Tag Archives: Edgar Award

Squeaker: Lunchbox Best Novel Edgar

It’s Wednesday, April 25, just one day before the Mystery Writers of America Edgars Banquet, at which the MWA will be announcing the names of the 2018 Edgar award recipients.  Good news!  I have completed reading the final entry in the Best Novel category, and I’m reading to make my final pick for which author should take home the Edgar.

12 LivesThe final finalist is Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, a book I had read previously and greatly enjoyed reading again.  The Samuel Hawley in question is the single father of young Loo (short for Louisa), and the small family moves from place to place.  The twelve “lives” in question are twelve scars that Hawley bears, each one the mark of a healed bullet wound and a marker of a particular time in his life, some pre-Loo, some post.  Hawley is a rough man and a criminal, but a caring one, and is deeply devoted to his daughter.

Their nomadic life comes to an end when Hawley decides to move the teenage Loo back to the town where her mother was raised and mother’s mother still lives.  With the stability also comes a blooming curiosity, and Loo begins to uncover the secrets associated with her mother’s death – in particular, her grandmother Mabel Ridge’s belief that Hawley is responsible for her daughter’s death.  And indeed he is, for although he did not kill her, it was because of him that she was killed and the murder covered up.  Loo also faces a tough time at school, and deliberately breaks the finger of Marshall Hicks, subsequently falling in love with him.

The book builds to a climax as Samuel Hawley’s youthful chickens come home to roost, when a previously vanquished foe reappears to claim vengeance, and uses a former friend of Hawley’s to do so.  Only through quick thinking and sheer guts do Loo and her father prevail.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has a lot going for it – the characters are rich and believable, the framing device using the twelve bullets is very useful and effective in moving the plot forward through time, and there is a real sense of tragedy, in that the heroes are undone by the flaws that make them unique.  Tinti does an excellent job of building suspense.  Hawley is similar, in some ways, to the Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun, up this year for the Edgar for Best First Novel (and it ranked #1 with me)  Both feature a criminal father, an edgy, violence-prone daughter, and a dead mother.  Tinti’s book is both deeper and broader.

Compared to the other books nominated for Best Novel, Hawley is clearly near the top of the ranking.  It’s more complex than Bluebird, Bluebird.  And while I very much enjoyed Prussian Blue, I must admit that I found The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley to be much more engaging.   I simply cared more about the characters and was literally biting my nails about what would happen next.  Therefore, Tinti takes the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox ranking.

Tomorrow evening – or first thing Friday morning – we’ll see who won the real Edgars.  If all goes as typical, I’ll be right on one of my calls, and wrong on the other.  But there is always a possibility of the MWA judges showing the good judgment to agree with me 100%, or that I’ll strike out completely.   No matter, it’s the challenge and the process that makes it fun!

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

  1. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
  2. Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
  3. Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
  4. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  5. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
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Higashino’s Under the Midnight Sun

midnightKeigo Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X was a finalist for the MWA Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2012.  I liked it, but ranked it in the middle of the pack and ultimately the Edgar went to Mo Hayder’s Gone (also my pick).  He’s penned a couple since then which have been translated into English, most recently the just-released  Under the Midnight Sun.

The book is lengthier than the usual crime novel, but needs the pages for the sheer sweep of story.  The murder of an adulterous pawnbroker followed by the apparent suicide of the pawnbroker’s lover brings together two children.  Ryo Kirihara is the pawnbroker’s son.  And Yukiho Nishimoto is the woman’s daughter.  Determining what really happened and why is Detective Sasagaki’s lifelong quest.

The book unfolds at a leisurely pace, although it soon becomes clear that there is more, much more, simmering beneath the surface.  Why do bad things happen to those who stand between Yukiho and something she wants?  How does the clever Ryo accomplish so much, just to disappear abruptly and resurface with a different name?

Sasagaki spends decades plumbing the depths of the mystery of the pair’s relationship.  He suspects that Ryo and Yukiho offer the human equivalent of the symbiotic relationship between the goby and the shrimp, with Ryo as the goby.  “One cannot live without the other,” says Sasagaki.  

Under the Midnight Sun offers plenty of suspense as the plot twists along, incorporating characters and perspectives.  Some are unsuspecting victims, others are suspicious.  All are of interest.

