Tag Archives: MWA

Next Up: Joe Ide’s IQ

IQSo, what are the odds?  Like Dodgers, the third book nominated  for the MWA Edgar for Best First Novel has an inner city, drug dealing-slash-thieving setting.  It also is a coming-of-age story, as a young man grows into adulthood.  But IQ, Joe Ide’s debut novel, is also funny and jam-packed with a cast of characters that is made for the big screen.  It’s a trip in itself, but it also calls out for a sequel.  Good news – Entertainment Weekly says Ide now has a four-book deal!

Here’s the deal:  teenage Isaiah Quintabe lives with his older brother Marcus.  Marcus is smart, focused, gives good advice, and can build anything, repair anything, in fact, do just about anything with his hands.  Marcus clearly could have done more with his life, but he’s found his groove, just raising his brother to be a good man, to go to college, to have a future.  And it’s working out great, because Isaiah is smart, thoughtful and an all-around good kid.  And did I mention he was seriously smart?  And so all is well until one day, when Isaiah and Marcus are just walking down the street, a car speeds around the corner and Marcus flies into the air.  And just like that, Isaiah is left alone.

Of course, he falls apart. And he also beats himself up.  Because he was right there, and saw nothing.  Whoever killed Marcus is going to get away with it.  So he starts to dig.  And as he gets a clue, and spends hours, each day, just sitting and looking for a particular car.  And he uses that time to train his observation skills.

Flash forward eight years and Isaiah’s still in the neighborhood, but now in demand as a detective and all-around problem-solver.  Juanell Dodson, roommate, former classmate, and all around smartass with pretentions, has hooked him up with Calvin Wright, a rapper and potential murder victim.   Between Cal and Dodson, there is plenty of outsize ego and crazy behavior to go around, especially since Cal is having a bit of a crisis.  It’s like writer’s block for rappers, and he can’t cure it with pills, booze, or food.   Isaiah’s job is to keep Cal alive while he figures out who’s behind the plot.  Cui bono?  Good question.

This is an amazing debut novel, and Isaiah is a character that demands serialization.   In fact, pluck almost any of this rich and funny novel’s characters  out for scrutiny:  they hold up.  The self-absorbed Deronda, who believes she deserves stardom because of the size of her booty.  Magnus Westerveld, who created a new self in Skip Hanson, and bred a pit bull the size of a Volkswagen.  Dodson, partner and devil.  Flaco, Isaiah’s penance in human form, and so much more.

However, characters alone do not make a great detective novel.  For that, you need plot.  And there is plot in abundance.  Inventive, believable, and hair-raising plot; Ide weaves present day and past, accommodating various sub-plots that add complexity and hilarity to great effect.  And the end – when Isaiah finds the car that killed his brother? – great set-up for book #2.

Dodgers was heart-tugging and well-worth reading.  IQ is that and more.  It takes the top spot in the LL Edgar ranking.

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  3. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

On to Best First Novel: Under the Harrow

edgarAt last week’s Academy Awards, several Oscar winners talked about how much it was an honor just to be nominated in their categories, and gave props to their fellow nominees.  For the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards, it is truly an honor to make the final shortlist.  I don’t know how many books are actually put forward for consideration, but it must be hundreds, and to have a book nominated in the Best First Author category is not only a fabulous acknowledgement of talent, but can be a career-maker.

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This year’s nominees are a really diverse bunch, and include:

  • Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry – a whodunit wherein the protagonist learns unsettling information about her murdered sister
  • Dodgers, by Bill Beverly – California gangbangers set out for the heartland to murder a witness in a court case
  • IQ by Joe Ide – bright young LA high school dropout takes on investigations in the ‘hood
  • The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie – featuring a protagonist that Lee Child agrees is similar to Jack Reacher (!)
  • Dancing with the Tiger by Lili White – a literary thriller that centers on the chase for Montezuma’s purloined death mask
  • The Lost Girls by Heather  Young – a suspenseful family novel about three sisters, one of whom disappears, set in part in 1935

Oddly, I had already read three of the six – usually my familiarity with new mystery nominees is pretty low, because there are just so many to choose from and not all get much promotion.  Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow is one that I had already read, having snagged it when it came out from my local library.  At the time, my reaction was A) astonishment and B) envy.  (Yes, I’ve got 2-1/2 books and an array of short stories to my credit, and when I see a debut novel that’s impressive, I’m like dang! that’s how it’s done!  Sigh.)

Main character Nora is a bookish 30-year-old Londoner who is close with her sister Rachel, a nurse who lives in the country with her German Shepherd, Fenno.  They women share a key experience:  the hunt for the man who assaulted the 16-year-old Rachel as she walked home alone from a party (they’d quarreled and Nora stayed behind).  The man is never found, and the episode is a shadow on their lives.

When Nora comes for a visit and Rachel isn’t there to greet her at the train, worry starts.  And when Nora opens the doorway to her sister’s cozy house to find Rachel viciously stabbed to death and Fenno hanging by his leash from the stairway bannister, her whole world is rocked.  Could the assailant from the past have done this?  If not, who?  Her sister mentioned a man named Martin, but Nora can’t find a man with this name in Rachel’s life.

Nora becomes obsessed with solving the murder, insinuating herself into the police investigation and finding clues in advance of the detective… ending up as a suspect herself.

Nora’s investigation reveals a great deal that she did not know about Rachel, her daily life in the small village, her work at the local hospital, and the secrets she kept from her sister.  She suspects an affair between Rachel and a local plumber and becomes convinced that he is guilty, stalking him openly, and accusing him to his wife, who finds the evidence and turns it over to the police.  But there is something else, and someone else, that underlies Rachel’s murder… something that Nora knows but doesn’t connect all the dots.  She learns the truth, confronts the murderer, yearns for vengeance, and walks away… sirens in the background.  Woo.

Compelling characters and backstory, twisty plot, major suspense, switch-up resolution without cheating, and a lot of heart – Flynn Berry’s debut  has set a high bar for the other nominees.  As the first reviewed, Under the Harrow starts with the top spot in the ranking.

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

  1. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

 

Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs up next

raindogsSo, Adrian McKinty is quite thrilled with his Edgar nom for the second year in a row in the Best Original Paperback category.  Last year’s nominees included his Gun Street Girl, which lost out by MWA and Literary Lunchbox-wise to Lou Berney’s Long and Far Away Gone.  That being said, I really liked Gun Street Girl.  And he has a pretty darn good shot at the Edgar this year for Rain Dogs.

The book is the fifth in the Detective Sean Duffy series.  Duffy’s an Irish police detective (Carrickfergus CID) in late-1980s Ireland.  He got to work security detail on Muhammed Ali’s visit to Belfast (good stuff), but his younger girlfriend’s moving out, he has to look under his car before he gets into it to make sure he’s not about to be blown up (those mercury bombs, one slip-up and you’re history), and his inept boss can’t even unravel a who-lifted-the-Finnish-big-shot’s wallet case (solution: one of his own traveling companions).  On the plus side, he has a great team in Sgt. “Crabbie” McCrabban and DC Alexander Lawson.

One of the thing I love about the Duffy series is the tone – it’s written in the first person, and Duffy is a great character.   He’s smart, capable, funny, wry, and eminently human.  Bad stuff, scary stuff happens, and he handles it, but there’s not a hint of noir bleakness.  (Not that I don’t also love noir!)

And the “misplaced” wallet cracks open a doorway into a much darker and complicated crime.  The Finnish entourage include Mr. Laakso – a very big deal in Finland – and his colleague Mr. Ek, the twin nephews of the company owner, Nicolas and Stefan Lennatin, as well as reporter Lily Bigelow, on the scene to cover the visit, and Duffy’s former colleague Tony McIlroy, providing security.  The Finns are there ostensibly to evaluate the  location as a potential site for a mobile phone factory.

While in town, the group heads for the one real tourist destination, Carrickfergus Castle.  And the next morning, Lily Bigelow’s body is found at the castle, an apparent suicide.  Duffy has strong doubts about the suicide, but can’t figure out how she could have been murdered, because there is no way the murderer would not have been discovered along with the body.  It’s a locked room mystery of the highest order.  And it’s the second locked room mystery that Duffy’s faced in his career.  Hmmm, what are the odds?

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Lily did not kill herself.  But why she was killed, what she was looking into, and how Duffy, Lawson and McCrabban figure it all out is a great read.  It’s especially frustrating, once the truth is revealed, to see Mr. Ek slip out of Duffy’s clutches, and then particularly satisfying to learn how justice is served, quietly and without fanfare.

I understand that McKinty originally planned for the Duffy series to be a trilogy, and especially with this fifth book, how wonderful it is that he kept going!  He is an assured writer, the book is well-plotted, the characters and camaraderie a plus, and the emotional connection growing.  The break-up subplot has a twist at the end the ensures a new phase of life for Sean Duffy in book #6, which I anticipate eagerly – it’s out March 7 and titled Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.

Compared to the other books nominated, Rain Dogs is just the work of a more mature and well-developed author.  It’s the whole package and takes the top spot in the Literary Lunchbox Edgar ranking!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Original Paperback

  1. Rain Dogs – Adrian McKinty
  2. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  3. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  4. Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
  5. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott

Ellie Stone series entry gets Edgar nom

stoneFourth up in the Best Original Paperback category of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar awards is James W. Siskin’s Heart of Stone.  Set in 1961, the series features a young Jewish reporter, Eleonora (Ellie) Stone.  Ellie’s summer holiday with her family in the Adirondacks is interrupted when local sheriff Ralph Terwilliger asks her to photograph two dead bodies nearby.  To all appearances, a teenage boy from an area summer camp and an unknown man of 30 or so both tried to dive off Baxter’s Rock (a good 75 feet above the water), misjudged the jump and died on the rocks below.  Terrible accident?  Or something more sinister? 

While Ellie marvels at the crass ineptitude of the sheriff, she also has the opportunity to renew her acquaintance with Isaac Eisenstadt.  He’s charming, smart, and good-looking, even if he does have a way of assuming that Ellie not as intelligent or cultured as he is.  Isaac’s one of the group at the Arcadia Lodge, a Jewish intellectual community where political discourse and musical performance is accompanied by heavy drinking and lots of sleeping around.  Ellie proves herself a worthy companion for the group, even though Isaac seems more interested in her sexually than in her intellect.

Back to the bodies:  The boy is quickly identified and Ellie learns that he had seen his girlfriend early that morning and was on his way back to camp after their assignation (a little Romeo and Juliet-ish, as he was at a Jewish summer camp and she is the daughter of the local pastor).  The man takes a little longer, but he turns out to be Karl Marx Merkleson, a boyhood friend of the Arcadia Lodge group, who converted to Christianity, changed his name, and became a rich California film producer.

What ties the boy and the man together?  What happened atop that rocky outcropping?  Along the way to discovering the answer, Ellie becomes deeply embroiled in the interpersonal relationships of the Arcadia Lodge group, learning their secrets – some banal, some distasteful and one heartbreaking.  There are plenty of red herrings along the way, although the astute reader may divine the answer earlier than the author expects.  (The relevant clue was not sufficiently buried.)

There’s a lot of Jewish intellectual social milieu in Heart of Stone, and I can only assume it’s accurate – here’s an interview I found online that expounds upon that a bit.  Overall it’s an entertaining read and I’m likely to go back to the beginning and read the three earlier books in the series.

It’s pretty interesting that at least three of the four books so far in this category are set in the pastA Brilliant Death in 1963, The 7th Canon in 1987, Heart of Stone in 1961.  Even Shot in Detroit, while published just last year, is set in 2007.   Overall, while Ellie Stone is a bright and likable main character, I found Siskin’s Heart of Stone to be less compelling than the Yocum and Dugoni books – so it takes the #3 ranking, while Shot in Detroit keeps its spot at the bottom.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Original Paperback

  1. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  2. The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  3. Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
  4. Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott

 

 

Abbott and Yocum: Both new to me

The first two books I’m reading, reviewing and ranking for the Literary Lunchbox Best Paperback Original Edgar are Patricia Abbott’s Shot in Detroit and A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum.

