The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Suspect by L. R. Wright (Best Novel; 1986)
By Doreen SheridanAugust 16, 2019
Before Louise Penny there was L. R. Wright. Learn more about Wright's 1986 Edgar Award for her novel The Suspect. This is The Edgar Awards Revisited.
The first Canadian winner of the Edgar for Best Novel features, perhaps stereotypically, features a Mountie and a librarian politely declining to discuss a murder where they both know whodunnit. The Mountie is Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, a divorced forty-something who misses his daughters back in Calgary but has no intention of leaving his posting on Canada’s Sunshine Coast, a beautiful if difficult-to-access stretch of shoreline just north of Vancouver. The librarian is Cassandra Mitchell, also in her forties, who moved to the town of Sechelt to be close to her aging mother. Cassandra and Karl connect through a lonely hearts ad she posted but find their burgeoning romance tested by their individual relationships with George Wilcox, the titular suspect who kills a man on the very first page of this novel.
George is 80 years old and did not intend to kill Carlyle Burke when he stopped by the other man’s house that day. Once the deed is done, however, he realizes that he could very well get away with it. It’s not that he’s a cold-blooded person, just that he’s practical, though not without a sense of morals. A large part of the book involves the interior struggle between how he feels about what he’s done versus what he feels he must do next:
The point is, he told himself, you killed somebody, and you can’t remain unpunished.
He sat very still, thinking about it. It was perfectly true. But it wasn’t all there was to say about the situation. It wasn’t as though he was a danger to anybody, sitting here free. He probably wouldn’t live long enough to get to trial anyway, the way they dragged those things out.
Yet he knew he was rationalizing. The plain truth was that he didn’t want to make a public spectacle of himself, and he didn’t want to go to jail. They’d catch him eventually; that pale-haired Mountie would catch him for sure, somehow. There was no need to force upon himself today something that was going to happen anyway, in the impartial fullness of time.
That pale-haired Mountie is Alberg, whose investigations lead him to suspect George as the two embark on a cat-and-mouse game, with Cassandra as an unwitting participant. She and George had previously struck up a friendship that intensified after the death of George’s wife, and her loyalty to her friend will not waver in the face of Alberg’s inquiries. It’s a curious but very human triangle that L. R. Wright explores with sharp insight in this, her first crime novel and the first of a series featuring Alberg as detective. The mystery here lies in why George killed Carlyle, and whether or not Alberg will be able to bring George to justice, all couched in a believable introspection as each point of the triangle wrestles with what they know to be right.
Ms. Wright does an exceptional job of making these three characters, based on easy tropes—the curmudgeonly old widower, the spinster librarian, and the detective whose job cost him his marriage—not only come alive but each feel uniquely sympathetic. You want Alberg to solve the crime, but you also want George to get away with it, or at least I did anyway. I was especially rooting for the ordinarily insouciant Cassandra’s happiness, and I felt keenly her moral predicament. This deep absorption in the characters was in large part due to writing that is sensitive and occasionally gorgeous, as here where Alberg and George are at a conversational impasse:
They sat quietly, and Alberg became aware of the sound of the sea’s incessant surging against George’s beach, and the occasional cry of a gull. He saw that the waters were calm; there was a tremble upon them, that was all. George’s garden, between his house and the beach, was an orderly riot, not a weed in sight, just lush growth and colors that were almost audible. He saw this through the streaked window of George’s kitchen, and had an urge to go out there and see it all clearly, watch the leaves breathe and smell the roses.
Ms. Wright’s vivid prose really brings the Sunshine Coast to life, in much the same way another Canadian author would immortalize a fictional Quebec village nearly twenty years later. Ms. Wright’s advantage over Louise Penny in that regard is that Sechelt is a real place that fans may visit instead of merely wishing they could. That aside, the women shared a commitment to writing elegant, introspective novels that deal with the extremes of emotion surrounding and caused by murder. Alas that Ms. Wright passed away in 2001 before she could enjoy any of Ms. Penny’s work. Their intelligent, character-driven mysteries feel of a kind, though Ms. Wright’s 1980-90s setting (lonely hearts ads!) firmly dates her books in ways both good and bad.
The good is the sheer authenticity, with a dash of nostalgia for those of us who’ve lived through those eras. The bad, at least in the case of The Suspect, is an attitude toward victimhood that can seem bewildering to modern eyes. Without going into spoilers, it’s less acceptable in this day and age to blame victims of domestic violence for the abuse they endure, and rightfully so. While I did enjoy Ms. Wright’s exploration of the topic in terms of how cycles of abuse condition people to accept reprehensible behavior or, worse, blame themselves, I could only feel gratitude that the trend of popular culture, thirty years on, breaks that cycle to place responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the abuser.
In fact, looking back on 1986, The Suspect may have been the least progressive choice, thematically or structurally, for the Edgar that year, its whydunnit format notwithstanding. Simon Brett’s A Shock To The System features a similar format but, as the British precursor to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, was perhaps considered as outre as its fellow nominee, Paul Auster’s metaphysical detective story, City Of Glass. Ruth Rendell had two controversially feminist entries in the running, and though Ms. Wright’s work is often compared to Baroness Rendell’s, it is not as widely remembered now, perhaps because it does not push boundaries in the same way.
The Suspect being the tamest choice does not, however, make it any less worthy of the win: it’s still a deeply humane portrait of the whys and what nexts of murder. In fact, its win speaks encouragingly not only of how the Edgars as an institution represents its era, for good or ill, but also how it continues to evolve with the times. Baroness Rendell would go on the following year to win highest honors under her pseudonym Barbara Vine (and check out our coverage of A Dark-Adapted Eye next week!) while Ms. Wright herself would continue to write terrific psychological mysteries that probably deserve more recognition today, despite not always conforming with modern sensibilities.
Fun Facts from the 1986 Edgar Awards:
- Ed McBain served as the Grand Master.
- Suzi Oppenheimer won The Raven Award. (Reader of the Year)
- Witness won Best Motion Picture, edging out Blood Simple, Fletch, Jagged Edge, and The Hit.
- Jonathan Kellerman won Best First Novel for When the Bough Breaks. The other nominees were Dick Lochte (Sleeping Dog), Daniel Stashower (The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man), and Tony Fennelly (The Glory Hole Murders).
- John Lutz won Best Short Story for “Ride the Lightning,” originally appearing in the January ’85 edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Also nominated were Janwillem Van de Wetering (“There Goes Ravalaar”), Arthur Lyons (“Trouble in Paradise”), Robert Barnard (“What’s in a Name?”), and Robert Twohy (“Yellow One-Eyed Cat”).
Next week, tune in as Hank Phillippi Ryan stops by to discuss A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell). See you then!