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Edgar starts NOW!

edgarEvery year, I read, review, and rank the MWA Edgar finalists in 2-3 categories, and overall, about half the time the Literary Lunchbox pick for the Edgar and the actual winner line up.  Some years, I miss them all.  One year, I batted .1000.  But given that there are 5-6 entries in each category, I do okay.  It helps that I’m not trying to forecast the winner, I’m just telling you who would win if LL was in charge of the award program.  So I can always think that MWA got it wrong!

This year, I’m going to start with the Best Paperback Original category, because that’s where I found my favorite Edgar book from last year, Lou Berney’s Long and Faraway Gone.  It won.  (Also the Macavity, Anthony and Barry awards!)

shot

Here’s this year’s line up!

  • Shot in Detroit – Patricia Abbott
  • Come Twilight – Tyler Dilts
  • The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
  • Rain Dogs – Adrian McKinty
  • A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
  • Heart of Stone – James W. Siskin

Only Robert Dugoni and Adrian McKinty are familiar to me, and frankly, McKinty’s book is the one to beat from my perspective.  He’s a seasoned author, Rain Dogs is an entry in a popular series featuring Irish detective Sean Duffy, and as it happens, I already read it and loved it.  But I try to wipe that all from my mind and read for more than sheer enjoyment during Edgar time.

Once Best Original Paperback is done, I expect to go through Best First Novel by an American Author and finish up with Best Novel.  This year’s banquet is on April 27, so that gives me three months to get through them all.  Generally I manage to squeak by, time-wise.

My good friend and writing buddy Addy Whitehouse will also be reviewing this year – you can find her here.  She uses a different system – a 1-10 rating – so theoretically she could end up with a tie!  Occasionally I love something she hates, and vice versa.  Thus proving there is something out there for everyone…

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

Robotham Edgar nominee – Best Novel

life or deathI am an eager Michael Robotham reader.  In fact, he has a new book out TODAY, his latest in his clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin series,  and I have it sitting on my kitchen table right this minute.  That should tell you that when it comes to his Edgar-nominated novel, Life or Death, I had to read it for the second time in order to review it and rank it in the Literary Lunchbox countdown to the April 28 Edgar awards.

Reading a book for fun, or even fun and a quick review, is a pretty light-hearted affair.  Reading a book for the Lit Lunchbox Edgars is more complicated, involving colored markers and little sticky flags.  It’s very upsetting to forget a minor character’s name or be searching through the pages to find the perfect example of the point your trying to make.  I liked the book the first time.  On second reading, Life or Death definitely holds up.  Totally nomination – worthy.

The book opens with a prison escape. Okay, you don’t really know it’s a prison escape, but that’s what it is.  Audie Palmer is swimming for his life away from the Three Rivers Federal Correctional Institute. The catch is, he was due to be released the very next day.  What would cause a man to risk 20 more years in prison, just to get out a day early?  That question haunts the subsequent chapters, as the reader is exposed, little by little, to more information that explains what kind of man Audie is (a good one), what reason he has for making a midnight escape (an excellent one), and how hard the bad guys will work to bring him down (very, very hard).

Life and Death is replete with believable, interesting characters, including Audie himself; his best friend and cellmate Moss Webster; his brother Carl; Benita, the love of his life, hero cop Deputy Ryan Valdez; and one of my favorites ever, FBI special Agent Desiree Furness.  Desiree is tiny but mighty, and even more important, she’s smart and she listen to her gut.

It’s a classic thriller of the “chase” type – can Audie accomplish his goal with so many people looking to hunt him down?  The book is constructed from multiple perspectives, with overlapping layers, which can lead the unwary reader into rushing… but don’t.  There are several shocking scenes along the way, and as a result, the final confrontation carries real threat.  You fear the loved and innocent will die, because you’ve seen Robotham go there already.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Novel

  1. Life or Death by Michael Robotham

Next Edgar Paperback: Woman with a Blue Pencil

pencil

Lou Berney’s Long and Faraway Gone told two mystery stories from two perspectives in both the present and the past, and Berney knocked it out of the park, in my opinion.  Next up for consideration for the MWA Edgar for Best Paperback Original is Gordon McAlpine and Woman With a Blue Pencil.  This book also tells two stories… and even a third.  And it’s pretty amazing as well, if a little convoluted.

A prologue of sorts sets it up, laying out the historical context.  On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.  On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt orders the relocation of American residents of Japanese ancestry to internment camps.  And on August 30, 2014, “A dusty lockbox is found…” The box containers a 1945 pulp spy thriller by William Thorne, a pack of letters from the book’s editor to its author, and a handwritten manuscript.

And on McAlpine goes, toggling back and forth between the three items, starting out with “The Revised” by Takumi Sato.  This novella features Japanese-American detective Sam Sumida and tells the story of Sam’s investigation of the murder of his own wife, Kyoko.  Then comes a letter from Maxine Wakefield, Sato’s editor and the woman with the aforementioned blue pencil.  She point out that now is maybe not  good time for a Japanese hero – make him Korean! – and perhaps make him a valiant patriot fighting the Japanese.  (That would really sell.)  Then on to William Thorne’s novel, “The Orchid and the Secret Agent,” which has much in common with Sato’s,  but features a Korean-American detective, Jimmy Park.  Thorne’s book is very hard-boiled spy thriller.

And so it goes that editor Maxine offers helpful suggestions to the author, and he molds the Jimmy Park story to satisfy her, while putting his own vision into Sam Sumida’s story. It’s like a literary version of the movie Sliding Doors, where two stories with much in common also diverge widely.  (For example, a character dies in one book, but lives in the other.  And Kyoko is a sweet and loving woman in one, and the malevolent “Orchid” in the other.)

McAlpine makes it work.  I found myself drawn into Sumida’s quest, amazed by Park’s adventures, but mostly engaged in the relationship between Sato and his editor, which my brain insisted as interpreting as “the real story.”  Although all of it is 100% fiction, of course.  The historical context is emphasized in the postscript, which briefly outlines what happened to author Sato and what became of his editor, Maxine Wakefield.

So how does Pencil stack up against Gone?  Each is unique in its own way.  Each shows a great deal of creativity, but Woman with a Blue Pencil seems contrived, even labored.  I found The Long and Faraway Gone to be much more emotionally engaging.  So Berney’s  book stays at #1.

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

Edgar list is out!

mwa_logoEvery year, the Mystery Writers of America bestow Edgar awards in various categories, including Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, Best Short Story, and so on. The nominees come out in January and the Edgars are given at a star-studded banquet (think Oscars, but with a lower glamour quotient).  This year’s ceremony is April 28; as always, it’s in New York City.  Oh, I wish I could go!  As an MWA member I get an invite and it. would. be. a. thrill.

This will be my sixth year of reading, reviewing, and ranking the nominees for Best Novel and Best First Novel.  My track record, in terms of agreeing with the MWA, has been mixed.  But since I’m not trying to predict who WILL win, but instead, letting you know who SHOULD win, that’s not a big deal.  Although when we agree perfectly (which has actually happened), I feel a certain smug satisfaction.

And the list of finalists is out!  I’m pretty excited to get started reading.  I see some familiar names, including Michael Robotham, Philip Kerr and Lori Roy.  On the newbie side, I’ve only read Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

Best Novel

  • The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Penguin Random House – A Marian Wood Book)
  • Life or Death by Michael Robotham (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
  • Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (Penguin Random House – Dutton)
  • Canary by Duane Swierczynski (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
  • Night Life by David C. Taylor (Forge Books)

Best First Novel

  • Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
  • Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
  • Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Atlantic – Grove Press)
  • Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (Penguin Random House – Viking

I may even attempt to get to the Best Paperback Novel, but don’t hold me to it.  Here are those nominees.

  • The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
  • The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
  • What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
  • Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  • Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  • The Daughter by Jane Shemilt (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)

To the nominees:  I know the tension is killing you… who will receive the Literary Lunchbox Edgars?  Watch this space over the next three months to see how you fare against your brethren.  May the odds be ever in your favor.

To the readers:  Ditto.  And  for this who are not up for the tension of reading without knowing who won…  Here’s a list of last year’s nominees AND the winners for your enjoyment.

Mr. Mercedes enters Edgar ranking for Best Novel

mercedeIn the immortal words of Bart Simpson:  Ay, carumba.

My reading, reviewing and ranking is running out of time, with just three of the nominees for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel checked off… and they are neck and neck and neck, to boot.

It’s not getting any easier.  As the clock ticks down to Wednesday’s big reveal at the Edgars Banquet in NYC, Stephen King – master of the horror genre among other literary achievements – is now on board with his detective novel, Mr. Mercedes.  It’s a classic for the genre, but feels fresh, thanks to King’s spin.

The book opens with the victims.  Down-on-his-luck Augie Odenkirk has queued up late one evening for a jobs fair that doesn’t open till the next morning… but he’s bound and determined to be one of the lucky ones.  He’s in line next to the even sadder Janice Cray and her baby.  The crowd swells.  And then the artful King begins to build suspense with an outcry from the within the mob, identifying the source of the voice as  “… Keith Frias, whose left arm would shortly be torn from his body.”  Indeed it would, by the madman driving a stolen gray Mercedes. And this is King’s strength – to portray a scene, a short scene, really, and introduce the people there and make the reader care about Augie and Janice and her baby Patti, and then to drop inescapable horror into the midst of them.   Thus is our killer introduced – through his impact on his victims.

Now fast forward to retired Detective Bill Hodges.  He and his partner Pete had tried and failed to apprehend Mr. Mercedes.   The crime scene reveals the bad guy to be smart and evil, with a wickedly twisted sense of humor.  Hodges is the classic washed-up detective, lonely, overweight, watching too much TV and eyeing his gun, haunted by crimes unsolved.  The bright spot in his life is not friends or family, but Jerome, the African-American teen who cuts his lawn.

Then one day Hodges receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, taunting him and suggesting that Hodges would be better off dead.   But instead of feeding Hodges’ sense of failure, the letter intrigues him.  We see the detective Hodges had been:  a smart and intuitive problem-solver.  And thus begins the cat and mouse game.  But who is the cat?  And who is the mouse?

