After a harrowing conclusion in Pintoff’s last novel (In the Shadow of Gotham), Detective Simon Ziele returns to join forces with Captain Declan Mulvaney in this new endeavor, the repercussions of the tragedy of the General Slocum ferry disaster still fresh, including the death of Ziele’s fiancé on the ferry. Now it is 1904, and while Mulvaney continues to fight crime in New York City, Ziele has retreated to a quieter community. Yet with two eerily similar murders in local theaters, Mulvaney once again requests Ziele’s aid. Mulvaney intuitively trusts the detective’s unique talents in an era of criminal investigation that is undergoing a burst of innovation, from fingerprinting to a serious consideration of the psychological components of criminal personalities.
When the first two chorus girls are murdered, their corpses dressed in the costumes of prominent stage actresses, there are no indications as to the manner of death. The detectives are further challenged by letters left near the bodies - clearly the work of a man who derives no little pleasure from outwitting, even taunting the police. While criminal investigation in the early 20th century is far more primitive than today’s sophisticated tools, it is fascinating to watch Mulvaney and Zeile combine resources to identify a killer who clearly has more victims in mind: “If you understand how the mind works… you can better predict the behavior that follows.”
The investigation is further complicated when a newspaper becomes involved. After receiving a letter from the serial killer, the newspaper demands to be included in the investigation, unwilling to forego the sensational headlines and increased circulation from their participation. When Zeile turns once again to the expertise of Alistair Sinclair, a law professor and criminologist, it is because he believes Sinclair is onto something important in linking criminal behavior and motivation.
Renewed communication with Sinclair also brings Zeile once more into the orbit of the professor’s widowed daughter-in-law, Isabelle, a young lady of singular charms and an incisive mind. Isabella is more than willing to help out in any way she can, whether doing research for Simon or helping the professor.
Pintoff perfectly captures the frustration of police on the trail of a clever serial killer, the risk of too may insiders and the interactions between Mulvaney (who is now more conservative in his approach) and Simon, who is more inclined to follow his instincts and trust the professor’s techniques. There is also the problem of Sinclair’s motives when scientific progress is at stake. When Zeile’s father suddenly steps out of the past and into the present, the recipe for drama escalates.
Simon Zeile is a sympathetic character, practicing his craft in an era of investigative innovation, the categorizing of information that will aid law enforcement in solving the most heinous of crimes. As the murders begin in the theater, so do they end, the stage a perfect venue for this deadly drama. Tempered by time and loss, Zeile’s world-weary demeanor is that of a man burdened by what he has experienced, the prototypical good man determined to protect the innocent from a venal killer.