Tag Archives: Best first novel by an american author

Three-Fifths Up Next in Edgar Race

Three FifthsNext up:  Three-Fifths by John Vercher.   It’s working class Pittsburgh, 1995 – hardly post-racial America – and 22-year-old Bobby Saraceno has a secret: he’s passing for white.  He never met his African-American father, and Isabel, his ashamed white mom, and racist grandfather have made sure that nobody knows the truth.  Now his good friend Aaron is home from prison, and Bobby’s shocked to find that he’s become a die-hard white supremacist.  That’s pretty ironic, because in high school Aaron was the embodiment of black culture, a black-wannabe.   Reunited, the two make a stop at a convenience store and Bobby, horrified, watches Aaron attack a young black man, beating his head in with a brick.  Aaron hops in the car and at his urging, Bobby drives off.  Reader, the young man dies.

What follows is Bobby’s story of angst, coming to terms with his identity, redemption, and ultimately, Bobby’s tragedy.  It’s interspersed with Isabel’s perspective as a young woman, how she came to be involved with Robert (Bobby’s dad), and why she chose to never to tell him of her pregnancy… and her interaction with him when she decides to seek him out, in the book’s present day.  A third perspective is Robert’s, a physician, and his surprise to see Isabel again and shock to learn he has a son.

This is a lot of plot, fueled by a ton of coincidences, and with numerous misunderstandings, both past and present.  There are many “you have got to be kidding me” moments.  It’s a soap opera of a book, but with plenty of explication.   Even the title over-reaches.  (“Three-fifths” refers to the proposed tax compromise of each person counting as one person and each slave counting as 3/5 of a person.)

Mystified about why the book received an Edgar nomination, I checked the ratings on Goodreads – 4.3.  People evidently loved this book.  I continue to be mystified.  Maybe it would be a good movie.  Needless to say, Three-Fifths does not bump either of the top two, and takes the #3 spot on the Edgar ranking.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  3. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

Edgar Noms/Best First: American Spy

spyWhile much of America is hunkering down and can’t go to work, I’m sheltering-in-place but able to work remotely.  As a result, I’ve been reading but not reviewing.  Which is a shame, because I am working my way through the books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.  And – spoiler alert – all in all, it is an amazing bunch of books.  Better, in fact, than several of those nominated for Best Novel.  What’s up with that, MWA?   I’ll be reviewing American Spy today, and all the nominees include:

  • My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing (Penguin Random House – Berkley)
  • Miracle Creek by Angie Kim (Farrar Straus and Giroux –Sarah Crichton)
  • The Good Detective by John McMahon (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (Penguin Random House – Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Three-Fifths by John Vercher (Polis Books – Agora Books)
  • American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (Penguin Random House – Random House)

Usually I link each book nominated to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, for the convenience of those who want to order and read.  Today, I’m giving a shout-out to The Book Table in Oak Park, IL.  Please order from The Book Table!   This amazing independent bookstore will fill all orders through drop shipping and get their usual not-too-generous profit, and you will get the satisfaction of knowing you are keeping an wonderful bookstore up and running.

American Spy is a rich, complicated take on the spy thriller featuring an unusual spy.  The book opens in 1992, when sharp-eared suburban mom Marie Mitchell hears an intruder in her home.  Rather than rushing to the side of her 4-year old twin sons, she get out her gun, lies in wait, and shoots the man.   And he’s no burglar.  He’s an assassin.  Wow.

It turns out that Marie had been an FBI agent, and a good one, but stymied by the agency’s perspective on women which was, shall we say, not good.  It’s the mid-80s, and bored with infiltrating groups and running small-time informers, Marie cuts one loose, forging the required documents.  Big mistake.  She’s at loose ends and ripe for recruiting by the CIA, and the next thing we know, she’s been ordered to “get close” to Thomas Sankara, the charismatic president of the African nation, Burkina Faso.  The CIA’s plan?  To undermine his popularity by exposing his sexual indiscretion and install a puppet government more to America’s liking… or is it?  In the meanwhile, we know that boredom is just one of Marie’s motivators – her older sister Helene was also an operative, who was supposedly killed in a car wreck.  This new gig will give Marie the opportunity to get to work with Daniel Slater, Helene’s boss/boyfriend, and perhaps resolve some lingering questions.  I’ll say no more for fear of spoiler alerts, but you might not be surprised to hear that Marie is not a very loyal employee.

This is truly a masterful debut, and it’s no surprise to me that it was named one of 2019’s 10 Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.  The plot is tight:  every interaction serves to drive the plot forward or reveal backstory.  Marie is a surprising spy, due not only to her gender but her race (African-American), her upbringing (her dad’s a NYC cop and her mom abandoned the family for Martinique), and her smarts (top of her class).  Marie is fierce and she is guided at first, by her own innate sense of justice, but then, as a result of her unplanned pregnancy, by the need to keep her family safe at all costs.

I understand the book is inspired by true events:  the book jacket says that Thomas Sankara was known as “Africa’s Che Guevara.”  I don’t know what led author Lauren Wilkinson to use that real life history to create the fictional Marie Mitchell and American Spy, but I applaud her.  I hope there is another book on its way; the end of American Spy seems to indicate it’s likely.  Fingers crossed.

First reviewed takes top spot!  May even keep it.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson

#4 in the Edgar countdown: Invisible City

city

Well-titled Invisible City, okay cover art! IMHO.

They say to write what you know, and Julia Dahl did.   She’s a journalist specializing in crime, has a Lutheran father and Jewish mother, and lives in Brooklyn.  And Rebekah Roberts, the protagonist of her debut mystery (up for an MWA Edgar!), Invisible Cityis a lot like Julia.   Her mother was a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who rebelled, married Rebekah’s dad (just to mix it up, he’s a Methodist), and stuck with him for a few years, leaving them to return to her own community when Rebekah was five. Her mother’s abandonment has haunted Rebekah ever since.  It’s the expectation that somehow, someway, she’ll find out more about her mother – and perhaps even connect with her – that leads new college grad Rebekah to head for NYC and a job as a tabloid stringer.

Indeed, it’s Rebekah’s physical resemblance to her mother that gives her an edge over other reporters when the naked body of an observant woman turns up, head shaved, in Gowanus.  The NYPD barely investigates and the woman’s body is whisked away, not to the coroner’s office, but to a Jewish funeral home, where her body will be cleansed and buried within 24 hours – no autopsy, no evidence.  A Jewish police detective, brought in to help translate, knows Rebekah’s mother, and he smooths the way for her to talk with many of the religious who would ordinarily keep shtum.  At first, Rebekah just wants to get the story.  But soon, she’s driven to actually solve the crime.   As she gets deeper into the investigation and her persona as Rivka (the diminutive for Rebekah), she also begins to understand the world her mother inhabited.

Dahl tells the story well, including a surprising plot twist at the end that you won’t see coming, but is not a cheat. The side story about her mother is interesting, and Dahl is skillful in revealing this religious culture to the reader as Rebekah learns about it herself.  However, I’m having a terrible time ranking the book, because there are definitely clunky aspects to the writing.  For example, the boyfriend Tony is barely a sketch, and there’s at least one random, coarse-languaged sex scene that feels grafted-on to ensure grittiness.

The book clearly ranks above The Life We Bury, and below Dry Bones in the Valley, but where to place it compared to Murder at the Brightwell, which has an assured, elegant style and is a lovely book for its type (not my favorite type, though!)  After much mental haggling, I’m ranking this Edgar nominee third out of the four reviewed to date.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  3. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  4. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

And since I’ve been explicitly commenting on covers and titles, I would point out that Invisible City is a perfect fit for the city within a city where the Hasidim reside.  I suppose the cover art features the appropriate city and evokes a certain angst, so can’t really complain there, either.

Charming Murder at the Brightwell enters the competition

brightwellDeborah Crombie’s blurb on the cover of Ashley Weaver’s debut mystery, Murder at the Brightwell, says it all:  “An elegant Christie-esque 1930s romp.”  Quite a change from the college student/amateur sleuth (The Life We Bury) and the Pennsylvania noir police procedural (Dry Bones in the Valley) that were the first two entries in the competition for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

And romp it is, if you like beautiful people doing fabulous things in an exclusive hotel with a dark undercurrent of skulduggery and murder.  Amory Ames is a wealthy young woman, married five years to Milo, who stole her away from fiancé Gil Trent.  Now they mostly lead separate lives, hers at home and his out gallivanting.  Let’s just say he’s good looking, charming, and quite popular with the ladies.  Amory’s ripe for reconnecting with Gil when he shows up, seeking her help in discouraging his niece from marrying a good-looking ne’er-do-well.  His plan is to bring Amory along to a holiday at the Brightwell, where her sad experience with Milo will serve to illustrate to the lovely Emmeline what a big mistake she is about to make.  He’s hoping she’s willing to behave as if they are back together as a couple… and she’s willing to do so because she is frankly annoyed with her husband and doubting their future together.

At the hotel, there’s a mixed group of characters (just like Agatha Christie!), including rapacious women, stodgy men, a handsome actor, cruel husbands… They’re all lightly and skillfully drawn.  It’s frothy amusement until  Emmeline’s bad-boy-fiance Rupert turns up dead, conked on the head and thrown over the cliff onto the rocks below.  Various characters come under the suspicious gaze of canny Inspector Jones, who develops an easygoing rapport with Amory, and when said gaze falls upon friend Gil Trent, Amory goes into overdrive to determine which of the hotel guests committed the murder.  She is aided in her efforts by husband Milo, who is undertaking an effort to win Amory back… at least until some details emerge which cause our heroine to wonder if her husband is himself the guilty party.

Of course, that’s not the case, but once the crime is neatly solved, the couple cannot bring themselves to admit what is completely clear to the reader:  that they belong together.  I won’t spoil that surprise for you!

So, comparison time.  Brightwell is a lovely book of its type, well-written, albeit lightweight.  Impossible to complain about the characters, plot, or pacing.  I briefly wondered if it would be as good set in present day and decided it would not; although I am sure there are plenty of idle rich among us in 2015, any book that featured them would require either a heavy dose of irony or one of cynicism.

Is it likely to win the Edgar?  Stepping outside of Lunchbox mode, I’d have to say no.  Reviewing the Edgar database, I see plenty of spy novels, police procedurals, and thrillers that won the Best First Novel award.  Is it worthy of a win, from my perspective?  I enjoyed the book, but it is definitely outdone by Dry Bones in the Valley.  But the quality of the writing and plotting gives Brightwell a decisive edge over The Life We Bury.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  3. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

ps- thumbs up on the cover and title for this book!  I had previously complained about Dry Bones and Life, noting that neither the books’ titles nor their cover art made any sense to me.  Everything about Murder at the Brightwell is spot on, including the title, artwork and typography.  Well-done, Minotaur.

Edgar Nominees Announced!!

mwa_logoOh frabjous day!  I am chortling in my joy.  Today is the day that the Mystery Writers of America announced the nominees for the 2015 Edgar awards.  This is usually on January 19 (Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday), but we had an extra wait thanks to the MLK Day holiday.

This year, the best novel race is a six-way dash… and four of the authors are people that I know, love and have been furiously recommending.  The Best First Novel by an American Author category, as usual, is an opportunity to get some new favorites.  None of those authors are remotely familiar to me!

As in previous years, I will be reading (or in some cases, re-reading), reviewing and ranking the books.  And following April’s Edgar Banquet in New York City, I‘ll see how the Literary Lunchbox Edgar Awards match up with the real thing.  In the interests of honest disclosure, I must reveal that I do not bat .1000.  Part of this is because I’m not trying to guess which book will win, but to determine which book SHOULD win.  Big difference.

So, with that being said, here’s the line-up for 2015!

BEST NOVEL

BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR

Edgar nominees announced!

mwa_logoLet the reading begin.  The Mystery Writers of America have announced the nominees for the prestigious Edgar awards for works published in 2012.  In recent years, I have reviewed and ranked the nominees for Best Novel and for Best First Novel by an American Author.   Shockingly, I had only read two of the 13 books nominated in these categories this year (Gone Girl and Live by Night).  The Edgar Awards banquet will be held May 2, 2013 in New York City at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Here’s the list of books nominated for Best Novel:

  • The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins (Penguin Group USA – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye (Penguin Group USA – Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn (Crown Publishers)
  • Potboiler by Jesse Kellerman (Penguin Group USA – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • Sunset by Al Lamanda (Gale Cengage Learning – Five Star)
  • Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
  • All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley (Penguin Group USA – Riverhead Books)
      

And here are the nominees for Best First Novel by an American Author:

     

My philosophy:  I started out with a “predict the Oscars” mindset, assuming that my perspective on mystery/crime novels would reflect the perspectives of the decision-makers.  And my first year reviewing and ranking certainly reinforced that perspective:  I called it in both categories.  The next year, zippo. This was met with shock and deep mourning.  Last year, I got one right and one wrong (but not by much).  So, batting .500 overall.  You can read more about the 2010, 2011 and 2012 review process here, here and here.

One thing new this year:  in an effort to support my local independent bookstore (Hi, Book Table people!), I purchased 12 of the 13 books right there.  (I already owned the Dennis Lehane.)  They were super-helpful in ordering for me and I got them all at a discount.  Previously, I had been just as likely – or perhaps more likely – to purchase from Amazon, borrow from the library, or buy the e-book, as I was to buy locally.  But as they say, “if you shop here, we will be here,” and  I want my local bookstore, even if I do wish they were just a wee bit bigger.

Resolution:  Finish early.  I typically am posting my final review and ranking the same week as the banquet.   The associated anxiety takes away some of the fun.