Coming down to the wire with Best Novel

best novel

Thank heavens there are only five books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel – time is running out with the Awards banquet less then a month away, on April 27.   You see all the nominees pictured – out of them, I have only previously read Before the Fall.  My memory was that it was excellent.  But let’s see how the others fare!

I’m starting out with The Ex, by Alafair Burke.  It’s her first Edgar nomination, although her father, James Lee Burke has won the Best Novel Award three times (1990, 1998, and 2003) and was honored with the Grand Master Award in 2009.  His daughter tends to write suspense, but this outing is pretty much a legal thriller (with strong suspense overtones, of course).

Criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall is surprised when she gets a phone call from a teenage girl, asking Olivia to help her father.  Her dad?  Jackson Harris Olivia’s former fiancé, whom she treated absolutely horribly by sleeping around in a semi-conscious effort to get him to break up with her, finally taking it to “unforgivable” territory by sleeping with his brother, Owen.   It all gets even worse when over-tired and over-served Owen gets into a car wreck and is killed.  That very night.  After talking and drinking into the wee hours with Jack.  Which causes Jack to have a nervous breakdown, for which he spends a year in a mental hospital.  Awkward.  She hasn’t seen him since.

Still, 16-year-old Buckley Harris is calling Olivia and asking her for help.  And Olivia knows that Buckley only has her dad, because her mother – the saintly substitute teacher Molly Harris – had been murdered in a shooting spree by a troubled teenage boy whose father had denied his issues and done a lot of father-son bonding with guns.  So down she goes to the police station, where she finds out that her ex is under suspicion for shooting that horrible father.  Jack had means (they think), motive (definitely), and opportunity (absolutely, he was in the area when the shooting happened).  It can’t be true, Olivia thinks.  She knows him, too sensitive for his own good.  Plus he tells a story that she thinks can be verified – he was meeting a sort-of blind date for a picnic.

But it turns out Jack’s story is pretty unbelievable.  Then the blind date turns out to be an escort that somebody hired to lure Jack, and Olivia’s thoughts turn to “who would try to frame Jack?”  There is one twist after another, and the reader lurches violently from “Jack is innocent!”  to “Jack did it!”  And I’d be okay with all this – the characters are pretty interesting, the pace is powerful with each new piece of info propelling the reader forward – except that around page 167, I realized who did it.  And on page 277, Burke revealed it… and it’s not Jack.  But he pleads guilty anyway to cover up for the real killer (bet you’ve got it figured out, too).

The epilogue is four years later, and the reader learns that Olivia visits Jack once a year on the anniversary of his guilty plea, to see if she can convince him to work with her to get his guilty plea set aside.  And every year, he says no.

magic 8Would I read more Alafair Burke?  Absolutely.  Is The Ex going to take the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best Novel?  As the Magic 8 ball says, “Outlook not so good.”  Still, first reviewed so it gets top spot for now!

 

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

  1.  The Ex by Alafair Burke
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Lost Girls Last Up, Takes LL Edgar

lostYep, I called it.  I read and reviewed Heather Young’s The Lost Girls when it come out last year, and prophesied that it would receive an Edgar nom for Best First Novel.  And indeed it did.

When I reread a book for the Edgars, it’s a different kind of reading.  It’s not just getting swept along by the story and connecting with the characters, I read for craft… how does the author put the story together, show the characters, manage the pace, reveal the secrets while maintaining the suspense?  And the ending – is it satisfying, or does it just stop?  (Or is it a set-up for the next book?  Augh.)  When it comes to these factors, Heather Young has done a fantastic job.  

The Lost Girls is two stories, one in the past and one in the present, intertwined, and connected through a single family.

It all begins in 1935 at the summer house of a seemingly happy and well-to-do family.  The father owns a pharmacy and is very religious.  There are three girls. Lilith, the wild one, is 13. Lucy, the quiet middle sister, is two years younger. And the baby of the family, the cosseted Emily who rarely leaves her mother’s side, is six.  And then one day, Emily vanishes. No trace of her is ever found, and the father kills himself just a few months later.  Lilith, Lucy, and Eleanor, their mother, live together, year-round, in the house by the lake.  There are lifelong secrets kept, not to be revealed until Lucy, nearing the end of her life, decides to recount the story of that summer and the years since then in a notebook she leaves for her grand-niece, Justine, whom she hasn’t seen in over 20 years.

Meanwhile, in the present.  Justine is gobsmacked to hear from a lawyer that her great aunt Lucy has died and she is her heir.  There is a house and money, but more than that – it’s the chance for a new beginning.  Justine had a bad marriage and is making a worse mistake with her controlling, live-in boyfriend, Patrick.  So she packs their bags, loads the girls in the car, and leaves her apartment key and a note that tells Patrick that there is spaghetti in the refrigerator, and takes her last bit of cash and drives cross-country.  No credit cards, no cell phone – she simply does not want to be found.

A lot happens on the four-day trip and once gets there, she finds that the house is not in good shape, it’s scary cold, and Melanie, her older daughter, is sullen and resentful. And always there is the specter of Patrick.  Justine works hard to make a life for herself and her girls, and slowly she is succeeding.  She discovers the handwritten books that Lucy penned about her little sister Emily.  Among them is Lucy’s story for Justine, although she doesn’t find it – Melanie does.   They settle in and just when things seem to be going well, Patrick arrives, and with him, Justine’s crushing fear that she will give in and give up.

Rereading  makes it clear that Heather Young is a skillful first-time author.  Each story carries its own weight.  Justine’s love for her daughters, her insight into her own weakness, her awakening courage and the strength to stand up to the manipulative Patrick – even when he goes so far as to set their house on fire so he can become, once again, Justine’s “savior,” is painfully true.  Her small triumph is deeply personal and fulfilling.

And Lucy tells a story of her own awakening to the hidden depths and twisted relationships in her own family.  Over that one summer, she comes to realize what all in her family know but don’t say – that her father is sexually obsessed with Lilith’s purity, and that once she is sullied, he will move on to Lucy.  And then to Emily.  And it is his obsession, and how it affects all three girls and their mother that summer, that results in Emily’s death, his death, and a drastically diminished life for the women.  As she nears the end of her life, Lucy regrets her own part in the story and the choices she made.  Young makes Lucy’s story – told in her own voice – compelling and real, and by recounting it chronologically, keeps us in suspense.

it’s clear that The Lost Girls deserves a spot at the top of the Literary Lunchbox Edgar rankings.   Well-plotted, psychologically complex, optimistic and humane, it is a level above the other  nominees, although they are all deserving of the nomination!

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

  1. The Lost Girls by Heather Young
  2. IQ by Joe Ide
  3. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  4. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  5. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
  6. Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

Dancing with the Tiger Edgar nominee

dancingThe fifth nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel continues the trend I noted in my most recent review – that is, the trend toward diversity in the genre.  Lili Wright’s book Dancing With the Tiger straddles a variety of sub-genres.  Think of it as the literary Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the plucky antiquities collector’s daughter Anna Ramsey in the Indiana Jones role.  Here’s the set-up:  Daniel and Anna Ramsey collaborated on a book about Mexican masks, only to find that the Ramsey collection featured several forgeries.  There goes the plan to sell the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art!  Now Anna has the opportunity to go to Mexico and bring back the death mask of Montezuma, restoring their reputation and squashing the egos of their collector rivals, Mexican crime kingpin Reyes and American ex-patriat Thomas Malone.

Of course Anna’s quest is difficult.  There is every possibility that she will spend her last dollar on another forgery.  Or have her money stolen.  Or have the mask be real, and the buy proceed smoothly, but then the mask is stolen.   That last one is sort-of what actually happens, and Anna spends the rest of the book trying to recover it, with increasing desperation and a resultant willingness to confront danger.  The “tiger” of the title is just one such hazard – a hit man who wears a tiger mask when fulfilling his assignments.

The book is told through a series of interweaving chapters with interweaving points of view, including the looter (the meth addict from Colorado who first digs up the mask), the collector (Anna’s pathetic father), the gardener (Thomas Malone’s employee who is more than a gardener and is in love with a young woman who sells stationery), the housekeeper (the gardener’s wife, who takes an unexpected heroic turn), and others.  And Anna, of course.

The plot may meander a bit, but it gets there, and Wright has a beautiful way with language, lyrical and philosophical.  There are multiple subplots that are interesting in themselves, and enrich the book.  Anna’s story includes masquerading as a fact-checker and getting a job with Malone in order to get access to the mysterious shed where he keeps all his acquisitions – and then getting a huge surprise when she finds out that one of these acquisitions was the woman who preceded her as Malone’s assistant.  I saw that one coming.

At the end of the book, many things have changed, and the mystery of Montezuma’s death mask is known only to the reader.  I enjoyed Dancing With the Tiger and would recommend it.  Wright’s approach to the story – with a myriad of characters, points of view and subplots – worked for me, but it does slow it down.  In another writer’s hands, I could see this as a swashbuckling thriller, bloody and with more urgent pacing.  This is a better book.

Again, tough to decide where to place Dancing with the Tiger in the Lunchbox ranking.  It is extremely well-written and has a literary feel, like Dodgers.  It’s got murder and mayhem… but then, they all do.  At the end of the day, I just was not as engaged by this book as I was with the nominees.  So while Tiger gets a thumbs up, it goes to the bottom of the list.

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  3. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  4. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
  5. Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

Nick Petrie’s Drifter – Reacher-esque?

drifter“Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal.”   That’s the blurb from Lee Child on Nick Petrie’s debut mystery, The Drifter.  I try not to go into a book with preconceived notions, but once read, that blurb tends to influence your perceptions.  And Ash does have his similarities to Reacher.  Like Reacher, Ash has served in the military, is on the road and has few ties.  He’s also single-minded and a handy guy to have on your side in a fight.   They both have a strong sense of loyalty and their own definitions of right and wrong. And I’m a big Reacher fan, so this is setting the bar high.

The Drifter starts with a prologue – who is this man in the black canvas chore coat driving around in a pick-up truck with false id, buying fertilizer?  We don’t know, but by the end of the book, we get to know this guy, his profession and his unusual code of honor that results in his partnering with Ash to foil a terrorist plot  at the last minute.   So, while I usually an not a prologue fan, I give this one a thumbs up because it builds suspense and is integral to the plot.

In the meantime, Ash is on his belly, crawling in the dirt under Dinah Johnson’s porch and trying to figure out a way to overpower a 140-lb. pitbull mix that’s dead-set against coming out, without getting maimed.  His solution is clever and humane, and once he’s subdued the dog and tied it to a tree, his next action is to give it water from his own water bottle.  “Dog’s thirsty,” he explains to Charlie Johnson, Dinah’s son.

And thus, in the first chapter, we know a lot about Peter Ash.  We also know a lot about Nick Petrie – he knows how to set the stage, reveal character, and build suspense.  Over the subsequent chapters, we find out why Ash is there – to atone for not being there for his Marine buddy, Sgt. Jimmy Johnson, who committed suicide the month before, leaving behind a widow (ER nurse Dinah) and two boys (Charlie and Miles).  His pretext – doing “what needs to be done” as part of a VA program, which results in his offer to rebuild the Washington’s falling down porch.  His baggage – he is suffering from PTSD and can only stand to be indoors for short periods of time.

Of course, the straightforward narrative becomes  complicated almost immediately, when Ash discovers the dog was guarding a suitcase containing $400,000 and four packs  of C4 explosive under that porch.  A hard-looking case with a gun and a black SUV is lurking about.  And Dinah turns out to have resources of her own, in the form of a long-time tie to a smooth, smart and strong local crime lord named Lewis.

Ash’s unraveling the connections that lead to a hedge fund and its Machiavellian owner is a complex but gripping process.  The plot?  To blow up a bank, throw the markets into unrest, and make a fortune. Along the way, Ash discovers the truth about his friend Jimmy, builds a strong bond with Jimmy’s dog Mingus, and learns how good people can be twisted to do bad things.  In the end, good guys turn out to be bad guys, bad guys turn good, and the day is saved following a super-scary chase scene.

The Drifter is a classic thriller, and Petrie worked hard to lift it a bit above through character complexity.  He has varying success with that – the emphasis on the psychic impact of combat can be seen as exploitative, and the upright nurse, crime lord with a sensitive side, callous hedge fund owner, and crooked cop are pretty formulaic.  But it all hangs together quite well and the Ash character is compelling, so all told, it’s a very strong debut and I look forward to more from Petrie.

It’s a tough call where to place it on the rankings.  Each of the four books are so different, with Under the Harrow falling in suspense, Dodgers in literary, IQ detective and Drifter thriller.  After careful consideration, I’m going to place it #2.  As a sheer page-turner, it’s a good one, but not quite up to IQ.  But I have to say, I’d recommend all four of these books – this is a great crop of debut novels and I’m eager to see how the last two stack up!

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  3. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  4. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

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