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Historical Mysteries

A Curtain Falls, Stefanie Pintoff, Minotaur, $24.99.

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

Knowing that Pintoff had been nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel (an award she won), I snagged the ARC of this second book when we got our box from our St. Martin’s rep.  I had put it aside, but as the first book, In the Shadow of Gotham, not only started selling like crazy but I also heard good reports, one from my friend Patti (whose taste I trust) I finally picked up the first one.  I loved it.  I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an historical novel so much, except maybe reading the first Molly Murphy book by Rhys Bowen.  Well, suffice it to say I inhaled the first, and couldn’t wait to pick up the second.

While the second stands nicely alone, the first introduces Pintoff’s series character, Detective Simon Ziele, one of the first policemen to have gotten his job through Teddy Roosevelt’s merit system instead of the older method of corruption, bribery and connections.  He’s full of new ideas, and he’s stashed a few miles out of New York City in tiny Dobson, New York.  He left the big city behind after losing his wife in a tragic ferry accident, but he’s thrust into big time crime when a middle class woman is found murdered in her bedroom with few clues leading anywhere.  Through that crime he meets criminologist Alistair Sinclair and his widowed daughter in law, Isabella.  There’s a nice romantic tension between Simon and Isabella, and a nice ethical one between Simon and Alistair: their priorities don’t always match up, though Simon has come to cautiously trust the new science of criminology that Alistair introduces.

The second novel is set in the world of the theater, and like the first novel, Pintoff uses the serial killer as her central tentpole, and like the first novel, she manages to make this most overused of plot devices fresh and original.  The killer in A Curtain Falls selects actresses who play mainly bit parts and who have mostly been overlooked.  They are arranged, in death, like leading ladies, on different stages throughout Broadway’s theater district.  There are many puzzling aspects to the case, one of them being the cryptic, poetic notes the killer leaves behind and starts sharing with the newspaper.  This brings in a graphologist, which, like criminology, was a little used resource at the time (fingerprints were barely starting to be accepted as evidence). 

Simon has brought several new things to the police department in Dobson, one of them being to photograph the crime scene and victim.  Pintoff’s introduction of what were at the time new tools of detection only add to the interest of the story.

Deftly weaving together a complex plot which includes Simon’s re-introduction to his long lost con artist father, Pintoff is an absolute master of pacing, suspense, and character.  She makes none of it look difficult.  The historical details, while setting a tone, never overwhelm the story, which gathers speed as it moves forward.  The use of the theater as her setting brings the book firmly into the mystery world, as the theater is always an effective and interesting setting - even better, though you may not notice as you read the book at breakneck speed, you’ll learn about the theater scene in New York at the turn of the century, one where the Shuberts were just getting started.  She ties the plot to a particular theatrical manager, as all the murders have occurred in his theaters.

The Best First Novel award was a well deserved one, as this feels like the introduction of a new star in the mystery firmament.  With a little more depth than Victoria Thompson, and a little more story telling drive than the veteran Anne Perry, Pintoff’s books should hit the spot for any fans of those books.  But it should also hit the spot for fans of suspense and a well told and developed story.  To use the theatrical language of the book, Bravo.


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