Tag Archives: The Life We Bury

Bad Country Under Consideration

bad countryThe time has come for the final Literary Lunchbox post in the 3-Rs (reading, reviewing, and ranking) for the 2015 Best First Novel by an American Author Edgar.  The official Edgar will be awarded in NYC on April 29, but the anticipation is building right here.  The final entry is Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie.  Set in Arizona and featuring Native American PI Rodeo Grace Garnet, the book won the Tony Hillerman Prize, a $10,000 advance and publication by St. Martin’s Press.   I loved Tony Hillerman’s work, devouring his Leaphorn and Chee books when I discovered them in the 1980s.   He received practically every mystery writing award there was to win, and was president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Hillerman passed away in 2008, a sad day for mystery lovers.   All this is leading up to why I was very interested in reading Bad Country.

My overall impression is that CB McKenzie is no Tony Hillerman – but then, who could be?  Hillerman’s books were police procedurals, but steeped in the ways of the Navajo and other tribes.  There is a lot of looking, thinking and talking in Hillerman’s books.  They have a lot of space for subtlety.  Not so much for McKenzie.

Some critics have called Bad Country “cowboy noir,” and that’s a particularly apt description.  The writing is spare, the violence is gritty and real, the men are hard although not all bad, and the women are, for the most part, demons.   One plot point features the characteristics of ten Native American tribes, but otherwise, Native American culture doesn’t have much impact on the book.  It’s more like the movie Chinatown, with Rodeo Grace Garnet in the JJ Gittes role.

Here’s where the plot begins:  Rodeo’s a tough, hard-living PI in a small town in Arizona, with a bad ex-girlfriend who happens to be the good sheriff’s daughter, and a faithful dog.  Someone’s murdered an Indian man on Rodeo’s doorstep.  And someone else has gunned down a teenager in a drive-by; that teen’s grandmother hires Rodeo to look into it, and the game is afoot.

These two seemingly straight-forward crimes are just the respective tips of two different icebergs, and along the way to solving them both, Rodeo faces disillusionment and death more than once.  By the end, more than one good guy is dead, as are multiple bad guys, but Rodeo has kept more evil at bay, Rodeo’s dog is okay and we suspect that the chemistry between him and the lady vet is building into something good for book #2.

Here’s what I liked about Bad Country:  Excellent main character, knotty plot, noir tough, and a great dog.  Not in love with:  Too many characters with too many problems and too much plot stuffed into one book.  Also, use some quote marks, already.

So where to rank it?  Definitely above The Life We Bury and Invisible City. Definitely below Dry Bones in the Valley.   Shovel Ready was more inventive, Murder at the Brightwell was more assured and better written.  So Bad Country goes on my ranking at #4, making Dry Bones in the Valley my winner!

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Best First Novel by an American Author

  1. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
  2. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
  3. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
  4. Bad Country by CB McKenzie
  5. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  6. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Cover art for Bad Country: No complaints.  The car features in the plot, as does the desert locale, and the typography is spot-on.  Title:  Also appropriate.

#4 in the Edgar countdown: Invisible City


Well-titled Invisible City, okay cover art! IMHO.

They say to write what you know, and Julia Dahl did.   She’s a journalist specializing in crime, has a Lutheran father and Jewish mother, and lives in Brooklyn.  And Rebekah Roberts, the protagonist of her debut mystery (up for an MWA Edgar!), Invisible Cityis a lot like Julia.   Her mother was a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who rebelled, married Rebekah’s dad (just to mix it up, he’s a Methodist), and stuck with him for a few years, leaving them to return to her own community when Rebekah was five. Her mother’s abandonment has haunted Rebekah ever since.  It’s the expectation that somehow, someway, she’ll find out more about her mother – and perhaps even connect with her – that leads new college grad Rebekah to head for NYC and a job as a tabloid stringer.

Indeed, it’s Rebekah’s physical resemblance to her mother that gives her an edge over other reporters when the naked body of an observant woman turns up, head shaved, in Gowanus.  The NYPD barely investigates and the woman’s body is whisked away, not to the coroner’s office, but to a Jewish funeral home, where her body will be cleansed and buried within 24 hours – no autopsy, no evidence.  A Jewish police detective, brought in to help translate, knows Rebekah’s mother, and he smooths the way for her to talk with many of the religious who would ordinarily keep shtum.  At first, Rebekah just wants to get the story.  But soon, she’s driven to actually solve the crime.   As she gets deeper into the investigation and her persona as Rivka (the diminutive for Rebekah), she also begins to understand the world her mother inhabited.

Dahl tells the story well, including a surprising plot twist at the end that you won’t see coming, but is not a cheat. The side story about her mother is interesting, and Dahl is skillful in revealing this religious culture to the reader as Rebekah learns about it herself.  However, I’m having a terrible time ranking the book, because there are definitely clunky aspects to the writing.  For example, the boyfriend Tony is barely a sketch, and there’s at least one random, coarse-languaged sex scene that feels grafted-on to ensure grittiness.

The book clearly ranks above The Life We Bury, and below Dry Bones in the Valley, but where to place it compared to Murder at the Brightwell, which has an assured, elegant style and is a lovely book for its type (not my favorite type, though!)  After much mental haggling, I’m ranking this Edgar nominee third out of the four reviewed to date.

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. Invisible City by Julia Dahl
  4. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

And since I’ve been explicitly commenting on covers and titles, I would point out that Invisible City is a perfect fit for the city within a city where the Hasidim reside.  I suppose the cover art features the appropriate city and evokes a certain angst, so can’t really complain there, either.

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.

First up in Edgar Countdown: Allen Esken’s The Life We Bury

In the weeks between now and the Edgar Awards Ceremony on April 29, I’ll be reading, reviewing, and ranking the nominees for Best Novel and Best First Novel by an American Author.  When the Edgars are polished up and handed out, we’ll see whether the Literary Lunchbox Edgars match the MWA Edgars.  Typically it’s not 100% (although I did call them both in 2010).  In a change of pace, I’m starting with the new authors and head down the home stretch for a big finish with the Best Novel nominees.

life-we-bury-200First up is Allen EskensThe Life We Bury.   One positive right off the bat:  written in first person, Eskens’ protagonist, Joe Talbert is a fresh voice. The prose is clean and the character’s engaging.  His problems are real, and the way he handles them makes us root for him.

Joe’s a college kid from a small town, struggling to put himself through the University of Minnesota, dragged down by his alcoholic gambler of a mother and guilt-ridden because he’s not able to protect his autistic brother.  He lives in a cheap apartment across the hall from Lila, a cute co-ed with a past.  An English assignment – to interview someone and then write a biography of that person’s life – sends him on an unexpected quest to solve a decades-old crime.

Carl Iverson is a Vietnam vet, a hero, a convicted rapist and murderer – and he’s dying of pancreatic cancer.  He vows to tell the truth, no matter what; it’s his “dying declaration.”  Carl’s a good guy who is haunted by his actions in Viet Nam- he feels guilty both for not doing more and for the actions he did take.  (It’s clear to the reader, of course, that Carl has nothing to blame himself for.)  But he denies raping and murdering Crystal Hagen 30 years previously.  And as Joe begins to validate Carl’s story, with Lila’s help, it becomes more and more apparent that the killer may still be out there.

Of course he is!  And he’s pretty crafty.  When he gets his hands on Lila, the suspense ratchets up.  Not much of a spoiler alert to let you know that it all works out in the end.  The bad guy is vanquished, Joe and Lila are injured but live on, and Carl Iverson’s conviction is vacated before he dies, peacefully, in his sleep.  The only fly in the ointment is that Joe’s out of money for college because he paid his awful mother’s bail.  But wait!  The bad guy has killed multiple women, the cops connected the dots, and there’s reward money in it for Joe.  Yay!  College is back in the cards and he even has enough money to take care of Jeremy.

Here’s what I like about The Life We Bury:

  • characters you care about
  • a fresh voice
  • an easy, readable style with excellent pacing
  • an unexpected twist in the plot

And now here are a few drawbacks:

  • Too much reliance on coincidence 
  • Iverson’s too saintly
  • Ending’s too upbeat

Overall, Allen Eskens has real talent and the book itself is well worth reading.  I’m looking forward to seeing more from him, and for now, the Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking has him at #1.

mwa_logoBest First Novel by an American Author:

  1. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens