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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In the Shadow of Gotham, by Stefanie Pintoff, c2009 ($14.99)

This novel won the Edgar for best first novel by an American, a heady accomplishment for the author. Reviewers have given this book stars and high praise. It frequently has been compared to The Alienist, a novel written a few years ago about the beginnings of profiling at the turn of the last century. I wish I had liked it better. But then, I had the same problem with the very popular The Alienist. Maybe I just have a thing against turn-of-the-last-century profiling . . .

Although I do not actively try to figure out whodunnit while I'm reading, especially these days when mystery books are less about the intellectual process of solving a mystery and more about character, within 100 pages I guessed what the catch was. It disturbs me that there had to be a "catch." It probably would have been a crackling good story without it. Anyway . . .

Simon Ziele is a police detective who has been reassigned from Manhattan to a small town outside of New York City. He suffered a trauma, slowly unveiled, and the town is just about his speed these days. Unfortunately, a hideous murder in the town drives him back to Manhattan to search for a potential serial killer. Alistair Sinclair, a rich, uppercrust criminologist at Columbia University, declares he knows who is behind the murder. It is the subject of Sinclair's study on criminal psychopathology, Michael Fromley. Ziele teams with Sinclair and his research staff to track down Fromley.

There are many interesting and entertaining elements to the story, including Pintoff's description of the wary introduction of systematic scientific techniques that we consider indispensible today. Pintoff gives us lots of details of Manhattan in 1905. However, she falls prey to the same affectation some other historical novelists have; there's a wink and a nod from the future when there shouldn't be any reference to what is to come. Ziele says: "It wasn't that I was too old, though at thirty I was no longer young by the standards of the day." Maybe this book is done from the veiwpoint of an 100-year-old Ziele, reflecting back on his youth . . .

Some of the characters are engaging, the best two of which are a Manhattan madame and a dowager in the small town. The basic story -- my guessing the ending notwithstanding -- was fairly clever. I did like it better than The Alienist, however faint that praise might be. I think this has used up my quota for "birth of profiling" stories, and I can now move on.

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