The 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.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel