Concourse by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"This sort of thing is done in the not-for-profit world all the time [...] There's a lot of money floating around, and it's not terribly well-tracked. For everyone in this business for my naive, bleeding-heart reasons, there are half a dozen people here because they make a good living."
My third Chin/Smith novel within one month: the very good
Winter and Night
whetted my appetite for more adventures of the unlikely duo of private detectives. I put a few of early installments of the series in my random rotation and after the adequate but unremarkable
, I expected a lot from Concourse (1995) as it won the Shamus Award. Well, it has been an exasperating read: brilliant aspects obscured by clichés, bad characterizations, and cheap ending.
This is a "Smith novel": now I understand that in the consecutive novels of the series the leading roles alternate. Smith's friend owns a protection company business where one of his men has been killed on the job. Smith's task is to find the killer: he is hired by the company as a replacement for the victim - a guard at The Bronx Home for the Aged, a care house funded and managed by a non-profit organization. The police suspect the guard was killed by one of the Cobras, a gang that owns the neighborhood and extorts money from the businesses. However, Smith's investigation uncovers real-estate improprieties and shenanigans.
Corruption in ostensibly charitable non-profit organizations is one of my hot-button issues, so I was excited to see Ms. Rozan clearly explain how people can profit heavily and legally from huge amounts of money floating in the non-profit world. The white-collar parasites suck the bulk of funds generated through generosity of donors. An illuminating conversation between Smith and a borough president's employee illustrates the mechanisms of corruption and is, to me, the highpoint of the novel. I find it refreshing when a crime writer has an ability to offer serious social insights without proselytizing and moralizing.
I have a serious problem, though, with characterizations in Concourse. Snake, the leader of the Cobras is a paper character, a cliché with no depth. Detective Lindfors is a caricature as well, with only the "on/off" button: the conversation between him and Smith sounds like a burlesque skit. The scene between Snake and a hospital patient - probably aimed at "humanizing" the former - rings particularly false and is probably aimed at making the reader feel good. Ida Goldstein and Eddie Shawn are also drawn with the faintest of brushes, but at least their roles are only to provide comedic relief. Even Mr. Smith himself does not come across as a real enough person - just a template of an extremely well meaning, noir PI with a heavy baggage of the past. Only Lydia's character is well written - I can imagine myself knowing her. Some of my earlier interest in the Chin/Smith duo was based on the ambiguity of their relationship: this thread of the series is handled well and I hope the author will gradually tell us more about the odd couple.
It could have been a great book and now, while I recommend it, it is with serious reservations.
Two and three quarter stars.
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