with a Mission
Long Stair: An Albany Mystery
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.
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
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
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.