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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 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: 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 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: Starvation Lake

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

Author: Bryan Gruley

Touchstone, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

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

When pieces of a snowmobile wash up on the shores of Starvation Lake—near the small town of the same name—a ten-year-old accident involving the town’s famed hockey coach is reconsidered, and the history of Starvation Lake is drastically rewritten.

Gruley does best at character work; he captures the feeling of life in a small town and he sets up layers of history that blend together well. He’s not so good at plotting: the first half of Starvation plods along sedately, and Gruley doesn’t unleash any plot twists until the final 50 pages, when he dumps them all in your lap.

But while Starvation is lopsided plot-wise, it’s ultimately a satisfying mystery.
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REVIEW: Black Water Rising

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

Author: Attica Locke

Harper, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

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

Black Water Rising is a novel with two frustratingly unconnected story lines that are given almost equal weight. The primary narrative concerns a young black lawyer named Jay trying to carve out a law practice in early ’80s Houston. He and his wife go for a low-rent swamp cruise on their anniversary, they witness a crime, and they try to help a young woman running from a gunman. They drop her off at the police station and eventually a mystery unfurls.

The secondary narrative, interspersed with the first, is about Jay’s history with the SNCC (pronounced “snik”), a civil rights group in the ’60s that eventually split between proponents of nonviolent action, and Black Power-type followers of Stokely Carmichael.

One big problem with Rising is that these two discrete story lines have almost nothing to do with each other. The other, bigger problem, is that both are quite boring.
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REVIEW: The Weight of Silence

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

Author: Heather Gudenkauf

Mira, 2009

Filed under: Literary, Mystery

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

The Weight of Silence follows a relatively simple mystery, at the center of which is seven-year-old Calli Clark, who hasn’t spoken in three years. When Calli’s father drunkenly grabs her and drags her into the woods early one morning, the entire town sets about trying to figure out what happened to her (and her friend, Petra, who also wandered off that morning).

Most of the book deals with the people in Calli’s and Petra’s lives, and the relationships between them, as they appear in the light of crisis. When Gudenkauf tries to formulate a plot, though, it works for a little while, but eventually fizzles out in a two-fold ending full of underwhelming misdirection.

Silence features some phenomenal suspense and some engaging characters, but the actual mystery is lackluster. Most of the time it’s a real nail-biter of a book, even if all you wind up with is ragged nails.


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