I picked up “In the Shadow of Gotham” by Stephanie Pintoff because it had won an Edgar Award for a best new crime fiction novel, and because it had been favorable compared with Caleb Carr (Alienist) for its period details. Sadly, I was disappointed. Although it is a good story overall, and Pintoff shows promise as a writer, I cannot quite understand the justification for the award. The story revolves around a horrific murder of a young woman, Sarah Wingate –a brilliant mathematician at Columbia University– which occurs in the quest bedroom of her aunt’s house in a quiet suburban community. Enter the hero, detective Simon Ziele, who has fled the stress of the New York City crime scene and the haunting memories of his finacee’s recent death in a ferry accident, who takes on the case of this grisly murder under the supervision of a superior officer, brisling under this young upstarts superior criminology skills. Pintoff sets up the characters and the murder mystery with great promise, but seems to drop the ball. The relationship between the characters is not fully formed or explored, but rather dropped; some threads of the mystery are never revisited, and she relies too much on deus ex machina events. Although I enjoyed the period in which it is set–1905–and her vivid descriptions of old New York and the corruption of Tammany Hall politics, I felt that a lot of the historical facts were hand-jammed into the characters’ mouths and felt stilted and false, almost as if the author were anxious to show off all the facts she had learned through her research. Lastly, the plotting and pace dragged a bit. Much of the novel is “talkie” in that the mystery is revealed through a serious of interviews instead of action, which is acceptable and can be very suspenseful as facts unfold, but instead much of the talk is the interior monologue of Simon Ziele, asking questions of himself over and over. Also, although the ending is full of action, it is a bit comical in its bringing together two combative fiends, the detective, and a kidnapped damsel in distress. The perp predictably reveals all to the detective before meeting his fate. Despite these flaws, I think Pintoff has the right stuff, she perhaps just needs to become more seasoned in dialogue and plotting. Or, needs to get Batman on the case..
Monthly Archives: December 2012
“The Writing Class” by Jincy Willett is an eye-opening instruction on the world of writing and publishing, as told through a sort of locked room mystery” framework. The writing class instructor and main character, Amy Gallup, is a jaded, reclusive, borderline agoraphobic writer who peaked early in her career and has not been able to write much in the the many years preceding the story. Faced with a class of the usual adult education students, some with talent, others not, she imparts her wisdom about the world of writing with a caustic wit and laser-focused approach to criticism. The problems begin when someone in her class starts to make threatening phone calls to her home at night, writes vicious paradies and criticisms of the students’ writing assignments, and eventually ups the ante to murder. The author, Willett, is brilliant at providing the various students’ voices in the excerpts of their writing, as well as the amusing blog entries that the teacher posts throughout the class session. Her insight into the whole writing and submission process is illuminating and very satisfyingly acerbic. I can totally understand why the poor aspiring writer, the villain in the story, goes insane from years of insensitive, negative or no responses to submissions. Although the voice of the main character, Amy, is unique and engaging, but I found that the overall pace of the story was off, and I got a bit bogged down in it. The narrative had a strong start, but then there was too much back and forth and speculation over who was “The Sniper” (as the class dubbed the unknown disturbed student), before things came to a crescendo with the first murder. As in many mysteries featuring a host of characters right from the start, I had trouble keeping straight the various students, because they were introduced all at once and many did not have enough distinguishing characteristics to make them fully formed in the reader’s mind. I also had a hard time believing that the local police would be so dis-interested in the case, and that Amy and the rest of the class would take such a cavalier attitude towards the danger, and continue to meet and pursue their amateur investigation into the murder. The end, although it featured a tense scene when the culprit is revealed, is generally unsatisfying and felt as if the author lost interest in her characters and just needed to finally wrap the whole thing up. Overall, read it for the writing advice, the clever use of language, and not for the mystery plot.
Recently, every employee at Random House was awarded a $5K bonus, owing to the success of a particular series of books–The Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy by E. L. James. I had heard many things about the books–the erotica mostly–and was wondering about all the hype. My writers group got together one evening and read the first chapter. We couldn’t bring ourselves to read much further–it was a lesson in how not to open a novel, how not to engage the reader, basically–how not to write. It was, as one Amazon reviewer observed, like reading something written by a teenager (and a not terribly literate or educated one at that.) In addition to the poor writing, the plot is disturbing on many levels, not least of which is the fact that it revolves around yet another older or more experienced man who stalks, isolates, and takes over complete control of a young girl. Hmmm. Why does this ring a familiar bell? Perhaps another teen series in which a whole generation of ‘tweens became convinced that a guy following, obsessing, stalking, isolating you is equal to romance. Really? Twilight enjoyed the same phenomenal success and I am still scratching my head. Now, is this just sour grapes on my part, because I am not(yet) a published writer? Maybe on some level, but a much deeper concern for me is the future of publishing and the American Readership (capital letters on purpose). Is the publishing industry pandering to the lowest common denominator of the reading population, unwilling to take a chance on anything that may not be a “commercial success?” How many novels appearing on the NY Bestsellers display an author’s name in larger print than the title? And how many of these books have you picked up, started reading, only to realize part way through that you’d already read it? All I’m saying is this: we need the fun “twinkies for the brain” books, like we need those kind of escapist movies and other forms of entertainment. But we also need the literature, the more challenging book themes, the “heavy lifting” of the intellectual writer, and sadly, these books will not fly off the shelf and make the publisher a bundle. If things continue in the manner as they have lately, these books will never make it to any shelf.