“Forgiving Stephen Redmond” by A.J. Sidransky— Dealing With Trauma

Sidransky, A. J. “Forgiving Stephen Redmond”, Black Opal Books, 2021.

Dealing With Trauma

Amos Lassen

Set on an August day in 2008, A. J. Sidransky’s “Forgiving Stephen Redmond” introduces us to New York City’s detectives Tolya Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez. They have been called to a strange murder scene in a vacant wood frame house that is about to be demolished. Inside a partially destroyed wall, they find the body of a murder victim with the dried blood on the suit jacket hanging on the corpse which his part skeleton and part mummy.  As the detectives investigate, they search for answers. Who put him there and why? So begins a cold case that will bring Kurchenko and Gonzalvez full circle in their search for answers.

This is the final book in Sidransky’s “Forgiving” saga. We are leads us back to Washington Heights in the 1950’s and 1960’s when  both the neighborhood and New York were going through a period of change.  The dead man had been there for at least 40 years, and even though those who had once known the victim are probably dead, the detectives are determined to solve the case even though they have to deal with the property director who wants to get on with razing the building.

If you have read Sidransky’s other two books in the series, “Forgiving Maximo Rothman” and “Forgiving Mariela Camacho” you are already familiar with Kurchenko and Gonzalvez, partners and best friends. (Although the book stands alone as well). They are fantastic investigators but they need time for this case and time is at a premium. Their captain only gives them a few days and the homicide in NYC is constantly rising. They are determined— this is their neighborhood and they want to know what happened.

There were rumors that the house that had once been a boarding house was haunted. No one had lived there for years and the rumors about the place began after Fernando Vargas, a resident disappeared. The detectives learned that the house had once belonged to Máximo Rothman and Ernest ‘Erno’ Eisen, Jewish immigrants from Europe via the Dominican Republic. Three years earlier, the same detectives investigated Rothman’s murder.

It seems that the connections between the Dominican Republic and the former owners of the house have something to do with what is going on. Interviewing Erno, the detectives learn that he claims to having killed Vargas but as the investigation continues, there are deeper issues. They learn that Rothman and Erno met  in the Dominican town of Sosua where Jewish refugees from the war had been welcomed. Even though dictator Rafael Trujillo allowed this to happen, he was a dictator and that aspect did not reflect the way he ran the rest of the country. He ruled by force and blood and with his assassination in 1961, many of his loyalists ran to New York and this could have been the reason to “take him out”.

The detectives then turn to Rothman’s son, Rabbi Shalom Rothman who was 12 when Vargas disappeared in the hope that he shed light about what happened in the rooming house forty years ago. Shalom is forced to face memories that he put at the back of his mind and never expected to deal with again. Like so many others, his father’s faith in God had been destroyed by the horrors of the war so that when his son decided to enter a religious profession, the two men suffered a chasm that was never to be bridged. It is through Shalom that we look at the relationship of father and son and the breakdown of obligations between them, The fact that Rabbi Shalom has a son with autism further explores the father/son relationship. In fact, the book is really a look at relationships— not only between father and son but between friends as we see in the detectives and between Rothman and Erno Eisen.

Another theme deals with change of the way we live. We see that in the Jewish life in the Dominican Republic and in the Jewish neighborhood of NYC. Immigration. The conflict between cultures and general change are important issues here. Both Rothman and Eisen were forced to shape and reshape their lives with every move they went through. Now another change comes with the demolition of the rooming house and the new gentrification.

Sidransky’s character development is nothing short of brilliant in this story that is based upon memory and the need to readapt. This is a new kind of murder mystery that has the reader turning pages as quickly as is possible. Murder as self-protection is something we do not often read about.

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