Offbeat Motherless Brooklyn resonates

motherlessWhat makes your protagonist different?  What makes him memorable?  Get this question right, and you’re halfway to a decent story.  Get it wrong – too quirky, too stereotypical, too shallow – and you’re probably doomed.  Jonathan Lethem makes all the right choices.

That’s why things were looking good, right off the bat, when I picked up Motherless Brooklyn because the book is told in first person by Lionel Essrog, a pretty smart and articulate guy, when he’s not undone by his Tourette’s.  Unfortunately, that’s pretty often, because it’s brought on by stress and Lionel leads a pretty stressful life as a low-level operative for a not-very-successful detective agency.  He barks.  He counts.  He shouts profanities.  He has an awfully hard time getting a date.

Lionel is one of four boys plucked by Frank Minna from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys (an orphanage, hence the Motherless).  Frank’s a good guy at heart, married to a woman who’s clearly too classy for him, and evidently in over his head because he’s stabbed to death by page 30.

The rest of the book outlines Lionel’s dogged determination to solve Frank’s murder.  The plot doesn’t move quickly – there’s too much back story and too many side stories for that – but it does move compellingly.  It’s pretty noir with its grit, hard-hearted women and heartless violence, and the Soprano-esque overtone is strong when the mystery is finally solved.  It’s also funny, filled with entertaining characters, and has a lot of heart.  Not much more than 300 pages, it’s still a bigger book than most of the others I’ve read recently and makes Joseph Finder’s Guilty Minds look like a formula caper.  It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

How does it stack up as a summer read?  Maybe not a lazy hammock read, but I started it one evening, kept reading as the sun sank below the horizon, and couldn’t put it down until way after bedtime.  Definitely one to seek out.

 

Guilty Minds… wheels within wheels

guiltyBestselling author Joseph Finder gave us all another great summer read with Guilty Minds.  Private investigator Nick Heller – known to many Finder fans since 2010, when he made his debut in Vanished – is very good at what he does.  That’s why he’s only a little suspicious when he is contacted by Washington legend Gideon Parnell with an assignment so delicate, and so righteous, that he can’t resist.  He has just 48 hours to ferret out the truth, or the chief justice of the Supreme Court will be falsely revealed to have spent tens of thousands of dollars of dirty money on “dates” with a call girl.  Justice Jeremiah Clafin is as true blue as a boy scout, and the Gawker-esque website will be thrilled to drag him down.

Of course Heller takes the job, and he makes short work of debunking much of the story… poking holes in the evidence and rounding up the call girl in question.  But the bigger question is, why?  The website bit on a juicy story, the reporter with great instincts is mad as hell she was fooled, and a shadowy security firm of ex-cops seems to be somehow involved.  The plot is foiled in record time.  But what could Clafin have done to earn this animus?

And that’s where the wheels within wheels begin to turn, as Heller and reporter Mandy Seeger team up.  When a key witness is murdered, the stakes are raised.  Only when viewed through a new perspective does the question cui bono – who benefits? – reveal the culprit.  As always in a Finder novel, the plot is well-paced, the bad guys and the good guys well-drawn, and the danger feels real but not too dark.  Seeds are sown for a future Heller book, as not all the bad guys are called to justice.  All in all, Guilty Minds is an excellent choice for a lazy afternoon on the back porch swing.

Swing

 

 

Summer Reading

wineSummer is supposed to be a time of long, lazy days on the beach, in a hammock, or, as we say in Michigan, “Up North.”   Lots of fresh tomatoes, rose wine, and trashy novels.

Well, except for the wine, I’m not getting much of that idyllic summer,  but I am getting in lots of reading.  Tons of new books – mysteries, thrillers, noir… they’re mine for the taking. I’m not going to review all of them, or there wouldn’t be time to read more.   I’ll just review a few of the books I have particularly enjoyed.

