Tag Archives: MWA

What Remains of Me? Not sure.

remainsWhat Remains of Me, Alison Gaylin’s novel of psychological suspense that has been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, is the latest in a number of books I’ve read where my first thought on finishing is “Why this title?”  It’s not written in the first person, so who is me?  The main character is Kelly Lund, and while she has a tough life and scary stuff happens to her, she is uniquely and wholly herself all the way through the entire book.  No remains.  Perhaps I am not deep enough. (I often think this.)

A better title for the book would have been, “Who Are You, Really?”   The characters’ motivations drive the plot, which is thoroughly twisty, sometimes scary, and occasionally sad.  And these motivations, which are revealed at various intervals throughout the book, often rely on ignorance of the real relationships between the characters, their well-kept secrets, and a certain degree of willful blindness.

But perhaps I’m confusing you.  Here’s the scoop:  In 1980, Kelly Lund was arrested as a teenager for murdering her friend Vince’s father, famous director John McFadden.  She admitted it, she shot him, she did the time, although she never said why.  Now it’s 2010, Kelly’s an adult in her late 40s, and married for the past 15 years to Shane Marshall, the younger brother of her former best friend, Bellamy, and the son of film director Sterling Marshall, McFadden’s best friend. They don’t have sex, though, and Shane doesn’t really know why and we’re not sure about Kelly.  Maybe it’s because she’s fooling around with a hot neighbor who makes giant sculptures out of wood, who reminds her strongly of the boy she loved back in the day?  Or maybe it’s even him?

But then Sterling Marshall dies.  Just like John McFadden did – two in the head and one in the heart.  Suspicion falls on Kelly, and it seems like she probably did it, because she came home from a middle-of-the-night drive and put bloody clothes into the washing machine.

The book shifts back and forth between 1980 and 2010.  In 1980, Kelly has a controlling and hardworking mother, a dead twin sister, and a stuntman father she doesn’t see much.  (The dad is heartbreaking, he’s such a good but ruined man.)  She also has new, privileged Hollywood friends who introduce her to alcohol, drugs, sex, and general making a mess of her life.

In 2010, Kelly is under suspicion for Sterling’s death, Bellamy hates her and always has, despite having made it as an artist by exploiting Kelly, Shane still loves her but is confused, and her mother-in-law should be awful, but is actually kind of nice when she isn’t high.

By the end of the unfolding of the intertwined tales, the reader knows

— SPOILER ALERT STOP HERE DANGER 

that Kelly and Shane are half-siblings, that Kelly didn’t kill Sterling but she did kill McFadden, that Bellamy might adore her father, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t kill him to keep him from leaving any part of his estate to his other daughter, Kelly, that Kelly’s mom has been living in a commune for decades with Kelly’s cowardly friend Vince, that the guy she is in love with and imagined was Vince is actually the boy who sat behind her in homeroom and threw spitballs her way to torment her.

Does it all hang together?  Absolutely.   Does Gaylin keep those pages turning?  No doubt. Is it all a glorious soap opera?  Yes, and if it were a movie, half the people in the theater would be asking the friend next to them to explain it to them.   My problem is that the ludicrous plot would come undone if almost anyone would ask a question or tell the truth.    

What Remains of Me is like Pringle’s.  Not really potato chips, but you keep munching away anyway, feeling slightly sick but unable to stop yourself.  Gaylin is a best-selling author and her debut novel, Hide Your Eyes, got an Edgar nom in 2006.  Her Stay With Me was nominated for Best Paperback Original in 2015.  So I am just going to chalk this up to differing tastes, while putting the book firmly at the bottom of the ranking.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  4. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin
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I’m in trouble with Jane Steele

steeleLyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele is a genre-bending page-turner that’s winning accolades from critics and on Amazon.  This is Faye’s second turn at bat for the Best Novel award (her first being The Gods of Gotham, also a historical mystery).   Still, she lost out that year to Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night, another historical.

Thus the question  – could an homage to classic novel Jane Eyre win a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel?  – seems to be answered in a strong affirmative.

Cosmo’s blurb on the cover says the novel is a mash-up of Jane Eyre and tortured serial killer Dexter.  This is certainly true from Jane’s perspective.  She sees a parallel between herself and Bronte’s heroine – both had difficult upbringings, were orphaned, and became governesses.  But Jane Steele is made of sterner stuff than Bronte’s Jane, taking things into her own hands when she faces injustice.  With her first murder – a strong push that results in the death of her cousin, who had been tormenting her – she sees herself as morally corrupt and irredeemable, unworthy of the happiness she seeks.  Although she has always been told that Highgate House will be hers one day, she agrees to be cast off after her mother’s death, attending a sadist-run school, where she manages to make friends.  Her second murder occurs here, and she and her young friend are soon on the run, making ends meet as best they can, and encountering the occasion for murders #3 and #4.  (Rest assured the deceased deserved their fates.)

Separating from her friend, she finds the opportunity to return to her childhood home under a false name (Jane Stone) as the governess for Sahjara, a young girl of Caucasian-Indian heritage.  It is here that Jane falls in love, as did the other Jane, with the lord of the manor (Mr. Thornfield).  Only instead of a secret wife in the attic, Thornfield is a physician with a secret morgue in the basement.  Sahjara is the orphaned daughter of the love of Thornfield’s life who happens to be his best friend’s sister, by a ne’er-do-well Englishman.  Thornfield is paying a deep, self-imposed penance for his misplaced guilt in failing to keep Sahjara’s mother safe.

There are mysteries aplenty at Highgate House, where they are assailed by villains at every turn seeking Sahjara’s mother’s jewels (thus murder #5)..  As far as Thornfield and his friend Sardar Singh know, those jewels are long gone, so their options for a peaceful life are limited.  Add in the tortured love story – Jane and Charles are in love, but will never be together due to his penitent vow – and Jane is left with naught to do but get to the bottom of the mystery, find the jewels, and vanquish the bad guys.  Which she does, in a thorough manner, with some unlikely allies.   And I did not for a moment see the underlying betrayal until it was revealed by the author.  Good going, Lyndsay Faye.

The book has it all – suspense, intrigue, romance, a compellingly likable heroine, and a twist of snark.  Jane Steele is just the kind of book that I might not read, but that would have been a mistake.  I’m in real trouble here – it’s tough to compare Jane Steele to Reed Farrell Coleman’s Where It Hurts, which I loved, because they are so different in type.  However, I’ve got to say that Lyndsey Faye set herself a tougher job, and accomplished it quite thoroughly.  Her book is a singular experience.  As a result, Jane Steele is taking the top spot in the LL Edgar ranking for Best Novel.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. The Ex by Alafair Burke

 

Lost Girls Last Up, Takes LL Edgar

lostYep, I called it.  I read and reviewed Heather Young’s The Lost Girls when it come out last year, and prophesied that it would receive an Edgar nom for Best First Novel.  And indeed it did.

When I reread a book for the Edgars, it’s a different kind of reading.  It’s not just getting swept along by the story and connecting with the characters, I read for craft… how does the author put the story together, show the characters, manage the pace, reveal the secrets while maintaining the suspense?  And the ending – is it satisfying, or does it just stop?  (Or is it a set-up for the next book?  Augh.)  When it comes to these factors, Heather Young has done a fantastic job.  

The Lost Girls is two stories, one in the past and one in the present, intertwined, and connected through a single family.

It all begins in 1935 at the summer house of a seemingly happy and well-to-do family.  The father owns a pharmacy and is very religious.  There are three girls. Lilith, the wild one, is 13. Lucy, the quiet middle sister, is two years younger. And the baby of the family, the cosseted Emily who rarely leaves her mother’s side, is six.  And then one day, Emily vanishes. No trace of her is ever found, and the father kills himself just a few months later.  Lilith, Lucy, and Eleanor, their mother, live together, year-round, in the house by the lake.  There are lifelong secrets kept, not to be revealed until Lucy, nearing the end of her life, decides to recount the story of that summer and the years since then in a notebook she leaves for her grand-niece, Justine, whom she hasn’t seen in over 20 years.

Meanwhile, in the present.  Justine is gobsmacked to hear from a lawyer that her great aunt Lucy has died and she is her heir.  There is a house and money, but more than that – it’s the chance for a new beginning.  Justine had a bad marriage and is making a worse mistake with her controlling, live-in boyfriend, Patrick.  So she packs their bags, loads the girls in the car, and leaves her apartment key and a note that tells Patrick that there is spaghetti in the refrigerator, and takes her last bit of cash and drives cross-country.  No credit cards, no cell phone – she simply does not want to be found.

A lot happens on the four-day trip and once gets there, she finds that the house is not in good shape, it’s scary cold, and Melanie, her older daughter, is sullen and resentful. And always there is the specter of Patrick.  Justine works hard to make a life for herself and her girls, and slowly she is succeeding.  She discovers the handwritten books that Lucy penned about her little sister Emily.  Among them is Lucy’s story for Justine, although she doesn’t find it – Melanie does.   They settle in and just when things seem to be going well, Patrick arrives, and with him, Justine’s crushing fear that she will give in and give up.

Rereading  makes it clear that Heather Young is a skillful first-time author.  Each story carries its own weight.  Justine’s love for her daughters, her insight into her own weakness, her awakening courage and the strength to stand up to the manipulative Patrick – even when he goes so far as to set their house on fire so he can become, once again, Justine’s “savior,” is painfully true.  Her small triumph is deeply personal and fulfilling.

And Lucy tells a story of her own awakening to the hidden depths and twisted relationships in her own family.  Over that one summer, she comes to realize what all in her family know but don’t say – that her father is sexually obsessed with Lilith’s purity, and that once she is sullied, he will move on to Lucy.  And then to Emily.  And it is his obsession, and how it affects all three girls and their mother that summer, that results in Emily’s death, his death, and a drastically diminished life for the women.  As she nears the end of her life, Lucy regrets her own part in the story and the choices she made.  Young makes Lucy’s story – told in her own voice – compelling and real, and by recounting it chronologically, keeps us in suspense.

it’s clear that The Lost Girls deserves a spot at the top of the Literary Lunchbox Edgar rankings.   Well-plotted, psychologically complex, optimistic and humane, it is a level above the other  nominees, although they are all deserving of the nomination!

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

  1. The Lost Girls by Heather Young
  2. IQ by Joe Ide
  3. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  4. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  5. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
  6. Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

Nick Petrie’s Drifter – Reacher-esque?

drifter“Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal.”   That’s the blurb from Lee Child on Nick Petrie’s debut mystery, The Drifter.  I try not to go into a book with preconceived notions, but once read, that blurb tends to influence your perceptions.  And Ash does have his similarities to Reacher.  Like Reacher, Ash has served in the military, is on the road and has few ties.  He’s also single-minded and a handy guy to have on your side in a fight.   They both have a strong sense of loyalty and their own definitions of right and wrong. And I’m a big Reacher fan, so this is setting the bar high.

The Drifter starts with a prologue – who is this man in the black canvas chore coat driving around in a pick-up truck with false id, buying fertilizer?  We don’t know, but by the end of the book, we get to know this guy, his profession and his unusual code of honor that results in his partnering with Ash to foil a terrorist plot  at the last minute.   So, while I usually an not a prologue fan, I give this one a thumbs up because it builds suspense and is integral to the plot.

In the meantime, Ash is on his belly, crawling in the dirt under Dinah Johnson’s porch and trying to figure out a way to overpower a 140-lb. pitbull mix that’s dead-set against coming out, without getting maimed.  His solution is clever and humane, and once he’s subdued the dog and tied it to a tree, his next action is to give it water from his own water bottle.  “Dog’s thirsty,” he explains to Charlie Johnson, Dinah’s son.

And thus, in the first chapter, we know a lot about Peter Ash.  We also know a lot about Nick Petrie – he knows how to set the stage, reveal character, and build suspense.  Over the subsequent chapters, we find out why Ash is there – to atone for not being there for his Marine buddy, Sgt. Jimmy Johnson, who committed suicide the month before, leaving behind a widow (ER nurse Dinah) and two boys (Charlie and Miles).  His pretext – doing “what needs to be done” as part of a VA program, which results in his offer to rebuild the Washington’s falling down porch.  His baggage – he is suffering from PTSD and can only stand to be indoors for short periods of time.

Of course, the straightforward narrative becomes  complicated almost immediately, when Ash discovers the dog was guarding a suitcase containing $400,000 and four packs  of C4 explosive under that porch.  A hard-looking case with a gun and a black SUV is lurking about.  And Dinah turns out to have resources of her own, in the form of a long-time tie to a smooth, smart and strong local crime lord named Lewis.

Ash’s unraveling the connections that lead to a hedge fund and its Machiavellian owner is a complex but gripping process.  The plot?  To blow up a bank, throw the markets into unrest, and make a fortune. Along the way, Ash discovers the truth about his friend Jimmy, builds a strong bond with Jimmy’s dog Mingus, and learns how good people can be twisted to do bad things.  In the end, good guys turn out to be bad guys, bad guys turn good, and the day is saved following a super-scary chase scene.

The Drifter is a classic thriller, and Petrie worked hard to lift it a bit above through character complexity.  He has varying success with that – the emphasis on the psychic impact of combat can be seen as exploitative, and the upright nurse, crime lord with a sensitive side, callous hedge fund owner, and crooked cop are pretty formulaic.  But it all hangs together quite well and the Ash character is compelling, so all told, it’s a very strong debut and I look forward to more from Petrie.

It’s a tough call where to place it on the rankings.  Each of the four books are so different, with Under the Harrow falling in suspense, Dodgers in literary, IQ detective and Drifter thriller.  After careful consideration, I’m going to place it #2.  As a sheer page-turner, it’s a good one, but not quite up to IQ.  But I have to say, I’d recommend all four of these books – this is a great crop of debut novels and I’m eager to see how the last two stack up!

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

  1. IQ by Joe Ide
  2. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  3. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  4. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

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.

bestfirst

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