Review: Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin

Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin is the 4th book in the Ellie Stone Mystery series, nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

My interest was piqued. Why no swimming trunks? Why not remove the watch? Who were these two men, and why had they fallen to their deaths together?

“When did you find them?” I asked Terwilliger, rewinding my third roll of film.

“It wasn't me. A vacationer and his son were in a boat, fishing out there,” he said, pointing to the water beyond the cove. “They heard a yell and looked over here just in time to see one of them dive off the cliff. That was about two hours ago now.”

“Who put the tarps over the bodies?”

“You sure ask a lot of questions,” he said. “I did. The guy and his son showed up at the station to report what they saw, and I came out here right away to have a look.”

“So they saw him hit the ground?”

Terwilliger shook his head. “The rocks block the view.”

“Then how did they know he missed the water?” I asked.

He curled his lip. “No splash. And they heard the splat on the rocks.” He paused, seemingly picturing something in his head. “Probably took a second or two for the sound to reach them out on the water.”

I felt green.

The last week of August, 1961, proves to be an eventful one for reporter Ellie Stone. No sooner has she arrived in the Adirondacks to reconnect with her Aunt Lena and elderly Cousin Max—some of the only family she has left—before she hears that a convicted murderer has escaped and may be hiding in the local woods.

Just how you want every vacation to start, right?

Despite the urban legend-style opener, Heart of Stone isn't a slasher flick starring a number of disposable, randy co-eds. Heroine and narrator Ellie finds more pressing things to worry about than a prison escapee (who may have already high-tailed it for Canada or Mexico). The day after her arrival, a pair of bodies are found at the base of a cliff; the chief of police asserts the deaths were accidental, the result of badly timed jumps off a ledge renowned as a challenging dive.

 But Ellie—brought into the situation thanks to her skills with a camera and the Chief's need for photos of the scene—isn't so convinced. One of the victims was a thirty-something man who was obviously wealthy, judging by his fine watch and appearance. The second was a mere teenager, a boy from a nearby music camp. The teen was fully clothed, while the man was wearing boxers. Why on earth would either of them attempt the jump without swimming trunks? How did two such disparate, seemingly unconnected people come to die at the same time, at the same place?

There was nothing to see here. I drew a deep breath of clean Adirondack air and looked to the east, past the cove to the lake. Chief Terwilliger had said that his witnesses didn't see the bodies hit the ground. I could see the surface of the lake, of course, but there were plenty of high rocks guarding the entrance to the cove that would have blocked most views from the other side. It all made sense. I shrugged. So why was I on the beach searching for odds and ends? Just another manifestation of my obsession to finish things off? Most certainly. I should give it up, but I knew I was determined to keep scratching until something bled.

While she digs further into the strange scenario, Ellie reconnects with a group of Jewish vacationers at the nearby Arcadia Lodge—men and women she remembers from the summers of her childhood. One young man in particular inspires more sparks than simple nostalgia, and our narrator is quickly caught up in a passionate whirlwind romance. It's the Sixties, and Ellie is a modern girl—there's no harm in that.

Until she finds links between the dead men and Arcadia—links that may involve musicians, Communism, swingers, conflicts of religion, anti-Semitism, and multiple affairs. It seems no one is being completely truthful with the reporter, and by the end of her 4th mystery it's not just her life but also her heart that's on the line.

Ziskin's characters are vivid and intriguing—from the skinny-dipping Aunt Lena to the loquacious Cousin Max; from the lascivious Lucia to the passionate performers and political idealists at Arcadia—and the plot's pace is a fast one, carrying us swiftly through a very eventful week.

Ellie's revelations certainly keep us on our toes, winding through various motives and suspects before landing on the true and very surprising culprit. With heaping doses of religious conflict, sex, and commentary on classical music, Heart of Stone is a heady stew of simmering resentments and themes.

Those who are already fans of the intrepid Ms. Stone won't be disappointed with this installment, which transports the modern city girl to a rustic locale rife with atmosphere and nostalgia. Ziskin pulls no punches with the action-packed conclusion and ties everything up in a rather neat bow, leaving a clean slate for Ellie's next adventure.


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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.


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