At last week’s Academy Awards, several Oscar winners talked about how much it was an honor just to be nominated in their categories, and gave props to their fellow nominees. For the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards, it is truly an honor to make the final shortlist. I don’t know how many books are actually put forward for consideration, but it must be hundreds, and to have a book nominated in the Best First Author category is not only a fabulous acknowledgement of talent, but can be a career-maker.
This year’s nominees are a really diverse bunch, and include:
- Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry – a whodunit wherein the protagonist learns unsettling information about her murdered sister
- Dodgers, by Bill Beverly – California gangbangers set out for the heartland to murder a witness in a court case
- IQ by Joe Ide – bright young LA high school dropout takes on investigations in the ‘hood
- The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie – featuring a protagonist that Lee Child agrees is similar to Jack Reacher (!)
- Dancing with the Tiger by Lili White – a literary thriller that centers on the chase for Montezuma’s purloined death mask
- The Lost Girls by Heather Young – a suspenseful family novel about three sisters, one of whom disappears, set in part in 1935
Oddly, I had already read three of the six – usually my familiarity with new mystery nominees is pretty low, because there are just so many to choose from and not all get much promotion. Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow is one that I had already read, having snagged it when it came out from my local library. At the time, my reaction was A) astonishment and B) envy. (Yes, I’ve got 2-1/2 books and an array of short stories to my credit, and when I see a debut novel that’s impressive, I’m like dang! that’s how it’s done! Sigh.)
Main character Nora is a bookish 30-year-old Londoner who is close with her sister Rachel, a nurse who lives in the country with her German Shepherd, Fenno. They women share a key experience: the hunt for the man who assaulted the 16-year-old Rachel as she walked home alone from a party (they’d quarreled and Nora stayed behind). The man is never found, and the episode is a shadow on their lives.
When Nora comes for a visit and Rachel isn’t there to greet her at the train, worry starts. And when Nora opens the doorway to her sister’s cozy house to find Rachel viciously stabbed to death and Fenno hanging by his leash from the stairway bannister, her whole world is rocked. Could the assailant from the past have done this? If not, who? Her sister mentioned a man named Martin, but Nora can’t find a man with this name in Rachel’s life.
Nora becomes obsessed with solving the murder, insinuating herself into the police investigation and finding clues in advance of the detective… ending up as a suspect herself.
Nora’s investigation reveals a great deal that she did not know about Rachel, her daily life in the small village, her work at the local hospital, and the secrets she kept from her sister. She suspects an affair between Rachel and a local plumber and becomes convinced that he is guilty, stalking him openly, and accusing him to his wife, who finds the evidence and turns it over to the police. But there is something else, and someone else, that underlies Rachel’s murder… something that Nora knows but doesn’t connect all the dots. She learns the truth, confronts the murderer, yearns for vengeance, and walks away… sirens in the background. Woo.
Compelling characters and backstory, twisty plot, major suspense, switch-up resolution without cheating, and a lot of heart – Flynn Berry’s debut has set a high bar for the other nominees. As the first reviewed, Under the Harrow starts with the top spot in the ranking.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel
- Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry