Some thoughts on this year’s Edgar Award for best novel

May 19, 2014 at 7:27 pm (Awards, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The nominees for the year 2014 Best Novel Award were the following:

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Of these six, I’ve read three: How the Light Gets In, Ordinary Grace, and Sandrine’s Case.  I’d like to comment on these.

By  the time I got around to reading the Louise Penny title, I’d already read a number of glowing reviews. So I was hopeful, and that hope was vindicated.  How the Light Gets In is a wonderful novel, filled with Penny’s signature poetic writing and populated with characters we’ve come to know and care about.

At this point, I’ve read nearly all of the books in the Inspector Gamache series and enjoyed them, for the most part. You’ll notice, I qualified the previous statement. Some of the novels have worked better for me than others. And then there was The Beautiful Mystery, the series entry immediately preceding this one. Almost from the beginning, I felt as though I were slogging through this narrative. Some mysteries have a slower pace than others, and don’t necessarily suffer for it, but this book seemed to me positively inert, completely becalmed. Everyone was penned up in a monastery on an island, and all I knew was, I wanted off that island ASAP! At about the half way point, I gave up.

The Beautiful Mystery was an award winner – nearly all of Louise Penny’s books have been honored in this way, several with multiple accolades – but  it did not work for me on any level. This was one of the reasons I was so delighted with How the Light Gets In. A glorious return to form for Ms Penny.

For the record, my favorite entries in this series are the first one, Still Life, and especially Bury Your Dead, the reading of which made me want to drop everything and get on a plane to Quebec City, where I would (naturally) stay at the fabulous  Chateau Frontenac..
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William Kent Krueger has garnered a slew of raves for Ordinary Grace. The novel is set in New Bremen, Minnesota in 1961; the unfolding events of that fateful summer are recounted by teenager Frank Drum. Frank’s  father is a Methodist minister; his mother, an aspiring writer. A younger brother and an older sister make up the rest of the family.

From the jacket copy:

It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.

Yes, it’s all there and it sounds sensational, yet as I was reading, it didn’t strike me that way. This may be partly because, clocking in at just over 300 pages in the hardback version, the novel proceeds at an oddly leisurely pace. We get quite a few opportunities to delve inside the daily lives of Drum family members, and, as is the case in most families, these quotidian glimpses are not all uniformly  fascinating – at least they weren’t for this reader. There were times when I became a bit impatient, in particular with Frank’s younger brother Jake, whom I found at times to be pesky. Perhaps his behavior was meant to be endearing; instead I found it annoying. (Sorry – apologies to baby brothers and sister  the world over!)

Krueger is the author of a highly regarded series featuring Cork O’Connor. It too is set in Minnesota. (The Land of 10,000 Lakes seems to be having its moment right now. I’m currently reading The Land of Dreams, a terrific novel in the Minnesota trilogy by Norwegian author Vidar Sundstol. And then, of course, there’s Fargo.) Cork O’Connor is a very appealing protagonist, and his home state is vividly described by Krueger. Native American lore and characters also enrich the novels in this series. I’ve read and enjoyed two of them: Thunder Bay and Boundary Waters, which was  a discussion selection by the Usual Suspects group.

When I sat down to read Ordinary Grace, I was optimistic, having no reason not to be. But only a few pages in, I looked up from the book and sighed deeply. I could not help thinking, I’ve been here before; another coming of age novel, a teenaged boy – it’s seems that it’s almost always a boy –  finds out the Truth about Life. Part of my problem was that I still held in my mind the recollection of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a stellar example of fiction in this genre, beautifully written and lightened with welcome touches of humor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I was not quite as enthralled by Ordinary Grace as other readers obviously were. I found the novel by turns engaging and exasperating. I guess the problem was pretty much mine alone: Ordinary Grace just won the Edgar for this year.

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Sandrine’s Case surprised me. I’ve had problems with Thomas H. Cook’s fiction in the past. Last year the Usual suspects discussed Breakheart Hill. I had serious issues with that novel and only barely got through it. Previously, I’d tried Cook’s Edgar winner, The Chatham School Affair, and gave up at about the half way point. I was finding the portentous tone and relentless hints at profundity just a bit too irritating. But in view of the laudatory reviews Sandrine’s Case was getting, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.

Samuel Madison and his wife Sandrine are both professors at Coburn College in Coburn, Georgia. It’s a small college in a small southern town, and Samuel Madison can’t help feeling that he was destined for better things. When Sandrine, already ill, dies suddenly and inexplicably, her husband is accused of killing her. Initially,Madison’s default demeanor, characterized by an attitude of smug condescension, does him no good as a jury of his peers sits in judgment on him and on his actions.Here’s how he imagines the jurors perceive him:

I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was a ticket to a carefree and semiluxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired – so the locals assumed – no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and each other.A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite  the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lived high on the hog by…talking.

In this surmise, he’s probably not fat from the truth. But as this courtroom drama runs its inevitable course, his views on his marriage, his life, and the nature of life itself all undergo a profound change.

The day to day progress of the trial provides an equal measure of tension and tedium.

Of course, as a reader, I knew  that a great many things had been written about time. It was a river. It was a thief. It was money to Benjamin Franklin and a dream to Conrad Aiken. Tolstoy had thought of it as a warrior, but as my trial continued, I found myself recalling that it had been the peculiar power Shakespeare had ascribed to time that Sandrine had most often quoted, the notion that it voided cunning, that nothing could outfox it.

In other words, he observes wryly, murder will out.

Sandrine’s Case abounds with literary allusions. Partly these is meant to show the sphere in which Samuel Madison’s intellect nominally dwells (as did his wife’s). But they also showcase the erudition of the author himself. Cook’s knowledge and love of the world’s great literature enriches and deepens the scope of this narrative.

Be that as it may, Madison’s frequent citing of great literature risks making him look like an intellectual snob – which, to an extent, he is. At one point, he remarks to Morty, his lawyer, that he feels like Merseault, the emotionally inert protagonist of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Morty’s response is heavy with sarcasm: “‘Be sure you mention that to the press, Sam, or better yet to the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existentialist French literature.'”

Sam Madison’s veneer of thinly veiled contempt is a cover-up for a man who is gradually and inevitably being shaken to his core. His mind is more and more frequently cast back into the past, his past with Sandrine, when their love was new and filled with hope and happy anticipation. Here he describes his feelings after indulging, while in court, in an especially poignant reverie:

Before that moment I’d sat in utter silence, completely still. I’d faced the witnesses squarely and offered no visible response to anything they’d said. But in the surprising insistence of that particular recollection I felt the emergence of a second, far darker tribunal, the grand inquisitor in his black robe, demanding to know what really happened, how with so starry a beginning I’d reached this starless night.

That is so beautifully put – I especially like the use of the word tribunal. There’s plenty of writing like this in Sandrine’s Case. But the greatest strength of the novel lies in its exploration of one person’s mind and heart, in its depiction of what the truth really consists of, and how, once that truth stands revealed, it has the power to alter a person’s most basic assumptions about the world, about other people, and most of all, about him- or herself.

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Last October, an article by Thomas H. Cook entitled “The Ten Best Mystery Books” appeared in Publishers Weekly. His annotations are so persuasive, it’ll make you want to obtain his selections immediately. (The fact that three of my all time favorites are on this list may partly account for my enthusiasm. They are The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, A Coffin for Demetrios by Eric Ambler, and The Quiet American by Graham Greene.)

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The Mystery Writers of America, the organization that bestows the Edgar Awards, features on its site a database that allows you to access the names of award winners and nominees going back to the inception of the award in 1946.

 

3 Comments

  1. Angie Boyter said,

    Can’t wait to see you to talk about this, Roberta! I loved Ordinary Grace and was sorely disappointed in Penny’s latest (and loved Beautiful Mystery). Il ne faut pas discuter les gouts.

  2. Ellen Levin said,

    Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the Edgar nominees. I guess you know how much I loved How the Light Gets In -it is my absolute favorite of all of Louise Penny’s books! Looking forward to tackling Sandrine’s Case -it is currently in my book pile!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for your comment, Ellen. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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