Tag Archives: Best First Novel

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

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.


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


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!)


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…

The Sympathizer: Edgar Finalist #4

sympathizerI don’t know if Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is going to win the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, but I do know one thing:  it sure is critically acclaimed. Adjectives used: strong, rare, authentic, dark, funny, remarkable, brilliant, fierce.

It’s a complex narrative with complicated characters. Backstory: Three Vietnamese boys are closer than brothers. One, Bon, grows up to be an assassin. One, Man, becomes a communist big shot. And the main character, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is a spy – a communist sleeper agent who is evacuated from Saigon in 1975. I’ll call him “S.”

Nguyen uses a framing device; S is writing a confession for “the commandant.” This framework allows S to set forth his tale and to reflect upon it. He is loyal to his country and to his friends. His reports back to his handler – written in invisible ink behind routine letters home to his aged auntie – are like messages in a bottle, tossed out into a roiling sea.

And so time passes, with S embarking upon a series of adventures. He spies on the general. He is drawn to the general’s daughter. He dates an older woman, then loses her to another man, a Japanese-American journalist. He is ordered to assassinate the journalist. He does so, badly. He gets a job as a technical adviser on a film about Viet Nam, and is shocked to find that all the speaking roles go to white folks. (Shades of #Oscarssowhite!) He is ordered to kill an ex-Special Branch officer, and does so.   The general forms an Army with the help of a right-wing US Congressman, with the aim of going back to Viet Nam and overthrowing the government. S doesn’t want to go, but he must, if he wishes to save his friend Bon. While there he is captured, interrogated and tortured. We learn who is responsible, and S learns the ultimate futility of dreaming of revolution.

While all the critical adjectives listed above are true, I found it very difficult to get into The Sympathizer. It’s very dense, the language is mannered, and the narrative tone is distancing.   As I reflect, there are many passages that I found very compelling and overall, I admire the book. In comparing this debut to the other nominees, it is clear that Nguyen is an amazing talent and The Sympathizer is clearly superior to Past Crimes and Where All Light Tends to Go. However, I’m going to have to give the top spot to The Luckiest Girl Alive for relatability.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  3. Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  4. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

Edgar Nom #3: Luckiest Girl Alive

girl aliveUh-oh, the cover says “Gillian Flynn” and it’s an “Instant New York Times Best Seller.”  It seems like ever since Gone Girl, everybody’s trying to hop onto the unreliable narrator train (including, of course, Paula Hawkins with The Girl on The Train).

So here is the actual scoop:  even if you ignore the hoopla, Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive is still a powerhouse of a first novel.  Main character Ani FaNelli is leading a charmed life.  She’s 28, lives in Manhattan, writes for a women’s magazine, wears size-zero designer clothes, and is engaged to a handsome blueblood.  And frankly, she comes across as a pretty controlling bitch.

But her backstory… ah, her backstory.  Well, first of all, Ani is not really Ani.  She TifAni.  And she grew up on the wrong side of town with a meek dad and a social climbing mom, who scraped up the money to send TifAni to private school so she could meet the right people (rich people, that is) and make a new life.  Tif would do almost anything to fit in with the cool kids.  And she did some pretty stupid stuff, up to and including partying with a bunch of boys, getting drunk, getting raped, and then backing away from prosecuting the boys… because desperate as she was, she still wanted them to like her.

Back to today:  Big rock on her finger, wedding around the corner, glamorous job, Ani’s being courted to participate in a documentary, to “tell her story.”  Wait, what story?  What is it that fiance Luke wants Ani to put behind her, that Ani is so desperate to overcome?  A Columbine-style school shooting, perpetrated by one of her closest friends.  Although she was never prosecuted, some suspected that she was involved.

Knoll alternates between Ani and TifAni, revealing more and more of her story and how out-of-control this very controlled and controlling young woman really is.  Ani has a strong voice that is uniquely hers, and we see everything through her eyes.  The ending is particularly satisfying, as Ani addresses her unresolved issues.  Much to her credit, Knoll doesn’t make it too easy on Ani.

How to compare with the other nominees, Past Crimes and Where All Light Tends to Go?  What should get the Edgar for best First Novel?  

Luckiest Girl is definitely above Past Crimes, which is likely to be the first in an entertaining and serviceable series for Glen Erik Hamilton, but feels more written-to-order than inspired.  Both Light and Luckiest Girl have unique characters with unique perspectives, so that’s a tie.Writing is good in both, and although Luckiest Girl is more accessible, Light has its reasons for not being so.  From a psychological point of view, Knoll has to address a wider variety of characters and motivation, so she has the edge there.  But ultimately, I’m making this call simply on which book I enjoyed more.  And that means Luckiest Girl Alive bounces to the top.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  2. Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  3. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

Where All Light Tends to Go Next Up

lightThe next potential Edgar winner is David Joy for his gripping, moody and violent debut, Where All Light Tends to Go.  In fact, there is little light to be seen.  The book is dark, not the noir of city streets, but the noir of a poverty-stricken small town where violence is a given, escape is impossible, and lives play out pointlessly.

