Tag Archives: The Weight of Silence

Blackwater Rising

Why is Attica Locke’s mystery novel Blackwater Rising set in 1981?  So that the protagonist, Jay Porter, can have a backstory of teenage involvement in the Black Power movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The author uses the tension associated with southern race relations to build urgency in her novel.  On her website, she explains how her family history strongly influenced her writing process.

However, I had a hard time knowing what to make of this mystery, which is one of six up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author.

It’s certainly an American story.  Jay Porter grows up in the smart and poor in Texas, and at the age of 19, finds himself drawn to the more assertive branches of the civil rights movement, egged on by an even-more-involved white girl who disappears after Jay’s arrest and trial.  Much is made of the second chance he receives when found not guilty, and he vows to stay out of trouble.  Flash forward to 1981, when Jay is a down-at-his-heels lawyer with offices in a strip mall and clients that include ladies for hire.  Big coincidence – his old girlfriend is now mayor, playing both sides of the fence at every opportunity.  Add in black-white tensions related to union integration, an elderly nutcase who’s the lone holdout when an oil company shell is buying up all the houses in a particular area (where black sludge is rising to the surface), and a birthday cruise that is interrupted when Jay and his pregnant wife rescue a woman from a murderer.

The book’s been criticized in a review by the Washington Post for being murky and having poorly drawn characters, among other failings.  Other reviews blurbed on Locke’s website are fawning (or carefully edited). My own perspective is somewhere in between.  Jay Porter is very well-nuanced, his perspective is well-defined, and although the reader may wish at times to grab him by the shoulders and shake him for being such an idiot, he’s compelling and believable.   Other characters are more two-dimensional (although we imagine Locke sees the “did she or didn’t she” betrayal by Mayor Cynthia as adding complexity to her character) and Jay’s wife Bernie is practically a Japanese body-pillow girlfriend.

Plot-wise, Blackwater Rising suffers from a typical first novel problem – too many plot threads that all, conveniently, relate to one another and too many interwoven characters.  Locke has enough fodder in this book for several books.  And although Porter doesn’t succeed in his goal of exposing evil, in the last pages of Blackwater Rising, he has taken on the lone nutcase as a client in a civil suit.  (Can you see the second book in the series on the horizon?)

That being said, it’s still better than The Weight of Silence, so Blackwater Rising ranks #3 and Gudenkauf’s book falls to #4 on the Literary Lunchbox Edgars for Best First Novel by an American Author.

  1. Starvation Lake – Bryan Gruley
  2. A Bad Day for Sorry – Sophie Littlefield
  3. Blackwater Rising – Attica Locke
  4. The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf

Still to read: In the Shadow of Gotham (on my bedside table) and The Girl She Used to Be (I’m #1 on the library hold list).

Starvation Lake scores, edges out A Bad Day for Sorry

I’m halfway through the Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees for Best First Novel by an American Author. Chicago’s own Bryan Gruley is the author of Starvation Lake, a mystery that features way more hockey than I ever thought I’d put up with.

The blurbs on the book are notable.  Harlan Coben is long one of my favorites, and his promo is not surprising given the sports connection – his protagonist Myron Bolitar is a former pro basketball player and sports agent.  Other blurbs come from Michael Connelly, C.J. Box, George Pelecanos, and the lesser-known Michael Harvey.  Gruley’s book had the paradoxical effect of making me want to remind myself what  Michael Harvey’s written.  Answer: The Chicago Way and The Fifth Floor.

Starvation Lake’s a town in Michigan, a place where small-town newspaper editor Gus Carpenter grew up, played junior hockey for the legendary Coach Blackburn’s River Rats and personally lost the team’s only chance at a trophy, and came home to lick his wounds after being fired, amid much reporting-related scandal, from the Detroit Times.   Details of the scandal are doled out slowly in the first section of the book, then build to help ratchet up the tension.

Gus is managing the  just fine with the help of a too-ballsy-for-her-own-good junior reporter named Joanie, has the chance to redeem himself if he can earn a promotion, and is right back where he used to be, half in love with former girlfriend Darlene and playing hockey with his former River Rats teammates, now all grown up.  Like little acorns make mighty oaks, the friends (good guys) and foes (bad guys) haven’t changed much.  But then one day, Coach Blackburn’s snowmobile emerges from the lake where it had fallen through the ice a dozen years ago… with a bullet hole in it.  Blackburn had been buried in absentia, as the body was never found, and the whole thing was written up as a tragic accident.  Was the coach murdered?  Or was it an accident, as one of Gus’ friends maintains?

Newspaper reporting skills equal mystery-solving skills, and Gus goes to work, uncovering information that he was too naive to see the first time around, including answers to long-buried questions like “Why won’t mom let me overnight with Coach Blackburn at his billet?  All my friends’ moms let them go!”  and “Why did Coach Blackburn suddenly shut out my friend who’s the best player on my team?”  and “Where do some of these guys get all the money they spend?”

Gus solves the mystery and justice prevails, but not without a lot of anguish and tragedy.   Starvation Lake is a tightly plotted and immensely readable book; even the hockey is so well-done I didn’t skip over it.  As many mysteries are, it’s written in the first person and the character’s voice is clear and engaging.  Here’s a sample:

Soupy was what hockey players admiringly call a “dangler,” with hands that cradled the puck as if it were no heavier than a tennis ball.  He could dangle it between his skates, behind his back, one-handed, backhanded, skating backward, on one knee.  All the while the puck stuck to his stick like a nickname.  He had a thousand moves that he’d practiced for hours in his basement or late at night on a patch of ice behind his garage.  He liked to practice in the darkness, the darker the better, so he was forced to rely not on his eyes, but on simply feeling the puck on his stick blade with his amazingly sure hands.  That way he’d never have to look down, he could always be scanning the ice for an opening or an open man, and he’d always be ready when the opposing defenseman was lining him up for a hit.

