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Edgar Wrap-Up: Batting .500

Bill Crider reports the results of the 2010 Edgar Awards: John Hart wins the Best Novel award for The Last Child (I agree) and Stefanie Pintoff wins the Best First Novel by an American Author award for In the Shadow of Gotham (I disagree, but it’s not completely unexpected).

The first moral of this story is: if you like mysteries, read The Last Child.

Additionally, the story “Amapola,” by Luis Alberto Urrea, published in Phoenix Noir, won the Edgar for Best Short Story. The City Noir series seems solid, Mike Beeman liked Boston Noir very much.

I missed one and hit one, I’m pretty happy with that first average. I’ll try to improve/expand in year two.

And there’s one other takeaway: David Cristofano’s The Girl She Used to Be didn’t win and hence the world did not end. Girl was one of the worst books I’ve read in years, and its loss is right up there with Avatar not winning an Oscar. Character is not dead.

You can relive the entire C4 Edgar series at this link. And you can see the full list of winners here.

Handicapping the Edgars, Part 2: Best Novel

[Since 1954, the Mystery Writers of America have given Edgar Awards to the best work done each year in the mystery genre. I've spent the past two months reading 12 novels nominated for 2010 Edgars in two top categories.

In two posts today, I'll recap each novel, and handicap the two categories before the awards are presented tonight. This post will focus on the Best Novel category; click here for Best First Novel by an American Author).]


Best Novel is a much more competitive category than Best First Novel, as you might expect. All of these books have serious strong suits, and I wouldn’t be completely flabbergasted to see any of them win. The top three novels, especially, are well worth reading, and close enough to each other that their odds of winning are almost identical.

That said, a quick word on how I ordered my own rankings: suspense. Quality matters, but I gave my #1 to the most suspenseful book in the category (and in the whole of the Edgars).

As for this post itself, it will do a few different jobs (if you read the Best First Novel post already, skip right to the jump).

First of all, it’ll provide quick summaries and capsule reviews of all six novels nominated for Best Novel. Secondly, this post reflects my own rankings of these six novels. #1 is my favorite, #6 my least favorite. Thirdly, I’ll estimate the odds of each book actually being picked by the judges. So the odds don’t necessarily match up with my rankings (especially my top three).

Now then: get out there and gamble! (Unless I’m somehow liable for your gambling using these odds, in which case: get out there and non-monetarily enjoy the knowledge of which books I think have the best chances of winning!)

Hit the jump to see my pick for Best Novel. Click the links to read the full reviews of these books.
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Handicapping the Edgar Awards, Part 1: Best First Novel By an American Author

[Since 1954, the Mystery Writers of America have given Edgar Awards to the best work done each year in the mystery genre. I've spent the past two months reading 12 novels nominated for 2010 Edgars in two top categories.

In two posts today, I'll recap each novel, and handicap the two categories before the awards are presented tonight. This post will focus on the Best First Novel by an American Author category; click here for Best Novel. ]


I’ve reached this conclusion: it all comes down to suspense.

To make a mystery novel good, it helps to have good characters, an original premise, a cool or unique idea, and richly detailed scenes and settings. But without suspense, that cake don’t rise.

Suspense keeps the pages turning, it keeps you up late, and it makes you miss your stop on the subway. That’s my one-step litmus test for good mystery (if you’ve got other ideas, by all means, please leave them in the comments).

This post will serve a few different purposes. First of all, it’ll provide quick summaries and capsule reviews of all six novels nominated for Best First Novel.

Secondly, this post reflects my own rankings of these six novels. The first one listed is my favorite, the one I would give the Edgar to, based on my suspense-is-king philosophy. From there it goes in order of preference down to Cristofano.

Thirdly, I’ll estimate the odds of each book actually winning. When the odds don’t match the rankings, that’s where I think me and the judges will differ. This should give you an idea of how closely matched the novels are, and it should also give you something to gamble on today. Those odds are also subjective and made up, so take that into account.

Without further ado, let’s get to it. Hit the jump to see my pick for Best First Novel by an American Author. Click the links to read the full reviews of these books.
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REVIEW: A Beautiful Place to Die

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Malla Nunn

Washington Square Press, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 6

In A Beautiful Place to Die, a Johannesburg detective, Emmanuel Cooper, travels into the “deep country” of South Africa to investigate a hoax in a small town called Jacob’s Rest. It turns out to be a real case, the murder of a white police captain, possibly by a black or “coloured” (meaning, roughly, mixed-race) worker.

Beautiful takes place in the early 1950s, when race relations in SA were strictly governed by the Immorality Act, which explicitly bans interracial sex, and implicitly bans most other kinds of interracial contact.

The themes of race, racism and morality not only serve as emotional undercurrents, they also actively influence the case and Emmanuel’s attempt to solve it. The investigation is further complicated by small-town politics, national politics, laws, secrets, vendettas, bigotry, and more. It’s a case that could cost Emmanuel his career or even his life, and a very solid premise for a novel.

Additionally, Malla Nunn is the best prose stylist among the Edgar nominees…. when she wants to be. The first half of this novel is enjoyable and engrossing, thanks in no small part to her style and the lush, brutal setting. The second half is solid, but bows more to plot and the mechanics of the case, and forgets the fractured soul of the country Emmanuel finds himself in.
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REVIEW: The Odds

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Kathleen George

Minotaur, 2009

Filed under: Literary

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 6

I was surprised by how much I liked The Odds. It’s not a mystery, for one thing, despite what its cover says. It also starts slowly, with a large cast of characters and perspectives connected in a languidly moving series of interactions. The plot never really thickens or twists, it just ambles along the track it initially lays out.

Mostly, that track centers around a quartet of orphaned kids—the Philips children—trying to live on their own, without being split up by the foster care system. There are complications, but most of the drama comes from these honest, unselfish children carving out a place for themselves and watching out for each other. It’s not the kind of thing I usually like, but Kathleen George never lets it get cloying or cliched, in the way that kind of thing usually gets.

Basically, we’ve got a bit of a magic trick: The Odds is a simple story that’s much more enjoyable than any of its individual elements would lead you to believe.
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REVIEW: In the Shadow of Gotham

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author---see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Stefanie Pintoff

Minotaur, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 4
Depth..... 6

In the Shadow of Gotham has a very straightforward premise, and isn’t shy about laying it out. The story centers on Simon Ziele, a CSI-style police detective in early 1900s New York. Ziele embraces forensic evidence despite the fact that fingerprints are not admissible in court in 1905.

At the end of the first chapter, Ziele gives us the first of many updates on the case:

I had the unsettling sensation that we were being drawn into an even more complicated case than I’d originally thought—one that would draw upon our every power of deduction to unravel.

That mission statement contains the novel’s best and worst facets. The best is Pintoff’s clear desire to tell a detective story and nothing but. She puts a new spin on the tired theme of forensics-based detecting, and from the get-go she writes an unapologetic mystery.

The bad part, though, is that tone. In sounding historically authentic, the novel also sounds stodgy and droll. The characters are too honorable and the case too straightforward for Ziele to need his every power.
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REVIEW: A Bad Day for Sorry

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author---see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Sophie Littlefied

Minotaur Books, 2009

Filed under: Mystery, Thrillers

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 3

A Bad Day for Sorry is, at its core, a revenge fantasy about a woman who tracks down and punishes wife-beaters. It’s a righteous premise, and it’s entertaining in the way that wish fulfillment usually is.

Our heroine is Stella, the middle-aged owner of a sewing supply store. In her spare time, Stella helps battered women get peace and respite from the abusive men in their lives. She ties bad men up with bondage equipment, and does whatever needs doing in order to convince them to leave their women and never come back.

In Sorry, Stella hunts down one particular scumbag on behalf of a woman she barely knows. It’s a quick-reading and fairly entertaining story, but Stella’s detachment from the case at hand makes for a relatively tension-free narrative. She doesn’t really care all that much, and so it’s hard to care about her.
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REVIEW: The Missing

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Tim Gautreaux

Knopf, 2009

Filed under: Literary, Mystery, Thrillers

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 2

The Missing doesn’t quite know where to stand, genre-wise. On the one hand, there’s a bit of a mystery—a young girl is kidnapped in department store and the security guard on duty at the time, Sam Simoneaux, sets out to find her and get her back.

On the other hand, Gautreaux reveals by page 90 the culprits behind the kidnapping, and even the rednecks they paid to do the actual deed. That means the mystery is reduced to a yes/no question—will Sam find the girl or not?—and we still have 300 pages to get through.

I’m guessing, from those facts, that Gautreaux wants this to be a literary thriller, one of those “the true mystery is how it happens” books. It doesn’t work.
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REVIEW: The Girl She Used To Be

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author---see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: David Cristofano

Grand Central Publishing, 2009

Filed under: Mystery, Romance

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 2
Entertainment..... 2
Depth..... 1

I’ve seen almost nothing but adoring reviews for The Girl Used to Be. Do not be fooled by them.

Girl is a novel about the Witness Protection Program, and a girl named Melody who feels very sorry for herself because she’s in it. She feels so sorry for herself and so bored that she runs off with the son of the mafia don who had her parents killed. Charitably, that’s a difficult premise to pull off. Uncharitably, Girl is the worst book I’ve read in a long time.

I don’t think anybody should read this book, and all the glowing reviews out there are cause for concern. If you’re thinking of reading Girl, first allow me to lay out exactly why this “eloquent, haunting,” “humorous, poignant, and compelling” novel is actually none of those things.

In fact, it’s not really a mystery or a thriller, either—I’m only filing this review under “Mystery” because Girl‘s up for an Edgar Award. No, friends, this is a romance. And it’s a romance of the very worst kind.
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REVIEW: Nemesis

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Jo Nesbø

Translated by: Don Bartlett

Harper, 2009 (English edition)

Filed under: Mystery

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 4
Depth..... 3

Nemesis is the second installment in Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s detective series about the unfortunately named Harry Hole. I would describe it as a procedural novel, meaning the chief characteristic of the narrative is Nesbø’s tendency to exhaustively catalog each and every action taken and word spoken by Inspector Hole.

Nemesis is 500 pages long; it could easily be 300 pages, and we wouldn’t miss a thing. Much like Stieg Larsson, Nesbø suffers from a chronic lack of brevity and the result is a mildly compelling mystery wrapped in an extra few hundred pages of tortuous prose. Some questionable translating decisions exacerbate the careless feel of the book, and it’s ultimately not worth the read.

Read this book as a last resort on a cross-country flight. In any other situation, skip it.
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