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Book Review: Heartless and Salvation Boulevard 

click to enlarge Obsidian Mysteries, September 2008, 21.95.
  • Obsidian Mysteries, September 2008, 21.95.
A Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, and an atheist are involved in a murder. Waiting for the punch line? It’s called Salvation Boulevard, Woodstock resident and Chronogram columnist Larry Beinhart’s latest novel. And yes, it packs a punch.

Beinhart’s 1994 political novel American Hero became the film Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Anne Heche. Mandalay Independent Pictures has already acquired the screen rights to Salvation Boulevard.

Nathaniel MacLeod, avowed atheist and professor of philosophy at the University of the Southwest, is discovered dead from a single bullet through his head. Pastor Plowright, the founder, minister, and CEO of the Cathedral of the Third Millennium (and as such, a man who knows the value of publicity in calling lambs to the shepherd), asks the six o’clock news anchor, “Is anyone surprised that an atheist committed suicide?”

The police, initially happy to rule the death self-inflicted, suddenly have a suspect in custody. University student Ahmad Nazami, who studied with the dead professor, has confessed to the crime.

Manny Goldfarb practices law at one of the largest firms in the city, but he has a taste for pro bono criminal work. Certain that Ahmad is innocent, Manny calls in private investigator Carl Van Wagener to help investigate. A born-again Christian and faithful follower of Pastor Plowright, Van Wagener enters the case doubting Ahmad’s innocence, but soon turns to finding who really killed Professor MacLeod and recovering the professor’s missing manuscript, rumored to disprove the existence of God.

Van Wagener’s investigation entangles him in a web of deception: yea, he walks through the valley of death, encountering Christian and non-Christian thugs (including a couple who claim to be from Homeland Security), members of a Mexican drug cartel, the professor’s steamy and neurotic widow, and Van Wagener’s own faithful wife. Like any good PI, he questions everything—including whether his faith can sustain him through an existential crisis.

Heavy stuff, that, but Beinhart embeds the religious and political issues in a brisk narrative that tackles the big questions with acerbic humor and good storytelling, building toward a climax that will pull readers to the edges of their seats. (Don’t miss his note to the reader, revealing real-world sources and inviting readers to his website to participate in an “ongoing dialogue about religion, irreligion, faith, belief, and their intersection with politics, war, money, life, and death.”)

Religion and death must be in the air around Overlook Mountain, as fellow Woodstock resident Alison Gaylin’s fourth novel, Heartless, takes readers into this same territory, though the terrain is markedly different.

Zoe Green has left her calling as an investigative journalist to write for a soap opera digest, leading her to an extreme affair with soap star Warren Clark. Zoe falls so hard that she leaves her Manhattan job to join the seductive and mysterious Warren at his home in San Esteban, Mexico for a romantic retreat.

But beneath the idyllic surface of life in San Esteban lie deception, murder, and Sangre Para La Vida (blood in exchange for life), a longevity cult whose name says it all. Heartless is one of those novels where you find yourself whispering, “No! Don’t go in there! Don’t do that!” But Zoe does, and finds herself back in the world of investigation-—not for the sake of a story, but to save her own skin.

Alison Gaylin will appear on September 26 at the Newburgh Book Festival at 2pm and at Barnes & Noble in Kingston at 7pm; and on October 4 at Village Square Bookstore in Hunter at 2pm.

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