King reveals the identity of Mr. Mercedes early on, and Brady Hartsfield is truly sick (in both senses of the word).   Brady works by day at a discount computer store “geek squad,”  drives an ice cream truck in the afternoon and spends his evenings in a basement lair filled with explosives and computer gadgetry.  He’s a 28-year old virgin (unless you count the many times his mom has helped ease his “headache” by fondling something a little farther south) who killed his little brother, murdered eight people and maimed countless more with a stolen car, drove the car’s owner to suicide, and is entertaining himself by doing the same to Det. Hodges prior to committing some final unspecified heinous suicidal act of mayhem.

King stays true to the genre as Hodges decides to solve the crime himself, enlists his Harvard-bound lawn boy as his new partner, taps into his contacts for intel, and starts hitting the streets even as he engages Brady in an online private chat room.   The only thing missing is the love interest… oh, wait, here she is!  Janey Patterson is the sister of the woman who owned the Mercedes Brady stole; the woman who killed herself out of guilt for leaving her keys in the car that was used in the vehicular massacre.  Or at least that’s what Bill Hodges thought at the time.  Now that he’s met Janey and gained a new perspective on her sister Olivia, he realizes that he and his partner jumped to the easy conclusion.  His regret only ramps up his determination to bring the killer to justice.

But enough synopsizing.  King’s writing is flawless, and he escalates the suspense masterfully.  There’s not a wasted paragraph nor clunky plot hole to be found.  (Unlike his recent Revival.  Enough said.)  The characters are great, particularly Janey’s cousin Holly, who starts out a compulsive, mother-pecked bundle of nerves and through sheer grit, becomes a hero.  Hodges’ rebirth into a man of action through the application of romance is a breath of fresh air.   Especially good news is that Mr. Mercedes is evidently the first book in a planned trilogy, so I’m looking forward to more of Hodges, Jerome and Holly.  (Next up:  Finders Keepers.)

How does King’s novel stack up against such stiff competition as Cop Town, The Final Silence, and Saints of the Shadow Bible?   No doubt about it – it’s #1.

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

  1. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  3. The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
  4. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town Best Novel Nominee

coptownI grabbed another police procedural for my second book to read, review and rank for the Mystery Writers of America‘s Edgar award for Best Novel this year:  Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town.  Slaughter’s a well-established author, like Rankin, albeit a younger one.  According to her website, she writes two series, although both are set in Georgia and feature overlapping characters.  The book that’s up for an Edgar is a standalone.  And what a standalone it is.

Cop Town‘s set in 1974 Atlanta, and the protagonists are officers Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy.  For Maggie, Atlanta is truly a cop town – her brother, her uncle, in fact, most of the guys she knows and grew up with are all with the police.  And in Atlanta in 1974, the police department is about as segregated as it gets.   White rides with white, black with black, and when it comes to gender… man, no guy wants to ride with a woman.  Maggie’s got the street smarts and the experience (mostly from her time with Gail Patterson, an experienced detective, who’s both profane and surprisingly tender).  But at home, she’s chopped liver.  Her mother dotes on her brother Jimmy while Maggie does everybody’s ironing and takes the back of her uncle Terry’s hand – and worse – whenever he’s angry with her.

Enter Kate Murphy, her first day on the force.  Kate’s blonde, beautiful, rich, Jewish and a widow.  There’s no hiding the first two attributes, but she keeps the final three well-buried.  She’s also smart, determined, and willing to learn.

The world they’re living in:  Somebody’s shooting cops, execution-style... and not from a distance.  Somehow they’re getting up close and personal, getting the victim to call in for a break, unplug his radio, kneel on the ground and take a bullet to the brain.  Only the most recent victim is a little different:  It was Jimmy Lawson’s partner who was killed while Jimmy watched, horrified, just a few yards away.  And Maggie and Kate are determined to find the killer.  

The job’s a tough one, because they not only have to piece together the clues, but they have to do so by crossing the color line (the barriers they have to overcome just to get to talk to a black pimp!) while all the male cops either shut them out or harass them.  It takes them just four action-packed days.

Needless to say, Cop Town‘s an out-and-out fantastic crime thriller.  The pacing, the police work, the dialogue, plus the occasional sneak peek into the killer’s POV, keeps it moving right along.  It’s a gritty book, too.  The violence isn’t gratuitous, but Slaughter doesn’t shy away.  Add in great, three-dimensional characters and even some character development – you know I’m going to love that.  Then, throw in the fact that I was 19 in 1974… man, I can relate to Maggie and Kate.  We were all trying to convince ourselves that we could do anything we wanted to do.

Still, how does Cop Town stack up against Saints of the Shadow Bible?  That’s a tough one.  Saints is a superior Rebus novel, and I love Rebus.  In Goodreads parlance, Saints is a five-star book for me, and so is Cop Town.  But I’m going to have to give Cop Town the edge for originality.   Slaughter’s told a tough story from a unique perspective and done it exceedingly well.

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

  1. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  2. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin