Mystery Books for Sale

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by Susan Isaacs
Atlantic Monthly Press, May 2023
400 pages
ISBN: 0802159060

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This family- and dog-friendly novel presents a cold case and moves between now and a fatal case of arson in the past. Isaacs focuses on a post-COVID world: Corie's (our hero's) parents have moved in with her so that they can quarantine together. The finale of the novel presents a happy ending in which, although some families have been broken by illness or crime, friendships and new family members step into the breach and care for one another.

What's there not to like? Many pages are devoted to spaces typified as feminine: gossiping over lipstick and shoes; considering fabrics for home decoration; watching chickflicks and tossing back Margaritas. These pages are atmospheric. Readers need to enjoy them for themselves. In addition, readers need to be very interested in dwelling among New Yorkers, sharing pages of in-jokes and descriptions that don't advance the plot or characterization.

Dramatis personae—first, the good guys: Corie Geller, ex-FBI special agent whose injuries in the past occasion blackouts and fugue states in the present; her father, Dan Schottland, retired and languishing NYPD detective; Corie's mother, an actress; Josh Geller, Corie's significant other and a judge; his daughter from a previous marriage; April Brown, assistant professor of film, whose parents burned to death in an arson when she was five, and who has become the target of someone who means no good; interior decorator, home scented candle saleswoman, BFFs, police officers.

Okay, now the bad guys and their associates: Seymour Brown, April's father and a tax accountant who was truly bad, a money launderer for the Russian mafia, and, unfortunately, burnt to ashes in his bed, a victim of arson; his much younger wife Kim, April's mother, whom Seymour belittles, who likewise disappeared in the fire that consumed their home; Toddy Mirante, Seymour's driver, who lives at home with his mom, and who hears much and says little; Hosea Williams, secretary to the Browns, and who is smart and ambitious; Luisa de Leon, Seymour's luscious and ambitious lover, for whom he purchases an expensive New York apartment, and who is now a realtor with a hell of a lot of money; sundry mobsters, and the unknown arsonist.

As the novel begins, a person driving an SUV has tried to run over April Brown. Because of the cold case associated with April's parents' deaths by fire, the case comes to the attention of Corie's father, who investigated the Brown arson years in the past. Corie helps her father with the case and, as the novel continues, she decides that, generation gap aside, she should partner with her father in a new business as private investigators. Family bonding continues apace.

April, in her role of assistant professor of film, comes to New York to give a lecture on the film Stella Dallas. In the film, a central scene shows a mother looking through a window at a daughter. Apparently, someone at the lecture, perhaps someone who looked through the window of a burning house and saw a little girl—April—gets rattled enough that he or she begins stalking April, the grown woman, now on her own.

Sounds like a thriller, right? But thrillers have to build anticipation. Isaacs' novel takes innumerable detours which are, I suppose, designed to solicit readers to enjoy forays into upper- and middle-class female city lives. Years of reading mysteries and thrillers condition one to expectations. Among these are that details offered in the text eventually may tease readers into figuring out whodunit. In a thriller, details build bridges between the reader and the victim so that, as the victim is threatened, the reader feels a visceral mirror of that threat. In Isaac's novel, do the pages in which the new private investigator team, father and daughter, invite an interior decorator to redo the office in just the right tones advance the plot? Throw out a red herring? Build suspense? Nope. How about discussions involving toenail polish or Pilates? Nope.

Even more irritating is occasional condescension, such as when Isaacs has a character explain what Occam's Razor is for the benefit of those of us who don't know or are too lazy to use Google. Finally, Isaacs, please listen up (and, dear reader, Spoiler Alert): the main clue depends on a false premise presented as fact. Ms. Isaacs, please get your facts right.

§ Cathy Downs, Prof. Emerita at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, keeps a garden, designs quilts, and enjoys good books of the mysterious sort.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, March 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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