My previous review of Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint said it was a cerebral puzzler with minimal drama.   I have to echo that for Under the Midnight Sun.  Some will read a chapter or two, then set it aside and instead pick up the latest Lee Child or John Sanford.  But the patient reader with a penchant for the slow reveal will enjoy how well Higashino weaves the story that leads to a big – understated, but satisfying – finish.

 

 

Sandrine vs. The Humans

sandrineI have a long history with Thomas H. Cook, having been introduced to him in 1996 via his Edgar-award wining novel, The Chatham School Affair.   Wikipedia tells me that he has been nominated for an Edgar seven times, and I have no cause to doubt it.  Sandrine’s Case, Cook’s most recent book, is a worthy nominee for the MWA Edgar award for Best Novel.  It features that most challenging and frequently disappointing protagonist:  the unreliable narrator.

That narrator is Samuel Madison, and the Sandrine in question is his wife.  She was ill, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, shutting down in stages and dead by her own hand – or was she?  The novel opens as the jury foreman is about to render a verdict in Sam’s trial for murdering her… and immediately skips backwards, to the first day of the trial, and then back further, to remember a conversation with his lawyer on the day he was arrested, and then further back, to the evidence that had been gathered against him.  And while the type of crime novel feels a great deal like the innocent-man-falsely-accused, it also begins to feel like a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-he- actually-did-it! type of novel.  AKA the psychological courtroom thriller.

Suspense builds throughout the book, primarily because Cook is such a skillful writer that many of the “clues” can be read in more than one way.  The reader’s perspective on Sam’s guilt or innocence changes from chapter to chapter.  On one hand, Sam is clearly a jerk.  More than selfish, he’s totally self-involved.  On the other hand, Sandrine had his measure, and loved him anyway.  And their daughter, Alexandria, is loyal to her father.

Resting by Antonio Mancini Art Institute of Chicago

Resting by Antonio Mancini
Art Institute of Chicago

The final twist comes when Sam realizes that with her death, Sandrine has recreated a painting they had seen together long ago, at a time when Sam was not yet jaded and cynical, but empathetic and soulful.  (The painting Cook references is a real one, shown at right.)  With her suicide, Sandrine sought to remind Sam of what he had been – and to return him to that better self.  It was the final act of a desperate woman, undertaken out of love.  Sam returns her self-sacrifice by refusing to offer this explanation in the courtroom, leaving his final judgment up to the jury.

In my opinion, Cook should have stopped there, but I know readers across the country would have let out a mighty cry of frustration.  Indeed, he is found innocent, and an unsatisfying coda is added  – the idea that Sam Madison would be so moved, so changed by his wife’s suicidal action, that he would change his life and spend the next 25 years teaching children in Africa.  I found this final grand gesture to be unnecessary.

Overall, Sandrine’s Case has the advantage over The Humans in that it is clearly in the mystery/crime/suspense genre.  It also has suspense, plotting, pacing, and characterization going for it.  No surprise, it takes the lead.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings: Best Novel

  1. Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook
  2. The Humans by Matt Haig

Hello, David Ellis.

NLU’s Writer’s Week came to its conclusion with a half-day workshop on Saturday, July 16th featuring mystery/legal thriller writer David Ellis. He’s reading this right now, I know, because he subscribes to Google Alerts. Quick aside to David – great workshop! Thanks for sharing.

I first made David Ellis’ acquaintance over lunch at the mystery confab Love is Murder – he was earlier in his career, but I believe his debut novel (Line of Vision) had already won the MWA Edgar.  He was a great conversationalist then, and he certainly still knows how to tell a great story.

Since Line of Vision, Ellis has written several stand-alones:  Life SentenceJury of OneIn the Company of Liars, and Eye of the Beholder.  The most recent book is The Hidden Man, the first in his series about attorney and grieving family man Jason Kolarich, soon to be followed by Breach of Trust, the second Kolarich novel.

Here’s some advice on writing a mystery, courtesy of David Ellis:

  1. You can learn to write by writing.  Read really good stuff and you’ll be inspired to write really good stuff.
  2. It’s true you should write what you know.  And if you don’t know it, you better learn it before you write about it.
  3. Humor is tricky but can be rewarding.
  4. Go with what feels right.  The first agent who called him with an offer for Line of Vision had low expectations.  He just couldn’t bring himself to sign the contract… and a good thing, too.  The next agent had big dreams… and sold the book to Penguin/Putnam.`
  5. One key decision:  Point of view.  First person?  Third person?  Second person?  (Tricky, but it can be done!)  The choice you make sets the stage for everything else.  It’s a big decision to have more than one POV in a book.
  6. Character development makes a more satisfying story.  One dimensional characters just march through the plot.
  7. Trust the reader’s imagination.  You don’t have to write every detail – just that one evocative touch that makes the scene come alive.  And that detail can be visual, or it can be a sound, a smell…
  8. Know your protagonist very well.  Ideally, the bad guy, too.  And all major characters.   Write out their backstory, their likes, their dislikes, their physical features, their strengths, their weaknesses.  This’ll keep you on track as you write the book.
  9. Can you write a book about a protagonist that the reader doesn’t like?  Yes, but you might not sell too many books.
  10. At the end of your novel, you want the reader to be surprised but not irritated at the ending.  Strive for what M. Night Shyamalan pulled off with The Sixth Sense.  He didn’t cheat – all the clues that Bruce Willis is dead were right there in the film – but there was an alternative explanation.  The audience bought the misdirection.  Need more examples?  Unbreakable.  The Usual Suspects.
  11. Make the stakes personal and raise the stakes as the book goes on.
  12. Grab the reader.  The first chapter should be the best chapter, first paragraph should be the best paragraph, first line should be the best line.  No backstory.  No lengthy descriptions.

In addition to his own work, Ellis has joined the ranks of James Patterson co-authors.  I was a little disappointed to hear this – I’m not a James Patterson fan and his factory approach to publishing may churn out a consistent product, but it’s not one I buy (or even read for free).   On the other hand, after hearing David Ellis describe what he has learned from Patterson, I can see what the opportunity would be appealing.  And nothing ventured, nothing gained!  

BTW, I did hit the library on Sunday the 17th, and hit the jackpot since all the David Ellis books published to date were right there on the shelf.  I’ve already finished the Jason Kolarich debut The Hidden Man – a great read!  I’m now going back to the start and re-reading Line of Vision.  You, of course, should get to the bookstore and buy retail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harlan Coben’s Bolitar’s Back with Live Wire

Harlan Coben won me over back in the ’90s with Myron Bolitar, the wisecracking pro basketball player-turned-agent-slash-solver-of-mysteries.  Like all good protagonists, Bolitar has the quirky best friend, but in his case, the best friend is a rich blueblood with a way with the women and somewhat sociopathic tendencies.  Coben’s debut novel won a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award.

His new book, Live Wire, is getting good reviews and for good reason… it’s vintage Bolitar made super-current with a plot that includes drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll.  Plus Facebook.  Add an unhealthy helping of family angst and the tension rockets.   

Bolitar’s still agenting, repping both rock star Lex Ryder and former tennis pro Suzze T.  Someone’s threatening Suzze via FB and Myron’s investigation opens a door into the past that many would just as soon leave closed.   Suzze and Kitty – Myron’s sister-in-law – were frenemies years ago, competing on the tennis pro circuit.   Myron hasn’t seen Kitty or his brother Brad in 16 years – nor met his nephew, 15-year-old Mickey.

Nothing adds urgency like family members in danger and a sense of regret for past transgressions, so Myron and Win are soon driven to untangle a mystery that spans 15 years, numerous celebrities, the world of the super-rich and of the mob-connected.

Coben does a good job of balancing wry humor, edgy violence, and family angst in Live Wire.  On the downside:  there’s little for his usual sidekicks to do and the plot requires a pretty big suspension of disbelief.  And as Woody Allen said, self-referentially in Stardust Memories,  “I prefer his early, funny movies.”   That goes for Coben’s Bolitar series, too.

Lots of changes coming… Live Wire, in many ways, is  a set-up for a new series. And maybe it’s time.

We’re expecting new and different things, as nephew Mickey becomes a part of the story and a wedding’s in the offing, the agency is sold and Win’s laying low.  I understand his next book is a YA thriller featuring nephew Mickey, called Shelter.  You can read a preview here.  I’m looking forward to seeing how Coben shakes it up!