Tag Archives: MWA Edgar

Next up: Dodgers

dodgersBill Beverly’s debut novel, Dodgers, is a coming of age story.  It’s a road trip.  It’s a crime novel.  It’s a mission.  And ultimately, it’s a dodge.

Here’s the set-up:  There’s a gang in LA.  No surprise, they sell drugs and commit other crimes.  In fact, Fin, the head of their gang is likely to go to jail, but there’s a witness (a former judge) hiding out in Wisconsin that needs killing.

Four boys – ages 13 to 20 – are tasked with taking that road trip:  15-year-old East, his younger half-brother Ty, Walter, and Michael.  East spends most of his time “standing yard” in the Boxes, watching for trouble, refusing entry to some potential drug purchasers while letting others in, always on the lookout for cops.  It’s thought he’s related to Fin.  His younger brother Ty has a different dad, and he’s tough, maybe crazy, and already a killer.  Walter’s supposed to be the smart one, a hulking six-footer.  And then there’s Michael, a college boy, who can talk white, knows the landscape, and can help them fit in where four black guys  – even wearing Dodger t-shirts, caps and sweatshirt and driving a mini-van – will stand out.

They head out with strict instructions: keep your head down, wear your Dodger wear, no guns, no drugs, no credit cards, and the oldest – Michael – drive the car and holds most of the cash.  They are to head eastward, follow specific instructions to obtain a gun, kill the judge, and then come home.  Of course, it almost immediately begins to fall apart, and 2,000 miles later, they’ve thrown Michael out of the car, the judge is dead, East shot his own brother, Walter’s taking a plane home, and East is stranded in the midwest.  He hunkers down, making a life for himself as the jack of all trades at an Ohio paintball range, where the proprietor and his wife take him on in a quasi-familial relationship.  The sad part of this: paintball proprietor Perry is dying.  A call home to Walter reveals that Fin’s in jail,  and everything East has  known is changed.  He decides he’s  never coming home.

Of course, he does.  I won’t reveal the plot twist that brings him back, but I didn’t foresee it.  He has to head home. Because, of course, the boys’ journey to kill the judge was much like Dorothy and her friends’ mission to kill the wicked witch of the West:  just an assignment to keep them all busy.  Fin’s goal was to simply keep East safe.  It was a dodge – which Merriam defines as “a cunning trick or ploy to avoid something unpleasant.”  The boys may have been the Dodgers, but Fin pulled the strings.

Beverly is a fine writer, with a particular strength in description of people and places.  You almost smell the sweat of the boys in the hot car and see the wonder of the icy beauty of the midwestern landscape.  His description of the people, even minor characters, makes them real.  It’s worth the time to savor his writing.   It’s an unusual and haunting story, particularly given the ending, which I won’t give away here!

It’s tough to compare Dodgers to Under the Harrow.  They are very different books.  Under the Harrow is a personal story, emotional, raw in its feelings.  Dodgers comes across much more “literary,”  cooler in feel.  I enjoyed them both – but for the character detail, the complex plot, and let’s face it, the play on words that is the title, I’m giving the top spot to Bill Beverly’s Dodgers.

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

  1. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  2. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

So embarrassed…

Edgars

I was a wonder-blogger as we led up to the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards banquet.  This year, I read, reviewed, and ranked in three categories.  My calls:

And then I totally flaked out once the winners were announced.  And I haven’t reviewed a dang thing since then.   Life!  Go figure.

But for those who were anxiously awaiting, the alignment this year was less than perfect:  MWA and I agreed on just one out of three.

  • Best Novel went to Lori Roy’s fabulous Let Me Die in His Footsteps, which I ranked third.
  • Best First Novel went to The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen, which I ranked #2.
  • And it was “winner winner chicken dinner” because the actual judges gave the totally deserving Lou Berney the Edgar for The Long and Faraway Gone.

Berney’s book was the one that really resonated with me out of all the nominees this year. I ended up buying it several times, because I gave the darn thing as a gift to friends and relatives out of sheer enthusiasm.   My dad loved it but argued with the ending.  Here’s where you can get all the info on this year‘s nominees and winners.

