Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Lost to the World

By Libby Sternberg
$2.99 at www.smashwords.com

A police procedural elevated way beyond the norm of its genre by its setting, Lost to the World takes place in the laboratories of polio researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 1954.

Julia Dell, a secretary in the labs who discovers the body of one of her boss’s colleagues, is herself a polio survivor – “a polio” in the crude parlance of the day. She’s engaged to be married, but not very excitedly so, and lives with her over-protective parents. Her supreme sense of urgency about the work being done at Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere by scientists like Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, has nothing to do with hope for a better life for herself. She knows her ruined leg will never be repaired, but she aches for the still-healthy children who will contract the disease if a vaccine isn’t found soon.

Detective Sean Reilly is determined to solve the scientist’s murder, but he’s distracted by single fatherhood. His wife died of cancer a year ago, leaving him with two young sons and a babysitter not pleased to be whipsawed by a detective’s irregular working hours. He’s lonely, somewhat scared and, like Julia, beaten down by life’s circumstances.

And then there is the corpse, Dr. Myron Lowenstein – or is it Dr. Lowenstein? What could be easier than to identify a scientist murdered in his own lab at a prominent research institution like Hopkins? In this novel, even the dead guy has a back story.

Sternberg’s universe is populated by old-school Irish and Italian Catholics and Jewish intellectuals, and her story combines elements of anti-Semitism, The Glass Menagerie, gold-digging single women coming of age in post-World War II America and ambitious scientists competing to find the discovery of a lifetime. Baby Boomers who were children in the ‘50s will relate to the prominence of polio in adult conversations of the time and will recall receiving one or both of the new polio vaccines.

Though the identity of the murderer is kept well under wraps until very near the end of the novel, the reader may think he/she knows where the personal story is heading. But there are twists there, too.

This is the second Sean Reilly novel published by Sternberg’s tiny family publishing business, Istoria Books, and a third is in the works. If the others are as well-researched and as finely drawn as this one, she’ll have a franchise that
reasonably can be mentioned in the same sentence with Scott Turow’s.

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