Tag Archives: 1222

Field Gray the Final Entry in MWA Edgar Race

Are you an 80-year-old guy, like my dad?  You’ll probably love Field Gray, the 7th Bernie Gunther novel in the series by Philip Kerr.  It’s the final nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best Novel.  I suppose you would classify it an “historical thriller.”

This novel opens in 1954, with the much-traveled Bernie in Havana.  He’s not on the right side of the law, but nobody seems to be, including the gorgeous girl he’s been blackmailed into taking with him on a boat to Haiti.  Gorgeous Melba may be, but she also murdered a man for Castro and when they’re stopped by the U.S. Navy, its off to Guantanamo Bay for the two of them.

The set-up is just an excuse to get Bernie into the hands of the Americans, who question him closely about his past as a policeman – a real cop, who solves crimes, not a fake cop who uses his badge to commit them on the behalf of Nazis – during WW2.  It emerges that over the years, Bernie had twice saved the life of the man who is now a much-reviled East German security chief.  The CIA would love to get their hands on Erich Mielke.

Here’s a sample of the book:  It was easy to forget that we were in Germany.  There was a U.S. flag in the main hall and the kitchens — which were seemingly always in action — served plain home-cooking on the understanding that home was six thousand kilometers to the west.  Most of the voices we heard were american, too: loud, manly voices that told you to do something or not to do something – in English.  And we did it quickly, too, or we received a prod from a nightstick or a kick up the backside.  Nobody complained.  Nobody would have listened, except perhaps Father Morgenweiss.

The novel is in first person, and everything we see is through Bernie’s eyes.  The plot is terrifically wide-ranging and has the knotty twists of a John LeCarre spy thriller.  It’s packed with action, has a love story, includes real historical figures, and addresses the key sociopolitical issues of its time, while at the same time playing in the gray area between black and white, good and evil.  It’s getting great reviews.

So why didn’t I like it?  Why was reading it like doing homework?  Disclaimer:  I’m not a good historian.  The time frame – the 30s to the 50s – is not a time I lived through and while I adored Schindler’s List, the thrill of a story that was set everywhere from Cuba to New York to France to Germany to Russia is not very thrilling, in and of itself.  Field Gray is dense, very talky, and I found myself wondering as I read it just what the mystery was.  I certainly wasn’t in suspense, because I knew darn well Bernie was not going to get killed and other than that, I didn’t care about anybody else in the book.

Needless to say, Field Gray is not my fave.  Boy, will my face be red if it wins the Edgar!  But I have to call them as I see them, since the name of this game is “If Literary Lunchbox gave out Edgars…”

For the quality of the writing and in recognition that Field Gray is just not my cup of tea and so perhaps I am judging too harshly, I put it above 1222, but below The Devotion of Suspect X.  Come April, we’ll see.

  1. Gone by Mo Hayder
  2. The Ranger by Ace Atkins
  3. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
  4. Field Gray by Philip Kerr
  5. 1222 by Anne Holt

Edgar nominee Gone – the one to beat?

Faithful readers will know I flipped over Mo Hayder‘s crime novel, Gone, last year.  Enthusiasm galore documented here.  Explored the backlist, with subsequent thoughtful gushing here. So it was with great delight that I saw it was on the nomination list for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel.  And as I have been reading the other nominees, in the back of my mind has been the nagging thought that I might be predisposed to rank Gonehighest just because I “discovered” it.   This led to a great deal of reflection on the options – do I read it last so the other novels have a fair shot?  Do I read it first and get it over with?  Read it somewhere in the middle?  In the middle it is.

And I have to say, rereading it was a pleasure.  The second time around with any mystery, the pressure’s off.  You know how the plot will turn out, so the page-turning is not quite so frantic.  You can enjoy the turn of the phrase, the character interaction, the turning points in a way that you never can the first time around.  Which of course, leads me to posit that I need to re-read all the other nominated books to make an even playing field.  Bah, enough.

