So I’m squeaking in under the wire… tomorrow night’s the Edgar Awards Banquet in New York City. And I just re-read the last book that’s up for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, Duane Swierczynski’s Canary.
College student Sarafina Holland’s a good girl. Sarie’s book-smart, savvy enough to fake her way through a college party without getting drunk or high, and a total pushover when it comes to a cute, foul-mouthed guy. That’s why she says yes when red-chinos-wearing Drew asks her for a lift all the way across town to “pick up a book.” Even when it’s the night before Thanksgiving, it’s late, and she has to pick up her rehab-counselor dad from the airport early in the AM. So no surprise that it’s a big shock to her when Drew runs in “for a minute” and comes back out without a book. And that she panics when a cop stops her and questions her on her third circle around the block, while Drew runs in to “pick up a cheesesteak.” (That’s an actual cheesesteak, not a euphemism.) She’s stupidly desperate to protect him, and the next thing she knows, he’s run off and she’s down at the station. The next thing she knows, she’s a confidential informant. CI #137.
Her handler is Philly narcotics cop Ben Wildey. His plan is to use Sarie to get through her boyfriend to his dealer, the clever and elusive Chuckie Morphine. Chuck has ties to some major drug gangs, so it would be a big boost to his career.
And Sarie turns out to be a darn good CI. Wildey mockingly calls her “Honors Girl,” but it’s a good thing she’s is so smart, because Wildey gets her in deep. Without her ability to think three or four steps ahead, and to improvise in the heat of the moment, Sarie’d be dead. (She also has the nerve to step up to a fight, not run away. It’s a useful attribute). It’s lucky that she’s also so plucky and likable, because on at least two occasions, those characteristics convince a bad guy to switch to Sarie’s side.
When all is said and done, Sarie comes through and the baddest of the bad guys get their comeuppance, but not without collateral damage.
I’ve simplified the plot tremendously. Other facts that come in to play in Canary include:
- Sarie’s mom is dead, her dad is grieving, and 12 year old brother Marty’s kind of lost.
- Her best friend is dating an older guy. A mobster.
- The mobster is hooked up with a cop and they’re killing CIs with reckless abandon.
- Wildey suspects his own partner of being that cop, but she’s only guilty of being stalked by her ex. (Sad end to that one.)
- Space cadet Drew wises up too late. (Ditto.)
- Dads and brothers can rise to the occasion.
- A girl can find living a double life very energizing.
The plot’s great, the primary characters are compelling and even the minor characters are generally well-drawn and engaging. And one of the things I liked best about Canary was Swierczynski’s way of narrating Sarie’s POV -as a kind of diary-slash-letter to her mother. (That brother Marty later finds the notebook and tries to call in the calvary is a plus.) This device allows Swierczynski to have what amounts to a second protagonist in Ben Wildey, who starts out heartlessly using Sarie and ends up growing a heart.
Compared to all the other nominees, Canary is an absolutely fresh take on the crime novel. Duane Swiercynski‘s a 44-year old guy who has written a pulp fiction series featuring a ex-cop as well as many hard-boiled Marvel comics (including Deadpool and The Immortal Iron Fist). Where does he get the insight to write a believable 19-year-old girl? Sheer talent, I guess.
Who will win? For fun, I went and looked up how these books are faring on Amazon. Canary has 4.2 stars, Night Life 4.7, Footsteps 4.0, Life or Death 4.4, Strangler Vine 4.3 and Lady 4.2 If the Edgars were crowd-sourced, Night Life would win. As of yesterday, I agreed. Despite this, I’m giving Canary the top spot.
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel
- Canary by Duane Swierczynski
- Night Life by David C. Taylor
- Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
- Life or Death by Michael Robotham
- The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
- The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr