Tag Archives: ranking

Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew

knewThe third finalist for the MWA Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original is Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew.  It’s a compulsive page-turner of the “oh no, what more can go wrong” variety.

The book turns on a missing boy, eight-year-old Benedict Finch, who disappears one day from an area woodland where he, his mom, and their little dog Skittle often walk.  Told primarily from the point of view of his mother, Rachel, the story is also recounted from the perspective of Jim Clemo as well as that of Jim’s psychiatrist.   Although the time frame from Ben’s disappearance to the solving of the crime is about a week, the impact of everyone’s actions – including those closest to Ben, the police investigators, even the suspects – reverberates well into the future.

MacMillan does an excellent job of doling out information a bit at a time, ratcheting up the suspense, while switching from one perspective to another (a characteristic of Lou Berney’s nominated novel, as well).   The police follow one lead after another, many of which seem promising on the surface, but fail to pan out.  The police distrust of the mother leads to some significant mis-steps, and when it comes right down to it, Rachel is the only one who figures out what happened and takes action to save her son.

Ultimately, What She Knew is a fun psychological thriller with some aspirations to significance, an easy book to gulp down.  But I found it to be overcrowded with characters, all of whom had a carefully constructed psychological backstory which was eventually recounted.  I also could have done without the talky epilogue.

In terms of ranking, Berney’s book is clearly superior.  And comparing MacMillan to McAlpine, I’ll have to give Woman with a Blue Pencil the edge for mind-bending originality. Thus What She Knew comes in third at this point.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Paperback Original

  1. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
  2. Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine
  3. What She Knew by Gilly MacMillan


ps- As an MWA member, I got my invite for the Edgar Symposium and Awards Banquet… ah, if only…

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

Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town Best Novel Nominee

coptownI grabbed another police procedural for my second book to read, review and rank for the Mystery Writers of America‘s Edgar award for Best Novel this year:  Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town.  Slaughter’s a well-established author, like Rankin, albeit a younger one.  According to her website, she writes two series, although both are set in Georgia and feature overlapping characters.  The book that’s up for an Edgar is a standalone.  And what a standalone it is.

Cop Town‘s set in 1974 Atlanta, and the protagonists are officers Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy.  For Maggie, Atlanta is truly a cop town – her brother, her uncle, in fact, most of the guys she knows and grew up with are all with the police.  And in Atlanta in 1974, the police department is about as segregated as it gets.   White rides with white, black with black, and when it comes to gender… man, no guy wants to ride with a woman.  Maggie’s got the street smarts and the experience (mostly from her time with Gail Patterson, an experienced detective, who’s both profane and surprisingly tender).  But at home, she’s chopped liver.  Her mother dotes on her brother Jimmy while Maggie does everybody’s ironing and takes the back of her uncle Terry’s hand – and worse – whenever he’s angry with her.

Enter Kate Murphy, her first day on the force.  Kate’s blonde, beautiful, rich, Jewish and a widow.  There’s no hiding the first two attributes, but she keeps the final three well-buried.  She’s also smart, determined, and willing to learn.

The world they’re living in:  Somebody’s shooting cops, execution-style... and not from a distance.  Somehow they’re getting up close and personal, getting the victim to call in for a break, unplug his radio, kneel on the ground and take a bullet to the brain.  Only the most recent victim is a little different:  It was Jimmy Lawson’s partner who was killed while Jimmy watched, horrified, just a few yards away.  And Maggie and Kate are determined to find the killer.  

The job’s a tough one, because they not only have to piece together the clues, but they have to do so by crossing the color line (the barriers they have to overcome just to get to talk to a black pimp!) while all the male cops either shut them out or harass them.  It takes them just four action-packed days.

Needless to say, Cop Town‘s an out-and-out fantastic crime thriller.  The pacing, the police work, the dialogue, plus the occasional sneak peek into the killer’s POV, keeps it moving right along.  It’s a gritty book, too.  The violence isn’t gratuitous, but Slaughter doesn’t shy away.  Add in great, three-dimensional characters and even some character development – you know I’m going to love that.  Then, throw in the fact that I was 19 in 1974… man, I can relate to Maggie and Kate.  We were all trying to convince ourselves that we could do anything we wanted to do.

Still, how does Cop Town stack up against Saints of the Shadow Bible?  That’s a tough one.  Saints is a superior Rebus novel, and I love Rebus.  In Goodreads parlance, Saints is a five-star book for me, and so is Cop Town.  But I’m going to have to give Cop Town the edge for originality.   Slaughter’s told a tough story from a unique perspective and done it exceedingly well.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings:  Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Cop Town by Karin Slaughter
  2. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

Rankin’s Ranking for Standing in Another Man’s Grave

best5The third nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best Novel is, like Thomas H. Cook, no newcomer to the awards scene.   1998 brought a nomination of Black and Blue, an Inspector Rebus novel (didn’t win), but Rebus  brought home the Edgar for him in 2004 for Resurrection Men.   Now author Ian Rankin up again, this time for Standing in Another Man’s Grave.

I’ve been a Rebus fan since I discovered him in the early books, when he was a mid-career detective with a young daughter and an estranged wife, smoking too much, drinking too much, and spending way too much time on the job.  It’s 25 years later, and Rebus is retired but can’t leave the life behind – still working on the job, now as a civilian.  As always, Rebus does things his own way… as always, he wreaks havoc for himself and others…. and, as always, he gets results.

I reviewed the book when it first came out, you can read that review here.  Big thumbs up from me then.  On re-reading for the Edgars, my experience was just as positive, and I had the chance to revisit some of the reasons why.

The book’s plot is satisfyingly twisty, with a resolution most readers won’t see coming.   In addition to the suspense generated by the mystery itself, there is plenty of character-driven tension as well, as Rebus walks too close to the line for Internal Affairs officer Malcolm Fox.  Introduced as the protagonist in Rankin’s The Complaints, Fox couldn’t be more opposite to – or more suspicious of – John Rebus.  Fox is out to prove Rebus is dirty, but he’s got a softer spot for Rebus’ old pal Siobhan Clarke.  Both men hope that her relationship with Rebus won’t derail her successful career.    Plus, there’s an interesting side plot focusing on Rebus’ nemesis/frenemy, Big Ger Cafferty.   Cafferty may be sidelined, but he’s still active behind the scenes and it’s fun to see him out-maneuvered for once.

It’s a solid book in the series and ranks, in my eyes, about as high as Edgar-winning Resurrection Men.   Comparing Standing to Sandrine is challenging, as they are so different in type.  In many ways, Cook is attempting a deeper, more nuanced novel, but he doesn’t completely pull it off.  Standing in Another Man’s Grave is a classic police procedural, perfectly presented.  Therefore, Rankin ranks higher.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings: Best Novel

  1. Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin
  2. Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook
  3. The Humans by Matt Haig

Sandrine vs. The Humans

sandrineI have a long history with Thomas H. Cook, having been introduced to him in 1996 via his Edgar-award wining novel, The Chatham School Affair.   Wikipedia tells me that he has been nominated for an Edgar seven times, and I have no cause to doubt it.  Sandrine’s Case, Cook’s most recent book, is a worthy nominee for the MWA Edgar award for Best Novel.  It features that most challenging and frequently disappointing protagonist:  the unreliable narrator.

That narrator is Samuel Madison, and the Sandrine in question is his wife.  She was ill, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, shutting down in stages and dead by her own hand – or was she?  The novel opens as the jury foreman is about to render a verdict in Sam’s trial for murdering her… and immediately skips backwards, to the first day of the trial, and then back further, to remember a conversation with his lawyer on the day he was arrested, and then further back, to the evidence that had been gathered against him.  And while the type of crime novel feels a great deal like the innocent-man-falsely-accused, it also begins to feel like a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-he- actually-did-it! type of novel.  AKA the psychological courtroom thriller.

Suspense builds throughout the book, primarily because Cook is such a skillful writer that many of the “clues” can be read in more than one way.  The reader’s perspective on Sam’s guilt or innocence changes from chapter to chapter.  On one hand, Sam is clearly a jerk.  More than selfish, he’s totally self-involved.  On the other hand, Sandrine had his measure, and loved him anyway.  And their daughter, Alexandria, is loyal to her father.

Resting by Antonio Mancini Art Institute of Chicago

Resting by Antonio Mancini
Art Institute of Chicago

The final twist comes when Sam realizes that with her death, Sandrine has recreated a painting they had seen together long ago, at a time when Sam was not yet jaded and cynical, but empathetic and soulful.  (The painting Cook references is a real one, shown at right.)  With her suicide, Sandrine sought to remind Sam of what he had been – and to return him to that better self.  It was the final act of a desperate woman, undertaken out of love.  Sam returns her self-sacrifice by refusing to offer this explanation in the courtroom, leaving his final judgment up to the jury.

In my opinion, Cook should have stopped there, but I know readers across the country would have let out a mighty cry of frustration.  Indeed, he is found innocent, and an unsatisfying coda is added  – the idea that Sam Madison would be so moved, so changed by his wife’s suicidal action, that he would change his life and spend the next 25 years teaching children in Africa.  I found this final grand gesture to be unnecessary.

Overall, Sandrine’s Case has the advantage over The Humans in that it is clearly in the mystery/crime/suspense genre.  It also has suspense, plotting, pacing, and characterization going for it.  No surprise, it takes the lead.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings: Best Novel

  1. Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook
  2. The Humans by Matt Haig

The mystery of The Humans

the humansThe Mystery Writers of America Best Novel nominees  line-up is six-deep, and I had read five of the six finalists previously.  The Edgar awards will be presented on May 1, so I’ve got time now to review and rank them all, starting with Matt Haig’s The Humans.  And I’ll get it out of the way right up front:  I can’t fathom the mystery of this book.  Literally.  It’s not a mystery.  Or a crime novel.  Or suspense.  It is, quite simply, science fiction.  Pretty darn good science fiction, but still…

Here’s the set-up:  there’s a naked man on a lonely country road.  He looks like mathematician Andrew Martin, of Cambridge University.  But he’s not.  He’s an alien who has killed Professor Martin because he proved the Reimann Hypothesis.  The alien has taken over the professor’s body so he can destroy any existing evidence and kill anyone who may know of the professor’s achievement.  (Fortunately for alien Andrew, Martin tends to secrecy and has only told one colleague.)

Alien Andrew, not knowing Earth’s ways well, is hit by a car, escapes from the ambulance, jogs to a Texaco station where he learns Earth’s ways a little bit better by reading a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine.  (The Humans is not without humor!)  He ends up home with his not-all-that-loving wife, Isobel, and his troubled son, Gulliver.  You recall that he’s supposed to kill everyone who knows of Andrew’s discovery… fortunately for Isobel, she and Andrew haven’t been talking that much lately.  Not such good news for the professor’s colleague.  And it could have been seriously bad news for the son.

As an alien, Andrew is part of a communal consciousness where all is always perfect and no one dies.  The goal is to keep this perfect state, which is threatened when any civilization becomes too advanced.  Human Andrew begins to appreciate that the communal consciousness is not all it’s cracked up to be.  In fact, the essential loneliness of humanity is the reason why love is so precious and loss so painful.  He fights for his family and for the human race, giving up immortality in the process.

starmanI’ll admit it, I enjoyed the book.  Totally caught up in it, and about 1/3 of the way through, I gave up trying to figure out where the mystery was and settled in for the ride.  But I had a nagging sense of déja vu, until it finally hit me:  Starman.  The Jeff Bridges movie about a alien who takes on the form of a young widow’s husband, and they’re pursued cross-country by the U.S. government.  It has alien nudity, super-natural powers, growing romance, and self-sacrifice.  All of which are notably present in The Humans as well.

I think it’s quite likely that The Humans will end up ranking at the bottom of my list, if only because I can’t quite get my head around the fact that it’s even up for an Edgar.  With my luck, it’ll win.  But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy putting it at #1 for now!

Lunchbox Rankings:  Best Novel

1.   The Humans by Matt Haig


Final Edgar entry: Rage Against The Dying

rageLast up for the Edgar!  Becky Masterman‘s first novel, Rage Against The Dying, has a unique protagonist:  Brigid Quinn, an aging former FBI agent, who spent her career hunting sexual predators.   She’s strong, flawed, and merciless, pushed out of the agency after shooting an unarmed suspect – a female Clint Eastwood.   But that’s all in the past.  Brigid’s now one of those sinewy, self-possessed women who enjoys life with her new husband, a philosophy professor and former Catholic priest, Carlo.  She keeps her former self in a box, pushed down tight, certain that if Carlo knew the real her – the cunning woman, the violent woman, the woman who can be filled with rage – he’d leave her.

Of course, this uneasy peace can’t last.  And it doesn’t.  An old case comes back to life, bringing with it Brigid’s biggest failure and her biggest regret – she blames herself for the disappearance and certain death of a young FBI agent, her protégée.  Jessica’s body has been discovered, and a man has confessed to the serial killings.  He knows things only the killer should know.  It should be good news, but Brigid always looks for the dark side.

The plot escalates.  Multiple movie-worthy action sequences.  There are good guys in desperate peril, a last-minute saving of the day, and the absolute necessity of lying about the whole thing.  Because sometimes a greater truth demands an untruth.

But the jig is up, marriage-wise.  There’s no keeping Carlo in the dark after these events.  Fortunately, Carlo is an even better man than Brigid imagined him to be.

All in all, Rage Against The Dying is a thoroughly engaging thriller.  It’s up there with the best of Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay.   But how does it rank when it comes to the other four finalists?   Let’s stack it up.  The Resurrectionist and Reconstructing Amelia – no question, still at the bottom.  Ghostman is a great read, but Rage has it beat in terms of sheer pulse-pounding engagement.  Red Sparrow had the top spot, and it is a highly literate, classic spy novel.

But Rage Against The Dying turns the classic flawed-cop thriller on its ear with its female protagonist.  Put together character, plot, action, and voice, and Rage is the winner.

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings:  Best First Novel

  1. Rage Against The Dying by Becky Masterman
  2. Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews
  3. Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
  4. Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
  5. The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn