The Edgar Awards Revisited: Briarpatch by Ross Thomas (Best Novel; 1985)

Join us for a look back at Briarpatch by Ross Thomas, the 1985 Edgar Award winner for Best Novel.

Ross ThomasBriarpatch won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1985, the year my younger brother was born, eight years after my own birthday. Like the protagonist of the novel in relation to his decade-younger sibling, I spent several years being my brother’s de facto parent until he went off to college. I didn’t expect to share this somewhat uncommon circumstance with our hero, Ben “Pick” Dill, but I absolutely understand the fierce love and determination that drive him to seek justice and the truth in the wake of his sister’s murder, even if it burns the whole world down around him.

And what a hot and messy world it is. Formerly a reporter, Dill now works as an investigator for the rising young Senator Joseph Ramirez in Washington D.C. but heads back to his unnamed Sun Belt hometown (that is most likely based on Oklahoma City, where Mr. Thomas himself was raised) after a car bomb takes out his sister, a promising homicide detective. The evidence suggests that Felicity Dill was a cop on the take who most likely died for her corruption, but Dill knows his sister better than that.

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While he’s looking into Felicity’s death, he’s also running an errand for Senator Ramirez (and therefore expensing his entire trip,) tracking down his former best friend, Jake Spivey. The two boys grew up poor together before making good, though Spivey’s success far outstrips Dill’s. After falling in with the CIA, Spivey used the aftermath of the Vietnam War to make a fortune, and now may be the only person able to take down Clyde Brattle, another ex-Agency man wanted by Senator Ramirez for crimes against the state. Dill plans on using his friendship with Spivey to persuade the other man to testify for the government. Spivey is mostly amenable, as he has political ambitions of his own:

“A law-and-order mayor, right?” Dill said.

 

Spivey grinned. “You ain’t for lawnorder?–which you notice is one word in this house.”

 

Dill smiled, drank some of his beer, and then gazed up at the ceiling. “You might pull it off, Jake.”

 

“What I figure I’m really doing is growing my own briarpatch. Grow it high enough and thick enough, there ain’t nobody gonna come poking around in it.”

A briar patch is the kind of terrain a slick operator like Spivey can navigate with ease against the incursion of predators, a la Br’er Rabbit, the trickster figure beloved of the American South. That Mr. Thomas takes its name for the title of this noteworthy novel gives the reader an idea of the level of prickly resistance Dill, coming back now as an outsider, must face while seeking not only to uphold his oldest friendship but also to bring his sister’s murderer to justice. Everywhere Dill turns, however, he’s faced not only with hedging but with violence, as the body count rises and Dill begins to lose faith in the people he believed in:

Dill felt as if he had spent the past hour or so wandering through a vast and largely uncharted land with one of those ancient maps that read: Here There Be Monsters. Dill knew the map was right. He had come this way before. Yet, you still don’t believe they really exist–the monsters. No, that’s wrong. You believe they exist all right, but after fifteen years of watching them, writing about them, and even tracking them down, you still think they’re normal, harmless and domesticated. Even house-broken.

 

But what if they, after all, are the norm and you are indeed the aberration?

Dill is a good man in a bad place that not only took his sister’s life but threatens to destroy his, as well. Briarpatch is relentless in its plot twists but feels to me, almost thirty-five years on, oddly dated, and not because of its very specific setting in the early 1980s. You could transplant it to any other era (and more on that in a moment) but the layers of deception and betrayal don’t feel as fresh as they’re supposed to. Perhaps it’s Mr. Thomas’s somewhat reserved writing style, perfect for a protagonist who’s still numb with pain, but I felt as deeply unsurprised as Dill did by the way events turned out, even as I related to his hurt. Perhaps I have the habit of over-identifying with main characters—particularly ones with similar family circumstances—or perhaps I’ve just read too many mystery novels published since 1985, and share our protagonist’s “been there, seen that” attitude when it comes to plot twists that would surprise readers less familiar with the modern canon.

I was pleasantly surprised by one thing, however, and that was a very particular juxtaposition of tone. For a thriller about a man investigating his cop sister’s murder in the hot, gritty south, this was a coldly cynical look at the politics of the era. This intriguing contrast is, I’m sure, part of the reason this book won the Edgar, and why as well it’s being adapted by the USA Network as the basis for a crime anthology show. The TV series has a truly remarkable list of executive producers, including star Rosario Dawson, Legion scriptwriter Andy Greenwald and the man behind two of the most critically acclaimed TV thrillers in production today, Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot and Homecoming. Touted as a celebration of the crime and pulp fiction genres stylishly blended in Mr. Thomas’ novel, it promises to update the story for us moderns, beginning, most prominently, with the change of Ben Dill to Ms. Dawson’s Allegra Dill. My only and fairly superficial objection to that is an inability to grok how the mundane name Ben transforms into the more exotic-sounding Allegra, but I’m confident in this creative team explaining it satisfactorily. I’m also curious to see how they’ll translate the post-Vietnam quagmire into a Gulf War? Afghanistan? equivalent, as well as what other changes they’ll make to freshen up a story that’s been told, but still warrants retelling.

Fun Facts from the 1985 Edgar Awards:

  • The other authors nominated for Best Novel were William Pearson (Chessplayer), Jane Langton (Emily Dickinson is Dead), Michael Gilbert (The Black Seraphim), and B.M. Gill (The Twelfth Juror).
  • Lawrence Block’s short story “By Dawn’s Early Light” won him the Edgar. Other nominees were “After I’m Gone” by Donald E. Westlake, “Breakfast at Ojai” by Robert Twohy, “Season Pass” by Chet Williamson, and “The Reluctant Detective” by Michael Lewin.
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis served as the Grand Master.
  • Eudora Welty won The Raven Award. (Reader of the Year)
  • A Soldier’s Story won Best Motion Picture, edging out Beverly Hills Cop and The Little Drummer Girl.
  • R.D. Rosen won Best First Novel for Strike Three, You’re Dead. The other nominees were Jack Early (A Creative Kind of Killer), Doug Hornig (Foul Shot), Alison Smith (Someone Else’s Grave), and Orania Papazoglou (Sweet, Savage Death).
  • Ruth Rendell won Best Short Story for “The New Girlfriend.” Also nominated were Simon Brett (“Big Boy, Little Boy”), Stanley Ellin (“Graffiti”), Clark Howard (“Puerto Rican Blues”), and Joseph Hansen (“The Anderson Boy”).
  • “Deadly Lady”—an episode from Murder, She Wrote—won Best Episode in a TV Series, beating episodes from Miami Vice and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.

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