Tag Archives: Review

Nominee #2: A Rising Man

risingAfter my last post, moaning about historical… the next nominee for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel is Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, set in 1919 Calcutta.   The heat, grime, and colonial culture where the British rule, the natives serve, and those of mixed race are shunned by both, welcome Captain Sam Wyndham.  A former Scotland Yard detective, Capt. Wyndham faces his first case – the murder of a British official, Alexander MacAuley.  Found in a “dark, dead-end alley,” the body was mangled, throat cut, and a mysterious message in Bengali, on expensive paper, was forced into his mouth.  “No more warnings,” it read.  “English blood will run in the streets.  Quit India!”  Terrorists? the captain wonders.  Or perhaps it was just supposed to look like terrorists?

Helping Captain Wyndham is Inspector Digby – surely much too well-qualified to report to an inexperienced man such as Wyndham – and Sergeant Surendranath Bannerjee, known as “Surrender-Not.”  (My favorite character!) Also of service is the dead man’s secretary, the lovely Annie Grant.  The prime suspect?  Political activist Benoy Sen.  It would suit all to find Sen guilty, and it’s soon made clear that Wyndham is expected to investigate only so far as it is necessary to deliver Sen, collect accolades, and let business be business in the corrupt corners of Calcutta.

Hampered by a hankering for opium, Wyndham’s still a good investigator and realizes that all is not as it seems.  Fairly early on, I realized that this was going to be one of those “which one of these characters I already met is really the bad guy?” books.  Was it the madam Mrs. Bose, whose upscale house of ill repute was near where MacAuley’s body was found?  Perhaps the L-G, Wyndham’s boss?  Mr. Buchan?  The good reverend?  Someone closer to home?  And which of these were behind the botched train robbery? That’s where Mukherjee fooled me – there were two surprise bad guys!

Here’s what I found good about the book:  nicely written, easy to read, some likable/interesting characters, pretty twisty plot with red herring.  It read like an Agatha Christie, with an updated protagonist who showed a remarkable openness to diversity given the 1919 timeframe.  Still, not really my cup of tea.

Comparison to Kathleen Kent’s The Dime?  Tough.  Very different books, both worth reading, neither of which do I think will take home the Edgar.  I’m going to keep The Dime on top simply because I’m more likely to read book 2 in Kent’s series.

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

  1. The Dime by Kathleen Kent
  2. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
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Dark Chapter depicts real life

chapterIt’s been said that your first book is always an autobiography, however well-fictionalized.  For Winnie Li and Dark Chapter, that truism as literally true – both author and protagonist were raped by an Irish teenager while on a hiking vacation in Ireland.  As did Ms. Li, Dark Chapter‘s Vivian Tan dismissed her sense of unease until it was too late.  Later, both face their rapists and saw them convicted.  Vivian’s story closely parallels Li’s.  You can read more about the truth behind the fiction in this article in the Irish Times.

Grappling with a traumatic experience through writing is common enough, and to wrest a publishable book from the experience is laudable, but to achieve an Edgar nom is only slightly short of miraculous.  What takes Dark Chapter out of the “here is the horrible thing that happened” category of fictionalized memoir is Winnie Li’s decision to tell both stories:  that of the raped woman and the rapist boy.

She does so with some psychological insight and craft, alternating between Vivian’s perspective and that of the boy who rapes her.  John Michael Sweeney is a traveler, born rough and raised rougher.  He loves his ma, but the girls he kisses, fingers and forces into sex are less than people to him.  His panic following the rape, the way his friends and brother support and help him, is contrasted with his father’s expectation that he turn himself in and take responsibility for his action.  The reader has limited sympathy for Johnny, and no small measure of disgust.

Vivian Tan is a career woman in a glamorous field, with a good head on her shoulders despite some poor decision-making, and she is steadfast in her decision to hold Sweeney accountable.  She is so steadfast that the reader is distanced from the pain and trauma Vivian experiences following the assault.  The confusion regarding her background – is she a Chinese tourist?  No, American – rings true but isn’t really necessary to the plot.

As a debut novelist, Winnie Li has chosen a compelling story – her own.  But it seems to me that she has adhered too faithfully to the facts as she sees them, resulting in a plot that marches forward.  How characters are presented is particularly important in any book, but particularly so for Edgar nominees.  But there is too much good in the good Vivian and too much bad in the bad Johnny.  Neither character has much complexity.

Men come off particularly badly in Dark Chapter.  Where are the good guys?  I sincerely hope that in real life, Winnie Li has found a strong, supportive, loving man to be her partner in life.  The shallow narcissist that is protagonist Vivian’s first post-rape boyfriend is just too real to be fiction.  And Winnie – heck, every woman! – deserves better.

How does Dark Chapter stack up to the two already reviewed nominees?  For the faults noted above, it will go to the bottom of the ranking.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy
  3. Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li

She Rides Shotgun: a compulsive read

Nshotgunext up in the MWA Edgar Awards category of Best First Novel is Jordan Harper’s novel She Rides Shotgun.  It’s a mesmerizing, nail-biting, fast-paced and tightly plotted tale of good vs. evil with an unusual protagonist – an 11-year old, teddy-bear toting girl with ice-blue eyes and a talent for violence.

Polly McClusky’s dad, Nate McClusky, has been sentenced to death.  Not by the judicial system – although he is a felon – but by the leader of Aryan Steel, a gang of white supremacists.  It’s a particularly vicious sentence, because it dooms not only Nate, but ex-wife Avis and their daughter.  Nate comes home to warn them, but he’s too late – Avis and her new boyfriend are dead.  He scoops a wary Polly up from the sidewalk in front of her school, and they begin a deadly cat-and-mouse game with one objective:  lift the “green light” and save Polly’s life.  Tracking them both:  Detective John Park.

Nate’s initial plan is to get Polly to a relative’s home, where she’ll be safe.  On the way, he passes on the life skills taught to him by his partner in crime and dead older brother, Nick.  Skills like how to take a punch.  When to run.  How to fight dirty.  Where to stab.  How to use your skinny arms to make a grown man lose consciousness.  Most importantly, how to keep going when doing so is impossible, but the alternative is death.

It’s no surprise to learn in She Rides Shotgun that no place is safe and that friends can betray you, but also that there can be unexpected allies.  The story is primarily Polly’s, and Harper does an amazing job of letting you inside Polly’s head, to see the confusion and sadness, but also the hard core of steel and the fierce loyalty there.  Nate has been pretty much absent from Polly’s life, but is redeemed by the journey and his quest to save her, overcoming his own misjudgment through sheer will.  Det. Park is wily, but one step behind.

I think you are getting the point that She Rides Shotgun gets an enthusiastic thumbs  up from me.  How does it compare to Tornado Weather, the first book reviewed in this category?  Tornado Weather is an interesting, insightful, and thoroughly readable book.  But She Rides Shotgun is a compulsive, propulsive read, with out-there-but-believable characters that you care about.  No competition:  She Rides Shotgun takes top spot.

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

  1. She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
  2. Tornado Weather by Deborah E. Kennedy

Final finalist Before the Fall

fallWe’re getting down to the wire – the MWA Edgar Awards banquet is just four days away in NYC and I am posting my final review in the read, review, and ranking for the Best Novel category.  I previously completed the Best Paperback Original and Best First Novel by an American Author categories.  The nominee:  Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall.  This is his first Edgar nom.

You might know Hawley as a novelist, or you might know him as a screenwriter and producer (Fargo, Legion, others).  He’s won Emmys, Golden Globes and Peabody awards. I read one of his previous books – A Conspiracy of Tall Men – and found it entertaining.  It is similar to Before the Fall in that it takes a pretty ordinary guy, puts him into extraordinary circumstances, and then ramps up a mystery with a big dose of conspiracy.  The books (at least the two I’ve read) are very cinematic.

In Before the Fall, nice guy and artist Scott Burroughs accepts an offer of a lift on a private plane from Maggie Bateman, a casual friend, the young wife of the head of a television news network, David Bateman.  Also on the plane are Rachel and JJ, the couple’s young daughter and son; their security chief, Gil Baruch; Ben and Sarah Kipling, a Wall Street hedge fund manager about to be indicted for money laundering and his wife.  There is also the three-person crew: beautiful flight attendant Emma Lightner, pilot James Melody who is having some medical issues, and hard-partying co-pilot Charlie Busch.  Just 18 minutes into the flight from Martha’s Vineyard to NYC, the plane crashes into the ocean.   Scott comes up into a hellish view, as the plane fuel is on fire, and he soon encounters the only other survivor –  four year old JJ.   Scott swims ten miles with an injured arm, carrying the child.

The book alternates between what happens to Scott and JJ, as time moves forward, and the individual backstories of the plane’s passengers and crew.   As the authorities search for the wreckage, theories as to the cause of the crash abound.  Newsman Bill Cunningham (my mind’s eye pictured Bill O’Reilly) had been about to be fired from Bateman’s network, but instead he makes ratings soar with speculation about the cause of the crash, anchoring a lot of his wild ramblings to Scott Burroughs.  The depths of his amoral self-interest… well, let’s just say the depths or so deep we’re not sure there’s a bottom.  Scott and the boy have forged a bond that is unquestionable, but of course it is questioned, and JJ’s loving Aunt Eleanor is married to a man best described as “loser scumbag” (expect attraction to hero Scott and you will be right on).

I liked Before the Fall when I read it the first time, carried along on the tide of the plot, the sneak peeks into the characters’ backstories, and the insights Hawley provides along the way before revealing the reason for the crash.  Rereading more critically for the Edgar ranking, I still see the good.  Some of the backstories, in particular, are like short stories in themselves (pilot James Melody and his mom, for example).

But I see the book’s flaws more clearly this time around.  The good guys are uber-good.  The bad guys are uber-bad.  Coincidence abounds:  Scott almost misses the plane, but doesn’t.  His big new idea for his paintings is a series of hyper-realistic depictions of tragedies, including a plane crash.  He is capable of the huge, heroic swim because as a child he had seen and been inspired by a feat of swimming derring-do by the famous Jack LaLanne, so he devoted himself to the sport.  The pilot leaves the cockpit because he has a bloody nose, something he’d been delaying seeing a doctor for, leaving the way clear for a homocidal/suicidal act that dooms them all.  And the climax – where Scott is live on-camera with Bill Cunningham when the newsman plays a tape that reveals he had been bugging victim’s phones to dig up dirt and Scott is able to reveal exactly what the FBI found out – is completely over the top.

And yet, I still like the book.  My friend and writing colleague Addy Whitehouse is also rating these nominees, and she gave Before the Fall a 1.  And that’s not #1, it’s the best, it’s 1 on a 10-point scale, with 10 as high.  You can read her review hereshe really hated the head-hopping and varying POVs.  She noted the cinematic approach, and not in admiration.  On the there hand, we were in total agreement on Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where it Hurts.  All of which proves why there are so many books published each year – opinions differ!

Where does Before the Fall go on the ranking?  Definitely not above mid-packWhere it Hurts and Jane Steele are clearly superior.  And I can’t get around The Ex’s OMG twister of an ending (seriously?).  So that leaves Noah Hawley at #3.  If the MWA judges agree with me, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele will take home the Edgar.

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

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
  4. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  5. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin

Lost Girls Last Up, Takes LL Edgar

lostYep, I called it.  I read and reviewed Heather Young’s The Lost Girls when it come out last year, and prophesied that it would receive an Edgar nom for Best First Novel.  And indeed it did.

When I reread a book for the Edgars, it’s a different kind of reading.  It’s not just getting swept along by the story and connecting with the characters, I read for craft… how does the author put the story together, show the characters, manage the pace, reveal the secrets while maintaining the suspense?  And the ending – is it satisfying, or does it just stop?  (Or is it a set-up for the next book?  Augh.)  When it comes to these factors, Heather Young has done a fantastic job.  

The Lost Girls is two stories, one in the past and one in the present, intertwined, and connected through a single family.

It all begins in 1935 at the summer house of a seemingly happy and well-to-do family.  The father owns a pharmacy and is very religious.  There are three girls. Lilith, the wild one, is 13. Lucy, the quiet middle sister, is two years younger. And the baby of the family, the cosseted Emily who rarely leaves her mother’s side, is six.  And then one day, Emily vanishes. No trace of her is ever found, and the father kills himself just a few months later.  Lilith, Lucy, and Eleanor, their mother, live together, year-round, in the house by the lake.  There are lifelong secrets kept, not to be revealed until Lucy, nearing the end of her life, decides to recount the story of that summer and the years since then in a notebook she leaves for her grand-niece, Justine, whom she hasn’t seen in over 20 years.

Meanwhile, in the present.  Justine is gobsmacked to hear from a lawyer that her great aunt Lucy has died and she is her heir.  There is a house and money, but more than that – it’s the chance for a new beginning.  Justine had a bad marriage and is making a worse mistake with her controlling, live-in boyfriend, Patrick.  So she packs their bags, loads the girls in the car, and leaves her apartment key and a note that tells Patrick that there is spaghetti in the refrigerator, and takes her last bit of cash and drives cross-country.  No credit cards, no cell phone – she simply does not want to be found.

A lot happens on the four-day trip and once gets there, she finds that the house is not in good shape, it’s scary cold, and Melanie, her older daughter, is sullen and resentful. And always there is the specter of Patrick.  Justine works hard to make a life for herself and her girls, and slowly she is succeeding.  She discovers the handwritten books that Lucy penned about her little sister Emily.  Among them is Lucy’s story for Justine, although she doesn’t find it – Melanie does.   They settle in and just when things seem to be going well, Patrick arrives, and with him, Justine’s crushing fear that she will give in and give up.

Rereading  makes it clear that Heather Young is a skillful first-time author.  Each story carries its own weight.  Justine’s love for her daughters, her insight into her own weakness, her awakening courage and the strength to stand up to the manipulative Patrick – even when he goes so far as to set their house on fire so he can become, once again, Justine’s “savior,” is painfully true.  Her small triumph is deeply personal and fulfilling.

And Lucy tells a story of her own awakening to the hidden depths and twisted relationships in her own family.  Over that one summer, she comes to realize what all in her family know but don’t say – that her father is sexually obsessed with Lilith’s purity, and that once she is sullied, he will move on to Lucy.  And then to Emily.  And it is his obsession, and how it affects all three girls and their mother that summer, that results in Emily’s death, his death, and a drastically diminished life for the women.  As she nears the end of her life, Lucy regrets her own part in the story and the choices she made.  Young makes Lucy’s story – told in her own voice – compelling and real, and by recounting it chronologically, keeps us in suspense.

it’s clear that The Lost Girls deserves a spot at the top of the Literary Lunchbox Edgar rankings.   Well-plotted, psychologically complex, optimistic and humane, it is a level above the other  nominees, although they are all deserving of the nomination!

mwa_logoLunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel

  1. The Lost Girls by Heather Young
  2. IQ by Joe Ide
  3. The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
  4. Dodgers by Bill Beverly
  5. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
  6. Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

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