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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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: 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: 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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REVIEW: The Last Child

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

Author: John Hart

Minotaur, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 5

The Last Child follows 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon on his unceasing quest to find out what happened to his twin sister, Alyssa, who disappeared one year before the novel begins. Since her disappearance, Johnny’s life has taken a sharp downturn: his father left and his mother has taken up with an evil new lover.

The narrative switches between Johnny and Detective Clyde Hunt, who was assigned to Alyssa’s case and never solved it. Hunt still feels responsible for Alyssa’s disappearance and the wretched state of Johnny’s life, and he does all he can to protect Johnny and his mother.

Despite underwhelming prose and a few hiccups along the way, Child is a ferociously compelling mystery, full of suspense and tension. Of the five Edgar books I’ve read so far, Child is by far the best.

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REVIEW: The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel] — I’m reading all the Edgar nominees in the top two categories (Best Novel, Best First Novel By An American Author), and handicapping the choices before the winners are announced in late April. You can track all my reviews of Edgar nominees here.

Author: Charlie Huston

Ballantine Book, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 4

After I finished Mystic Arts, I was shocked to discover that it was Huston’s ninth novel, and not his first. It reads like a talented but inexperienced student wrote it; it bears almost every sign and symptom of a juvenile writer’s work. That’s not all bad: while Huston is guilty of simplicity of plot and character (especially emotional simplicity), he also charges the novel with exuberance and passion.

While Mystic Arts isn’t exactly well written, it offers stylish fun, snappy prose, and a flair for the fascinatingly gruesome. It’s a quick-reading, simplistic yarn that primarily wants to entertain you—a goal that’s all too rare these days. And it succeeds, at least until the final act, when the plot finally unravels and leaves the reader in the lurch.

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