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STYX & STONE
by James W Ziskin
Seventh Street Books, October 2013
285 pages
$15.95
ISBN: 1616148195


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Ellie Stone is a woman on a mission. Pushing boundaries wherever possible, she works as a reporter, an amateur detective, and constantly pushes the envelope of acceptable gender norms in 1960s America. Her life and career choices have severely strained her relationship with her father, esteemed Dante scholar and Columbia professor Abraham Stone; when Dr. Stone is brutally attacked within days of her late brother's grave being desecrated in a clearly anti-Semitic fashion, Ellie is determined to find the culprit. While the gender expectations of the day present a clear headwind against Ellie, she is persistent and quickly finds herself immersed into the dark world of academia. When one of her father's colleagues dies in a suspicious and scandalous way; she begins to undercover the dark truths that lie underneath Columbia's Ivory Tower with the help of an old-fashioned, but well-intentioned detective.

Academia, of course, has always provided fertile ground for the crime fiction genre with intra-colleague backbiting, parochial debates, and more than a few individuals with oversized personalities and well-developed egos. Never is this more true than in this tale, from the personal spats to the scandalous behavior to the debates over tenure that are reminiscent of the Ides of March; author Ziskin creates an academic environment ripe with conflict, though he occasionally overdoes it with every Italian-born character apparently being a bonafide Lothario.

So often in this type of book where every character either has a motive or a secret to hide, it can feel forced. That's never the case here, with the exception of some of the portrayals of the Italian characters' libidos; all the characters are three-dimensional with real motives and real points of sympathy. The subplot about her brother's desecrated grave is both a red herring and an important plot point at the same time and helps lead to the denouement that reveals the strange happenings at Columbia are about more than parochial academic debates or jealousy, but a far darker subject: the second World War and the compromising actions taken by some during that time period that led to suffering and death for others.

STYX & STONE succeeds largely because the author creates a likable heroine and cast of characters with clear and logical motivations and the reader never feels cheated or "had" by a too-cute twist. Ellie's passion is real and drives the novel, but as the first of a planned series (book two is already on the publication calendar for 2014), one wonders if Ellie will be quite so believable and as motivated when it is someone else's family is at stake. There's no doubt she loves her family and wants to avenge the horrors visited on them, but one senses that she might be a bit more indifferent to injustices at large. That, however, is a problem for another book; as for this book, Ziskin has created an undoubted success.

Ben Neal is a librarian who likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, November 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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