Tag Archives: Best Novel

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…

Last Up: Canary to win.

canarySo I’m squeaking in under the wire… tomorrow night’s the Edgar Awards Banquet in New York City.   And I just re-read the last book that’s up for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, Duane Swierczynski’s Canary.

College student Sarafina Holland’s a good girl.  Sarie’s book-smart, savvy enough to fake her way through a college party without getting drunk or high, and a total pushover when it comes to a cute, foul-mouthed guy.  That’s why she says yes when red-chinos-wearing Drew asks her for a lift all the way across town to “pick up a book.”  Even when it’s the night before Thanksgiving, it’s late, and she has to pick up her rehab-counselor dad from the airport early in the AM.  So no surprise that it’s a big shock to her when Drew runs in “for a minute” and comes back out without a book.  And that she panics when a cop stops her and questions her on her third circle around the block, while Drew runs in to “pick up a cheesesteak.”  (That’s an actual cheesesteak, not a euphemism.)  She’s stupidly desperate to protect him, and the next thing she knows, he’s run off and she’s down at the station.  The next thing she knows, she’s a confidential informant.  CI #137.

Her handler is Philly narcotics cop Ben Wildey. His plan is to use Sarie to get through her boyfriend to his dealer, the clever and elusive Chuckie Morphine.  Chuck has ties to some major drug gangs, so it would be a big boost to his career.

And Sarie turns out to be a darn good CI.  Wildey mockingly calls her “Honors Girl,” but it’s a good thing she’s is so smart, because Wildey gets her in deep.  Without her ability to think three or four steps ahead, and to improvise in the heat of the moment, Sarie’d be dead.  (She also has the nerve to step up to a fight, not run away.  It’s a useful attribute).  It’s lucky that she’s also so plucky and likable, because on at least two occasions, those characteristics convince a bad guy to switch to Sarie’s side.

When all is said and done, Sarie comes through and the baddest of the bad guys get their comeuppance, but not without collateral damage.

I’ve simplified the plot tremendously.  Other facts that come in to play in Canary include:

  • Sarie’s mom is dead, her dad is grieving, and 12 year old brother Marty’s kind of lost.
  • Her best friend is dating an older guy.  A mobster.
  • The mobster is hooked up with a cop and they’re killing CIs with reckless abandon.
  • Wildey suspects his own partner of being that cop, but she’s only guilty of being stalked by her ex.  (Sad end to that one.)
  • Space cadet Drew wises up too late.  (Ditto.)
  • Dads and brothers can rise to the occasion.
  • A girl can find living a double life very energizing.

The plot’s great, the primary characters are compelling and even the minor characters are generally well-drawn and engaging.  And one of the things I liked best about Canary was Swierczynski’s way of narrating Sarie’s POV -as a kind of diary-slash-letter to her mother.  (That brother Marty later finds the notebook and tries to call in the calvary is a plus.)  This device allows Swierczynski to have what amounts to a second protagonist in Ben Wildey, who starts out heartlessly using Sarie and ends up growing a heart.

Compared to all the other nominees, Canary is an absolutely fresh take on the crime novel.  Duane Swiercynski‘s a 44-year old guy who has written a pulp fiction series featuring a ex-cop as well as many hard-boiled Marvel comics (including Deadpool  and The Immortal Iron Fist).  Where does he get the insight to write a believable 19-year-old girl?  Sheer talent, I guess.   

Who will win?  For fun, I went and looked up how these books are faring on Amazon.  Canary has 4.2 stars, Night Life 4.7, Footsteps 4.0, Life or Death 4.4, Strangler Vine 4.3 and Lady 4.2   If the Edgars were crowd-sourced, Night Life would win.  As of yesterday, I agreed.  Despite this, I’m giving Canary the top spot.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

  1. Canary by Duane Swierczynski
  2. Night Life by David C. Taylor
  3. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  4. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  5. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  6. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

 

Night Life Penultimate Best Novel Nom

nightlifeSo here we go with another historical crime novel – David C. Taylor’s Night Life.  It’s his debut novel and it garnered an Edgar nomination for Mystery Writers of America Best Novel. Well-done, Taylor!

It’s 1954, and the cold war is in the deep freeze.  Michael Cassidy’s a New York City detective, smart, sometimes violent but only with a good reason, who has odd dreams that sometimes come true. Cassidy and his partner Tony Orso are called to investigate the torture and murder of Alex Ingram, who coincidentally was a dancer in a show that Tom Cassidy, his father, is producing.  Cassidy discovers a half-dollar coin in a buff envelope taped inside Ingram’s locker at the theater.

Things spiral from there, with an ever-widening scope of investigation, a growing body count, and plenty of interest from the FBI, CIA, and even Senator Joseph McCarthy, who finds a communist everywhere he looks.  He may be an obsessive nut job, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real communist spies hard at work right here in NYC.  It turns out that Ingram was a KGB sleeper agent with a sideline in blackmail.  

On the personal front, Cassidy’s expecting retaliation from Franklin, a vice cop-slash-pimp.  Cassidy not only interrupted Franklin mid-assault on a hooker, but threw him out a window.  And he’s distracted by a new resident of his apartment building, a comely young woman who’s a welder working for an artist, bringing his metal sculptures to life.  (She wields a pretty mean baseball bat, too, rescuing Cassidy when Franklin’s buddies give him a beating in the apartment hallway.)  He’s close to his brother, Brian and sister, Leah, but not so close to his father, Tom.  His mother killed herself, more or less accidentally, taking an overdose of pills when she thought Tom would be coming home and would rescue her, thus bringing them closer together.  Unfortunately, Tom is essentially selfish, decided not to keep his promise, and teenage Michael discovered his mother’s cold body.

More about Cassidy’s father. More problems there.  He was born in Russia – Tomas Kasnavietski – emigrating to the US at age 15.  A staunch believer in the American dream, he’s surprised and dismayed to find that in 1954 America, Tom Cassidy’s about to be deported back to Russia.  His faith in his son and his friends to rescue him is unshaken.  Unfortunately, the friend is “Uncle Frank,” a mobster who wants a favor from Cassidy.

Fortunately, Cassidy’s a good detective, a smart negotiator and a good bluffer, with a stalwart partner and chutzpah to spare.  Still, it could have all gone sideways if it were not for his prophetic dreams… at the moment when the bad guys are about to ambush him, Cassidy recognizes the location and the sinking sense of dread from a recurrent dream.  It gives him the warning he needs to be the one left standing.

I’m very impressed with author David Taylor.  Night Life is tightly plotted, the coincidences not all that unlikely, the motivations for all clear and character-driven, and the integration of historical figures critical to the story, not distracting add-ons.  I understand that this is the first in a series featuring Det. Michael Cassidy, and I’ll be right there to read more in the future.  (In fact, book #2, Night Work, launched earlier this month.)

How does Night Life stack up to the other nominees?   Very, very well.  It’s eminently readable, like The Strangler Vine.  It’s got excellent pacing and similar switches in POV to keep up the suspense, as with Life or Death.  It’s got that paranormal aspect to it, as does Let Me Die in His Footsteps.   And it incorporates real-life historical figures, as does The Lady From Zagreb.  In fact, considering the whole package, I’m going to give Taylor’s debut mystery the top spot.  I may have reviewer’s regret when I review and rank the final nominee, Canary, and make some changes.  But time is running out, as the Edgars will be awarded Thursday!

Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

mwa_logo

  1. Night Life by David C. Taylor
  2. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  3. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  4. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  5. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

Kerr Again Nominated for Best Novel

zagrebShades of 2012!  Philip Kerr is up again for an MWA Edgar Award for Best Novel for a Bernie Gunther historical crime novel.  This year’s entry is The Lady from Zagreb.  In 2012, it was Field Gray.   He didn’t win in 2012 – the award went to Mo Hayder’s Gone, which I adored – and I had ranked Field Gray fourth on my list.  Click here to read that review.

If you’ve clicked, you know that I struggled mightily with that book.  This one has many of the same issues, but I went into it bound and determined to give it a good shot. It’s set mostly in 1942/43, although the book opens in 1956 with Bernie in a movie theater, watching a film featuring the lovely Dalia Dresner.  This leads him in a reverie, remembering his time together with the movie star.

How did Bernie Gunther, the reluctant Nazi, get hooked up with Dalia Dresner, who was even more fantastic than Hedy Lamarr? It’s a long story.  Very long, given the side trips that Bernie has to traverse to tell it.

