Stoned Out of my Mind

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James W. Ziskin’s Heart of Stone is the next entry nominated in the Best Original Paperback category for an Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America’s annual event. Ziskin has won a “Lefty” award from Left Coast Crime in 2016 and an Anthony Award nomination in 2015 for two previous efforts in his Ellie Stone series, so out of four novels in one series, he has garnered much attention.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic as the awards committees.

Ellie Stone can be categorized as an amateur sleuth/cozy mystery. I’m a fan of certain cozy writers (Mary Daheim, Diane Mott Davidson), but in general find the genre tedious and bordering on boring. Heart of Stone does not encourage me to read the three earlier offerings in the series. The time is 1961, Prospector Lake, NY. Ellie is a reporter vacationing for a week with her aunt and cousin in a summer compound of cabins she, her now-deceased brother, and parents frequented in her childhood. Ellie meets up with a group of Jewish adults staying at Arcadia Lodge that she knew and played with every summer when they were children. She is immediately smitten and (shock!) sleeps with Isaac, a handsome music teacher. Ellie and the group congregate each evening for lively discussion, musical interludes, and drinking–lots of drinking (oh, and smoking cigarettes too).

On the first day of Ellie’s vacation, she and her aunt are interrupted in their sunbathing by Tiny Terwilliger, the town Chief of Police, who is everything one would expect of a racist, homophobic stereotype guy leering at two women, one nude, one in a bathing suit. Tiny manages to offend the two Jewish women, but is able to persuade Ellie to accompany him with her camera to take photos of two people who have died, ostensibly from diving into water from a nearby cliff but not clearing the rocks below. Ellie’s reporter curiosity kicks in, she and Tiny go to the accident scene and she photographs the bodies of a teenage boy and an older man. Tiny’s convinced it’s a simple accident, but Ellie thinks there’s more to it and begins to investigate.

Turns out that the older man is Karl Marx Merkleson, another childhood friend of the Arcadia group, who changed his name to Charles Morton, married a shiksa, threw away his Jewish name and got baptized. No one knows why he’s back in New York from his home in California, where he’s a big-shot movie producer. Ellie continues to unravel threads that puzzle her about the two deaths, playing the grudging assistant to the anti-Semitic Tiny. There is a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, questioning of various characters, and a bit of tacked-on manufactured fear with an escaped murderer supposedly somewhere in the area. Ellie eventually figures it all out after many rainy trips back and forth through a small copse of woods in the dark of night between her cabin and Isaac’s. Scary stuff.

Objections to the story are several: Too many characters by far to keep track of and none of them compelling enough to stand out; the plot drags on mercilessly; and while Ziskin’s writing is strong when placing the reader in the Adirondacks, Ellie’s inner thoughts are often over-wrought and oddly objective in tone. Here’s an example when Ellie and Isaac are lying together in bed:

All people have a smell. It’s part of what attracts us to and repels us from one another….The hedonic intoxication of the senses that defies logic and explanation….Attraction is visceral. It’s an animalistic reaction that has nothing to do with the faculties of the mind.

Gee, how romantic. On a scale of one to ten, I rate this novel a four.

Sean Duffy we love ya

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Next up for review is Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty, nominated for an Edgar Award by Mystery Writers of America in the Best Original Paperback category. The fifth offering in his Sean Duffy series, McKinty hooks the reader immediately in the opening scene: Duffy works crowd control upon the arrival of Muhammad Ali in Belfast in 1987. (This scene is loosely based on an actual trip Ali made to County Clare in 2005 to visit the home of his great-grandfather, Abe Grady.) Duffy arrives home to find his girlfriend Beth has packed her bags. She KO’s him with the announcement she’s moving out, that they are over, it was fun, but well, there’s ten years difference in their ages and can’t they still be friends? She leaves the next day.

When Duffy investigates a report that a tourist from a Finnish delegation has had his wallet stolen, he meets Lily Bigelow, a reporter staying in the same hotel as the Finns. She’s hovering in the hallway hoping for a story. Duffy senses a possible date with Lily and they exchange information. But Lily turns up dead the next day after following the Finnish group on a tour of Carrickfergus Castle. Lily’s death is ruled a suicide. Clarke Underhill, the castle caretaker, presents Duffy with a locked room puzzle: the castle has only one entrance/exit, Underhill inspected the castle top to bottom at close of business making sure it was empty, inspected it again prior to opening in the morning, so no one could’ve hidden inside (and no, there are no tunnels, secret rooms, or places to hide). Yet Lily is found dead within, seemingly after jumping from a castle wall.

Duffy, ably assisted by Detective constables “Crabbie” McCrabban and Alex Lawson, sets out to solve the second locked room murder in his career (highly statistically improbable). The story takes place during the Troubles, and sure enough, pipe bombs under policemen’s cars are part of the sad setting, as well as low employment, and lots and lots of rain. But Duffy is an immensely likeable character because even though he’s been jilted, has a puzzle impossible to solve, drinks and smokes legal and illegal substances overly much, he is funny. He sees the absurdities in his own life and others. He’s sensitive. He adopts Lily’s cat. He’s approaching 40 with an eye to his single status.

McKinty is a wonderful writer, succinct in his descriptions, a deft hand in pacing, and both subtle and silly in his humor. One minor drawback is a myriad of references to people and places obviously well-known to Irish readers but often mystifying to us on this side of the pond. But ’tis a quibble. The locked room puzzle has a satisfying solve and we bid farewell to Duffy in a nicely-set-up ending that leaves us hankering for number six in the series, which I hear has just been published.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this an eight.


The Thrill is Gone

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Robert Dugoni’s The 7th Canon is the next nominee in the Best Original Paperback category for Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards. The title evokes this tenet: A lawyer should represent a client zealously within the bounds of law. Peter Donley, a young defense attorney, takes this canon to heart. When his uncle and boss, seasoned lawyer Lou Giantelli, is hospitalized, Donley must shoulder representing a priest who runs a homeless shelter and has been accused of murdering one of its young men. There is plenty of incriminating evidence found by a intense (read crazed) cop, but Father Martin claims innocence and would prefer to take a gamble on being tried and sentenced to death rather than admitting guilt and doing time. Donley’s only choice is to find out who really killed Andrew Bennett, and the game’s afoot.

Donley does the best he can and is ably assisted by retired cop, Frank Ross. There are some twists and turns involving a state senator and his creepy father, who try to influence the case against the priest (with predictable results regarding why). There is plenty of backstory regarding violent fathers and their effect on the sons, and there are many characters filling out this “thriller.” In fact, the opening chapters of the story introduce so many characters I had a hard time keeping them all straight and had to continually page back to recall the names and the occupations.

Trouble is, I found none of the characters compelling nor did I care about what would happen to them. The story itself was not remotely thrilling or suspenseful. Dugoni’s writing style does little to recommend him. Here are a couple of examples of an irritating habit of explaining a character’s dialogue:

“How are things at the office?” Like most lawyers, Lou needed to know what was happening at work. 

“The back steps will be a problem,” she said. They were narrow and steep.

Dugoni also has a loose grip on point of view, switching among several characters, which doesn’t cue the reader about the character’s importance nor does it allow the reader to feel invested in championing the protagonist. Most of the characters presented are stock and two-dimensional (the crazed cop, the crooked politician, the honest priest, the rookie lawyer with a secret) and forgettable. This kind of book serves a purpose (something to consume while on a long flight?), but does not belong on the short list for a prestigious award.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a two.


Mediocre Motor City

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After the title page of Patricia Abbott’s Shot in Detroit, the novel’s synopsis describes the story as  “A riveting novel of psychological suspense….” Hmm. Riveting. As in completely engrossing? Not so much. Suspense? Not the gotta stay up all night to find out what happens next kind. Perhaps a better description would be a novel with an interesting premise, somewhat intriguing characters and a few psychological turns.

Violet Hart is a freelance photographer with low self-esteem, nearing her 40th birthday, and looking for a way to pump up her sagging professional résumé. Her most recent photo exhibit (Detroit apartment buildings in various states of implosion) fails and is cancelled. Ted, the art show curator, stops by Vi’s place to give her the bad news, but only after a quickie in Vi’s bedroom replete with a large and heavy mirror hung on the ceiling. Chekov aficionados take note!

Vi finds a new topic for artistic photographic exploration when her lover Bill, an African-American mortician, asks Vi to take a photo of a deceased young man whose overseas family wants a keepsake because they cannot attend the funeral. In shooting the photo, Vi is impressed with Bill’s expertise and artistry in dressing and prepping his deceased customers. Voila, the idea blooms for a new exhibit featuring African-American males from Bill’s funeral home.

(SPOILER ALERT) The rest of the story plays out around the waxing and waning of Vi and Bill’s affair, Vi’s artistic musings about photographing dead people, and her short and strange friendship with aspiring performance artist Derek whom she meets on Belle Isle. Derek’s murder is the only mystery in the story, which happens half-way through the book (Vi is briefly considered a suspect and the killer is caught). This sub-plot seems tacked on, (an editor’s after-thought?) in order to give the novel more “suspense.”

But the most glaring and hard to accept odd turn of events in the book occurs when Bill, reclining in bed post-coitus, is instantly killed when that pendulous mirror on the ceiling heeds gravity. Vi, upon rushing into the bedroom and discovering his lifeless body, picks up her camera, PUTS MAKEUP ON HIM, and then photographs him. I threw the book across the room. Later Vi explains her behavior with the time-worn I was in shock, even though during the scene there is nothing to indicate this is the case.

Vi is a flawed and yes I’ll say it, unlikeable, character. One of her most annoying habits is her constant questions to herself about what she’s doing or thinking or saying. Her relentless insecurity calls to mind a woman who is in her late teens or maybe early twenties, not someone on the cusp of 40. Perhaps this is supposed to be a character study about a woman who is a loser on many levels, and if so, the author succeeds. Vi suffers for her art, but more than anything she never seems to get anywhere (although her dead men photos exhibit is a hit, which seems fitting since it’s creepy and her exploitation of them is something she questions over and over). Abbott leaves the reader wondering if a truly unlikeable character can be considered a protagonist and if so, she opens up a new field of inquiry for fiction writers.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a four.


Angst With a Twist

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A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum is first up for review in the Best Original Paperback category of Mystery Writers of America’s 2017 Edgar Awards. The story, told in flashback by narrator Mitch Malone, takes place in the small town of Brilliant, Ohio, during the 1960’s. Mitch recounts the tragic history and short life of his friend, Travis Baron. The two young teens live in starkly different circumstances from each other: Mitch is from a loving, comfortable home with a mother who checks all the maternal boxes of the apron-wearing set. Travis’s mother Amanda, on the other hand, was killed in a boating accident when Travis was a baby, spotted jumping from the cruiser, naked, with her lover just prior to a barge plowing into the boat. Neither of their bodies was ever found. Travis’s father, “Big Frank,” is a long-haul trucker who regularly beats his son, barely feeds or clothes him, and is drunk and promiscuous when he is at home.

It is left unclear if Amanda is actually dead. Travis enlists Mitch’s help in his “project” to find out what happened to his mother. We hope, along with Travis, that Amanda is still alive; we suspect, also along with Travis, that she was killed and that Big Frank somehow was responsible. Many of the townspeople (including the cop that investigated the original accident) think Big Frank either killed Amanda or arranged it (he was delivering a truckload to Arkansas at the time). The story unspools during the span of the two friends’ high school careers. They doggedly pursue various leads and do eventually discover the murderer. Along the way we are treated to humorous teenage banter, some heart-wrenching cruelty (eg., Big Frank doesn’t tell Travis his maternal grandparents are alive and well in North Carolina. When Travis finally tracks them down, he also finds out Big Frank has intervened by stealing all of Travis’s birthday money and Christmas gifts from them over the years), and the power of friendship to sustain a life.

Overall, Yocum’s books is an enjoyable read. Mitch and Travis are both well-developed, believable characters who are easy to root for. Big Frank is a tad two-dimensional in his cruelty; there is nothing redeemable about his character. I kept hoping we’d find out a compelling reason for his meanness, but no. The sense of place and time is a particular strength in this book, capturing the positives and negatives of small-town life. The plot is engaging, although I thought the story-arc sequence (four years of high school?) dragged at times and could have been collapsed.

(SPOILER ALERT) My major complaint about this book is the framing device used. In the prologue, Mitch lets us know he’s going to tell the story of the best friend he ever had, and implies that Travis died, killed at the end of their senior year in an ironic accident: Travis’s car plunges into the same body of water in which his mother supposedly drowned. Mitch piles on the irony, stating that Travis’s body, like Amanda’s, was never found. We carry this knowledge into the story, feeling sad that this interesting character we’re rooting for will die a tragic death at the end, even though he succeeds in his quest. Then we find out at the very end that this is not true! Travis is alive and well and living under an assumed name so Big Frank can’t find him. As a reader, this ending is not satisfying but annoying and manipulative. The story didn’t need this twist in order to be compelling and interesting. I’m left wondering if Yocum’s editor supplied this idea or if Yocum wrote it that way and his editor let it slide. Either way, the story would be better served without cheating the reader.

On a scale of one to ten, this book rates a six.

Book Lovers’ Spring Training

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Those of us in the freezing Midwest anxiously await when baseball players report for spring training because it signals a thaw, and intimates hot summer days quaffing cold beer and cheering when a player cranks one out of the ballpark. Likewise, when Mystery Writers of America announces the 2017 nominees for the annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards, it signals a spring of sorts: a fresh batch of books for the lover of mystery novels, multiple categories from which to choose, and enough titles to be relished all summer while quaffing a cold beer and cheering when a writer hits the proverbial home run.

This year I will read and review 11 books in two categories:

Best Novel:

  1. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  4. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin
  5. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Best Original Paperback:

  1. Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott
  2. Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts
  3. The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni
  4. Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty
  5. A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum
  6. Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin

Each novel will receive a ranking on a scale of one to ten after its review, and I will predict each winner in the above-named categories. MWA announces the winners on April 27th. My writing buddy, Karen Burgess, is already several books ahead of me with her Literary Lunchbox blog reviews of the Edgars. In her annual attempt at the same feat, Karen is more ambitious than I am (and a devotee of Evelyn Wood speed reading, I suspect), reading and reviewing an additional category, Best First Novel, for a total of 17 books. Sometimes we agree in our estimations, sometimes we arrive at completely opposite opinions regarding the same book. Either way, we both love reading and writing, and enjoy a great friendship as a result. We hope our friendly competition provides you with entertaining reviews and new writers to investigate.

Internal Debate

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If you like psychological novels, Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming fills the bill nicely. The final nominee in The Best First Novel category for the Edgar Awards (Mystery Writers of America) delivers on what the other nominees fail to offer, a believable flawed character. (There is one more book in the category that I’m taking an X on: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Thirty pages in I found the book so turgid I couldn’t continue.)

Garland, Tennessee is the setting for young Grace’s adolescence and her step into young adulthood. She is best friends with Riley Graham, a boy she loves more than herself. She is besotted and glued to him–and he brings her a bonus she doesn’t initially understand: he comes from a loving home. His parents treat Grace as their own daughter, a longing she doesn’t recognize as unfulfilled until Mrs. Graham fills it. Grace becomes a permanent fixture in their home, even garnering a bedroom prepared for her by Mrs. G.

As Grace, Riley and Alls (Riley’s best friend) near high school graduation, Grace makes the difficult choice to go out of state to college to pursue her art degree, while the two boys stay in Garland. She and Riley secretly marry before she leaves (“They’d married because marriage had seemed final, as though it would protect her, protect them.”) But after only a couple of months in New York, Grace returns to Garland at Thanksgiving and doesn’t return to college. She’s unable to be apart from Riley. (“He had a life without her, but she had never made one without him.”)

The three friends (with the addition of Greg, another friend) rent their own place and try to make a go of it, but money is tight and jobs scarce. While touring a local estate turned museum, Grace steals a small antique and is emboldened to up the ante in order to make some money–the boys join in. When they try for a larger haul, including a valuable painting, the boys are caught but Grace escapes with the painting and flees to France. The boys go to prison for three years.

During her time in France, Grace takes on  an alias and works in a studio refurbishing damaged art and jewelry, waiting in fear that Riley will find her. What transpires is the heart of Grace’s “unbecoming.” She fights herself (“…smacking her own hand back when it wanted, so often, what was not hers.”) and her growing awareness that Riley isn’t the only man out there (“This was what happened when your heart wanted two things it could not have together: You lost them both. Everyone knew that.”). Grace struggles with the strictures society places on women, and in pairing with Alls, eventually becomes who she really is (“You need one person who knows you,” she said. “Just one person you can’t fool, even when you fool yourself.”)

Rebecca Scherm provides us with a novel with depth, characters we think we know until they do something surprising, and a story about the subtle struggles women deal with when their behavior is considered “unbecoming.” Grace takes a different road, “unbecomes” the good girl and shows what women are capable of, even though it’s not “pretty.” On a scale of  one to ten, I rate this book an eight and is my choice for winner of the Best First Novel Category.

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