Tag Archives: Miracle Creek

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

 

Edgar Noms/Best First: American Spy

spyWhile much of America is hunkering down and can’t go to work, I’m sheltering-in-place but able to work remotely.  As a result, I’ve been reading but not reviewing.  Which is a shame, because I am working my way through the books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.  And – spoiler alert – all in all, it is an amazing bunch of books.  Better, in fact, than several of those nominated for Best Novel.  What’s up with that, MWA?   I’ll be reviewing American Spy today, and all the nominees include:

  • My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing (Penguin Random House – Berkley)
  • Miracle Creek by Angie Kim (Farrar Straus and Giroux –Sarah Crichton)
  • The Good Detective by John McMahon (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott (Penguin Random House – Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Three-Fifths by John Vercher (Polis Books – Agora Books)
  • American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (Penguin Random House – Random House)

Usually I link each book nominated to Barnes and Noble or Amazon, for the convenience of those who want to order and read.  Today, I’m giving a shout-out to The Book Table in Oak Park, IL.  Please order from The Book Table!   This amazing independent bookstore will fill all orders through drop shipping and get their usual not-too-generous profit, and you will get the satisfaction of knowing you are keeping an wonderful bookstore up and running.

American Spy is a rich, complicated take on the spy thriller featuring an unusual spy.  The book opens in 1992, when sharp-eared suburban mom Marie Mitchell hears an intruder in her home.  Rather than rushing to the side of her 4-year old twin sons, she get out her gun, lies in wait, and shoots the man.   And he’s no burglar.  He’s an assassin.  Wow.

It turns out that Marie had been an FBI agent, and a good one, but stymied by the agency’s perspective on women which was, shall we say, not good.  It’s the mid-80s, and bored with infiltrating groups and running small-time informers, Marie cuts one loose, forging the required documents.  Big mistake.  She’s at loose ends and ripe for recruiting by the CIA, and the next thing we know, she’s been ordered to “get close” to Thomas Sankara, the charismatic president of the African nation, Burkina Faso.  The CIA’s plan?  To undermine his popularity by exposing his sexual indiscretion and install a puppet government more to America’s liking… or is it?  In the meanwhile, we know that boredom is just one of Marie’s motivators – her older sister Helene was also an operative, who was supposedly killed in a car wreck.  This new gig will give Marie the opportunity to get to work with Daniel Slater, Helene’s boss/boyfriend, and perhaps resolve some lingering questions.  I’ll say no more for fear of spoiler alerts, but you might not be surprised to hear that Marie is not a very loyal employee.

This is truly a masterful debut, and it’s no surprise to me that it was named one of 2019’s 10 Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.  The plot is tight:  every interaction serves to drive the plot forward or reveal backstory.  Marie is a surprising spy, due not only to her gender but her race (African-American), her upbringing (her dad’s a NYC cop and her mom abandoned the family for Martinique), and her smarts (top of her class).  Marie is fierce and she is guided at first, by her own innate sense of justice, but then, as a result of her unplanned pregnancy, by the need to keep her family safe at all costs.

I understand the book is inspired by true events:  the book jacket says that Thomas Sankara was known as “Africa’s Che Guevara.”  I don’t know what led author Lauren Wilkinson to use that real life history to create the fictional Marie Mitchell and American Spy, but I applaud her.  I hope there is another book on its way; the end of American Spy seems to indicate it’s likely.  Fingers crossed.

First reviewed takes top spot!  May even keep it.

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

  1. American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson