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Book Club Kits: In the Shadow of Gotham

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Stefanie Pintoff

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Book Summary

It is November of 1905...

Detective Simon Ziele loses his fiancée in the wreck of the General Slocum steamship disaster and shortly thereafter heads to Westchester County to escape the violence of the city. But just a few months into his tenure, he catches the worst homicide of his career: a young woman is brutally murdered in her own bedroom in the middle of a winter afternoon.

A day's investigating leads him to Columbia University's noted criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, and one of his subjects, Michael Fromley, who has a history of violent behavior and brutal fantasies. But what would lead him to target Sarah Wingate, a notable mathematics grad student at Columbia? Is it really Michael behind the murder, or is someone else copying his signatures? This is what Simon Ziele must discover, with the help of the brilliant but self-interested Alistair Sinclair, before the killer strikes again.

Nominated for an Anthony Award and Agatha Award for Best First Novel, a Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel, a Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Mystery of 2009 by Romantic Times, made the Deadly Pleasures list of Best Mystery/Crime Novels of 2009 in the category "Best First Novel," and made #10 on the San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller List for July of 2009.

Read an excerpt from the novel.

Discussion Questions

  • A key element of the novel is the relationship between Detective Ziele and Alistair Sinclair. Despite the obvious tension between the two, they need each other to solve the brutal murder that is at the center of the book. Yet, how is their budding partnership much more than one borne of necessity?

  • Another relationship core to the novel is that between Detective Ziele and Isabella Sinclair. While there is clearly an attraction between the two that is greater than mutual admiration, it is harnessed by the social dictates of 1905 New York and the awkwardness of Isabella's relation to Alistair. Discuss whether their attraction is authentic or masked by the tragic losses each has experienced in their recent pasts?

  • Detective Ziele has seen more than his share of tragedy. How have these events shaped him into the man he is in the novel?

  • On page 72 of the novel, Alistair explains the science of criminology in layman's terms:

    "Criminals are best understood through their crimes," Alistair clarified with a slight smile. "But you can flip it around, and say that crimes are best understood through criminal behavior at the crime scene."

    It is this premise that is the focus of Alistair's studies at his Research Center at Columbia University. Discuss the impact of Alistair's knowledge of criminology in the murder investigation into Sarah Wingate. Does it help them to solve the crime? Or, is it an impediment to Detective Ziele's preference for tried and proven investigative methodology?

  • There are two very strong women at the center of the novel—Sarah Wingate, a brilliant young mathematician and Isabella Sinclair. Yet, they exhibit their strength in very different ways. Sarah is bold, a thought leader in a man's field, and not willing to keep in step with society's dictates. On the other hand, Isabella prefers to stay within accepted boundaries. But, her inner strength is no less remarkable. Discuss the differences between the two women and their roles in advancing women's issues at the turn of the century.

  • The ethical dilemma at the heart of the novel is best described on page 200.

    "I need to know just one more thing," I said quietly. "Had you known about Moira Shea from the beginning, would you still have facilitated the dismissal of charges against Michael Fromley and accepted him into your custody?"

    His answer was important to my judgment of him, for in my mind, the question of his intent was crucial. Had Alistair made reckless decisions along the way because he had been blinded by the importance of his research? Or was his hubris so large that he believed his own intellectual pursuits were all-important, and the rest of the world be damned?

    There was a long moment's pause as I waited for his reply. Finally, he looked at me, and I saw both honesty and fear reflected in his eyes as he replied, "I do not know."

    Does Detective Ziele judge Alistair too harshly for his decisions? What would you have done had you been in Alistair's shoes?

  • One of my great joys in writing and reading historical fiction is comparing how the things I take for granted today were so very different, in this case, only 100 years ago. Interesting areas of comparison include: modes of transportation; cuisine; dress; social dictates; technology; and entertainment.

  • Did you guess who the murderer was before he or she was revealed? What led you to suspect the characters that you did?