My Lovely Wife last up for Edgar…

wifeThere’s just three days to go until the Mystery Writers of America announce the Edgar award winners for 2020.  I’m excited to be back reviewing and ranking the Literary Lunchbox Edgars!  I’m just getting in under the wire with the final nominee for the Best First Novel by an American author, My Lovely Wife by Samantha Dowling.  I have to admit, this is one of my favorite kinds of mysteries:  the psychological thriller.  The protagonist is a happily married man in early middle age, a tennis pro at the local country club, with a beautiful, accomplished wife and two good kids.  So why is he pretending to be deaf and picking up a woman in a bar?

There’s something a little twisted going on, and we soon come to realize that this man and his wife are playing sexual games with a deadly twist.  Told in first person by the unnamed man, it’s a story of a man pulled in over his head… someone whose better nature is overrun by his wife’s irresistible pull.  He’s trying hard not to kill anyone!  After all, the first murder was really an accident, and the second one was just because they were trying to throw the police off track, and the third one… Besides, he didn’t do the killing.  His wife did.

The plot ratchets up the intensity when it becomes apparent that the lovely wife is stark, staring nuts, but crafty and clever with it.  She’s set it up so that her husband is going to take the fall, while she gets off scot free with their unsuspecting kids.  There’s a showdown, kids fly to save dad, and all’s well that end’s well.  Or is it?  The ending’s as twisty as my pug’s tail.

I’m leaving out a lot, but that’s the crux of the plot.  The various subplots all serve to move the story forward or reveal more about the characters.  Downing does a great job luring us to rely upon her unreliable narrator, and the pace of the plot, the well-timed increase in tension, the sheer page-turning suspense in the book is fantastic.  It’s a little Gone Girl-esque.  It’s a great debut.

But how does it rank against the other nominees?  Frankly, I could make a case for any of the nominees as the award recipient (except for Three-Fifths, which others seem to adore, but I thought was pretty clunky).  American Spy and The Good Detective were really pretty neck-and-neck, and now comes My Lovely Wife to give them a run for the money.  For sheer enjoyment, I’m going to put it at the top of the list.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. My Lovely Wife, Samantha Dowling
  2. The Good Detective, John McMahon
  3. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  4. Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
  5. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  6. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

I’ll look forward to my own, personal celebration of the Edgars on Thursday night when the winners are announced!  Will they agree that Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl is deserving of Best Novel?  That My Lovely Wife takes home the Edgar for Best First Novel?  We shall see.

The Good Detective Best First Edgar Nom

goodSo far I’ve recapped four of the six finalists for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for the Best First Novel by an American Author – two spy tales, a racially-themed crime story, and a not-the-usual-formula legal thriller.  Next up is John McMahon’s police procedural The Good Detective, which poses an unusual question:  How do you solve a crime if you killed the prime suspect?  

That “if” is a big question for Detective Paul Thomas (P.T.) Marsh of Mason Falls, Georgia.  Big-hearted P.T. set out to help a stripper by throwing a scare into her neo-Nazi abusive boyfriend.  He thought that a beating and a threat would do the trick.  The next morning, he’s called to a murder scene.  Yep, it’s that guy.  If only P.T. could remember for sure, but ever since his wife and son were killed in a car wreck, he’s been drinking even more heavily than he did before.  Blackouts are a pretty common occurrence.

The bad situation gets even worse when another body is discovered:  a black teenager named Kendrick Webster has been tortured, lynched and murdered.   The cops – including P.T. – make a split-second decision to remove the rope, knowing full well that hiding this element of the crime may save the family some anguish, but it also puts on the pressure to solve it quickly.  This being a small town in Georgia, there are no lack of suspects – including the guy Det. Marsh might have killed, but solving it requires unearthing a motive that’s not obvious.

I read The Good Detective when it came out, spurred to do so by Marilyn Stasio’s review in the New York Times.   She subsequently named it one of the ten best mysteries of the year.  I agree with her… McMahon has a talent for writing interesting characters you will care about and setting them in a complex plot that isn’t overdone.  P.T. is an example of the flawed, guilt-ridden, substance-abusing policeman, a type that started for me with Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder.  Only instead of accidentally shooting and killing a young girl on a New York sidewalk as Scudder did, P.T. – happily drinking in his local tavern – ignored an incoming phone call from his wife.  He didn’t help her; she and their son died.  This colors how he sees the world, and as we turn the pages, we see Det. Marsh begin to emerge from his tragic fog.

