Fourth up in the Best Original Paperback category of the Mystery Writers of America Edgar awards is James W. Siskin’s Heart of Stone. Set in 1961, the series features a young Jewish reporter, Eleonora (Ellie) Stone. Ellie’s summer holiday with her family in the Adirondacks is interrupted when local sheriff Ralph Terwilliger asks her to photograph two dead bodies nearby. To all appearances, a teenage boy from an area summer camp and an unknown man of 30 or so both tried to dive off Baxter’s Rock (a good 75 feet above the water), misjudged the jump and died on the rocks below. Terrible accident? Or something more sinister?
While Ellie marvels at the crass ineptitude of the sheriff, she also has the opportunity to renew her acquaintance with Isaac Eisenstadt. He’s charming, smart, and good-looking, even if he does have a way of assuming that Ellie not as intelligent or cultured as he is. Isaac’s one of the group at the Arcadia Lodge, a Jewish intellectual community where political discourse and musical performance is accompanied by heavy drinking and lots of sleeping around. Ellie proves herself a worthy companion for the group, even though Isaac seems more interested in her sexually than in her intellect.
Back to the bodies: The boy is quickly identified and Ellie learns that he had seen his girlfriend early that morning and was on his way back to camp after their assignation (a little Romeo and Juliet-ish, as he was at a Jewish summer camp and she is the daughter of the local pastor). The man takes a little longer, but he turns out to be Karl Marx Merkleson, a boyhood friend of the Arcadia Lodge group, who converted to Christianity, changed his name, and became a rich California film producer.
What ties the boy and the man together? What happened atop that rocky outcropping? Along the way to discovering the answer, Ellie becomes deeply embroiled in the interpersonal relationships of the Arcadia Lodge group, learning their secrets – some banal, some distasteful and one heartbreaking. There are plenty of red herrings along the way, although the astute reader may divine the answer earlier than the author expects. (The relevant clue was not sufficiently buried.)
There’s a lot of Jewish intellectual social milieu in Heart of Stone, and I can only assume it’s accurate – here’s an interview I found online that expounds upon that a bit. Overall it’s an entertaining read and I’m likely to go back to the beginning and read the three earlier books in the series.
It’s pretty interesting that at least three of the four books so far in this category are set in the past – A Brilliant Death in 1963, The 7th Canon in 1987, Heart of Stone in 1961. Even Shot in Detroit, while published just last year, is set in 2007. Overall, while Ellie Stone is a bright and likable main character, I found Siskin’s Heart of Stone to be less compelling than the Yocum and Dugoni books – so it takes the #3 ranking, while Shot in Detroit keeps its spot at the bottom.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Original Paperback
- A Brilliant Death – Robin Yocum
- The 7th Canon – Robert Dugoni
- Heart of Stone – James W. Ziskin
- Shot in Detroit– Patricia Abbott