I’ve been reviewing Edgar nominees since 2010.  That year was stellar:  I had 100% agreement, as both Literary Lunchbox and the MWA gave John Hart’s The Last Child and Stefanie Pintoff’s In the Shadow of Gotham awards.   In 2011, I sank to the depths at 0% (but I still think my calls were better).  In 2012, it was 50%.   MWA and Lunchbox agreed on Mo Hayder’s Gone, but I gave All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen the edge over Lori Roy’s winner, Bent Road.  2013 was tough, at another 0%… but I think everyone expected Gone Girl to triumph over Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night.  And Chris Pavone’s debut, The Ex-Pats, was awfully good.  In 2014, it was another 50% and I defer to MWA, Red Sparrow deserved its win, but we agreed with William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace.  And last year I totally called it with Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley as the best debut, although I figured Mo Hayder for a second win with Wolf, and Stephen King took the Edgar home for Mr. Mercedes.

At any rate, before I returned to the world of reading and reviewing, I felt that closure was necessary, Edgars-wise.  Thanks for reading.

Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew

knewThe third finalist for the MWA Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original is Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew.  It’s a compulsive page-turner of the “oh no, what more can go wrong” variety.

The book turns on a missing boy, eight-year-old Benedict Finch, who disappears one day from an area woodland where he, his mom, and their little dog Skittle often walk.  Told primarily from the point of view of his mother, Rachel, the story is also recounted from the perspective of Jim Clemo as well as that of Jim’s psychiatrist.   Although the time frame from Ben’s disappearance to the solving of the crime is about a week, the impact of everyone’s actions – including those closest to Ben, the police investigators, even the suspects – reverberates well into the future.

MacMillan does an excellent job of doling out information a bit at a time, ratcheting up the suspense, while switching from one perspective to another (a characteristic of Lou Berney’s nominated novel, as well).   The police follow one lead after another, many of which seem promising on the surface, but fail to pan out.  The police distrust of the mother leads to some significant mis-steps, and when it comes right down to it, Rachel is the only one who figures out what happened and takes action to save her son.

Ultimately, What She Knew is a fun psychological thriller with some aspirations to significance, an easy book to gulp down.  But I found it to be overcrowded with characters, all of whom had a carefully constructed psychological backstory which was eventually recounted.  I also could have done without the talky epilogue.

In terms of ranking, Berney’s book is clearly superior.  And comparing MacMillan to McAlpine, I’ll have to give Woman with a Blue Pencil the edge for mind-bending originality. Thus What She Knew comes in third at this point.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Paperback Original

  1. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
  2. Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine
  3. What She Knew by Gilly MacMillan

 

ps- As an MWA member, I got my invite for the Edgar Symposium and Awards Banquet… ah, if only…

New Category: Best Paperback Original

goneThis year, I’m adding a new category to my MWA Edgar process.   I’ll be reading, reviewing and ranking the nominees for Best Paperback Original. First up is Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone.

Picture a hot Oklahoma City summer. The year is 1986, and two teenagers are living their lives. 15-year-old Michael has his first summer job, as an usher at the local movie theater, and he’s loving it. He’s got friends, and even a girl. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Genevieve is struggling with substance abuse while she’s saddled with taking care of her 12-year-old sister, Julianna. Then tragedy strikes twice … and Michael is the lone survivor of a mass killing at the theater and Genevieve leaves Julianna on her own as dusk falls at a local fair… and is never seen again.

Twenty-six years later, both kids are grown up and still dealing with the impact of their tragic pasts. Michael’s family left town shortly after the killings, moving to San Diego, where he started using his middle name, Wyatt. He’s hopscotched across the country since then and is now a private investigator in Las Vegas. Julianna – now a nurse – remained in Oklahoma City, often hears her sister’s voice in her head, and is haunted by the mystery of her sister’s disappearance.

Berney tells both stories, Wyatt’s and Julianna’s, in the fall of 2012, with frequent loop-backs into the past as each of them recall that fateful summer of 1986.   Wyatt’s back in Oklahoma City because he took a case as a favor to a friend. He’s stuck trying to figure out who is harassing Candace Kilkenny, a former Vegas bartender who inherited The Landing Run (a bar and live music venue) from a customer. But Candace is a trooper, she has an amazing little girl, and Wyatt transitions pretty quickly from going through the motions to full-on commitment.   Not surprisingly, being back brings forth his feeling of guilt at being the only survivor and he can’t help poking the ashes of the previous crime in hopes of figuring out why.

In the meantime, Julianna learns that the man long suspected of killing her sister has surfaced after many years. She plots to find him and force him to tell her the truth.   Like Wyatt, she wonders why – why did Genevieve leave her? What happened to her?

The perspective transitions from one protagonist to another, and particularly fun for the reader are the scenes where Wyatt and Julianna interact. Wyatt is mugged and gets stitched up in Julianna’s Emergency Room, and we see this scene from one perspective, then the other. Berney doesn’t take obvious tack of bringing the protagonists together and merging the plots. He takes them separately, but both mysteries are solved in a similar way. Both Wyatt and Julianna gain new information that puts what they already knew into perspective, allowing them to put all the pieces together. In the same way, Wyatt gets to the bottom of the Candace Kilkenny case.

I’ve got to say “good luck” to the other nominees, because The Long and Faraway Gone is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  The plot is complex, but not unbelievably so, and Berney doesn’t cheat the reader. Pacing is excellent – Berney often switches from one POV to the other just as something we really want to learn is about to happen.

I’m a nut for good characterization.  And Berney’s characters are So! Amazingly! Real! (A nod to Candace, who has a habit of speaking with exclamation point when she is really sincere and wants to make! A! point!) Even minor characters are well-drawn. Violence, when it happens, is neither noir nor comic book. People in danger are really in danger, and you care about them.

Plus, there’s a lot of heart.   Both Wyatt and Julianna ache, but do the best they can anyway. What they learn in October 2012 helps heal the aches. You know they’ll remember, but now they can move on.

So, giant thumbs up for The Long and Faraway Gone. I gave a copy to a good friend for her birthday, gave my copy to my dad to read, bought a second copy for myself on Kindle and am currently forcing my husband to get it from the library.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings: Best Paperback Original

  1. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

Unbecoming Final Finalist for Edgar

Rebecca Schermunbecoming’s Unbecoming, like fellow nominee The Sympathizer, features a protagonist with two faces. As Julie, she is a young American from California who works as a restorer of art and objets d’art in Paris.   But her hidden identity is Grace from Tennessee, a poor girl with big aspirations, on the run from her husband and his best friend. The novel turns on a crime for which Grace is largely responsible.

Grace latched on to Riley Graham, a beautiful if somewhat unfocused boy from a well-to-do family in her home town of Garland. She became his girlfriend, but more importantly, she became his mother’s daughter – motherless herself, this is a strong inducement to maintain her relationship with Riley. They marry secretly just as she leaves for New York City, where she goes to school and gets a job at a gallery. Home again in Tennessee for the summer, she realizes that Riley and a couple of his friends are committed to robbing a local museum.   She robs it first and gets on a plane for Prague, where she learns that she has a lot to learn when it comes to crime.

It’s no surprise to hear that Riley and the guys botch the heist and are sentenced to prison. What is a surprise is that none of them try to blame her for their actions.

As Julie, Grace is taken advantage of by her shady employer, which gives her the little excuse she needs to indulge her desire for pretty baubles and ill-gotten gains.   When she’s finally found, the book takes a somewhat surprising twist.

Scherm writes a suspenseful novel and the pacing is good. She makes Grace’s story plausible.   However, I never truly believed that Grace was in any danger and I would have liked to see more of the bad girl side.   Perhaps Grace was becoming that bad girl, growing into her true self. But an edgier book would have been a stronger book.

In comparison to the other Edgar nominees, Unbecoming is more engaging than Past Crimes, but not as compelling as Where All Light Tends to Go. Bleak as it is, Joy’s book has a stronger narrative and gripping voice.

Final rankings – the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best First Novel goes to Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. It was an excellent competition and all the debut novels are well worth reading.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  3. Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  4. Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
  5. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

 

 

 

 

 

Super-Short Thumbs up for Steve Hamilton’s Die a Stranger

strangerMy life is currently very hectic, but I want to take two minutes to do a brief review that basically says, “Get Steve Hamilton’s Die a Stranger and read it!”

