Thursday, April 6, 2017

Winter And Night (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #8)Winter And Night by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


What a pleasant surprise! A really good novel in the crime drama/private detective genre. Having known nothing about the book or the author in advance I did not expect much and was ready for the usual crime-novel-grade sloppy writing, thin characterizations, abundance of clichés, and disappointing ending. I was wrong on everything except for clichés: S.J. Rozan's Winter and Night (2002) is a very satisfying read, quite a well-written novel, and - as a great bonus - it carries a powerful social message. I was not aware that the book had won four major awards, including the 2003 Edgar and Nero Awards, and was shortlisted in three other well-known contests. Of course one, two, maybe even three juries may be wrong, probably not seven, though.

Bill Smith, a private detective, and - as I have later learned - one of the protagonists of almost all novels by the author, is called at night by New York police about his 15-year-old nephew, Gary, who is in custody. Bill offers the boy his place to stay, but the youngster escapes. The search for Gary takes Bill and his partner Lydia Chin to Warrenstown, a small town in New Jersey, where Gary's parents live. A girl from Gary's high school is found murdered and Smith and Chin get involved in the murder investigation, possibly connected to their search. The secrets and sins from the town's past begin to emerge: we learn about a rape and murder that happened there 23 years ago. Also, some events in Bill Smith's past cast long shadows on the current case. The complicated plot wraps up rather implausibly but quite elegantly on a Pied Piper motif.

Despite all the awards, this is not a great novel. Clichés abound. The four major ones are:
(1) the Teenage Genius Hacker Cliché - 'nuff said,
(2) the Detective's Unusual Hobby/Skill Cliché - Bill Smith plays classical music on the piano,
(3) the Dark Secrets of the Detective's Life Cliché - and even worse, they are intertwined with the plot,
(4) the Climax Shootout Scene Cliché - mercifully it is not as bad here as in thousands of other books.
Well, originally I had planned to add "the Detective and the Sidekick Cliché", but then I learned that in the other books in the series Smith and Chin alternate as "sidekicks," so I will give it a pass. Also, the Lydia Chin's character is really written well and she almost feels like a real person. Anyway I don't yet quite know why all the clichés do not bother me that much in this novel: maybe because the writing does not feel pretentious?

Finally, what I love about the book: Warrenstown is a football town - its entire life is centered on football - nothing else counts. Bad things are swept under the rug as long as the local team keeps winning. The novel boldly shows the monumental chasm between the claims of competitive sports building young men's character and what the sports might really do: promote and justify violence and corruption. Young men get their character built so well that they feel entitled to rape young women. Winning excuses everything. A painful truth in this cliché-ridden yet amazingly alluring novel.

Three and three quarter stars.

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