Thursday, January 11, 2007

Excellence Present

S.J. Rozan has a new hardcover -- In this Rain -- which I'll review in my Chicago Tribune column 1/14, plus a new paperback of her last novel.

Rozan isn't the first writer to use what happened to New York on Sept. 11, 2001, as the background for a crime novel. But the images of pain, loss and fear on every page of Absent Friends are so strong that the book will probably be remembered for them, rather than for the intricate and heart-breaking story of her characters, a group of friends who grew up on Staten Island in the 1970s.

"Everyone was like this now," says a criminal lawyer named Phil Constantine (a latecomer to the friends' circle and a definite outsider who does their dirty jobs but is treated roughly, especially by the women), suddenly caught up in a TV news item involving a client. "Every siren, every subway delay, every unexpected crowd as you rounded the corner made your heart speed, your palms sweat." And the sense of the city's vanished crystalline beauty comes through like an arrow in the heart: "In New York now, beautiful days were suspect, clear blue skies tainted with an invisible acid etch."

At the center of these absent friends (even the ones who survived paid a terrible price of loss of hope for the future) is Jimmy McCaffery, a heroic firefighter who died in the towers. While most of the others remained in their peaceful Staten Island harbor, Jimmy left 20 years ago for Manhattan, where he became a captain at a firehouse near the site of the attack. But why did McCaffery really leave: over a failed love affair, or because of his involvement in some secret payments to the family of a mob-connected man who died in prison?

A once-great newspaper reporter, now mired in booze and self-pity, thinks he has found the answer, but his body falls from a bridge before his story is finished. His young, idealistic lover is determined to find out why. Constantine the lawyer and other friends of McCaffery would rather let it all sink beneath the water and ash.

Rozan, who has justly won every mystery award going, knows how to balance their pasts and their presents without trivializing anything that happened on 9/11. Her performance--a dance in front of the burning towers--takes guts, brains and heart, and all are present in abundance.