Category Archives: Commentary

Next Up: Joe Ide’s IQ

IQSo, what are the odds?  Like Dodgers, the third book nominated  for the MWA Edgar for Best First Novel has an inner city, drug dealing-slash-thieving setting.  It also is a coming-of-age story, as a young man grows into adulthood.  But IQ, Joe Ide’s debut novel, is also funny and jam-packed with a cast of characters that is made for the big screen.  It’s a trip in itself, but it also calls out for a sequel.  Good news – Entertainment Weekly says Ide now has a four-book deal!

Here’s the deal:  teenage Isaiah Quintabe lives with his older brother Marcus.  Marcus is smart, focused, gives good advice, and can build anything, repair anything, in fact, do just about anything with his hands.  Marcus clearly could have done more with his life, but he’s found his groove, just raising his brother to be a good man, to go to college, to have a future.  And it’s working out great, because Isaiah is smart, thoughtful and an all-around good kid.  And did I mention he was seriously smart?  And so all is well until one day, when Isaiah and Marcus are just walking down the street, a car speeds around the corner and Marcus flies into the air.  And just like that, Isaiah is left alone.

Of course, he falls apart. And he also beats himself up.  Because he was right there, and saw nothing.  Whoever killed Marcus is going to get away with it.  So he starts to dig.  And as he gets a clue, and spends hours, each day, just sitting and looking for a particular car.  And he uses that time to train his observation skills.

Flash forward eight years and Isaiah’s still in the neighborhood, but now in demand as a detective and all-around problem-solver.  Juanell Dodson, roommate, former classmate, and all around smartass with pretentions, has hooked him up with Calvin Wright, a rapper and potential murder victim.   Between Cal and Dodson, there is plenty of outsize ego and crazy behavior to go around, especially since Cal is having a bit of a crisis.  It’s like writer’s block for rappers, and he can’t cure it with pills, booze, or food.   Isaiah’s job is to keep Cal alive while he figures out who’s behind the plot.  Cui bono?  Good question.

This is an amazing debut novel, and Isaiah is a character that demands serialization.   In fact, pluck almost any of this rich and funny novel’s characters  out for scrutiny:  they hold up.  The self-absorbed Deronda, who believes she deserves stardom because of the size of her booty.  Magnus Westerveld, who created a new self in Skip Hanson, and bred a pit bull the size of a Volkswagen.  Dodson, partner and devil.  Flaco, Isaiah’s penance in human form, and so much more.

However, characters alone do not make a great detective novel.  For that, you need plot.  And there is plot in abundance.  Inventive, believable, and hair-raising plot; Ide weaves present day and past, accommodating various sub-plots that add complexity and hilarity to great effect.  And the end – when Isaiah finds the car that killed his brother? – great set-up for book #2.

Dodgers was heart-tugging and well-worth reading.  IQ is that and more.  It takes the top spot in the LL Edgar ranking.

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  3. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Next up: Dodgers

dodgersBill Beverly’s debut novel, Dodgers, is a coming of age story.  It’s a road trip.  It’s a crime novel.  It’s a mission.  And ultimately, it’s a dodge.

Here’s the set-up:  There’s a gang in LA.  No surprise, they sell drugs and commit other crimes.  In fact, Fin, the head of their gang is likely to go to jail, but there’s a witness (a former judge) hiding out in Wisconsin that needs killing.

Four boys – ages 13 to 20 – are tasked with taking that road trip:  15-year-old East, his younger half-brother Ty, Walter, and Michael.  East spends most of his time “standing yard” in the Boxes, watching for trouble, refusing entry to some potential drug purchasers while letting others in, always on the lookout for cops.  It’s thought he’s related to Fin.  His younger brother Ty has a different dad, and he’s tough, maybe crazy, and already a killer.  Walter’s supposed to be the smart one, a hulking six-footer.  And then there’s Michael, a college boy, who can talk white, knows the landscape, and can help them fit in where four black guys  – even wearing Dodger t-shirts, caps and sweatshirt and driving a mini-van – will stand out.

They head out with strict instructions: keep your head down, wear your Dodger wear, no guns, no drugs, no credit cards, and the oldest – Michael – drive the car and holds most of the cash.  They are to head eastward, follow specific instructions to obtain a gun, kill the judge, and then come home.  Of course, it almost immediately begins to fall apart, and 2,000 miles later, they’ve thrown Michael out of the car, the judge is dead, East shot his own brother, Walter’s taking a plane home, and East is stranded in the midwest.  He hunkers down, making a life for himself as the jack of all trades at an Ohio paintball range, where the proprietor and his wife take him on in a quasi-familial relationship.  The sad part of this: paintball proprietor Perry is dying.  A call home to Walter reveals that Fin’s in jail,  and everything East has  known is changed.  He decides he’s  never coming home.

