Category Archives: Commentary

Edgar Noms/Best First: American Spy

spyWhile much of America is hunkering down and can’t go to work, I’m sheltering-in-place but able to work remotely.  As a result, I’ve been reading but not reviewing.  Which is a shame, because I am working my way through the books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.  And – spoiler alert – all in all, it is an amazing bunch of books.  Better, in fact, than several of those nominated for Best Novel.  What’s up with that, MWA?   I’ll be reviewing American Spy today, and all the nominees include:

  • My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing (Penguin Random House – Berkley)
  • Miracle Creek by Angie Kim (Farrar Straus and Giroux –Sarah Crichton)
  • The Good Detective by John McMahon (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (Penguin Random House – Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Three-Fifths by John Vercher (Polis Books – Agora Books)
  • American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (Penguin Random House – Random House)

Usually I link each book nominated to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, for the convenience of those who want to order and read.  Today, I’m giving a shout-out to The Book Table in Oak Park, IL.  Please order from The Book Table!   This amazing independent bookstore will fill all orders through drop shipping and get their usual not-too-generous profit, and you will get the satisfaction of knowing you are keeping an wonderful bookstore up and running.

American Spy is a rich, complicated take on the spy thriller featuring an unusual spy.  The book opens in 1992, when sharp-eared suburban mom Marie Mitchell hears an intruder in her home.  Rather than rushing to the side of her 4-year old twin sons, she get out her gun, lies in wait, and shoots the man.   And he’s no burglar.  He’s an assassin.  Wow.

It turns out that Marie had been an FBI agent, and a good one, but stymied by the agency’s perspective on women which was, shall we say, not good.  It’s the mid-80s, and bored with infiltrating groups and running small-time informers, Marie cuts one loose, forging the required documents.  Big mistake.  She’s at loose ends and ripe for recruiting by the CIA, and the next thing we know, she’s been ordered to “get close” to Thomas Sankara, the charismatic president of the African nation, Burkina Faso.  The CIA’s plan?  To undermine his popularity by exposing his sexual indiscretion and install a puppet government more to America’s liking… or is it?  In the meanwhile, we know that boredom is just one of Marie’s motivators – her older sister Helene was also an operative, who was supposedly killed in a car wreck.  This new gig will give Marie the opportunity to get to work with Daniel Slater, Helene’s boss/boyfriend, and perhaps resolve some lingering questions.  I’ll say no more for fear of spoiler alerts, but you might not be surprised to hear that Marie is not a very loyal employee.

This is truly a masterful debut, and it’s no surprise to me that it was named one of 2019’s 10 Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.  The plot is tight:  every interaction serves to drive the plot forward or reveal backstory.  Marie is a surprising spy, due not only to her gender but her race (African-American), her upbringing (her dad’s a NYC cop and her mom abandoned the family for Martinique), and her smarts (top of her class).  Marie is fierce and she is guided at first, by her own innate sense of justice, but then, as a result of her unplanned pregnancy, by the need to keep her family safe at all costs.

I understand the book is inspired by true events:  the book jacket says that Thomas Sankara was known as “Africa’s Che Guevara.”  I don’t know what led author Lauren Wilkinson to use that real life history to create the fictional Marie Mitchell and American Spy, but I applaud her.  I hope there is another book on its way; the end of American Spy seems to indicate it’s likely.  Fingers crossed.

First reviewed takes top spot!  May even keep it.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson

On to Smoke and Ashes – Final Edgar Nom

smoke

Smoke and Ashes is the final nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, the third book in Abir Mukherjee’s series set in 1920’s Calcutta and  featuring British officer Sam Wyndham and his sergeant, “Surrender-not” Banerjee.  The debut novel, A Rising Man, was also a nominee for Best Novel in 2018.  It didn’t win and was last on the Literary Lunchbox ranking.  But still – first book and a nominee!  (My review of that book is here.)

