BY NICO VREELAND
[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 Novel category; click here for Best First Novel by an American Author).]
Best Novel is a much more competitive category than Best First Novel, as you might expect. All of these books have serious strong suits, and I wouldn’t be completely flabbergasted to see any of them win. The top three novels, especially, are well worth reading, and close enough to each other that their odds of winning are almost identical.
That said, a quick word on how I ordered my own rankings: suspense. Quality matters, but I gave my #1 to the most suspenseful book in the category (and in the whole of the Edgars).
As for this post itself, it will do a few different jobs (if you read the Best First Novel post already, skip right to the jump).
First of all, it’ll provide quick summaries and capsule reviews of all six novels nominated for Best Novel. Secondly, this post reflects my own rankings of these six novels. #1 is my favorite, #6 my least favorite. Thirdly, I’ll estimate the odds of each book actually being picked by the judges. So the odds don’t necessarily match up with my rankings (especially my top three).
Now then: get out there and gamble! (Unless I’m somehow liable for your gambling using these odds, in which case: get out there and non-monetarily enjoy the knowledge of which books I think have the best chances of winning!)
Hit the jump to see my pick for Best Novel. Click the links to read the full reviews of these books.
1. The Last Child, by John Hart
The Last Child was one of the first Edgar novels I read, and it quickly became the standard by which I measured the others. Quite simply, Child is the most suspenseful, most compelling novel of the twelve I read. It’s about a 13-year-old boy and his unceasing search for his sister, who disappeared a year before the novel begins. There are a few hiccups, and certain elements of the story are a little manipulative, but Child simply grips you and won’t let go. That’s exactly what I’m looking for in a mystery, and that’s why I would give it the Edgar.
2. A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn
A Beautiful Place to Die is one of the the top three books in this category, and Malla Nunn is without question the best prose stylist among all twelve Edgar nominees… when she wants to be. Beautiful lays down a phenomenal first half, but then flags down the stretch and becomes merely solid. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it wins, but it doesn’t offer the white-knuckle thrill ride of The Last Child. I’m ranking it second, but it’s well worth the read, and Malla Nunn is definitely worth watching.
3. The Odds, by Kathleen George
The Odds is something of an oddity: it’s much more enjoyable than it sounds like it should be. For one thing, it’s not a mystery, despite its subtitle. Like The Missing, below, The Odds features a multitude of perspectives, so there’s never a whodunit in play. Instead of suspense, The Odds offers a quartet of orphaned kids—honest, tough, street-smart, compassionate—trying to make it on their own without getting broken up by the foster care system. I normally don’t like that kind of formulaic feel-goodery, especially falsely advertised as a mystery, but this one hooked me. George keeps it unformulaic and non-cloying (no easy feat), and instead The Odds is the simple story of a hard life, and it’s impossible not to root for those kids. As a bonus, The Odds features the best female character in all of the Edgars. I don’t see it winning over the two novels above, but it’s certainly worth a read.
I draw the line here. I recommend reading those first three, and I recommend not reading any of the following.
4. The Missing, by Tim Gautreaux
The Missing is a strange hybrid novel, halfway between mystery and literary, but satisfying as neither. It follows an honorable man named Sam Simoneaux as he sets out to find a girl whose disappearance he feels responsible for. But Gautreaux tells the story from multiple perspectives, including one that reveals the identities of the kidnappers, so there’s no mystery there. Simoneaux isn’t deep enough or, frankly, interesting enough to sustain a novel with his thoughts or actions alone, so the whole thing felt unsatisfying to me.
Gautreaux’s a pretty good writer, though, and he writes great descriptions. If you’re looking for a meandering, lushly described novel about steamboats in 1920s Louisiana, this is it. For either a mystery or a deeply engaging literary novel, though, look somewhere else.
5. The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, by Charlie Huston
Mystic Arts is an energetic novel, but it doesn’t have the underlying foundation to be a really good mystery. It’s about a young slacker who gets a job as a crime scene cleaner—and several of the novel’s best moments are gleefully gruesome descriptions of messy deaths. The mystery and tension, such as they are, are entirely deflated by a woefully lackluster ending. Basically, this novel feels juvenile: exuberant but undisciplined, full of talent but with no direction to take it. Much of the novel offers enough fun to outweigh the structural shortcomings, but that ending is so bad that Huston simply couldn’t recover from it.
6. Nemesis by Jo Nesbø
Nemesis is a police procedural, in that Nesbø documents every single, solitary, excruciating action that his detective takes. He takes what could be a pretty exciting 250-page mystery, and bloats it up to 500 pages by describing every excruciating investigational detail (click the link above and read the full review for examples). This seems to be a Scandinavian thing—at least, Stieg Larsson suffers from the same problem. In fact, I gave Nemesis a little odds boost because people seem to love these bloaty, blathering books. If you really like Larsson, think about giving this one a chance, but otherwise prepare to be bored by the awkwardly named Detective Harry Hole.
That does it for Best 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 First Novel, the other big Edgar category.