Edgars: Best First Novel by an American Author

Oh, how I long to be eligible!  The Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees are out, and there are six in contention for Best First Novel by an American Author.  As I did for Best Novel, I plan to read all six, give a review of each, and provide a ranking.  Top slot will go to the book that would receive the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for best first novel.  And the nominees are:

I started with A Bad Day for Sorry and followed it up with The Weight of Silence, mostly because I was struck by the similarities in the books’ covers.   The first novel features a headless woman in a dress and pink apron holding a big gun.  (To clarify, she’s not a crime victim, the photo is just taken showing from knees to neck.)  The second also features a pink-clad female figure in a knees-to-neck shot, but this time they’re showing a girl from the back.  She’s holding a necklace with a musical note charm.

Important to compare and contrast more than the covers, though!  Sophie Littlefield, in her debut novel, has created a protagonist with a compelling voice and clearly defined character.  Stella Hardesty is now 50, dyes her hair, and packs a solid 180 lbs onto a surprisingly fit and muscular body.  That’s good, because in addition to running a sewing/fabric/notions business in her rural Missouri home town, she has a “side business” as a do-it-yourself parole officer.  Only Stella’s not only the parole officer, she’s the arresting officer and the judge as well, when it comes to men who beat (or otherwise abuse) their wives or girlfriends.  She comes by this inclination honestly, having killed her own abusive husband with his own wrench a few years previously.  Rumors have spread and the women of the county know where they can go for help and the men feel uneasy when she’s around.

A Bad Day for Sorry‘s plot revolves around a frantic young mother, a missing four year old, the Missouri version of La Cosa Nostra, and some red herrings, plus a kind-and-hunky sheriff who is age-appropriate for Stella.  The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging, and the writing is witty and, though done in third person, strongly reflects Stella’s personality and perspective.  Here’s a sample, as she ponders her years with Ollie (the dead husband):

It was simply because he’d been such an incredibly worthless lay.  All those years… all that bad sex.  That wasn’t even in the top five reasons why he’d deserved what he got, but still, Stella found herself immensely sad to think of how many times she’d lain in this bed with Ollie laboring over her like a man stuffing fiberglass insulation between roof joints on a sweltering day.

Heather Gudenkauf’s The Weight of Silence is told from several different perspectives, including that of Calli, a 7 year old girl who is mute by choice; her older brother, Ben; her mother, Antonia; her best friend, Petra; Petra’s father, Martin; and the deputy sheriff, Louis, who has carried a torch for Toni since their high school romance.  All are in the first person, except for Calli’s chapters – as she does not speak, it seems natural for her chapters to be in third person.  (An epilogue from Calli’s POV is in first person – after she regains her voice.)

Things are not healthy in this small town.   Calli chooses not to speak and therapy isn’t helping; her mother is full of regrets and lives to protect her kids from the rough and alcoholic man she married; her father suspects that he did not father his own children, beats his wife and berates both Ben and Calli; Louis stands by, hopeless to help Toni, even as his own marriage falls apart; there’s an unsolved rape and murder of a child in the recent past; and more undercurrents come to light as the mystery unfolds.

One night when he’s supposed to go fishing with a buddy, Calli’s dad Griff instead drunkenly drags her in the middle of the night into the woods, heading for the home of her “real daddy,” Louis.  They get separated, she is lost, where is he? What is he doing?  This question takes on some urgency when the morning comes and Petra is also not home.  While the adults assume that Griff is fishing and Calli and Petra are together, a search begins.  The suspense ratchets when the fishing buddy returns sans Griff, and Toni begins to suspect her husband of more than mere loutishness.  There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing while the reader worries what’s happening to Petra? Will Calli stay safe?  Can Ben find and protect his sister?  Is Griff a murdering pedophile?  (Spoiler alert  – no.)  The switching perspectives is done smoothly, with each chapter helpfully labelled, but the first person voices are not distinctive.  Heres a sample from a Calli chapter:

Calli placed a dirty hand on Petra’s forehead, nodded to her and patted her arm.  She turned in every direction, looking for him.  He was gone, but she had seen him before, she knew him, he had a funny name an a dog.  He was out there, maybe watching her.  She scuttled backward into the brush and hid.

With two of the six nominees read, I’m ranking them A Bad Day for Sorry first (for excellent characterization, fast-moving plot, and strong writing) and The Weight of Silence second (suspenseful and well-plotted, but choppy).

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