(Rebecca Marks, On the Rocks, Black Opal Books, ISBN 987-1-626943-79-7)
It’s always a pleasure to discover a new and interesting author. I’m not sure it’s wise to announce a series with the first book in the series—it’s a wee bit like signing a contract with the readers, after all—but I have to say most readers will probably want to read more about ex-NYPD homicide detective Dana Cohen. She’s Jewish and a redhead, but, like the ubiquitous Irish cops (not so ubiquitous anymore), crime fighting is a family tradition—she even fits that Irish stereotype of drinking too much. Pop is an ex-LI police chief and estranged hubby Pete is still on the NYPD force, as near as I can tell. Dana has retired from the daily grind of trying to police the Big Apple’s underbelly.
Dana is that quintessential flawed main character. She has major problems with Pete—even wants to divorce him (he’s resisting)—but she’s addicted to sex with him. She has that drinking problem but owns a winery, so that’s more irony in her life. And she foregoes the Irish cop’s usual confession sessions with the parish priest by using bartender “Mac” McCormack as a surrogate, who just happens to hate Jews and Blacks (the manager of her winery is a Black woman). In an area as densely populated as the tri-state area, you can have all kinds of human behavior, of course—the tails of the statistical distribution in any behavioral direction are well populated. If LI seems idyllic to you as you think of the rich and famous and their summer houses in the Hamptons, you’re in for a surprise. But I see news about crime activity there every morning on the news.
In that setting, Dana has to solve a mystery to save her husband who is framed for murder. Although she has problems with the guy, she doesn’t believe he’s a killer. But the circumstantial evidence becomes overwhelming, and Pete spends a lot of the story in jail. In the process of solving this mystery, I think Dana is diminished as a main character. She can’t seem to get beyond her liquor problem. Pete’s lawyer Jed and his detective Itzy, contemporary versions of the Perry Mason duo, take on the MC roles. The lawyer is just a good lawyer, but the gay PI is the real gumshoes in this story. This bifurcation of the book into two parts—the first with MC Dana and the second with MC Itzy—is a bit weird, but it works.
Another unusual stylistic choice that works is that the whole story is told in first person present by Dana. First person isn’t that uncommon in mysteries—it allows readers to discover clues and experience twists and misdirects along with the protagonist. But those things are recounted secondhand by Dana in the second half as Itzy does the real sleuthing—Dana and Itzy providing a Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes déjà vu. The choice of present tense was much more unusual, but that worked too. It gave an immediacy to the story as it unfolded.
Direct dialogue was a bit unwieldy at times. Not only did that present tense affect things, but a lot of backstory and material that would have been better as internal dialogue or flashbacks made Dana seem a bit preachy. Jed’s bringing Dana up to date at the end, necessarily done in dialogue, could have been all replaced by following the action in standard third-person fare, but Dana could have been there participating even in first person, making the ending more show and less tell. The ending, as it stands, seems to be a bit rushed too. I didn’t buy that Pete was framed to get at Dana either—the villain had better reasons for doing that.
This is not minimalist writing by any means. Often called hard-boiled in the mystery genre, you’re more likely to think of Christie than Chandler, especially during Jed’s wrap-up at the end that recalls Poirot’s embellished explanations of who did the dirty deed and why. Never fear, the deeds here go far beyond Christie, though, and touch upon general problems in U.S. society. On first reading, I found myself skipping overly verbose sections, but I paid more attention the second time through. It seemed that a lot of that could be left to the reader’s imagination to make her or him more of a participant in the creative process—that’s minimalist writing, my preference but not the author’s.
This might seem like a lot of negatives, so let me downplay them. Overall this was an entertaining and well-written book. With her stylistic choices, the author has created a sense of urgency that keeps you turning the pages. The author has a story to tell and tells it well. Dana is a flawed but interesting character. I’m sure she will grow in upcoming books in this series as she lets Ms. Marks see more into her psyche. I’m looking forward to it.
This is a reposting of my review made for Bookpleasures. The author provided a free copy in return for an honest review.
In libris libertas….