Book Review: The Art of Violence by S. J. Rozan

In the latest mystery from S. J. Rozan, Bill Smith and Lydia Chin must track down a serial killer stalking women in New York's contemporary art scene.

The Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series is one I’ve been meaning to read for ages (the first book in the series has been languishing in my TBR pile for far too long) so I was thrilled to have this latest installment land on my desk for immediate review. Told entirely from the perspective of Smith, The Art of Violence begins when a former client hires the private investigator for an unusual case.

Around five years ago, Sam Tabor went to jail for the murder of a pretty blonde co-worker after unwittingly ingesting PCP. Smith had been part of the legal team who thought they had a decent shot at getting him off with a temporary insanity defense, but troubled, stubborn Sam had insisted on taking a plea deal that earned him fifteen to life instead. While imprisoned, Sam’s artistic talent was discovered by a therapist who sent off his work, without his knowledge, to a gallerist, resulting in a high-powered and moneyed art world campaign to free him. Now Sam is out of the correctional system, but feels even more trapped than before in a world he doesn’t like and doesn’t know how to handle.

Worse still, he suspects that he’s started to kill again.

When he shows up at Smith’s doorstep, begging Smith to investigate the murders he’s convinced he’s perpetrated, Smith’s first instinct is to assure him that he’s no killer. Sam is quite adamant otherwise:

“No, the point is, I stabbed Amy seven billion times!”


“When you were high on a drug you didn’t know you’d taken.”


“Eleven other people drank that punch. None of them killed anyone.”


“Two were hospitalized with hallucinations.”


“For fuck’s sake! They didn’t kill anyone. A jury might have bought the idea I was temporarily out of my mind, but the point, like you say, the point is, I really am out of my mind. The thing about temporary insanity is, it’s temporary. They let you out when you get sane. Which I will never be, never, never, Smith, never!”

Smith reluctantly agrees to definitively prove either Sam’s innocence or, preferably to Sam, guilt. Smith’s efforts bring him in contact with cynical cops, scheming artists, and the rest of Sam’s dysfunctional family as he tries to get to the bottom of the killings of women with an unfortunate resemblance to poor dead Amy. But the more Smith becomes convinced of Sam’s innocence, the more he starts to believe that someone connected to Sam actually is responsible for these egregious acts of violence.

Lydia, Smith’s partner in both business and romance, is on hand for her fair share of the investigations, playing to her strengths in their usual good cop, bad cop dynamic, as much as her disapproving mother will allow, of course. Mrs. Chin herself plays a pivotal role in solving this clever, complicated case of multiple murders that certainly had me guessing till the very end.

S. J. Rozan knows how to write an absorbing, fast-paced puzzle of a mystery, with excellent characterizations and dialog that feels more recorded than created. I was also impressed with her ability to take on one of the most daunting tasks of any prose writer: the accurate yet evocative description of art. Unsurprisingly, the connection between art and violence plays a large part in the proceedings here, and Ms. Rozan perfectly captures the good, bad, ugly, and banal of the artworks Smith comes across while investigating in Sam’s artistic milieu:

For all the crowded chaos in her studio and all her radiating, full-flood fury, the works-in-progress on Cromley’s easels appeared to me desiccated, spiritless. All larger-than-life heads of women, they stared straight ahead out of the canvas without emotion. Cromley’s style was realistic and carefully delineated, the photos she was working from pinned to the side of the easel. Her colors were off, in a way that should have been engaging: all a couple of ticks along the color wheel, so they were wrong, but balanced. But nothing about these paintings invited the viewer. They were distant, stifled, theoretical. A thought about the picture, it seemed to me, not the thing itself.

With terrific plotting and prose, The Art of Violence is a great read, accessible enough even for readers like me, who haven’t had any prior experience with its predecessors. This lively installment has definitely catapulted the entire series up my To-Read list. If the other novels are anything like this one, I’m in for a wealth of one of my favorite kinds of story: intelligent, elegantly written, and entirely convincing modern-day mysteries.


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