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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…

Grisham’s Whistler ho-hum

I remember when I first read my first John Grisham book.  The Firm was (and is) a pulse-pounding, labyrinthine legal thriller, expertly plotted and with characters you care about.  Awesome.  I back-tracked and read A Time to Kill, which is now enshrined in my memory in two ways:  the b00k – which made me turn pages ferociously while blinking back tears – and the excellent film featuring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson.  The Pelican Brief.  The Client.  The Runaway Jury.  That man was on a serious roll.

whistlerGrisham’s The Whistler is not up to that standard.  The basis for the story has a lot of promise – an informant tells investigators for an underfunded and undermanned agency that investigates judicial misconduct that a prominent judge has been taking bribes to rule in favor of a Florida mob that’s exploiting an Indian tribe to rake off untold millions in illegal profits from a variety of unsavory ventures.  The investigators – Lacy Stoltz and her partner Hugo Hatch – are a likable, honest, intelligent pair who are pretty naive, and seriously outgunned by both the informant and the bad guys.  Tension ratchets when Hugo is killed, the pair having been lured to a remote location, their car deliberately rammed by a stolen van, and Lacy’s memory of the event is hazy.

There are a myriad of complications – the informant is just a front man for the real whistleblower, who is close to the judge and not difficult to identify. With the exception of Lacy, it’s hard to care much about any of the good guys, and the bad guys are so over the top they’re practically twirling their villainous mustaches.  But most egregiously, the legal noose tightens with little panache – it’s a straight march from figuring out who did what to bringing them to justice, all laid out nice and neatly in the epilogue.  All the ingredients for a legal thriller are there, it’s just not very thrilling.

Still, The Whistler is a huge improvement over Grisham’s most recent book, Rogue Lawyer.  I got that one as a  CD to listen to while making a long drive by car, and actually stopped at a rest stop to look at the cover to make sure it was really John Grisham.  It’s less a novel than a series of long short stories featuring a cage-fighting, low-life defending, underdog defense attorney.  He’s so colorful as to be technicolor, and about as believable as a Marvel comic book.  I’m sure it had its fans, though.

Recommend The Whistler as a Christmas gift for your thriller-loving dad?  If he’s discerning, you might give it a pass.  If not, go for it.  The Whistler may not be vintage Grisham, but it’s still Grisham.

 

 

Lee Child back with prequel Night School

night-schoolLee Child’s new Jack Reacher book, Night School, has two strikes against it, according to my husband.  One, Reacher’s working with a team.  Two, it’s set in the past.  According to book critic-slash-graphic designer-slash-artist Mr. B, the best Reacher stories are present-day and Reacher, solo, against the bad guys.

All of which goes to prove that Karen and her hubby don’t always agree.  Set in the mid-90s, Night School features a 35-year-old Reacher teaming up with his opposite numbers at the FBI and the CIA for a covert operation in Germany.  The goal: to find out what jihadists would pay $100 million for, where it came from, and who is “the American” who is selling it to them.  And, of course, to stop the sale and recover whatever it is.  Because it’s sure to be bad.

So here is what Reacher naysayers won’t like about Night School:  Reacher wins all his fights, even when it’s eight to one (or should I say eight to two, since the charming-yet-lethal Sgt. Frances Neagy does finish off the last one, arriving just in the nick of time).  Reacher is irresistible to the one high-ranking, ultra-attractive older woman on the team, and their sexual escapades are almost too much.  (Again?  she asks.  Yes, but then again, he’s younger than she is.)  He throws away his clothes and buys new ones, even when he’s not moving around and could go to the laundromat.  His insights almost always pay off, eventually.  And the characters are all about 2 inches deep.

And of course, what fans like:  All of the previous paragraph.  Plus the twistiness of the plot.  His breaking the rules to save the innocent.  Plus, Reacher’s infallibility when it comes to sizing things up and doing what needs to be done – even if it’s shooting an unarmed man in the heart.  And then the head.  Because he’s a really, really bad man.

So, count me among the fans.  I know it’s a formula.  But I like the formula.  I like 6’5″, 250 lb. guys who are ultra-cool under pressure.  (Not that I know any in real life.  It would probably be super scary and I’d back away, slowly, if I met one.)   And with Night School, you get what you came for, in spades.

Last Up: Canary to win.

canarySo I’m squeaking in under the wire… tomorrow night’s the Edgar Awards Banquet in New York City.   And I just re-read the last book that’s up for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, Duane Swierczynski’s Canary.

College student Sarafina Holland’s a good girl.  Sarie’s book-smart, savvy enough to fake her way through a college party without getting drunk or high, and a total pushover when it comes to a cute, foul-mouthed guy.  That’s why she says yes when red-chinos-wearing Drew asks her for a lift all the way across town to “pick up a book.”  Even when it’s the night before Thanksgiving, it’s late, and she has to pick up her rehab-counselor dad from the airport early in the AM.  So no surprise that it’s a big shock to her when Drew runs in “for a minute” and comes back out without a book.  And that she panics when a cop stops her and questions her on her third circle around the block, while Drew runs in to “pick up a cheesesteak.”  (That’s an actual cheesesteak, not a euphemism.)  She’s stupidly desperate to protect him, and the next thing she knows, he’s run off and she’s down at the station.  The next thing she knows, she’s a confidential informant.  CI #137.

Her handler is Philly narcotics cop Ben Wildey. His plan is to use Sarie to get through her boyfriend to his dealer, the clever and elusive Chuckie Morphine.  Chuck has ties to some major drug gangs, so it would be a big boost to his career.

And Sarie turns out to be a darn good CI.  Wildey mockingly calls her “Honors Girl,” but it’s a good thing she’s is so smart, because Wildey gets her in deep.  Without her ability to think three or four steps ahead, and to improvise in the heat of the moment, Sarie’d be dead.  (She also has the nerve to step up to a fight, not run away.  It’s a useful attribute).  It’s lucky that she’s also so plucky and likable, because on at least two occasions, those characteristics convince a bad guy to switch to Sarie’s side.

When all is said and done, Sarie comes through and the baddest of the bad guys get their comeuppance, but not without collateral damage.

I’ve simplified the plot tremendously.  Other facts that come in to play in Canary include:

  • Sarie’s mom is dead, her dad is grieving, and 12 year old brother Marty’s kind of lost.
  • Her best friend is dating an older guy.  A mobster.
  • The mobster is hooked up with a cop and they’re killing CIs with reckless abandon.
  • Wildey suspects his own partner of being that cop, but she’s only guilty of being stalked by her ex.  (Sad end to that one.)
  • Space cadet Drew wises up too late.  (Ditto.)
  • Dads and brothers can rise to the occasion.
  • A girl can find living a double life very energizing.

The plot’s great, the primary characters are compelling and even the minor characters are generally well-drawn and engaging.  And one of the things I liked best about Canary was Swierczynski’s way of narrating Sarie’s POV -as a kind of diary-slash-letter to her mother.  (That brother Marty later finds the notebook and tries to call in the calvary is a plus.)  This device allows Swierczynski to have what amounts to a second protagonist in Ben Wildey, who starts out heartlessly using Sarie and ends up growing a heart.

Compared to all the other nominees, Canary is an absolutely fresh take on the crime novel.  Duane Swiercynski‘s a 44-year old guy who has written a pulp fiction series featuring a ex-cop as well as many hard-boiled Marvel comics (including Deadpool  and The Immortal Iron Fist).  Where does he get the insight to write a believable 19-year-old girl?  Sheer talent, I guess.   

Who will win?  For fun, I went and looked up how these books are faring on Amazon.  Canary has 4.2 stars, Night Life 4.7, Footsteps 4.0, Life or Death 4.4, Strangler Vine 4.3 and Lady 4.2   If the Edgars were crowd-sourced, Night Life would win.  As of yesterday, I agreed.  Despite this, I’m giving Canary the top spot.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

  1. Canary by Duane Swierczynski
  2. Night Life by David C. Taylor
  3. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  4. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  5. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  6. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

 

Night Life Penultimate Best Novel Nom

nightlifeSo here we go with another historical crime novel – David C. Taylor’s Night Life.  It’s his debut novel and it garnered an Edgar nomination for Mystery Writers of America Best Novel. Well-done, Taylor!

It’s 1954, and the cold war is in the deep freeze.  Michael Cassidy’s a New York City detective, smart, sometimes violent but only with a good reason, who has odd dreams that sometimes come true. Cassidy and his partner Tony Orso are called to investigate the torture and murder of Alex Ingram, who coincidentally was a dancer in a show that Tom Cassidy, his father, is producing.  Cassidy discovers a half-dollar coin in a buff envelope taped inside Ingram’s locker at the theater.

