eleonora (Ellie) Stone.  Ellie’s summer holiday with her family in the Adirondacks is interrupted when local sheriff Ralph Terwilliger asks her to photograph two dead bodies nearby.  To all appearances, a teenage boy from an area summer camp and an unknown man of 30 or so both tried to dive off Baxter’s Rock (a good 75 feet above the water), misjudged the jump and died on the rocks below.  Terrible accident?  Or something more sinister? 

While Ellie marvels at the crass ineptitude of the sheriff, she also has the opportunity to renew her acquaintance with Isaac Eisenstadt.  He’s charming, smart, and good-looking, even if he does have a way of assuming that Ellie not as intelligent or cultured as he is.  Isaac’s one of the group at the Arcadia Lodge, a Jewish intellectual community where political discourse and musical performance is accompanied by heavy drinking and lots of sleeping around.  Ellie proves herself a worthy companion for the group, even though Isaac seems more interested in her sexually than in her intellect.

Back to the bodies:  The boy is quickly identified and Ellie learns that he had seen his girlfriend early that morning and was on his way back to camp after their assignation (a little Romeo and Juliet-ish, as he was at a Jewish summer camp and she is the daughter of the local pastor).  The man takes a little longer, but he turns out to be Karl Marx Merkleson, a boyhood friend of the Arcadia Lodge group, who converted to Christianity, changed his name, and became a rich California film producer.

What ties the boy and the man together?  What happened atop that rocky outcropping?  Along the way to discovering the answer, Ellie becomes deeply embroiled in the interpersonal relationships of the Arcadia Lodge group, learning their secrets – some banal, some distasteful and one heartbreaking.  There are plenty of red herrings along the way, although the astute reader may divine the answer earlier than the author expects.  (The relevant clue was not sufficiently buried.)

There’s a lot of Jewish intellectual social milieu in Heart of Stone, and I can only assume it’s accurate – here’s an interview I found online that expounds upon that a bit.  Overall it’s an entertaining read and I’m likely to go back to the beginning and read the three earlier books in the series.

It’s pretty interesting that at least three of the four books so far in this category are set in the pastA Brilliant Death in 1963, The 7th Canon in 1987, Heart of Stone in 1961.  Even Shot in Detroit, while published just last year, is set in 2007.   Overall, while Ellie Stone is a bright and likable main character, I found Siskin’s Heart of Stone to be less compelling than the Yocum and Dugoni books – so it takes the #3 ranking, while Shot in Detroit keeps its spot at the bottom.

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

  1. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  2. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  3. Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
  4. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott

 

 

Next up: Dugoni’s The 7th Canon

dugoniAfter the first two nominees in the Best Paperback Original category of the MWA Edgar awards, I was totally ready for a legal thriller.  That’s a genre that experienced author Robert Dugoni is familiar with (see his David Sloane series).  Dugoni’s  The 7th Canon is a classic of that genre.

Young, idealistic, talented lawyer?  Check, Peter Donley. Experienced mensch of a mentor?  Yep, Uncle Lou Giantelli.  Dirty cop?  Check, Dixon Connor.  Unethical politician?  Of course, and for variety, it’s a father/son duo.  Experienced private detective on hand to save the lawyer’s bacon?  Yes, Frank Ross.  Innocent client accused of heinous murder?  Absolutely, and he’s a priest!  Father Thomas Martin.

The action is set in 1987, but the plot is timeless, and frankly, I kept looking for a plot point that would require that time frame and couldn’t find one.  The crime in question is heinous indeed.  Someone has tortured and murdered a male teenage prostitute and the body is discovered in Father Martin’s homeless shelter.  A cop at the scene breaks into Father Martin’s study and discovers the murder weapon as well as a cache of violent pedophile pornographic photographs.

It looks bad, and Donley is thrown in over his head when his Uncle Lou suffers a heart attack.  Still, he does his best, and is mystified when it appears that the prosecutor is hinting at a plea agreement – a guilty plea for 25 years to life, with a recommendation for 25 years.  Donley may have only three years of experience, but this sets off his radar – it just doesn’t make sense.  The prosecutor should be all-in for the death penalty.   This might be tempting for the lawyer, but Father Tom would rather be put to death than say he is guilty when he is not.  That leaves the legal team with only one option:  find the real killer.

The legal maneuvering is first rate, the plot escalates nicely, and dangerous situations abound.  Dugoni gives Donley a compelling backstory – at age 18, he may have murdered his abusive father.  The story has numerous twists and turns, but moves forward to the expected victory on the side of justice.  In fact, that may be my only quibble – that the discoveries are too easily made along the way.  It reminds me of the Rockford Files character played by Tom Selleck, who would declare “it’s time for a clue!” and one would handily come forward.  That Lance White led a charmed life.

Still, it’s almost too harsh to wish for more dead ends.  And I’d probably complain about a  switcheroo ending (the priest really did it!).  But how does The 7th Canon stack up to Shot in Detroit and A Brilliant Death?  It’s clearly superior to Shot in Detroit just for quality of writing and plot coherence.   When it comes to A Brilliant Death, I’m really quite fond of the framing device of looking back to past events, and Yocum does an excellent job of it, maintaining the suspense and holding back critical information in a way that feels natural (not like cheating).   For me, it’s neck and neck between Yocum’s and Dugoni’s books, and I give a slight edge to A Brilliant Death for the creativity of the plotting.  It keeps the lead.

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

  1. A Brilliant  Death – Robin Yocum
  2. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  3. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott

Abbott and Yocum: Both new to me

The first two books I’m reading, reviewing and ranking for the Literary Lunchbox Best Paperback Original Edgar are Patricia Abbott’s Shot in Detroit and A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum.

Yocum’s got great credentials:  he’s a former crime and investigative reporter, winner of more than 30 awards for journalism, and the author of several previous novels, one of which was USA Today’s 2011 book of the year for mystery/suspense.  On the other hand, Abbott has published 65 short stories, has won the Deringer award, and is the mother of Edgar award winner Megan Abbott.  I expected a pretty tight race between the two.

I’ll go ahead and cut the suspense:  Yocum crushed it.

shot-in-detroitShot in Detroit has a great concept:  Late-30s, single white female photographer is living on the edge and looking for her artistic edge when her African-American boyfriend calls to ask her to photograph one of his corpses.  (It’s okay because his a mortician and the family is requesting it.)   Voila!  An artistic hook.  Plus, she really gets into portraying the dark variety of death.  But there’s no central crime, no mystery to be solved, and when photographer Violet Hart photographs her own boyfriend’s crushed corpse, it’s jump the shark time.  This is a book that could have been so much more.  Best part:  a real understanding of Detroit and its neighborhoods.

brilliantMeanwhile, Robin Yocum’s A Brilliant Death is reminiscent of John Hart’s Down River (although not as dark).  Mitch Malone, the narrator, promises to relate a story that he has kept a secret until the death of his best friend’s father… the story of how he and that friend, Travis Baron, investigated the disappearance (and as becomes evident, the murder) of Travis’ mother.  How their graduation night took a tragic turn.  And how ultimately, justice prevailed.  The book is suspenseful, well-plotted, characters compelling and believable (both heroes and villains), and the writing first-rate.

A Brilliant Death takes the top spot.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Original Paperback

  1. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  2. Shot in Detroit – Patricia Abbott

mwa_logo

Edgar starts NOW!

edgarEvery year, I read, review, and rank the MWA Edgar finalists in 2-3 categories, and overall, about half the time the Literary Lunchbox pick for the Edgar and the actual winner line up.  Some years, I miss them all.  One year, I batted .1000.  But given that there are 5-6 entries in each category, I do okay.  It helps that I’m not trying to forecast the winner, I’m just telling you who would win if LL was in charge of the award program.  So I can always think that MWA got it wrong!

This year, I’m going to start with the Best Paperback Original category, because that’s where I found my favorite Edgar book from last year, Lou Berney’s Long and Faraway Gone.  It won.  (Also the Macavity, Anthony and Barry awards!)

shot

Here’s this year’s line up!

  • Shot in Detroit – Patricia Abbott
  • Come Twilight – Tyler Dilts
  • The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  • Rain Dogs – Adrian McKinty
  • A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  • Heart of Stone – James W. Siskin

Only Robert Dugoni and Adrian McKinty are familiar to me, and frankly, McKinty’s book is the one to beat from my perspective.  He’s a seasoned author, Rain Dogs is an entry in a popular series featuring Irish detective Sean Duffy, and as it happens, I already read it and loved it.  But I try to wipe that all from my mind and read for more than sheer enjoyment during Edgar time.

Once Best Original Paperback is done, I expect to go through Best First Novel by an American Author and finish up with Best Novel.  This year’s banquet is on April 27, so that gives me three months to get through them all.  Generally I manage to squeak by, time-wise.

