Land of Careful Shadows is the first in a new mystery series by Suzanne Chazin who is probably better known for her Georgia Skeehan, fire investigator, novels. This series features Jimmy Vega a county sheriff in a fictional county with a fictional town called Lake Holly (Doubly fictional, as the lake is actually a reservoir.) located about fifty miles north of New York City. The book opens when he is called to the scene of a homicide, a body dumped in the reservoir, and tasked to support the lead investigator, Greco.
Vega is a Nuyorican, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican ancestry, still holding on to his heritage, but seeing is slip away in his daughter Joy, who lives with his ex-wife in The Farms, the upper-income enclave of Lake Holly. The victim is Latina and unidentified and Vega’s facility with Spanish is expected to help him identify her with help from the immigrant community. However, for them, his identity as a police officer trumps any shared language connection.
Chazin wants to say something about undocumented immigrants, to address the misconceptions and biases against them. I am wary of “message” books, but Chazin does it well. Vega shows an awareness of how police underserve the community, for example, not arresting a man who has beaten his wife because that might qualify her for a U visa for crime victims and eventually a green card. Rather than just mention that practice, there is a potential witness whose details they do not have because they made just that kind of decision.
Vega goes to La Casa, a local community center serving the immigrant community with a worker center for day laborers, English language classes and other services. He hopes they can help identify her. One of the volunteers remembers her, a volunteer who just happens to have been Jimmy’s first love. This complicates his investigation when her husband, an immigrant rights lawyer, appears to have a vendetta against him.
There are several complications, ethical quandaries that pits Jimmy’s humanity against his training and his duty, and all sorts of personal dilemmas including his past relationship with Linda and his growing attraction to Adele, the director of La Casa. On top of that, his daughter is giving him grief, giving up on her research project with a local doctor, in danger of failing in school and acting out. All these personal connections complicate the case.
I enjoyed this mystery. It’s fair and I figured out who killed our victim shortly before Vega, but then I was not under all the personal pressures and influences that made the real solution unthinkable. I appreciated the natural and organic way Chazin incorporated her point about immigrants and their status, about how the justice system interacts with them and how bias works in policing and in the community, sometimes in seemingly small ways like a person cheating people out of their pay or even their businesses because they have no legal recourse without legal status. It was all just part of the story, not added on with monologues from this or that character. That takes real skill.
Chazin’s characters are well-developed. Even those who seem one-dimensional at first like the hard-as-nails Greco developed into someone more complicated and compassionate than you might suppose at first, second and third meeting. However, what sets Land of Careful Shadows apart is Vega’s humanity, how he addresses the conflicts between what he wants to do and what he is obligated to do, and how he finds ways to do the right thing whenever he can, if he can only figure out what the right thing is. That makes for a compelling mystery, because when you are not sure what the right thing is, it is a tough road.