Tag Archives: Edgar

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

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

Dancing with the Tiger Edgar nominee

dancingThe fifth nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel continues the trend I noted in my most recent review – that is, the trend toward diversity in the genre.  Lili Wright’s book Dancing With the Tiger straddles a variety of sub-genres.  Think of it as the literary Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the plucky antiquities collector’s daughter Anna Ramsey in the Indiana Jones role.  Here’s the set-up:  Daniel and Anna Ramsey collaborated on a book about Mexican masks, only to find that the Ramsey collection featured several forgeries.  There goes the plan to sell the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art!  Now Anna has the opportunity to go to Mexico and bring back the death mask of Montezuma, restoring their reputation and squashing the egos of their collector rivals, Mexican crime kingpin Reyes and American ex-patriat Thomas Malone.

Of course Anna’s quest is difficult.  There is every possibility that she will spend her last dollar on another forgery.  Or have her money stolen.  Or have the mask be real, and the buy proceed smoothly, but then the mask is stolen.   That last one is sort-of what actually happens, and Anna spends the rest of the book trying to recover it, with increasing desperation and a resultant willingness to confront danger.  The “tiger” of the title is just one such hazard – a hit man who wears a tiger mask when fulfilling his assignments.

The book is told through a series of interweaving chapters with interweaving points of view, including the looter (the meth addict from Colorado who first digs up the mask), the collector (Anna’s pathetic father), the gardener (Thomas Malone’s employee who is more than a gardener and is in love with a young woman who sells stationery), the housekeeper (the gardener’s wife, who takes an unexpected heroic turn), and others.  And Anna, of course.

The plot may meander a bit, but it gets there, and Wright has a beautiful way with language, lyrical and philosophical.  There are multiple subplots that are interesting in themselves, and enrich the book.  Anna’s story includes masquerading as a fact-checker and getting a job with Malone in order to get access to the mysterious shed where he keeps all his acquisitions – and then getting a huge surprise when she finds out that one of these acquisitions was the woman who preceded her as Malone’s assistant.  I saw that one coming.

At the end of the book, many things have changed, and the mystery of Montezuma’s death mask is known only to the reader.  I enjoyed Dancing With the Tiger and would recommend it.  Wright’s approach to the story – with a myriad of characters, points of view and subplots – worked for me, but it does slow it down.  In another writer’s hands, I could see this as a swashbuckling thriller, bloody and with more urgent pacing.  This is a better book.

Again, tough to decide where to place Dancing with the Tiger in the Lunchbox ranking.  It is extremely well-written and has a literary feel, like Dodgers.  It’s got murder and mayhem… but then, they all do.  At the end of the day, I just was not as engaged by this book as I was with the nominees.  So while Tiger gets a thumbs up, it goes to the bottom of the list.

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  3. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  4. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
  5. Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

Nick Petrie’s Drifter – Reacher-esque?

drifter“Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal.”   That’s the blurb from Lee Child on Nick Petrie’s debut mystery, The Drifter.  I try not to go into a book with preconceived notions, but once read, that blurb tends to influence your perceptions.  And Ash does have his similarities to Reacher.  Like Reacher, Ash has served in the military, is on the road and has few ties.  He’s also single-minded and a handy guy to have on your side in a fight.   They both have a strong sense of loyalty and their own definitions of right and wrong. And I’m a big Reacher fan, so this is setting the bar high.

The Drifter starts with a prologue – who is this man in the black canvas chore coat driving around in a pick-up truck with false id, buying fertilizer?  We don’t know, but by the end of the book, we get to know this guy, his profession and his unusual code of honor that results in his partnering with Ash to foil a terrorist plot  at the last minute.   So, while I usually an not a prologue fan, I give this one a thumbs up because it builds suspense and is integral to the plot.

In the meantime, Ash is on his belly, crawling in the dirt under Dinah Johnson’s porch and trying to figure out a way to overpower a 140-lb. pitbull mix that’s dead-set against coming out, without getting maimed.  His solution is clever and humane, and once he’s subdued the dog and tied it to a tree, his next action is to give it water from his own water bottle.  “Dog’s thirsty,” he explains to Charlie Johnson, Dinah’s son.

And thus, in the first chapter, we know a lot about Peter Ash.  We also know a lot about Nick Petrie – he knows how to set the stage, reveal character, and build suspense.  Over the subsequent chapters, we find out why Ash is there – to atone for not being there for his Marine buddy, Sgt. Jimmy Johnson, who committed suicide the month before, leaving behind a widow (ER nurse Dinah) and two boys (Charlie and Miles).  His pretext – doing “what needs to be done” as part of a VA program, which results in his offer to rebuild the Washington’s falling down porch.  His baggage – he is suffering from PTSD and can only stand to be indoors for short periods of time.

Of course, the straightforward narrative becomes  complicated almost immediately, when Ash discovers the dog was guarding a suitcase containing $400,000 and four packs  of C4 explosive under that porch.  A hard-looking case with a gun and a black SUV is lurking about.  And Dinah turns out to have resources of her own, in the form of a long-time tie to a smooth, smart and strong local crime lord named Lewis.

Ash’s unraveling the connections that lead to a hedge fund and its Machiavellian owner is a complex but gripping process.  The plot?  To blow up a bank, throw the markets into unrest, and make a fortune. Along the way, Ash discovers the truth about his friend Jimmy, builds a strong bond with Jimmy’s dog Mingus, and learns how good people can be twisted to do bad things.  In the end, good guys turn out to be bad guys, bad guys turn good, and the day is saved following a super-scary chase scene.

The Drifter is a classic thriller, and Petrie worked hard to lift it a bit above through character complexity.  He has varying success with that – the emphasis on the psychic impact of combat can be seen as exploitative, and the upright nurse, crime lord with a sensitive side, callous hedge fund owner, and crooked cop are pretty formulaic.  But it all hangs together quite well and the Ash character is compelling, so all told, it’s a very strong debut and I look forward to more from Petrie.

It’s a tough call where to place it on the rankings.  Each of the four books are so different, with Under the Harrow falling in suspense, Dodgers in literary, IQ detective and Drifter thriller.  After careful consideration, I’m going to place it #2.  As a sheer page-turner, it’s a good one, but not quite up to IQ.  But I have to say, I’d recommend all four of these books – this is a great crop of debut novels and I’m eager to see how the last two stack up!

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  3. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  4. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

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