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The 2012 Edgar Awards: Who Will Win Best Novel Of The Year?
Good evening and welcome to this Criminal Complex round-table discussion. I am Jimmy Callaway, CC underboss and your moderator for this discussion. Tomorrow night, April 26th, 2012, in New York City will be held the annual Edgar awards banquet, held by that illustrious organization, the Mystery Writers of America, and where will be presented the coveted Edgar Award to the best and brightest in the genre of crime and mystery fiction. Or so it would seem. We of the Criminal Complex, in our drive to bring you the latest news in all things crime and to be incredible smart-asses, have individually read and assessed the books nominated for Edgar’s highest honor, Best Novel of the Year of our Lord, 2011. And today, we present our findings to you, dear reader. These are, of course, our own opinions, and should therefore, of course, be considered the law of the land.
Allow me to fire the opening shot:
First, we have the novel 1222, written by that Norwegian powerhouse who is not Jo Nesbø, Anne Holt. 1222 has all the hallmarks of a classic murder-mystery, including the fact that it is very, very dull. Our heroine, retired and handicapped detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, is on a train ride through the mountains when the fierce winter weather derails the locomotive. She and all of the other passengers are forced to take shelter in a grand Overlook-esque hotel. Dead bodies soon start cropping up, yet no one seems to suspect that these murders were done out of boredom. I certainly felt like killing somebody as I read this book, just to liven things up a bit. Our protagonist is a fairly stock prideful, willful lady cop; our list of suspects consists of the usual nice guys, strange doctors, and foreigners; and there is actually a drawing room scene. Maybe that’s still fresh and innovative in Norway, but regardless, 1222 sounds like it should work on paper, but on paper, it does not. If you get stuck in a vicious snowstorm in a Norwegian mountain inn, pray that 1222 is not the only book you have to read.
Our own Cameron Ashley is known around the office as “the guy who likes all that Japanese stuff.” Not a very catchy nickname, but certainly accurate, and so it only made sense to assign him our next nominee. Take it away, Ashley:
It’s a little befuddling as to how The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino has attained such stature outside of its home country of Japan. The cynic in me says that it seems somehow exotic, easily positioned as a potential substitute should the Scandinavian flavour of the month be sold out at your local bookstore, yet it’s easily digestible. In fact, it’s the least Japanese Japanese book I’ve read in quite some time. With minimal changes, it could easily be modified, westernised, homogenized, and this, to me at least, seems to be a sign that it’s time the Edgars got riskier – their namesake wasn’t adverse to pushing a boundary or two, after all.
And for those who think I’m just after some cheap J-thrills, you’re wrong. Just because the book doesn’t unearth some horribly kinky, weirdly “alien” behaviour is not the source of my discontent – it’s more that there are much better Japanese crime novels readily available that easily deserve the push that Suspect X got.
But to the plot:
Single mother Yasuko Hanaoka’s horrible ex-husband shows up on her doorstep to extort money from her. He ends up dead on her floor. Unsure what to do with the body, Yasuko’s neighbour Ishigami, a reclusive genius who settled for being a high-school Maths teacher, comes to her rescue and disposes of the body. The police, along with their brilliant assistant Manabu Yukawa, physicist and former schoolmate of Ishigami, are on the hunt, and for once, these Japanese cops know exactly what they’re doing.
Unfortunately, the cat-and-mouse battle of the problem-solvers in Yukawa and Ishigami doesn’t get cat-and-mouse enough and the procedural portions of the book are frequently dry. There’s little suspense to be had from the hunt, which is a shame as all the characters are quite brilliantly rendered.
The most compelling sequences involve Ishigami’s growing obsession with Yasuko and how her obligation to him plays out even during his creepy phone booth calls and his stalking of those who get close to her. It’s a shame, for this reader, that the lengthy procedural elements take away from the development of what is the core (and the title) of the book.
By no means a bad read (despite what seems like heapings of criticism), in my opinion you’d be better served first tackling livelier, yet more culturally relevant works such as Kirino Natsuo’s Out or Grotesque or Kenzo Kitakata’s The Cage.
Josh Converse is a good American boy from the country’s heartland, and so naturally, we picked him to tackle the lone American author on this list of nominees:
Hillbilly noir is assuming a bigger and bigger presence in the crime fiction scene these days. In this vein, Ace Atkins brings you The Ranger, a journey through the swamplands of Mississippi following Army Ranger Quinn Colson as he attempts to figure out who killed his uncle, the one-time Sheriff of Tibbehah County.
Colson returns home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to see the little world he left behind. It quickly becomes clear that it’s a pretty familiar world, peopled with characters that could have been reinterpreted from My Name Is Earl or Friday Night Lights. Old flames and teammates from the football team. VFW this, Walmart that. Colorful hicks with bad dental hygiene. There is an America out there where life really is measured with the ups-and-downs of the local high school football team, where everybody knows what everybody else is up to at all times. The problem is we’ve all had that tiny universe interpreted to us six ways to Sunday on TV and in books and movies. The Atkins interpretation offers nothing significantly new.
The shame is that there is a well-paced, thoughtfully plotted mystery going on underneath this river of clichés, but by the time it gets underway, you have nothing invested emotionally in the characters to keep you paddling after it.
Atkins is a more than capable writer, having been nominated for a Pulitzer while working as a journalist at the Tampa Tribune. It was therefore disappointing to discover the color-by-numbers approach to characterization and exposition within The Ranger.
Since there are only the core four at Criminal Complex (so far, anyways), there was one odd nominee out, and as acting editor, I felt it was incumbent upon me to therefore read two books for this discussion. Allow me to explain why I regretted that decision:
After slogging through 1222, I approached Philip Kerr’s seventh Bernie Gunther novel, Field Grey (or Field Gray, if you’re a dippy Yank like me), with more than a teaspoon of trepidation. For one thing, it appeared to be set during WWII, and though I have the standard lip-service respect for the Greatest Generation, I am so bored with this era being used in fiction that I could invade Poland.
But at first, it seemed my attitude was uncalled for, as the book actually opens in 1950s Cuba with the main character hanging out with Graham Greene in a whorehouse. There are at least nine reasons I will eagerly read your novel if that’s the pitchline. Sadly, the book almost immediately abandons this premise, and we are instead treated to Gunther in American custody, spinning yarns to the CIA about his involvement with certain Reds, interspersed with Gunther’s flashbacks to what actually happened. Sounds like it should be a page-turner, but frankly, by about the middle of the novel, I was having a hard enough time keeping all the Germanic names straight in my head to even really care about what was going on. More Cuba next time, please.
I don’t know that the fact that this is a series novel had anything to do with my disillusionment as much as that I’m pretty thick. But I will say that it seems kinda goofy that a series novel—indeed, one deep in the series like Field Grey—should be nominated for an Edgar. Seems to me that having read at least one or two of the previous novels would have heightened my enjoyment of the book. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t there be a Best Series Novel category? Nominating the seventh book in the series for Best Novel almost seems like seven books are being nominated for one award, and that hardly seems fair. MWA, get on that, will ya?
And finally, after all this kvetching, Matthew Christian Funk brightens the horizon with this fair amount of praise for our final entrant:
Thanks for tuning in to the Criminal Complex Edgars dissection hour, where we slice apart the Mystery Writers Association Edgar awards nominees with our razor wits, toss them out on the street to you and see if they keep living.
The good news is this won’t take near an hour, or even five minutes. Even better news, I’ll get right to whether you should read this book or not.
The volume I dug into is Edgar nominee Mo Hayder’s Gone. And I do mean “volume.” This pony tips the scales at 416 pages.
I went through them like a hot knife through kittens.
Read this book.
I was not of that opinion about fifty pages into Gone. At that point, all I was thinking was, “I really could not give two shits about British people.” Gone has a lot of them, and it’s steeped in British procedural detail—law enforcement, social services, even a dash of finance.
To be clear, it’s not them; it’s me. I just put the good people of the Isles kind of low on my list of cultural interests, somewhere between people from Mali and people from Myanmar.
Gone has robust details, but they don’t entangle the story. Nor do they drive it. They’re only there to enhance it, like pepper improves a Bloody Mary.
No, the vodka and tomato juice in this recipe is Gone’s plotting and its characters.
I’ll tackle the tomato juice first: The characters are swell. Why? Because they’re really not very good at what they are. The cops are kind of incompetent and insecure. The heroes are shiftless at times and make very poor decisions frequently. Everybody else is plenty sympathetic, but kind of obnoxious as well.
It makes Gone’s people just as real as its details about police SCUBA techniques and store-bought surveillance equipment. Getting to know them is like getting to know actual people, having to take good with bad, bad with good, and winding up kind of disappointed in the end. That makes Hayder’s writing the opposite of disappointing.
Once you’ve gotten cozy with the characters, and they start making you chastise them and hope for better out of them, the plot takes off. It goes off like a fucking fuel-air explosive: Sucks your guts out and lights everything on fire. Hayder ends each act—each third, for those of you not paying student loans on an MFA—with a twist that sometimes had me doing a double-take.
Pack into that agony, threat, and distrust, and you have blasting powder enough to blow the roof off for the ending. And here’s where I hate myself:
Mo Hayder made me want a happy ending.
I hate happy endings. I’d rather drink a toothpaste milkshake. But by the time Hayder had me through the emotional wringer, I was ready to chug it down and eat the cherry on top.
So, yeah, Gone was not to be missed. Unless you really don’t like child murder. And, if that’s the case, put your damn big girl pants on and pick it up anyway.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the Criminal Complex pick for Best Novel of the year is Mo Hayder’s Gone. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow night to find out if the voters agree with us, but we can tell you right now that they will.
Or they will live to regret it.