My good friend and writing buddy Addy Whitehouse will also be reviewing this year – you can find her here.  She uses a different system – a 1-10 rating – so theoretically she could end up with a tie!  Occasionally I love something she hates, and vice versa.  Thus proving there is something out there for everyone…

Grisham’s Whistler ho-hum

I remember when I first read my first John Grisham book.  The Firm was (and is) a pulse-pounding, labyrinthine legal thriller, expertly plotted and with characters you care about.  Awesome.  I back-tracked and read A Time to Kill, which is now enshrined in my memory in two ways:  the b00k – which made me turn pages ferociously while blinking back tears – and the excellent film featuring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson.  The Pelican Brief.  The Client.  The Runaway Jury.  That man was on a serious roll.

whistlerGrisham’s The Whistler is not up to that standard.  The basis for the story has a lot of promise – an informant tells investigators for an underfunded and undermanned agency that investigates judicial misconduct that a prominent judge has been taking bribes to rule in favor of a Florida mob that’s exploiting an Indian tribe to rake off untold millions in illegal profits from a variety of unsavory ventures.  The investigators – Lacy Stoltz and her partner Hugo Hatch – are a likable, honest, intelligent pair who are pretty naive, and seriously outgunned by both the informant and the bad guys.  Tension ratchets when Hugo is killed, the pair having been lured to a remote location, their car deliberately rammed by a stolen van, and Lacy’s memory of the event is hazy.

There are a myriad of complications – the informant is just a front man for the real whistleblower, who is close to the judge and not difficult to identify. With the exception of Lacy, it’s hard to care much about any of the good guys, and the bad guys are so over the top they’re practically twirling their villainous mustaches.  But most egregiously, the legal noose tightens with little panache – it’s a straight march from figuring out who did what to bringing them to justice, all laid out nice and neatly in the epilogue.  All the ingredients for a legal thriller are there, it’s just not very thrilling.

Still, The Whistler is a huge improvement over Grisham’s most recent book, Rogue Lawyer.  I got that one as a  CD to listen to while making a long drive by car, and actually stopped at a rest stop to look at the cover to make sure it was really John Grisham.  It’s less a novel than a series of long short stories featuring a cage-fighting, low-life defending, underdog defense attorney.  He’s so colorful as to be technicolor, and about as believable as a Marvel comic book.  I’m sure it had its fans, though.

Recommend The Whistler as a Christmas gift for your thriller-loving dad?  If he’s discerning, you might give it a pass.  If not, go for it.  The Whistler may not be vintage Grisham, but it’s still Grisham.

 

 

Lee Child back with prequel Night School

night-schoolLee Child’s new Jack Reacher book, Night School, has two strikes against it, according to my husband.  One, Reacher’s working with a team.  Two, it’s set in the past.  According to book critic-slash-graphic designer-slash-artist Mr. B, the best Reacher stories are present-day and Reacher, solo, against the bad guys.

All of which goes to prove that Karen and her hubby don’t always agree.  Set in the mid-90s, Night School features a 35-year-old Reacher teaming up with his opposite numbers at the FBI and the CIA for a covert operation in Germany.  The goal: to find out what jihadists would pay $100 million for, where it came from, and who is “the American” who is selling it to them.  And, of course, to stop the sale and recover whatever it is.  Because it’s sure to be bad.

So here is what Reacher naysayers won’t like about Night School:  Reacher wins all his fights, even when it’s eight to one (or should I say eight to two, since the charming-yet-lethal Sgt. Frances Neagy does finish off the last one, arriving just in the nick of time).  Reacher is irresistible to the one high-ranking, ultra-attractive older woman on the team, and their sexual escapades are almost too much.  (Again?  she asks.  Yes, but then again, he’s younger than she is.)  He throws away his clothes and buys new ones, even when he’s not moving around and could go to the laundromat.  His insights almost always pay off, eventually.  And the characters are all about 2 inches deep.

And of course, what fans like:  All of the previous paragraph.  Plus the twistiness of the plot.  His breaking the rules to save the innocent.  Plus, Reacher’s infallibility when it comes to sizing things up and doing what needs to be done – even if it’s shooting an unarmed man in the heart.  And then the head.  Because he’s a really, really bad man.

So, count me among the fans.  I know it’s a formula.  But I like the formula.  I like 6’5″, 250 lb. guys who are ultra-cool under pressure.  (Not that I know any in real life.  It would probably be super scary and I’d back away, slowly, if I met one.)   And with Night School, you get what you came for, in spades.