Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Outstanding New Thriller Launches New Series from Michael Sears, TOWER OF BABEL

Move over, Brooklyn—the newest New York City borough to get thriller setting status just became Queens, in the fast-paced and delightful launch of a new series from award-winning ex-Wall Street author Michael Sears.

Sears's expertise in financial surprises grounds the livelihood of fallen-from-grace lawyer Ted Molloy. With his not very charming research partner Richie Rubiano, Ted locates forgotten funds left over from real estate foreclosures and takes a finder's share as he helps the rightful owners grab hold. It's legal, but not necessarily attractive ... in fact, Ted's something of a bottom feeder.

But that's no reason for someone to kill his research assistant, is it? Detective Duran brings him the grim news, of course suspecting Ted has a role in the murder:

"Would you be willing to come down and give a statement?" Detective Duran managed to make the request sound casual.

Sirens and flashing lights went off in Ted's head. The shark was inviting him home for dinner. "Only with my lawyer present. And that would cost me money, and you would learn nothing that might be of use to you."

Ted noted the feeble attempt at inducing guilt and ignored it. Bitterness had long replaced guilt as a motivating factor in his life. But people he knew were not murdered. He felt himself being pulled in despite misgivings.

If there was any chance that Richie had stirred up some hornet's nest by looking into the old lady's surplus money, there was also a chance of that trouble leading back to Molloy Partners.

The first few chapters of TOWER OF BABEL read like classic noir: disgraced former law partner type, plenty of drinking, threats and darkness. But that's a feint, an East River tunnel sort of entry into a classic moral jeopardy and friends-at-risk kind of mystery. Besides the vivid portrait Sears provides of Queens, in its gritty multiethnic glory, the characters shape the force of the book:

There's Lester, the conveniently appearing new assistant, ready to pick up where Richie left off, for a share of the money. The Preacher, a street minister as poor as his flock, but with a magnetic appeal and willing to open doors when Ted needs to dodge through them. And Kenzie, fighting against developers to sustain the neighborhood and laying an indefatigable guilt trip on Ted when he tries to slip out of the net of obligations that Richie's widow enforces through death threats and more.

Adding extra layers of stress and motive is the presence of Ted's needy ex-wife, Jill, now married to cutthroat attorney Jacqueline, who hates Ted passionately. And of course there are Jill's family members, still willing to do Ted a bad turn after all this time. 

Ted imagined calling Jacqueline Clavette and begging to dig through her files. "Not gonna happen."

"So, what will you do?"

He weighed the question. He owned no one a thing. Not [Richie's widow] Cheryl, not the cop, and not Richie. He could walk away and feel no responsibility. That was the smart move. But someone had taken a big chance just to hide information. He had a strong urge to kick the hornet's nest.

"We follow the money."

This enjoyable thriller's only weak spot is the use of Russian mobsters as the ultimate threat, a trope that's a tad overused lately. Yet Sears can write a fight scene so vividly and precisely that the stereotypical bad guys are just as caught up in the detailed portrayals, and easy enough to accept (maybe with a wince on the side), as the layers of crime get peeled back.

Sardonic wit, quaint café; high-stakes conspiracy, neighborhood loyalties; TOWER OF BABEL speaks all those dialects, one after another, against an urban setting well worth the visit. Grab a copy, turn off the phone ringer, and settle in for a page-turner that promises lively sequels to follow. From Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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