‘Land Of Careful Shadows’ – Jimmy Vega Mystery #1 by Suzanne Chazin – highly recommended

When a body is discovered in a reservoir north of New York City, it ignites a baffling and disturbing murder investigation. The victim is young, female and Hispanic. In her purse, police find a photo of a baby. Where is the child? Is she alive? And what about the disturbing note found at the scene? “Go back to your country. You don’t belong here.

Homicide detective Jimmy Vega knows how hard it can be to walk the razor-thin line of acceptance in a place like Lake Holly, NY. Reluctantly turning to Adele Figueroa, a passionate defender of immigrants’ rights, Vega must confront his small town’s darkest secrets and deepest obsessions—before they savagely tear apart the world he’s sworn to defend.

I listened to Land Of Careful Shadows to see if it would give me a new detective series to read. The answer was an emphatic yes. I want to read the rest of the series and I want to read Suzanne Chazin’s back catalogue, starting with her debut novel, The Fourth Angel (2002) which kicked off her trilogy about a rookie fire marshal in the NYC Fire Department.

The why behind that yes contains all the things you might expect from the first book in a police procedural series: a detective who is more than his job, a strongly evoked sense of place, a well-constructed and artfully revealed mystery and an edgy realism that gives the imagination traction. But what makes the yes and emphatic yes are the things that I don’t expect of a police procedural series: a deep empathy for the problems faced by everyone in the story, a strong emotional connection to many participants whether they are doing the investigating, being investigated or simply trying to make sure the investigation doesn’t do any more damage than it needs to, and an exploration of the effect of power and helplessness on how people see themselves and how they behave towards others.

Most detective narratives have two things in common – solving a crime and having the good guys find and punish the bad guys. This isn’t that kind of narrative. From the start, it’s not entirely clear whether or not a crime has been committed. There is a dead body but that doesn’t necessarily mean there was a murder. There is a mystery to be solved and it’s a good one, but there aren’t clear good guys and bad guys and nor is it clear whether those who are guilty should be punished.

This book grabbed my imagination in a way that most police procedurals don’t. As I listened to it, I was so tied up in how the people would cope with the challenges that they faced and figuring out what really happened and then figuring out what I thought the right thing to do about it was, that I didn’t give much thought to what made this book different. It was only afterwards, as I reflected on the events and the relationships and the power dynamics that shaped the lives of everyone involved that I saw what was different.

Suzanne Chazin wasn’t just trying to offer me an engaging puzzle to be solved. She was using the investigation to demonstrate how the rules around immigration and its enforcement shape the lives of people involved – distributing power but also taking it away – and how the normal things in life – love, family. earning a living, belonging, being left alone – all have to push themselves through this system like a river trying to find a way through rock. Her storytelling style is engaging and the narrative is propulsive but the focus isn’t on solving the mystery but on the phenomenology of power, helplessness, exclusion and fear. Instead of using people as instruments for plot exposition, she uses the plot to get the reader inside the head of everyone involved and share their experience.

I saw the world through the eyes of Detective Jimmy Vega, who grew up as the only second-generation immigrant from Peurto Rico in an upstate NY town, who works undercover tackling drug gangs and who, on arrival at the crime scene at the beginning of the book is faced with a rookie cop pointing a gun at him because the rookie sees a Hispanic guy in an Escalade as a threat and not as a possible colleague. I saw it through the eyes of an economic migrant who has put himself through the dangers and degradations of travelling north and entering the US illegally for the second time so that he can secure the economic future of his family and who now finds himself likely to be accused of murder. I saw it through the eyes of a Harvard Law graduate, the daughter of undocumented parents, who is running a centre to help to support people who now face a tougher immigration system than her parents did. The more eyes that I saw the world through the more empathy I felt for the characters, even the ones like Jimmy Vega who I didn’t like and the more I came to understand that they were all people trying to do the best they could, whether police officer or migrant or social worker.

At first, I thought I was seeing a clash between the law enforcement mindset and the mindset of those who have always had to run and hide from authority. Then I started to see that it was more complicated than that. Doing the right thing, even figuring out what the right thing is, was difficult and oftentimes none of the options available to people were good ones.

I recommend the audiobook version of Land Of Careful Shadows. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of Armando Durán’s narration.

Suzanne Chazin is the award-winning author of two suspense series. The daughter of immigrants herself (Ukrainian father, English mother),

Suzanne’s earliest memories centered around her own parents’ struggles to adapt to life in the United States.

She was inspired to write the Jimmy Vega series after volunteering for several years at an immigrant outreach center near her home. The more she learned about the lives of the undocumented, the more she came to identify her own family’s quiet courage and determination in their stories.

Click on the Youtube link below to hear her talking about her work.

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