Nightwatcher

Wendy Corsi Staub
September 2012, Suspense
Harper, $7.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0062070282

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Subtle

Most of us remember September 11, 2001. We know where we were when we found out what had happened. We probably remember days of being glued to the TV, watching updates. No doubt many on the East Coast remember spending at least some of their time being deeply concerned about a second attack. It's hard to think of people experiencing personal tragedies during that time but many did. Even in New York, bad things happened which were completely unrelated to the Towers.

Allison Taylor adores life in the hustle and bustle of New York City. She especially loves that it is a live-and-let-live environment. Her early years in a small town have forever turned her against busybodies who mean well but are always in your business. Here, in the glamour and glitz of the big city you could reinvent yourself into whoever you wanted to be. She has done just that, going from local charity case to gorgeous, stylishly dressed fashion editor of 7th Avenue magazine. She has kept her connections loose, New York City-style; friendly, but not friends, with the people with whom she works and her fellow daily grinders in her apartment building. All but Kristina, a long term neighbor who has moved from casual acquaintance to spare key holding buddy. As Kristina says, anything can happen in New York. And for Allison, that anything has been very good.

The morning of September 11 changes all that. Along with the rest of New York, Allison watches what happens in absolute horror. Most of the people she knows have lost someone to the attacks and their aftermath. Everyone is reaching out to each other for comfort. She is proud of her city as people stretch a helping hand out to those in need. One of those people in need is neighbor James "Mack" Mackenna, whose wife worked in an investment firm at the top of one of the towers. Allison tries to help Mack find his wife by taking over some of the responsibility of posting flyers and by trying to take care of him. She can't do much, but making sure he eats and sleeps feels like a step in the right direction. Yet even as she works, she worries. She has been unable to reach Kristina. Does that mean her friend got caught up in the mess at Ground Zero? Or did she simply flee the city? Allison waits a few days for contact and then uses Kristina's spare key to enter her apartment. She is stunned to find Kristina murdered.

Detective Rocky Manzillo is stunned as well. Crime has been way down in New York while the city pulled together in the aftermath but it appears that at least one killer refuses to take a break. When the second body is found he grows even more concerned. Clearly whatever control the killer had over his impulses has been destroyed by the recent tragedy. He knows he is racing the clock; the killer took two prizes from Kristina's apartment and one of them is Allison's key. He also knows Allison is the only witness he has who might possibly hold the secret to who the killer is. The crime labs are backed up with the tragedy. The department is stretched thin as it tries to do too much with too little. It will be up to Allison, Mack and Rocky to use old-fashioned foot power to beat this killer at his game in the ruins of catastrophe.

Rocky, Allison and Mack gave me the chance to see New York through the eyes of its inhabitants in those long, frightening days following 9/11. The food shortages, the relocations, the general panic were all things I did not experience in my own area. I really appreciated the insight into the varying viewpoints of New Yorkers, from the store clerk who tells Allison that they had it coming, to the police officers and fire fighters who cried openly in the streets over their losses. Equally terrific was hearing about the difficulties of crime solving under catastrophic circumstances. Modern forensics depends so much on the ability to access records of all kinds and to utilize technicians and labs of all sorts. It would have been odd indeed to find yourself suddenly back to depending solely on witnesses and visual clues, calling in favors for things that would have been done automatically just days before.

I also appreciated the inside look at how it worked when someone was missing. Watching Mack as he struggled with the most likely outcome of his hard work was touching. The best part was that he did not have a perfect relationship with his wife and was guilt ridden even as he did everything in his power to find her. Mixed in with his personal tragedy was the sheer, overwhelming factor of what had occurred. Mack is aware that he is one of thousands that are struggling and suffering. This staggers him as he is forced to experience first hand the sheer scope of what happened. There are poignant moments involving Allison and Rocky as well, which hammer home to us just how many were affected.

If my emphasis seems to be on plot over characterization it is because the book was as well. We are introduced to the characters and given some background but primarily we are immersed in events rather than the protagonists. The most poignant scenes revolve around September 11 but the purpose of those scenes is to show us New York in the aftermath, not our specific characters in the aftermath. What was happening to Mack was happening to many, many others. I know Allison is beautiful and loves fashion, I even know why she loves fashion, but I just didn't get a strong feel for her in other ways. At the end of the novel I felt I had just met these characters. Because of our shared adventures there was an illusion of knowledge but nothing to back that up. They felt a bit stock, colored in a bit to give them some life. The real star was the terrorist attack, which lingers menacingly over every page, every encounter, every moment.

Given that fact, it would have been easy for the murder victims to have been lost in the sea of blood that was New York at this time, but the opposite happens. This small, private sorrow serves as a reminder that each person has a story. Unfortunately, the stories were interesting but lacked emotion. Mack had been friends with Kristina but that was swallowed up by the fact that his wife had just been killed in a terrorist attack. Allison was frightened by what happened to her, like any single woman living in an the same apartment where a serial killer had murdered, but she didn't mourn the loss of her friend. Rocky seemed able to treat the crime like it was any other day. Shouldn't he have been traumatized by departmental losses? New York cops tend to be generational, with sons following fathers. Rocky seems to know some of the folks killed but he doesn't seem as deeply affected by it as I would have expected. As a result we have an interesting intellectual mystery with no heart. It did have a nice surprise factor, though. At the start of the novel I thought I had figured everything out and blithely assumed I knew who done it. I was wrong. The novel had a terrific unexpected twist.

While I loved that twist, I should warn you that it means this is not a whole story. The police and others may think everything is resolved but readers know that is not the case. That's OK with me. In spite of its flaws, I enjoyed this book enough that I am interested in reading the next.

-- Maggie Boyd

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