Of course, he does.  I won’t reveal the plot twist that brings him back, but I didn’t foresee it.  He has to head home. Because, of course, the boys’ journey to kill the judge was much like Dorothy and her friends’ mission to kill the wicked witch of the West:  just an assignment to keep them all busy.  Fin’s goal was to simply keep East safe.  It was a dodge – which Merriam defines as “a cunning trick or ploy to avoid something unpleasant.”  The boys may have been the Dodgers, but Fin pulled the strings.

Beverly is a fine writer, with a particular strength in description of people and places.  You almost smell the sweat of the boys in the hot car and see the wonder of the icy beauty of the midwestern landscape.  His description of the people, even minor characters, makes them real.  It’s worth the time to savor his writing.   It’s an unusual and haunting story, particularly given the ending, which I won’t give away here!

It’s tough to compare Dodgers to Under the Harrow.  They are very different books.  Under the Harrow is a personal story, emotional, raw in its feelings.  Dodgers comes across much more “literary,”  cooler in feel.  I enjoyed them both – but for the character detail, the complex plot, and let’s face it, the play on words that is the title, I’m giving the top spot to Bill Beverly’s Dodgers.

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

  1. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  2. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

On to Best First Novel: Under the Harrow

edgarAt 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.

bestfirst

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.

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

  1. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

 

Who takes the BPO Edgar?

edgarWell, we won’t know who takes the actual Edgar until the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards Banquet, but today’s the day you learn who takes home the Literary Lunchbox  version!  The final nominee for the Edgar for Best Paperback Original is Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts.  Like Rain Dogs, it’s a police procedural, and like Rain Dogs, there’s a love story.  But modern-day California is quite a different setting from late-80’s Ireland.  On the other hand Dilts’ book has a car explosion, so there’s that commonality as well.

twilightThis is the fourth in the series featuring Long Beach police detective Danny Beckett, and the books have been pretty popular, in large part due to the breezy good-natured personality of the main character.  He likes his new girlfriend, spends a lot of nights at her place, but is a little shy about giving her the title.  They watch Downton Abbey and agree that he’s a lot like Mr. Bates.  He worries that his job makes him hard to live with, plus he snores.  He says he’s really only good at two things:  investigating homicides and denial.  And maybe not really denial.

In Come Twilight, Danny’s called to the scene of an apparent suicide, and due to an easily spotted clue (gun in left hand, victim a righty), starts investigating William Denkins’ murder.  Denkins is well-to-do, owns the building, has an ex-wife that he’s on good terms with and a daughter he adores who is married to a not-very-successful restauranteur.  Clues and confusion reigns as Danny searches for Denkins’ tenant, Kobayashi Maru, who turns up dead in a dumpster.  Meanwhile, Danny’s car, which has been having some problems and has to be towed to the shop, explodes in the middle of the night.  Yep, it’s a landmine under the driver’s seat.  Hmmmm…. inept bomber?  Warning?  Hard to say.

Everything’s on lockdown as a  colleague investigates the bombing.  Charming Danny does a number of ridiculous things, including staying at his partner’s house for safety, then taking middle-of-the-night runs to clear his head.   Most ridiculous is stopping by his own house to pick up some clothes, and getting lured by his high-flow showerhead into taking a shower.  One abduction, head injury, and “leave her alone” warning later, Danny’s in the hospital with a concussion.

How Dilts ties up all the loose ends, solves the murder and the bombing, while keeping Danny’s love life intact and his partnership on track is an enjoyable read.  It’s not particularly twisty; the big reveal (which I won’t reveal here)  was heavily foreshadowed.  I liked all the current pop culture references, but they’ll probably date the book in years to come.  At no point is the reader worried that Danny is in any real danger, and there’s not a lot of angst related to any of the other characters situations.  However, it is completely well worth reading.

Where to put it in the ranking?  It’s clearly mid-list.  The question is whether to place it above or below The 7th Canon.  It is truly neck and neck.  While I wish I could call it a tie, I’m going to give Dilts the edge for being slightly less formulaic and more contemporary than Dugoni’s book.

My call:  Adrian McKinty takes the Edgar for Rain Dogs.

