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[Since 1954, the Mystery Writers of America have given Edgar Awards to the best work done each year in the mystery genre. I’ve spent the past two months reading 12 novels nominated for 2010 Edgars in two top categories.

In two posts today, I’ll recap each novel, and handicap the two categories before the awards are presented tonight. This post will focus on the Best First Novel by an American Author category; click here for Best Novel. ]

I’ve reached this conclusion: it all comes down to suspense.

To make a mystery novel good, it helps to have good characters, an original premise, a cool or unique idea, and richly detailed scenes and settings. But without suspense, that cake don’t rise.

Suspense keeps the pages turning, it keeps you up late, and it makes you miss your stop on the subway. That’s my one-step litmus test for good mystery (if you’ve got other ideas, by all means, please leave them in the comments).

This post will serve a few different purposes. First of all, it’ll provide quick summaries and capsule reviews of all six novels nominated for Best First Novel.

Secondly, this post reflects my own rankings of these six novels. The first one listed is my favorite, the one I would give the Edgar to, based on my suspense-is-king philosophy. From there it goes in order of preference down to Cristofano.

Thirdly, I’ll estimate the odds of each book actually winning. When the odds don’t match the rankings, that’s where I think me and the judges will differ. This should give you an idea of how closely matched the novels are, and it should also give you something to gamble on today. Those odds are also subjective and made up, so take that into account.

Without further ado, let’s get to it. Hit the jump to see my pick for Best First Novel by an American Author. Click the links to read the full reviews of these books.

1. The Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenkauf

Odds of winning: 4-1

This is my pick for Best First Novel, and it’s also me standing by what I said above about suspense. Starvation Lake (#2, below) is more competently written, but Silence more consistently delivers nail-biting tension. Silence‘s ending is a mess, but it kept me up late more often than any other book in the category.

The story revolves around a small girl who’s kidnapped by her drunk father early one morning, and the girl’s friend, who also goes missing. As the families and the authorities search for the girls, buried emotional histories rise to the surface. Silence is more of a thriller than a mystery—i.e. more tension comes from watching a known situation unfold, as opposed to uncovering the identity of the bad guy.

I’m guessing Edgar will choose¬†Starvation Lake, but I’m leaning, just a bit,toward Silence. It’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it’s a hell of a ride while it lasts.

2. Starvation Lake, by Bryan Gruley

Odds of winning: 3-1

Starvation is about a small-town newspaperman who investigates the suspicious circumstances surrounding the long-ago death of his childhood hockey coach. Gruley is probably the most competent writer in this category; he’s a career newspaperman himself, and his facility with language shows. However, his pacing is way off. By halfway through the book, he’s barely revealed that there was foul play involved in the coach’s death, and he saves all the plot twists—and all the tension—for the final hundred pages. If you want more suspense, go with Silence, but if you want a better story, go with Starvation.

I draw the line here. I recommend reading those first two, and recommend not reading the next four.

3. A Bad Day for Sorry, by Sophie Littlefield

Odds of winning: 10-1

Sorry is a revenge fantasy about a woman who hunts down and punishes abusive husbands. A righteous premise that promises some edge-of-your-seat thrills—except that the main character, Stella, has no connection to the woman she’s trying to help. In fact, Stella doesn’t even like her in the beginning. Sorry loses a lot of tension because Stella is never completely invested in this specific case of domestic abuse. A vague, noble urge to right wrongs is nice, but it just doesn’t grip the way a personal vendetta does. This might be intentional on Littlefield’s part, a conscious decision to lower the tension in favor of humor and feel-goodery. But I don’t like my suspense diluted, I like it pure, and this one doesn’t offer that.

4. In the Shadow of Gotham, by Stefanie Pintoff

Odds of winning: 7-1

Gotham gets an odds discrepancy because it’s already won the First Crime Novel Award, which is also given by the Mystery Writers of America. It’s a straightforward mystery novel starring a forensic detective circa 1900, when fingerprints were cutting-edge. It suffers from a stodgy voice that sucks the fun out of reading it, but Edgar might overlook that for its ingenuity and well- (if drily) executed premise.

5. Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke

Odds of winning: 9-1

Rising features another righteous premise, but it’s short on suspense and plot. It has two distinct storylines: one deals with race relations, the SNCC, and Stokely Carmichael; the other is about a murder, a young black lawyer, the white woman he helps, and some oil barons or something. The plot is meandering and slow, and the two storylines never quite mesh. Weirdly, this book is also nominated for the Orange Prize—for that, I gave it an odds boost. I think it’s better suited to a more literary award, but it shouldn’t win either.

6. The Girl She Used To Be, by David Cristofano

Odds of winning: 25-1

This book is a romance novel disguised as a mystery, and it’s very, very bad. It stars a supernaturally obnoxious woman named Melody, whose brain has room for only three thoughts: I’m sad; look at that hot guy; I wonder what he thinks about me. Reading about Melody’s inane adventures is only slightly less painful than tattooing your own brain with a Dremel tool. For more details, click the title link above, or read this monster post: What Makes a Bad Book Bad?

That does it for Best First Novel. Get your bets in; post time is 8:00 PM tonight. If you haven’t already, check out my picks and rankings for Best Novel, the other big Edgar category.