The Mystery Writers of America announced its nominees for Edgar Awards in January, and there were some familiar authors and some new-to-me’s on the list for Best Novel, including:
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (Penguin Random House – Random House)
Before She Was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney (Poisoned Pen Press)
Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Penguin Random House – Pamela Dorman Books)
These Women by Ivy Pochoda (HarperCollins Publishers – Ecco)
The Missing American by Kwei Quartey (Soho Press – Soho Crime)
The Distant Dead by Heather Young (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
It’s been quite a while since I posted a review, and now is a great time to revisit my annual challenge to read, review and rate the nominees! My goal isn’t to guess the winner, but to determine the Literary Lunchbox Edgar award winner. (About half the time MWA and I agree.)
Getting started, I’ll focus on Caroline Cooney’s novel Before She Was Helen and Richard Osman’s book The Thursday Murder Club. Both books feature retirees in a retirement community setting, and I started comparing them almost immediately.
Who was Helen before she was Helen? Short answer – Clementine Lakefield, Latin teacher, secret-keeper, now living her second life in a South Carolina retirement community under the name Helen Stephens. Her efforts to keep Clemmie and Helen separate fall apart when her next door neighbor disappears, she discovers a stunning artwork in his bland apartment, posts a pic online and ends up with a gun in her face, trying to outwit a ruthless drug dealer, a body is found, and Helen fears she is about to be unmasked as Clemmie. Why does that matter? Because Clemmie is a criminal, too, although not through her own choosing. She started her second life at an early age in an effort to get away from the high school coach who raped, then stalked her, and was then himself murdered in a highway picnic area. She stayed in that second life for many reasons, and now it’s up to her to unravel today’s crime to keep her past hidden.
Cooney’s novel offers a complicated plot, clever oldsters, some big surprises and quite a bit of heart. Less a thriller and more of a romp, it’s a fun and satisfying read. On the downside, there are a ton of characters and they are mostly paper-thin. The plot is littered with convenient coincidences and the near-misses of a bedroom farce. Still, I liked Helen/Clemmie’s pluck, and I didn’t see the end coming at all: surprise bad guy.
Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club also features the elderly, this time in a plush English retirement village called Coopers Chase. Newcomer Joyce Meadowcroft is welcomed by a group of retirees who meet weekly to review and try to solve old crimes; crimes are provided by retired police inspector Penny Gray. Club members include Ibrahim, a retired psychiatrist; Ron, a former union leader who has a famous son, a boxer named Jason; and Elizabeth, who has an worldwide network of contacts and is clearly a former spy. Joyce, a retired nurse, is a woman who considers thinks her super-power is that she is “frequently overlooked.” The group is working to solve a cold case, when a blazingly hot one falls into their lap: builder Tony Curran’s violent murder. Tony – druglord now making tons of money legitimately – was about to make a fortune expanding Coopers Chase. His death meant over 12 million pounds to his partner in the deal, Ian Ventholm. All bets were on Ian as the murderer until he was shockingly murdered by an injection of fentanyl in the midst of a crowd. The story becomes more labyrinthine from there, as Osman – through the Murder Club investigation – follows the threads of today’s crimes well into the past, uncovering love, sacrifice, tragedy and sorrow along the way.
The strengths of the book: the plot may be twisty, but it hangs together. Characterization is superb – there may be many characters, but even those who take up the least space are all well-drawn, real people. And The Thursday Murder Club packs quite an emotional wallop. I hope we will see many more of the books.
Comparing the two, there’s no contest: The Thursday Murder Club takes the top spot.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel