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Historical Mysteries

Secret of the White Rose, Stefanie Pintoff, Minotaur, $24.99.

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Stefanie Pintoff has very quickly established her series about Simon Ziele, set in 1906 New York City, as one of the most enjoyable and compelling historical mystery series around. This third book in the series is as complex and enjoyable as the first two, though it’s slightly different as it uses politics rather than a more personal intertwining of relationships (family in the first one, theater in the second). But it’s all personal, as things turn out, and while the story begins with anarchists, it ends in a completely different place.

The opening scene--and here Pintoff is already a master, only three books in--finds a judge enmeshed in the trial of an anarchist whose bomb went astray and killed an innocent child. The judge is fielding hate mail from both sides, but on returning home one evening his wife eventually finds him dead in his library, a white rose and a bible at his hand. Pintoff is brilliant here because she starts with a very compelling large scale scenario and than she narrows and narrows her focus until it’s eventually trained only on the judge and his family. As a reader, you’re hooked. You want to know what happened to him. And what more do you want from a book than to be truly emotionally invested in the outcome?

In each book, Pintoff has utilized a different branch of developing forensic science--in this one she uses ballistics and throws in a little cipher decoding, which adds texture to the book. While these are bravura details, what’s really great about her books is her central character, Detective Simon Ziele. In the first two installments Simon has exiled himself from the city as he recovers from the grief of losing his fiance in a ferryboat disaster (an actual historical disaster used to great effect). Grieving or not he’s still excellent at what he does, and eager to use all the new methods at his disposal. He’s a young Turk, 1906 style.

His unofficial partner in detection is Alistair Sinclair, a brilliant man who none the less has the irritating habit of always wanting to be right. And indeed, he has been very helpful to Simon in many different ways, but in this novel it seems as though Alistair is in the thick of things himself, either as a suspect or an intended victim. As several more victims are discovered, each with ties to the anarchists and each having a rose and a bible near by, Alistair disappears, leaving Simon in a pickle as he navigates a tricky and incendiary political situation as well as an old family one. His dead fiancée’s brother is one of the anarchists in custody and he must deal with his fiancée’s family, who he has hardly seen since her death, with kid gloves.

The central relationship in these books is not the one between Simon and Alistair’s widowed daughter in law, Isabella, but the one between Simon and the prickly Alistair himself. Alistair’s knowledge and entree into society paired with Simon’s hard work ethic make them almost irresistible. The fact that Simon and Isabella also have real chemistry is almost icing on the cake, and in this book it really adds to the story as Isabella is as worried about Alistair’s disappearance as Simon is.

Pintoff is extremely deft at creating a complex and layered plot and then twisting things up toward the end. These books are very difficult to put down, and the combination of history with the real structure of a top notch thriller is hard to resist. The clear and gripping writing style, as well as the setting, doesn’t hurt. This is a series that richly deserves being discovered, read and enjoyed.

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