Tag Archives: 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