Tag Archives: Best Novel

Final finalist Before the Fall

fallWe’re getting down to the wire – the MWA Edgar Awards banquet is just four days away in NYC and I am posting my final review in the read, review, and ranking for the Best Novel category.  I previously completed the Best Paperback Original and Best First Novel by an American Author categories.  The nominee:  Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall.  This is his first Edgar nom.

You might know Hawley as a novelist, or you might know him as a screenwriter and producer (Fargo, Legion, others).  He’s won Emmys, Golden Globes and Peabody awards. I read one of his previous books – A Conspiracy of Tall Men – and found it entertaining.  It is similar to Before the Fall in that it takes a pretty ordinary guy, puts him into extraordinary circumstances, and then ramps up a mystery with a big dose of conspiracy.  The books (at least the two I’ve read) are very cinematic.

In Before the Fall, nice guy and artist Scott Burroughs accepts an offer of a lift on a private plane from Maggie Bateman, a casual friend, the young wife of the head of a television news network, David Bateman.  Also on the plane are Rachel and JJ, the couple’s young daughter and son; their security chief, Gil Baruch; Ben and Sarah Kipling, a Wall Street hedge fund manager about to be indicted for money laundering and his wife.  There is also the three-person crew: beautiful flight attendant Emma Lightner, pilot James Melody who is having some medical issues, and hard-partying co-pilot Charlie Busch.  Just 18 minutes into the flight from Martha’s Vineyard to NYC, the plane crashes into the ocean.   Scott comes up into a hellish view, as the plane fuel is on fire, and he soon encounters the only other survivor –  four year old JJ.   Scott swims ten miles with an injured arm, carrying the child.

The book alternates between what happens to Scott and JJ, as time moves forward, and the individual backstories of the plane’s passengers and crew.   As the authorities search for the wreckage, theories as to the cause of the crash abound.  Newsman Bill Cunningham (my mind’s eye pictured Bill O’Reilly) had been about to be fired from Bateman’s network, but instead he makes ratings soar with speculation about the cause of the crash, anchoring a lot of his wild ramblings to Scott Burroughs.  The depths of his amoral self-interest… well, let’s just say the depths or so deep we’re not sure there’s a bottom.  Scott and the boy have forged a bond that is unquestionable, but of course it is questioned, and JJ’s loving Aunt Eleanor is married to a man best described as “loser scumbag” (expect attraction to hero Scott and you will be right on).

I liked Before the Fall when I read it the first time, carried along on the tide of the plot, the sneak peeks into the characters’ backstories, and the insights Hawley provides along the way before revealing the reason for the crash.  Rereading more critically for the Edgar ranking, I still see the good.  Some of the backstories, in particular, are like short stories in themselves (pilot James Melody and his mom, for example).

But I see the book’s flaws more clearly this time around.  The good guys are uber-good.  The bad guys are uber-bad.  Coincidence abounds:  Scott almost misses the plane, but doesn’t.  His big new idea for his paintings is a series of hyper-realistic depictions of tragedies, including a plane crash.  He is capable of the huge, heroic swim because as a child he had seen and been inspired by a feat of swimming derring-do by the famous Jack LaLanne, so he devoted himself to the sport.  The pilot leaves the cockpit because he has a bloody nose, something he’d been delaying seeing a doctor for, leaving the way clear for a homocidal/suicidal act that dooms them all.  And the climax – where Scott is live on-camera with Bill Cunningham when the newsman plays a tape that reveals he had been bugging victim’s phones to dig up dirt and Scott is able to reveal exactly what the FBI found out – is completely over the top.

And yet, I still like the book.  My friend and writing colleague Addy Whitehouse is also rating these nominees, and she gave Before the Fall a 1.  And that’s not #1, it’s the best, it’s 1 on a 10-point scale, with 10 as high.  You can read her review hereshe really hated the head-hopping and varying POVs.  She noted the cinematic approach, and not in admiration.  On the there hand, we were in total agreement on Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where it Hurts.  All of which proves why there are so many books published each year – opinions differ!

Where does Before the Fall go on the ranking?  Definitely not above mid-packWhere it Hurts and Jane Steele are clearly superior.  And I can’t get around The Ex’s OMG twister of an ending (seriously?).  So that leaves Noah Hawley at #3.  If the MWA judges agree with me, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele will take home the Edgar.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
  4. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  5. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin
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What Remains of Me? Not sure.

remainsWhat Remains of Me, Alison Gaylin’s novel of psychological suspense that has been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, is the latest in a number of books I’ve read where my first thought on finishing is “Why this title?”  It’s not written in the first person, so who is me?  The main character is Kelly Lund, and while she has a tough life and scary stuff happens to her, she is uniquely and wholly herself all the way through the entire book.  No remains.  Perhaps I am not deep enough. (I often think this.)

