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November 18, 2011 / John Sheridan

Recommendation : The John March Mysteries by Peter Spiegelman

I first came across Peter Spiegelman’s name when Red Cat (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Dep, Book Dep UK) was nominated for a Barry Award for Best Novel in 2008. Even though it didn’t win, I liked the synopsis, and the fact that it was the third book in the John March series meant that I didn’t have too much catching up to do. It also helped that the first entry in the series, Black Maps (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Dep, Book Dep UK), had received a Shamus Award.

I finally read all three novels pretty much back to back during 2010 and was thoroughly impressed. While they are critically acclaimed, unfortunately, Spiegelman’s books lack the name recognition and the availability here in Ireland. This series definitely deserves a wider audience than it appears to have gathered.

The central figure in the series is John March, who hails from a wealthy Wall Street family that he now avoids. As the black sheep of the family, he goes his own way. His personal life has been marred by tragedy that emphasises his isolation as does his solitary pursuit – running. In Black Maps (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Dep, Book Dep UK), John March takes the case of Rick Pierro who is a successful banker in line for promotion, but who is being blackmailed into laundering money at a failed financial institution. It’s a departure from the rest of the genre to have a PI, who comes from a financial background, successfully navigate the banking world. The hints in his backstory are intriguing and make you wish there was a prequel dealing with that aspect of his life. March is an engaging character, and the plot is not overly complicated with too many convoluted twists and turns.

Confusingly, the subsequent two novels both have alternative titles in some markets, indicated here in brackets – Death’s Little Helpers (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Dep, Book Dep UK) (aka No Way Home) and Red Cat (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Dep, Book Dep UK) (aka The Alibi League). Death’s Little Helpers is an excellent missing person investigation that keeps you guessing. The missing person in question, Gregory Danes, is reminiscent of Henry Blodget.  Thus, the ex-wife and her new partner as well as other interested parties actually don’t want him found.

With some series you can dip in and out and read out of order because the characters don’t really develop or relate back to previous incidents or settings, but this isn’t the case with the John March series.  Spiegelman does reference previous events and characters. Within this series, the strong family ties and interactions are better understood by reading the novels in order. This particularly applies to Red Cat (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Dep, Book Dep UK) which features John March’s brother as one of the main characters.  He needs John’s help to ward off a lady, who he met over the internet and had an affair with.  She is threatening to reveal things about him to his family and colleagues. As John gets closer to identifying who she is, her body is fished out of the river and his brother turns into a possible murder suspect.

Happily, the series does not appear to be over yet as the author has indicated he intends to return to John March in the future. In the meantime, we can enjoy his current Thick as Thieves (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Dep, Book Dep UK) which, while not quite on a par with the John March books, is still well worth reading.  It made Kirkus’ Best of 2011 list. Thick as Thieves (Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Dep, Book Dep UK) just took a bit longer to truly engage me. The first half of the book was a little slow moving and repetitive as Carr reminisces about his mother and Declan, the former leader of the criminal crew, he now leads. With zero honour amongst thieves, he needs to probe the circumstances of Declan’s death with those that crew members who participated on the night in question while dealing with the deteriorating health of his father and how to care for him. The energy ramps up considerably in the second half of the book as they set about relieving money launderer extraordinaire Curt Prager of $100 million. When you cannot even trust your colleagues, everybody needs to watch their backs, and while the re-emergence of characters previously considered dead doesn’t exactly surprise, the circumstances in which they emerge definitely does. All in all maybe not his best, but it succeeds in cranking up the tension and your heartrate when it needs to.

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