Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Second novels in a promising series must be among the hardest literary tricks to pull off. Black Maps, Peter Spiegelman's first book about John March, was virtually perfect on every level, and it earned awards and raves. His lead character was immediately interesting and moving: a cop in a small upstate New York town, choosing law enforcement instead of his family's financial business, then returning to Manhattan after the death of his wife to become a private detective specializing in business-related crimes.
The fact that the author let us learn slowly and sideways about March's history made him even more real. And best of all, Spiegelman proved that he could not only help even the most financially challenged readers understand how business crimes worked but also made them care about the people involved in their consequences.
It was a tough act to follow, and Spiegelman has done it with stunning skill. Death's Little Helpers takes us deeper into March's history and psyche, adds some serious overtones to the theme of family tensions, and makes his love life credible and problematic. Along the way, the author creates some fascinating female characters: a razor-tongued successful painter and her softer, sweeter gallery owner (and life partner), both of whom consume vast amounts of cigarettes which later become an important part of the plot; a tense researcher for a major brokerage firm; a television business reporter who combines brains and sex into a dangerous package; and lawyer Jane Lu - March's hard-working lover and upstairs neighbor.
At the center of the book is a very contemporary and largely unpleasant stock analyst named Gregory Danes - whose genius for picking technology companies made him a very rich media star before scandal sunk it all. “If the collapse of the market was a surprise to Danes, its aftermath was a whack in the head with a two-by-four,” writes Spiegelman. “The hopeless tangle of quid pro quos and conflicted interests that bound together investment banks, their corporate clients, and the people who ran those corporations were open secrets on Wall Street. But when the particulars of these arrangements…were dragged out for the public at large to see, the public at large got sorely pissed off.”