The Good Detective concludes with a degree of forgiveness and an expectation of additional books featuring Detective Marsh, a prospect that I heartily endorse.  Police procedurals are one of my favorite subgenres, and The Good Detective is a superb example of the type.  It takes the top spot in the ranking.  Only one more to go!

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author
  1. The Good Detective, John McMahon
  2. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  3. Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
  4. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  5. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

Coming down to the wire… Miracle Creek

miracleAnd now for something completely different… Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.  This legal thriller is fourth in the race for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author.   Although the Edgars banquet has sadly been canceled for this year due to the pandemic – which makes total sense, since the banquet is in NYC – the winners will still be announced April 30.

The story hinges on the prosecution of Elizabeth Ward, the mother of an 8-year-old autistic boy, for his death and that of another child with disabilities in an explosion of a hyperbaric oxygen treatment chamber.  There’s no actual science to show that HBOT cures anything besides the decompression sickness that scuba divers get if they come up to the surface from the depths of the ocean too fast, but parents desperate for a cure will try anything, and as some might say, “what could it hurt?”  Prosecutors believe that Elizabeth, desperate to be freed from the burden of caring for her son, set a fire to ignite the oxygen flowing into the chamber.   The case is circumstantial, but believable.

Roshomon-like, the book alternates perspectives, including those of Young and Pak Yoo, the Chinese immigrants who have pinned their hopes on the “Miracle Submarine” installed on their rural Virginia property to lift their fortunes, their daughter Mary, who hopes to go to college, various parents and witnesses, and the defendant herself.  All the narrators are unreliable – telling the truth, but not all the truth.  Who really caused the explosion, and why?  You may guess, or you may not, but either way, it’s a compelling story.

The plot unfolds gradually, person by person and layer on top of layer.  Some readers may get annoyed by the leisurely pace, which undercuts the tension.   I was more dismayed by what I call an “idiot” plot – if practically anyone had not been such an idiot, there would be no mystery, and maybe not even a crime!  The good news is that everyone has a good reason for their foolish behavior.

On the plus side, the story is sound, the characterization rich, and the writing assured.  The focus on marginalized people – the Yoos as immigrants and the special needs children and their loving and anxious parents – grounds Miracle Creek in a bittersweet realism.  In comparison to the previously reviewed books, I’m going to rank it #2, between American Spy and The Secrets We Kept.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
  3. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  4. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

 

Three-Fifths Up Next in Edgar Race

Three FifthsNext up:  Three-Fifths by John Vercher.   It’s working class Pittsburgh, 1995 – hardly post-racial America – and 22-year-old Bobby Saraceno has a secret: he’s passing for white.  He never met his African-American father, and Isabel, his ashamed white mom, and racist grandfather have made sure that nobody knows the truth.  Now his good friend Aaron is home from prison, and Bobby’s shocked to find that he’s become a die-hard white supremacist.  That’s pretty ironic, because in high school Aaron was the embodiment of black culture, a black-wannabe.   Reunited, the two make a stop at a convenience store and Bobby, horrified, watches Aaron attack a young black man, beating his head in with a brick.  Aaron hops in the car and at his urging, Bobby drives off.  Reader, the young man dies.

What follows is Bobby’s story of angst, coming to terms with his identity, redemption, and ultimately, Bobby’s tragedy.  It’s interspersed with Isabel’s perspective as a young woman, how she came to be involved with Robert (Bobby’s dad), and why she chose to never to tell him of her pregnancy… and her interaction with him when she decides to seek him out, in the book’s present day.  A third perspective is Robert’s, a physician, and his surprise to see Isabel again and shock to learn he has a son.

This is a lot of plot, fueled by a ton of coincidences, and with numerous misunderstandings, both past and present.  There are many “you have got to be kidding me” moments.  It’s a soap opera of a book, but with plenty of explication.   Even the title over-reaches.  (“Three-fifths” refers to the proposed tax compromise of each person counting as one person and each slave counting as 3/5 of a person.)

Mystified about why the book received an Edgar nomination, I checked the ratings on Goodreads – 4.3.  People evidently loved this book.  I continue to be mystified.  Maybe it would be a good movie.  Needless to say, Three-Fifths does not bump either of the top two, and takes the #3 spot on the Edgar ranking.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  3. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

Edgar Nom Provides More Spies!

secretsAmerican Spy was the first nominee I reviewed for the Mystery Writers of America Best First Novel by an American Author… and the second nominee has even more spies!  The Secrets We Kept is Lara Prescott’s Cold War-era tale of espionage built on the true story of the CIA’s involvement in bringing Boris Pasternak’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Dr. Zhivago, to Russia.

The book features two narratives.   One features “the typists,” the CIA’s smart, capable, and underused women who are told to turn off the brains and let the words dictated by the men of the CIA flow through their headsets, into the ears, and down into their fingers and onto the typewriter page.  Occasionally, a typist is more than a typist.  And Irina, beautiful daughter of a Russian-born seamstress, is plucked from the typing pool for special training.  Glamorous and superior, the world-traveling Sally Forrester helps Irina hone her skills, and the women become close.  Really close.

The second narrative is the story of Olga Vsevolodovna, Boris Pasternak’s mistress and the inspiration for Lara in Dr. Zhivago.  She is his muse.  She and her two children can live nearby, accepting his financial support in exchange for giving up any semblance of a normal life.  And then one day she is picked up by the authorities, jailed, starved, and tortured because of her connection to Pasternak, whom the authorities suspect of writing a subversive novel.  Pregnant, she loses the baby, and comes home years later to pick up where she left off – aged beyond her years, but still beautiful to him.

The plot threads come together as a CIA department that sows dissent among the Russian people through literature plots to secure a copy of Dr. Zhivago in the original Russian in order to distribute it, clandestinely, in Russia.  This is done.  Pasternak wins, then refuses, the Nobel Prize.  He dies.  Olga is arrested once again, as is her daughter, in an effort to force her to reveal where she has hidden Pasternak’s money.

Here’s what works:  The underlying true story is mind-boggling.  The training in spycraft is fascinating.  The love affair between Irina and Sally is lovely.  The plotting is solid and the prose is well-written.

Not as good:  The men are pretty much cardboard characters and I couldn’t even work up much enthusiasm for Pasternak, even though he looked just like a young Omar Sharif in my brain.  And if only one of the star-crossed lesbians could be honest with the other!  And, at the end of the day, while I can accept that Dr Zhivago was filled with themes that were not Soviet-approved, what was the end result of this espionage?  Going by the world today, not much.  There was a lot of talk of love in this book, but not a lot of actual heart.

So how do the two spy novels stack up?  Starting out, I believed that The Secrets We Kept would come out on top, because it was so well-researched and had such a broad scope.  Plus, seriously, the blurbs and reviews were astounding.  However, American Spy was much more compelling, the main character had a very strong voice, and the reader cared much more about the outcome.  Therefore, the ranking keeps Lauren Wilkinson’s book  in the #1 spot.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott

 

 

Edgar Noms/Best First: American Spy

spyWhile much of America is hunkering down and can’t go to work, I’m sheltering-in-place but able to work remotely.  As a result, I’ve been reading but not reviewing.  Which is a shame, because I am working my way through the books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.  And – spoiler alert – all in all, it is an amazing bunch of books.  Better, in fact, than several of those nominated for Best Novel.  What’s up with that, MWA?   I’ll be reviewing American Spy today, and all the nominees include:

  • My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing (Penguin Random House – Berkley)
  • Miracle Creek by Angie Kim (Farrar Straus and Giroux –Sarah Crichton)
  • The Good Detective by John McMahon (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (Penguin Random House – Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Three-Fifths by John Vercher (Polis Books – Agora Books)
  • American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (Penguin Random House – Random House)

Usually I link each book nominated to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, for the convenience of those who want to order and read.  Today, I’m giving a shout-out to The Book Table in Oak Park, IL.  Please order from The Book Table!   This amazing independent bookstore will fill all orders through drop shipping and get their usual not-too-generous profit, and you will get the satisfaction of knowing you are keeping an wonderful bookstore up and running.

American Spy is a rich, complicated take on the spy thriller featuring an unusual spy.  The book opens in 1992, when sharp-eared suburban mom Marie Mitchell hears an intruder in her home.  Rather than rushing to the side of her 4-year old twin sons, she get out her gun, lies in wait, and shoots the man.   And he’s no burglar.  He’s an assassin.  Wow.

It turns out that Marie had been an FBI agent, and a good one, but stymied by the agency’s perspective on women which was, shall we say, not good.  It’s the mid-80s, and bored with infiltrating groups and running small-time informers, Marie cuts one loose, forging the required documents.  Big mistake.  She’s at loose ends and ripe for recruiting by the CIA, and the next thing we know, she’s been ordered to “get close” to Thomas Sankara, the charismatic president of the African nation, Burkina Faso.  The CIA’s plan?  To undermine his popularity by exposing his sexual indiscretion and install a puppet government more to America’s liking… or is it?  In the meanwhile, we know that boredom is just one of Marie’s motivators – her older sister Helene was also an operative, who was supposedly killed in a car wreck.  This new gig will give Marie the opportunity to get to work with Daniel Slater, Helene’s boss/boyfriend, and perhaps resolve some lingering questions.  I’ll say no more for fear of spoiler alerts, but you might not be surprised to hear that Marie is not a very loyal employee.

This is truly a masterful debut, and it’s no surprise to me that it was named one of 2019’s 10 Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.  The plot is tight:  every interaction serves to drive the plot forward or reveal backstory.  Marie is a surprising spy, due not only to her gender but her race (African-American), her upbringing (her dad’s a NYC cop and her mom abandoned the family for Martinique), and her smarts (top of her class).  Marie is fierce and she is guided at first, by her own innate sense of justice, but then, as a result of her unplanned pregnancy, by the need to keep her family safe at all costs.

I understand the book is inspired by true events:  the book jacket says that Thomas Sankara was known as “Africa’s Che Guevara.”  I don’t know what led author Lauren Wilkinson to use that real life history to create the fictional Marie Mitchell and American Spy, but I applaud her.  I hope there is another book on its way; the end of American Spy seems to indicate it’s likely.  Fingers crossed.

First reviewed takes top spot!  May even keep it.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson

On to Smoke and Ashes – Final Edgar Nom

smoke

Smoke and Ashes is the final nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, the third book in Abir Mukherjee’s series set in 1920’s Calcutta and  featuring British officer Sam Wyndham and his sergeant, “Surrender-not” Banerjee.  The debut novel, A Rising Man, was also a nominee for Best Novel in 2018.  It didn’t win and was last on the Literary Lunchbox ranking.  But still – first book and a nominee!  (My review of that book is here.)

The third book focuses on Christmas, 1921.  It’s a tumultuous historical time, when the Indian independence movement is in full swing and the followers of Gandhi are using nonnviolent resistance to press the oppressors and symbolic protests to unite the various indigenous factions.  About to arrive on the scene:  the Prince of Wales.   Lt. Wyndham is called by his superiors to investigate the murder of a woman.  Her eyes had been gouged out and two deep knife wounds were made to her chest.  This would have been upsetting to anyone, but it was a particular shock to Sam Wyndham, as he had seen the same mutilation of a previous corpse, just the night before.  Easy peasy, right?  Just connect the dots and solve the murders.  But Wyndham can’t admit to seeing the previous corpse, because he was stoned out of his mind on opium at the time, running for his life with the cops right behind him.  Yes, our hero is an addict thanks to a war injury and a second blow, his wife’s death of influenza, a few years previously.

What follows is a labyrinthine plot wherein more people die, Wyndham discovers what links the victims, he and Surrender-not set out to lure the murderer out into the open but are outwitted, all against the backdrop of Indian unrest and the stubbornness of the peaceful revolution’s leaders vs. the stubbornness of the British military and monarchy.  (A quick Google search turned up the info that India did not get its independence from Britain till 1947, so Mukherjee has 26 more years of stories to tell, should he choose to do so.)   Revealing the killer and what motivates him – a ruthless military project to develop a new, even more lethal mustard gas by testing it on Indian subjects – was not the end to the plot twists, though.

Here’s what works very well in Smoke and Ashes:  We genuinely like the main characters; the depiction of Surrender-not as a loyal friend and policeman, and the cultural pressure he feels as the go-between; the plot is complicated and horrifyingly believable; the writing is top-notch and pacing excellent.  However, not much is made of Wyndham’s addiction; evidently, a shot of kerdu pulp (from a gourd that is native to India) staves off withdrawal symptoms.  There was also rather perfunctory treatment of his on-again, off-again romance with Annie Grant (a key figure in the first book in this series).  But all in all, a satisfying historical mystery.

How does Smoke and Ashes stack up to the other nominees?  Pretty well, but not a home run for me.  There is nothing to dislike here, but I am not a fan of historicals in general and I read this at some remove, admiring the plot as it emerged, but not caught up.  (Others are likely to find it just their cup of tea!)

In terms of ranking, I’m going to place it at #3.  That leaves Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl in the top spot.  If Literary Lunchbox were in charge, Robotham would get his first Edgar the year.

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

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The Stranger Diaries (Elly Griffiths)
  3. Smoke and Ashes (Abir Mukherjee)
  4. The River (Peter Heller)
  5. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)