19 August 2016

Anthony & Macavity Finalists Talk Favorite First Novels

By Art Taylor

This week marked the final balloting for this year’s Macavity Awards; the final balloting is just ahead for the Anthony Awards; and in less than a month, the winners of all these will be announced in New Orleans at Bouchercon.

I’m pleased to have some of my own work in contention here: On the Road with Del & Louise is a finalist for both the Anthony and the Macavity for Best First Novel, and Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, which I edited, is a finalist for the Anthony for Best Anthology or Collection. And I’m thrilled for the other SleuthSayers who are also honored as finalists this year: Barb Goffman for “A Year Without Santa Claus” and B.K. Stevens for “A Joy Forever,” both contenders for the Macavity for Best Short Story, and B.K. Stevens again for her novel Fighting Chance, an Anthony finalist for Best Young Adult Novel.

What’s maybe most exciting about all of this, however, isn’t the chance to toot our own horns but to connect with and celebrate the other writers in whose distinguished company we’ve found ourselves. I appreciated the opportunity to interview the other finalists for the Anthony for Best Anthology/Collection right here at SleuthSayers back in May, and earlier this year, when On the Road was up for this year’s Agatha Award, I asked my fellow finalists what first novels they themselves would name as favorites and why; you can find that latter round-up of titles at the Washington Independent Review of Books here, and I’d encourage you to look up the Agatha authors’ own books as well, a fine bunch!

That column offered a pair of fun opportunities—both to get glimpses into those authors’ tastes and influences and to add some titles to my own TBR list—so I wanted to repeat the same question with this year’s Anthony and Macavity finalists for Best First too: "What is your own favorite first novel (mystery preferred, but could be any genre), and how has that author’s work influenced or inspired your own writing?"

And our panelists are:



Anthony Award Finalists, Best First Novel
Macavity Award Finalists, Best First Novel

Here are the responses I got—a varied bunch and terrifically interesting, as I hope you’ll agree!

Patricia Abbott, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Concrete Angel
Patti Abbott
One of my favorite police procedural series was created in 1965 by Swedish couple, Maj Sjowal and Per Wahloo. Police detective Martin Beck was a typical cop in Sweden and readers got a fine portrait of Scandinavian socialism for good and bad. In Roseanna, his first outing, Beck investigates the murder of an American tourist found in the Gota canal. The duo would go on to write nine more books. What made the books special for me was the way the authors addressed societal problems of their day. Their influence on later writers, like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, is immediately apparent. To be able to write compelling crime stories with great characters, and also critique contemporary society is a terrific achievement. And the elements were all there from the start. Roseanna is my choice for my favorite first novel. In Concrete Angel, I tried to examine the way women with mental health issues were treated in the 1960s. And Shot in Detroit looks at the issues Detroit experienced in 2008 and after. Certainly the work of Sjowal and Wahloo was a huge inspiration.

Glen Erik Hamilton, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Past Crimes 
Glen Erik Hamilton
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950). Arguably one of the most influential mystery novels ever written, Highsmith's tale of two men who trade murders—one reluctantly, one eagerly—is still a gripping page-turner. Guy (note the Everyman name) is a vacillating architect unhappy with his wife and life. His new acquaintance Bruno is—well, Bruno is something else entirely. A charming sociopath, Bruno is the sharply-dressed rehearsal for Highsmith's greatest creation, the anti-hero Tom Ripley.

In between the delightful surprises of her plot, Highsmith managed to explore guilt, paranoia, homoeroticism, and above all the fascination many of us have with the darker side of human nature. The story follows Guy, seeing Bruno through his gaze. We realize that even with a close third-person view Guy is an unreliable host, largely because he doesn't know his own mind.

I write about criminals as well—some reluctant, some eager—and admit that the moral ambiguities in their world have an allure for me, at least from a distance. And while my protagonist Van Shaw is anything but indecisive, he too is figuring out his place in the world. Crook or hero? If Van is unreliable, it's mostly to his own higher instincts.

Rob Hart, Anthony Finalist for Best First Novel for New Yorked 
Rob Hart
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell. I picked it up mostly on a whim, because it had been in the New York Magazine Approval Matrix. And it just knocked me on my ass. I saw a Broadway show with my wife that evening and took the book out during intermission just so I could read a few more pages. It's the kind of book that demands your attention. And as a writer, it forces you to up your game on so many levels—it's hysterical and smart and experiments with form (footnotes!) it's got an emotional core and the ending, well... I don't even want to come close to spoiling that. But I will say I had to put the book down for a moment. And I shuddered. That's a hell of a thing, to elicit such a visceral physical reaction in a reader. That's something I one day hope to achieve.

Chris Holm, Anthony Finalist for Best Novel and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for The Killing Kind
Chris Holm
I really wrestled with this question because I’m fascinated by brilliant debut novels, and was unsure which of my favorites I should highlight. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep? William Gibson’s Neuromancer? Katherine Neville’s The Eight? Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell? Ultimately, though, I settled upon Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Written in part while Tartt was a student at Bennington College, The Secret History is a marvel of structure and language, a poignant coming-of-age story, and a thrillingly effective whydunit. Those who turn their noses up at mysteries will insist The Secret History transcends genre; I humbly submit that it demonstrates the full range of what genre’s capable of. If I one day write a story with a tenth its grace, I’ll die a happy man.

David Joy, Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for Where All the Light Tends to Go
David Joy
There’ve been countless times I’ve gone back and read the debuts of writers I love and just been blown away by the amount of talent they possessed so early. I think of a writer like Ron Rash, who’s undoubtedly one of the finest at work today, and I know a lot of people who can make compelling arguments that his first novel, One Foot In Eden, is as strong a novel as he’s ever written. He was that good from the start. I think what takes me most by books like that is how clear and powerful the voice comes through. You read writers like Ron or Daniel Woodrell or Donald Ray Pollock or George Singleton, and you know who you’re reading. Think of writers like McCarthy and Larry Brown and William Gay and Barry Hannah, you knew from the first sentence. Their voices were just that strong. So I’m going to give you someone I think needs more attention and that’s Alex Taylor. He has that kind of voice. His debut, The Marble Orchard, was as rich a debut as I’ve ever read. It’s sure-footed and wholly original. As far as the effect that kind of writing has on me, it’s humbling. It lets me know I’ve got a long ways to go.

Ausma Zehanat Khan, Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for The Unquiet Dead
Ausma Zehanat Khan
I first became enchanted by mysteries when I discovered the work of the great Ngaio Marsh, whose debut novel A Man Lay Dead introduced her darkly handsome, archetypal detective, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn's charisma drew me in further through the course of 32 books, and to this day, he remains my favorite detective of fiction. He was clever, sophisticated and kind—with an old-fashioned chivalry and masculine directness that made his suspects swoon. Esa Khattak owes him a debt.

In Alleyn's train came the charming young reporter, Nigel Bathgate, who acted as his sidekick through several other adventures, including the enthralling Enter a Murderer, the first of Marsh's books to feature a theatre setting. The theatre would become a defining element of Marsh's best work, as in her pair of her novels Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin. Both these novels introduced the fairy-tale theme of an unlikely talent's discovery and stardom. I was a theatre buff from a young age, so I was captivated by the world Marsh created, a world that discussed the writing and staging of plays in the midst of a gruesome murder. I learned more about Shakespeare through Death at the Dolphin, than I ever did during high school. And I credit these mysteries, as well as Marsh's Light Thickens, with teaching me to love Shakespeare's language and themes. But there were other lessons, too. Through Ngaio Marsh's wonderful artistry, I learned the sting of a well-turned phrase and the importance of a range of colorful suspects: Marsh's character descriptions are some of the best I've ever read.

Ngaio Marsh's writing taught me that mysteries didn't need to be paint-by-number constructions of murders, suspects and clues. They could encompass a wide range of interesting commentary, delve into history, politics or race relations, and deftly incorporate psychological depth. All with the most alluring arrangement of language and setting one could imagine. Ngaio Marsh's England and New Zealand were two places I dreamed of as home, all through my teenage years. From A Man Lay Dead all the way through to Light Thickens, Marsh's strengths as a writer continued to flourish and develop—she left her fans wanting more.

Brian Panowich, Anthony Finalist for Best First Novel for Bull Mountain
Brian Panowich
Like most writing assignments I receive, I have the hardest time doing specifically what is asked of me. The question posed was what is my favorite first novel and what kind of influence has it had over my own writing, and if I stayed on topic, that would be pretty easy to answer. John Connolly’s Every Dead Thing made me want to try my hand at writing a novel. Forth Of July Creek by Henderson Smith was so good it made me think I’d never try my hand at writing a novel. Soil by Jamie Kornegay was the best first novel I’ve ever read, but if the question was what first novel was the most significant to my own career, it would be The Second Son by Charles Sailor.

