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stone cold dead coverOur book today is Stone Cold Dead, the third book in James Ziskin’s enormously enjoyable series (from the good folks at Seventh Street Books) chronicling the adventures of Ellie Stone, 25-year-old “girl reporter” for the Republic, the local newspaper for the little town of New Holland in upstate New York in the 1960s. Ellie is of course a moonlighting amateur sleuth, but she’s between cases on New Year’s Eve 1960. An intense cold spell has clamped down on New Holland, but as the old-time radio serials used to put it, crime never sleeps; Ellie is approached by a woman named Irene Metzger, whose daughter, Darleen Hicks, disappeared over a week ago. The New Holland police won’t pursue the case – they assure the worried mother that Darleen probably ran off with some body and will be back when her adventure or her money runs out. Irene Metzger feels certain something much more serious has happened, and she’s read Ellie’s pieces in the Republic, so she comes to our feisty, hilariously flawed heroine for help.

The story Ziskin unfolds from there will be familiar in all its working parts to murder mystery fans, missing-teen motifs being something of a staple of the genre (as we saw in our previous Mystery Monday, but never fear, just because the little littering monsters still stream loudly past my driveway every weekday at 3 doesn’t mean I’m taking any inordinate pleasure out of these books! I’m sure we’ll be moving on to dead politicians in due time). Three main things save it from the tedium into which a less talented author might have fallen.

The first is the setting, half a century ago but it might as well be Medieval Iceland for all the incredibly-pervasive technological changes that have happened since. When Ellie is spending some well-earned down-time in her apartment, any reader under Ellie’s own age of 25 will find some of Ziskin’s descriptions as strange as anything they’d find in a science fiction novel:

I rose to change the channel, and the television threw a fit. Jack Benny warped and skipped rhythmically from the bottom of the screen to the top, and neither the vertical-hold knob nor the rabbit ears remedied the situation, despite my repeated fiddling. I switched off the set and plopped back down on the sofa, wrapped the afghan around my shoulders, and gazed up at the painted tin ceiling and alabaster light fixture above me. … I tried to will time to pass …

In these and many other passages, we realize with a jolt that Ellie is alone – as in, cut off from the constant presence of the Internet. She gazes at the ceiling instead of gazing at her iPhone. She needs to be in the Republic‘s offices in order to access its files. She sometimes uses something called a “filing cabinet.” It can be very pleasurably bizarre.

The second thing is Ziskin’s wonderful talent for showing us all the sides of even his most outwardly simple characters, like the gigantic Walt Rasmussen, somebody Ellie suspects early on of having had something to do with young Darleen’s disappearance. When she goes to his farm to question him, he’s just emerging from his barn carrying no less than a bloodied axe – and he’s less than friendly about her questions. But it’s not a dozen pages later that Ellie’s best friend Fadge is able to offer a restauranteur’s alternate perspective on the man:

“The kids stare at him, you know? They can be so mean, the little bastards. They stare at him like he’s some kind of freak because he’s so huge. They peep around corners, laugh with each other, point at him. And Walt just sits there in the booth, as big as Goliath, looking straight ahead and ignoring them. But you can tell it’s burning him up. Like maybe he’d like to squash those kids like bugs and be rid of them.”

“Or maybe wring their necks and chop up the bodies in the barn?” I said.

Fadge shrugged. “Imagine what it must be like to go through life having people point at you like you’re a sideshow attraction.”

I’d met the guy. I wasn’t feeling too much sympathy for the man who’d waved an axe in my face.

And of course the third and clinching thing that sets these mysteries apart is Ellie lucy reads stone cold deadherself, who adheres to no tired stereotypes, indulges in none of the flatly unbelievable behavior that 21st century female crime-solvers tend to get up to (this book’s title doesn’t start with “The Girl Who,” thank God), and is always ready with both a sarcastic quip and a leap of courage that sometimes surprises even her. It’s great fun following her through these adventures (and you need not have read the first two in order to enjoy this one) – the only weird thing is remembering: she’s a grandmother by now.

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© 2007-2017, Steve Donoghue