First up is a thriller, The Last One, by Alexandra Oliva.  This is Oliva’s debut novel, and a crackling good one it is.  The setting is very up-to-the-minute:  a Survivor-esque reality show called In the Dark.  But with this show, the only way to get off is to use the magic words (“ad tenebras dedi,” Latin for  “I surrender to the dark”)  and the only way to win is to be the last one left.  The prize is huge. As the contestants delve deeper into this alternate world, a plague strikes the real world … and they don’t know.

last oneOliva switches back and forth from a omniscient perspective to the POV of one of the contestants, a determined young woman.  The twelve characters are named according to their stereotype in the third person chapters.  Black Doctor is a male, African-American physician.  Rancher is a western type, Waitress is a hot mess, Cheerleader Boy is a relentless cheerful gay, Biology a lesbian who teaches seventh grade science, Air Force a compactly powerful military man, Engineer a Chinese-American man, Tracker a hunter type, Banker a business man.  The young man called Exorcist may be certifiably crazy.  Asian Chick morphs into Carpenter Chick when its discovered she has skills.  And then there’s Zoo – our protagonist, young, blonde, and female.  She works in a wildlife sanctuary.  The host of the show is a “B-list celebrity” who hopes to revive his career.  (I pictured Ryan Seacrest.)  We see the production, the manipulation, the editing that heightens the drama.  We also see the human side of the contestants that the camera doesn’t capture.

Zoo’s chapters are something else.  She’s stranded in the wilderness, following clues that she interprets according to the rules of the game, making her way back to civilization, scavenging for food, catching and cooking squirrels, and all the while convinced that secret cameras are recording her every move.  The reader knows what she doesn’t know and then can’t admit… that life as she knew it is over, there will be no million dollar prize, and in fact, she will be lucky to make it through her adventure alive.

The Last One is a great summer (or anytime!) read.  The plot is compelling and moves along at a breakneck pace.  The writing is crisp, dialogue true, and characters – especially Zoo – interesting.  There’s a heartbreaking side to her adventure which I won’t spoil for you, and also a possibility of hope.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the book up for an Edgar for Best First Novel in 2017.

I’ll definitely be on the lookout for Alexandra Oliva’s next book!

So embarrassed…

Edgars

I was a wonder-blogger as we led up to the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards banquet.  This year, I read, reviewed, and ranked in three categories.  My calls:

And then I totally flaked out once the winners were announced.  And I haven’t reviewed a dang thing since then.   Life!  Go figure.

But for those who were anxiously awaiting, the alignment this year was less than perfect:  MWA and I agreed on just one out of three.

  • Best Novel went to Lori Roy’s fabulous Let Me Die in His Footsteps, which I ranked third.
  • Best First Novel went to The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen, which I ranked #2.
  • And it was “winner winner chicken dinner” because the actual judges gave the totally deserving Lou Berney the Edgar for The Long and Faraway Gone.

Berney’s book was the one that really resonated with me out of all the nominees this year. I ended up buying it several times, because I gave the darn thing as a gift to friends and relatives out of sheer enthusiasm.   My dad loved it but argued with the ending.  Here’s where you can get all the info on this year‘s nominees and winners.

I’ve been reviewing Edgar nominees since 2010.  That year was stellar:  I had 100% agreement, as both Literary Lunchbox and the MWA gave John Hart’s The Last Child and Stefanie Pintoff’s In the Shadow of Gotham awards.   In 2011, I sank to the depths at 0% (but I still think my calls were better).  In 2012, it was 50%.   MWA and Lunchbox agreed on Mo Hayder’s Gone, but I gave All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen the edge over Lori Roy’s winner, Bent Road.  2013 was tough, at another 0%… but I think everyone expected Gone Girl to triumph over Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night.  And Chris Pavone’s debut, The Ex-Pats, was awfully good.  In 2014, it was another 50% and I defer to MWA, Red Sparrow deserved its win, but we agreed with William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace.  And last year I totally called it with Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley as the best debut, although I figured Mo Hayder for a second win with Wolf, and Stephen King took the Edgar home for Mr. Mercedes.

