By Alan Sidransky – In 2008, workmen tearing down a clutch of derelict Washington Heights rowhouses make a grim discovery: Behind the plaster of an upstairs bedroom is the body of a man sitting in a chair, wearing a hat. To the dismay of the demolition foreman, the NYPD detectives called to the scene—Tolya Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez—intend to make a serious investigation. No matter that the corpse has been entombed for at least forty years, and no matter that everyone who knew the victim is probably dead.
Kurchenko and Gonzalvez, partners and best friends, have appeared in two previous police procedurals by Sidransky, and their easy camaraderie is balanced by meticulous investigative work. They’ll need some time to do the digging required for such a cold case, and their captain grudgingly gives them a few days. The detectives are intrigued. This is their neighborhood, they’ve known those houses for years. What happened there?
Property records reveal that the house was then owned by Máximo Rothman and his best friend and business partner Ernest (“Erno”) Eisen, Jewish immigrants from Europe by way of the Dominican Republic. (Max was murdered three years earlier, and these same detectives investigated.) Max and Erno met in the coastal Dominican town of Sosúa, one of the few places in the world that welcomed Jewish refugees as World War II threatened Europe.
Erno, now quite elderly, admits flat-out that he killed the man sealed up in the wall. This surprising confession could wind the case up rather neatly, but it needs some follow up, which leads the detectives deeper into the past.
The detectives hope Rabbi Shalom Rothman, Max’s son, can provide insights about what went on in the rooming house four decades earlier, and their questions bring back memories and feelings Shalom thought were buried forever. Author Sidransky uses the character of Shalom to explore the obligations of love between fathers and sons, not just between Shalom and Max, but also between Shalom and his autistic son, Baruch.
Another appealing aspect of the story is its demonstration of friendship based on mutual respect that exists between Pete, a Dominican, and Tolya, a Russian Jew. Amidst all the teasing and day-do-day banter, the subject of friendship rarely comes up. It doesn’t need to. It’s in their every interaction.
Sidransky’s description of life for the refugee Jews both before and after coming to New York make an evocative back story, but change and the need to adapt didn’t end with their arrival in the United States. Gentrification, displacement, cultural conflict, changing markets and institutions are an effective backdrop for urban characters facing not only who they are, but who they think they are. Forgiving Stephen Redmond offers a timely, immersive mystery and a powerful family story.