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Book Review: The Last Matryoshka by Joyce Yarrow

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photo courtesy J. Yarrow

“It’s pronounced ma-troo-shka.”

“”My name is Jo Epstein. I’m a private investigator looking into the murder of Micah Goldman.”

It will take more than clever rejoinders, charm, and an inquiring mind for Jo Epstein to discover why and how Goldman’s murder is linked to events of 1957 in Vladimir Central Prison. She will need all the resources she can muster from her years of experience, her personal contacts, investigative skills, and finally, more than a little bit of old fashioned good luck to solve this mystery. Lies, murder, revenge, deception and fear will shake her confidence and rattle her family tree as the story unfolds.

In the hands of a lesser writer, The Last Matryoshka could have crashed and burned like the hopes of a nerd meeting a sexy femme fatale in an upscale nightclub. Joyce Yarrow, writing the second in her series of Jo Epstein mysteries, may very well prove herself to be the Mickey Spillane of the 21st century. Has the golden age of pulp fiction returned? Yarrow and Spillane share similar roots, the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively. Like Spillane, she can come up with some great analogies, exciting plotlines and typical street/detective chatter.

Early in chapter two, Epstein is thinking, “To be rude to Ludmilla would be tantamount to punching out a puppy for wagging its tail.” Then describing two bottled blondes, she says they “..stood out like neon tetras in a tank full of goldfish.” One of my favorites was, “But as any scientist knows, covering the distance between speculation and proof can be as challenging as teaching evolution in the state of Mississippi, and just as dangerous.” That kind of writing holds the attention of this reviewer and there’s more.

Yarrow’s ability to choose the words to convey emotion (and make the reader stop and think) take her work beyond the shallowness of light pulp fiction. “The look he aimed at the camera conveyed a mixture of defiance and resignation.” After reading that line, I had to stop and deal with the mental image it conjured. Love of family, romantic love, personal loyalties, and cultural traditions are all explored with deft and thoughtful prose.

Yes, there’s a love interest for our heroine, and he’s introduced with this line describing his eyes that were “..lit by the same gentle power that drew me to him the first time we met.” Were it not for such writing, The Last Matryoshka could be described as a “fast easy read.” The fast-paced action does cause the pages to turn quickly and, fortunately, Yarrow doesn’t squeeze an entire novel into a thirty-six hour time slot. Some mysteries take a while to develop and to resolve. Understanding that the characters aren’t super powers living at the speed of light makes the story much more believable.

Photo credit: J.Yarrow

How does a private investigator proceed when her client’s fingerprints are the only ones present on the murder weapon? As the plot begins to unfold and Epstein deals with a seemingly impossible dilemma, we meet more and more characters. The friendly policeman, the smart-ass detective, undercover agents, clever prisoners, international fashionistas, Russian gangsters, international underworld types, and, of course, red herrings galore cross the stage with various degrees of interest and trustworthiness. There’s even a visit to the prison where Gary Powers was held. Who can you trust? Can you trust that person in the mirror? Staging of the action, development of characters and their interactions proceed at a pleasing readable pace.

We want to get to know the main characters even better and knowing that this book is part of a series helps us to decide to read the others. Ask the Dead introduced the world to Jo Epstein in 2005 as a caring, sensitive poetry aficionado and street-smart detective. Can she kick your teeth in? You bet! And as she walks away, leaves an impromptu haiku to savor while you lick your wounds. The Last Matryoshka is set for release in November 2010 and is available for pre-order now from Amazon. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait five years for the third book.

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  • http://www.janeisenberg.com Jane Isenberg

    Read an ARC of TLM and reviewer is right on the money. Jo Epstien is a keeper and I’m also ready for a third book about her!

  • http://www.marionspicher.com Marion Spicher

    Thank you for a review that clearly outlines what to love about the book, but also gives examples of fresh writing. I hope to alert Margie Lawson about this review. Joyce, congratulations. This one is one my list.

  • http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-the-last-matryoshka-by/ Dan Schmitt

    I really enjoyed this novel. I’ve read both novels in the series and I think Jo Epstein is an atypical crime-fiction PI – in a good way. In a way that makes me want to read more books about her.

  • http://www.maryannwrites.com Maryann Miller

    What a great review. I will definitely have to read both of Joyce’s books.

  • Frances Wood

    Great review for what promises to be a joy of a read. Looking forward to another chance to follow Joe Epsiein as she unravels her latest mystery and to enjoy Joyce’s characters and vivid descriptions.