And now for something completely different… Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. This legal thriller is fourth in the race for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author. Although the Edgars banquet has sadly been canceled for this year due to the pandemic – which makes total sense, since the banquet is in NYC – the winners will still be announced April 30.
The story hinges on the prosecution of Elizabeth Ward, the mother of an 8-year-old autistic boy, for his death and that of another child with disabilities in an explosion of a hyperbaric oxygen treatment chamber. There’s no actual science to show that HBOT cures anything besides the decompression sickness that scuba divers get if they come up to the surface from the depths of the ocean too fast, but parents desperate for a cure will try anything, and as some might say, “what could it hurt?” Prosecutors believe that Elizabeth, desperate to be freed from the burden of caring for her son, set a fire to ignite the oxygen flowing into the chamber. The case is circumstantial, but believable.
Roshomon-like, the book alternates perspectives, including those of Young and Pak Yoo, the Chinese immigrants who have pinned their hopes on the “Miracle Submarine” installed on their rural Virginia property to lift their fortunes, their daughter Mary, who hopes to go to college, various parents and witnesses, and the defendant herself. All the narrators are unreliable – telling the truth, but not all the truth. Who really caused the explosion, and why? You may guess, or you may not, but either way, it’s a compelling story.
The plot unfolds gradually, person by person and layer on top of layer. Some readers may get annoyed by the leisurely pace, which undercuts the tension. I was more dismayed by what I call an “idiot” plot – if practically anyone had not been such an idiot, there would be no mystery, and maybe not even a crime! The good news is that everyone has a good reason for their foolish behavior.
On the plus side, the story is sound, the characterization rich, and the writing assured. The focus on marginalized people – the Yoos as immigrants and the special needs children and their loving and anxious parents – grounds Miracle Creek in a bittersweet realism. In comparison to the previously reviewed books, I’m going to rank it #2, between American Spy and The Secrets We Kept.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author
- American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
- Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
- The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
- Three-Fifths, John Vercher