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Book review: Amsterdam native sets first mystery in 1960s New York

Sunday, October 20, 2013
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"Styx and Stone" is the first novel written by Amsterdam native James Ziskin.
"Styx and Stone" is the first novel written by Amsterdam native James Ziskin.

James Ziskin’s first novel is a capable addition to a type of mystery writing that is partly noir and partly atmospheric.

Alan Furst has written mysteries that re-create the feel of life in Europe in the run-up to World War II and during the war itself. Joseph Kanon’s thrillers capture the grit and desperation of life in Europe after World War II. One of Joseph Persico’s first books was a mystery about a Nazi plot after the Germans surrendered.

Ziskin, a native of Amsterdam, N.Y., who lives in Los Angeles, has chosen post-war America, specifically 1960, as the setting. Except for mentioning “deconstructing” texts, an academic pursuit that did not start until the 1980s, and not mentioning Kennedy or Nixon, the book stays entirely in period character.

Vision of the ’60s

Reading “Styx and Stone” is like seeing a sepia-tone version of 1960 in one’s head. Ziskin’s descriptions, especially those of the West Village, which he describes as a “section of Manhattan where the grid [of city streets] had been shaken out of line,” feel just like my memories of New York or the stories that friends and parents told about the city.

‘Styx and Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery’

Author: James W. Ziskin

Published by: Seventh Street Books, 267 pages

How much: $15.95

As the book opens, Ellie Stone, a 23-year-old reporter for the daily paper in New Holland, a place that seems a lot like Amsterdam, is on a romantic, gin-soaked evening with an attorney. A sheriff’s deputy interrupts her tryst with bad news. Her brother’s grave was defaced with swastikas on Friday. Then on Saturday, her father, Abraham, a professor of Italian at Columbia and a Dante scholar, was brought to the hospital in critical condition after being attacked in his apartment on lower Fifth Avenue.

Ellie drives down to the city. She sees her father, who is in the intensive care unit, but in stable condition. She meets Detective Sgt. Jimmo McKeever of the New York Police Department; he considers the attack on Stone a random robbery.

Ellie is not convinced. In her father’s apartment she finds, untouched, his wallet, filled with cash, and her mother’s jewelry. Then she learns that her father’s colleague, Ruggero Ercolano, was found dead a short time after her father was attacked, electrocuted when a radio landed in his tub.

As Ellie stays in New York attending to her father, she spends time with his colleagues. Some of them act suspicious, and she starts investigating what they are hiding and whether it is connected to her father’s attack and Ercolano’s death.

Clever twists

Although the opening is slow, as are a segment or two of Ellie’s investigation, Ziskin offers many plot twists and surprises. The solution to the mystery is unexpected, but also clever and plausible. Along the mystery, Ziskin explains Dante’s “Inferno” to his readers. Ellie has dinner with Franco Saettano, another Dante scholar who is one of her father’s best friends. The description of the Italian food is so vivid the reader will likely reach for the telephone to make a reservation at Cornell’s or another Italian eatery. Information about Dante arises from an easy-going conversation, rather than pages of narrative.

Ziskin, a student of Italian literature himself, has cast Ellie as a modern-day Beatrice. Instead of leading Dante through hell and purgatory as Beatrice did, Ellie is traveling through stressful times and uncertainty to save her father by revealing his attacker.

Ziskin will sign books at 6 p.m. Thursday at Amerstam Free Library and from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Open Door Bookstore and Gift Gallery in Schenectady.

 
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