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

  1. Rain Dogs – Adrian McKinty
  2. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  3. Come Twilight – Tyler Dilts
  4. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  5. Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
  6. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott

 

Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs up next

raindogsSo, Adrian McKinty is quite thrilled with his Edgar nom for the second year in a row in the Best Original Paperback category.  Last year’s nominees included his Gun Street Girl, which lost out by MWA and Literary Lunchbox-wise to Lou Berney’s Long and Far Away Gone.  That being said, I really liked Gun Street Girl.  And he has a pretty darn good shot at the Edgar this year for Rain Dogs.

The book is the fifth in the Detective Sean Duffy series.  Duffy’s an Irish police detective (Carrickfergus CID) in late-1980s Ireland.  He got to work security detail on Muhammed Ali’s visit to Belfast (good stuff), but his younger girlfriend’s moving out, he has to look under his car before he gets into it to make sure he’s not about to be blown up (those mercury bombs, one slip-up and you’re history), and his inept boss can’t even unravel a who-lifted-the-Finnish-big-shot’s wallet case (solution: one of his own traveling companions).  On the plus side, he has a great team in Sgt. “Crabbie” McCrabban and DC Alexander Lawson.

One of the thing I love about the Duffy series is the tone – it’s written in the first person, and Duffy is a great character.   He’s smart, capable, funny, wry, and eminently human.  Bad stuff, scary stuff happens, and he handles it, but there’s not a hint of noir bleakness.  (Not that I don’t also love noir!)

And the “misplaced” wallet cracks open a doorway into a much darker and complicated crime.  The Finnish entourage include Mr. Laakso – a very big deal in Finland – and his colleague Mr. Ek, the twin nephews of the company owner, Nicolas and Stefan Lennatin, as well as reporter Lily Bigelow, on the scene to cover the visit, and Duffy’s former colleague Tony McIlroy, providing security.  The Finns are there ostensibly to evaluate the  location as a potential site for a mobile phone factory.

While in town, the group heads for the one real tourist destination, Carrickfergus Castle.  And the next morning, Lily Bigelow’s body is found at the castle, an apparent suicide.  Duffy has strong doubts about the suicide, but can’t figure out how she could have been murdered, because there is no way the murderer would not have been discovered along with the body.  It’s a locked room mystery of the highest order.  And it’s the second locked room mystery that Duffy’s faced in his career.  Hmmm, what are the odds?

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Lily did not kill herself.  But why she was killed, what she was looking into, and how Duffy, Lawson and McCrabban figure it all out is a great read.  It’s especially frustrating, once the truth is revealed, to see Mr. Ek slip out of Duffy’s clutches, and then particularly satisfying to learn how justice is served, quietly and without fanfare.

I understand that McKinty originally planned for the Duffy series to be a trilogy, and especially with this fifth book, how wonderful it is that he kept going!  He is an assured writer, the book is well-plotted, the characters and camaraderie a plus, and the emotional connection growing.  The break-up subplot has a twist at the end the ensures a new phase of life for Sean Duffy in book #6, which I anticipate eagerly – it’s out March 7 and titled Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.

Compared to the other books nominated, Rain Dogs is just the work of a more mature and well-developed author.  It’s the whole package and takes the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox Edgar ranking!

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

  1. Rain Dogs – Adrian McKinty
  2. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  3. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  4. Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
  5. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott

Ellie Stone series entry gets Edgar nom

stoneFourth up in the Best Original Paperback category of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar awards is James W. Siskin’s Heart of Stone.  Set in 1961, the series features a young Jewish reporter, Eleonora (Ellie) Stone.  Ellie’s summer holiday with her family in the Adirondacks is interrupted when local sheriff Ralph Terwilliger asks her to photograph two dead bodies nearby.  To all appearances, a teenage boy from an area summer camp and an unknown man of 30 or so both tried to dive off Baxter’s Rock (a good 75 feet above the water), misjudged the jump and died on the rocks below.  Terrible accident?  Or something more sinister? 

While Ellie marvels at the crass ineptitude of the sheriff, she also has the opportunity to renew her acquaintance with Isaac Eisenstadt.  He’s charming, smart, and good-looking, even if he does have a way of assuming that Ellie not as intelligent or cultured as he is.  Isaac’s one of the group at the Arcadia Lodge, a Jewish intellectual community where political discourse and musical performance is accompanied by heavy drinking and lots of sleeping around.  Ellie proves herself a worthy companion for the group, even though Isaac seems more interested in her sexually than in her intellect.

Back to the bodies:  The boy is quickly identified and Ellie learns that he had seen his girlfriend early that morning and was on his way back to camp after their assignation (a little Romeo and Juliet-ish, as he was at a Jewish summer camp and she is the daughter of the local pastor).  The man takes a little longer, but he turns out to be Karl Marx Merkleson, a boyhood friend of the Arcadia Lodge group, who converted to Christianity, changed his name, and became a rich California film producer.

What ties the boy and the man together?  What happened atop that rocky outcropping?  Along the way to discovering the answer, Ellie becomes deeply embroiled in the interpersonal relationships of the Arcadia Lodge group, learning their secrets – some banal, some distasteful and one heartbreaking.  There are plenty of red herrings along the way, although the astute reader may divine the answer earlier than the author expects.  (The relevant clue was not sufficiently buried.)

There’s a lot of Jewish intellectual social milieu in Heart of Stone, and I can only assume it’s accurate – here’s an interview I found online that expounds upon that a bit.  Overall it’s an entertaining read and I’m likely to go back to the beginning and read the three earlier books in the series.

It’s pretty interesting that at least three of the four books so far in this category are set in the pastA Brilliant Death in 1963, The 7th Canon in 1987, Heart of Stone in 1961.  Even Shot in Detroit, while published just last year, is set in 2007.   Overall, while Ellie Stone is a bright and likable main character, I found Siskin’s Heart of Stone to be less compelling than the Yocum and Dugoni books – so it takes the #3 ranking, while Shot in Detroit keeps its spot at the bottom.

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

  1. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  2. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  3. Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
  4. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott

 

 

Next up: Dugoni’s The 7th Canon

dugoniAfter the first two nominees in the Best Paperback Original category of the MWA Edgar awards, I was totally ready for a legal thriller.  That’s a genre that experienced author Robert Dugoni is familiar with (see his David Sloane series).  Dugoni’s  The 7th Canon is a classic of that genre.

Young, idealistic, talented lawyer?  Check, Peter Donley. Experienced mensch of a mentor?  Yep, Uncle Lou Giantelli.  Dirty cop?  Check, Dixon Connor.  Unethical politician?  Of course, and for variety, it’s a father/son duo.  Experienced private detective on hand to save the lawyer’s bacon?  Yes, Frank Ross.  Innocent client accused of heinous murder?  Absolutely, and he’s a priest!  Father Thomas Martin.

The action is set in 1987, but the plot is timeless, and frankly, I kept looking for a plot point that would require that time frame and couldn’t find one.  The crime in question is heinous indeed.  Someone has tortured and murdered a male teenage prostitute and the body is discovered in Father Martin’s homeless shelter.  A cop at the scene breaks into Father Martin’s study and discovers the murder weapon as well as a cache of violent pedophile pornographic photographs.

It looks bad, and Donley is thrown in over his head when his Uncle Lou suffers a heart attack.  Still, he does his best, and is mystified when it appears that the prosecutor is hinting at a plea agreement – a guilty plea for 25 years to life, with a recommendation for 25 years.  Donley may have only three years of experience, but this sets off his radar – it just doesn’t make sense.  The prosecutor should be all-in for the death penalty.   This might be tempting for the lawyer, but Father Tom would rather be put to death than say he is guilty when he is not.  That leaves the legal team with only one option:  find the real killer.

The legal maneuvering is first rate, the plot escalates nicely, and dangerous situations abound.  Dugoni gives Donley a compelling backstory – at age 18, he may have murdered his abusive father.  The story has numerous twists and turns, but moves forward to the expected victory on the side of justice.  In fact, that may be my only quibble – that the discoveries are too easily made along the way.  It reminds me of the Rockford Files character played by Tom Selleck, who would declare “it’s time for a clue!” and one would handily come forward.  That Lance White led a charmed life.

Still, it’s almost too harsh to wish for more dead ends.  And I’d probably complain about a  switcheroo ending (the priest really did it!).  But how does The 7th Canon stack up to Shot in Detroit and A Brilliant Death?  It’s clearly superior to Shot in Detroit just for quality of writing and plot coherence.   When it comes to A Brilliant Death, I’m really quite fond of the framing device of looking back to past events, and Yocum does an excellent job of it, maintaining the suspense and holding back critical information in a way that feels natural (not like cheating).   For me, it’s neck and neck between Yocum’s and Dugoni’s books, and I give a slight edge to A Brilliant Death for the creativity of the plotting.  It keeps the lead.

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

  1. A Brilliant  Death – Robin Yocum
  2. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  3. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott