Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Envelope, Please Part II: Forecasting the 2014 Edgar for Best First Novel by an American

I On Monday, I showed you the nominees for the 2014 Best Novel Edgar. It's now time for discussing the Edgar nominees for Best First Novel by an American. I'll tell you right off the bat that this will be a tough one to predict.

Before I get to that, though, I want to express a wish for opening this category to non-Americans. Americans can vie for the Crime Writers Association's John Creasey Dagger for best new crime writer of the year, and two of the nominees we'll talk about today, Roger Hobbs and Becky Masterman, were longlisted for that Dagger. At the very least, the Mystery Writers of America should add another Edgar category: Best First Novel by a Non-American. This would be a friendly thing to do especially after the Man Booker Prize people were magnanimous (some would say misguided) enough to open their prestigious competition to American authors in 2014. Let's not be stuffier than the Brits!

I'm climbing off my soap box now and getting down to the business at hand.

The nominees for the 2014 Edgar for Best First Novel by an American are:

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton)
Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Alfred A. Knopf)
Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman (Minotaur Books)
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (Simon & Schuster/Scribner)
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (HarperCollins)

Here are the Read Me Deadly equivalents of the little Oscar film clips:

Matthew Guinn's The Resurrectionist involves two men whose lives are linked by the same South Carolina medical school. Nemo Johnston, a pre-Civil War slave, is purchased by the school and ordered to procure cadavers for its anatomy classes. In the 1990s, white medical resident Jacob Thacker, MD, is obligated to handle public relations for the school's dean, when the bones of dissected slaves are unearthed in the basement of the school.
A big Atlantic City casino heist goes haywire in Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs. The feds are circling. One robber is dead, while another is wounded by who knows who and has disappeared with the $1.2 million. The heist's organizer calls in a debt from "Jack," a criminal's criminal, and tells him he has 48 hours to fix things before the money's dye pack explodes and GPS starts beeping.

In Becky Masterman's Rage Against the Dying, 59-year-old Brigid Quinn, an FBI special agent who worked serial killer cases undercover, has been forced to retire. She has married an ex-priest and is living in Tucson, Arizona. Then the Route 66 killer, involved in the disappearance of her protégée, is captured. But there's some doubt he's the right man.

Beautiful Dominika Egorova is coerced into becoming a professional seductress (a "sparrow") for Putin's Russian intelligence service. Her assignment is to compromise ambitious rookie CIA spook Nathaniel Nash, in order to identify a Russian mole for the FSB. Sparks fly between the two and they engage in deceitful games of "spy vs. spy" in Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow.

Reconstructing Amelia, by Kimberly McCreight, involves the efforts of Kate Baron, litigation attorney and single mom, to reconstruct the last days of her high-achieving 15-year-old daughter, Amelia. Amelia fell to her death from the roof of her private school after being accused of cheating. Suicide? Or something else?

Prediction: Ai-yi-yi. I cannot believe I volunteered for this job of forecaster. Over the past few days, I've been thinking about these books and reading about their writers. I can see how they wrote these particular books but, unfortunately, it doesn't make it easier to pick the winner. I've been changing my mind hourly.

Becky Masterman
It's been a year since I read Becky Masterman's Rage Against the Dying but I remember the dread I felt reading the beginning like it was yesterday. Serial killer Gerald Peasil coolly sizes up his next victim, a white-haired "hot granny" rock hunting in the dry river bed. But this isn't the typical book that starts with a crime that the rest of the book solves by the ending. Tough as old leather Brigid Quinn, now married to a man who knows nothing of her former FBI career, isn't the typical protagonist. And the investigation that drags her back into the Route 66 case isn't typical, either.

I'm not a fan in general of serial killer books but I really liked Masterman's twists on the standard plot and her unusual characters. She's a former editor of forensic medical texts and she manages to be authentically creepy without going over the top. Rage Against the Dying has been nominated for four other crime fiction awards this year and she's seriously in the race for this one.

Roger Hobbs
Roger Hobbs takes another fairly predictable plot (the heist gone wrong) and standard characters (criminals who have fallen out) and turns it into an adrenalin-charged tour de force in Ghostman. It's not that the book is a stripped-down juggernaut, though. The narrator, a professional criminal we know as "Jack Delon" who specializes in making things disappear, goes into pages-long digressions about his craft. There were times I felt the coziness of a mentor relationship with Jack, reading all of these explanations. It's easy to see that Hobbs, a former rifle range instructor and recent college grad, must be a natural-born scholar.
Hobbs writes with such assurance and Jack's narrative voice is so unusual that this book is a rare first. It was awarded the 2013 Steel Dagger Award for best thriller by the Crime Writers Association and was named a finalist for two other awards in addition to this Edgar nomination. It's in the running for sure.

Kimberly McCreight
Kimberly McCreight's lawyer-single mother Kate Baron had my sympathy in Reconstructing Amelia, although I felt I knew her less well than her teenage daughter Amelia, a bright student who is close to her mother. Amelia is brought to life through her first-person media posts and texts, which appear in alternating chapters and provide the gist for Kate's research. Kate is allowed to sit in on a detective's interviews and I had a hard time swallowing this, especially surprising coming from lawyer/writer McCreight. Better was the Brooklyn setting and the depiction of the special hell high school creates for some students. This is a popular book that wasn't quite to my taste. I could be wrong but I don't see it winning.

Matthew Guinn
Matthew Guinn's slave, Nemo Johnston, is a memorable character. He takes easily to his night job of supplying cadavers for a Columbia, South Carolina medical school. He robs African-American cemeteries of their dead and even creates his own corpses on occasion. By day, he's a skilled surgeon/teacher in the school's anatomy lab (you can imagine some of the gruesome scenes) although he isn't compensated accordingly. His story is more interesting than that of the Xanax-addicted young doctor who faces a moral dilemma when he's asked to cover up the 1990s discovery of the African-American bones in the medical school's basement.

Guinn's novel is uneven but still a good southern gothic. I'll look forward to his next but I think this isn't his year.

Jason Matthews
Some of the best British espionage writers actually worked in intelligence and now there's an American espionage writer, Jason Matthews, who was a spy for 30 years. It's a joy to read his book, Red Sparrow, filled with an insider's knowledge of spycraft.

His Russian "sparrow," Dominika Egorova, is lovely and I rooted for her even though I'm an American. I also liked the target of her training and charms, newly minted CIA agent Nathaniel Nash. Their dialogue was perfectly done. I agree with Sister Mary's criticisms (see her review here) but the shortcomings of this book are minor. A terrific book nominated for two other awards and this Edgar. Of these five books, I liked it the most. Well, maybe. I can't decide.

And now we're down to it. It's between Matthews, Masterman and Hobbs. It wouldn't surprise me if any of them won but I'm going with Masterman. I think the Mystery Writers of America will be pleased to honor a female writer who created an unusual female protagonist and breathed new life into a novel about serial killers, Rage Against the Dying.

Pickin' the winner out of the hat: Becky Masterman's Rage Against the Dying

Rollin' the dice, winner high: Matthew Guinn's The Resurrectionist

Okay, I gave it a shot. Three shots, actually. Maybe the pick of Masterman twice is prophetic. Now please tell me who you think is going to win this Edgar.


  1. This race is very difficult to predict.

    The voice of Roger Hobbs's Jack is unique, and I think we'll see some very exciting books from Hobbs in the future.

    I loved RED SPARROW, by Jason Matthews, and his unusual characters. A thinking-person's espionage novel is hard to find among all the shallow page turners, which are fine for a plane ride, but not for reading in bed.

    You may be right in picking Masterman, but I'll go with Matthews.

  2. I'll go with Matthews too, just because it's the only one of these I read! But I did like it. And the soubise recipe worked out very well!

    1. Sister, if there is any justice in the world, RED SPARROW will be nominated for a cook book award, too.

      I hope the next by Matthews also contains recipes. I found their addition charming. A little like the breaks from murder in SOMEONE IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE. Spy games and double crossing make a reader hungry.