I believe this is Mrs. Pintoff’s first novel, and its a good one. Not great, but good. The setting is one of the most captivating parts, a turn of the century who-dunnit incorporating the advent of criminal psychology. I did not check if Pintoff’s historical events that coincide with the murder-mystery (crooked mayoral elections in NYC…Lord that could be any time) but I didn’t feel like I needed to. She breathes so much intense historical life into Old New York you can feel the grit and the grime in your teeth as you read. An avid fan of psycho-thrillers like Silence of the Lambs, I found it intriguing to walk through the beginnings of criminology, and the adverse reaction (that also fit masterfully into the setting) to endeavoring to understand the criminal mind rather than simply punish it. The beginnings of Crime Scene Investigation are also present, with primitive photographs and fingerprint kits all employed by the Police (and their associates) in an attempt to catch the killer.
The inevitable swerve is fairly well executed, but I found myself wanting for more hints about the true killers identity. I had half of it figured out, but the other half felt a bit too conveniently Deus Ex to me. But maybe that’s just me. As far as the plot and storyline go, its standard fare without a lot of chances taken, allowing the depth of detail in the setting to shine out from the crowd. The main character is…fairly likable, but doesn’t have a great deal of personality. I think Mrs. Pintoff fell into the trap of forcing the narrator to be a lens to see the story through, and not much else. He never feels very vibrant or alive, the side characters and interactions are much more interesting than his daily routine. His personality is told to the reader rather than slowly and subtly revealed through dialogue and action. In fact, a lot of the prose relied on direct, blunt-force revelation over hints and understatement, which left in the precarious position on occasion of continually turning the pages and not really knowing why.
Between the narrator and the dialogue, the whole book felt a little antiseptic. The only color we really get is when the blue-collar blokes and the low-life criminals are injected into the story, and there’s definitely not enough of them included. When the academics and the cops talk to each other, it feels forced and stilted. In many places there’s extended, intense explanations of psychological theory that just feel unnecessary and repetitive. The main character often eminds the academics they need to not waste time and solve the crime, but only after we get about a page and a half of exposition. This may be an attempt to re-create period-appropriate diction and speech patterns, but its more a distraction than anything else. A few key side characters have a semblance of vim and vigor, but an equal number amount to faceless names on a page, interchangeable and indistinguishable to the reader. This actually hurts the swerve as well.
Overall, I’d say 3.5 out of 5 Gargoyle Statues. Pintoff does stellar work in creating a living, breathing turn-of-the-century (ish) New York City for the reader. I just wish some of the characters felt as alive as the city did. I enjoyed reading it for the setting and the very interesting (but sometimes unnecessarily distracting) references to the dawn of the criminology age as well. If you like serial killers and police procedurals of any type, this will be right up your alley. If the current network TV lineups are any indications, 90% of you fit into that category.
Crap. Maybe that means I should write one.