Tag Archives: Edgar

My Lovely Wife last up for Edgar…

wifeThere’s just three days to go until the Mystery Writers of America announce the Edgar award winners for 2020.  I’m excited to be back reviewing and ranking the Literary Lunchbox Edgars!  I’m just getting in under the wire with the final nominee for the Best First Novel by an American author, My Lovely Wife by Samantha Dowling.  I have to admit, this is one of my favorite kinds of mysteries:  the psychological thriller.  The protagonist is a happily married man in early middle age, a tennis pro at the local country club, with a beautiful, accomplished wife and two good kids.  So why is he pretending to be deaf and picking up a woman in a bar?

There’s something a little twisted going on, and we soon come to realize that this man and his wife are playing sexual games with a deadly twist.  Told in first person by the unnamed man, it’s a story of a man pulled in over his head… someone whose better nature is overrun by his wife’s irresistible pull.  He’s trying hard not to kill anyone!  After all, the first murder was really an accident, and the second one was just because they were trying to throw the police off track, and the third one… Besides, he didn’t do the killing.  His wife did.

The plot ratchets up the intensity when it becomes apparent that the lovely wife is stark, staring nuts, but crafty and clever with it.  She’s set it up so that her husband is going to take the fall, while she gets off scot free with their unsuspecting kids.  There’s a showdown, kids fly to save dad, and all’s well that end’s well.  Or is it?  The ending’s as twisty as my pug’s tail.

I’m leaving out a lot, but that’s the crux of the plot.  The various subplots all serve to move the story forward or reveal more about the characters.  Downing does a great job luring us to rely upon her unreliable narrator, and the pace of the plot, the well-timed increase in tension, the sheer page-turning suspense in the book is fantastic.  It’s a little Gone Girl-esque.  It’s a great debut.

But how does it rank against the other nominees?  Frankly, I could make a case for any of the nominees as the award recipient (except for Three-Fifths, which others seem to adore, but I thought was pretty clunky).  American Spy and The Good Detective were really pretty neck-and-neck, and now comes My Lovely Wife to give them a run for the money.  For sheer enjoyment, I’m going to put it at the top of the list.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. My Lovely Wife, Samantha Dowling
  2. The Good Detective, John McMahon
  3. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  4. Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
  5. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  6. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

I’ll look forward to my own, personal celebration of the Edgars on Thursday night when the winners are announced!  Will they agree that Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl is deserving of Best Novel?  That My Lovely Wife takes home the Edgar for Best First Novel?  We shall see.

The Good Detective Best First Edgar Nom

goodSo far I’ve recapped four of the six finalists for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for the Best First Novel by an American Author – two spy tales, a racially-themed crime story, and a not-the-usual-formula legal thriller.  Next up is John McMahon’s police procedural The Good Detective, which poses an unusual question:  How do you solve a crime if you killed the prime suspect?  

That “if” is a big question for Detective Paul Thomas (P.T.) Marsh of Mason Falls, Georgia.  Big-hearted P.T. set out to help a stripper by throwing a scare into her neo-Nazi abusive boyfriend.  He thought that a beating and a threat would do the trick.  The next morning, he’s called to a murder scene.  Yep, it’s that guy.  If only P.T. could remember for sure, but ever since his wife and son were killed in a car wreck, he’s been drinking even more heavily than he did before.  Blackouts are a pretty common occurrence.

The bad situation gets even worse when another body is discovered:  a black teenager named Kendrick Webster has been tortured, lynched and murdered.   The cops – including P.T. – make a split-second decision to remove the rope, knowing full well that hiding this element of the crime may save the family some anguish, but it also puts on the pressure to solve it quickly.  This being a small town in Georgia, there are no lack of suspects – including the guy Det. Marsh might have killed, but solving it requires unearthing a motive that’s not obvious.

