Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Shadow of Gotham: Review

When I started looking for a final book for the Criminal Plots III Reading Challenge (Read a novel that's been nominated for and Edgar in the last five years), I was relieved to find In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff sitting on my shelves since I'm trying really hard to read more from my own stacks.  I'm not much for reading more recent books, but I had picked this one up last May while browsing in our Friends of the Library used book store.  It was purely a whim--based on the cover, the blurb on the back of the book, and the fact that it's a historical mystery set during one of my favorite time periods--early 20th C.  Not only was Shadow nominated for an Edgar, but it was the winner of Award for Best First Novel in 2010.

The book introduces us to Detective Simon Ziele, a man trying to recover from the tragedy of losing his fiancĂ©e in a terrible disaster aboard the ferry General Slocum.  Ziele has left his position in New York City's police force and is now working as a detective in Dobson, New York.  He hopes to escape the brutality of the big city, but just months after he begins his new post, he finds himself faced with the horrific murder of a female mathematics graduate student.  

Sarah Wingate had come to her aunt's home hoping for a little tranquility of her own--telling her aunt that she needed somewhere quiet to work on her graduate thesis; somewhere removed from Columbia University.  What she found instead was an untimely end.  Ziele is called to the wealthy home in the middle of the afternoon to investigate a murder that ranks with some of Jack the Ripper's slightly less gruesome efforts.  Sarah's throat has been cut and then the killer beat and slashed her repeatedly while taking one of her golden braids as a souvenir.  

It looks like the work of a pyschopath...and Columbine University criminologist Alistair Sinclair believes he knows the identity of the murderer.  Sinclair has been studying Michael Fromley, younger son of one of New York City's elite families, in the hopes of rehabilitating the man and curing him of his violent behavior.  Michael had fantasized about committing such atrocious acts, but now it looked like he had crossed the line from fantasy to make his violent dreams a reality.  Sinclair and his team of researches join forces with Ziele to find Michael and try and prevent further deaths.

The investigation takes Ziele from the gambling dens and brothels of the Tenderloin are of the City to the houses of the elite.  The more he learns about Michael, the more confused the case becomes.  Ziele begins to doubt that Fromley is behind the crime--or if he is that he has acted alone.  And somehow the killer manages to stay one step ahead of Ziele and the researchers all along the way.  Does this mean that the culprit is really closer to Ziele than he'd like to believe?

In some ways, this is indeed an impressive first novel.  The plotting is well-done for the most part and portions of the research are as well.  I really like the character of Ziele--although I must agree with another reviewer on GoodReads that despite many utterances of "I don't trust him," Ziele seems to be a very trusting sort.  He has never heard of Alistair Sinclair and his researchers before the murder and yet he's willing to bring them all into the investigation as equals and reveal every bit of evidence to them.  I, too, was immediately struck by a certain character's behavior (and others' reaction to him/her) upon introduction and was certain that s/he was involved.  Kudos to Pintoff for putting a deft spin on that bit of information so I wound up not being completely right....but still the clues were a bit heavy-handed for that early in the book.

The research allowed Pintoff to give us a flavor of turn-of-the-century New York (last century, that is).  But it feels like she did the research rather haphazardly.  Others have pointed out historical problems--the naming of one of Columbia's halls, for example--and I noted a few blunders with historical word use.  The word "overkill" doesn't come into usage until the 1950s and yet Sinclair tells Ziele that the excessive violence of the murder, may be "what you would call over-kill."  Actually, no, Ziele wouldn't.  Not in 1905.  

Despite the sometimes obvious anachronisms, this is a highly enjoyable first novel.  It was a quick read and I regretted each time I had to put it down and do such non-essential tasks, such as working and sleeping.  I look forward to reading the next two in the series and hope to find out more about Ziele's past and the death of Sinclair's son.  Just over three stars.

Challenges: 150 Plus Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge, Off the Shelf, Outdo Yourself, Criminal Plots, Mystery and Suspense Challenge 2012, Monthly Key Word, Book Bingo, 52 in 52 Weeks, Embarrassment of Riches

1 comment:

jmisgro said...

Have to put this one on the list!!