I won’t rehash my previous review, except to say that Gone is well-written.  The characters of Flea Marley and Jack Caffery are so real they jump off the page.  The twists and turns are smart and you don’t feel like a dummy for not guessing the bad guy, because nobody else does either.   So how does Gone stack up against the other nominees?

When it comes to plot, characterization, and reader engagement, Gone has it all over the other entries.  For voice, The Ranger may edge it out, just because Atkins’ voice is so distinctive.  Still, with only Phillip Kerr’s Field Gray left to read, it looks like Gone‘s the one to beat.  Here is the Literary Lunchbox ranking for the Edgar to date:

  1. Gone by Mo Hayder
  2. The Ranger by Ace Atkins
  3. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
  4. 1222 by Anne Holt

Ace Atkins Enters the Edgar Race

A cowboy mystery!  Or at least, that’s what I thought when I saw the nominee’s name (Ace Atkins) and the title of his book (The Ranger).   After reading two previous nominees with a strong sense of place (1222‘s Norway and Suspect X‘s Tokyo), I anticipated a novel set in the past.  In Wyoming.  I guess I was confusing “ranger” with “range,” because what I got was something much different.  For one thing, it’s set in present-day Mississippi.  For another, it features Army Ranger Quinn Colson.  And I guess Atkins can’t help being named Ace.

A former Pulitzer-prize nominated journalist, Atkins is great at setting the scene and the character at the same time.  Here’s a sample:  “Quinn headed home, south on the Mississippi highway, in a truck he’d bought in Phenix City, Alabama, for fifteen hundred, a U.S. Army rucksack beside him stuffed with enough clothes for the week and a sweet Colt .44 Anaconda he’d won in a poker game.  He carried good rock’n’roll and classic  country, and photos from his last deployment in Afghanistan, pics of him with his Ranger platoon, the camp monkey “Streak” on his shoulder, Black Hawks at sundown over the mountains.”

Quinn’s on leave due to a death in his family – his uncle, the county sheriff, has killed himself.  Or did he?  The criminal culture in rural Mississippi is long and runs deep, with payoffs, mob ties, meth labs, a religious cult, and one outsider – a pregnant teen come to town to find the low-life boyfriend who abandoned her.  Add in a comely, feisty female deputy and you have a mystery that offers fascinating characters doing interesting things.  The plot is twisty enough to satisfy those who want intellectual stimulation, and has enough fast-paced action for those who seek testosterone.  I’m always looking for relationships and characterization, and The Ranger‘s good for that, too.

I expect this is the start of a new series for Atkins, and it’s a measure of my enjoyment that I’ll not only be looking for more Quinn Colson books but exploring the Ace Atkins backlist.

But how does The Ranger stack up against the other nominees?  On plot, I’d put it behind The Devotion of Suspect X, but ahead of 1222.  For voice, it’s even-steven with Devotion.  In terms of characters, its #1 of the three.   Here’s the LL final ratings to date for the MWA Edgar Allan Poe Awards, Best Novel:

  1. The Ranger by Ace Atkins
  2. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
  3. 1222 by Anne Holt

Edgar Nominee #2: The Devotion of Suspect X

Mystery writer Keigo Higashino is the one of the most widely known and bestselling novels in Japan.  Or so says the jacket blurb for The Devotion of Suspect X, and I don’t doubt it.   Translated from Japanese to English by Alexander O. Smith, the mystery’s writing style is like the spring-time ice on a river, smooth and finished, while below, the river eddies and churns.  Here’s a sample:

“At 7:35 a.m. Ishigami left his apartment as he did every weekday morning. Just before stepping out onto the street, he glanced at the mostly full bicycle lot, noting the absence of the green bicycle.  Thought iwas already March, the wind was bitingly cold.  He walked with his head down, burying his chin in his scarf.”

