Abbott and Yocum: Both new to me

The first two books I’m reading, reviewing and ranking for the Literary Lunchbox Best Paperback Original Edgar are Patricia Abbott’s Shot in Detroit and A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum.

Yocum’s got great credentials:  he’s a former crime and investigative reporter, winner of more than 30 awards for journalism, and the author of several previous novels, one of which was USA Today’s 2011 book of the year for mystery/suspense.  On the other hand, Abbott has published 65 short stories, has won the Deringer award, and is the mother of Edgar award winner Megan Abbott.  I expected a pretty tight race between the two.

I’ll go ahead and cut the suspense:  Yocum crushed it.

shot-in-detroitShot in Detroit has a great concept:  Late-30s, single white female photographer is living on the edge and looking for her artistic edge when her African-American boyfriend calls to ask her to photograph one of his corpses.  (It’s okay because his a mortician and the family is requesting it.)   Voila!  An artistic hook.  Plus, she really gets into portraying the dark variety of death.  But there’s no central crime, no mystery to be solved, and when photographer Violet Hart photographs her own boyfriend’s crushed corpse, it’s jump the shark time.  This is a book that could have been so much more.  Best part:  a real understanding of Detroit and its neighborhoods.

brilliantMeanwhile, Robin Yocum’s A Brilliant Death is reminiscent of John Hart’s Down River (although not as dark).  Mitch Malone, the narrator, promises to relate a story that he has kept a secret until the death of his best friend’s father… the story of how he and that friend, Travis Baron, investigated the disappearance (and as becomes evident, the murder) of Travis’ mother.  How their graduation night took a tragic turn.  And how ultimately, justice prevailed.  The book is suspenseful, well-plotted, characters compelling and believable (both heroes and villains), and the writing first-rate.

A Brilliant Death takes the top spot.

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

  1. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  2. Shot in Detroit – Patricia Abbott

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Edgar starts NOW!

edgarEvery year, I read, review, and rank the MWA Edgar finalists in 2-3 categories, and overall, about half the time the Literary Lunchbox pick for the Edgar and the actual winner line up.  Some years, I miss them all.  One year, I batted .1000.  But given that there are 5-6 entries in each category, I do okay.  It helps that I’m not trying to forecast the winner, I’m just telling you who would win if LL was in charge of the award program.  So I can always think that MWA got it wrong!

This year, I’m going to start with the Best Paperback Original category, because that’s where I found my favorite Edgar book from last year, Lou Berney’s Long and Faraway Gone.  It won.  (Also the Macavity, Anthony and Barry awards!)

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Here’s this year’s line up!

  • Shot in Detroit – Patricia Abbott
  • Come Twilight – Tyler Dilts
  • The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  • Rain Dogs – Adrian McKinty
  • A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  • Heart of Stone – James W. Siskin

Only Robert Dugoni and Adrian McKinty are familiar to me, and frankly, McKinty’s book is the one to beat from my perspective.  He’s a seasoned author, Rain Dogs is an entry in a popular series featuring Irish detective Sean Duffy, and as it happens, I already read it and loved it.  But I try to wipe that all from my mind and read for more than sheer enjoyment during Edgar time.

Once Best Original Paperback is done, I expect to go through Best First Novel by an American Author and finish up with Best Novel.  This year’s banquet is on April 27, so that gives me three months to get through them all.  Generally I manage to squeak by, time-wise.

My good friend and writing buddy Addy Whitehouse will also be reviewing this year – you can find her here.  She uses a different system – a 1-10 rating – so theoretically she could end up with a tie!  Occasionally I love something she hates, and vice versa.  Thus proving there is something out there for everyone…

Grisham’s Whistler ho-hum

I remember when I first read my first John Grisham book.  The Firm was (and is) a pulse-pounding, labyrinthine legal thriller, expertly plotted and with characters you care about.  Awesome.  I back-tracked and read A Time to Kill, which is now enshrined in my memory in two ways:  the b00k – which made me turn pages ferociously while blinking back tears – and the excellent film featuring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson.  The Pelican Brief.  The Client.  The Runaway Jury.  That man was on a serious roll.

whistlerGrisham’s The Whistler is not up to that standard.  The basis for the story has a lot of promise – an informant tells investigators for an underfunded and undermanned agency that investigates judicial misconduct that a prominent judge has been taking bribes to rule in favor of a Florida mob that’s exploiting an Indian tribe to rake off untold millions in illegal profits from a variety of unsavory ventures.  The investigators – Lacy Stoltz and her partner Hugo Hatch – are a likable, honest, intelligent pair who are pretty naive, and seriously outgunned by both the informant and the bad guys.  Tension ratchets when Hugo is killed, the pair having been lured to a remote location, their car deliberately rammed by a stolen van, and Lacy’s memory of the event is hazy.

There are a myriad of complications – the informant is just a front man for the real whistleblower, who is close to the judge and not difficult to identify. With the exception of Lacy, it’s hard to care much about any of the good guys, and the bad guys are so over the top they’re practically twirling their villainous mustaches.  But most egregiously, the legal noose tightens with little panache – it’s a straight march from figuring out who did what to bringing them to justice, all laid out nice and neatly in the epilogue.  All the ingredients for a legal thriller are there, it’s just not very thrilling.

Still, The Whistler is a huge improvement over Grisham’s most recent book, Rogue Lawyer.  I got that one as a  CD to listen to while making a long drive by car, and actually stopped at a rest stop to look at the cover to make sure it was really John Grisham.  It’s less a novel than a series of long short stories featuring a cage-fighting, low-life defending, underdog defense attorney.  He’s so colorful as to be technicolor, and about as believable as a Marvel comic book.  I’m sure it had its fans, though.

Recommend The Whistler as a Christmas gift for your thriller-loving dad?  If he’s discerning, you might give it a pass.  If not, go for it.  The Whistler may not be vintage Grisham, but it’s still Grisham.

 

 

Lee Child back with prequel Night School

night-schoolLee Child’s new Jack Reacher book, Night School, has two strikes against it, according to my husband.  One, Reacher’s working with a team.  Two, it’s set in the past.  According to book critic-slash-graphic designer-slash-artist Mr. B, the best Reacher stories are present-day and Reacher, solo, against the bad guys.

All of which goes to prove that Karen and her hubby don’t always agree.  Set in the mid-90s, Night School features a 35-year-old Reacher teaming up with his opposite numbers at the FBI and the CIA for a covert operation in Germany.  The goal: to find out what jihadists would pay $100 million for, where it came from, and who is “the American” who is selling it to them.  And, of course, to stop the sale and recover whatever it is.  Because it’s sure to be bad.

So here is what Reacher naysayers won’t like about Night School:  Reacher wins all his fights, even when it’s eight to one (or should I say eight to two, since the charming-yet-lethal Sgt. Frances Neagy does finish off the last one, arriving just in the nick of time).  Reacher is irresistible to the one high-ranking, ultra-attractive older woman on the team, and their sexual escapades are almost too much.  (Again?  she asks.  Yes, but then again, he’s younger than she is.)  He throws away his clothes and buys new ones, even when he’s not moving around and could go to the laundromat.  His insights almost always pay off, eventually.  And the characters are all about 2 inches deep.

And of course, what fans like:  All of the previous paragraph.  Plus the twistiness of the plot.  His breaking the rules to save the innocent.  Plus, Reacher’s infallibility when it comes to sizing things up and doing what needs to be done – even if it’s shooting an unarmed man in the heart.  And then the head.  Because he’s a really, really bad man.

So, count me among the fans.  I know it’s a formula.  But I like the formula.  I like 6’5″, 250 lb. guys who are ultra-cool under pressure.  (Not that I know any in real life.  It would probably be super scary and I’d back away, slowly, if I met one.)   And with Night School, you get what you came for, in spades.

Higashino’s Under the Midnight Sun

midnightKeigo Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X was a finalist for the MWA Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2012.  I liked it, but ranked it in the middle of the pack and ultimately the Edgar went to Mo Hayder’s Gone (also my pick).  He’s penned a couple since then which have been translated into English, most recently the just-released  Under the Midnight Sun.

The book is lengthier than the usual crime novel, but needs the pages for the sheer sweep of story.  The murder of an adulterous pawnbroker followed by the apparent suicide of the pawnbroker’s lover brings together two children.  Ryo Kirihara is the pawnbroker’s son.  And Yukiho Nishimoto is the woman’s daughter.  Determining what really happened and why is Detective Sasagaki’s lifelong quest.

The book unfolds at a leisurely pace, although it soon becomes clear that there is more, much more, simmering beneath the surface.  Why do bad things happen to those who stand between Yukiho and something she wants?  How does the clever Ryo accomplish so much, just to disappear abruptly and resurface with a different name?

Sasagaki spends decades plumbing the depths of the mystery of the pair’s relationship.  He suspects that Ryo and Yukiho offer the human equivalent of the symbiotic relationship between the goby and the shrimp, with Ryo as the goby.  “One cannot live without the other,” says Sasagaki.  

Under the Midnight Sun offers plenty of suspense as the plot twists along, incorporating characters and perspectives.  Some are unsuspecting victims, others are suspicious.  All are of interest.

My previous review of Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint said it was a cerebral puzzler with minimal drama.   I have to echo that for Under the Midnight Sun.  Some will read a chapter or two, then set it aside and instead pick up the latest Lee Child or John Sanford.  But the patient reader with a penchant for the slow reveal will enjoy how well Higashino weaves the story that leads to a big – understated, but satisfying – finish.

 

 

Yet more girls! Young’s Lost Girls

lostGone Girl, Girl on a Train, The Girls, Luckiest Girl Alive, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo… it seems like the literary world is littered with girls.  At least with the latest entry, Heather Young‘s The Lost Girls, the girls in question are actual children.  Or they were at the time the mystery began.

It begins in 1935.  There are three girls.  Lilith, the wild one, is 16.  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.  Some months later, Lilith has a baby and names her Maurie.  The father?  Lilith never says.   Two unconnected events or not?  Hmmmm…

Fast forward 60 years. Lucy dies and leaves the family home, where she had Lilith had lived together all these years, to her grand-niece Justine.  It’s the chance of a new beginning for Justine, who made a bad marriage and is now about to repeat her mistake with a controlling, live-in boyfriend, Patrick.  The house in Minnesota, hundreds of miles away from California where she lives with Patrick and her two daughters, is a new start for her.  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.

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 the community begins to take her in and care for her.  Then she discovers handwritten books of fanciful tales that Lucy wrote for her little sister Emily, and among them is another story – a story Lucy left for Justine, the story of her life with her sisters.  And ultimately, it’s the story of Emily’s death and how it affected the whole family.  The book alternates between Justine’s life and Lucy’s account.

Both stories are engaging and suspenseful.  The characters well-drawn and affecting, particularly Lucy and Justine, but the minor characters as well.  Patrick does show up and is just as self-centered and grasping as you would expect, but not the violent bad-boyfriend cliche he would have been in the hands of a lesser author.  And the story of what happened to Emily and why, the lifelong impact it had on her sisters, as well as the underlying evil, hidden beneath a pious mien, packs an emotional jolt.

mwa_logoI predict big things for Heather Young, as this is her debut novel.  She reminds me a bit of Lori Roy, who won the Edgar a few years ago for her debut, Bent Road.  Nomination next year for Young?  I wouldn’t bet against it!

 

 

Offbeat Motherless Brooklyn resonates

motherlessWhat makes your protagonist different?  What makes him memorable?  Get this question right, and you’re halfway to a decent story.  Get it wrong – too quirky, too stereotypical, too shallow – and you’re probably doomed.  Jonathan Lethem makes all the right choices.

That’s why things were looking good, right off the bat, when I picked up Motherless Brooklyn because the book is told in first person by Lionel Essrog, a pretty smart and articulate guy, when he’s not undone by his Tourette’s.  Unfortunately, that’s pretty often, because it’s brought on by stress and Lionel leads a pretty stressful life as a low-level operative for a not-very-successful detective agency.  He barks.  He counts.  He shouts profanities.  He has an awfully hard time getting a date.

Lionel is one of four boys plucked by Frank Minna from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys (an orphanage, hence the Motherless).  Frank’s a good guy at heart, married to a woman who’s clearly too classy for him, and evidently in over his head because he’s stabbed to death by page 30.

The rest of the book outlines Lionel’s dogged determination to solve Frank’s murder.  The plot doesn’t move quickly – there’s too much back story and too many side stories for that – but it does move compellingly.  It’s pretty noir with its grit, hard-hearted women and heartless violence, and the Soprano-esque overtone is strong when the mystery is finally solved.  It’s also funny, filled with entertaining characters, and has a lot of heart.  Not much more than 300 pages, it’s still a bigger book than most of the others I’ve read recently and makes Joseph Finder’s Guilty Minds look like a formula caper.  It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

How does it stack up as a summer read?  Maybe not a lazy hammock read, but I started it one evening, kept reading as the sun sank below the horizon, and couldn’t put it down until way after bedtime.  Definitely one to seek out.