Unfurling the Umbrella

I’ve been teaching a class about crime fiction for the local Senior College at USM for several years now, and I’m constantly surprised by how many people equate a crime novel with a traditional mystery: a story that begins with a crime, usually a murder, and ends with a solution. As a crime writer, I’m aware how broad the umbrella of crime fiction is, and so I decided to focus the course this year around the Edgar nominees for Best Novel for 2021.

The Edgar Awards, named for Edgar Allan Poe, are given each year by the Mystery Writers of America to honor crime fiction published in the previous year. The Edgars include categories like Best First Novel, Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Young Adult, and so on. This year marks the 76th annual awards.

The Best Novel nominees for 2021 include:

  • Rhys Bowen—The Venice Sketchbook
  • S. A. Cosby—Razorblade Tears
  • James Kestrel—Five Decembers
  • Will Leitch’s—How Lucky
  • Kat Rosenfield—No One Will Miss Her

The Venice Sketchbook is a historical mystery, where the crime has little to do with violence, let alone murder. A young woman’s great aunt leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a final instruction to go to Venice, where the woman discovers her relative’s life during the runup to World War II as an art student and, possibly, as a spy for the Allies. The tone is personal and emotional.

S. A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears might be one of the most awarded books of the year. It is a violent story of revenge and retribution, where two men with criminal pasts, one black and one white, bond in an attempt to find out who murdered their two sons, who were married to each other. The book is high-energy and dark, a violent journey for the two ex-cons.

Five Decembers is best described as a police procedural, except that the solution to the murder occurs over a period of five years during World War II, encompassing the detective protagonist’s incarceration in Japan and a series of foreign excursions in search of suspects and evidence. The fact the book was published by Hard Case Crime will tell you all you need to know about its flavor. The tale is both historical and dark, a follower of the noir tradition with the disaffected detective and a cynical tone.

The plot of How Lucky, on the other hand, revolves around a young man with a wasting disease, confined to a wheel chair and unable to speak, who witnesses from his front porch one morning a young woman being kidnapped. His efforts to communicate with the police, to rescue the young woman, are delivered in his own sarcastic and, shall I say, smartass tone throughout. The crime is terrible, but the overall sense of the book is light.

And lastly, Kat Rosenfield’s No One Will Miss Her, is set in Maine. The daughter of a junkyard owner is murdered by her husband. Or is she? Or was she murdered by the wealthy female summer complaint who rented the daughter’s Airbnb? And maybe seduced her husband? Or did the summer complaint kill the husband? This is a shapeshifter of a novel, with many twists and turns and a surprising outcome.

In preparing the class, I hoped my students would see how different the nominee novels, these best of 2021, are. They are historical novels, contemporary novels, novels set in America, in Europe, in the Far East. They carry different tones: light, dark, emotional, just-the-facts. Their characters are healthy, disabled, sane and disturbed, white and Black, from our home state and from countries on the other side of the world.

We’ve just started the class, but already I’m seeing an opening of the minds and it’s heartening. A familiarity with the diversity of crime fiction can only mean more readers. And more readers means more books written and more and different kinds of books published. Which can only make the umbrella open wider.

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5 Responses to Unfurling the Umbrella

  1. bangorgirl says:

    Fantastic sounding course! Loved The Venice Sketchbook…now looking forward to reading more of these.

  2. Julianne Spreng says:

    That is a class I would take in a minute! I hope those students understand what an honor it is to be taught this subject by a published mystery author. I can only imagine your discussions.

  3. John Clark says:

    Sounds like a fun class. Thanks for the thumbnail sketches of the nominees.

  4. Guess you’ve done my homework for when I interview these five writers on April 5th, haven’t you. Thanks. A great summary…and reading these five together really gives a sense of the big tent.

    Kate

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