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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Styx & Stone: An Ellie Stone Mystery By James Ziskin

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Cynthia Chow

Check out details on how to enter to win a copy of this book at the end of the review.
In 1960, Eleonora "Ellie" Stone is a reporter who plays in a man's world. She drinks hard, plays harder, and occasionally invites a "gentleman" over for a nightcap. However, a call informing her that her father was just beaten and left hospitalized in New York, has her rushing to his side and reliving and regretting the massive breach between them and the teenage incident that severed their relationship and made her a disappointment in Abraham Stone's eyes.

Ellie puts all this aside though when she begins to suspect that her father was not a victim of a random burglary gone wrong. A professor in Columbia University's Italian Department, Professor Stone was a powerful and unwavering force who refused to compromise his ethics, whether it involved changing a grade for the son of a potential donor or approving the tenure of a brilliant but relentlessly ambitious candidate.

All of Ellie's instincts refuse to allow her to accept the police’s and the University's declaration that her father was not the target of an attack, especially when she learns that another professor from the Italian Department recently died in a pronounced suicide. A missing manuscript, the disappearance of an unusual collection of items from her father's apartment, and the desecration of her brother's grave, all combine into a puzzle that at first seems baffling but could all tie into one tragic tale. There is no little amount of political infighting within the University, and considering the rather impressive amount of sexual peccadillos going on, this all provides Ellie with an ample number of suspects and shady, over-educated criminals.

In Ellie author Ziskin has found a character who shields herself with a strong and aggressive exterior that hides a vulnerability, as she still winces in pain and shame whenever she thinks of how she disappointed her father. While her shell protects her from condemning judgments of others who frown on her assertion of professional independence and liberal sexuality, Ellie still feels the pain of potential rejection and hurt when she succumbs to an affair with an angelically beautiful professor. Having been born at the end of World War II, the twenty-three year-old still has an acute awareness of the racism that faces other Jews and how that may have bled into the attacks on her father. Luckily, Ellie finds an unusual ally in a diminutive investigating detective who continually seems surprised by her intelligent observations and conclusions.

Image source: Seventh Street Books

While inevitable comparisons to Mad Men will be made, Ziskin has created a labyrinth of plot twists and clues that intriguingly incorporate the author's background in Italian and Romantic Literature. Ziskin perfectly captures the voice of a young woman who wears a masculine exterior that shields a very fragile feminine self.

I also love mysteries that educate a reader and weave knowledge seamlessly into the plot, so I reveled in how Dante and his works are incorporated into the mystery. The humor and complexities of the academia is as well highlighted, never the more so in a free-loving female doctoral candidate who acted out a nude scene in a performance of Our Town. Despite there actually being no nudity in the written text, it did ensure that the entire Department attended the performance. The romance of the Sixties loses much of its shine when it exposed for its sexist and racist attitudes, but the conclusion seems to reveal that people continue to be motivated by needs that never change. The author has created an extremely twisty tale of murder that at its core centers around a very vulnerable but brave heroine making her way through a man's world.

To enter to win a copy of Styx & Stone, simply email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Stone”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen October 19, 2013. U.S. residents only.

Cynthia Chow is the branch manager of Kaneohe Public Library on the island of Oahu. She balances a librarian lifestyle of cardigans and hair buns with a passion for motorcycle riding and regrettable tattoos (sorry, Mom).

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