The third book focuses on Christmas, 1921.  It’s a tumultuous historical time, when the Indian independence movement is in full swing and the followers of Gandhi are using nonnviolent resistance to press the oppressors and symbolic protests to unite the various indigenous factions.  About to arrive on the scene:  the Prince of Wales.   Lt. Wyndham is called by his superiors to investigate the murder of a woman.  Her eyes had been gouged out and two deep knife wounds were made to her chest.  This would have been upsetting to anyone, but it was a particular shock to Sam Wyndham, as he had seen the same mutilation of a previous corpse, just the night before.  Easy peasy, right?  Just connect the dots and solve the murders.  But Wyndham can’t admit to seeing the previous corpse, because he was stoned out of his mind on opium at the time, running for his life with the cops right behind him.  Yes, our hero is an addict thanks to a war injury and a second blow, his wife’s death of influenza, a few years previously.

What follows is a labyrinthine plot wherein more people die, Wyndham discovers what links the victims, he and Surrender-not set out to lure the murderer out into the open but are outwitted, all against the backdrop of Indian unrest and the stubbornness of the peaceful revolution’s leaders vs. the stubbornness of the British military and monarchy.  (A quick Google search turned up the info that India did not get its independence from Britain till 1947, so Mukherjee has 26 more years of stories to tell, should he choose to do so.)   Revealing the killer and what motivates him – a ruthless military project to develop a new, even more lethal mustard gas by testing it on Indian subjects – was not the end to the plot twists, though.

Here’s what works very well in Smoke and Ashes:  We genuinely like the main characters; the depiction of Surrender-not as a loyal friend and policeman, and the cultural pressure he feels as the go-between; the plot is complicated and horrifyingly believable; the writing is top-notch and pacing excellent.  However, not much is made of Wyndham’s addiction; evidently, a shot of kerdu pulp (from a gourd that is native to India) staves off withdrawal symptoms.  There was also rather perfunctory treatment of his on-again, off-again romance with Annie Grant (a key figure in the first book in this series).  But all in all, a satisfying historical mystery.

How does Smoke and Ashes stack up to the other nominees?  Pretty well, but not a home run for me.  There is nothing to dislike here, but I am not a fan of historicals in general and I read this at some remove, admiring the plot as it emerged, but not caught up.  (Others are likely to find it just their cup of tea!)

In terms of ranking, I’m going to place it at #3.  That leaves Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl in the top spot.  If Literary Lunchbox were in charge, Robotham would get his first Edgar the year.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The Stranger Diaries (Elly Griffiths)
  3. Smoke and Ashes (Abir Mukherjee)
  4. The River (Peter Heller)
  5. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)

 

The Stranger Diaries 4th Edgar Nom

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If you love reading – and you clearly do, if you are reading this blog! – you’ll be drawn in immediately to Elly GriffithsThe Stranger Diaries.  The book’s protagonist is Clare Cassidy, a divorced single mom/high school English teacher, who aspires to write a biography of (fictional) author R.M. Holland.  The mystery centers around the death by stabbing of Clare’s colleague, Ella.  That death, and others that follow, reflect murders recounted in Holland’s short story, “The Stranger.”  In fact, Griffiths’ book opens with the beginning of that short story, in a framing device that sets the stage for the suspense that follows.

But is it a stranger who murdered Ella?  Or is it, as Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur and her partner believe, someone much closer?  There is no dearth of suspects, from Clare herself – very unlikely – to Ella’s stalkerish boss.  He looks a good bet, as he has a history of obsessive behavior.  A good bet, that is, until he is murdered as well.

Diaries play a prominent role in the book, not surprisingly.  DS Kaur examines social media – a very public kind of diary – for clues.  Clare’s daughter Georgia keeps her diary online, at a website called mysecretdiary.com, and so do her friends.  Clare has kept one since childhood, filling a series of notebooks.  In fact, the first clue that Clare has a connection of some kind to the murderer comes when she discovers a note in her diary.  It starts “Greetings from a sincere friend…” quoting Wilkie’s Woman in White, and goes on to promise to fall upon those who work agains Clare “like a ravening beast.”  The handwriting is unfamiliar.  What stranger has been in her house?  And how does he – or she – know Clare?

A nice subplot is Clare’s determination to unearth the facts behind the suggested suicide of Alice Avery, R.M. Holland’s wife, and the related question of the mysterious Mariana, whose presence comforted Holland following her death.  Thought to be their daughter, no records or photos of Mariana exist.  Hmmmmm….

Griffiths writes in first person from three different perspectives: Clare, DS Kaur, and daughter Georgie.  It works well, and I was struck by how the same scene is recounted differently by each of the three, giving the reader greater insight into the characters.  Showing the three women independently also highlights how little people really know about one another.

Suspects are presented and discarded throughout the book, the body count mounts and tension ramps up, and soon after DS Kaur encourages Clare and Georgie to leave town for their safety, the plot takes thriller-ish as the unknown bad guy follows the pair while the cops race to get there in time to stop more mayhem.  You think you know who it is… you don’t!  In a smaller and also satisfying conclusion, the Mariana mystery is also solved.

Here’s my take on The Stranger Diaries:  Griffiths is a good writer.  The three-POVs works very well.  Her characters are interesting and believable.  The literary references and creative writing scenarios add a lot of fun (for me).  The gothic aspects (hauntings, historical memorabilia, etc.) are atmospheric and heighten the drama.  The violence is not gratuitous.  One quibble is that boss Rick Lewis really get off quite lightly from the #metoo perspective (although he does get murdered, so perhaps that is punishment enough).  A more meaningful concern is that the real perpetrator is masked by the way he is presented from Georgie’s point of view, and it is hard to believe that he could fool her so completely.

So, where does The Stranger Diaries rank?  Definitely below Robotham’s masterful Good Girl, Bad Girl, but I’m going to place it above The River.  While not as lyrical as Heller, Griffiths’ writing is very effective with its multiple viewpoints and the inclusion of the original short story “by” R.M. Holland.

Side note… there is a wealth of Elly Griffiths books available, including at least one other that features Harbinder Kaur.  I’m there.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The Stranger Diaries (Elly Griffiths)
  3. The River (Peter Heller)
  4. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)

Edgar Nom #3: Fake Like Me

fake

It’s quite an amazing thing to be an Edgar Best Novel nominee for your second book!  But that’s the case for Barbara Bourland and her suspenseful novel, Fake Like Me.  It’s pretty unusual.  It’s not a cozy whodunit, crime caper, police procedural, jeopardy-driven suspense novel, or one of the other typical mysteries.  Fake Like Me is more of a what-really-happened with a big surprise. 

Fake sets up an interesting backstory:  it’s the mid-90’s, and a talented and struggling young female artist from the wrong side of the tracks yearns for other artists’ acceptance, particularly from the glittering “Pine City” art collective centered around Carey Logan.   Jumping to today,  this unnamed protagonist is now 34 and on the cusp of something big – a private gallery show that could make her future – when her studio/apartment burns to the ground, destroying everything.  She has three months to recreate all seven of her works in total secrecy, but has little money, no supplies and no space to do it in.  Through determined networking, she wrangles an invite to… wait for it… Pine City.

But the Pine City of today features just four artists, not five, as the luminous but conflicted Carey Logan died in 2008, a suicide by drowning.   And our protagonist – let’s call her P, because she is never named in Fake Like Me – moves in to Carey’s studio.  P physically resembles Carey, is inspired by her, emulates her artistic drive, is drawn to her former lover, and is relentlessly curious about her.   And slowly, slowly, she learns the truth about Carey Logan.   I guarantee you will not see it coming.

Here are three things Bourland does very well:  First, all the art stuff.  I was drawn in to P’s reflections on art, artists, and the art market.  Plus, the sections on P’s creative process were fun and compelling.  Accurate when it comes to technique?  I have no idea, but it worked for me.

Second, the concept.  I don’t want spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but the idea at the heart of Fake Like Me is fresh and well-executed.

Third, the voice.   Fake Like Me is written in first person from P’s perspective.  P is a singular person with a strong point of view and her narration is authentic and individual.

Things not so good:  Lots of coincidences in this book.  Young P meets Carey and her posse.  Younger P has fancy-schmancy teenage friend; friend grows up to be rich, married to an art dealer, and lives near Pine City.   P looks like Carey.  P seeks studio space, only one person helps her and it’s Pine City.  P gets Carey’s studio and stumbles across clues.  Other clues are strewn throughout.  I was not sure about the necessity of P’s video/recreation of Carey’s suicide.  And finally, while P is a fully realized character, the other main characters are pretty sketched-in.

Summing up, definitely a book I would recommend, and Bourland is an author I would read again; I expect to go dig up her first book when this Edgar review process is over.  Comparing to the two previous novels reviewed for ranking purposes, Fake Like Me clearly does not take the top spot, but I’m a bit conflicted about whether it’s #2 or #3.  From a plot perspective, it’s more complex than The River, and full props for the surprise with no cheating.  Characterwise, The River has the edge for sure.  And writing quality, again The River.   Although I continue to waffle back and forth, I have to give it to The River.  I suspect that this is going to make it ranking difficult for the next two books!  

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The River (Peter Heller)
  3. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)

 

Good Girl, Bad Girl: Mesmerizing Twisty Tale

good girl

Alert:  I’m a huge Michael Robotham fan. His standalone book Life or Death was up for the 2016 Best Novel Edgar.  It didn’t win, and I ranked it fourth, right behind the actual winner, Lori Roy’s Let Me Die in His Footsteps.

He has a very popular series featuring psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, nine books at last counting.   I met the good doctor in 2012 and blogged about him while on a cruise.  Joe often works with the good but morally ambiguous Detective Vincent Ruiz, is still in love with his estranged wife, Julianne, and has Parkinson’s disease which bothers him more as the series progresses.  It’s a good series, and two of the books won the Ned Kelly Award for Australia’s Best Crime novel.  Still, the time was ripe for a new protagonist, and Robotham doesn’t disappoint.

Good Girl, Bad Girl is the Edgar-nominated first book in a new series featuring Cyrus Haven.  Cyrus is also a psychologist, but has a more dramatic backstory; while tween Cyrus cruised past his crush’s house on his bike, his older brother was murdering their parents and twin sisters.  Adult Cyrus is tattooed, lifts weights and runs to burn off excess psychic energy, eschews a cell phone in favor of a pager, and maintains a loving relationship with Lenny Pavel, the female cop – now a Chief Inspector – who questioned and comforted him after he found his family’s bodies.

That enduring Lenny connection is what gets Cyrus pulled in when a dog walker finds the body of young figure skater Jodi Sheehan, bludgeoned and sexually assaulted.   Although the physical forensics of detection are critical, Cyrus specializes in the psychological underpinnings of crime.  Throughout Good Girl, Bad Girl, Cyrus picks at the threads of Jodi’s life until he sees beyond the perfect athlete, daughter and sister to see the flawed but loving human she truly was.  In doing so, Cyrus also wades through an abundance of murder suspects.  In lesser hands, the truths that Robotham has Cyrus uncover could be simply red herrings — in this book, they add to the richness of the narrative.  What really happened to Jodi is the result of a long-buried secret.

And it’s a connection of another kind – to the psychology community  – that gets Cyrus Haven pulled in to the sad and strange case of Evie Cormac.  Six years ago, Evie was discovered hiding in a rundown building with the rotting corpse of a tortured criminal and two surprisingly well-fed Alsatian dogs.  Skinny and silent, the child known in the media as Angel Face, was of indeterminate age.   Given a new name under a legal gag order, the child now known as Evie Cormac bounced through the foster care system, ending up in big trouble in residential care after attacking another resident with a brick.

Adam Guthrie, her psychologist there, knew that Evie was more than smart – he thought she had an unerring ability to tell when someone was lying.  And here’s where Cyrus comes in – he wrote his doctoral thesis on “truth wizards.”  Adam calls Cyrus in to consult, and we go on to the adventure of learning more about Evie as they interact.  When Evie seeks to be emancipated so she can leave the foster care system, Cyrus is the only person who supports her, ultimately offering to become her foster parent until she reaches the date set by the judge.   Little by little, we see the distrust that defines Evie begin to peel away with Cyrus… but set-backs are a given, and it’s during one of those set-backs that Evie learns some facts that ultimately help Cyrus solve Jodi Sheehan’s murder.

This book is mesmerizing.  The plot is twisty but well-supported throughout.  No cheating.  The characters are complex, and Robotham is a master at the slow reveal.  At the end of Good Girl, Bad Girl, the thoughtful reader realizes that there is no such thing.  Jodi is no more 100% good than Evie is 100% bad.  And vice versa.  The writing is assured and can be very funny (to wit, the group therapy scene where Cyrus is the only one who knows that all of Evie’s revelations are word-for-word dialogue from popular movies).  There’s a cliffhanger at the end, as we realize that the scenario of “child rescued from pedophile kidnapper” might be just one more fiction.  Thank heavens that July 2020 will bring us the new Cyrus/Evie book, When She Was Good.

But how does it compare to The River?  To quote your favorite British cozy writer, they’re like chalk and cheese.  Both good!   I see The River as a slender tale, a simpler story, although rewarding.  Robotham’s book is more complex, more layered, with a lot of character and heart.  But at the end of the day, I must go for Good Girl, Bad Girl for sheer enjoyment.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The River (Peter Heller)

 

Edgar Noms! Heller’s The River Up 1st

mwa_logoThe 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:

riverFirst 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!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. The River (Peter Heller)

 

 

Squeaker: Lunchbox Best Novel Edgar

It’s Wednesday, April 25, just one day before the Mystery Writers of America Edgars Banquet, at which the MWA will be announcing the names of the 2018 Edgar award recipients.  Good news!  I have completed reading the final entry in the Best Novel category, and I’m reading to make my final pick for which author should take home the Edgar.

12 LivesThe final finalist is Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, a book I had read previously and greatly enjoyed reading again.  The Samuel Hawley in question is the single father of young Loo (short for Louisa), and the small family moves from place to place.  The twelve “lives” in question are twelve scars that Hawley bears, each one the mark of a healed bullet wound and a marker of a particular time in his life, some pre-Loo, some post.  Hawley is a rough man and a criminal, but a caring one, and is deeply devoted to his daughter.

Their nomadic life comes to an end when Hawley decides to move the teenage Loo back to the town where her mother was raised and mother’s mother still lives.  With the stability also comes a blooming curiosity, and Loo begins to uncover the secrets associated with her mother’s death – in particular, her grandmother Mabel Ridge’s belief that Hawley is responsible for her daughter’s death.  And indeed he is, for although he did not kill her, it was because of him that she was killed and the murder covered up.  Loo also faces a tough time at school, and deliberately breaks the finger of Marshall Hicks, subsequently falling in love with him.

The book builds to a climax as Samuel Hawley’s youthful chickens come home to roost, when a previously vanquished foe reappears to claim vengeance, and uses a former friend of Hawley’s to do so.  Only through quick thinking and sheer guts do Loo and her father prevail.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has a lot going for it – the characters are rich and believable, the framing device using the twelve bullets is very useful and effective in moving the plot forward through time, and there is a real sense of tragedy, in that the heroes are undone by the flaws that make them unique.  Tinti does an excellent job of building suspense.  Hawley is similar, in some ways, to the Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun, up this year for the Edgar for Best First Novel (and it ranked #1 with me)  Both feature a criminal father, an edgy, violence-prone daughter, and a dead mother.  Tinti’s book is both deeper and broader.

Compared to the other books nominated for Best Novel, Hawley is clearly near the top of the ranking.  It’s more complex than Bluebird, Bluebird.  And while I very much enjoyed Prussian Blue, I must admit that I found The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley to be much more engaging.   I simply cared more about the characters and was literally biting my nails about what would happen next.  Therefore, Tinti takes the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox ranking.

Tomorrow evening – or first thing Friday morning – we’ll see who won the real Edgars.  If all goes as typical, I’ll be right on one of my calls, and wrong on the other.  But there is always a possibility of the MWA judges showing the good judgment to agree with me 100%, or that I’ll strike out completely.   No matter, it’s the challenge and the process that makes it fun!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
  2. Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
  3. Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
  4. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  5. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee