Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:

RUSSELL ATWOOD – East of A. Ballantine, hardcover, 1999. Fawcett, paperback, 2000.

   In structure and tone, Russell Atwood’s first novel is a wonderful homage to Chandler, relocating and updating his classic PI formula to lower Manhattan in the late 1990’s. Payton Sherwood, the first-person protagonist, is flawed and likable; the prose is good with occasional brilliant turns of phrase or metaphor that make you go back and read over (“he held his thumbs in fists again, so much pressure I thought they’d burst like plums”); and the “mystery” is well constructed, with more than a handful of diverse characters and plot threads coming together in the end.

      The resolution is satisfactory but not altogether satisfying, and that’s probably the way good neo-noir should be. The best thing East of A has going for it, which has little to do with the genre, is the way it captures in palpable and loving detail a time and a place: the East Village at the turn of the last Millennium.

   Given what East Village looks like these days, jumping into that time machine in itself makes the book worth the read, and East of A is a little less mannered or self-consciously literary in this mission than, say, Richard Price’s Lush Life.

   My complaint about East of A is that the whole somehow felt a little less than the sum of its parts: the book was indubitably solid, but didn’t create in me the urgency to read just one more chapter the way that, say, Lawrence Block’s “Scudder” books (which also wonderful capture a NYC long gone) do so amazingly. (Perhaps that’s less a critique of Atwood and a compliment to Block’s understated genius.)

   I’d rate East of A just a half-star lower than Richard Aleas’s “two book trilogy” (if you’ve read Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence — and you should — you know why I call it that), but it deserves its place on the shelf. I am just realizing there’s a second Payton Sherwood title out now, Losers Love Longer, from Hard Case Crime no less, and I will certainly read it.

   (One closing note: I believe Atwood worked at one of my favorite long-gone NYC mystery bookshops, Black Orchid — I don’t think I ever met him, but I sure miss that shop.)