Shepard Rifkin was a New Yorker born in 1918 whose writing career began in 1956 as the author of several Western paperbacks. He shifted gears in 1969 to pen a grizzly police procedural mystery called “Ladyfingers” that remains available today as a $3 ebook. After much searching, I could find no record of Mr. Rifkin’s death, so my hope is that he is enjoying a spry and fulfilling life somewhere at age 101.
Rifkin’s best-known novel is his 1970 mystery (later reprinted by Hard Case Crime) titled “The Murderer Vine” set in the shadow of the American civil rights movement. The publication of “Ladyfingers” preceded “The Murderer Vine” by about a year and also displayed Rifkin’s interest in the American minority experience by casting our narrator and hero as NYPD Detective Pablo Sanchez, an American of Puerto Rican descent. After orchestrating a large heroin bust in East Harlem, Detective Sanchez is summoned to his boss’ office for a new assignment.
The Police Commissioner (a position historically held by Teddy Roosevelt) has received two small packages each containing a severed finger of an unknown woman. The quality of the manicure makes it unlikely that the digits were from indigent corpses used as med school cadavers. Where is the rest of the woman? Why send the fingers to the Police Commissioner without any demands? Despite a successful, but unremarkable, history as a narcotics officer, Sanchez is assigned the case, and he immediately feels that he’s over his head. His narration concerning his frequent missteps are quite funny.
Sanchez’s humble narration is a total joy to read and is in direct contrast with the cocksure heroes most of these novels feature. He’s a funny, self-deprecating narrator, and Rifkin’s excellent prose makes it all come together quite nicely. The supporting cast is filled with colorful New York characters, and every scene really pops. The investigative steps that Sanchez takes seem credible and realistic while still being entertaining. Fans of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedurals will feel right at home with “Ladyfingers.” Recommended.
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