At any rate, before I returned to the world of reading and reviewing, I felt that closure was necessary, Edgars-wise.  Thanks for reading.

Last Up: Canary to win.

canarySo I’m squeaking in under the wire… tomorrow night’s the Edgar Awards Banquet in New York City.   And I just re-read the last book that’s up for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, Duane Swierczynski’s Canary.

College student Sarafina Holland’s a good girl.  Sarie’s book-smart, savvy enough to fake her way through a college party without getting drunk or high, and a total pushover when it comes to a cute, foul-mouthed guy.  That’s why she says yes when red-chinos-wearing Drew asks her for a lift all the way across town to “pick up a book.”  Even when it’s the night before Thanksgiving, it’s late, and she has to pick up her rehab-counselor dad from the airport early in the AM.  So no surprise that it’s a big shock to her when Drew runs in “for a minute” and comes back out without a book.  And that she panics when a cop stops her and questions her on her third circle around the block, while Drew runs in to “pick up a cheesesteak.”  (That’s an actual cheesesteak, not a euphemism.)  She’s stupidly desperate to protect him, and the next thing she knows, he’s run off and she’s down at the station.  The next thing she knows, she’s a confidential informant.  CI #137.

Her handler is Philly narcotics cop Ben Wildey. His plan is to use Sarie to get through her boyfriend to his dealer, the clever and elusive Chuckie Morphine.  Chuck has ties to some major drug gangs, so it would be a big boost to his career.

And Sarie turns out to be a darn good CI.  Wildey mockingly calls her “Honors Girl,” but it’s a good thing she’s is so smart, because Wildey gets her in deep.  Without her ability to think three or four steps ahead, and to improvise in the heat of the moment, Sarie’d be dead.  (She also has the nerve to step up to a fight, not run away.  It’s a useful attribute).  It’s lucky that she’s also so plucky and likable, because on at least two occasions, those characteristics convince a bad guy to switch to Sarie’s side.

When all is said and done, Sarie comes through and the baddest of the bad guys get their comeuppance, but not without collateral damage.

I’ve simplified the plot tremendously.  Other facts that come in to play in Canary include:

  • Sarie’s mom is dead, her dad is grieving, and 12 year old brother Marty’s kind of lost.
  • Her best friend is dating an older guy.  A mobster.
  • The mobster is hooked up with a cop and they’re killing CIs with reckless abandon.
  • Wildey suspects his own partner of being that cop, but she’s only guilty of being stalked by her ex.  (Sad end to that one.)
  • Space cadet Drew wises up too late.  (Ditto.)
  • Dads and brothers can rise to the occasion.
  • A girl can find living a double life very energizing.

The plot’s great, the primary characters are compelling and even the minor characters are generally well-drawn and engaging.  And one of the things I liked best about Canary was Swierczynski’s way of narrating Sarie’s POV -as a kind of diary-slash-letter to her mother.  (That brother Marty later finds the notebook and tries to call in the calvary is a plus.)  This device allows Swierczynski to have what amounts to a second protagonist in Ben Wildey, who starts out heartlessly using Sarie and ends up growing a heart.

Compared to all the other nominees, Canary is an absolutely fresh take on the crime novel.  Duane Swiercynski‘s a 44-year old guy who has written a pulp fiction series featuring a ex-cop as well as many hard-boiled Marvel comics (including Deadpool  and The Immortal Iron Fist).  Where does he get the insight to write a believable 19-year-old girl?  Sheer talent, I guess.   

Who will win?  For fun, I went and looked up how these books are faring on Amazon.  Canary has 4.2 stars, Night Life 4.7, Footsteps 4.0, Life or Death 4.4, Strangler Vine 4.3 and Lady 4.2   If the Edgars were crowd-sourced, Night Life would win.  As of yesterday, I agreed.  Despite this, I’m giving Canary the top spot.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

  1. Canary by Duane Swierczynski
  2. Night Life by David C. Taylor
  3. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  4. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  5. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  6. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

 

Night Life Penultimate Best Novel Nom

nightlifeSo here we go with another historical crime novel – David C. Taylor’s Night Life.  It’s his debut novel and it garnered an Edgar nomination for Mystery Writers of America Best Novel. Well-done, Taylor!

It’s 1954, and the cold war is in the deep freeze.  Michael Cassidy’s a New York City detective, smart, sometimes violent but only with a good reason, who has odd dreams that sometimes come true. Cassidy and his partner Tony Orso are called to investigate the torture and murder of Alex Ingram, who coincidentally was a dancer in a show that Tom Cassidy, his father, is producing.  Cassidy discovers a half-dollar coin in a buff envelope taped inside Ingram’s locker at the theater.

Things spiral from there, with an ever-widening scope of investigation, a growing body count, and plenty of interest from the FBI, CIA, and even Senator Joseph McCarthy, who finds a communist everywhere he looks.  He may be an obsessive nut job, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real communist spies hard at work right here in NYC.  It turns out that Ingram was a KGB sleeper agent with a sideline in blackmail.  

On the personal front, Cassidy’s expecting retaliation from Franklin, a vice cop-slash-pimp.  Cassidy not only interrupted Franklin mid-assault on a hooker, but threw him out a window.  And he’s distracted by a new resident of his apartment building, a comely young woman who’s a welder working for an artist, bringing his metal sculptures to life.  (She wields a pretty mean baseball bat, too, rescuing Cassidy when Franklin’s buddies give him a beating in the apartment hallway.)  He’s close to his brother, Brian and sister, Leah, but not so close to his father, Tom.  His mother killed herself, more or less accidentally, taking an overdose of pills when she thought Tom would be coming home and would rescue her, thus bringing them closer together.  Unfortunately, Tom is essentially selfish, decided not to keep his promise, and teenage Michael discovered his mother’s cold body.

More about Cassidy’s father. More problems there.  He was born in Russia – Tomas Kasnavietski – emigrating to the US at age 15.  A staunch believer in the American dream, he’s surprised and dismayed to find that in 1954 America, Tom Cassidy’s about to be deported back to Russia.  His faith in his son and his friends to rescue him is unshaken.  Unfortunately, the friend is “Uncle Frank,” a mobster who wants a favor from Cassidy.

Fortunately, Cassidy’s a good detective, a smart negotiator and a good bluffer, with a stalwart partner and chutzpah to spare.  Still, it could have all gone sideways if it were not for his prophetic dreams… at the moment when the bad guys are about to ambush him, Cassidy recognizes the location and the sinking sense of dread from a recurrent dream.  It gives him the warning he needs to be the one left standing.

I’m very impressed with author David Taylor.  Night Life is tightly plotted, the coincidences not all that unlikely, the motivations for all clear and character-driven, and the integration of historical figures critical to the story, not distracting add-ons.  I understand that this is the first in a series featuring Det. Michael Cassidy, and I’ll be right there to read more in the future.  (In fact, book #2, Night Work, launched earlier this month.)

How does Night Life stack up to the other nominees?   Very, very well.  It’s eminently readable, like The Strangler Vine.  It’s got excellent pacing and similar switches in POV to keep up the suspense, as with Life or Death.  It’s got that paranormal aspect to it, as does Let Me Die in His Footsteps.   And it incorporates real-life historical figures, as does The Lady From Zagreb.  In fact, considering the whole package, I’m going to give Taylor’s debut mystery the top spot.  I may have reviewer’s regret when I review and rank the final nominee, Canary, and make some changes.  But time is running out, as the Edgars will be awarded Thursday!

Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

mwa_logo

  1. Night Life by David C. Taylor
  2. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  3. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  4. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  5. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

Kerr Again Nominated for Best Novel

zagrebShades of 2012!  Philip Kerr is up again for an MWA Edgar Award for Best Novel for a Bernie Gunther historical crime novel.  This year’s entry is The Lady from Zagreb.  In 2012, it was Field Gray.   He didn’t win in 2012 – the award went to Mo Hayder’s Gone, which I adored – and I had ranked Field Gray fourth on my list.  Click here to read that review.

If you’ve clicked, you know that I struggled mightily with that book.  This one has many of the same issues, but I went into it bound and determined to give it a good shot. It’s set mostly in 1942/43, although the book opens in 1956 with Bernie in a movie theater, watching a film featuring the lovely Dalia Dresner.  This leads him in a reverie, remembering his time together with the movie star.

How did Bernie Gunther, the reluctant Nazi, get hooked up with Dalia Dresner, who was even more fantastic than Hedy Lamarr? It’s a long story.  Very long, given the side trips that Bernie has to traverse to tell it.

Here’s a quick overview:  Bernie is tapped to give a speech at an international police conference at the Villa Minoux. Attorney Heinrich Heckholz wants Bernie to to snoop around while he’s there,  to find some evidence he needs to help Lilly Minoux, who used to own the house, get it back (complicated story).  Bernie’s game.  He finds tons of info, but nothing helpful to Minoux.  When he goes to report, he finds Heckholz is beaten to death with a bust of Hitler in his office. This is treated as black humor.

Fast forward a year.  Joseph Goebbels asks Bernie to help movie star Dalia Dresner locate her estranged father. Goebbels, who is in charge of the German Film Industry, has it bad for Dalia.  Dalia’s married, uninterested in Goebbels romantically, but willing to let him help her.  Sure enough, Bernie is besotted by Dalia and would do almost anything to help her, include traveling to Yugoslavia to find her father.  We get the hint that he might not be the nicest guy.  In exchange for a great car to drive to Yugoslavia in, Bernie also runs an errand for General Schallenberg.

Along the way, Bernie witnesses some horrific cruelties, mass murders that makes the concentration camp gas chambers look humane.  He finds Dalia’s dad, and the man is a monster.  He gets kidnapped and almost tortured by American spies, but gets saved by the Gestapo, who also want to murder him.  Fortunately, they want to get him drunk and throw him off a cliff, and thanks to the highly flammable nature of the drink and the bad guy’s naiveté regarding a final cigarette, Bernie prevails.

Back in Germany, he and Goebbels agree to lie to Dalia.  But of course Daddy dearest comes looking for her, and when he does, he gets a big surprise.  As does Bernie.  Being endowed with great insight,  Bernie deduces the truth.  He figures out a way to save the day, but it requires him to give up Dalia, the love of his life, or at least, his loins.

As I noted in 2012, Kerr has a wonderful way with words.  His convoluted plot, if presented in a straightforward manner, would be dark, depressing, dour…  Fortunately, he has given Bernie a wry sense of humor and the dialogue is often surprisingly breezy.   And as I also admitted, I am not a very good historian.  I do poorly when it comes to the yellow pie slices in Trivial Pursuit.  So I am always distracted by trying to figure out which characters are real and which are not, and if the real ones were really like that, or if Kerr is taking liberties.  I’m pretty sure nobody talked like Kerr makes them talk.  Anyway, the author’s note at the end is very helpful in clearing up details like that.

What did I think this time around?  I definitely liked it way more than Field Gray.  I like the Bernie Gunther character and the plot was much more constrained (although still filled with what-the-heck? moments).  And there’s a final twist that I definitely did not see coming, so props to Kerr for that.

Comparatively speaking, I definitely preferred Lori Roy’s novel Let Me Die in His Footsteps, which has an equally surprising plot twist but is much more character-driven.  Does Lady have an edge over Life or Death?  Not quite, the stakes are much higher for Audie Palmer.  You never really think that Bernie’s in any danger, and you don’t really care about any of the other characters.  And I really was surprised by how much I liked The Strangler Vine.  So here it goes to the #4 spot, where Kerr was last time.  

Note – not sure what is up with the sheer number of not-set-in-the-present nominees.  So far only Life or Death has been set in present day, the other three are all historical!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

  1. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  2. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  3. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  4. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr