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Death's Little Helpers (John March Mysteries) Hardcover – July 19, 2005
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
Crime fiction seems lately to have regained its fascination with investigators born into affluent circumstances, an archetype that was popular during the genre's "golden age" (between World Wars I and II) but was later eclipsed by more cynical and less solvent sleuths. Ethan Black, for instance, has won a following with his multimillionaire Manhattan police detective, Conrad Voort (At Hell's Gate). David Cray's Dead Is Forever introduced Philip Beckett, the black sheep progeny of a wealthy New York clan, who supplements his trust-fund allotments with whatever he can earn as private eye. And Peter Spiegelman's Black Maps (2004) gave us John March, a county sheriff's deputy-turned-gumshoe, whose history as the rebellious offspring of a New York banking dynasty positions him well to probe nefarious doings among Wall Street habitués.
Death's Little Helpers, the second March outing, finds this conscientious and compassionate PI working for Nina Sachs, a prickly Brooklyn artist whose ex-hubby, onetime celebrity stock-market analyst Gregory Danes, has abruptly dropped out of sight, leaving her short of both alimony and child-support payments for their peevish teenage son, Billy. The egomaniacal Danes, who'd helped clients make their fortunes during the booming 1990s, only to then go "from hero to goat overnight" because of a bad call regarding an over-inflated software enterprise, has more than his fair share of enemies. Among them: investors who had trusted his advice; a mistress, Linda Sovitch--"the blond glossy host" of a must-see cable-TV business show--who loved him as long as he could make her look good on the tube; the head legal counsel at Danes's investment firm, who's nervous about a federal investigation and had argued with the analyst just before he vanished; and a smart but pathologically private hedge-fund manager. As March digs deeper into Danes's history and habits, he strikes up a mutually beneficial alliance with a Ukrainian mobster, who already has his hooks deep into Danes's ne'er-do-well brother, and draws unwanted attention from Jeremy Pflug, the unscrupulous owner of a private intelligence service, who thinks nothing about intimidating Marchs family or his girlfriend, "CEO-for-hire" Jane Lu, in order to earn a buck.
Spiegelman knows this territory well (he's a financial-services vet himself), and twists together a hurtling plot that makes clear how short the distance can be between boardroom and gutter. He occasionally over-describes his scenes, sends his protagonist on far too many head-clearing runs around town, and could have done more to make March's fraying relationship with Lu interesting, or at least unusual. However, the author compensates nicely with a textured and emotion-laden portrayal of Billy Danes, a confused boy for whom "the closest thing he has to a grown-up in his life" is Ines Icasa, Nina Sachs's Spanish lover and business associate. Black Maps won a Shamus Award. Death's Little Helpers should win Spiegelman a still wider following. --J. Kingston Pierce
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Shamus-winner Spiegelman's intricate, intelligent second thriller to feature all-too-human New York PI John March (after 2003's Black Maps) explores skulduggery in the world of high finance. Nina Sachs, a high-strung Brooklyn artist, hires March to find her missing ex-husband, Gregory Danes, an arrogant stock analyst who became a media star during the last bull market. Sachs hates Danes, but he's the father of their teenage son and her primary money supply (alimony, child support). March uncovers a huge list of potential enemies: investors burned by Danes, a vindictive ex-mistress, a scary Russian mobster and a reclusive hedge fund manager. That someone else is also looking for Danes—someone with the resources to surveil March, his girlfriend and his extended family—adds to the suspense. Spiegelman makes all the details ring true, and his fine prose can be lyrical (a spring rain gives Manhattan "a scrubbed, surprised look, like a drunk, waking up sober and in his own bed for the first time in a long time"). While the determined March has the requisite grit, he is also appealingly vulnerable and introspective. If it's hard to care too much about the victim, Spiegelman makes the search extremely compelling.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Although this second book in the series also involves a prominent Wall Street figure, the emphasis is far less on the financial crime and more on what happens when a member of the family disappears without explanation.
The novel is paced well, more evenly than the first book. March's love interest is realized finally in this novel and the chemistry between the characters is much better. Spiegelman also allows the action to spill out of New York City, and his portrays of rural massachsetts ring true to those of us who know the area.
I was concerned that Spiegelman would stay in a Wall Street rut after the success of Black Maps. Thanksfully, he took a chance and the readers will reap the benefit.
First, I found March to be seriously irritating. Despite his constant movement, he struck me as basically passive; I kept wanting to say something like "get over it". Of course, this criticism is also a testimonial at how well Mr. Spiegelman delineated his character, I lose interest in a well written character who makes me impatient. The same can be said for March's girlfriend, Jane. Moving on...March's client is so dislikeable that I was constantly wondering why March was still working on the project, even after she fires him AND he understands that the case may be endangering people dear to him (I understand persistence, but to continue when your loved ones are threatened with physical harm, and the case is hardly of earthshattering importance anyway?) One of the consequences for me of this disbelief and irritation was that I didn't care who or what was responsible - I just lost interest. Some of this may also be attributable to the fact that the usual clue to clue journey of the detective structure was mostly missing. Instead, it was a lot of dead ends and a Big Revelation.
John March has a trust fund from Klein & Sons, the financial institution in New York City that is owned and managed by his uncles and siblings. John is the family disappointment. Instead of being a banker, he went upstate to be a deputy sheriff for several years and then returned to the city to be a one-man PI agency.
John's only client in this story is Nina Sachs, who lives in a NYC loft with her twelve year old son ann Ines, her lesbian partner of Spanish origin. Ines owns three art galleries and Nina is a rather successful painter. Nevertheless, Nina depends on alimony and child support payments from her ex, Gregory Danes, and Greg has gone missing.
Danes is a wealthy security analyst who was a hot shot in the nineties before his ego got him in trouble. Although he is struggling to recoup his reputation, he suddenly takes a three week vacation from which he has not returned. Nina hires John to find him.
John soon learns that Danes, with his abrasive personality, has few friends, not even a current girlfriend, but there are many disgruntled investors and associates. Some are anxious to contact Danes while others hope he never returns. After a couple days on the case, John discovers someone else is intently looking for Danes and they seem to be several steps ahead of him.
Before becoming an author, Peter Spiegelman worked for over twenty years in financial services in New York City. He deftly sketches the changing dynamics of the dot.com securities boom and bust and then draws recognizable character types in a clear and reasonable plot. John March's rational and methodical sleuthing, and his reliance on subcontracted investigators, also helps to make the story believable.
The Amazon.com review mentions that the author "occasionally over-describes his scenes." I'd say he ALWAYS over-describes them. I learned to speed read through settings until the story resumed. Otherwise, it is well written. There is not much blood and violence or abrupt plot twists and turns, even at the end. This is not a thriller. DEATH'S LITTLE HELPERS is mystery suspense at its best.