Skip to main content

Wisecracks and Cold Cases

Tue, 06/06/2023 - 18:57
Susan Isaacs
Linda Nutter

“Bad, Bad Seymour Brown”
Susan Isaacs
Atlantic Monthly Press, $28

April Brown, a professor of film studies at Rutgers University who's the target of an attempted hit-and-run on her way to class, seemed to be "a perfect person — intelligent, down-to-earth, sane, considerate, totally pleasant . . . she was not only a survivor, she seemed like a good soul."

So who would want to kill her?

As it turns out, any number of her awfully nasty, awfully rich father's awful hoodlum clients — not to mention his chauffeur, poor blinded-by-love Toddy; his longtime girlfriend, Luisa; his partner/helper/enforcer, Hose Williams; maybe even a former student who tells April he's been thinking about her. 

The motive? Money, of course, every time. And who's the only one who might know where Seymour Brown — money launderer to the Russian Mafia, "the worst of the worst" — hid it? His daughter, April, the only person in his rotten life he really cared for. But then, wouldn't she be more use alive than dead? 

Enter Corie Geller, onetime F.B.I. agent, and her police detective dad, Dan Schottland, who was on the job the night a raging fire (gas fumes all over the place — arson) killed April's parents, Seymour and his mousy wife, Kim. Detective Dan never did find whodunit, and now, 20 years later, retired and bored to bits, he's still haunted by this coldest of cold cases. Missing work so much that he spends most of his days with the cops on Netflix and Amazon Prime, he is beyond thrilled when April tracks him down to say she's "a little involved in a criminal matter."

Corie, who's almost as sick of their quiet life in a Long Island suburb as her dad, teams up with him to take on April's case, and in a North Shore minute "a little involved" turns into a big, fast-moving mystery that manages to be both scary and wildly funny at the same time, with characters who stay with you long after you're done reading. Susan Isaacs's legion of fans will recognize the "Shorehaven" village setting — somewhere near Sands Point, say, where the author herself lives. They'll also appreciate the endearing ethnic sensibility that she's known for. 

"I came from such an assimilated family," Ms. Isaacs once wrote, "that our clam chowder was Campbell's." (That was in a piece called "Don't Know Much About Semitism," in The Forward, whose motto is "News That Matters to American Jews.")

As an NPR reviewer put it, "Jane Austen with a schmear." 

Her convincing characters and cunning plot occasionally vie with each other for the reader's attention, but a series of coincidences work to the advantage of both. Father and daughter, for example, off to Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn to check out the site of the decades-old fire, aren't surprised to discover a McMansion on the lot. Out from Hacienda Hideous comes the owner — a podiatrist, name of Moscowitz (Sean Moscowitz, what else) — who, lo and behold, remembers having a patient who knew Seymour's forgettable little wife. 

"Do you happen to recall her last name?"

"Of course. She comes every three months, like clockwork. Sobol. S-o-b-o-l."

And we're off to the races. Along the way we kind of lose track of rotten old Seymour, but that's okay, because everybody else in this book is either lovable or comical or villainous themselves.

April, remember, is a professor of cinema studies (her earrings are all film-themed, like a pair of green ones with ruby slippers dangling down), and there are many intriguing references to old movies that might send you, too, back to Netflix. So far I've rewatched "The Sting," in which Robert Redford sleeps with a waitress who, Corie remarks, is "a homelier woman than you might think, for Robert Redford," and also the 1930s film "Stella Dallas," wherein there's a great big clue to our arsonist, if you only knew at the beginning of the book what you know two-thirds through. (I take that back. You still won't know.)

The wisecracks throughout "Bad, Bad" are many; there's a chortle lurking on every third page. ("I had blue eyes, but compared with hers, mine were more the color of the sky on a morning that dawned with warnings about air quality.") They add to the fun, not speeding the action but never stopping it. This is a mystery, after all, not "Can You Top This?" and like every first-rate mystery, it's got a you'll-never-guess-it denouement. 

"Bad, Bad Seymour Brown" is the second book in what the author has promised will be a series with the same Long Island setting. Sprinkled throughout are references to the prequel, in which Corie was kidnapped and maybe abused ("the smell of sawdust brought back the attic where I was held"); she now suffers bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder. I ordered the first book, "It Takes One to Know One," about an hour after finishing "Seymour," and can report that it's scarier, but just as snarkily entertaining. 

Oh, and speaking of a series and of Seymour, about whom we know so little. "Curiously, there was a six-year difference between the birth date on Seymour's driver's license and the one on his CPA license with New York State." Sounds like we might see more of bad, bad Seymour Brown. Good, good! 

Susan Isaacs used to own a house in Bridgehampton.

Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.