While 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
- American Spy, Lauren Wilkinson