Fresh Meat: Fighting Chance by Jane Haddam

Fighting Chance by Jane Haddam is the 29th mystery in the Gregor Demarkian series about the Armenian-American detective (available September 9, 2014).

Gregor Demarkian is in the throes of investigating a bank foreclosure on a house owned by a friend, and for which the bank instituting the foreclosure has no mortgage, when Father Tibor Kasparian is arrested and charged with the bludgeoning death of a judge. Motive? Martha Handler has a reputation for handing out long sentences for petty offenses to juveniles and it is well known that Father Kasparian was trying desperately to prevent the jailing of one of the neighborhood boys.

It looks like an open and shut case.  The priest had been filmed on a cell phone raising and lowering the murder weapon as though bashing in the judge’s head. The video,  of course, goes viral.

But Gregor doesn’t believe the priest is guilty, despite the film. The whole scenario just feels wrong. The “Armenian Hercule Poirot” begins investigating.

Haddam hits all the right notes. The mortgage mess is timely and certainly resonated with me.

“You had a thousand cases where banks tried to foreclose on houses without any mortgages on them at all? None? A thousand cases—”

“I keep trying to tell you,” Carpenter said. “Everybody used to register their deeds and their mortgages at town hall, but back around 2000, people began to feel that was a really old- fashioned and time- consuming way of going about things. You had to hire people to go running all over the country. It could take weeks to get mortgage liens filed. So a group of the bigger banks got together to found an electronic filing database, one big database for the entire country. Which was not entirely stupid, you have to see that—”

“Was it legal?” Gregor asked. “Is it legal?”

Terry Carpenter looked miserable. “We don’t know.”

“You don’t know,” Gregor said. “I’ve got a man with a wife and two small children about to lose his house over a mortgage he never took out, and you don’t know if the way it was filed was legal—”

Another of Haddam’s many strengths is her characters. Even those who are on stage only briefly are so well described they are instantly memorable.  The head of security springs vividly off the page:

His shirt was so tight across his upper body, it looked like his collar was strangling him. Gregor pegged him as someone who would not get up for anything short of a major natural disaster.

Haddam’s trademark touches of humor are clearly on display even in casual descriptions. Some of the descriptions are funny but also accurate.

Gregor picked the thing up and put it down again and picked it up again. It was one of those government agency names that seemed to have been invented by gerbils.

But my favorite part of this mystery is the mystery. Is Father Tibor guilty? Or is this an elaborate frame? Why won’t he speak in his own defense?

The plotting is smooth and seamless. Haddam plays fair – she gives the reader all the clues they need to figure out the solution. But she throws in enough red herrings and misdirection that I never saw the ending coming. In the process, she saves the characters that need saving, punishes the baddies, and ties up all the loose ends, including the mortgage mess, in a twisty shocking finale that kept me up reading until late at night.

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Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition. A career librarian, her most recent historical mystery featuring Will Rees, a Revolutionary War veteran turned weaver is Death of a Dyer. She lives in New York.

Read all posts by Eleanor Kuhns for Criminal Element.

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