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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!)

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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!

Edgars out, and I’m reading, reviewing, and ranking!

mwa_logoToo crazy busy with new job, new house, new name it to be timely with the Lunchbox blog, so you likely already know that (drum roll, please) THE EDGARS NOMINEE LIST IS OUT!   This will be my fifth year to read, review, and rank the nominees for Best Novel and Best First Novel, and then wait with bated breath to see whether I call the winners.   I have had mixed results.

My first year out (2010), I called them both.  I felt 1) validated and 2) psychic.  In 2011:  0 for 2.  I consoled myself that my picks could easily have won, if the judges had any discernment at all.  In 2012,  I called one and not the other.  In 2013, total wipe-out. As a result, you should probably view the Lunchbox rankings as “for entertainment purposes only,” and not bet any actual cash money.

I’ll be starting with Best First Novel.  Because I read so widely, I pretty much expect to have read these novels… and once again, I proved to myself that this is not the case when it comes to first-time authors.  Of the five, I had only picked up Reconstructing Amelia, and because it dealt with a mother whose daughter committed suicide… I just couldn’t face it and didn’t get past the first couple of chapters. Now I’ll give it the careful read it deserves as a finalist.  Very excited to read the other four debut novels, as well.

amelia red sparrow rage ghost man

resurrectionist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The line-up for Best Novel is fabulous.  I had read five of the six finalists, and blogged about several of them.  Lori Roy won an Edgar last year for her debut novel, I’ve been a giant Rankin fan for years, Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In blew me away, and Sandrine’s Case was a twisty tale with an unreliable narrator.  Ordinary Grace was beautiful and memorable.  I’m looking forward to reading these five with a new perspective, as well as The Humans!

best5untillighthumanssandrine

Best Novel

Matthew Quirk Roars to the Lead in the Edgar Race

500Ay, carumba.  When I read Black Fridays, the Edgar nominee for Best First Novel (reviewed here), I had high hopes that this would be the worthy successor to John Grisham’s white-collar, bruised-knuckle thriller.  Alas, it was not to be.  But Matthew Quirk’s The 500 more than ably fulfills that hope.

Here’s the set-up:  Mike Ford is street-smart and book-smart, a Harvard grad who grew up with a small-time con for a father, a brother who turned to breaking and entering, and his own uncanny skill in lock-picking.  He’s been recruited into a DC political consulting firm where junior associates do hundreds of hours of research to present a one-page memo (a process they call “boiling the sea”).  And when your one-page memo isn’t enough to get the result that’s needed, you’re out the door.  No do-overs.   So when Mike is canny enough to keep working even after his memo is written, following the target and uncovering his stash of bribe money, and is able to keep his deal from going south, he thinks its a big win.  It’s not.  Although his brash behavior meets with approval (good), Mike is pulled over to the dark side of the Davies Group (bad and scary).  Will Mike be able to triumph when all the odds are stacked against him, with nothing but his girlfriend, his father, and a family friend to help him do so?  It is no spoiler to say “you bet he will.”

Excellent things about this book:

  • Great plotting with minimal contrivances – All the twists are well set up.
  • Believable characters – Even those who could have been over the top (Henry Davies as the Machiavellian leader of the Davies Group and warlord Radomir Dragovic) are nuanced.
  • Fabulous suspense – The prologue sets up the climax and keeps you hanging, while Chapter 1 loops back around to Mike’s first encounter with Davies at Harvard, leaving you, as the reader, to bite your nails with each succeeding chapter as the final showdown comes inexorably closer.

Not 100% sold on:

  • I’m not sure that every character is needed; the girlfriend’s father, for example.
  • The tie between Mike’s father’s crime and Henry Davies (although a small tie) stretches credulity.

Still, good work by Matthew Quirk in this thoroughly enjoyable debut novel.  He takes the lead in the ranking so far.  Just two more to go!

MWA Edgar (Best First Novel) ranking so far:

  1. The 500 by Matthew Quirk
  2. Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman
  3. Black Fridays by Michael Sears
  4. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal