WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — For Washington Heights-based author A.J. Sidransky, his neighborhood is his muse.
“Washington Heights is what New York is supposed to be,” said Sidransky, a born-and-bred New Yorker. “It’s diverse. It’s working class. It’s more relaxed. It’s less pretentious.”
It’s also the setting for "Forgiving Mariela Camacho," Sidransky’s second novel in what he hopes will be a five-book series following Uptown police detectives Anatoly Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez as they try to solve a string of murders.
Readers will be familiar with both characters from "Forgiving Máximo Rothman," Sidransky’s first novel, which explored the tensions and commonalities between the Dominican and Orthodox Jewish communities in the Heights through the lens of a homicide investigation.
Sidransky’s first novel focused more on the Jewish experience by digging into the backstories of both Detective Kurchenko, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, and Sosúa, a settlement in the Dominican Republic created for Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust.
"Forgiving Mariela Camacho" delves into the life of Kurchenko’s longtime NYPD partner, Pete Gonzalvez. Through Gonzalvez’s story, Sidransky gives voice to the Dominican immigrant experience.
Although he has not lived it, Sidransky said he drew on the history of both his Hungarian-born grandparents and his Dominican friends to tell Gonzalvez’s story.
“I would hear the same statements from my Dominican friends who had immigrated as I had from my grandparents,” he said.
“It emphasized for me that [immigration] is the same across different groups of people. The names change, the food, the houses of worship, but the experience is essentially the same.”
Sidransky sees immigration as an experience filled with a sense of longing, as summed up by a conversation between two of the book’s main characters.
“There’s a line early on in the book during a conversation between Pete and Mariela along the lines of, ‘Everyone wants to leave and then when they get there they just want to come back,’” he said.
“There is a terrible pain that comes along with immigration; this disconnection from both where you are and where you’re from.”
The more philosophical aspects of the book exist alongside a suspenseful murder mystery that has Gonzalvez and Kurchenko on the trail of a serial killer.
Fans of his first book may find the follow-up much darker, Sidransky said.
“This book is also an examination of how men relate to each other as friends,” he said.
“I wanted to develop a villain who is the complete antithesis of this: Someone so incapable of any kind of empathy for anyone or anything that nothing gets in the way of him satisfying his own sick needs.”
Without giving anything away, Sidransky said that the killer actually appeared in two brief scenes from "Forgiving Máximo Rothman."
He is now at work on the third book in the “Forgiving” series, and he once again looked to his neighborhood for inspiration.
“There used to be some wood-frame houses over on 187th Street,” he said. “They tore them down recently, but sadly someone was murdered in one of the houses.”
The third book will involve a cold case that is reignited when the houses are torn down, Sidransky said.
"Forgiving Mariela Camacho" will be released on Sept. 30. Sidransky also plans to do a reading and Q&A at Word Up Community Bookshop in early October.
For those who have not read "Forgiving Máximo Rothman," Sidransky has posted a free short story entitled “Mother Knows Best” on his website to introduce readers to Kurchenko and Gonzalvez.