Tag Archives: The River

On to Smoke and Ashes – Final Edgar Nom

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Smoke and Ashes is the final nominee for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, the third book in Abir Mukherjee’s series set in 1920’s Calcutta and  featuring British officer Sam Wyndham and his sergeant, “Surrender-not” Banerjee.  The debut novel, A Rising Man, was also a nominee for Best Novel in 2018.  It didn’t win and was last on the Literary Lunchbox ranking.  But still – first book and a nominee!  (My review of that book is here.)

The third book focuses on Christmas, 1921.  It’s a tumultuous historical time, when the Indian independence movement is in full swing and the followers of Gandhi are using nonnviolent resistance to press the oppressors and symbolic protests to unite the various indigenous factions.  About to arrive on the scene:  the Prince of Wales.   Lt. Wyndham is called by his superiors to investigate the murder of a woman.  Her eyes had been gouged out and two deep knife wounds were made to her chest.  This would have been upsetting to anyone, but it was a particular shock to Sam Wyndham, as he had seen the same mutilation of a previous corpse, just the night before.  Easy peasy, right?  Just connect the dots and solve the murders.  But Wyndham can’t admit to seeing the previous corpse, because he was stoned out of his mind on opium at the time, running for his life with the cops right behind him.  Yes, our hero is an addict thanks to a war injury and a second blow, his wife’s death of influenza, a few years previously.

What follows is a labyrinthine plot wherein more people die, Wyndham discovers what links the victims, he and Surrender-not set out to lure the murderer out into the open but are outwitted, all against the backdrop of Indian unrest and the stubbornness of the peaceful revolution’s leaders vs. the stubbornness of the British military and monarchy.  (A quick Google search turned up the info that India did not get its independence from Britain till 1947, so Mukherjee has 26 more years of stories to tell, should he choose to do so.)   Revealing the killer and what motivates him – a ruthless military project to develop a new, even more lethal mustard gas by testing it on Indian subjects – was not the end to the plot twists, though.

Here’s what works very well in Smoke and Ashes:  We genuinely like the main characters; the depiction of Surrender-not as a loyal friend and policeman, and the cultural pressure he feels as the go-between; the plot is complicated and horrifyingly believable; the writing is top-notch and pacing excellent.  However, not much is made of Wyndham’s addiction; evidently, a shot of kerdu pulp (from a gourd that is native to India) staves off withdrawal symptoms.  There was also rather perfunctory treatment of his on-again, off-again romance with Annie Grant (a key figure in the first book in this series).  But all in all, a satisfying historical mystery.

How does Smoke and Ashes stack up to the other nominees?  Pretty well, but not a home run for me.  There is nothing to dislike here, but I am not a fan of historicals in general and I read this at some remove, admiring the plot as it emerged, but not caught up.  (Others are likely to find it just their cup of tea!)

In terms of ranking, I’m going to place it at #3.  That leaves Michael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl in the top spot.  If Literary Lunchbox were in charge, Robotham would get his first Edgar the year.

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

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The Stranger Diaries (Elly Griffiths)
  3. Smoke and Ashes (Abir Mukherjee)
  4. The River (Peter Heller)
  5. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)

 

The Stranger Diaries 4th Edgar Nom

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If you love reading – and you clearly do, if you are reading this blog! – you’ll be drawn in immediately to Elly GriffithsThe Stranger Diaries.  The book’s protagonist is Clare Cassidy, a divorced single mom/high school English teacher, who aspires to write a biography of (fictional) author R.M. Holland.  The mystery centers around the death by stabbing of Clare’s colleague, Ella.  That death, and others that follow, reflect murders recounted in Holland’s short story, “The Stranger.”  In fact, Griffiths’ book opens with the beginning of that short story, in a framing device that sets the stage for the suspense that follows.

But is it a stranger who murdered Ella?  Or is it, as Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur and her partner believe, someone much closer?  There is no dearth of suspects, from Clare herself – very unlikely – to Ella’s stalkerish boss.  He looks a good bet, as he has a history of obsessive behavior.  A good bet, that is, until he is murdered as well.

Diaries play a prominent role in the book, not surprisingly.  DS Kaur examines social media – a very public kind of diary – for clues.  Clare’s daughter Georgia keeps her diary online, at a website called mysecretdiary.com, and so do her friends.  Clare has kept one since childhood, filling a series of notebooks.  In fact, the first clue that Clare has a connection of some kind to the murderer comes when she discovers a note in her diary.  It starts “Greetings from a sincere friend…” quoting Wilkie’s Woman in White, and goes on to promise to fall upon those who work agains Clare “like a ravening beast.”  The handwriting is unfamiliar.  What stranger has been in her house?  And how does he – or she – know Clare?

A nice subplot is Clare’s determination to unearth the facts behind the suggested suicide of Alice Avery, R.M. Holland’s wife, and the related question of the mysterious Mariana, whose presence comforted Holland following her death.  Thought to be their daughter, no records or photos of Mariana exist.  Hmmmmm….

Griffiths writes in first person from three different perspectives: Clare, DS Kaur, and daughter Georgie.  It works well, and I was struck by how the same scene is recounted differently by each of the three, giving the reader greater insight into the characters.  Showing the three women independently also highlights how little people really know about one another.

Suspects are presented and discarded throughout the book, the body count mounts and tension ramps up, and soon after DS Kaur encourages Clare and Georgie to leave town for their safety, the plot takes thriller-ish as the unknown bad guy follows the pair while the cops race to get there in time to stop more mayhem.  You think you know who it is… you don’t!  In a smaller and also satisfying conclusion, the Mariana mystery is also solved.

Here’s my take on The Stranger Diaries:  Griffiths is a good writer.  The three-POVs works very well.  Her characters are interesting and believable.  The literary references and creative writing scenarios add a lot of fun (for me).  The gothic aspects (hauntings, historical memorabilia, etc.) are atmospheric and heighten the drama.  The violence is not gratuitous.  One quibble is that boss Rick Lewis really get off quite lightly from the #metoo perspective (although he does get murdered, so perhaps that is punishment enough).  A more meaningful concern is that the real perpetrator is masked by the way he is presented from Georgie’s point of view, and it is hard to believe that he could fool her so completely.

So, where does The Stranger Diaries rank?  Definitely below Robotham’s masterful Good Girl, Bad Girl, but I’m going to place it above The River.  While not as lyrical as Heller, Griffiths’ writing is very effective with its multiple viewpoints and the inclusion of the original short story “by” R.M. Holland.

Side note… there is a wealth of Elly Griffiths books available, including at least one other that features Harbinder Kaur.  I’m there.

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

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The Stranger Diaries (Elly Griffiths)
  3. The River (Peter Heller)
  4. Fake Like Me (Barbara Bourland)

Edgar Noms! Heller’s The River Up 1st

mwa_logoThe Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees are out.  I missed reviewing them last year, so I’m back for 2020!  Typically I read, review and rank nominees for one, two, or three categories depending upon the time I have available for reading.  The fun – besides the obvious – comes in when I see how many of the ones I think should win, did win.  I’m not guessing who will win, so 100% is probably not an option.  In 2018, I got 50% – Edgar and I both picked Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun as Best First Novel.  (Click here for my review.)  On the Best Novel front, I picked Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, while Edgar chose Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke. (Reviews here.)

As always, the list of nominees include many I had not read as well as several that I did.  On the Best Novel list, the Michael Robotham and Abir Mukherjee books ring a bell.  Here’s the line-up:

riverFirst up for a Lunchbox review is Peter Heller’s The River.   The plot is simple.  Two young men with superior wilderness skills set out on an adventure and face an unexpected challenge:  can they rescue a dying woman from her murderous husband and outrun a wildfire to get her to safety?

Characterization is more complicated.  The men are different.  Jack, whose mother drowned while he watched, helpless, when he was just 11, expects tragedy.  His friend Wynn has an open heart and is innately optimistic.   It’s unsurprising and still a shock when Wynn’s essential nature is the cause of the tragedy that Jack works so hard to avoid.  Enough said.

The other people the men encounter on their river quest are revealed through their actions.  The men wonder about the husband, then must work to outwit him.  They encounter a couple of thuggish, drunken fools – but are they as foolish as they seem?  And the fire itself it a character, lurking, damaging, sending up smoke and sparks that threaten ominously depending upon which way the wind blows.

What makes The River sing is Heller’s writing.   I’m no outdoorswoman.  I like my nature in 2-3 hour chunks, not month-long hikes.  But it’s clear that Heller loves nature and has an easy intimacy with hunting, fishing, hiking, boating. And his writing is even, measured, lyrical:

The day was half gone.  They padded steadily without letup.  The wind shifted around to the west and for the first time they could se the hazy thickening of air that was not yet rolling smoke and the bird in flocks that were smaller now, and many single birds, mostly duller colored, the females, and Wynn posited that these were thee mother birds with hatchlings who had refused to leave their nests until just before the flame.  That was heartbreaking if you thought about it.

The River will quicken your pulse and may make you cry.  Take the time to read it slowly.  As Heller’s book is the first book reviewed, he enjoys the top spot for now!

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

  1. The River (Peter Heller)