The mystery’s weakness is too-heavy signaling of the motivation related to Gus’ childhood backstory… pretty early on, I had Coach Blackburn pegged and the reader is always suspicious when they bury an empty casket because they can’t find the body.  But it’s a skillful book, and like A Bad Day for Sorry, has the makings of a series.  It’s a bit of a close call, but Starvation Lake takes the lead in the Literary Lunchbox Edgar competition.

  1. Starvation Lake – Bryan Gruley
  2. A Bad Day for Sorry – Sophie Littlefield
  3. The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf

Still to read: The Shadow of Gotham, The Girl She Used to Be, and Black Water Rising!

Edgars: Best First Novel by an American Author

Oh, how I long to be eligible!  The Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees are out, and there are six in contention for Best First Novel by an American Author.  As I did for Best Novel, I plan to read all six, give a review of each, and provide a ranking.  Top slot will go to the book that would receive the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for best first novel.  And the nominees are:

I started with A Bad Day for Sorry and followed it up with The Weight of Silence, mostly because I was struck by the similarities in the books’ covers.   The first novel features a headless woman in a dress and pink apron holding a big gun.  (To clarify, she’s not a crime victim, the photo is just taken showing from knees to neck.)  The second also features a pink-clad female figure in a knees-to-neck shot, but this time they’re showing a girl from the back.  She’s holding a necklace with a musical note charm.

Important to compare and contrast more than the covers, though!  Sophie Littlefield, in her debut novel, has created a protagonist with a compelling voice and clearly defined character.  Stella Hardesty is now 50, dyes her hair, and packs a solid 180 lbs onto a surprisingly fit and muscular body.  That’s good, because in addition to running a sewing/fabric/notions business in her rural Missouri home town, she has a “side business” as a do-it-yourself parole officer.  Only Stella’s not only the parole officer, she’s the arresting officer and the judge as well, when it comes to men who beat (or otherwise abuse) their wives or girlfriends.  She comes by this inclination honestly, having killed her own abusive husband with his own wrench a few years previously.  Rumors have spread and the women of the county know where they can go for help and the men feel uneasy when she’s around.

A Bad Day for Sorry‘s plot revolves around a frantic young mother, a missing four year old, the Missouri version of La Cosa Nostra, and some red herrings, plus a kind-and-hunky sheriff who is age-appropriate for Stella.  The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging, and the writing is witty and, though done in third person, strongly reflects Stella’s personality and perspective.  Here’s a sample, as she ponders her years with Ollie (the dead husband):

It was simply because he’d been such an incredibly worthless lay.  All those years… all that bad sex.  That wasn’t even in the top five reasons why he’d deserved what he got, but still, Stella found herself immensely sad to think of how many times she’d lain in this bed with Ollie laboring over her like a man stuffing fiberglass insulation between roof joints on a sweltering day.

Heather Gudenkauf’s The Weight of Silence is told from several different perspectives, including that of Calli, a 7 year old girl who is mute by choice; her older brother, Ben; her mother, Antonia; her best friend, Petra; Petra’s father, Martin; and the deputy sheriff, Louis, who has carried a torch for Toni since their high school romance.  All are in the first person, except for Calli’s chapters – as she does not speak, it seems natural for her chapters to be in third person.  (An epilogue from Calli’s POV is in first person – after she regains her voice.)

Things are not healthy in this small town.   Calli chooses not to speak and therapy isn’t helping; her mother is full of regrets and lives to protect her kids from the rough and alcoholic man she married; her father suspects that he did not father his own children, beats his wife and berates both Ben and Calli; Louis stands by, hopeless to help Toni, even as his own marriage falls apart; there’s an unsolved rape and murder of a child in the recent past; and more undercurrents come to light as the mystery unfolds.

One night when he’s supposed to go fishing with a buddy, Calli’s dad Griff instead drunkenly drags her in the middle of the night into the woods, heading for the home of her “real daddy,” Louis.  They get separated, she is lost, where is he? What is he doing?  This question takes on some urgency when the morning comes and Petra is also not home.  While the adults assume that Griff is fishing and Calli and Petra are together, a search begins.  The suspense ratchets when the fishing buddy returns sans Griff, and Toni begins to suspect her husband of more than mere loutishness.  There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing while the reader worries what’s happening to Petra? Will Calli stay safe?  Can Ben find and protect his sister?  Is Griff a murdering pedophile?  (Spoiler alert  – no.)  The switching perspectives is done smoothly, with each chapter helpfully labelled, but the first person voices are not distinctive.  Heres a sample from a Calli chapter:

Calli placed a dirty hand on Petra’s forehead, nodded to her and patted her arm.  She turned in every direction, looking for him.  He was gone, but she had seen him before, she knew him, he had a funny name an a dog.  He was out there, maybe watching her.  She scuttled backward into the brush and hid.

With two of the six nominees read, I’m ranking them A Bad Day for Sorry first (for excellent characterization, fast-moving plot, and strong writing) and The Weight of Silence second (suspenseful and well-plotted, but choppy).