By the Book: Murder Will Out; Two New Death-Dealing Novels

Robert Boris Riskin, the author of Deadly Secrets, can certainly claim a first, and probably an only: employing Rowdy Hall in East Hampton as a place for his hero to make a cocaine drop.

Well, the package is fake coke, but only the good-guy amateur sleuth knows this. The murder mystery is Riskin’s third in his series starring Jake Wanderman, a likeable, retired English teacher from Brooklyn. Wanderman, now a happy denizen of Sag Harbor, just can’t stop poking around, looking for trouble. But what else can “the Sam Spade of Sag Harbor” do when his best friend asks him to look into his daughter’s possible involvement in the murder of a famous chef at an art gallery? Besides, Jake’s never really on his own. The Bard is always in his mind’s eye, supplying apt quotations (“My mind is a cluttered Shakespeare attic…Real life often triggers a reaction that recalls something he wrote.”) This device, along with Jake’s fond memories of his late wife, Rosalind, sets him apart as a P.I. in an age where everyone, it seems, is trying his or her hand at either memoir or detective fiction (the words “death,” “deadly” or “dying” recur frequently in new titles). Many of the Shakespeare quotations, however, seem forced and don’t enhance character or advance the action. So, too, the constant nostalgic references to Rosalind take on a studied aspect, though it’s obvious that Jake is trying to square his newfound passion for a female police detective with his still-potent grief. If only Riskin’s characters would come across more as flesh and blood (we don’t even know what Jake looks like, though it’s said that women find him good-looking), the work would benefit immensely.

In a brief acknowledgment, Riskin generously thanks his “writing brethren at Marijane Meaker’s Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop, local lawyer Stephen Grossman, Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano and Detective Sergeant Vincent Posillico.” No doubt they, in particular, will enjoy the legal and procedural expertise that emerges in the novel, and East End residents in general will get a kick out of references to various local sites. Indeed, chapter one begins at an August art opening in East Hampton, and it’s obvious that Riskin knows this scene (he also has Jake knowledgeably “wander[ing]” around London and Paris). Though readers will likely figure out the baddie by way of a plot that at times strains credulity, Deadly Secrets is good fun; it is assuredly a valentine to East End villages, and offers a companionable ride to the denouement, where “all’s well that ends well.”

***

Although former financial services CEO E.J. Simon fashions an unusual story that is part thriller, part sci-fi, and based on work in Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), his debut novel Death Never Sleeps would have been better served by an editor who might have encouraged the author not to dwell so much on his credentials as a “world traveler, food enthusiast” and business executive who cares, and concentrate more on allowing plot complications to emerge from the central character’s sleuthing rather than explaining them through the use of secondary characters.

Nonetheless, the subject is timely and fascinating: computer modeling that would replicate human brain activity in ways that become predictive, so that programs engage in, if not refine, cognitive thinking, and even simulate emotions based on data drawn from voice and facial recognition software. All the more reason to have hoped for more menace; as is, A.I. works here not to aid and abet murder but to solve it.

Despite a couple of well done scary scenes, the narrative misses the suspense mark, because it includes too much seemingly extraneous detail—reminiscences of childhood, old Queens neighborhoods, upscale restaurants that attract celebs (preferred menus and wine lists provided) in Manhattan and Paris, and cozy local eateries. Backstories of secondary characters also diffuse the action and sometimes claim point-of-view, taking attention away from the third-person protagonist, Michael Nicholas. Michael heads a powerful and successful international private equity firm, but his life changes radically when his somewhat distant older brother Alex, who runs a large sports gambling and loan sharking operation, is shot and killed. But Alex, who said that “life is a dream, and death is waking up,” will prove that point when he comes back, so to speak, by way of sophisticated A.I. software, in order to guide his brother towards the identity of his killer and inform Michael about threats that will come his way from the Mob. A question for readers to mull over: does knowing that a crime fiction will have a sequel constitute a spoiler alert?

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