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Death's Little Helpers
By Peter Spiegelman
It's frustrating to see a good book diminished by a bland or unconnected title, and Death's Little Helpers, the second novel by New York writer Peter Spiegelman, is just such a book.
Even after 334 pages of vivid writing, meticulous plotting and ever-rising levels of tension, it's not at all clear who the "little helpers" are supposed to be, or why the book's publisher didn't insist on a title worthy of the author, who joined the ranks of mystery writers like Dennis Lehane and Jonathan Kellerman by winning a prize last year from the Private Eye Writers of America for Black Maps, his debut novel.
Like that book, Spiegelman's latest revolves around detective-for-hire John March, a New York City investigator much tougher around the edges than his sizable trust fund and impeccably healthy lifestyle would lead you to think. A running junkie who likes to relax after a long day with a glass of cranberry juice, March also has a penchant for mouthing off to the wrong people and not backing down from a physical confrontation, even when it's clearly going to get in the way of his case.
He's been hired, this time around, by Nina Sachs, the chain-smoking ex-wife of Gregory Danes, a once-influential Wall Street analyst who hasn't been heard from in five weeks. A self-promoting expert on the software industry, Danes's career has been in ruins since the technology bubble burst in the late '90s.
Never an easy man to deal with, Danes only became more impossible after the crash, alienating his few remaining professional allies and personal connections. His ex-wife, living with the couple's son and her female partner, wants March to find her former husband because she hasn't received child support payments since his disappearance.
BACKED UP financially by his own uneasy connection to Wall Street - he's always resisted joining the family banking firm - March is off to investigate the bitter months before Danes's disappearance. Danes's financial services firm is suspiciously unhelpful in the hunt for its missing analyst, and March quickly runs into trouble with the company's legal adviser, a posturing, high-strung man of the sort that clearly irritated Spiegelman to no end during his own days on Wall Street. (The book jacket calls the author a "veteran" of more than two decades in finance and the software industry.)
March's formidable ability to belittle his foes is amusingly portrayed in his first run-in with the lawyer, who only grows angrier as the private eye skewers his pompousness and transparent evasions.
More helpful - after some patient nudging and a few beers at the neighborhood bar - is Irene Pratt, a former associate of Danes who took over most of his duties following his disappearance. More glamorous but less cooperative is Linda Sovitch, the attractive blonde anchor on the Business News Network who may have had an affair with Danes, a frequent guest before his fall from professional grace.
Even with its engaging plot line and main character, Death's Little Helpers is ultimately set apart by characters like these, who give a sense of the contradictions and complexities seemingly built into the world of corporate finance. Never preachy or overly digressive, the book is at times a fascinating collection of insights about the financial industry, revealed to readers through colorful dialogue and characters' potential motives for harming Danes or covering up whatever happened to him.
Death's Little Helpers doesn't prepare its readers for a career on Wall Street, but the distrusting men and women who inhabit its pages do deepen the non-expert's understanding of the finance industry, and the ways in which the profession is distorted by a shallow and sensationalistic media.
A MYSTERY novel that's also an analysis of the dot-com bubble and Enron, Death's Little Helpers manages to be fair and insightful about the real world even as it focuses on the fictional disappearance at its center.
Ultimately, of course, the book relies on Spiegelman's ability to maintain interest in March and the man he's searching for. The author succeeds easily. It takes serious self-discipline not to flip ahead to see what really happened to Danes - much of the novel's fascination comes from the fact that, unlike in most mysteries, the reader doesn't even have a body to work with. It's unlikely, but the possibility is kept open that Danes simply ditched an unrewarding personal life for a fresh start somewhere new.
One of the few things that's not in doubt, however, is that another team of private investigators is looking for Danes, and their search is driven by motives a whole lot more menacing than missing child support payments. March discovers them first, and trouble is in store when they learn about him.
Spiegelman raises a number of tantalizing explanations for Danes's disappearance during the course of the book, but while plausible and unexpected, the conclusion feels somewhat unsatisfying, a side-stepping of many of the possibilities that came before. Nevertheless, Spiegelman pulls no cheap tricks in revealing what ultimately happened to Danes, and the suspense itself makes the wait worthwhile.
Readers can only hope the next John March book will be filled with such intriguing characters and background information - and that its title has something a little more connected with its compelling contents.