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Handicapping the Edgars, Best Novel 2011

[This concludes my coverage of the 2011 Edgar Awards; the awards are given tonight. Find all my Edgar coverage here.]

It’s Edgar season: another year has come and gone and another passel of dull Best Novel nominees has been held to the light as if to blind us.

That’s not fair, this year’s crop was significantly worse than last year’s—last year I recommended 3 of 6; this year 0 of 6. None of these novels should be read.

It’s not that any one novel is particularly terrible; in fact several of them show flashes of real, actual talent. It’s just that, no single book comes close to a satisfying experience. In fact, I’m not sure you could make a good novel if you cobbled together the best parts of all six.

Faithful Place had the hype, Crooked Letter had the prose, Patpong had the action scenes. Too bad nobody wrote a plot.

The awards are tonight, so without further ado…
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REVIEW: The Queen of Patpong

[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2011 Edgar noms here, or all Edgar-related posts here.]

Author: Timothy Hallinan

2010, William Morrow

Filed under: Thriller

Get a copy at Powell’s

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

The Queen of Patpong opens with a marvelous set piece in which a tall white man and a kind-hearted Thai cop play out a ruse designed to scare the bejeezus out of an underage Bangkok prostitute, to make her give up the bar-girl life and run back to her upcountry village.

The tall white man turns out to be our hero, travel writer (wha? I know, it’s weird) Poke Rafferty. The set piece, in a mere twelve pages, establishes Poke as a complex hero—charitable but still cynical—and also paints a sharp, realistic portrait of both the Bangkok in which we find ourselves, and the bar girls who are almost synonymous with its name. Along the way, Hallinan delivers a heaping helping of nail-biting suspense.

It’s a shame, because the rest of the novel simply can’t live up to that first chapter.
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REVIEW: The Lock Artist

[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2011 Edgar noms here, or all Edgar-related posts here.]

Author: Steve Hamilton

2010, Minotaur Books

Filed under: Thriller

Get a copy from Powell’s

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

The Lock Artist surprised me. I’ve gotten used to the covers of Edgar nominees telling me what to expect about their innards. Based on The Lock Artist‘s fairly dumb cover (bland, and with a key-opened padlock, instead of the combination padlock that features prominently in the story) led me to believe this would be another schlocky bestseller, with cardboard characters and cheesy jokes.

And, OK, 75% of it is cookie-cutter crime writing, and the end is hugely disappointing. But Artist features a few glittering moments that are among the best in all the 2011 Edgar books (an admittedly disappointing field). And it features a lesson about the motor that runs the best mysteries—a lesson that Hamilton himself doesn’t understand, but one that’s educational nonetheless.
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REVIEW: I’d Know You Anywhere

[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2011 Edgar noms here, or all Edgar-related posts here.]

Author: Laura Lippman

2010, William Morrow

Filed under: Mystery

Get a copy from Powell’s

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 5

I’d Know You Anywhere makes for an interesting case study—unfortunately that’s not synonymous with “good novel.” In her author’s note, Lippman divulges that Anywhere is based on a true crime. She gets coy about the precise crime she used as a model, but for our purposes, that’s irrelevant.

The novel’s criminal kidnapped and killed a string of young girls, except for one victim whom he raped but let live. That woman, Eliza, is our protagonist, having aged about 25 years since her abduction.

The narrative splits time between that long-ago summer and the present day, when Eliza has a family and a happy life. Unfortunately, the novel runs aground on that latter B-story. While there’s a bit to be explored in the now (the aftereffects of psychological and sexual trauma, etc.), present-day Eliza just doesn’t have enough to do to make for a compelling novel.
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REVIEW: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2011 Edgar noms here, or all Edgar-related posts here.]

Author: Tom Franklin

2010, William Morrow

Filed under: Mystery

Find this book at a library near you

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

We can be sure of one thing: the publishing industry knows how to make a cover. Merely from the cover at right (key features: blended colors, artsy photo, small type, lower-case letters in title), I predicted that Crooked Letter would be well-written but plot-deficient, and that’s exactly what it is.

It’s very, very well-written, and it’s definitely my favorite of the Edgar novels I’ve read so far. Franklin’s greatest strength is his prose; you feel that he’s in complete control of his narrative.

The problem comes when that narrative doesn’t have anywhere to go.
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REVIEW: Caught

[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2011 Edgar noms here, or all Edgar-related posts here.]

Author: Harlan Coben

2010, Dutton

Filed under: Mystery

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 4

When I kicked off this year’s Edgar reviews, I predicted, based solely on its cover (pictured), that Caught would be “cranked-out bestseller schlock” with terrible prose. In fact, I think that’s exactly what Coben’s publishers are aiming for. Stacked up against the likes of Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly (not to mention James Patterson and all the name-brand factories), C0ben appears to be leading the field. It’s easy to see why he was plucked from among the commercial mysteries for an Edgar nomination.

On the other hand, held to the standard of his potential—which he touches only briefly, perhaps half a dozen times throughout this novel—Coben falls short. He’s a half-evolved mystery writer, having taken one step forward from the pack, but still with his back foot mired in cheap jokes, ludicrous characters, flat grabs for easy emotion, and all the other hallmarks of the mediocre bestseller.
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Edgar Awards 2011 – It Begins

The 2011 Edgar Award nominees have been announced. Originally Edgars were given exclusively to outstanding mystery novels (thus the reference to Edgar Allen Poe, one of the grandfathers of the mystery novel), but these days they encompass genres like thriller and crime, and mediums like nonfiction books, biographies, stage plays, and TV shows.

Sometimes that reach can bring interesting work to a wider audience, like Hampton Sides’s account of the hunt for MLK’s murderer, Hellhound on His Trail. Other times the Edgars reach beyond their grasp, like spotlighting Sherlock Holmes for Dummies, or last year’s nomination of the utterly atrocious The Girl She Used to Be.

All this is to say: just like last year, I’m going to be reading all the nominees in the Best Novel category in order to sift through the duds and highlight the real contenders. Then I’ll handicap the race heading into the award presentation in April. Unlike last year, I won’t be reading all the Best First Novel entries, but I will take a swing at a few.

Trying to handicap this year’s Best Novel category is, unfortunately, something of a fool’s errand, since Faithful Place will win. I don’t want it to win; I’ve already read it, and it’s not nearly as good as the hype. It’s poorly plotted, but some people evidently confuse that with depth or literary merit—people like the “editors” of Amazon, who named Faithful Place the second best novel of the year, over Freedom and The Imperfectionists, both genuinely great novels.

In any case, I’m not picking it to win, unless the rest of the field is intensely disappointing. On that note, a few predictions about this year’s field:

  • Judging by their covers and jacket descriptions, I’m guessing I’ll like The Queen of Patpong best, because it has the most unique setting, and The Lock Artist least, because it has the least interesting core concept.
  • Again judging solely by cover, Caught and The Lock Artist look like cranked-out bestseller schlock, which means they’re likely to feature the worst prose in the field. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and I’d Know You Anywhere look like literary crossover mysteries, which means they’re likely to have weak plots.
  • The one Best First Novel contender that I’ll definitely read is Rogue Island.

OK. I’ll check up on these and post my reviews in the next few weeks. Follow the 2011 Edgars here, or relive the 2010 Edgars here. And, again, my review of Faithful Place is here.

REVIEW: Faithful Place

[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel---see reviews of other 2011 Edgar noms here, or all Edgar-related posts here.]

Author: Tana French

2010, Viking

Filed under: Mystery

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 5

Tana French won an Edgar award (and a slew of others) for her debut mystery novel, In the Woods, but she hasn’t garnered nearly as many accolades for either her follow-up, The Likeness, or Faithful Place, her third novel. Of course, 2010 isn’t over yet, so Faithful still has time to win a few prizes, but I don’t think it will.

Before Faithful Place, I’d only read The Likeness, but the two mysteries are quite similar: both feature small towns with limited suspect pools, undercover cops, and the themes of identity, trust, betrayal, and community. French’s prose is half a notch above your average paperback, but her plotting—especially the second time around with her—is half a notch below. Faithful has a literary novel’s sensibility without the depth, and a mystery’s plot without the intricacy. If you’re looking for a light, untaxing read on the sappy, semi-suspenseful side, you could do worse; but if you’re looking for a great book—either a great mystery or a great literary novel—this won’t fill you up.
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