Here’s a quick overview:  Bernie is tapped to give a speech at an international police conference at the Villa Minoux. Attorney Heinrich Heckholz wants Bernie to to snoop around while he’s there,  to find some evidence he needs to help Lilly Minoux, who used to own the house, get it back (complicated story).  Bernie’s game.  He finds tons of info, but nothing helpful to Minoux.  When he goes to report, he finds Heckholz is beaten to death with a bust of Hitler in his office. This is treated as black humor.

Fast forward a year.  Joseph Goebbels asks Bernie to help movie star Dalia Dresner locate her estranged father. Goebbels, who is in charge of the German Film Industry, has it bad for Dalia.  Dalia’s married, uninterested in Goebbels romantically, but willing to let him help her.  Sure enough, Bernie is besotted by Dalia and would do almost anything to help her, include traveling to Yugoslavia to find her father.  We get the hint that he might not be the nicest guy.  In exchange for a great car to drive to Yugoslavia in, Bernie also runs an errand for General Schallenberg.

Along the way, Bernie witnesses some horrific cruelties, mass murders that makes the concentration camp gas chambers look humane.  He finds Dalia’s dad, and the man is a monster.  He gets kidnapped and almost tortured by American spies, but gets saved by the Gestapo, who also want to murder him.  Fortunately, they want to get him drunk and throw him off a cliff, and thanks to the highly flammable nature of the drink and the bad guy’s naiveté regarding a final cigarette, Bernie prevails.

Back in Germany, he and Goebbels agree to lie to Dalia.  But of course Daddy dearest comes looking for her, and when he does, he gets a big surprise.  As does Bernie.  Being endowed with great insight,  Bernie deduces the truth.  He figures out a way to save the day, but it requires him to give up Dalia, the love of his life, or at least, his loins.

As I noted in 2012, Kerr has a wonderful way with words.  His convoluted plot, if presented in a straightforward manner, would be dark, depressing, dour…  Fortunately, he has given Bernie a wry sense of humor and the dialogue is often surprisingly breezy.   And as I also admitted, I am not a very good historian.  I do poorly when it comes to the yellow pie slices in Trivial Pursuit.  So I am always distracted by trying to figure out which characters are real and which are not, and if the real ones were really like that, or if Kerr is taking liberties.  I’m pretty sure nobody talked like Kerr makes them talk.  Anyway, the author’s note at the end is very helpful in clearing up details like that.

What did I think this time around?  I definitely liked it way more than Field Gray.  I like the Bernie Gunther character and the plot was much more constrained (although still filled with what-the-heck? moments).  And there’s a final twist that I definitely did not see coming, so props to Kerr for that.

Comparatively speaking, I definitely preferred Lori Roy’s novel Let Me Die in His Footsteps, which has an equally surprising plot twist but is much more character-driven.  Does Lady have an edge over Life or Death?  Not quite, the stakes are much higher for Audie Palmer.  You never really think that Bernie’s in any danger, and you don’t really care about any of the other characters.  And I really was surprised by how much I liked The Strangler Vine.  So here it goes to the #4 spot, where Kerr was last time.  

Note – not sure what is up with the sheer number of not-set-in-the-present nominees.  So far only Life or Death has been set in present day, the other three are all historical!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

  1. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  2. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  3. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  4. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

Robotham Edgar nominee – Best Novel

life or deathI am an eager Michael Robotham reader.  In fact, he has a new book out TODAY, his latest in his clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin series,  and I have it sitting on my kitchen table right this minute.  That should tell you that when it comes to his Edgar-nominated novel, Life or Death, I had to read it for the second time in order to review it and rank it in the Literary Lunchbox countdown to the April 28 Edgar awards.

Reading a book for fun, or even fun and a quick review, is a pretty light-hearted affair.  Reading a book for the Lit Lunchbox Edgars is more complicated, involving colored markers and little sticky flags.  It’s very upsetting to forget a minor character’s name or be searching through the pages to find the perfect example of the point your trying to make.  I liked the book the first time.  On second reading, Life or Death definitely holds up.  Totally nomination – worthy.

The book opens with a prison escape. Okay, you don’t really know it’s a prison escape, but that’s what it is.  Audie Palmer is swimming for his life away from the Three Rivers Federal Correctional Institute. The catch is, he was due to be released the very next day.  What would cause a man to risk 20 more years in prison, just to get out a day early?  That question haunts the subsequent chapters, as the reader is exposed, little by little, to more information that explains what kind of man Audie is (a good one), what reason he has for making a midnight escape (an excellent one), and how hard the bad guys will work to bring him down (very, very hard).

