Wednesday, January 15, 2014

And the Nominees Are . . . .

It's awards season, and I've got awards on the brain. The Golden Globes, honoring movies, were awarded last Sunday. The nominees for this year's Edgar Awards will be announced by the Mystery Writers of America sometime around Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, January 19th. If I could, I'd nominate some of these book characters for an award:

Most people are content to leave grave digging to the professionals, but sometimes fate intervenes. For best do-it-yourself burial: Jason Getty, in Jamie Mason's debut, Three Graves Full (Gallery Books, 2013). Although you could say the man was asking for it, Jason didn't mean to kill him. No matter, now Jason has little choice but to bury him on his property. Preparing the burial site and wrestling the corpse into it are comically macabre—entertaining for the reader, but not for poor Jason. His nightmares are only beginning, because one of his landscapers uncovers a body—just not the one Jason planted. This brings the police, who unearth yet another body—again, not Jason's. Then the police promise to bring over a dog in a few days, and a woman searching for her fiancé shows up. Jason is also in the running for best portrayal of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

They're a closeknit duo: Marnie and her "wee bit touched" younger sister, Nelly, who live on the Hazlehurst housing estate in Glasgow, Scotland. Marnie begins The Death of Bees, by Lisa O'Donnell (Harper, 2013), with these words: "Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved." In fact, Izzy and Gene were much more into booze and drugs than they were parenting their kids. Now, as Marnie says, at least she and Nelly know where they are. In one year, Marnie will be of legal age to care for herself and Nelly. In the meantime, to keep out of the authorities' clutches, all they have to do is lie. They face questions by Lennie, the kind old man who lives next door; their friends; Gene's drug dealer; and the authorities. It's a coming-of-age tale that's narrated by eccentric characters Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie, and it's both funny and moving. Marnie and Nelly could join Jason in his nominated category, but let's nominate them instead for best navigation of a sticky situation.

Let's look at a nominee for best at being royally screwed. Lynn Coady's Gordon Rankin ("Rank") is a gentle, sensitive giant, who has used his hulking size to advantage as a goon and brutal hockey enforcer. In college, Rank poured out his soul to geeky Adam, who has now turned around and used what Rank told him to write a satirical novel based on Rank's life, featuring "a dangerously unbalanced thug with an innate criminality." The angry Rank spends three months writing unanswered emails to Adam in The Antagonist (Knopf, 2013), an original epistolary novel that examines a male friendship. Like Caroline Graham's excellent novel featuring a writing circle, Written in Blood, The Antagonist also weighs who owns a life—a writer or the man his character is based on.

If Irwin Dressler says to Junior Bender, "You're working for me," then that's what Junior will do—if he knows what's good for him. Despite his old age, Los Angeles gangster Dressler is still feared. Junior is a professional burglar who occasionally does private investigations for fellow crooks. The case in The Fame Thief, by Timothy Hallinan (Soho Press, 2013), involves former starlet Dolores La Marr. Dolores was once called the most beautiful woman in the world, but her career stalled in 1950 when she was arrested after partying with gangsters in Las Vegas. While others arrested went free, Dolores was forced to testify before the Senate subcommittee on organized crime. At one time, Dressler was the power behind Hollywood studios, and now he wants to know who set up Dolores and ruined her career. So Junior digs. We'll nominate Junior, who's clever and always pushing the envelope, for best at getting out from under. It's the third book in this witty, character-driven series, and it's a pleasure to hang out with Junior and revisit the Hollywood Dolores knew.

Kathleen Kent's The Outcasts (Little, Brown & Co., 2013), is set in 1870s Texas, but it's not a simple western. It's historical fiction, an adventure, a treasure hunt, a chase, and a lot of fun. It features a lawman with a pure heart and a woman without one. We meet conniving Lucinda Carter as she flees a Fort Worth brothel, bound for Middle Bayou, Texas, where Lafitte's gold is supposedly buried. She has arranged the cover of a teaching job in order to await her lover's arrival. While Lucinda makes nice with the folks there, brand-new lawman Nate Cannon tracks down two experienced Texas Rangers, Capt. George Deerling and Dr. Tom Goddard, to notify them that their old nemesis, William McGill, has killed again. The lawmen, noses to the ground, give chase. The two story threads meet in Middle Bayou with a bang, but this tale is neither predictable nor sentimental. Let's nominate Lucinda and Nate for those we'd most like to see in a Sam Peckinpah movie.

We'll keep a lookout for the Edgar nominees this weekend. Now I need to saddle up and git to work.

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