Private investigator Sydney Sloane has mixed feelings about her sister Nora coming home to Manhattan to visit – she loves Nora, but her sister disapproves of Sydney’s orientation, and isn’t too pleased about her profession, either. They put that all to one side, however, to attend an AIDS fundraiser catered by Nora’s lifelong best friend, Zoe Freeman. The evening is a stunning success, but when Zoe fails to meet Sydney, Nora and dashing André Masire at a bar afterward, Sydney decides to call it a night – only to pass the scene where Zoe’s been killed in a hit-run.
Curiously, Zoe was carrying credit cards of a Louise Carson – a woman nobody can find. Sydney senses that something is a little off, and before she knows it she’s embroiled in a complicated puzzle involving a sadistic misogynist, secret identities, off-shore bank accounts, a missing ex-husband/stalker, unrequited love, giant water bugs, bad Argentinian wine, scheming rival caterers, and several more deaths.
Along the way Sydney realises that she might be in love with her current partner, Leslie; becomes reacquainted with the only man who’s seriously tempted her (former co-cadet, now detective, Brian); and, with the aid of her aunt Minnie, brokers a relationship between Nora and Leslie. She also, somehow, commits to going camping.
Published in 1994 and the second in a series, Sister’s Keeper has only slightly dated – I don’t know how much AIDS fundraising there is in this post-antiretroviral world, but people still die of HIV/AIDS, and there’s still a disturbing amount of homophobic discomfort. What has changed since Sister’s Keeper was released: Italy is part of the European Union, so there’s no Italian currency; the dart board in Sydney’s partner Max’s office includes photos of Idi Amin, George Bush senior, Nancy Reagan, Newt Geingrich, and the very then-topical but now defunct Mike Milken and David Duke; and there’s a little technology lag – not only no internet and mobile/cell phones, but even cordless phones are a novelty. These are small elements, and had I not been looking for them I probably wouldn’t even have noticed. More significantly, though, a substantial plot element involving a very good false identity (complete with passport) would attract significant official attention now, but is of only passing interest to anyone but Sydney and Max. In our post-9/11 world, and particularly as I write this review sitting in a lounge at LAX, the idea of police being blasé about false documents is strikingly discordant, and telling about how much the world has changed in little over a decade.
These are most certainly not weaknesses, particularly in a novel that has managed to retain most of its original narrative power. There are a few flaws in the plot, most significantly, the question of how the unconnected Zoe managed to directly contact a master forger. I also found it just a little hard to swallow that not one but two characters with pivotal information are murdered in front of Sydney, just as they’re about to reveal vital information.
These few quibbles aside, however, Sister’s Keeper is as strong and compelling as I remember from my first reading, the better part of two decades ago. The characters are well crafted and distinct, particularly Sydney. There’s a little sex, conveyed very much in the Greenwood vein of just enough information to give the reader a sense of what’s happening without any detail (a pleasant contrast to contemporary romances, though I grant you this is a different genre as well as a different era). The plot certainly has its occasional creative leaps, but all in all it was a pleasant rediscovery. And it’s not relevant, but I also liked that one of the two books Sydney has on the go (one for public consumption, the other for home) is by a favourite author overdue for a reread and review, Sandra Scoppottone’s Donnato and Daughter. As I said, nothing germane but nice for me.
Sister’s Keeper is the second in a perhaps five book series – though I read Brotherly Love I can’t find it in my great wall of book-filled boxes, but the background is woven skilfully enough through this instalment that it’s not a requirement. I do have the next two sitting at home, accessible, and may well pick one up in the next wee while. - Alex