Category Archives: Review

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
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Kerr’s Prussian Blue up next

bluePrussian Blue.  It’s 528 pages of fictional Berlin detective Bernie Gunther interacting with Nazis in (framing device) 1956 and (very meaty main plot) 1939… and I have to say, it’s the most interesting and entertaining Philip Kerr book I’ve read.   It’s the fourth book that I’m reading, reviewing and ranking in the Literary Lunchbox take on the MWA Edgar for Best Novel.

As previously mentioned, I’m generally not into historical mysteries, especially those featuring swastikas (notable exception:  The Boys From Brazil).  I’ve read two Bernie Gunther books previously, when they were up for Edgars, and generally ranked them towards the bottom of the list.  (Field Gray review  and The Lady From Zagreb here.)  In fairness to me, they didn’t win.

kerrThat situation might change this year, as, sad to say, Philip Kerr passed away recently at the age of 62.  It certainly made me want to give Prussian Blue a full and fair reading, which meant slowing down, and paying especially close attention.  So that’s what I did.  It paid off.

The book begins in 1956 on the French Riviera, with our smart-and-jaded Bernie working as a hotel detective, still hoping for a reconciliation with his estranged wife when he gets an invitation to meet her for dinner.  He goes and is surprised to find that his dinner companion is not his wife, but a long-time enemy, Erich Mielke, now deputy head of Stasi, the East Germany Security Service.  Mielke wants Bernie to poison a former colleague in order to tie up some loose ends from a previous situation, but Bernie’s smart enough to know that even if he accedes to the request, he’ll become the next “loose end” requiring tying up.  Mielke’s thugs – including Frederich Korsch, a man Bernie knew well back in the day – bring him to the brink of death to secure his cooperation, but this only makes stubborn Bernie determined not to do their bidding.  He goes on the run.  While making his escape, Bernie reflects upon a previous case that brought him close to Hitler himself, even as Germany was readied for the attack on Poland that would launch WWII.

Fade to April, 1939.  A man has been shot on the terrace at Hitler’s private home at Berchtesgaden.  It’s critical to solve the murder and ensure security before Hitler arrives there for his 50th birthday celebration.  Nazi boss Reinhard Heydrich assigns Commissar Gunther – a smart, honest cop – to solve the crime.  On arrival, Bernie finds that he must please Martin Bormann, who runs the show.  It’s soon clear that there is no failure allowed – the crime will be solved, either by finding the killer, or fitting one up. 

Bernie’s not surprised to find that the dead man, a local engineer named Karl Flex, is incredibly unpopular with the locals, throwing people out of their homes in forced sales at bargain basement prices, strong-arming the local whores, and serving as Bormann’s bag man on cash runs to Switzerland.  The entire enclave is a money machine for Bormann and his crew.  These facts come out over time, and offer Bernie and his assistants, Frederich Korsch and local SS Capt. Hermann Kaspel, a plethora of potential murderers.  And it soon becomes clear that there are some that would prefer to see Bernie fail, as there is more than one attempt on his life.  When Kaspel is killed in a rigged car wreck when Bernie should have been with him, Bernie knows he must be making progress.

Bernie does discover who killed Flex and why, and sets out to capture him, accompanied by one of Bormann’s aides, Wilhelm Zander.  Bernie believes that if he can arrest the man, justice will be done, Bormann will release the innocent fall guy currently in the clink, and he’ll be able to get two inept cops off the hook (they’re facing a firing squad for no good reason).  But misplaced optimism is a Bernie Gunther hallmark… so when he captures the killer, Zander shoots him, then turns the gun on Bernie.  Our hero escapes, but mostly due to dumb luck.  And while things turn out okay for him, when he returns to Bavaria, he learns that all three of the men he’d hoped to save had been killed that morning.  He also meets a dead end in his quest to bring down Bormann.

Flash forward to 1956 – his 1939 friend and colleague, Frederich Korsch is now his enemy, but Bernie has a new name and a new chance at freedom in Munich.

I know.  It’s a lot of plot.  And I left a ton out.

There’s a lot to like about this book.  With some minimal wikipedia-ing, I am convinced that Kerr did a great job on the historical accuracy aspect of it.  I have no problem believing that he also did an excellent job in his portrayal of historical figures.  One character – female architect Gerdy Troost, who was a staunch Nazi and strong Hitler admirer – decides to help Bernie root out the corruption, and she is a sympathetic figure in Kerr’s hands.  Characters are fleshed out and credible.  The plot is twisty and the violence is compelling and realistic.  Also, Kerr has a wonderful way with words.  I had to stifle myself from reading selections out loud to my husband; after the third such passage, Mark was out of patience.

The best thing about Prussian Blue is Bernie Gunther himself.  He’s sharp and funny, is more likely to get beaten to a pulp than he is to do the beating, and is liable to succeed mostly through sheer persistence, but also gets a normal helping of dumb luck along the way.  His morality is like Teflon; despite all the evil he sees, it endures.  As he thought back to that April in 1939 and all that had occurred, he reflected, “Most of all I remembered being almost twenty years younger and possessed of a sense of decency and honor I now found almost quaint.  For a while back here, I think I sincerely believe I was the only honest man I knew.”  He may be rueful, but at the core, he’s unchanged.

So how does the book stack up with the other nominees?  For character, complications, plot and atmosphere, I’ve got to give it up for Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue.  It goes to the top of the ranking.

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

  1. Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
  2. Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
  3. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  4. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

Bluebird, Bluebird up for Best Novel

bluebidThe third book up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel is Attica Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird.  As with the two nominees I’ve reviewed so far, Bluebird is the first book in a planned series, this time featuring a black Texas Ranger named Darren Mathews.  Race relations in  Texas infuses Bluebird, which is unflinching in its portrayal of race-based hate crimes as well as the more complicated interpersonal relationships.  Mathews’ desire to ensure a fair shake for African-Americans, both those accused and those who are victims, is what made him drop out of law school and become a Ranger… even though he may pay a big price, as his wife Lisa is looking for a stable and upwardly mobile life.  She’s also not thrilled with Mathews’ drinking, and it looks like she’s right – he’s got a problem.

Mathews comes to the small town of Lark to investigate the death of Michael Wright, a black lawyer from Chicago, and also that of a young mother and blonde beauty, Missy Dale.  The locals – including local law enforcement, the local branch of the Aryan Brotherhood, and what passes for the local bourgeoisie – may not be in cahoots, but they all share a desire to send Ranger Mathews back to where he came from.  But Mathews is patient and persistent while looking out for the powerless.  Meanwhile, back home, a grand jury is deciding whether to charge old friend Rutherford “Mack” McMillan in the shooting death of a white man who had been stalking his Mack’s granddaughter.  Darren hopes his testimony cast enough doubt to keep the old man free.

Mathews has a strong suspicion that Missy’s husband, Keith Dale, killed Wright in a fit of rage when he saw his wife walking down the dark road with him, then killed his wife to silence her as a witness.  But as Mathews learns why the Chicago man had come to Lark, Texas, he begins to cast a new light on the long-term relationships of the locals, and ends up solving a long-ago crime as well as the present-day murders.

Locke is the author of three previously well-received novels, including Edgar nominee Black Water Rising (which I reviewed here back in 2010!) and was a writer and producer on the Fox drama Empire.  So it’s not surprising that Bluebird is well-plotted, but I didn’t see either of the two twists at the end coming.  Well-done!  In addition, I’m a sucker for complicated characters, and some of the people who inhabit Locke’s Texas are as real as they come.  

Comparing Bluebird Bluebird to The Dime and A Rising Man, Locke does a superior job of tapping into the zeitgeist of time and place than the other authors.  Her characters are also more compelling and convincing, although I’d like to see more exploration of wife Lisa.  As a result, Bluebird is taking the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox ranking.

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

  1. Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
  2. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  3. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

 

Nominee #2: A Rising Man

risingAfter my last post, moaning about historical… the next nominee for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel is Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, set in 1919 Calcutta.   The heat, grime, and colonial culture where the British rule, the natives serve, and those of mixed race are shunned by both, welcome Captain Sam Wyndham.  A former Scotland Yard detective, Capt. Wyndham faces his first case – the murder of a British official, Alexander MacAuley.  Found in a “dark, dead-end alley,” the body was mangled, throat cut, and a mysterious message in Bengali, on expensive paper, was forced into his mouth.  “No more warnings,” it read.  “English blood will run in the streets.  Quit India!”  Terrorists? the captain wonders.  Or perhaps it was just supposed to look like terrorists?

Helping Captain Wyndham is Inspector Digby – surely much too well-qualified to report to an inexperienced man such as Wyndham – and Sergeant Surendranath Bannerjee, known as “Surrender-Not.”  (My favorite character!) Also of service is the dead man’s secretary, the lovely Annie Grant.  The prime suspect?  Political activist Benoy Sen.  It would suit all to find Sen guilty, and it’s soon made clear that Wyndham is expected to investigate only so far as it is necessary to deliver Sen, collect accolades, and let business be business in the corrupt corners of Calcutta.

