Tuesday, December 14, 2010

All is Not Sweet at the 'Sugar Tower'

REVIEW: SUGAR TOWER (Kindle Edition 2010)
AUTHOR: Jessica Dee Rohm

I happened to stumble across this book while reading through one of my email lists. The author was seeking reviews. I was more than willing to pay the $2.99 for the Kindle ebook. Ah, the wonders of serendipity!

SUGAR TOWER is about a female reporter named M. Jesus Piazza. (The M is for Marchesa. Not to be confused with the former New York Mets catcher!) Piazza has spent her life in pursuit of a dream career as an investigative journalist for a first-tier newspaper, only to end up on the New York City real estate beat for a paper a bit lower on the journalistic ladder. She's of a, um, certain age, single (aka, married to her career) and second guessing a lot of her choices. She once had a romantic relationship with her editor with whom she remains friends (naturally) and must also deal with her aging father. And I haven't even told you about the mystery yet!

The mystery revolves around the death of Anabel Sugarman, the wife of a big-time real estate mogul named Barry. Piazza originally covered the case (an apparent accidental drowning in the couple's pool) as part of her work as a real estate reporter. However, Piazza (sensing something much bigger afoot) checks with the medical examiner later and learns Anabel had enough toxin in her system to make her death "officially suspicious."

So, years later and after bending her ex-lover/editor's ear, Piazza is teamed up with the NYPD homicide detective Emilio Urquia on the case. Um, what? Since when do reporters and police team up? Well, apparently, a new task force dedicated to solving cold crimes will stop at nothing to accomplish their mission. Including working with reporters. Okay, then.

Piazza and Urquia seem to have little problem digging right into their task. Barry and Anabel lived in one of the penthouses at the Sugar Tower and, basically, the whole building is full of suspects. Anabel wasn't exactly the nicest person ever. And Sugar Tower is populated with residents who have all sorts of secrets.

Even so, that's not even the best part of the story. What makes this story special is spending time with this protagonist. M. Jesus Piazza has a wonderful way of expressing herself (with lots of parenthetical asides -- funny and otherwise). This is true, whether she's extolling her love-hate relationship with the City of New York or describing a thrilling night at the opera. Piazza is also forced, at one point, to deal with a situation involving her father. One involving tough moral choices. Choices -- there's that word again.

This may be one of the most character-driven mysteries I've ever read. Not that plot is short-changed. Jessica Dee Rohm's ability to weave the character's thoughts and feelings seamlessly into the plot is amazing. Her writing style is smooth and rich with descriptions that swept me away. She also clearly knows her subject: the details of real estate and finance are handled in enough detail to inform the reader without getting too technical.

There's also a funny subplot involving a dog walker and Piazza's dog that figures into the mystery in a way I never saw coming. And even though I knew whodunnit way before Piazza, the real fun was in watching her reason it out.

However, a couple of things that made me go "Hmm?" (other than the reporter-police team concept): (Minor spoiler alert--maybe.) Piazza ends up dating Barry. Um, would a journalist do this? Would a journalist investigating the murder of a woman date her widower? Seriously, is this wise? But, he has an alibi. Well, okay -- I'll look the other way and hum past this one.

The last concern, though, is too big to ignore. The detective has Piazza search Barry's beach house and gather evidence, claiming he never had grounds for a warrant. Er, but if Piazza is working cheek-to-jowl with the police on this, she's acting on their behalf. She's even filling out chain-of-evidence forms. Basically, the cops can't use her to maneuver around Fourth Amendment requirements. Sorry, there's no turning and humming past this one.

But did I enjoy the book, anyway? Yes, absolutely. The story ends with indications of a possible sequel. I, for one, would love to spend more time with M. Jesus Piazza. (Great name, by the way!)

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