Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Mystery Book Review: In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

by
A Simon Ziele Mystery

St. Martin's Minotaur (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 0-312-54490-1 (0312544901)
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-54490-4 (9780312544904)
Publication Date: April 2009
List Price: $24.95

Review: Stefanie Pintoff introduces young police detective Simon Ziele investigating a brutal murder among New York's upper class in In the Shadow of Gotham, which won the Mystery Writers of America / St. Martin's Minotaur First Crime Novel Award in 2008.

Set in late 1905, Simon Ziele is the new police detective in Dobson, a small community of wealthy residents situated along the Hudson River north of New York City. Murder is all but unheard of here, but the niece of a prominent family, Sarah Wingate, is found stabbed, her face beaten so badly it is nearly unrecognizable, and part of her hair cut off. There are no witnesses and, worse for Ziele and his partner and boss Joe Healy, no motive or suspect. Then an academic researcher from Columbia, where the victim attended graduate school studying Mathematics, one Alistair Sinclair, puts forth an interesting premise: a man he's been studying, Michael Fromley, fits the profile of the killer. Sinclair is even able to provide unpublished details about the murder scene without having visited it. Despite no physical evidence linking Fromley (who, to no one's surprise, has disappeared) to Sarah Wingate, Ziele, working with Sinclair, begins to link together the disparate threads that tie the two together and form the foundation for an arrest and conviction.

In the Shadow of Gotham is a beautifully written, atmospheric novel, replete with historical details that relate to the time and place of the story. But it's also rather flat, lifeless as it were. The story is told from the perspective of Ziele, who is a very analytical person. He's just beginning to use the new science of forensics, and is very detail oriented. So it's probably not unexpected that the narrative is analytical as well. But after a while it gets somewhat monotonous, not necessarily uninteresting, but unexciting. For example, early in the book Ziele says, "Like me, he [crime photographer Peter] attempted to sanitize the horror of this crime by reducing it to base analytical terms. Today, in the midst of so much blood, I had trouble facing up to the Wingate crime scene. But tomorrow I would have no difficulty reviewing and analyzing the autopsy report. It was always far easier to deal with the violence of murder when it was reduced to words and facts on paper." And that's what happens, in large part, in the book: everything is simply reduced to words and facts on paper, well crafted and thought out though they most certainly are. Which would probably be sufficient and satisfactory if Ziele himself were more animated, more interesting in his own right. When asked at one point, "'When you arrest a man for a particularly heinous crime, don't you often wonder why he did it?'", Ziele says to the reader, "I had to confess I did not."

Still, it's hard not to appreciate the writer's skill in creating a probable pathway for Ziele's case all the while deftly inserting clues that ultimately lead in another direction. In the Shadow of Gotham is a fine start to the series, but one wonders how much more memorable it might have been had it been more spirited, more energetic.

Special thanks to Breakthrough Promotions for providing a copy of In the Shadow of Gotham for this review.

Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved

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Synopsis (from the publisher): Dobson, New York, 1905.

Detective Simon Ziele lost his fiancée in the General Slocum ferry disaster—a thousand perished on that summer day in 1904 when an onboard fire burned the boat down in the waters of the East River. Still reeling from the tragedy, Ziele transferred to a police department north of New York, to escape the city and all the memories it conjured.

But only a few months into his new life in a quiet country town, he’s faced with the most shocking homicide of his career to date: Young Sarah Wingate has been brutally murdered in her own bedroom in the middle of an otherwise calm and quiet winter afternoon. After just one day of investigation, Simon’s contacted by Columbia University’s noted criminologist Alistair Sinclair, who offers a startling claim about one of his patients, Michael Fromley—that the facts of the murder bear an uncanny resemblance to Fromley’s deranged mutterings.

But what would have led Fromley, with his history of violent behavior and brutal fantasies, to seek out Sarah, a notable mathematics student and a proper young lady who has little in common with his previous targets? Is Fromley really a murderer, or is someone mimicking him?

This is what Simon Ziele must find out, with the help of the brilliant but self-interested Alistair Sinclair—before the killer strikes again.

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