Hurt Me Some More

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Excitement attended my cracking open the first novel in the next category–Best Novel–nominated for an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America: Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where it Hurts. I’m a recent convert to Coleman’s fan club after plowing through half of his Moe Prager series (the other half are stacked up on my night table to devour after the Edgars are announced on April 27). I’m hooked. If you’re a noir fan, Coleman’s your man, and Gus Murphy’s tale won’t disappoint.

Gus is a retired Suffolk County (Long Island) cop whose solid marriage blows apart when his twenty-year-old son, John Jr., dies suddenly from a hidden heart defect while playing basketball. Gus leaves the force and winds up driving the airport shuttle van for the Paragon hotel, where he lives in one of the rooms. Two years later, Tommy Delcamino approaches Gus to look into the recent murder of TJ (his son), because the cops are treating him like the two-bit criminal he is and blowing him off. Gus agrees, not because the two men both have dead sons in common, but because his cop sense is piqued by the investigating detectives’ hands-off behavior. And Gus is desperate to get out from under the deep depression he’s been in since his world fell apart. Gus is quickly swept into a morass of conficting stories and discovers a drug deal reaching from the past that impacts directly on the current investigation. No spoiler alerts here because I don’t want to give away any more of the story.

Suffice it to say the reader is in Coleman’s strong, competent hands upon entering Gus Murphy’s world; the place is gritty, the violence graphic, and the plot deep and satisfying. RFC has total control of the story, understands how to ratchet the pacing so the pages keep turning, and delivers justice in the end.

But the most important feature of the novel is Coleman’s rendering of the emotional lives of his characters. Gus is a broken man, grieving without let-up, the pain making him unable to relate to his ex-wife or daughter. His journey to find TJ’s killer (and Tommy D’s killer, too, as it turns out) brings him back to some semblance of normalcy, but the story doesn’t get tied up in a neat bow–his son’s death has changed him permanently. Other characters in the book are equally wrought and memorable: Gus’s ex-wife is sexy, feisty, and as devastated by grief as Gus. There is also a priest who has lost his faith but comforts Gus, and two different women who hook up with Gus but don’t make the hurt magically go away.  My favorite character is Slava, another worker at the Paragon, who assists Gus in surprising ways yet intrigues the reader by hinting at a mysterious background that is never explained (I expect we’ll see him again).

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this novel a 9!



Past Crimes Redux?

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What Will You Read Next?

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It’s that time of year when Mystery Writers of America nominates a slew of novels for the Edgar Awards, and announces the winners at their annual banquet in New York on April 28th. My writing pal, Karen Burgess, and I each review and rate novels in some of the categories, making our best guess at what will win. Karen and I will take on the Best First Novel category, while Karen will also plow through the Best Novel category–overachiever that she is. The nominees in Best First Novel Category are:

  1. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton
  2. Where All Llight Tends to Go by David Joy
  3. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  4. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  5. Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

First up is Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton. Clearly set as the first in a series for main character Van Shaw, Hamilton doesn’t disappoint in hooking the reader at the opening with a terse message from Shaw’s grandfather Donovan, AKA Dono. “Come home, if you can.” Shaw hasn’t seen Dono in ten years, since escaping from Seattle after high school to serve as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. Van takes a ten-day leave to return home, where he discovers Dono shot, bleeding, but still alive. Of course the police suspect Shaw is the shooter and interrogate him. But after they let Shaw go, he enlists the help of Dono’s friends to find the shooter as Dono lingers in a coma.

We soon find out that Dono raised Shaw from age ten, schooling him in the fine art of theft and living on the wrong side of the law. Shaw is a quick study and participates in Dono’s heists during his teen years. We don’t learn why he left Seattle after a falling out with Dono, though, and the story turns on this particular plot point. There are many twists and turns as Shaw re-ignites past friendships, male and female. The hook-up with Lucy strained credulity–they pick up where they left off ten years earlier? In bed? Would that my life were that exciting. Shaw eventually puts together all the pieces and lets the reader in on the turning point reason for his leaving at eighteen, which of course directly gets at who shot (and killed) Dono (he never recovers from the coma).

Hamilton’s first effort is readable and at times interesting, though I found the Seattle setting negligible and the sense of place weak. The characters are pretty stock and two-dimensional, and I cared not one whit about whether or not Shaw discovered who shot Dono. I confess I have little interest in this type of book, one that I think is aimed at male readers (strong, tough hero, a little bit bad but not because it’s his fault, he was raised that way; who women instantly bed with because, well, just because.) I suspect it’s James Bond all over again, except this time it’s in Seattle.

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

The Life We Bury a Sure Hit

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Allen Eskens knows how to write what mystery readers like to read. Count me among the faithful. He gives us Joe Talbert, a young man beset by difficulties right at the start: Joe’s got two weeks to complete an assignment for his biography class at UniGenre-Authors2versity of Minnesota. He goes to the local nursing home–Hillview Manor–to find an old person to interview. While there, he gets a phone call from the cops saying they’ve arrested his bipolar, alcoholic mother, which leaves his autistic brother, Jeremy, alone at home. Joe does the right thing, brings Jeremy to stay at his apartment and lets his mother stick it out in the clink.

Joe goes back to Hillview and is assigned to a convicted felon living out his cancer-ridden last months at the nursing home. Carl Iverson is a bad guy, convicted of raping and murdering fourteen-year-old Crystal Hagen and then burning her body in his tool shed. But when Joe talks to him, Iverson makes a dying declaration: he didn’t kill Crystal and he challenges Joe to find out who did. Joe takes the challenge, ably aided by cute next-door-neighbor Lila Nash, and the hunt is on.

The Life We Bury has much to like: a Minnesota (who doesn’t like Minnesota?) setting, a protagonist with a lot on his plate and a never-say-die attitude, and a plot that keeps us guessing. The story ends with all of the strings neatly tied, perhaps a bit too tidy, but I cheered for Joe, his protection of his brother, and his undisguised attraction to Lila. Most of all, Joe wants to see things righted for Carl Iverson. He’s noble, and that ain’t a bad thing these days.

On a scale of 1-10, i give this a 9.5.

Shovel Ready not so ready for prime time

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images-1First up for review of Mystery Writers of America’s  Edgar Award Nominees, Best First Book category, is Adam Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready. Spademan, the main character and protagonist in this post-apocalyptic story set in bombed-out/radioactive New York City, kills people for a living. (“Think of me more like a bullet.”). He has only two rules in his profession: no kids (17 and under) and no suicides. He does it for money (even though he doesn’t spend the money) and because, “…someone asked me to.” If you’re looking to care about this character, put that aside. There’s no sentiment here, (except for the fact that his wife was killed by one of those bombs, presumably what changed Spademan from a can-in-the-alley garbageman to a where-do-I-put-the-body garbageman). This story is strictly for video-gamers who want action, gore, and gleefully tough characters who follow thier own codes and don’t give a damn about anyone. I assume the folks in Hollywood are lining up to option it for a film (if they haven’t already).

In a nutshell, Spademan is hired to kill the daughter (Persephone) of a famous evangelist (no questions asked–Spademan doesn’t allow questions). He is assured she’s 18, so no rules broken there. When he does find her, his moral code enlarges to allow for one more exception: she’s pregnant. Spademan finds out that Persephone is being pursued by other bad guys, so he tries to help her. The rest of the story plays out from there. No spoiler alerts–I found the plot convoluted and hard to follow. For me, the book was a slow-go to the finish because I didn’t care about any of the characters, not one; willy-nilly killing doesn’t make for night-time reading. Also, switching point of view from Spademan to other characters two-thirds of the way through the book felt awkward and poorly conceived.

I’ll give Sternbergh props for his setting, though, and some cool and believable concepts about what life might be like if NYC was bombed.  His gritty New York, whose population is reduced by half from the bombs and people fleeing, feels real. Two camps are delineated well: those who are scrounging street people and those who are rich and above the fray. I especially like the concept of “limning.” In this near-future, “tapping-in” or “going off-body” is virtual reality taken to its hyper-best. Those who can afford it buy special (very expensive) beds, get hooked up and go under, and do anything they want/fantasize about in the limnosphere. It’s the internet on steroids. After the bombs, the rich people take to their beds and tap in full-time, attended by nurses who check vitals and keep them fed, and armed guards to keep the rest of the world at bay.

If you like sci-fi with some dystopia thown in, this is the book for you; it’s an escapist romp. If you’re looking for character development and a story you can sink into, look elsewhere. I rank the nominated books I review for The Edgar Awards on a scale from one to ten, one being the lowest. Shovel Ready rates a 3.

The Edgar Award Nominees Announced

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zpoeimgiMystery Writers of America has announced its 2015 nominees for the Edgar Awards. I will review six novels from the Best First Novel category:

1. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

2. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman

3. Invisible City by Julia Dahl

4. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

5. Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie

6. Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver

My writing buddy Karen Burgess, is also reviewing and ranking Best First Novel (as well as the Best Novel category). We will each try to predict the winners on our blogs before they are announced at the Edgar Banquet in New York City, at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on April 29, 2015.

And the Winner is…

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Mystery Writers of America will present the annual Edgar Awards on May first in an array of categories. I have been reviewing nominiees in the “Best Novel” category over the past few months and have ranked them as follows (two have tied for first place):

1. Standing in Antoher Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin (9)
1. The Humans by Matt Haig (9)
3. Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy (8)
4. Sandrine’s Case by Thomas Cook (7)
5. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (5)
6. How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (4)

My writing pal, Karen Burgess, has also read and rated the nominees and this year we differ quite a bit in our assessments. My choice for the winner is Ian Rankin’s book, as it provides the most reader satisfaction in terms of engagement, character development and mystery. My favorite book, however, is The Humans because it is fresh and has the ability to deliver pathos and humor; I laughed and cried reading it, which is kind of like life, no?

But I think Mystery Writers of American will choose William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace for the Best Novel this year. His excellent Cork O’Connor series has never won an Edgar (nor been nominated for it, I think) and should have been. I think MWA will try to make up for that oversight by honoring Mr. Krueger this year (and well done, I say.)

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