June 06, 2011

A turn-of-the-century detective

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Readers of historical novels who discover Detective Simon Ziele will glom onto Stefanie Pintoff’s series of mysteries in a hurry. The first entry, In the Shadow of Gotham, garnered an Edgar Award in 2010.

Secret of the White Rose, the third in the series, is again set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City, and filled with detailed historical settings and descriptions of the city’s helter-skelter atmosphere. This includes clopping horse-drawn cabs and early electrical cars, the Tombs prison, row houses, downtown opium dens, gaslit streets . . . and anarchist violence.

This time out, Ziele is investigating three murders of three prominent judges, linked by a Bible and a white rose left near each victim. Is this the work of an anarchist cell, or are there more personal motives for the murders? New York’s hard-boiled and judgmental police commissioner, Theodore Bingham, believes that the anarchists are responsible—one of the dead judges had been presiding over the trial of Al Drayson, a notorious anarchist leader who is in the dock for murder—and he is not interested in having his opinions overturned or thwarted.

Throughout this intricate and ingenious story, Pintoff shows how even the seemingly clearest clues or motives can be called into question. Ziele’s ongoing association with a wily criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, is fraught with such ambiguity, and the interchange between these two colleagues considerably ups the ante in this superior plot. True-to-life historical details form a major part of the story’s allure. It’s easy to read oneself right into the atmosphere of that time and place, maneuvering New York’s twilight streets with the detective as he puts to use the new forensic methods emerging in the field of criminology.

Even more engrossing is the thin line the author draws between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” She sets us down in the midst of people’s obsessions and, ultimately, actions. While occasionally a little heavy-handed with its anti-anarchist spiel, Secret of the White Rose stays absorbing and surprising, as it dissects a series of mystifying crimes and inspects the reasons why many of our assumptions can be mistaken.

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