Off the Shelf: Mysteries for the start of fall by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Two friends and I were discussing books during a recent lunch. (I know, you’re all shocked to learn I was talking about books.) When it comes to serious fiction, the three of us have similar tastes. When it comes to novels of other genres, we often disagree. For example, I love fantasy and sci-fi, which I know one of my friends hates. (This is a person who fell asleep during the film “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume Two.”) On the other hand, she reads a lot of thrillers – books which I generally dislike because they’re usually populated by unpleasant and/or psychopathic people. While our mutual friend does like sci-fi and fantasy novels, another genre she enjoys – literary romance – has less appeal to me and our other friend.
The genre neither of them like is mysteries, of which I am a big fan. Before my 20s, I only read a few mystery classics – novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, for example. The only exception was Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels. When someone handed me a copy of “Gaudy Night,” I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t read mysteries. I continued with the series because I fell in love with Lord Peter. (Yes, it is possible to fall in love with a literary character and my chaste love affair continued after Jill Paton Walsh was chosen to finish an incomplete Sayers’ novel more than 70 years after the last Wimsey mystery appeared. Paton Walsh has since published four more books in the series and a fifth one is promised.) However, once I started reading a few mystery series in my 20s, I quickly was hooked on the genre. Don’t ask me how many series I faithfully follow, because I don’t want to know. And every time I try to cut back and say I’m not going to start any new ones, I suddenly see one that looks so interesting I just have to read it.
All this is my long-winded way of introducing a review of four mysteries: two that are part of a series and two stand-alone works. The fun is that even though these novels belong to the same genre, their characters and plots are very different. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy reading mysteries: every series and every novel contains unexpected delights and surprises.
“The Shallows”
I’m a sucker for series about sardonic and cynical private investigators. Not that I would want to know one in real life, but reading about them can be great fun. Nils Shapiro, the narrator of Matt Goldman’s “The Shallows” (Forge), is the perfect example of a PI who questions everything, especially when his gut tells him someone is not telling the truth. An additional pleasure is the fact that Nils is Jewish and talks about the Minneapolis Jewish community, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
When Nils and his partner are asked to investigate a lawyer’s murder, the case seems clear cut at first: the lawyer’s widow was having an affair with an artist whom the police peg as unstable. What is puzzling is that three different people want to hire Nils to investigate the murder, something that makes him wonder what each is trying to hide. Of course, the truth is far more complex than at first expected and, as he digs for answers, Nils discovers that some of deceased’s secrets could be deadly.
“The Shallows” is the third novel in the Shapiro series, but the first I’ve read. It probably won’t be the last. (I have so many books to read that I’ve been restraining myself from ordering the first two in the series. We’ll see how long that lasts.) What added to the fun were the parts of the novel that focused on contemporary politics; those serious sections made this work stand out.
“Lady in the Lake”
Although Laura Lippman is a bestselling author, “Lady in the Lake” (William Morrow) is the first novel of hers I’ve read. (In case you’re shocked by this, repeat after me, “Rachel cannot read everything; Rachel cannot read everything.” Yeah, I know, but not for lack of trying.) This non-series work, which takes place in the mid-1960s in Baltimore, focuses on Jewish Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz, who decides to leave her husband and son in order to pursue a life filled with more meaning and passion. Maddie finds herself working for a newspaper that barely tolerates her presence. In order to stand out, she decides to learn more about the young black woman whose decaying body was discovered in a city park lake. Who was this woman and who killed her? Since the death of a black person is of little interest to the newspaper editors, Maddie tries to find a unique angle to the story.
However, Lippman has created something far more complex than your average mystery. While readers are privy to Maddie’s thoughts, the novel also includes first-person narratives from almost everyone Maddie meets. Some of sections are directly related to the plot, while others give insights into how people perceive a woman who is so self-involved she doesn’t see her effect on others. About halfway through the novel, I found myself debating whether or not I actually liked Maddie. At first, I rooted for her to find her own way, but became less certain about that due to many of the questionable decisions she makes.
The many narratives Lippman includes add depth to the work and some were more interesting and moving than the main tale. At first, the mystery seems clear cut, but the author includes several surprises and twists – ones I didn’t see coming. I’m not certain I’m ready to try Lippman’s regular series, but I am impressed with her ability to create complex and interesting characters, and an intriguing plot.
Volker Kutscher has written several international bestsellers set in Berlin in the 1930s featuring police Inspector Gereon Rath. What drew my attention to his latest work to appear in English was its name: “Goldstein” (Picador). Rath is not pleased when he is told to shadow Abraham Goldstein, a Jewish American gangster visiting Germany. Rath’s supervisors fear that Goldstein is there to take part in a street war between two rival criminal groups. However, Kutscher’s plot is far more complex and ambitious. His characters include Rath’s girlfriend Charly, who is involved in her own investigation; Alex, a young thief who believes her partner was murdered by the police; and several characters who are part of competing criminal organizations. The different threads seem unrelated at first, but are cleverly tied together by the end of the novel.
For Jewish readers, Goldstein may be the most interesting part of the novel, even though he is a minor character. Kutscher does an excellent job explaining how this son of Jewish immigrants became involved in the rackets. It was intriguing to learn the purpose of his visit and see how it ties (or doesn’t tie) into the rest of the plot. Since the novel takes place in the 1930s, the growing Nazi threat also plays a role in the book, as does the government’s fear of communists.
The novel will be easier to read for those familiar with Kutscher’s two previous works, although I managed to figure out the connections between the characters without too much difficulty. The writing is more dense than many mysteries, but this seems fitting for that disturbing time period and place – a Berlin on the brink of the Nazi era.
“Her Kind of Case”
Not many mysteries I’ve read focus on lawyers, but Jeanne Winer’s latest work makes looking for more of them appealing. Lee Isaacs, the main character in “Her Kind of Case” (Bancroft Press), is a tough lawyer, but an interesting and vulnerable human being. A widow who is having difficulty adjusting to being older, Lee wonders if she is past her prime as a defense attorney. The loss of a recent case sits poorly and, for the first time, she ponders retiring. That is before she’s asked to defend a teenage boy, who lived with a gang of skinheads and is accused of of murdering a gay man. Lee knows that her best friends – two gay men who were close to her late husband – might not approve, but something draws her to the young man. At first, her client seems not to care if he spends the rest of his life in jail. Yet, Lee suspects there is more to the story and looks to discover what really happened.
The fact that Lee is Jewish created additional depth to the novel. I enjoyed reading her thoughts about why she doesn’t celebrate Christmas and of her close connection to her father. Although Lee makes it clear she doesn’t believe in God, one could say her desire to help her clients is very Jewish – her way of making the world a better place.