Yocum’s got great credentials:  he’s a former crime and investigative reporter, winner of more than 30 awards for journalism, and the author of several previous novels, one of which was USA Today’s 2011 book of the year for mystery/suspense.  On the other hand, Abbott has published 65 short stories, has won the Deringer award, and is the mother of Edgar award winner Megan Abbott.  I expected a pretty tight race between the two.

I’ll go ahead and cut the suspense:  Yocum crushed it.

shot-in-detroitShot in Detroit has a great concept:  Late-30s, single white female photographer is living on the edge and looking for her artistic edge when her African-American boyfriend calls to ask her to photograph one of his corpses.  (It’s okay because his a mortician and the family is requesting it.)   Voila!  An artistic hook.  Plus, she really gets into portraying the dark variety of death.  But there’s no central crime, no mystery to be solved, and when photographer Violet Hart photographs her own boyfriend’s crushed corpse, it’s jump the shark time.  This is a book that could have been so much more.  Best part:  a real understanding of Detroit and its neighborhoods.

brilliantMeanwhile, Robin Yocum’s A Brilliant Death is reminiscent of John Hart’s Down River (although not as dark).  Mitch Malone, the narrator, promises to relate a story that he has kept a secret until the death of his best friend’s father… the story of how he and that friend, Travis Baron, investigated the disappearance (and as becomes evident, the murder) of Travis’ mother.  How their graduation night took a tragic turn.  And how ultimately, justice prevailed.  The book is suspenseful, well-plotted, characters compelling and believable (both heroes and villains), and the writing first-rate.

A Brilliant Death takes the top spot.

Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Original Paperback

  1. A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  2. Shot in Detroit – Patricia Abbott

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Kerr Again Nominated for Best Novel

zagrebShades of 2012!  Philip Kerr is up again for an MWA Edgar Award for Best Novel for a Bernie Gunther historical crime novel.  This year’s entry is The Lady from Zagreb.  In 2012, it was Field Gray.   He didn’t win in 2012 – the award went to Mo Hayder’s Gone, which I adored – and I had ranked Field Gray fourth on my list.  Click here to read that review.

If you’ve clicked, you know that I struggled mightily with that book.  This one has many of the same issues, but I went into it bound and determined to give it a good shot. It’s set mostly in 1942/43, although the book opens in 1956 with Bernie in a movie theater, watching a film featuring the lovely Dalia Dresner.  This leads him in a reverie, remembering his time together with the movie star.

How did Bernie Gunther, the reluctant Nazi, get hooked up with Dalia Dresner, who was even more fantastic than Hedy Lamarr? It’s a long story.  Very long, given the side trips that Bernie has to traverse to tell it.

Here’s a quick overview:  Bernie is tapped to give a speech at an international police conference at the Villa Minoux. Attorney Heinrich Heckholz wants Bernie to to snoop around while he’s there,  to find some evidence he needs to help Lilly Minoux, who used to own the house, get it back (complicated story).  Bernie’s game.  He finds tons of info, but nothing helpful to Minoux.  When he goes to report, he finds Heckholz is beaten to death with a bust of Hitler in his office. This is treated as black humor.

Fast forward a year.  Joseph Goebbels asks Bernie to help movie star Dalia Dresner locate her estranged father. Goebbels, who is in charge of the German Film Industry, has it bad for Dalia.  Dalia’s married, uninterested in Goebbels romantically, but willing to let him help her.  Sure enough, Bernie is besotted by Dalia and would do almost anything to help her, include traveling to Yugoslavia to find her father.  We get the hint that he might not be the nicest guy.  In exchange for a great car to drive to Yugoslavia in, Bernie also runs an errand for General Schallenberg.

Along the way, Bernie witnesses some horrific cruelties, mass murders that makes the concentration camp gas chambers look humane.  He finds Dalia’s dad, and the man is a monster.  He gets kidnapped and almost tortured by American spies, but gets saved by the Gestapo, who also want to murder him.  Fortunately, they want to get him drunk and throw him off a cliff, and thanks to the highly flammable nature of the drink and the bad guy’s naiveté regarding a final cigarette, Bernie prevails.