Things spiral from there, with an ever-widening scope of investigation, a growing body count, and plenty of interest from the FBI, CIA, and even Senator Joseph McCarthy, who finds a communist everywhere he looks.  He may be an obsessive nut job, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real communist spies hard at work right here in NYC.  It turns out that Ingram was a KGB sleeper agent with a sideline in blackmail.  

On the personal front, Cassidy’s expecting retaliation from Franklin, a vice cop-slash-pimp.  Cassidy not only interrupted Franklin mid-assault on a hooker, but threw him out a window.  And he’s distracted by a new resident of his apartment building, a comely young woman who’s a welder working for an artist, bringing his metal sculptures to life.  (She wields a pretty mean baseball bat, too, rescuing Cassidy when Franklin’s buddies give him a beating in the apartment hallway.)  He’s close to his brother, Brian and sister, Leah, but not so close to his father, Tom.  His mother killed herself, more or less accidentally, taking an overdose of pills when she thought Tom would be coming home and would rescue her, thus bringing them closer together.  Unfortunately, Tom is essentially selfish, decided not to keep his promise, and teenage Michael discovered his mother’s cold body.

More about Cassidy’s father. More problems there.  He was born in Russia – Tomas Kasnavietski – emigrating to the US at age 15.  A staunch believer in the American dream, he’s surprised and dismayed to find that in 1954 America, Tom Cassidy’s about to be deported back to Russia.  His faith in his son and his friends to rescue him is unshaken.  Unfortunately, the friend is “Uncle Frank,” a mobster who wants a favor from Cassidy.

Fortunately, Cassidy’s a good detective, a smart negotiator and a good bluffer, with a stalwart partner and chutzpah to spare.  Still, it could have all gone sideways if it were not for his prophetic dreams… at the moment when the bad guys are about to ambush him, Cassidy recognizes the location and the sinking sense of dread from a recurrent dream.  It gives him the warning he needs to be the one left standing.

I’m very impressed with author David Taylor.  Night Life is tightly plotted, the coincidences not all that unlikely, the motivations for all clear and character-driven, and the integration of historical figures critical to the story, not distracting add-ons.  I understand that this is the first in a series featuring Det. Michael Cassidy, and I’ll be right there to read more in the future.  (In fact, book #2, Night Work, launched earlier this month.)

How does Night Life stack up to the other nominees?   Very, very well.  It’s eminently readable, like The Strangler Vine.  It’s got excellent pacing and similar switches in POV to keep up the suspense, as with Life or Death.  It’s got that paranormal aspect to it, as does Let Me Die in His Footsteps.   And it incorporates real-life historical figures, as does The Lady From Zagreb.  In fact, considering the whole package, I’m going to give Taylor’s debut mystery the top spot.  I may have reviewer’s regret when I review and rank the final nominee, Canary, and make some changes.  But time is running out, as the Edgars will be awarded Thursday!

Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Novel

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  1. Night Life by David C. Taylor
  2. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  3. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  4. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter
  5. The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

Roy’s Let Me Die In His Footsteps

footstepsLori Roy is either living a charmed life or is singularly talented.  Or possibly both.  She’s published three novels, and all three have been nominated for Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards.  Her first book, Bent Road, won the Edgar for Best First Novel in 2012. Her second, Until She Comes Home, was nominated for best novel in 2014, losing out to William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. Her latest is in the running for Best Novel.  Let Me Die in His Footsteps is set in a small town in Kentucky, moving back and forth between the 1930s and the 1950s.  The focus is on Juna Crowley, as seen through the eyes of her sister Sarah, and Juna’s daughter Annie Holleran.  Like her mother and grandmother, Annie has the “know-how” – a way of knowing what is coming before it comes.

Annie has known that her true mother is Juna, who went away when Annie is a baby, but could come back at any time.  She is watching for her, expecting her, especially now that Annie has reached her day of ascension.  That’s the day, halfway between her 15th and 16th birthdays, when a girl can look down a well at midnight and see the face of her intended husband.  Annie wants to see her future, but what she finds when she heads to the nearest well is more than she bargained for.  Personal mysteries abound, and for a girl with the know-how, Annie has an awful lot to figure out

In the alternating story, Sarah Crowley is yearning for a young man herself.  A neighbor, Ellis Baine, one of many brothers, is the one who draws her eye.  But it’s her sister, Juna, who attracts the men.  Sensual and selfish, Juna uses a mysterious power to get what she wants.  As Sarah knows, Juna has a way of bending a person’s mind in her direction.  Indeed, Juna wishes to go to the fields to have sex with a local man, but Sarah foils her plan and arranges for their younger brother, Dale, to go with Juna so that Sarah can engineer  a casual meeting with Ellis.  When Dale later can’t be found, Juna tells a story of a passerby who “took Dale.”  When all is said and done, the community is convinced that the oldest Baine boy, kidnapped and beat Dale, and raped Juna.  Sarah is skeptical, thinks Juna is to blame, but still leaves Dale in Juna’s care.  Dale dies.  And Joseph Carl Baine is hanged for the crimes.

The repercussions reverberate.  Indeed, Juna is pregnant, and the father assumed to be Joseph Carl.  The baby – Annie – is born much too early, but full size.  And within just a day, Juna packs a bag and is gone forever, only sending a card or letter each Christmas.  One by one, the Baine boys leave town.  Sarah marries John Holleran, a good man who loves her, and takes Annie as her own.  And life goes on until Annie’s ascension day, when all begins to unravel.

By the end of Let Me Die in His Footsteps, all mysteries are resolved, and in ways the reader definitely does not expect.  It’s not quite Sixth Sense surprising, but I let out an “OMG” at one point. The plot, pacing, and suspense are superb.  Roy has an amazing ability to show inner character through behavior.  She is a master of misdirection- hiding the pertinent facts in plain sight, buried in other facts, but obvious upon the reveal.  And perhaps most importantly, her writing is beautiful.  Her description of lavender fields is so lush, you can smell the lavender.

How does it stack up to Michael Robotham’s Life or Death and M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine?  We may be three for three when it comes to good reads, but Let me Die takes the top spot on my ranking.  I have three more books to review and rank before April 28, but Roy’s got my bet as of today.  Well-done.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Novel

  1. Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy
  2. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  3. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter

The Strangler Vine: Best Novel Nominee

stranglerEntering the fray for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel is M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine.  I admit that I was less than enthusiastic when I started this book – historical!  (groan) – India!  (double groan).  But Carter has won me over.

The book starts with a prologue- rarely a good beginning, in my opinion – of a man returning to his lodgings.  It’s June, 1837, and he watches from the shadows as intruders ransack his home, then ring the neck of his monkey.  Who is this guy? What’s going on?  And why am I sad about the darn monkey?   I don’t even know him.

Jump forward to September and we’re in first person.  William Avery is a none-too-lucky young officer, stuck in India, and volunteered by his pal Frank McPherson to pay a call upon Jeremiah Blake, carrying a message from the Company.  Blake’s a former special agent gone native following the death of his Indian bride and their son in childbirth.  As Avery is all spit and polish, he is appalled by the filthy and scabrous Blake.

Little does he know that within 50 pages or so he will be developing a great admiration for Blake’s abilities, as they set off together cross country on a quest to locate author Xavier Mountstuart.  Mountstuart is conducting research for a book on the Indian band called the Thugs, a religious sect who murdered in the name of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Blake and Avery are accompanied by three native men, one of whom, Mir Aziz, becomes a mentor to Avery.

The book is, without a doubt, a great adventure story.  How will they overcome all the obstacles in their way?  Will they find Mountstuart, and if so, alive or dead?   But it is also a spy novel, where all is not as it is appears.  In fact, there are secrets layered upon secrets.  And indeed, the Thuggee are not to blame for all the unrest in India, for as with any good political thriller writer knows, nothing allows fascism to grow more quickly than a fearsome, common enemy.  And there is nothing more heart-rending than betrayal by a double agent counted a friend.  The Strangler Vine in question is the authoritarian British company, squeezing the life out of the Indian culture.

As I mentioned, Carter made a believer out of me, drawing me in to the story and keeping the pages turning.  Lt. Avery grows up, from callow youth to mature man, over the course of his adventure, showing remarkable fortitude and skill when tested.  He does not triumph so much as eke the good out of a bad situation.

How does The Strangler Vine compare to Robotham’s Life or Death?  It’s like comparing cake and pie – totally a matter of taste, as both are at the top of their game.   As a cake woman, I have to give the edge to Life or Death, but I admire the pie and would totally eat more of it.

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Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Novel

  1. Life or Death by Michael Robotham
  2. The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter