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Monday, February 29, 2016

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2016 Edgar Awards

This is a repost of a prior blog entry:

This year's nominees are ...

To my shame I have read only one book ("Life or Death" by Michael Robotham) in the Best Novel, New Novel, Best Paperback categories. I guess there's now a big list of books ahead of me. So far I've gotten zero percent right in the years since I've tried to read all the Best Novel nominees and guess the winner.

The winners will be announced on April 28, 2016.


Note: This part was added later:

Here are my reviews of what I've read:

Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy

Life or Death by Michael Robotham

Night Life by David C. Taylor

The Strangler Vine by M. J. Carter

The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney -- This is my pick for Best Novel, but it isn't even nominated for Best Novel. It is in the Best Paperback Novel category. Why?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Strangler Vine by M. J. Carter

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 400 pages, $16 (c2014, US paperback ed. 2016)

Before the days of the Raj, British rule in India in the 1700s and 1800s wasn’t so much politics as economics. The East India Company was a private company with quasi-governmental powers. It made great profits from the various Indian provinces it subjugated, including by forcing farmers to grow the opium it needed to balance its trade deficit with China. It is this background that M. J. Carter uses for her debut crime novel, “The Strangler Vine,” set in 1837 India.

Ensign William Avery is a callow fellow in his 20s who joined “The Company” because his prospects in England were poor. On the verge of bankruptcy because of gambling debts, trapped in limbo in Calcutta because a permanent assignment to an army unit has not come through, and miserable because his best friend has been murdered, Avery is a sorry soul. He abhors an assignment to deliver a message to the notorious Jeremiah Blake, a former Company captain who has gone native. Blake is every bit as unimpressive as his lowly surroundings in Calcutta’s Blacktown neighborhood would suggest, Avery thinks. Nevertheless, the message produces a further assignment to accompany Blake on a mission.

At the point Avery meets him, Blake has resigned his army commission, has been mourning the loss of his wife, and has been fighting some malady, probably malaria, when the Company’s commission pulls him from his lethargy. Avery is suddenly promoted to lieutenant and assigned to accompany Blake to find the famous writer and poet Xavier Mountstuart, who has been missing for a few months during an expedition to learn about the vicious Thugees. Mountstuart’s books — gossipy, irritating, romantic, and disrespectful of The Company and Calcutta society especially — are what inspired Avery to travel to India when England became unsustainable. Moreover, Mountstuart and Blake have some sort of mysterious history together.

Not so much mystery as travelogue, Carter’s book paints an exotic and exciting portrait of India. Although her story is from the viewpoint of British folk in the steamy, teeming cities and insect-laden, encroaching “jangal,” and not especially of the indigenous people, she creates a sympathetic feeling for the indignities the Indians suffered.

Carter incorporates real people and history in the course of her book. The Company indeed had a Thugee Bureau intent on eliminating the Kali-worshipping clan of thieves and murderers. In their own fictional way, Avery and Blake are caught up in it as they search for Mountstuart.

On the front cover of my copy of “The Strangler Vine” appear the words, “A Blake and Avery Adventure.” Although there is a murder, an assassination attempt, and several deaths, this is an adventure first and foremost, and a grand one at that!

This book is a 2016 finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Night Life by David C. Taylor

Forge Books, 336 pages, $25.99 (c2015)

Well, “Night Life” was unexpected! This current nominee for the Edgar Award for Best Novel started out with a 1950s noirish tone with crooked cops, beautiful dames, and mobsters, and ended up amid the topics du jour of the 1950s: Communism and the Cold War.

Michael Cassidy is a police detective in New York City. He and his partner, Orso, are probably two of the least bendable cops in town, but they know how the game is played. There’s a lot of leeway for cop behavior. Even so, Cassidy is in trouble, but not in a bureaucratic way, when he tosses a fellow cop out a window for being an abusive jackass. Although this story haunts the rest of the book, it is not the main one. But it does show what Cassidy is willing to do.

Cassidy comes from an unexpected background. His father is a Broadway impressario. His mother was a socialite who killed herself. His sister and brother are very different than he, but there is a strong sibling bond among them. And a family friend is one of the deadliest mobsters in town. After World War II, Cassidy found himself at loose ends and without ambition. He certainly had no desire to enter his father’s show biz world. Cop work seemed to suit him.

When a handsome young man is tortured and murdered, Cassidy and Orso catch the case. The secret the man was holding was dangerous enough that people and agencies of all sorts are clambering for it. Even if it weren’t necessary for Cassidy to use information about the man to bargain his father out of prison, he probably would have been stubborn about dogging the case just because of all the interest.

Yes, Cassidy’s father has fallen victim to the Joe McCarthy Communist hunt. Although Tom Cassidy is not a Communist, he has the misfortune of having been born in Russia, and that is all that counts to besmirch his name. Plus, Cassidy has run afoul of the odious Roy Cohn, a McCarthy acolyte. 

David C. Taylor does a masterful job of tying all his stories together. His characters, real and fictional, are tough and reflect the post-war disaffection and anxiety of the 50s.  From automats to Toots Shor’s legendary watering hole, Taylor also gives a detailed, fascinating look at NYC in the 50s. “Night Life” is intriguing, fast-moving, and a reminder of how nasty power trips can be. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Edited 2/15/16: Never write a review on cold medication! There have been several changes to this review, but the substance has not been altered.

Annihilation, FSG Originals, 209 pages, $13
Authority, FSG Originals, 352 pages, $15
Acceptance, FSG Originals, 352 pages, $15

Well, the titles of Jeff VanderMeer’s works say it all. In “Annihilation” the mysterious Area X in (probably) Florida is our own little Bermuda triangle. It sucks people and bunnies up. In “Authority,” the Southern Reach is a government organization tasked with figuring out the who, what, when, where, why of Area X. So far, they have not been very successful. “Acceptance”  perhaps refers to humanity’s reluctant or joyful acceptance of Area X, Area X’s acceptance of our invasive poking, or maybe everyone has a come-to-God moment. Maybe it just means that we have to accept that “Acceptance” is the last in the series.

Broadly summarized, the Southern Reach stories are ecological horror stories, nature on the defense/offense.

Somehow thirty years ago an invisible barrier was formed, isolating a large area of coastal land. Anything thrown at the barrier disappears. Poof! After extensive probing, a strange doorway (still invisible, of course) has been located.  “Annihilation” follows expedition group twelve through the door. (The members of prior expeditions have mostly disappeared or the luckier ones have mysteriously re-appeared on the outside, mostly void of memories of their time in Area X.) The primary focus is on “the biologist.” There are no personal names; everyone is known by her function. 

There is a “topographical anomaly” that beggars description. The biologist calls it a tower, but it appears to be a winding tunnel into the ground. (VanderMeer humorously — and there is no humor in the stories — labels chapters in the last book, “Typographical Anomalies.”) There is also a ruined lighthouse, which may contain clues to Area X. While a lot of the birds, reptiles, and mammals seem normal, there are aspects of some of the creatures that are disquieting. Then there’s the “moaning creature” and other unnatural sounds. (Maybe VanderMeer had been watching too many episodes of "Lost.")

“Authority” is winding, opaque, and philosophical. Control (that’s his nickname —there really is a reluctance in these books to use real names) is the newly appointed director of the Southern Reach. He is there to unravel the convoluted notes and reasoning of the prior director. He is also there to interview the biologist from the expedition described in “Annihilation” who disappeared from Area X and re-appeared in a vacant lot in the outside world as if by magic. She is keeping a secret but Control is unable to judge its pertinence to the puzzle of Area X. She is referred to as Ghost Bird. A lot of the book is about Control’s crummy childhood, his workaholic mother (who is also one of his bosses in the overarching governmental organization), and his suspicion that he is being manipulated by his mother and others into finding out … what? What?

“Acceptance” carries a lot of narratives forward. Before the invisible, nearly impenetrable border came down and created Area X, there was a working lighthouse and a lighthouse keeper, Saul Evans (yay! a name). There were also two silly people with the Séance and Science Brigade haunting the lighthouse, bothering Saul, and sticking strange machines around. There was a young girl named Gloria who was wild and brilliant, for whom Saul was a surrogate father. One of the stories is about this “prebiotic” time.

Control and the Ghost Bird are back with the rest of their story. Ghost Bird would dearly love to understand the tug Area X has on her. Control has nothing left to lose anymore. His reputation is in tatters, nothing is as it seems, and he no longer has authority, if he ever had any to begin with.

Finally, the director of the Southern Reach, Control’s predecessor, tells the story of her obsession. She too is bound to Area X but not for the same reason as Ghost Bird. She painstakingly gathers information and tries to find logic where there apparently is none. What is the logic of the words burned into the living wall of the tunnel/tower: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner.” Control finds the words also written in a mysterious closet in the director’s office behind a barricaded door.

For ninety-five percent of the story, VanderMeer obscures, obfuscates, and raises question after question. Will he ever explain anything? The answer is yes.

VanderMeer’s publishing company released his three books during the same calendar year, an unusual but wise move, because waiting a full year between releases would have caused frustration and mutiny. These books are actually one large book, artificially cut into three parts. 

Depending on your point of view, there is either a lot of padding or a beautiful exposition of nature untouched by man’s ignorant bootprints. There is either a fine depiction of descents into madness or a tedious look at several obsessive personalities. I claim the middle path in each instance. I enjoyed about eighty percent of the story and would have wished for an abridged version.

VanderMeer’s entertaining story may be a riddle wrapped in an enigma, but his take-away message is what a mucked up job we humans have made of our world and that the question of identity is indeed a hard one to answer.

Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy

Dutton, 336 pages, $26.95 (c2015)

Here is another languid, poetic Southern work by Lori Roy. She won the Edgar for her first work, “Bent Road.” She was nominated for her second work, “Until She Comes Home.” And she has been nominated for this year’s Edgar for Best Mystery Novel for “Let Me Die in His Footsteps.” That’s a pretty impressive resumé.

Roy seems to have an aversion to placing a story in contemporary times. “Bent Road” was set in the 60s, “Until She Comes Home” in the 50s, and “Let Me Die in His Footsteps” in 1936 and 1952. Even though the plot line is complicated, there is a simplicity in setting a story back before sophisticated forensic techniques, social media, and a camera in every pocket.

In 1936 two sisters, Juna and Sarah, live on a rural tobacco farm in Kentucky. Juna has black eyes and the "know how," a folkloric prescience. When young girls “ascend,” that is, turn fifteen and a half years old, they are considered women. The country folk fear that that’s when Juna came into her evil powers.  Sure enough, despite drawing together to provide solace to the family, the neighbors feel validated when Juna and Sarah’s young brother, Dale, disappear.

In 1952 two sisters, Annie and Caroline, live on a rural lavender farm in the same neck of the woods. Sarah is their mother and Aunt Juna hasn’t been seen in years. Annie has the same black eyes as her aunt. People are kinder to her but suspect that she, too, has unnatural powers. When it is time for Annie to ascend and look into a well at midnight to see the face of her future husband, she is overcome with the feeling that Juna has returned and that no good can come of it.

Indeed, a slow-moving turmoil ensues and what happened to Dale many years ago is dredged up again. Was the right person blamed for his disappearance? The many secrets buried for years are forcing their way to the surface again.

Although most of the book moves like molasses, the ending punches swiftly and ruthlessly. Roy does a good job of describing the community, the prejudices and strengths of the people, She also develops Annie and Sarah in depth. The primary players’ motivations are carefully drawn and one can feel how real those characters are.

There are a lot of references to smoke and burning, the smell of lavender, and the power of superstition. This was a true Southern novel in the mode of Thomas Cook and Daniel Woodrell (who is thankfully much more terse): lots of atmosphere and family dysfunction.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Ruling Passion by Reginald Hill

Felony & Mayhem, 304 pages, $14.95, c1973

“Ruling Passion” is the third book in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, which, by the time of Hill’s death in 2012, had reached twenty-three novels. The series roamed the hills and dales and towns of Yorkshire, England, and taught its American readers that mystery was deep and rich in Northern England, not just in jaunty London town.

Peter Pascoe at the beginning of the book is a Detective Sergeant but is promoted to Inspector by the end, although the book is full of his fumbling and wrong-concluding. His superior officer is Detective Superintendent “Fat” Andy Dalziel, a straightforward, sometimes vulgar, rough-hewn, gleaming intelligence. And although Dalziel plays a part in this book, it belongs to Pascoe.

Pascoe and girlfriend Ellie are on their way for a weekend reunion with four old friends in the small, quaint town of Thornton Lacey. When they arrive, silence greets them. And the dead bodies of three of their friends. In the initial ghastliness of the situation, Pascoe finds it difficult to be a policeman. He teeters between being a witness and being a professional.

Fortunately for his sanity, duty drags him back to Dalziel’s side to solve the mystery of a string of burglaries, one of which has turned deadly. Is the last deadly burglary really related to the others or were the burglaries a convenient opportunity for someone to extract revenge?

Reginald Hill does a great job see-sawing (or teeter-tottering, if you’re British) between the cases. Pascoe gains a maturity and humility through being at both ends of police procedure. Hill’s love of language and literature has always made the Dalziel/Pascoe books a standout series. When was the last time you read a crime novel that involved Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard”?

If you want to start at the beginning, “A Clubbable Woman,” written in 1970, is where you should begin. The publisher Felony & Mayhem has done a great job reissuing a good many of them.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Song for the Brokenhearted by William Shaw

Mulholland Books, 416 pages, $26

British author William Shaw ends his Breen/Tozer trilogy with “A Song for the Brokenhearted.” It is a grisly, bloody, heart-wrenching end to an outstanding series.

Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen and his ex-colleague, Helen Tozer, begin the book far from the bustle of a police station. At the end of the second series entry, “The Kings of London,” Paddy was wounded and Helen had quit the force to take care of her parents’ farm when they can’t. She has taken Paddy with her to recuperate. Helen’s mother feeds him barely edible food.

They are joined by teenaged Hibou, rescued by Helen from a drug house. Instead of healing and burgeoning with a connection to the earth, most of the inhabitants of the farmhouse are overcome with gloom. Hibou, full of ideas about organic farming and nurturing the land, is the exception. Buoyed by her enthusiasm, Helen’s father is coming out of his funk.

Why are people depressed? Paddy’s injury is slow to heal and he is bored. Helen’s sixteen-year-old sister, Alexandra, was tortured and murdered a few years ago. Helen’s father probably blames himself and he sits in front of the television, daring his farm not to fall apart in the meantime. Helen’s mother keeps the home fires burning in the kitchen, but no one seems particularly interested in her bit of nurturing. And the last place Helen wants to be is on a farm doing work she hates.

Helen sweet talks the local policeman into letting Paddy look at the police reports of Alex’s death, which brings him out of his doldrums. Alex’s killer was never caught, so Helen’s ulterior motive is to provoke another investigation into her death.

What brings this book to life is Shaw’s depiction of the interrelationships of the main characters. There are tensions, irritations, and incompatibilities. For instance, Helen and Paddy are sometime-lovers, frequent antagonists, and permanently not on the same page. Helen is especially prickly and Paddy is especially clueless. Helen also bristles at her father’s growing dependence on Hibou.

Here’s a little depiction of Helen and Paddy:

A fellow poiliceman: “‘…[Y]ou and her. She’s a bit nuts. And you’re…’”

Paddy: “‘Conventional.’”

Shaw masterfully turns what could be another good British mystery into a great one by adding an unexpected storyline. There are many victims, not all of whom show the scars of their torment.

Here is the first MBTB star of 2016!