SPHERE 2014 455 pp

Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in the USA and was the first capital of the independent country. It’s well worth a visit, with many historic landmarks, including a superb Irish famine memorial and certainly counts as one of the great American cities. I’ve enjoyed every visit, and have friends there. Yet compared to New York, Chicago or New Orleans (and, indeed others) it features relatively infrequently in fiction, especially crime fiction, with few household names, even though it’s well up there in the murder stats. One of that few is Richard Montanari, an excellent writer of police procedurals He’s now in his sixties and broke into writing in the mid -1990s after a varied career that included a long spell in journalism.

As the name suggests, Montanari is of Italian descent on his father’s side, though, interestingly, his mother was from Estonia. Originally from Cleveland, where his first novels are set, ten years ago he launched a series based in Philadelphia featuring detectives Kevin Byrne ( a veteran cop) and Jessica Balzano (much younger and daughter of a famous Philly cop). Their adventures are set in real time so we see the characters and their families changing and evolving as time passes; Balzano’s daughter, for example, three in the first novel, “The Rosary Girls, ”is now a teenager.

Montanari never disappoints and provides excellent entertainment. “ The Stolen Ones”, published here in 2014, is the seventh in the series, most of which I ‘ve read, and is up to the usual standard. (The eighth, “The Doll Maker” – which I haven’t read – was released earlier this year.) Page turners, certainly, with some well-drawn police characters and some really creepy villains rounded off with clever plots, many with a Catholic religious element, reflecting the makeup of the city’s white blue collar community. The violence, while plentiful, is never gratuitous.

A feature of Montanari’s work is the atmospheric picture of Philadelphia which he weaves. The reader is drawn into the story and feels she knows the gritty environment in which it takes place. Not quite Gothic but getting there. This is no accident. Montanari does considerable research for his books and it shows. In “The Stolen Ones,” central to the action is the network of catacombs under the city, some two hundred years old, up to thirty feet beneath street level and connected by almost three thousand miles of sewers, many navigable by humans. Montanari went there and did that.

Central also to the plot is the Delaware Valley State Hospital, modelled on an actual institution – the Philadelphia State Hospital – a place in the folklore of the city; think Grangegorman in the case of Dublin. Here again Montanari has done his research, not only about the institution and it’s chequered history, but also about lucid dreaming and dream engineering, something central to the plot. Without giving too much away, the story features the investigation of a number of curious but linked murders which eventually point to a perpetrator who has been dead for decades. The how and why are revealed slowly. There’s a link also to Estonia where Montanari again demonstrates the fidelity and thoroughness of his research with up to date and accurate reporting on the minutiae of the structure and organisation of the Estonian police force ( having just written a thriller featuring the Estonian police I can testify to this!).

In a number of frank and interesting interviews with the author on the web he recounts how he came to write, his background, influences on him and his interest in the immigrant experience in the USA, something he will cover in his next book, “Shutter Man,” to be published later this year. He also provides some useful advice to wannabe crime writers – get the pathology of the killer right first and let the plot develop from that.

The book is well worth a read, the author well worth following.



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