NOVEMBER 26, 2014
GOOD MYSTERY SERIES create familiarity. I recently binged on Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, mystery stories so solidly set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec that I actually jumped in my car and drove up from Boston in search of the fictional Three Pines (a town of such beauty and peace, it’s almost easy to overlook the annual murders that keep the series going). And what devotee of Sue Grafton hasn’t wanted to pop by Henry Pitts’s kitchen in the tranquil (though equally dangerous) Santa Teresa, California? It’s an even bigger challenge to take a real place, a gritty place, and create a fictional setting around it, like Linda Barnes does so successfully with the changing streets of Boston in her Carlotta Carlyle series, or Tana French does with Dublin. The author of a good series grounds the reader in detail and the senses, revealing just enough information as the series unfolds to keep the new new and the familiar familiar, while inhabiting the setting with the idiosyncrasy of real life and changing times.
Thus I was pleased to learn that one of my favorite small cities, Providence, Rhode Island, was the setting for J.J. Partridge’s Algy Temple series. Quirky Providence is home to, among other things, Brown University, a vibrant Italian-American community, New York System wieners, coffee milk, and one of the most delightfully corrupt local governments in America. This is a town whose famously charismatic mayor, Buddy Cianci, was forced to resign from office not once, but twice, due to federal convictions. The second conviction for racketeering in 2002 resulted in a five-year prison sentence. (He served the sentence and just ran for mayor of Providence for the third time. You can’t make this stuff up!) Of course Cianci is also credited by many with overseeing the city’s remarkable economic turnaround of the last 40 years, transforming a once desolate downtown into a vibrant, tourist-friendly community with arts events and plenty of green space. Yet Providence still struggles with class tensions, a familiar problem for many college towns.
Enter Algy Temple, general counsel for Brown’s fictional stand-in, Carter University.
Author J.J. Partridge first introduced us to Algy nearly a decade ago in Carom Shot. In that book, we saw Algy deal with the day-to-day challenges of working at a prominent university in a small and corrupt town. Carom Shot was particularly successful because Partridge wove together a number of strands involving the inner politics of academia and the frictions that the very existence of a university like Carter creates in a community like Providence. It didn’t hurt that Algy was not only uber-wealthy and connected, particularly through his East Side, patrician, and decidedly liberal mother, but was also a man of the people, one who could shoot a game of pool in the dumpiest locations. He could go anywhere he liked and observe anything. The novel featured a mayoral stand-in for Cianci, and all the fun and dirty players you’d expect to come along for the ride. Its storyline involved a campus stalker (unfortunately dubbed The Stalker) targeting black women on campus, though the central mystery was whether The Stalker was also responsible for the murder of a white female student, Annie Sullivan, the daughter of a local police officer. Partridge does a more than capable job of introducing the various parts of Algy’s world, including his privileged family history, his girlfriend, Nadie, his skill with a cue stick, and some of the key characters who will play a part in the ongoing series.
The main tension in Carom Shot comes from the interplay between the local Providence police department and Carter campus policies, particularly around security, and who is responsible when trouble arrives. In the course of his investigation, Algy uncovers enough lurid secrets about Sullivan to almost excuse a few too many red herrings. The second book in the series, Straight Pool, opens up the landscape by moving the action to the coastal Rhode Island town of Westerly, and continues to explore the themes of political connectedness and class.
This brings us to Scratched, the third book in the series, where we return to Providence, politics, and the schisms that divide people. This time the story opens up during the WaterFire festival — one of the high points of the new downtown Providence arts scene. WaterFire is a series of popular summer events held on the rivers in downtown Providence. At this particular WaterFire, the body of Italo Palagi, the director emeritus of Carter University’s Institute of Italian Studies, is found floating in the Providence River. Palagi and the institute he ran play an important role in the strained relationship between Carter University and the local Italian-American community. At first his death is ruled an accident, but an acquaintance of Algy’s, retired state police detective Benno Bacigualupi, piques Algy’s interest and casts doubt on the police investigation. Algy already has a vested interest in Palagi’s death. Not only did Algy’s mother provide the funding for Palagi’s institute, helping to forge a tenuous bond between the university and the Italian-American community, but Palagi also bequeathed his estate to that institute. His will, however, is being contested by a long-lost son, and it’s in the best interest of the university to protect their financial stake. Suffice it to say that soon Algy is off, investigating Palagi’s suspicious death while defending the university’s financial interests.
Providence is a fascinating place, and Partridge is good at picking out what makes it special and unique. He grounds the reader in specifics — Al Forno Restaurant, Thayer Street, the convention center — so that anyone who’s ever been to the city can feel it unfold. At the same time, he doesn’t overwhelm the uninitiated. He also knows his stuff when it comes to the law, particularly (and impressively) around Italian probate law, and campus life. He draws us into the powerful politics that can fuel a university, and usually peppers the story with just enough detail. Anyone who has stayed up late watching nine-ball on TV will appreciate visiting The Shootout Tournament, a plot involving an amateur competition, gambling, and organized crime so detailed it could (and maybe should) have been its own novel.
But above all, Providence, or at least the Providence created in these pages, is a series of schisms — between the rich and the poor, between the connected and the forgotten, between the law-abiding and the criminal — and Partridge’s greatest strength is his ability to show the effect those schisms have on a community. The book, and this series, is about class as much as it is about murder, though setting much of the plot against the Institute of Italian Studies was an interesting choice, and one that ultimately wasn’t quite as successful as the police tension in Carom Shot. It’s simply hard to care that much about whether an elite institute at an elite university gets funding to survive.
Partridge stumbles a bit on plotting in this installment. This is a complicated story, and the characters and subplots are many and confusing. There is a Ponzi scheme involving a man named Bernie (not Madoff); the city-wide pool tournament involving an entirely unrelated and murky cast of characters; a drawn-out brouhaha over Carter University’s renaming of Columbus Day that’s somewhat reminiscent of the Sopranos’ episode “Christopher” (much like while watching that episode, I waded through the pages of this storyline surprised that anyone could possibly care this deeply about a college policy on a minor holiday); Algy’s bailout of a line of funeral homes caught up in a accounting fraud; a random visit from Algy’s ex-wife; a trip to a remote Italian village; and (deep breath) the murder of Italo Palagi, which takes up much less of the plot than it probably should and gets summed up too neatly in the end.
As for character development, I found myself wishing that Partridge spent more time reintroducing the reader to characters from the previous novels, and reading the series in order might help with the large and diverse cast. The first time I read through the book I had to keep a character log just to remember who was who. For example, Algy’s fiancée, Nadie, was barely on the page, and when she was, I found her annoying. She displayed an odd and unattractive obsession with Algy’s mostly absent ex-wife in a way that made me question Algy’s judgment in staying with her. Nadie plays a much more prominent role in the previous Carom Shot, though, where she comes across as a more independent and sympathetic character.
Speaking of women, Scratched is not at any risk of passing the Bechdel test, which surprised me since women played a much stronger role in the previous novels. This novel embodies a world of men, and those men drive nearly all the important action in the story. So, wasn’t I pleased when the best twist, the best character, the best storyline popped up in the penultimate chapter, and involved a minor character — I won’t spoil it with her name — who’d barely appeared in the story till then. What she reveals could have been its own story, and it would have been a page-turner. She won’t make it to the fourth in this series, but let’s hope her spirit does.
So Scratched wasn’t perfect, but it was thoroughly enjoyable. Algy is a character I want to get to know better, and one I’d be willing to stick with again. The characters surrounding him have even more potential. I’m looking forward to returning to Providence, and particularly to Partridge’s Providence, as the setting grows even more familiar and true.