In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

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In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A brutal killer on the loose, a Professor who thinks he understands him and a slightly clueless, but not remotely stupid, detective make for an entertaining delve into early 20th C New York's darker side. Entertaining historical sleuthing that will keep afficionados happy, but probably won't convert the heretics.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: December 2010
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141399706

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Never Judge… Every time I look into the Bookbag to see if there's anything I fancy, I should remind myself: Never judge a book by its cover. Pintoff's first novel in the Simon Ziele series, indeed her first published novel, In The Shadow of Gotham is yet another of those ill-served by both its title and its cover.

In fairness Americans are probably more familiar with Gotham as a nickname for New York City than we Brits – to whom it simply conjures up variations on a theme of Batman.

Meanwhile the blood-red script above the icebound dark shape of the Angel of Mercy statue barely visible through snow suggests horror – or given the current vogue, at least a touch of the supernatural.

What lies between the covers is nothing of the sort. It is a good old-fashioned murder mystery. I use the term old-fashioned advisedly. It is set in and just upstate of New York, 1905. While she struggles slightly in one or two forgivable instances Pintoff manages to restrain her investigators to the technologies, attitudes and moralities of the time.

Simon Ziele only joined the New York police when family problems meant he had to cut short his law studies. He found the investigative side of the justice system suited to his mental acuities however, and was happy in his work, until the night he and his watch-mates responded to news of the Slocum ferry accident. Ziele's fiancée was one of the many lost that night and he badly injured himself in the rescue attempt. It left him unable to face the rigours of New York City's crimes, and he transferred to the slow, sleepy town of Dobson, north of Manhattan.

Dobson hadn't had a murder in nearly fifteen years. Just Ziele's luck then, that the next one happens within a month or so of his moving out there. Not just a murder, but a vicious, bloody attack on a defenseless young woman in a family home.

Sarah Wingate is a brilliant mathematician, studying for her doctorate and had sought the peaceful sanctuary of her aunt's house for the weekend as she often did, to work away from the petty jealousies of male students who are a long way from accepting that women should be allowed to graduate, or vote, or even that they have the necessary mental capacity to do either. Concerned that even if she got her doctorate she would be denied a teaching post, she also worked in the University Dean's office a couple of days a week to get some administrative experience. There is no obvious reason why anyone should want her dead, much less feel the need to brutalise her body.

Initially at a loss Ziele readily (if with some misgivings) follows up when the leading criminologist from Colombia University suggest that his 'research project' – a man with a history of violent behaviour and psychopathic fantasies – is a prime suspect. In short order, Ziele finds himself investigating the case with Professor Sinclair's assistance and ready input from other members of the research department.

Whilst in many ways, following in the genteel footsteps of earlier genre writers Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, allowing her detectives to ignore any pre-existing protocols and defer to the amateurs Pintoff doesn't hesitate to take her detectives down into the darker districts of early 20th century New York; the docks and whore houses, gambling joints and opium dens will all surface through the scum before the tale is fully told.

As is often the case, the mystery element only works because of the wilful blindness of the lead detective – even back then, I think a New York cop would have been a bit more forceful about following his nose or his gut, and not quite so taken in by academic superiority. Allowing suspension of disbelief on that score, the rest of the story holds water.

Suspense is occasional rather than sustained.

Characters are sketched rather than studied, but that fits with the nature of the book, which is all about plot and pace, both of which are deftly dealt.

I'm no expert on either New York's political and social history or the development of forensic science, but the historical setting of both ring true enough for the most part and the few anachronisms tended to be more in the use of expressions than in actions – so I'm prepared to forgive that. I recall a couple of momentary jars, which were soon forgotten, so let's not make an issue of it.

Armchair sleuths will have the solution before the book reveals it, but that doesn't detract from the entertainment of the dénouement (which you just know is setting up the next installment).

All in all an enjoyable read, and a worthy winner of the Edgar for Best First Novel 2010. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

RECOMMENDATION: nowhere near a "you must read this" – but definitely a general "think you'd enjoy it" if you're remotely minded towards historical detecting. I am, and I did.

Further reading suggestion This isn’t yet an over-populated time period for historical murder mysteries, but if enjoyed this and want to compare it with life in Britain at the time, Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin will take you across the Atlantic to Yorkshire and the North East of England.

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