I discovered this author a few years ago, in the middle of his Alex McKnight series.  This gave me the opportunity to go back and read them in order.  They’ve always been well-written, meticulously plotted, and feature interesting and believable characters.  Die a Stranger is no exception; in fact, it’s a particularly compelling book.  One of my favorites in the series.  The last chapter is killer.

Hamilton has also written a number of other books – his standalone The Lock Artist received an MWA Edgar award for Best Novel in 2011; I thought it was creative and fun, but not my favorite.

I’m a little late to the Die a Stranger party… it came out in 2012.  The good news is that my delay means I don’t have long to wait until the next Alex McKnight book:  Let it Burn is scheduled for publication in July.

Friedman, Sears worthy nominees for Best First Novel

Youthful Daniel Friedman

Youthful Daniel Friedman

I’ve read two of the five nominees for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best First Novel award, and I’ve got to say, it is off to a promising start.  I began my reading with Don’t Ever Get Old, by Daniel Friedman.  The first line told me that I was in for a good time:

In retrospect, it would have been better if my wife had let me stay home to see Meet the Press instead of making me schlep across town to watch Jim Wallace die.

get oldThat’s the compelling and funny voice of 88-year old Baruch Schatz.  He’s better known as “Buck” Schatz.  And yes, it’s pronounced “buckshots.”   Buck does schlep over to visit with Jim on Jim’s deathbed, summoned to hear a final confession from his old Army buddy:  Jim took a bar of Nazi gold as payment to look the other way when SS Commandant Heinrich Ziegler escaped in 1944.  Jim’s counting on Buck’s hatred.. and his skills as a former Memphis detective… to find Ziegler and his gold.   Little does Buck know, but Jim was quite a deathbed chatterbox, and the word spreads, wreaking havoc.

Don’t Ever Get Old chronicles Buck’s journey to find the gold with the able assistance of his book-smart grandson, William Tecumseh Schatz.  College nickname:  Tequila Schatz, of course.  The journey is highly entertaining, filled with some appropriately audacious twists and turns, and leavened with the knowledge that Buck’s losing his memory.  But he’s plucky about it, and his notebook that’s filled with entries marked “Something I don’t want to forget” is a great way to provide backstory and character insight.  Of course, Buck and Tequila are successful, hauling around 200 lbs of gold bars in the dead of night.  (Of course, easy come, easy go.  They don’t get to keep them.)  Don’t Ever Get Old earned a solid 4-star, maybe even 5-star, rating from me.

sears

Michael Sears

The second book in the line-up is Michael Sears’ Black Fridays, a financial thriller.  Equally interesting protagonist:  Jason Stafford’s getting out of jail after a two-year stint for financial shenanigans as a Wall Street trader.  His plan is to reunite with his ex-wife (divorced only for the purpose of shielding assets) and son and figure out a way to make a living.  Flies in the ointment:  ex-wife is beautiful, but trashy, and wants to keep the money and jettison Jason.  She’s also jettisoned their 5-year-old autistic son, leaving him with her mother while she lives a party lifestyle.

black fridaJason’s hired by a company to look into the trades of a recently deceased trader, because something smells fishy.  It gets fishier, and Jason soon comes to believe that financial crimes are not the only crimes committed – he’s thinking murder.  The pressure mounts as he unravels who did what and why, all the while deciding what to share with the FBI and working hard to keep his kid safe while exploring a new romance.  As with Buck’s gold, Jason uncovers a secret stash of casino chips.  (He doesn’t get to keep those, either.)  It’s a worthy effort and reminiscent of John Grisham.

Ranking the two debut novels:  Both Sears and Friedman have a deft hand.  The plots, though twisty, are easy to follow.  I cared about the characters and thought the backstories of both were excellent and well-presented.  However:  Buck’s character is more fully-realized than Jason’s.  Jason is more of a concept – “white collar criminal with autistic son.”  Friedman also has the edge when it comes to plot.  It’s more compelling and hangs together better.  So while I’d recommend reading both, when it comes to giving out Edgars, I have to go with Don’t Ever Get Old.

mwa_logoMWA Edgar (Best First Novel) ranking so far:

  1. Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman
  2. Black Fridays by Michael Sears

An aside:  My manicure lady saw the Friedman book and thought it was nonfiction!  Ha!