If you prefer your suspense-driven mysteries solved without all of the high-tech CSI wizardry we see today, your next read should be STONE COLD DEAD.
The story starts in mid-winter. 1960. A fifteen-year-old junior high school student wanders away from her school bus for a few minutes. When the bus takes off, just a few minutes later, it leaves her behind and the girl is never seen again. On New Year’s Eve, the missing girl’s mother, Irene, turns to newspaper reporter Ellie Stone for help. The local police have told Irene that her daughter has just run off with some boy. Ellie’s stories in the paper on an earlier murder case convince Irene that Ellie is her last hope. A good choice for several reasons. Ellie Stone is the smartest person in the room, great with puzzles and detecting patterns; she’s a crossword whiz and a savant at identifying classical music pieces. But her author says there’s more to his sleuth.
“She’s also got something to prove, to her father, to the men she works for, and even to herself,” James Ziskin says. “She’s also fearless. Well, perhaps ‘fearless’ isn’t quite right. She definitely experiences moments of fear, even terror. But she’s courageous, stands firm and fights through them. For instance, she will ask a suspect a pointed question, even when she fears a violent reaction. Then, when the suspect uses anger to deflect the question, she’ll ask it again, risking his wrath.”
Even more telling, Ellie just doesn’t give up. She proved that in Styx & Stone, when she was drawn into a murder investigation soon after moving upstate from her native New York City. In her second, No Stone Unturned, she helped out in another case in her adopted small town home. STONE COLD DEAD finds her still adapting to the culture and environment of New Holland, New York.
“Ellie’s core values remain the same, of course,” Ziskin says, “but she struggles with some of the local practices: supper at five o’clock, for example. And there’s a dearth of eligible men in New Holland, so she spends more time by herself than she did in New York.”
It’s Ellie’s values that allow this book to transcend a simple missing person’s case. Her ongoing battle against injustice, indifference, and bigotry informs the novel. She’s a convincing “crusading reporter” because it all goes back to her morality.
“Ellie was raised in an environment of unapologetic leftist intellectualism,” Ziskin says. “Her parents taught her to believe in equality, justice, and fairness, and to reject oppression and even conformism in all its forms. Ellie jokes that when she was a girl, her father wouldn’t let her join the Brownies because no daughter of his would ever belong to a paramilitary organization. So Ellie has a strong sense of right and wrong from her parents. She’s stubborn and won’t settle for an unjust outcome.”
The 1960s was the decade of peace, love, and idealism but Ellie Stone’s world is not idealized.
Says Ziskin, “This isn’t Ozzie and Harriet or the Donna Reed Show. Life was real. Sometimes ugly and hard. And prejudice and inequality were just two of the warts on society’s nose.”
This is much of what separates New Holland from, say, Cabot Cove. New Holland is, after all, a dying town, at least economically speaking. So these novels have a bit more grit and darkness than, say, a cozy. As the linguist-author puts it:
“These books may not quite qualify as noir; maybe gris [gray]. Is that a sub-genre? A blend of traditional and noirish elements.”
Part of the appeal of this series is the realism, and that also applies to the investigative methods. Being set in the 1960s, most of the technological aids to solving crimes had not yet appeared. This is, of course, no accident.
“I wanted to write a series where the detective must rely solely on her brains and tenacity. No forensics, surveillance cameras, or DNA. So in the world of 1960, Ellie must touch all the bases, interview everyone, connect the dots, and figure it out herself. She makes use of the telephone, newspaper archives, and her wiles.”
In addition to old-school observation and detection, Ellie Stone novels always serve up a heaping helping of suspense. Walking that line between traditional and noir fiction, Ziskin generally builds that suspense without depending on gunplay, bombs, or a lot of violence.
“Guns are certainly scary,” Ziskin says, “but there are other ways to inspire fear in a reader’s mind. I like handmade terror. Vulnerability, darkness, and time are my favorite tools in the box.”
James Ziskin uses those tools to craft a taut tale of mystery and suspense that is at once a reminder of how a sleuth got the job done in the era before CSI and an antidote to nostalgia. STONE COLD DEAD is just too cool to miss.
James W. Ziskin (Los Angeles, CA) is the author of Styx & Stone and No Stone Unturned, the first two Ellie Stone mysteries. A linguist by training, Ziskin was director of New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò for five years, where he collaborated with an impressive catalogue of writers, journalists, and academics on cultural and educational events.
Photography credit: Juan Tallo