No Stone Unturned by James W Ziskin
No Stone Unturned by James W Ziskin (Seventh Street, 2014) sees the second appearance of Ellie Stone, a young woman driven by the need to prove herself in a 1960‘s society that has still to embrace the notion of gender equality. She’s currently working in the small town of New Holland in upstate New York at The New Holland Republic, but finding it very difficult to be taken seriously as a reporter. Not surprisingly, given the era, Artie Short, the owner, tends to give preference to unimaginative, by-the-numbers George Walsh. This has been grinding down our heroine, so hearing the discovery of a body on her scanner gives her the chance to be first in the queue when it comes to getting the inside story. The body proves to be Jordan Shaw, daughter of the local judge and respected attorney. It was was discovered half-buried in the woods, having previously occupied a room at the somewhat notorious Mohawk Motel. To her surprise, the Judge formally asks her to investigate. It’s not exactly that he has no faith in the local sheriff to discover who killed his daughter, but he reasons it can only help to have a second string to his bow. In making this choice, he’s relying on his inside knowledge of her success in tracking down her father’s killer in the first book.
This doubly motivates her. Obviously she sees the story of her investigation as being her foot in the journalistic door and, if she can also get the judge’s backing, there may be other opportunities flowing from the social and political connections. With her trusty camera always to hand, she takes photographs of everything that may prove significant. Once in full flow, she’s an unstoppable force, identifying the present whereabouts of the Shaw’s family car and then beginning to piece together what happened at the Mohawk Motel. However, it’s when she travels into Boston that we get to see her determination as, confronted by a locked door, she calmly picks up an axe and discovers the next body. Needless to say, she’s in full photographer mode as she waits for the police to respond to her call. Then it’s off to Tufts where Jordan Shaw was a student. At this point, the plot takes off into pleasingly complicated territory as our journalist/reporter has to work out what the relationship is between the lives the two girls might have had in Boston and in New Holland. There’s also a diary to puzzle over with lots of interesting notations and significant initials.
Sadly, she becomes the trigger for a slightly heavy-handed portrayal of the Indian/Pakistan hostility through the palpable tension between Prakash Singh and Hakim Mohammed at Tufts and, later, in New Holland. This plot element and the emerging debate about birth control form the time-specific links to 1960. Although our heroine is attacked and, in a separate incident, almost dies, there’s a distinct pulling of punches when it comes to dealing with the sexism of the time. The racism against the Hispanic community also feels sanitised. More importantly, even more than in the first book, the first-person narrative featuring Ellie lacks credibility. Although she functions very well as an investigator and solves the various crimes including the two murders, it could just as easily have been a young man. Yes she does flirt a little and is physically vulnerable, but this is very much a man’s view of a woman’s internal monologue.
This leaves me with slightly mixed feelings about the book. As a murder mystery, it’s a nicely constructed plot with suspects serially eliminated as the pages turn. The thriller element of the young woman who survives assault and attempted murder is also reasonably persuasive. But the sense of location in 1960 is not quite as successful as in the first book and the characterisation of Ellie is more perfunctory. So if you’re prepared to view this as predominantly a murder mystery with only a faint historical veneer, you’re likely to find this at least as enjoyable as the first in the series. But if you were expecting there to be a step forward in developing the historical themes and watching a young woman try to be ahead of the curve as feminism begins to develop a more positive edge, you’re likely to be disappointed. That makes No Stone Unturned good but not as good as it might have been.
For a review of the first in the series, see Styx & Stone.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.