Tag Archives: Michael Robotham

On to Smoke and Ashes – Final Edgar Nom

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Smoke and Ashes is the final nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, the third book in Abir Mukherjee’s series set in 1920’s Calcutta and  featuring British officer Sam Wyndham and his sergeant, “Surrender-not” Banerjee.  The debut novel, A Rising Man, was also a nominee for Best Novel in 2018.  It didn’t win and was last on the Literary Lunchbox ranking.  But still – first book and a nominee!  (My review of that book is here.)

The third book focuses on Christmas, 1921.  It’s a tumultuous historical time, when the Indian independence movement is in full swing and the followers of Gandhi are using nonnviolent resistance to press the oppressors and symbolic protests to unite the various indigenous factions.  About to arrive on the scene:  the Prince of Wales.   Lt. Wyndham is called by his superiors to investigate the murder of a woman.  Her eyes had been gouged out and two deep knife wounds were made to her chest.  This would have been upsetting to anyone, but it was a particular shock to Sam Wyndham, as he had seen the same mutilation of a previous corpse, just the night before.  Easy peasy, right?  Just connect the dots and solve the murders.  But Wyndham can’t admit to seeing the previous corpse, because he was stoned out of his mind on opium at the time, running for his life with the cops right behind him.  Yes, our hero is an addict thanks to a war injury and a second blow, his wife’s death of influenza, a few years previously.

What follows is a labyrinthine plot wherein more people die, Wyndham discovers what links the victims, he and Surrender-not set out to lure the murderer out into the open but are outwitted, all against the backdrop of Indian unrest and the stubbornness of the peaceful revolution’s leaders vs. the stubbornness of the British military and monarchy.  (A quick Google search turned up the info that India did not get its independence from Britain till 1947, so Mukherjee has 26 more years of stories to tell, should he choose to do so.)   Revealing the killer and what motivates him – a ruthless military project to develop a new, even more lethal mustard gas by testing it on Indian subjects – was not the end to the plot twists, though.

Here’s what works very well in Smoke and Ashes:  We genuinely like the main characters; the depiction of Surrender-not as a loyal friend and policeman, and the cultural pressure he feels as the go-between; the plot is complicated and horrifyingly believable; the writing is top-notch and pacing excellent.  However, not much is made of Wyndham’s addiction; evidently, a shot of kerdu pulp (from a gourd that is native to India) staves off withdrawal symptoms.  There was also rather perfunctory treatment of his on-again, off-again romance with Annie Grant (a key figure in the first book in this series).  But all in all, a satisfying historical mystery.

How does Smoke and Ashes stack up to the other nominees?  Pretty well, but not a home run for me.  There is nothing to dislike here, but I am not a fan of historicals in general and I read this at some remove, admiring the plot as it emerged, but not caught up.  (Others are likely to find it just their cup of tea!)

In terms of ranking, I’m going to place it at #3.  That leaves Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl in the top spot.  If Literary Lunchbox were in charge, Robotham would get his first Edgar the year.

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. Smoke and Ashes (Abir Mukherjee)
  4. The River (Peter Heller)
  5. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)

 

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)

Good Girl, Bad Girl: Mesmerizing Twisty Tale

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Alert:  I’m a huge Michael Robotham fan. His standalone book Life or Death was up for the 2016 Best Novel Edgar.  It didn’t win, and I ranked it fourth, right behind the actual winner, Lori Roy’s Let Me Die in His Footsteps.

He has a very popular series featuring psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, nine books at last counting.   I met the good doctor in 2012 and blogged about him while on a cruise.  Joe often works with the good but morally ambiguous Detective Vincent Ruiz, is still in love with his estranged wife, Julianne, and has Parkinson’s disease which bothers him more as the series progresses.  It’s a good series, and two of the books won the Ned Kelly Award for Australia’s Best Crime novel.  Still, the time was ripe for a new protagonist, and Robotham doesn’t disappoint.

Good Girl, Bad Girl is the Edgar-nominated first book in a new series featuring Cyrus Haven.  Cyrus is also a psychologist, but has a more dramatic backstory; while tween Cyrus cruised past his crush’s house on his bike, his older brother was murdering their parents and twin sisters.  Adult Cyrus is tattooed, lifts weights and runs to burn off excess psychic energy, eschews a cell phone in favor of a pager, and maintains a loving relationship with Lenny Pavel, the female cop – now a Chief Inspector – who questioned and comforted him after he found his family’s bodies.

That enduring Lenny connection is what gets Cyrus pulled in when a dog walker finds the body of young figure skater Jodi Sheehan, bludgeoned and sexually assaulted.   Although the physical forensics of detection are critical, Cyrus specializes in the psychological underpinnings of crime.  Throughout Good Girl, Bad Girl, Cyrus picks at the threads of Jodi’s life until he sees beyond the perfect athlete, daughter and sister to see the flawed but loving human she truly was.  In doing so, Cyrus also wades through an abundance of murder suspects.  In lesser hands, the truths that Robotham has Cyrus uncover could be simply red herrings — in this book, they add to the richness of the narrative.  What really happened to Jodi is the result of a long-buried secret.

And it’s a connection of another kind – to the psychology community  – that gets Cyrus Haven pulled in to the sad and strange case of Evie Cormac.  Six years ago, Evie was discovered hiding in a rundown building with the rotting corpse of a tortured criminal and two surprisingly well-fed Alsatian dogs.  Skinny and silent, the child known in the media as Angel Face, was of indeterminate age.   Given a new name under a legal gag order, the child now known as Evie Cormac bounced through the foster care system, ending up in big trouble in residential care after attacking another resident with a brick.

Adam Guthrie, her psychologist there, knew that Evie was more than smart – he thought she had an unerring ability to tell when someone was lying.  And here’s where Cyrus comes in – he wrote his doctoral thesis on “truth wizards.”  Adam calls Cyrus in to consult, and we go on to the adventure of learning more about Evie as they interact.  When Evie seeks to be emancipated so she can leave the foster care system, Cyrus is the only person who supports her, ultimately offering to become her foster parent until she reaches the date set by the judge.   Little by little, we see the distrust that defines Evie begin to peel away with Cyrus… but set-backs are a given, and it’s during one of those set-backs that Evie learns some facts that ultimately help Cyrus solve Jodi Sheehan’s murder.

This book is mesmerizing.  The plot is twisty but well-supported throughout.  No cheating.  The characters are complex, and Robotham is a master at the slow reveal.  At the end of Good Girl, Bad Girl, the thoughtful reader realizes that there is no such thing.  Jodi is no more 100% good than Evie is 100% bad.  And vice versa.  The writing is assured and can be very funny (to wit, the group therapy scene where Cyrus is the only one who knows that all of Evie’s revelations are word-for-word dialogue from popular movies).  There’s a cliffhanger at the end, as we realize that the scenario of “child rescued from pedophile kidnapper” might be just one more fiction.  Thank heavens that July 2020 will bring us the new Cyrus/Evie book, When She Was Good.

But how does it compare to The River?  To quote your favorite British cozy writer, they’re like chalk and cheese.  Both good!   I see The River as a slender tale, a simpler story, although rewarding.  Robotham’s book is more complex, more layered, with a lot of character and heart.  But at the end of the day, I must go for Good Girl, Bad Girl for sheer enjoyment.

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

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The River (Peter Heller)

 

Edgar Noms! Heller’s The River Up 1st

mwa_logoThe Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees are out.  I missed reviewing them last year, so I’m back for 2020!  Typically I read, review and rank nominees for one, two, or three categories depending upon the time I have available for reading.  The fun – besides the obvious – comes in when I see how many of the ones I think should win, did win.  I’m not guessing who will win, so 100% is probably not an option.  In 2018, I got 50% – Edgar and I both picked Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun as Best First Novel.  (Click here for my review.)  On the Best Novel front, I picked Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, while Edgar chose Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke. (Reviews here.)

As always, the list of nominees include many I had not read as well as several that I did.  On the Best Novel list, the Michael Robotham and Abir Mukherjee books ring a bell.  Here’s the line-up:

riverFirst up for a Lunchbox review is Peter Heller’s The River.   The plot is simple.  Two young men with superior wilderness skills set out on an adventure and face an unexpected challenge:  can they rescue a dying woman from her murderous husband and outrun a wildfire to get her to safety?

Characterization is more complicated.  The men are different.  Jack, whose mother drowned while he watched, helpless, when he was just 11, expects tragedy.  His friend Wynn has an open heart and is innately optimistic.   It’s unsurprising and still a shock when Wynn’s essential nature is the cause of the tragedy that Jack works so hard to avoid.  Enough said.

The other people the men encounter on their river quest are revealed through their actions.  The men wonder about the husband, then must work to outwit him.  They encounter a couple of thuggish, drunken fools – but are they as foolish as they seem?  And the fire itself it a character, lurking, damaging, sending up smoke and sparks that threaten ominously depending upon which way the wind blows.

