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Mystery with a Mission
By Miriam Axel-Lute

The Long Stair: An Albany Mystery

By Kirby White

Fox Creek Press, 220 pages, $15

A self-published affordable-housing murder mystery—the phrase is not one likely to send leisure readers scrambling to the bookstore. But in this case, not only people with an interest in the housing field, but fans of the mystery genre and people who are interested in Albany’s neighborhoods should scoop up this local gem.

Our protagonist, Warren Crow, is a nonprofit consultant living in Albany’s West Hill. When Jonah Lee, the charismatic leader of a scrappy little nonprofit housing group, is murdered in his office, Warren is called in to help the group get its finances in shape and make a plan to keep its work going.

But as he discovers some un usual things in the paperwork, Warren gets drawn into an unusual and mysterious project Jonah had been working on in Sheridan Hollow, perhaps the project that got him killed. Warren finds himself not only trying to unravel the trail, but finish what Jonah had started.

The Long Stair has many of the trademarks of a mystery novel: suspense, a slow revealing of clues, a rebellious yet somewhat reluctant hero, a whip-smart wise-cracking love interest, and a couple of stupid “don’t go in that empty room!” moments to bring about our dramatic climax. We meet sleazy slumlords, thuggish bar owners, treacherous mall developers, upright real-estate agents, and people just trying to get by in a forgotten neighborhood.

What should make this particularly fun for readers familiar with Albany is all the local detail. Not just recognizable buildings on the literary skyline, so to speak, but things that give evidence of an author long familiar with—and fond of—the city. Like the quietly mutinous state worker who meets with our hero in a corner of the Concourse A cafeteria to discuss the politically motivated disappearance of Jonah’s grant proposal, and the nudge-nudge wink-wink request that it be resubmitted. Like the descriptions of the state workers who park in Sheridan Hollow and at the end of the day descend the stair for which the book is named to their cars fearfully and as quickly as they can. Or the eternal-but-never-quite-enough rebuilding projects on Henry Johnson Boulevard. There’s also an ironic parallel to recent events in the neighborhoods in question (which can’t be detailed without giving away a major plot point) that spurred White, who wrote the novel in 2000, to release it now.

All of this is no surprise. Kirby White lived in the area for a long time and as one of the founders of several local housing-related nonprofits was clearly the sort to pay close attention to his surroundings. This spirit is carried on by those nonprofits, who got together to publish The Long Stair—they named their press after Fox Creek, the buried stream that runs along the bottom of the steep slope leading down into Sheridan Hollow. Proceeds from the book are going to the Albany Community Land Trust.

Also no surprise, therefore, is the explora tion of the awkwardness around outsiders trying to do good in a poor neighborhood, white residents of Arbor Hill feeling they’re not quite of the neighborhood, and well-intentioned people debating the merits of large-scale revitalization projects. The fact that this all this is accomplished without degeneration into pedantry and without causing serious hiccups in the flow of the story is impressive.

The writing is smooth and very well-edited, but this care to detail was somewhat marred by a printing problem in the spacing that makes some letters practically overlap while others are so distant they look like a break between words. This doesn’t make the book unreadable, but it is annoying. Here’s hoping that enough people buy this very worthy book to necessitate a second and better printing.

Kirby White will discuss and sign The Long Stair on Jan. 24 at 12:15 PM in the auditorium of the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Ave., Albany, and on Feb. 3 at 7 PM at the Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza.

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