Off the Shelf: Nils Shapiro returns by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

While I read a few classic mysteries in college (the works of Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy L. Sayers, for example), I didn’t follow any contemporary series. That changed after reading Stuart Kaminsky’s “Murder on the Yellow Brick Road,” which arrived as a bonus book from a mail-order book club to which I subscribed. The series featured Toby Peters, a wise-cracking detective who had several interesting sidekicks. The story took place during the filming of “The Wizard of Oz” and each work in the series featured a different real life actor. Soon I was not only hooked on Toby Peters, but the rest of Kaminsky’s series and far too many others featuring wise-cracking detectives. My interest wasn’t so much the mystery – although I enjoy a good whodunit – as it was the main character. 

All this is a long way to say that I was really happy to receive “Dead West” by Matt Goldman (Forge), which features wise-cracking Nils Shapiro. Nils is a great character: he’s got a big mouth, is willing to go the extra step to solve a case and is extremely loyal to his friends. He’s also Jewish, which is why I can ask for a review copy. However, if you’re looking for Jewish content in the plot, there really isn’t any. But, while with other novels that might be a problem, I don’t care when it comes to Nils.

Nils’ life has changed since the last book in the series: he is now engaged to be married and has a baby daughter with his ex-wife. (That may sound confusing, but Goldman offers enough examples that those who haven’t read the previous books can still enjoy this one.) That means Nils discovers he has more to live for than just work, which also means that he has something precious to lose. That explains why he takes an easy, lucrative job traveling to Hollywood to answer a question when a quick Internet search would serve. Well, money is partly the reason: Nils travels with his friend Jameson White, who has been having difficulty coping with serious job issues. Nils hopes the trip will be good for him.

Of course, the simple case gets complicated once Nils decides someone has been murdered, even though he’s the only person to believe that. But since the autopsy came back accidental death, he decides not to get involved and returns to Minneapolis to be with his family. Unfortunately after he’s home, another murder takes place and Nils feels the need to return to Hollywood to unravel what happened.

The best parts of “Dead West” are Nils’ comments on the Hollywood types he encounters. They not only seem to speak a completely different language, but look at life through a different lense – one that questions whether everything that occurs would make a great movie or TV show. The ending of the novel was more serious than I expected, but it made sense in context of what was occurring in Nils’ life. It also left me wondering if there are going to be more books in the series, although it’s my hope this is not the last we see of Nils.