Back in Germany, he and Goebbels agree to lie to Dalia.  But of course Daddy dearest comes looking for her, and when he does, he gets a big surprise.  As does Bernie.  Being endowed with great insight,  Bernie deduces the truth.  He figures out a way to save the day, but it requires him to give up Dalia, the love of his life, or at least, his loins.

As I noted in 2012, Kerr has a wonderful way with words.  His convoluted plot, if presented in a straightforward manner, would be dark, depressing, dour…  Fortunately, he has given Bernie a wry sense of humor and the dialogue is often surprisingly breezy.   And as I also admitted, I am not a very good historian.  I do poorly when it comes to the yellow pie slices in Trivial Pursuit.  So I am always distracted by trying to figure out which characters are real and which are not, and if the real ones were really like that, or if Kerr is taking liberties.  I’m pretty sure nobody talked like Kerr makes them talk.  Anyway, the author’s note at the end is very helpful in clearing up details like that.

What did I think this time around?  I definitely liked it way more than Field Gray.  I like the Bernie Gunther character and the plot was much more constrained (although still filled with what-the-heck? moments).  And there’s a final twist that I definitely did not see coming, so props to Kerr for that.

Comparatively speaking, I definitely preferred Lori Roy’s novel Let Me Die in His Footsteps, which has an equally surprising plot twist but is much more character-driven.  Does Lady have an edge over Life or Death?  Not quite, the stakes are much higher for Audie Palmer.  You never really think that Bernie’s in any danger, and you don’t really care about any of the other characters.  And I really was surprised by how much I liked The Strangler Vine.  So here it goes to the #4 spot, where Kerr was last time.  

Note – not sure what is up with the sheer number of not-set-in-the-present nominees.  So far only Life or Death has been set in present day, the other three are all historical!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

  1. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  2. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  3. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  4. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

The Strangler Vine: Best Novel Nominee

stranglerEntering the fray for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel is M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine.  I admit that I was less than enthusiastic when I started this book – historical!  (groan) – India!  (double groan).  But Carter has won me over.

The book starts with a prologue- rarely a good beginning, in my opinion – of a man returning to his lodgings.  It’s June, 1837, and he watches from the shadows as intruders ransack his home, then ring the neck of his monkey.  Who is this guy? What’s going on?  And why am I sad about the darn monkey?   I don’t even know him.

Jump forward to September and we’re in first person.  William Avery is a none-too-lucky young officer, stuck in India, and volunteered by his pal Frank McPherson to pay a call upon Jeremiah Blake, carrying a message from the Company.  Blake’s a former special agent gone native following the death of his Indian bride and their son in childbirth.  As Avery is all spit and polish, he is appalled by the filthy and scabrous Blake.

Little does he know that within 50 pages or so he will be developing a great admiration for Blake’s abilities, as they set off together cross country on a quest to locate author Xavier Mountstuart.  Mountstuart is conducting research for a book on the Indian band called the Thugs, a religious sect who murdered in the name of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Blake and Avery are accompanied by three native men, one of whom, Mir Aziz, becomes a mentor to Avery.

The book is, without a doubt, a great adventure story.  How will they overcome all the obstacles in their way?  Will they find Mountstuart, and if so, alive or dead?   But it is also a spy novel, where all is not as it is appears.  In fact, there are secrets layered upon secrets.  And indeed, the Thuggee are not to blame for all the unrest in India, for as with any good political thriller writer knows, nothing allows fascism to grow more quickly than a fearsome, common enemy.  And there is nothing more heart-rending than betrayal by a double agent counted a friend.  The Strangler Vine in question is the authoritarian British company, squeezing the life out of the Indian culture.

As I mentioned, Carter made a believer out of me, drawing me in to the story and keeping the pages turning.  Lt. Avery grows up, from callow youth to mature man, over the course of his adventure, showing remarkable fortitude and skill when tested.  He does not triumph so much as eke the good out of a bad situation.

How does The Strangler Vine compare to Robotham’s Life or Death?  It’s like comparing cake and pie – totally a matter of taste, as both are at the top of their game.   As a cake woman, I have to give the edge to Life or Death, but I admire the pie and would totally eat more of it.

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Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Novel

  1. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  2. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter