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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

Nick Petrie’s Drifter – Reacher-esque?

drifter“Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal.”   That’s the blurb from Lee Child on Nick Petrie’s debut mystery, The Drifter.  I try not to go into a book with preconceived notions, but once read, that blurb tends to influence your perceptions.  And Ash does have his similarities to Reacher.  Like Reacher, Ash has served in the military, is on the road and has few ties.  He’s also single-minded and a handy guy to have on your side in a fight.   They both have a strong sense of loyalty and their own definitions of right and wrong. And I’m a big Reacher fan, so this is setting the bar high.

The Drifter starts with a prologue – who is this man in the black canvas chore coat driving around in a pick-up truck with false id, buying fertilizer?  We don’t know, but by the end of the book, we get to know this guy, his profession and his unusual code of honor that results in his partnering with Ash to foil a terrorist plot  at the last minute.   So, while I usually an not a prologue fan, I give this one a thumbs up because it builds suspense and is integral to the plot.

In the meantime, Ash is on his belly, crawling in the dirt under Dinah Johnson’s porch and trying to figure out a way to overpower a 140-lb. pitbull mix that’s dead-set against coming out, without getting maimed.  His solution is clever and humane, and once he’s subdued the dog and tied it to a tree, his next action is to give it water from his own water bottle.  “Dog’s thirsty,” he explains to Charlie Johnson, Dinah’s son.

And thus, in the first chapter, we know a lot about Peter Ash.  We also know a lot about Nick Petrie – he knows how to set the stage, reveal character, and build suspense.  Over the subsequent chapters, we find out why Ash is there – to atone for not being there for his Marine buddy, Sgt. Jimmy Johnson, who committed suicide the month before, leaving behind a widow (ER nurse Dinah) and two boys (Charlie and Miles).  His pretext – doing “what needs to be done” as part of a VA program, which results in his offer to rebuild the Washington’s falling down porch.  His baggage – he is suffering from PTSD and can only stand to be indoors for short periods of time.

Of course, the straightforward narrative becomes  complicated almost immediately, when Ash discovers the dog was guarding a suitcase containing $400,000 and four packs  of C4 explosive under that porch.  A hard-looking case with a gun and a black SUV is lurking about.  And Dinah turns out to have resources of her own, in the form of a long-time tie to a smooth, smart and strong local crime lord named Lewis.

Ash’s unraveling the connections that lead to a hedge fund and its Machiavellian owner is a complex but gripping process.  The plot?  To blow up a bank, throw the markets into unrest, and make a fortune. Along the way, Ash discovers the truth about his friend Jimmy, builds a strong bond with Jimmy’s dog Mingus, and learns how good people can be twisted to do bad things.  In the end, good guys turn out to be bad guys, bad guys turn good, and the day is saved following a super-scary chase scene.

The Drifter is a classic thriller, and Petrie worked hard to lift it a bit above through character complexity.  He has varying success with that – the emphasis on the psychic impact of combat can be seen as exploitative, and the upright nurse, crime lord with a sensitive side, callous hedge fund owner, and crooked cop are pretty formulaic.  But it all hangs together quite well and the Ash character is compelling, so all told, it’s a very strong debut and I look forward to more from Petrie.

It’s a tough call where to place it on the rankings.  Each of the four books are so different, with Under the Harrow falling in suspense, Dodgers in literary, IQ detective and Drifter thriller.  After careful consideration, I’m going to place it #2.  As a sheer page-turner, it’s a good one, but not quite up to IQ.  But I have to say, I’d recommend all four of these books – this is a great crop of debut novels and I’m eager to see how the last two stack up!

mwa_logoLiterary 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

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…

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

 

 

 

 

 

Charming Murder at the Brightwell enters the competition

brightwellDeborah Crombie’s blurb on the cover of Ashley Weaver’s debut mystery, Murder at the Brightwell, says it all:  “An elegant Christie-esque 1930s romp.”  Quite a change from the college student/amateur sleuth (The Life We Bury) and the Pennsylvania noir police procedural (Dry Bones in the Valley) that were the first two entries in the competition for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

And romp it is, if you like beautiful people doing fabulous things in an exclusive hotel with a dark undercurrent of skulduggery and murder.  Amory Ames is a wealthy young woman, married five years to Milo, who stole her away from fiancé Gil Trent.  Now they mostly lead separate lives, hers at home and his out gallivanting.  Let’s just say he’s good looking, charming, and quite popular with the ladies.  Amory’s ripe for reconnecting with Gil when he shows up, seeking her help in discouraging his niece from marrying a good-looking ne’er-do-well.  His plan is to bring Amory along to a holiday at the Brightwell, where her sad experience with Milo will serve to illustrate to the lovely Emmeline what a big mistake she is about to make.  He’s hoping she’s willing to behave as if they are back together as a couple… and she’s willing to do so because she is frankly annoyed with her husband and doubting their future together.

At the hotel, there’s a mixed group of characters (just like Agatha Christie!), including rapacious women, stodgy men, a handsome actor, cruel husbands… They’re all lightly and skillfully drawn.  It’s frothy amusement until  Emmeline’s bad-boy-fiance Rupert turns up dead, conked on the head and thrown over the cliff onto the rocks below.  Various characters come under the suspicious gaze of canny Inspector Jones, who develops an easygoing rapport with Amory, and when said gaze falls upon friend Gil Trent, Amory goes into overdrive to determine which of the hotel guests committed the murder.  She is aided in her efforts by husband Milo, who is undertaking an effort to win Amory back… at least until some details emerge which cause our heroine to wonder if her husband is himself the guilty party.

Of course, that’s not the case, but once the crime is neatly solved, the couple cannot bring themselves to admit what is completely clear to the reader:  that they belong together.  I won’t spoil that surprise for you!

So, comparison time.  Brightwell is a lovely book of its type, well-written, albeit lightweight.  Impossible to complain about the characters, plot, or pacing.  I briefly wondered if it would be as good set in present day and decided it would not; although I am sure there are plenty of idle rich among us in 2015, any book that featured them would require either a heavy dose of irony or one of cynicism.

Is it likely to win the Edgar?  Stepping outside of Lunchbox mode, I’d have to say no.  Reviewing the Edgar database, I see plenty of spy novels, police procedurals, and thrillers that won the Best First Novel award.  Is it worthy of a win, from my perspective?  I enjoyed the book, but it is definitely outdone by Dry Bones in the Valley.  But the quality of the writing and plotting gives Brightwell a decisive edge over The Life We Bury.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  3. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

ps- thumbs up on the cover and title for this book!  I had previously complained about Dry Bones and Life, noting that neither the books’ titles nor their cover art made any sense to me.  Everything about Murder at the Brightwell is spot on, including the title, artwork and typography.  Well-done, Minotaur.

Dry Bones in the Valley second entry in Edgar Race

bonesAbout ten pages in, I realized that I had previously read Dry Bones in the Valley, Tom Bouman’s debut novel featuring Officer Henry Farrell of Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania.  And I liked it.  That made re-reading it for the Edgar race for Best First Novel by an American Author a pleasure for me.

Here’s the setup:  Henry’s a rural cop in a small department (one deputy), where a typical crime is a stolen tractor.  Times have been hard, but landowners have been banding together to sign contracts for drilling rights on their land, and it’s dividing the community.  It’s the kind of place where the law-abiding, the lawbreakers and the lawmen all know each other and drink together in the local tavern.  Henry plays the fiddle and is more than half-way in love with the local doc.  Unfortunately, she’s his best friend’s wife.

It’s a sloppy, thawing-out March when local eccentric Aub Dunigan shoots a load of buckshot into a local ruffian trespassing on his land.  Henry comes out with a family member to see what’s what, only to find that Aub – who’s not really all there – has discovered a body in the melting snow.  Pieces of it are missing.  Who is this young man?  Who killed him and why?  Along the way to solving the murder, somebody shoots the well-liked deputy dead, and Henry uncovers a tragedy that is decades old.

Dry Bones in the Valley is a notable debut for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Bouman’s skill in depicting places and people.  His prose is elegant and spare, with carefully chosen details that illuminate the story.  Henry himself is a good man, weighed down by expectations and a tinge of sorrow.   The book is well-plotted, the action sequences are nail-bitingly realistic, and while the resolution is satisfying, it’s not all happy-happy-joy-joy.  Thank heavens.

Comparison to The Life We Bury?  Dry Bones has it all over Life.  Life has a lot to recommend it, but it is obviously a first novel.  Dry Bones is more assured, the product of a fully developed talent.  I’m waiting for more from Tom Bouman and Officer Henry Farrell.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

PS:  Another note of comparison, as an aside.  What is up with the titles and book covers for these two books?   The Life We Bury is set in a small town and a university town – the cover makes it look rural.  And nobody is literally buried, and if you want to go all metaphorical, I don’t see it.  So the title is a miss for me.  Same deal, more or less, with Dry Bones in the Valley.  The cover makes features an ominous flock of birds, potentially hovering over dry bones, making you think of desert, not Pennsylvania.  And all the bones in this book are literally wet. Soaking, in fact.  I realize you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this may be taking that adage too far…

Best First Novel Nominee: Red Sparrow

red sparrowWhat do you get when a 33-year CIA veteran with literary talent pens his debut novel?  If you’re talking  Jason Matthews, who led the Operations Directorate before his retirement, and the book Red Sparrow, what you get is a page-turner that is strong on spycraft and plot with plenty of heart.  And of course, you get an Edgar nomination.  This is an amazingly strong entry right out of the gate, and I wish the other nominees the best of luck in the quest to surpass Red Sparrow in the Lunchbox rankings.

Here’s the quickie plot synopsis:  Beautiful Russian dancer (Dominika) wants to serve her country, is sent to spy school but is mostly expected to lure diplomats into sexual scandals (or to their deaths).  She can’t get out because evil uncle is basically holding her mother hostage.  Meanwhile, clever Nate is running a high-level, high value Russian mole.  Their paths cross as each tries to “turn” the other.  It’s no surprise that Nate and Dominika are soon working together for the U.S. – and in love.   As the pulse-pounding plot unfolds, the reader’s hopes are dashed, then lifted, and then dashed again… how will it all end?  I refuse to say since I want you to go read it yourself.

Here’s what I liked about Red Sparrow:

  • No cardboard cutout characters, real people – even the smaller characters are well-drawn.
  • Wow!  Backstories for the main characters.
  • Loved the Russian turncoat, MARBLE.  What a guy.
  • Bad stuff happens, and people just have to suck it up.
  • Love story is prominent, but not overdone.
  • Pacing is awesome.
  • Engimatic ending.

Here’s what I didn’t like:  Not much.  Perhaps it’s a somewhat annoying that Dominika is soooo awesome.  But at least she limps a little bit.

mwa_logoI know Red Sparrow‘s the first one I’m reviewing, but it’s setting the bar really high.  Let’s see how the rest of the nominees stack up!