What makes The River sing is Heller’s writing.   I’m no outdoorswoman.  I like my nature in 2-3 hour chunks, not month-long hikes.  But it’s clear that Heller loves nature and has an easy intimacy with hunting, fishing, hiking, boating. And his writing is even, measured, lyrical:

The day was half gone.  They padded steadily without letup.  The wind shifted around to the west and for the first time they could se the hazy thickening of air that was not yet rolling smoke and the bird in flocks that were smaller now, and many single birds, mostly duller colored, the females, and Wynn posited that these were thee mother birds with hatchlings who had refused to leave their nests until just before the flame.  That was heartbreaking if you thought about it.

The River will quicken your pulse and may make you cry.  Take the time to read it slowly.  As Heller’s book is the first book reviewed, he enjoys the top spot for now!

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

  1. The River (Peter Heller)

 

 

Night Life Penultimate Best Novel Nom

nightlifeSo here we go with another historical crime novel – David C. Taylor’s Night Life.  It’s his debut novel and it garnered an Edgar nomination for Mystery Writers of America Best Novel. Well-done, Taylor!

It’s 1954, and the cold war is in the deep freeze.  Michael Cassidy’s a New York City detective, smart, sometimes violent but only with a good reason, who has odd dreams that sometimes come true. Cassidy and his partner Tony Orso are called to investigate the torture and murder of Alex Ingram, who coincidentally was a dancer in a show that Tom Cassidy, his father, is producing.  Cassidy discovers a half-dollar coin in a buff envelope taped inside Ingram’s locker at the theater.

Things spiral from there, with an ever-widening scope of investigation, a growing body count, and plenty of interest from the FBI, CIA, and even Senator Joseph McCarthy, who finds a communist everywhere he looks.  He may be an obsessive nut job, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real communist spies hard at work right here in NYC.  It turns out that Ingram was a KGB sleeper agent with a sideline in blackmail.  

On the personal front, Cassidy’s expecting retaliation from Franklin, a vice cop-slash-pimp.  Cassidy not only interrupted Franklin mid-assault on a hooker, but threw him out a window.  And he’s distracted by a new resident of his apartment building, a comely young woman who’s a welder working for an artist, bringing his metal sculptures to life.  (She wields a pretty mean baseball bat, too, rescuing Cassidy when Franklin’s buddies give him a beating in the apartment hallway.)  He’s close to his brother, Brian and sister, Leah, but not so close to his father, Tom.  His mother killed herself, more or less accidentally, taking an overdose of pills when she thought Tom would be coming home and would rescue her, thus bringing them closer together.  Unfortunately, Tom is essentially selfish, decided not to keep his promise, and teenage Michael discovered his mother’s cold body.

More about Cassidy’s father. More problems there.  He was born in Russia – Tomas Kasnavietski – emigrating to the US at age 15.  A staunch believer in the American dream, he’s surprised and dismayed to find that in 1954 America, Tom Cassidy’s about to be deported back to Russia.  His faith in his son and his friends to rescue him is unshaken.  Unfortunately, the friend is “Uncle Frank,” a mobster who wants a favor from Cassidy.

Fortunately, Cassidy’s a good detective, a smart negotiator and a good bluffer, with a stalwart partner and chutzpah to spare.  Still, it could have all gone sideways if it were not for his prophetic dreams… at the moment when the bad guys are about to ambush him, Cassidy recognizes the location and the sinking sense of dread from a recurrent dream.  It gives him the warning he needs to be the one left standing.

I’m very impressed with author David Taylor.  Night Life is tightly plotted, the coincidences not all that unlikely, the motivations for all clear and character-driven, and the integration of historical figures critical to the story, not distracting add-ons.  I understand that this is the first in a series featuring Det. Michael Cassidy, and I’ll be right there to read more in the future.  (In fact, book #2, Night Work, launched earlier this month.)

How does Night Life stack up to the other nominees?   Very, very well.  It’s eminently readable, like The Strangler Vine.  It’s got excellent pacing and similar switches in POV to keep up the suspense, as with Life or Death.  It’s got that paranormal aspect to it, as does Let Me Die in His Footsteps.   And it incorporates real-life historical figures, as does The Lady From Zagreb.  In fact, considering the whole package, I’m going to give Taylor’s debut mystery the top spot.  I may have reviewer’s regret when I review and rank the final nominee, Canary, and make some changes.  But time is running out, as the Edgars will be awarded Thursday!

Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

mwa_logo

  1. Night Life by David C. Taylor
  2. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  3. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  4. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  5. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

The Strangler Vine: Best Novel Nominee

stranglerEntering the fray for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel is M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine.  I admit that I was less than enthusiastic when I started this book – historical!  (groan) – India!  (double groan).  But Carter has won me over.

The book starts with a prologue- rarely a good beginning, in my opinion – of a man returning to his lodgings.  It’s June, 1837, and he watches from the shadows as intruders ransack his home, then ring the neck of his monkey.  Who is this guy? What’s going on?  And why am I sad about the darn monkey?   I don’t even know him.

Jump forward to September and we’re in first person.  William Avery is a none-too-lucky young officer, stuck in India, and volunteered by his pal Frank McPherson to pay a call upon Jeremiah Blake, carrying a message from the Company.  Blake’s a former special agent gone native following the death of his Indian bride and their son in childbirth.  As Avery is all spit and polish, he is appalled by the filthy and scabrous Blake.

Little does he know that within 50 pages or so he will be developing a great admiration for Blake’s abilities, as they set off together cross country on a quest to locate author Xavier Mountstuart.  Mountstuart is conducting research for a book on the Indian band called the Thugs, a religious sect who murdered in the name of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Blake and Avery are accompanied by three native men, one of whom, Mir Aziz, becomes a mentor to Avery.

The book is, without a doubt, a great adventure story.  How will they overcome all the obstacles in their way?  Will they find Mountstuart, and if so, alive or dead?   But it is also a spy novel, where all is not as it is appears.  In fact, there are secrets layered upon secrets.  And indeed, the Thuggee are not to blame for all the unrest in India, for as with any good political thriller writer knows, nothing allows fascism to grow more quickly than a fearsome, common enemy.  And there is nothing more heart-rending than betrayal by a double agent counted a friend.  The Strangler Vine in question is the authoritarian British company, squeezing the life out of the Indian culture.

As I mentioned, Carter made a believer out of me, drawing me in to the story and keeping the pages turning.  Lt. Avery grows up, from callow youth to mature man, over the course of his adventure, showing remarkable fortitude and skill when tested.  He does not triumph so much as eke the good out of a bad situation.

How does The Strangler Vine compare to Robotham’s Life or Death?  It’s like comparing cake and pie – totally a matter of taste, as both are at the top of their game.   As a cake woman, I have to give the edge to Life or Death, but I admire the pie and would totally eat more of it.

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Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Novel

  1. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  2. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

 

 

Robotham Edgar nominee – Best Novel

life or deathI am an eager Michael Robotham reader.  In fact, he has a new book out TODAY, his latest in his clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin series,  and I have it sitting on my kitchen table right this minute.  That should tell you that when it comes to his Edgar-nominated novel, Life or Death, I had to read it for the second time in order to review it and rank it in the Literary Lunchbox countdown to the April 28 Edgar awards.

Reading a book for fun, or even fun and a quick review, is a pretty light-hearted affair.  Reading a book for the Lit Lunchbox Edgars is more complicated, involving colored markers and little sticky flags.  It’s very upsetting to forget a minor character’s name or be searching through the pages to find the perfect example of the point your trying to make.  I liked the book the first time.  On second reading, Life or Death definitely holds up.  Totally nomination – worthy.

The book opens with a prison escape. Okay, you don’t really know it’s a prison escape, but that’s what it is.  Audie Palmer is swimming for his life away from the Three Rivers Federal Correctional Institute. The catch is, he was due to be released the very next day.  What would cause a man to risk 20 more years in prison, just to get out a day early?  That question haunts the subsequent chapters, as the reader is exposed, little by little, to more information that explains what kind of man Audie is (a good one), what reason he has for making a midnight escape (an excellent one), and how hard the bad guys will work to bring him down (very, very hard).

Life and Death is replete with believable, interesting characters, including Audie himself; his best friend and cellmate Moss Webster; his brother Carl; Benita, the love of his life, hero cop Deputy Ryan Valdez; and one of my favorites ever, FBI special Agent Desiree Furness.  Desiree is tiny but mighty, and even more important, she’s smart and she listen to her gut.

It’s a classic thriller of the “chase” type – can Audie accomplish his goal with so many people looking to hunt him down?  The book is constructed from multiple perspectives, with overlapping layers, which can lead the unwary reader into rushing… but don’t.  There are several shocking scenes along the way, and as a result, the final confrontation carries real threat.  You fear the loved and innocent will die, because you’ve seen Robotham go there already.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Novel

  1. Life or Death by Michael Robotham