The Sleazy Side of Life

April 26, 2022 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Here are two unusual – and terrific – crime thrillers to jumpstart your summer. For a comic, warmhearted romp, try The Prison Minyan by Jonathan Stone. Want a darker, more complex tale? Read How to Find Your Way in the Dark by Derek Miller.

The Prison Minyan

This delightfully original, witty novel opens in Otisville Correctional, a federal prison that mostly houses Jewish men. The novel’s setting is inspired by an actual minimum-security camp in Otisville, New York, that “has long been the lockup of choice among Jewish white-collar offenders,” according to the New York Times. Otisville made headlines when Michael Cohen, the convicted Trump Organization lawyer, asked to serve his sentence there.

Amusingly, Stone introduces characters with reference to their crimes and sentences. The minyan leader is Rabbi Morton Meyerson (fraud, five years; embezzled $3.5 million from his New Jersey congregation). Another amiable criminal is Marty Adler (matrimonial fraud, nine years; married to three loving wives simultaneously. “Finally discovered at a bar mitzvah whose guest list included two of the wives”). Then there’s Abe Rosen (forgery of old master paintings, 18 months. “Had archival photos of European nobles and Nazi officers holding the art. But the paintings were counterfeit, the photos were staged, the nobles and the Nazis were hired actors”).

Life at Otisville Correctional is good. A gifted chef rustles up pastrami, corned beef, brisket, bagels and blintzes. Prisoners can pocket extra rugelach for late-afternoon snacks. After morning minyan, the men linger for convivial discussion of religious and ethical questions with Rabbi Meyerson. The rabbi relishes these exchanges; he finds his prison congregants more engaged, animated, and intellectually curious than his former suburban congregants. A talented professor, Deborah Liston, visits weekly to lead a poetry workshop.

This sweet life sours with the coming of a new warden, a not-so-secret white nationalist. Jewish delicacies disappear – first the rugelach, then the blintzes, then the kosher deli. The beloved chef is replaced. Fewer inmates are permitted to gather for minyan. Most dangerously, there is a plot afoot to assassinate a new prisoner who has angered the U.S. President by testifying against him. Professor Liston accidentally discovers a deadly secret. Plot twists, clever maneuvers, and hair-raising pursuits ensue.

How to Find Your Way in the Dark

This World War II-era historical thriller serves as a gripping prequel to Miller’s earlier crime novel, Norwegian by Night. The new novel is a coming-of-age story for Sheldon Horowitz, the protagonist in both books.

How to Find Your Way begins with a murder in rural Massachusetts in 1938. Twelve-year-old Sheldon becomes an orphan when his father is run off the road by a Mafia hit man. Only the year before, Sheldon’s mother died tragically in a movie house fire.

Sent to live with his uncle’s family in Hartford, Connecticut, Sheldon is determined to avenge his father’s death someday. In the meantime, he becomes close to his older teenage cousins – Abe and Mirabelle – who lost their mother in the same theater fire that killed Sheldon’s mother.

Through Abe and Mirabelle, Sheldon becomes aware of anti-Semitism in Hartford and in the wider world. At Hartford’s Colt Armory, Sheldon’s uncle, an accountant, may be being set up to take the blame for missing guns. In Europe, the Jews’ situation worsens, as grimly reported in newspapers that Abe obsessively consumes and shares with Sheldon.

During the summer of 1941, Sheldon works at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel as a bellhop while his best friend, Lenny, gets some gigs as a fledgling comedian. Boldly blocking a jewelry heist, Sheldon encounters his father’s killer. What will he do?