Peter Spiegelman's books are now, officially, drop-everything-and-read books.
One of the hidden drawbacks of being a bookseller is that you are flooded with things to read. When I first started in this biz in 1990, I promised myself that I'd trying all the different types and styles to both see what it all is like and also to be able to converse about it. As I began to develop favorites, I let that aim go, realizing that you can't read as much as you'd like, let alone everything. A few years ago, I realized I wasn't even keeping up with my favorites! How can that happen? Unfortunately, it happens all too easily and all too often.
But now and then, even us long-time readers of mysteries find a new author who feels both bright and fresh and, at the same time, like an old friend. Peter Spiegelman's books are just so.
His first book, Black Maps, was one I heard quite a bit about when it first came out. You see, we listen to our customers' recommendations as much as they do to ours. I knew I needed to read him, but said to myself "I'll take home a used paperback when one comes in." That, as a bookseller, is often the easiest way to get to a new author. Implicit in that thought is the feeling 'I can wait'. We'll, that was a mistake on my part.
Black Maps introduces John March, a member of a small and venerated financial family. While his siblings are all button-down types, John takes after his father, having no interest or passion for the family business. What he does have is a passion for justice and for helping people, having started as an up-state County deputy. After tragedy drives him off the Force (hey, read the damn book!) he ends up back in Manhattan and sets up as a private eye.
In all three books, March's cases involve high finance and the people who work there. Now, keep in mind that I shy away from even balancing a checkbook and don't give a damn about high finance. That is not what attracts me to these books. What does is John March.
March is somewhere along the lines of Lew Archer, Matthew Scudder and Dave Robicheaux. Unlike Archer, March has family - though they are of no comfort to him. Unlike Scudder, he's not an alcoholic but he has Scudder's persistence and cunning. Like Robicheaux, his furies can get in his way. March is not a superman and is, despite his upbringing and family, a common man. And, like all commoners, he's not perfect. He's a human character...like the rest of us.
Spiegelman's writing is lyrically spare and I'd put him in the Hammett school - in company with Ross Macdonald and Lawrence Block. He gives you the objective view iced with a cynical humor of the perpetual outsider which is, of course, the classic American private eye:
"I walked up Lex and looked into the small handsome shops that line the street. They were full of delicate wicked-looking shoes, and stationery made from butterfly wings, and French baby clothes that were hand stitched by blue-eyed virgins. The window displays were intricately wrought and exhibited the merchandise with fetishistic devotion, and they all made me think of Joseph Cornell."
"It wasn't quite three when I returned home, but already light was draining from the sky. Gray bars of cloud were stacking in the west and the sun looked like a patch of old snow."
"Much of Sixteenth Street lay in shadow, and the slush had begun to refreeze underfoot. The lobby of my building was empty and the hallways were quiet. My apartment was filled with winter light, like a vast gray sheet over the furniture."
Like the other great private eyes in fiction, March is a loner, though not lonely. He's an outsider who has more friends than he thinks. He's interested in justice, not legalities. He's the most comfortable guy in the room even as the rest of the people look down their noses at him. All of Spiegelman's characters are interesting, even the despicable ones. They are fully formed and anything but place-holders cut from cardboard.
Here is the sequence:
Black Maps (Vintage, 12.95), winner of the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel.
Death's Little Helper (Vintage 13.95)
Red Cat (Knopf, 22.95) all copies signed during the Cavalcade.
Even if you're not looking for a new series or a new author, read Peter Spiegelman. They are not just wonderful or delightful or engrossing or masterful, they are unique even while part of a continuum, timeless while being current, and they are, on top of all of that, terrific mysteries. From now on, when a new Spiegelman arrives, I will drop everything to read it.