This appealing new novel offers something for readers who like a tough mystery — and for those who like stories set in Capital Region.
Ava “Spike” Harrison, the protagonist, is a 38-year-old widow and general contractor. One spring morning, while she and her construction team are rehabilitating Public School 20 in downtown Albany, inspectors from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration arrive to check the job site.
They discover serious problems with the work of Jimmy Farrell, Spike’s asbestos removal subcontractor. When Spike goes to find Farrell, he has disappeared and his firm’s headquarters has been cleaned out. Spike finds Farrell’s car impounded at a Saratoga Springs garage after it was found abandoned and towed from a parking lot near a trout stream.
When Spike started rehabilitating P.S. 20, the job seemed straightforward. But this routine job quickly turns into something more like a spooky theme park ride.
Vincent Zandri, author of “Concrete Pearl,” will appear at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Ave., at 7 p.m. Tues. , Jan. 22 to discuss his books and recent changes in the publishing industry.
Spike cannot find Farrell and does not know who she can trust. Except for Tommy Moleski, her foreman, all of the main characters start acting suspicious: Joel Clark, her company’s attorney; Derrick Santiago, the ambitious district attorney; Diana Steward, the local OSHA director who was once Spike’s romantic rival; and Peter Marino, Spike’s contracting rival.
In the background of her challenges is a massive downtown Albany redevelopment, the “Concrete Pearl” of the title. Does work on the Concrete Pearl hold a clue to solving the mystery?
Spike races to resolve the asbestos problems and find Farrell. But as the story progresses, more people disappear.
Out of the spring evening comes Damien Spain, a stealthy private investigator who is also pursuing Farrell and offers to help.
Vincent Zandri, who has written 12 previous novels, has a gift for setting a fast, edgy pace. He uses red herrings to keep readers guessing right to the last page.
This is not just a capable mystery by a dilettante author in a drawing room. Zandri gets the feel of Albany right because he was raised here and appreciates the place.
His scenes on the construction site feel real because of his family background. He worked in the Zandri Construction Company, owned by his father, Dick. Moleski, Spike’s ally, is based on Zandri’s close friend and co-worker at the firm.
My favorite scene is when Spike meets Peter Marino on a tanker at the Port of Albany, near where his company is demolishing a warehouse. Zandri captures the smell, sights and sounds of life on the Hudson.
With Marino’s menacing chit-chat, the contractor’s belligerent watchdog and startling bangs as the building comes down, I was on edge about whether Spike would get off the ship or tossed overboard.
A few scenes felt long; in a conventional mystery they might have ended sooner. However, in addition to an interest in construction and mysteries, Zandri seems to want to explore how families and friendships can make a person stronger or drag them down. The scenes may be longer because Zandri shows how family histories are motives for his characters.
He takes some liberties with local geography. For example, he moves Malden Bridge from Columbia County to Saratoga County. At times, I found the moves disorienting, given my knowledge of Capital Region geography.
Nevertheless, he capably captures the mood in the pre-fire Lark Tavern, or the recently closed Miss Albany Diner. He even writes in Nipper the Dog, the iconic statue on top of the old RCA Building in north Albany.