Sunday, July 30, 2017

Stone Quarry (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #6)Stone Quarry by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Thin razor-sharp wires of color were stretched across canvas, pulled so taut they broke apart; or, released, they bunched together in choking knots. [...] The colors twisted, tangled, pierced each other, bled; but the field they were on was luminous, and the color wires glowed against it like lightning against the sun."

How likely is it that a hard-boiled, noir PI plays difficult classical pieces on the piano in his free time? Well, not less likely than an engineer-turned-mathematician with limited command of English writes 600 book reviews on Goodreads. Having thus gotten over the implausibility hurdle - let's begin the praise. My seventh novel in the Smith-Chin series, S.J. Rozan's Stone Quarry (1999), is her best that I have read so far, even better than the great Winter and Night. And to think that I was worrying about the series after the weak Mandarin Plaid ! Stone Quarry has an interesting plot, great prose, and is a tribute to one of the masters of the genre (later about this).

Bill Smith drives to his cabin in upstate New York to meet with his client, Eve Colgate, who has her residence in the same county. The detective is hired to retrieve items that have been stolen from Ms. Colgate; we later learn these are valuable paintings. Mr. Smith meets with Tony, a bar owner and his long-term acquaintance. When Tony is assaulted by three bad guys led by a well-known yet somehow untouchable hood, Smith helps the victim defend himself. One of the bad guys is soon found murdered and Tony's younger brother, whom Mr. Smith once helped when he had gone astray of the law, is the main suspect. Not only is Bill facing the criminals, but his enemies also include a powerful local businessman and the local sheriff who hates Bill, "the asshole from the city messing in his county." Lydia Chin appears pretty late in the plot but when she does, to serve as a baby-sitter/ bodyguard for the client, the story switches to even higher a gear.

There are a few masterful passages of prose in the novel, where the quality of writing transcends the usually lackluster crime/mystery style. For instance, Smith's nuanced conversation with the owner of Antiques Barn would not be out of place in a literary work of highest caliber. True, the components of the plot are traditional clich├ęs of the mystery genre and it is also true that the whole narrative structure of the story does not feel original. Let me now go on a limb and put forward a theory: the novel is Ms. Rozan's homage to Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) and his magnificent Lew Archer series (I have reviewed all 18 Archer books here on Goodreads). To me Ms. Rozan's Stone Quarry, with minor changes of protagonists and times, could have been written by Macdonald. The same cadences of the plot, similar high quality of prose, and the all-encompassing understanding of human weakness and unusual warmth towards decent people:
"I wondered whether some people were born understanding the true nature of kindness, or if it was something you had to learn."
As good as the novel is, Lydia's character enriches it even further. I don't care for (neither do I mind) the inane, TV-sitcom-style banter between her and Smith, but even when playing only a secondary role in the plot, she somehow makes her appearances luminous. I have mentioned it at least once in my reviews that Lydia reminds me of a less bitter, sweeter Lisbeth Salander, in her strength and straightforwardness.

Why not five stars then? I can't stand the mandatory climactic shootout scenes. Yes, I know, Macdonald used them too. And it is amazingly well-written scene for such a moronic and boring topic as a shootout. Still, I hope one day I will read a novel by Ms. Rozan that would not end with gun play. Otherwise the denouement - as monstrously complex as it is - is plausible and logical, at least for me.

Four and a quarter stars.

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