Sins of the past

The Jade Tiger by E.W. Cooper

r/suggestmeabook: I want a Prohibition era mystery with a woman who’s trying to escape her past.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 276

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Review copy courtesy of BookSirens

From the publisher: NEW YORK, OCTOBER 1928. The Big Apple teems with the glitter of Bright Young Things, Prohibition, and scofflaws-the perfect place for Penelope Harris to start her life over.

Reading the blurb, I thought the book would be more of a historical fiction, but if I’d paid attention to the cover, I’d have realized it was more of a mystery with a historical setting. The period was nicely evoked, though, with judiciously chosen details about New York City just as prohibition started, much about the alcohol itself, but also of the clothes, attitudes, and decor.

This was one of those books that was almost really good, but missed on a few fronts. First, the main characters, Penelope and Lund, were not as fully developed as I would have preferred. I was mostly supposed to empathize with them for extrinsic factors, such as Penelope’s attempts to avoid the press because they kept exposing her to public scrutiny, rather than really learning about their motivations.

Guests passed the windows in groups, laughing, talking. He wondered if he would see Penelope there, in a moment or two. Dancing past on another man’s arm. The quick pull of regret made him certain it had been a mistake.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The second problem I had with the story was the unnecessary switches of points of view. As I’ve said before, multiple points of view are tricky. For example, there was really little reason to include the point of view of the police officer McCain. I can only think of one scene in retrospect that couldn’t have been shown from one of the other protagonists, an argument between McCain and his supervisor about the course of the investigation, but that didn’t add enough to the book to justify the jarring nature of that additional POV.

A small clutch of guests stood near the radio without turning to take note, their laughter a little too loud, their drinking just a little too messy. That’s where Renee would be, all right—in the middle of everything, at the center of the music, where the chaos always began.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The mystery itself was more of a justification to expose the “Big Secret” that Penelope is trying to conceal than a traditional murder mystery. The “Big Secret,” when completely disclosed, is a bit anticlimactic because of the multiple retellings, diminishing the impact as each additional detail is exposed.

Last, too much of the characterization deals with things told rather than shown. Most characters are described by summarized stories of their past, rather than seeing them act in the present.

However, the plotting is good, and the writing evokes the period well, so I would expect to see books I’d like better from E.W. Cooper in the future.