James W. Ziskin’s Heart of Stone is the next entry nominated in the Best Original Paperback category for an Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America’s annual event. Ziskin has won a “Lefty” award from Left Coast Crime in 2016 and an Anthony Award nomination in 2015 for two previous efforts in his Ellie Stone series, so out of four novels in one series, he has garnered much attention.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic as the awards committees.
Ellie Stone can be categorized as an amateur sleuth/cozy mystery. I’m a fan of certain cozy writers (Mary Daheim, Diane Mott Davidson), but in general find the genre tedious and bordering on boring. Heart of Stone does not encourage me to read the three earlier offerings in the series. The time is 1961, Prospector Lake, NY. Ellie is a reporter vacationing for a week with her aunt and cousin in a summer compound of cabins she, her now-deceased brother, and parents frequented in her childhood. Ellie meets up with a group of Jewish adults staying at Arcadia Lodge that she knew and played with every summer when they were children. She is immediately smitten and (shock!) sleeps with Isaac, a handsome music teacher. Ellie and the group congregate each evening for lively discussion, musical interludes, and drinking–lots of drinking (oh, and smoking cigarettes too).
On the first day of Ellie’s vacation, she and her aunt are interrupted in their sunbathing by Tiny Terwilliger, the town Chief of Police, who is everything one would expect of a racist, homophobic stereotype guy leering at two women, one nude, one in a bathing suit. Tiny manages to offend the two Jewish women, but is able to persuade Ellie to accompany him with her camera to take photos of two people who have died, ostensibly from diving into water from a nearby cliff but not clearing the rocks below. Ellie’s reporter curiosity kicks in, she and Tiny go to the accident scene and she photographs the bodies of a teenage boy and an older man. Tiny’s convinced it’s a simple accident, but Ellie thinks there’s more to it and begins to investigate.
Turns out that the older man is Karl Marx Merkleson, another childhood friend of the Arcadia group, who changed his name to Charles Morton, married a shiksa, threw away his Jewish name and got baptized. No one knows why he’s back in New York from his home in California, where he’s a big-shot movie producer. Ellie continues to unravel threads that puzzle her about the two deaths, playing the grudging assistant to the anti-Semitic Tiny. There is a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, questioning of various characters, and a bit of tacked-on manufactured fear with an escaped murderer supposedly somewhere in the area. Ellie eventually figures it all out after many rainy trips back and forth through a small copse of woods in the dark of night between her cabin and Isaac’s. Scary stuff.
Objections to the story are several: Too many characters by far to keep track of and none of them compelling enough to stand out; the plot drags on mercilessly; and while Ziskin’s writing is strong when placing the reader in the Adirondacks, Ellie’s inner thoughts are often over-wrought and oddly objective in tone. Here’s an example when Ellie and Isaac are lying together in bed:
All people have a smell. It’s part of what attracts us to and repels us from one another….The hedonic intoxication of the senses that defies logic and explanation….Attraction is visceral. It’s an animalistic reaction that has nothing to do with the faculties of the mind.
Gee, how romantic. On a scale of one to ten, I rate this novel a four.