I read The Good Detective when it came out, spurred to do so by Marilyn Stasio’s review in the New York Times.   She subsequently named it one of the ten best mysteries of the year.  I agree with her… McMahon has a talent for writing interesting characters you will care about and setting them in a complex plot that isn’t overdone.  P.T. is an example of the flawed, guilt-ridden, substance-abusing policeman, a type that started for me with Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder.  Only instead of accidentally shooting and killing a young girl on a New York sidewalk as Scudder did, P.T. – happily drinking in his local tavern – ignored an incoming phone call from his wife.  He didn’t help her; she and their son died.  This colors how he sees the world, and as we turn the pages, we see Det. Marsh begin to emerge from his tragic fog.

The Good Detective concludes with a degree of forgiveness and an expectation of additional books featuring Detective Marsh, a prospect that I heartily endorse.  Police procedurals are one of my favorite subgenres, and The Good Detective is a superb example of the type.  It takes the top spot in the ranking.  Only one more to go!

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author
  1. The Good Detective, John McMahon
  2. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  3. Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
  4. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  5. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

Coming down to the wire… Miracle Creek

miracleAnd now for something completely different… Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.  This legal thriller is fourth in the race for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author.   Although the Edgars banquet has sadly been canceled for this year due to the pandemic – which makes total sense, since the banquet is in NYC – the winners will still be announced April 30.

The story hinges on the prosecution of Elizabeth Ward, the mother of an 8-year-old autistic boy, for his death and that of another child with disabilities in an explosion of a hyperbaric oxygen treatment chamber.  There’s no actual science to show that HBOT cures anything besides the decompression sickness that scuba divers get if they come up to the surface from the depths of the ocean too fast, but parents desperate for a cure will try anything, and as some might say, “what could it hurt?”  Prosecutors believe that Elizabeth, desperate to be freed from the burden of caring for her son, set a fire to ignite the oxygen flowing into the chamber.   The case is circumstantial, but believable.

Roshomon-like, the book alternates perspectives, including those of Young and Pak Yoo, the Chinese immigrants who have pinned their hopes on the “Miracle Submarine” installed on their rural Virginia property to lift their fortunes, their daughter Mary, who hopes to go to college, various parents and witnesses, and the defendant herself.  All the narrators are unreliable – telling the truth, but not all the truth.  Who really caused the explosion, and why?  You may guess, or you may not, but either way, it’s a compelling story.

The plot unfolds gradually, person by person and layer on top of layer.  Some readers may get annoyed by the leisurely pace, which undercuts the tension.   I was more dismayed by what I call an “idiot” plot – if practically anyone had not been such an idiot, there would be no mystery, and maybe not even a crime!  The good news is that everyone has a good reason for their foolish behavior.

On the plus side, the story is sound, the characterization rich, and the writing assured.  The focus on marginalized people – the Yoos as immigrants and the special needs children and their loving and anxious parents – grounds Miracle Creek in a bittersweet realism.  In comparison to the previously reviewed books, I’m going to rank it #2, between American Spy and The Secrets We Kept.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
  3. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  4. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

 

Three-Fifths Up Next in Edgar Race

Three FifthsNext up:  Three-Fifths by John Vercher.   It’s working class Pittsburgh, 1995 – hardly post-racial America – and 22-year-old Bobby Saraceno has a secret: he’s passing for white.  He never met his African-American father, and Isabel, his ashamed white mom, and racist grandfather have made sure that nobody knows the truth.  Now his good friend Aaron is home from prison, and Bobby’s shocked to find that he’s become a die-hard white supremacist.  That’s pretty ironic, because in high school Aaron was the embodiment of black culture, a black-wannabe.   Reunited, the two make a stop at a convenience store and Bobby, horrified, watches Aaron attack a young black man, beating his head in with a brick.  Aaron hops in the car and at his urging, Bobby drives off.  Reader, the young man dies.

What follows is Bobby’s story of angst, coming to terms with his identity, redemption, and ultimately, Bobby’s tragedy.  It’s interspersed with Isabel’s perspective as a young woman, how she came to be involved with Robert (Bobby’s dad), and why she chose to never to tell him of her pregnancy… and her interaction with him when she decides to seek him out, in the book’s present day.  A third perspective is Robert’s, a physician, and his surprise to see Isabel again and shock to learn he has a son.

