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The Rembrandt Decision (A Pia Sabel Mystery)

by Seeley James

Rating: *****

Scott Jacobsen, the Police Chief of Deeping, Maine, knows there could be few reasons why his alcoholic uncle was murdered but when some of them involve delving into his families past and connections, he faces deeply uncomfortable truths. Will Pia Sabel be able to steer him in the right direction, and will Scott heed her advice?

I have not read any previous Pia Sabel mysteries but this did not hamper my understanding. Sabel’s backstory and relevance is effortlessly woven through the narrative to ensure the reader is given a comprehensive knowledge of her situation without actually realizing it.

The story is relayed in first-person by three separate characters, Christine Jacobsen, her son, Scott Jacobsen, and Sabel’s new advisor at Sabel Security, Isaiah Reddick. James adroitly uses the individual voices to give the reader not only a rounded view of characters and events, but to drop hints, red herrings, and suspicions. It’s skilfully done, ensuring maximum engagement, momentum, and curiosity for the reader.

All the cast are wonderfully authentic and have their own simmering secrets which may or may not impact the case. Christine, the town’s busybody, provokes irritation and sympathy whilst remaining slightly sinister. Isaiah grows as the novel develops and also functions to give the reader a nicely objective opinion of the other personalities.

‘Crazy Kitty’ Robinson was brilliantly depicted. She could have descended into a completely clichéd idiot savant but instead, is shrewdly utilized. Her usage of the Greek tragedies to communicate was a deft touch adding an intriguing, esoteric brushstroke to proceedings.

James’ prose is crisp, polished, and weighted with foreshadowing. There is also some lovely imagery which has been carefully chosen, in many places, for its contextual poignancy. Kitty’s eyes rolling drunkenly in her head like “lost marbles on a ship’s deck” was particularly effective.

Nonetheless, the star of the novel is Pia Sabel and interestingly the reader is never given her direct point of view. However, this works to retain the enigmatic quality she has and, contrastingly, allows the reader to build up a 360-degree picture of her from others. Notwithstanding, she presents with an air of slight unpredictability which keeps the pages turning.

She is sharply observed and acutely observant. I did wonder if the trappings of her near-limitless wealth would be a little far-fetched and counter-productive but, not only does it subtly aid certain areas of the plot, she remains convincingly grounded and self-effacing.

Sabel reveals facets of herself to different characters as she moves closer to the truth. She is not without her flaws and she is fully aware of those, and the emotional vulnerability that she tries hard to bury. I found her tremendously readable and although she can be prickly, immensely likeable also.

The plot twists and turns, cleverly throwing up reveals which sometimes the reader is aware of before those involved. There are a surprising number of angles to the main story and are all credible. I did wonder if the Mob element would overshadow the other issues but it remains complementary.

When the final disclosure comes it brings with it an unexpected revelation which, personally was shockingly unexpected. James slightly signposts who the perpetrator is, which does not spoil the enjoyment of the novel, and the reader is so distracted by discovering how the culprit will be uncovered, they are completely unprepared for this deeply unedifying consequence of unmasking the killer.

There are also two side-narratives, one involving institutionalized racism in the police force and the other concerned with the emotional difficulties adoptees often face. Both these tangents have bearing on the case and its handling, and both are sensitively and thought-provokingly explored.

The Rembrandt Decision is an excellent thriller; well-written, nicely structured, and thoroughly gripping. Highly recommended.

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