This year’s Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees for Best Novel are driving me a little nuts. They are all. So. Different. And yet all really pretty darn good! I always carefully read, review, and rank. But the ranking thing is getting harder and harder. The newest entry is Ivy Pochoda’s These Women, and it really blew me away.
Here is the situation: In the late 90’s, there is a series of 13 murders. Prostitutes, or close to it. Women with their throats slashed and a plastic bag pulled over their heads, dumped without ceremony in the street or a vacant lot. Then, no more murders. Until 2014, when it starts up again. Just the same. The police did not solve the previous series; in fact, it seems they didn’t care to even try. But this time, Det. Essie Perry does care, and she does try, and she doesn’t get much credit from her colleagues for it, for several reasons. She’s a woman. She’s short. And she’s traumatized from a car wreck where two girls were killed, and her fellow cops all did her the favor of “covering up” for her… even though she wasn’t the one driving. So now she’s also damaged goods.
There are a lot of women in These Women. In addition to Essie, there’s Feelie, a sometimes-prostitute who got into a car on her night off and ended up with her throat cut, but she didn’t die. Never counted, she was the fourteenth woman. Since that night in 1999, she’s been stalked by a white woman. Or so she says. Nobody believes her (until Det. Perry actually listens). There’s Dorian, from the fish restaurant, who is the sad and angry mother of Lecia, who was killed by who-knows-who back in 1999. Now, somebody is poisoning hummingbirds and delivering them to her. There’s Kathy, who walks the streets to support her family and comes around to the back door of Dorian’s restaurant for free fried fish. There’s Julianna, also known as Jujubee, who has an artist’s soul and an artist’s eye but dances at the Fast Rabbit and goes into the back rooms with guys to make some extra cash. Next door to Julianna is Marella and her mom, Anneke. Marella is a performance artist who makes video installations and is drawn to and repulsed by violence. Her mom is pretty tightly wound.
Pochoda’s prose pulses with the reality of the streets; it has a strong sense of place. Her women are true, real, striving. And the crimes? Down to a man who is stirred to passion, hates the passion and pushes it away by killing that which tempts him. “These women,” he says. “Look at these women.” But behind the murderer, an even more audacious crime… the crime of silence. The woman who knows but doesn’t speak.
These Women is an intriguing mystery with a thread of police procedural. It is a strong, psychologically taut, and complex novel, and a compulsive page-turner. I find myself, once again, struggling with the ranking, as all the books have a lot to recommend them, and I could easily see any of them – except for Helen – as the recipient of this year’s Edgar. (Now watch, it’ll be Helen.) I’m going to put These Women at the top of the Literary Lunchbox ranking for two reasons: the deeply insightful focus on women characters, and my level of engagement while reading it.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel
- These Women, Ivy Pochoda
- Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Deepa Anappara
- The Distant Dead, Heather Young
- The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman
- Before She Was Helen, Caroline Cooney