Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Art of Violence by S.J. Rozan

First Sentence: Shifting colors on a monster billboard bled through the April evening mist, showed me a shadow in the alley.

Chronic alcoholic Sam Tabor has mental health disorders and experiences blackouts, except when he paints. After being convicted of murdering a woman and serving five years in prison, art lovers arrange for Sam's release. Now, two new women have been murdered and, because of the means of their deaths, Sam fears he is the killer. As a former client of investigator Bill Smith, Sam wants either to be proven guilty of the murders or absolutely convinced of his innocence.

A first line, both evocative and threatening, immediately draws one into an unusual premise. Rozan is a joy to read. Her writing is thoughtful and literary with passages of text—"By now, it was half past eight. … All traces of last night's mist had burned away under the April Sun … This unsullied light, this bright vision, they're beautiful, but they're false … It's not until the day gets older, wearier, that it stops making the effort to lie."--that contrast to her natural, realistic dialogue with touches of wry humor—"'Can I pick the restaurant?' … 'I've heard of it. I don't think I'm cool enough.' 'No, but I am."

Characters drive the story, and Bill and Lydia are wonderful characters. Rozan's books alternate between which character takes the lead, and this is Bill's turn. Bill is interesting in that he's a combination of the Golden Age PI with his cigarettes, a bit of the 70's television PI Banacek with his love of classical music and knowledge of art, but with more contemporary sensibilities in his personal relationship with Lydia and consideration for her mother, as well as his respect for her skills. These elements add dimensions to Bill one might not expect. Lydia plays a secondary role in the story but is still significant to the plot.

Although his mental illness, beyond OCD, isn't defined, Sam is the most intriguing character of them all. The description of Sam's paintings conveys their impact and inspires curiosity but leaves one disquieted. Through him, one sees the absurdity and price of celebrity—"….it had made him famous. He belonged to it now … belonged to didn't mean 'fit in with.' It meant 'was owned by." and those who follow it.

While there is the usual "bad" cop, Rozen counters that with Detective Angela Grimaldi who is tough, thorough, and smart, provides an explanation of the types of serial killers, and who believes in working the evidence to find the killer. And there is Lydia's traditional Chinese mother who is always a delight.

One may suspect the killer quite early on. While this is somewhat disappointing, the quality of Rozan's writing compels one to keep going, and it's worth it. After all, with very clever twists, additional murders, and the age-old, never-resolved question as to what is art, one's suspicions may not be accurate.

"The Art of Violence" could be considered Rozan's pandemic in that it is a bit muddled and not always easy to keep the characters straight. Even so, it is a good story and keeps one well engaged to the end.

THE ART OF VIOLENCE (PI-Bill Smith/Lydia Chin-New York-Contemp) - Good
Rozan, S. J. – 13th in series
Pegasus Crime, Dec 2020, 352 pp.


  1. I like the Chin/Smith series very much, too. Their characters are both interesting and really well developed. I also like it that they have such different backgrounds and personality types. It makes the series more interesting. I give Rozan credit for putting the series together in that innovative way.

  2. I enjoyed your review. This is an excellent series and I'm glad to know there is another one to which I can look forward.