This is a lot of plot, fueled by a ton of coincidences, and with numerous misunderstandings, both past and present.  There are many “you have got to be kidding me” moments.  It’s a soap opera of a book, but with plenty of explication.   Even the title over-reaches.  (“Three-fifths” refers to the proposed tax compromise of each person counting as one person and each slave counting as 3/5 of a person.)

Mystified about why the book received an Edgar nomination, I checked the ratings on Goodreads – 4.3.  People evidently loved this book.  I continue to be mystified.  Maybe it would be a good movie.  Needless to say, Three-Fifths does not bump either of the top two, and takes the #3 spot on the Edgar ranking.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott
  3. Three-Fifths, John Vercher

Edgar Nom Provides More Spies!

secretsAmerican Spy was the first nominee I reviewed for the Mystery Writers of America Best First Novel by an American Author… and the second nominee has even more spies!  The Secrets We Kept is Lara Prescott’s Cold War-era tale of espionage built on the true story of the CIA’s involvement in bringing Boris Pasternak’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Dr. Zhivago, to Russia.

The book features two narratives.   One features “the typists,” the CIA’s smart, capable, and underused women who are told to turn off the brains and let the words dictated by the men of the CIA flow through their headsets, into the ears, and down into their fingers and onto the typewriter page.  Occasionally, a typist is more than a typist.  And Irina, beautiful daughter of a Russian-born seamstress, is plucked from the typing pool for special training.  Glamorous and superior, the world-traveling Sally Forrester helps Irina hone her skills, and the women become close.  Really close.

The second narrative is the story of Olga Vsevolodovna, Boris Pasternak’s mistress and the inspiration for Lara in Dr. Zhivago.  She is his muse.  She and her two children can live nearby, accepting his financial support in exchange for giving up any semblance of a normal life.  And then one day she is picked up by the authorities, jailed, starved, and tortured because of her connection to Pasternak, whom the authorities suspect of writing a subversive novel.  Pregnant, she loses the baby, and comes home years later to pick up where she left off – aged beyond her years, but still beautiful to him.

The plot threads come together as a CIA department that sows dissent among the Russian people through literature plots to secure a copy of Dr. Zhivago in the original Russian in order to distribute it, clandestinely, in Russia.  This is done.  Pasternak wins, then refuses, the Nobel Prize.  He dies.  Olga is arrested once again, as is her daughter, in an effort to force her to reveal where she has hidden Pasternak’s money.

Here’s what works:  The underlying true story is mind-boggling.  The training in spycraft is fascinating.  The love affair between Irina and Sally is lovely.  The plotting is solid and the prose is well-written.

Not as good:  The men are pretty much cardboard characters and I couldn’t even work up much enthusiasm for Pasternak, even though he looked just like a young Omar Sharif in my brain.  And if only one of the star-crossed lesbians could be honest with the other!  And, at the end of the day, while I can accept that Dr Zhivago was filled with themes that were not Soviet-approved, what was the end result of this espionage?  Going by the world today, not much.  There was a lot of talk of love in this book, but not a lot of actual heart.

So how do the two spy novels stack up?  Starting out, I believed that The Secrets We Kept would come out on top, because it was so well-researched and had such a broad scope.  Plus, seriously, the blurbs and reviews were astounding.  However, American Spy was much more compelling, the main character had a very strong voice, and the reader cared much more about the outcome.  Therefore, the ranking keeps Lauren Wilkinson’s book  in the #1 spot.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson
  2. The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott

 

 

The Stranger Diaries 4th Edgar Nom

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If you love reading – and you clearly do, if you are reading this blog! – you’ll be drawn in immediately to Elly GriffithsThe Stranger Diaries.  The book’s protagonist is Clare Cassidy, a divorced single mom/high school English teacher, who aspires to write a biography of (fictional) author R.M. Holland.  The mystery centers around the death by stabbing of Clare’s colleague, Ella.  That death, and others that follow, reflect murders recounted in Holland’s short story, “The Stranger.”  In fact, Griffiths’ book opens with the beginning of that short story, in a framing device that sets the stage for the suspense that follows.

But is it a stranger who murdered Ella?  Or is it, as Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur and her partner believe, someone much closer?  There is no dearth of suspects, from Clare herself – very unlikely – to Ella’s stalkerish boss.  He looks a good bet, as he has a history of obsessive behavior.  A good bet, that is, until he is murdered as well.

Diaries play a prominent role in the book, not surprisingly.  DS Kaur examines social media – a very public kind of diary – for clues.  Clare’s daughter Georgia keeps her diary online, at a website called mysecretdiary.com, and so do her friends.  Clare has kept one since childhood, filling a series of notebooks.  In fact, the first clue that Clare has a connection of some kind to the murderer comes when she discovers a note in her diary.  It starts “Greetings from a sincere friend…” quoting Wilkie’s Woman in White, and goes on to promise to fall upon those who work agains Clare “like a ravening beast.”  The handwriting is unfamiliar.  What stranger has been in her house?  And how does he – or she – know Clare?

A nice subplot is Clare’s determination to unearth the facts behind the suggested suicide of Alice Avery, R.M. Holland’s wife, and the related question of the mysterious Mariana, whose presence comforted Holland following her death.  Thought to be their daughter, no records or photos of Mariana exist.  Hmmmmm….

Griffiths writes in first person from three different perspectives: Clare, DS Kaur, and daughter Georgie.  It works well, and I was struck by how the same scene is recounted differently by each of the three, giving the reader greater insight into the characters.  Showing the three women independently also highlights how little people really know about one another.

Suspects are presented and discarded throughout the book, the body count mounts and tension ramps up, and soon after DS Kaur encourages Clare and Georgie to leave town for their safety, the plot takes thriller-ish as the unknown bad guy follows the pair while the cops race to get there in time to stop more mayhem.  You think you know who it is… you don’t!  In a smaller and also satisfying conclusion, the Mariana mystery is also solved.

Here’s my take on The Stranger Diaries:  Griffiths is a good writer.  The three-POVs works very well.  Her characters are interesting and believable.  The literary references and creative writing scenarios add a lot of fun (for me).  The gothic aspects (hauntings, historical memorabilia, etc.) are atmospheric and heighten the drama.  The violence is not gratuitous.  One quibble is that boss Rick Lewis really get off quite lightly from the #metoo perspective (although he does get murdered, so perhaps that is punishment enough).  A more meaningful concern is that the real perpetrator is masked by the way he is presented from Georgie’s point of view, and it is hard to believe that he could fool her so completely.

So, where does The Stranger Diaries rank?  Definitely below Robotham’s masterful Good Girl, Bad Girl, but I’m going to place it above The River.  While not as lyrical as Heller, Griffiths’ writing is very effective with its multiple viewpoints and the inclusion of the original short story “by” R.M. Holland.

Side note… there is a wealth of Elly Griffiths books available, including at least one other that features Harbinder Kaur.  I’m there.

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

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The Stranger Diaries (Elly Griffiths)
  3. The River (Peter Heller)
  4. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)

Kerr’s Prussian Blue up next

bluePrussian Blue.  It’s 528 pages of fictional Berlin detective Bernie Gunther interacting with Nazis in (framing device) 1956 and (very meaty main plot) 1939… and I have to say, it’s the most interesting and entertaining Philip Kerr book I’ve read.   It’s the fourth book that I’m reading, reviewing and ranking in the Literary Lunchbox take on the MWA Edgar for Best Novel.

As previously mentioned, I’m generally not into historical mysteries, especially those featuring swastikas (notable exception:  The Boys From Brazil).  I’ve read two Bernie Gunther books previously, when they were up for Edgars, and generally ranked them towards the bottom of the list.  (Field Gray review  and The Lady From Zagreb here.)  In fairness to me, they didn’t win.

kerrThat situation might change this year, as, sad to say, Philip Kerr passed away recently at the age of 62.  It certainly made me want to give Prussian Blue a full and fair reading, which meant slowing down, and paying especially close attention.  So that’s what I did.  It paid off.

The book begins in 1956 on the French Riviera, with our smart-and-jaded Bernie working as a hotel detective, still hoping for a reconciliation with his estranged wife when he gets an invitation to meet her for dinner.  He goes and is surprised to find that his dinner companion is not his wife, but a long-time enemy, Erich Mielke, now deputy head of Stasi, the East Germany Security Service.  Mielke wants Bernie to poison a former colleague in order to tie up some loose ends from a previous situation, but Bernie’s smart enough to know that even if he accedes to the request, he’ll become the next “loose end” requiring tying up.  Mielke’s thugs – including Frederich Korsch, a man Bernie knew well back in the day – bring him to the brink of death to secure his cooperation, but this only makes stubborn Bernie determined not to do their bidding.  He goes on the run.  While making his escape, Bernie reflects upon a previous case that brought him close to Hitler himself, even as Germany was readied for the attack on Poland that would launch WWII.

Fade to April, 1939.  A man has been shot on the terrace at Hitler’s private home at Berchtesgaden.  It’s critical to solve the murder and ensure security before Hitler arrives there for his 50th birthday celebration.  Nazi boss Reinhard Heydrich assigns Commissar Gunther – a smart, honest cop – to solve the crime.  On arrival, Bernie finds that he must please Martin Bormann, who runs the show.  It’s soon clear that there is no failure allowed – the crime will be solved, either by finding the killer, or fitting one up. 

Bernie’s not surprised to find that the dead man, a local engineer named Karl Flex, is incredibly unpopular with the locals, throwing people out of their homes in forced sales at bargain basement prices, strong-arming the local whores, and serving as Bormann’s bag man on cash runs to Switzerland.  The entire enclave is a money machine for Bormann and his crew.  These facts come out over time, and offer Bernie and his assistants, Frederich Korsch and local SS Capt. Hermann Kaspel, a plethora of potential murderers.  And it soon becomes clear that there are some that would prefer to see Bernie fail, as there is more than one attempt on his life.  When Kaspel is killed in a rigged car wreck when Bernie should have been with him, Bernie knows he must be making progress.

Bernie does discover who killed Flex and why, and sets out to capture him, accompanied by one of Bormann’s aides, Wilhelm Zander.  Bernie believes that if he can arrest the man, justice will be done, Bormann will release the innocent fall guy currently in the clink, and he’ll be able to get two inept cops off the hook (they’re facing a firing squad for no good reason).  But misplaced optimism is a Bernie Gunther hallmark… so when he captures the killer, Zander shoots him, then turns the gun on Bernie.  Our hero escapes, but mostly due to dumb luck.  And while things turn out okay for him, when he returns to Bavaria, he learns that all three of the men he’d hoped to save had been killed that morning.  He also meets a dead end in his quest to bring down Bormann.

Flash forward to 1956 – his 1939 friend and colleague, Frederich Korsch is now his enemy, but Bernie has a new name and a new chance at freedom in Munich.

I know.  It’s a lot of plot.  And I left a ton out.

There’s a lot to like about this book.  With some minimal wikipedia-ing, I am convinced that Kerr did a great job on the historical accuracy aspect of it.  I have no problem believing that he also did an excellent job in his portrayal of historical figures.  One character – female architect Gerdy Troost, who was a staunch Nazi and strong Hitler admirer – decides to help Bernie root out the corruption, and she is a sympathetic figure in Kerr’s hands.  Characters are fleshed out and credible.  The plot is twisty and the violence is compelling and realistic.  Also, Kerr has a wonderful way with words.  I had to stifle myself from reading selections out loud to my husband; after the third such passage, Mark was out of patience.

The best thing about Prussian Blue is Bernie Gunther himself.  He’s sharp and funny, is more likely to get beaten to a pulp than he is to do the beating, and is liable to succeed mostly through sheer persistence, but also gets a normal helping of dumb luck along the way.  His morality is like Teflon; despite all the evil he sees, it endures.  As he thought back to that April in 1939 and all that had occurred, he reflected, “Most of all I remembered being almost twenty years younger and possessed of a sense of decency and honor I now found almost quaint.  For a while back here, I think I sincerely believe I was the only honest man I knew.”  He may be rueful, but at the core, he’s unchanged.

So how does the book stack up with the other nominees?  For character, complications, plot and atmosphere, I’ve got to give it up for Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue.  It goes to the top of the ranking.

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

  1. Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr
  2. Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
  3. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  4. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee