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I've been known to go on rants, many of them about 'best' [fill in the blank] categorizations. I don't believe it's appropriate, or even possible to, say, name the world's 'best' mystery writer. Or best book or movie. I was aghast some months ago when I read someone's statement that a particular book was, for her, the best book of the decade. Hey, there's lots of decade left. It was, I admit, a book that I thought was particularly bad (no, I won't say, but there was a famous artist's name in the title).
So for me to find myself saying "this is the best book I have read all year" in, well, er, June of 2004 was surprising. I love the work of S J Rozan and, in fact had her pegged as one of mystery's best authors years before she won her first Edgar. Those who are trivia buffs might recognize a particular character's name in Rozan's MANDARIN PLAID. And yeah, we're friends. This does not mean I automatically praise her books, nor would I ever say I liked any friend's book if I did not.
I knew that Rozan was working on this book from almost its inception. She lives in Manhattan, and I knew she didn't live all that far from Ground Zero so in the aftermath of 9/11, when we talked, I learned that she'd found that she simply had to stop working on the book she had been writing -- a new entry in the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series -- to write the book that became ABSENT FRIENDS. She hadn't planned on doing a standalone not at that time, but it became the book she had to write.
Knowing that, I was actually quite nervous about reading it and had it for about a week before opening it; normally, advance copies of books by Rozan take precedence over all other reading for me. But I well, I wanted Lydia and Bill and oh, man, what if I didn't like this book? After the investment she'd made in it and knowing it was a post 9/11 story and, well, you can imagine.
ABSENT FRIENDS is not an easy book to get into. It takes place from multiple points of view and multiple places and times. So it wasn't just nerves that got me, it was trying to keep the voices straight. That didn't take long. There are lives and stories interwoven here, some that take place in childhood, some that take place in the gritty, dirty, smelly and miserably painful days of post 9/11 New York City.
For that latter reason alone, this book really cries out to be read; I have not read anything that evokes for me what it felt like to live in the city, to work in the city to deal with getting home, getting to work (if work existed) the emotions, the details, the way this book does it. It's certainly not an easy read; it is compelling, at times breathtakingly painful and sorrowful, at times, right and real and true. It's heartbreaking. That may sound mawkish, but I really don't throw words like that around lightly.
This is not a straightforward whodunit mystery. It's about the death of Jimmy McCaffrey, of Ladder Company 62, one of the hundreds of firefighters who died on September 11, and how his death relates to another one, from exactly 22 years before, a death which led to the imprisonment and ultimately, the death of his childhood friend. There were seven of them when things began, four boys and three girls growing up in a neighborhood on Staten Island; this is the story of their intertwined lives, then and now.
This is not a book that 'transcends genre' (a phrase I particularly find insulting to mystery fiction and mystery writers, and thanks to Marcia Muller who hated it first, along with the dreaded 'breakout book'.) It is what the genre's about; people in trouble, situations that change people and trying to cope with difficult situations in life. It's about growing up in the 1970s and it's about how things changed in dozens, hundreds, hell, thousands of ways for so many of us three years ago. It's not exactly linear and that can require some work. But once you start reading, I hope that, as I did, you want to know about what happened, who these people are, what makes them tick.
From the first time I read something by S J Rozan, (the taut wonderful short story Film at Eleven) I've considered her one of the best there is. She is an outstanding writer; she's articulate, she can tell you things without ever coming across as pedantic or heavy-handed. She cares about people, about her city.
Rozan's ability to create interesting, real people has been evident from the start in her books featuring with Lydia Chin and Bill Smith in her series work. I recommend this series as one of the best. Rozan's won just about every award she might, from the Anthony (given at the World Mystery Convention) to the Edgar (given by Mystery Writers of America), as well as Macavity, Shamus and the Nero. (It's unlikely, we figure, that she'll ever win an Agatha).
I've never read a book like ABSENT FRIENDS. There's not a book I can recommend more highly. You don't know me, but please trust me on this one. The wonderful talent shown in this book, and the story it tells is a remarkable achievement and will, I hope, stay with you as it did with me.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter, September 2004
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