A better title for the book would have been, “Who Are You, Really?”   The characters’ motivations drive the plot, which is thoroughly twisty, sometimes scary, and occasionally sad.  And these motivations, which are revealed at various intervals throughout the book, often rely on ignorance of the real relationships between the characters, their well-kept secrets, and a certain degree of willful blindness.

But perhaps I’m confusing you.  Here’s the scoop:  In 1980, Kelly Lund was arrested as a teenager for murdering her friend Vince’s father, famous director John McFadden.  She admitted it, she shot him, she did the time, although she never said why.  Now it’s 2010, Kelly’s an adult in her late 40s, and married for the past 15 years to Shane Marshall, the younger brother of her former best friend, Bellamy, and the son of film director Sterling Marshall, McFadden’s best friend. They don’t have sex, though, and Shane doesn’t really know why and we’re not sure about Kelly.  Maybe it’s because she’s fooling around with a hot neighbor who makes giant sculptures out of wood, who reminds her strongly of the boy she loved back in the day?  Or maybe it’s even him?

But then Sterling Marshall dies.  Just like John McFadden did – two in the head and one in the heart.  Suspicion falls on Kelly, and it seems like she probably did it, because she came home from a middle-of-the-night drive and put bloody clothes into the washing machine.

The book shifts back and forth between 1980 and 2010.  In 1980, Kelly has a controlling and hardworking mother, a dead twin sister, and a stuntman father she doesn’t see much.  (The dad is heartbreaking, he’s such a good but ruined man.)  She also has new, privileged Hollywood friends who introduce her to alcohol, drugs, sex, and general making a mess of her life.

In 2010, Kelly is under suspicion for Sterling’s death, Bellamy hates her and always has, despite having made it as an artist by exploiting Kelly, Shane still loves her but is confused, and her mother-in-law should be awful, but is actually kind of nice when she isn’t high.

By the end of the unfolding of the intertwined tales, the reader knows

— SPOILER ALERT STOP HERE DANGER 

that Kelly and Shane are half-siblings, that Kelly didn’t kill Sterling but she did kill McFadden, that Bellamy might adore her father, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t kill him to keep him from leaving any part of his estate to his other daughter, Kelly, that Kelly’s mom has been living in a commune for decades with Kelly’s cowardly friend Vince, that the guy she is in love with and imagined was Vince is actually the boy who sat behind her in homeroom and threw spitballs her way to torment her.

Does it all hang together?  Absolutely.   Does Gaylin keep those pages turning?  No doubt. Is it all a glorious soap opera?  Yes, and if it were a movie, half the people in the theater would be asking the friend next to them to explain it to them.   My problem is that the ludicrous plot would come undone if almost anyone would ask a question or tell the truth.    

What Remains of Me is like Pringle’s.  Not really potato chips, but you keep munching away anyway, feeling slightly sick but unable to stop yourself.  Gaylin is a best-selling author and her debut novel, Hide Your Eyes, got an Edgar nom in 2006.  Her Stay With Me was nominated for Best Paperback Original in 2015.  So I am just going to chalk this up to differing tastes, while putting the book firmly at the bottom of the ranking.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  4. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin

I’m in trouble with Jane Steele

steeleLyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele is a genre-bending page-turner that’s winning accolades from critics and on Amazon.  This is Faye’s second turn at bat for the Best Novel award (her first being The Gods of Gotham, also a historical mystery).   Still, she lost out that year to Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night, another historical.

Thus the question  – could an homage to classic novel Jane Eyre win a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel?  – seems to be answered in a strong affirmative.

Cosmo’s blurb on the cover says the novel is a mash-up of Jane Eyre and tortured serial killer Dexter.  This is certainly true from Jane’s perspective.  She sees a parallel between herself and Bronte’s heroine – both had difficult upbringings, were orphaned, and became governesses.  But Jane Steele is made of sterner stuff than Bronte’s Jane, taking things into her own hands when she faces injustice.  With her first murder – a strong push that results in the death of her cousin, who had been tormenting her – she sees herself as morally corrupt and irredeemable, unworthy of the happiness she seeks.  Although she has always been told that Highgate House will be hers one day, she agrees to be cast off after her mother’s death, attending a sadist-run school, where she manages to make friends.  Her second murder occurs here, and she and her young friend are soon on the run, making ends meet as best they can, and encountering the occasion for murders #3 and #4.  (Rest assured the deceased deserved their fates.)

Separating from her friend, she finds the opportunity to return to her childhood home under a false name (Jane Stone) as the governess for Sahjara, a young girl of Caucasian-Indian heritage.  It is here that Jane falls in love, as did the other Jane, with the lord of the manor (Mr. Thornfield).  Only instead of a secret wife in the attic, Thornfield is a physician with a secret morgue in the basement.  Sahjara is the orphaned daughter of the love of Thornfield’s life who happens to be his best friend’s sister, by a ne’er-do-well Englishman.  Thornfield is paying a deep, self-imposed penance for his misplaced guilt in failing to keep Sahjara’s mother safe.

There are mysteries aplenty at Highgate House, where they are assailed by villains at every turn seeking Sahjara’s mother’s jewels (thus murder #5)..  As far as Thornfield and his friend Sardar Singh know, those jewels are long gone, so their options for a peaceful life are limited.  Add in the tortured love story – Jane and Charles are in love, but will never be together due to his penitent vow – and Jane is left with naught to do but get to the bottom of the mystery, find the jewels, and vanquish the bad guys.  Which she does, in a thorough manner, with some unlikely allies.   And I did not for a moment see the underlying betrayal until it was revealed by the author.  Good going, Lyndsay Faye.

The book has it all – suspense, intrigue, romance, a compellingly likable heroine, and a twist of snark.  Jane Steele is just the kind of book that I might not read, but that would have been a mistake.  I’m in real trouble here – it’s tough to compare Jane Steele to Reed Farrell Coleman’s Where It Hurts, which I loved, because they are so different in type.  However, I’ve got to say that Lyndsey Faye set herself a tougher job, and accomplished it quite thoroughly.  Her book is a singular experience.  As a result, Jane Steele is taking the top spot in the LL Edgar ranking for Best Novel.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. The Ex by Alafair Burke

 

Coming down to the wire with Best Novel

best novel

Thank heavens there are only five books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel – time is running out with the Awards banquet less then a month away, on April 27.   You see all the nominees pictured – out of them, I have only previously read Before the Fall.  My memory was that it was excellent.  But let’s see how the others fare!

I’m starting out with The Ex, by Alafair Burke.  It’s her first Edgar nomination, although her father, James Lee Burke has won the Best Novel Award three times (1990, 1998, and 2003) and was honored with the Grand Master Award in 2009.  His daughter tends to write suspense, but this outing is pretty much a legal thriller (with strong suspense overtones, of course).

Criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall is surprised when she gets a phone call from a teenage girl, asking Olivia to help her father.  Her dad?  Jackson Harris Olivia’s former fiancé, whom she treated absolutely horribly by sleeping around in a semi-conscious effort to get him to break up with her, finally taking it to “unforgivable” territory by sleeping with his brother, Owen.   It all gets even worse when over-tired and over-served Owen gets into a car wreck and is killed.  That very night.  After talking and drinking into the wee hours with Jack.  Which causes Jack to have a nervous breakdown, for which he spends a year in a mental hospital.  Awkward.  She hasn’t seen him since.

Still, 16-year-old Buckley Harris is calling Olivia and asking her for help.  And Olivia knows that Buckley only has her dad, because her mother – the saintly substitute teacher Molly Harris – had been murdered in a shooting spree by a troubled teenage boy whose father had denied his issues and done a lot of father-son bonding with guns.  So down she goes to the police station, where she finds out that her ex is under suspicion for shooting that horrible father.  Jack had means (they think), motive (definitely), and opportunity (absolutely, he was in the area when the shooting happened).  It can’t be true, Olivia thinks.  She knows him, too sensitive for his own good.  Plus he tells a story that she thinks can be verified – he was meeting a sort-of blind date for a picnic.

But it turns out Jack’s story is pretty unbelievable.  Then the blind date turns out to be an escort that somebody hired to lure Jack, and Olivia’s thoughts turn to “who would try to frame Jack?”  There is one twist after another, and the reader lurches violently from “Jack is innocent!”  to “Jack did it!”  And I’d be okay with all this – the characters are pretty interesting, the pace is powerful with each new piece of info propelling the reader forward – except that around page 167, I realized who did it.  And on page 277, Burke revealed it… and it’s not Jack.  But he pleads guilty anyway to cover up for the real killer (bet you’ve got it figured out, too).

The epilogue is four years later, and the reader learns that Olivia visits Jack once a year on the anniversary of his guilty plea, to see if she can convince him to work with her to get his guilty plea set aside.  And every year, he says no.

magic 8Would I read more Alafair Burke?  Absolutely.  Is The Ex going to take the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best Novel?  As the Magic 8 ball says, “Outlook not so good.”  Still, first reviewed so it gets top spot for now!

 

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

  1.  The Ex by Alafair Burke

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!)

shot

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