You see, when I was seventeen, I was a class a fuck-up, and that summer, a buddy and me thought we’d try to steal a gas station air-machine to get at the wealth of quarters inside. So undercover of streetlight, we pulled a beat-to-hell Pontiac Grand Prix into the parking lot of a Gas-N-Go and wrapped a chain around the steel post cementing he yellow air compressor to the ground and punched the gas. We lost the bumper and hit the curb, and the only thing we accomplished was getting both of our asses locked up in County. I was there for three weeks. Felony theft by taking, and a vandalism charge just for shits and giggles.

During those three weeks in lock-up, I had a little forced time on my hands to evaluate my current life trajectory. My cell’s tiny slit of a window faced the fairgrounds and every night I would stare out at the Ferris wheel of the fall fair, and wonder what I was going to do next. During my second week, after the Ferris wheel came down and there was nothing to stare at out the window, I grabbed a book of the book-cart that came around once a day around noon. I grabbed The Second Son, with zero intention of reading it, but after a day of going stir-crazy, I peeled open the cover and read a fantastic story of a man who fell from a skyscraper and survived to go on and become one of the most complex characters I’ve ever read to this day. I read the book twice during my tenure at 401 Walton Way.

When I finally got home, and after promising my father the money spent on bail and fines wasn’t in vain, I searched for that book in my library, and every book store I could find, until I found a paperback edition at a Goodwill on a fluke. I’m a novelist now, and I believe that book was where it all began. Sometimes when I’m in the throes of an author’s crushing case of self-doubt, I pull that book off the shelf and remember the power it held over me, and how a book can change a life. I hope someone finds one of mine someday and puts it to that kind of use. It’s the reason I do it. I think it’s the reason we all do.

Art Taylor, Anthony and Macavity Finalist for Best First Novel for On the Road with Del & Louise
Art Taylor (hey, that's me!)
As I said back in the WIROB column, I had three novels that popped to mind. Like Chris Holm, I’m enthralled by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and two other debut novels have also stood out to me for their equally confident prose and intricate, engaging plots: Tana French’s In the Woods and Cynthia Shearer’s The Wonder Book of the Air (the last one is lesser known, of course, and not a mystery, but I’m such a fan that if I ever see a copy in a used bookstore, I pick it up just to pass it along to some deserving reader).

I taught In the Woods this past semester at George Mason University, but it’s not just the freshness of my rereading that has me putting it at the top here. I was stunned by the book when I first read it (I reviewed it for the Washington Post here)—just blown away by the beautiful writing, the complex and frequently heartbreaking characters, and the many layers of a plot that offered new depths and startling surprises at regular turns. Rereading it simply reinforced that admiration and reminded me of the level of writing I’d love to aspire toward myself—even if there’s likely little connection between her work and my own in On the Road with D&L, perhaps more of an influence evident in some of my short fiction (and really a stronger connection structurally between my book and Cynthia Shearer’s, since hers is also a novel in stories). Either way, still a long way to go on developing my own craft, but that’s how reading can enrich writing, right? Raising the bar? Not just influencing but encouraging our own prose? At least that’s what I tell myself.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Bouchercon—and happy reading in the meantime!

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As a final note here, I’m encouraging folks to sign up for my new newsletter, which I hope to debut later this month—along with giveaways of three volumes from the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series: The Job Is Murder, Homicidal Holidays, and the newest addition, Storm Warning. Sign up here and you’ll automatically be entered in the drawing!

9 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Congratulations to all. And Good luck!

janice law said...

Best of luck for the Anthony and the Macavity!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paul and Janice! This is such a great group of writers, and I'm glad to celebrate them all here!

Brian Panowich said...

Thank you for the opportunity to air my misspent youth, and good luck to you with both awards. I'll be rooting for you.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Brian, both for the story here and for the good wishes! If there's anything I've learned about these awards, it's that the mystery community is ultimately a small and very supportive one, so many of us cheering one another on at every step of the way. That's the real joy here, the best things to celebrate. See you in New Orleans!

John Floyd said...

Good luck, Art, Bonnie, and Barb! And congratulations to all the finalists.

Looking forward to New Orleans.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, John! It's fun to be a part of all this. See you in New Orleans! (We need to plan a lunch or something.)

B.K. Stevens said...

It's always fascinating to hear writers talk about the books they love, and about why they love them. And Brian's story was a powerful reminder of the difference a book can make. Best of luck to all the nominees!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Bonnie! And congrats and good luck to you too!