Life and Death is replete with believable, interesting characters, including Audie himself; his best friend and cellmate Moss Webster; his brother Carl; Benita, the love of his life, hero cop Deputy Ryan Valdez; and one of my favorites ever, FBI special Agent Desiree Furness.  Desiree is tiny but mighty, and even more important, she’s smart and she listen to her gut.

It’s a classic thriller of the “chase” type – can Audie accomplish his goal with so many people looking to hunt him down?  The book is constructed from multiple perspectives, with overlapping layers, which can lead the unwary reader into rushing… but don’t.  There are several shocking scenes along the way, and as a result, the final confrontation carries real threat.  You fear the loved and innocent will die, because you’ve seen Robotham go there already.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Novel

  1. Life or Death by Michael Robotham

Mo Hayder’s Wolf the final nominee for MWA Best Novel Edgar

wolfLunchbox regulars know that there are a few favorite authors that I buy in hardback, recommend wholeheartedly, and await with anticipation their next novel.  Back in the day it was Dick Francis, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and John Grisham.  Currently, it’s Ian Rankin, Laura Lippmann, Michael Connelly, Louise Penny, William Kent Krueger and Mo Hayder.   It was a wonderful day when I discovered Mo Hayder’s Gone – not to mention her entire back catalog – and I marveled at her ability to create suspense and surprise.  As an aspiring writer myself, reading Gone was like a master lesson in craft.  It deserved and won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2012.

No surprise to me –  Mo Hayder has penned another masterclass of a thrilling detective story with Wolf.  If anything the plot is even more knotty than Gone, and there’s no cheating.  Reading Wolf the third time through to review it for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, I was able to note all the clues that I should have been picking up on were right there in front of me.

There are two plot threads. In the first, a wealthy family – the Anchor-Ferrars – are settling into their comfortable vacation home when they’re visited by two policemen, DI Honey and DS Molina.  Fifteen years previously, a teenage couple had been brutally murdered just a short distance away.  The killer disemboweled them both and strung their intestines, shaped into a heart, in the trees above them.  Now it appears that a second, similar murder has taken place, and the family is stricken to learn that their safety is at risk.  And it certainly is, for we soon realize that the policemen are not policemen at all, but have been hired to terrorize the family in order to suppress the publication of Oliver Anchor-Ferrars’ memoirs.  Although he’s now in his mid-60s and recovering from open-heart surgery, Oliver Anchor-Ferrars is a much harder and smarter man than he appears.  Over the four days of their captivity, Oliver deduces the truth and leaves a hidden message for the police detective he anticipates will be responsible for solving the crime.

The second thread is DI Jack Caffery’s lifelong search for the truth about the abduction and presumed sexual assault and murder of his 9-year-old brother, Ewan.  The Caffery family lived just steps away from a known pedophile, and Jack has spent decades trying to discover what happened to his brother and to find his body.  He’s similar, in that respect, to Hayder’s continuing character known as the walking man.  The walking man is a homeless itinerant, but highly intelligent and educated man, whose daughter was abducted.  He searches as he walks, seeking her body, and sometimes shares information with Jack.  And sometimes he doesn’t.

The threads come together through coincidence, or as the walking man would have it, fate.   For the only hope for rescue of the Anchor-Ferrars family rests in the speedy exit of their Border terrier, Bear.  A note reading “Help Us,” and including their address, was attached to Bear’s collar by Mrs. Anchor-Ferrars, who then threw the dog down the fireplace chimney.  Injured and with most of the note missing, Bear is discovered by a little blonde girl – Amy – in the nearby park who turns to none other than the walking man for help.  And the walking man turns to Jack, dangling the potential of information about Ewan from a new source as his incentive to track down Bear’s owners.

And thus does Jack Caffery begin his search, even as Honey and Molina are inflicting mental torture and physical abuse on the family.  It’s a long and complicated process, and Jack prevails in bringing all the perpetrators to justice, although the day is not entirely saved.  (I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.)

Mo Hayder has written a perfect Rubik’s cube of a puzzle, where all the pieces slot perfectly into place but there’s a lot of looking at things in new ways to make them do so.  At the same time, the characters are simply the most well-drawn and compelling characters – good guys, bad guys, and minor walk-ons alike – that I have seen in … well, forever, really.  The book itself is painful at many points and the resolution of the mystery of Jack’s brother Ewan is surprising, ironic, and completely in keeping with the synchronicity of life’s events.

So, there’s the review – but what about the ranking?  The #1 ranked novel, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, is an excellent book and I look forward to more from Bill Hodges.  But Mo Hayder’s Wolf is a deeper experience all together – it takes the top spot.   I forecast Wolf as the big winner at the Edgar Awards ceremony this week.

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

  1. Wolf by Mo Hayder
  2. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  3. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  4. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  5. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
  6. This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

The Mystery Writers of America Edgars Banquet is Wednesday, April 29.  That night, the winners of the Best Novel and Best First Novel awards will be announced, among others.  My former colleague Jim Klise is up for an Edgar for his YA novel, The Art of Secrets.  (Good luck, Jim!)  We’ll see if he prevails, and if my calls of Mo Hayder’s Wolf and Tim Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley are on the money.

Edgar race heats up with Final Silence

silenceI’ve got to tell you, 2015 is the toughest race yet for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel.  So far I’ve reviewed two books by well-known and well-loved authors of the police procedural, the UK’s Ian Rankin and USA’s Karin Slaughter.  And the competition heats up further with the third entry, Stuart Neville‘s The Final Silence.  Neville was unknown to me prior to this nomination, but I’ve come to learn that he is a popular Scottish crime fiction writer.  His primary protagonist is Detective Inspector Jack Lennon of Belfast.

In this outing, DI Lennon is just barely a DI.  A widower, single parent to a traumatized daughter following the very-likely-Jack’s-fault murder of her mother, Jack’s addicted to painkillers and making a mess of his personal and his professional life.  When Rea Carlisle, politician Graham Carlisle’s daughter, inherit’s her uncle’s home, she also inherits his secrets:  Uncle Raymond was very likely a serial killer.  Her abusive dad wants to burn the evidence, her cowed mother goes along with that plan, but Rea turns to an ex-boyfriend for help:  Jack Lennon.

Of course, by the time Jack meets Rea at the uncle’s home, someone’s broken in and lifted the book… and he wonders if it ever existed.  She gives him an old photo of Uncle Raymond with Graham Carlisle and some others, which makes it clear that not only did Carlisle know his brother-in-law a great deal better than he let on, they both had been involved in some kind of paramilitary organization back in the day.  “Find out if my father was even suspected of anything . . . bad,” she asks.  Jack reluctantly agrees and heads out, slamming the stubborn front door three times to get the lock to catch.

By morning, Rea is dead, bludgeoned to death by the very crowbar she used to pry open the locked door her uncle kept his secrets hidden behind.  And Jack Lennon’s the primary suspect.  Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan is investigating.  DCI Flanagan is smart and tough, with a strong sense of character judgment, a supportive spouse and two small children.  She’s also challenged with a breast cancer diagnosis that she’s hiding from her husband.

While eluding arrest, Lennon manages to use the one friend he has left on the force and a criminal who owes him a favor or two to unearth the truth about Graham Carlisle, his brother-in-law Raymond Drew, and the strange friendship Raymond had with his colleague at arms, a serial killer known as the Sparkle.  Prodded by DCI Flanagan, he also manages to pull himself up out of the depths and give up the comfort of pills-and-booze and rescue his daughter from the clutches of his dead wife’s controlling relatives.

So.  Augh.  Tough one.  Here’s what’s compelling about The Final Silence: Great characters, heroes, villains, and victims alike.  Lennon’s a flawed but good guy.  Flanagan’s out-and-out awesome.  Uncle Raymond’s pathetic.  The Sparkle is compellingly twisted. And Rea Carlisle’s a victim, but she’s around till chapter 16, which gives us plenty of time to admire her and to gasp in shock when we read Neville’s first line in that chapter:  It took hours for Rea Carlisle to die.   Her parents leap off the page, real people.   And the plot makes the book a page-turner.

But how does it compare to Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible and Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town? Frankly, we’ve got three 5-star books here.   I could make a compelling argument for any one of these books to receive the Edgar.  But when all is said and done, I’m going to continue to give it to Cop Town for originality, move The Final Silence into the #2 position for characterization, and leave Saints of the Shadow Bible third in the ranking.  (Although I reserve the right to change my mind upon further reflection, that’s how conflicted I am.)

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

  1. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  2. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  3. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin