Off the Shelf: Two mysteries and a thriller

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“The Last Songbird”

Some mysteries grab you from their opening lines. One example is “The Last Songbird” by Daniel Weizmann (Melville House), a gritty, alcohol- and drug-soaked noir that manages to be completely engaging. Its main character, 37-year-old Addy Zantz, is shocked to learn that 73-year-old folk singer legend Annie Linden has disappeared. Addy is a failed songwriter who now makes his living driving a Lyft, which is how he first met Linden. She was so fond of him that she asked him to go off book, meaning she would contact him directly for rides. Since Addy’s life is a mess – he’s mourning an unsuccessful love affair and the sting of being the family failure – Linden seemed his last hope to make it as a songwriter. When he learns she was murdered, he can’t focus on anything else. That means when the police arrest someone Addy doesn’t believe could have possibly committed the deed, he decides to investigate himself. Although his detective skills are sorely lacking, Addy has a lot of chutzpah: even threats don’t stop him as he blunders around looking for clues. That means his decision to look into Linden’s past – her very unpleasant past – may be the last thing he ever does.

Addy is an interesting character, one readers will root for, even when they find his actions unstable and his behavior obnoxious. But he is tenacious: after discovering Annie may not be the person he so admired, he still can’t stop trying to discover who murdered her. The novel’s secondary characters are also well done: a reader favorite will be Ephraim “Double Fry” Frieberger, who wears a yarmulke, quotes from the Talmud and makes a living as a paparazzi-style photographer, but who won’t sell photos that might embarrass the subject because that’s against Jewish law. 

One question remained when the novel was finished: will this be the first book in a series? That was answered when Melville House’s spring catalogue arrived in my e-mail: the next book in the series, “Cinnamon Girl,” is due out in May and is on my must-ask-for-a-review-copy list. 

“The Great Gimmelmans”

Want to feel grateful for your family? Read the crime thriller “The Great Gimmelmans” by Lee Matthew Goldberg (Level Best Books). The story is told through the eyes of Aaron Gimmelman, who was 12-years-old when the Gimmelman’s family finances were devastated after the Crash of 1987. Barry, the money-obsessed patriarch, didn’t save a dime during the good times and is now fueled by anger and cocaine. His wife, Judith, is so enthralled by her husband – especially their sex life – that she can’t see clearly. Aaron’s older sister Steph is an air-head who pines for her Christian boyfriend and the youngest sister, Jenny, has some severe psychological issues. With almost all of their possessions repossessed, the family takes their RV on the road, heading from New Jersey to Florida to stay with Judith’s mother, who is extremely Orthodox and thinks Barry is destroying his family’s life.

While on the road, Aaron robs a convenience store since the family has no cash to buy food. That gives Barry an idea: the whole family will work together to rob banks until they have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Since the author notes early in the first chapter that the family ends up on the FBI’s most wanted list, the suspense comes from seeing how the action will play out. That said, the end of the novel – when Aaron comes to terms with his life years later – proved unexpectedly moving. 

“The Great Gimmelmans” is both a successful thriller and a literary work about a family’s dissolution. How this all plays out will keep readers interested until the novel’s last page.

“The Rabbi Who Prayed for the City”

Rabbi Vivian Green is back in “The Rabbi Who Prayed for the City: A Rabbi Vivian Mystery” by Rachel Sharona Lewis (LadiesLadies Press). The senior rabbi at Beth Abraham in Providence, RI, where Vivian works, is in his last year before retirement and Vivian has agreed to become the next senior rabbi. She’s unsure about how she feels about the future: she has made progress in her social action agenda, but struggles to balance her ideas with those of the congregation, particularly about whether to invest money in local community action or in Israel.

However, local problems come to the fore when a huge hurricane threatens the city. Karla, Vivian’s partner, works for the city and is part of the task force working to keep Providence safe, whether offering the population ways to leave the area or finding buildings where people can shelter during the storm. To complicate matters, one of Karla’s friends faces a different dilemma: Freddie, who works designing robots, is distressed when his company partners with an Israeli firm making robots to serve in the army. Even worse, the Israeli robot disappears from the lab and the company is looking for someone to blame.

“The Rabbi Who Prayed for the City” offers chapters featuring several different points of view, although it’s easy to tell which characters have the author’s stamp of approval. (Rabbi Vivian is the title character after all.) The novel feels less like a mystery than a literary work, which is not a complaint. It’s fun to watch Rabbi Vivian turn a legal discussion in the Talmud into a call for social action and it’s clear that she feels a spiritual sense of duty toward her synagogue and the greater community. The underlying theme of climate change and the potential uses of robots add to the social justice aspects of the novel. Fans of the “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” will want to read this one, but it also stands on its own for those unfamiliar with the first work. (Click here to read The Reporter’s review of the first Rabbi Vivian mystery, "The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire.")