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Final finalist Before the Fall

fallWe’re getting down to the wire – the MWA Edgar Awards banquet is just four days away in NYC and I am posting my final review in the read, review, and ranking for the Best Novel category.  I previously completed the Best Paperback Original and Best First Novel by an American Author categories.  The nominee:  Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall.  This is his first Edgar nom.

You might know Hawley as a novelist, or you might know him as a screenwriter and producer (Fargo, Legion, others).  He’s won Emmys, Golden Globes and Peabody awards. I read one of his previous books – A Conspiracy of Tall Men – and found it entertaining.  It is similar to Before the Fall in that it takes a pretty ordinary guy, puts him into extraordinary circumstances, and then ramps up a mystery with a big dose of conspiracy.  The books (at least the two I’ve read) are very cinematic.

In Before the Fall, nice guy and artist Scott Burroughs accepts an offer of a lift on a private plane from Maggie Bateman, a casual friend, the young wife of the head of a television news network, David Bateman.  Also on the plane are Rachel and JJ, the couple’s young daughter and son; their security chief, Gil Baruch; Ben and Sarah Kipling, a Wall Street hedge fund manager about to be indicted for money laundering and his wife.  There is also the three-person crew: beautiful flight attendant Emma Lightner, pilot James Melody who is having some medical issues, and hard-partying co-pilot Charlie Busch.  Just 18 minutes into the flight from Martha’s Vineyard to NYC, the plane crashes into the ocean.   Scott comes up into a hellish view, as the plane fuel is on fire, and he soon encounters the only other survivor –  four year old JJ.   Scott swims ten miles with an injured arm, carrying the child.

The book alternates between what happens to Scott and JJ, as time moves forward, and the individual backstories of the plane’s passengers and crew.   As the authorities search for the wreckage, theories as to the cause of the crash abound.  Newsman Bill Cunningham (my mind’s eye pictured Bill O’Reilly) had been about to be fired from Bateman’s network, but instead he makes ratings soar with speculation about the cause of the crash, anchoring a lot of his wild ramblings to Scott Burroughs.  The depths of his amoral self-interest… well, let’s just say the depths or so deep we’re not sure there’s a bottom.  Scott and the boy have forged a bond that is unquestionable, but of course it is questioned, and JJ’s loving Aunt Eleanor is married to a man best described as “loser scumbag” (expect attraction to hero Scott and you will be right on).

I liked Before the Fall when I read it the first time, carried along on the tide of the plot, the sneak peeks into the characters’ backstories, and the insights Hawley provides along the way before revealing the reason for the crash.  Rereading more critically for the Edgar ranking, I still see the good.  Some of the backstories, in particular, are like short stories in themselves (pilot James Melody and his mom, for example).

But I see the book’s flaws more clearly this time around.  The good guys are uber-good.  The bad guys are uber-bad.  Coincidence abounds:  Scott almost misses the plane, but doesn’t.  His big new idea for his paintings is a series of hyper-realistic depictions of tragedies, including a plane crash.  He is capable of the huge, heroic swim because as a child he had seen and been inspired by a feat of swimming derring-do by the famous Jack LaLanne, so he devoted himself to the sport.  The pilot leaves the cockpit because he has a bloody nose, something he’d been delaying seeing a doctor for, leaving the way clear for a homocidal/suicidal act that dooms them all.  And the climax – where Scott is live on-camera with Bill Cunningham when the newsman plays a tape that reveals he had been bugging victim’s phones to dig up dirt and Scott is able to reveal exactly what the FBI found out – is completely over the top.

And yet, I still like the book.  My friend and writing colleague Addy Whitehouse is also rating these nominees, and she gave Before the Fall a 1.  And that’s not #1, it’s the best, it’s 1 on a 10-point scale, with 10 as high.  You can read her review hereshe really hated the head-hopping and varying POVs.  She noted the cinematic approach, and not in admiration.  On the there hand, we were in total agreement on Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where it Hurts.  All of which proves why there are so many books published each year – opinions differ!

Where does Before the Fall go on the ranking?  Definitely not above mid-packWhere it Hurts and Jane Steele are clearly superior.  And I can’t get around The Ex’s OMG twister of an ending (seriously?).  So that leaves Noah Hawley at #3.  If the MWA judges agree with me, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele will take home the Edgar.

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. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
  4. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  5. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin

Coming down to the wire with Best Novel

best novel

Thank heavens there are only five books nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel – time is running out with the Awards banquet less then a month away, on April 27.   You see all the nominees pictured – out of them, I have only previously read Before the Fall.  My memory was that it was excellent.  But let’s see how the others fare!

I’m starting out with The Ex, by Alafair Burke.  It’s her first Edgar nomination, although her father, James Lee Burke has won the Best Novel Award three times (1990, 1998, and 2003) and was honored with the Grand Master Award in 2009.  His daughter tends to write suspense, but this outing is pretty much a legal thriller (with strong suspense overtones, of course).

Criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall is surprised when she gets a phone call from a teenage girl, asking Olivia to help her father.  Her dad?  Jackson Harris Olivia’s former fiancé, whom she treated absolutely horribly by sleeping around in a semi-conscious effort to get him to break up with her, finally taking it to “unforgivable” territory by sleeping with his brother, Owen.   It all gets even worse when over-tired and over-served Owen gets into a car wreck and is killed.  That very night.  After talking and drinking into the wee hours with Jack.  Which causes Jack to have a nervous breakdown, for which he spends a year in a mental hospital.  Awkward.  She hasn’t seen him since.

Still, 16-year-old Buckley Harris is calling Olivia and asking her for help.  And Olivia knows that Buckley only has her dad, because her mother – the saintly substitute teacher Molly Harris – had been murdered in a shooting spree by a troubled teenage boy whose father had denied his issues and done a lot of father-son bonding with guns.  So down she goes to the police station, where she finds out that her ex is under suspicion for shooting that horrible father.  Jack had means (they think), motive (definitely), and opportunity (absolutely, he was in the area when the shooting happened).  It can’t be true, Olivia thinks.  She knows him, too sensitive for his own good.  Plus he tells a story that she thinks can be verified – he was meeting a sort-of blind date for a picnic.

But it turns out Jack’s story is pretty unbelievable.  Then the blind date turns out to be an escort that somebody hired to lure Jack, and Olivia’s thoughts turn to “who would try to frame Jack?”  There is one twist after another, and the reader lurches violently from “Jack is innocent!”  to “Jack did it!”  And I’d be okay with all this – the characters are pretty interesting, the pace is powerful with each new piece of info propelling the reader forward – except that around page 167, I realized who did it.  And on page 277, Burke revealed it… and it’s not Jack.  But he pleads guilty anyway to cover up for the real killer (bet you’ve got it figured out, too).

The epilogue is four years later, and the reader learns that Olivia visits Jack once a year on the anniversary of his guilty plea, to see if she can convince him to work with her to get his guilty plea set aside.  And every year, he says no.

magic 8Would I read more Alafair Burke?  Absolutely.  Is The Ex going to take the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best Novel?  As the Magic 8 ball says, “Outlook not so good.”  Still, first reviewed so it gets top spot for now!

 

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

  1.  The Ex by Alafair Burke

Dancing with the Tiger Edgar nominee

dancingThe fifth nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel continues the trend I noted in my most recent review – that is, the trend toward diversity in the genre.  Lili Wright’s book Dancing With the Tiger straddles a variety of sub-genres.  Think of it as the literary Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the plucky antiquities collector’s daughter Anna Ramsey in the Indiana Jones role.  Here’s the set-up:  Daniel and Anna Ramsey collaborated on a book about Mexican masks, only to find that the Ramsey collection featured several forgeries.  There goes the plan to sell the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art!  Now Anna has the opportunity to go to Mexico and bring back the death mask of Montezuma, restoring their reputation and squashing the egos of their collector rivals, Mexican crime kingpin Reyes and American ex-patriat Thomas Malone.

Of course Anna’s quest is difficult.  There is every possibility that she will spend her last dollar on another forgery.  Or have her money stolen.  Or have the mask be real, and the buy proceed smoothly, but then the mask is stolen.   That last one is sort-of what actually happens, and Anna spends the rest of the book trying to recover it, with increasing desperation and a resultant willingness to confront danger.  The “tiger” of the title is just one such hazard – a hit man who wears a tiger mask when fulfilling his assignments.

The book is told through a series of interweaving chapters with interweaving points of view, including the looter (the meth addict from Colorado who first digs up the mask), the collector (Anna’s pathetic father), the gardener (Thomas Malone’s employee who is more than a gardener and is in love with a young woman who sells stationery), the housekeeper (the gardener’s wife, who takes an unexpected heroic turn), and others.  And Anna, of course.

The plot may meander a bit, but it gets there, and Wright has a beautiful way with language, lyrical and philosophical.  There are multiple subplots that are interesting in themselves, and enrich the book.  Anna’s story includes masquerading as a fact-checker and getting a job with Malone in order to get access to the mysterious shed where he keeps all his acquisitions – and then getting a huge surprise when she finds out that one of these acquisitions was the woman who preceded her as Malone’s assistant.  I saw that one coming.

At the end of the book, many things have changed, and the mystery of Montezuma’s death mask is known only to the reader.  I enjoyed Dancing With the Tiger and would recommend it.  Wright’s approach to the story – with a myriad of characters, points of view and subplots – worked for me, but it does slow it down.  In another writer’s hands, I could see this as a swashbuckling thriller, bloody and with more urgent pacing.  This is a better book.

Again, tough to decide where to place Dancing with the Tiger in the Lunchbox ranking.  It is extremely well-written and has a literary feel, like Dodgers.  It’s got murder and mayhem… but then, they all do.  At the end of the day, I just was not as engaged by this book as I was with the nominees.  So while Tiger gets a thumbs up, it goes to the bottom of the list.

Lmwa_logoiterary 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
  5. Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

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