I’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.)