A novel that suggests a fictional resolution to a historical mystery.
The disappearance of New York’s Judge Joe Crater in 1930 sparked speculation for decades that has never completely dissipated. After a restaurant dinner one evening, he stepped into a taxi and was never seen again. Was he a murder victim, silenced because he was about to expose the corruption that had bought his appointment? Was he a possible embarrassment who could derail the presidential ambitions of New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt? Was he a womanizer who fell afoul of a spurned lover or perhaps a lover’s mate? Maybe there was even someone who had designs on Crater’s wife and wanted him out of the way. Or perhaps he vanished for reasons of his own. All of these explanations are possible, some even plausible, within the fourth novel by Quinn (Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America, 2007, etc.), a former New York publishing executive and political speechwriter. Though the author plainly knows the lay of the land through experience and research, the framing seems overcomplicated. The novel takes place on the 25th anniversary of the judge’s disappearance, when a Rupert Murdoch–like journalism mogul hires detective Fintan Dunne (from Quinn’s Hour of the Cat, 2005) to reopen the case. The publisher’s heavily bankrolled interest seems something of a mystery to both the detective, who had been uneasily retired, and the reader. The judge never makes an appearance in the novel, except through the recollection of others, and almost all of the characters are fictional, with the notable exception of the judge’s wife (or widow). “As long as people are interested in sex, crime, politics and the big city, Crater will continue to be of interest,” explains an “Author’s Note.” But since the detective doesn’t enter the picture until 25 years after the disappearance, most of his research comes from reading. Thus, despite the obligatory interludes of sex and violence, the reader spends much of the book looking over the protagonist’s shoulder at what the detective is reading.
This hybrid of mystery and history builds a compelling case but sets a leisurely pace in the process.