Joy’s protagonist faces almost insurmountable odds.  18-year-old Jacob McNeely dropped out of high school two years ago, accepting his place in their Appalachian town, where he’d been raised to be an accomplice to his father’s criminal activities.  Charlie McNeely has a stranglehold on the region’s meth traffic, running his profits through a local garage, and taking it as his duty to toughen Jacob up.  It’s a man’s world, where women are helpless afterthoughts – even Jacob’s mother.  She may love him, but she’s also a lifelong drug addict and incapable of caring for herself.  Her death in the book is shocking for Jacob and for the reader, and triggers a change in Jacob.

The only ray of light in Jacob’s young life is Maggie Jennings.  Childhood friends, Maggie was Jacob’s first love and he was hers.  He still loves her, and because of that love, he broke her heart.  Without him to drag her down, he believes Maggie can go to college, leave  their small town, and never look back.  But is “over” ever truly finished?

It looks like Jacob is caught fast in his father’s web.  When he and the Cabe brothers are assigned to “take care of” a man who’s threatening their business, Jacob follows through, and it’s a stomach-turning process.  They throw the man’s tortured body into a nearby ravine.  When it turns out that the man wasn’t dead, there’s more killing to come.  And more on top of that.  But then… a glimmer of hope.  A local lawman – the only man who has ever shown Jacob any kindness – wants Charlie McNeely dead.  If Jacob can double-cross his dad, he can steal his cash, and he and Maggie can leave town together and create a whole new life.   I won’t spoil the ending, so enough said.

Where All the Light Tends to Go has a lot of ugliness in it, a lot of violence, and a lot of sadness.  It also has a lot of heart.  I found it be almost cinematic, very easy to visualize every scene and every character.  It doubles down at every turn, and Jacob McNeely is truly a tragic hero.

How does Joy’s book stack up against Past Crimes?  Interestingly, both books feature criminal protagonists brought into a life of crime by a father or father-figure.  In Past Crimes, this is primarily backstory for the main character, as Van Shaw has made a complete escape and returns voluntarily.  In Light, it is all Jacob is and can ever be.

I find that Hamilton’s book reminds me of Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series, a well-done and enjoyable read.  Joy is more likely Lori Roy, offering an insightful look at the human condition.  So Where All Light Tends to Go takes the top spot.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best First Novel

  1. Where All the Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  2. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton


First up for Edgar: Past Crimes

past crimesThe Mystery Writers of America nominees for Best First Novel by an American author include Glen Erik Hamilton’s debut, Past Crimes.  The book is sure to become the first of a series.  (For one thing, Amazon listing says Van Shaw #1, implying #2, #3, #4…)

Obviously Hamilton’s protagonist is Van Shaw, a hard-bodied and quick-witted Army Ranger on leave.  He’s come home to Seattle to make peace with his grandfather, Donovan Shaw, known as Dono.  No surprise that the hidden message is that Dono and Van are just two sides to the same coin!

And here’s the coin:  Dono and Shaw are not just grandfather and grandson, but former partners in crime.  Dono was well-known for his all-around skills for burglary and robbery, and he passed those skills on to Shaw.  By high school graduation, Shaw was skilled at picking locks, casing joints, and committing crimes.  Still, it wasn’t his fault when his not-so-bright and less-able friend Davey got mixed up with the wrong crowd and called Shaw for help.  The whole thing went south, Shaw covered for Davey, Dono blamed Shaw, Shaw took off and joined the Army.

Fast forward ten years, and Shaw’s back, pulling up to his grandfather’s house.  He’d received a short note from Dono – “Come home, if you can.”  But when he enters, he finds Dono lying in a puddle of blood on the floor.  Unraveling who shot him – and why – becomes Shaw’s quest.  In so doing, he bumps up against many of his grandfather’s colleagues, friends, and enemies; a couple of cops; an old girlfriend, Lucy; and of course, Davey.  He also figures out Dono’s last score and unearths some family secrets.

All in all, Past Crimes is a credible debut.  The plot and the pacing are good, and characters generally well-developed, although not as well as they will be after several more books in the series.  (Lucy could use some work!)  Experienced readers will have suspicions about who shot Dono, and to Hamilton’s credit, he gives us several credible suspects.  The Army angle is not fully explored, it reads as a good way to get Shaw out of the picture for ten years, and his potential problems for not reporting as ordered are swept aside.  Overall, thumbs up.

First reviewed, so it’s top-ranked!  Enjoy it while it lasts…

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best First Novel

  1.  Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton