Tag Archives: Past Crimes

Unbecoming Final Finalist for Edgar

Rebecca Schermunbecoming’s Unbecoming, like fellow nominee The Sympathizer, features a protagonist with two faces. As Julie, she is a young American from California who works as a restorer of art and objets d’art in Paris.   But her hidden identity is Grace from Tennessee, a poor girl with big aspirations, on the run from her husband and his best friend. The novel turns on a crime for which Grace is largely responsible.

Grace latched on to Riley Graham, a beautiful if somewhat unfocused boy from a well-to-do family in her home town of Garland. She became his girlfriend, but more importantly, she became his mother’s daughter – motherless herself, this is a strong inducement to maintain her relationship with Riley. They marry secretly just as she leaves for New York City, where she goes to school and gets a job at a gallery. Home again in Tennessee for the summer, she realizes that Riley and a couple of his friends are committed to robbing a local museum.   She robs it first and gets on a plane for Prague, where she learns that she has a lot to learn when it comes to crime.

It’s no surprise to hear that Riley and the guys botch the heist and are sentenced to prison. What is a surprise is that none of them try to blame her for their actions.

As Julie, Grace is taken advantage of by her shady employer, which gives her the little excuse she needs to indulge her desire for pretty baubles and ill-gotten gains.   When she’s finally found, the book takes a somewhat surprising twist.

Scherm writes a suspenseful novel and the pacing is good. She makes Grace’s story plausible.   However, I never truly believed that Grace was in any danger and I would have liked to see more of the bad girl side.   Perhaps Grace was becoming that bad girl, growing into her true self. But an edgier book would have been a stronger book.

In comparison to the other Edgar nominees, Unbecoming is more engaging than Past Crimes, but not as compelling as Where All Light Tends to Go. Bleak as it is, Joy’s book has a stronger narrative and gripping voice.

Final rankings – the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best First Novel goes to Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. It was an excellent competition and all the debut novels are well worth reading.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  3. Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  4. Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
  5. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton






The Sympathizer: Edgar Finalist #4

sympathizerI don’t know if Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is going to win the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, but I do know one thing:  it sure is critically acclaimed. Adjectives used: strong, rare, authentic, dark, funny, remarkable, brilliant, fierce.

It’s a complex narrative with complicated characters. Backstory: Three Vietnamese boys are closer than brothers. One, Bon, grows up to be an assassin. One, Man, becomes a communist big shot. And the main character, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is a spy – a communist sleeper agent who is evacuated from Saigon in 1975. I’ll call him “S.”

Nguyen uses a framing device; S is writing a confession for “the commandant.” This framework allows S to set forth his tale and to reflect upon it. He is loyal to his country and to his friends. His reports back to his handler – written in invisible ink behind routine letters home to his aged auntie – are like messages in a bottle, tossed out into a roiling sea.

And so time passes, with S embarking upon a series of adventures. He spies on the general. He is drawn to the general’s daughter. He dates an older woman, then loses her to another man, a Japanese-American journalist. He is ordered to assassinate the journalist. He does so, badly. He gets a job as a technical adviser on a film about Viet Nam, and is shocked to find that all the speaking roles go to white folks. (Shades of #Oscarssowhite!) He is ordered to kill an ex-Special Branch officer, and does so.   The general forms an Army with the help of a right-wing US Congressman, with the aim of going back to Viet Nam and overthrowing the government. S doesn’t want to go, but he must, if he wishes to save his friend Bon. While there he is captured, interrogated and tortured. We learn who is responsible, and S learns the ultimate futility of dreaming of revolution.

While all the critical adjectives listed above are true, I found it very difficult to get into The Sympathizer. It’s very dense, the language is mannered, and the narrative tone is distancing.   As I reflect, there are many passages that I found very compelling and overall, I admire the book. In comparing this debut to the other nominees, it is clear that Nguyen is an amazing talent and The Sympathizer is clearly superior to Past Crimes and Where All Light Tends to Go. However, I’m going to have to give the top spot to The Luckiest Girl Alive for relatability.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  3. Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  4. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

Edgar Nom #3: Luckiest Girl Alive

girl aliveUh-oh, the cover says “Gillian Flynn” and it’s an “Instant New York Times Best Seller.”  It seems like ever since Gone Girl, everybody’s trying to hop onto the unreliable narrator train (including, of course, Paula Hawkins with The Girl on The Train).

So here is the actual scoop:  even if you ignore the hoopla, Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive is still a powerhouse of a first novel.  Main character Ani FaNelli is leading a charmed life.  She’s 28, lives in Manhattan, writes for a women’s magazine, wears size-zero designer clothes, and is engaged to a handsome blueblood.  And frankly, she comes across as a pretty controlling bitch.

But her backstory… ah, her backstory.  Well, first of all, Ani is not really Ani.  She TifAni.  And she grew up on the wrong side of town with a meek dad and a social climbing mom, who scraped up the money to send TifAni to private school so she could meet the right people (rich people, that is) and make a new life.  Tif would do almost anything to fit in with the cool kids.  And she did some pretty stupid stuff, up to and including partying with a bunch of boys, getting drunk, getting raped, and then backing away from prosecuting the boys… because desperate as she was, she still wanted them to like her.

Back to today:  Big rock on her finger, wedding around the corner, glamorous job, Ani’s being courted to participate in a documentary, to “tell her story.”  Wait, what story?  What is it that fiance Luke wants Ani to put behind her, that Ani is so desperate to overcome?  A Columbine-style school shooting, perpetrated by one of her closest friends.  Although she was never prosecuted, some suspected that she was involved.

Knoll alternates between Ani and TifAni, revealing more and more of her story and how out-of-control this very controlled and controlling young woman really is.  Ani has a strong voice that is uniquely hers, and we see everything through her eyes.  The ending is particularly satisfying, as Ani addresses her unresolved issues.  Much to her credit, Knoll doesn’t make it too easy on Ani.

How to compare with the other nominees, Past Crimes and Where All Light Tends to Go?  What should get the Edgar for best First Novel?  

Luckiest Girl is definitely above Past Crimes, which is likely to be the first in an entertaining and serviceable series for Glen Erik Hamilton, but feels more written-to-order than inspired.  Both Light and Luckiest Girl have unique characters with unique perspectives, so that’s a tie.Writing is good in both, and although Luckiest Girl is more accessible, Light has its reasons for not being so.  From a psychological point of view, Knoll has to address a wider variety of characters and motivation, so she has the edge there.  But ultimately, I’m making this call simply on which book I enjoyed more.  And that means Luckiest Girl Alive bounces to the top.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  2. Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  3. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

Where All Light Tends to Go Next Up

lightThe next potential Edgar winner is David Joy for his gripping, moody and violent debut, Where All Light Tends to Go.  In fact, there is little light to be seen.  The book is dark, not the noir of city streets, but the noir of a poverty-stricken small town where violence is a given, escape is impossible, and lives play out pointlessly.

Joy’s protagonist faces almost insurmountable odds.  18-year-old Jacob McNeely dropped out of high school two years ago, accepting his place in their Appalachian town, where he’d been raised to be an accomplice to his father’s criminal activities.  Charlie McNeely has a stranglehold on the region’s meth traffic, running his profits through a local garage, and taking it as his duty to toughen Jacob up.  It’s a man’s world, where women are helpless afterthoughts – even Jacob’s mother.  She may love him, but she’s also a lifelong drug addict and incapable of caring for herself.  Her death in the book is shocking for Jacob and for the reader, and triggers a change in Jacob.

The only ray of light in Jacob’s young life is Maggie Jennings.  Childhood friends, Maggie was Jacob’s first love and he was hers.  He still loves her, and because of that love, he broke her heart.  Without him to drag her down, he believes Maggie can go to college, leave  their small town, and never look back.  But is “over” ever truly finished?

It looks like Jacob is caught fast in his father’s web.  When he and the Cabe brothers are assigned to “take care of” a man who’s threatening their business, Jacob follows through, and it’s a stomach-turning process.  They throw the man’s tortured body into a nearby ravine.  When it turns out that the man wasn’t dead, there’s more killing to come.  And more on top of that.  But then… a glimmer of hope.  A local lawman – the only man who has ever shown Jacob any kindness – wants Charlie McNeely dead.  If Jacob can double-cross his dad, he can steal his cash, and he and Maggie can leave town together and create a whole new life.   I won’t spoil the ending, so enough said.

Where All the Light Tends to Go has a lot of ugliness in it, a lot of violence, and a lot of sadness.  It also has a lot of heart.  I found it be almost cinematic, very easy to visualize every scene and every character.  It doubles down at every turn, and Jacob McNeely is truly a tragic hero.

How does Joy’s book stack up against Past Crimes?  Interestingly, both books feature criminal protagonists brought into a life of crime by a father or father-figure.  In Past Crimes, this is primarily backstory for the main character, as Van Shaw has made a complete escape and returns voluntarily.  In Light, it is all Jacob is and can ever be.

I find that Hamilton’s book reminds me of Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series, a well-done and enjoyable read.  Joy is more likely Lori Roy, offering an insightful look at the human condition.  So Where All Light Tends to Go takes the top spot.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best First Novel

  1. Where All the Light Tends to Go by David Joy
  2. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton


First up for Edgar: Past Crimes

past crimesThe Mystery Writers of America nominees for Best First Novel by an American author include Glen Erik Hamilton’s debut, Past Crimes.  The book is sure to become the first of a series.  (For one thing, Amazon listing says Van Shaw #1, implying #2, #3, #4…)

Obviously Hamilton’s protagonist is Van Shaw, a hard-bodied and quick-witted Army Ranger on leave.  He’s come home to Seattle to make peace with his grandfather, Donovan Shaw, known as Dono.  No surprise that the hidden message is that Dono and Van are just two sides to the same coin!

And here’s the coin:  Dono and Shaw are not just grandfather and grandson, but former partners in crime.  Dono was well-known for his all-around skills for burglary and robbery, and he passed those skills on to Shaw.  By high school graduation, Shaw was skilled at picking locks, casing joints, and committing crimes.  Still, it wasn’t his fault when his not-so-bright and less-able friend Davey got mixed up with the wrong crowd and called Shaw for help.  The whole thing went south, Shaw covered for Davey, Dono blamed Shaw, Shaw took off and joined the Army.

Fast forward ten years, and Shaw’s back, pulling up to his grandfather’s house.  He’d received a short note from Dono – “Come home, if you can.”  But when he enters, he finds Dono lying in a puddle of blood on the floor.  Unraveling who shot him – and why – becomes Shaw’s quest.  In so doing, he bumps up against many of his grandfather’s colleagues, friends, and enemies; a couple of cops; an old girlfriend, Lucy; and of course, Davey.  He also figures out Dono’s last score and unearths some family secrets.

All in all, Past Crimes is a credible debut.  The plot and the pacing are good, and characters generally well-developed, although not as well as they will be after several more books in the series.  (Lucy could use some work!)  Experienced readers will have suspicions about who shot Dono, and to Hamilton’s credit, he gives us several credible suspects.  The Army angle is not fully explored, it reads as a good way to get Shaw out of the picture for ten years, and his potential problems for not reporting as ordered are swept aside.  Overall, thumbs up.

First reviewed, so it’s top-ranked!  Enjoy it while it lasts…

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best First Novel

  1.  Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton