BY NICO VREELAND
[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]
Filed under: Literary
I was surprised by how much I liked The Odds. It’s not a mystery, for one thing, despite what its cover says. It also starts slowly, with a large cast of characters and perspectives connected in a languidly moving series of interactions. The plot never really thickens or twists, it just ambles along the track it initially lays out.
Mostly, that track centers around a quartet of orphaned kids—the Philips children—trying to live on their own, without being split up by the foster care system. There are complications, but most of the drama comes from these honest, unselfish children carving out a place for themselves and watching out for each other. It’s not the kind of thing I usually like, but Kathleen George never lets it get cloying or cliched, in the way that kind of thing usually gets.
Basically, we’ve got a bit of a magic trick: The Odds is a simple story that’s much more enjoyable than any of its individual elements would lead you to believe.
Other than the Philips children, the other main characters include a street kid who sells drugs, a man who runs a pizza joint cover for Pittsburgh’s drug kingpin, and a detective. There are also scenes from the perspectives of another half-dozen or so ancillary characters. Some of these could have been pruned back, but George does a pretty good job of handling the interweaving stories, and it rarely feels cumbersome.
I have a few quibbles with the characters. The pizza man and the Philips kids are so tough and honest and scrupulous that they verge on caricatures. But they’re also so humble and selfless that it’s impossible not to root for them. You can’t confuse them for real people, but they keep the story moving, simply because you want them to succeed.
And there’s a bonus: the best female character in any Edgar-nominated novel I’ve read so far. Too often in the Edgar books (this one and this one, especially), the main female characters are vapid, superficial cutouts. They primp and preen and worry about what men think of them, to the exclusion of any thoughts of substance.
On the other end of the spectrum is The Odds‘s Detective Colleen Greer. She’s unmistakeably feminine, and she has her share of romantic thoughts, but she also has grit, determination, and independence. She doesn’t collapse and let a man take over when the going gets tough; she doesn’t obsess about her hair when there are more important things happening. She has hunches and street smarts, and she uses them. She has conflicting emotions and motives, but she doesn’t let them paralyze her with indecision. She’s the best and most nuanced character in The Odds. More than one Edgar author could take a lesson.
The writing itself isn’t quite as good. Everybody’s dialogue sounds the same, whether it’s the nerdy whip-smart Philips girl or a junky seventh-grader shooting up in an abandoned house. It’s all clipped. Noirish. Gruff. Incomplete sentences. That kind of thing.
The prose, likewise, doesn’t stand out. George sometimes writes inscrutable lines like this one, when the detective gets fingerprint results back:
The prints came up all right. They came up like three limes on a slot machine.
At her best, George can drop a half-hard-boiled pseudo-aphoristic phrase like this one, from the perspective of a man with cancer:
How bizarre that you could walk around in your body for months, years, and not know the bad things going on inside it until the chaos reached certain proportions and the alarms went off. Then the body talked back, all right.
George doesn’t reach for poetry, though, and her restraint means that the language in this novel stands aside and lets the story through, which works to great effect.
As I mentioned, there’s no mystery here—I have a feeling that that subtitle was the publisher’s doing. There’s a murder case tying the characters together in different ways, but the variety of perspectives means we know exactly how everything happened almost as soon as it happens, and that’s never the point of the novel.
Most of the drama comes from the Philips kids simply trying to survive. I’m not going to say anything else about the plot so as not to spoil anything, but it works well for the story it sets out to tell. Suffice it to say that those kids and the pizza man won my sympathy quickly and completely, and I was willing to watch them do whatever they needed to.
Detective Greer has the least to do, mostly figuring out what the reader already knows. So it’s good she’s the most interesting character—that carries her sections when the plot drags.
In the end, The Odds is a heartwarming, heartbreaking story about some good people trying make it in the world. It’s a simple story, but greatly enjoyable.
Similar books: The Boxcar Children series, by Gertrude Chandler Warner (The Odds is not for children, though). I was also reminded, embarassingly enough, of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment, which I listened to once on audiobook as a joke. It was a joke, I swear. Patterson’s book also features a quartet of orphan kids looking out for each other, but, obviously, it was much worse.
Edgar impact: The Odds is certainly in the top tier of Best Novel nominees. I don’t think it should win an Edgar simply because it’s not a mystery, but it’s definitely worth reading.