Ishigami will soon become Suspect X, when he devotes himself to saving  his neighbor Yasuko (she of the green bicycle) and her daughter from life in prison after the women kill Yasuko’s ex-husband.  That Ishigami has loved Yasuko from afar is soon made clear.  The lengths he will go to in order to save her is not apparent until the book’s last few pages.  That his efforts are all for nothing, sentencing both Yasuko and Ishigami to a life of penance, makes the Devotion of Suspect X a  particularly resonant and memorable read.

The characters are well-drawn and compelling:

  • Ishigami, the math genius whose devotion to family led him away from the university and to teaching high school math
  • The lovely Yasuko, a former bar girl and essentially decent woman, and her schoolgirl daughter Misato
  • Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police, working through what is essentially a police procedural, only suspecting that Ishigami is perpetually two or three steps ahead  of him
  • Physicist Dr. Manubu Yukawa, former classmate of Ishigami and friend of Kusanagi, who sees more deeply than the police do
  • Plus a host of other characters, including police officers, the nice couple who own the lunch take-away where Yasuko works, and of course the abusive ex-husband.

Here’s what I liked:  the book was very well-plotted and intricate, with a nice “uh-oh” ending, the cat-and-mouse between the physicist and the mathematician, Yasuko’s overall plight, and the story of unrequited love.

Negatives:  only that the story is told at such a remove that it is hard to really emotionally engage with the characters.

So, in the race for the Edgar, how does it stack up against 1222?  Definitely superior.  Here’s the ranking for MWA Best Novel from Literary Lunchbox so far:

  1. The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
  2. 1222 by Anne Holt

First Up for the Edgar: Anne Holt’s 1222

1222 is the eighth book in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series by Anne Holt, but the first translated into English.  And it’s the first book in my read-it-and-rate-it marathon for the MWA Edgars, Best Novel nominees.

The voice of the writer is definitely something I evaluate early on and has a huge impact on how I ultimately rate the book.  Holt gets off to a good start:

“As it was only the train driver who died, you couldn’t call it a disaster.  There were 269 people on board when the train, due to a meteorological phenomenon that I have not yet understood completely, came off the rails and missed the tunnel through Finsenhut.  A dead train driver comprises only 0.37 percent of this number of people.  Given the circumstances, in other words, we were incredibly lucky.”

As you can see, the novel opens with a train crash.  Hanne Wilhelmsen, confined to a wheelchair thanks to a gunshot wound several years ago, is traveling by train for medical care which could potentially restore her ability to walk.   It’s cold, very cold, and the train derails, sending its several hundred passengers to seek shelter at a nearby, mostly empty hotel.  They’re sequestered by the weather; hence, when one of the group is murdered, the murderer must be among them.  It’s like Gilligan’s Island on steroids, except somebody killed Mr. Howell, and there are more characters to keep track of.

There are shifting relationships, many red herrings, several plot twists, and some nice characterization as solitary Hanne engages her intellect and, perhaps unwillingly, her empathy.  She gains a confidant – a prickly teenager with a yen for a somewhat older woman – as she struggles to unravel the intricacies of the crime(s).

Here’s what I liked:

  • The old-fashioned locked room mystery
  • The atmospheric atmosphere
  • The boy, Adrian, and his growing friendship with Hanne
  • Hanne’s antipathy to Kari Thule
  • The doctor

Not in love with:

  • That the doctor’s a dwarf
  • That the motivation for the murder is made available to the reader through coincidence, thereby only narrowly avoiding a resolution that cheats
  • The Hercule Poirot-like showdown with all the suspects gathered together under the benevolently watchful gaze of the police
  • The “wink is as good as a nod” expectation that the reader will figure out who the mysterious, bearded man with the glowing eyes, beautiful lips and healthy teeth who was being guarded in a remote section of the hotel.  Oh, I scoured the internet for reviews that would tell me what OTHER readers thought this was supposed to be.

Although I’ve not yet read the other nominees, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that 1222 is not likely to be my top-ranked.   Frankly, I’m a little surprised that it is nominated.   Next up:  The Devotion of Suspect X.  Another translation, this time from the Japanese author Keigo Higoshano.