Tag Archives: MWA Edgar

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

On to Smoke and Ashes – Final Edgar Nom

smoke

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)

 

Good Girl, Bad Girl: Mesmerizing Twisty Tale

good girl

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)

 

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