Tag Archives: Woman with a blue pencil

Top spot goes to…

daughterJane Shemilt’s The Daughter is the sixth and last finalist I’ll be ranking in the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award category of Best Paperback Original.  This is my first year reviewing this category, but it’s one I plan to revisit.  There’s plenty of fun to be had in reviewing Best First Novel, but that can be pretty variable in terms of quality.  And of course in Best Novel I am most likely to find books I have already read.  But the Best Paperback Original is consistently high in terms of writing quality while still having plenty of diversity.  I’ve discovered some new “must read” authors this year… makes me wonder what I missed in previous years!

The Daughter centers on the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl, Naomi.  Mother Jenny and father Ted are both physicians, but Jenny is a hard-working, overwhelmed GP, balancing her doctorly duties with her motherly ones, while Ted is a high-flying neurosurgeon.  They also have twin sons, Ed and Theo.  We learn early on that Naomi is not quickly found, alive nor dead, and that her disappearance has a profound impact on the family.   Painful secrets are revealed, including the strong likelihood that this was not an abduction, but Naomi’s choice.

As the secrets unfurl, Jenny begins to question everything she thought she knew about her daughter, her husband, even her sons.  At the same time, she questions her professional judgment when a child she thought she was saving from parental abuse is revealed to be well-loved, just poor and suffering from leukemia.  That the father she accused reaches out in sympathy when he learns that Naomi is missing is a sharp reminder of her inadequacy.

But as quick a Jenny is to blame himself, her husband seems quick to absolve himself, even when it becomes apparent that one of Ted’s errors in judgment is the cause.  A young girl’s surgery gone wrong, for which Ted failed to take the blame or even say “I’m sorry,” inspired one of the girl’s family to take revenge, not only seducing Naomi away but getting her brother hooked on drugs.

Over a year later, Jenny is still hanging on, coming to terms with what happened.  Ted has come to regret his choices, their sons are doing well, and Jenny is a stronger person.  The mystery of what truly happened to Naomi is resolved for Jenny and for the reader, and it is a pain-filled and yet hopeful resolution.

Shemilt reveals the story slowly, weaving back and forth in time from just before the disappearance to the days and months ahead.  A second reading of the book shows just how well the author shows us what is happening through Jenny’s clouded perspective – no cheating – so that when the truth is revealed and we look with that realization, we see it was there all along.   The final chapter is a stab to a mother’s heart.

Comparing The Daughter to the other finalists, it is certainly most similar to What She Knew.    I went back and forth where to place it on the ranking, and could make a case for almost anywhere in the middle.  Ultimately, I’m putting The Daughter at #2 because of the complexity of the plot and the strong characterization.

Congrats to The Long and Faraway Gone for maintaining the top spot.  We’ll have to see come April 28 if the MWA judges agree with my call.

Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Paperback Original


  1. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
  2. The Daughter by Jane Shemilt
  3. Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty
  4. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay
  5. Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine
  6. What She Knew by Gilly MacMillan

McKinty’s Gun Street Girl Enters the Ranking

imagesSo thrilled to find Adrian McKinty‘s Detective Sean Duffy series with this entry to the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.  I’m a fan of British, Irish, Scottish, heck, even Wales-ian police procedurals, and Gun Street Girl was my introduction to a great series.

It’s 1985, and Sean Duffy’s a Belfast cop, and a Catholic one at that.  As a result, he never gets in his car without checking underneath for a car bomb.  He’s evidently had a checkered past.  (Totally going to check out the backlist.)  He’s got a new boss who’s a bit of a wuss, and a team that includes a trusted #2, DS McCrabban, also known as Crabbie; and two new constables, the brainy but still-wet-behind-the-ears male half of the pair, Lawson, and Fletcher, the straight-arrow female officer who seemed not too quick on the uptake.  Add in the Special Branch agent who’s trying to recruit him away from the RUC, a not-too-committed reporter girlfriend, and a wide range of characters associated with both sides of “The Troubles,” and it’s an entertaining mix.

Gun Street Girl starts out with a cock-up of an inter-agency sting to capture American gunrunners.  Duffy sees what should be done, watches those in charge not do it, observes the ensuing mess, and wanders away, mid-sting.  Thus does McKinty ably showcase Duffy’s skill and attitude.   

Back in Carrickfergus, Duffy and his team are called in to investigate the murder of a man and his wife and the disappearance of the couple’s adult son, Michael Kelly.  The son had frequent arguments with his dad, and the easy answer is that Michael did it.  And while he probably did, there are some things – especially the cold, clean crime scene – that indicate a professional hit.  Michael’s body is subsequently discovered at the bottom of a cliff, a suicide note in his car, an open-and-shut case is not so clear-cut to DI Duffy.  The team’s subsequent investigation uncovers a cover-up related to a heroin overdose, stolen Javelin missiles, and possible CIA skullduggery.  That Duffy gets to the bottom of it all is unquestioned.  But the unravelling is not without cost.

Here’s where McKinty gets full marks from me:  plotting, the main character (love him!) and snarky humor (ditto!).  I will definitely read the other books in the Duffy series.  Needs work:  many of the minor characters are drawn in very broad strokes (boss McArthur and American spy guy John Connelly) and the women characters, in particular, are cardboard cut-outs (reporter girlfriend Sara and special branch recruiter-slash-sexpot Kate).

Comparatively speaking, though, Gun Street Girl is pretty compelling despite these shortcomings.  It’s a strong contender and excellent for its type.  Not quite up to Berney’s book, though, so I’m going to rank it #2 on the list.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Paperback Original

  1. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
  2. Gun Street Girl by Adrian McKinty
  3. Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine
  4. What She Knew by Gilly MacMillan

Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew

knewThe third finalist for the MWA Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original is Gilly MacMillan’s What She Knew.  It’s a compulsive page-turner of the “oh no, what more can go wrong” variety.

The book turns on a missing boy, eight-year-old Benedict Finch, who disappears one day from an area woodland where he, his mom, and their little dog Skittle often walk.  Told primarily from the point of view of his mother, Rachel, the story is also recounted from the perspective of Jim Clemo as well as that of Jim’s psychiatrist.   Although the time frame from Ben’s disappearance to the solving of the crime is about a week, the impact of everyone’s actions – including those closest to Ben, the police investigators, even the suspects – reverberates well into the future.

MacMillan does an excellent job of doling out information a bit at a time, ratcheting up the suspense, while switching from one perspective to another (a characteristic of Lou Berney’s nominated novel, as well).   The police follow one lead after another, many of which seem promising on the surface, but fail to pan out.  The police distrust of the mother leads to some significant mis-steps, and when it comes right down to it, Rachel is the only one who figures out what happened and takes action to save her son.

Ultimately, What She Knew is a fun psychological thriller with some aspirations to significance, an easy book to gulp down.  But I found it to be overcrowded with characters, all of whom had a carefully constructed psychological backstory which was eventually recounted.  I also could have done without the talky epilogue.

In terms of ranking, Berney’s book is clearly superior.  And comparing MacMillan to McAlpine, I’ll have to give Woman with a Blue Pencil the edge for mind-bending originality. Thus What She Knew comes in third at this point.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Paperback Original

  1. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
  2. Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine
  3. What She Knew by Gilly MacMillan


ps- As an MWA member, I got my invite for the Edgar Symposium and Awards Banquet… ah, if only…

Next Edgar Paperback: Woman with a Blue Pencil


Lou Berney’s Long and Faraway Gone told two mystery stories from two perspectives in both the present and the past, and Berney knocked it out of the park, in my opinion.  Next up for consideration for the MWA Edgar for Best Paperback Original is Gordon McAlpine and Woman With a Blue Pencil.  This book also tells two stories… and even a third.  And it’s pretty amazing as well, if a little convoluted.

A prologue of sorts sets it up, laying out the historical context.  On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.  On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt orders the relocation of American residents of Japanese ancestry to internment camps.  And on August 30, 2014, “A dusty lockbox is found…” The box containers a 1945 pulp spy thriller by William Thorne, a pack of letters from the book’s editor to its author, and a handwritten manuscript.

And on McAlpine goes, toggling back and forth between the three items, starting out with “The Revised” by Takumi Sato.  This novella features Japanese-American detective Sam Sumida and tells the story of Sam’s investigation of the murder of his own wife, Kyoko.  Then comes a letter from Maxine Wakefield, Sato’s editor and the woman with the aforementioned blue pencil.  She point out that now is maybe not  good time for a Japanese hero – make him Korean! – and perhaps make him a valiant patriot fighting the Japanese.  (That would really sell.)  Then on to William Thorne’s novel, “The Orchid and the Secret Agent,” which has much in common with Sato’s,  but features a Korean-American detective, Jimmy Park.  Thorne’s book is very hard-boiled spy thriller.

And so it goes that editor Maxine offers helpful suggestions to the author, and he molds the Jimmy Park story to satisfy her, while putting his own vision into Sam Sumida’s story. It’s like a literary version of the movie Sliding Doors, where two stories with much in common also diverge widely.  (For example, a character dies in one book, but lives in the other.  And Kyoko is a sweet and loving woman in one, and the malevolent “Orchid” in the other.)

McAlpine makes it work.  I found myself drawn into Sumida’s quest, amazed by Park’s adventures, but mostly engaged in the relationship between Sato and his editor, which my brain insisted as interpreting as “the real story.”  Although all of it is 100% fiction, of course.  The historical context is emphasized in the postscript, which briefly outlines what happened to author Sato and what became of his editor, Maxine Wakefield.

So how does Pencil stack up against Gone?  Each is unique in its own way.  Each shows a great deal of creativity, but Woman with a Blue Pencil seems contrived, even labored.  I found The Long and Faraway Gone to be much more emotionally engaging.  So Berney’s  book stays at #1.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking:  Best Paperback Original

  1. The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
  2. Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine