For mystery writers, the Edgar Awards are like the Emmys or the Oscars, recognition by one’s peers for excellence. Because of the pandemic, the 2020 banquet was not held, but the Mystery Writers of America still celebrated its 74th anniversary by announcing the winners. Here are two singled out in the competitive Best Novel category.
Edgar Award Winner
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
British writer Domenica de Rosa wrote several novels set in Italy. But when she penned her first one featuring the forensic archaeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway, her agent categorized the novel as a mystery and encouraged her to choose a pen name. Elly Griffiths is now known, not only for her Galloway mysteries, but also for the Stephens and Mephisto series. (Stephens is a police superintendent and Mephisto a magician.) Griffiths won the Edgar for a stand alone mystery – The Stranger Diaries.
Although set in present times, The Stranger Diaries reads like a gothic novel. Clare Cassidy teaches creative writing at a private school, Talgarth High, located in a small English village. She’s also working on a book about R.M. Holland who once lived in the school’s older building and was the author of a short story, The Stranger, that continues to frighten and intrigue new generations of students. Excerpts from R.M.’s story are interspersed with entries from Clare’s diary and narrative from Clare, as well as from Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, and from Clare’s daughter Georgia.
When Ella Elphick, Clare’s friend and a colleague in the school’s English department, is found dead in her home, Kaur heads up the investigation, interviewing Clare and other teachers at the school. Clare quickly rises to the top of the suspect list, not only because she receives a promotion because of Ella’s death, but also because her demeanor signals that she has something to hide. While Kaur tries to be objective, she harbors some resentment toward the school which she once attended. The daughter of immigrants from India, Kaur was never truly accepted by the other students or, in fact, by the teachers, epitomized by the upper class, well-dressed Clare.
Rick Lewis, head of the English department, is the next victim and because he was in love with Clare, who dodged his unwanted advances, Kaur senses a motive. Clare is forced to juggle the many visits by Kaur with her classes at the school, her book research, and watching over her daughter, Georgia, who has begun dating an older man. Clare’s ex, Simon, becomes concerned about Georgia’s relationship as well as the murders, and pressures Clare to let their daughter relocate to London. Clare wins that round, but worries that both she and Georgia are in danger.
Griffiths succeeds on every level. The characters are well developed, the setting perfectly creepy, and R.M.’s ghost story produces shivers. There are several twists and the guilty party eventually revealed, the motive one that most readers will have missed.
While this is a stand alone, might we see Kaur again? Her character – along with her eclectic family – stands out and would be welcome in another series.
Edgar Award Nominee
Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland
Barbara Bourland’s debut novel, I’ll Eat When I’m Dead, a satirical take on fashion and the media, was a Refinery29 Best Book of 2017 and Irish Independent Book of the Year. Fake Like Me zeroes in on the art world told by a woman artist who is never named. When she was 19, she visited a gallery and was fascinated by a group of artists, collectively called Pine City. She was specifically intrigued by one of their members, Carey Logan, an artist known for her hyperrealistic sculptures. After she commits suicide by drowning, rumors of her final unseen work consume the art world.
Years later, the narrator is an up and coming artist, making a name for herself with her oversized paintings. She has a major exhibition coming up, but when her loft burns down, she loses all but one painting. Frantic that the show will be cancelled if she reveals the bulk of her work has been destroyed, she tells her agent six of the paintings were in storage and she just needs to redo one. She’s granted a two month reprieve, but faces a daunting task. With her loft destroyed, where could she work? When someone suggests Pine City’s retreat 70 miles north of the city, she jumps at the chance.
Pine City, not a city, but a former upstate resort that fell on hard times, still serves as an artist retreat for the remaining members of the group – Tyler, Jes, Marlin, and Jack. While she was primarily looking for a place to work, the artist also hoped to “walk the same paths that Carey Logan did,” and find inspiration to complete work for the exhibition.
But while the artist longs to learn about Carey, she discovers that the other members of Pine City avoid any talk about their former colleague. She initially believes they are being protective, but soon begins to think there’s something more sinister going on. Did Carey really kill herself or was she murdered? While she knows working on her paintings must take priority, she can’t help investigating whenever given the chance.
Bourland never describes the paintings that her narrator creates, focusing instead on the process, what paints are used, what tools, and how the work comes together. The relationships between the artists are as complicated as anything they create. And when the mystery of Carey’s death is finally revealed, it’s a shocker.
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