Hampered by a hankering for opium, Wyndham’s still a good investigator and realizes that all is not as it seems.  Fairly early on, I realized that this was going to be one of those “which one of these characters I already met is really the bad guy?” books.  Was it the madam Mrs. Bose, whose upscale house of ill repute was near where MacAuley’s body was found?  Perhaps the L-G, Wyndham’s boss?  Mr. Buchan?  The good reverend?  Someone closer to home?  And which of these were behind the botched train robbery? That’s where Mukherjee fooled me – there were two surprise bad guys!

Here’s what I found good about the book:  nicely written, easy to read, some likable/interesting characters, pretty twisty plot with red herring.  It read like an Agatha Christie, with an updated protagonist who showed a remarkable openness to diversity given the 1919 timeframe.  Still, not really my cup of tea.

Comparison to Kathleen Kent’s The Dime?  Tough.  Very different books, both worth reading, neither of which do I think will take home the Edgar.  I’m going to keep The Dime on top simply because I’m more likely to read book 2 in Kent’s series.

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

  1. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  2. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

MWA Edgar: Best Novel

Best Novel 18

It’s about a month until the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards banquet on April 26, so that gives me a few weeks to read (or re-read) the five nominees.  Of the group, I’ve already read Bluebird Bluebird and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, but reading to review and rank is not the same as reading for fun… it takes a more careful reading and a critical eye.  So I’ll be reading them again; I do recall liking them both.

I’ll admit I had a little bit of a heavy heart when I saw that Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue was up for the Edgar… it’s over 500 pages long and (gulp) historical.  Never my favorite.  And I said so in 2016, when The Lady from Zagreb was nominated (see more here) and in 2012, when his Field Gray was up for the award (ditto).  All three books feature WWII era spy Bernie Gunther.  I didn’t pick Kerr to win in 2012 or 2016, and sure enough, he didn’t.   So I’m going to build up to him slowly, and pick off the shorter books first!

That being said, first up is Kathleen Kent’s The Dime.   Dallas PD’s Betty Rhyzyk’s not your typical drug squad detective – she’s a transplanted Brooklyn cop, a tall, red-haired Polish lesbian.  She and her team are about to arrest a cocaine distributor and his supplier when a woman shows up, upset that her neighbor left his dog in his car on a hot day.  She calls the cops, an officer shows up, Betty and her partner stand by hoping it gets resolved quickly, when the supplier shows up.  The distributor dies, the cop dies, the Samaritan dies, one of Betty’s team is injured, and Ruiz gets away.  The one good thing?  Betty’s partner Seth adopts the dog.

The homicide squad takes over, but Betty and her guys keep working the case, determined to run Ruiz to ground and salvage the drug bust.  They chase down Ruiz’s girlfriend, Lana Yu, and the next thing we know, Lana’s dead, throat cut and her ears cut off, and a the stripe of dyed red in her head of black hair is gone as well.  When Lana’s missing hank of hair turns up in Betty’s bed while her partner, Jackie, lies there sleeping, it starts to look like Betty is being targeted.  When Ruiz’s head is delivered to Betty’s apartment in a box, it’s confirmed.   And when Betty and Hoskins, one of the team, are lured out of town, where Ruiz’s headless body has been found, it’s shocking but not surprising that Hoskins is killed and Betty kidnapped.   A crazy, religion-obsessed woman lives with her two criminal sons, and she wants Betty to bear her a grandchild.  Betty’s held captive for over a week until she finally makes a violent escape.

The Dime is a competent police procedural.  Betty has a solid backstory, and Kent does a good job of showing it in the first few chapters.  The relationship between Betty and the men she works with rings true, although perhaps a little too supportive; it’s hard to imagine that Texas cops are all that welcoming to New York lesbians.  She has a solid, loving relationship with her partner, and a little expected friction with Jackie’s family.  The best thing about the book is  Betty’s voice.  Told in the first person, she comes across as grounded and no-nonsense.

As the first one reviewed, The Dime takes top billing in the Literary Lunchbox ranking.  Frankly, it’s hard to imagine that it will stay there – when compared to other Edgar-award winners such as Mr. Mercedes, Ordinary Grace, The Last Child, or Goneit’s just not special enough to make the cut.  Let’s see!

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

  1. The Dime by Kathleen Kent

 

Final Edgar Nominee: Lola

LolaWho will take the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author?  We’ve had some very interesting books nominated this year, and the final nominee is very worthy:  Lola, by Melissa Scrivner Love.

This may be Love’s first published novel, but she’s been around the block a time or two when it comes to fiction.  She’s an Edgar-award nominated screenwriter who has written for TV (cop shows!), and she comes by her interest in crime fiction honestly, as she is the daughter of a police officer father and court stenographer mother.

The book is definitely cinematic – I could see it as a TV series, easily.  A crime thriller, it is obviously the first in a series.  The protagonist is Lola Vazquez, a young woman who grew up rough and hungry in South LA, pimped out as a young girl by her junkie mother, fiercely protective of her younger brother Hector, and live-in girlfriend of Garcia, the leader of a small gang, the Crenshaw Six.  She mixes with the neighborhood women, jokes about her bad cooking and insists upon a clean kitchen,  but what they don’t know is that Lola’s the true leader of the Crenshaw Six.  She’s got the brains and the grit to do what needs to be done – even if it’s killing a fellow gang member or sawing through her own brother’s trigger finger to punish him for misbehavior.

When the Crenshaw Six gets its big break – a gang high up in the hierarchy of gangs gives them the opportunity to rip off an upcoming drug deal in exchange for control of more territory – it comes with a price.  Do it and be rewarded.  Fail, and Lola, who is considered to be Garcia’s property, will be killed.   It should be no surprise that things do not go smoothly, there are multiple double-crosses, and Lola’s beloved Hector screws up, big time.

As Lola and the guys work to find the drugs and the money, the plot takes some labyrinthine turns.  New characters are introduced, including an up-from-the-projects drug lord who loves his mama and thinks that kidnapping Lola’s is going to motivate her to do his bidding; a rival dealer with a love of sushi who is the first kingpin to learn that Lola’s not the girlfriend, she’s the boss (but he has her beaten to a pulp anyway,  with some regret); and a married, WASPy, Starbucks-loving, Snugli-toting couple that import drugs through their beauty supply company.  There’s almost too many twists and turns, but Love keeps it all straight, keeping the plot moving while the clock is ticking to one horrific deadline after another.

At the end of the day, the body count is high, but Lola has a new partnership and has earned the allegiance of some former foes.  In the #metoo era, it’s definitely empowering to see a female protagonist who not only fights back, but takes the offensive.  (I had the same feeling during Wonder Woman – everybody discounts her, but she prevails!)

Lola is terrifically well-presented and other characters are well-written and generally three-dimensional.  The dialogue crackles, pacing is excellent, and the plot is satisfying.  I’d like to read the next one and definitely want to see it on the screen (hope that Netflix and Amazon are checking it out!).

It’s a tough call about where to put Lola on the Lit Lunchbox ranking.  With all it has going for it, Lola‘s definitely in the running for the top spot.  Ultimately, the comparison between Lola and She Rides Shotgun simply comes down to emotional impact.  Lola has shocks and thrills.  She Rides Shotgun has heart.  My call?  She Rides Shotgun keeps the top spot.  We’ll see come April 26 whether the MWA agrees with me!

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

mwa_logo

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love
  3. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
  4. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
  5. Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li

Idaho home to a tapestry of stories

idahoTalk about your unreliable narrator!  Wade Mitchell is rapidly losing his memory, including his recall of the hot day in August 1995 when his young wife, Jenny, murdered their 6-year-old daughter May with a backhanded blow of a hammer and 9-year-old June disappeared into the woods, never to be seen again.

Idaho is Wade’s story.  And Jenny’s.  And it belongs to May and to June.  It is also the story of Ann, who marries Wade knowing full well she will become his helpmeet and by the end of the story, is helping Jenny as well.  So many people and so much humanity, so well-presented.

Idaho is a sprawling novel, criss-crossing through time, from the early days of Wade and Jenny’s marriage and ahead to 2025, when Jenny has finally completed her sentence is emerges into a future she never thought she’d see.  The characters all have their own strengths, virtues, failures, and heartbreak.  Despite the profusion of characters, the various timelines, and the reluctant unveiling of the fateful day, Idaho’s narrative is easy to follow.  Emotionally compelling, Ruskovich reveals the bonds of love even as it revolves around the senseless tragedy.

It is hinted – but not confirmed – that Jenny’s jealousy of Wade and suspicion of his relationship with Ann, the school music teacher was the cause of her violent act.  It is also unclear where June went, or why.  At age 9, what were her options?  And yet the bloodhound found nothing.  Readers will differ on whether the lack of a clear resolution to the mysteries makes it a better book, or a worse one.  I found the book to be perfectly itself and would not have changed it.

So how does Idaho stack up to the other nominees?  It is most similar to Tornado Weather in its multitude of characters and plot threads, as well as the senseless nature of the crime.  And as much as I liked Tornado Weather, I found Idaho to be a much richer and deeper book.  And as much as I liked Idaho, it does not have the bright edge and sharply memorable characters that I found in She Rides Shotgun.  So Shotgun stays at #1 and Idaho takes the #2 spot.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
  3. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
  4. Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li