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BY NICO VREELAND

[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Stefanie Pintoff

Minotaur, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

In the Shadow of Gotham has a very straightforward premise, and isn’t shy about laying it out. The story centers on Simon Ziele, a CSI-style police detective in early 1900s New York. Ziele embraces forensic evidence despite the fact that fingerprints are not admissible in court in 1905.

At the end of the first chapter, Ziele gives us the first of many updates on the case:

I had the unsettling sensation that we were being drawn into an even more complicated case than I’d originally thought—one that would draw upon our every power of deduction to unravel.

That mission statement contains the novel’s best and worst facets. The best is Pintoff’s clear desire to tell a detective story and nothing but. She puts a new spin on the tired theme of forensics-based detecting, and from the get-go she writes an unapologetic mystery.

The bad part, though, is that tone. In sounding historically authentic, the novel also sounds stodgy and droll. The characters are too honorable and the case too straightforward for Ziele to need his every power.

Ziele is young—only thirty—and he’s already had a traumatic life and pulled back from it. His wife was killed in New York City, and he transferred from a mid-city precinct to a rural town 17 miles north called Dobson.

When a young woman is killed in Dobson—the first murder there in years—the investigation takes Ziele back to New York, and into the world of an eccentric criminologist named Alistair Sinclair.

Alistair is a professor at Columbia University. Actually, though, he’s an independently wealthy nutball who funds his criminology hobby through Columbia for some reason. He makes a pretty good counterpoint for Ziele, and together they do the bulk of the detecting.

On paper, so to speak, all this sounds great. But Ziele gives us such dry, joyless commentary that it’s difficult to actually enjoy the mystery. For example, take this passage in which Ziele, speaking first, asks a bartender about a person of interest:

“She’s a regular?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Izzy said. “Fancies herself a Broadway chorus girl, but probably generates her rent doing private shows.”

Izzy’s euphemism implied Clara Murphy was a prostitute rather than an actress—although there were some, I knew, who would maintain there was little difference between the two in the first place.

Employing a historical style is one thing, but Ziele continually explains obvious nuances and wordily comments on everything people say to him. It’s like having somebody next to you in a movie theater who won’t stop explaining what’s going on, even though it’s not that complicated or subtle.

Pintoff also frequently crosses the line from scene-setting to cluttering the narrative with extraneous details. Take this scene, in which Alistair and Ziele meet at a Chinese restaurant to discuss the case over lunch:

Apart from his fondness for Chinese food, I could see why Alistair chose this restaurant. It was a quiet place with very few tables, where we might talk undisturbed.

“We should order family style,” Alistair said. “Their chop suey is excellent, and the boneless stuffed chicken wings are the best I’ve tried outside of Hong Kong.”

I glanced at the menu. At a cost of $2.50—the most expensive item on the menu—I expected them to be.

“I’m also partial to the fried lobster in rice,” Alistair said.

Our waiter appeared at our table to take our order.

“We’ll begin with a pot of Lin Som tea,” Alistair said, “and the water nuts along with egg drop soup.”

That’s just a long list of things, with very little character-based reaction, outside of Alistair’s opinion that the food is good, and Ziele’s opinion that it’s expensive. The food itself has absolutely nothing to do with anything, and ultimately this passage doesn’t add enough to the story to justify its length.

Above and beyond the dry prose, perhaps the worst effect of this historical stodginess is that it turns the novel into a mystery of manners. Most everyone is reasonably polite and helpful and relatively honest, even the bad guys like Izzy from that first passage. Ziele briefly plays the odd game of who-can-you-trust, but those kinds of questions get sorted out quickly.

And Ziele himself is spare of personality. Though he narrates in word-count-heavy chunks, he doesn’t bring any spirit to the table, and the prose itself is too focused on sounding historical to spice up the experience with anything as modern as fun.

There’s a pretty good mystery at the heart of this novel, but too much propriety and wordiness lessens its impact and dilutes its tension. Unless you’re an avid lover of prim, eighteenth-century police procedurals, I’d think twice about Gotham. There simply wasn’t enough grit or spirit for me, and more importantly there wasn’t enough suspense.

Similar books: For time period, Gotham closely reflects the Sherlock Holmes stories, by Arthur Conan Doyle. For tone, Gotham‘s more like Nemesis, by Jo Nesbø. My favorite contemporary detective novel is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon.

Edgar impact: Interesting concept, but too much shoegazing dulls its edge. Gotham‘s in the middle of the First Novel pack.

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