Tag Archives: Invisible City

Bad Country Under Consideration

bad countryThe time has come for the final Literary Lunchbox post in the 3-Rs (reading, reviewing, and ranking) for the 2015 Best First Novel by an American Author Edgar.  The official Edgar will be awarded in NYC on April 29, but the anticipation is building right here.  The final entry is Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie.  Set in Arizona and featuring Native American PI Rodeo Grace Garnet, the book won the Tony Hillerman Prize, a $10,000 advance and publication by St. Martin’s Press.   I loved Tony Hillerman’s work, devouring his Leaphorn and Chee books when I discovered them in the 1980s.   He received practically every mystery writing award there was to win, and was president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Hillerman passed away in 2008, a sad day for mystery lovers.   All this is leading up to why I was very interested in reading Bad Country.

My overall impression is that CB McKenzie is no Tony Hillerman – but then, who could be?  Hillerman’s books were police procedurals, but steeped in the ways of the Navajo and other tribes.  There is a lot of looking, thinking and talking in Hillerman’s books.  They have a lot of space for subtlety.  Not so much for McKenzie.

Some critics have called Bad Country “cowboy noir,” and that’s a particularly apt description.  The writing is spare, the violence is gritty and real, the men are hard although not all bad, and the women are, for the most part, demons.   One plot point features the characteristics of ten Native American tribes, but otherwise, Native American culture doesn’t have much impact on the book.  It’s more like the movie Chinatown, with Rodeo Grace Garnet in the JJ Gittes role.

Here’s where the plot begins:  Rodeo’s a tough, hard-living PI in a small town in Arizona, with a bad ex-girlfriend who happens to be the good sheriff’s daughter, and a faithful dog.  Someone’s murdered an Indian man on Rodeo’s doorstep.  And someone else has gunned down a teenager in a drive-by; that teen’s grandmother hires Rodeo to look into it, and the game is afoot.

These two seemingly straight-forward crimes are just the respective tips of two different icebergs, and along the way to solving them both, Rodeo faces disillusionment and death more than once.  By the end, more than one good guy is dead, as are multiple bad guys, but Rodeo has kept more evil at bay, Rodeo’s dog is okay and we suspect that the chemistry between him and the lady vet is building into something good for book #2.

Here’s what I liked about Bad Country:  Excellent main character, knotty plot, noir tough, and a great dog.  Not in love with:  Too many characters with too many problems and too much plot stuffed into one book.  Also, use some quote marks, already.

So where to rank it?  Definitely above The Life We Bury and Invisible City. Definitely below Dry Bones in the Valley.   Shovel Ready was more inventive, Murder at the Brightwell was more assured and better written.  So Bad Country goes on my ranking at #4, making Dry Bones in the Valley my winner!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
  3. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  4. Bad Country by CB McKenzie
  5. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  6. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Cover art for Bad Country: No complaints.  The car features in the plot, as does the desert locale, and the typography is spot-on.  Title:  Also appropriate.

#4 in the Edgar countdown: Invisible City


Well-titled Invisible City, okay cover art! IMHO.

They say to write what you know, and Julia Dahl did.   She’s a journalist specializing in crime, has a Lutheran father and Jewish mother, and lives in Brooklyn.  And Rebekah Roberts, the protagonist of her debut mystery (up for an MWA Edgar!), Invisible Cityis a lot like Julia.   Her mother was a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who rebelled, married Rebekah’s dad (just to mix it up, he’s a Methodist), and stuck with him for a few years, leaving them to return to her own community when Rebekah was five. Her mother’s abandonment has haunted Rebekah ever since.  It’s the expectation that somehow, someway, she’ll find out more about her mother – and perhaps even connect with her – that leads new college grad Rebekah to head for NYC and a job as a tabloid stringer.

Indeed, it’s Rebekah’s physical resemblance to her mother that gives her an edge over other reporters when the naked body of an observant woman turns up, head shaved, in Gowanus.  The NYPD barely investigates and the woman’s body is whisked away, not to the coroner’s office, but to a Jewish funeral home, where her body will be cleansed and buried within 24 hours – no autopsy, no evidence.  A Jewish police detective, brought in to help translate, knows Rebekah’s mother, and he smooths the way for her to talk with many of the religious who would ordinarily keep shtum.  At first, Rebekah just wants to get the story.  But soon, she’s driven to actually solve the crime.   As she gets deeper into the investigation and her persona as Rivka (the diminutive for Rebekah), she also begins to understand the world her mother inhabited.

Dahl tells the story well, including a surprising plot twist at the end that you won’t see coming, but is not a cheat. The side story about her mother is interesting, and Dahl is skillful in revealing this religious culture to the reader as Rebekah learns about it herself.  However, I’m having a terrible time ranking the book, because there are definitely clunky aspects to the writing.  For example, the boyfriend Tony is barely a sketch, and there’s at least one random, coarse-languaged sex scene that feels grafted-on to ensure grittiness.

The book clearly ranks above The Life We Bury, and below Dry Bones in the Valley, but where to place it compared to Murder at the Brightwell, which has an assured, elegant style and is a lovely book for its type (not my favorite type, though!)  After much mental haggling, I’m ranking this Edgar nominee third out of the four reviewed to date.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  3. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  4. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

And since I’ve been explicitly commenting on covers and titles, I would point out that Invisible City is a perfect fit for the city within a city where the Hasidim reside.  I suppose the cover art features the appropriate city and evokes a certain angst, so can’t really complain there, either.