The Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees are out. I missed reviewing them last year, so I’m back for 2020! Typically I read, review and rank nominees for one, two, or three categories depending upon the time I have available for reading. The fun – besides the obvious – comes in when I see how many of the ones I think should win, did win. I’m not guessing who will win, so 100% is probably not an option. In 2018, I got 50% – Edgar and I both picked Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun as Best First Novel. (Click here for my review.) On the Best Novel front, I picked Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, while Edgar chose Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke. (Reviews here.)
As always, the list of nominees include many I had not read as well as several that I did. On the Best Novel list, the Michael Robotham and Abir Mukherjee books ring a bell. Here’s the line-up:
- The River by Peter Heller
- Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham
- Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland
- The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
- Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee
First up for a Lunchbox review is Peter Heller’s The River. The plot is simple. Two young men with superior wilderness skills set out on an adventure and face an unexpected challenge: can they rescue a dying woman from her murderous husband and outrun a wildfire to get her to safety?
Characterization is more complicated. The men are different. Jack, whose mother drowned while he watched, helpless, when he was just 11, expects tragedy. His friend Wynn has an open heart and is innately optimistic. It’s unsurprising and still a shock when Wynn’s essential nature is the cause of the tragedy that Jack works so hard to avoid. Enough said.
The other people the men encounter on their river quest are revealed through their actions. The men wonder about the husband, then must work to outwit him. They encounter a couple of thuggish, drunken fools – but are they as foolish as they seem? And the fire itself it a character, lurking, damaging, sending up smoke and sparks that threaten ominously depending upon which way the wind blows.
What makes The River sing is Heller’s writing. I’m no outdoorswoman. I like my nature in 2-3 hour chunks, not month-long hikes. But it’s clear that Heller loves nature and has an easy intimacy with hunting, fishing, hiking, boating. And his writing is even, measured, lyrical:
The day was half gone. They padded steadily without letup. The wind shifted around to the west and for the first time they could se the hazy thickening of air that was not yet rolling smoke and the bird in flocks that were smaller now, and many single birds, mostly duller colored, the females, and Wynn posited that these were thee mother birds with hatchlings who had refused to leave their nests until just before the flame. That was heartbreaking if you thought about it.
The River will quicken your pulse and may make you cry. Take the time to read it slowly. As Heller’s book is the first book reviewed, he enjoys the top spot for now!
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel
- The River (Peter Heller)